Three things to watch series preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Atlanta Hawks

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Seven
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The Eastern Conference Finals are here… and this is not the matchup we expected.

The fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks have arrived earlier than expected, with Trae Young making a leap and bringing John Collins and company along with him. They caught a break against an injured Joel Embiid, who faded late in games, but the Hawks also rose up to the challenge against the 76ers and made plays when it mattered, gaining confidence along the way.

The Bucks got lucky on the health front, too, against a depleted Nets team — and if Kevin Durant‘s size 18 feet don’t step on the line late in Game 7 the Bucks might be looking at a roster shakeup with a new coach coming in — but they got a hard-fought win. Was that the series win that put the Bucks over the hump? Will they play better in this series?

Here are three key things to watch, a series preview for the Eastern Conference Finals between the Bucks and Hawks.

1) Jrue Holiday covering Trae Young

Things are not going to get easier for Trae Young.

He spent the last series with 6’11” of Ben Simmons draped all over him — the guy second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Young still averaged 29 points and 10.9 assists a game against the 76ers, but he wasn’t efficient doing it, shooting 39.2% overall and 32.3% from 3 for the series. Look at it this way, Young’s 53.9 true shooting percentage against Philly was five percentage points lower than his regular season average.

Now Young will see Jrue Holiday — an All-Defensive Team member himself who is both physical and has quick feet — every game. Behind Holiday is a better connected defensive team in the Bucks than the Hawks saw last round. Both Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo serve as rim protectors and a difficult second line of defense. The Bucks will primarily use a drop coverage that opens up Young’s floater game and some lobs to John Collins and Clint Capela, but overall, the Hawks face a team that has been better defensively in these playoffs — five points per 100 possessions better than the 76ers.

It means the Hawks will need role players to step up again, as we saw from Kevin Huerter in Game 7. Young is not going to win the Hawks a series on his own, he’s going to need big games from the Hawks supporting cast.

2) Can the Hawks slow down the Bucks in transition?

When the Bucks get out and run — when Antetokounmpo gets rolling downhill — they are far more difficult to stop. The Greek Freak gets to the rim, and if he gets walled off, he has become more adept at finding shooters at the arc to make opponents pay for collapsing into the paint.

Atlanta has seen teams run against them a lot this postseason — Philadelphia wanted to play fast — but have done a respectable slowing them down, giving up a 123.8 defensive rating on transition plays in the postseason (ninth in the league; stats via Cleaning the Glass). They will need to do even better this series.

The Hawks have shined defensively in the halfcourt, including keeping teams from getting easy buckets at the rim. Teams are shooing just 60.8% against them in the restricted area this postseason (third-best rim defense in the league). It’s been the same in the rest of the paint. The Hawks must keep that up this series, if the Bucks get their easy baskets at the rim they will take this series running away.

3) Can Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks handle the pressure?

Young and the Hawks were not supposed to be here. Not yet anyway. Their early arrival on the national scene has them as the feel-good story of the playoffs (the Suns may challenge for that crown). The pressure is off the Hawks; they are playing with house money.

For Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, there will never be a better chance to win a title. That brings pressure.

This is why Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee, why the franchise traded so much for Holiday. The Bucks three stars are in their prime — Antetokounmpo is 26, Khris Middleton 29, Holiday 31 — and the road has unfolded perfectly for them. No Durant or James Harden remaining, no Joel Embiid, and out West no LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard (probably, but it was Leonard who owned Antetokounmpo in 2019). This is the Bucks’ best chance to win a title, because next season the Nets may well be healthy, as might the 76ers, the Hawks and Knicks and others will be better, LeBron should be healthy out West, plus other good teams will be lined up in their path. This season, the road is much more open.

The Bucks have folded under that pressure in the past.

Is this year different? Can Antetokounmpo and company get a validating title, or is it all too much for them again? The Bucks have not looked consistently elite this postseason, and they will need to if they are to close it all out.

Prediction: Bucks in 5. The Hawks can make a series of it, but with Bogdan Bogdanovic playing through a clearly sore knee, no De’Andre Hunter, or (probably) Cam Reddish, the lack of role players and wing depth will catch up with the Hawks. The Bucks will grab their chance.

T.J. Warren still out for Nets, team to reassess status in November

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The Brooklyn Nets bet that the T.J. Warren from the bubble in Orlando — the one who averaged 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers — would re-emerge and give them a quality forward they could mix into a deep rotation.

Instead, so far it has looked more like the Warren who has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

Warren is improving and the Nets are bringing him along slowly, keeping him off the court until November at least, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Small forward T.J. Warren, who has missed nearly two full seasons following multiple foot surgeries, is “doing some shooting” and “a little bit more movement the last two weeks than he was prior,” Nash said. He added that Warren will be reassessed in about a month.

The Nets can afford to be patient. They have plenty of other questions to answer as a team before worrying about what Warren can or cannot contribute. But in the dream scenario where everything comes together for the Nets this season, Warren gets healthy and becomes a valuable contributor off the bench giving the Nets more versatility, scoring, and shooting along the front line.

For now, the Nets and Warren wait.

NBA returning to Seattle for exhibition game, when will it be more?

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SEATTLE (AP) — An NBA preseason game may not seem like a benchmark moment, even in a basketball-hungry city like Seattle, but Jamal Crawford believes there’s value even in an exhibition.

“It reignites a whole new generation of kids who need to see this,” said Crawford, a Seattle native who has been a basketball ambassador for the city through a 20-year NBA career and now with a pro-am that brings in NBA players every summer. “They need to be able to dream and know that it’s real.”

The NBA is making its latest brief return to the Emerald City. The Los Angeles Clippers will play the Portland Trail Blazers there on Monday night, the first time two NBA teams will meet in Seattle since 2018, when the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings played a preseason game. That was the last sporting event inside KeyArena before it was gutted and rebuilt into the gleaming Climate Pledge Arena.

There was a warm-up act of sorts Friday when the Clippers played Israeli team Maccabi Ra’anana in an exhibition, one where the most of the Clippers’ big names – Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, John Wall and Reggie Jackson – weren’t participating.

A sell-out crowd turned out for that Warriors-Kings game four years ago, the first one in Seattle since the beloved SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 after 41 years in the Pacific Northwest. Another big crowd is expected Monday.

“The Sonics haven’t been a team since I’ve been in the NBA. So just to go play in Seattle is cool,” Blazers star Damian Lillard said. “We played in Vancouver a few years back. I think like two or three years ago, we had a preseason game at the (Memorial) Coliseum. So every time we get to do something like that, I always enjoy it because I wondered what was it like when it was a real thing, when the games were played in these different arenas. So I am excited to play in Seattle.”

Someday, possibly soon, the expectations are that Seattle will reclaim its place as an NBA town.

“It’s always been a great city to me,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Friday. “It’s unfortunate that they lost their team and the team went to OKC. This city definitely deserves a team.”

Speculation is nonstop about when the NBA will choose to expand. Thanks to the resolution of its arena situation, Seattle seems likely to be at the forefront of those expansion talks, with Las Vegas likely right behind it.

But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been noncommittal about a possible expansion timeline, and it seems likely those talks won’t pick up steam until the league deals with the new collective bargaining agreement and television deals that are on the horizon.

The community’s commitment has never been in question. The appetite of Seattle fans hasn’t waned in the years since the Sonics left and as the region became a hotbed for NBA talent, whether it was Crawford continuing to carry the banner for the city, to Zach LaVine of Renton, Washington, to this year’s No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, another Seattle native.

As if any reinforcement was needed, the summer provided a perfect example as fans camped overnight outside Crawford’s summer league venue for the chance to get inside and watch LeBron James make his first basketball visit to the city in more than a decade.

“Anyone that knows Seattle knows what a great basketball city we are,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said this summer when the preseason game was announced.

The idea for having the Blazers and Clippers meet in Seattle was the result of a brainstorm between Lue and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. The two close friends wanted their teams to meet in the preseason and Lue noted the owners for both teams are Seattle based: Steve Ballmer of the Clippers and Jody Allen for the Blazers.

“I haven’t been back since I played there in 2008, I think it was. So just to be able to go back there and you know, Mr. Ballmer and kind of see his offices and how he lives, and (Chauncey) to get a chance to see his owner, and then to be with my best friend, I thought it would be a great common ground,” Lue said.

Steven Adams inks two-year, $25.2 million extension with Grizzlies

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Steven Adams signed a two-year, $25.2 million contract extension with Memphis, which will keep him tied to the team through the 2024-25 season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski broke the news on Saturday.

Adams has been crucial to the Grizzlies’ recent success. He’s coming off his first season with the team, where he averaged career-highs in rebounds (10.0) and assists (3.4). He also helped them lock up the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference and make it to the Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the eventual-champion Warriors 4-2. Despite the improved numbers, a lot of his value is from intangibles that don’t show up in the box score.

Adams spent the first seven years of his career with the Thunder before being traded to New Orleans in the four-team deal that sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee. Adams was moved again to Memphis in a package for Jonas Valanciunas.

Adams has found a new home with a young Grizzlies team that is looking to win a championship. The team is built around Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, but Jackson Jr. is expected to miss time after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. Memphis will rely on Adams more than ever to begin the season.

Watch Curry, Klay in 3-point shooting contest in Japan. Yeah, they’re good at this.

NBA Japan Games Saturday Night
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The NBA went to Japan to promote the brand, play a few games in a huge market — Japan specifically but Asia as a whole — and put on a show.

Is there a better show than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson draining 3s? Here they are in a 3-point contest during a basketball exhibition (there were some pro dunkers) in Tokyo on Saturday.

Stephen Curry, was there any other possible outcome?

It’s preseason and they are the defending champs — they should be having fun, playing with some joy.

Thompson took part in the shooting contest but is not playing in either of the exhibition games in Japan as the Warriors ease him back into play this season. It’s a marathon of a season and the Warriors need the best version of Klay starting in April, not October.