NBA’s best urged to take less “if they want to win.” Agents, unions unhappy with trend.

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Just how badly did the owners smack down the players in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)? Take these now regular comments as examples:

“If Carmelo Anthony really cares about winning he will take less money.”

“LeBron James demanding the max shows he only cares about himself, not the Heat.”

“Dirk Nowitzki showed he cares more about winning by taking that Tim Duncan-sized contract.”

In the last CBA negotiations the players went from receiving 57 percent of the league’s income down to 50 percent — that’s an estimated $350 million a year going from the players straight to the owners’ pockets. At the same time NBA owners are seeing the value of their franchises skyrocket ($2 billion for the Clippers from Steve Ballmer) and there is a new television deal coming in two years that is going to flood the owners with more cash.

Yet it is the players that are asked to sacrifice “if they care about winning.”

It was a complete and total rout by the owners two years ago at the negotiating table. The Christians had more success against the lions in the Colosseum.

As you can imagine, agents and representatives of the players’ union do not like this “take less” trend. A couple spoke to Sean Deveney of the Sporting News about it.

“Why is it that our best players should be getting less than they’re worth?” one union official told Sporting News. “We have a collective-bargaining agreement that already limits what star players can make, and limits the total amount teams can pay. We have a very tough luxury tax. And now you have teams publicly shaming their best players into a bigger cut?”

“It’s just ridiculous,” one agent told SN. “There is this whole brainwashing thing going on and teams are selling it to their fans that this player or that player should take less, that they would not take their money if they truly cared about winning. That’s BS. If you want to win, you’re the owner, go over the tax line.

“This is the CBA you wanted, this is what the owners wanted. Why does the money come out of the players’ pockets? The players just gave back a huge amount in the CBA. But, no, that’s the brainwashing — that the players are the bad guys if they try to get what the CBA says they should get.”

LeBron is getting criticism for exactly that stance — the Heat amnestied Mike Miller simply to save money last season (don’t let Pat Riley spin it another way, they could have done it this summer) and LeBron wants Micky Arison to spend. Part of what LeBron is doing now is making his point to Heat management. He wants to win and as his new contract, even at the max, is half (at most) of what he’d make on a true open market so he wants the owner to show he is committed to spending to win too. (And you think LeBron is going to get Robert Sarver to do that in Phoenix?)

The problem comes back to just how much the owners dominated the last CBA. As Mark Cuban has ranted more than once, being into the tax is more than just a money issue, the new CBA limits teams flexibility to make moves once their salary is up in the tax range — smaller mid-level exception, no sign-and-trades, and more. You can’t build a team the same way and GMs want that flexibility.

It’s not fair to the top players, but you had to know that many fans would side with management, because they pretty much always do. We don’t relate to what even an average NBA player makes, but we know we want our team to win. So the star player gets the pressure and too often to make that happen while the owner gets to skate.

Agents and union members may not like it, they can fight to change it, but it’s not going to change. They can tune it out as LeBron is doing, but the calls for players to take the hit aren’t going away.

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.