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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.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.

 

Clippers’ Milos Teodosic opts into $6.3 million for next season

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It was a lot of fun to watch Milos Teodosic play last season…

When he was healthy. He only played in 45 games for the Clippers last season.

Teodosic will be back in the NBA next season, as he has told the Clippers he will opt into a $6.3 million next season, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Clippers can buy him out by July 15 for $2.1 million, and that likely will happen. The Clippers are deep at the point guard spot (Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jawun Evans) and with a lottery rookie in the fold they will want to get him run.

Expect the Clippers to try to trade him in the next three weeks. He would have value to a team looking for a backup point guard — when he did play he averaged 9.5 points per game, shot 37.9 percent from three. The fans will love his passing and play. The coach will like him too… when healthy.

Report: Suns to renounce rights to Alex Len, Elfrid Payton

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The Suns want to free up some cap space heading into July. They are not going big game hunting, but with $10 million to $15 million they could bring in some solid veterans to provide leadership to their young core — and win a few games along the way.

How they get there starts with not bringing back Alex Len or Elfrid Payton, reports Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic.

Expect them to renounce their rights to center Alex Len and point guard Elfrid Payton, making them both free agents. Ayton’s addition has made Len expendable, and while Phoenix still needs point-guard help, Payton’s inconsistent play last season and, more importantly, his $10 million cap hold figure, likely means he’s played his last game in a Suns uniform.

This was expected. In Len’s case, he was playing on a qualifying offer and didn’t anticipate being back with the team (especially after they drafted Deandre Ayton).

The Suns acquired Payton at the trade deadline for a second-round pick (which was just by Orlando to land Jarred Vanderbilt) and it was a good flier. The Suns need a point guard to go next to Devin Booker, Payton is a former lottery pick that had shown flashes in the past, so Phoenix rolled the dice on him. It didn’t work out, and the Suns can just move on.

Both Len and Payton probably find new homes in the NBA next season. Len is 7’1″ and can use that size to protect the paint, plus he can score around the rim. Teams can use that off the bench. Payton has shown enough in flashes, and he can get buckets, that some team will grab him, just probably as a reserve.