Three things Miami must do to upset Milwaukee in second round

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Miami is a dark horse favorite in the playoffs — the Heat have a lot of fans in and out of league circles.

Milwaukee has its share of doubters, people who think the Bucks are overrated and a one-trick pony.

Does that mean we have an upset brewing in the East? The “Unpredictable bubble playoffs” largely have followed form so far, but the No. 5 seed Heat present matchup problems for the top-seeded Bucks that make this possibly the first big upset of the playoffs. It’s why this second-round series — which tips off Monday night — has drawn a lot of interest.

For the Miami Heat to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, these three things have to come together for them.

1) Bam Adebayo and company must slow Giannis Antetokounmpo

Nobody is stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo right now — he is the best player in the world. The reigning MVP is about to win that award back-to-back (and he was just named Defensive Player of the Year).

Antetokounmpo is going to get his, the important thing is to slow him down, get him in the halfcourt, and have someone who can just make the Greek Freak less efficient.

Enter Bam Adebayo.

Adebayo has the length, athleticism, and strength to bother Antetokounmpo as much as any human can. According to NBA.com advanced stats, Antetokounmpo shot 12-of-28 this season when guarded by Adebayo. Which is great, but this cannot be a one-man show (and the Heat can’t afford to get Adebayo in foul trouble). Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Jones Jr. all likely will get time guarding Antetokounmpo. More importantly, there has to be smart and decisive help defense on the Greek Freak to put him in difficult spots.

There is a blueprint for slowing Antetokounmpo and Eric Spoelstra is going to stick to it: Get back and take away his transition buckets, double him inside the three-point line (and encourage him to take as many threes as he wants), and pack the paint. Those play to Miami’s defensive strengths. Antetokounmpo will dish to Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and the other Bucks — and that’s okay. Make those guys beat you. As always with Milwaukee, it comes down to the other players on the team stepping up.

2) Miami’s shooters have to hit above-the-break threes

The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season but their Achilles heel is no secret: No team gives up more three-point attempts than Milwaukee — 39.3 a game in the regular season. Their protect-the-paint-at-all-costs defense has to surrender something, and threes are it.

However, all threes are not equal and Milwaukee is smart about the threes they give up. They close out hard and chase guys out of the shorter corner threes. Also, the Bucks are the ultimate know-your-personnel team — they don’t give sharpshooters room at the arc, just the lesser threats. In the first round against Miami, Markelle Fultz was at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the arc, but notice how the Bucks ran Evan Fournier off the line when he got the ball? They knew.

What happens when the Bucks run into a team full of shooters? That’s Miami. They are loaded with players who can knock down the three, hitting 37.9% from deep as a team this season (second-best in the league). More importantly, the Heat shot 38.2% on above-the-break threes and have some shooters who are particularly deadly straight on.

Look for Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic to get a lot of clean looks out high. If those two — and other Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Kelly Olynyk — hit their threes, the Heat can put up points against the league-best Buck defense.

As a side note, Miami — and Butler in particular — have to finish inside to balance things out. Butler isn’t much of a three-point shooter, but he has to hit at the rim and his midrange shots to get his and help make the offense click.

3) Mike Budenholzer’s adjustments have to fall short again

Eric Spoelstra will have a plan when Game 1 tips off. And, when parts of that plan don’t work, he will adjust. Fast. When a player proves to be a poor matchup in this series, Spoelstra will ruthlessly make a change.

Will Mike Budenholzer make the needed adjustments? And when he does, will they work?

That’s the book on Budenholzer, fair or not — the man sticks with his plan to a fault. And when your plan is “get the ball to Antetokounmpo and get out of the way,” that plan is going to work almost every night. He was slow to adjust against Toronto, slow to ramp up Antetokounmpo’s minutes.

Budenholzer says he’s learned from his mistakes. And to be fair, he has done things this season like role-out lineups with Antetokounmpo at the five for lengthy stretches. Or post up Brook Lopez because that was the best matchup. The problem for Budenholzer has been — and was against Toronto last playoffs — his players didn’t always execute his adjustments.

They need to this season. They need to this series.

Spoelstra and the Heat have almost no margin for error this series, they need to slow Antetokounmpo and execute their offense (hit their threes) at a high level to have a chance. You know Spoelstra will put his guys in the right positions.

Will Budenholzer have the counters?

Kyrie Irving says at times he “felt very disrespected” in Brooklyn

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics
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Kyrie Irving says he is happy. He said he feels celebrated and respected by his new team in Dallas.

While fans in Brooklyn, Boston and Cleveland may snicker and say “wait for it…”, a happy Irving right now is a good thing for a Mavericks team desperate to put a high-level shot creator next to superstar Luka Dončić. Irving emphasized his joy in playing the game while speaking to the media Tuesday after his first practice with his new team. He praised the Mavericks organization while saying he sometimes didn’t feel respected in Brooklyn. Here are Irving’s comments, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I just know I want to be places where I’m celebrated and not just tolerated or just kind of dealt with in a way that doesn’t make me feel respected,” Irving said after Tuesday’s practice at USC’s Galen Hall. “There were times throughout this process when I was in Brooklyn where I felt very disrespected and my talent — I work extremely hard at what I do. No one ever talks about my work ethic, though. Everyone talks about what I’m doing off the floor, so I just wanted to change that narrative, write my own story and just continue preparing in the gym, and now that I’m in Dallas, just focus on what I control.”

Irving makes it hard not to talk about his off-the-floor choices when he does things that keep him away from his team, such as his vaccination status a season ago, or a Tweet earlier this season promoting a movie with anti-Semitic themes that led to an eight-game suspension by the Nets.

When on the court, Irving’s skills are unquestionable — he has the league’s best handles and averages 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, plus he is shooting 37.4% from 3. It’s those skills he wants to bring to Dallas and make the focus. He wants to move on from the negativity surrounding him in Brooklyn.

Irving cited a lack of “transparency and honesty from people in the front office” as a reason he did not feeling comfortable continuing his career with the Nets…

“I don’t want to go into too many details because it’s water under the bridge now,” said Irving… “I wish them well. I left them in fourth place. I did what I was supposed to do, took care of my teammates, was incredibly selfless in my approach to leading, and I just want to do all the right things for myself — not to appease anybody that had something negative to say about me or judge me. This basketball game — just, it’s fun, and I want to keep it that way.”

If it stays fun and about basketball, this will be an excellent trade for the Mavericks. Irving will have to prove his critics wrong by keeping the spotlight on the court.

NBA, sports world reacts to LeBron James setting all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is now the leading scorer in NBA history.

He passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a turnaround jumper in the third quarter Tuesday night, and with that the fans filling Crypto.com Arena exploded, having witnessed history. The reaction was similar among his peers and fans on social media, but the praise for LeBron has been pouring in all season. Here are some highlights of the reaction to LeBron setting this historic record, both from Tuesday night and the buildup to that moment throughout the season.

“But I think when you talk about LeBron, LeBron is in his own category. Just with the way he came into the league, and he never disappointed his fans, his teammates, and his owners, by winning championships by being able to help players get paid, you know, and then, you know, at the end of the day, he he’s about winning, he’s a competitor, and he’s never talked about records. You know, he’s just the only thing that he has really talked about is trying to win championships.” —Dallas Mavericks coach and Hall of Fame player Jason Kidd

“LeBron has done it so differently to me because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.” —Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers

“It used to anger me when he first came in, and if he made a pass, somebody said he should have shot it. And if he shot the ball, he should have passed it. It really would anger me because they would just deal with the negative. And it was sort of a fake, negative in a way, the guy was doing everything great handling himself great, young kid with all that attention, doing what he’s doing. I just thought he was wonderful.” —San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

[On how LeBron reached this record without a score-first mentality] “I think empowering teammates the way he has done throughout the course of his career, he’s made his teammates threats, with where you have to account for them. And when you have to account for others… it allows you to operate more effectively with less traffic and you’re able to do what you need to do for the team in terms of scoring.” —Lakers coach Darvin Ham

“Congratulations to LeBron on breaking one of the most hallowed records in all of sports by becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. It’s a towering achievement that speaks to his sustained excellence over 20 seasons in the league. And quite amazingly, LeBron continues to play at an elite level and his basketball history is still being written.” —NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

“[The NBA] gave the keys to the whole entire business to an 18-year-old kid and now he’s 38 years old and he’s still dominating. I don’t think we should be surprised. I think we should congratulate him and celebrate him as much as possible.” —Kyrie Irving

LeBron cements place in NBA, Lakers pantheon with all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — Lakers fans were slow to warm to LeBron James when he came West in 2018.

Lakers nation was excited about the possibilities but held LeBron at arm’s length. Part of that was the shadow of Kobe Bryant — L.A. was his town, these were his fans, and LeBron felt like a mercenary by comparison. Was he coming to town to carry on the Lakers’ legacy, or to make movies and television shows? It didn’t help that in his first season the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs. A year later when LeBron put banner 17 in the rafters, Lakers fans had to watch it on television while isolated in their homes. There were no fans gathering in bars for watch parties, there could be no championship parade, and there wasn’t the same sense of community around the city.

Tuesday night that changed — Lakers fans fully embraced LeBron, and he cemented his place in NBA history and the Lakers’ pantheon.

With a free throw line turnaround jumper in the third quarter, LeBron passed the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with 35,388 points (he would finish the night with a couple more.

“I write that ‘Man in the Arena’ on my shoe every single night, from Theodore Roosevelt. Tonight I actually felt like I was like sitting on top of the arena,” LeBron said. “When that shot went in and the roar from the crowd, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to feel that feeling again, unless it’s like a game-winning Finals shot…

“Everything just stopped and it gave me an opportunity just to kind of embrace it and look around. And seeing my family, seeing the fans, seeing my friends, it was, it was, it was pretty cool.”

As the shot fell through the net, LeBron raised his arms and Lakers fans roared as loud as this building has ever heard — it sounded with the echoes of the Shaq/Kobe era and Kobe’s wild 60-point final game. It was history made in purple and gold, it cemented LeBron in the hearts of Lakers fans.

Play was stopped and LeBron soon doubled over with the emotion of the moment. He was wiping away tears, while his sons sitting courtside were filming him on their phones (the way teenagers must in this era). LeBron, at age 38, has spent 20 seasons in the NBA — and a lifetime focused on conditioning and health — to reach this moment, and his emotions hit him when it happened.

Abdul-Jabbar was sitting courtside and was gracious, despite what had been a frosty relationship between the pair in the past. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar took part in a brief ceremony to mark the historic occasion. Then LeBron made an emotional address to the crowd — and dropped an F-bomb at the end, a sign of the emotions and lack of a filter in that moment.

By the middle of the first quarter, it started to feel as if this could be his night, that LeBron was going to to the 36 points he needed. The energy was high, but LeBron started the game 0-of-2 shooting and focusing more on what he has always done — making the right basketball play and dishing off when the defense overloads on him — much to the frustration of the crypto.com arena crowd urging on history. He eventually broke that streak four minutes in with a corner 3.

Soon after LeBron went into attack mode. He was able to get downhill, getting into the paint seemingly at will, and when the Thunder point-of-attack defenders started to play back to take the drive, he knocked down 3s. LeBron was showing off the full arsenal, hitting on post-ups and in transition. It also was a game starting to feel like a lot of Lakers games this season — it was going to take a heroic effort from LeBron just to keep the Lakers in the game (ultimately it wasn’t enough OKC won 133-130).

LeBron had 20 at the half, was scoring whenever he wanted, and told his sons he was getting the record this night.

“I felt pretty good, I got into a good rhythm, and once I get in a good rhythm, then I can make any shot on the floor,” LeBron said describing the moment he set the record. “You know, to break the record, I was able to get to a really good spot where I’m very comfortable with and get to one of my patented fadeaway shots.”

It fell. Saying he is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is another pillar holding up his GOAT argument. It’s another chapter in a career that has been in the spotlight since high school but never felt off track. And it was a shot that forever cemented his legacy with West, Wilt, Shaq, Kobe, Magic and the pantheon of Lakers greats in the hearts of Lakers fans.

Watch LeBron James set NBA all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looking on from courtside, LeBron James hit a free-throw line turnaround jumper to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,388 points.

After the bucket, LeBron raised his hands to the air and exhorted the crowd, but soon the moment hit him and he doubled over with the emotion of the moment, his hands on his knees. The game was stopped for a few minutes to celebrate the moment, with Abdul-Jabbar and NBA Comissioner Adam Silver came out on the floor for a short ceremony. LeBron addressed the crowd before play resumed.

On a night it felt like the Lakers forgot to bring their defense home from the Grammys road trip, LeBron had to take on more of a scoring load to keep his team in the game. The Thunder were not playing great defense either, allowing LeBron to get downhill and score in the paint early. Once he got a few buckets to fall, the floodgates opened — and the Lakers crowd roared as loudly as this building has ever heard to urge him towards the record. A fanbase that has seen more than its share of greatness and history embraced the moment.

And they embraced the player, which was not always the case in Los Angeles. It was LeBron’s night and a very special moment of history.