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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.

Rockets to add Spurs buyout DeMarre Carroll, free agent Jeff Green

Spurs forward DeMarre Caroll
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that DeMarre Carroll and the San Antonio Spurs have agreed to a buyout. Carroll will then sign with the Houston Rockets:

ESPN’s Tim McMahon added in a subsequent report that the Rockets will bring in free agent forward Jeff Green:

Green will first sign a 10-day contract with the Rockets, so he can get used to their system and see if there is a fit, Woj reported.

Carroll signed a three-year, $20.65 million contract as part of a sign and trade from the Brooklyn Nets to the Spurs this past summer. That agreement was part of a three-team trade that saw San Antonio send forward Davis Bertans to the Washington Wizards. The 10-year veteran is owed $7 million for this season, $6.65 million for 2020-21 and $1.35 million guaranteed for 2021-22. San Antonio will incur a cap hit for each of the three seasons as part of the buyout process with Carroll. How much of a cap hit will depend on how much money Carroll gave up as part of the buyout agreement.

Carroll was added via sign and trade after Marcus Morris spurned the Spurs in free agency. Morris had originally agreed to sign with San Antonio, but backed out after the New York Knicks offered him $15 million as a free agent. The Spurs moved on to Carroll as a backup plan, but he was never able to crack the rotation. He’s played only 135 minutes over 15 games with San Antonio.

Green was with the Utah Jazz earlier this season, before being waived to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker. The 11-year veteran Green averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances with Utah. The Rockets will be the ninth different franchise Green has played for.

In Houston, Carroll and Green will join Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball crew as big man depth. Carroll and Green will likely back up P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington up front. Their experience at both forward spots will give the Rockets additional depth for their playoff run. Carroll and Green are also likely be to asked to play some center, as Houston has downsized dramatically at that position, including trading Clint Capela at the trade deadline.

NBA players’ union votes to support formation of G-League union

Kyrie Irving
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Better pay. Better working conditions. Not to be treated as disposable parts by their employers.

The players in the G-League want the same thing out of a union that auto workers, teachers, and (most obviously) NBA players do. As had been expected (talks had been going on for a while), on Monday the National Basketball Players Association (the NBA players’ union) voted to support the formation of a G-League union, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The G-League players are expected to support this. Sources have told NBC Sports that team and league officials will not oppose the players unionizing, they believe there will be benefits, too.

The primary issue will be pay. Most players in the G-League earn a $35,000 salary, unless they’re an elite high school prospect, or on a two-way contract (which means they are tied to an NBA team and can be called up for 45 days a season). Some players make more through an Exhibit 10 contract with a team — meaning they go to training camp with a team, then get a bonus ($50,000 or so) if they sign with that team’s G-League team.

Other issues would include freedom of player movement, work benefits, and giving the players a voice in other matters like discipline issues.

The NBA continues to push toward each of its teams having a minor-league affiliate. Right now, only the Trail Blazers and Nuggets do not. As the G-League grows, it’s understandable the players want a larger voice in how things are run.

In other news out of the players’ union meeting, Kyrie Irving was voted in as vice president, replacing Paul Gasol. Via Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Chris Paul remains the union president.

Check out Dr. Dre’s Kobe Bryant tribute

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CHICAGO — In a weekend filled with spectacular tributes to Kobe Bryant, this one stood out.

Legendary rapper, songwriter, record producer, and businessman Dr. Dre — a guy who grew up in Los Angeles — released a tribute that stood out (and was highlighted on TNT). Dre did this with Gibson Hazard and Jackson Bannon.

Kobe’s public memorial service takes place Feb. 24 at Staples Center.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on team’s All-Star plan: Attack James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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CHICAGO – James Harden has griped about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Most Valuable Player last year.

After his team lost to Harden’s in the All-Star game Sunday, Antetokounmpo got in a dig at Harden.

“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding,” Antetokounmpo said of his team’s strategy late. “That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”

Harden is not a good defender. But this is playing right into his hands. He’s at his best in isolation, especially in the post. He faces far more difficulty when run through actions off the ball or trying to keep up in transition.

Down the stretch, Harden defended more effectively than usual. Not great, but above his usual standard. Good enough for LeBron James‘ team to win.

At least, as Giannis previously noted, the MVP trophy is at his house.