Will Kevin Durant’s return be enough for Golden State?

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After missing a month’s worth of games with a strained calf, Kevin Durant is finally going to step on the court in these NBA Finals, playing in Game 5.

Golden State needs him.

It is the only card the Warriors have left to play in a series where they trail 3-1, have been outplayed in 10 of the 12 quarters, and near the end of Game 4 (and in the locker room afterward) looked like a beaten team.

Durant back on the court is an important turn in this series. It certainly fuels Golden State’s dream of turning the 3-1 tables in the Finals and writing their own historic comeback saga.

It also will be too little, too late.

There are a few questions about Durant’s return, but the biggest one is what Durant will be out there?

It’s impossible to say how he will move and feel, but missing a month of basketball and then getting dropped into the middle of a high-level NBA Finals will be a jolt to the system. Before the injury we talked about how Durant and Kawhi Leonard were the two dominant forces of the playoffs, he was playing that well. Durant averaged 34.2 points per game, shooting 55.9 percent from three (with a ridiculous 66.5 true shooting percentage), plus had 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. It’s not fair to expect that Durant to suddenly reappear this series, for his game to be that sharp and his conditioning to be at its peak.

Durant also is one of the games great scorers, he’s going to come in and still get buckets. It’s what he does. Durant is who the Warriors have needed in the halfcourt against a stifling Raptors’ defense that has kept the Warriors below a point per possession in halfcourt offense in Toronto’s three wins. Durant, the walking mismatch, is the guy Golden State leans on to get buckets in the halfcourt and they will revert to that again.

It’s not just that Durant plays, it’s whose minutes he takes away. Durant on the court means Alfonzo McKinnie is not. Durant on the court means the return of the Hamptons’ Five lineup that is the Warriors’ best — don’t be surprised if Kerr starts it and plays it 20ish minutes in this game — and that means DeMarcus Cousins (who was awful in the past two games) and Andrew Bogut are on the bench.

Durant on the court also messes with Toronto’s defensive matchups. Leonard will have the primary responsibility on KD, but that means he can’t be switching on to Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, Leonard can’t be in the same help positions. Golden State’s backcourt should have a little more room to operate.

Durant’s return changes the series… but probably not enough.

The Warriors are down 3-1 in this series because the Toronto Raptors are very good, and right now playing with incredible confidence. That is not changing. Toronto is still long, still athletic, can still defend, still has shooters all over the floor, and still has Leonard. It’s a high IQ team that will test Durant from the start (don’t be shocked if the Raptors drag Durant into some early pick-and-roll defenses just to test how he moves).

Durant’s return doesn’t change the fact Thompson, Cousins, Kevon Looney, and Andre Iguodala are all playing through various injuries and ailments.

The math also just doesn’t support the Warriors, as NBC’s own Dan Feldman noted on Twitter.

Even with Feldman’s very generous odds, it means the Warriors would have a 44.1 percent chance of winning the series. Less than half the time. The reality is far, far less than that.

Still, the “Durant as Warriors’ savior” belief is out there because the Warriors organization fed it. If Golden State had been honest from the start and called it a Grade 2 calf strain — something that takes 4-6 weeks to heal (if this were the regular season Durant would not be out there Monday night) — we would all have expected him to return around this time and had the appropriate expectations for what he could or could not do.

Instead, the Warriors called it mild, kept flying him around with the team, kept hope alive in the locker room and in the fan base. It just hung out there, and eventually created resentment and frustration. The question of how committed to the Warriors Durant has crept into the conversation. Golden State didn’t play this card until now, when its back is against the wall, when there was true desperation. All of those pent up feelings are on the organization, not KD.

Durant is back Monday night and this series will get more interesting. The Warriors are closer to their peak. We get to see the Warriors we expected.

But doing that now, down 3-1, seems a too-late gesture against a Raptors team playing like champions.

 

Our Eastern Conference predictions: Philadelphia or Milwaukee, who ya got?

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The NBA season tips-off Tuesday night, and that means one thing:

It’s predictions time.

We’ve run through some postseason awards — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year — and now we stick our neck out and make our predictions on how the Eastern Conference will shake out.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks.

THE EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin
1. Milwaukee
2. Philadelphia
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Brooklyn
6. Indiana
7. Miami
8. Orlando
Eastern Conference Finals: Philadelphia over Milwaukee.

While there are some interesting storylines up and down the East, this is ultimately a two-team race and the only way Boston or anyone else gets into the mix is thanks to an in-season trade. Milwaukee is a legitimate favorite, but I like Philadelphia’s length and defense to smother Milwaukee in the playoffs. Yes, that means I am making a big bet on Ben Simmons taking a step forward as a shot creator and leader, but I believe that by April the Sixers will have figured out their offense. After the top four in those standings, things could shake out in almost any order and there’s a legit chance Chicago or Detroit cracks the top eight too. Boston and Toronto are good and should advance out of the first round of the playoffs, although Indiana could crack that group if Victor Oladop returns to his old form once healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Milwaukee
2. Philadelphia
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Miami
6. Orlando
7. Brooklyn
8. Indiana
Eastern Conference Finals: Milwaukee over Philadelphia

With all its new pieces, Philadelphia should get better as the season progresses. The 76ers also matchup well with Milwaukee. That sets up to be a great Eastern Conference finals. In the end, the Bucks look primed.
There’s a glut of teams from about fourth through 10th. I think the Pistons will make the playoffs, but with several teams barely over 50% playoff odds, Detroit still finishes ninth in my predicted standings. The Bulls aren’t far behind, either.

Dane Delgado:
Eastern Conference Finals: Milwaukee over Philadelphia

The Eastern Conference is more wide open this season… or is it? The same four teams are expected to be battling for a top spot, and we don’t know who will be the best come next spring. A rise through the postseason won’t necessarily be predicated on regular-season success. The Sixers, Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics will all be vying for the final spot, and all four teams will be looking to capitalize on three main factors: health, depth, and star power. Milwaukee has the best chance of having all three thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. They’ll have their challengers, but I’m betting on the ECF loss from last season galvanizing last year’s MVP.

 

LeBron James’ high school jersey goes for $187,500 at auction

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We got word that LeBron James’ jersey from high school was going to be headed to auction soon, and rumors were that it would fetch a high price thanks to the phenomenon that was “The Chosen One”.

LeBron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s uniform has now gone through the process at Goldin Auctions, and it’s reportedly set a record for a James-worn jersey at $187,500.

Via Twitter:

This seems like a ridiculous price for a piece of sports memorabilia that wasn’t even part of James’ impressive NBA run. Something from his time as a member of a championship team has to be worth more, no? Then again, one of those might not ever become available. This might be the best you can get if you’re a diehard LeBron fan.

I wonder if the owner of this new jersey will show up wearing it at Summer League next year? No better way to top the constant oneupsmanship of obscure jerseys in Las Vegas by showing up in a kit that cost more than a three-bedroom ranch home in Northeastern Ohio.

PBT Podcast: Our NBA predictions for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Champion, and more

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Who will take home the NBA MVP hardware this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo? James Harden? Stephen Curry?

What about Rookie of the Year? Can anyone top Zion Williamson? What would it take for Ja Morant or anyone else to get into the conversation?

Finally, what team will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season? Will it be a team from Los Angeles? What about Philadelphia? Milwaukee? Can Houston or Utah get in on the conversation?

Dan Feldman from NBC Sports joins me in the latest PBT Podcast and get into all of that, making their season predictions for this NBA season.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he’s going to be ‘more vocal’ this season

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Last season’s loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals stung Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So much so that the NBA MVP admitted it took several days for him to be able to sleep at night after he and the Milwaukee Bucks blew a 2-0 lead against the eventual NBA champion Raptors.

Antetokounmpo said his priority during the offseason was to become a better leader, both on and off the court.

“Mostly, you just gotta be more vocal,” Antetokounmpo said. “You gotta lead by example. You gotta be able to accept criticism by your coach, by your teammates, and be OK with it. That’s what a leader does. I know that my team knows who I am. They trust me. They know I’m going to put my body and everything I have on the line for this team. By doing that, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Bucks won a league-best 60 games a season ago, and took home MVP, Coach of the Year (Mike Budenholzer) and Executive of the Year (general manager Jon Horst) honors. But their goal was to bring the city of Milwaukee its first NBA title since 1971. That didn’t happen.

Now, with both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James out west, Kevin Durant on the shelf in Brooklyn and the core of Antetokounmpo, fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, first-team all-defensive guard Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez back together, anything less than another deep playoff run for the Bucks will be deemed a failure.

“The message to the team won’t be that different than what it was going into last season,” said Budenholzer, who is entering his second season in Milwaukee. “Really, our attack point is just what are we doing every day? How are we getting better every day? How are we competing every day? Are we playing unselfishly? Are we playing together? All those things that are just our core beliefs. If we’re doing those on a day-in and day-out basis, the chips will fall where they may.”

The Bucks open the season Oct. 24 in Houston.

Kyle Korver

Bucks guard Kyle Korver said his new team is like a “more organized version” of the Cleveland Cavaliers teams he played on with LeBron James.

“I think that there’s a ton of freedom here for players to do what they do,” he said. “There’s a lot of special talent – unique talent – on this team, and (Budenholzer) gives us a lot of freedom to kind of figure some things out, and we did that in Cleveland, too. Let the great players be great, and just kind of give them space, and we all find our spots to contribute and to be effective.”

Korver signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee in July. The 17-year veteran reunites with Budenholzer, who coached Korver in Atlanta in 2015, when Korver made his only NBA All-Star team and Budenholzer won his first NBA Coach of the Year award.

Korver ranks fourth in NBA history in 3-pointers made with 2,351.

BROGDON OUT, MATTHEWS IN

The Bucks lost former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in free agency. Budenholzer said he thinks the additions of sharpshooter Korver and veteran two-way wing Wes Matthews will help fill the void. Matthews was the 2005 Wisconsin Mr. Basketball and played his college ball at nearby Marquette.

“Coming back home, it’s a sentimental feeling and one you can’t quite describe,” Matthews said. “To see the success, the growth of the city and the growth of the state, what this Bucks team and organization has done, I come back and I don’t even recognize some of this stuff around here. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

BAND OF BROTHERS

Milwaukee will start the season with two pairs of brothers, as Robin Lopez joins twin brother Brook, and Giannis will have his older brother, Thanasis, on the roster. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who last played in the NBA in 2016 for the Knicks, signed a two-year contract in July.

“What a great story for Giannis and Thanasis and Brook and Robin to play together,” Budenholzer said. “There’s probably a few little things that we’ve got to be conscientious of: Make sure that they’re not always together, so on so forth. And Robin and Brook, there’s been a lot of comments about how we’re going to manage them in the locker room.”

DONTE’S PEAK

Milwaukee’s 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo will look to re-establish himself after dealing with a heel injury last season. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 4.9 points on 40.3% shooting in 27 games a season ago.

“(I just want to) keep getting better,” DiVincenzo said. “Keep getting better every day, keep building my confidence, figure my spots because it’s a long year.”

LOOMING QUESTION

How much longer will Giannis Antetokounmpo be in Milwaukee?

Antetokounmpo can be an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that point, the Bucks can offer him a five-year supermax extension. Horst told a crowd at an offseason fan event that he intends to offer the extension to the three-time All-Star (and was fined for saying so by the NBA).

“I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think it’s disrespectful toward my teammates talking about my free agency and what I’m going to do. So when the time is right, we’re all going to talk about it.”

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