Chris Paul
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Chris Paul on 2020 Olympics: My wife wants to go to Tokyo

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Chris Paul feels great starring for the Thunder.

So great, he might even take on extra workload.

Paul – who helped Team USA win gold medals in 2008 and 2012 but didn’t compete in 2016 – said he’s “very serious” about playing the 2020 Olympics. Paul:

I’m excited about the opportunity. My wife is sort of calling the shots on this one. She said she wants to go to Tokyo.

I’ve been blessed and fortunate to play in 2008. I had no kids then. In 2012, my wife couldn’t come, because, four days after the gold medal game, she had my daughter.

We often hear about players missing international tournaments due to personal reasons. But that can go both ways. Paul might compete due to personal reasons.

Paul faces steep and deep competition for making the team at point guard: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, Mike Conley, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White. Trae Young didn’t even make the list of finalists.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said players who’ve previously represented the U.S. will get favorable consideration. So, that’ll help Paul.

If he plays, Paul – who turns 35 in May – would be Team USA’s third-oldest Olympian:

Age for Team USA’s first game or, in 2020, first game of the tournament

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.

NBA announces finalists for awards, including MVP and Rookie of the Year

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson
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We made our award picks months ago.

Now, the NBA is finally getting around to the official versions.

The league announced finalists for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year (based on regular-season, not seeding, games):

Most Valuable Player

Antetokounmpo is heavy favorite to repeat as MVP and should win the award. But LeBron certainly has his supporters. Really, I had a tougher time choosing between LeBron and Harden for second place than between Antetokounmpo and LeBron for first place.

Defensive Player of the Year

Antetokounmpo could and should join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and DPOY in the same season. Gobert and Davis would be worthy runners up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis – playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – wins this award.

Rookie of the Year

Morant will and should run away with this award. Williamson was awesome when on the floor, but that was too rare. A breakout player in his second professional season (but first playing in the NBA), Nunn could finish ahead of the better but less-available Williamson.

Most Improved Player

This was an incredibly deep field. Ingram is the most likely winner with his major strides just ahead of restricted free agency. My choice, Doncic improved enough to become a finalist despite a bias against second-year players, especially highly drafted ones. Though Adebayo didn’t make Rising Stars his first two seasons then became an All-Star his third season – an incredible jump – his candidacy is wrongly boosted by him being underrated previously. That Hornets guard Devonte' Graham‘s out-of-nowhere season didn’t land him in the top three is somewhat surprising. But again, it was a deep field. Hawks guard Trae Young didn’t get enough consideration, either.

Sixth Man of the Year

Harrell had the strongest overall season and has drawn plenty of acclaim for it. But Schroder led reserves in points per game, and scoring tends to have an outsized role in award voting. See Williams being a finalist (though it’s not as if there an absolutely clearly better choice).

Coach of the Year

  • Mike Budenholzer (Bucks)
  • Billy Donovan (Thunder)
  • Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Budenholzer and Nurse split the award from their peers. Here’s betting Nurse gets this official NBA recognition. He deserves it for keeping the Raptors humming without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and amid numerous injuries. Nurse’s defensive creativity is particularly impressive.

Report: Teams in playoff race bothered by Jazz resting starters vs. Spurs

Spurs forward Rudy Gay vs. Jazz
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The Jazz sat four starters – Mike Conley (right knee soreness), Donovan Mitchell (left peroneal strain), Royce O’Neale (right calf soreness) and Rudy Gobert (rest) – against the Spurs yesterday. Five if you count Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending surgery before the bubble.

That cleared the way for San Antonio to get a 119-111 win and boost its chances in the Western Conference playoff race.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Were those teams chasing the Western Conference’s play-in tournament thrilled with the Utah Jazz’s decision to sit four starters with injuries and rest center Rudy Gobert in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs?

Among teams trying to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed, they were somewhere between displeased and livid, sources said.

Winning seeding games doesn’t matter much to the Jazz, who are in the tightly packed 4-6 range in the Western Conference. There’s no home-court advantage in the 4-5 series. In fact, Utah might prefer to drop to sixth. That’d likely mean facing the Nuggets – rather than the Rockets or Thunder – in the first round and avoiding the Lakers in the second round. Though Denver could move up and leave the Clippers in the No. 3 seed, and the Clippers are no easy second-round opponent either, it’s at least a viable strategy for Utah.

The Jazz also play the Nuggets today in the second leg of a back-to-back. Whatever its ideal standings, Utah definitely prioritizes having its players healthy and ready for the playoffs.

It also can’t be lost: Jazz lead executive Dennis Lindsey came up in the Spurs organization. That connection surely fueled the strongest paranoia.

Utah isn’t alone in appearing to put its finger on the playoff-race scale.

The Clippers will sit Kawhi Leonard against the Trail Blazers today and play him against the Nets tomorrow.

Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe this is just about timing. Obviously, it’s normal sit Leonard in one leg of a back-to-back.

But the Trail Blazers look like the strongest team among those chasing the No. 8 seed. Think the Clippers might want to give the Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup? The possibility is impossible to ignore when considering which weekend game Leonard is playing.

These are all variations of a common problem: Too few NBA regular-season (or seeding) games matter.

To be fair, the situation differs in the bubble. Home-court advantage would solve some of these problems. The play-in offers a new wrinkle. The long layoff before seeding games increases injury risk.

But it also feels especially absurd to go to all the trouble of playing basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic – separating players, coaches and other staff from their loved ones for at least several weeks – just to a play a game a team prefers, or at least doesn’t mind, losing.