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Popularity of NBA in China seems to create endless options

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BEIJING (AP) Kobe Bryant went to China for the first time in 1998, making the trip to Beijing to help operate an instructional basketball clinic for about a dozen kids. The local coaches working with him didn’t know a lot about the game. Barely anyone noticed that an NBA player was in town.

Basketball wasn’t a big deal in China.

And then everything changed very quickly.

The footprint of the NBA has grown at an extremely rapid pace over the last two decades in China, where more than 500 million people watched games last season and where one new streaming deal alone will pump $1.5 billion into the league’s coffers over the next five years.

“When I first came here, I never thought the game in China would get to be this big,” Bryant said. “But it has. And it’s not going to stop.”

The possibilities seem endless.

Could there be an NBA team in China despite the travel that would be involved? Might there be two-way player contracts between the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association? What about the NBA constructing a team to play in China or the Chinese sending a team for a full season in the U.S.?

Farfetched as all that may sound, keep in mind that 20 years ago no one envisioned the NBA-China relationship to be this big – or that it would keep growing after Yao Ming’s run with the Houston Rockets ended eight years ago. The NBA has academies in China now, and the Chinese national team returned to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this year.

“It’s a good question,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the next step will probably come when the next Yao Ming comes. That would take it to a new level, more Chinese players to reach the NBA and make an impact.”

The marriage between the NBA and the world’s most populous country is stronger than ever. NBA officials say more than 300 million Chinese people play the game and 40 million are registered to play the 2K video game. Thousands showed up this summer just to watch the sons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play exhibitions with the rest of their high school teammates.

A trade war is happening between the U.S. and China, political tensions are escalating between the countries and it could impact the products of the league’s business partners . But the game itself continues to thrive.

“I think sports transcends politics and I hope the NBA can continue to connect fans globally,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I don’t have any reason to think our relationship won’t continue to be positive.”

Nothing seems to be able to derail the NBA’s popularity.

The team that the U.S. sent to the World Cup in China didn’t feature the NBA’s biggest stars, yet drew sellout crowds for each of its first six games. U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was begged for autographs and selfies everywhere he went.

“We’ve known for a long time how big basketball has become in China, of course, but all over the world,” Popovich said. “It’s an international deal now. There are so many great players in so many countries. It’s not a secret.”

Stars like James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden have a trip to China on their annual schedules – and when Wade, the recently retired guard who has a lifetime contract with Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, visited this summer one of his events had to be halted after about 10 minutes because the mall where it was happening was overflowing with people.

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz has been to China twice this summer, once to promote his brand, the second time for the World Cup with USA Basketball. He sees it becoming an annual stop for him, too – and believes there is no ceiling for the game globally.

“Man, I couldn’t tell you,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s going to be even bigger and it’s not going to be just China. It’s going to be many more countries. The (relationship) between the NBA and China has been huge since I was a kid and it can only take off from there … because the passion and love is so strong.”

It’s not a one-sided relationship; China sees reason to invest in the NBA.

Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, agreed this summer to buy the remaining 51% that he didn’t already own of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals worth about $3.4 billion. In 2016, Lizhang Jiang, a businessman from Shanghai, bought 5% of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a stake he sold earlier this year.

China also takes immense pride in players like Klay Thompson wearing Chinese brands on the court. (Thompson has a 10-year deal with Chinese shoe company Anta for a reported $80 million.) And China sent its national team to NBA Summer League this past July primarily to get ready for the World Cup, but also for exposure on the NBA stage.

“I think it’s good for our players and good for the team,” China coach Li Nan said of playing in Las Vegas. “I think it’s good for everyone.”

The NBA has opened three basketball academies in China and has seen very quick success with academies in Asia and Africa. The international influence on the league was more present this past season than ever.

The NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is from Greece. The rookie of the year, Luka Doncic, is from Slovenia. The most improved player, Pascal Siakam, is from Cameroon. The defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, is from France. The All-NBA center, Nikola Jokic, is from Serbia.

“This past summer, an NBA Academy prospect from China signed a contract with a National Basketball League team in Australia, becoming the first male NBA Academy prospect from China to sign a contract with a professional team,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “And on the women’s side, Han Xu from the New York Liberty, who trained at the NBA Academy in Shandong, China, became the first NBA Academy prospect to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA.”

It hasn’t happened overnight.

Former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on tape-delay three decades ago, and once toyed with the idea of some sort of NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. Teams embrace the chance to play the annual preseason games in China because he exposure is worth the jet lag.

“When I have 76ers gear on and I walk through Shanghai, walk through Shenzhen, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said `Trust the process’ in perfect English I wouldn’t be standing here working,” Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said, referencing the team’s motto during its rebuilding phase of recent years. “We’re very much a part of the fabric of China.”

None of this seemed possible 20 years ago or so, when Bryant made that first trip. Now fans can’t get enough.

“When you come here, you feel it from the fans, their energy, people at the hotel, people just walking around,” Kerr said in China during the World Cup. “Everybody just seems very excited about basketball.”

Same goes for the game’s future in China.

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

Anthony Davis’ “old-school, smash-mouth” 50 points leads Lakers past Wolves (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — It almost seemed effortless.

Anthony Davis simply got wherever he wanted on the court Sunday night. And he wanted to be in the paint, right in front of the rim. Davis shot 11-of-11 at the rim and 17-of-23 in the paint on his way to what his coach described as an “old-school, smash-mouth way of getting 50.”

Yes, 50. Davis had his best offensive game as a Laker going right through the size of Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, leading Los Angeles to a 142-125 win.

LeBron James did plenty — 32 points on 20 shots, plus 13 assists — but he battled foul trouble through the first half, and that’s when Davis put the team on his shoulders and carried them.

He carried then to the rim — Davis had 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half, and only one of those buckets from outside paint. Or, take a look at his shot chart for the game, it’s all about points in the paint.

“I was feeling very good tonight, very well rested, going against another great big man in Karl-Anthony Towns… you get up for those games, they’re a team that’s hungry,” Davis said.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each had 19 to lead a balanced Minnesota attack. The Timberwolves hung around the game because they were getting buckets against the Lakers. It gave them hope.

“I yelled at them for giving up 125, but I don’t think anyone heard me,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel joked after the game.

The Laker defense was not great, but the way they got buckets it didn’t have to be.

Gordon Hayward on his return, “Tomorrow’s a possibility”

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Boston’s depth was on display for the past month with Gordon Hayward sidelined following hand surgery — the Celtics went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating — but the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack without his scoring and shot creation.

They are not going to be without him much longer, Hayward could return Monday night, he told reports Sunday, via Chris Forsberg at NBC Sports Boston.

“Bone has healed, probably stronger than my right hand. There’s a plate in there with screws. The bone is good,” Hayward said Sunday after going through the team’s off-day practice. Boston did not engage in any live 5-on-5 action but Hayward sounded open to returning Monday.

“Tomorrow’s a possibility,” he said. “See how I feel when I wake up, go through shootaround, see how it goes.”

As one should expect, coach Brad Stevens was more cautious but said Hayward will be back “sooner than later.”

Hayward was having a bounce-back year through his first eight games, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. He’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics next to Kemba Walker.

Hayward fractured his hand on a fluke play against the Spurs and required surgery to repair a fracture to his fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand (the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger), the team announced Monday evening. Hayward has made a speedy recovery from that injury.

Boston hosts Cleveland on Monday then travels to Indiana on Wednesday.

LeBron James blows by Gorgui Dieng then puts him in poster

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LeBron James battled foul trouble in the first half against Minnesota, picking up four and only playing 12 minutes because of it.

When he was on the court, however, he was dominant — 16 points on 10 shots, with a couple of deep threes.

Then LeBron did this to Gorgui Dieng.

That’s just not fair.

In the video, watch the reaction of the Laker bench — that group is having fun.

The Lakers led 73-65 at halftime of this defensive struggle game in Los Angeles. Anthony Davis had 27 on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half.

Watch Heat rookie Tyler Herro drain game-winning three in OT, Miami beats Chicago

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Miami just finds guys. And develops them. Kendrick Nunn is at the top of that list for them this season, playing like someone who will get Rookie of the Year votes so far this season. Don’t leave Duncan Robinson off that list,  he has had some big games for the Heat lately.

Sunday it was Tyler Herro‘s turn. The rookie out of Kentucky scored 16 points through the fourth quarter and overtime against Chicago. That includes draining the game-winning three off an assist from Jimmy Butler.

That bucket held up as the final score, 108-105 Miami.

It also wasn’t Herro’s only big three in OT.

Miami improves to 17-6 on the season, and a part of that is they have rookies stepping up and contributing.