Donte DiVincenzo

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP with 32 points, 17 boards vs. Boston

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 17 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 23 and the Milwaukee Bucks held off the Boston Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night.

With the victory, the NBA-leading Bucks (37-6) extended their winning streak to five games.

Kemba Walker scored a game-high 40 points to lead the Celtics, who took the floor without Jaylen Brown. The 6-foot-6 forward suffered a sprained right thumb in a 13-point loss to Detroit on Wednesday.

“We saw a play late in the first half and we think that might have been when it happened,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “Maybe it got worse as the game went on. He didn’t say much about it at halftime. Certainly, after the game it was sore. Today, more sore.”

Stevens said they will do more tests on Brown’s thumb on Friday.

Marcus Smart, who started in place of Brown, had 24 points.

Antetokounmpo, who also had seven assists, had his 35th double-double of the season.

After trailing by as many as 27, the Celtics outscored Milwaukee 36-22 to pull within 127-123 with 38 seconds to play. But Smart missed a 3-pointer and Middleton knocked down one of two free throws to seal the victory.

Antetokounmpo scored the first basket of the night and the Bucks never trailed.

Milwaukee hit seven of their first 10 shots, including their first four attempts from 3, and led 36-20 after the first quarter. Brook Lopez had three of those 3-pointers and had 11 points in the opening quarter. Lopez finished with 16 points.

Milwaukee set a new season-high with 76 points in the first half. The Bucks had a 76-58 lead at the break.

Boston stormed out in the second half, cutting Milwaukee’s lead to 87-81 with 5:16 left in the third. But the Bucks ended the quarter on a 19-6 run.

Gordon Hayward, who finished with seven points on 1-of-10 shooting for the Celtics, scored his only field goal on a 3 at the end of the third.

Jayson Tatum had 17 points and Daniel Theis added 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss.

Donte DiVincenzo had a career-high 19 points off the bench for Milwaukee.

Kris Dunn, under cascade of bust talk and Bulls demotion, mounting strong defense

Kris Dunn
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Kris Dunn‘s rookie year with the Timberwolves was glum.

Losing. Shaken confidence. Minutes on the wing rather than his preferred position of point guard.

But when I first talked to Dunn about that season, he spoke almost with a pride about the experience.

He persevered. He advanced. And he was getting his opportunity.

It was late in the 2017-18 season. The Bulls had acquired Dunn from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade the previous summer. Chicago was as desperate at point guard as Dunn was to play the position. The Bulls had been muddled at point guard ever since Derrick Rose got hurt. Jerian Grant, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Cameron Payne each had turns as Chicago’s point guard du jour. As the extremely hyped No. 5 pick in the 2016 draft, Dunn looked more promising than any candidate yet.

But Dunn didn’t capitalize. He wasn’t good enough his first season with the Bulls and regressed last season. Chicago drafted Coby White and signed Tomas Satoransky at point guard last summer. Dunn said the Bulls didn’t even engage him in contract-extension talks.

Dunn looked like a bust who wouldn’t be long for Chicago.

Yet, Dunn is not only still there, he’s starting at small forward and making a real case for an All-Defensive team.

“When adversity hits,” Dunn said, “I don’t fold.”

Dunn surprisingly earned a rotation spot to begin the season. Then, when Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison got hurt, Bulls coach Jim Boylen shocked even Dunn by tabbing him as the replacement starting small forward.

“I ain’t a three,” Dunn said. “But I can hold my own.

“I’m not afraid of a challenge or anything. Whatever the team needs from me, that’s what I try to do. If they say, ‘Kris, we need you at the four,’ f— it. As long as I’m on the court, I love to play the game of basketball. And I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”

Dunn said he “absolutely” still envisions becoming an NBA point guard. He views his current role as merely a product of what his team happens to need.

“It doesn’t take away what I’m capable of,” Dunn said. “I’m not going to let anything or anyone paint a narrative for me. I know I’m a point guard.”

I’m more skeptical. Dunn is a clunky outside shooter (26% on 3-pointers this season, 31% career). That’s a huge demerit for a lead guard to overcome.

But point guards tend to develop later than other positions. Dunn can attack the basket, and he’s a solid playmaker. If his shooting comes around, he has a chance.

In the meantime, Dunn is playing lights-out defense.

Among guards defensively, Dunn ranks second in real plus-minus (behind Alex Caruso), first in PIPM and second in RAPTOR (behind Donte DiVincenzo). If he keeps this up, Dunn must be taken seriously for an All-Defensive team.

Though he’s nominally a small forward, Dunn often defends the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, usually a guard. Unlike the bigger Porter, Dunn can take that burden off Zach LaVine and Satoransky.

Dunn – who’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan – has also thrived in Chicago’s aggressive and flowing defensive scheme. He has stolen the ball on 3.8% of opponents’ possessions, the highest steal percentage since Tony Allen.

Allen thrived in a different environment, though. Non-shooting defensive specialists have it harder than ever.

It seems telling, when listing Dunn’s offensive responsibilities, Boylen slipped in “defend at a high a level.”

Dunn’s defensive real plus-minus is +3.72. His offensive real plus-minus is 1.38. The difference between those marks – 5.10 – is one of the largest in the NBA. Nearly everyone else with a bigger spread between offensive and defensive real plus-minus are offensive-minded players.

Here are the players with the biggest differences between their offensive and defensive real plus-minus, the highest spread first. The right side of the bar marks the better rating. The left side of the bar marks the worse rating. Better offensive players are in black. Better defensive players are in red:

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Dunn will be a free agent next summer. The Bulls can make him restricted by extending a qualifying offer – a standing one-year offer a team must tender to preserve matching rights.

The cost of Dunn’s qualifying offer will be $4,642,800 or $7,091,457, depending on his role the rest of the season.

He’d get the higher qualifying offer by starting 19 of Chicago’s remaining 41 games or averaging slightly more than 24 minutes per remaining Bulls game. Dunn is currently averaging 24.8 minutes per game.

Sometimes, restricted status can get a player a bigger contract. It forces other teams to go over the top with an offer sheet. See a couple of Dunn’s teammates, Porter and Lavine. But it seems unlikely any team would covet Dunn enough to make that type of push for him.

So, a higher qualifying offer could help Dunn in one of two ways. He’d get a larger fallback salary if no other contract emerges. Or the Bulls would be less likely to extend a qualifying offer in the first place, making him unrestricted and allowing him more freedom to find a team that’ll use him at point guard.

Dunn expects to return to the bench once Porter gets healthy. That timeline could determine Dunn’s qualifying offer, though it’s also quite possible Chicago wouldn’t extend even the smaller qualifying offer.

Either way, Dunn’s defense is earning him playing time that’s useful in developing his offense.

“I hold myself at a high standard, and I want to be really good player in this league,” Dunn said. “And I have the abilities to do it. It’s just on honing my craft.”

Dunn, who’s averaging 7.2 points per game, isn’t hijacking the offense in a last-grasp attempt to prove himself. He lets Chicago’s other guards handle the playmaking and pitches in where he can – primarily defense. He’s doing exactly what the Bulls need from him.

“The biggest thing about Kris Dunn is he has a spirit for the team and a spirit for doing the right things,” Boylen said. “When you have that, good things happen to you.”

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”

Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton to miss 3-4 weeks with thigh contusion

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Khris Middleton, coming off a summer with Team USA, has quietly continued his All-Star level play this season — an efficient 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

However, he’s not going to be on the court for a few weeks due to a deep thigh bruise, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In the third quarter of the Bucks win over the Thunder Sunday, Middleton suffered the thigh bruise, which sent him to the locker room. While he returned to the bench, he did not return to the game. Afterward, in the locker room, Middleton didn’t seem to think it was that serious.

It turned out to be a little more than that, it has to be a deep bruise to have him out for up to a month.

Kyle Korver would be next in line to get those minutes, but he sat out Sunday with a “head contusion.” Behind him look for smaller lineups with Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Wesley Matthews to get more minutes, plus maybe a little Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

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

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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.”

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