Asleep at the switch: Bucks bigs get torched by Suns guards in Game 1

Suns star Chris Paul and Bucks center Brook Lopez in NBA Finals Game 1
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The Bucks have a first team All-Defense guard in Jrue Holiday.

Which looked like an important weapon considering the Suns have two star guards.

Holiday could barely take the court in Game 1 of the NBA Finals without running into a Phoenix guard Milwaukee needed to corral. He could have pressured Chris Paul, the Suns’ ace playmaker. Or Holiday could have harassed Devin Booker, who can get as hot as anyone. Though Holiday couldn’t be everywhere, he seemed bound to be somewhere important defensively fairly often.

Instead, Holiday was the primary defender on just seven of Paul’s and Booker’s 40 shots.

The Bucks mostly switched against Paul and Booker – getting Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis dragged onto the perimeter and leaving Holiday away from the action. The game plan produced disastrous results as Milwaukee lost Game 1 Tuesday, Paul (32 points) and Booker (27 points) rolling.

Paul and Booker after getting Lopez or Portis switched onto them: 25 points on 17 finished possessions (147 offensive rating).

And that doesn’t even cover the full damage.

Paul (nine assists) and Booker (six assists) kept the ball moving. With Lopez pulled away from the basket, the Suns had an easier path to the rim.

Lopez is a good defender overall. He is a mountain in the paint, deterring interior shots and grabbing defensive rebounds.

But he’s not as sharp in space. His feet look slow against whizzes like Paul and Booker. Switching leaves Lopez too exposed.

The drop coverage Lopez typically plays, sagging into the paint and allowing relatively uncontested mid-rangers, works against most teams. Protecting the rim is the top priority of a defense. It’s often reasonable to surrender typically inefficient mid-rangers.

However, the further a team advances in the playoffs, the more likely it is to face an opponent talented enough to reliably hit those mid-rangers. Like the Suns with Paul and Booker.

The Bucks allowed just four points on four possessions with Paul or Booker shooting against drop coverage Tuesday. But the looks were better than that. And, again, the passing. As Paul and Booker had room to dribble through the mid-range, the defense scrambled, and Phoenix moved the ball to open players.

Milwaukee’s best option might be playing Giannis Antetokounmpo or P.J. Tucker at center and switching. They’re far more capable of executing that strategy than Lopez and Portis. But could the Bucks adequately fill 96 minutes at forward with Antetokounmpo and Tucker playing so much center? At a certain point, talent matters, and Lopez is one of Milwaukee’s best players.

The Bucks could also keep switching with Lopez and Portis and hope for better results. Paul won’t always be this hot. Lopez and Portis can get a better feel for Paul’s and Booker’s moves.

At minimum, Milwaukee should fight harder through screens. Don’t let the Suns get whatever switch they want. Force them to use shot clock while matchup hunting.

None of these options look great, though.

The Bucks did well this season to become more of playoff team than a regular-season team. Coach Mike Budenholzer experimented with switching throughout the year, temporarily weakening the defense but preparing Milwaukee for these moments. If still holding their prior-years approach, the Bucks wouldn’t have switched at all in this game – and would probably be getting crushed for their drop coverage being inadequate.

But there’s a difference between merely being better built for the playoffs and winning a championship. A title usually requires beating a highly talented offensive team like Phoenix.

Milwaukee might not have the personnel for it.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.