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Giannis Antetokounmpo: ‘Lot of things have changed’ since last year’s loss to Celtics in playoffs

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Much has changed since the Celtics outlasted the Bucks during their seven-game slugfest in the first round of last year’s NBA playoffs.

For starters, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are both healthy after injuries sidelined them for the entire postseason last year.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a career season and is one of the leading contenders for league MVP honors.

And it is East top-seeded Milwaukee and not Boston that will tipoff Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with home-court advantage and as the favorite to advance to the conference finals.

“A lot of things have changed,” Antetokounmpo said. “They haven’t changed as much. They play great basketball. They defend aggressively. They’re going to play with a lot of pace. Obviously, they have Kyrie this year. We’re just going to go out there, play hard and try to win games.”

And Antetokounmpo has bigger goals than just trying to avenge last year’s first-round loss – though the sting of that setback remains with the Bucks.

“It’s a different situation, but there’s always ego and pride,” he said. “You want to win and avenge the loss last year. I don’t think the guys who were here last year forgot what we went through. We lost Game 7. Hopefully we have that in our mind, focus on what we’ve got to do now and try to win this series. And not repeat what we did last year.”

Milwaukee has thrived in their first season under coach Mike Budenholzer, posting a league-best 60-22 record during the regular season and sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, winning by an average of 24 points per game.

The Celtics had an up and down year but found some missing cohesion during their first-round sweep of Indiana. They’ve been led by big scoring games by Irving, an increased comfort level by Hayward that was missing in the regular season and some late-game poise across the board.

While Irving respects how much the Bucks have improved, he doesn’t see Boston as an underdog just because they are the lower seed.

“To be honest, I don’t really care about the seeding. As long as we’re in there. It’s an even playing field,” he said. “All the regular season stats and the hype around the regular season? You can have it.

“At this point, it’s five versus five, and who’s better at the end of the day.”

Here are some other things to watch for in the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between Boston and Milwaukee:

INJURY UPDATE

Both teams will be short-handed in Game 1. Boston guard Marcus Smart is still recovering from the partial tear to his left oblique abdominal muscle that he suffered on April 7. And Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon is out for Games 1 and 2 as he continues deal with plantar fascia in his right foot.

Smart was originally given a 4- to 6-week recovery window for the injury and sat out the entire first-round series with Indiana. But he was shooting and running sprints after practice on Friday.

Coach Mike Budenholzer said they remain hopeful Brogdon can return at some point during the series.

“He’s been on track but he’s still got some hurdles to cover,” Budenholzer said. “We’ll assess it when we get through this next little wave.”

CLOSE GAMES EXPECTED

The Bucks won two out of the three meetings with Boston during the regular season, with their wins coming by single digits.

Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez believes the familiarity the teams have with each other will play a factor.

“It’s going to be those kind of games where you have to grind it out, earn every possession and you can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “It’s about going out there and outworking the other team.”

NOT JUST ABOUT GIANNIS

As much confidence as the Bucks have in putting the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands, Khris Middleton said they know everyone will have to be playing at their best to close out games against the Celtics.

In their first-round series the Pistons never got within five points of the Bucks in the final five minutes of any of their four games. The Celtics have had only one double-digit win in the series.

“Last year me and Giannis carried a lot of the load. (Eric Bledsoe) too,” Middleton said. This year we’re a complete team from top to bottom. Giannis is going to do his thing, I’m going to do my thing, Bled is going to do his thing. But the supporting cast is much more ready this year to step up and provide big minutes for us.”

Freelancers Bob Schron in Boston and Charles Gardner in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results:

 

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

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Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

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Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.