Miami asking same questions Toronto did a year ago, Milwaukee still has no answers

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Last May, Toronto asked questions the Milwaukee was not ready to answer. The Raptors slowed the game down, walled off Giannis Antetokounmpo so he couldn’t just drive to the rim, and put athletic defenders on the Bucks’ other scorers. Once Toronto found the formula Milwaukee never adjusted and Toronto won four straight, advance to the NBA Finals, and won.

Fifteen months later, Miami is asking the same questions, using the same basic playbook. Milwaukee still is not adjusting, still has no answers.

All that time to prepare and we see no innovation and little growth from the Bucks. That’s troubling.

It is also why the Heat are up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference second round, and it doesn’t matter if the referees made the end of Game 2 about themselves. Unless the Bucks find answers to the Heat’s challenges fast, the questions Milwaukee will need to answer going forward about Antetokounmpo’s future are much tougher. The Bucks are going to offer him a supermax contract extension this offseason, but if Antetokounmpo doesn’t believe Milwaukee is a contender, is he going to sign it?

The Bucks have not looked like a contender in this series.

Miami is winning on both ends of the court.

They are winning because Mike Budenholzer has played Antetokounmpo — a freak athlete in peak condition — just 36 minutes a night in each of the first two games. He did this a year ago as well and said the Bucks should be able to win with Antetokounmpo playing fewer than 40 minutes. Why? It’s the playoffs, use your best weapons. Play Antetokounmpo 40+ minutes a night — and keep him in the game when he picks up a third foul. Trust the MVP to know how to adjust his game a little to stay on the court.

Antetokounmpo had 29 points in Game 2, but a look at his shot chart shows what Miami is doing — walling him off and making it difficult for him to get to the rim — is working. In part because he can’t hit from anywhere else against physical and athletic Miami defenders.

When he does get a little room in transition, when he can get playing downhill, we see the MVP Antetokounmpo emerge.

But that’s rare against a disciplined Heat defense — and the Bucks have just a 102 offensive rating when Antetokounmpo is on the court the first two games in this series.

Mike Budenholzer has to find a way to make the game easier for Antetokounmpo, to get him the ball moving toward the rim, through cuts and other steps. It can’t be Antetokounmpo pounding the ball 30 feet out and attacking straight on. Miami is too good for that.

Part of this is on Antetokounmpo, too. There’s a lot of talk about how he needs to develop a three-ball to keep defenses honest (30.4% from three this season). That would help. But what would help more is a good pull-up 16-18 foot midrange shot. The best players have this in their toolbox (watch Kawhi Leonard for a game, or LeBron James, James Harden can do it, etc.) and it keeps the defense off-balance. Antetokounmpo needs that balance.

As a team, the Bucks are not making the collapsing Heat defense pay with threes, either — Milwaukee took 25 threes in Game 2, their fewest attempts all season. This was one of the core tenets of the Bucks philosophy — surround Antetokounmpo with shooters to space the floor and let him attack — that they have not followed or made work against the Heat.

The bigger problem may be the other end of the court, where the Heat are shredding the Bucks basic drop-back coverage that prioritizes protecting the paint. The threat of the Heat shooters pulled Bucks players out a little in Game 1, and then it was death by 1,000 back cuts. Miami did what they were not supposed to be able to —they got to the rim in Game 1.

Milwaukee did a better job protecting the rim in Game 2, but Miami poses a bigger problem — they have great shooting.

The Bucks defense protects the rim first, last, and always, but they also take away corner threes well. What they give up are above-the-break threes but to lesser shooters. Against most teams that works — if the best player drives and kicks out, there are limited guys who can knock down the shot, and the Bucks can target them.

Miami has shooters everywhere — through two games they are 28-of-63 (44.4%) on above-the-break threes. The Heat will take what the Bucks give and beat them with it.

Miami has to start switching more on defense (at least off the ball) and has to slow the rate of threes from the Heat. Easier said than done, Miami has a lot of them.

The Bucks problems this series do not all fall on Budenholzer and his system, nor on Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee GM Jon Horst has built a talented roster but not the most athletic one by NBA standards. Miami has athletes all over the floor. Through two games, that is winning out.

This series is not a blowout — both the Heat and Bucks have each won four quarters through the two games. Game 2 was a coin flip kind of game that could have gone either way. Milwaukee knows it can come back — last May the Bucks had a 2-0 lead on the Raptors, before Nick Nurse and company made adjustments and took the next four.

Now it’s on Budenholzer to do the same thing, make adjustments — like playing the MVP more — to get his team to the next level. If not, the next questions in Milwaukee will be more painful to answer than the ones Miami is asking.

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Sacramento Kings
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal”, since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.

Spurs’ Josh Primo out for preseason with left knee MCL sprain

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs
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Josh Primo is going to get his chance this season. The Spurs are rebuilding — even Gregg Popovich says not to bet on them to win the title — and Primo, entering his second season (and still 19), is one of the most promising young players on their roster, someone with the chance to be part of whatever will be built in San Antonio the future. He just needs more experience.

Unfortunately, he’s going to start this season half a step behind after missing most of training camp due to a sprained left MCL, the team announced Thursday. He is expected to return in time for the season opener, according to the team.

Promo, the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got into 50 games for the Spurs last season and averaged 5.8 points a game but wasn’t very efficient with his shot yet. He also spent a lot of time in the G-League (but then had to miss this past Summer League due to COVID).

With Dejounte Murray now in Atlanta, there is not only a starting spot open but also opportunities to run the offense — Primo is going to get a chance to show what he can do with that. It’s just not going to be for a little while due to his knee sprain.

Anthony Davis ‘excited’ to be Lakers’ No.1 offensive option, LeBron pushing him to do it

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Is Anthony Davis a No.1 offensive option on a championship team?

The Lakers made a massive bet in trading for Davis — both in good young players and picks — that he could help them win a title now and be the bridge to the future post-LeBron James. Davis was everything the Lakers hoped in the bubble and did win them banner No. 17. However, he has not stayed healthy or consistently played up to that standard.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is betting on Davis again and is going to run more of the offense through him this season. LeBron James reportedly backs Ham up. Can Davis stay healthy, find that form again and look like that bridge to the future? If he can’t, the Lakers have to reconsider their post-LeBron plans. That’s why there is pressure on Davis this season.

Davis is excited to prove he is ready for the role, he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. He added LeBron is pushing him to do it.

“I’m so excited that I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’m looking forward to a healthy year and doing what I know we can do.”…

Davis said James, 37, has been in his ear about taking over the reins of the team, while the rest of the roster would follow his lead.

The first step in Davis being that No.1 option: Staying healthy. He played 40 games last season and 36 the season before that. While some of that was due to fluke injuries, the history of Davis missing time is long.

When healthy, Davis is an unquestionably elite player — to use the bubble example, Davis was a defensive force in Orlando who knocked down midrange jumpers after facing up, averaging 27.7 points on a 66.5 true shooting percentage, plus grabbed 9.7 rebounds a game. That is the AD the Lakers need this season.

Which can be a lot of pressure, but Davis said he doesn’t feel that.

“But for me, I’m not putting any pressure on myself at all,” Davis said at media day. “I’m gonna go out there and play basketball, work hard, defend and do what the team needs to win basketball games. I’m not going to overthink and, you know, listen to what everybody else is saying and try to be this ‘whatever’ player they want me to be.”

“Whatever” the Lakers want Davis to be is the Top 10 player in the world he has shown for stretches in Los Angeles. If he can be consistent, that Davis helps the Lakers be more of a threat in the West. If Davis can’t be that guy, it could be another long season for Lakers nation.

 

Proud to be an American: 76ers’ Embiid officially becomes U.S. citizen

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Joel Embiid is an American citizen.

A native of Cameroon, Embiid said he was sworn in as a citizen two weeks ago in Philadelphia. The NBA scoring champion and Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center said his family – Embiid and his Brazilian girlfriend Anne de Paula have a young son – played a pivotal role in his decision.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Embiid told The Associated Press Thursday at training camp at The Citadel. “My son is American. I felt like, I’m living here and it’s a blessing to be an American. So I said, why not?”

Embiid, who played college basketball for one season at Kansas, also has citizenship in France. He said it is way too early to think about which country he could potentially represent in international basketball.

The 28-year-old Embiid averaged a career-best 30.6 points in 68 games last season. The 7-footer also averaged 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists in helping Philadelphia reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year. Embiid averaged 23.6 points and 10.7 rebounds in the postseason despite playing with hand and facial injuries.

Embiid had been announced as playing out of Kansas during pregame introductions at 76ers’ home games but switched around midseason last year as being introduced from Cameroon. He might try for a mouthful this season.

“We’re going to say Cameroon, American and French,” he said, laughing.