Giannis Antetokounmpo returns, scores 23 points in 27 minutes, leads Bucks to win

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CHICAGO — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 23 points and 10 rebounds after missing two games with a sore back, and the Milwaukee Bucks pulled away in the second half for a 123-102 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.

Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s second-leading scorer with an average of 30.5 points per game entering this one, played only 27 minutes and sat out the final 5 1/2 because of the lopsided score. He was 8 for 14 from the field with six assists.

Khris Middleton scored 25 points for the Bucks and Eric Bledsoe had 15 points in 16 minutes after missing the previous eight games with a fractured right leg. Milwaukee improved to a league-best 30-5.

Zach LaVine scored 19 points for Chicago but shot just 7 for 23 from the field. Lauri Markkanen and Coby White had 18 points apiece and Wendell Carter Jr. added 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls.

Milwaukee jumped out to an 8-0 lead as Chicago missed its first six shots. The Bucks led 31-20 at the end of the first quarter and stretched it to 33-20 early in the second on a basket by Robin Lopez.

But the Bulls — after shooting 9 of 29 in the first — suddenly got hot from behind the 3-point arc. White and Markkanen each had three 3-pointers in the second to trim the Milwaukee advantage. Chicago was 8 for 14 on 3s in the quarter.

With just under two minutes left in the first half, White hit a driving scoop off the glass to give the Bulls a 52-51 lead, their first of the game.

Antetokounmpo quickly answered with a putback on the other end to put the Bucks back on top. Milwaukee led 55-52 at halftime thanks in part to a 15-0 advantage in free throw attempts (making 12).

Any chance of a Chicago upset was quickly dashed in the third. The Bucks opened with a 17-4 run for a 72-56 lead — with Antetokounmpo capping the spurt with a thunderous dunk that drew a loud roar from the United Center crowd.

Milwaukee led 95-77 after three quarters. Kyle Korver hit a 3-pointer 2 1/2 minutes into the fourth for a 105-81 advantage, the Bucks’ biggest of the game.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.

Clint Capela still weeks away from making his debut with Atlanta

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Atlanta traded for Clint Capela at the deadline thinking about the long haul — he is the pick-and-roll big man they want to pair with Trae Young for seasons to come.

Just not much of this season. Capela missed the four games before the All-Star break with a heel bruise and plantar fasciitis, and the All-Star break was not near enough time to get that right. He’s going to be out into March, it appears.

Atlanta would love to start the process of Capela and Young getting used to each other on the court this season, but they are not in a playoff fight, so there is no reason to rush the recovery.

Capela averaged 13.8 points and 13.9 rebounds a game this season in Houston. He sets a good pick, rolls hard to the rim, has good hands if he gets a lob, plus he’s a quality shot-blocker in the paint on the other end. He should pair well with Young.

Eventually, once he gets healthy.