Five takeaways from new NBA schedule

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The NBA schedule is out and there are a number of games worth watching, from when the banner goes up in Oracle Arena opening night to what could be Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game in Los Angeles on April 13th.

But the schedule is more than just a list of 1,230 games, it tells you about the priorities of the league. Some themes emerged out of the NBA schedule. Some were expected, some not so much.

Here are five takeaways from my reading the new NBA schedule.

1) Adam Silver wasn’t kidding about building more rest into the schedule. We’ve already written about this, but it bears repeating — players are going to get a lot more time off in this season. And that’s a good thing. Last season there were 70 times teams had four games in five nights, that’s down to 27 this season. Teams will average 1.5 fewer back-to-backs, and the back-to-backs where teams travel across a time zone drops from 111 to 84. We knew this was coming, NBA Commissioner Silver had talked about this at the All-Star break, but the fact they did this while not starting the season earlier (as they may well do in future years) and keeping the week break around the All-Star Game is impressive. We will see if this reduces the times coaches rest star players next season, but in a league where the wear-and-tear on players leads to injuries, this is a good first step in dealing with scheduling challenges.

2) The league is finally starting to promote Anthony Davis like he’s a superstar. On the court, Anthony Davis was a top five player in the NBA last season — at age 21. He was an All-Star and led the New Orleans Pelicans to the playoffs. His PER of 30.8 was the best in the NBA — better than LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry and everyone else. Yet the NBA mostly ignored him and the Pelicans, who were on NBA TV a couple of times and on no other national broadcasts. Not this time around. Opening night Davis and the Pelicans take on Golden State on TNT. Christmas Day you get to see Davis and the Pelicans. There will be 13 appearances on ESPN/ABC and TNT for Davis. As it should be. This is (arguably) the third best player in the NBA right now, and in five years or so may well be the best player in the world. He’s a budding superstar, they needed to get him out there. Finally, they did.

3) So much for another easy path for the Warriors. So much for the league playing favorites. Last season, on the way to a title, all the breaks seemed to go the way of the Warriors (particularly in terms of health). They do not catch any breaks with this new schedule. In the first days of the new season they face the Pelicans twice, the Rockets and the Grizzlies (all their playoff opponents from last season). If it’s tight at the end of the year, their final four games are against the Spurs and Grizzlies (twice each). They have 20 back-to-backs, tied for the most of any team in the league and one more than they had last season. The Warriors are still title contenders, but Curry and company are about to find repeating is a whole lot harder than winning the first time around.

4) Yes, you’re still going to see a lot of Lakers. Such is the power of the Lakers’ brand. Such is the draw of what could be the Kobe Bryant farewell tour. The Lakers are not going to be very good this season and yet have 19 games on ESPN/ABC and TNT — the same as the Houston Rockets and more than the Heat, Grizzlies, Wizards and a host of other teams. Why? Because this is a business and you give the people what they want — the Lakers grab eyeballs. Yes, Miami and even Milwaukee may be far more interesting and entertaining, but people watch the Lakers and the business is to deliver viewers to the advertisers.

5) Plenty of teams are unhappy. A lot of teams feel the new schedule is stacked against them. Take Orlando, a team that desperately wants to make the playoffs this season (they have not played the multi-year tanking game). The Magic open the season at home against the Wizards and Thunder, then go on the road against the Bulls, Pelicans, and Rockets, only to return home and get the Raptors — they could very well open the season 1-5 or 0-6. Portland has 20 back-to-back games. And maybe nowhere are people as unhappy as Detroit, something Andre Drummond summed up this way.

 

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.