NBA Playoffs: The one where the Bucks are hoping for a playoff miracle against the Hawks

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Thumbnail image for johnson_game.jpgThree weeks ago, Atlanta and Boston were jockeying for the three seed not so much to avoid Cleveland in the second round (although that’s part of it) but to avoid Milwaukee in the first round. Nobody wanted a piece of the Bucks, they were on fire. Brandon Jennings was playing well at the point, John Salmons was suddenly an All-Star at the two, and Andrew Bogut was playing like a number one overall pick in the paint. They were good.

Then Bogut went down with a gruesome-to-watch elbow injury, was out for the playoffs, and here we are. The Bucks were not the same team. They did not strike fear into anyone. The Bucks did manage to go 4-2 in that stretch — because they still defend as all Scott Skiles teams do — but it wasn’t the same.

One of those two losses was to the Hawks, in a game where both teams brought it trying to win. The Hawks pretty much dominated that day; they outmanned the Bucks everywhere on the floor.

I fear that is what we will see here. A game where the Bucks team was outmanned by a Hawks team that has arrived, played out four times over.

Each year for the last few the Hawks have steadily gotten better, they have been climbing the ladder until now, where they are knocking on the contenders’ door. Josh Smith has finally blended his game perfectly with all those fantastic Atlanta athletes. This is the big test playoffs for them, can they enter the elite (before Joe Johnson gets a deal that is too long from some other team this summer as a free agent).

The test for the Hawks this playoffs is not in the first round. But they do still have to get through it.

There are a couple interesting matchups to watch. First, can the young Brandon Jennings (and Like Ridnour, who plays a lot of key minutes for the Bucks late at the point) expose Mike Bibby on defense? Bibby has aged and can’t hang with the quick guards, although he still contributes on offense by finding the holes and hitting the spot-up shots.

The problem is, when the going gets tough late the Hawks close with soon-to-be Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford running the point, and he can flat out ball.

If the Bucks are to have any chance in this series, John Salmons is going to have to dominate Joe Johnson. The Bucks just can’t have a shootout here, they have to take Johnson out of the flow. Which is hard because he shows flashes of being the dominant max player he gets paid like. If his shot is falling he is wicked, and Johnson can just take over games. Salmons is going to have to do it at both ends for there to be any chance.

Josh Smith is going to have a little trouble with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (I feel like you always need to use his middle name for some reason), because Mbah a Moute brings it on defense. He hustles. But he’s a scrapper and Smith is an amazing athlete who will still get his on the court. Smith is going to dominate this matchup as the series moves along and he gets used to the defense, and that will be a key for the Hawks.

Sort of the same situation at center — Kurt Thomas gets as much out of his body as is left, he still plays smart, but Al Horford is a physical beast that will dominate this matchup inside.

The Bucks will not quit, Scott Skiles teams never do. They will defend. Skiles will try some crazy lineups looking for a spark.

But in the end, talent wins out 99 percent of the time in the NBA. And the Hawks have a lot more talent, a lot better athletes around the floor. They are going to win this, if not in a sweep then in five. And the Hawks will be looking forward, because their real test is in the next round, which is when they can open the contenders’ door and walk right through.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Jaylen Brown wants Celtics to protest Donald Trump as a team

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The Latest on Monday’s events from NBA media days (all times local):

1:40 p.m.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown says he has talked to the rest of the team about protesting President Trump’s comments about athletes.

Brown said Monday at that Celtics media day that he’s also spoken to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and “he’s all for that.”

The president complained about football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and said NFL owners should fire them. The league responded on Sunday with a much wider protest that included condemnations by owners and more than 200 players taking knees during the anthem. Other teams locked arms, sometimes with their owners and coaches.

Brown says he wants the Celtics to find a way to protest as a team because “our voices are stronger together.”

1:30 p.m.

LeBron James says he would love to have Dwyane Wade join the Cavaliers.

Wade has accepted a buyout from the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland could be a potential landing spot. James and Wade won two NBA titles together with the Miami Heat and are close friends.

James said Monday at the Cavaliers media that he has spoken to Wade, and plans to again.

12:25 p.m.

The Carmelo Anthony era in New York is officially over.

The Knicks completed their trade with Oklahoma City on Monday morning, sending the All-Star forward to the Thunder for center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round draft pick.

Knicks President Steve Mills thanked Anthony for his play with the Knicks but also for what he “accomplished off the court for the City of New York by using his platform to address social issues.”

Mills announced that the Knicks were donating $100,000 to Anthony’s relief efforts to aid Puerto Rico in its recovery from the recent hurricanes.

Anthony also thanked the Knicks and New York in an online essay .

12:10 p.m.

Cavaliers point guard Isaiah Thomas has made progress with his hip injury, and officials said Monday the organization expects him to play by January.

Thomas has begun running and doing on-court activities as he rehabilitates the injury, which prematurely ended his 2017 postseason with the Boston Celtics. The Cavs acquired Thomas this summer from Boston in a blockbuster trade for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

Thomas doesn’t need surgery and the Cavs are confident he will be back on the floor in games by the end of the calendar year. While the Eastern Conference champions have been encouraged by Thomas’ recovery, they will not rush him back.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points last season for the Celtics, who sent him along with forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round draft to Cleveland for Irving.

Cleveland was concerned with Thomas’ injury and the Celtics added a second-round pick to complete the deal.

11:05 a.m.

The Miami Heat aren’t sure if they are going to Mexico City for a game this season.

The Heat are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 9 in Mexico City, a city where at least 186 people died in a massive earthquake last week. Rescuers were still digging in dangerous piles of rubble Monday, desperately seeking any more survivors.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the team sent personnel to Mexico City to see the arena before the quake, and will send people back to Mexico City in the coming weeks.

“Our hearts go out to the folks in Mexico City,” Spoelstra said. “It’s horrific to see that.”

Across Mexico, at least 324 people died in the quake. The NBA has said that, for now at least, the game remains as scheduled.

10:30 a.m.

Politics is already the talk of NBA media day.

After a weekend where President Donald Trump rescinded the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House and Cleveland star LeBron James responded by calling the president a “bum,” it was clear that Monday’s season-opening media sessions for 28 teams were quite possibly going to be as much about politics as basketball.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores released a statement early Monday that did not specifically mention Trump, but says “America’s most treasured values include equality and diversity, and the right to effect change through peaceful expression and thoughtful debate.” Gores also says he will support the Pistons players and their right to thoughtfully raise awareness to various causes.

On Sunday night, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said Trump’s “recent comments are deeply disappointing, because our focus should be on fostering a culture of sensitivity and inclusion.”

7 a.m.

The most retweeted post ever sent by LeBron James before this weekend was one in 2013 in response to the incessant who’s-better debate about him and Michael Jordan.

“I’m not MJ, I’m LJ,” he wrote. It was retweeted nearly 112,000 times.

And then LJ took on POTUS, calling President Donald Trump a “bum.” James’ Twitter account exploded from there, the 640,000 and counting retweets making it one of the top 15 shared posts ever.

If James’ tweet is any indicator, politics will be center stage across the NBA on Monday when 28 teams gather for their media days – the annual precursor to the start of training camps. Carmelo Anthony will formally become part of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Kyrie Irving’s first season in Boston will truly begin and Dwyane Wade is about to become a free agent after reaching a buyout with Chicago.

But those story lines, and probably all others, will almost certainly take a back seat to athletes reacting to politics.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Charles Barkley is so very wrong on the Warriors and Trump

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Charles Barkley always has some goofy opinions, and that’s just when it comes to the game of basketball, so this next one shouldn’t come as a surprise.

By now you have to be aware of what happened late last week between the Golden State Warriors and Donald Trump. In case you’re not up to speed, it went like this: the Warriors were set to vote on whether to head to the White House. When asked about the upcoming vote, Stephen Curry said that he would vote no. Trump then heard about the video, and preemptively disinvited the team via Twitter.

As if that wasn’t wild enough, Barkley then weighed in on the matter during an NBA TV segment after all that went down.

The TNT broadcaster’s response was that he felt that the Warriors deciding to forgo a trip to the White House would set a bad precedent.

Via Twitter:

“I think it’s really unfortunate. I think that it’s an honor and privilege to go to the White House, no matter who the president is. And also, I thought it would have been an opportunity for those guys to sit down and talk to the president about some of the issues and concerns they had.

“We’re all concerned about police brutality. I’m concerned about DACA. They could have negotiated a sit-down instead of just coming in, do that informal stuff where he stands there and you get your jersey and everything. It’s unfortunate. It’s just really sad, to be honest with you. When guys start not going to the White House because they don’t like who the president is, I think that sets a bad precedent.”

Remember, the Warriors didn’t actually decide to not go to the White House. It was Trump that told them they were not allowed to come. The team was set to vote on the issue, but didn’t actually get to do so after Trump saw Curry’s comments.

There is also something to be said for Barkley’s insistence that the Warriors had to go to the White House. That is, impressing upon an individual to partake in an activity of which they are morally or otherwise personally opposed. An activity that is not part of their contract, a specific part of winning the Larry O’Brien trophy, or part of what many would consider to be the American ideal — to force any person of free will to do such an inconsequential activity.

That’s before you even get into the idea that Barkley suggested, that the Warriors could have had a conversation with Trump about the issues with which they disagree on. Let’s not argue about whether or not that was possible at this juncture, but instead focus on the fact that the Warriors themselves said that is not something they felt they would be able to do. Head coach Steve Kerr specifically wrote as much in his article on Sports Illustrated:

Internally, we’d discussed whether it’d be possible to just go and meet as private citizens and have a serious, poignant discussion about some of the issues we’re concerned about. But he’s made it hard for any of us to actually enter the White House, because what’s going on is not normal. It’s childish stuff: belittling people and calling them names. So to expect to go in and have a civil, serious discourse? Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

Perhaps Barkley is right. Perhaps the Warriors refusing to go to the White House should they have been given the chance would set a precedent. However, should we not encourage the same kind of agency and liberty for our athletes — both as players and as private individuals — that we demand for our everyday citizens?

It seems as though, if the Warriors had refused the opportunity to head to the White House, it would have set a precedent alright. A very good one.

Miami, Cleveland and Oklahoma City players all lobbying for Dwyane Wade

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MIAMI (AP) Teams cannot officially start pursuing Dwyane Wade yet, because that would be tampering.

The same rules don’t apply to players.

So on Monday, even though Wade’s agreed-upon buyout deal with the Chicago Bulls has not yet become official, plenty of his NBA colleagues – particularly those in Cleveland, Oklahoma City and his former home in Miami – started lobbying the 12-time All-Star in earnest about where they think he should be playing this season.

“If I was to talk to that guy that would happen to possibly be like a brother to me, hypothetically, I would say I would love to have you in Miami,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, Wade’s teammate in Miami for 13 seasons. “I would love to finish my career with you. I would love to have you help me mold this young group of promising young men that have the chance to take the Heat culture to the next level.”

Wade isn’t expected to clear waivers until 5 p.m. Wednesday. He and the Bulls reached an agreement Sunday on the buyout, a person with direct knowledge told The Associated Press. Wade was due to make about $24 million this season in Chicago, and he told AP that he intended to take a couple of days to talk with players and teams about his options.

“My decision is a pure basketball decision and I’ll make the one that fits me best at this point in my career, and with what I feel I have to offer a team that needs what I have to offer,” Wade said in the AP interview.

It’s unclear how many teams have reached out to Wade’s representatives. Wade said he hopes to make a decision quickly.

Wade helped recruit LeBron James to Miami in 2010, and James is now hoping to do the same by getting his close friend to Cleveland.

“I would love to have D-Wade a part of this team,” said James, Wade’s teammates on Miami’s title teams in 2012 and 2013. “I think he brings another championship pedigree, championship DNA. He brings another player to the team who can get guys involved, can make plays and also has a great basketball mind.”

James said he will talk to Wade about what to do next.

“But it’s not up to me,” James said. “It’s up to D-Wade if he can clear waivers and then it’s up to our front office. But I hope we can bring him here. I would love to have him.”

Wade worked out with James this summer – that’s not uncommon, they vacation together, dine together and talk all the time anyway. Wade also spent some time this offseason in the gym with Paul George, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

George said he would be hitting Wade up on Snapchat and Twitter to do his campaigning. And now the Thunder have longtime Wade friend Carmelo Anthony, after Oklahoma City’s trade with the New York Knicks was finalized Monday.

“Come on, D,” Anthony said. “You know where you belong.”

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, like Heat President Pat Riley last week, raved about Wade on Monday – but, wary of tampering, didn’t come anywhere near close to openly lobbying for a reunion.

Heat point guard Goran Dragic had a very simple message.

“This is D-Wade’s home,” Dragic said. “We’ll see how he’s going to choose. But hopefully, he comes back.”

AP Sports Writers Cliff Brunt and Tom Withers contributed to this report.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball