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Hardened by last playoff run, Bucks ready for championship chase

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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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked exasperated.

By the Raptors’ smothering defense. By four straight losses. By growing speculation around his future.

Antetokounmpo tried to explain how the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. He tipped his cap to Kawhi Leonard. He vowed to come back better next season. He also didn’t even stay until the end of his postgame press conference following Milwaukee’s Game 6 elimination. Antetokounmpo fielded one last question then stood up, grabbed his water bottle and left without answering.

It was the frustrating end to a promising year.

Maybe it was exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed.

Milwaukee was good last season. Really good. The Bucks won 60 games and their first postseason series in 18 years.

But they lacked deep-playoff experience. They thought first-round exits the previous couple years had readied them. It wasn’t enough. They ran into a Toronto team that was more prepared to rise to the occasion, even after Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.

Most of the NBA makes the first round. Some first-round teams are mediocre. Their opponents don’t need to hit top gear. Attention is divided between 16 teams and eight series. The first round is bigger than the regular season, though only so much.

In the second round, it gets real. Practically every team is good. With only four series, each comes under a national microscope. Pressure increases exponentially. It’s difficult, nearing impossible, to duplicate the experience of playing that deep into the playoffs. Players just must go through it, usually losing the first time.

The NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984. In every year since then, the NBA champion has had significant prior experience beyond the first round.

Of the 35 NBA champions in this era, 33 gave at least 82% of their postseason minutes to players who’d already played beyond the first round in a prior year.

The two exceptions – 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics – clocked in at a still fairly high 69%. San Antonio gave significant roles to Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili, but still had experienced stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and David Robinson. Boston started youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, but obviously Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the core of that team.

The percentage of the Bucks’ 2019 postseason minutes given to players with prior experience beyond the first round? Just 47%.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had never advanced that far. Eric Bledsoe did it only as a second-year reserve with the Clippers in 2012.

Deep-playoff experience doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a near-mandatory perquisite. It’s just too difficult to understand the intensity, focus and skill necessary to succeed un that level without experiencing it first.

Antetokounmpo was particularly flummoxed. Leonard led a defense that keyed on him. Without a reliable jumper, Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough counters to fight back. The burden was mentally and physically exhausting – even for the regular-season MVP.

Perhaps coincidentally, the question Antetokounmpo didn’t answer was about the value of playoff experience.

He and the Bucks have it now, and that gives them a real chance at a championship this season.

Arizona State leading scoring Remy Martin declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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Arizona State junior Remy Martin has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft:

The six-foot point guard took on more of scoring role in his third season with the Sun Devils than he had in his first two seasons. Martin averaged 19.1 points per game on 43.2% shooting from the field. Martin also dished out 4.1 assists per game, after averaging 5.0 assists as a sophomore.

Arizona State’s leading scoring may just be testing the waters, as he’s expected to go undrafted. NBA scouts have concerns over Martin’s size at the NBA level. One concern is his ability to hold up defensively, as NBA point guards are trending bigger and bigger in recent years.

As a smaller guard, Martin was one of the players who could have benefited from the traditional pre-draft process. With in-person workouts on hold, and potentially cancelled entirely, players have limited opportunities to improve their draft stock. Teams may be drafting off previous in-person scouting and off of tape.

NBA players reportedly to take part in televised NBA 2K tournament Friday

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If we can’t watch NBA players on the court, at least we can watch them control their digital selves and teammates in a live basketball tournament.

ESPN plans to broadcast an NBA 2K tournament with only NBA players at the controllers, a story broken by Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports. The hope is to have it air Friday, with the players competing from their homes around the country.

The NBA is planning a players-only NBA 2K tournament that will feature the league’s sharpest video gamers and it will be broadcast on ESPN, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

Players competing against their peers in the comfort of their own homes could offer a distraction for fans who are missing the game and a little competition.

Esports are incredibly popular and growing as a spectator sport, both in person and on Twitch and other platforms. With there being a pent-up demand for sports programming, this seems a smart attempt to draw eyeballs. Even people who are non-esports viewers could tune in just to check it out, because it’s that or rewatching Tiger King.

You can bet that if it works, we will see a lot more of it in the future.

(Inside baseball note: I would love to see the emails/texts flying around ESPN about Yahoo breaking a story about what is coming in their network.)

 

Shaquille O’Neal: I had no idea what was happening with Joe Exotic of Tiger King

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On a recent episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq” former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal said that “he had no idea” what was happening at the zoo run by Joe Exotic. Joe Exotic was recently made famous through the popular Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”.

Footage of O’Neal appeared in the first episode of the show and was shown taking photographs with the animals.

The documentary also showed a cut of O’Neal on TNT saying “Shoutout to Exotic Joe. I got two more tigers.”

On his podcast, O’Neal explained:

“So we go in there, and it’s a beautiful place, and the character that was there was Exotic Joe. We’re there and I dropped some donations for the tigers’ foods and all that. We take pictures with (the) tigers. We went back a couple times. Then we go back another time and we found out that he’s involved with all the stuff, and then, actually, I stopped going.”

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of 19 different charges. Those charges included murder-for-hire plot, illegally selling endangered species and other animal-related offenses.

O’Neal clarified that he never bought any animals, but often donates to charities that help animals. He also made it clear that he’s not friends with Joe Exotic, nor anyone involved in the trade of endangered species.

“I don’t harm tigers,” O’Neal said. “I love tigers. I love white tigers. Do I put donations to these zoos to help these tigers out? I do it all the time. Do I own tigers personally at my house? No. But I love tigers. Listen, people are going to make their own opinions, but, again, I was just a visitor. I met this guy — not my friend. Don’t know him. Never had any business dealings with him, and I had no idea any of that stuff was going on.”

Report: Brooklyn Nets looking to hire a blue-chip head coach

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When the Brooklyn Nets and Kenny Atkinson parted ways in early-March, the team installed Jacque Vaughn as the interim head coach.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that’s a short-term appointment. On his podcast “Brian Windhorst and The Hoop Collective”, the reporter said the Nets are looking to hire a coach with a track record of NBA success.

“One of the things that has been expressed sort of the grapevine, that’s the way I’m going to say it to protect myself from the aggregators, is that Durant and Irving would like a blue-chip coach. I don’t know what this says about the way they thought about Atkinson, but they want a big-name coach.”

Names linked to the Brooklyn opening are Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, and both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy.

Atkinson leaving Brooklyn was a surprise, considering he had led the Nets back to the playoffs in 2019. That success came after a three-year rebuild. That process was kicked off when general manager Sean Marks hired Atkinson to lead the on-court development. Under Marks and Atkinson, the Nets developed several players who had been given up on by other teams.

Brooklyn was 28-34 when Atkinson was let go. The Nets had gone 2-0 under Vaughn before the NBA suspended play in mid-March.