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Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals

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Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.

The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.

Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.

1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.

Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.

In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.

Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.

2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?

Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.

One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.

The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.

That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.

All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.

It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.

3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.

Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.

That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.

4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.

Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.

Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.

5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?

The Raptors hope so.

The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.

The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.

The question is, will it matter?

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 50-26, including LeBron, Durant

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This summer , the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

We put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players from the first week, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. To read more, here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26.

50. Cade Cunningham (Draft Class: 2021)
Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked…. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. (Rob Dauster)

49. Emoni Bates (Draft Class: 2022)
He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who [as a freshman] led his high school team to the state title in 2019…. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20…

He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”… Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. (Rob Dauster)

48. Klay Thompson (Age in 2024: 34)
Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets. Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade… The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. (Kurt Helin)

47. Cole Anthony (Draft Class 2020)
He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers…. In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be. (Rob Dauster)

46. Lonzo Ball (Age in 2024: 26)
With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball. (Tom Haberstroh)

45. Brandon Ingram (Age in 2024: 26)
Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court… He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t come together for him yet. (Kurt Helin)

44. Jarrett Allen (Age in 2024: 26)
Just how good can Allen ultimately be? Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high…. Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Kevin Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. (Kurt Helin)

43. Victor Oladipo (Age in 2024: 32)
Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32. But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. (Dan Feldman)

42. CJ McCollum (Age in 2024: 32)
McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense… McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. (Dan Delgado)

41. RJ Barrett (Age in 2024: 24)
I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. (Rob Dauster)

40. LeBron James (Age in 2024: 39)
He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort. LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive. (Dan Feldman)

39. Marvin Bagley III (Age in 2024: 25)
With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense. Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots… Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction. (Dan Feldman)

38. Gary Harris (Age in 2024: 29)
At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position. The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short. (Dan Feldman)

37. James Wiseman (Age in 2024: 23)
Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

36. Aaron Gordon (Age in 2024: 28)
Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post… The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? (Kurt Helin)

35. Caris LeVert (Age in 2024: 28)
LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive). But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be. (Dan Feldman)

34. Lauri Markkanen (Age in 2024: 27)
There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be. The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. (Kurt Helin)

33. Damian Lillard (Age in 2024: 34)
Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason. (Dane Deldago)

32. Rudy Gobert (Age in 2024: 32)
Rudy Gobert is underrated. Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year. Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. (Dan Feldman)

31. Stephen Curry (Age in 2024: 36)
I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38… Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. (Tom Haberstroh)

30. Paul George (Age in 2024: 34)
George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list. (Kurt Helin)

29. Kevin Durant (Age in 2024: 35)
Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily. In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level. (Dan Feldman)

28. D’Angelo Russell (Age in 2024: 28)
Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped… Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. (Kurt Helin)

27. Jaylen Brown (Age in 2024: 27)
What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season. (Kurt Helin)

26. Myles Turner (Kurt) (Age in 2024: 28)
“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.” (Kurt Helin)

Kyle Kuzma’s ankle injury will keep him out of World Cup, Team USA roster now set

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Kyle Kuzma, whose game had matured in recent weeks he soaked up the wisdom of Gregg Popovich and his other USA Basketball teammates, was on the bubble but seemed likely to make Team USA.

“Playing with a team of stars is super fun, you want to play the right way, you want to make that extra pass, you want to play defense at a certain level, up to the USA standard,” Kuzma said last week when the team was training in Los Angeles on his Lakers’ regular practice court.

That is, Kuzma was on his way until he tweaked his ankle. Kuzma was sidelined for the USA loss to Australia on Saturday, and later in the day USA basketball announced that the injury will force Kuzma to miss the World Cup, leading to him withdrawing from Team USA.

That locked the roster in at 15 for the World Cup. It is:

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets)
Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)
Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)
Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs)

This roster has one former Olympian on it — Barnes — and just two players who were All-Stars last year, Walker and Middleton.

The Americans have one more exhibition game, against Canada, then will fly to China to open up their World Cup play against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1. The USA will also face Turkey (Sept. 3) and Japan (Sept. 5) in group play. While those three games in China count, none of those are elite international teams that should be a threat to the USA (like Australia, Spain, Serbia and maybe a couple of others), giving Gregg Popovich and staff more time to build roster chemistry and improve the USA’s defense, two areas that Australia exploited in their upset win.

After the first round of group play, the top two teams from each group move on to a second round of group play with four teams per group. The top two teams from those groups move on to an eight-team knockout tournament to determine the winner.

Cavaliers owner Gilbert back home following stroke

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CLEVELAND — Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has been home for nearly a week in Detroit as he continues to recover from a stroke suffered in May.

Gilbert had spent the past two months in a rehabilitation center in Chicago. On Thursday, Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner provided a brief update on the 57-year-old billionaire businessman.

“On Friday, Dan Gilbert returned to Detroit to continue his rehabilitation locally,” Farner said. “We are extremely thankful for all of the skilled medical professionals who have played a significant role in Dan’s recovery and are glad to have him back home.”

Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, suffered the stroke on May 26 after he was taken to a hospital by a family friend. He was immediately taken into surgery for a catheter-based procedure, which doctors have credited with being a key to his recovery.

He spent more than a month at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, before going to the rehab facility.

The Cavs and Gilbert’s numerous other dealings have operated while he’s been absent, and Farner said that will continue.

“While Dan focuses his energy on the rehabilitation process, our teams across the family of companies will continue to execute at a high level, serving and supporting our clients and team members,” Farner said.

In a video recorded for Quicken Loans employees, Gilbert said earlier this month he was grateful for the outpouring of support.

Gregg Popovich on USA loss: ‘You can learn as much or more from losing as winning’

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A philosophical coach Gregg Popovich was looking at the big picture after Team USA lost an international exhibition game for the first time since 2004.

The ultimate goal is to win the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup, which starts in a week in China, and a sloppy loss to a cohesive Australian team — led by a red-hot Patty Mills who had 30 points — may be what lights the fire under Team USA in a way nothing else can.

“You can learn as much or more from losing as winning,” Popovich said (via an NBL video of his postgame press conference). “We’re all used to winning and losing. USA has been a little bit different over the last 12 years, used to winning, so hopefully, we can get back on that track….

“The Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we want to be and how you have to play in this kind of competition, so we’re getting used to that and hopefully learning.”

People forget that in the 2016 Olympics the Australians gave Team USA — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — a tough game, with the Americans needing a late push to win by 10 (Mills was a force in that game, too).

Popovich was quick to compliment the Australians — calling the Spurs’ Mills “a pain in the ass” — a lot of his focus was on the defensive issues Team USA showed in the loss.

“That’s got to be our calling card. We scored 94 and that’s good enough, but we didn’t hold them the way we needed to defensively,” Popovich said. “To us, it’s obvious that that’s what we have to be. We have to be a good defensive and rebounding team. We did that [in a 15-point win over this same Australian team two days before], but we didn’t do it today.”

This game was a reminder that while the Americans may be the most talented and deepest team in the World Cup field, their margin for error is small. Blame that on the guys who stayed home for the Americans if you want, but the reality is the rest of the world is closing the gap on the USA also. For this USA Basketball squad there is a slim margin for error, and the Australians were the more cohesive and physical team on Saturday.

Team USA has one more exhibition game, against Canada in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup. Team USA’s first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic. The USA also will face Turkey and Japan in the first round of group play.