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LeBron James lifts Lakers past Trail Blazers for 2-1 series lead

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — More of a spectator than a supporter for LeBron James in the first half, Anthony Davis had a message for his teammate.

“I told LeBron at half I’ve got to take some of the pressure off of him,” Davis said.

With both superstars rolling and another dominant defensive effort, the Lakers again looked like the best of the West.

James had 38 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, Davis scored 23 of his 29 points in the second half, and the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 116-108 on Saturday night for a 2-1 lead in the first-round series.

The Lakers shut down the high-scoring Blazers for the second straight game after the No. 1 seed was knocked off in Game 1. This was Portland’s highest-scoring performance in the series and it wasn’t close to good enough.

“That’s just who we’ve always been,” James said. “That has not changed since the first day we stepped on the floor at training camp.”

Damian Lillard scored 34 points playing with a dislocated left index finger, and CJ McCollum added 28 for the Trail Blazers. They will try to even the series in Game 4 on Monday.

Davis scored 31 points in Game 2 but had only six at halftime Saturday. Coach Frank Vogel thought the power forward was trying to move the ball and make the right play – he finished with eight assists – but looked for his own offense in the second half.

“A.D., he just turned it on,” Vogel said.

Portland was down only three with about 9 1/2 minutes left. But Davis then re-entered and started scoring from everywhere, turning lob passes into dunks or stepping outside for jumpers on his way to 12 points in the period.

The Lakers’ defense handled the rest, limiting the Blazers to just three field goals over more than seven minutes as they pushed the lead to 109-98 with a little more than 2 minutes to go.

“It wasn’t our night to make those shots,” Lillard said. “The effort was there. The aggressiveness was there. We just didn’t make the shots that we usually make.”

Carmelo Anthony added 20 points in his first good game of the series. He was 4 for 17 in the first two games and he started Game 3 with seven straight misses before making his eighth – by tipping in his own miss.

The Blazers made a lineup change, inserting Hassan Whiteside to play alongside Jusuf Nurkic in a big starting five. The unit got Portland off to a good start and the Blazers nursed the early lead all the way through the second quarter without ever really stopping James, who was 5 for 6 for 15 points in eight minutes in the period. But McCollum capped his 13-point period with a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer, making it 57-53.

James and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined for 12 straight points to send the Lakers from six down to a 70-64 lead. The Blazers came right back behind Anthony, who made three straight jumpers before a dunk on the break tied it at 72.

The Lakers surged back ahead with a 10-0 burst that made it 89-78 and they led by seven entering the fourth.

“It came down to a fourth-quarter game. Anthony Davis made his perimeter shots and we came up empty too often,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

Lillard was hurt in the third quarter of Game 2 and hadn’t done anything on the court until arriving early Saturday to test the finger, which was wrapped in black tape. It didn’t appear to have much effect on his ballhandling or shooting for much of the game but he faltered in the fourth, going 1 for 6 and missing all four 3-pointers.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri