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


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.

Nets thrash Heat, move back up to No.6 seed in East

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
Megan Briggs/Getty Images

MIAMI (AP) — All the Brooklyn Nets needed, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted, was one win.

They got it, and made it look easy.

Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, and the Nets opened the third quarter on a 31-6 run on the way to rolling past Miami 129-100 on Saturday night and leapfrogging the Heat back into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Cam Johnson added 23 points and Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 for the Nets (40-34), who snapped a five-game slide. They’re only a half-game up on Miami (40-35) in the race for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff berth, but swept the Heat 3-0 this season and would also own a head-to-head tiebreaker.

“We had the mindset coming in that this was a playoff game,” Johnson said.

Max Strus scored 23 for the Heat, all of them in the first half. Tyler Herro scored 23, Jimmy Butler had 18 and Bam Adebayo finished with 16 for the Heat. Miami was outscored 64-31 after halftime.

“We have not been defending at a world-class level, the way we’re capable of … and the second half just became an avalanche,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Strus came off the bench and made his first nine shots, one of them putting Miami up 51-37 midway through the second quarter. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nets outscored Miami 54-24 – completely turning the game around, eventually leading by 32 and, for now, putting Brooklyn in position to escape the play-in tournament that’ll decide the final two East playoff berths.

“You see how this March Madness is and you’re one and you’re done,” Vaughn said. “And that’s part of it. I have not discussed any of the standings with this group. Really, we have gone day to day and tried to get a win.”

The Heat could have moved 1 1/2 games up on Brooklyn for sixth with a win.

“There has been nothing easy about this season and that doesn’t necessarily mean that has to be a negative thing,” Spoelstra said. “You have to embrace the struggle. You have to figure out ways to stay together … but we just got categorically outplayed tonight.”

It was Brooklyn’s second trip to Miami this season. The first was Jan. 8 – which ended up being the last time Kevin Durant played for the Nets, and the last time Durant and Kyrie Irving played together. Durant left that game with a knee injury, then got traded to Phoenix, and Irving has since been dealt to Dallas, as well.

The Nets were 27-13 after that night, second in the East, just a game behind Boston for the best record in the NBA. They’re 13-21 since, yet still have the Heat looking up at them in the standings – which Vaughn insists he hasn’t discussed with his team.

“You need the momentum, the confidence, the reassurance that you can get it done,” Vaughn said. “So, haven’t tried to complicate it more than that.”

Jokic scores 31 points with 11 assists, leads Nuggets past Bucks 129-106


DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 31 points and 11 assists, Jamal Murray finished with 26 points and nine assists, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 129-106 on Saturday night in a late-season showdown of the NBA’s conference leaders.

Michael Porter Jr. scored 19 points for West-leading Denver (50-24), which outscored East-leading Milwaukee 68-40 in the second half.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points — just seven in the second half — and grabbed nine rebounds for the Bucks (53-20).

“It’s better to win games, but our goal is to do something in a playoffs,” Jokic said.

The battle of the top teams in each conference — and two strong MVP candidates — was more competitive than the teams’ first meeting, won by the Bucks 107-99. Then, the Nuggets held out four starters — Jokic, Murray, Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in the game in Milwaukee on Jan. 25. Denver had played the night before in New Orleans and opted to rest its stars.

The circumstances were reversed, with the Bucks having played in Utah on Friday night.

“We still play, still got to be better, there’s no excuses about that,” Khris Middleton said. “But I’m sure for a lot of fans, a lot of people out there, they’d love to see healthy teams, or not coming off back to backs.”

Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting in the first half, with all but one of those field goals coming at the rim. Murray (20 points) and Jokic (17 points) kept Denver within three at the break, and then the Nuggets outscored Milwaukee 34-19 in the third quarter to take a 97-85 lead.

Jeff Green dunked on Antetokounmpo to open the fourth as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 15 points. Grayson Allen hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 103-91 with 9:54 left, but Milwaukee went scoreless for 4:10 while Denver built a 111-91 lead.

“It was an amazing dunk,” Jokic said of Green’s dunk. “I didn’t think he was going to do it. He almost fell down, so it was a really nice dunk.”

Antetokounmpo went to the bench with 5:54 left and didn’t return.

The Bucks lost some composure in the third quarter. Bobby Portis Jr. was called for a take foul on Jokic and, immediately after, a technical. Denver hit both free throws and Bruce Brown hit a 3-pointer for a 84-76 lead. Minutes later, Brook Lopez got a technical while sitting on the bench.

Antetokounmpo picked up Milwaukee’s third technical with 6:41 left in the game.

“It was a night where we were grumpy, and it happens,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Denver coach Michael Malone got a technical late in the first quarter, and it was to prevent Jokic from getting one. Jokic was frustrated by the physical play, so during a timeout Malone told him he would get the technical.

“I can get kicked out, he can’t. I understand the pecking order here,” Malone said.

Watch Trae Young get ejected for launching ball at referee


Trae Young screwed up and he knew it.

“It’s just a play he can’t make,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said via the Associated Press after the game. “I told him that. He knows it.”

With the score tied at 84 in the third quarter, Young had a 3-pointer disallowed and an offensive foul called on him for tripping the Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith. A frustrated Young picked up a technical foul for something he said.

Then walking back to the bench, Young turned and launched the ball at the referee with two hands. It was an instant ejection.


“There wasn’t a single part of him that tried to rationalize what happened,” Snyder said.

Young can expect a fine for this. It also was his 15th technical of the season, one more and he will get an automatic one-game suspension.

The Hawks went on to win 143-130, improving Atlanta to .500 at 37-37 and keeping them solidly as the No. 8 seed in the East.

Report: ‘Strong optimism’ Anthony Edwards could return to Timberwolves Sunday

Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves
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What looked so bad when it happened may only cost Anthony Edwards three games.

Edwards rolled his ankle last week but could be back Sunday when the Timberwolves travel to Golden State, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports.

Edwards is averaging 24.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game this season, and he has stepped up to become the team’s primary shot-creator with Karl-Anthony Towns out for much of the season. The Timberwolves have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Edwards is off the court this season.

Towns returned to action a couple of games ago, and with Edwards on Sunday it will be the first time since November the Timberwolves will have their entire core on the court — now with Mike Conley at the point. With the Timberwolves tied for the No.7 seed in an incredibly tight West (they are 1.5 games out of sixth but also one game out of missing the postseason entirely) it couldn’t come at a better time. It’s also not much time to develop of fit and chemistry the team will need in the play-in, and maybe the playoffs.