Bucks’ Khris Middleton still plans return late in season, to play in playoffs

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The Bucks remain on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but they show flashes of great promise. Take their recent home-and-home against the Cavaliers — LeBron James took them seriously enough to play on the second night of that back-to-back despite logging 47 minutes the first night. The Cavs won both, but the games were hard fought. After the second night, James said this to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.

“The next several years they could be really, really good,” James said.

The Bucks are long and defend. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, plus a good core of role players. What they miss right now is their glue guy.

They miss Khris Middleton, their starter on the wing who tore his hamstring before the season in a workout. Middleton can defend multiple positions, averaged 18.2 points a game last season and shot 39.6 percent from three, has the handles to run the pick-and-roll, and is the guy who can give the Buck whatever they need on a given night, in a given matchup.

Middleton told reporters that he’s making progress and plans to be back late this season, as reported by the Journal-Sentinel.

“I’m making good progress within the last couple weeks but I’ve still got a long way to go,” Middleton said before the Bucks played the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

“A hamstring is definitely nothing to play with. There are chronic hamstring injuries where guys think it is fine and they go out there and try to run and pull it again. That’s something I definitely don’t want to go through.”

Middleton said the earliest he thought he could return was around the all-star break in mid-February, which would give him a chance to play the final two months of the regular season.

Even if he missed that deadline but got to play the last month of the season, that would make the Bucks a far more dangerous playoff team.

Providing they make it. Right now they are in that big clump in the middle of the East — Charlotte is the current four seed but just 2.5 games ahead of 11-seed Detroit. The East is wide open, and teams that get healthy (or stay healthy) and going to be the teams that make the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.

Another wing down? Celtics’ Marcus Smart likely out vs. Sixers

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The horrific, probably season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward has left the Celtics with a shortage of players on the wing.

Going up against Philadelphia Friday night, that might be getting worse, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

Looking at the pictures, I doubt Smart plays.

As noted, Smart said he hurt both ankles in the second night of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, the left one in a collision with teammate Jaylen Brown. Smart started that game and played 32 minutes. That’s a lot of time to go to lesser players.

If he’s out Friday, that likely means either Terry Rozier or Abdel Nader get the start, and both are going to see a healthy bump in minutes. Whatever happens, the Celtics would miss Smart in a game where they need to defend Ben Simmons on the wing.