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Three things we learned Wednesday: Giannis takes Manhattan

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You had other things to deal with Wednesday — maybe a brick wall blocking your front door — so you didn’t watch the NBA’s offerings for the night. We’ve got you covered, here’s what you need to know.

1) The Giannis Antetokounmpo making the leap tour made a stop in New York and the Knicks paid the price. That tour will be making a stop in New Orleans for the All-Star Game next month, then will continue on to the playoffs. We’re starting to reach the “Giannis Antetokounmpo is on, stop what you’re doing and watch” phase of this season, because he just seems to be putting on a can’t miss show nightly now.

He did that in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, leading a 32-17 Milwaukee fourth quarter charge that gave them a chance for the come-from-behind win. Down a point with eight seconds to go, everyone in North America knew Antetokounmpo would get the rock, and sure enough he did with Lance Thomas bodying him up. Antetokounmpo backed Thomas not so much down but toward the middle, spun over his preferred right shoulder, then put up an unblockable (almost uncontestable) fadeaway that gave the Bucks a 105-104 win. Antetokounmpo is shooting 35.3 percent from that area of the floor this season, but he nailed this one.

That shot handed the Knicks their sixth straight loss. New York’s defense in the fourth quarter — although not on that shot, there was nothing Thomas could do with that step back — let it down again.

Antetokounmpo has made the leap this year from “he has a lot of potential” to an All-Star level, must watch player leading his playoff-bound team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Jason Kidd has unleashed him as a point guard and he is now a force of nature — and one with plenty of room to improve, when he develops a reliable jump shot he will be unstoppable. For now, from New York to Los Angeles, just sit back and enjoy the show from Milwaukee because it is one of the NBA’s best things going.



2) LeBron James and Cavaliers have 2009 flashback, fall to Jimmy Butler and Bulls.
Remember how LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland ended? Every night it was him against the world, with little to speak of as a supporting cast (Mo Williams was the next best player on those teams) and the Cavs were doomed to failure despite how great LeBron played? (And you all were shocked he left that situation… really?)

Wednesday night was a flashback of that. Kevin Love is still too sick to play, he shouldn’t have had the fish. Kyrie Irving tweaked his hamstring and the Cavaliers are, for obvious reasons, going to take it easy and slow with getting him right before bringing him back. That left LeBron — who has been under the weather himself of late, then tweaked his ankle in this one — to take on Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and the Bulls. This ultimately ended about like those 2009 campaigns — 31 points on 21 shots, eight rebounds, and seven assists was not going to be enough to get the win.

The Bulls had six players in double digits led by Butler’s 20 — 14 of those points in the fourth as the Bulls pulled away from the Cavaliers for the win. That win that matters more to the Bulls — it pulled them up to .500 and is the kind of win that helps them in the tight playoff race in the bottom of the East. The Cavaliers will be the top seed and just fine whatever happened in this game.

If you want to hear more in-depth Bulls talk — such as what’s the future of Rajon Rondo, and are they going to trade Taj Gibson? — check out the new PBT Podcast with myself and Sean Highkin, who covers the Bulls for The Athletic.

3) Russell Westbrook tries to give the ball back to the referee, gets a technical. There’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and too often it seems people with power like to focus on the former and ignore the latter. Which leads to foolish decisions.

Russell Westbrook got a first-hand example of that Wednesday night. The Thunder’s Mr. Everything was making a standard NBA play — dribble the ball up the court and get over half court, near the bench, and call the timeout the coach wants. Westbrook then tries to toss the ball to referee Sean Corbin on the baseline, but Corbin turns away and doesn’t see it coming, so the ball just nails him in the head.

Westbrook got a technical for it. He shouldn’t have. I get why you want a rule on the books about hitting the official in the head with a ball — that rule should exist. But there are times to enforce it and times to let it go. Watch the video and it’s obvious Westbrook is just trying to get the ball to the ref during a timeout, like he’s supposed to do, and things accidentally went bad. But nobody was injured, so have a laugh and move on.

In the last week the league rescinded two of the technicals Westbrook got earlier in the season, it should do the same here.

To Bam Adebayo, Heat game days are always Mother’s Day

Heat star Bam Adebayo
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Miami center Bam Adebayo went into the locker room at halftime of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals knowing that he wasn’t doing enough.

He didn’t need to see video. Or talk to Heat teammates. Or check the stats.

He only needed to think of his mother.

“That first half wasn’t me and I had to reboot myself, man,” Adebayo said. “So, you ask yourself: Where do you come from and what’s your why? What’s your why? And for me, that’s my mom.”

Marilyn Blount, this was for you. Adebayo nearly outscored the Boston Celtics by himself in the third quarter, the Heat turned the game around and went on to win 106-101 Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals — putting the kid who grew up in a single-wide trailer with a mom making something like $15,000 a year two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Adebayo had four points at the half, and the Heat were down by 13. He had 17 in the second half, when Miami outscored Boston by 18.

“Games are long and you just have to figure out different ways to impact winning,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And Bam, he understands that.”

It wasn’t just Adebayo in the second half, which is the brilliance of this Heat team — it’s never just one guy. Adebayo had 17 points after halftime on 8-for-10 shooting, Goran Dragic had 16 points in the final two quarters, Tyler Herro had more rebounds than anyone after halftime and Jimmy Butler made three steals in the final 3:40 to help Miami finish off matters.

“I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody here has a different story,” Adebayo said. “We all come from nothing and that’s what’s beautiful about this team.”

He may have come from nothing. Right now, for a Miami team that is 10-1 so far in this postseason to match the best start in franchise playoff history, he’s doing everything.

He had the game-saving block of a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in the final seconds of Game 1 of the East finals, made the NBA’s All-Defensive team, became an All-Star for the first time and won the skills competition at All-Star weekend.

He’s averaging 16.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.1 assists so far in the playoffs; the only two players who have done that, at his age of 22 or less, in a full postseason are Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.

“He knows what makes him tick, what makes him go,” Butler said. “He knows why he’s playing the game. Spo always says, ‘What’s your why?’ He gets it. He understands. He knows that we need him to play at an extremely high level to be successful. He’s an All-Star, All-Defensive Player. He’s everything for us.”

Adebayo could agree this offseason, whenever free agency starts, to a contract that will set him up for life, set his mother up for whatever she wants as well. He’s already looking at houses for her; these days, she’s got an apartment in the same building where her son lives, just down the street from the arena that the Heat call home.

He doesn’t hide from the past. He doesn’t forget having nothing. It doesn’t embarrass him. It inspires him.

“That competitive nature comes out when I feel like I’m playing bad and when things aren’t going right,” Adebayo said. “I think about how she fought through struggle. I feel like she was in the gym tonight. It was like I could hear her in my ear. I watched her get knocked down and get back up so many times. You see that for 18 years straight, you take that load on and feel that responsibility. And my responsibility is to provide for my mom, and the best way to make sure I can do that is to help us win.”

They’re winning. They’re the surprise of the bubble, in the sense that they’re the lowest seed — Miami was No. 5 in the East — still standing.

Two more wins, and they’ll be going to the NBA Finals. Adebayo knows they’ll be the hardest wins to get.

“It sounds crazy,” Adebayo said. “Think about the beginning of the year, when we were telling everybody, ‘We have a chance, we have a chance.’ I remember having a conversation with a couple guys, playing out how the season was going to go before it started, and they said we were a No. 7, No. 8 seed and would get knocked out in the first round.

“I took that kind of personal,” he added. “You’re not going to sit here and just bash my team like that. We’ve proven to people now that we belong in the playoffs, that we’re taking this head on. We’re underdogs. That’s our mentality.”

He’s been one his whole life.

It seems to work for him — thanks to his mom.

“Watching her, I built my competitive nature,” Adebayo said. “That’s how I learned that the strong survive.”

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the regular season.

That can be easy to forget. Coronavirus caused a lengthy interruption. In the spotlight when play resumed, Antetokounmpo underwhelmed. The Bucks flamed out in the second round.

So, this timing is awkward.

But MVP is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo will deservedly win his second straight.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Antetokounmpo’s performance comes as speculation intensifies about his future in Milwaukee.

He’ll be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. If he bypasses it, he’ll also be eligible for a super-max contract in 2021 free agency.

Because of this award, Antetokounmpo will now also be eligible to sign a super-max deal in 2022 free agency.

Maybe he won’t be a free agent that offseason. But this opens his options if he takes a shorter contract to let league-wide revenue rise post-pandemic and/or further assess the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo has that type of leverage. At just 25, he put himself in the pantheon of players to win consecutive MVPs:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Steve Nash
  • Tim Duncan
  • Michael Jordan
  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Moses Malone
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Bill Russell

Antetokounmpo has a bright future, especially with the mentality to fix his shortcomings. He must polish his skills (and maybe approach) to thrive in the playoffs. But it’s easy to project growth there.

Already, Antetokounmpo has the regular season solved.

He joins Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Fun fact: Jordan’s Bulls also lost in the second round in five games the year he claimed both awards. It got better for Jordan and Chicago from there, eventually.

LeBron and James Harden finished second and third in some order for 2020 MVP. The NBA will officially announce the winner at 2 p.m. Presumably, we’ll also get full voting then.

Report: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown bickered in Celtics’ locker room

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After their Game 2 loss to the Heat last night, the Celtics – especially Marcus Smart – made a commotion in their locker room.

What actually happened?

Apparently, Smart and Jaylen Brown got into it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had a heated confrontation inside that locker room after the Game 2 loss and needed to be separated by teammates, multiple sources told The Athletic.

Sources told The Athletic that Smart stormed into the Celtics postgame locker room saying that other players needed to be held accountable and not simply point the finger toward him when things are going wrong. As Smart continued and his voice grew louder, sources said Brown snapped back and shouted that Celtics players must stay together and that their actions must come as a team, not individually, and that Smart needed to cool off. Those sources added Smart had verbal exchanges with a couple of the assistant coaches during the game.

None of this is new for Smart. Not jawing with a Boston assistant coach during a game. Not getting hot after a loss. Not even clashing with Brown.

This is who he is – sometimes for good, sometimes not. But the same reasons Smart thrives as a feisty player are the same reasons he was going off last night.

Brown, via Justin Leger of NBC Sports Boston:

“He plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most, to be honest. He has that desire and that will and we need him to continue to have that. There’s ups and downs with families all the time. But we embrace each other for who we are. And who Marcus is, I love him for it.”

Brown doesn’t mind a little chaos if it serves a greater purpose. He’s emotionally mature enough to handle this.

But will last night’s incident actually help the Celtics? Maybe it’ll light a fire under them to keep their foot on the gas when leading.

Offensive sets that can beat a zone defense would probably go further, though.

Gordon Hayward reportedly feels good, hopes to return for Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
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After a frustrating come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics need a boost.

Like the return of Gordon Hayward.

That is on track to happen in Game 3, although nothing is official, reports Jared Weiss of The Athletic.

Hayward has been sidelined since he suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He left the bubble for a time to get treatment, but has been back with the team, working out and going through a practice.

Gordon Hayward could be Boston’s X-factor in the conference finals — and his return may be the lift it needs. He gives the Celtics another versatile wing player — along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — who can create his own shot and knock down open looks. Throw in Kemba Walker, and Hayward would be the fourth scoring option for Boston, making the Celtics deep and difficult to defend. Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular-season matchups.