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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.

PBT Podcast: Celtics win over Warriors, all things Boston with A. Sherrod Blakely

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The Boston Celtics are for real.

In case you had any doubts, they ran their streak to 14 wins in a row by coming from 17 down – twice — to beat the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA, and it threw the Warriors off their game, something few teams have been able to do over the past few years.

Kurt Helin welcomes in A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston to talk about what this win means to the Celtics, why their defense is so good, how Kyrie Irving is fitting in, how young stars such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are rising up, and what is the deal with Marcus Smart. Also, there is a lot of Brad Stevens love.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.