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


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.

Nowitzki, Wade, Gasol, Popovich reportedly headline Hall of Fame class


It will not become official until Saturday, but this is shaping up to be a legendary Hall of Fame class.

Dwyane Wade. Dirk Nowitzki. Gregg Popovich. Pau Gasol. Tony Parker. Becky Hammon. They are all in, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a deep class, and there was no question about any of those players’ Hall of Fame credentials.

Wade is one of the (arguably THE) greatest shooting guard in the history of the game, winning three rings as a member of the Miami Heat, plus making eight All-NBA teams and 13 trips to the All-Star game. Nowitzki is the greatest Maverick ever and the greatest European player in NBA history, an NBA champion and Finals MVP, plus he won the regular season MVP in 2007.

Popovich, the legendary coach of the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs — a team that won 50+ games 18-straight seasons with him at the helm, plus he coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Parker was the point guard for much of that Spurs run, is a four-time NBA champion and was Finals MVP in 2007. Gasol is a two-time NBA champion, four-time All-NBA,and led Spain to the FIBA World Championship in 2006 and won three Olympic medals.

The Hall of Fame class will officially be announced on Saturday.


Draymond Green is good with facing Kings in first round — because of the travel


If the NBA playoffs started today, the Golden State Warriors would be in the play-in and host the Pelicans in the 7/8 game. Win that and they would hop on a more than three-hour flight to Memphis to take on the Grizzlies.

Draymond Green said on his podcast he is hoping the Warriors finish as the No.6 seed and dodge the play-in, then face the Kings to open the playoffs (which is how the standings stood 24 hours ago). Why? It’s a 90-mile drive to Sacramento.

“The reason why I said Sac is simply just because of the travel. That’s a lot on your body. If we can bus ride an hour and 10 minutes up the way, I just think that’s much better for us. At the end of the day, I don’t really care who we play in the playoffs, I think we can win.”

Green is not wrong about the travel.

While some teams may have looked at the top four in the West (Nuggets, Grizzlies, Kings, and Suns) and seen Sacramento as the obvious target, that plan could backfire. The Kings’ offense is diverse and elite, and they have the Clutch Player of the Year in De'Aaron Fox, and their building will be rocking like no other after the franchise has not been in the playoffs since 2006. In a West filled with flawed teams, the Kings winning a couple of rounds is well within the realm of possibility.

This could be the first year since the Kings moved to Sacramento that all four California teams make the playoffs (it is likely that all four at least make the play-in). The Kings are all but locked in to be the No.3 seed, while the Warriors, Lakers and Clippers are in the crowded field at the bottom of the playoff bracket where three games separate the No.5 and 11 seeds.

Bradley Beal reportedly under investigation after confrontation with fan who lost gambling

Washington Wizards v Orlando Magic
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

On March 21, Bradley Beal had an off game — 16 points on 4-of-15 shooting — as the Wizards fell to the Magic in Orlando.

Walking off the court, Beal got into a confrontation with a couple of fans, one of whom blamed him for a gambling loss. The next day that incident became a complaint filed with the Orlando Police Department by the fan. David Purdum of ESPN summarized the police report this way:

Beal and the Wizards were exiting the court and in the visitors’ tunnel, headed to the locker room, when, according to the police report, an unidentified man remarked to Beal, “You made me lose $1,300, you f***.”

Beal, according to the report, turned around and walked toward a friend of the man who made the comment and swatted his right hand toward him, knocking the man’s hat off and contacting the left side of his head.

Police reviewed video footage of the altercation and heard Beal say this is his job and he takes it seriously, and the man is heard apologizing, implying he did not intend to offend him, according to the report.

At this point, no charges have been filed against Beal. According to TMZ, Beal told the heckler, “Keep it a buck. I don’t give a f*** about none of your bets or your parlays, bro. That ain’t why I play the game.” The entire incident lasted less than a minute.

NBA spokesman Mike Bass said, “We are aware of the report and are in the process of gathering more information.”

Sports betting is not currently legal in the state of Florida.

While there is nothing official from the team, speculation abounds that the Wizards have shut down Beal and Kyle Kuzma for the season.


Trail Blazers shut down Lillard for season… and here comes the trade speculation


While it was unofficial but understood for some time, now it is official: Damian Lillard has been shut down for the season. Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report (who has close ties to the Lillard camp) Tweeted out the news.

The Blazers are five games out of the final play-in spot with seven games to play, they aren’t making up that ground. They are tied for the fifth-worst record in the league, which comes with a 10.5% chance at the top pick and Victor Wembanyama. This was the right play.

Before it became official, Shams Charania at The Athletic wrote in “The Bounce” newsletter Monday that Lillard is “essentially” shut down for the season – and then lit a fire under the topic that makes Trail Blazers’ fans’ eyes roll:

Damian Lillard trade talk.

On the other side of things, you now have to wonder if Lillard ever steps on the court again for Portland. There was a ton of optimism going into this season after the team landed Jerami Grant and got off to a good start to the campaign. Now, not making the playoffs for a second year in a row, a soon-to-be 33-year-old star of this league who has never gotten a chance to win it all will have tons of questions to ask the front office this offseason, and I expect there to be serious conversations about what’s next for both sides.

We all knew the Lillard trade speculation was coming. Same with Bradley Beal in Washington. The same core rule applies to both of them:

Lillard will not get traded unless he asks to be moved. He has never done so, in fact saying just weeks ago about playing the rest of his career in Portland, “To that point, I’m also willing to die on that hill.” Portland has been loyal to him and Lillard signed a massive contract extension last offseason and has four years, $216.2 million left on that deal, including about $63.2 million in the contract’s final season when he is 36. He’s happy where he is and has deep roots in the community.

The odds are better than not that Lillard will retire a Trail Blazer, even if that’s not the path other stars would walk. Lillard is wired differently.

Can you construct an argument that the Trail Blazers should trade Lillard while his value is sky-high — he will be an All-NBA player again this season — because the organization’s best path to a ring is with whoever and whatever’s next? Maybe. However, that ignores the financial reality of the Blazers — Lillard brings the fans in the door, brings in team sponsors who want to be associated with him, and he sells jerseys. Lillard is good business for Portland, there is no incentive for ownership to move on right now.

In fact, it may be the opposite. Portland can throw multiple picks and good young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons into a trade to bring in another star to play with Lillard. That is more how their front office pictures this summer — they want to go all in on building around Lillard. Not sending him away.

Other teams covet Lillard, and trade packages can be constructed (would Miami be willing to move on from Bam Adebayo for the chance to pair Lillard with Jimmy Butler?). But it’s all idle talk until Lillard sits down with franchise ownership/management and says it’s time for him to move on. That has yet to happen. It may well never happen.

Just expect the avalanche of Lillard speculation to begin. Warranted or not.