Donte DiVincenzo

Alex Caruso
Getty Images

Six players to watch during NBA’s restart

Leave a comment

NBA teams recognize that bench strength will likely be more of a factor than usual during this pandemic-delayed title chase in which a positive coronavirus test could sideline an elite player at any moment.

“Depth is going to be at a premium for everyone,” New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin said.

The good news for teams is that league officials said last week that 346 players had been tested on the NBA campus since the last coronavirus results were announced July 13, with no positives. But the reality they also recognize is how a positive test could impact a team’s roster.

Notable players to test positive for the coronavirus before teams left for Disney’s Wide World of Sports include Houston’s Russell Westbrook, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe, though all of them have since cleared protocols to return to Florida. Washington’s Bradley Beal heads the list of players who have opted out of participating in the restart.

The Brooklyn Nets won’t have Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince for the restart and already were without injured stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And that doesn’t even account for basketball-related setbacks such as the foot injury Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley sustained in practice to knock him out of the restart.

Because of the more than four-month break between regular-season games, teams are likely to give their starters limited minutes, particularly in the early going.

The increased risk of losing players for an extended period at any time also will require teams to prepare backup plans.

“If you’ve been in the league a long time, you’ve had to deal with one injury, two injuries, three injuries, and the timing of it can be not the best,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You have to find a way to continue to persevere ad work and get better and find ways to advance if it’s the playoffs. We’re in a bubble. It’s unique. It’s different. But there are things that all of us have had to deal with if you’ve been in long playoff runs for a long time.”

Here’s a look at some players who might not be on fans’ radars but could play bigger roles during the restart:

Troy Brown Jr., WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Brown already was averaging 24.9 minutes before the hiatus, but he could turn into even more of a featured performer during the restart with the Wizards missing Beal and Davis Bertans. The 6-foot-6 forward from Oregon has 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

Alex Caruso, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Notes: Caruso was averaging 5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 17.8 minutes when the hiatus began. With Avery Bradley opting out of the restart and Rajon Rondo breaking his thumb in practice this month, the 6-foot-5 Caruso should have a greater role in the Lakers’ bench during the restart. The Lakers announced July 13 that Rondo would miss six to eight weeks.

LU DORT, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The rookie from Arizona State has thrived this season with 6.2 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. Oklahoma City has a 16-5 record in games that Dort has started. Although the potential return of Andre Roberson from a ruptured patellar tendon that has kept him out 2 + years could complicate Dort’s situation, Dennis Schroder expects to leave the bubble temporarily at some point with his wife due to give birth. Dort figures to get more minutes in Schroder’s absence.

George Hill, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Hill was shooting 48% from 3-point range – well above his career average of 38.5% and light years better than his 2018-19 average of 28% – before the stoppage in play. The 34-year-old guard as well as teammate Donte DiVincenzo could be even bigger factors in the early part of the restart since Bucks teammates Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton have tested positive for coronavirus, though both are now in Florida.

Tyler Johnson, BROOKLYN NETS

Although he just signed with the Nets a month ago, Johnson could have a featured role because of all the players his new team is missing. The 6-foot-4 guard had played in 31 games for Phoenix this season and averaged 5.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 16.6 minutes before getting waived in February. He posted double-figure scoring averages three straight seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Gary Trent Jr., PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Trent showed flashes of his potential in the month prior to the pandemic, as he scored 22 against Miami on Feb. 9, 20 against Indiana on Feb. 27 and 24 against Orlando on March 2. The 6-5 guard has averaged 7.7 points and 20 minutes but likely will get more playing time now that teammate Trevor Ariza has opted out of the restart.

Milwaukee looks ready to make leap into NBA Finals, but is it?

Milwaukee NBA Finals
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

In NBA history, eight teams had a net rating of better than +10 — outscoring teams by 10 points per 100 possessions — over the course of an NBA season. Six of those teams won the NBA title, the only ones that didn’t both came in 2016, the Golden State Warriors that won 73 games but blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and the Spurs of that season.

The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks are the latest team to reach that mark, +10.7 through March 11 when the NBA was shut down.

Yet there are doubts around the league that these Bucks can win the title. It’s because we saw the Boston Celtics two years ago, and then the Toronto Raptors last playoffs, block off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s path to the rim, forcing the Bucks to go to a Plan B and their role players to step up. They didn’t. Those Milwaukee teams fell short of reaching the NBA Finals.

Are these Bucks different?

It feels like they are. This looks like a team ready to take the next step.

If not, an offseason of speculation about the future of Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee — he is eligible to sign a supermax extension this offseason and the Bucks will offer it — will begin.

MILWAUKEE’S DEPTH

Everything with the Bucks starts with Antetokounmpo — a man about to be a back-to-back MVP winner and likely will join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo averaged 29.6 points with ridiculous 60.8 percent true shooting while grabbing 13.7 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists per game. Every team has a game plan to stop him, nobody does.

The Bucks are far from a one-man show, however.

Milwaukee was +4.1 points per 100 this season when Antetokounmpo was off the court (which was a fair amount, the Greek Freak averaged fewer than 31 minutes a game). That rating would have been seventh-best in the NBA this season — a top 10 team even without the league’s MVP stepping on the court. While the Bucks were +3.1 a season ago when Antetokounmpo sat, this team has looked better without their leader despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason.

Khris Middleton is still playing at an All-Star — maybe All-NBA — level averaging 21.1 points a game and shooting 41.8% from three, while playing elite defense. Behind him was Eric Bledsoe at 15.4 points game, the player whose improved play this season largely covered up the loss of Brogdon. Critical to making it all work is Brook Lopez, who will get well deserved Defensive Player of the Year votes and scored 11 points a game (he seems to be past the shooting woes from three that plagued him during the season).

Beyond that core, Wesley Matthews has looked strong in the Bucks’ Orlando scrimmages, Donte DiVincenzo made huge strides and played well this season, and George Hill was critical in locking down the second unit. Then there is Pat Connaughton — reportedly recovered from the coronavirus and in Orlando quarantining — and sharpshooter Kyle Korver.

MILWAUKEE’S DEFENSE

What makes these Bucks different is their defense — best in the league by far with a defensive rating of 101.6. They lock teams down.

Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA a season ago, too, but this campaign they are 3.3 points per 100 better than that team — a huge improvement.

The Bucks defensive strategy is straightforward: wall off the paint. The Bucks allowed the fewest shots at the rim in the league and the fewest points in the paint. Milwaukee takes away the easy buckets at the rim.

Milwaukee also is quick to contest corner threes and take those away — they can defend the paint and the corner because of the length and athleticism on the roster.

What Milwaukee gives up are midrange shots and threes above the break — the statistically least dangerous shots in the league. They will live with those.

It works, especially with the length and athleticism of the Bucks. The concern is that the best teams in the NBA — starting with the Celtics in the East, plus the teams likely to come out of the West — take and make those shots.

WHAT’S MILWAUKEE’S PLAN B

Milwaukee checks all the boxes of a team headed to the NBA Finals and a title contender: MVP player, depth and versatility, elite defense. This has been the best team in the NBA this season for good reason.

But come the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, when the other best teams in the league have the talent to limit what the Bucks have done all season to win games, will the role players be able to step up and execute Plan B.

Will coach Mike Budenholzer be willing to go to that plan, and maybe even play Antetokounmpo more than 40 minutes a game. Last season, in a six-game series with the Raptors, Antetokounmpo still averaged just 38.5 minutes a game — “If we can’t win with Giannis at 40, 40.5 (minutes), then Toronto deserves it,” Budenholzer said.

No. When you have the MVP, that series is when you lean on him. The Bucks didn’t do that enough.

This feels like the Bucks’ year. This year feels like the season Milwaukee is back in the NBA Finals.

If not, the offseason of Antetokounmpo speculation will begin.

Bucks guard Pat Connaughton tests positive for coronavirus

Bucks guard Pat Connaughton
Bucks guard Pat Connaughton
Leave a comment

Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe tested positive for coronavirus.

And so did teammate Pat Connaughton.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Connaughton is one of several Bucks – along with Wesley Matthews, George Hill Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown and Kyle Korverstepping up at guard to replace Malcolm Brogdon, who left for the Pacers last offseason.

That depth and Milwaukee’s advantage over the rest of the East gives Connaughton ample time to get cleared, travel to Disney World, quarantine and join the team. The Bucks have the top seed in the Eastern Conference nearly clinched, and they’ll face a relatively easy matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s unclear whether stars, after a long layoff and relatively quick restart, will be able to handle huge minutes in playoff games. Depth could be more important than usual in the postseason, and Milwaukee – in addition to the star power of Giannis Antetokounmpo – has it.

At least if everyone gets healthy.

With top seeds nearly locked up Lakers, Bucks look to rediscover rhythm

Lakers Bucks
Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have all but guaranteed themselves the top two playoff seeds and face a balancing act when the NBA returns to action.

While other teams will be fighting for a postseason berth or playoff seedings when they play the final eight regular season games in Florida, the Lakers and Bucks will be looking to shake off the rust after a 4 +-month hiatus wile also staying healthy.

“At least from a player’s aspect, you can expect us to go out there and play as best as we can and as hard as we can during this situation,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “That’s the only thing we can control, really.”

With the league playing the remainder of the regular season and the entire playoffs at Walt Disney World as a safety precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, owning a No. 1 seed may not matter as much as usual. But the Bucks and Lakers are virtually assured of having the top seeds in their respective conferences regardless.

Milwaukee owned the NBA’s best record at 53-12 and the Lakers were next at 49-14 when the pandemic caused a suspension of play in mid-March.

The Lakers will arrive at Disney World with a magic number of three in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. That number could get trimmed to one on re-opening night if they beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the second game of the July 30 doubleheader.

Milwaukee’s magic number for the East’s No. 1 seed is two. The Bucks can’t drop below the No. 2 spot in the East, no matter what happens, and they could lock up the top spot on their half of the bracket as early as Aug. 2.

The race for the NBA’s best overall record still could be in doubt at that point. But with no home-court advantage to play for in these playoffs, the only thing left to decide would be which team is assured of wearing white uniforms for Game 1 of the NBA Finals if the title series is a Bucks-Lakers matchup.

“Like we always would if this were the regular season or if these were the last eight games of the regular season, we would compete to win,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s how your habits are built the best. Every time we take the floor, we’re going to go out there and try to win a game.”

When teams are locked into a particular playoff seed, they often spend the final few games of the regular season resting key players to avoid the risk of injury. That won’t necessarily be the case this season after such a long hiatus.

Middleton said Friday he was “probably not able to touch a basketball for maybe two or three months” during the pandemic. Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo said his inability to use the Bucks’ training facility for much of the hiatus caused him to focus on conditioning and said that “it kind of took me back to being a little kid again, dribbling the ball inside, doing those little moves on the sidewalk and stuff like that.”

That means even the teams without much at stake may need to spend these last eight regular-season games trying to regain the momentum that was lost these last few months.

“I don’t expect the first game or second game or third game, guys are going to be at 100%,” Bucks forward and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Guys are going to be rusty. We’ll see a lot of balls, people throwing the ball through the stands, turnovers. You’re going to see that. But I think as we move forward and guys get more comfortable, the level of basketball is going to get better each game.”

An early top-seed clinching also could see Lakers forward LeBron James breaking his routine. Typically, once James’ team is locked into a playoff seed, he shuts it down and begins preparing for the postseason. But because of the layoff, it could be argued that James might want to get a bit more game action even after the Lakers clinch the No. 1 spot.

“Does that mean you want to play certain guys 47 minutes? Obviously, no,” Vogel said. “We’ll be intelligent with the whole process.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins protesters, speaks in Milwaukee: ‘We want justice’

Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Saturday protestors filled the streets from Los Angeles to New York and countless cities in between, speaking out against racial injustice, police brutality, and the systemic racism in our nation. All of it sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, but the movement has gotten much bigger than that, and the voices have gotten louder.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of those voices.

The NBA’s reigning MVP joined Bucks’ teammates — Sterling Brown, Donte DiVincenzo, Brook Lopez, Frank Mason II, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo — in taking part in the protest. Giannis also spoke to the crowd.

“We want change, we want justice, and that’s why we’re out here. That’s what we’re going to do today. That’s why I’m going to march with you. I want my kid to grow up here in Milwaukee, and not to be scared to walk in the streets. I don’t want my kid to have hate in his heart.”

Sterling Brown’s participation is fitting. In 2018, Brown was surrounded by a group of Milwaukee police officers following a parking violation at a Walgreens, he was taken to the ground and tased by the officers, then arrested. That incident and Brown’s willingness to fight it has led to a firing and suspensions of some officers. Recently, Brown rejected a $400,000 settlement offer from the city.

Brown has been a public face in Milwaukee for what protestors across the nation were trying to say on Saturday.