Paul George says he’s healthy as Thunder take on Blazers in Game 2

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — After going through a Monday practice session, Paul George pronounced himself in position — mentally and physically — to take a step forward in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers.

That was good news to the visiting Thunder, who need their All-Star small forward to lead the way to victory after a 104-99 loss to the Trail Blazers in the series opener.

George — playing with a sore right shoulder that had kept him out of action in the regular-season finale against Milwaukee — collected 26 points and 10 rebounds but made only 8 of 24 shots from the field, including 4 of 15 from 3-point range in Game 1.

“Shoulder’s good,” George said after Monday’s practice. “I’m pain-free. It’s well enough now to throw out any injury problems (as an excuse). It didn’t have an effect on my game. I just hadn’t shot or picked up a ball for four days. It was about rhythm.

“I had a good day out there today. I feel good about it.”

George wasn’t the only OKC player to have shooting problems in the opener. The Thunder shot 39.8 percent as a team and were only 5 for 33 from the 3-point line.

“We didn’t make shots,” George said. “It cost us. I take a lot of that (responsibility) — good looks I had and missed. That’s what today’s practice was for, to get into better rhythm, a better flow.”

George said he was encouraged that the Thunder rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit to trail by only one point inside the final three minutes.

“We fought our way back,” he said. “We’re a good team. We’re confident. We’re in a great place. We have to come out (Tuesday) night and take it to (the Blazers), be the aggressors.

“The (Blazers) did what they were supposed to do — win on their home floor. A series is about adjustments. We’ll adjust. We’ll be ready for (Tuesday’s) game.”

The Blazers feel they have much improvement to make over the way they performed in the opener, too. They shot only 41.9 percent from the field and were 4 for 15 from 3-point range over the final three quarters. They committed 19 turnovers and allowed the Thunder 18 offensive rebounds.

“There is a lot of stuff we could have done better, things (the Thunder) could have taken advantage of, but didn’t,” said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who scored a game-high 30 points but also had six turnovers. “Like allowing Paul George to get some open looks at threes that he didn’t make. We let them get into transition, gave them too many second-chance opportunities, lost too many guys on defense. It didn’t cost us the game, but we have to be better in the second game.”

Said reserve center Zach Collins: “It’s a good feeling, being up 1-0 in the series but also knowing how much better we can play.”

The Blazers ended a 10-game playoff losing streak with the victory in Game 1.

“We’ve just won one game,” Lillard said. “It feels good to get back on the winning side, but it’s more about how we can sustain it.

“A series can change quickly. We can’t forget that. That bad taste of failure in the postseason doesn’t go away with one win. It has humbled us, but we’re going to come out with that business attitude again in Game 2.”

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.