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Mike Budenholzer bolsters Bucks

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The Bucks had a superstar. They had another borderline All-Star. They had a solid supporting cast.

And now they have a workable vision.

Milwaukee made the biggest coaching upgrade of the year, going from Jason Kidd/interim Joe Prunty to Mike Budenholzer. Add a couple complementary signings, and the Bucks are coming together.

The Celtics, Raptors and 76ers are in the Eastern Conference’ post-LeBron James first class. Milwaukee fits into the next tier with the Pacers, but an ascension to the top tier appears more likely than a drop lower.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is elite. Khris Middleton is underrated. The rest of the rotation is solid throughout.

The goal must be ending a 17-year playoff-series-victory drought, the NBA’s longest going.

Budenholzer should help. The Bucks got him with the Raptors in hot pursuit, a coup for small-market Milwaukee. (An aside: Would Budenholzer have picked Toronto if he knew Kawhi Leonard would be there?) Budenholzer is not the NBA’s best coach, but he needn’t be.

Whatever innovation Kidd’s switching defense brought, opponents had mostly solved it. His offensive philosophy was dated. And he’d worn out relationships with his players.

Budenholzer had a strong record of player development with the Hawks. His defenses have been sound. And his offense is modern.

To that end, the Bucks signed stretch bigs Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez.

Ilyasova was surprisingly expensive. Milwaukee guaranteed him $7 million each of the next two seasons, and he has an early guarantee date (two days after the 2020 draft) for his $7 million salary the following year. But he just knows how to play. Ilyasova is a good shooter and heady defender who takes advantage of his keen understanding of positioning with a willingness to take charges.

Lopez was a bargain on a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. He might start at center. At minimum, he’s more dependable than Thon Maker. Lopez has quickly become one of the NBA’s better 3-point-shooting centers, and he’s a solid interior defender.

Budenholzer knows how to effectively spread the floor using bigs like Ilyasova and Lopez. And Milwaukee already had good backcourt shooters in Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s downright scary how much space Antetokounmpo will have, whether it’s attacking one-on-one or in pick-and-rolls with Eric Bledsoe.

Landing Ilyasova and Lopez came at a cost, though. The Bucks let Jabari Parker walk, a historically quick exit for the former No. 2 pick.

The failure to get nothing for him can’t be pinned solely on this offseason. Matching the Bulls’ $20 million salary for him wouldn’t have necessarily been wise. Considering Milwaukee’s obvious unwillingness to pay the luxury tax, it was untenable.

But how did the Bucks not see this coming? Why didn’t they move Parker before the trade deadline? And why did they allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the latter stages of his free agency?

Parker’s two-year deal with Chicago wouldn’t have been possible as an offer sheet, which is required for restricted free agents. The contract contains a team option, and offer sheets must be for at least two years not counting options. If Milwaukee kept Parker restricted – even without an intention to match – the Bulls would have been forced to sign him to a different contract, one not as favorable to them or Parker. Chicago probably would have just made the second year unguaranteed – a small, but noteworthy, difference. But the Bulls never had to make that choice, because the Bucks let Parker become unrestricted.

Chicago isn’t close to challenging the Bucks. But Antetokounmpo is just 23. The Bulls could definitely become competitive during Antetokounmpo’s prime, and Milwaukee – out of kindness to Parker or fealty to his agent, Mark Bartelstein – made it easier for them to build.

The Bucks also drafted Donte DiVincenzo with the No. 17 and signed Pat Connaughton for slightly more than the minimum. I don’t expect either to contribute much this year.

Antetokounmpo gives Milwaukee a wide-open window. Middleton and Bledsoe are headed toward unrestricted free agency next summer, and the 2019 offseason will go a long way in shaping this team long-term.

But the Bucks have a serious chance this year to have their best season in a long time, and that matters.

They were always due to take a step forward next season. Their moves this summer just push them along a little more.

Offseason grade: B-

James Harden has now had a 30+ point game vs. every other team this season

Associated Press
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James Harden had a streak of 32 games in a row where he scored at least 30 points a night, the second longest streak in NBA history. It was a run of games that propelled the Rockets from being a below .500 team sitting 13th in the West into a solid playoff team in the conference, and it shot Harden into serious MVP consideration.

However, streak did not include all 29 other NBA teams.

Going into Tuesday night Harden had dropped 30+ on 28 teams, but the Atlanta Hawks — the team that broke the streak back in February — were not on the list. That changed Tuesday night when Harden scored 31 on Atlanta in a Rockets’ win.

Atlanta has some quality defenders on the roster, but it doesn’t matter vs. Harden, who did this to Kent Bazemore.

Harden hit another milestone Tuesday: He has now has attempted more threes in a season than any player in NBA history.

Stephen Curry had the record at 886 during the 2015-16 season, but with his 4-of-11 shooting from deep on Tuesday Harden is now up to 890. And counting. He’s shooting 35.5 percent on them, by the way.

Brook Lopez plays the hero, dislodges ball from high above backboard (VIDEO)

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Brook Lopez is a tall man. That comes in handy in the NBA, from time to time.

Of course Lopez has been a tough cover his entire career as a legitimate 7-footer, but on Tuesday night as his Milwaukee Bucks took on the Los Angeles Lakers, his height helped in another, different way.

Early in the second quarter, a ball got stuck on top of the backboard where a swiveling camera sits to record the game action. Officials couldn’t start the clock until the ball was unstuck, so Lopez sprung into action.

Via Twitter:

Not all heroes wear capes.

This wasn’t the show this guy wanted, but at least it was worth the nearly $7,000 he paid to see LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo go head-to-head.

Watch Patrick Beverley drop Bojan Bogdanovic with move, stick dagger in Pacers

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Usually Lou Williams is the closer for the Clippers. Occasionally Danilo Gallinari will stick the dagger in a team with a three ball. Patrick Beverley? He’s the defensive stopper and emotional leader, not the closer out of the pen.

Except against the Pacers.

Down three and needing a stop late in the fourth, Indiana followed the scouting report beautifully and doubled Williams as he came off the high screen. Gallinari’s man never left him. So Williams passed back to Patrick Beverley, and when Bojan Bogdanovic tried to recover Beverley dropped him, drove the lane, and nailed the floater to end the Pacers chances.

Beverley has that floater in his bag, it’s a trusted shot.

The Clippers are going to make the playoffs, and while they may not win a round whatever team lands them is going to be in for a physical, tough series that will take something out of them.

Three Things to Know: D’Angelo Russell’s 27 in fourth sparks Nets 25-point comeback win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) D’Angelo Russell’s 27 in fourth sparks, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s circus shot completes Nets’ 25-point comeback on Kings. Heroes in the NBA can come from the most unlikely places.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had fallen out of Brooklyn’s rotation. He got a DNP-CD four of the last six games, and the two games he got on the court it was only in garbage time. He had become an afterthought.

However, on Tuesday, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was frustrated. His Brooklyn team was getting outworked and outhustled by the Kings in a game the Nets needed — lose this and just two games (one in the loss column) would have separated Brooklyn and missing the playoffs. Yet the Nets were flat and down 24 with 4:53 left in the third quarter when Atkinson turned to the bench and put Hollis-Jefferson in looking for a spark. He didn’t get it immediately (Hollis-Jefferson’s first play was a turnover), the Nets were down 25 points at the start of the fourth.

That’s when D’Angelo Russell took over — he scored 27 points in the fourth (of his career-high 44), much of it in transition as the Nets pushed off misses right back at the fast-paced Kings. Russell attacked — he was 6-of-7 inside 8 feet of the rim in the fourth — but also was 4-of-7 from three.

It was an epic comeback that saw a Jared Dudley three put the Nets in the lead for the first time.

But it ultimately took a circus shot from Hollis-Jefferson to get the win. The play was designed for Russell (as it should have been) but De’Aaron Fox did a good job of ball denial, so with time running down Russell yelled “go!” and Hollis-Jefferson went at Marvin Bagley III, then got the circus shot to fall.

This loss was essentially the final dagger in the Kings’ already dying playoff dreams, and you could hear that in the voice of the Kings’ announcers on that final shot.

The Nets won the fourth quarter 45-18. The game before against the Clippers the Nets had made a comeback with a 10-0 run in the final 1:02, only to have Lou Williams spoil the comeback with a game winner. Tuesday night it was the Nets’ turn.

Brooklyn is going to make the playoffs and be a tough out for somebody in the first round.

Russell is a restricted free agent who is going to get PAID this summer.

2) James Harden has now had a 30+ point game on every other team in NBA this season. Which is the more impressive feat from James Harden:

That he has now scored 30 points on all 29 other teams in the NBA this season, a feat he capped off by dropping 31 on the Hawks’ Tuesday in a win.

Or that he has now has taken more threes in a season than any player in NBA history. Stephen Curry had the record at 886 during the 2015-16 season, but with his 11 on Tuesday Harden is now up to 890 attempts. And counting. He’s shooting 35.5 percent on them, by the way.

Or maybe his best play of the night is what Harden did to Kent Bazemore.

We’re going to go with the 30-points on all 29 teams as being the more impressive. The last guy to drop 30+ on every team was Michael Jordan, but that was “just” 27 teams because the league expanded in 2004.

Either way, it’s been an MVP-level season (whether he wins the award or not he played well enough to get it).

3) Doc Rivers is not going to coach the Lakers, signs extension with Clippers. Luke Walton is going to be the fall guy for a disappointing — or if you prefer, disastrous — Lakers’ season. He’s not blameless, but he’s also not the primary reason the Lakers have fallen so far short of expectations. Still, someone’s head has to roll, and the conventional wisdom around the league says it will be Walton.

If/when the Lakers fire Walton, who are they going to get that’s better? What coach can they bring in that LeBron James will instantly respect and trust? What coach will they find who the players want to play for and who puts them in positions to succeed?

That guy is already at Staples Center — Doc Rivers of the Clippers. Which has led to rumors and speculation the Lakers would target him this summer.

Rivers shot that all down Tuesday night, saying he signed an extension to stay with the Clippers.

To be clear, Doc River signed an extension with the Clippers last May, but both sides had an opt-out after this season. Rivers and Ballmer talked, got rid of the opt-out, and extended the deal even further.

Rivers knows the Clippers are in a good spot — they start three guys age 21 or younger, they are going to be in the mix for major free agents, and they have an owner who both helped turn the franchise culture around and is willing to pay for the best to win. Rivers knows a good situation when he sees one and he’s not leaving it.

It’s going to be interesting to see what direction the Lakers go next summer when getting their new coach.