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Giannis Antetokounmpo going inside to lift Bucks higher

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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo expected to be a 3-and-D player when he came to the NBA. Though outside shooting is now known as his weakness, he attempted 28% of his shots from beyond the arc as a rookie.

Then, the Bucks hired Jason Kidd.

“Coach Kidd came and told me to not shoot,” Antetokounmpo said. “He did. He told me to not shoot. ‘If you shoot, I’ll take you out.'”

In his first season under Kidd, Antetokounmpo had his 3-point rate plummet under 6%. Forced to contribute other ways, Antetokounmpo started going inside more. The next year, he became a more involved passer. In his fourth season, he won Most Improved Player.

Now, Antetokounmpo is bursting out (again) with a game unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Antetokounmpo is the poster child for futuristic position-less basketball. Basketball-Reference lists his position as “Shooting Guard and Power Forward and Point Guard and Small Forward.” The only traditional position missing: center.

Yet – despite being listed at 6-foot-11, 222 pounds – the slender Antetokounmpo is scoring inside like an old-school center. He’s averaging 19.6 points in the paint per game. Here’s the leaderboard for points in the paint since 1997 (as far back as NBA.com records go):

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Antetokounmpo is a terror in transition – quick with long strides. He gets to the rim faster than Shaq ever did, but the Milwaukee star still spends more than his fair share of time bumping with behemoths inside. His footwork has advanced, and his length is a weapon for getting off shots from atypical angles.

“He goes and gets to his strength no matter what his opponent is trying to do,” Kidd said. “He understands what he has to do. And he’s been the one that has hit first.”

Antetokounmpo didn’t realize how physically taxing this style would be, but as usual, he’s listening to his coach.

“It’s hard,” Antetokounmpo said. “It gets harder every night, because every night, they bump you, they hit you. But that’s what I do. I’ve got to keep doing it.”

Burlier players Dwight Howard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Jefferson and Amar’e Stoudemire are the only others besides Shaq to record more than even 14 points per game in the paint over a full season. (LeBron James and Anthony Davis are also on pace this season).

Antetokounmpo separates himself with his passing ability. Double-team him, and he has the vision to swing the ball to an open teammate. The Bucks have become accustomed to making the next play – not just an open jumper, but a drive or pass – against a scrambled defense.

Now, they just traded for Eric Bledsoe, who should only help – both when Antetokounmpo plays and when he rests. Milwaukee plays at a 43-win pace with Antetokounmpo on the floor and an 8-win pace without him. If Bledsoe boosts that latter mark, it’d go a long way toward the Bucks (4-5) making the playoffs and Antetokounmpo winning MVP.

Antetokounmpo has put himself firmly in the conversation. His 31.0 points per game lead the league, and his 9.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks are eye-popping. His combination of load (34.1% usage) and efficiency (64.3% true shooting) is unprecedented.

He might even be the MVP front-runner. If he maintains these incredible marks – not to be assumed, given we’re dealing with a small sample size early – he might just need the Bucks to win enough to claim the award.

Antetokounmpo is also in the running for another honor: Most Improved Player.

Even after winning last year, Antetokounmpo has vaulted his play to another level. Though his all-around game deserves plaudits, many postseason honors become one-dimensional – and Antetokounmpo has that dimension covered. His scoring average has increased by 8.1 (from 22.9 to 31.0), one of the biggest improvements in the league:

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Most Improved Player winners have never placed higher than 12th in a future season (1990 winner Rony Seikaly in 1997 with a single vote). Though he’s a longshot to win with Kristaps Porzingis looking like the early favorite, Antetokounmpo has a chance to best Seikaly’s finish.

That’d be nice recognition for someone who has put in so much work to get stronger, smarter and more skilled. Though still thin, Antetokounmpo never could’ve handled playing in the paint so much as the beanpole who entered the NBA. His ability to read defenses has taken his passing ability from a nice tool to a feared weapon. He has also improved his free-throw and jump shooting, keeping defenses honest.

Yes, his hands are huge. Yes, his strides are unbelievably long. Yes, his natural fluidity is downright unfair.

But his nickname – Greek Freak – sells him short. Antetokounmpo earned this.

Of course, any implied slight, intentional or not, from his nickname doesn’t bother him. He shakes it off like a defender in the paint.

“A lot of it could be called freakish, the things I do on the court. I might take a dribble from the halfcourt and finish and stuff like that,” Antetokounmpo said. “But, at the end of the day, I know I’m a smart player.”

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.