Three things to watch: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets

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The winner of this series is going to win the NBA title.

Probably. Maybe. Nothing is certain in life or this upside-down NBA season, but the path opens up for the winner of this Nets vs. Bucks second-round showdown. In the East, Joel Embiid‘s damaged knee ligament makes the 76ers much more vulnerable, and out West LeBron James and the Lakers are gone, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers don’t understand the word consistency (or have an answer for Luka Doncic), and either of these two East teams can beat Utah or anyone else in the conference.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets for all the marbles.

Here are three things to watch in this critical second-round series.

1) Does Brooklyn have anyone who can slow Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Brooklyn is not a very good defensive team. Not that it matters. They didn’t need to be a great defense in the regular season (best offense in the NBA) or in the first round against Boston, which had Jayson Tatum and not enough else. The Nets 117.6 defensive rating in the first round was slightly worse than the playoff league average but would have been tied for worst in the league over 72 games. Still, the Nets had the second-best net rating in the first round thanks to that insane offense (132.6 net rating, all stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The Bucks bring two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to the party, plus an All-NBA level player in Khris Middleton, an All-Star level two-way point guard in Jrue Holiday, and shooters everywhere you look.

Slowing Antetokounmpo is going to be a problem for Brooklyn and could swing the series. Who does Brooklyn have to match up? Kevin Durant is the team’s best defender and has the length and athleticism, but Antetokounmpo would both overpower KD and get him in foul trouble. Bad idea. Nicholas Claxton would get overwhelmed physically. Blake Griffin will get blown by like he’s a traffic cone. In the regular season the Nets went a lot with DeAndre Jordan, having him drop way back and daring Antetokounmpo to become a jump shooter, but he will not take that bait for long and will attack into space given him for short floaters at worst. Jeff Green is an option once and if he gets healthy. James Harden likely will get turns, he is strong enough and has great hands defensively, but the risk is him getting into foul trouble.

There are no good answers for Brooklyn, and if Antetokounmpo has a monster series — which is very possible — it becomes that much tougher to beat the Bucks. My guess is we see a lot of Harden on Antetokounmpo and Durant on Middleton, but with all the switching and mismatches in this series, everything will be about help and depth.

2) Can Milwaukee slow down the Nets offense even a little bit?

Milwaukee exorcized a lot of demons in its first-round sweep of Miami, and they did with a defense that gave up less than a point per possession in the meaningful minutes of games (not counting garbage time). The Bucks didn’t emphasize it this regular season as they did past ones, but this is an elite defense.

However, can it match up with the Nets offense that might be as great a collection of talent as the game has seen? The Bucks may have the best chance to slow this offense of any team in the league, but even that may not be enough.

Jrue Holiday will likely draw the Kyrie Irving assignment much of the series (although he will see Harden time as well). Irving’s handles will get him quality looks against any defender, but Holiday is quick and strong enough to make life difficult for him (as much as anyone can). Antetokounmpo and Middleton will both get time on the Durant assignment, and try to use their length and athleticism to slow one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. P.J. Tucker will get valuable minutes in this role as well.

The real challenge is Harden, and this is where the Bucks will miss Donte DiVincenzo; he would have been by far their best option in this spot. Antetokounmpo and Middleton may get time here, as will Pat Connaughton, a solid defender against players who just try to overpower him with strength. Tucker could get some turns here. Connaughton also will get time on Joe Harris.

The Bucks will pressure the Nets perimeter players and bet on Brook Lopez, being dropped back into the paint, can make it tough to just drive to the rim for dunks and lay-ups. Can Blake Griffin hit enough threes to drag Lopez out of the paint? This is where the Nets will miss Green until (or if) he returns this series.

The Bucks defenders were on a string against the Heat, and this is a long and talented team on that end of the floor. But is it enough.

3) James Harden is the key to this series

Harden was the key to the Nets season, and his performance is my biggest X-factor in this series.

At points against the Celtics in the first round, these Nets looked reminded me of the 2011 Heat, the first year of their big three: You take a turn, then I take a turn, then he takes a turn, and we all play next to each other and not truly “with” one another. It’s worth noting that Heat team lost in the Finals but came back the next season and, under Erik Spoelstra, learned how to play off one another, and they picked up the next two titles.

Harden is the guy who gets Brooklyn playing with one another, the guy who gets the ball moving side-to-side, gets the players moving off the ball, and turns the Nets offense into something more. You could see it in Game 2 against Miami when Brooklyn had 31 assists (67% of their made baskets) and six players in double figures in scoring.

That is the Nets team that wins this series. As talented as Brooklyn is, if they line up and go mano-y-mano against Milwaukee, it plays into the Bucks’ hands — Irving may drive around Holiday and get in the paint but then has to hit a contested floater over Lopez. Keep the ball moving and maybe Jordan/Claxton gets an alley-oop out of the dunker’s spot, or a kick-out and quick pass leads to Joe Harris getting time to set his feet and line up a three. When the Nets move the ball and get out in transition, nobody can slow their offense.

If Harden has a big series, the Nets get the win. But, if the Nets fall too much into isolation basketball — as great as they are at it with elite isolation scorers — they can be beaten.

PREDICTION: Nets in 7 games… but I don’t feel comfortable about it. This series is a coin flip.

Focus on body, conditioning has LeBron James on cusp of scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James has prepared for this day since high school.

Maybe he didn’t envision this day exactly — the day he would break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record, something he is just 36 points shy of heading into Tuesday night against the Thunder— but LeBron was preparing for playing at a high level deep into his career. A career that has seen very few injuries (in 20 seasons his only surgeries have been LASIK and oral surgery in the offseason), very little time missed, and a lot of points.

Through all the years, teams and tribulations, LeBron’s focus on preparing his body has never wavered.

“I’ve just learned more about my body and how to prepare my body. But I’ve been taking care of my body since I started playing basketball,” LeBron said earlier this season. “Like, even when I was younger — you can ask any of my best friends growing up — before I went to sleep I would stretch and as soon as I would wake up I would stretch. I was like, 10 years old. In high school, I was one of the few guys that would ice after the game. My rookie year I was icing after the game, as well.

“But, as I got older and older and older, I started to figure out other ways that I could beat Father Time by putting in more time on my game and on my craft. But mostly on my body and my mind. I feel like if my mind can stay as fresh as it possibly can through a grueling up-and-down NBA season — which it is — then my body is going to be able to try and perform at the highest level. So, I’ve always wanted to maximize even the most out of my career and squeeze the most juice I can out of my career.

That level of investment in his body — financially, but more importantly with time and energy — has made his fitness routine a legend around the league. It’s the reason he is still an All-NBA-level player when the rest of his draft class — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Kyle Korver, David West, Steve Blake, Kirk Hinrich — have hung up their sneakers.

“LeBron is taking care of himself so well that he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years. And that’s what he takes,” said Spurs legend Gregg Popovich. “But he gets credit for taking care of himself and being able to be out there. The way a lot of players don’t even come close to. His commitment to the game and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”

LeBron has made fitness and recovery a core part of his daily routine. That commitment to his body means he works out at least five days a week even in the slow weeks of the offseason. Get close to the season and into the grind and it’s seven days a week.

These are not ‘I’m going to jump on the elliptical and get in a little cardio’ workouts, these are specially designed HIIT workouts with his personal trainer, Mike Mancias, that target on different days his core, legs, upper body and other areas, plus mixes in yoga and stretching, and then a recovery program. It is holistic and includes a diet low on refined sugars but with enough carbs to fuel his workout and play.

All that doesn’t even include his pregame stretching and workout routine.

LeBron puts his money into maintaining his conditioning — his business partner and friend Maverick Carter once said LeBron spends about $1.5 million a year on not just trainers and a personal chef, but equipment such as cryotherapy chambers, hyperbaric chambers, NormaTec leg boots, and much more.

Does LeBron have a go-to cheat? Wine. But he’s earned it.

Players don’t reach the NBA, or especially, stick around, without an impressive commitment to fitness. Plenty of players enter the league with bad habits that, by season three or four, they figure out they have to dump if they are going to stick around (and get paid). LeBron’s focus, consistency, and relentlessness is on another level, and it is what has him as the best player the league has ever seen in his 20th season, at age 38. Nobody has ever played this well, this long.

“I think he’s gonna have the greatest career of all time,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of LeBron. “I think he’s already had it, you know, and I think Michaels the greatest of all time. But that doesn’t take anything away from LeBron. LeBron has had the greatest career.”

And he put in the work to get there.

On fringe of rotation, Sixers guard Korkmaz reportedly requests trade

NBA: JAN 17 76ers at Clippers
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Last season, Furkan Korkmaz was a regular part of the 76ers rotation — he played in 69 games, started 19, and averaged 21 minutes and seven shot attempts a night.

With De'Anthony Melton added to the rotation this season, Korkmaz has played in 25 games (less than half of the team’s games) at 10.2 minutes a night when he does get in, and he averaged 3.1 shots per game. Korkmaz wants to be somewhere he is wanted and used and has requested a trade, reports Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have said the Turkish player has requested to be traded before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Asked about it, Korkmaz would only say he “would not confirm nor deny it.”

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey didn’t immediately respond to a text message asking if Korkmaz asked to be traded. But sources have said Korkmaz was informed the Sixers will try to package him in a deal.

Korkmaz is not the only 76ers whose name comes up in trade conversations, wing defender Matisse Thybulle also has drawn trade interest. The Sixers are looking for a backup point center for their playoff run.

Korkmaz, 25 and in his sixth NBA season, is a career 35.4% shooter from 3 at the guard spot, but his competent shooting has not made up for limited playmaking and poor defense at the NBA level. The Sixers went out and got an upgrade this offseason in Melton.

Korkmaz makes $5 million this season and has a fully-guaranteed $5.4 million on the books for next season. A fair price if a team believes the Turkish guard can help their guard rotation, but the market for him is likely limited.

Still, it’s another name to watch in Philadelphia as we move toward Thursday’s trade deadline.

After missing out on Kyrie Irving, now what for Lakers?

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The Lakers tried. Maybe not as hard as some segments of Lakers’ nation wanted, but Rob Pelinka and company tried. Los Angeles had serious negotiations with the Brooklyn Nets about bringing Kyrie Irving to Los Angeles, potentially giving them a true at-his-peak third star next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It didn’t work out — Irving is headed to the Dallas Mavericks.

Why it didn’t work out is a glimpse into the mindset of the Lakers’ front office — whether fans think they did the wise thing or should have pushed more chips into the center of the table — and informs what will come next for the Lakers.

The primary reason the Lakers’ trade offer didn’t work out was beyond the team’s control — Brooklyn wanted to quickly retool a competitive, contending team around Kevin Durant and the Lakers couldn’t offer the quality of players needed to make that happen. The core of any Lakers’ offer was two distant first-round picks — 2027 and 2029 — and Russell Westbrook, a player the Lakers moved out of the starting lineup. Dallas (and for that matter, the Suns and Clippers) could always offer a better version of what the Nets wanted. (It didn’t help that Irving wanted to go to the Lakers and Nets’ owner Joe Tsai didn’t want to send Irving to his desired destination, Marc Stein reports.)

There were other players the Lakers could have added to the mix — Austin Reaves and Max Christie — but L.A. was only going to do that if Irving agreed to a two-year, $78.5 million contract extension (the max the Lakers could offer), reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic. Irving would never accept that, his trade request was always about maximizing his income with a new team.

So where does all this leave the Lakers?

They can’t trade Westbrook without attaching at least one of those highly-valued first-round picks — his $47.1 million contract this season is still an anchor on a deal — something they are unwilling to do unless it brings back a true third star. That reduces the Lakers to making a smaller trade to bring in a role player that could give them depth and help them win a few more games, pushing into the postseason. The Lakers have reached out to Utah and Toronto primarily, Buha reports, although the entire league is waiting to see what Toronto will do at the deadline.

Kyle Goon at the Los Angeles Daily News sums it nicely:

But instead of an All-Star like Irving in return, the Lakers face figuring out if a package of role players can help them push toward the playoffs. Those have less glamorous possibilities attached: Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt or Malik Beasley from Utah; Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson or Doug McDermott from San Antonio; Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier or Mason Plumlee from Charlotte…

So Pelinka and the Lakers seemingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place, already committed to making another move before the deadline, but also without an obvious trade that boosts them to new competitive heights.

The Lakers are shopping around that smaller deal using the contract of Patrick Beverley and second-round picks but trying not to use one of those first-rounders, sources tell NBC Sports. Plus, if the Lakers are hesitant to put young players such as Reaves or Christy in a trade for a player the caliber of Irving, they are not about to do it for a role player.

The historic distraction of LeBron James breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record will dominate a lot of the Lakers’ storylines, very possibly just past the trade deadline. That could be a good thing for the Lakers. But when the smoke of the trade deadline clears, Lakers fans — and LeBron — are not likely to be happy with the new landscape.

Three things to Know: Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

Dallas Mavericks v Brooklyn Nets
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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

So much for a quiet trade deadline. In a blockbuster trade, the Brooklyn Nets are sending Kyrie Irving and Markieff Morris to the Dallas Mavericks in return for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a 2029 unprotected first-round pick and two second-round picks (the first in 2027). Brooklyn chose the Mavericks’ offer over the Lakers (Russell Westbrook and two first-rounders), Suns (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and picks), and the Clippers.

The thing is, it can’t be the last move for either the Mavericks or Nets if they want to contend this season. It’s not a coincidence this trade got done days before the deadline, it leaves room for both teams to make more moves to maximize what happened in this deal.

What is next for both?

With this move, Brooklyn signaled they plan to retool a contender around Kevin Durant, which is a noble idea but his roster is not good enough. Adding Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith brings versatility and depth to the Nets lineup, but it leaves them with one star capable of elite shot creation and points in KD, the Nets need more.

Brooklyn can use that depth plus what is now three first-round picks they control to try and trade for another star to go next to Durant, except there are no such stars on the market. At least yet. The Nets did check in with the Raptors to see if any of their stars — maybe Fred VanVleet or O.G. Anunoby — will be made available, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV. Brooklyn has until early this summer to build a roster Durant believes can win it all and wants to play with, or his trade demand could end up back on the table. There are many other teams — led by the Suns — waiting to see that happen.

As for Dallas…

Trading for Irving is a huge role of the dice for the Mavericks and they need it to work, partly because they reportedly did not commit to a long-term contract with Irving (he wants the max, four years, $198.5 million, he could have gotten). Irving is a free agent after this season and could walk.

To make it work, Dallas needs two ball-dominant players in Irving and Luka Dončić to mesh on the court. More importantly, Dallas has to improve its 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) despite having just traded away its best perimeter defender in Finney-Smith.

Dallas is still active on the trade market to round out the roster— Christian Wood is a very common name bandied about as available — but the focus now has to be on bringing in enough defense. Their offense could be electric with Dončić, Irving and plenty of shooting, but they are not going to score their way out of the West, Dallas needs stops. Which means Dallas needs defenders.

Expect both the Nets and Mavericks to try and make more moves before Thursday.

2) Stephen Curry out “weeks” with shin injury, could be a month

For a Warriors team that is just a game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, they got terrible news on Sunday.

Stephen Curry has torn ligaments in his leg — in the shin area just below the knee — and while the team does not have an official timeline, he will miss time.

Shams Charania reported it would be “weeks” and the Warriors are hoping that means about three and Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

However, Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes said that, while this is a rare injury for the NBA, he likely is out for around a month.

The Warriors are not the same without Curry, who is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. The Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. Can they hold on to even a play-in spot without him?

Also of interest, Curry will miss the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter.

Here’s the interesting question: Fans voted Irving a starter in the East, except now he plays for a Western Conference team. Does Irving now slide into Curry’s starting spot in the West, and then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver name a replacement player in the East? Or, does Silver make the changes in the West (likely bumping Ja Morant to starter and naming a reserve from Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards).

3) Knicks rally from 21 points down to pick up quality win over 76ers

The 76ers had been hot and won 9-of-10, and Joel Embiid had another monster night scoring 31 points (18 of 19 from the free-throw line) and grabbing 14 rebounds.

It was not enough, the Knicks came back from 21 down to get the win behind 24 points from Julius Randle, while Jalen Brunson scored 21 points and Evan Fournier came off the bench to add 17.

“I thought our second unit came in and struggled,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, via the Associated Press. “This is the second time that has happened. The same thing happened in Orlando (the other recent Philly loss). Both times, we were scoring too easy. The second group comes in and thinks this is an offensive game and they didn’t see why the first group got the lead because of defense.”