Three Stars of the Night: Be Easy

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This is catnip for the Lakers haters out there. The Lakers had all this positive momentum, Kobe Bryant was a new man, and all they had to do was keep it going against Phoenix. Easy, right? But instead, in what has to feel like rock bottom, the Lakers were put away by Michael Beasley. Yes, that Michael Beasley, the same guy who might finish out the year with more shot attempts than points. The guy with the “Super Cool Beas” tattoo across his back. That guy.

And with that in mind, we can’t honor the ultra-efficient nights of Tony Parker or Tyson Chandler on Beasley’s first (and probably last) appearance in Three Stars, can we? It just wouldn’t feel. Let’s get to the rest of the stars:

Third Star: Al Horford – (22 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks)

Horford’s monster night may have been overshadowed a bit by some memorable Josh Smith moments, but that worked out just fine for the Hawks in the end. Down one to Toronto with about 24 seconds left, Smith held the ball and the defense’s attention near the top of the key. It looked like Horford was going to set a down screen for the always deadly Kyle Korver, but instead, Horford brilliantly slipped the screen, and the Raptors forgot all about him. Smith delivered the picture perfect pass and Horford laid in the go-ahead, game-winning layup. Smith gets a lot of publicity for being a special athlete, but ask Horford — he’s an incredible high-low passer as well. He might have to share his star, but Horford’s big line and his thwarting of Toronto’s potential game-winners (one legal, one not so legal) gave Atlanta the win.

Second Star: Michael Beasley – (27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 steals)

How did the Suns come back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit? Dwight Howard’s shoulder injury played a role, and Phoenix’s defense did also, but let’s give credit where credit is due —  Beasley was awesome. On the game he had a season-high 27 points with 10 of those coming in big spots in the fourth quarter. Beasley made the game easy for himself by taking much more reasonable mid-range jumpers than he usually settles for, and his ability to attack the basket and use his size is something we all dreamed on when we watched him tear it up at Kansas State. If Beasley could somehow bottle this intelligent aggressiveness and use it all the time, we’d really have something. There’s an awful lot of evidence to suggest he’ll never figure it out, but nights like this are tantalizing enough to keep the hope flickering.

First Star: LeBron James – (24 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists)

It’s easy to forget about LeBron’s great games. We’ve just become so accustomed to greatness that we can dismiss it. LeBron’s work in the pick-and-roll and killer jumpers just further illustrated why Reggie Evans is so terribly, terribly wrong. Everyone needs help against good offensive players — true — but not every team is rendered helpless by certain guys. That’s only reserved for a select few, and that select few does not include Andray Blatche. More importantly than all that, the Heat sent a nice little message in a 20-point drubbing of the Nets that they can turn it on when the situation calls for it. They have their issues, but so did their championship team. As long as LeBron is making performances like this seem average, they’ll just be fine.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.