Prepare for high-stakes and high-level Eastern Conference second round

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Two of these sets of players will enter free agency coming off a second-round loss:

If Milwaukee loses that early, will ownership pay the luxury tax to keep this team intact? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo remain happy with the organization’s direction?

If Toronto loses that early, will Leonard stay and make Masai Ujiri’s huge bet pay off? If Leonard leaves, will the Raptors – the oldest Eastern Conference team this postseason, weighted by playing time – rebuild?

If Philadelphia loses that early, will the front office and in-season acquisitions Butler and Harris find common ground? If either forward leaves, how much more pressure will that add to the already-somewhat strained Joel EmbiidBen Simmons pairing?

If Boston loses that early, will Irving bolt for the Knicks or some other team? If the Celtics view Irving as even an increased flight risk, will they still aggressively try to trade for Anthony Davis?

The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs could shape the entire NBA landscape for years to come.

And the games should be pretty good, too.

Beyond all the long-term considerations at play, there’s an immediate incentive – a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks and 76ers both last got that far in 2001. The Raptors have made it only once in franchise history, 2016, when they suffered the most-lopsided six-game loss in NBA history. The Celtics have appeared in the last two Eastern Conference finals, but after all their turbulence this season, returning would be a nice achievement.

Advancing won’t be easy. Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston are each capable of, not only winning its upcoming series, but winning a title this year with the right breaks. The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team throughout the season. The Raptors’ postseason rotation, which includes includes in-season addition Marc Gasol, looks elite. The 76ers and Celtics have the requisite talent. Even if it’s getting late for it to jell, there’s still time.

Milwaukee (60-22), Toronto (58-24), Philadelphia (51-31) and Boston (49-33) give the East such a strong second round, it’d pass for a Western Conference second round.

Not only were all four teams good in the regular season, they kicked it up a notch in the first round. The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) swept. The Raptors (vs. Magic) and 76ers (vs. Nets) won in five. And most of those games weren’t even close. The four series winners outscored their opponents by 14 points per game – the largest disparity ever in a conference’s first round.

Combing Milwaukee’s, Toronto’s, Philadelphia’s and Boston’s regular-season and first-round games, the four teams have outscored opponents by 6.0 points per game. That’s the best mark by an East’s final four in a decade and one of the best ever for either conference.

Here is the combined scoring margin of second-round teams by year/conference since the NBA implemented a 16-team postseason in 1984. Teams are listed with their seed:

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Not just good teams, the East’s second round features good matchups.

The Milwaukee-Boston is a rematch of last year’s first-round series, which the Celtics won in seven games. Boston wants to prove Antetokounmpo was wrong when he called the Bucks the better team after the series. This is a shot at redemption for Milwaukee point guard Eric Bledsoe, who got shown up last year.

The Bucks excel at defending the paint, but the Celtics are content shooting jumpers, anyway. In clutch situations, Irving is far better at creating his own shot than anyone else in this series. As good as Milwaukee is, Boston presents a particularly tough matchup.

In the other series, Embiid has dominated these playoffs. But Gasol is a formidable foe, an on-ball interior defender Brooklyn lacked.

Yet, as much as their roster has changed, it’s still tough to completely trust the Raptors in the postseason – especially considering they dropped Game 1 to Orlando. Not that the 76ers have earned benefit of the doubt at this level, either. Both teams are trying to establish themselves.

It should be great.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.