Pascal Siakam scores 44 in Raptors’ win over Wizards (video)

Leave a comment

TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam scored a career-high 44 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, OG Anunoby scored a career-best 22 points, and the Toronto Raptors beat the Washington Wizards 129-120 on Wednesday night for their sixth straight win.

Serge Ibaka had 10 points and 13 rebounds, and Kyle Lowry had 14 points and 13 assists as the Raptors used a big third quarter to overcome a 12-point deficit and post their fifth straight victory over the struggling Wizards.

Jeremy Lin played 25 minutes in his Toronto debut after signing earlier in the day. He was recently waived by the Atlanta Hawks.

Toronto won without All-Star Kawhi Leonard, who sat for the second time in four games because of a sore left knee. Leonard also missed last Thursday’s win at Atlanta. Coach Nick Nurse said he would’t mind if Leonard played in Sunday’s All-Star Game in Charlotte.

Bradley Beal scored 28 points, Jeff Green had 23 and Jabari Parker 22 as Washington lost for the fifth time in seven games.

Siakam made a career-best four 3-pointers, and Anunoby also had a season-high four.

Down 103-93 to begin the fourth, Washington cut it to 112-111 on a 3-pointer by Bobby Portis with 4:55 left. Lowry replied with a 3 for Toronto and Siakam made back-to-back baskets, putting Toronto up 119-111 at 3:44.

Toronto faced its biggest deficit, 80-68, at 8:48 of the third. The Raptors answered with a 15-0 spurt, reclaiming the lead at 83-80 before Washington called timeout at 4:43. Siakam scored 19 points in the third, and Toronto closed the quarter on a 35-13 run, taking a 103-93 lead into the final quarter.

Washington led 65-59 lead at halftime.

LINSANITY IN THE NORTH

Lin received a brief ovation when he checked in for Norman Powell at 4:05 of the first. He finished with eight points, five assists and five rebounds.

Lin can expect plenty of action when play resumes after the All-Star break. Before the game, the Raptors said guard Fred VanVleet had surgery in New York to repair ligament damage in his left thumb. VanVleet, who was hurt in Saturday’s win at New York, is expected to miss at least three weeks.

TIP-INS

Wizards: G Tomas Satoransky was inactive because of personal reasons. … The Wizards missed nine of their first 10 attempts from 3-point range.

Raptors: F Patrick McCaw was inactive because of a sore right shoulder. … Ibaka has scored at least 10 points in 20 straight games, the second-longest streak of his career. He did it in 21 games in 2014.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit Charlotte on Friday, February 22.

Raptors: Host San Antonio on Friday, February 22.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors reign as teams head into All-Star Weekend

Getty Images
4 Comments

It seems appropriate to head into the All-Star break with the Warriors on top of the Power Rankings, but it feels like slots 2-7 could be shuffled in any order any week and it wouldn’t be wrong, those teams are all essentially even. Programming note: Since the league is off for a week around the All-Star break and there are just a handful of games between now and next Wednesday, the NBC NBA Power Rankings will take a week off, then return in two weeks.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-15, last week No. 2). Any discussion about Golden State understandably focuses on their stars — this Sunday will be the fourth straight year Golden State has three or more All-Stars, the last team to do that was the Celtics way back when JFK was president in 1960-63. However, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the starting lineup has meant a boost for the second unit with the play of Kevon Looney, who brings some athleticism around the rim to the team. Everything is clicking for the Warriors, who have won five in a row and 16-of-17.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (42-14, LW 1). Teams that suffer their worst loss of the season — as Milwaukee did against Saturday against Orlando — don’t hang on to the top spot in the power rankings, but don’t read too much into that one game. The loss was because Giannis Antetokounmpo was off for the night, and the rest of the team took it off, too. The pickup of Nikola Mirotic fits in perfectly with Mike Budenholzers’ system in Milwaukee — the Bucks shoot more threes than any team in the East but are middle of the pack in accuracy, they need what Mirotic brings to the table. They will get that once he gets healthy and gets in the lineup. Which could be Wednesday night against Indiana (he’s close), if not certainly after the All-Star break.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 5). Nick Nurse and the Raptors are still figuring it all out, but Marc Gasol with the second unit in Toronto shows a lot of promise. Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner against Brooklyn dominated the highlights (with good reason, check it out below) but the Raptors starting five with Serge Ibaka in the paint was -4 in that game. However, some of the lineups with Marc Gasol at the elbow/midpost as the offensive fulcrum surrounded by athletes and shooters — Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby — had strong runs that helped get the Raptors the win and showed real promise. The kind of promise that will be hard to match up with in the postseason. The Jeremy Lin pickup should help mitigate the loss of Fred VanVleet for a few weeks (thumb injury).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (37-19, LW 6). Paul George is putting together a season that is going to get him MVP votes — Damian Lillard said he deserved the award after the Thunder beat the Blazers Monday night — but what also has fueled OKC’s 11-of-12 win streak is three-point shooting. The Thunder are hitting 44.1% of their 31.3 attempts a night from beyond the arc in the last dozen games, the best percentage in the NBA during that stretch. For comparison, the Thunder are a 35% team from three on the season (on basically the same number of attempts). Jerami Grant is knocking down everything and is a big part of that.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (35-21, LW 3). Gordon Hayward is getting his legs back, he is attacking the rim and closing out shots there much more often, and his legs are under his jumper. In his last 10 games he has taken 46.5 percent of his shots in the paint, and overall he’s averaging 11.8 points per game on 50% shooting overall and 42.3% from three. That includes 26 points against the Sixers in a statement win Tuesday night. The Celtics needed that win to shake off the two ugly losses against the Los Angeles teams, but against an Eastern foe (and without Kyrie Irving) the Celtics looked like the team we expected to lead the East this season.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (36-20, LW 7). The addition of Tobias Harris to the starting lineup in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid has worked very well so far. Through three games, that fivesome is +21 in 53 minutes, and that includes a 14-7 run against Denver late in that game that helped Philadelphia seal a win. However, as the loss to the Celtics Tuesday showed, the question will be the bench behind those five can bring (even with Brett Brown staggering his stars some). In the last three games, the Sixers are +6 total with lineups that are not the starters (and the bench units were -7 against Boston).

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (38-18, LW 4). Denver dropped three in a row on the road, not coincidentally the three games that Paul Millsap was out. Their defense falls apart without him to do the dirty work and little things. He returned against Miami at home, Denver wins. The Nuggets may be the one team most settled into a playoff slot in the otherwise crowded West. It’s hard to imagine they will make up 2.5 games on Golden State for the top seed, but they have a five-game cushion over the five seed (Rockets). Denver is going to have home court in the first round, the team just wants to stay in the 2/3 seed slots (and avoid the other side of the bracket where they would meet Golden State in the second round).

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (38-19, LW 12). This team is not giving up its plans for having home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs without a fight as the Pacers have rattled off six straight wins (against some soft competition, but still). Give coach Nate McMillan a lot of credit. The buyout market pickup of Wesley Matthews is a good one, he is kind of a Victor Oladipo-lite who can fill some of those same roles and fits with the balanced attack that has made the Pacers such a tough team to beat this season (and that lack of a weak link will make them a playoff threat as well, Indiana will not be an easy out).

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (33-23, LW 9). Iman Shumpert, and to a lesser extent James Ennis (go Long Beach State!) could be critical to any playoff run Houston makes. The offense isn’t the question, not with James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games at 30 and counting. The often-discussed challenge is on the defensive end, where the Rockets have been bottom 10 all season, and that has continued through the last 10 games. Shumpert had a resurgence in Sacramento few saw coming, and Ennis is long and athletic. The Rockets need them to step up and disrupt some quality scorers down the stretch and into the postseason.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (32-25, LW 11). Utah may not have landed Mike Conley at the trade deadline (he will still be available this summer), but they did add some depth at the position with Raul Neto and returning to action. Utah now is off through the All-Star break — but Rudy Gobert should have been in Charlotte. Last Saturday Gobert matchup up against Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and owned the battle dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus grabbing 13 boards and blocking a couple shots, while holding Aldridge to 15 points on 16 shots. Gobert took the snub personally.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (33-23, LW 8). It’s only been three games (and Portland lost two of them), but Rodney Hood has looked good as a trade deadline pickup, averaging 10.3 points per game on 68.4% shooting and hitting 55.6% from three. Obviously, he’s not going to keep shooting at that pace, but he is providing an additional scoring threat and that’s what Portland was counting on. I also like the trade deadline roll of the dice on Skal Labissiere, I feel like there’s a solid player in there if they develop him.

 
Kings small icon 12. Kings (30-26, LW 14). Harrison Barnes has looked like a guy still trying to figure out his fit — and his teammates are doing the same — after a couple of lackluster games. Some practice time over the All-Star break should help with that, and expect coach Dave Joerger to raid Rick Carlisle’s playbook for some of the things Barnes liked in Dallas (and he took over a lot of the old Nowitzki sets). As of this writing, the Kings are the eighth seed in the West and have the final playoff spot, percentage points ahead of the Clippers (it’s a virtual tie). LeBron and the Lakers loom 2.5 games back, but the Kings are also just 1.5 back of the 6/7 seed Spurs and Jazz.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (31-27, LW 13). Los Angeles went 3-3 on its Grammys road trip, but in each of the wins the team trailed by 20+ points and came back to steal the win. While the conventional wisdom is trading Tobias Harris was a sign the Clippers planned to give up their playoff chase, the trade of Avery Bradley for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green is the opposite — Bradley had not been great for Los Angeles and the team picked up a couple of quality rotation players. While they may still miss the playoffs, this team will be competitive and will not roll over.

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (33-24, LW 10). The Spurs were thrown off the bucking bull to start the Rodeo road trip, dropping four in a row until they barely beat the Grizzlies on Tuesday (the road trip has three more games on it through the East after the All-Star break). The problem in San Antonio continues to be the defense, it is bottom 10 on the season and worse of late — in the last 10 games the Spurs have allowed 118.8 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA over that stretch. The defense isn’t going to magically improve over the All-Star break, the Spurs are going to have to score their way into the postseason.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (29-29, LW 15). D’Angelo Russell will be the first Nets All-Star since Joe Johnson when he steps on the court Sunday, a nice bit of redemption for a guy Magic Johnson said was not a leader as he pushed Russell out the door (to cover the Timofey Mozgov contract, but that ended up a high price for LA). What the Nets need is Russell to help them turn things around on the court fast — the Nets have lost 5-of-6, have fallen back to .500, and no longer look like a playoff lock (they are just 2.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat).

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (26-29, 22). The Pistons have won four in a row and 5-of-6 to push back into the playoff picture (the Pistons are currently the eight seed in the East, one game up on Miami and 1.5 on surging Orlando). The reason for the good play of late isn’t anything exotic — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson have played well together and off each other during this streak. That’s the big three in Detroit and as they go the team goes.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (27-29, LW 16). Kemba Walker deserves his turn in the spotlight this weekend as the hometown starter for the Hornets when the All-Star Game comes to Charlotte. It was surprising to see the Hornets — fighting to both make the playoffs and impress Walker so he stays as a free agent next summer — stand pat at the trade deadline. They were in the mix but missed out on Marc Gasol, and could make nothing else work. There are rumors Walker was unhappy with the lack of activity, we’ll see if that translates to anything come July.

 
Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (26-30, LW 20). Just to add to the legend of Luka Doncic: In the final three minutes of games within three points this season, Doncic 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 percent) including 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) from three. He is already clutch. While he’s not in the main All-Star game Saturday (the fans would have voted him in as a starter) he’s the favorite to be the Rising Stars MVP on Friday, then will be in the Skills Competition on All-Star Saturday. The NBA is going to hype him up as much as they can.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (26-32, LW 23). Orlando is back in the playoff picture after winning four in a row and 6-of-7 — the Magic are just 1.5 games out of the final playoff slot in the East. In those last seven games the Magic have won with defense, locking teams up and holding them to a point per possession (which has led to a +11.6 net rating in those games. What does that kind of defense look like? Watch Jonathan Isaac block John Collins three times on one possession.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (28-29, LW 17). The Lakers went 2-4 on their Grammys road trip, they are 2-3 in the games LeBron James has played since he returned, and the loss to Atlanta on Tuesday night was a punch to the gut. It’s not rocket science to figure out what has happened, the Lakers’ defense has fallen apart — on the road trip the team surrendered 119.7 points per 100 possessions (for comparison, the Cavs have the worst defense in the NBA for the season allowing 116.3). Missing Lonzo Ball doesn’t help, but this is much larger, much more systemic than that. Los Angeles’ defense earlier in the season was respectable (for a 30-game stretch they allowed less than 105 per 100), but it has devolved, and that could land Luke Walton in hot water after the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (26-30, LW 18). The Timberwolves opportunity to make a playoff push seems to have gone the way of the Dodo after the team dropped 6-of-8 including every game on a three-game road trip against beatable teams (Memphis, Orlando, and New Orleans). Minnesota has gone 7-9 under Ryan Saunders (who took over for the fired Tom Thibodeau as coach) and the fact this team has not make a playoff push doesn’t seem to speak well of his chances of holding onto this job long term.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (25-30, LW 19). The road has not been kind to Miami, which has slid out of a playoff position as the team has gone 1-3 on an ongoing road trip and 6-of-7 overall. Miami realized where it stands and its trade deadline moves were about the bottom line — it saved more than $8 million against the luxury tax for the team. It also opened up the roster a little bit and could lead to more minutes for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, we’ll see if they can be consistent and do anything with that extra run.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (25-33, LW 21). Is it really better for the Pelicans and the league to play a disgruntled Anthony Davis – who had three points on 1-of-9 shooting on Tuesday night against Orlando, then ripped his teammates after the game — than to just sit him. Even if the league fined the Pelicans $100K a game that’s “just” $2.4 million, not an insane sum in the NBA orbit. I don’t blame the Pelicans for not taking the Laker deal at the deadline (I am in the camp that believes it will still be there in July if the Pels want it) but it’s created an awkward situation on that team, where everyone seems to have mentally checked out.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-33, LW 24). The Otto Porter trade was about getting off that contract and saving some long-term money, if Bobby Portis works out as a rotation player for Washington longterm all the better. Bradley Beal will spend part of All-Star weekend dodging questions about whether he wants a trade and how much he can’t stand John Wall, but he’ll still get a lot of love from other All-Stars. A few of which would love to have him on their team in the future.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (23-35, LW 26). There were a lot of raised eyebrows around the league that Memphis didn’t trade Mike Conley away before the deadline, too, keeping their price so high that Utah and others refused to pull the trigger. Is the market going to be better for him this summer? Memphis goal now is to hang on to their pick in the upcoming draft — it is top 8 protected, and the Grizzlies have the sixth-worst record in the league. Even with the new lottery odds, hold on to this position and there is only a 3.8% chance they fall back far enough to lose the pick this season (which would be fine with Boston, that pick is more valuable as a trade chip).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (19-38, LW 25). If your memories of Trae Young are his struggles at the start of the season, you need to watch him again. In Young’s last 10 games he has averaged 21.8 points per game on 15.6 shots a night, he’s hitting 42 percent from three, and he’s dishing out 8.8 assists per night. We’re also starting to see some real chemistry between him and John Collins. Young is confident, watch him go right at LeBron in the final two minutes of a close game Tuesday — and get the and-1.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (13-44, LW 27). I don’t mind the gamble on Otto Porter at the trade deadline. Sure, the Bulls are going to pay $46.7 million for their starting wings next season (Porter and Zach LaVine, and it goes up the season after that) but this is still a building team and they are not wed to Porter long term. Combine those two with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., then mix in a point guard (Kris Dunn is fine but there will be better options available) and Chicago will have a respectable roster

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-45, LW 28). I like what Cleveland has done around the trade deadline (and through the season), making moves to add draft picks and get the rebuild going. Kevin Love likely will be up next summer, although with his salary and injury history, finding a team willing to part with much of anything of value will not be easy. The other thing about all those Cavaliers trades this season: It doesn’t make this team easy to watch.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-47, LW 29). I don’t mind the idea of trading for Tyler Johnson and seeing if he can play next to Devin Booker, a little experiment for the rest of the season. That said, it’s hard to say much positive about a team that has lost 14 games in a row, except that their first two games after the break (Cleveland and Atlanta) give them a chance to snap this streak.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-46, LW 30). The Knicks have lost 17 games in a row, but at least Dennis Smith Jr. has become a distraction from that pain. The athletic guard is averaging 17.4 points per game since coming over from Dallas, although he is shooting just 21% from three and has a dreadful 47 true shooting percentage (way below the league average). On the bright side, he and DeAndre Jordan have a little chemistry.

Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, Kyle Kuzma headline All-Star Friday Rising Stars participants

Getty Images
3 Comments

A couple of deep drafts has led to young stars in big markets — and a really impressive lineup for the All-Star Friday Night Rising Stars Challenge.

The Friday night of All-Star weekend — this year in Charlotte on Feb. 15 — is when the NBA tries to highlight the future of the league with first-and-second year players facing off in a USA vs. The World format. Which, considering the international influx of talent in the past couple of years — led by Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons — makes this matchup a little more interesting.

Here are the competitors.

Kyrie Irving will be the honorary coach for Team USA, while Dirk Nowitzki will coach The World. Nowitzki should make The World players do one of his Holger Geschwindner warmups.

There’s a lot of offensive talent on the floor for this one. Which in a game that usually sees all the defense of a pre-draft solo workout against a chair should make for an entertaining show. De'Aaron Fox throwing lobs to Jaren Jackson Jr., or Lonzo Ball finding Jayson Tatum in transition. Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton being teammates, There’s a lot to like.

Plus, it’s good to see some under-appreciated good young players — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OG Anunoby, Josh Okogie — getting a little prime-time run.

What do you think of the uniforms for the game?

The Rising Stars Challenge will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Eastern of Feb. 15, exclusively on TNT.

It is the first event of All-Star weekend, leading up to the All-Star Game itself on Sunday, Feb. 17.

Three Things to Know: Rockets drain record 26 threes, have turned season around… kinda

Getty Images
1 Comment

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) Houston knocks down NBA record 26 three-pointers in fifth straight win. They have turned things around… kinda. Wednesday night’s win against Washington in a lot of ways looked like the last four games for Houston: James Harden went off (35 points), the Rockets defense was good enough, and that meant a win.

What was different: Houston set an NBA single-game record hitting 26 threes (on 55 shot attempts).

Washington’s defense was atrocious. The Rockets took 85 total shots in the game, 60 of them were uncontested (using the NBA’s Second Spectrum data, which is imperfect but validates the point about the Wizards’ defensive effort). That doesn’t invalidate what the Rockets did, just pointing out that Washington made it all possible.

Not every fan will love that Houston took 64.7 percent of their shots from three, but that’s what the Rockets should do if Washington isn’t going to run them off the line. Which the Wizards did not.

That’s five straight wins for the Rockets, who are now 16-14 and would be the seven seed if the playoffs started today.

Have the Rockets turned their season around? Well, kinda. They have fought their way back into playoff positioning and the combination we’ve seen in this win streak — MVP-level play from James Harden sparking an elite offense, with the defense being average and that’s good enough — can keep them in the playoffs in the West. But that was not the goal in Houston — the Rockets want to be contenders. This is a team that was up on the Warriors at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season, they want to be a team that can take that next step. They want to be a threat to win it all, and even this improved Rockets team is not that yet. The defense is better but not good enough. They lack the depth needed on the wing (GM Daryl Morey is trying to fix that heading into the trade deadline).

So yes, the Rockets are better. But they are not where they wanted to be this season, not even close.

2) Foreshadowing? Shorthanded Raptors show mettle in comeback win against Pacers, while Celtics lose to Suns. The conventional wisdom around the league about the East right now is that it will come down to Toronto and Boston. Maybe the Bucks can crack into that group (they are right there, but there are defensive questions in a playoff matchup), and after those three it’s half a step back to the Sixers (as currently constructed without enough depth) and the Pacers.

Boston has work to do to live up to that faith in them.

The Celtics had racked up eight wins in a row against a softer part of the schedule but now has dropped two straight, one to the Pistons and one Wednesday night at home to the lowly Suns. A game where the hated-in-Boston Kelly Oubre returned, was booed, then stuck a dagger in the Celtics and blew kisses to the crowd.

Was that Celtics’ win streak a mirage? We’ll get a good measuring stick in the next week: Friday they host the Bucks, Christmas Day they host the Sixers, then the Celtics hit the road to take on the Rockets and Grizzlies. The schedule is getting tougher, is Boston up to it?

Toronto, on the other hand, is doing what elite teams do — finding ways to win, even key players out.

No Kyle Lowry. No Serge Ibaka. And the Pacers were in control, up 17 (77-60) with five minutes to go in the third. Then Kawhi Leonard led the way (scoring 11 of his 28 on the night in this stretch) and the Raptors closed out the game on a 39-19 run over the final 17 minutes to get the win. Fred VanVleet knocked down the shot that gave Toronto the lead for good.

I hear you Pacers fans: That was a bad call at the end of the game. The Pacers needed a three to tie, got the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic beyond the arc and OG Anunoby reached in and fouled him as Bogdanovic started to go up. Unquestionably. But that’s not why the Pacers lost the game — blow a 17 point lead in the final 17 minutes and you don’t get to put the blame on the officials for one call. The Pacers deserved to lose that game the way they played down the stretch.

3) Derrick Rose is back and fun to watch. Savor this. I’ll admit it: I thought he was washed. So many seasons of watching Derrick Rose struggle after his knee injuries, watching his struggle with the craft of his game once he was robbed of his explosiveness, had me thinking he was done.

Rose is back — averaging 19 points a game, knocking down threes better than he ever has (46.9 percent on 3.3 attempts per game), getting to the rim, managing games, being efficient (his 58 true shooting percentage would be a career high), and he’s just flat-out fun to watch right now.

Monday night he dropped 33 for the Timberwolves in an eventual loss to the Pistons.

Rose is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season and he is all the way back. At age 30, he’s not the same player he was in his early 20s in Chicago, he’s something else entirely. Rose has reinvented himself, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Savor this while we can. Rose is having a redemptive season, showing how hard work and belief in yourself can pay off, and it is one of the best stories in the NBA this season.

Three Things to Know: New look Bucks remind Raptors East full of threats

Associated Press
Leave a comment

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) Bucks rain threes, throw down dunks, remind Raptors the top of the East is a Battle Royale. Here’s my primary takeaway from Milwaukee’s 104-99 win in Toronto Sunday:

I can’t wait for the second round and beyond of the Eastern Conference playoffs next May.

Any combination of the big four teams — Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia — is going to be a compelling combination of slugfest and chess match. All those teams are deep with talent, have versatility, can knock down threes, can defend, and any one of them can win the East’s King of the Mountain battle next May (although the Sixers have a little work to do).

The Bucks reminded the Raptors on Sunday not to count them out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the focus of the army of long, athletic wing defenders the Raptors can roll out — Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green — and, thanks to smart help (at different times and angles) they did as much as anyone can do to make Antetokounmpo look human, he finished with “just” 19 points on 15 shots. Of course, he also had 19 rebounds, 6 assists, but he didn’t take over the game. Toronto had clearly focused on making it difficult for the Greek Freak to beat them, although he still was doing this (even if it didn’t count).

What the Bucks had was other guys to step up. Brook Lopez was every bit of Splash Mountain scoring 19 points and going 5-of-8 from three, including a beautiful step back at one point. Then, with the game on the line, Malcolm Brogdon was doing this.

These are not the Jason Kidd Bucks anymore, this is a modern NBA team now — they took 39 threes and only 12 of their 87 shots came between 8 feet of the rim and the three-point arc (13.8 percent of their shots from that midrange). Credit the Raptors defense, that’s more midrangers than the Bucks usually take. However, under Mike Budenholzer these Bucks are committed to their style of play.

So is Toronto under Nick Nurse, and they took 44 threes, hitting 15 (34.1 percent). The Raptors just were not as efficient: Serge Ibaka had 22 points but needed 21 shots, Leonard had 20 points on 18 shots.

That is where Toronto needs Kyle Lowry to step up, but he is in the middle of a terrible shooting slump and was scoreless in this one (he did have seven assists, he’s more of a playmaker now, but he still needs to be a threat to score for it all to come together). Lowry was 0-of-5 Sunday, making him 5-of-32 in his last five games.

This was a highly entertaining, up-and-down game that for a few minutes became the Brogdon vs. Fred VanVleet shootout we all expected (VanVleet had 19 off the bench). Actually, it speaks to the depth of these rosters that this game could become that and never lose its energy.

Milwaukee got the win Sunday, but next May if these teams meet in the playoffs we’re all going to win.

2) In the wake of a 56-point blowout loss, Bulls players call for meetings, everybody vents. When Fred Hoiberg was fired, Bulls management didn’t give Jim Boylen the interim tag as the new coach, they gave him the job for the rest of this season and noted he’s under contract for next season and they want to bring him back.

The reason for this was to give him leverage to come in hard and shake things up — Boylen has called it “shock and awe” to borrow the military term. He said the team was out of shape, he’s running long, hard practices and benching starters when they struggle. He did that for the final 21 minutes Saturday 56-point blowout loss to the Celtics.

Sunday, players pushed back against the tactics. It almost led to a player mutiny where they didn’t show up to practice, but then Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez talked everyone into showing up and meeting — first a players’ only meeting, followed by one with coaches and the front office. There was a lot of venting to do.

Boylen has come in trying to change the culture of a Bulls team that needs it. Remember, he comes out of the Spurs organization, where Tim Duncan was open to Gregg Popovich coaching him hard and calling him out in front of the team as an example. Thing is, there is no Duncan on this Bulls team (on or off the court). When Hoiberg was the head coach Boylen could be the bad cop, hold guys accountable, and there was a balance, even if it didn’t work all that well. However, as the head coach, you can’t just be the bad cop or you lose guys. There has to be positives, there has to be rest for guys. More importantly, there must be explanations of why things are happening, trust needs to be built up. Do that and this generation of players will still run through walls for a coach — but if the coach just says “run through that wall” it doesn’t work anymore.

Everyone is adjusting to the new realities in Chicago. With Markkanen back and the team getting healthy, they should be good enough to move out of the East cellar. However, that’s going to take some work, from the players and coaches. And some open communication. That, at least, seems to be happening.

3) Julius Randle is beasting as a starter. When Nikola Mirotic went out with an injury, Julius Randle slid into the starting lineup and has played in a way that is going to make it very difficult to take him out of it. Randle has dropped at least 26 points in his last four games — all starts — and that includes 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists Sunday as the Pelicans knocked off the Pistons 116-108.

In his last four games as a starter, Randle is averaging 29.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. It might be time for coach Alvin Gentry to take Randle out of the Sixth Man of the Year running — a race he has been in the conversation for early this season — because he will start to many games. It’s hard to argue with production.