NBA Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

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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?”

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.