Middleton is Bucks’ closer, proves it down stretch to even Finals vs. Suns

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time MVP, the best player on the team, maybe the only guy in the league who could get up and block a Deandre Ayton alley-oop.

But Khris Middleton is the Bucks closer.

He had to be to keep Milwaukee’s dream of a title alive in Game 4. The Suns did a good job taking the Bucks out of their preferred transition offense, Jrue Holiday went back in his shooting slump, and the Bucks shot 7-of-29 from 3. Throw in a red hot Devin Booker — 42 points and a force from the midrange again — and this game was there for the Suns to steal.

Then there was Middleton.

He finished with 40, scoring 10 straight points in the final 2:07 of the game, often by running a pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo the Suns couldn’t stop. The Bucks don’t always win pretty — 40.2% shooting overall, 24.1% on 3-pointers — but they find a way. Champions need to be gritty, and Wednesday night Milwaukee was just that.

“It’s a grind. A lot of playoff games, especially when it comes late in the fourth quarter, it’s a grind,” Middleton said. “Just got to find a way to get it, get loose balls, get rebounds, figure out a way to get stops against great players. That’s all I can really say about it. It’s a grind.”

Milwaukee won the grind late and the result was a 109-103 Bucks win that evens the NBA Finals at 2-2.

Game 5 is back in Phoenix on Saturday night.

For much of the night, it looked like Devin Booker was going to win the Suns this game.

Monty Williams knew he needed Booker going early and set up a play they kept going to all night — Booker coming up from the baseline off a pindown into a dribble handoff, then attacking. It worked, often forcing a switch that left one of the Bucks bigs trying to slow Booker. That hasn’t worked all series. Booker destroyed Milwaukee from the midrange (he didn’t hit a three all night).

Booker finished the night with 42 points and has now scored more points in his first playoffs than any player in NBA history.

It made up for a rare rough night from Chris Paul, who finished shooting 5-of-13 for 10 points and several key turnovers down the stretch. Holiday’s physical defense all series — and he picked Paul up full court for stretches of this game — seemed to wear CP3 down a little. The Suns also got just six points from Deandre Ayton.

However, ask coach Monty Williams what was the Suns’ downfall and he points to the 17 turnovers. There were points Phoenix led by seven or nine, but turnovers kept them from pulling away.

“The turnovers just crushed us tonight,” Williams said. “We shot 50% from the field, but they got 19 more possessions. Over the course of the game when you just give it up that many times the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”

Antetokounmpo finished with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but what we will all be talking about for years is his game-changing block of an Ayton alley-oop.

For stretches of this game, it just didn’t look like the Bucks’ night. It’s been the frustrating thing about Milwaukee this playoffs (and for years before) — they stop doing what works. In Game 3 they used their size to pound the Suns inside — 54 points in the paint, taking half their shots in the key.

Wednesday night they got away from that, especially early (only five of their first 18 shots were in the paint), and once again the Bucks couldn’t hit a 3. Part of this was improved transition defense from the Suns — 20.2% of Milwaukee’s possessions in Game 3 started in transition, just 12.4% in Game 4. Milwaukee thrives on easy transition buckets.

Without it, they had to rely more on Middleton. Late in the game, they returned to Antetokounmpo screening for Middleton — after getting away from it, as they are want to do — and it worked.

Now the Bucks need to do it on the road, to find that same grit, in a hostile Phoenix arena. Do that and they have a shot at their first title in 50 years.

Tyler Herro says he’s better than players ‘that have gotten paid’

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Seven
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RJ Barrett signed a rookie contract extension for four years, $107 million fully guaranteed that could climb to $120 million with incentives. Several others out of the 2019 draft class — Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Darius Garland — earned max contract extensions with their team.

Tyler Herro is still waiting on his extension with the Miami Heat.

And with that baked in Herro confidence, he said he is better than some players he has seen getting paid, he told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“I was active early in the summer,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel of the extension window that opened in July. “Then I realized it wasn’t going to get done, if it does get done, until later. So I just told my agent to call me when it’s ready. “So we haven’t really spoken much about the contract. Obviously, I tell him to call me when it’s ready. If it’s not ready, I continue to play my game and figure it out next summer…

“There’s players across the league that have gotten paid who I know I’m better than. So it’s got to be the right number,” he said, with the Heat continuing camp on makeshift courts at the [ Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas].

One reason an extension for Herro has not gotten done — and may not get done before the Oct. 18 deadline — is Herro is the Heat’s best trade asset to go after a big name. Once he signs an extension that is off the table, something Winderman and I have discussed in our weekly video/podcast on the Heat and NBA.

The other question on a Herro extension is what is the “right number?” Did the Knicks’ Barrett set the market with his extension?

Maybe Barrett is one of the players Herro “knows” he is better than, but that would not be the consensus of scouts and free agents around the league. Herro has hardware as the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, he puts up numbers averaging 20.7 points a game while shooting 39.9% from 3 last season, he can do some secondary play creation and has had big playoff games. He has real value.

However, as Winderman has pointed out, Herro has started just 33 games across three years, compared to Barrett’s 197 starts. More importantly, Herro’s defensive limitations limited how Eric Spoelstra could use him in the playoffs. Then there is the matter of load carried. Barrett was the No. 1 option for the Knicks last season (with Julius Randle falling off) and even with the signing of Jalen Brunson, Barrett is option No.1 or 1B for Tom Thibodeau. Herro is down the Heat pecking order behind Bam AdebayoJimmy Butler, and maybe Kyle Lowry depending on how he bounces back from a down year. The Heat don’t need Herro the way the Knicks need Barrett right now, which is one key reason Herro is available via trade.

Would Herro take a four-year, $105 extension? Would the Heat even offer it? If Miami is hoping for a trade at the deadline, it may wait on an offer and let the market set Herro’s price as a restricted free agent next summer. For Herro, that would give him a chance to prove he is a starter and that his defense has improved — that he is worth more than the Heat had been offering.

If the Heat and Herro agree on an extension, look for it to be in a couple of weeks, pushing up against that October deadline.

 

Lonzo Ball undergoes successful knee surgery, out ‘at least a few months’

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Lonzo Ball underwent another arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Wednesday, and the doctors finally had some positive news.

They believe that they’ve “addressed the issue”, and there is “confidence” that he’ll be able to play this season. He’s still expected to miss “at least a few months”, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Charania added that both sides will monitor his progress over

After his first surgery in January, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well at all, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. During media day this week, Ball said that he couldn’t run or jump, so he couldn’t play basketball. Billy Donovan said that they had to think of Ball’s injury as potentially season-ending. So an update that says that he should play this season is considered good news at this point.

Chicago had a 22-13 record with Lonzo last season, but were just 24-23 without him. He averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 3.1 triples per game in his first year with the team.

They have other defenders like Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso, but they don’t have anyone else that can both defend and facilitate the way Lonzo can. They’ll use training camp and the preseason to decide on a starting point guard between Dosunmu, Caruso, and Goran Dragic.

They’re one of the more talented teams in the East, but they may end up playing in the play-in tournament if they’re without Ball for the majority of the season.

 

Five players poised to make first NBA All-Star game this season

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Who is ready to make the leap?

Every season there are players on the cusp of becoming an All-Star — not only has their game improved to be one of the top 24 players in the league, but their stature has risen to the point fans (voting for the starters) or coaches (voting for the reserves) want to see them in the game.

Here are five players on the cusp of making that leap and getting the chance to suit up in Salt Lake City this February for their first All-Star Game.

1. Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers)

He was the centerpiece headed to Indiana in the trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento — and a lot of executives around the league were shocked the Kings gave him up. After the trade, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists a game with a 62.9 true shooting percentage — and this season he’s going to be asked to do even more on a team that is rebuilding (but still has Myles Turner and Buddy Hield on the roster… what exactly is Indiana doing?).

The Pacers will take a step back this season (which doesn’t help his All-Star chances) but Haliburton himself will be unleashed. He will draw the attention of fans and opposing defenses — coaches know and like his game, which is why he stands a good chance to be an East All-Star reserve this season.

2. Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves)

Edwards has made the leap in popularity and stature — he is trash-talking Kermit in Adam Sandler’s Hustle — and he probably should have been an All-Star last season averaging 21.3 points a game.

Edwards has the explosive, highlight-factory game and has the big personality fans love (although his homophobic social media post over the summer does not help his cause). He will be in the spotlight more on an improved Timberwolves team — he will be the outside to Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert inside — that should be in the mix for the playoffs in the West. Anthony Edwards has a lot of All-Star Games in his future, this season should be his first.

3. Evan Mobley (Cavaliers)

As a rookie, Mobley was already a top-flight defensive big man who averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game — and he came back this season stronger and ready to make a leap on the offensive end. He finished a close second in the Rookie of the Year voting and took that personally, hitting the gym hard and coming out with a chip on his shoulder this season. He flashed potential last season with the ball in his hands, a guy who could beat his man and be a playmaker. Expect to see more of that, more of Mobley out on the perimeter as a creator this season (maybe even grabbing the board and bringing the ball up in transition himself).

He’s going to get noticed on a Cavaliers team with an All-Star backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, and if he has added to his game this year it’s Mobley’s turn.

4. Tyrese Maxey (76ers)

Maxey got thrust into the starting point guard role last season when Ben Simmons never suited up for the 76ers (and played like the guy the 76ers hoped Markelle Fultz would be). Then he thrived after the trade, working a little more off-ball and being a secondary shot creator off James Harden. Maxey averaged 17.5 points and 4.5 assists a game last season, and he is in a position to have those numbers jump again this season.

Maxey is quick with the ball and can get downhill, with the skill set to finish at the rim or pull up and nail the jumper. He shot 42% from 3 last season, although that may be unsustainable (he can shoot, but over 40% every year may be a big ask). Maxey is adding to that game on the court, but it’s his maturity and decision-making — this is his third year in the league — where the biggest leaps are coming.

The 76ers are going to be in the spotlight a lot and should win a lot of regular season games, and with Maxey shining in that light, the All-Star game is a real possibility.

5. Jalen Brunson (Knicks)

Brunson burst out of Luka Doncic’s shadow last season in Dallas and averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists a game last season — now he’s going to have the ball in his hands every night on the biggest stage in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau will hand Brunson the keys to the Knicks offense, which means the guard’s counting stats should climb — and with that his All-Star chances go up.

There are questions about how the Knicks’ offense will fit together with Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, but Brunson is going to get the chance to prove he can be a No.1 guard. In that spotlight, a trip to Salt Lake City is in the offing.

Steve Nash on Ben Simmons: ‘I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot’

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The last season he played, Ben Simmons took just 9% of his shots from beyond 10 feet — he did not space the floor at all, which meant Joel Embiid had to at times. That lack of a jumper he trusted has always been one of the knocks on Ben Simmons’ game.

Steve Nash doesn’t care. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“That’s why I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot for the Brooklyn Nets. He’s welcome to, but that is not what makes him special and not what we need. He’s a great complement to our team, and he’s an incredible basketball player because of his versatility.”

In an offense with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving setting the table — particularly in the halfcourt — Simmons is going to be asked to play more of a role: Be an elite defender, push the ball in transition, work in some dribble-handoff situations where he can drive the lane as an option, be a cutter off the ball, and be a distributor in the halfcourt. It’s why Simmons’ ideal role with the Nets often gets compared to Draymond Green — it’s a Draymond-lite role. There will be far less of him as lead guard running pick-and-roll.

Will Simmons settle into that role? Also, it should be noted that peak Green (2016 for example) shot better than 30% from 3 and had to be respected out there (last season 29.6% on 1.2 3s per game) — he had to be covered at the arc. Simmons does not. Also, Green did not avoid getting fouled and getting to the line.

Nash has the task of meshing Simmons into the system and figuring out the rotations — can he play Simmons and Nic Claxton together, or is having two non-jump shooters on the floor at once clog the offense? Is Simmons going to play center at points? There is championship-level talent on the Nets roster, but so many questions about fit, defense, and grit.

There’s no question about Simmons taking jumpers, but Nash doesn’t care.