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Giannis Antetokounmpo, surging Bucks end 2018 with NBA’s best record

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Dynamic offense jump-started the Milwaukee Bucks’ season. Tighter defense has propelled them to the best record in the NBA.

The Bucks are 15 games over .500, and impressive beginning for Mike Budenholzer’s tenure as Milwaukee’s head coach.

Now comes the tough part: staying on top.

“At the end of the day, we can’t be satisfied,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We’re the No. 1 team in the East, but we got to keep pushing.”

True, there are no championships awarded in December.

But the rest of the season looks promising

Antetokounmpo is having an MVP caliber season. He is averaging 26.6 points and 12.8 rebounds, while scoring on 66 percent of his two-point shots thanks to length and athleticism that makes him nearly unstoppable in the paint.

He’s a gym rat and his work ethic is contagious. Antetokounmpo was drafted by the Bucks in the first round in 2013, which was also the year that Chris Middleton arrived from Detroit in a trade. The Bucks finished 15-67 in 2013, a franchise low point.

Times have changed.

Slowly but surely, they’ve been on the rise, with Antetokounmpo and Middleton at the core.

Milwaukee improved to 25-10 after a 14-point win on Saturday over the Brooklyn Nets, which gave the Bucks the best record in the NBA, percentage points ahead of Toronto. The Bucks are off to their best start since finishing 52-30 in the 2000-01 season.

“Each year we’ve been growing as a group,” Middleton said. “A lot of faces are changing but the mindset … keep growing each day.”

They’ve taken a major step forward this season with the arrival of Budenholzer.

The former coach of the Atlanta Hawks has instituted a system that spreads the floor, while encouraging ball movement and smart 3-point shooting. It plays to Antetokounmpo’s strength of taking defenders off the dribble.

Doubling Antetokounmpo leaves opponents at risk of leaving open shooters at the 3-point arc. The addition of Brook Lopez, a 7-foot center who can shoot 3s, gives defenses another matchup headache.

“We really tried to pack the paint and they punished us with 3s. … It’s pick your poison,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after the Bucks beat Brooklyn on Saturday behind a 21-of-51 effort (41 percent) from the 3-point line. Lopez was 7 of 15 from the arc, finishing with 24 points.

Defense, though, was the focus in the December, when Milwaukee went 10-4. They averaged 111.0 points a game in the month, 10.1 less than the previous month. But the 104.6 points allowed in December were 8.5 less than November.

Budenholzer, in part, credited his team’s adjustment to playing physical while limiting fouls.

“The effort off the ball and guarding screening situations … to be in that top group of teams, you’ve got to do it at a high, high level on a regular basis consistently for 48 minutes,” he said. “Now the challenge is to not take a step backward, or have a lull on either end, hopefully.”

The Bucks have made the playoffs three out of the last four years, though they haven’t finished higher than the sixth seed. They’re learning to play as favorites, though Budenholzer doesn’t change his philosophy after the quick start.

“I kind of have the same boring answer – it’s to come to work every day. The same approach … wherever we are in the standings,” Budenholzer said.

But the coach knows how tough it is to play at a high level each night, and the challenge of getting it done in the playoffs. He led the Hawks to the No. 1 seed in the East in the 2014-15 season, but were swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs and didn’t reach the NBA Finals.

“They’ve got to come in to expect the best from everybody, every night. I’m not quite as into the `you’re hunted’ or have a target (on your back) or all that stuff,” Budenholzer said of his Bucks. “I think everybody comes to win every night.”

Buddy Hield fuels 76ers trade rumor

Kings guard Buddy Hield vs. 76ers
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A rumor emerged about the Kings trading Buddy Hield to the 76ers. It didn’t seem particularly credible.

But then Hield himself liked this Instagram post promoting a potential trade and apparently made a pro-Philadelphia comment on Instagram:

Hield previously laid the groundwork for an offseason trade request. He seemed unhappy at times in Sacramento this season, losing his starting job and even riding the bench when the Kings needed a 3-pointer.

The 76ers could use more shooting – especially if they hire Mike D’Antoni. Hield would definitely add value. A lineup where Hield and Josh Richardson defend guards and Ben Simmons plays point guard offensively and defends a frontcourt player is intriguing.

Hield is set to earn $24,931,817 next season in the first year of a four-year extension. That’s in the range of Tobias Harris ($34,358,850) and Al Horford ($27,500,000).

However, Horford’s trade value is at rock bottom. Tobias Harris would add only so much value to Sacramento, which already has Harrison Barnes.

Kings fans can hope for Ben Simmons ($28,750,000) or Joel Embiid ($29,542,010). But those stars are FAR more valuable than Hield. Besides, the 76ers said they wouldn’t trade Simmons or Embiid (though it’s unclear who exactly is running the show in Philadelphia).

Regardless of whether the Kings and 76ers could connect on a trade, Hield making these public gestures is an issue in Sacramento. It’s on new Kings general manager Monte McNair to manage this. After years of supporting Daryl Morey with the Rockets, this is a new challenge – being in charge while a player makes waves – for McNair.

Relatedly, McNair must also handle Bogdan Bogdanovic‘s impending restricted free agency. These look like warning shots from Hield as Sacramento determines its priorities at shooting guard.

Report: Philadelphia ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as next coach

Mike D'Antoni 76ers
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Philadelphia 76ers ownership (led by Josh Harris) reportedly has been very hands-on in picking the team’s new coach — even if that means a new direction for the roster. That hands-on style reportedly why ownership likes Elton Brand as GM and may balk at bringing in a big-name president of basketball operations — that person would want total control of basketball decisions. Right now, ownership is pulling a lot of those levers.

And ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach in Philadelphia, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have been saying since last week that the job is D’Antoni’s to turn down. They say he’s the guy the ownership group wants. One source even said the 69-year-old would have to bomb his interview with the Sixers owners not to be offered the job.

The problem is that Brand is supposed to have a huge input on the hire. The ownership is only supposed to approve or deny Brand’s suggestion. Now, word is leaking out that Brand is pushing hard for the Sixers to hire D’Antoni and that Joel Embiid gave his blessing. In addition, there are reports that the Sixers will make trades if D’Antoni is hired. The expectation is that he’ll have a say in picking players for his freewheeling style of play.

With Billy Donovan taking over in Chicago, the list of top candidates for the Philadelphia job seems down to two: Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni. Lue would be the conventional choice, a guy who would try to make it work with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together, along with Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. Roster tweaks would be coming, but with Lue the idea would be making better use of the roster and style the 76ers have already built.

D’Antoni would be a radical change of direction — he is coming from a team that just started 6’7″ Robert Covington at center. The current 76ers roster would need changes to fit with D’Antoni’s freewheeling ways, and even then the coach would need to adapt what he wants to do. (No contract is untradeable, but moving the four-years, $147.2 million left on Harris’ deal, or the three years and $81 million on Horford’s contract, would require Philly to throw in a lot of sweeteners.)

D’Antoni would mean another change of direction in Philly, but that seems to be what ownership wants.

Bam Adebayo on injury: “I’m good,” expects to play in Game 5 Friday

Bam Adebayo injury
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In the final minutes of Miami’s Game 4 win, while Tyler Hero was knocking down shots and Jimmy Butler was getting to the line, Miami‘s Bam Adebayo was dealing with an injury, walking around holding his wrist, his arm dragging. He had gotten tangled up with Daniel Theis under the basket and clearly injured something.

The questions raised post game were about what happened, how serious it was, and could Adebayo be out for Game 5 on Friday? There was nothing official from the team but it looks like he will play, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press and Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel.

Adebayo had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4, and his play is critical to Miami’s game plan against Boston. His ability to protect the rim at one end, then come out high to set screens and pull Theis out of the paint on the other end, is at the heart of what the Heat want to do in this series. If he is even slowed in Game 5 it is an advantage for Boston.

This time of year, and with the Heat one game away from the NBA Finals, no chance he sits if he can at all play.

LeBron James: Neighbor’s walls, not Breonna Taylor, got justice

Lakers star LeBron James
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Louisville police officers were not charged with killing Breonna Taylor. However, former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing firing recklessly into nearby apartments during the incident.

That outcome left NBA players unsatisfied.

LeBron James:

The emotions LeBron – and many others – are feeling are completely understandable. This was a tragedy. Faced with an obvious injustice, it’s easy to demand the harshest-imaginable punishment. That didn’t come.

But it is not too late to address the injustices – which were always far larger than the officers at the scene returning fire – at play in Taylor’s death.