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Three things to watch in playoffs: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each.

We start with one series that has the chance of an upset in the East — not a huge chance, but maybe the most of any series in that conference — and the series that should be the most entertaining in the conference: the Bucks vs. the Raptors. Here’s what to look for.

Who guards the Greek Freak? Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to win Most Improved Player in the NBA this season and will make an All-NBA team — he has been nothing short of brilliant. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. As a 6’11” point forward, he was their Mr. Everything.

Who on the Bucks can guard him? Coach Dwane Casey said DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker are going to get the first opportunities, and I particularly think Tucker could get more and more time on him as this series goes on. Their job starts with keeping him out of the paint — Antetokounmpo averaged 13.1 points per game in the paint, and he got 52.6 percent of his shots inside the restricted area, and he shot a very good 68.9 percent on those. The Raptors need to turn Antetokounmpo into a jump shooter, which is far easier said than done. Antetokounmpo is a very tough matchup and the Bucks are going to need a huge series from him to pull the upset.

Can Bucks length, aggressive defense throw Raptors backcourt off their game? Toronto’s offense flows through it’s two All-Star guards, six-foot Kyle Lowry and 6’7” DeMar DeRozan. Milwaukee will guard them with 6’5” Malcolm Brogdon, and 6’8” Kris Middleton, plus there is 6’7” Tony Snell, the pesky and aggressive Matthew Dellavedova, and occasionally 6’11” Antetokounmpo (who has a 7’4” wingspan). The Bucks play one of the more aggressive defensive schemes in the NBA, one with the goal of disrupting teams, throwing them off balance, and forcing turnovers.

How Lowry and DeRozan handle the pressure from tall, long defenders will be at the heart of this series. The Bucks tend to be aggressive, trapping and using that length to pressure ball handlers off the pick-and-roll, catching teams off guard — will the Raptors guards get more used to it as the series wears on, then start picking the defense apart?

In particular, I want to watch DeRozan, who has stepped up this season with Lowry down (the Raptors are 10-0 when he scores at least 30) — Middleton could see a lot of time on him, and is a smart and disruptive defender. The Raptors often try to run a 1-2 pick play and force a switch where the point guard is on DeRozan, then he works that smaller defender to a spot on the floor where DeRozan is comfortable and shoots over him — Brogdon’s length could make that less effective than normal.

Can the Bucks hold on in the fourth quarter? Toronto has been dominant in the fourth quarter this season, outscoring its opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions in that frame. They are a top five team on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter. The Raptors fall behind early with slow starts and come back to win games on a regular basis — the Bucks may get an early lead but can they put the Raptors away? The Raptors won the fourth quarter three of the four meetings between the teams this season.

Part of that late-game advantage for the Raptors is their improved depth — Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Norman Powell are good. Coach Dwane Casey leans on the Lowry and the bench lineups to start the fourth and that’s one of the best Toronto lineups. The Bucks have struggled with depth issues and need Greg Monroe, Jason Terry, Spencer Hawes, and Mirza Teletovic, to give them something.

The Raptors also have the advantage of experience. What Buck has the most playoff experience? Tony Snell at 16 games. All five Raptors starters have at least 23 playoff games under their belt.

Prediction: Raptors in six, but this series will not be easy.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.