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

AP
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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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Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.