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Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown front and center for Celtics

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Two Celtics landed on our list of the top 50 players in 5 years: Jayson Tatum (No. 12) and Jaylen Brown (No. 27).

They would have ranked even higher if we made the list a year earlier.

Tatum was coming off an inspiring first season, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. After showing promise in his first season, Brown took the next step and finished seventh in Most Improve Player voting. Both forwards played key roles in Boston’s historic run to the conference finals while Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were injured.

Then, last season happened.

The Celtics had terrible chemistry and flopped with a second-round loss. Kyrie Irving took the brunt of the blame and deserved plenty.

But Tatum and Brown both backslid. Though Irving’s clumsy leadership and selfish play might have factored, that doesn’t totally absolve the two forwards. When Celtics president Danny Ainge said some young players were too focused on becoming All-Stars rather than winning, Tatum and Brown were prime suspects.

Now, Irving is gone, and Tatum and Brown get a fresh start. The forwards are still young and talented, and without Irving, key to unlocking the brightest possible future in Boston.

Tatum impressed with his decisiveness as a rookie. He launched open 3s when open, attacked the rim, drew fouls and defended hard. He lost some of that his second season, instead over-dribbling and forcing bad shots. Iso scoring is a valuable skill, but Tatum overly relied on it. If he can find a better balance between his approaches, the sky is the limit.

After a slow start, Brown improved throughout last season. He carried that momentum into the FIBA World Cup, where he often looked like Team USA’s best all-around player.

Whatever problems were their own fault last year, Tatum and Brown have an opportunity to scapegoat Irving. Retroactively, as we still try to deconstruct what happened to Boston last season, bounce-back years by Tatum and Brown would point to Irving as the culprit. That might be particular motivation for Brown, who stuck up for the young Celtics when Irving criticized them.

Brown will also likely be playing for a new contract. He’s extension-eligible until the season starts and likely headed toward restricted free agency next summer.

Will that help Brown or distract him? Even without Irving, Boston could still be prone to chemistry issues. Brown and Tatum, still trying to establish themselves in the league, still have incentives to play for themselves. The root of Ainge’s concern didn’t dissipate overnight. Though he should be much better for morale than Irving was, Walker needs plenty of touches. Gordon Hayward might also be ready for a bigger role – especially complicated because of his history with Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Plus, Hayward is another forward.

Boston should be good next season and good for a while. But Irving was supposed to put this team over the top. He’s a proven deep-playoff star and friends with Anthony Davis. That plan is out the window.

Tatum and Brown are the Celtics’ next hope. This season could go far in determining the viability of building a championship team around those two.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign “becomes a lot more difficult”

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.

 

Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet each go off for 34 points against Pelicans (VIDEO)

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Apparently lifting those insanely-large championship rings didn’t wear out Pascal Siakam‘s and Fred Van Vleet’s shooting arms.

Siakam looked like a guy ready to earn that new $130 million contract, and Van Vleet looked like the guy from the NBA Finals who just kept hitting shots and making plays. Each of them scored 34 points — Van Vleet did it on 12-of-18 shooting — helping left the Raptors to a 130-122 overtime win.

Check out the video of Siakam and Van Vleets buckets above.

We’ll see what the Raptors roster looks like after the trade deadline, but as assembled this is a pretty good team that’s going to win a lot of games in the East. Especially is Siakam can continue this level of play and take another step forward off of last season’s Most Improved Player campaign.