Are the Brooklyn Nets contenders now? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Thanks to a blockbuster trade with Boston, next season the Brooklyn Nets will start Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez. They will bring Jason Terry off the bench. They will start five former All-Stars and bring a former Sixth Man of the Year off the bench.

So can we say now the Brooklyn Nets are NBA title contenders?

Well… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Remember how a year ago we all looked at the Los Angeles Lakers on paper — Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash — and penciled them into the NBA Finals? I’m not saying the Nets are going to self-destruct in dramatic fashion like L.A., I’m saying don’t assume everything will go smoothly.

Brooklyn should be a better team, a more dangerous playoff team, but a lot of things have to go right for them to knock Miami off it’s three-time defending Eastern Conference champions perch. Their margin for error is small.

What are the Nets’ issues?

• Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are getting older. And it shows. Don’t confuse 2013-14 Kevin Garnett with 2008 Kevin Garnett. Last season at age 36 Garnett appeared in 68 games and saw dips in efficiency, shooting percentage, and a little on the defensive end. That trend continued in the playoffs. Make no mistake, KG is still good and an upgrade at the four for Brooklyn, but he is 37 now and we can expect his game to erode further. Look at it this way — Garnett looked to wear down trying to stop Tyson Chander in the playoffs. Can he reverse that now as he is one year older?

Similar questions can be asked of Paul Pierce as he is now 36 — he averaged 18.6 points a game last year but his shooting percentage the last two seasons (43.6 percent last year) tailed off from the Boston title years. Again, he is still good and an upgrade, but he will regress some next season. And how will his legs be after an 82-game schedule?

• Can Deron Williams be the Utah Deron Williams again? His last two seasons in Brooklyn D-Will has been good, but he hasn’t been playing at the level we saw him at in Utah. He is still the best player on this team and the guy with the ball in his hands most of the time, he has to be elite. He has to be the guy we compared to Chris Paul, not the guy of the last few years.

• Do they have enough depth for the regular season? Brooklyn has an impressive starting five, but things drop off after that. Jason Terry is a former Sixth Man of the Year but he was unimpressive in Boston and will be age 36 next season. Reggie Evans stays but he will play a limited role on a good team. MarShon Brooks is now gone and part of that deal with Boston. (he wasn’t at first) so he is out. Andray Blatch is a free agent and the buzz around the league is he could bolt. Coach Jason Kidd has to keep the minutes for KG and Pierce and Terry in check this season and still get wins.

• Jason Kidd has to be the coach they think he can be. Kidd’s basketball IQ isn’t in question, but knowing what to do on the court and being able to transfer that knowledge to young players without his gifts is another. First year coaches in this situation can have a rough learning curve (Mark Jackson wasn’t an instant success in Golden State) and the window in Brooklyn with this roster is small. (The Nets did just hire Lawrence Frank to be Kidd’s lead assistant, which should help.)

Make no mistake, I still like this trade for the Nets. For one, they got rid of the horrible Gerald Wallace contract and unloaded Kris Humphries in the process. They had a terrible set of contracts on this team and they got out from under a lot of them and will have more flexibility after this season when Pierce’s deal expires (and Garnett likely retires next summer or in two summers).

Plus Brooklyn did get better on the court. The Nets can now be in the conversation with the Indiana Pacers (who get Danny Granger back) and the Chicago Bulls (who get Derrick Rose back) as to who has a shot to beat the Miami Heat.

But for Brooklyn to reach that NBA Finals goal a whole bunch of things need to go just right. And I am not sold at all that is how the season will unfold.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.