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Giannis Antetokounmpo going inside to lift Bucks higher

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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo expected to be a 3-and-D player when he came to the NBA. Though outside shooting is now known as his weakness, he attempted 28% of his shots from beyond the arc as a rookie.

Then, the Bucks hired Jason Kidd.

“Coach Kidd came and told me to not shoot,” Antetokounmpo said. “He did. He told me to not shoot. ‘If you shoot, I’ll take you out.'”

In his first season under Kidd, Antetokounmpo had his 3-point rate plummet under 6%. Forced to contribute other ways, Antetokounmpo started going inside more. The next year, he became a more involved passer. In his fourth season, he won Most Improved Player.

Now, Antetokounmpo is bursting out (again) with a game unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Antetokounmpo is the poster child for futuristic position-less basketball. Basketball-Reference lists his position as “Shooting Guard and Power Forward and Point Guard and Small Forward.” The only traditional position missing: center.

Yet – despite being listed at 6-foot-11, 222 pounds – the slender Antetokounmpo is scoring inside like an old-school center. He’s averaging 19.6 points in the paint per game. Here’s the leaderboard for points in the paint since 1997 (as far back as NBA.com records go):

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Antetokounmpo is a terror in transition – quick with long strides. He gets to the rim faster than Shaq ever did, but the Milwaukee star still spends more than his fair share of time bumping with behemoths inside. His footwork has advanced, and his length is a weapon for getting off shots from atypical angles.

“He goes and gets to his strength no matter what his opponent is trying to do,” Kidd said. “He understands what he has to do. And he’s been the one that has hit first.”

Antetokounmpo didn’t realize how physically taxing this style would be, but as usual, he’s listening to his coach.

“It’s hard,” Antetokounmpo said. “It gets harder every night, because every night, they bump you, they hit you. But that’s what I do. I’ve got to keep doing it.”

Burlier players Dwight Howard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Jefferson and Amar’e Stoudemire are the only others besides Shaq to record more than even 14 points per game in the paint over a full season. (LeBron James and Anthony Davis are also on pace this season).

Antetokounmpo separates himself with his passing ability. Double-team him, and he has the vision to swing the ball to an open teammate. The Bucks have become accustomed to making the next play – not just an open jumper, but a drive or pass – against a scrambled defense.

Now, they just traded for Eric Bledsoe, who should only help – both when Antetokounmpo plays and when he rests. Milwaukee plays at a 43-win pace with Antetokounmpo on the floor and an 8-win pace without him. If Bledsoe boosts that latter mark, it’d go a long way toward the Bucks (4-5) making the playoffs and Antetokounmpo winning MVP.

Antetokounmpo has put himself firmly in the conversation. His 31.0 points per game lead the league, and his 9.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks are eye-popping. His combination of load (34.1% usage) and efficiency (64.3% true shooting) is unprecedented.

He might even be the MVP front-runner. If he maintains these incredible marks – not to be assumed, given we’re dealing with a small sample size early – he might just need the Bucks to win enough to claim the award.

Antetokounmpo is also in the running for another honor: Most Improved Player.

Even after winning last year, Antetokounmpo has vaulted his play to another level. Though his all-around game deserves plaudits, many postseason honors become one-dimensional – and Antetokounmpo has that dimension covered. His scoring average has increased by 8.1 (from 22.9 to 31.0), one of the biggest improvements in the league:

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Most Improved Player winners have never placed higher than 12th in a future season (1990 winner Rony Seikaly in 1997 with a single vote). Though he’s a longshot to win with Kristaps Porzingis looking like the early favorite, Antetokounmpo has a chance to best Seikaly’s finish.

That’d be nice recognition for someone who has put in so much work to get stronger, smarter and more skilled. Though still thin, Antetokounmpo never could’ve handled playing in the paint so much as the beanpole who entered the NBA. His ability to read defenses has taken his passing ability from a nice tool to a feared weapon. He has also improved his free-throw and jump shooting, keeping defenses honest.

Yes, his hands are huge. Yes, his strides are unbelievably long. Yes, his natural fluidity is downright unfair.

But his nickname – Greek Freak – sells him short. Antetokounmpo earned this.

Of course, any implied slight, intentional or not, from his nickname doesn’t bother him. He shakes it off like a defender in the paint.

“A lot of it could be called freakish, the things I do on the court. I might take a dribble from the halfcourt and finish and stuff like that,” Antetokounmpo said. “But, at the end of the day, I know I’m a smart player.”

Luka Doncic greets Mexico City fans in Spanish, a tough act for Blake Griffin to follow (video)

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The Pistons had a rough time in Mexico.

Andre Drummond suffered an allergic reaction to avocado. Detroit lost to the Mavericks. And Blake Griffin had to follow Luka Doncic in addressing Mexico City fans.

A Slovenian, Doncic spent several years playing for Real Madrid in Spain. We knew that prepared him for the NBA. We didn’t know it prepared him this well.

‘Seinfeld’ predicted last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game 28 years ago (video)

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On a 1991 episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry woke up in the middle of the night with a joke idea for his stand-up routine. He scribbled it down on paper by his bed. But when he woke the next morning, he couldn’t read what he had written.

George suffered what he thought was a heart attack. On Kramer’s advice, George visited a holistic healer.

The storylines converged when Jerry, accompanying his friend to mock alternative medicine, asked the healer to read his note. The healer read it, laughed and said:

“Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109”

The score of last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game?

Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”

Andre Drummond suffers allergic reaction to avocado with Pistons playing in Mexico

Andre Drummond
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The NBA sent the wrong team to Mexico.

There to face the Mavericks last night, Pistons center Andre Drummond couldn’t even enjoy a local treat.

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Drummond toughed it out and played.

His reward? Getting dunked on by a mean-mugging Kristaps Porzingis in a 122-111 Detroit loss.