The Extra Pass: Bucks are bad, and that’s good; plus Wednesday’s recaps

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By D.J. Foster

All over the league, we’ve seen young teams fighting against the tank.

If the playoffs started today, the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns would be in the playoffs. This was unfathomable a few months ago. It wasn’t just about their rosters being bad – they were supposed to be bad.

The Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are never supposed to be bad. Here’s what Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Howard Beck before the season:

“In our organization, there is this competitive need to be as good as we can every year,” Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Bleacher Report. “It’s an instinct. Even though one might argue that mathematically you’re better off going the other way.”

“I’m not speaking for what other teams do,” Kohl said. “We just every year do the very best we can, to put together the best team we can. That’s our M.O. That’s what we do.”

What Milwaukee does, in reality, is openly embrace mediocrity. It’s been 13 years since the Bucks have advanced past the first round of the playoffs. They’ve had one top-5 pick in that timeframe. They’ve never had more than 46 wins in any of those seasons. If it weren’t for such a rich tradition, the Bucks would be completely and totally irrelevant.

On Wednesday night, the Bucks hosted a San Antonio Spurs team that actually embodies the principle Kohl mistakenly thinks his franchise does.

The Spurs compete. They are the best they can be every year. But guess what?

Even the inscrutable Spurs tanked once in 1997, and they haven’t had to since.

On Wednesday night, that Spurs team that tanked 16 years ago to get Tim Duncan held a 38-point lead in the third quarter. Duncan had 21 points and 16 rebounds in 24 minutes.

O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s $24 million dollar life preserver, was one made three-pointer away from putting up a “22 trillion” – 22 minutes with zero meaningful stats across the board.

The Bucks, obviously, ended up losing the game. Plenty of words sprang to mind to describe the performance. Embarrassing. Depressing. Ugly.

But you know what else it was? Productive.

The 2014 draft class is projected to be one of the best we’ve seen in years. Sure, there are no guarantees in the lottery, but Milwaukee has to give themselves a chance to be great. Pretending the system doesn’t work the way it does is more than stubborn. It’s stupid.

There are pieces here. John Henson is a future star. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the kind of natural ability you dream on. Nate Wolters looks like a nice player. Make no mistakes, though: the Bucks are begging for direction.

32 point losses at home aren’t fun. Neither is the trip to the cellar of the Eastern Conference. But realistically, is it any worse than the last 13 years of Milwaukee Bucks basketball?

The Bucks have attempted to sell their fanbase on a somewhat competitive team for long enough. It’s time to sell them some hope for once.

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Orlando 92, Charlotte 83: The Magic got a balanced attack that saw seven different players finish in double figures scoring, and out-rebounded the Bobcats by 11 to help in securing this victory. Charlotte shot just 36.9 percent from the field as a team, and Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats in scoring with 12 points, but did do shooting a miserable 3-of-14 from the field in just over 30 minutes of action. — BP

Clippers 96, Celtics 88: Doc Rivers had an emotional first return to Boston as head coach of the Clippers, and by his own admission emotions got the better of him throughout the game’s first half. That may explain L.A.’s slow start in this one, but the Clips scored 57 second half points to be able to get the win. Chris Paul finished with a near triple-double line of 22 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. –BP

Thunder 116, Grizzlies 100: No Marc Gasol and no Tony Allen for Memphis in this one, so the easy double-digit victory for OKC in this one was somewhat expected. Russell Westbrook did the damage with a monster of a game, and finished with 27 points on 12 shots, to go along with six rebounds and nine assists. — BP

Spurs 109, Bucks 77: Take one of the best, most efficient teams in the league in the Spurs and face them against one of the league’s worst teams in Milwaukee, and this is the end result. This game was over by halftime, when the Spurs led by 23 points and Tim Duncan had already registered 16 points and 11 rebounds in just over 16 minutes. Someone named Miroslav Raduljica tallied 10 points and seven rebounds in less than 23 minutes for the Bucks, proving just how out of hand this game truly was. — BP

Timberwolves 106, Sixers 99: Philadelphia started off strong by getting out to a 19-point first quarter lead, but Minnesota slowly crawled back into it and outscored the Sixers by 20 in the second half to come away with the victory. The Timberwolves won despite shooting a far lower percentage than their opponent — just 38.5 percent to Philly’s 52.7 percent — but that was due to Minnesota gaining 22 more field goal attempts thanks to 12 more offensive rebounds and the Sixers turning the ball over 26 times. — BP

Pelicans 111, Pistons 106 (OT): Detroit came back from nine down in the fourth to force the extra session, after neither team could score in the final 1:19 of regulation. Ryan Anderson scored eight points in overtime to help his team win, while huge efforts from Greg Monroe (28 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Jennings (25 points, five rebounds, four assists, six steals) were wasted in the losing effort. — BP

Knicks 83, Bulls 78: The Knicks need wins, they’ll take them no matter how ugly they are. And this one was ugly. Carmelo Anthony did his part with 30 points and 10 rebounds, and Amar’e Stoudemire stepped up with 10 points during a key 19-0 Knicks run in the second quarter. New York led by 23 but the scrappy Bulls battled back to tie it at 74-74. You can thank Mike Dunleavy Jr. who had 20 points and 8 dimes. But Stoudemire hit a key jumper and Anthony had 9 points in the fourth. It’s a win, Mike Woodson will take it right now. — KH

Jazz 122, Kings 101: Sacramento didn’t dress Rudy Gay or anyone else from the trade (they couldn’t play because Greivis Vasquez has yet to pass his physical in Canada) but that wouldn’t have helped them here. Utah was just clicking on offense — they shot 53.9 percent overall, hit 13-of-23 from three and had an offensive rating of 133.2 points per 100 possessions. Individually Richard Jefferson was 7-of-9 shooting, Derrick Favors 6-of-9, Alec Burke 7-of-11 and that will get it done. After the way this season has gone for them, the Jazz could use an easy win. — KH

Warriors 95, Mavericks 93: Dallas had a, 18-point lead in the first half, a 10 point lead with 8 minutes to go, but against the Warriors in Oracle Arena that is like a 2 point lead anywhere else. Stephen Curry had 16 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter — including the game winner, which was part of a 9-1 Golden State run to close out the game and get the win. Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki each had 21 for Dallas. — KH

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.