Khris Middleton

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Knicks’ Julius Randle’s goals this season: First All-Stars, then playoffs

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Two seasons ago, Julius Randle broke out as a scorer with the Lakers when he stopped trying to be what everyone else wanted him to be and started just playing bully ball getting to the rim. Last season he took that to another level in New Orleans, while the Pelicans’ team fell apart around him he averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.

Now he’s got a three-year, $63 million contract in New York — and the Knicks are counting on him to be a leading scorer for them. While R.J. Barrett develops, the Knicks are banking on Randle and Dennis Smith Jr. to go get buckets.

Randle wants to get them and more — he wants to be an All-Star (the Knicks’ first since Carmelo Anthony), then lead the Knicks to the playoffs. That’s what he told Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

I just feel like situation and opportunity. Everything I’ve been through in the past, all the work I’ve put in in the past has prepared me for this opportunity now, Randle said. So [All-Stars] just a goal of mine. Eventually you feel like you have an opportunity. I feel like I do.

(The playoffs are) extremely important. I’m not going to sit here and talk about every day but it’s extremely important, he said. That’s what you work hard for. You talk about opportunity, this is my opportunity to be a real leader.

So I just want to make sure everybody’s connected and we get better every day. I like our team compared to a lot of other teams. We do what we need to do every day to get better, that mental focus, lock in, stay connected, I like our team.

Making the All-Star team could happen. Randle is going to put up numbers and get plenty of exposure in Madison Square Garden, and there’s space on the roster. Guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are All-Star locks, but the second tier of East frontcourt players — Blake Griffin, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic — is one it feels like Randle could crack.

To do that, the Knicks need to find a way to win enough to make Randle look good compared to other guys trying to get in the All-Star club (Lauri Markkanen, for example).

Will that be enough wins to make the playoffs? Well… maybe just focus on the All-Star part first. To be fair, I wouldn’t want a player on my team who went into the season thinking his team had no shot at the postseason. Reality will hit Randle and the Knicks soon enough.

Before it does, at least Randle has set his goals high.

 

Hardened by last playoff run, Bucks ready for championship chase

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked exasperated.

By the Raptors’ smothering defense. By four straight losses. By growing speculation around his future.

Antetokounmpo tried to explain how the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. He tipped his cap to Kawhi Leonard. He vowed to come back better next season. He also didn’t even stay until the end of his postgame press conference following Milwaukee’s Game 6 elimination. Antetokounmpo fielded one last question then stood up, grabbed his water bottle and left without answering.

It was the frustrating end to a promising year.

Maybe it was exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed.

Milwaukee was good last season. Really good. The Bucks won 60 games and their first postseason series in 18 years.

But they lacked deep-playoff experience. They thought first-round exits the previous couple years had readied them. It wasn’t enough. They ran into a Toronto team that was more prepared to rise to the occasion, even after Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.

Most of the NBA makes the first round. Some first-round teams are mediocre. Their opponents don’t need to hit top gear. Attention is divided between 16 teams and eight series. The first round is bigger than the regular season, though only so much.

In the second round, it gets real. Practically every team is good. With only four series, each comes under a national microscope. Pressure increases exponentially. It’s difficult, nearing impossible, to duplicate the experience of playing that deep into the playoffs. Players just must go through it, usually losing the first time.

The NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984. In every year since then, the NBA champion has had significant prior experience beyond the first round.

Of the 35 NBA champions in this era, 33 gave at least 82% of their postseason minutes to players who’d already played beyond the first round in a prior year.

The two exceptions – 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics – clocked in at a still fairly high 69%. San Antonio gave significant roles to Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili, but still had experienced stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and David Robinson. Boston started youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, but obviously Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the core of that team.

The percentage of the Bucks’ 2019 postseason minutes given to players with prior experience beyond the first round? Just 47%.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had never advanced that far. Eric Bledsoe did it only as a second-year reserve with the Clippers in 2012.

Deep-playoff experience doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a near-mandatory perquisite. It’s just too difficult to understand the intensity, focus and skill necessary to succeed un that level without experiencing it first.

Antetokounmpo was particularly flummoxed. Leonard led a defense that keyed on him. Without a reliable jumper, Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough counters to fight back. The burden was mentally and physically exhausting – even for the regular-season MVP.

Perhaps coincidentally, the question Antetokounmpo didn’t answer was about the value of playoff experience.

He and the Bucks have it now, and that gives them a real chance at a championship this season.

USA finishes seventh at World Cup after 87-74 win against Poland

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BEIJING (AP) — Donovan Mitchell scored 16 points and handed out 10 assists, Joe Harris scored 14 and the U.S. defeated Poland 87-74 on Saturday for seventh place at the World Cup.

Khris Middleton had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Americans, who will head home with a 6-2 record — yet their worst placing ever in a World Cup, world championship as it used to be known, or Olympics.

Derrick White scored 12 and Harrison Barnes added 10 for the U.S.

Mateusz Ponitka scored 18 points, Adam Waczynski had 17 and A.J. Slaughter finished with 15 for Poland (4-4), which was in the World Cup for the first time since 1967.

The Americans put together a 10-0 run in the first quarter to take a 28-14 lead. Poland started 0 for 13 from 3-point range, not getting one from beyond the arc to fall until Michal Sokolowski connected with 1:28 left in the half — and by then, the U.S. lead was 18.

There was little to play for except pride — and the Americans were playing with the realization that, for some of them, it easily could be their last time wearing the red, white and blue uniforms with “USA” across the chest. The roster for the U.S. trip to the Tokyo Olympics next summer is likely to look considerably different than this one.

It had much meaning to Poland coach Mike Taylor as well. He’s an American, who lives in Florida, and mouthed along with the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” when it played pregame.

His team wasn’t eager to quit, either.

Down 17 at the half, Poland made it a very serious game after intermission. Waczynski’s 3-pointer from the right corner late in the third got Poland within 54-47, and Lukasz Koszarek had a 3-point try that would have gotten his team within four with 8:21 remaining.

TIP-INS

U.S.: Kemba Walker (neck) didn’t play, joining Boston Celtics teammates Jayson Tatum (left ankle) and Marcus Smart (left hand) on the U.S. injured list. White started in Walker’s place at point guard. … Timing is everything — the 6-2 record for the U.S. here was better than silver-medalist Serbia (5-4) and bronze-medalist France (6-3) at the last World Cup. But losing in the quarterfinals doomed the U.S. medal hopes.

Poland: The team had three players who played at the Division I level — Slaughter was a four-year player at Western Kentucky, guard Karol Gruszecki spent two years at Texas-Arlington and center Dominik Olejniczak started his career at Drake, then played two seasons at Ole Miss and will play this year at Florida State as a graduate transfer. … Poland started 4-0 in China, then dropped its last four games.

Myles Turner defends Team USA’s effort: ‘We layed it all out on the line each and every game’

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USA Basketball is about to have its worst finish ever in a major international tournament, either 7th or 8th in this World Cup after consecutive losses to France and Serbia.

There are reasons for the disappointing result, but all starts and ends with who did and did not show up. The guys who did show up are taking some heat for the USA’s poor result, but on Thursday center Myles Turner — who has been the team’s best center but was overwhelmed by Rudy Gobert against France — stuck up for the guys who showed up.

That last bit is the key — these guys showed up and tried their best. Give them some credit. They didn’t put club/personal concerns ahead of country. They sacrificed a chunk of their off-season to represent their nation when others wouldn’t, and that deserves some respect.

Also, Turner is right — don’t question the effort these guys put in. The USA players didn’t mail it in, they didn’t coast. The simple fact of modern international basketball is that the gap between the USA and the rest of the world is not that large anymore, and if we don’t send our best — if top players back out because this is just the World Cup, or because of timing — we will see more results like this. There is little margin for error for the USA anymore.

This version of Team USA could not afford Kemba Walker to have an off shooting game, or for Khris Middleton to blend into the background, or for the players to get away from tempo and ball movement far too often. But they showed up and they tried, and that should give them an advantage when it comes to making the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad.

Jayson Tatum returns to USA practice, may play against France

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SHENZHEN, China — Jayson Tatum was able to return to practice with the U.S. men’s basketball team Monday, less than a week after he sprained his left ankle.

He did not play Monday night when the U.S. (5-0) closed out World Cup second-round play with an 89-73 win over Brazil. It is unclear whether Tatum will be ready for a quarterfinal game against France on Wednesday.

“I hope I can play,” Tatum said. “There’s no timetable or anything. I’m just trying to get back right.”

Shams Charania of The Athletic reports Tatum has a “strong chance” to play Wednesday.

Tatum said he went through the entire U.S. shootaround practice in advance of the Brazil game, able to run and cut without difficulty.

“Felt good,” Tatum said.

The Boston Celtics forward sprained the ankle in the final seconds of overtime in last week’s 93-92 win over Turkey on a play where he set up U.S. teammate Khris Middleton for what became the game-winning free throws. Tatum made two of three free throws with one-tenth of a second left in regulation of that game, sending it to overtime.

Tatum started the first two games of the tournament for the U.S., averaging 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per contest.

“When it first happened I was upset,” Tatum said. “I didn’t want to miss any games. But it’s nothing significant.”

U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he didn’t have an update on when Tatum could potentially return, though seeing him on the floor Monday was an obvious good sign.

“It’s encouraging,” Popovich said.