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PBT Podcast: East first round playoff breakdown with Dan Feldman

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Boston earned the No. 1 seed, but are the Bulls a real first-round threat?

Cleveland has looked vulnerable on defense, but can Indiana do anything about it?

How big a threat are Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to the Pacers?

The Eastern Conference playoffs have some interesting questions, Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports delve into them in this podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Before playoffs start, check out best dunks from the NBA regular season

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Come the playoffs, with the best players focused on the biggest stage in the NBA, we are going to see some impressive dunks.

But before we get to those, let’s look back at the best dunks of the regular season — 17 minutes of them. LeBron JamesAndrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they are all in there.

Though for my money, the first one — Larry Nance Jr. over Brook Lopez — is still the dunk of the year.

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.

After awful season, Suns pin their hopes on young talent

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PHOENIX (AP) — There was a time, long ago, that the Phoenix Suns were winners playing the most entertaining style in the NBA.

It’s been seven years, though, since the Suns made the playoffs.

Now they’re the youngest squad in the league and maybe, just maybe, they have the makings of success.

“It’s happening in front of your eyes,” ever-optimistic coach Earl Watson said. “If I would say last summer that Devin Booker was going to Boston or anywhere and score 70, everyone thought it was ludicrous. It’s happening in front of your eyes and it’s great to watch.”

The Suns’ optimism starts with Booker, the 20-year-old guard who had some phenomenal scoring outbursts, leading the league with six 20-point quarters, one more than Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

But this is a team that won only 24 games. To make sure they didn’t win many more than that, thereby enhancing their draft situation, they sat point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final month of the season.

As a result, Phoenix has the second-worst record in the NBA and is assured a top five pick in this season’s draft.

Here are some things to consider in evaluating the Suns’ odd season:

YOUTH: At one point, Phoenix featured the youngest starting lineup in NBA history.

Spectacularly athletic but temperamental forward Marquese Chriss is 19. So is Dragan Bender, the team’s top draft pick whose season was slowed by injury.

Forward Derick Jones Jr. is 20, guard Tyler Ulis, 21, forward T.J. Warren, 23, centers Alex Len and Alan Williams are 24.

Booker didn’t turn 20 until last October.

What’s uncertain is how fast these young players can improve enough to make this a playoff team or more.

“How long does it take? Good question,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “I don’t know. This is a multi-year process. However, if we’re good over the next couple of years I think we’ll be good for 10 years after that.”

BOOKER: The Suns didn’t know the gem they were getting when they drafted the teenage Kentucky guard as the 13th selection overall.

He averaged 22.1 points per game in this, his second, season, but that stat doesn’t reflect how spectacular Booker can be.

Only four other players in NBA history have scored more than the 70 Booker got in Boston. He is the youngest to score that many and it was a franchise record.

Booker had three quarters of at least 27 points. The rest of the NBA had two.

He plays with an edge, shouting “This is my house!” after sinking a late-game 3-pointer last week against Oklahoma City in a game where the Suns deprived Westbrook of a record-setting 42nd triple-double.

He’s as personable off the court as he is brash on it.

“Once you step between those lines, you turn into a different beast,” he said.

Booker is primed to be the face of the franchise for years to come.

“It’s a big statement to say be the face of the franchise,” he said, “but I think I’m built for it.”

DRAFT PICK: McDonough has been in the league since 2003 and calls it one of the best two or three drafts in that time.

The Suns are loaded with young guards and small forwards but that won’t affect the team’s draft decisions.

If Phoenix gets the No. 1 pick, it could well be UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

“We have depth at both of those areas, especially at the guard slot,” McDonough said, “but we’ll take the best available player and if that guy’s as good as we think he can be work the rest of the roster right around him.”

BLEDSOE: Which brings us to point guard Eric Bledsoe.

McDonough said Bledsoe was the team’s best player, as evidenced by the team’s dearth of wins after the decision was made to sit him.

Bledsoe was one of only five players to average at least 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.

But if Ball comes on board, would this still be Bledsoe’s team?

“I’m not worried about none of that,” Bledsoe said. “I just want to get better, compete for the playoffs and have that lead to a championship.”

THUNDER & WARRIORS: Watson and McDonough point to the lack of success of the Thunder in the first years of Kevin Durant and Westbrook and the Warriors in the early days of Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Thunder drafted James Harden, Watson recalled, and won 50 games.

That’s the plan in Phoenix.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant engage in spontaneous, fierce three-point shootout

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Steve Kerr paid close attention. Teammates, too. Nobody wanted to miss this impromptu, incredible shooting display by two of the world’s best.

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant took turns firing 3-pointers from all over the court, some 200 of them total, while their coaches-turned-rebounders kept careful count of makes and misses and others watched in awe. Klay Thompson was shooting behind them, “I heard a lot of makes, though.”

Steph edged KD by a single 3, per player development coach Bruce Fraser’s figures from Tuesday’s shootout. Durant later confirmed the final stats.

“That was a really skillful workout right there, there wasn’t a lot of athleticism being shown, but iron sharpens iron,” Durant said. “You only get better when you play with the best and you work with the best.

“I didn’t even realize what we were doing. I was really just focusing on regaining some touch. It was definitely fun working with Steph. He works so hard, he brings something different to the game that I don’t have and I think vice versa. We push each other.”

Special guest Chris Wondolowski got a treat. The San Jose Earthquakes star and U.S. national team forward realized he had come on the right day to witness an amazing show of shot-making.

Even those who see Curry and Durant every day appreciated this performance.

“It was really fun for me to watch,” Kerr said. “It’s really fun to think about, `Oh, yeah, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, they’re on our team.”‘

And their post-practice shooting went up a notch this week with the playoffs about to begin. The fierce competition on Curry’s regular practice court became all-out entertainment with Durant healthy at last from a left knee injury that sidelined him for 19 games. The session lasted about 30 minutes. They talked and laughed, they cursed a little, they hollered at the basketball to cooperate.

Mostly, it did.

“Anyone that can keep up with Steph is an amazing shooter,” Fraser said. “You can count that on one hand, and Kevin’s one of them.”

Swish after swish, an occasional clank off the rim, but that’s pretty rare for these two. Even when they are taking 100 of them each in a game that’s just for fun.

“Don’t step out of bounds, KD!” Kerr yelled from behind the baseline as Durant let fly a corner 3.

Kerr notes that his pet peeve is seeing players in practice step on the end line – and Durant has big feet so it could easily happen – because then it’s more likely to occur during games.

His two biggest stars were locked in. The contest required each to make five 3s from five different spots, but when neither would miss it often took 10, 11 or 12 straight 3-pointers before someone would win that location and they could move on to the next.

“It was super spontaneous, it wasn’t planned, which is always sometimes the best way,” Fraser said. “It’s good when those two get together for many reasons. It’s good camaraderie, good for them to spend some time together and it’s also a good way for them to compete a little bit. It’s pretty incredible to be able to work with two of the best players in the world on the same court, the same space.”

And you should see that frayed net. Equipment chief Eric Housen acknowledges it’s overdue for a replacement given all the work Curry gives that basket.

The shooting marathon sure seems to have paid off: Durant went 11 for 16 and made 5 of 7 3s a day later in a win Wednesday against the Lakers. Curry also hit five.

“He mentioned that he’s a little hesitant coming off the injury, but he looked real springy,” Curry said afterward. “Obviously found his touch, so that’s a good sign.”

Now they’ll try to transfer that steady shooting and energy to the court when the NBA-best and top-seeded Warriors (67-15) host Portland in Game 1 on Sunday afternoon at Oracle Arena.

Playing off ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, they’re calling this friendly game “30 for 35” – for Curry’s No. 30 jersey and KD’s 35.

“Steph said it first, he said `30-35’ and I put in the `for,”‘ Fraser said. “At the beginning it was just kind of a light shooting where they were moving around and making 21 shots, then they got into a collective make 10 from each space, so it was combined where they were working together. And then we put it where they were going against each other, which was interesting because they kind of both perked up. Neither wanted to lose to the other.”

More AP NBA: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball