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

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Clippers
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LOS ANGELES — Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

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

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.