Nikola Mirotic

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Bucks owner on coming offseason: ‘Our goal is to keep everybody’

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said he wanted the Bucks to run it back with this group, just as a leaked report suggested that if the Bucks don’t make the Finals next season, it could impact his decision whether to re-sign with Milwaukee in 2020.

Not shockingly, the team’s owner has stepped up and said he wants to bring everyone back, too.

Milwaukee co-owner Marc Lasry said this to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

“Our goal is to keep everybody,” Lasry told The Athletic, three days after the Bucks season ended in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. “And we’re going to do everything in our power to keep the nucleus of our team.”

Are Lasry and the ownership group willing to pay the luxury tax — and if so, how much — to reach that goal? That’s the real question. The Bucks have not paid the tax as a franchise since 2003.

Doing so may be the only way to keep Antetokounmpo long term.

“As long as we keep doing well and Giannis believes we’re doing everything we can to win I feel good about our chances,” Lasry said [about keeping him].

Four players part of the Milwaukee rotation — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic – become free agents this summer. Keeping all of them seems unlikely, but our own Dan Feldman estimates the Bucks will be about $54 million below the tax line before re-signing those starters.

Middleton is going to get max offers from other teams, and while the Bucks would love to pay him a little less than that they have no choice but to pay that to keep him. The Bucks have full Bird rights on him and can offer whatever they want.

Brogdon is a restricted free agent, meaning Milwaukee can match any offer, and they are expected to.

Things are more challenging with Lopez, but the Bucks want to bring him back. Under the terms of the CBA, the Bucks can only offer $4.1 million to Lopez — and he will get offers well above that number from other teams — unless they tape into their exceptions (if the Bucks are under the tax that’s about $9 million, go over it and it’s about $6 million). Lopez was such a lynchpin for the Bucks on both ends of the floor they will need to do what they can to keep him.

That likely leaves Mirotic — who was on the bench against the Raptors for much of the series — as the odd man out.

The Bucks saw their weaknesses exposed by the Raptors, they know what they need to do to take the next steps. The question is will they pull it off.

Raptors beat Bucks, are one win away from first-ever NBA Finals

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The Toronto Raptors now lead the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-2.

Thursday night’s matchup marked a three-game winning streak by the Raptors against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference to take a series lead. Kawhi Leonard & Co. now have the chance to close out Giannis Antetokounmpo back in Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday.

Much of Toronto’s success against Milwaukee in Game 5 was predicated by the same thing that got them through Games 3 and 4. Defense was incredibly important for the Raptors, who again collapsed on Antetokounmpo and pressured the shaky Bucks shooters into poor shots at the arc. Milwaukee shot just 32.3 percent from the 3-point line. Once again, both Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon struggled, combining to go 4-of-13 from deep.

Antetokounmpo had a better shooting night then he had in Game 4, but he scored just 24 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. The Greek Freak was not the same kind of impact player that he was in the first two games, and Nick Nurse forced Milwaukee to rely on its supporting cast yet again.

To that end, Khris Middleton had just six points on 2-of-9 shooting, although he did grab 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Milwaukee’s bench was awful for the second game in a row — Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova scored zero points on five shots in 20 minutes.

Much to the delight of Raptors fans, Toronto’s supporting cast rose to Leonard’s level. Pascal Siakam, who didn’t shoot well, scored 14 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Kyle Lowry had a solid playoff performance of 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

Most surprising was Fred VanVleet, who played 37 minutes off the bench to the tune of 21 points — all from 3-point shots. VanVleet has been uneven this postseason, but Danny Green had such a poor outing on Thursday (he scored zero points as well) that it was necessary to play VanVleet heavily. Thankfully for Toronto, it worked out.

As a team the Raptors limited turnovers to just six, shooting an incredible 41.9 percent from the 3-point line thanks in large part to Leonard and VanVleet.

The momentum has shifted significantly in this series, and it has much to do with the coaching changes that Nurse has made to pinpoint the inequities in Milwaukee’s lineup. It also seems like the Bucks have gone cold at just the wrong time, and coach Mike Budenholzer will need to come up with some serious strategy to be able to combat Toronto and stave off elimination. The series heads back to Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. when the Raptors can close the series at home at Scotiabank Arena for their first-ever NBA Finals berth.

The Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 5, 105-99.

Raptors’ halfcourt defense, big games from Gasol, Lowry evens series with Bucks

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Slow your roll on “these Bucks can challenge Warriors” takes…

They are going to have to get out of the East, first. And that is proving to be more difficult than it looked after two games.

Back home in Toronto, the Raptors slowed the game’s pace down and used an impressive halfcourt defense — the Bucks scored less than a point per possession when transition was taken away — to control this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 30 points, but outside those two the Bucks shot 35.4 percent and had just 13 fast break points. It all kept the Bucks offense relatively in check.

Relatively is good enough when everyone is hitting their shots.

Kawhi Leonard had a quiet 19 points, although he did have the dunk of the playoffs all over Antetokounmpo.

Leonard didn’t have to carry the team because everyone in white seemed to be knocking down their shots. Kyle Lowry had 25 points on 11 shots, Marc Gasol had 17 (and his aggressive offense the last two games has stressed the Bucks defense), Norman Powell had 18, Serge Ibaka 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 13 points on six shots. The Raptors bench scored 48 points. Leonard (or Lowry) would draw attention on drives, but when the ball was kicked out and swung around, the open man didn’t hesitate and rarely missed.

All that led to a 120-102 Raptors win where Toronto was in control most of the way.

The series is now tied 2-2 and heads back to Milwaukee where the best-of-three left starts.

The Raptors continue to defend well in the halfcourt, with the Bucks scoring less than a point per possession (0.93) this game. In three of the four games, the Bucks have scored less than a point per possession in the halfcourt, but that only really matters if they can keep Milwaukee out of transition. The Raptors did that at home in a game with just 96 possessions, the fewest in this series (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Individually, Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer have leaned on Nikola Mirotic more in recent games, and the Raptors are now attacking him when they have the ball.

Combine that with an aggressive Gasol — he has started taking the shots from three that he hesitated on in the first two games — and his 3-of-6 from deep has become a big problem for Toronto.

Toronto had this in hand much of the second half, so much so that Drake was helping Nick Nurse relax on the sidelines.

The Bucks will need their other players — Eric Bledsoe, who had 5 points on 7 shots, and Brook Lopez, who had 8 points — to step up in the final games if they are going to advance.

The Raptors have found a formula that works, it’s on the Bucks now to adjust.

Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals

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Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.

The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.

Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.

1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.

Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.

In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.

Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.

2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?

Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.

One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.

The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.

That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.

All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.

It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.

3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.

Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.

That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.

4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.

Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.

Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.

5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?

The Raptors hope so.

The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.

The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.

The question is, will it matter?

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Down 0-2, it’s hard to see Houston’s path past Warriors

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Down 0-2, it’s hard to see Houston’s path past Warriors. And that’s not because of Harden’s eye. At some point, the Houston Rockets need to win a game in Oracle Arena to take the series from Golden State.

However, it feels like they had their chances and missed. The Warriors came into Game 1 on short rest, with bad ankles, turned the ball over 20 times, and still won. Game 2 is where the Rockets started to find their flow from distance, hitting 17 threes and shooting 42.5 percent from deep. On the season, the Rockets were 26-7 when making at least 17 threes (and 2-0 when they made exactly 17 threes). Houston racked up a 114.7 offensive rating in Game 2 that was right at their elite regular-season average.

Yet the Rockets head home for Game 3 down 0-2. The Warriors won Game 2 115-109 and seemed in control most of the way.

Houston has to win 4-of-5 in this series and the Warriors have yet to have that monster, can’t-miss-a-shot breakout game we all know is coming at some point.

Well, Warriors not named Kevin Durant have not had those games. KD has been the best player on the floor in this series — through two games he has matched James Harden’s 64 point total, plus KD has provided key defense and rebounds.

Steve Kerr was not messing around this series, he went all in from the opening tip — he started the Hamptons’ five lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — in both games. And leaned on that group. In Game 2 that lineup played just shy of half the game (23.7 minutes) and was a +12.

Iguodala has had a bounce in his step at age 35 and played well, with 16 points, five rebounds, four assists, and some good defense in Game 2. The Warriors also were dominant on the offensive glass in Game 2, with 18 offensive rebounds, creating second chances on 37 percent of missed shots. Houston cannot allow that many extra shots and chances for Golden State.

Despite that, the Rockets hung around in this one, and there are things that can improve at home. Chris Paul has been good — 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and some good defense in Game 2 — and has matched Curry’s output. However, the Rockets need last season’s CP3. Austin Rivers had an impressive night off the bench. Eric Gordon has been knocking down shots and can get hot.

If those guys can take a step forward alongside a healthy Harden — more on that in item No. 2 — and the Rockets can win Game 3 at home. They need to win Game 3 at home. Or this series is really over.

One other note on Game 2: Notice we have not mentioned the officiating. Both teams were on their best behavior, there was very little chirping at the officiating crew about calls. Clearly, that came as a directive from both coaches and through team leaders — focus on the game — plus the quick-trigger, no-nonsense crew of Scott Foster being there had teams thinking twice about complaining. It was a nice change of pace from Game 1.

2) James Harden gets hit in the eye and bled from it. It bothered him in Game 2, and he doesn’t know what comes next. The Rockets need the full James Harden experience in Game 3 to keep their season hopes alive.

But he needs to be able to see the basket clearly for that to happen. Will he be able to? After the game he was squinting and bothered by the camera lights in the interview room.

“It hurt,” Harden said of the inadvertent swipe by Draymond Green that injured his left eye. “I could barely see. Just try to go out there and do what I can to help my teammates. It’s pretty blurry right now.

“Can’t see nothing. Barely can see.”

Will that be better by Game 3 on Saturday? Hopefully. Time off should help. But nobody really knows.

Harden still had 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting after the injury, he got to the rim and made threes, but his eye was clearly bothering him. To win in this series the Rockets need Harden to be the best player on the floor, to dominate, and his eye injury is not going to help with that.

Green, to his credit, checked in on Harden both on the court at the time of the injury and after the game.

There is one other injury to track — Stephen Curry dislocated the middle finger on his left (non-shooting) hand in the first quarter.

The training staff popped it back in, taped up his finger and Curry was back out there. Still, it’s worth watching to see if that impacts Curry’s ball handling or flow in Game 3.

3) Milwaukee makes its adjustments, dominates third quarter, evens series at 1-1. Brad Stevens, the ball is in your court.

That’s because Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer made his adjustments for Game 2. For one, he started Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown. However, the bigger change was going to a switching-heavy defense, something Milwaukee did little of in Game 1 (and not a bunch during the season).

“I mean they’ve got the guys who can do that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said from the podium after the game. “They did it last year a lot and so that’s an easy thing for them to adjust to. And I thought they did a really good job of it. Basically, Giannis and smaller were doing that.”

It worked. The game was close until Milwaukee went on a 24-2 run in the third quarter. Boston scored just two points in the final seven minutes of the third, and those misses (and a few turnovers) fueled chances for the Bucks to get out and run, and we all know Giannis Antetokounmpo is unstoppable in transition.

The Bucks won 123-102, dominating the second half and tying the series at 1-1 heading back to Boston.

Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP to be with 29 points and 10 rebounds, but he got help. Khris Middleton was 7-of-10 from three. Eric Bledsoe was a force on both ends of the court.

Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving struggled going 4-of-18 shooting and not getting generating a call that sent him to the free throw line. He wasn’t alone in struggling, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier were each 2-of-10, Jaylen Brown 5-of-12, Gordon Hayward 1-of-5.

At home for Game 3, expect the Celtics to shoot better. Stevens will make some counter adjustments, and we are going to have a long and intense series on our hands.