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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Instead of dwelling on his mistake that let Sacramento tie the game in the closing seconds, Gordon Hayward made it moot.

Hayward made up for a costly foul by hitting a tiebreaking shot with 2 seconds to play that helped the Boston Celtics overcome the absence of injured star Kyrie Irving in a 111-109 victory over the Kings on Wednesday night.

Hayward fouled Buddy Hield on a 3-point attempt with 7.6 seconds left, allowing Sacramento to pull even. Boston had no timeouts and inbounded the ball to Hayward, who went the length of the court before hitting a fall-away for the win. “It felt good more than anything because I almost lost us the game with the foul,” he said. “I was trying to get that one back for us. More than anything, just happy for our team and we found a way to win these last two games, especially with what we were going through. It’s been a roller coaster and we want to be on an up when we get to the playoffs.”

Harrison Barnes then missed a 3 at the buzzer, giving the Celtics their second win in two nights to start a four-game California swing. Boston had lost five of six before starting this trip with a 33-point win at two-time defending champion Golden State and then the dramatic victory over the Kings the following night. Hayward scored 30 points against the Warriors and is rounding back into the form he showed before suffering a gruesome ankle injury in the opener last season after signing a $128 million, four-year deal to join the Celtics. “It shows you the confidence he still has,” teammate Marcus Morris said. “It’s building and building. A lot of people are trying to write him off and say he’s not going to be who he was. As a player, that’s tough. ”

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 24 points, Al Horford had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, and Hayward finished with 12 points. Barnes scored 24 points and Hield added 23 for the Kings, who have lost four of five and trail San Antonio by four games in the race for the final Western Conference playoff spot. “It’s always a tough one to lose a close game like that,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Sometimes it comes down to a few key possessions. They made a lot of tough shots.” The Kings erased a six-point deficit in the final three minutes thanks in part to two drives by Fox and a hustle block by Hield that prevented a fast-break layup for Marcus Smart. Hield’s free throws then tied the game before Hayward delivered the game-winner for Boston. “Everyone was tight on their man,” Hayward said. “It was almost just like 1-on-1. The lane kind of cleared out and I was able to make the move.”

Celtics: Irving was more sore than expected after banging his thigh the previous night at Golden State and was held out. Boston has won seven straight games without its leading scorer in the lineup. … The Celtics had just three offensive rebounds on 39 misses from the field as they placed a priority on getting back on defense against the speedy Kings.

Kings: Sacramento got off to a fast start, making 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter for a six-point lead. But the Kings went just 6 of 22 in the second and were tied 49-all at halftime. … Sacramento rookie Marvin Bagley III remains sidelined after spraining his left knee last Wednesday. Kings coach Dave Joerger said Bagley is progressing in his rehab but there is no timetable for his return.

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Ike Opara is officially a Minnesotan now. It’s not down to the fact that he’s one of several new faces with Minnesota United, or that he spent his New Year’s holiday in the Twin Cities. Instead, it comes down to a recent purchase.

“I finally invested in a proper outerwear jacket,” said Opara, a native of North Carolina. “It’s amazing how comfortable and warm those things are. You don’t actually realize how cold it is here.”

After obtaining Opara in a January trade with Sporting Kansas City, the Loons are hoping that his adaptation to his new home continues on the same pace. He’s part of a defensive makeover for Minnesota that includes central midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus, right back Romain Metanire and goalkeeper Vito Mannone. On paper at least, the additions should do plenty to address the team’s defensive woes. Then again, it would be hard to do worse defensively than Minnesota has in its first two years of MLS existence.

In 2017, the Loons set a dubious league record by conceding 70 goals. It surpassed that mark in 2018 by shipping another 71, though mercifully Orlando was even more inept, allowing 74. Yet Opara, the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year and a player who was part of three trophy-winning sides in Kansas City, is looked upon as the key piece to solidifying Minnesota’s back line.

“Solving [the defense] isn’t just by adding quality players,” said Minnesota sporting director Manny Lagos. “I think it’s about adding quality people who are leaders, who are going to create a level of expectation of excellence among the group. Ike fits that bill. He’s somebody who, through his great personality, his attitude every day in the locker room, his attention to striving to win every game, adds a lot.”

Opara brings a lot of experience, and a lot of upside, to a Minnesota team in need of a proper defense. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Opara is well aware of the breadth of expectations placed on him and is embracing every last one of them.

“Coming from Sporting, the culture and everything that was there, it’s set in stone, it’s Type A in a sense,” he said. “Now coming here, we’re trying to build something special with a new stadium, a great fan base, and we haven’t done very well the last couple of years, so there’s this opportunity to set a culture and set a different legacy for Minnesota United. That’s really exciting for a lot of guys in this locker room.”

The trade, one that saw Opara acquired in exchange for upward of $1 million in Targeted Allocation Money, was set in motion last December. Opara, aware that he was the third-highest-paid center-back on the team, asked manager and sporting director Peter Vermes for a raise and to consider any trade offers that came in for him.

“I think just in terms of looking around the league at my peers, I wasn’t in a position that I felt was fair,” Opara said. “That’s been the message I’ve had all along. I’m a pretty transparent person, and so I think I just wanted fair market value. That’s what it was.”

Given Vermes’ steely demeanor, the mere idea of walking into his office and asking for more money, a trade or both doesn’t seem to be one for the faint-hearted. But the suggestion that Vermes might explode at such an approach is one that draws a chuckle from Opara.

“Peter and I had a good relationship,” said Opara. “I think it was just one of the key points in the conversation we had. We respected each other from our time there. The guy that people see on TV isn’t the guy in that meeting. If I ever needed anything in life, I know he would be there to help me out in any way, and vice versa. That’s the kind of relationship we had.”

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Opara did hint at some tension over the past few weeks prior to the trade, but when word of the deal came down it was still a shock. Kansas City was where Opara resurrected his career after a series of injury-hit seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes. The saga left Opara with some mixed emotions.

“It’s never easy saying goodbye for sure,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of life memories that I made in Kansas City. But conversely, it’s something I’m excited for, to take the next step, the next level in life and in soccer.”

Each trade carries its own risks. In the case of Opara, he’ll turn 30 next week and his injury history, with everything from a fractured foot to a ruptured Achilles tendon, creates some wariness as to how long he can keep going. But looked at another way, there’s less wear on the tires than there might be with other players his age and Opara is a proven defender in this league. Such players aren’t easy to come by.

“My thoughts? There are things you can’t control,” said Lagos. “The part that we can control is Ike is a great professional. He takes care of himself, he works hard, he rehabs hard, he does his maintenance and regeneration very seriously. Those are the signs that are positive to have a great career.”

Lagos added that Opara and the team have yet to talk about a new contract beyond the fact that the player wants a new one.

“Players and contracts are sensitive issues, and the value of their contracts will go up and down based on how they play,” said Lagos. “For us right now, we’re excited to have Ike here and we’re excited to have him on the roster. That’s where we are right now.”

Joining a new team can also lead to new responsibilities, and that is the case with Opara. His likely central partner is Michael Boxall, a much more physical player than Matt Besler, Opara’s sidekick in Kansas City. That will leave Opara to take on more of the passing responsibilities out of the back.

“It’s a little different than what I’m used to in the sense of Boxall is such a physical presence,” said Opara. “He’s a unit. Having a partner who is able to handle the demands of any sort of forward, that’s something that’s going to complement me because I’m going to be playing a different role this year, one that I’m really excited for. I think the communication that we’ve had early on in trying to lead the line and trying to put the guys ahead of us in good spots has been really good and fun to work on in learning each other’s tendencies and try to balance off each other from there.”

Opara, right, was an anchor for Sporting Kansas City, playing over 100 games since arriving in 2013. Now, he’ll be the center-back leader for the Loons. Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of his national team prospects, it was about this time a year ago that Opara earned his only cap to date, playing a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. While Opara was widely viewed as being not quite as sharp in 2018 as he was during his Best XI campaign the year before, SKC did have the third-best defensive record in the league last year. Opara was not included in this year’s January camp under new manager Gregg Berhalter, which for him didn’t come as a surprise given the new head coach’s emphasis on youth.

“I understand the trajectory and the process of where the national team is at the moment and where they’re trying to be,” he said. “I would have been a little bit shocked had I gotten the preliminary email. I would have been confused as to why I was on there! I’m sure Gregg has plenty of ideas as to who he wanted to invite. I never once thought I was going to be there, so I carried on living my life.”

For now, Opara is focused on his new environs and helping turn the Loons into a playoff contender. If all goes well, perhaps Minnesota will allow Opara and his contractual desires to come in from the cold.

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A number of future international NBA draft picks are expected at the fifth annual Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Global Camp in Charlotte, a joint venture of the NBA and FIBA held during All-Star Weekend.

Sixty-three boys and girls, ranging in age from 16 to 18 and from 31 countries, will get measured, undergo athletic testing, practice, scrimmage and conduct drills under the watchful eyes of representatives of all 30 NBA teams. Participants will also attend daily seminars for life skills and attend the Rising Stars, dunk contest, 3-point shootout and the All-Star Game.

Despite being relatively new, this camp, which aims to pull together some of the most talented non-American prospects in the world, has quickly ascended to the top of NBA executives’ calendars as a must-scout event. It’s become somewhat of a “rite of passage” for internationals vying to join the NBA, something that is reflected in the number of players drafted since its inception in 2015.

Seven former participants from the initial camps in 2015 and 2016 have gone on to be lottery picks, including Deandre Ayton, Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The likes of R.J. Barrett, Rui Hachimura and Sekou Doumbouya are projected to join them as 2019 NBA draft lottery picks from the 2017 and 2018 BWB Global camps.

This year’s camp will be headlined by Deni Avdija (Israel), Amar Sylla (Senegal), Killian Hayes (France), Khalifa Diop (Senegal), Matej Rudan (Croatia) and others.

Avdija and Sylla are both projected lottery picks in the 2020 draft, with strong resumes at the FIBA national team level and with their respective club teams on the European circuit.

The 6-foot-9, 18-year-old Avdija is already seeing minutes playing professionally with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel and the Euroleague. He led their junior team to the finals of the ANGT Munich a few weeks ago with impressive averages of 24 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four steals. He also helped the Israeli national team win the U20 European Championship last summer, being named to the all-tournament squad despite playing up three years on the competition as a then-17-year-old. While the size of a power forward, he often plays point guard, showing deep shooting range, excellent ball-handling ability and high-level court vision and basketball IQ.

Seventeen-year-old Sylla, a Real Madrid product, helped defeat Avdija’s team to win the ANGT Munich, posting 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in just 20 minutes per game. He established himself as a top-shelf long-term prospect at the inaugural NBA Global Camp in Treviso last June, showing elite potential defensively at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, guarding all over the floor thanks to his impressive mobility, intensity and instincts. His skill level is still a work in progress, but he shows intriguing flashes of potential as a shooter and finisher.

Seventeen-year-old Killian Hayes will be returning to the BWB after an up-and-down showing at last year’s camp in Los Angeles. The 6-foot-5, impressively built, Florida-born combo guard has been seeing quite a bit of playing time in the French first division with Cholet, averaging seven points and three assists in 19 minutes of action. He was named to the FIBA U17 World Championship all-tournament team in July after leading his French national team to the championship game, where they were defeated by the United States. Currently projected as the No. 15 prospect in the ESPN 2020 mock draft, Hayes still has something to prove to NBA scouts, as he’s struggled at times to create his own shot against better athletes and has been a streaky shooter for much of his career.

A number of U.S.-based international players who are on the NCAA track will also be participating at the camp, including five star Canadian Addison Patterson, Puerto Rican Julian Strawther, Dutch forward Tristan Enaruna, Nigerian big man Cliff Omoruyi and Gonzaga-bound Russian Pavel Zakharov.

The camp also will give NBA scouts a chance to evaluate 10 players from the various NBA Academies scattered around the globe. Three of the participants are currently at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia; four are at the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City; two are at the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal; and one is at the NBA Academy in India. The headliner of this group is Malian big man Oumar Ballo, who averaged 21 points and 17 rebounds at the FIBA U17 World Championship this past summer, despite playing up as a 15-year-old. Ballo has missed much of the season with an ankle injury and may not be at 100 percent for this event.

Quite a few players on the list have never been seen by the majority of the NBA, though, meaning there are bound to be some surprises who emerge over the course of the weekend.

A host of NBA players and coaches will help run the camp and share their vast experience in professional basketball, including 2019 NBA All-Stars Nikola Jokic and Nikola Vucevic. Rising stars participants Deandre Ayton and Bogdan Bogdanovic will also meet with the prospects and help with on-court instruction alongside coaching staff members including Festus Ezeli, Adonal Foyle, Jennifer Azzi, Allison Feaster, Ashley Battle, Taj McWilliams, Astou N’Diaye, Andrea Stinson, Dutch Gaitley, Nate Mitchell, Ronald Nored, John Bryant, Michael Ray Richardson and Mark Madsen.

Portions of the camp will be livestreamed on the NBA’s Facebook page at Facebook.com/NBA and FIBA’s Facebook page at Facebook.com/FIBA.

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DENVER — Peter Laviolette and his goaltender had a lot in common — both were skillful in the art of deflecting. In Laviolette’s case, it was too much of the credit after earning victory No. 600 as an NHL coach. “Tonight was a team win,” the Predators coach said. On a milestone Monday for Laviolette, goaltender Pekka Rinne stopped a penalty shot in making 35 saves and Nashville knocked off the reeling Colorado Avalanche 4-1. Laviolette became the 20th coach in NHL history to reach the 600-win milestone and the third this season as he joined John Tortorella and Claude Julien. Laviolette also had stints with the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and the Philadelphia Flyers before stepping in with the Predators in 2014-15. He gave plenty of kudos to his players for the achievement. “Coming off a couple losses and playing Colorado, a team behind us in the standings, an important win for our guys,” Laviolette said. “I’m just thankful for not only this team but teams previous. It’s been an accumulation of four different teams. “Fortunate to be in the game and stay in the game — greatest job in the world.” Nick Bonino and Viktor Arvidsson scored 1:34 apart in the second period, while Roman Josi added another and Ryan Ellis contributed a late empty-netter from deep in his zone. The Predators maintained their mastery of the Avalanche, beating their Central Division rivals for a 12th time over the last 13 regular-season meetings. Rinne was at a loss to explain the success. “We seem to match up pretty good against them. At the same time, I have a ton of respect toward that team,” Rinne said. “It’s a very good hockey team.” Alexander Kerfoot had the lone goal for an Avalanche squad that’s dropped five of seven. Colorado was coming off a 7-1 win over Los Angeles on Saturday in which the team tied a franchise record with six goals in the second period. The scoring spree didn’t carry over. The Avs haven’t won two straight games since late November. “I have no problem with the way we played today,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “We made a couple mistakes, they capitalized. They made lots of mistakes too, we didn’t capitalize. To me the difference was Rinne.” Rinne’s biggest save came on a penalty shot by Matt Nieto in the second period to keep the game scoreless. Bonino soon followed by lining a shot between the pads of Semyon Varlamov. The Predators are 23-2-1 when scoring first. “I tried,” Nieto said of his penalty shot that was thwarted by Rinne’s right pad. “It didn’t work out.” Bonino breathed a sigh of relief. On the play, he tried to lift the stick of Nieto, which got Nieto on the hands and led to the penalty shot. “(Rinne) was ready — cool, calm, collected — and made a good save,” Bonino said. Moments later, Bonino scored his 100th NHL goal. Arvidsson then increased the lead with his 11th goal in 14 games since returning from a broken thumb. Kerfoot made it 2-1 with a tip-in at 16:43 of the second period, but Josi quickly restored the two-goal cushion by lifting a shot over Varlamov following a pinpoint pass from Austin Watson. The first period was filled with plenty of pushing and a few punches. Things got a little heated when Watson took offense to Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov delivering a big hit on a teammate. Watson challenged Zadorov to drop the gloves, and they squared off before being separated and sent to the penalty box. Nieto agitated the Predators later in the period when he stopped in front of Rinne, sending a spray of ice into the goaltender’s face. Avalanche All-Star forward Mikko Rantanen returned after sitting out the third period against the Kings with a lower-body injury. He said at practice Sunday that “everything is fine.” Their recent play is another matter. “There are some positive things,” Rantanen said. “But it was tough to find the back of the net.” Game notes Predators C Ryan Johansen served the second of a two-game suspension for a high stick on Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. … Avalanche D Erik Johnson (head) was in the concussion protocol and missed the game. UP NEXT Predators: The second of a three-game trip will be Wednesday in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights. Avalanche: Host Minnesota on Wednesday before not playing again until Feb. 2. — More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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This may be the only time you will see Neymar’s and Dominic Solanke’s names appear in the same sentence, but the two forwards actually have something in common: Both men may have distorted the transfer market with their fees.

At £198 million, Neymar’s world-record move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017 was a moment of financial folly that sent shockwaves through the game. The transfer was over £100m more than the previous record of £89.3m — set by Paul Pogba’s 2016 switch from Juventus to Manchester United — and it triggered a domino effect of similarly inflated deals. PSG went on to negotiate a £166m deal for Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe, following an initial 12-month loan period. Barcelona dipped into their Neymar cash by spending a potential £135m on Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele and then, six months later, splashed out a further £142m on Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho.

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In a game flush with money at the top end of the market, those transfer fees were perhaps an inevitable consequence of the riches flowing through Europe’s biggest clubs. In fairness to the players involved — even Dembele and Mbappe, teenagers at the time of their big moves — they had all shone in the Champions League before making their moves. Even Bayern’s repeated bids for Chelsea youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi, an 18-year-old with high potential, look reasonable given the Bundesliga giant’s need for young talent, as does Chelsea spending nearly £60m for Christian Pulisic, a player with a track record in Germany and a skill set that will help the Blues over the long term.

Yet Bournemouth’s move for Solanke feels significant in a different sense. It’s not unusual to see teams completing surprisingly expensive deals, but the Cherries’ £19m move for a player with one Premier League goal and just five starts since his Chelsea debut in 2014 feels significant for all the wrong reasons.

Solanke cost Bournemouth less than a tenth of Neymar’s world record fee but it’s still a major outlay for a club of their stature; it could yet rise to an eventual £25m if the former Chelsea youngster is able to trigger £6m worth of incentivised add-ons.

The deal means that Solanke becomes the third-most-expensive English striker of all time behind Andy Carroll and Wayne Rooney. Carroll ultimately flopped at Liverpool after his £35m move from Newcastle in January 2011, but he had at least proven himself in the Premier League at St James’ Park — Carroll had scored 33 goals in 90 league games for Newcastle — prior to his transfer. Rooney, who was just 18 when he completed a £30m move to United from Everton in August 2004, was a star for club and country before swapping Goodison Park for Old Trafford. He was also clearly a prodigious talent.

However, Solanke makes the top three on the list having scored just one Premier League goal during his time at Liverpool and Chelsea. The 21-year-old started five league games in a season-and-a-half under Jurgen Klopp at Anfield (also making 16 substitute appearances) and did not appear at all in the Champions League. At Chelsea, he never kicked a ball in the Premier League and became a symbol of the club’s failure to promote its highly rated youth-team prospects.
Solanke is the third-most-expensive English striker of all time. AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images
Bournemouth may have struck gold with Solanke, a player that has always impressed England manager Gareth Southgate, and only time will tell if he proves value for money. Yet the real question mark over Solanke’s fee is how it will affect the rest of the transfer market? His £19m fee could be to the Premier League what Neymar’s was to the world game: an artificially high watermark that will raise the spending bar again.

Solanke is two months older than Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, but there is no comparison between the two players when it comes to their development, achievements and market value.
Since making his debut in February 2016, Rashford has made 148 first-team appearances for United, scoring 39 goals in all competitions, and has won the FA Cup, Europa League and EFL Cup, while also playing in the World Cup and European Championship with England. If the Solanke fee is any gauge, Rashford would be worth well over £100m and perhaps even in the same region as Mbappe’s £166m valuation. Jadon Sancho, the 18-year-old England forward who is becoming one of the brightest young stars in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, is another whose value could one day hit the £100m mark. This might sound ridiculous considering Sancho’s inexperience yet Solanke’s fee has made English players, who are already overpriced, seem even more expensive.

There is an argument to suggest that Solanke is merely a victim of circumstance. English clubs have long had to pay an “English Tax” for homegrown players due to the need for clubs to meet quotas in the Premier League and UEFA competition, which is why a cheaper, more experienced foreign player is often preferred by the buying club. Had Solanke been French or Belgian, for instance, it’s unlikely that Bournemouth would have had to pay quite so much to sign him.

Bournemouth will soon find out whether Solanke is good enough to justify his fee. But it’s an indictment of the transfer market, and what clubs are prepared to pay, that a player with one Premier League goal to his name is worth so much to a club in need of proven talent.

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Paul George is not used to boos.

He’s one of the most affable, polite, likable players in the NBA. His game is aesthetically pleasing. It’s efficient. It’s complete. He plays hard, he plays smart. There’s really not much reason not to like him.

Unless (A) you’re an Indiana Pacers fan who didn’t want him to leave your team or (B) a Los Angeles Lakers fan who wanted him to join your team.

Last season, Staples Center was filled with awkward cheers during starting introductions — and a fourth-quarter chant of “We want Paul!” — when the Oklahoma City Thunder visited the Lakers. George, a native of Palmdale, California, had long been connected to the Lakers, and those connections intensified after he told the Pacers he wouldn’t be re-signing in free agency and his preferred destination was Los Angeles. The Thunder shocked the world by trading for him, but his visits to Staples Center in 2017-18 were viewed more as recruiting trips than anything else.

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The Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma was held out of the second half against the Thunder on Wednesday. He will have an MRI on his lower back on Thursday.

But George picked the Thunder in free agency last summer without so much as granting a meeting with Magic Johnson and the Lakers, so those cheers turned to boos Wednesday every time he touched the ball. There was a chant of “We don’t need you!” as he shot free throws in the fourth quarter.

George downplayed the reaction, staying true to form with a response about admiring the Lakers and their fans. He said he took the fans’ reaction as a sign of respect.

If he held any animosity, or extra motivation, he reserved it all for the court. He finished with 37 points on 15-of-29 shooting, plus four steals and his standard lockdown defense. As the Lakers hung tight, George was the tip of the dagger: When he checked back in with 5 minutes, 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City led by three. Over the next three minutes, he scored nine points on 3-of-3 shooting to the Lakers’ four points on 1-of-5 shooting. That was the game as OKC rolled on from there, 107-100.

There were signs it meant a little something more, such as when George picked up a technical for slapping the backboard emphatically after a first-half dunk. Though George does that often, he hadn’t been called for a technical for it yet this season.

There was an entertaining exchange to finish the first half with former Pacers teammate Lance Stephenson that featured a tough George and-1 as Russell Westbrook mimicked Stephenson’s air guitar move. A play later, George locked down on Stephenson as he missed a contested 3 at the buzzer, and George pulled out the air guitar himself, then did an “it’s over” gesture.

The game, though, didn’t start out the way George wanted. He picked up three quick fouls in the first quarter — Lakers fans cheered each one — which forced him to the bench.

He missed four of his first six shots, including three 3-pointers that were considerably open, and had a bad turnover. It was starting to feel similar to the other time George got booed, in his return to Indiana last season when he did not respond well to the negativity, shooting 3-of-14 with four turnovers.

“I thought I handled it better tonight, given I’ve been in that situation before in Indy,” George said. “I thought I handled it better tonight with just being locked in, being ready. In Indy, I expected to be booed, but didn’t know to what extent. Here, I knew coming in to the situation what it was going to be like.

“I just wanted to play some ball tonight,” he said. “And that’s what I did. I wasn’t going to allow those officials to sit me out tonight.”

George has had a certain rhythm this season, and there are moments when you can see him flip the switch. Whether it’s a couple free throws, or a jumper, he has a knack for microwaving his offense, instantaneously going from lukewarm to scalding. It’s part of the comfort and confidence he has this season with the Thunder, knowing the questions of his future aren’t lingering over every stop he makes, especially in Southern California. He has a tangible chemistry with Westbrook, and more importantly, a bona fide endorsement from him, showcased in the fourth quarter as Westbrook deferred and worked to set up George again down the stretch.

George has admitted to pressing some last season, trying too hard to make it happen too fast. Everyone was focused on the one-year window it seemed the Thunder had, and the opportunity to build, evolve and grow together didn’t seem available to them.

“When we put the team together [last season], myself, add on [Carmelo Anthony] to join Russ, I knew right away the goal was to win that year,” George said. “I think we put too much pressure on that and we kind of tried to force it to happen rather than build toward it.”

A year ago, George could go sideways when games didn’t start well. He has said before he’s not the kind of player who is at his best when he’s forcing the issue, and there was a feel to that early on against the Lakers. The Thunder were trying to get him going, but that was probably less about answering some intangible slight and more about making sure their top scorer was dialed in.

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“I don’t know if that gets him going … uh, yes,” Thunder center Steven Adams said of getting the ball to George early. “[That] is the answer. Yes. Whatever puts a bit of lead in the pencil, you know?”
George’s ascension has given the Thunder a bit of a 2014-ish feel, when they forged an identity around a two-headed superstar team. But they have an ability to win games ugly, like they did against the Lakers, when they produced shooting splits of 33/22/64 and still won on the road. They are the best defensive team in the league, forcing turnovers in bunches and digging in to shut teams down in the fourth quarter. They can withstand a dismal 3-for-20 shooting night from Westbrook, who is mired in a monthlong shooting slump but still finished Wednesday night with a triple-double.

There’s an obvious confidence emanating from George, and though he lamented not getting to go head-to-head with LeBron James as the Lakers star recovers from a groin strain, he channeled the crowd’s negative attention into ruthless aggression. He knows his place, he knows his situation, and regardless of noise — whether it’s from the outside or within — George isn’t going to be fazed.

“I look forward to the second time, later this season, where I’ll be booed [in Indiana], and that’s in the Midwest,” George said with a grin. “The booing wasn’t going to throw me off my game. I’ve been playing basketball for a really long time, and a little booing and a little noise is not going to make me forget how to play basketball.”

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In November 2017, when baseball free agency ground to an unexpected halt, teams claimed that there was no nefariousness to the industry’s sudden sheepishness in signing players. They were simply waiting for Shohei Ohtani to pick his destination and Giancarlo Stanton to be traded to a new one. This never made much sense, but then last winter was so tectonic in its changes to Major League Baseball’s economic landscape that the early-winter excuses were long forgotten when the free-agent freeze continued into spring training.

This offseason, in ways big and small, free agency remains imperiled. Fifty players have signed major league contracts since free agency began, and 44 of those deals were for two years or fewer. Although outright tanking is not a significant issue in baseball, lack of competitiveness among more than a dozen teams pollutes the market and is going to leave quality players scrounging for jobs as spring training approaches — especially the longer it takes Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to sign.

Unlike last winter, when the cost of Ohtani was so infinitesimal that even low-revenue teams could afford him and the cost of Stanton so prohibitive that only a few were realistic options, the fortunes of Machado and Harper have a clear and direct consequence for the markets for the next-best free agents. Depending on when and where Machado and Harper sign, the domino effect could unfurl in a number of directions, according to general managers, other officials and agents who spoke with ESPN.

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For those so frothing for action that they’re reading whom Machado follows on Instagram like it’s scripture, know this: The general consensus has not changed. Machado is going to sign first, and perhaps soon, choosing from among the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox. While one cannot rule out a mystery team — agent Dan Lozano is keeping a tight lid on the proceedings, just as he did when the Miami Marlins were among the final bidders on Albert Pujols — Machado’s fit among the known interested teams is strong enough not to necessitate a furtive suitor.

Harper has met multiple times with representatives of the Washington Nationals, according to a club source, and the possibility of a return to the place he spent the first seven years of his career persists, despite Nationals owner Mark Lerner’s insistence that Washington would not stretch beyond the $300 million offer Harper rejected near season’s end. The Phillies and White Sox are the other two teams known to be willing to guarantee Harper the decade-plus-long deal he and Machado, each 26 years old, are seeking. Harper’s willingness to wait for a contract he deems suitable is real, according to a source who said he could see Harper’s free agency stretching into February. If either …

1. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado goes that route, he won’t be the first to secure a nine-figure deal on the eve of spring training. Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez each scored $100 million-plus deals in February 2018. Machado and Harper clearly are shooting higher, with $200 million-plus easy, $300 million-plus likely and $400 million-plus an improbable-but-not-impossible proposition.

That is where the cascade effect begins. The secondary and tertiary players see the riches a handful of teams are willing to lavish on Harper and Machado and assume those who miss out on the biggest free agents will pivot to the next-best options. By no means is this airtight logic — as the game increasingly moves to a stars-and-kids system, in which the middle class of players is squeezed, it might further depress salaries for all but the very best — but then logic never has been a central element of hope.

Which is what players such as …

2. A.J. Pollock have as their free agency enters its third month: hope. Hope that what to this point has been a thin market, according to sources, will pick up. Hope that the draft pick compensation attached to them won’t prove a significant hindrance. Hope that Harper’s and Machado’s markets won’t linger too long and convince teams that they might panic and take lesser deals.

Pollock, a 31-year-old center fielder, is the third-best position player available, and he would be in a strong position if Harper returned to the Nationals and Machado signed with the Yankees. The best fit clearly is the White Sox, who could use Pollock in center or keep defensive wizard Adam Engel there and shift Pollock to a corner, where he’d pair with soon-to-arrive uber-prospect Eloy Jimenez. Although Philadelphia has a center fielder in Odubel Herrera, he’s coming off a disappointing season offensively and defensively, and the Phillies’ publicly stated desire to spend cash this winter would have a worthwhile target in Pollock.

Other sensible options aren’t altogether likely to pony up significant money on a multiyear term. The Cleveland Indians desperately need an outfielder but have cried poor this winter. The San Francisco Giants, under new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, are entering a rebuild that runs counter to signing significant free agents. If the New York Mets signed Pollock, they would need to deal either Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto, something they’ve considered, according to sources, but have no plans to pursue. The Cincinnati Reds showed significant interest in Atlanta Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, according to sources, and though talks stagnated and eventually they dealt for outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, Cincinnati still doesn’t have a center fielder.

Three executives this week cautioned that teams are treating Pollock’s free agency in similar fashion to that of Lorenzo Cain last winter. The market on Cain was silent until January. Then a number of teams jumped in, hopeful to strike a bargain. By the end, Milwaukee paid $80 million over five years. That might be high for what Pollock ultimately gets — his injury history spooks teams — but it is pre-emptive to believe that the market will completely fall out from under him. For …

3. Yasmani Grandal, on the other hand, the conspiring of an oversaturated catching market, draft-pick compensation and a dreadful postseason has led one executive not previously interested in Grandal to wonder whether he could become this year’s version of Mike Moustakas, a player who takes a one-year deal.

It remains unlikely but not out of the question, according to sources. With a surfeit of inventory — Martin Maldonado, Evan Gattis, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters, Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph in the free-agent market; Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, Kevin Plawecki, Travis d’Arnaud and the prize of prizes, J.T. Realmuto, via trade — and not nearly as many teams with the need for a No. 1 catcher, the 30-year-old Grandal could become an option for Cleveland or Oakland.

While a four-year, $60 million offer from the Mets reported by the Los Angeles Times is characterized by sources on both sides as more of a discussion and never officially presented, Grandal did not push to complete a deal with New York. His peers are beginning to scramble, lest they be the ones left with minor league deals. Grandal, meanwhile, is staying patient, believing a catcher with his skills and performance will draw requisite interest. It’s the same play being used by …

4. DJ LeMahieu as he navigates a market every bit as crowded as the one for catching. With only a handful of second-base spots open, LeMahieu stands jobless alongside Brian Dozier, Jed Lowrie, Josh Harrison and Asdrubal Cabrera. Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who can play second, is in the mix, too, and three shortstops by trade — Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis and Adeiny Hechavarria — round out the major-league-worthy middle-infield free-agent class.

Whether all of them will wind up with major league deals is unclear. None is panicking, though each recognizes that every negotiation finds a stalemate in the same place: When the player pushes for what he believes is a fair deal, the team can claim to have someone just as good at a lower price. It’s becoming a game of chicken.

One possibility to jolt it from that: the increased conversations that will take place this week. The industry didn’t entirely shut down between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but it took something of a pause. With the Jan. 11 deadline for the sides to avoid arbitration, the number of conversations will pick up significantly, particularly since all 30 teams this year are adopting the so-called file-and-trial approach to arbitration. In past years, teams and players would exchange numbers at the deadline, then keep talking before the arbitration case in hopes of settling on a mutually agreeable salary. Now every team takes a hard line: Either we agree on a number by the deadline, or we’re going to what’s often an uncomfortable trial.

The acrimony of pre-deadline discussions might not be the best place to hash out a free-agent contract, yet the parties, for all their disagreements, still realize that good players — and LeMahieu, Dozier, Lowrie, Harrison, Cabrera and particularly Gonzalez qualify — warrant major league jobs. Sometimes the market just makes that a trying endeavor. It’s also well capable of helping those who play it right, and now that the starting-pitching market for free agency is beginning to resemble a big-box store after Black Friday …

5. Dallas Keuchel could find himself at a significant advantage. Most of the desirable merchandise is long gone, with only one expensive ware alongside the tchotchkes left on the shelves.

Keuchel, who turned 31 on Tuesday, is not without warts. Teams are wary of his arm holding up long term. His lack of strikeouts does not typically portend well into a pitcher’s 30s. At the same time, he has demonstrable skills, notably his propensity to generate ground balls. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s Sarah Langs, Keuchel in 2018 induced 426 batted balls with a 94 mph or lower exit velocity, as measured by Statcast, the most in the majors.
With other free-agent starting pitchers having already signed, Dallas Keuchel could find himself at a significant advantage as the market continues to play out this winter. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
Whether that’s enough for a $100 million-plus deal, which at the outset of the winter was believed to be the asking price, is murky. A number of teams entered this offseason looking to upgrade their starting rotations, and the remaining free agents beyond Keuchel include Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson, who, to give a sense of the market, has sought at least $6 million on a one-year deal.

If the starting-pitching trade market were more robust, the free agents might find themselves in trouble. And yet as …

6. Marcus Stroman illustrates, the trade market isn’t exactly bustling right now. Multiple sources said the prospects of the Toronto Blue Jays moving Stroman have decreased in recent weeks. Interested teams simply aren’t offering packages commensurate with what the Blue Jays believe Stroman’s value to be, basing it off the expectation that he’ll return to 2017 form after a disastrous 2018. While his peripherals were far better than his 5.54 ERA — Stroman, a ground ball artist, played in front of one of the worst defensive infields in baseball — the step back left him in a place no team wants when taking offers on a player: near his nadir in value.

Still, all it takes is a team tired of free-agent options to pay 2017 prices for Stroman. The Arizona Diamondbacks have taken the same tack, according to teams that have inquired about left-hander Robbie Ray: They’re not looking to move him, but if a team wants to put together a package better than what the Seattle Mariners got from the New York Yankees for James Paxton, they’re more than welcome to try.

In the nominally available category are the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber. The Mets understand that their chances of contention in 2019 are far greater with Syndergaard than without, and the Indians’ shedding of payroll has made their enthusiasm for keeping Bauer and Kluber far greater, according to executives who have spoken with the Indians about possible deals for their co-aces.

Among those who are clearly available …

7. Sonny Gray might head the list. The number of trade iterations around Gray this winter has been staggering. There was traction, at one point, on a three-way deal among the Yankees, Rangers and Braves that would have sent Gray to Atlanta, a prospect to Texas and infielder Jurickson Profar to New York. The Rangers wound up shipping Profar to Oakland in another three-way deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Gray is a classic change-of-scenery case. With more is Sarah Langs:

A different venue seems to be exactly what Gray needs, at least based on his pitching results. In his time with the Yankees, he has a 6.55 ERA in 88 innings pitched at home, with a 1.70 WHIP, .290 opponents’ batting average and .885 opponents’ OPS. But in 107⅔ innings away from Yankee Stadium, he has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, .223 opponents’ average and .624 OPS against.

It’s a smaller sample, but those road numbers reflect more of the pitcher the Yankees likely expected they were getting in the 2017 trade for three prospects. The Gray they acquired had a 3.42 career ERA to that point, which would’ve been 2.97 if not for his disaster of a 2016 season that included a 5.69 ERA and just 22 starts.

The actual cost for Gray won’t be cheap: He’s slated to make upward of $9 million in his last season before free agency. Of course, if he finds himself in a new location and has a walk year like …

8. Adam Ottavino’s, he’ll be in line for a far bigger payday. Ottavino had the best season among free-agent relievers, and multiple sources expect his name to be in play in the coming weeks as most of the top remaining relievers come off the board.

Although Ottavino has never closed, the market for him is not significantly different than that of Zach Britton, his left-handed peer, according to interested teams. While MLB’s lean toward objective data has caused a headache for almost all other segments of free agency, top-end relief pitchers have not been hindered significantly — and, if anything, they have benefitted in cases such as Ottavino’s, where in the past not pitching the ninth might have precluded him from reaching an annual eight-figure salary.

Also in that neighborhood are Kelvin Herrera and David Robertson, whose markets are coming into focus and who could be the next relievers off the board. Their cases are far clearer than that of …

9. Craig Kimbrel, who might well be the biggest mystery in free agency not named Harper or Machado. It’s a question of not just where Kimbrel will land but also how much he’ll get. Clearly the six-year, $100 million-plus deal bandied about is not happening and never was. The benevolence of teams toward one-inning pitchers goes only so far, and that length is not six years, perhaps not even five years — and might again depend on the two big hitters.

Because as great as Kimbrel has been, it’s not the White Sox’s style to spend big on the bullpen, nor the Angels’. The Twins are seeking one-year deals on back-end-bullpen types, according to sources, and the Rays won’t even consider Kimbrel at four years. Atlanta is planning to stick with its plethora of young arms and pursue upgrades at the trade deadline if necessary. That leaves the Phillies, and while they sought Edwin Diaz before he went to the Mets and kept in touch with Britton, any connection with the Phillies has been more the sentiment of competing officials.

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Still, it could make sense. The Phillies aren’t going to be hamstrung by the draft pick attached to Kimbrel. They are in clear win-now mode. So long as the Red Sox are sitting back on Kimbrel and waiting it out, as they’ve done thus far and show no signs of abandoning, there is room for Philadelphia to round out a bullpen that already includes Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Tommy Hunter. If the Phillies really are inclined to be “a little stupid” with their money, as owner John Middleton suggested to USA Today early in the winter …
10. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado could be one of their new teammates, too. Even if Pollock, Kimbrel and others would help move the Phillies beyond their collapse into mediocrity in 2018, they would not be Harper or Machado, two of the most talented players in the major leagues, both in the heart of their prime.

That’s why Lozano and Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, have been willing to wait: As much as teams are reticent to lock themselves into long deals, talent plays. Or at least talent has played in past free-agent markets, and nobody is cynical enough to believe that some of baseball’s finest are going to be subject to the same market collapse as their peers.

Those players are waiting on Machado and Harper, hopeful that they can help juice a market that has been more active than last year’s but shows disconcerting trends, too. Even if they’re operating in an entirely different stratosphere, seeking guarantees of exponentially more than the average player, their places in the market do not exist in a vacuum. The dominoes are stacked. The only question now is how they’ll tumble.

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For most of Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Bears, the San Francisco 49ers looked poised to repeat recent history, knocking off the Bears on the strength of kicker Robbie Gould’s right foot and a quietly improving defense.

Alas, a narrow 15-14 slugfest win akin to the one the Niners had in Chicago last December wasn’t to be as the Niners simply couldn’t solve Chicago’s fearsome defense. And though the Niners’ 14-9 loss to Chicago this time around snapped a two-game winning spurt, there were some good things the Niners and their fans can take away from it.
The 49ers’ young defenders had their moments but still missed opportunities to upset the Bears. AP Photo/Tony Avelar
First and foremost, the 49ers remain strongly in the running for a top-five pick, one that could still rise as high as the top three and, with a bunch of help, to No. 1. The Niners also got another strong day from Gould, who provided all of their points and continued to be among the most consistent kickers in the league.

Perhaps more important than any of that, though, was another strong defensive performance by the Niners. That unit has emerged over the past few weeks and the Niners should be particularly encouraged by the work of the many youngsters who now dot the depth chart on that side of the ball.

“I think we’ve had a lot more continuity the last month and guys have stayed healthier,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We’ve been a little bit more consistent with the guys who have been out there. We’ve been playing with the same two inside linebackers, the same safeties, for the most part, the corners …”

Among the young players stepping forward of late: Nose tackle D.J. Jones has shown starter potential while taking reps from veteran Earl Mitchell. Defensive backs D.J. Reed, Marcell Harris and Tarvarius Moore have flashed the ability to be solid contributors, if not starters. The same is true of linebacker Elijah Lee.

But the Niners shouldn’t again be seduced by the encouraging performances of some of their younger players.

Against the Bears, the Niners’ defense offered a solid performance but one that was also marred by a series of almosts.

The Niners almost came up with two more takeaways to go with the two they did get, only to have one nullified by a booth review and the other wiped out by a penalty. They almost shut down a Chicago scoring drive before it really took off, but defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was called for a face mask penalty. They almost dropped quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for a sack on second down before he escaped to the opposite side of the field and fired a 26-yard completion. They almost came up with a goal-line stand before Bears receiver Anthony Miller beat rookie cornerback Moore for a touchdown.

All of those near misses removed some of the luster from a day in which the Niners kept pace with the NFC North champions largely on the strength of that defensive performance. San Francisco held Chicago to 325 yards on the day, including 3.2 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per play.

And the Niners’ takeaways were the first since the Oct. 28 game against Arizona, though it took an awkward backward pass by Trubisky to break that streak.

Over the past three weeks, the 49ers have given up an average of 328 yards per game, 17 points per game and have held opponents to 4.92 yards per play. In the first 11 games, those numbers were 339, 22.4 and 5.26. Considering the amount of young players who are getting regular snaps, that’s progress.

“I promise you it’s just guys playing sound,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Sometimes over time, you feel like ‘Hey, I know where I’m supposed to be and I can help this guy or I can help this guy.’ And I think we’ve gotten to the point where guys are playing comfortable, they know their assignments and they’re sticking to them.”

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The takeaway from all those close-but-no-cigar instances should be this: The Niners must put key resources — be it cap space, top draft picks or both — into bolstering the defense this offseason.

Sure, that sounds simplistic, but it did last year, too, and, aside from signing Sherman and drafting linebacker Fred Warner in the third round, most of the 49ers’ primary investments came on offense.

If and when the Niners reach a position where they’re contending for the postseason, they’ll need the players who can turn those almosts into victories.

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Tier 1: Manchester United players and Harry Kane

In its first match since Jose Mourinho’s departure, Manchester United put up five goals on the road, the first time they’ve done so since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last match in charge in 2013. Paul Pogba picked up two assists, Jesse Lingard picked up two goals and the Red Devils steamrolled through.

In this double gameweek, United have two home games. The first is hosting Huddersfield Town, who sit 19th in the table. Huddersfield has scored 11 goals in 18 games, the fewest in the league this season. They are also one of just five teams to be averaging at least two goals allowed per game in the Premier League when on the road this season.

United’s second match is against Bournemouth, who have been outscored 5-2 in three road PL matches to Old Trafford, with United keeping at least 55 percent possession in all three matches. Most notably, Bournemouth are 2-16-2 with a goal differential of minus-37 when traveling to top-6 teams, defeating Chelsea twice.

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United will ride high into this match and provide solid fantasy performances across the board.

But for the Tier 1 forward spot, you should be looking at Harry Kane. Kane has scored four goals in five matches in December, tied with four others for most in the Premier League in that time span. No one has taken more shots (16) than Kane over this stretch. Tottenham are home to Bournemouth (see above) and home to Wolves.

Wolves have not kept a road clean sheet since Oct. 6 against Crystal Palace and have managed only one at home since (Dec. 15 vs. Bournemouth). Kane scored against Wolves in their previous meeting earlier this season — a 3-2 victory for Spurs. He has also scored six goals in five meetings against Bournemouth. Expect him to be on.

Tier 2/3: West Ham United

Yes, both of West Ham’s matches this game week are on the road. However, in December, West Ham is one of the Premier League’s hottest teams. Only Liverpool (15) has earned more points than West Ham (12), and West Ham have scored 11 goals in five December matches.
Upcoming for the Hammers are Southampton and Burnley. Only five teams have scored fewer than 10 goals this season at home in the Premier League, and both Southampton and Burnley are on that list, each with nine. Burnley have conceded 15 goals (tied-fourth), three more than Southampton (11th), so it is a relatively favorable pair of matchups for West Ham.

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Enter players such as Felipe Anderson and Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass has been, arguably, the most creative player in the month of December. No player has created more scoring opportunities (17) than Snodgrass, while only Eden Hazard (five) and Marcus Rashford (four) have more assists. Snodgrass has also picked up a pair of goals in December.

In December, Anderson has attempted 21 take-ons and 21 crosses, one of only two players to have attempted at least 20 of each in December (Leroy Sane). Most notably, five of Anderson’s nine chances-created in December were labeled as “big chances” — meaning high-quality scoring opportunities. He has also taken two-plus shots in four of five games in December and is taking advantage of the injuries West Ham are currently going through.

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TORONTO — After the Denver Nuggets pulled off yet another impressive win on Monday, beating the Toronto Raptors 106-103 to stretch their win streak to six games, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was asked about the latest sensational performance from Denver’s star center, Nikola Jokic.

Before Murray could answer the question, music made its way toward the pack of reporters around him from a nearby corner of the locker room. Murray smiled and nodded in its direction.

There was Jokic, fresh off a 23-point, 11-rebound, 15-assist triple-double, rocking out to music on his cell phone by himself while icing down in the corner.

Murray could only laugh.

“Look at that,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s what I deal with every day.”

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The Denver Nuggets are not messing around after being the best non-playoff team in the Western Conference the past two years.

Jokic — both on and off the court — is full of surprises. It’s that spontaneity that has helped spark the Nuggets to a 16-7 record after Monday’s thrilling win. That record has them tied with the LA Clippers for the top spot in the thoroughly unpredictable Western Conference.

To watch Jokic is to see someone truly unique on a basketball court. That word is thrown around far too often, but in this case it fits: a 6-foot-10 center who passes with the ease of a 6-foot point guard and with a flair that would fit into any city game in America but was cultivated several thousand miles away in Serbia.

Jokic put all those tricks on display Monday. He grabbed four of Denver’s 15 offensive rebounds, helping the Nuggets create their decisive 23-2 edge in second-chance points. He had 15 of Denver’s 40 assists, throwing an assortment of ridiculous passes to give his teammates wide-open looks throughout the game. Jokic, who can credibly claim to be one of the greatest passing big men of all time, is the only center in the past 30 years to have 15 assists in a single game.

He has now done that three times.

While Jokic can sometimes be reluctant to shoot, he led Denver with 23 points, including three free throws in a row in the final seven seconds of the game after getting Serge Ibaka to grab him before the ball had been inbounded. That resulted in a dead-ball foul and one free throw, and Jokic sank both intentional free throws after catching the ensuing inbounds pass.
Nikola Jokic finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists in the Nuggets’ 106-103 win in Toronto. Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports
The result was Denver coming away with its latest impressive victory and continuing to show the league why the Nuggets — after barely missing the playoffs the past two season — might be a team to be reckoned with in the West.

“I don’t know,” Jokic said when asked why things went so well for him against Toronto. “The guys were making shots, I was passing the ball, we were playing good. We had really good energy on the bench … everyone who played did something good in the game. It’s a little bit of everything.”

It would’ve been easy for Jokic to take the lion’s share of the credit after his performance. But that isn’t how the 23-year-old is wired, which feeds into the mindset of his teammates.

Despite being one of the NBA’s leading offenses (Denver is ninth in offensive efficiency following Monday’s action), the Nuggets don’t run a lot of elaborate sets. Instead, they leverage Jokic’s ingenuity and creativity and utilize a team of smart, heady players around him to maximize those gifts.

“He does everything,” said Murray, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in 41 minutes. “He passes, rebounds, handles the ball. There’s nothing that he can’t do, except jump.”

The result is a wildly entertaining team that looks to be on a mission to erase any doubts about its chances of making the postseason this time around. Now armed with that six-game win streak, which comes on the heels of wins in nine of the first 10 games, Denver sports victories over a who’s who of opponents in the early going.

That includes the Raptors, the team with the NBA’s best record, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.

That Denver has done this almost entirely without Will Barton — the team’s starting small forward who has missed all but the first two games of the season with a groin injury — is a testament to the depth that was built up by the front office, led by President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly. Juan Hernangomez has more than capably filled in for Barton as the starting small forward, playing well enough that Nuggets coach Michael Malone will have to find time for him when Barton returns. Monte Morris, a second-round pick a year ago, has been a revelation as the team’s backup point guard this season.

While the Nuggets will hope for good news on the injury front for guard Gary Harris, who is getting an MRI on Tuesday in Orlando after leaving Monday’s game in the first quarter with a groin injury of his own, Malik Beasley scored 15 points in 26 minutes off the bench, including a huge 3-pointer to help put Denver ahead in the closing minutes.

It’s a mix that has the Nuggets flying high — and hoping that, with a core group of players in Harris (24 years old), Jokic (23) and Murray (21) that should be good for years to come, this is just the beginning of a long run of success in the Mile High City.
“To gut this win out tonight, undermanned … to have enough poise down the stretch speaks volumes to a young team that is growing up and really maturing in big moments, and it’s great to see,” Malone said. “I am so proud of our guys for that.

“That’s a helluva win for us. That’s a great team over there. But we are not satisfied. We have three more games on this trip. It’s a business trip, and we’ll continue to try to get more wins and see what we can do moving forward.”

Just don’t expect Jokic to treat it like anything other than what it is: a chance for him to have fun and play his own way, both on and off the court.

That has served the Nuggets well so far. Don’t count on them — or Jokic — changing course anytime soon.

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