Milwaukee NBA Finals
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Milwaukee looks ready to make leap into NBA Finals, but is it?

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In NBA history, eight teams had a net rating of better than +10 — outscoring teams by 10 points per 100 possessions — over the course of an NBA season. Six of those teams won the NBA title, the only ones that didn’t both came in 2016, the Golden State Warriors that won 73 games but blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and the Spurs of that season.

The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks are the latest team to reach that mark, +10.7 through March 11 when the NBA was shut down.

Yet there are doubts around the league that these Bucks can win the title. It’s because we saw the Boston Celtics two years ago, and then the Toronto Raptors last playoffs, block off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s path to the rim, forcing the Bucks to go to a Plan B and their role players to step up. They didn’t. Those Milwaukee teams fell short of reaching the NBA Finals.

Are these Bucks different?

It feels like they are. This looks like a team ready to take the next step.

If not, an offseason of speculation about the future of Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee — he is eligible to sign a supermax extension this offseason and the Bucks will offer it — will begin.

MILWAUKEE’S DEPTH

Everything with the Bucks starts with Antetokounmpo — a man about to be a back-to-back MVP winner and likely will join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo averaged 29.6 points with ridiculous 60.8 percent true shooting while grabbing 13.7 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists per game. Every team has a game plan to stop him, nobody does.

The Bucks are far from a one-man show, however.

Milwaukee was +4.1 points per 100 this season when Antetokounmpo was off the court (which was a fair amount, the Greek Freak averaged fewer than 31 minutes a game). That rating would have been seventh-best in the NBA this season — a top 10 team even without the league’s MVP stepping on the court. While the Bucks were +3.1 a season ago when Antetokounmpo sat, this team has looked better without their leader despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason.

Khris Middleton is still playing at an All-Star — maybe All-NBA — level averaging 21.1 points a game and shooting 41.8% from three, while playing elite defense. Behind him was Eric Bledsoe at 15.4 points game, the player whose improved play this season largely covered up the loss of Brogdon. Critical to making it all work is Brook Lopez, who will get well deserved Defensive Player of the Year votes and scored 11 points a game (he seems to be past the shooting woes from three that plagued him during the season).

Beyond that core, Wesley Matthews has looked strong in the Bucks’ Orlando scrimmages, Donte DiVincenzo made huge strides and played well this season, and George Hill was critical in locking down the second unit. Then there is Pat Connaughton — reportedly recovered from the coronavirus and in Orlando quarantining — and sharpshooter Kyle Korver.

MILWAUKEE’S DEFENSE

What makes these Bucks different is their defense — best in the league by far with a defensive rating of 101.6. They lock teams down.

Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA a season ago, too, but this campaign they are 3.3 points per 100 better than that team — a huge improvement.

The Bucks defensive strategy is straightforward: wall off the paint. The Bucks allowed the fewest shots at the rim in the league and the fewest points in the paint. Milwaukee takes away the easy buckets at the rim.

Milwaukee also is quick to contest corner threes and take those away — they can defend the paint and the corner because of the length and athleticism on the roster.

What Milwaukee gives up are midrange shots and threes above the break — the statistically least dangerous shots in the league. They will live with those.

It works, especially with the length and athleticism of the Bucks. The concern is that the best teams in the NBA — starting with the Celtics in the East, plus the teams likely to come out of the West — take and make those shots.

WHAT’S MILWAUKEE’S PLAN B

Milwaukee checks all the boxes of a team headed to the NBA Finals and a title contender: MVP player, depth and versatility, elite defense. This has been the best team in the NBA this season for good reason.

But come the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, when the other best teams in the league have the talent to limit what the Bucks have done all season to win games, will the role players be able to step up and execute Plan B.

Will coach Mike Budenholzer be willing to go to that plan, and maybe even play Antetokounmpo more than 40 minutes a game. Last season, in a six-game series with the Raptors, Antetokounmpo still averaged just 38.5 minutes a game — “If we can’t win with Giannis at 40, 40.5 (minutes), then Toronto deserves it,” Budenholzer said.

No. When you have the MVP, that series is when you lean on him. The Bucks didn’t do that enough.

This feels like the Bucks’ year. This year feels like the season Milwaukee is back in the NBA Finals.

If not, the offseason of Antetokounmpo speculation will begin.

Jazz forward Joe Ingles joins Grizzlies huddle, drapes arms over Memphis players (video)

Jazz forward Joe Ingles vs. Grizzlies
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Jazz forward Joe Ingles has no boundaries with huddles.

Ingles invaded the Grizzlies huddle today, even putting his arms around – and some weight on – Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen. Gorgui Dieng appeared to notice the intruder just before the video cut away:

Beyond the hijinks, Ingles also scored 25 points – including 12 in the fourth quarter – to lead Utah to a 124-115 win.

NBA owners pledge $300M for empowering Black community

NBA Black Lives Matter
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The NBA put “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the court and social-justice messages on jerseys. These are visible symbols that can draw attention to the fight for racial justice.

But NBA owners have the power to do more than make symbolic gestures.

NBA owners will do more.

NBA release:

The NBA Board of Governors announced today that it will contribute $300 million in initial funding to establish the first-ever NBA Foundation dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.  The Foundation is being launched in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association.

Over the next 10 years, the 30 NBA team owners will collectively contribute $30 million annually to establish a new, leaguewide charitable foundation.  Through its mission to drive economic empowerment for Black communities through employment and career advancement, the NBA Foundation will seek to increase access and support for high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women, and assist national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and pipeline development in NBA markets and communities across the United States and Canada.  As a public charity, the Foundation will also aim to work strategically with marketing and media partners to develop additional programming and funding sources that deepen the NBA family’s commitment to racial equality and social justice.

The Foundation will focus on three critical employment transition points: obtaining a first job, securing employment following high school or college, and career advancement once employed.  Through contributions, the NBA Foundation will enhance and grow the work of national and local organizations dedicated to education and employment, including through investment in youth employment and internship programs, STEM fields, job shadows and apprenticeships, development pathways outside of traditional higher education, career placement, professional mentorship, networking and specific partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“On behalf of the NBA Board of Governors, I am thrilled to announce the creation of the NBA Foundation,” said NBA Board of Governors Chairman and Toronto Raptors Governor Larry Tanenbaum.  “All NBA team governors recognize our unique position to effect change and we are committed to supporting and empowering young Black men and women in each of our team markets as well as communities across the U.S. and Canada.”

“The creation of this foundation is an important step in developing more opportunities for the Black community,” said NBPA President Chris Paul.  “I am proud of our league and our players for their commitment to this long-term fight for equality and justice, and I know we will continue to find ways to keep pushing for meaningful institutional change.”

The Foundation will work directly with all 30 teams, their affiliated charitable organizations and the NBPA to support national organizations and their local affiliates as well as local grassroots organizations to facilitate sustainable programming and create change in team markets.

“Given the resources and incredible platform of the NBA, we have the power to ideate, implement and support substantive policies that reflect the core principles of equality and justice we embrace,” said NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts.  “This Foundation will provide a framework for us to stay committed and accountable to these principles.”

“We are dedicated to using the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.  “We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.”

The 30 NBA teams will be members of the NBA Foundation with its eight Board of Directors comprised of representatives from the NBA Board of Governors (four board seats), players and executives from the NBPA (three board seats) and the league office (one board seat).  The Foundation’s board will oversee all business affairs and provide strategic direction with respect to programming and grantmaking.

This is great.

Trail Blazers reportedly tried recently to get Trevor Ariza to join them in bubble

Trail Blazers forward Trevor Ariza
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Trevor Ariza opted-out of playing for Portland in the NBA’s restart so he could spend time with his son. Due to a custody case, he had a limited window to visit and he chose family over basketball.

However, as his custody window shifted and Portland started to look at a deeper playoff run — and maybe a matchup with the Lakers in the first round — some Trail Blazers players tried to get Ariza to come to the bubble after all. If Zion Williamson and others could leave the bubble for family emergencies, why couldn’t Ariza be let in, the players asked?

That plan didn’t work out, reports Chris Hayes of Yahoo Sports.

But because his visitation period had been amended with a conclusion date now near the start of August, there was some optimism among the players that Ariza might be allowed into the bubble to further strengthen their chances of a deep playoff run. If the Trail Blazers were to snag the final playoff spot, they would face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and a pesky Ariza would have been useful guarding James.

The possibility was explored, but sources said the Trail Blazers had to have previously applied for a hardship waiver or a late-arrival form for Ariza to be considered for entry into the bubble. Even if those steps were taken, the league would have likely denied the request because Ariza chose to opt out, wasn’t included on the restart roster, and didn’t arrive with his team on July 9.

The league put together strict rules about who could and couldn’t be inside the bubble — rules agreed to by the players’ union. Those rules are working at keeping the virus out. The league was not going to bend the rules for Portland now.

Ariza chose time with his son and wanted it bad enough to give up between $1.1 million and $1.8 million in salary (depending on how far the Trail Blazers got). Nobody should knock that choice; it was his to make, and picking family is never the wrong option.

Ariza is under contract for $12.8 million with Portland next season, but only $1.8 million of that salary guaranteed next season. If Portland wants to reduce payroll, they can buy Ariza out and make him a free agent at age 35. There would be suitors, Ariza has proven to be a helpful glue guy on good teams.

That glue just can’t help Portland this season.

No positive COVID-19 tests from 343 players in NBA bubble last week

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As has happened the past few weeks, Wednesday the NBA and NBPA announced that there were no positive tests among the 343 players tested for COVID-19 in the past week at the league’s restart campus in Orlando.

The NBA has had no positive tests from players inside the bubble.

The NBA’s plan for a restart began with testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again. The goal was to keep the virus outside of the bubble.

That has worked through one week of games.

The league did send a memo to teams reminding them players and staff need to wear a mask while on the NBA campus (when they were not practicing or playing games). The goal is to contain any outbreak, should the virus get into the bubble. That outbreak has yet to happen.

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining on the NBA campus, family members will arrive next month, and there are still other ways the virus could penetrate the bubble. The league isn’t celebrating victory yet.

But so far, so good.