NBA Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks


Last season: Abort the mission! New plan! New plan!

The Bucks slammed on the parking brake, wrenched the wheel and Tokyo Drifted in a new direction last season, abandoning the “all defense all the time” team built around Andrew Bogut and giving up on the fleeting hope Bogut will ever, ever be healthy. They swapped him to Golden State for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh, getting a promising young big man with great advanced metrics and, you know, Monta Ellis.

The results were mixed. They almost made it into the playoffs before their wheels exploded and flew off into the Wisconsin countryside, and while their defense didn’t capitulate with Ellis, their offense continued to run into the gutter.

They limped their way out of a playoff spot and entered the offseason with a huge number of questions about their head coach, front office, and the direction of the franchise.

Key Departures: The Bucks kind of surprisingly traded Jon Leuer, after he’d had a pretty solid year. They also traded Shaun Livingston, who, again, was pretty good last year. They let Carlos Delfino go after hemming and hawing over his contract for three months.

Key Additions: When the Bucks drafted John Henson, it was largely a perplexing move. Another athletic big man with questionable post skills? Really? Really? That’s what you thought you should pull off the pile?

But then Summer League came and Henson showed off a better mid-range jumper than expected and a good ability to flow in the offense. He has great court awareness to go with all that athleticism and could see significant playing time.

They elected to trade for Samuel Dalembert, pushing Udoh, who honestly needs the minutes, to the bench and giving them approximately all of the big men, ever. They added Joel Przybilla just in case the other 1,700 of them fail out, and-re-signed Ersan Ilyasova for the offensive repertoire.

Doron Lamb was quietly a very good second round pickup.

Three keys to the Bucks season:
1) Solving the riddle wrapped in a puzzle disguised as a mystery covered in subterfuge that is Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The two are just too similar. Ball-dominant, low-playmaking, moderate-efficiency volume scorers who didn’t develop an immediate chemistry. Sometimes these things can work themselves out, but in a lot of cases, it’s evident from the start if it’s going to work. If this thing doesn’t get solved and start to work by January, it might be time to start thinking about another move in another direction. The two were -1.9 on the floor together last year, giving up 107.7 points per 100 possessions. That is not good. They can’t just raise the 105 offensive rating, they have to get the defense sorted out. The Bucks could be looking at a situation not dissimilar to what the Knicks face with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.

2) Get the young guys to make some noise. Ekpe Udoh and John Henson need to become the Milwuakee version of Gibson and Asik. Or maybe the more athletic version of that. Either way, they need to make an impact, because the Bucks can’t look at their long-term build as involving Sam Dalembert. Doron Lamb needs to add some value as a shooter. Tobias Harris needs to come up. They need some big jumps from the project guys.

3) Avoid the Skiles Effect. When Skiles takes over a team, there’s a clock that starts. It’s a countdown to when the team tunes him out. It’s happened in his previous stops, and it very well could happen again. If Skiles can manage to massage, not render, the best out of this team, they could very well be a playoff team. But if he loses them, the season, the roster, his job and John Hammond’s will likely be over in Milwaukee.

How it likely works out: I want to belive in Milwaukee. They deserve it, honestly, they do. They’ve had more than their fair share of bad luck and still haven’t been horrible over the past decade. We blame luck on a lot of the awful franchises, but the Bucks have somehow managed to deal with Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut’s injuries and still float within range of the last playoff spot.

And this team has talent. And it’s got a lot of good efficient things going for it. But it needs so many players to make such huge jumps and for Jennings-Ellis to magically solve itself. That simply may not be possible.

I loathe this, but it really looks like another 9th spot in the East year for the Bucks.

Prediction: 40-42. Is there any better representation of “almost… but not quite?”

Three Things to Know: Portland defends Houston well, James Harden goes off anyway

Associated Press

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Portland defends Houston well, it just doesn’t matter with James Harden, Chris Paul some nights. This game exemplifies why Houston is a legitimate threat to Golden State come the playoffs — the Portland Trail Blazers defended the Rockets well, and it just didn’t matter. Houston still put up 115 points on only 90 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass, estimated 92 possessions), and the Rockets won 115-111. The Rockets can score with anybody — including the Warriors — and that is going to win them playoff games.

Portland did a good job defending the rim Tuesday night — Houston was just 17-of-32 there, 53 percent. Houston took 36 threes (six below their season average), but again Portland did a decent job contesting — the Blazers didn’t let the Rockets get drive-and-kick threes where shooters always got to set their feet, 17 of those 36 threes (47.2 percent) were off-the-dribble with the ball handler shooting (Harden or Paul) but the Rockets hit 10 of those anyway.

At the heart of it all, James Harden was just unstoppable again, scoring 42 points, dishing out 7 assists, and looking every bit the MVP.

On offense, Portland tried to punish the small-ball game of Houston with 19 post ups, but it was undone by an off shooting night from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who were a combined 9-of-32 on the night. The Trail Blazers tried to attack mismatches created because the Rockets switch everything on defense (and have all season), but all that switching has Houston’s help defense working on a tight string and Houston got the stops they needed.

If there was any doubt lingering doubts (and there shouldn’t have been), the Rockets looked legit  — they went into a hostile road environment, made life difficult defensively on two stars, and got the W. Doing it against a (probably) healthy Golden State squad is a different challenge, but Houston is as ready as anyone.

As for Portland, San Antonio (currently) or anyone else who lands in the six seed and gets the Trail Blazers in the first round can watch the tape of this game and know they are in trouble — Portland is defending, and with that they can beat any team they face in the first round.

2) After a day of troubling news about Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris lifts Celtics’ spirit with game-winner. Who needs Kyrie Irving?

Okay, the Celtics do. And he may be out a while now, news came down on Tuesday that Irving’s sore knee is not progressing as hoped, so he going to get a second opinion on what is up with it. It’s not what Celtics fans want to hear — even though the reports say there is no structural issue and he will be back for the playoffs — in a season that has been dominated by injuries in Boston.

What made the Celtics feel better? Marcus Morris with the game-winner against the Thunder Tuesday night.

That’s a quality win for the Celtics, who remain locked in as the two seed in the East. Rookie Jayson Tatum had 23 and 11 for Boston. As for the Thunder, this snapped a six-game win streak, and while they remain the four seed, the Pelicans and Spurs are now just one game back. There is no chill in the Western Conference.

3) Where have these Timberwolves been? Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns play like the leaders Minnesota needs in win. Minnesota has stumbled about going 5-5 since Jimmy Butler went down injured (he said again Tuesday he expects to be back by the end of the regular season), and at points they have looked leaderless and lost.

Which is why Tuesday’s win against the Clippers was a quality step forward — playing a team right on their heels in the playoff chase, Minnesota started doing things right. They finally got Karl-Anthony Towns more touches and shots (he had 19 field-goal attempts, but through the first eight Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season).

Andrew Wiggins was an active and intense defender on the perimeter causing the Clippers problems (he has this in him but doesn’t bring it consistently). Wiggins had three blocks and on one second-half play basically stole the ball from Austin Rivers twice on one possession. On the other end of the floor, Wiggins had 27 points on 16 shots, and he hit 4-of-5 from three.

Finally, Jeff Teague took this game over in the third quarter — the Clippers had no answer for the Teague/Towns pick-and-roll so the Timberwolves ran it over and over and over until they pulled away with a comfortable lead. Teague got where he wanted, scored 20 points on the night, and just took over.

With the win, Minnesota seems on track to make the postseason for the first time since 2004 — that accomplishes a big goal for this team. Its ultimate aspirations are much higher, but making the postseason and getting a taste of it is the first step on that road.

Chris Paul’s game-winning miss helps Rockets end Blazers’ 13-game streak

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Tuesday night at Moda Center was electric. It was a game of switches, both between opposing big men on the pick-and-roll and as the lead batted between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It was all we could have asked for between two of the best teams in the NBA.

The Blazers were aided by a hot start from Al-Farouq Aminu from beyond the arc. The defensive stalwart hit four threes in the first quarter alone for Portland as the Blazers took a four point lead into the second period. Houston, accustomed to playing in Rip City when their arena is at its loudest, wasn’t phased by the atmosphere.

James Harden went off — he finished with 42 points and seven assists — and looked unstoppable. At one point, after nailing a 3-pointer in the first half, Harden turned around and gave the Portland sideline a look. The leading MVP candidate was there to play, and the rain of boos that came down from the 300 level at the Moda only fueled his fire.

On the other side of the court, Portland’s star point guard seemed just off of center. Perhaps it was anticipating the soon-to-be birth of his child or just the stress that comes with upholding a 13-game winning streak, but Damian Lillard‘s aim was poor and he wasn’t as large a factor as he’s been all winter. In fact, both Lillard and C.J. McCollum were quiet on the night. McCollum, the other half of the second-highest scoring duo since the All-Star Break, had just eight points on a night where he shot 4-of-15 from the field.

But the story of these two teams, and why they remain top playoff contenders, is their defense. That showed all night, with the margin between the two staying razor thin until the final seconds. The Blazers’ strategy was to force switches, often getting Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, or Evan Turner on smaller Rockets players while hoping to either attack the basket or swing the ball after the Rockets’ excellent help defense reacted.

Houston countered brilliantly, often guarding Nurkic with either Luc Mbah a Moute or PJ Tucker as they forced the issue of small ball on Portland. Much of the game rode on the offensive decision-making from Blazers in the post or the ability of the Rockets guards to burn past the likes of Nurkic and Ed Davis off the switch.

Chris Paul was the other factor for Houston — no shock as he loves going against Lillard — especially from beyond the 3-point line. Five of Paul’s six made field goals were from beyond the arc, and he dismantled slower Portland defenders as he snaked, shaked, and flailed his way around pick-and-rolls.

Despite the close play, Houston appeared to have struck a defiant blow when Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:55 to go, giving the Rockets a nine-point lead. But Portland rallied, with Lillard quickly drawing a three-shot foul to push the Blazers closer. Portland scored twice more in quick succession, and they were once again within striking distance for the win.

The game came down to a final Houston possession with five seconds left as Paul missed long on a floater in the middle of the lane. Miraculously, the ball hit off the back of the iron, out of reach of any Blazers rebounder (although a crafty hold by Paul on Aminu certainly helped).

Houston recovered the rebound, and closed against a heated rival.

Meanwhile the story for both teams at the end of the game was clear: both are for real.

The Rockets, leaders of the West even before the Golden State Warriors were bitten by the injury bug, showed they could come into a hostile environment against a team that badly wanted to win in Portland. Houston’s resolve was clear; while the Blazers never looked unfocused, the Rockets did feel like the senior team and the leadership from Harden and Paul was a preview for what we should expect come playoff time. That’s big, especially when you consider Paul’s playoff demons and the hovering expectation that the Warriors are somehow going to come charging back and blow everyone out come spring.

For the Blazers, the sadness of the 13-game streak will linger but for a moment. Portland, who was essentially a .500 team until Christmas, looked like they were ready for the big moment. Many of the Blazers’ players, including Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless, have struggled with inconsistency all season long. But as they took on the Rockets, all three were the ones keeping Portland in it when Lillard and McCollum struggled. I had my doubts about the Blazers perhaps longer than most, but even in defeat Portland’s showing against Houston makes them look like a solid favorite in any first round playoff series they draw, and not just because of seeding.

Houston beat the Blazers, 115-111.

Let’s do this again sometime soon. Say, in mid-May?

It’ll make sense when you watch it: Steven Adams uses Al Horford to scratch his head

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Look, Steven Adams is a weird guy. He’s always answering questions with weird, unrelated scientific terms or calling former teammates “dicks” with a smirk on his face. Adams has a subtle and fun personality.

This? This isn’t so subtle.

As the Boston Celtics took on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, it was time for a regular old free throw. The kind that happens all the time during NBA games. But Adams, apparently bored with how they usually go, wanted to mix up his routine on the lane line for this one.

That’s when he apparently decided to use Al Horford‘s right forearm as a means to scratch his own head.

Just … just watch the video:


I don’t know either.

Meanwhile, Marcus Morris beat the Thunder with 1.8 seconds to go. Oof.

Marcus Morris hits game-winning shot to send Celtics over Thunder (VIDEO)

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On a night without Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics still found a way to grind out a win.

As the rising Oklahoma City Thunder came to Massachusetts, a slow-scoring game evolved as a game of the NBA’s best defenses came together. Still, the Thunder were in the lead and looked to be on their way to their 44th win of the season.

But despite having a six-point lead with 24 seconds left, Oklahoma City choked an important game away late down the stretch.

It started with Jayson Tatum hitting a quick bucket with 17.6 seconds to go. Russell Westbrook was fouled, but missed one of his two free throws. That set the stage for Terry Rozier to hit a 3-pointer with 12.7 seconds left.

Then, astonishingly, Carmelo Anthony missed two straight free throws.

That’s when Marcus Morris stepped in:

Oof. You don’t expect Oklahoma City to come out flat like that against a depleted Celtics squad, and you certainly wouldn’t think they could clunk away the victory from the free-throw line.

It was a gutsy win for Boston and one of the worst losses of the season for the Thunder since the righted the ship around Christmas.