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.

Karl-Anthony Towns set to make return to Timberwolves Wednesday

Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves
David Berding/Getty Images
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It was Nov. 28 — 51 games ago — the last time Karl-Anthony Towns stepped on the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That changes tonight against the Hawks, according to multiple reports, plus Towns himself said he will make his return to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

“I’m super excited to get back out on the court and help my team because these next nine games are super important,” Towns said…

“I’m just trying to pick up where I left off,” Towns said. “I was telling my dad right before I got hurt, I felt the most complete as a player in my career. From defensive end, from offensive end, from a mental aspect, leadership aspect … I felt very complete.”

The Timberwolves sit ninth in the West, in the middle of a crowded bottom of the conference where they are just a game out of the No.6 seed but also half a game away from falling out of the play-in and missing the postseason entirely. The Timberwolves need wins, and adding an elite offensive player such as Towns should help with that (as would getting Anthony Edwards back from his sprained ankle, which could happen tonight but, if not, is expected soon).

Towns suffered a calf injury just after Thanksgiving that was expected to keep him out for 4-6 weeks. However, a January setback extended that recovery to 51 games. Towns averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this season before the injury.

However, his fit in those early games with Rudy Gobert (acquired over the summer), Edwards and D'Angelo Russell was clunky. Town’s efficiency was down (32.8% from 3) and the offense had a “your turn then my turn” feel. That offense has started to find a better groove recently with Edwards taking on a larger ball-handling role, then Russell being for Mike Conley (more of a traditional, floor general point guard) — the Minnesota offense in March was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better than it was in November.

How will injecting Towns back into that mix help the offense? How will it impact the defense? Unfortunately, coach Chris Finch and company don’t have time to experiment much and play around with lineup combinations, they need wins and they need them now to make the postseason.

Still, it’s good to have Towns back on the court.

 

Three things to Know: Win over Clippers shows Thunder future may be now

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Win over Clippers shows Thunder’s future may be now

If the playoffs started today, the Oklahoma City Thunder would be the No.7 seed in the West, only needing to win one of two play-in games — at home — to advance to the playoffs. They are only half a game back of the defending champion Golden State Warriors for the No.6 seed and not having to worry about the play-in.

The basketball world has talked about anything but the Thunder: When will those Warriors flip the switch? What happens when Dallas gets Luka Dončić back (or if the Mavs defend a little)? What will the Timberwolves look like when whole? When will LeBron James return and how big a threat are the Lakers?

Meanwhile, the Thunder quietly have been winning — 8-of-10 after beating the Clippers on Tuesday night 101-100, behind 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Thunder have been solid all season — top half of the league in offense and defense, and the 10th-best net rating in the league — despite Chet Holmgren missing the year. SGA playing at an All-NBA level is a huge part of it, but Josh Giddey has developed into an impressive secondary shot creator averaging 16.2 points a night, Jalen Williams will be first-team All-Rookie because of his play, guys like Isaiah Joe and Tre Mann have stopped up, and Lu Dort is doing things like locking down Kawhi Leonard on the final play of the game to preserve the win.

OKC’s one-point win over the Clippers was aided by Kawhi Leonard getting a tight technical called on him, and when Terrence Mann complained about that call he got him ejected. Leonard said after the game the referee admitted he missed the foul call on the play where the technicals were handed out.

However, far more frightening for the Clippers than the loss was the injury to Paul George in the final minutes, a fluke collision with Dort that sent George to the ground and having to be helped back to the locker room. There are no details, but it didn’t look good.

It’s all more questions and injuries for the Clippers.

Meanwhile, the Thunder just keep on rolling and look every bit a playoff team ahead of schedule — and with a lot of draft picks coming in the next few years to stockpile that roster.

2) Knicks legend, Hall of Fame Willis Reed dies

Willis Reed is associated with one of the most iconic moments in NBA history — his dramatic entrance in Madison Square Garden minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. He scored only four points and was clearly in pain and hobbled, but playing even a little sparked the Knicks to blow out the Lakers and win the franchise’s first title.

Reed passed away at the age of 80.

“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “My earliest and fondest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who embodied the winning spirit that defined the New York Knicks’ championship teams in the early 1970s. He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports.

“As a league MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP and member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Willis was a decorated player who took great pride in his consistency. Following his playing career, Willis mentored the next generation as a coach, team executive and proud HBCU alumnus. We send our deepest condolences to Willis’ wife, Gale, his family, and many friends and fans.”

Reed won a second ring with the Knicks in 1973 and was a two-time Finals MVP and seven-time All-Star.

Reed averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds a season over the course of his career, and he had his No.19 retired by the Knicks. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.

3) Celtics get Robert Williams back, look like Celtics in win over Kings

Robert Williams was back on the court for the Celtics Tuesday night and the Celtics held the Kings and their best offense in the league to an offensive rating almost seven points below their league average. That is not a coincidence.

With Williams back, the Celtics were back to switching everything, which slowed the motion and passing of the Kings’ offense enough to earn the 132-109 Boston win. The 36 points from Jayson Tatum helped with that.

For the Kings, it was their fifth game in seven nights in four different time zones and it showed. Still, that loss dropped the Kings 1.5 back of the Grizzlies for the two seed in the West (and the Grizzlies may get Ja Morant back Wednesday).

Boston went 4-2 on their recent road trip. While they have slumped in recent weeks, they looked like their contending selves again with Williams back, who had missed the last eight games with a hamstring issue. He played 21 minutes off the bench.

Nobody should have written Boston off after this recent slide, even if those losses did make their path through the East rougher.

Bonus thing to know: Donovan Mitchell threw down a Dunk of the Year candidate in the Cavaliers’ win.

Paul George has to be helped off court after fourth quarter leg injury

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Hopefully this is not serious, not something that changes the playoff picture in the West.

The Clippers’ Paul George went down with 4:38 left in the game Tuesday night after a collision with Lu Dort going for a rebound.

George had to be helped back to the locker room and struggled to put any weight on his leg.

After the game, Tyronn Lue said George was still being evaluated and had no update on his status. George was seen exiting the arena on the back of a cart with his right leg extended, according to the AP.

George had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists before exiting the game. On the season he is playing at an All-NBA level averaging 23.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists a game, and the Clippers are 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

The Thunder went on to win 101-100 in a game filled with drama, including a technical foul for Kawhi Leonard, an ejection of Terrence Mann, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scoring 31 points, and Lou Dort locking up Leonard in the final seconds.

 

Grizzlies Ja Morant: ‘My job now is… to be more responsible’

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While his coach said he anticipates Ja Morant will return to the court Wednesday for the Grizzlies, Morant downplayed expectations and said things are “still in the air.”

Whether the official return is Wednesday or a few days later, Morant is back practicing with teammates and spoke to the media for the first time since his suspension. He once again was apologetic.

“I’m completely sorry for that,” Morant said, via the Associated Press. “So, you know, my job now is, like I said, to be more responsible, more smarter, and don’t cause any of that no more.”

Morant was suspended eight games by the NBA after flashing a gun in a club and broadcasting it on social media, something NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called “irresponsible” and “reckless.” Morant used that time to go into counseling at a facility in Florida but added he “never had an alcohol problem.”.

“I went there to counseling to learn how to manage stress,” Morant said. “Cope with stress in a positive way, instead of ways I’ve tried to deal with it before that caused me to make mistakes.”

Morant said that his treatment is an “ongoing process,” adding that he was getting off social media and letting his actions speak for him.

Morant and his associates had incidents before that caught the attention of people around the league — including a run-in with Indiana Pacers security — however, this incident in a Colorado club was the first one that hit him in the wallet. The suspension cost him $668,659 in game pay, plus one of his major sponsors — Powerade — pulled an ad campaign featuring him that would have run heavily during March Madness.

The biggest hit is Morant possibly missing out on an All-NBA guard spot. Morant could make $39 million more over the five-year extension that kicks in next season if he makes one of the three All-NBA teams. However, the guard spot is especially crowded with deserving players this season and this incident and the missed games do not help his cause.