Popovich, Team USA has to love what it sees from Holiday, Booker, Middleton

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The happiest basketball coach in the world right now should be Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, since he’s one win away from the NBA title.

The second-happiest should be USA Basketball’s Gregg Popovich.

Consider what Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker did in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday night: They combined for 96 points, all getting between 27 and 40. They were in top form, which was great news for USA Basketball.

Game 6 of the finals is Tuesday in Milwaukee, when the Bucks can win their first title in 50 years. Game 7, if necessary, is Thursday in Phoenix. And when the series is over Holiday, Middleton and Booker will trade their green, white and orange uniforms for red, white and blue at the Tokyo Olympics. They all say they’re going to honor the commitment to play, even though the finals will have just ended and then a flight halfway around the world awaits.

The Americans have not exactly been a high-octane steamrolling machine in their Tokyo tune-ups so far, with a 1-2 record in three exhibitions in Las Vegas and now coming off some roster revamping following the virus-related withdrawal of Bradley Beal and an injury-related withdrawal by Kevin Love. Beal and Love are out, Keldon Johnson and JaVale McGee take their place.

It looks like the U.S. absolutely will need Holiday, Middleton and Booker if it’s going to get the job done in Tokyo. And there’s a very real chance that the Americans will have no more than one practice with their entire Olympic team together before they open their quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal next Sunday in Tokyo against France.

It was never going to be easy for the U.S.; having almost no time as a team together before things get real in Tokyo will only make it that much tougher.

“I have watched the games,” Popovich said a few days ago when asked if he’s watching the NBA Finals while on USA Basketball duty in Las Vegas. “I have to admit that I watch three guys more than I watched the teams. I just can’t help myself. I keep watching them, I keep hoping that they stay healthy. And then, we all think about what would be the best way to include them and blend them into the group. There’s no formula for that.”

He didn’t say which three guys. He didn’t have to. It’s obvious.

USA Basketball knew it was rolling the dice by choosing players that had a shot of going to the NBA Finals, but had no choice given the timeframe. They ended up with three and it could have been more; the Americans took a run at getting Phoenix’s Chris Paul to commit to Tokyo, but he ultimately decided not to play on the team.

The plane carrying the Olympic team — some of it, anyway — to Tokyo leaves Las Vegas on Monday morning. Middleton, Holiday and Booker won’t be on that flight; they’ll still be at their real jobs. They’re coming over separate from the rest of the team in the week.

Popovich can’t be thrilled about that part, of course. But he must have been downright giddy with how his finals Olympic trio did Saturday night, particularly at crunch time.

Middleton — who has picked the perfect time to play the series of his life — made a stepback 3 to put Milwaukee up eight with 2:23 remaining. Booker answered on the next possession to get the Suns within six, then a 3-pointer with 1:24 left to cut the lead to 120-117. And when Phoenix was within one, it was Holiday who stripped Booker and then found Giannis Antetokounmpo for an alley-oop dunk with 13.5 seconds remaining.

Popovich has deep ties with Budenholzer, deep ties with Phoenix coach Monty Williams as well. He’ll be thrilled for whichever coach wins this series, heartbroken for the one that loses. But it’s a safe bet that he might be pulling for the Bucks on Tuesday night to end this series — and therefore get the Olympians to the Olympics as quickly as possible.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit by the seat of the pants because there’s no formula to go by,” Popovich said. “It depends how the team is doing and the condition of the players here, what we think we need. Our first game is France so we’ll look in terms of what fits might work best, but it’s not going to be like they’re going to come and sit for a week and get ready. They’re going to have to come in and play.”

True, even a successful coach like Popovich isn’t sure how this will work. But if Holiday, Middleton and Booker bring this form to Tokyo, the struggling Americans could be just fine.

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Sacramento Kings
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal”, since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.

Spurs’ Josh Primo out for preseason with left knee MCL sprain

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs
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Josh Primo is going to get his chance this season. The Spurs are rebuilding — even Gregg Popovich says not to bet on them to win the title — and Primo, entering his second season (and still 19), is one of the most promising young players on their roster, someone with the chance to be part of whatever will be built in San Antonio the future. He just needs more experience.

Unfortunately, he’s going to start this season half a step behind after missing most of training camp due to a sprained left MCL, the team announced Thursday. He is expected to return in time for the season opener, according to the team.

Promo, the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got into 50 games for the Spurs last season and averaged 5.8 points a game but wasn’t very efficient with his shot yet. He also spent a lot of time in the G-League (but then had to miss this past Summer League due to COVID).

With Dejounte Murray now in Atlanta, there is not only a starting spot open but also opportunities to run the offense — Primo is going to get a chance to show what he can do with that. It’s just not going to be for a little while due to his knee sprain.

Anthony Davis ‘excited’ to be Lakers’ No.1 offensive option, LeBron pushing him to do it

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Is Anthony Davis a No.1 offensive option on a championship team?

The Lakers made a massive bet in trading for Davis — both in good young players and picks — that he could help them win a title now and be the bridge to the future post-LeBron James. Davis was everything the Lakers hoped in the bubble and did win them banner No. 17. However, he has not stayed healthy or consistently played up to that standard.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is betting on Davis again and is going to run more of the offense through him this season. LeBron James reportedly backs Ham up. Can Davis stay healthy, find that form again and look like that bridge to the future? If he can’t, the Lakers have to reconsider their post-LeBron plans. That’s why there is pressure on Davis this season.

Davis is excited to prove he is ready for the role, he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. He added LeBron is pushing him to do it.

“I’m so excited that I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’m looking forward to a healthy year and doing what I know we can do.”…

Davis said James, 37, has been in his ear about taking over the reins of the team, while the rest of the roster would follow his lead.

The first step in Davis being that No.1 option: Staying healthy. He played 40 games last season and 36 the season before that. While some of that was due to fluke injuries, the history of Davis missing time is long.

When healthy, Davis is an unquestionably elite player — to use the bubble example, Davis was a defensive force in Orlando who knocked down midrange jumpers after facing up, averaging 27.7 points on a 66.5 true shooting percentage, plus grabbed 9.7 rebounds a game. That is the AD the Lakers need this season.

Which can be a lot of pressure, but Davis said he doesn’t feel that.

“But for me, I’m not putting any pressure on myself at all,” Davis said at media day. “I’m gonna go out there and play basketball, work hard, defend and do what the team needs to win basketball games. I’m not going to overthink and, you know, listen to what everybody else is saying and try to be this ‘whatever’ player they want me to be.”

“Whatever” the Lakers want Davis to be is the Top 10 player in the world he has shown for stretches in Los Angeles. If he can be consistent, that Davis helps the Lakers be more of a threat in the West. If Davis can’t be that guy, it could be another long season for Lakers nation.

 

Proud to be an American: 76ers’ Embiid officially becomes U.S. citizen

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Joel Embiid is an American citizen.

A native of Cameroon, Embiid said he was sworn in as a citizen two weeks ago in Philadelphia. The NBA scoring champion and Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center said his family – Embiid and his Brazilian girlfriend Anne de Paula have a young son – played a pivotal role in his decision.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Embiid told The Associated Press Thursday at training camp at The Citadel. “My son is American. I felt like, I’m living here and it’s a blessing to be an American. So I said, why not?”

Embiid, who played college basketball for one season at Kansas, also has citizenship in France. He said it is way too early to think about which country he could potentially represent in international basketball.

The 28-year-old Embiid averaged a career-best 30.6 points in 68 games last season. The 7-footer also averaged 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists in helping Philadelphia reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year. Embiid averaged 23.6 points and 10.7 rebounds in the postseason despite playing with hand and facial injuries.

Embiid had been announced as playing out of Kansas during pregame introductions at 76ers’ home games but switched around midseason last year as being introduced from Cameroon. He might try for a mouthful this season.

“We’re going to say Cameroon, American and French,” he said, laughing.