Brook Lopez

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Three Things to Know: Ice cold Harden can’t warm up even with Antetokounmpo out

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Ice cold James Harden doesn’t warm up with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, Bucks win. The “fancy” advanced statistical way of putting it would be shooting variance from a team’s statistical norms, something smart people look at when breaking down a game.

A simpler way to put it: It’s a make-or-miss league.

Thursday night, the Rockets were making in the first half, when they shot 52.4 percent from three and led by 16 at halftime. Then they missed in the second half, when just 18.5 percent of their threes fell.

That’s when the Bucks got back into it by using their size on both ends — Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, and the Bucks went on to win 117-111 in the season debut for both teams.

Antetokounmpo finished with a triple-double of 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists — getting 20 of those points in the second half — but with 5:18 left in the game the Greek Freak used his off arm to clear out Clint Capela, got called for his sixth foul of the night, and went to the bench.

The Bucks were up just six at the time and it felt like the Rockets’ chance. Russell Westbrook made a push to close the gap to one, and then… nothing. The Rockets could not get their shots to fall, going 1-of-5 from three after the Greek Freak fouled out. James Harden was 0-of-1 from the floor in that stretch. Scrappy play from Milwaukee had it holding on for the win, thanks to a critical three from Khris Middleton and Lopez playing well as the fulcrum of the offense.

Harden, in particular, couldn’t find the range all night, no matter who was on the floor. The former MVP was cold, shooting just 2-of-13 (although he did get to the free throw line 14 times). Check out his shot chart.

Even when Harden got off a decent shot, this happened.

Westbrook had a better night in his Rockets debut, scoring 24 points, grabbing 16 boards, and dishing out seven assists.

This loss wasn’t about Harden and Westbrook not meshing — although they did argue a little — but more about defensive questions for Houston, something that is going to follow them all season long. Getting stops is going to be a challenge.

Also in their opener, the Rockets just missed shots. And it’s still a make or miss league.

2) The positive vibes in Phoenix didn’t even last 24 hours, Deandre Ayton suspended 25 games. Wednesday night, Deandre Ayton had his best game as a pro. It was well rounded — he has scored more than 18 points and grabbed more than 11 rebounds before, but he was an efficient 9-of-14 in the opener. More importantly, he had his best defensive game ever, including four blocks. Yes it’s small sample size theater, but Ayton and the Suns looked better than expected in blowing out the Kings.

Thursday all that momentum came crashing down — DeAndre Ayton was suspended 25 games by the NBA for testing positive for a banned substance. Specifically, a diuretic (which is on the list of banned substances because it can be a masking agent for steroids).

“I want to apologize to my family, the entire Suns organization, my teammates, partners, our fans and the Phoenix community,” Ayton said in a statement. “This was an unintentional mistake and unfortunately I put something in my body that I was completely unaware of. I do understand the unfortunate impact that this has on so many others, and for that I am deeply sorry. I’m extremely disappointed that I’ve let my team down. I will continue to work with the NBPA to go through arbitration and am hopeful of a positive resolution.”

About that resolution, there is a portion of the CBA that allows redress if the banned substance was taken without the players’ knowledge. That is the claim of Ayton is making with the players’ union (as well as Ayton’s agent, who clearly spoke to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). It may be true.

Whatever happens, Ayton is going to miss time. If it is the full 25 games he is not back until Dec. 17.

Aron Baynes will start at center for the Suns, which is a defensive upgrade (even compared to the improved Ayton) but a significant drop off on the offensive side of the ball. Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, and Kelly Oubre Jr. are going to have to generate a lot more looks and knock a few down for Phoenix.

The Suns are trying to develop their young core into something special, this is a setback — albeit a temporary one — along that road.

3) The Clippers haven’t even added the guy who was third in the MVP voting last year yet. Kawhi Leonard is making a habit of ruining things for Golden State fans. For example, their last memory of Oracle Arena in Oakland was watching Leonard and his Toronto Raptors teammates celebrate winning a title on that floor.

Thursday night, the new Chase Center in San Francisco opened its doors for basketball — and Leonard and his Clippers blew the doors off the Warriors, winning 141-122 in a game where the fourth quarter was garbage time.

Leonard had 21 points and a career-high nine assists.

As the Lakers learned Monday night, the Clippers come with a balanced attack — Lou Williams had 22 points off the bench and his pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell added 18, Patrick Patterson had 20, even Ivica Zubac had 16. Through the non-garbage time part of the game, the Clippers had a 136.1 offensive rating (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Los Angeles also played good defense, making it difficult for the Warriors to find a rhythm.

The Clippers are 2-0, have looked dominant, and they don’t even get Paul George back until next month. This team looks scary.

The Warriors look like a team with a lot to figure out.

Stephen Curry is going to have to carry the Warriors on offense this season, and he had 22 points but was 2-of-11 from three and had eight turnovers on the night. Without the gravity of Klay Thompson (knee) and Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) to pull defenders away, the Clippers were in Curry’s face contesting everything. Los Angeles is looking like (and on paper should be) an elite defensive team and an exception, but Curry is going to have less space to operate this season than he is used to. The former MVP is going to have to adapt, and the other Warriors are going to have to make teams pay for all that focus on Curry. D’Angelo Russell shot 6-of-16 (for 20 points) and struggled defensively at times.

It’s just one game for the Warriors, but this season is going to be a struggle in ways Warriors fans are not used to watching. Curry will have better nights, as will the Warriors, but it will be a long road.

It is still a long road for the Clippers, too. But they have reinforcements coming.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he’s going to be ‘more vocal’ this season

AP
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MILWAUKEE (AP) Last season’s loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals stung Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So much so that the NBA MVP admitted it took several days for him to be able to sleep at night after he and the Milwaukee Bucks blew a 2-0 lead against the eventual NBA champion Raptors.

Antetokounmpo said his priority during the offseason was to become a better leader, both on and off the court.

“Mostly, you just gotta be more vocal,” Antetokounmpo said. “You gotta lead by example. You gotta be able to accept criticism by your coach, by your teammates, and be OK with it. That’s what a leader does. I know that my team knows who I am. They trust me. They know I’m going to put my body and everything I have on the line for this team. By doing that, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Bucks won a league-best 60 games a season ago, and took home MVP, Coach of the Year (Mike Budenholzer) and Executive of the Year (general manager Jon Horst) honors. But their goal was to bring the city of Milwaukee its first NBA title since 1971. That didn’t happen.

Now, with both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James out west, Kevin Durant on the shelf in Brooklyn and the core of Antetokounmpo, fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, first-team all-defensive guard Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez back together, anything less than another deep playoff run for the Bucks will be deemed a failure.

“The message to the team won’t be that different than what it was going into last season,” said Budenholzer, who is entering his second season in Milwaukee. “Really, our attack point is just what are we doing every day? How are we getting better every day? How are we competing every day? Are we playing unselfishly? Are we playing together? All those things that are just our core beliefs. If we’re doing those on a day-in and day-out basis, the chips will fall where they may.”

The Bucks open the season Oct. 24 in Houston.

Kyle Korver

Bucks guard Kyle Korver said his new team is like a “more organized version” of the Cleveland Cavaliers teams he played on with LeBron James.

“I think that there’s a ton of freedom here for players to do what they do,” he said. “There’s a lot of special talent – unique talent – on this team, and (Budenholzer) gives us a lot of freedom to kind of figure some things out, and we did that in Cleveland, too. Let the great players be great, and just kind of give them space, and we all find our spots to contribute and to be effective.”

Korver signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee in July. The 17-year veteran reunites with Budenholzer, who coached Korver in Atlanta in 2015, when Korver made his only NBA All-Star team and Budenholzer won his first NBA Coach of the Year award.

Korver ranks fourth in NBA history in 3-pointers made with 2,351.

BROGDON OUT, MATTHEWS IN

The Bucks lost former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in free agency. Budenholzer said he thinks the additions of sharpshooter Korver and veteran two-way wing Wes Matthews will help fill the void. Matthews was the 2005 Wisconsin Mr. Basketball and played his college ball at nearby Marquette.

“Coming back home, it’s a sentimental feeling and one you can’t quite describe,” Matthews said. “To see the success, the growth of the city and the growth of the state, what this Bucks team and organization has done, I come back and I don’t even recognize some of this stuff around here. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

BAND OF BROTHERS

Milwaukee will start the season with two pairs of brothers, as Robin Lopez joins twin brother Brook, and Giannis will have his older brother, Thanasis, on the roster. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who last played in the NBA in 2016 for the Knicks, signed a two-year contract in July.

“What a great story for Giannis and Thanasis and Brook and Robin to play together,” Budenholzer said. “There’s probably a few little things that we’ve got to be conscientious of: Make sure that they’re not always together, so on so forth. And Robin and Brook, there’s been a lot of comments about how we’re going to manage them in the locker room.”

DONTE’S PEAK

Milwaukee’s 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo will look to re-establish himself after dealing with a heel injury last season. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 4.9 points on 40.3% shooting in 27 games a season ago.

“(I just want to) keep getting better,” DiVincenzo said. “Keep getting better every day, keep building my confidence, figure my spots because it’s a long year.”

LOOMING QUESTION

How much longer will Giannis Antetokounmpo be in Milwaukee?

Antetokounmpo can be an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that point, the Bucks can offer him a five-year supermax extension. Horst told a crowd at an offseason fan event that he intends to offer the extension to the three-time All-Star (and was fined for saying so by the NBA).

“I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think it’s disrespectful toward my teammates talking about my free agency and what I’m going to do. So when the time is right, we’re all going to talk about it.”

Follow Keith Jenkins on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MrKeithJenkins

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Hardened by last playoff run, Bucks ready for championship chase

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked exasperated.

By the Raptors’ smothering defense. By four straight losses. By growing speculation around his future.

Antetokounmpo tried to explain how the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. He tipped his cap to Kawhi Leonard. He vowed to come back better next season. He also didn’t even stay until the end of his postgame press conference following Milwaukee’s Game 6 elimination. Antetokounmpo fielded one last question then stood up, grabbed his water bottle and left without answering.

It was the frustrating end to a promising year.

Maybe it was exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed.

Milwaukee was good last season. Really good. The Bucks won 60 games and their first postseason series in 18 years.

But they lacked deep-playoff experience. They thought first-round exits the previous couple years had readied them. It wasn’t enough. They ran into a Toronto team that was more prepared to rise to the occasion, even after Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.

Most of the NBA makes the first round. Some first-round teams are mediocre. Their opponents don’t need to hit top gear. Attention is divided between 16 teams and eight series. The first round is bigger than the regular season, though only so much.

In the second round, it gets real. Practically every team is good. With only four series, each comes under a national microscope. Pressure increases exponentially. It’s difficult, nearing impossible, to duplicate the experience of playing that deep into the playoffs. Players just must go through it, usually losing the first time.

The NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984. In every year since then, the NBA champion has had significant prior experience beyond the first round.

Of the 35 NBA champions in this era, 33 gave at least 82% of their postseason minutes to players who’d already played beyond the first round in a prior year.

The two exceptions – 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics – clocked in at a still fairly high 69%. San Antonio gave significant roles to Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili, but still had experienced stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and David Robinson. Boston started youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, but obviously Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the core of that team.

The percentage of the Bucks’ 2019 postseason minutes given to players with prior experience beyond the first round? Just 47%.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had never advanced that far. Eric Bledsoe did it only as a second-year reserve with the Clippers in 2012.

Deep-playoff experience doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a near-mandatory perquisite. It’s just too difficult to understand the intensity, focus and skill necessary to succeed un that level without experiencing it first.

Antetokounmpo was particularly flummoxed. Leonard led a defense that keyed on him. Without a reliable jumper, Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough counters to fight back. The burden was mentally and physically exhausting – even for the regular-season MVP.

Perhaps coincidentally, the question Antetokounmpo didn’t answer was about the value of playoff experience.

He and the Bucks have it now, and that gives them a real chance at a championship this season.

Report: Pistons, Andre Drummond ‘talking at a business level’ about extension

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In what will be a down free agent market next summer, Andre Drummond could be one of the biggest names available.

Drummond has a $28.8 player option for next season but has all but said he plans to decline it and test the free agent market, where he expects a max contract. Pistons owner Tom Gores has said that keeping Drummond is one of his top priorities.

So what about an extension?

While it’s unlikely, the sides are talking, reports Vince Ellis at the Detroit Free Press.

Gores confirmed the two sides are “talking at a business level,” and two sources told the Free Press that the Pistons have told Drummond’s representatives the franchise would like to retain his services. This comes after multiple sources told the Free Press last month Drummond requested a contract extension at some point during the offseason.

Numbers have been exchanged, but it’s clear what he expects: He would like to sign the second maximum contract of his career.

It’s not going to happen, and it’s all about the money.

An extension would involve Drummond opting into next season at $28.8 million, then the Pistons can add as many as three years onto that, with the first year of the extension starting at $34.5 million. If Drummond opts out he could sign a five-year max extension with the Pistons for $190 million ($38 million a year average) or a four-year deal with another team for $140 million ($35 million a year average). Drummond told Ellis he believes he is a max player, and sounded like a player who wants to sign a max deal.

The question for the Pistons: Do they want to offer Drummond the max? Do they want to be locked into Drummond for years after Blake Griffin‘s contract ends?

Drummond is an All-Star level player who averaged 17.3 points per game last season at 53.3 percent shooting, plus is (arguably) the best rebounder in the NBA, averaging 15.6 per game (he was second in the NBA last season in overall percentage of available rebounds grabbed at 25.4 percent). He averaged a ridiculous 5.4 offensive rebounds a night. Plus, Drummond is a solid paint protector on defense.

However, Drummond does not space the floor and is a throwback — an effective one, but a throwback — as the NBA evolves to space and pace. Teams are hesitant to pay big money for centers right now, a position teams more and more believe they can fill nearly as well for far less money.

Is there a max market for Drummond next summer? This past summer Al Horford signed for four years, $109 million in Philly (Horford is older at 33). Nikola Vucevic re-signed in Orlando for four-years, $100 million, after a career season. Brook Lopez got four-years, $52 million to stay in Milwaukee. If those guys aren’t getting the max, and DeMarcus Cousins is settling a one-year deal for $3.5 million (granted, coming off multiple injuries), would Drummond? That might be a reason for him to consider an extension.

One way or another, Drummond is going to be playing a big role in next summer’s free agent market.

French toast: Team USA loses to France, won’t medal at FIBA World Cup

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Rudy Gobert warned his Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: “Pass the ball or shoot a really high floater.”

But when he was trying to save Team USA late against Gobert’s France, Mitchell scooped a layup. Gobert tracked it all the way and blocked it.

The arrogance.

The rejection.

An 89-79 loss to France in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals Wednesday ended Team USA’s 58-game winning streak in tournament games with NBA players.

The U.S. will face Serbia tomorrow in the fifth-through-eight-place classification round. Will Team USA care whether it finishes fifth or eighth? The standard is a gold medal, which the U.S. had won in its last five major events – 2008 Olympics, 2010 World Championship, 2012 Olympics, 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics. This will be the Americans’ worst finish in a major tournament since at least the 2002 World Championship, where they finished sixth.

Ironically, this is when Americans care most about the FIBA World Cup. The tournament is an afterthought in the U.S. until Team USA loses. A win would’ve maintained an ignorable status quo. Now, it’s a national disaster.

USA Basketball sent a flawed roster to China and felt the consequences. The Americans barely beat Turkey in the first round. They had little margin for error against better competition in the knockout phase, and France just outplayed them.

Mitchell (29 points) appeared as if he might save the U.S. But he didn’t score in the fourth quarter. Even when he was clicking, he stood in stark contrast to numerous other problems.

Kemba Walker (2-for-9 with zero assists and four turnovers) was overwhelmed by France’s perimeter defense. In the rare times he wasn’t, he found even more resistance inside.

The United States’ bigs – Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee – were ineffective. Going smaller helped create transition opportunities to offset the interior issues, but those problems persisted.

After falling behind by 10 early in the second half, the Americans stormed back to take a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. But they blew it against a France team that knew it belonged. A major culprit: The U.S. shot just 4-for-11 on free throws late.

Gobert (21 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks) dominated both ends. Evan Fournier (22 points) got too much room to operate on the perimeter and took advantage. Nando de Colo (18 points) was more selective, but still found opportunities to do damage.

The United States has already qualified for the 2020 Olympics. Not even France can say that (though Australia beating Czech Republic today would clinch a French berth). But the Americans’ prescription is clear: They need to send better players to Tokyo.

They didn’t for this World Cup, and they reaped what they sowed.