Extra Pass: Beyond Phil Jackson, Knicks should see Tim Hardaway as instrumental to their future

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BOSTON – When he was about 8 years old and accompanying his dad to his NBA games, Tim Hardaway Jr. used to grab a basketball and wander onto the court beyond the 3-point arc. There, he’d attempt NBA 3 after NBA 3.

It’d be years until he’d make them regularly and even longer until he could use his standard stroke rather than pushing the ball. But he kept at it.

“I’d just be hoisting those,” Hardaway said. “I wouldn’t shoot mid-range a lot, just shoot 3s, just to challenge myself.”

No wonder Hardaway is having such an easy time transitioning from the college to NBA arc, converting 37.7 of his 3-pointers.

He’s the only rookie to shoot better from beyond the arc in the NBA than he did in each of his college seasons (minimum: 30 attempts). In fact, no rookie coming straight from college has shot so well on 3-pointers on so many attempts since Stephen Curry four seasons ago.

Before Phil Jackson became James Dolan’s false idol, Hardaway was the great hope of New York fans, and it’s easy to see why they’ve swooned.

The Knicks didn’t have a first-round pick the year before selecting Hardaway No. 24 last June, and barring an unexpected trade, they won’t have one this June, either. Hardaway is the youngest player on the Knicks, the only team among the NBA’s 10 oldest (weighted by playing time) not in playoff position.

Simply, he’s the brightest hope in one of the NBA’s darkest situations.

The 21-year-old Hardaway has posted 2.2 win shares this season, a strong mark for his age but hardly elite overall. But let’s expand the parameters further – players under 28 with at least 1.5 win shares this season. Hardaway is the only qualifying Knick. Every other team besides the back-to-back defending champion Miami Heat have multiple such players.

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You can certainly forgive the Heat for lacking productive young players, Mario Chalmers excepted. They’re obviously doing quite alright.

The Knicks? Not so much.

That’s why New York fans latch onto players like Hardaway, and before him, Iman Shumpert.

Like Hardaway, Shumpert was a first-round pick bookended by two years of the Knicks lacking first-round picks. Shumpert had a promising rookie year and a strong second season, but in his third year, he’s regressed as lofty expectations rose too high.

Can Hardaway better navigate the Knicks quagmire? Maybe.

It starts with his advanced 3-point shooting.

Hardaway clearly arrived at the University of Michigan with shooting skills. He says he aced Michigan coach John Beilein’s famed challenge, making 50 3-pointers in five minutes with a single ball and rebounder, on his first try.

Last season, with future first-rounder Nik Stauskas on campus, Beilein’s drill went from 50 in five to 60 in five. Again, Hardaway cruised, peaking at 68 or 69, as he left Ann Arbor after his junior year.

“I mean, I’m a shooter,” Hardaway said. “So, that’s what I do. I shoot the ball.”

And for right now, that’s about it.

Hardaway, averaging 10.0 points per game, has been extremely one-dimensional in New York.

Of the 46 shooting guards who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes this season, Hardaway has the lowest offensive-rebounding percentage, second-lowest defensive-rebounding percentage, lowest total rebounding percentage, third-lowest assist percentage, eighth-lowest steal percentage and eighth-lowest block percentage.

He’s finished just 43 pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler with a shot, turnover or trip to the free-throw line all season, according to MySynergySports.

Defensively, he stays on the balls of his feet well, but he’s not always moving somewhere helpful. The Knicks allow 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Hardaway on the court, up from 103.4 when he sits.

Hardaway’s value lies almost completely as a spot-up shooter.

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But Hardaway isn’t necessarily destined to fill only such a limited role.

He’s 6-foot-6 and athletic, a combination that considerably boosts his upside.

“I want him to be a complete player,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “So, I want him to get better defensively, and I think he will as the years come and go. He’s just got to pick up a little of weight, get a little bit stronger. But I like everything about Tim.”

If you look closely, signs are already emerging he’ll realize his greater potential.

Hardaway finishes well at the rim when he gets there. Though he ranks just 59th league-wide in fastbreak points per game, he leads the slow-paced Knicks. In his last two games, he’s scored 22 points on 11 shots and 28 points on 13 shots.

As long as everyone keeps reasonable expectations for him, Hardaway should play prominently in the Knicks’ future.

The bulk of Hardaway’s value stems from how firmly he’s entrenched himself as a solid role player who could develop into a great role player. Whether or not they re-sign Carmelo Anthony this summer, the Knicks aren’t going to stop chasing stars, and stars can always use shooters like Hardaway to pace the floor. Hardaway’s defense still prevents him from being a true 3-and-D player, but that’s hardly uncommon for a rookie. Hardaway can, and likely, will get there.

But the chance he reaches a much higher ceiling, even if it’s a longshot, increases his value. Not all role players possess this type of upside.

After years of devoting extreme attention to what his become his signature skill, 3-point shooting, Hardaway has begun to develop his all-around repertoire.

“You’ve got to,” Hardaway said. “You’ve got to expand your game each and every day, and it doesn’t stop.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.