Defense, rebounding, big alley-oop earn Bucks Game 5 win, puts them on cusp of title

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All playoffs long, while his offense has come and gone, Jrue Holiday‘s defense has worn down Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and the Phoenix Suns.

So when Booker got in the lane with the chance to give the Suns a come-from-behind lead in the final :20 seconds of Game 5, no surprise it was Holiday coming off his man, stripping the ball out of Booker’s hands, then dribbling it up and finding Giannis Antetokounmpo for the alley-oop that sealed the Bucks win on the road — and maybe their first title in 51 years.

“Giannis took off and he was calling for the ball. At that point, I threw it as high as I could,” Holiday said.

That capped off a come-from-behind win for Milwaukee, which was almost blown out of the arena in the first quarter but settled itself in the second, held a double-digit lead through the end of the third and much of the fourth, then held on at the end.

Milwaukee’s 123-119 win has the Bucks up 3-2, one game away from their first title since 1971, and heading home for Game 6 on Tuesday night.

“One more to go. One more to go,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep playing good basketball.”

Milwaukee’s big three carried the day with a combined 88 points: Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points on 14-of-23 shooting, Middleton added 29 points including some clutch buckets late, and Holiday scored 27 on 12-of-20 from the floor, plus he had 13 assists. It was the kind of game the Bucks needed on the road.

It didn’t look like this was going to be a Bucks win early on.

Back home in front of a raucous crowd — with some fans just throwing money around — the Phoenix Suns started Game 5 with the desperate energy of a team that knew they needed a win.

Everything broke the Suns way early: Jae Crowder had two quick threes (and a dunk), Chris Paul was driving and kicking, the Bucks had four early turnovers (they had five in all of Game 4) and Phoenix shot 11-of-13 from the floor to open the game. The Suns doubled up the Bucks early — 32-16 — and kept finding mismatches they could exploit (especially when Jeff Teague was on the court, in because Holiday got two early fouls).

“The first quarter, they threw a big punch,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “A little bit of foul trouble for Jrue, so I think our substitutions got just a little bit kind of off. Giving Jrue a little bit of a break with a second foul. Giannis played the whole first quarter.”

As quickly as the Suns’ lead was built, it evaporated.

“We just started playing a little faster,” Middleton said.

With Antetokounmpo on the bench the Bucks went on an 11-3 run to start the second quarter, the Suns started missing open shots and, most importantly, Holiday and Middleton found their rhythm. The Bucks stars were making shots, Pat Connaughton was hitting corner threes, and Milwaukee was getting stops that let them push the pace. The Bucks took a 50-49 lead midway through the second quarter, pushed that to a three at the half (64-61), and by the third quarter that run extended out to 71-44. Milwaukee was on fire offensively in the third, with an 81.4 eFG%.

The Suns kept putting up numbers, too. Devin Booker had another 40-point game, shooting 17-of-33, however he dominated the ball so much for stretches of the third it took the rest of the team out of their rhythm (the same thing happened in Game 4). Chris Paul ended up with 21 points and 11 assists, and although Holiday’s defense gave him issues for parts of the night, Paul came up big late.

What the Suns could not do late was secure a rebound — they gave up 11 offensive rebounds to the Bucks in this game, none more critical than on the Antetokounmpo free throw after the late alley-oop. Secure that and it’s a three-point game and the Suns have a chance to tie, but the Bucks used their length advantage, tipped it back out, Middleton got the ball and the Suns had to foul. That was the ballgame.

Now Phoenix is going to have to win two in a row, starting with one on the road Tuesday night. That is not going to be easy after this gut-punch loss.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.