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With Bucks hoping to take off, leaving behind Malcolm Brogdon a risky choice

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Next season is the Bucks’ time.

They shouldn’t wait.

They can’t wait.

Milwaukee is very good. Good enough to win a championship. There are no overwhelmingly dominant-looking teams this year. Most of the top contenders will beat up on each other out West. In the Eastern Conference, the 76ers must develop chemistry after a major roster makeover, and Kevin Durant‘s injury puts the Nets another year away from title contention. The Bucks got a necessary and hard-learned lesson in how to compete deep in the playoffs last season. They look primed now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will also be eligible for a super-max contract extension next offseason. His willingness to re-up might depend on Milwaukee’s success this season. The Bucks remaining elite is totally predicated on keeping the 24-year-old MVP. His satisfaction with the team must be the priority.

With all that swirling, Milwaukee parted with restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon.

A young talented guard the Bucks held matching rights on – gone. In return, they got absolutely nothing that will directly help them in the ultra-important upcoming season.

Maybe that was the right call. By signing-and-trading Brogdon to the Pacers, Milwaukee got a first-rounder and two second-rounders and avoided paying a red-flagged player $85 million over four years. There’s a case the Bucks got enough value and preserved enough flexibility to justify the move, even considering next season’s high stakes.

But this was also an essential decision for avoiding the luxury tax. That can’t be dismissed. If Milwaukee weakened its roster due to a refusal to pay the luxury tax this season of all seasons, that’d be incredibly disappointing.

This could be a choice that significantly shapes the Bucks for the next decade. I wish I had a better sense of their motivations.

At least Milwaukee got done the rest of its heavy lifting this summer and even rebounded nicely from the loss of Brogdon.

The Bucks re-signed Khris Middleton for less than the max (five years, $177.5 million). It was essential to keep Antetokounmpo’s lone supporting star.

Brook Lopez – with his 3-point shooting and interior defense – is even more important to Milwaukee’s identity. In a tricky situation due to holding only his Non-Bird Rights, the Bucks cleared enough cap space to re-sign him for four years, $52 million.

Milwaukee also had enough cap space to re-sign George Hill (three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed). Hill played well in the playoffs. He’s also 33. It’s worth signing Hill to this deal. He can back up Eric Bledsoe, who struggled the last two postseasons, and help at shooting guard with Brogdon gone. But it’s far from certain Hill will live up to this contract.

The Bucks found surprising reinforcements at shooting guard with Wesley Matthews (1+1 minimum) and Kyle Korver (one-year minimum). Both are past their primes, but that’s tremendous value for those two. The big question: Would they have come to Milwaukee if Brogdon hadn’t left open so much playing time? That must be considered in the Brogdon evaluation, but again, it’s difficult to discern.

Robin Lopez signed for the room exception on 1+1. He’ll back up his twin brother. The Bucks could use Robin’s size at the position, especially with Joel Embiid and Philadelphia looking like the top threat in the East.

These are all good deals for Milwaukee. This offseason could have gone far worse for the Bucks given the steps they had to take to open cap space for Brook Lopez and Hill.

Milwaukee traded the overpaid but still helpful Tony Snell and No. 30 pick to the Pistons for Jon Leuer then waived Leuer, accepting a $3,169,348 over the next three years. That was a nasty set of transactions, but it was necessary. The Bucks also lost Nikola Mirotic, who returned to Europe.

After that, it was standard low-end roster moves. Adding Dragan Bender is intriguing. Adding Thanasis Antetokounmpo is the cost of doing business.

It just keeps coming back to Brogdon. How much will the Bucks miss him? How much did his departure improve their ability to lure Matthews and Korver? What will Milwaukee do with the draft picks acquired from Indiana?

That last one is a biggie. Trade those picks in the right deal, and the roster next could be even than it would have been with Brogdon – especially if ownership is willing to enter the luxury tax.

I just have a hard time figuring out where the Bucks stand on that, and it makes me uneasy about their summer.

Offseason grade: C

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.