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Three Things to Know: MVP showdown between Harden, Giannis won by Eric Bledsoe

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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) MVP showdown between James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, won by Eric Bledsoe. And Bucks. Chris Paul is right: No self-respecting MVP voter should base his or her decision on the winner of a season-long award on what happens in one game.

Because if you did that for this game Eric Bledsoe is your MVP.

In a much-hyped showdown of elite teams led by the front running MVP candidates James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe was the best player on the court. The Milwaukee guard scored 23 points on the night — 16 in a critical third-quarter run when the Bucks pulled away — leading Milwaukee to a 108-94 win over Houston.

For the record, The MVP candidates had good if unspectacular nights. Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, while Harden had 23 points.

However, Harden’s 23 came on 9-for-26 shooting and just 1-of-9 from three. Bledsoe’s hounding defense was part of that. As he did the first time these teams met in January, Bledsoe parked himself on Harden’s left shoulder and gave him an open driving lane to the rim (where Brook Lopez or Antetokounmpo waited to try to block or alter the shot). What that does is take away the step-back three (specifically the preferred step back to the left) that has fueled Harden’s run this season. What Bledsoe and the Bucks also did well was not foul, Harden attempted only five free throws in a game where the referees let the teams play a little. (There were Rockets fans complaining about that on Twitter, to which I would say welcome to playoff basketball.)

There are two takeaways from this game. One is that Chris Paul’s crossover is still nasty.

The more important takeaway is the Bucks have a better team than the Rockets.

That was evident when the sides met in January, another Milwaukee victory. Antetokounmpo and his team can win a game with defense. Also, the Greek Freak has help with not just scoring but also playmaking duties, plus the system Mike Budenholzer installed in Milwaukee leads to buckets when well executed. Harden’s workload and burden with these Rockets are insane, while Antetokounmpo can trust teammates such as All-Star Khris Middleton (or even a good shooting night from Pat Connaughton, who had 14) to step up in the clutch.

How MVP voters factor all of that into their decision is the more challenging question.

2) Orlando moves into playoff position with a win over Miami. Look at the playoff chase at the bottom of the East, where 2.5 games separate the six seed Nets and the 10 seed Hornets

Orlando took a big step toward securing one of those playoff spots by knocking off Miami on Tuesday, with Nikola Vucevic’s 24 points (and 16 rebounds) leading every Magic starter in double-figure scoring.

That win — on a back-to-back for the Magic no less — moved Orlando into the eight seed (and the final playoff spot), half a game ahead of Miami. Because of Orlando’s softer schedule the rest of the way, fivethirtyeight.com’s projection model gives the Magic an 80 percent chance of making the postseason (it has Orlando and Brooklyn tied at 40-42 for the final two playoff spots).

Charlotte, however, will not go away. Led by Kemba Walker — 38 points, 11 in overtime — the Hornets came from behind to beat the defenseless (at least on the road for some reason) San Antonio Spurs, 125-116 in overtime.

That’s four straight wins for Charlotte, which is projected to have just an 18 percent chance of making the playoffs, but this team has defied the odds all season. In a tightly bunched East, anything can happen.

3) Chris Bosh gives an emotional speech as his jersey is retired in Miami. In Toronto, Chris Bosh was The Man. He was scoring 24 points a game, was the focal point of the team’s offense, was the marketing face of the franchise, and he was an All-Star.

He gave all that up to win.

Bosh came to Miami with LeBron James to join Dwayne Wade, and it was Bosh more than the others who had to make sacrifices. He radically changed his game. That final season in Toronto Bosh got 35 percent of his shot attempts around the rim and took one three about every three games. However, Miami needed floor spacing around the slashers in LeBon and Wade, so Bosh worked on his game to become a good three-point shooter. Bosh worked on his defense to become one of the best pick-and-roll stopping big men in the game. He did what it took to win, to bring two championships to Miami.

Tuesday night, Miami rewarded him by retiring his jersey. Bosh, always a class act, was clearly moved and gave a thoughtful and touching speech.

Blood clots in his legs ended Bosh’s career prematurely, and that was understandably hard to deal with for him. Bosh has finally come to peace with that, he has moved on to other things in his life and focused on his family.

It’s good to see the 11-time All-Star recognized. It was well deserved.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.