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

Milwaukee NBA Finals
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

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.


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.


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.


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.

Watch Austin Reaves score career-high 35, lead Lakers past Magic


LOS ANGELES (AP) — Austin Reaves scored a career-high 35 points, D’Angelo Russell added 18 points and the Los Angeles Lakers hung on for a 111-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday night.

Anthony Davis had 15 points and 11 rebounds on another rough shooting night, but Reaves carried the Lakers to victory with 13 points in the fourth quarter, including Los Angeles’ last 10 points over the final 1:33. The undrafted second-year pro has earned a vital role his star-studded team, and Reaves factored in almost every big play down the stretch as the Lakers snapped a two-game skid.

Lakers fans serenaded Reaves with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” as he repeatedly earned trips to the line in the fourth quarter. Reaves shot a career-high 18 free throws, while the Magic shot 17.

“For them to recognize what I do – obviously I’m not an MVP-caliber player, those guys are really good – but for them to do that is special,” Reaves said. “It means a lot to me.”

The Lakers entered this game off back-to-back losses to Houston and Dallas, imperiling their tenuous position in the playoff race. This win put Los Angeles (35-37) back in ninth in the Western Conference, tied with Minnesota.

“I thought it was (Reaves) being his normal self,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “What he’s been all year. Coming up in clutch moments for us, trying to make plays downhill, putting the defense in uncomfortable situations with his ability to attack the paint and draw fouls. He was great. He ended up with 35, and we needed all of them.”

Rookie Paolo Banchero scored 21 points for Orlando, but got an unwise technical foul with 25.3 seconds to play after repeatedly arguing with officials during the night.

“It just puts you in a hard situation when they’re calling it like that,” Banchero said. “You want to defend without fouling, but we keep getting called. We keep fouling, I guess. We keep getting foul calls against us, so it just makes it hard, but we still had a chance to win. You can’t blame it all on that.”

Franz Wagner also scored 21 points in the Magic’s sixth loss in eight games to wrap up a four-game road swing. Wendell Carter Jr. had 16 points and 11 rebounds, but Orlando couldn’t repeat the dominance of its 39-point fourth quarter in a victory over the Clippers one day earlier in the same arena.

“It’s difficult, because I think we’re an aggressive, attacking team,” Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said. “We’ve got to just, I guess, continue to do a better job of defending without fouling, show our help early and earn the respect of being able to get those calls.”

Cole Anthony hit a tying 3-pointer with 2:37 left for the Magic, who had trailed throughout the second half. Banchero fouled Reaves on a 3-point attempt a minute later, and Reaves hit two free throws before Wagner tied it again.

But Reaves hit a mid-range jumper with 57 seconds left and then grabbed the long rebound of Wagner’s missed 3 before making two more free throws. Banchero missed a layup and got the technical foul that helped the Lakers to seal it.

The Lakers improved to 6-5 during the latest injury absence for LeBron James, who has been out for three weeks with a sore right foot. Ham reiterated before the game that Los Angeles expects James to return before the regular season ends in three weeks.

Ham on LeBron return: ‘We anticipate him coming back at some point’ during season


The Lakers have kept their heads above water in a tight bottom half of the West, going 5-5 since LeBron James went out with a tendon issue in his foot. However, if they are going to be any kind of postseason threat, the Lakers need peak LeBron back.

With rumors swirling he might be out for a while, Lakers coach Darvin Ham gave the most concrete update yet on a LeBron return.

“At some point” is vague, but at least it means the team expects him to return.

LeBron has hinted on social media he is close to a return and will come back recharged.

In a West without a dominant team, Lakers fans — and players — can dream of a playoff run despite their 34-37 record. They looked good for the five games this team was healthy after the trade deadline, and it’s not inconceivable if the Lakers could get everyone back they could beat any team in the West in a best-of-seven. Whether a team with no margin for error (even when healthy) and health issues could string together three series wins to reach the Finals appears too big an ask, but do you think Denver/Memphis/Sacramento want to see LeBron and Anthony Davis in the first round?

Dillon Brooks, Klay Thompson beef gets fun as Grizzlies beat Warriors


Dear basketball gods: We need another Warriors vs. Grizzlies playoff series this April. Please. (It’s lining up for a possible 2/7 or 6/3 matchup.)

Mainly because we need more of the Klay Thompson and Dillon Brooks beef, which was on full display Saturday.

The Grizzlies easily handled the Warriors — who have now lost 11 straight on the road — and Brooks was savoring the moment and talking trash, so Thompson went Kobe and reminded him about the ring count.

Brooks laughed it off after the game (hat tip Evan Barnes at the Commercial Appeal).

“He’s got four rings. That’s all he was saying. It’s motivation to us,” Brooks said. “We want a ring as well. Being able to go through the process of steps that we did last year, we keep going and learning from it all.

“It’s friendly trash talk, but I just hold a lot of real estate over there in San Francisco.”

Thompson responded:

“I don’t care about Dillon Brooks,” Thompson said. “When he retires, I don’t think anyone will ever talk about Dillon Brooks ever again. I promise you. It’s sweet right now, but wait 10 years.”

Brooks enjoys being the antagonist, particularly against the Warriors, he’s already got a beef going with Draymond Green. While Brooks can take it a little too far at points, he is at the heart of what NBC Sports’ Corey Robinson describes as the “punk rock” attitude of Memphis — which is both part of what fuels them and part of what can at times undercut their discipline.

As for the Warriors, the four in the past can’t help them this season if they can’t figure out how to win some games on the road.

Whatever the outcome, seven games between these sides is what we need this postseason.

Celtics blown lead to Jazz, plus another Embiid-fueled 76ers win, drops Celtics to third in East


The Boston Celtics led by 19 in the first half in Utah. They led by four with 1:19 remaining. But the Celtics have played lately like a team that is comfortable — plus they miss Robert Williams III — and that led to another loss, this time 119-118 to the Jazz on the road.

This one came dramatically when Grant Williams — who was hot and hit seven 3-pointers in the game — broke off a play designed to be a dribble hand-off for Jayson Tatum and went to the rim, only to get rejected by rookie Walker Kessler.

Despite the loss, the Celtics clinched a playoff spot with the Heat’s loss to the Bulls. Utah’s Lauri Markkanen was hot and led all scorers with 28.

Earlier in the day, the 76ers had little trouble with the Pacers and picked up their eighth-straight win while Joel Embiid scored 31 points — his ninth straight game with 30+ points as he makes an MVP push.

The 76ers’ win and the Celtics’ loss moves Philadelphia percentage points ahead of Boston into the No. 2 seed in the East.

The Celtics and 76ers are destined to finish as the two and three seeds in the East, setting up a second-round clash (barring any first-round upsets). The seeding matters mostly for home court in that series and that could make a difference in what will be a physical, intense match-up that likely goes at least six games.

Meanwhile, the Bucks sit as the top seed with a two-game cushion and would love to watch the Celtics and 76ers beat each other up in the second round before having to face either.

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