Khris Middleton

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

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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.”

Ten things to watch for during the NBA restart

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The deals are done. The NBA is coming back. The season will resume on July 30 at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida.

Here are 10 things to know about the restarted season:

1) THE RACE FOR 8

There are six teams in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference — Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix. (Technically, Dallas is also in that race, though the Mavericks need only one win and one Memphis loss to clinch no worse than the No. 7 spot.)

There are seven games where those six teams will go head-to-head, including four featuring the Pelicans — who play Sacramento twice, Memphis once and San Antonio once. The other games: Sacramento vs. San Antonio, Memphis vs. San Antonio and Portland vs. Memphis.

Phoenix doesn’t play any of the other five teams in the race for eighth.

The Grizzlies start with a 3 1/2-game lead over Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento, along with a four-game edge on San Antonio. Unless the Grizzlies open up space on all four of those clubs, it seems likely that there will be a best-of-two play-in series for the final spot in the West playoffs and a probable first-round matchup with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The play-in games will take place if the ninth-place team in either conference is within four games of eighth when the seeding round ends.

In the East, it’s a bit simpler. No. 7 Brooklyn is six games ahead of Washington and No. 8 Orlando is 5-1/2 games clear of the Wizards in the race to clinch a berth and avoid a play-in series. None of those teams can move past the No. 7 spot on the East bracket.

2) MAGIC NUMBERS

Milwaukee needs a combination of two wins or Toronto losses to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East. The Lakers need a combination of three wins or Los Angeles Clippers losses to clinch the No. 1 spot out West.

Denver also has a mathematical chance at the No. 1 seed out West — but would need to go 8-0 and have the Lakers go 0-8 for that to happen.

Most of the races at Disney will be for seeding. Milwaukee cannot finish lower than No. 2 in the East and Toronto needs only one win to be assured of a top-four seed. The West can still see some shakeups, with four games separating second place from sixth place and only 2 1/2 games separating fourth place from seventh.

3) HEAT CHECK

Miami had a league-high eight games remaining against the eight teams that didn’t qualify for the Disney restart.

Now the Heat will have a fight on their hands just to hang onto the No. 4 spot in the East.

Miami plays Boston, Denver, Indiana twice, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Toronto and Phoenix in the seeding games. That schedule ranks harder than Indiana’s or Philadelphia’s — the Pacers and 76ers both will head to Disney two games behind the Heat in the East standings.

Orlando and the Lakers both saw seven games against the eight Disney-non-qualifiers canceled, tied for second-most in the league behind Miami. Memphis had the fewest such games lost, with just one — a matchup against New York.

4) HOME ON THE ROAD

All 22 teams will be staying at the Disney campus for the rest of their seasons. Yes, that includes the Orlando Magic — whose home arena is about 20 miles from Disney World.

The Magic simply see it as doing their part to make the restart happen.

“We appreciate the leadership of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, our longtime partner, Disney, and our local leaders in this unprecedented time,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “We look forward to providing assistance as needed in restarting the NBA season in Orlando, while using our collective platform to drive meaningful social impact.”

5) SPEAKING OF ROAD

Philadelphia was the NBA’s best home team this season, going 29-2 — on pace to be the second-best home record in a season in franchise history. The 1949-50 Syracuse Nationals were better, going 36-2 at the State Fair Coliseum in the franchise’s inaugural season.

Problem is, the 76ers won’t be playing in Philly again until next season.

Philadelphia went just 10-24 on the road in the regular season, the second-worst road mark of the 22 teams that will be playing at Disney. Only Washington (8-24) was worse.

If the 76ers are going to go deep in these playoffs, they’ll need to figure out how to win without the raucous Wells Fargo Center advantage.

6) THEY WILL BE MISSED

Milwaukee has the NBA’s best record, and one of the reasons the Bucks hold that mark right now is because of how good they were against the eight teams (Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, Minnesota and Golden State) that didn’t qualify for the Disney restart.

The Bucks were 22-0 against those eight teams — one of three NBA teams to go unbeaten against that group. Oklahoma City was 15-0 and the Lakers were 12-0. Toronto and Boston were both 19-1 and Utah was 15-1.

Only one remaining team had a losing record against those eight clubs: San Antonio went 7-8.

7) LAKER BREAK

The schedule means that the Lakers won’t play a back-to-back-to-back after all.

The Lakers would have played home games on April 7, 8 and 9 against Golden State, Chicago and the Clippers — the last of those coming because a game that was scheduled to be played shortly after Kobe Bryant’s death was moved until later in the season.

8) HELLO, AGAIN

For 26 players on the rosters of the 22 teams, Disney is going to look familiar. They played there in college.

The Disney campus plays host to the Orlando Invitational over Thanksgiving, and some alumni of that event are headed back there now for NBA contests. Among them: Heat teammates Jimmy Butler (Marquette, 2009) and Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga, 2012), Portland’s Zach Collins (Gonzaga, 2016), Washington’s Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga, 2016), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton (Texas A&M, 2010), Indiana’s Edmond Sumner (Xavier, 2015), Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre Jr. (Kansas, 2014) and Boston’s Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State, 2013).

And lest we forget, the Lopez brothers — Milwaukee teammates Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez — are huge Disney fans, and have made their affinity for the place very well-known in recent weeks.

9) NO 3’S RECORD

For the first time in eight seasons, the league record for total 3-pointers made won’t get broken.

It was on pace to be smashed.

NBA teams have combined for 23,560 3-pointers made so far this season, which is already the fourth-most of any season in league history. The league was on pace for 29,844 3-pointers, which is 1,889 more than the record of 27,955 set last season.

10) STATE OF BASKETBALL

Florida — the Sunshine State — will be the epicenter of basketball this summer.

While the NBA is headed to Disney, the WNBA season is also scheduled to begin next month and be headquartered in Bradenton, Florida. That’s about 100 miles from where the NBA will be playing.

The WNBA plan is for its players to be housed at the IMG Academy, with games to be played at the nearby Feld Entertainment Center.

2020 PBT Awards: All-NBA

LeBron James and James Harden
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

First team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

G: Kemba Walker, Celtics

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

All-NBA — particularly third-team — decisions are always the toughest of the award process. In this case, I felt very comfortable with the first two teams (I don’t think Anthony Davis played enough center to slide into that position, so he gets bumped to the second team). However, with third-team guard, leaving off Bradley Beal, Trae Young, and Ben Simmons was difficult (team success and leaning on Mitchell and Walker factored into my choices). Same at the forward spot, where Khris Middleton and Brandon Ingram deserved serious consideration.

Dan Feldman

First team

G: LeBron James, Lakers

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Anthony Davis, Lakers

Second team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

F: Khris Middleton, Bucks

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

G: Trae Young, Hawks

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

My biggest questions weren’t rating performance. They were determining position. Can I legitimately place Anthony Davis at center? What about LeBron James at guard? Ultimately, I decided yes on both – allowing me to place my entire MVP ballot on the first team, though causing significant disruption on the second and third teams.

Davis made a big deal about not playing center, and the Lakers built their team accordingly. But Davis still played 38% of his minutes at power forward. In the fourth quarter and overtime, it was 55%. That qualified him as bi-positional to me.

LeBron has always dominated the ball while being considered a forward. But the Lakers considered him their point guard, gave him particularly large passing responsibilities and started four other players who couldn’t credibly run point. Though Avery Bradley or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope often defended the opposing point guards, point guard is primarily defined offensively. Plus, LeBron – a versatile defender – often covered guards.

Centers Nikola Jokic (first team to second team), Rudy Gobert (second team to third team) and Joel Embiid (third team to unlisted) all got bumped with Davis at the position. Embiid was better than Gobert when healthy and motivated. But that didn’t happen nearly often to outpace Gobert, and excellent defender and underrated offensive player.

Guards also got pressed, including Luka Doncic (first team to second team) and Chris Paul (second team to third team). That final spot was an especially difficult squeeze with Trae Young narrowly outpacing Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal. Young just did so much offensively as a scorer and passer.

On the other hand, removing LeBron and Davis from forward meant other-wise marginal forwards – Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam and Jimmy Butler – safely made it. Bam Adebayo wasn’t far behind.

Keith Smith

First team

G: James Harden, Rockets

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Ben Simmons, 76ers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Russell Westbrook, Rockets

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Bam Adebayo, Heat

The forward slots on the first and second teams were easy. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis were 1-4 on my MVP ballot. They all just overlap in position, which pushed Leonard and Davis to the second team. There were still several very good candidates for the third team, but Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum were just enough better than the rest that they get those two slots. Jimmy Butler was closest to making that third- team.

The guard line was pretty easy for the first team. James Harden was fifth on my MVP ballot and Luka Doncic would have been sixth. After them it gets tricky. Damian Lillard was a monster this year and really kept an otherwise pretty bad Portland team in the playoff race. Ben Simmons was very good on both ends of the floor, so he gets the other guard spot on the second team. That left a bunch of great candidates for third. Once he stopped taking so many jumpers, Russell Westbrook really took off this season. He gets one slot. Donovan Mitchell gets the other spot because he was also good and so were the Jazz. Chris Paul was easily the toughest omission here.

The center group was a little harder. I think Joel Embiid had the best overall season. He was first on my All-Defense team and in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year. He also turned in another good offensive season. Nikola Jokic rebounded from a slow start to have another dominant offensive year. For the third-team, Bam Adebayo edged out Rudy Gobert. It was Adebayo’s all-around brilliance that got him the nod. Take a look at his numbers. He’s really stuffing the stat-sheet every night for a good Heat team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have home court, players forced to workout with what they have

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo is spending much of his time during the coronavirus-imposed hiatus working out, helping care for his newborn son and playing occasional video games.

What the reigning MVP isn’t doing very often is shooting baskets since the NBA has closed team practice facilities.

“I don’t have access to a hoop,” the Milwaukee Bucks forward said Friday during a conference call. “A lot of NBA players might have a court in their house or something, I don’t know, but now I just get my home workouts, (go) on the bike, treadmill, lift weights, stay sharp that way.”

The hiatus is forcing thousands of athletes, pro and otherwise, to work out from home as they try to keep in shape. Equipment varies from player to player, too.

“It all comes down to what they have and what they’re capable of doing,” Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “We can do a lot of body weight stuff. That’s how they stay ready. That’s the most I can offer as a coach for them to stay ready. I can’t say ‘Hey, can you find access to a gym?’ That would be bad management on my part.”

For instance, Pierce said Hawks guard Kevin Huerter has access to a gym in New York and guard Jeff Teague owns a gym in Indiana.

Other players face different situations.

“I’ve seen LeBron’s Instagram,” Pierce said of Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. “LeBron has a house with a full weight room and he has an outdoor court. He’s got a different reality right now that gives him a little more access to continue the normal. (Hawks rookie) Cam Reddish lives in an apartment and it’s probably a two-bedroom apartment. He can’t go in the apartment weight room because it’s a public facility. So he’s limited in all things.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenhlolzer said he wanted his players to focus on keeping their bodies in shape and conceded that logistics surrounding the pandemic would make it tougher for them to do any basketball-specific activities.

The Bucks are still finding ways to stay sharp.

Bucks players said team officials have made sure they all have the necessary exercise equipment. Antetokounmpo noted the Bucks also had a catering company bring food to make sure they maintain a proper diet. Center Brook Lopez said workout plans have been sent to them via a phone app.

“They’ve done a really good job of getting everything taken care of and still having tailored workouts for each individual player despite the situation,” Lopez said.

But it’s difficult for them to work on their shooting without access to a court.

“Since the practice facility is closed down, I don’t have any access to a basketball goal unless I go to one of my neighbors’ houses and shoot outside,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “There’s really no basketball for me. It’s basically like Giannis said. Treadmill, jump rope, some weights and that’s it. I have a couple of basketballs I can dribble in my house or outside, but no actual goal to shoot on.”

Pierce noted that Huerter recently asked him when players would be able to get back into the Hawks’ practice facility.

“I told him, ‘I’ll tell you when we won’t,” Pierce said. “We won’t in April.”

Mock NBA expansion draft: Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Pacers, Bucks

Mock NBA expansion draft
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Central:

Chicago Bulls

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 7

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: Chicago keeps their young building blocks, as well as the veterans they acquired to support them. In the end, the Bulls hope that this group can finally get healthy and make a playoff push. That means protecting all of them.

Chandler Hutchison was the toughest decision among the unprotected players. He’s still on his rookie scale contract, but he hasn’t been healthy during his first two seasons. That means the Bulls prioritize a veteran or two over him. Kris Dunn is another tough player to leave unprotected, but as a free agent, there is no guarantee he’d be back anyway.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: The Cavaliers are in a spot to really clean up their cap sheet if either Kevin Love or Larry Nance Jr. are selected. That made the protection decisions pretty easy. Keep all the young guys and the guys on decent contracts. Andre Drummond doesn’t really fit either description there, but Cleveland did just trade for him.

Detroit Pistons

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 1

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: This one has some gamesmanship involved. Because the Pistons have five free agents, they only need to leave the minimum of one player unprotected. It’s that one player that makes the eight protected players easy decisions. Sure, there are young guys in that group Detroit wants to keep. But a handful are players the Pistons wouldn’t lose sleep over seeing get drafted.

On the flip side, by leaving only Blake Griffin unprotected, Detroit opens the possibility of getting that albatross salary off their books. The Pistons don’t have any extra first-round picks, but could be open to moving one of their own to entice and expansion team to take on the remaining $77.8 million in salary over the next two seasons.

Indiana Pacers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Pacers protection decisions were fairly easy. Every player they are protecting is a key rotation player or a recent draftee.

It was a little difficult to leave Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell unprotected, but Lamb is coming off a major injury. An expansion team may not want to deal with that. While McConnell has been good for Indiana, he’s a little expendable with Aaron Holiday on the roster.

Milwaukee Bucks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: The Bucks deep roster works against them a little bit here. Seven of the protected players were fairly easy decisions. The only one that was tricky was Wesley Matthews. He’s a veteran with a player option, but Milwaukee isn’t taking chances with one of their starters.

On the unprotected front, it came down to Matthews vs D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown. Ultimately, neither young player has cracked the rotation on a regular basis. That makes it a little more palatable to leave them exposed in the expansion draft.