Tagged in: eastern conference

Brown scores 30, Celtics beat Bucks 109-86 to even series

There was a moment during the Celtics’ series-opening loss to the Bucks when it seemed as if Jaylen Brown would never make a shot.

Early in Game 2, it felt like he might not miss.

Brown scored 25 of his 30 points in the first half, and Boston beat Milwaukee 109-86 on Tuesday night to even the Eastern Conference semifinals at one game apiece.

“It’s the playoffs. That’s it,” Brown said. “We can’t let one game kind of dictate how this series goes. We wanted to be aggressive from the gate.”

Brown shook off a dismal shooting night in Game 1, going 9 for 10 in the first half, including 5 for 5 from the 3-point line. Jayson Tatum added 19 points and eight assists. Grant Williams concluded with 21 points. Al Horford had 14 points and 11 rebounds. “We wanted to come and play like our season was on the line and we did,” Brown said.

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The series doesn’t resume until Game 3 on Saturday in Milwaukee.

Boston finished 20 of 43 from beyond the arc and scored 24 points off 16 Milwaukee turnovers.

“We wanted to match their physicality and punch back tonight,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “A big message was show them who we are.”

They did that.

The Celtics played without Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart after he was ruled out before the game with a bruised right thigh he sustained in Game 1. 

Derrick White took his place in the starting lineup, making his first start in a playoff game since 2019 when he was with San Antonio.

“The ship’s got to keep going. Everybody got to do a little bit more,” Tatum said.

Even without Smart, the Celtics clamped down on Giannis Antetokounmpo after his triple-double in the series opener, limiting him to 28 points — mostly in the third quarter — nine rebounds and seven assists. Jrue Holiday added 19 points and seven assists. Bobby Portis chipped in 13 points and eight rebounds.

Antetokounmpo said the Celtics are doing a lot to make it tough for him inside.

“Strong bodies, being active, being physical —- that’s pretty much it,” he said. “It’s gotten tougher to find your teammates.”

With Smart watching in street clothes from the bench, the Celtics scored the game’s first seven points on their way to taking an 18-3 lead and forcing a quick timeout by the Bucks.

Boston scored from a variety of different spots on the court during the run – attacking both at the rim and inside the paint. It also included 12 points from the 3-point line, where the Celtics struggled for most of Game 1.

“It’s not Wilt Chamberlain down there (in the paint),” Udoka said. “We can get downhill and attack.”

Antetokounmpo missed his first six shots before ultimately getting on the scoreboard via a dunk with less than a minute left in the opening period.

It didn’t stop Boston from banking a 32-21 lead heading into the second quarter, boosted by 17 points from Brown –a career playoff-high for a quarter.

The Celtics continued to share and kept Milwaukee’s defense in chase mode, eventually taking a 65-40 edge into the half.

The Bucks cut into what had been a 26-point Celtics lead in the third quarter. Antetokounmpo keyed the charge with 18 points in the period. A 10-0 Milwaukee run, aided by a more than five-minute Celtics scoring drought, trimmed Boston’s lead to 72-56 late in the third quarter.

Milwaukee kept nibbling away and got it down it to 94-82 on a pair of free throws by Antetokounmpo. But Tatum made a 3-pointer and Boston pulled away again.

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Young, Hunter lead Hawks to 132-103 play-in rout of Hornets

For one night, at least, the Atlanta Hawks looked like the team that made a stunning run to the Eastern Conference final last summer.

Trae Young bounced back from a sluggish start to score 24 points and De’Andre Hunter led a third-quarter surge Wednesday that carried the Hawks to a 132-103 rout of the Charlotte Hornets in a play-in game.

“We’re definitely confident right now,” Hunter said. “But we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re not satisfied yet.”

The Hawks were a bit of a disappointment during the regular season, concluding ninth in the East after their surprising playoff success in 2021.

They’ve still got to win one more play-in game just to make the playoffs, heading to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Friday night. The winner claims the No. 8 seed in the East and will face the top-seeded Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs.

The season is over for the Hornets, who were overwhelmed in the 9-10 play-in game for the second year in a row and haven’t made the playoffs since 2016.

Still, coach James Borrego called it another step forward for a rebuilding team. “A lot of good things have happened for this franchise based on where we’re at today compared to where we were two or three years ago,” he stated.

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Miles Bridges was ejected in the fourth quarter and could be facing additional punishment from the league office after he appeared to strike a young fan with his mouthpiece.

All five Atlanta starters scored in double figures, as did Bogdan Bogdanovic off the bench. 

It was Hunter who came up big in the decisive third period, bursting out with 16 points after being held to 3 in the first half.

“I think I’m a big part of this team,” Hunter said. ”Me being aggressive, scoring and defending, helps this team a lot.”

Hunter ended with 22 points, while Danilo Gallinari added 18 and Clint Capela 15. Kevin Huerter and Bogdanovic chipped in with 13 apiece.

The Hornets closed the regular season strong and felt like they had a good opportunity to win a couple of play-in games on the road. But those hopes came crashing down versus their I-85 rival.

LaMelo Ball led Charlotte with 26 points on 7-of-25 shooting.

The Hawks led by 13 in the first half before settling for a 60-52 advantage at the break. Charlotte had a bit of momentum in the closing minutes of the half, but it sure didn’t carry over to the third.

The Hawks outscored the Hornets 42-24 during that 12-minute barrage, hitting 16 of 24 shots, and led 102-76 heading to the final period.

With the Hornets doubling at every opportunity, Young made only 1 of 9 shots in the opening quarter and 3 of 13 in the first half.

But his teammates found plenty of open looks and made the Hornets pay dearly.

“It’s great for my team,'” said Young, who had 11 assists. “If you can make two guys guard you, it only opens up the floor for everybody else. I have to embrace it.”

Charlotte should’ve known what kind of night it would be on their way to State Farm Arena.

The Hornets’ chartered bus was blocked by a freight train that stopped on a crossing near the downtown sports complex. The bus had to turn around and take a different route to the arena, delaying Charlotte’s arrival for pregame warmups. It didn’t get much better once the game tipped off.

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Nets’ Andre Drummond says final two regular-season outings are ‘must-win games’ for Brooklyn

As the Brooklyn Nets prepare for their final two regular-season games of the season, they do so in control of their own playoff destiny.

If the Nets — currently seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference with a 42-38 record — win their final two matches, they will lock up the seventh seed and would host the East’s first play-in game next Tuesday night.

Veteran center Andre Drummond left no doubt where his team’s mindset is heading into Friday’s game versus the Cleveland Cavaliers — the team that sits one slot ahead of the Nets.

“I think they’re must-win games for us,” Drummond said after Friday’s shootaround. “I think we know what’s ahead of us and we know what’s going to happen if we do win these two games. I think our sense of urgency is a little bit higher than what it was before, and I think we’re prepared to take that next step.”

The Nets, who have dealt with a range of injuries, a teamwide COVID-19 outbreak in December and Kyrie Irving’s part-time status from January to March because of his decision not to get the COVID vaccine, remain confident that they can still catch the rhythm they need to make a long run in the postseason.

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“If we’re playing well heading into the play-in game, then those two games take care of itself and we should win ’em,” guard Seth Curry said. “But if we’re not playing well, then we’re probably not going to get out of the play-in game anyways.

“So it’s just a matter of [playing] our style of play, having confidence and being in a good rhythm playing our best basketball.”

Both Drummond and Curry have been solid since being dealt, along with Ben Simmons and two future first round picks, to the Nets in a trade-deadline deal that sent James Harden and Paul Millsap to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Despite the fact that Simmons still hasn’t played for the Nets because of a back injury — and a playoff return remains a very unclear possibility — Brooklyn remains steadfast in the belief that they can still win a title this year.

“I think it’s everybody’s mindset in the beginning of the year, is to try and win a championship,” Drummond said. “I think with this team we have a special group of guys here — anything is possible, it’s the NBA at the end of the day. Anything can happen.

“We just got to hang our hat, put our best foot forward … so we do have that mindset that we can win. I think everybody has that same mindset. For us, we’re just trying to stay within ourself and make things happen.”

For Curry, that means continuing to play through pain in his left ankle.

After missing the past two games, Curry scored 15 points and hit three 3-pointers in Wednesday’s 110-98 win over the New York Knicks. “It’s pretty much the same, man,” Curry said of his ankle injury.

“Just trying to manage it — and got through it and played through some pain. So it’s just an everyday managing thing, trying to get through end of the season into the playoffs, giving the team what I can. I feel like if Tiger can shoot 1 under at Augusta yesterday, I can play through a little bit of pain for the rest of the season.”

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DeRozan scores 50, Bulls rally past Clippers 135-130 in OT

DeMar DeRozan scored a season-high 50 points and the Chicago Bulls rallied to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers 135-130 in overtime Thursday night.

DeRozan finished two points shy of his career high. The five-time All-Star scored 17 in the fourth quarter, though he missed the go-ahead free throw in the closing seconds of regulation after making the first two attempts to tie it.

He then scored 10 in overtime, helping the Bulls come away with a win they sorely needed after falling behind by 16 in the third period.

Chicago, which led the Eastern Conference for a large portion of the season, moved a half-game ahead of sixth-place Toronto with five left. The Bulls are trying to stay in the top six in order to avoid the play-in round in the postseason.

Nikola Vucevic added 22 points and 14 rebounds. Zach LaVine scored 21 as the Bulls won for the third time in four matches.

Reggie Jackson led Los Angeles with 34 points.

Paul George scored 22 in his second game back after missing three months because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

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Marcus Morris Sr. added 20 points and Nicolas Batum scored 17. But the Clippers — eighth in the West — lost for the sixth time in seven matches.

Chicago led by four in overtime when Luke Kennard hit a 3 for Los Angeles with 1:12 left. 

Patrick Williams answered with one of his own to make it 129-125 with just under a minute remaining.

Jackson then hit two foul shots for the Clippers before DeRozan converted two to make it 131-127.

Williams rebounded a missed drive by Jackson, leading to two more free throws by DeRozan that made it a six-point game. Jackson nailed a 3 to cut it to 133-130 with five seconds left.

DeRozan caught the inbounds pass following a timeout by the Bulls and drove for a dunk, sealing a wild victory for Chicago.

The Clippers saw their lead shrink to four early in the fourth and got it back up to 11 with about five minutes remaining before the Bulls made another push.

Los Angeles was leading 118-115 with seven seconds left in regulation when Terance Mann got called for a foul away from the ball on an inbounds play following a timeout.

That led to a free throw for DeRozan that cut it to two and possession for Chicago. DeRozan then got fouled by George on a 3-point attempt with 3.5 seconds left. He hit the first two foul shots to tie it at 118 and missed the third, sending the game to overtime.

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Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving drops 38 to beat Milwaukee Bucks, can see ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving stated he can finally see “light at the end of the tunnel” after playing the best game of his truncated season in Saturday’s surprising 126-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Irving scored a season-high 38 points to lead his undermanned team down the stretch versus the defending NBA champions. Afterward, he acknowledged the possibility of New York City ending the vaccination mandate that has kept him off Brooklyn’s Barclays Center floor all season, saying he is looking forward to “turning the page.”

“I’m glad that things are kind of settling down and there’s light at the end of the tunnel here,” Irving said. “Hopefully, I can get back on that home floor playing in the Barclays and now we can finally have that conversation that you’ve been dying to have just about turning the page and moving forward beyond this.

“But like I said, I’m not the only one. I feel for everybody that’s either in my boat or a similar boat or have dealt with some type of trauma from this. And just wishing everybody well-wishes, always.”

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Irving’s comments are his first since New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters earlier in the week that he “can’t wait to get it done” while discussing phasing out vaccination restrictions like other cities across the country.

“I’m following it as much as you guys are,” Irving said. “So just remaining patient and just seeing where things end up in this next week or so, next two weeks, I’m not too sure, but I know as much as you do. And I want to say this — is that I’m very appreciative of all those that are pushing behind the scenes to make our world a better place.

“And with everything calming down with the COVID cases, the most important thing for me was just making sure everyone’s OK. I’ve been on record saying this that it’s not about me, that I don’t want to feel like it’s all on me, but the circumstances this year have not been ideal.”

Irving also stated he appreciated NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s recent comments on ESPN’s Get Up, where Silver defended Irving while noting that the mandate “doesn’t quite make sense to me,” given that unvaccinated players from opposing teams could still play in New York City.

“I know his job is not easy,” Irving said. “Standing in the fire, sometimes, on behalf of our league. So my respect level went to a whole new one for him, and I’m just grateful that he did that, and he really took one for the team. And I’m grateful for that. But like I said, we want to set a great example for the world in what we’re doing, and we try to stand for what’s right and respect everyone else’s decisions and their personal beliefs.”

On top of Irving’s status, what makes the Nets so hopeful with just 21 regular-season games left to play is that star forward Kevin Durant is expected to return this week from a sprained left MCL after missing a month and a half. New addition Ben Simmons also is expected to be available in the near future as he ramps up his conditioning after waiting to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers, although Nets coach Steve Nash stated Saturday that Simmons was dealing with “a little soreness in his back.”

For Irving, he said the victory in Milwaukee was even more special given that he injured his right ankle in Game 4 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals versus the Bucks, prematurely ending his season.

“It was definitely emotional for me to prepare for this game,” Irving said.

“Just because — I haven’t been back in this building since then. I try my best not to wear my emotions on my face or on my shoulders, but sometimes, they can get the best of me. But it definitely felt like there was a weight lifted just being back here, being healthy, getting a win and knowing that there’s a possibility we could see them down the line again … there was nothing personal about this game, just about the team.”

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Rockets beat shorthanded Nets 114-104 for 7th straight win

Eric Gordon scored 21 points before being ejected in the fourth quarter and Garrison Mathews added 19 as the Houston Rockets extended their winning streak to seven games with a 114-104 triumph over the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.

Before the streak, the Rockets dropped their previous 15 matches. It’s the first time Houston has won seven consecutive since winning eight in a row in November 2019.

“The adversity that we went through prior to this point has made it even sweeter,” coach Stephen Silas said. “We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

James Harden had 25 points for the Eastern Conference-leading Nets on a night when NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge both sat out for rest. It was Harden’s second visit to Houston since he was traded in January during his ninth season with the Rockets.

The Rockets led by 17 to start the fourth quarter and the Nets cut the deficit to four before Houston pulled away.

Mathews, who had 12 points in the fourth, scored four in a 5-0 run that extended Houston’s lead to 109-97. Patty Mills made one of two free throws for the Nets before a three-point play by D.J. Augustin made it 112-98 with about two minutes to go.

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“When you beat a team like that it means something,” Mathews said. “This streak’s been a huge boost to our confidence. It’s been a huge boost to our morale.”

The loss snapped a six-game road winning streak for the Nets, whose nine road victories are tied with the Suns for most in the NBA.

The Nets shot just 8 of 33 from 3-point range, with Harden going 3 of 12 and finishing 4 of 16 overall. He was 14 for 16 from the line.

“I got the shots I wanted, for sure,” he said. “I just didn’t make them.”

Harden received a fair number of boos when he was introduced and each time he had the ball early. But he got a warm ovation after a highlight video of his time in Houston was played during a timeout in the first quarter.

He formed his hands into the shape of a heart as he held them over his head and then moved them to his chest and smiled as the crowd cheered.

Harden stated playing in Houston will always be meaningful to him.

“Very special,” he said. “I spent some of my most amazing years here on the court and off the court.”

Cam Thomas had 18 points for Brooklyn, and Mills added 12.

A 10-0 spurt by the Nets got them within four with about 7½ minutes left. Harden capped that run when he made a 3-pointer as he crashed to the court after being fouled by Mathews and made the free throw for a four-point play.

Gordon was ejected soon after that when he received his second technical foul of the game for yelling at the officials about not getting a foul call.

Harden’s free throw after Gordon’s technical cut the lead to four, but a 6-1 spurt by the Rockets, highlighted by a 3 from Mathews, made it 104-95 with 4½ minutes left.

Houston led by as many as 20 and took control of the game with a 37-point second quarter. The Rockets ended the third quarter on a 6-2 run, punctuated by a one-handed dunk by Kenyon Martin Jr. to make it 90-73 entering the fourth.

Houston rookie Josh Christopher stole the ball from Jevon Carter and dished to Martin on the other end, and he sailed over Carter for the slam.

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LaVine nets 32, Bulls overcome DeRozan’s absence, top Denver

The Chicago Bulls found out they had to get by without DeMar DeRozan, then showed they have enough to keep winning, even when they’re missing one of their best players.

It sure is a welcomed change for Zach LaVine after years of losing.

“No idea, brother,” he said, laughing.

LaVine scored 32 points and the Bulls overcame DeRozan’s absence to beat the Denver Nuggets 109-97 on Monday night.

The Bulls took a big hit a few hours before tipoff when DeRozan, their leading scorer, entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Even without the four-time All-Star, they dominated down the stretch and tied Brooklyn for the Eastern Conference lead.

It’s just another sign of how far the Bulls have come. After four consecutive losing seasons, they hope to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

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The Chicago Bulls found out they had to get by without DeMar DeRozan, then showed they have enough to keep winning, even when they’re missing one of their best players.

It sure is a welcomed change for Zach LaVine after years of losing.

“No idea, brother,” he said, laughing.

LaVine scored 32 points and the Bulls overcame DeRozan’s absence to beat the Denver Nuggets 109-97 on Monday night.

The Bulls took a big hit a few hours before tipoff when DeRozan, their leading scorer, entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Even without the four-time All-Star, they dominated down the stretch and tied Brooklyn for the Eastern Conference lead.

It’s just another sign of how far the Bulls have come. After four consecutive losing seasons, they hope to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

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Adebayo has 24, Heat pull away to beat Nets 106-93

Bam Adebayo had 24 points and nine rebounds to lead the Miami Heat to a 106-93 triumph over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.

Jimmy Butler added 17 points for Miami (3-1). P.J. Tucker finished with 15, and Tyler Herro and Dewayne Dedmon each contributed 14.

A preseason favorite to win the NBA championship, Brooklyn has alternated losses and wins through the first five matches of the season and dropped to 2-3. 

Kevin Durant finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds. “I like how we’re playing defense the last couple games,” Durant said.

“I like where our defense is trending. … I feel like we’re generating good shots. We’re just (not) knocking them down. If we continue to generate good shots we’ll put ourselves in good position.”

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Joe Harris contributed 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting, including 5 for 11 from 3-point range. With his third 3-pointer of the game, Harris passed Jason Kidd as the franchise’s career leader in made 3-pointers.

James Harden had 14 points and Bruce Brown chipped in with 12.

The first of four regular-season matchups between the Eastern Conference rivals was a contrast in styles, the flashy, up-tempo, high-scoring Nets against a physical Heat squad.

Despite forcing the Nets to play a possession-by-possession game for much of the first half, the Heat trailed 51-49 at the half.

Miami had outscored Brooklyn in the paint (30-20), had more second-chance points (15-2), and had a decided edge in rebounds (35-25).

“We have a bunch of like-minded guys,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “(That’s) the way those guys are hard-wired.”

What the Heat did not have, though, was the tandem of Durant and Harden, who combined for 25 of Brooklyn’s 51 points in the half. Durant also grabbed eight rebounds while Harden added three boards and three assists.

Miami stayed with its approach and it paid dividends in the third quarter, as the Heat outscored the Nets 32-23 and took an 81-74 lead into the fourth. The Heat extended their lead to 88-77 before Brooklyn used a 7-2 spurt to cut the deficit to 90-84.

Following a timeout, Durant stared down Butler as he drilled a 3 to bring Brooklyn with three. That was as close as the Nets would come, as Miami pulled away, with Adebayo throwing down two thunderous dunks.

For the game, Miami outscored Brooklyn 48-34 in the paint, had 27 more second-chance points (31-4), and outrebounded the Nets 62-42.

“Overall a consistent theme was second-chance opportunities,” Harris said. “When you look up and the shot margin was as big as it was, it’s really hard to beat good teams. That was a problem a lot of last year and it’s been a problem a lot of this year so far.”

The Heat did not make any players available to reporters after the match.

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Team USA rebounds from back-to-back losses with blowout of Argentina

Team USA stabilized itself by putting together its most complete match of its Olympic preparation schedule, defeating Argentina 108-80 on Tuesday night.

After back-to-back losses that saw the Americans struggle with offensive execution and defensive stamina, they showed more traction on both fronts 12 days before their Olympic opener in Tokyo.

“I thought we sustained our [stamina] pretty well,” Team USA manager Gregg Popovich said. “Against Australia we competed well, rebounded, played defense, ran the floor and had good pace for a half and then it dissipated for a half. Tonight, we maintained that pretty much throughout the game. Hopefully that’s a sign we’re getting better.”

Kevin Durant, the unquestioned engine of the national team’s offense, had shown some rust after taking some time off following the Brooklyn Nets’ seven-game series loss last month in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Like many of his Team USA teammates, he looked a little flat in the first two exhibitions, which both ended in unexpected defeat. He was just 10-of-26 shooting in those defeats to Nigeria and Australia.

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Durant came out with a purpose Tuesday, swishing a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession.

He scored eight points in the first quarter and ended with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting.

It was a similar story for Bradley Beal, who shot just 38% and averaged just seven points in the first two games while trying to regain rhythm. Beal made his first four shots, two of them 3-pointers, and ended with 17 points for easily his best game of the exhibitions.

“A sense of urgency is what we’re kind of preaching,” Beal said. “Today we got better, but there’s still a lot more we can improve on. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Despite it being the second game of a back-to-back and a comfortable victory, Popovich played Beal 30 of the game’s 40 minutes in an attempt to help him round into form.

Popovich cited conditioning as a reason the Americans faded down the stretch in the two losses. After a heavy calendar for most of the players over the previous 12 months, players taking time to rest was expected after their seasons ended, but it seems to have contributed to the slow start.

Tuesday’s game also featured a strong performance from Zach LaVine, a late addition to Team USA who has been building a case for more playing time this week. LaVine was in Popovich’s starting lineup for the Jayson Tatum, who sat out to rest a sore knee, and made a statement with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists.

“Somebody’s got to take Tatum’s place,” Popovich said. “So you choose one, simple as that.”

LaVine, who has had more time off as the Chicago Bulls missed the playoffs, is one of the players who seems to be in better rhythm. He had a spectacular highlight dunk in the fourth quarter, rising over a defender and slamming it despite a foul.

It must be said the Argentinians, who came in ranked No. 4 in the world after taking the silver at the 2019 World Cup, were the weakest team the Americans have yet faced. They are 0-3 in the games at Mandalay Bay this week and are an older team. Former NBA player Luis Scola, who is 41, led them with 16 points.

A better test for Team USA’s development will come Friday in a rematch with the Aussies. It will come after two days off to allow for some practice and film work.

“The last thing we want to do is overwork people to the point where we get injuries, but the first priority is we have to get back in shape,” Popovich. “We’re going to continue to work hard like we need to. … Without the condition we can’t get this done.”

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Khris Middleton lifts Milwaukee Bucks past Atlanta Hawks, into NBA Finals

The Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 — and they secured the final wins of the series without star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee defeated the Atlanta Hawks 118-107 in Game 6 on Saturday behind 32 points from Khris Middleton. Jrue Holiday added 27 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists.

After the final buzzer sounded and the Bucks swarmed the center of the court, putting on caps and T-shirts that announced them as Eastern Conference champions, players hugged each other and laughed. Coaches embraced.

“It feels awesome,” Holiday said. “I’m still kind of on this high, but I’m going to the Finals. It’s cool to think as a little kid, this is what you watch the playoffs for. This is all the moments that I felt as a little kid watching TV. I lived them and went through them and now I get to go to the Finals and see what this is about.”

Antetokounmpo, who has been out since injuring his knee in the third quarter of Game 4 when he landed awkwardly after contesting an alley-oop, was in the middle of it all — a triumphant fist raised in the air.

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Thursday marked the end of a slew of Milwaukee playoff runs that were cut short or went awry. In the 2019 postseason, the Bucks swept the Detroit Pistons, defeated the Boston Celtics in five games and built a 2-0 lead versus the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, after losing back-to-back games only once during the entire regular season, the Bucks lost four consecutive games to the Raptors and were eliminated.

Last season in the NBA’s bubble, the Bucks fizzled to a disappointing end in the playoffs.

Milwaukee earned the No. 1 seed and defeated the Orlando Magic in five games. But Antetokounmpo sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the team’s series against the Miami Heat.

He gave it a go in Game 4, but re-sprained his ankle in that game and was unable to play in Game 5, when Milwaukee was eliminated. Back then, Antetokounmpo said that “nobody was going to be happy” with the outcome of Milwaukee’s 2019-20 playoff run. He said he hoped the Bucks could learn from that loss.

It appears they did — and those losses, Middleton said, made their success this season that much better.

“It’s been a long journey,” Middleton said. “But it’s been a great journey. It’s been worth it. After winning 15 games in our first year here and seven years not making the playoffs, to the last two years thinking we had a chance and just didn’t do enough and now we’re here. This is what we’ve worked for.”

The Bucks avenged last season’s loss and rolled the Heat in four matches in the first round. Midway through that series, starting guard Donte DiVincenzo injured his ankle. He had season-ending surgery on a ligament in his left ankle in June and P.J. Tucker slid into a starting role.

Still, Milwaukee kept rolling. After falling down 3-2 in a wild series versus the betting title favorite Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks outlasted them in a seven-game series. And after losing at home for the first time in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Bucks battled back, including winning two games without Antetokounmpo.

All the while, Antetokounmpo stood — almost never sitting down — on the sidelines in black shorts and a Bucks warm-up shirt. A protective sleeve swaddled his hyperextended left knee. But even injured and unable to play, Antetokounmpo was in the middle of the celebration. His longest hug was reserved for his brother and teammate, Thanasis.

“There’s a bittersweetness to him not being able to play these last two games,” Budenholzer said. “Khris and Giannis are the key to this team, to this organization. To have the opportunity to coach them and come here three years ago and try to build something special, those two guys are special, and it starts with them.”

And while there has been no public decision on whether or not Antetokounmpo will be available to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, one thing is certain: The Bucks are sitting atop a hill that Antetokounmpo has envisioned summiting for years.

Now, they have just one more leg to complete. “We ain’t did nothing yet,” Tucker said.

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