5 Up, 5 Down: At this rate, we won’t have any All-Stars left to play the game

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

How do we even start this week? There’s too much to cover, and I got snubbed from the All-Star Game yet again. Expect to see me send out many crying laugh emojis over Twitter as my compatriots get picked before me as replacements.

It seems like we’ve been trudging along toward the trade deadline since I ran out of candy from my stocking. Winter is typically like this where I live in the Pacific Northwest, but the experience has been worsened by the fact we’ve had extreme highs and extreme lows atypical for this part of the NBA season. I assume this is because the regular season heard us talking about how the offseason in the NBA is so much better and decided to do something about it. So without further ado.

5 Up

Blake Griffin got traded to Detroit, of all places

This is like a trade that happens between two teams you don’t control in NBA 2k around six years into a MyGM mode career. It’s weird, and insane, and would totally never happen in real life. But here we are, and Griffin is now a member of the Detroit Pistons. There’s lots of early talk about how this could be a path to mediocrity for Detroit and that it’s probably better than the alternative. I’d be OK with that. I’d just like this to avoid the most likely scenario, where an aging Griffin doesn’t play more than 60 games each year and it becomes very sad.

LeBron James isn’t likely to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers this summer. Perhaps the Pistons can shed some cap space and get LeBron to head to the Motor City? I’m just looking at all our options here in our new video game existence.

The Atlanta Hawks have Hot Sauce from And 1 Mixtape dropping fans

The Hawks have been doing this for some time and these videos just keep getting better and better. I know people like the Big 3 but maybe we should all just be getting back into And 1?

Joel Embiid: All-Star

Look, there was a time where it seemed likely that Embiid would never play enough games to give us a glimpse of what he could be. He was ripe to be another Greg Oden, so getting him into an All-Star Game was paramount. He’s now there, and he deserves to be. This is one of the best things to happen, even if Philadelphia fans are slowly becoming obnoxious after years of ineptitude.

Whatever happened with that Nikola Mirotic trade

So by last count, the Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans thing fell through because he smartly didn’t want to give up some guaranteed money via a player option. That’s the right move, but the fun part is understanding that if newsbreakers were tweeting that the deal was getting done, it must have been some kind of late-game shock to have Mirotic refuse. He’s been just sitting there as the most obvious candidate for a trade for months, and we got so close to seeing him switch jerseys. This league, man.

David Blatt’s troll backfiring

A bunch of people on Twitter and in comment sections didn’t quite seem to understand the circumstances when former Cavaliers coach David Blatt opened his mouth and served himself up on a platter for the basketball world to see. Cleveland had just let an opponent score 148 points, and so Blatt — coaching an all-star game — decided to say on TV that he hoped his own team did not let that happen to them. His opponent then scored 151. Blatt’s comment, meanwhile, was unprovoked. It was also at an All-Star game, so Blatt knew the chances of being hoist by his own petard.

“It was at an all-star game, it didn’t count!”

Exactly. That was why it was so funny.

5 Down

Everyone is injured

Hide your wife, hide your kids, they’re injuring everybody out here. Just since I started this column Kevin Love decided to up and break his hand. He’s going to miss the All-Star Game. John Wall is getting knee surgery. DeMarcus Cousins is done for the year. If you were an NBA GM right now you’d be considering what brand of packing tape to buy so you could bubble wrap your franchise star up until March. Someone pause the game, open the menu, and turn injuries to OFF.

We didn’t get to watch the All-Star Game draft

Look, it’s understandable from the NBPA’s part that they’d like to protect the reputations and feelings of their players. It’s just that from a basketball fan perspective, that’s undeniably wack. Save for Joel Embiid, each one of these NBA All-Stars is making huge money in team salary alone. That’s not even counting endorsements. Like that gif of Woody Harrelson wiping his tears with money from “Zombie Land” any player getting selected last for the All-Star Game should have his feelings assuaged by millions of dollars. This is also why I never pay attention to the “X player is a TOUGH GUY MURAGHH” talk. Ok, so are they tough guys or are they too sensitive to get picked last in gym for the first time since 5th grade?

Plus, if they aren’t going to televise it, why even have a draft? Nobody is asking for the teams to get mixed up between conferences. That’s not the way the All-Star Game becomes more competitive or interesting. Who told the NBA that? Here I am, all worked up over the worst event during All-Star Weekend. Do we have any self-destructive Cavaliers news to calm me down?

The Cavaliers want NBA players to give them money

Cleveland reportedly had a deal fall through for George Hill because Hill wouldn’t agree to a potential buyout should LeBron James leave this summer. Good for Hill. As Dan pointed out earlier, this has happened before. Ty Lawson did this very thing when he went from Denver to Houston, losing $12 million in the process. If Cleveland doesn’t want to pay the price, they don’t get the spoils. Asking players to straight up give them back money they owe under contract is ridiculous.

The whole Kawhi Leonard fiasco

I don’t even know what to think about this one. I don’t put a lot of credence into the back-and-forth about Leonard wanting out of San Antonio. The first guy to say he wants off the Spurs was LaMarcus Aldridgea notoriously finicky star — and even then Gregg Popovich could convince him to stay. Leonard wanting to leave the guy who turned him into an NBA Finals MVP is crazy. Injuries and pain can aggravate your emotional state, but I just don’t buy it. Not yet. More concerning is that Leonard’s injuries are racking up and that he’s still not playing. Again, I’m not concerned for his long-term health just yet, but the fact that San Antonio could squander a Top 4 seed in the West if they don’t get him back would be a major blow as the Spurs’ championship window begins to finally close.

The All-Star Game winners get more money now (but it doesn’t matter)

The NBA upped the money to the winners of the All-Star Game by $50,000, and cut the losing money in half. First of all, this isn’t that much money to top-level stars. Joel Embiid would probably dig $100,000 but that’s only 12 minutes of regular season play to LeBron James. This needs to either be a whole extra grip of cash, or there needs to be a catch to it. The NBPA stands in the way of most of the fun options — like having the losers pay money out of their own pockets right there on the floor after the game — but there are some left.

What about bonuses for each block? $15,000 per swipe ought to do it. Or statistical team bonuses for multiple key defensive indicators. Keeping true shooting percentage under a level equals $100,000 to each player, say, and they could stack. With all that sweet gambling money coming into the NBA in the future, the league could afford it.

All I know is you can’t give NBA players what amounts to student loan debt after taxes get taken out. NBA players have watches more expensive than that.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.