Blazers take Game 1, Paul George’s shoulder could decide series

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are in trouble. Yes, Russell Westbrook and Paul George lost Sunday’s Game 1 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-99. Portland lead by as many as 19 points at one point in the first half, but the Thunder rallied with solid play as they capitalized on Blazers turnovers.

But all that is in the background for now. At this point, after seeing George play with an injured shoulder — or shoulders? — it appears Oklahoma City has bigger issues.

George’s alter ego “Playoff P” was nowhere to be found despite the Thunder star logging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and four steals. That stat line was not indicative of how George played, particularly as a shooter. He shot just 26.6% from 3-point range, and was easily susceptible to blocks from the likes of Portland defenders like Maurice Harkless. George was inert, predictable, and unable to overpower his opponents the way he has as an MVP candidate this season.

News from Moda Center after the game from George himself wasn’t exactly encouraging, either. In fact, George said that he couldn’t even lift his shoulder four days ago.

Via Twitter:

The game still ended up being just a five-point affair, with Portland running out of gas and playing sloppy down stretch. Damian Lillard was the Blazers’ saving grace, adding 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter alone.

It’s true that the first game of the playoffs can often belie the true nature of the coming battle between two teams. There’s usually no need to overreact to a single result as coaching staffs make huge adjustments from game-to-game.

But it could be different for Oklahoma City.

Sunday’s game against the Blazers showed that Portland has enough firepower, particularly with their rotational players like Enes Kanter and Seth Curry. Former New York Knicks big man had a monster game, scoring 20 points with 18 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.

You can also expect Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, and Harkless to make a bigger impact as the series goes along.

So where does that leave the Thunder?

In a word: exasperated.

That much was was clear after the game when Westbrook gave two consecutive “next question” responses to a reporter from Oklahoma City.

Portland has been a solid story all season, and they are more of a team-oriented squad now than they have been since 2015. Damian Lillard is a top five MVP candidate, and the fact that McCollum has come back from a knee muscle strain this soon is an indicator of how serious this team is about getting out of the first round.

The Blazers have been swept the last two postseasons in a row, and it was immediately evident in the first quarter on Sunday that they were not looking to continue that streak. Portland was everywhere, diving for loose balls, jumping into passing lanes, and giving maximum effort that petered the edge of control.

Westbrook played the way that Westbrook does. He notched another triple-double against the Blazers in Game 1, and the rest of the Thunder contributed in kind. But this version of Oklahoma City isn’t strong enough to beat Portland when they are firing on all cylinders, particularly as the Blazers have found a bit of depth and momentum heading into the postseason.

Blazers got a win at home and the Thunder continued their streak of losing the first game of the first round. Game 2 is on Tuesday, again in Northeast Portland, and the Blazers will have an eye on grabbing a serious lead before switching locations for Game 3.

Portland will be digesting tape and analyzing the Thunder’s tendencies. Oklahoma City knows that, for all their own study, their season could hinge on the treatment George can receive over the next 48 hours.

For now, the biggest question in Portland will be about George’s shoulders, and whether he can find some explosiveness to match the Blazers’ talent in Game 2.

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.