Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Clippers

The Extra Pass: Giannis Antetokounmpo is having fun. And starting to figure out how good he can be.

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LOS ANGELES — Watch him play in person and there are moments where Giannis Antetokounmpo makes your jaw just drop like you’re in a Tex Avery cartoon.

Monday night against the Clippers there was the point in the fourth quarter when the young Bucks forward took a rebound away from DeAndre Jordan, spun around and led the break himself at a speed normally reserved for point guards and just attacked the basket, forcing Matt Barnes to foul him. It was breathtaking.

Or there’s this.

Antetokounmpo is a story hard not to love. In just a handful of years he has gone from part of a poor, struggling family in Greece — he and his brothers used to sometime sell their toys to help pay for food — into a cult favorite of NBA fans and maybe ultimately the best player out of this past draft class.

He’s savoring this change of fortune, enjoying it — and more than anything else that comes through in his play.

“I can’t believe my rookie season so much has happened and I have fun all the year,” said Antetokounmpo, despite this being a season where his team has won just 13 games. “I enjoy all the days, all the time in practice, because I got good teammate and a good coaches.”

He’s enjoying the little things. Like how people can now pronounces his last name.

“That’s awesome,” Antetokounmpo says with an infectious smile. “At the beginning no one could say my name and now everybody knows it.”

Watch him play and the other thing that leaps out is he is still a very, very raw player— just a year ago he was playing in Greece’s second division and the jump to the NBA is light years.

“For sure the speed of the game was an adjustment at the beginning, but now I’m used to it,” Antetokounmpo said. “I even like it. I love it now, running up and down, trying to block shots and get dunks.”

Antetokounmpo has gotten the chance to learn on the job this season in part because the Bucks are physically banged up and struggling — Bucks coach Larry Drew admitted if this season has gone as planned the “Greek Freak” would have been riding the pine. The plan was to bring him along much more slowly. Instead the Bucks have the worst record in the NBA, so Antetokounmpo gets to learn on the court (he played crunch time against the Clippers and their athletic front line Monday).

He still has a lot to learn.

“His next stage is would certainly have to be just get stronger,” Drew said. “I think he’s gotten familiar with the NBA lifestyle. People ask me if he has hit a wall. He his stretches where he didn’t play well but he was still playing hard.”

“It’s not just about getting stronger. It’s about getting stronger, getting better on defense, being in the right position on defense, improving my jump shot, everything, my explosiveness. Everything,” Antetokounmpo said,

The biggest adjustments for Antetokounmpo have come off the court — moving halfway around the world to another culture, going from having no money to having enough to support his family at age 19, plus just being thrust into the spotlight.

“I think the hardest part was the English, because at the beginning I didn’t speak so good English,” Antetokounmpo said. “After that the culture was a little different.”

His English is pretty good now and he picked up the language of basketball just as quickly.

“When he came in one of our concerns was him just adapting to being here in the states and for me just the language barrier and would he be able to understand NBA terminology, our lingo, would he be able to comprehend it?” Drew said. “And he has. He picks things up pretty fast, which is a big surprise to me. At 18 years old when he got here I was really concerned if he would really understand the terminology with all the things that happen, but he picked it up. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, which is good. A lot of young guys are too timid to ask questions. He has shown he has really grown and is developing in that area.”

He even had to get used to a new nickname — the Greek Freak.

“At the beginning it was a little like ‘The Greek Freak’ (I didn’t like) ‘Freak.’ But now I like it because my brother is also the Greek Freak… We’re Greek Freak nation,” Antetokounmpo says laughing.

There’s still a long way to go for Antetokounmpo to reach anywhere near his potential — his game is still so raw. But every game you watch you see flashes of that rare athleticism that led the Bucks to take a chance on him at No. 15 — and you realize they a steal when then did. Redo this draft and Antetokounmpo doesn’t get out of the top five, maybe the top three.

There were a lot of questions last June about if Antetokounmpo could really adapt to America and the NBA. The answer turns out to be a jaw-dropping yes.

And he’s doing it all with a smile.

Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)

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Only Draymond Green can endearingly brag about his defensive intelligence while admitting getting fooled on a play.

In the Warriors’ blowout win over the Cavaliers last night, Green guarded Kyrie Irving and anticipated the Cleveland guard would go one way. After Irving went the other way to score, the two shared a moment during a stoppage.

“I know your  moves,” Green said.

“I know,” replied Irving, whose vast offensive repertoire allowed him to find an unexpected counter.

Thaddeus Young shakes backboard with dunk on Terrence Jones (video)

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Terrence Jones isn’t much of a rim protector.

Thaddeus Young took advantage.

This ferocious jam helped the Pacers beat the Pelicans, 98-85.

Rudy Gobert block secures Utah’s win over Phoenix (VIDEO)

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At the season’s midway point, Rudy Gobert is probably the leader frontrunner in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Kawhi Leonard will have a say, and there is a lot of basketball yet to play, but Gobert anchors the NBA’s best defense and he is a force in the paint.

Just ask the Phoenix Suns.

Down three with 13 seconds left Monday night, the Suns wanted a three to tie, but when that was not easily open Eric Bledsoe decided to drive for two (then the Suns would foul and extend the game), he was cut off so Bledsoe dished to rookie Marquese Chriss, who went in for the layup — and found the long arms of Gobert. Blocked shot and game over.

Utah is for real, folks.

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.