Luc Mbah a Moute

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Giannis Antetokounmpo aggravates ankle, leaves game vs. Clippers (VIDEO)

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to fight through a right ankle injury that has hampered him over the last two weeks.

But the Milwaukee Bucks forward may need some rest to get fully healthy before the playoffs start in mid-April. And his status was of prime concern after the Bucks’ 128-118 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo scored 34 points and grabbed nine rebounds before aggravating his ankle injury in the fourth quarter as the Bucks snapped Los Angeles’ six-game winning streak. Milwaukee (57-19) reduced its magic number to two for clinching home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Antetokounmpo went to the floor and held his right ankle after dunking with 7:46 left in the game, and he immediately went to the bench and didn’t return. He missed two games last week with a sprain to the same ankle, initially suffered on March 17 vs. Philadelphia.

“I’m definitely working on it, trying to get it healthy, stronger,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m trying to get my mobility back. It’s not going to be easy.

“Usually when you sprain your ankle, you stay out for two, three, four games. But I don’t like missing games. I’ve got to work through it while playing. I’ll be ready to play until coach (Mike Budenholzer) tells me not to play.”

The Bucks open a three-game trip in Atlanta on Sunday before finishing the season with three home games.

“I think we all are hoping he can push through and be healthy going forward,” Budenholzer said. “We’ll see how he’s feeling after tonight and either bring out the bubble wrap or keep playing.”

Khris Middleton had a season-high 39 points with eight rebounds and five assists as Milwaukee won its fourth straight. Eric Bledsoe added 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, and Sterling Brown finished with 15 points.

Middleton hit 16 of 24 shots from the field, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range.

“I’m feeling good,” Middleton said. “The Houston game was just a dud. I had a lot of great shots and air-balled most of them, I felt like (on Tuesday in the Bucks’ victory). Tonight, I came out with the same mentality, just being aggressive and pick my spots. I was just trying to find a rhythm.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Clippers (45-31) with 21 points, and JaMychal Green added 16 and Wilson Chandler 15. Los Angeles finished its road trip at 3-1.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was impressed with Antetokounmpo’s play and joked that the Bucks star and Houston’s James Harden should share the MVP award so “everybody in the world is happy.”

“The thing I like about Giannis the most is his temperament,” Rivers said. “He is not messing around. He is not there to put on a show. Every game is a competition for him. I love that. For me, of all the things he does, that is the No. 1 thing that stands out with me.”

The Bucks led 67-46 at halftime as Antetokounmpo had 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Middleton added 15 points and Brown 10 as Milwaukee shot 55.8 percent from the field (24 of 43).

“I think the second quarter stood out,” Budenholzer said after his team outscored the Clippers 39-21, in the period. “We were able to get quite a bit of separation and weather the storm in the second half.”

Los Angeles went on an 8-1 run to open the second half, cutting its deficit to 14 and forcing Budenholzer to call a timeout.

The Bucks led 79-69 before going on a 9-2 run capped by a 3-pointer by Pat Connaughton, putting them ahead 88-71 with 2:49 left in the third quarter.

Middleton completed a four-point play late in the quarter and had 13 points in the period as the Bucks took a 100-77 lead entering the fourth.

Report: Daryl Morey signs five-year extension as GM of Rockets

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General managers who build contenders usually get contract extensions (Cleveland excepted).

The Houston Rockets are contenders. They came within a game of making (and after that, winning) the NBA Finals last season, and right now look like the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors

GM Daryl Morey did that this season while trimming payroll. Which is why it makes sense second-year owner Tilman Fetitta is giving him a contract extension, as first reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

With the Rockets surging back toward contender status, general manager Daryl Morey has agreed to a five-year contract extension to remain with the Rockets….

“I’m super happy,” Morey said. “I’d love to be with the Rockets for life. This obviously solidifies us for a little while. I’m just really thankful to Tilman Fertitta for having the faith in our team. And really, it is about us having a team of people that makes this all work; Coach (Mike) D’Antoni, (vice president) Keith Jones, (vice president) Gersson Rosas, (trainer) Jason Biles, (assistant general manager) Monte McNair, (assistant general manager) Eli Witus, (assistant general manager, Vipers GM) Jimmy Paulis.

“We have too many people to mention, but I’m only as good as the people behind me.”

Last summer, Morey was given the opportunity to speak to Philadephia about their vacant GM position, but he ultimately chose to stay with the Rockets.

This is a smart for the Rockets. Not only is Morey one of the best GMs in the game, but also because Fetitta has shown a hesitancy to pay the tax — letting Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walk last summer (replaced  by cheaper players), then money-saving trades at the deadline — and Morey is very good at finding hidden gems and getting the most out of less money.

This season’s Rockets have won nine in a row and seem to be peaking at the right time.

Clippers might buy, might sell, will be ‘careful’ at trade deadline

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The Clippers are walking a tightrope heading into the Feb. 7 trade deadline.

They are currently tied for the seven/eight seed in the West and want to stay in the playoffs. They could use some reinforcements to bolster that effort, just 3.5 games separate seeds six and 11 in the West. The Clippers may want to add a player who can help them make a playoff push.

On the other side, the Clippers will be major players next summer in free agency, with enough cap space for one max contract player and, with some maneuvering, two. There have been strong links reported between the Clippers and both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant (the Clippers are nearly stocking Leonard this season with their staff). The Clippers do not want to make a deadline trade move that messes with that cap space.

What will they do?

Be careful but look for trades that work, coach Doc Rivers told Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

“It’s a lot that goes in it,” Doc Rivers said about the trade deadline. “It’s easier when you think you have a shot to win it. Then it’s an easy move. If there’s a move to make your team or put your team over the hump, those are easy.

“Where we’re at, you have to be very careful with anything you do because anything that puts money on your cap and all that, it’s probably a bad move in some ways. Unless you think it’s a longtime guy. Every team has their own stuff. It’s different for everyone.”

The Clippers could trade or, barring that, buyout third point guard Milos Teodosic (if he takes enough of a discount).

Beyond that, the Clippers have a lot of expiring contracts that could interest other playoff teams, but the Clippers are not just dumping them for picks or taking on additional salary.

Otherwise, the Clippers are not actively shopping any of their expiring deals that could have value to the numerous teams pursuing a playoff spot — Patrick Beverley, Marcin Gortat, Boban Marjanovic, Luc Mbah a Moute, Mike Scott and Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee for 2019-20). It is also unclear what each player’s respective trade value is currently, as all six players have endured up-and-down seasons (more down for Mbah a Moute, who has missed 44 of 48 games with a sore left knee).

The Clippers caution speaks to this entire trade market. The Clippers are in too good a position to just be sellers, but they are not aggressive buyers either because there is not that much of an advantage in the short term. There are a lot of teams that before the season were expected to be sellers who find themselves in the playoff mix and debating whether they should go for it (Brooklyn is at the top of that list, they will go for it, and then there are bubble teams like Orlando).

There are a lot of buyers but teams don’t want to give up picks/young players, and they don’t want to take on bad salaries. Which limits the market.

It’s likely going to be a quiet trade deadline, with some smaller moves (Jeremy Lin or Kent Bazemore may be the biggest names traded), but then a very robust buyout market. Then again, this league has a way of surprising.

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three pointers

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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) Damian Lillard goes off for a Portland-record 10 three-pointers in Blazers’ victory. When Damian Lillard gets hot —yes, I believe in the hot-hand theory, so sue me — there is no more dangerous player in the NBA.

Wednesday night, Lillard was hot — 10 three-pointers made on his way to 41 points, sparking a 115-112 win over Orlando. Lillard was 10-of-15 from three on the night.

The previous Portland record had been nine threes in a game, which Lillard co-held with Nicolas Batum. The Blazers also tied a team record with 12 threes in the first half. They ended up needing all of that against a pesky Orlando team that is playing everyone tough right now behind the career-best play of Nikola Vucevic.

2) Kyle Korver will help but isn’t the answer in Utah. The scuffling Utah Jazz got a little better on Wednesday.

For one thing, the Jazz got Donovan Mitchell back from injury, their offense looked less bad (not quite good, but better) as Utah got a win on the road in Brooklyn. That improved the Jazz to 10-12 and moved them up to 13th in the crowded West (still way below expectations, we all thought this was a top-three team in the West before the season).

Utah also got better because they traded for Kyle Korver. The Jazz are sending Alec Burks and two future second-round picks (theirs in 2020 and the Wizards in 2021) to Cleveland for the 37-year-old sharpshooter.

The trade should make Utah a little better, but it isn’t a game changer — they still need a high-quality secondary playmaker to take some of the pressure off Mitchell. However, Korver should help the second unit.

As a team, the Jazz have struggled from three this season, shooting 31.9 percent, third worst in the league. Joe Ingles has carried the team’s shooting load hitting 38.5 percent from three on six attempts per game, but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.7 threes a game and hitting 28.9 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.2 per game and is knocking down 29.2 percent, and even Grayson Allen — drafted out of Duke as a shooter — is at 28.6 percent. Second spectrum tracking data shows the Jazz as a team are generating good looks but not hitting the shot — Utah as a team is shooting 31.1 percent on open threes (defender 4-6 feet away) and 34.5 percent on wide open threes (defender more than six feet away, Utah’s shooting percentage on those is sixth worst in the league).

Korver is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc this season on 3.4 attempts per game. The Jazz need that.

Expect Korver to play with Utah’s second unit — the Jazz have really struggled with their shooting and spacing the second Ingles goes to the bench. Now Korver will come in and provide some of that shooting. Korver is 37 and will be 38 before the playoffs start, he doesn’t move as well as he once did and the Jazz will get torched a few times on defense because of him, but when the Jazz have the ball defenders can’t leave him. The Jazz are a system team, they can run Korver off a series of picks to get him looks and the defenses will have to respect him.

Korver isn’t the answer to all the Jazz problems — their defense has been average this season (and just bad when Rudy Gobert sits) and they need another playmaker — but he helps them in a key area. Korver makes them better.

And the price was not that steep, but was as good a haul as Cleveland could expect. Burks can give them some nightly minutes on the wing this season, and he is in the last year of his contract so he helps free up some cap space for Cleveland. With this deal happening now, it’s also possible the Cavs could flip Burks in another deal at the trade deadline. The two second-round pick is about right — no team was giving up a first for Korver — and that 2021 Washington one has the potential to be a high second rounder with some real value.

3) After thrashing by Dallas 128-108, Houston is now the 14-seed in the West. Going into this season we expected the Rockets to be the second-best team in the West, third best at worst. It felt like they took a step back in the off-season on the wing, but this team still had the MVP James Harden, plus Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

After getting crushed by Dallas 128-108 on Wednesday, the 9-11 Rockets are the 14 seed in the West. (The good news for Houston is it’s the crowded West, so it is just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and, amazingly, five games out of first place.)

The Rockets were without Chris Paul again Wednesday (hamstring) and guys missing time has been one factor in the slow start for the Rockets. But it’s more than that. Carmelo Anthony is gone, Jeff Bzdelik is back on the bench as an assistant coach, and yet the defense is still a disaster — third worst in the NBA for the season, worst in the NBA by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in the last five games.

The Rockets’ roster is top-heavy, but that’s how it is with contenders (the Warriors have the same situation). The problem in Houston is Daryl Morey’s off-season bets on role players have not worked out at all — it’s not just that Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson are gone, it’s that their replacements (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss) have not worked out. At all. Then you throw in the injuries, not just to CP3 but to Gerald Green and Nene, and you have a team that just lacks depth and continuity. The nights Harden can’t bail them out, they lose (and sometimes, even when he drops 54, they lose).

When the Rockets get healthy they will be good enough to make the playoffs (the team is 8-4 when both Paul and Harden play), but they are not the team we thought they could be. Morey is actively looking for trades that will help fill in the wing depth, but that may be too little, too late at this point.

• BONUS THING TO KNOW: Watch Khris Middleton‘s game-winner for Milwaukee. Kids, this is why your coaches preach rebounding.

Milwaukee grabbed three offensive rebounds in the final 10 seconds, eventually kicking the ball out to Middleton who drained a three and gave the Bucks a 116-113 win over the Bulls Wednesday.

Report: Jeff Bzdelik coming out of retirement, returning to Rockets

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After jumping from 18th in the NBA in points allowed per possession two years ago to seventh last year, the Rockets have crashed to 21st this year.

Why?

It’s hard to overlook the surprising retirement of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, the architect of Houston’s switching scheme, shortly before training camp.

But… he’s back.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

What a chance for Bzdelik to bolster his reputation as a defensive mastermind. The Rockets look so lost on that end.

But he won’t have the same tools as last season. Mainly, Houston lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. It’ll be a bigger challenge building a defense around Carmelo Anthony, whom Bzdelik coached with the Nuggets.

The Rockets’ 3-5 start might not have directly lured back Bzdelik, but owner Tilman Fertitta surely felt the sting of losing. Fertitta’s words to Bzdelik were influenced by Houston’s results.

I wonder whether Bzdelik parlayed that into a raise.