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Three Things We Learned Sunday: Damian Lillard trying to will Blazers into the playoffs

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Villanova is out. Duke is out. So how bad does your bracket look now? Time to focus on the NBA again for a few days, here’s what you missed on Sunday while you watched Lonzo Ball go off.

1) Damian Lillard flat-out goes off, drops 49 and gets Blazers key win over Heat. Miami is trying to make a playoff push without Dion Waiters, who has been key to the Heat’s second-half run. It means Goran Dragic is going to have to be at his peak nightly and help carry his team’s offense (especially is Erik Spoelstra continues to start Josh Richardson, Luke Babbitt, and Rodney McGruder). Dragic wasn’t that on Sunday (neither was Hassan Whiteside, who also has to step up).

Damian Lillard was ready to carry his team.

In a matchup of two teams fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, the Blazers had the best player on the floor as Lillard went off for 49, drained nine three-pointers, and as a result the Blazers got the win.

With the win, Portland moves within one game of Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

With the loss, Miami remains in a virtual tie with Detroit for the eighth seed in the East, half a game back of Milwaukee and a full game up on 10 seed and stumbling Chicago. Mark your calendars now, Miami travels to Detroit a week from Tuesday in what will be a critical game in that playoff chase.

2) Tony Parker returns, Spurs getting healthy, win again. The Spurs throttled the Kings on Sunday night, picking up an easy win. Which really isn’t news. Nor is the fact that Gregg Popovich decided to spark his team by starting Davis Bertans at the four, sliding LaMarcus Aldridge to center, and sending Dewayne Dedmon back to the bench.

What was interesting is that Tony Parker was back and had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Spurs are going to need this Parker come the playoffs. He has had postseason struggles the past couple of seasons, but Popovich is going to need him after the first round this season is San Antonio is going to be a real threat to come out of the West.


3) Did Lakers start to find something with Jordan Clarkson/D’Angelo Russell backcourt? Maybe. If they start to defend.
Nick Young was out with the flu, so Lakers’ Luke Walton experimented with youth as his starting backcourt against Cleveland Sunday — Jordan Clarkson at the one, D’Angelo Russell at the two.

It worked. Sort of. Russell had a career-high 40 points and had one of this best games of the season.

Russell was knocking down shots, but also working as a playmaker, and playing off of Clarkson (who finished with 19 points).

“We were looking for each other,” Clarkson said. “I was trying to get in the paint, he was being aggressive knocking down shots. We compliment each other’s game when we’re doing that.”

“Jordan, he’s great, he’s very complimentary toward me on the court,” Russell said. “Whatever the coaching staff does I trust it. I run with it.”

This is not the first time Clarkson and Russell have been paired, but the matchup has been a disaster most of the season — outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes. And that pairing was -14 on Sunday because they struggled defensively at times, particularly down the stretch against Kyrie Irving (to be fair, he makes a lot of defenders look bad).

The Lakers are experimenting for the rest of this season, and this experiment is not over.

“Individually, they’ve both make great growth throughout the season but for whatever reason the two of them on the court together, when we’ve tried it, it hasn’t statistically been very goo for us,” Luke Walton said. “But it was good to see that it worked well tonight. We’ll continue to try that lineup going forward and see if we can make that chemistry between the two of them a normal thing.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he’s going to be ‘more vocal’ this season

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Last season’s loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals stung Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So much so that the NBA MVP admitted it took several days for him to be able to sleep at night after he and the Milwaukee Bucks blew a 2-0 lead against the eventual NBA champion Raptors.

Antetokounmpo said his priority during the offseason was to become a better leader, both on and off the court.

“Mostly, you just gotta be more vocal,” Antetokounmpo said. “You gotta lead by example. You gotta be able to accept criticism by your coach, by your teammates, and be OK with it. That’s what a leader does. I know that my team knows who I am. They trust me. They know I’m going to put my body and everything I have on the line for this team. By doing that, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Bucks won a league-best 60 games a season ago, and took home MVP, Coach of the Year (Mike Budenholzer) and Executive of the Year (general manager Jon Horst) honors. But their goal was to bring the city of Milwaukee its first NBA title since 1971. That didn’t happen.

Now, with both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James out west, Kevin Durant on the shelf in Brooklyn and the core of Antetokounmpo, fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, first-team all-defensive guard Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez back together, anything less than another deep playoff run for the Bucks will be deemed a failure.

“The message to the team won’t be that different than what it was going into last season,” said Budenholzer, who is entering his second season in Milwaukee. “Really, our attack point is just what are we doing every day? How are we getting better every day? How are we competing every day? Are we playing unselfishly? Are we playing together? All those things that are just our core beliefs. If we’re doing those on a day-in and day-out basis, the chips will fall where they may.”

The Bucks open the season Oct. 24 in Houston.

Kyle Korver

Bucks guard Kyle Korver said his new team is like a “more organized version” of the Cleveland Cavaliers teams he played on with LeBron James.

“I think that there’s a ton of freedom here for players to do what they do,” he said. “There’s a lot of special talent – unique talent – on this team, and (Budenholzer) gives us a lot of freedom to kind of figure some things out, and we did that in Cleveland, too. Let the great players be great, and just kind of give them space, and we all find our spots to contribute and to be effective.”

Korver signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee in July. The 17-year veteran reunites with Budenholzer, who coached Korver in Atlanta in 2015, when Korver made his only NBA All-Star team and Budenholzer won his first NBA Coach of the Year award.

Korver ranks fourth in NBA history in 3-pointers made with 2,351.

BROGDON OUT, MATTHEWS IN

The Bucks lost former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in free agency. Budenholzer said he thinks the additions of sharpshooter Korver and veteran two-way wing Wes Matthews will help fill the void. Matthews was the 2005 Wisconsin Mr. Basketball and played his college ball at nearby Marquette.

“Coming back home, it’s a sentimental feeling and one you can’t quite describe,” Matthews said. “To see the success, the growth of the city and the growth of the state, what this Bucks team and organization has done, I come back and I don’t even recognize some of this stuff around here. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

BAND OF BROTHERS

Milwaukee will start the season with two pairs of brothers, as Robin Lopez joins twin brother Brook, and Giannis will have his older brother, Thanasis, on the roster. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who last played in the NBA in 2016 for the Knicks, signed a two-year contract in July.

“What a great story for Giannis and Thanasis and Brook and Robin to play together,” Budenholzer said. “There’s probably a few little things that we’ve got to be conscientious of: Make sure that they’re not always together, so on so forth. And Robin and Brook, there’s been a lot of comments about how we’re going to manage them in the locker room.”

DONTE’S PEAK

Milwaukee’s 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo will look to re-establish himself after dealing with a heel injury last season. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 4.9 points on 40.3% shooting in 27 games a season ago.

“(I just want to) keep getting better,” DiVincenzo said. “Keep getting better every day, keep building my confidence, figure my spots because it’s a long year.”

LOOMING QUESTION

How much longer will Giannis Antetokounmpo be in Milwaukee?

Antetokounmpo can be an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that point, the Bucks can offer him a five-year supermax extension. Horst told a crowd at an offseason fan event that he intends to offer the extension to the three-time All-Star (and was fined for saying so by the NBA).

“I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think it’s disrespectful toward my teammates talking about my free agency and what I’m going to do. So when the time is right, we’re all going to talk about it.”

Follow Keith Jenkins on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MrKeithJenkins

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Anthony Davis glad he doesn’t have to shoulder as much of the load with Lakers

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In prior seasons, the New Orleans Pelicans have tried to do everything they can to surround Anthony Davis with the means to succeed. But the Pelicans didn’t have a very good front office, and so while the plan was obvious, Dell Demps’ execution was lacking. Particularly when it came to shooting, New Orleans always failed.

But now David Griffin is in charge and the Pelicans are looking forward. However, they are without Davis, who is with the Los Angeles Lakers. Ironically enough — and not just because of the assets gained in return from L.A. — the Pelicans have a much better roster these days than the Lakers.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Davis from waxing poetic about not having to do everything the way he did in prior seasons in Louisiana. Speaking to Dave McMenamin this week, Davis said he was happy that other players were there to shoulder the load.

Via ESPN:

“It takes a load off me,” Davis said after the Lakers’ 126-93 win — their third victory in three tries against the Warriors this preseason. “It feels good knowing that you don’t have to do much. Everybody has a role, and when you have guys all over the board who can score the basketball, you don’t need to do everything every possession.”

Of course, this isn’t even remotely true. Los Angeles doesn’t have that many players who can score the basketball, and outside of LeBron James, Davis will actually need to do quite a bit to keep possessions going.

L.A.’s problem will be depth and shooting, very similar to the last several years that Davis spent in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have lots of new, good players, including Zion Williamson. They also have JJ Redick, one of the best shooters in NBA history.

It’s nice that Davis feels as though he is finally being supported, but the reality is probably much different. Him trying to compliment the Lakers while taking a swing at the Pelicans, even though Demps is no longer with the organization, is sort of clumsy. There’s ways for Davis to ingratiate himself with Lakers fans without alienating his legacy in New Orleans, and this ain’t it.

Video surfaces of Malik Beasley fighting former NFL player in apartment lobby

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Malik Beasley is still seeking a bigger contract with the Denver Nuggets. He turned down a $30 million extension from Denver earlier this year, and the team has big plans for him in their future. Meanwhile, Beasley recently made headlines for something off the court but not having to do with his contract.

In a video released by TMZ this week, Beasley was seen on CCTV fighting with NFL free agent safety Su’a Cravens in the lobby of an apartment building. According to TMZ, Beasley and Cravens got into an altercation over Montana Yao, an Instagram model and the mother of Beasley’s son.

The incident happened on Aug. 9, and Cravens appeared to be winning until people eventually pulled the two sides apart. Afterward, Cravens could be heard on Snapchat talking about the fight (NSFW).

We don’t have word yet about the legal situation regarding this fight or whether the NBA will seek any punitive measures against Beasley. This point, this incident happened all the way back in August, so if the Nuggets or the NBA were going to do anything about it, it seems like we would have heard something by now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on James Harden MVP debate: ‘The trophy’s in my house’

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is my pick to repeat as MVP in 2020. The Milwaukee Bucks are going to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this year, particularly with Kawhi Leonard no longer a part of the Toronto Raptors. Meanwhile, there has still been some debate about whether Antetokounmpo or James Harden should have taken home the Maurice Podoloff trophy last season.

To that end, Antetokounmpo knows that he has big expectations moving forward for his team in the upcoming season. Nothing short of the NBA Finals will do for Milwaukee, and Antetokounmpo knows he needs to be better. Part of that includes becoming a better 3-point shooter this year.

As for the debate about Harden? Antetokounmpo isn’t hearing any of that.

Via Yahoo Sports:

Harden had a banner year, a historic year offensively and again carried the Rockets into contention.

“That’s their opinion. They’re gonna have James’ back,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m never gonna say I’m better than James.”

But it doesn’t mean he’ll relinquish the award or apologize for it. “The trophy’s in my house,” he said.

That’s the right way to go about this, and is a reasonable response. Both players provide different things on the court for their respective teams, and comparing them against each other is sort of an apples-to-oranges situation given they don’t play the same position.

Milwaukee seems to have a clear path to the NBA finals this season, and so Antetokounmpo might also have an easier time repeating as MVP. Harden will have to deal with possessions going toward newest teammate Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets aren’t exactly a lock to make it deep into the postseason at this juncture.

Antetokounmpo is the 2019 NBA MVP. It’s time to move on.