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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.

Dirk Nowitzki to return to court for Dallas Friday vs. Clippers

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Quietly, the Dallas Mavericks have started to get healthy and play better — they are 4-4 in their last eight games after beating Portland on the road Wednesday. Deron Williams is healthy, Harrison Barnes continues to take steps forward…

And now they get Dirk Nowitzki back.

After missing 14 games with a sore Achilles, the Hall of Fame-bound German will play Friday night in Los Angeles.

Dallas’ offense has been the team’s weakness (despite the better-than-expected play of Barnes) and the return of Nowitzki will help that. Heck, just the threat of Nowitzki’s shooting on the court will opening things up for Dallas.

at 8-21 this season, the Mavs have dug too big a hole to make the playoffs. But they are evolving into a tougher team to beat on a nightly basis, which sucks for their opponents. Starting with the Clippers, who will without Blake Griffin for sure and likely Chris Paul for this game.

PBT Extra: Looking ahead to Warriors at Cavaliers headlining Christmas games

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Christmas day the NBA brings out its best and brightest — and biggest television draws — and the lined up and interesting set on ABC and ESPN this Sunday.

This game everyone wants to see the NBA Finals rematch/preview as Golden State visits Cleveland — now withKevin Durant. But there are other exciting games: Boston at New York to start the day may be the most competitive game of the day. The Spurs vs. the Bulls is a game filled with intriguing matchups. Can Minnesota even slow down Russell Westbrook? Who wins the battle of Los Angeles?

I talk about all of them in this latest PBT Extra.

DeAndre Jordan with vicious poster dunk over Pau Gasol (VIDEO)

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No Blake Griffin in the Clippers lineup just means more Chris Paul/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll — and that’s not a bad thing. That play can be nearly impossible to stop.

Just ask Pau Gasol. Thursday night CP3 came off a double high screen from Jordan and Paul Pierce, which had freed Paul from his man and forced Gasol to slide over and cut off the lane. CP3 was patient, waited for Jordan to roll down the key, hit him with the perfect pass, then Gasol tried to rotate over, but it was too late. All that happened was him being in the poster.

The Clippers went on to win 106-101, but Paul missed the fourth quarter after tweaking a hamstring.

Three things we learned Thursday: No Blake Griffin, no problem for Clippers. Yet.

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We know you were out finishing — okay, who are we kidding, you were starting — your holiday shopping, so you may not have been watching the NBA. Here are the big takeaways from Thursday night around the league.

1) Clippers beat Spurs without Blake Griffin, but if Chris Paul is out a while things will change. It’s an annual tradition with the Clippers — no, not Blake Griffin getting injured, but the “how much trouble are the Clippers in without him” discussion. There’s a sense the Clippers will slide, but they adjust their game to run a lot more DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick-and-roll — a dangerous combination — and it works. (Which leads to the stupid “are the Clippers better off without Griffin?” columns, but we’re a few weeks away from that.)

It worked against the Spurs Thursday night — 54.3 percent of Los Angeles’ possessions involved the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers used their athletic advantages to roll the Spurs early then hold on for a 106-101 win. By athletic advantages, I mean plays like this.

Los Angeles also got a monster night from the bench. Their all-bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights were on the court for 18 minutes together, including much of the fourth quarter, they moved the ball brilliantly, hit their shots, scored 41 points and were a +4. Considering how devastating the Clippers starting five is (when healthy) if the Clippers get this kind of bench play they become difficult to beat.

It’s games like this, snapping a five-game Spurs winning streak, that make you think the Clippers could use that athleticism to beat the Spurs in a seven-game, second-round playoff series this year.

If healthy. Which became an issue in the fourth quarter Thursday when Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick and pulled up with a tweaked hamstring, but it doesn’t appear too serious.

The Clippers can hold their ground for 4-6 weeks without Griffin, but without Paul that dynamic would change quickly. Raymond Felton had his best game as a Clipper Friday and they held off the Spurs, but that is not a sustainable trend. I’d be shocked if CP3 played Friday night against Dallas (that’s a game the Clippers can still win without him). After that it’s the Lakers on Christmas Day. Hamstrings can be tricky, they linger sometimes (and if guys come back to fast they re-aggravate them), no doubt the Clippers need to be cautious. But if Paul misses more than a couple of games, well, no Paul or Griffin would lead to a rough stretch in Los Angeles.

2) Celtics win fourth straight (three on road), may be coming together. In the latest PBT Podcast (previewing the Christmas Day games), Dan Feldman and I had the same reaction to the Boston season: They haven’t been bad, but I thought they’d be a little better than this.

Maybe they are, maybe it’s just coming together a little slower than we expected. The Celtics beat the Pacers 109-102 on the road Thursday night, giving Boston a sweep on a three-game road trip, and Boston has now won four in a row. They have done it with defense — in those four games, they have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that stretch (for the season Boston has allowed 103.7 per 100, which is middle of the pack).

Boston has shown versatility in lineups (which we thought would be a strength entering the season), and Brad Stevens seems to be finding some combinations he likes. Ones that defend, ones that can be scrappy, just not score. Who plays well with Isaiah Thomas (28 points the win over Indiana)? Who can play well with Al Horford? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Stevens is still playing mad scientist, trying different combinations rather than just locking into a set nine-man rotation. It may have meant fewer wins in November and December, but the Celtics want the wins to come in late April and May, and Stevens is learning who he can trust there.

Boston is, to me, the clear third best team in the East, and one that could make things very interesting in the second round against Toronto in the postseason. If we get that far. Still a lot of basketball between now and then. But the Celtics seem to be thinking big picture, and that picture starting to come into focus.

3) Shaq got his jersey retired by the Heat, and it was a very Shaq event. Miami gave the man a diesel truck. It was a larger than life event for a larger than life man and personality. Who cares if Shaq only spent a couple of years in South Beach, he was key to that 2006 NBA title, he remains loved in South Beach, and if they want to honor the man they should do it. And they did, in the most Shaq of ways.