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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Danilo Gallinari, other NBA players skipping FIBA qualifying window

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When basketball international coordinating body FIBA came up with its ridiculous soccer-style qualifying system for the 2019 World Cup — putting qualifying windows in the middle of the seasons of the NBA and other major leagues around the world — they knew that they were essentially banning most country’s best players from competing. (The USA has used a team of G-League players, for example, but it’s harder on other nations who do not have as deep a talent pool.)

There was one exception: A September 2018 qualifying window. Games would primarily fall in mid-September before NBA training camps are open but when teams have opened their facilities to players for organized runs. (For example, the USA plays on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas against Uruguay, then in Panama on Sept. 17.)

NBA players are mostly taking a pass. In recent days the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Clippers’ Danilo Gallinari, and the Spurs Marco Belinelli have all said they would not play for their respective nations in this qualifying window. The USA didn’t even consider it and will have its G-Leaguers coached by Jeff Van Gundy.

This is not universal. Jusuf Nurkic has said he will play in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian qualifiers (although we will see if that happens, he did just sign a new four-year contract with the Blazers this summer). Jordan Clarkson is playing for the Philippines in the Asian Games and is on that squad’s roster for the qualifiers. The Serbian coach has put Nikola Jokic and four other NBA players on his potential roster submitted to FIBA, but that seems more to be him covering his bases just in case, not something likely to happen. Others might jump in.

But by and large, NBA players — and the biggest names — are taking a pass. Once again, well done FIBA on finding a way to water down the quality of the product for the second most popular sport on the planet to make more money.

Some NBA players — Evan Fournier, Timofey Mozgov, others — took part in the July qualifying window.

When the USA heads to China for the World Cup next summer (it still has to qualify, but that is highly likely) it will be a Gregg Popovich-coached team of NBA stars, 35 of whom just showed up for a USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas. But that is a year away, until then enjoy most nation’s second string trying to get their country there.

Russell Westbrook has beef with Joel Embiid after hard foul (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook is always looking for something — real or imagined — to use as motivational fuel.

He found something real Saturday in Joel Embiid.

With 1:46 left in a close game on national television, Westbrook was off to the races in transition with just Embiid back and the result was a hard foul.

Westbrook was pissed after the game thinking this was not just a hard foul (warning, NSFW language):

Embiid essentially shrugged.

The actual foul was hard but a bit of a fluke. Embiid went up to block the layup/dunk but Westbrook lost his dribble for a second, and the result was an airborne Embiid crashing into Westbrook. Hard. Was there a little bit extra in there? Depends on if you’re on Team Westbrook or Team Embiid.

But the NBA could use more feuds, so bring it on.

The Thunder went on to beat the 76ers on a Paul George game-winner.

Celtics’ Marcus Smart goes after Hawks’ Deandre Bembry, gets ejected

Associated Press
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Marcus Smart will be lucky if all he has to do is write a check to the league office. This is the kind of thing that can lead to a suspension.

Midway through the third quarter in Atlanta Saturday, Boston’s Smart picked up his second technical foul jawing with Atlanta’s DeAndre Bembry before a jump ball. That got him ejected. But it was when it charged back after Bembry rather than leaving the floor that the real trouble started.

Predicting the league office on fines/suspensions is like predicting a roulette table, but that looks like it could cost Smart a game. Smart had picked up his earlier technical arguing calls.

Boston came from behind to win Saturday in Atlanta, with Kyrie Irving leading the way scoring 32.

Bucks to retire jersey Marcus Johnson’s number

via NBA.com
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Marcus Johnson is a Milwaukee legend. He averaged 21 points a game in his seven seasons with the Bucks and is sixth on the all-time franchise list in points (10,980), is its all-time leader in offensive rebounds (1,468), is third in total rebounds (3,923), and made 4,546 during his time in Milwaukee. He is now a color commenter for the team.

Now, the team is going to retire his No. 8.

The ceremony will be March 24, a story broken by the Journal-Sentinel.

Johnson will be the ninth Bucks player to have his number retired and the first since the team’s move to its new home Fiserv Forum.

Current Bucks legend Giannis Antetokounmpo told the Journal-Sentinel he was happy. Antetokounmpo turned to Johnson at points for help with footwork, post moves, and more.

“I’m really happy for him, I think he deserves to have his jersey retired,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s amazing. He’s just sitting down there like a normal person, but this guy was one of the best players in the league when he was playing. … He’s a legend.”

Johnson won an NCAA national championship at UCLA under the legendary John Wooden before going on to an NBA career that included five All-Star appearances and three All-NBA teams.

Paul George hits game winner, lifts Thunder past 76ers 117-115

Associated Press
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Paul George converted a four-point play with 5.1 seconds left, sending Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder to a wild 117-115 victory over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

George’s clutch shot capped a wild finish that included another memorable exchange with Westbrook and Embiid. Westbrook hit the floor out of bounds under the basket after a foul by Embiid late in the game, and Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds remaining after he got Embiid while shooting a 3-pointer.

Embiid made all three foul shots, tying it at 113, and Jimmy Butler‘s driving layup put Philadelphia in front with 6.9 seconds to go. But George drained a 3 while being fouled by Butler and made the foul shot.

Philadelphia had one last chance, but Butler missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The 76ers have lost 19 in a row to the Thunder.

George finished with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Westbrook had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for Oklahoma City, and reserve Dennis Schroder also scored 21 points.

The Thunder had dropped five of six, including a 138-128 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. JJ Redick scored 22 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia rallied in the second and trailed 59-56 at the break.