There’s a problem in Milwaukee.
The Bucks were looked upon as the Celtics’ primary competitors for the Eastern Conference crown, yet that was in the preseason. A lot has changed since. The 76ers have emerged as legitimate contenders. The Pacers have risen to dark-horse status and teams such as the Magic and Knicks could reach the second round of the playoffs and perhaps pull off an upset.
And while the Celtics have had their bumps, they entered Friday with the East’s best record and were one game behind the Timberwolves for the league’s top mark. As for the Bucks, despite a home-heavy schedule, they are 15-7 with one of the league’s 10 worst defenses, and they yielded 128 points, including 37 in the fourth quarter, in their In-Season Tournament semifinal loss to the Pacers.
Something isn’t right with the Bucks, and everybody knows it, especially megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I’ll say, obviously, the talent level that we have is incredible,” he said after the loss to the Pacers. “But we have to be more organized. I feel like sometimes we’re not organized at all. We don’t know what we try to get from our offense, or sometimes defensively we’re not sprinting back. At the end of the day, you have to protect the ball. You have to know where the ball is. We had a lot of situations today that they got a lot of dunks, open threes, early threes. We have to be better.
“And the other thing is that obviously our chemistry, game by game, going to keep on getting closer. Again, because we have new players on the team, Malik [Beasley] and Dame [Damian Lillard], which we’ve played a lot of years in the previous years with the same, basically, core, and now it’s different. We have to know what their weaknesses are, what their strengths are, where they want the ball, what spots on the floor they want the ball, and the biggest thing, I believe, is that we’ve got to want it. You know, nobody is going to give you nothing.”
Antetokounmpo’s words were piercing, and they were similar to what some of the Celtics were saying after last Monday’s loss to the Pacers. It’s only December, but sometimes complacency sets in, especially when teams such as the Celtics and Bucks win most of their games.
The Bucks added Lillard in a blockbuster just before training camp began. The trade improved the team offensively, but the defense has suffered. Lillard is a below-average defender and the team’s defensive identity has been challenged because of age and injuries. Brook Lopez is still playing at a high level, but he’s 35. Former Celtic Jae Crowder is back on the injured list. Khris Middleton hasn’t been the same player since a series of injuries cost him a chance to play in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics in 2022.
The centerpiece is Antetokounmpo but he’s noticing that teams are no longer intimidated by his presence or willing to concede because of his athletic prowess.
“Sometimes I feel like we expect just because we have great players out there, that Tyrese Haliburton or Myles Turner or Aaron Nesmith, somebody is not just going to give us the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to be better. We have to go out there and take it. At the end of the day, I think we are great players, but if we don’t go out there and compete, they are not going to respect us. They played their best against us.”
First-year coach Adrian Griffin has dealt with adversity in the early going, losing assistant coach Terry Stotts after a preseason dispute. And Griffin is shouldering the responsibility because of the defensive slippage. Antetokounmpo called out everyone in the organization, not just the coach.
“Even if it was about the organization and the coaches, I try to shoot straight,” he said. “As much as I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, at the end of the day the players play the game. Coaches can say whatever they want to say and put us in the position to be successful, and you hope that they do that for you. But you’ve got to make the plays. If you don’t sprint back on defense, it’s not the coaches’ fault you don’t sprint back. If you’re not able to execute down the stretch and you turn the ball over and you throw it to your opponents’ hands, it’s not the coaches’ fault.”
Antetokounmpo is being brutally honest about a team that is flawed. The Bucks looked old in the fourth quarter against the Pacers. And they are not in harmony. Antetokounmpo argued with Griffin on the sideline during a nationally televised game with the Celtics because he did not want to be taken out. He wouldn’t call out Griffin as a reason for the team’s struggles, but coaching improvement is necessary.
“We have to come together as a team,” Antetokounmpo said. “This is Game 22. We have 60 more games. We’ve got to keep on coming together as a team. We’ve got to keep on spending time together. We’ve got to keep watching film together. We have to keep on getting on the court together.
“We haven’t had the time to practice. We play every other day. It’s hard. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to practice in this league. It’s not like playing overseas. Overseas, you play one game, two games a week, you have four days a week you can come back and work on your game plan. You know what you’re going to do defensively, how you’re going to guard teams. But in the NBA, that’s not the case. You practice while you’re playing the game.”
Antetokounmpo is all in. He signed a three-year, $186 million contract extension in the offseason. He approved on Griffin becoming the new coach after Mike Budenholzer was fired. Antetokounmpo knows the Bucks can’t win the East in their current state, but they have five months to fix any shortcomings.
“After this game, what are we going to do about it?” he asked. “Are we going to go to our rooms and just whine and cry about it or are we going to break bread and talk about the game, you know, watch this game, comment on the game what we thought, you know, me and Dame, me and Khris, me and Brook, how can me and Brook get the rebounds, how can our bench be better?
“We have to address it. We have three days now until Monday that we play Chicago at home. We have to get on the court. We have to get in the film room. We have to talk as a team and hopefully we can expedite our chemistry. It’s not about the coach. It’s like we have to get better. It’s on us now. We have the talent, we have the experience. It’s on us. We know it’s on us.”
a late run at MVP
He’ll be 39 on Dec. 30, but there is no player having a better season than LeBron James, and if he continues this surge, he’ll receive serious consideration for Most Valuable Player. The oldest MVP in league history was 35-year-old Karl Malone. No player over the age of 29 has won the MVP in 19 years, when Steve Nash earned the award at 31.
But what fans are seeing in James is once in a lifetime. He’s unquestionably the best player on the Lakers, dropping 30 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists in 23 minutes in a blowout win over the Pelicans on Thursday.
While the organization initially wanted Anthony Davis to take over as the primary scorer and No. 1 option, James continues to be the team’s most consistent and reliable player. In 22 games entering Saturday’s In-Season Tournament final against the Pacers, James was averaging 25 points on 55.3 percent shooting and a career-best 40.7 percent from the 3-point line, along with 7.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
He’s the oldest player in the league, and he ran circles around the young Pelicans to the point of embarrassment. Zion Williamson, 16 years younger than James, was rendered helpless by the old man’s dominance.
“Without question,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said when asked if James should be considered an MVP candidate. “The way he impacts winning, what he’s doing at this stage of his career, without question. That’s a no-brainer.”
James has said repeatedly over the years that rest and taking care of his body have been essential to his longevity. He’s also healthy after years of battling nagging injuries. While not the freakish athlete of his Cleveland or Miami days, James plays with such a high basketball IQ, and he has learned to conserve energy to play extended minutes, and has maintained a similar impact from his younger days.
“First and foremost, I’ve said it time and time again, just the way he takes care of himself,” Ham said. “You have to start there. Like, what you pour into your body, the resources you pour into your body, and not just during the season, but it’s a year-round thing for him.
“It’s basically a way of life at this point, from his nutrition, his sleeping habits, his exercises, his stretching methods, weightlifting, all of that. It allows him to still perform at peak level. Really efficient with how we do our business from day to day. Our regimen helps. But all of the resources he pours into himself to make sure he’s not only available, but available at the highest level.”
Davis was tabbed to eventually inherit the reins from James, but he’s content to be the No. 2 option. He’s been reliable and healthy this season, making for one of the league’s best duos.
“I’m a simple guy, so I just think of one word, extraordinary, otherworldly,” Ham said. “That’s two, I know. But no, he is the ultimate tone-setter. Like for him, to go out from the start, just everything, from our meeting to our walkthrough, everything, his communication, helping guys visually see what game plan we were trying to execute. And we were able to execute. His energy, him sacrificing his body, three charges. He set the tone for us on both ends of the basketball court, and his teammates just follow suit. It’s a huge blessing to have that working in your favor and to be on the same side as that.”
James took three charges in the first half against the Pelicans. His teammates feed off his enthusiasm and professionalism.
“Trying to lead by example, make plays on the floor, be unselfish,” James said. “Try to make the right plays offensively, defensively, cover for my teammates, and live with the results. I think we’re starting to figure it out. You know, you guys have been asking me over the last couple months, what do you think about the team and what do I think we can be? My answer was realistic, we don’t know because we haven’t had our team.”
The Lakers have proven to be a different team at home (or Las Vegas) than on the road. They are 4-7 in true road games but have won 11 of the last 15 overall, getting players such as Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, and Jarred Vanderbilt back from injury, making for a formidable contender in the Western Conference.
“We are starting to see what our team looks like,” said James. “We know who we are going to be playing with out on the floor. Guys are feeling in a really good rhythm offensively and defensively. It definitely helps, being able to log minutes with different lineups and things of that nature, so that you kind of know what you’re going to flow into offensively and you know what you’re going to do defensively. It helps a lot.”
Meanwhile, the Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton, also 16 years James’s junior, paid homage to one of the all-time greats and his idol.
“Like any kid born in 2000, LeBron was my favorite player growing up, and it’s hard for him not to be for a lot of us,” Haliburton said. “Growing up, I was a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, then a Cavs fan again, then a Lakers fan before I got drafted. It’s just how it went. To be able to compete against him in a championship is kind of like a storybook a little bit, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“But that’s the great part about being in the NBA is getting to compete against your idols on a nightly basis. I really look forward to that.”
The Bulls will be without former All-Star Zach LaVine as he recovers from a foot injury that especially hampered him in a loss to the Celtics last month. LaVine has been the subject of trade rumors for years and the Bulls have been successful of late with him out of the lineup. LaVine professed his dedication to the Bulls in a meeting with Chicago reporters, saying his injury is not some form of protest or trade demand, and that he wants to continue his career in Chicago. Billy Donovan’s job appears to be safe as coach, but the Bulls could make significant moves in the coming weeks in an attempt to change the team’s culture . . . With the In-Season Tournament being in Las Vegas, commissioner Adam Silver and many players have been asked about the possibility of an NBA team in Sin City. It’s a possibility, as the NBA ponders expanding to 32 teams once the new television contract is signed. There is speculation that the contract will include new media outlets, potentially Amazon Prime, Apple TV, NBC, or even CBS. If you recall, CBS broadcast the NBA for 20-plus years in the 1970s and ‘80s, before ending the contract to broadcast Major League Baseball games. That ended up being a mistake, as CBS relinquished its rights simultaneously to the rise of Michael Jordan. NBC benefited from that rise but relinquished its rights in 2002 after more than a decade. Meanwhile, James was drafted a year later, and the rest is history. ABC/ESPN has helped the league flourish the past two decades after there was great concern about how the NBA would manage after Jordan’s retirement. The NBA is expected to add Las Vegas and Seattle as expansion teams after the television agreement, and while Silver won’t confirm those cities, the league’s constant flirtation with Las Vegas and the fact it chose the city to host the In-Season Tournament at T-Mobile Arena is an indication that Vegas is in the league’s sights. There is also a perception the NBA owes Seattle after allowing the SuperSonics to move to Oklahoma City in 2008 after the city essentially botched the trial that would have forced team owners to stay in Seattle until 2010. The city settled the case, allowing the Sonics to become the Thunder, and the NBA has regretted leaving such an attractive market.