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Three Things to Watch: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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Which team do you believe is for real?

The Boston Celtics, with their defense, well-rounded roster, length, athleticism, All-NBA talent in Kyrie Irving, and the flashes of what could be (in the midst of a muddled season).

Or the Milwaukee Bucks, with their MVP-to-be talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, their length, their shooting, their elite defense — is this team just a regular-season monster or can they carry it over to the postseason?

After this series, one of these teams will be seen as the real deal, and the other will have some soul searching — and roster tweaking — to do before next season. Here are three things to keep an eye on when these teams meet starting Sunday in Milwaukee.

1) Al Horford has to have a big series. On both ends. As Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith said on this week’s PBT Podcast, Al Horford is not the best Celtic but he’s the most important. That has never been truer than this series.

Defensively, he has done as good a job as any player could be expected to do on the Greek Freak. Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo is going to get his, but like all the elite players the best a team can hope for is to make that player work for it and be a little less efficient. The Pacers couldn’t do it in the first round.

Horford has done that as well as anyone. When Horford has defended Antetokounmpo this season, the Celtics have outscored the Bucks.

Offensively, don’t expect Brad Stevens to stick with the two-big, Aron Baynes and Horford lineups like he did in the previous series. It’s just not a good matchup here. Offensively, the Celtics struggle to score when both are on the floor: Against the Pacers in the first round, the Celtics had an offensive rating of just 90.3 when Baynes and Horford played together and were actually a -5 in those minutes (and the Bucks defense is much better than the Pacers). Also, what the Bucks what to do defensively is keep Brook Lopez back in the paint to clog things up on drives, Baynes gives Lopez a guy that will not space the floor and allows him to stay back and play to the Bucks’ strengths.

Instead, expect a lot of Horford at center and shooters everywhere (Gordon Hayward will get a lot of run), so Lopez has to come out on the perimeter and driving lanes open up. Horford setting the screen and running a pick-and-pop with Irving or Jayson Tatum could be the staple of Boston’s attack, and Horford needs to hit those jumpers (and threes) to make it all work. The Bucks will likely counter with Antetokounmpo on Horford in the clutch, but that will mean Lopez on Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward, and they need to hit their threes and pull Lopez out of the paint.

If Horford has a huge series, the Celtics have a chance.

2) Can Boston slow Antetokounmpo without leaving shooters wide open? This is the problem every team faces against Milwaukee: Nobody can stop the Greek Freak one-one-one, but once help is sent a shooter — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe — is left open. Those Bucks shooters are not just catch-and-shoot guys, they can put the ball on the floor, get inside and punish mismatches, or make plays in other ways.

Boston’s answer in part will be Horford. As detailed above, he is going to have a significant role and get critical minutes on Antetokounmpo. However, expect Semi Ojeleye to become Brad Steven’s other weapon to throw at Antetokounmpo, probably more and more as the series goes on. Because Ojeleye is up to the task.

If Boston can slow Antetokounmpo, just make him work and be less efficient rather than the guy who had 279 dunks this season, the Celtics take a huge step toward winning this series. However, every team this season tried that in some variation — including Detroit in the first round — and the Bucks ended up with the best record in the NBA and a first-round sweep. It will not be easy for the Celtics.

3) Which team finds offense against an elite defense? Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, Boston was sixth best. Both teams allowed their opponent less than a point per possession in the first round.

These are two elite defensive teams and points are going to be hard to come by. The team that is best able to break through the defense and get steady Buckets will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston’s offense is going to get threes, particularly from above the break — the Bucks defense is about sagging back and rim protection, they will surrender those looks. Knock them down (Boston shot 37.1 percent from there this season, above the league average) and it will pull out defenders, opening up driving lanes for Kyrie Irving to cause damage, and for Jayson Tatum to get to the rim as well. The other thing to watch when Boston has the ball: Milwaukee does not like to switch screens, they do less than just about every team in the league, but that too could open up opportunities for Irving and Tatum to attack, but they have to finish. Do those things and it takes the Bucks out of their comfort zone, and we’ll see how Mike Budenholzer and his charges adapt.

Expect the Bucks to defensively go at Irving, the weakest link in the Celtics’ chain. Milwaukee will run picks, force switches, and try to make Irving work on both ends. If the Bucks can find offense attacking Irving, as well as the usual points from Antetokounmpo, they should be able to get enough Buckets to win. But again, it will not be easy.

PREDICTION: Celtics in six. But I do not feel confident about that pick at all, it would not surprise me to see the Bucks win in seven. In the end it comes down to which team we think is real, and for all their stumbles and in fighting this season, I trust the Celtics, Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford to get it done. Then again, we have expected that all season and been let down, so we will see.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.

Knicks’ offseason a giant flop

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In the midst of agreeing to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks released a statement.

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills said.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a team apologizing for its transactions in real time.

What an embarrassment.

Knicks owner James Dolan went on TV in March and strongly suggested top free agents would sign with the Knicks this summer. Everyone inferred Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Instead, Durant and Irving signed with the crosstown Nets without even meeting with the Knicks. The Knicks pathetically put out word they didn’t offer Durant the max due to his injury (as if they would’ve balked had he actually wanted to come) and cancelled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who was never coming.

All New York’s planning – stretching Joakim Noah, trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear salary, hyping itself – went to waste on mediocre free agents.

At least the Knicks remain flexible. It’s just tough to see how they turn that flexibility into winning.

Dolan said no incumbent players will become the centerpiece. New York is already acknowledging how disappointing the newly signed free agents look.

That leaves a lot of pressure on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, himself a disapointment.

Despite an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, Knicks fans treated Zion Williamson as a near-inevitability. He was viewed as the rightful reward for a miserable 17-65 season.

This was the wrong lottery to slip. There’s a huge drop in prospect quality from Williamson to Ja Morant to Barrett. Barrett profiles as a leading player, and maybe he’ll be good enough to fill that role on a good team. But this draft was always going to leave the third-picking team with unreliable options.

Randle (three years, $56.7 million with $4 million of $19.8 million guaranteed in year three) was the big addition in free agency. He’ll put up numbers. He’s also only 24 and has shown improvement throughout his career. Maybe he’ll develop defensively and better contribute to winning. Still, it’ll take major modifications to their games for Randle and Barrett to flourish together long-term.

Not that this team represents much of whatever the Knicks are building toward.

Portis ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million), Payton ($8 million) and Bullock ($4 million) look like stopgaps. After those starting salaries, each has a barely/unguaranteed second season. They all look like trade chips, though most must exceed expectations on the court to hold more than neutral value. Ellington looks like the best deal.

Really, the short contract I like most is Marcus Morris‘ (one year, $15 million). New York signed him after Bullock failed his physical and agreed to a smaller contract. I don’t know why the Knicks prioritized so many other players over Morris, who committed to the Spurs before Bullock’s spine injury gave New York more cap space.

The Knicks could really use a young player like Porzingis now. He’d provide plenty of optimism amid their listless present.

Still, New York can still come out ahead in the Porzingis trade. He was an injury-prone player on the verge of getting a max contract. The Knicks got a couple extra first-rounders.

But clearing Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s an Courtney Lee‘s burdensome contracts was a key part of the trade. That aspect has now gone for naught.

New York is heading toward another lost season. A weak free agent class follows. It’ll take a while for the Knicks to build back up.

This summer – which the Knicks began with the best lottery position, massive cap space and a premier market – was a huge missed opportunity. Even getting past the New York noise and the misplaced expectations this franchise incites, that burns.

Offseason grade: D

Mark Cuban on Dirk Nowitzki owning part of Mavericks: ‘It would be awesome’

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Dirk Nowitzki is enjoying his retirement, and the former Dallas Mavericks star has been a real player in the NBA offseason. This summer has been great for Nowitzki, and next season Dallas will actually feature a logo on their court of his outline taking his famous fadeaway jumper.

But could Nowitzki end up owning a part of the Dallas Mavericks some day?

According to current owner Mark Cuban, that’s definitely a real possibility. Speaking with DallasBasketball.com, Cuban said that he could see that for Dirk in the future.

Via DallasBasketball.com:

“Absolutely,” Cuban told DallasBasketball.com in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview. “I’ll have the convo with Dirk in the future. There is a lot of things involved to make it all work. But it would be awesome.”

Everyone seems like they are trying to get into the franchise ownership game. We know that both LeBron James and potentially Kobe Bryant want to move in this direction, and Nowitzki joining that crew would be no surprise.

No doubt Dallas fans would love to have Dirk as part of the organization moving forward, and it would be a no-brainer for Nowitzki to have that kind of revenue stream moving forward.