Three Things to Know: As Nets falter, Bucks are team building title habits

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Clippers
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1) Bucks starting to look like themselves, meaning title contenders, in beating Clippers

“I think a few of the games in January, it wasn’t us,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said, looking back on a 7-8 month for the defending champs where they had a league-average defense. “No matter if we score 100 points 130 points, 90 points, we defend. And when you go to a game and don’t defend and the other team scores 130 points — even if we won — it wasn’t us that game.”

The Bucks have looked like themselves the past two games.

Saturday night, they thrashed the Trail Blazers 137-108 behind a 30-point night on 11-of-13 shooting from Bobby Portis.

Sunday, on a back-to-back, the Bucks used a 39-point third quarter — and a run from the late second through the third quarter where they hit 9-of-12 from 3 — to pull away from a feisty Clippers team and win 137-113.

Suddenly the Bucks are one game back in the loss column (half a game in reality) from leading the East.

More importantly, the Bucks are looking like the team that won the title last season again. Key injuries — Brook Lopez played opening night and not a game since — and the COVID absences every team has had to deal with have kept these Bucks off balance. There have been flashes but no consistency.

The defending champions have started to find their rhythm over the last couple of nights. That begins on defense — they shut the Clippers down through the middle of the game — and includes dominating the third quarter, something they have struggled with all season. With 27 games left, Milwaukee has started to focus on the things they know matter come May and June.

“When you come down to playoff basketball, it’s about halfcourt games, it’s about adjusting to what the other team is doing. It’s like a chess match,” said Pat Connaughton, who hit three early 3-pointers after halftime that got his team rolling. “So, for us, we’ve wanted to get a lot better at adjusting in halftime. Taking what coach says at halftimes and coming out and executing it at a high level in the third quarter.”

“We tried to set a tone, we tried to build good habits, and man, these last couple of games have been fun,” Antetokounmpo said before cracking a dad joke at the end of his postgame press conference.

The fun Bucks look like themselves, like a team finally finding its footing. Portis had 24 against the Clippers, and Jrue Holiday settled the Bucks down in the fourth when Los Angeles made its inevitable run; he finished with 24.

This Milwaukee team, the one back to being itself, would be bad news for the rest of the East. These Bucks have the defense, the floor balance, the length and athleticism, and the shooting (when healthy) to overwhelm every other team in the league.

Like champions tend to do, the Bucks looked at the calendar and have started to focus on building good habits and being ready for the postseason. That is bad news for the rest of the East.

(One side note from this game: Norman Powell made his Clippers debut and was exactly what the team needed, scoring 28 points off the bench on 9-of-16 shooting. His ability to hit threes, then drive and create, is something the Clippers lack consistently with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out. The trade to get Powell may have been primarily about next season in Los Angeles, but he can help out this season, too.)

2) Nets drop eighth straight, Blake Griffin says its time to be concerned

If the playoffs started today, the Brooklyn Nets would be in the play-in games. They have dropped eight straight after Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, where the reigning MVP was the best player on the court.

Blake Griffin, what’s the concern level around the Nets?

“Very high.”

It should be.

Not just because of the eight straight losses (although no team with a seven game or longer losing streak during the season has ever won the title). Not just because Kyrie Irving is in and out of the lineup. Not just because of the drama around a potential James Harden trade becoming a distraction. Not just because of the wave of injuries that has hit this team.

But mainly because this team has yet to form an identity.

While the Nets have 29 games left, time is running out.

Steve Nash points to injuries forcing revolving lineups as what has hampered chemistry. On Sunday, there was no Kevin Durant, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joe Harris, or Nic Claxton.

“We’re not going to panic, there’s still plenty of games after the all-star break when Kevin gets back,” Nash said. “Hopefully have Kevin and James. You’re talking about five guys. That’s your starting lineup, potentially.”

Will Harden be with the Nets after the All-Star break? While Steve Nash confirmed the Nets don’t plan to trade the All-Star, and Kevin Durant said he wants Harden in town, there is still some skepticism around the league they will keep him. Daryl Morey and Philadelphia are trying to get their foot in the door (it will take at least an offer of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to get the Nets to listen, and even then it may not matter).

There is still a sense around the Nets that once they get everyone back after the All-Star break, there will be time to build the chemistry and good habits needed to live up to their billing as pre-season title favorites. Maybe. But they have key questions left to answer, starting with:

Who are these Brooklyn Nets, what is their identity?

3) Cavaliers trade for Caris LeVert, give up quality picks to Pacers in deal

Since he went down with a torn ACL, the Cavaliers have missed what Ricky Rubio brought next to All-Star point guard Darius Garland.

Sunday they made a move to replace it, trading for Caris LeVert from Indiana but giving up a lot: Their own 2022 first-round pick lottery-protected, the Rockets’ 2022 second-round pick (likely top four in the second round), and a 2027 second-round pick (via Utah).

LeVert is the second shot creator the Cavaliers need, and he is an upgrade who averages 18.7 points and 4.4 assists a game. Cleveland is a jump-shooting team that doesn’t drive a lot, and since Rubio went out that has been worse. LeVert can get to the rim and create for himself and others. He’s not a great shooter (neither was Rubio) nor a great defender, but he plugs in reasonably well for the Cavaliers. Also, he is under contract for next season at $18.8 million (about the going rate for a starting two guard).

The big concern is the price the Cavaliers paid to get him — that is two quality picks that went to the Pacers. Cleveland’s own 2022 pick will convey this season unless they plummet down the standings over the final 30 games (as of today that pick would be 24th) and that Rockets’ pick is a high-value second rounder. Indiana could select a couple of quality players to develop into role players with those picks.

But the Cavaliers got a quality role player in LeVert who can help now, and that’s what they needed.

Highlight of the Night: Jaylen Brown is getting to the rim and Mo Bamba will not stop him

Jaylen Brown, this is just nasty.

Brown should be one of the first names called out of the East as an All-Star replacement.

Last night’s scores:

Philadelphia 119, Chicago 108
Minnesota 118, Detroit, 105
Denver 124, Brooklyn 104
Cleveland 98, Indiana 85
Boston 116, Orlando 83
Dallas 103, Atlanta 94
New Orleans 120, Houston 107
Milwaukee 137, LA Clippers 113