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Optimism with the Wizards? Thomas Bryant supplies it

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DETROIT – Thomas Bryant is usually cheery.

“I don’t like being upset, sad, mad about anything,” Bryant said. “I always want to be happy. I always want people around me to be happy.”

So much so, it could seem the attitude comes naturally to him.

“Hell no,” Bryant said. “It ain’t easy at all.”

It didn’t come easy when Bryant slipped to the second round of the NBA draft in 2017, a year after he returned to Indiana for his sophomore season despite looking like a probable 2016 first-round pick. He went No. 42 to the Lakers.

It didn’t come easy when the Lakers assigned him to their minor-league affiliate much of his rookie season. “You start getting overseas people following you on Instagram and DMing you,” Bryant said. “Like, ‘Hell nah.'”

It didn’t come easy when he barely played while with the Lakers. When got on the court, he usually struggled.

And it especially didn’t come easy when the Lakers waived him last summer.

“That one really got to me,” Bryant said. “I felt like I did everything right. I felt like I gave it my all, and then I went down like that.”

Bryant didn’t know what it meant for his future. He spoke to his agent, trying to get answers. But in those trying moments, he really likes to get away from basketball and watch cartoons like “Family Guy,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Tom and Jerry.”

He also gave himself a pep talk.

“C’mon, you gotta keep swinging, man,” Bryant said he told himself. “There’s a lot more left in the tank for you. You’re young. So, you’ve got to keep trying to get through it.”

The Wizards claimed Bryant off waivers, and he has brought his positivity – and far more production than expected – to Washington. Bryant has been one of the biggest bright spots in the Wizards’ dismal season.

Washington entered the year shooting for 50 wins and the conference finals. Instead, the Wizards (25-36) are barely hanging in the sad Eastern Conference playoff race.

Among the many reasons Washington has disappointed: Starting center Dwight Howard has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. But that opened the door for Bryant.

Bryant has been a revelation. He’s an aggressive rim-runner who converts the numerous close opportunities he creates. His 81% shooting at the rim leads the NBA (minimum: 100 attempts). He has also shown range, making 21-of-55 3-pointers (38%).

In 43 starts, Bryant was averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game. He recently got pulled from the starting lineup because, as Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “We have to see what we have” in Bobby Portis, who was acquired for Otto Porter shortly before the trade deadline. But in the two games since, Bryant’s minutes (25.3), points (20.5) and rebounds (8.5) per game are up. This doesn’t seem like a big demotion.

Which should keep Bryant in strong consideration for Most Improved Player ballots.

In arguing De'Aaron Fox should be running away with the award, I cited his increase in box plus-minus from -4.4 to +0.8 – a jump of 5.2. Bryant’s box-plus minus increase has been even larger – from -4.2 to +1.8, a jump of 6.0.

But Bryant played just 72 NBA minutes last season. That’s not a reliable sample. Fox fully demonstrated how bad he was last year.

Still, limited playing time usually indicates inadequacy. Bryant seizing a larger role shows just how much he has improved.

Bryant’s increase in win shares of 3.8 (0.1 to 3.9) is the fourth largest in the NBA this season, behind only Monte Morris (another Most Improved Player-ballot candidate), Fox and Malik Beasley.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Bryant’s contributions are especially surprising, because the Wizards might have had an ulterior motive to claim him off waivers. Sure, the 21-year-old Bryant had basketball potential. But because he signed his current contract as a draft pick, he also counts less toward the luxury tax than a minimum-salary free agent would have. Washington has shown its tax leeriness by keeping roster spots vacant throughout the season then making trades to dodge the tax entirely.

Bryant will become a restricted free agent this summer. Though he has shown great progress, there are still major questions about him long-term – particularly defensively.

The Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams. It’s a whole-roster problem, but they aren’t much better with Bryant on the court. A solid individual rebounder, he isn’t diligent about boxing out.

With Bryant on the floor, Washington allows opponents to get 38% of their shots at the rim and shoot 67% on them. Essentially, Wizards’ opponents turn into the Bucks, the league’s best team near the basket. It’s hard to build a sound defense when the center provides such little rim protection.

Still, Bryant’s flaws rarely stem from laziness. He’s kinetic on defense, just often flying to the wrong spot.

Bryant is nothing if not energetic.

In describing why it’s important for him to set a tone for his team, Bryant winds up going through the entire roster. He wants to lift the veterans because they can get fatigued by a long season. He wants to lift the benchwarmers because he has been there before. Most of all, he wants to lift Bradley Beal because the star has carried the largest load.

“It’s great,” Beal said. “I tell him every game I need it.”

Beal especially appreciates Bryant’s pre-game routine in the locker room.

“He has his headphones on, and he’s jumping up around, dancing back and forth through the locker room,” Beal said. “So, imagine a 6-10 dude doing all the latest dances. So, it’s pretty fun and funny to watch, but it gets everybody going.”

Bryant knows he’s making his mark.

“They start dancing sometimes, too, and smiling,” Bryant said. “So, it’s all positive.”

Damain Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kawhi Leonard scores 34 as Raptors take 3-1 lead over Magic

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Kawhi Leonard missed the NBA playoffs last season, in multiple ways.

He wasn’t playing the games.

He wasn’t feeling the games, either.

That’s not a problem this season for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Healthy and happy, Leonard has the Toronto Raptors one win away from the second round. He scored 34 points and the Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 107-85 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.

“You just want to be out there on the floor, with your teammates and just feel that team spirit and chemistry, just trying to focus on one goal,” said Leonard, who was out for almost all of last season, his last with San Antonio before an offseason trade to Toronto. “That’s something I was missing, just being out, sitting out. That’s why it’s a blessing this year just to be able to play and be on the floor, regardless of what the outcome is.”

Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell each scored 16 for the Raptors, who can advance with a home win in Game 5 on Tuesday. Toronto has now won three consecutive postseason games, only the third time that’s happened in franchise history.

Aaron Gordon scored 25 for the Magic, making his first seven shots of the second half. Evan Fournier scored 19 and Nikola Vucevic added 11 for the Magic, who committed 17 turnovers that became 21 Toronto points.

“We’re better than what we’ve shown,” Gordon said.

And now the Magic’s season is squarely on the brink. There have been 11 teams to successfully rally from a 3-1 series deficit in a best-of-seven NBA series, and of those, only three pulled it off by winning a Game 7 on the road.

So it’s not impossible – just highly improbable.

“Our guys have fought hard all year,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

He liked the fight on Sunday, too.

Leonard just always had the better counterpunch.

He made 12 of 20 shots, added six rebounds and scored his 34 points in 35 minutes. He was in total control on both ends, and the Raptors shot 53 percent – a franchise record for a road playoff game. Serge Ibaka scored 13 and Kyle Lowry had nine assists for the Raptors.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Leonard said. “And obviously, we all know the job isn’t done yet.”

A flurry at the end of the first half, led by Leonard and Siakam, put Toronto up by double digits and the margin stayed there the rest of the way.

Vucevic missed from close range – the Magic argued that Leonard was guilty of goaltending, the referees disagreed – with about 2:45 left in the half, a disputed play that could have gotten Orlando within seven.

Instead, the Magic went into the break down by 16.

Toronto closed the half on an 11-1 run, with Leonard scoring the first five and Siakam hitting a pair of 3s for the final six. The last of those 3s by Siakam came with 4.5 seconds left, and the Raptors headed into intermission with a 58-42 cushion.

“These series, and the games in the series, are a lot about imposing your will on a team,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Whenever Orlando flashed some hope in the third quarter, Leonard immediately snuffed it out.

A dunk by Gordon cut the lead to 13? Leonard made a 3.

A 3-pointer by Fournier to get within 12? Leonard made a pullup.

A stepback by Gordon to get within 12 again? Leonard split defenders, absorbed contact and laid the ball in to start a three-point play.”

“He’s a Finals MVP,” Gordon said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s what they pay the man for, to come down here and be Kawhi Leonard.”

And before long, there was no more doubt about the outcome. Magic fans started leaving midway through the fourth quarter. The team’s dancers gathered for a group photo at midcourt not long after the final buzzer, as if they knew the last home game of the season had just ended.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Toronto is 28-2 this season (and 16-0 on the road) when leading by at least 10 points at the half. … Leonard’s teams are 60-31 when he plays in the postseason. Among players in this year’s playoffs with at least 60 postseason wins, only Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry – all Golden State Warriors – have a better winning percentage.

Magic: Orlando, which fell behind 11-0 in Game 2 and 10-0 in Game 3, started Game 4 on a 7-0 run. The Magic started 6 for 6 from the field, and then missed 26 of their next 38 shots – going 1 for 13 from 3-point range during that drought. … Terrence Ross beat the buzzer for the second straight game; it was a midcourt shot to close the first half of Game 2, and this time it was a 35-footer to end the third quarter.

VIRAL MOMENT

Nurse was trending on social media for much of the game, after a fairly nondescript 3-second call on Fred VanVleet with 2:12 left in the opening quarter elicited quite the reaction from him. Nurse stood almost perfectly still on the sideline after the call, his mouth agape for about 15 seconds in some sort of disbelief. “Is that a good thing?” Nurse asked afterward, when told he was a social-media phenomenon.

UNTIMELY

Orlando has dropped three straight, its longest slide since losing four in a row from Jan. 23-29. The Magic have also been held under 100 points in three straight games for the first time since Jan. 6-9.

UP NEXT

Game 5 is Tuesday in Toronto.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Korver: ‘I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell’ (VIDEO)

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Utah Jazz wing Kyle Korver has played with some good point yards in his career. Deron Williams, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder… the list is long.

That’s why what Korver said on Sunday impacted so many people.

Speaking to reporters this week, Korver said that he had never seen a young player like Donovan Mitchell take over a team and take responsibility for leadership the way the second-year Jazz player had.

Via Twitter:

Those are some pretty strong words of support by Korver, and Mitchell is going to need them. The Jazz are now down, 3-0, to the Houston Rockets in their first round series.

Draymond Green leaves arena wearing brace on right wrist (PHOTO)

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The Golden State Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series. But as it often happens in the playoffs, it appears the Warriors could be starting to get banged up.

After the game on Sunday, Draymond Green was seen wearing a brace on his right hand. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Logan Murdock published a photo after the game of Green sporting his new supporting wrap.

According to Green, it’s nothing to worry about.

Via NBC Sports Bay Area:

The next game in the series isn’t for a couple of days, so Green has a chance to rest up. Still, the idea that Warriors could lose some production value out of one of their most important playoff performers isn’t great.

Hopefully Green will be able to get healthy and the athletic staff will get him some treatment that works so he can play effectively moving forward.