Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Without Durant for Game 6 Warriors face biggest test

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The NBA playoffs are in crunch time and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors three-peat dreams now depend on how Warriors respond to Kevin Durant injury. Golden State came into these playoffs with the most feared starting lineup in the league. Now, 40 percent of it is out injured. DeMarcus Cousins tore his left quadriceps muscle in the second game of the playoffs, then late in a critical Game 5 Wednesday night Kevin Durant pulled up with a non-contact injury that looked ominous.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game it was not Durant’s Achilles but that KD would not play in Game 6. An MRI on Thursday will give us more details (for the sake of watching the best player in the game today, let’s hope it’s not as serious as it looked).

How the Warriors respond to this will determine their 2019 title hopes.

The Warriors hung on to win Game 5 at home, in part because Stephen Curry stepped up. Once again Houston went at him when it had the ball and that seemed to transfer over and wear on Curry, slowing him on offense. He was 4-of-14 overall and 1-of-8 from three before Durant’s injury. After Durant went to the locker room, Curry shot 5-of-9 for 16 points including going 2-of-3 from deep. He answered the call.

The Warriors got the 104-99 victory that gives them a 3-2 series lead — meaning two cracks to eliminate the Rockets, at least one of those without Durant. Game 6 is Friday night in Houston.

Game 5 was not without its controversial ending — did Klay Thompson step out of bounds with the ball with about 11 seconds left and the Warriors up three?

A frozen screenshot makes it look like Thompson stepped out with the ball, before making a poor pass that the Warriors were fortunate to ultimately recover. I would argue Chris Paul or James Harden could or should have been called for bumping Thompson out of bounds on that sequence, but we’d need better camera angles than the ones we got to see to be definitive. The Last Two Minute Report for this ending will be interesting.

That report is ultimately moot. The bigger question is Game 6.

Steve Kerr said postgame Durant will not play, I’d be shocked if he’s even on the plane to Houston (whatever the injury is he suffered, better to stay and get treatment). Harden — who had 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Game 5 — and company will come out with an appropriate level of desperation on their home court. This is a prideful Rockets team that believes it would win the series, Durant or no Durant playing.

The question is how the Warriors respond. Golden State needs MVP-level Stephen Curry and big nights from Klay Thompson on offense and Draymond Green on defense. Can Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and the rest of the role players step up for a night. Do the Warriors have one 2015-style, pre-Durant night in them?

The team has leaned heavily on KD these playoffs, how they respond without him will define their 2019 title chances.

2) Boston’s disappointing season ends appropriately at hands of improving, impressive Milwaukee. Too much of the aftermath of Game 5 in Milwaukee has focused on the Celtics — their poor play, their sad effort, their obvious lack of cohesion and trust as teammates that has gone on all season, and what the future now hold for Kyrie Irving and that Boston roster. With good reason, it’s compelling.

However, let’s stop a minute to praise the Milwaukee Bucks.

One year ago, a Celtics team without its two star players eliminated the Bucks in seven games in the first round. Milwaukee took those lessons and adapted — Jason Kidd was out as coach, Mike Budenholzer was in (note to the Lakers… that’s how you run a coaching search). GM Jon Horst knew Coach Bud’s style and went and got him shooting in the form of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks changed their systems on both ends of the court, evolved and grew up, and became the best regular season team in the league this year.

Plenty of fans and pundits questioned if the Bucks style could translate to the postseason (*meekly raises his own hand*) but they have been dominant. On both ends. It has translated just fine.

In a closeout Game 5 Wednesday, the Bucks held the Celtics to an offensive rating of 82.7 and 31.2 percent shooting for the game. Milwaukee contested shots in the paint — the Celtics shot 6-of-19 in the paint for the first half — and chased Celtics off the arc. Boston played right into Milwaukee’s hands with Irving and his desire to play hero ball. Irving shot 5-of-16 with zero assists in the first half and finished the game 6-of-21 from the floor for 15 points.

Milwaukee had a balanced attack. As expected, Antetokounmpo led the way with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.

However, the Greek Freak had only had 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half, the Bucks won this game because Milwaukee played team basketball. Khris Middleton had 19 points and 8 rebounds for the game, Eric Bledsoe had 18 points, and George Hill had another impressive night off the bench with 16 points.

Milwaukee looks like contenders, they deserve all the praise for that.

We’ve got all summer to watch what Boston does next.

3) Tyronn Lue moves on from the Lakers, which says all you need to know about the Lakers right now. Coaching LeBron James is hard. It’s not that he does not want to be pushed and coached, but he is as high IQ a player as we have seen in the game, and a coach has to earn his trust. It’s not just given. Tyronn Lue has that trust and respect. He can get in LeBron’s face and call him out — and have LeBron come back at him — and their relationship is not damaged.

Which is why Lue as the Lakers’ coach made sense — the man is one of six coaches alive today who have won an NBA title. He may not have been an ideal choice for Lakers fans, but he can coach LeBron and was eager to do it again — and win again.

Rob Pelinka and the Lakers treated Lue like a first-year coach in negotiations. The Lakers would offer no more than three years on the contract — lining it up with LeBron’s deal — while Lue demanded five years. Also, the Lakers were pushing assistant coaches on him, and every experienced coach wants to pick his assistants. Frank Vogel was not someone Lue knows well, but that fit made some sense. Then Pelinka tried to push Jason Kidd as well — no coach with options is going to let a GM put his potential replacement right next to him on the bench and create a power struggle (and Kidd loves a good power struggle).

Pelinka didn’t think Lue had another option, there were no other offers on the table.

Lue did have an option — walk away. Do another season of NBA TV, spend more time with family and friends. Live his life.

Lue wanted the Lakers job but he didn’t need the Lakers job. Pelinka — and Kurt Rambis, and Jeanie Buss, and the entire Laker management team — misread the room and made a mistake.

Now the Lakers are reportedly looking at Frank Vogel, Lionel Holins, and Mike Woodson. Good luck with that.

All that with Kurt Rambis gaining power within the Laker front office. That would be the Rambis who was 32-132 as a coach in Minnesota, and was equally unimpressive as the interim coach in New York (granted, that was a tough situation, but he talked about playing Kristaps Porzingis at the three). Rambis has his skeletons. However, owner Jeanie Buss trusts him, and his wife Linda and Buss go back a long way and she is a trusted advisor.

Buss has stuck within her comfort zone as owner. She has gone with the people she knows, she trusts, people within the Laker family who do things the “Lakers way.” Except, that way has missed the playoff six years in a row and looked a mess the past couple of years. That way had the Lakers mishandle the very public Anthony Davis trade negotiations where they not only didn’t get their man but also fractured their locker room in the process. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ co-tenant at Staples Center looking like the much better run organization, the one that elite free agents are seriously considering this summer (the Clippers are the first choice before the Lakers for a number of them).

The smart play here is for Buss to realize what is not working, step back, and make a major change to the organization. Go hire a top-flight president of basketball operations, give him the power, let him choose the coach and, more importantly, round out the roster around LeBron and said coach. (Tim Connelly in Denver reportedly is making only $2 million a season in that role, well below market value, and is considering a leap to Washington… and notice the Nuggets are young and still playing.)

The Laker organization needs a shake up. If not, the kind of success that Buss wants — and Lakers fans expect — will remain elusive, the victories fleeting. The Lakers need an organizational identity, right now they are just a brand.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.