Marques Johnson remains one of the best color analysts in the business, after a successful career scoring on a consistent basis for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers.
At 63, he is finally beginning to get his just due, as his No. 8 was retired by the Bucks in March. Johnson, who has been the analyst the past four seasons on Bucks telecasts on Fox Sports Wisconsin, has seen the franchise grow into an Eastern Conference power.
The one player who remains an enigma because of his quiet personality but brilliance against the Celtics is Khris Middleton, who is shooting 63.3 percent from the 3-point arc in 10 playoff games against Boston over the past two years.
Johnson has watched Middleton mature into a premium scorer, a player who can shoot from all spots on the floor and who has become a perfect complement to star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“What I like is that he has a level of humility that is refreshing on the one hand as an individual but has hampered his alpha-dog type of approach to the game at times,” Johnson said. “He’s a great guy, one of the nicest guys I’ve been around. He’s got a good attitude. He keeps it even keel and that’s beautiful to be around. If you know his background, he’s one of those players who has always had to prove himself.”
Johnson tells a story of a young Middleton driving six hours from his native South Carolina to Atlanta to play AAU and then being upset because his teams would lose to elite competition and he wouldn’t play well.
“He’s always had to be believe in himself and believe in his talents,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing with Khris. The only issue I have is that he is not aggressive enough to take over. And when you’re playing with Giannis you have to pick and choose your spots even though they do complement each other extremely well. Khris can knock that jumper down to the 3-point line better than anybody.”
As for Antetokounmpo, Johnson has watched him develop into the league’s most unstoppable force because of his freakish athleticism and his work ethic. The only player Johnson, who has 40-plus years of NBA experience, said Antetokounmpo compares to is the late Connie Hawkins, who would score with ease because of his long arms and masterful touch around the basket.
“The footwork that Giannis has puts him on a whole different level,” Johnson said. “He’s been a joy to be around.”
Johnson tells of a story of when the Bucks were playing the Pelicans near Mardi Gras time and he bumped into Antetokounmpo in a convenience store near Bourbon Street in New Orleans near the team hotel soon after he signed his four-year, $100 million contract extension. Johnson asked if Antetokoumpo wanted to walk back to the hotel, but Antetokounmpo instead wanted to walk around the city.
“It dawned on me that Giannis was selling trinkets on the streets of Athens when he was 13, 14 years old,” Johnson said. “The point is, he’s tough beyond his years. He’s been out there. He’s had to read people and hustle and sell trinkets and have the savvy to make ends meet. He’s been out there hustling and grinding, and that type of mentality, you take that to the basketball court, it gives you an element of toughness and fearlessness because he’s tasted abject poverty and he has to depend on friends for support.
“And you had to watch out for your brothers and deal with tourists and deal with that night element in the streets in an international city like that. So that translates to this inner peace and inner toughness. There ain’t no pressure to playing basketball. It’s a different type of mind-set and approach to basketball that makes the game fun for him. After the hard times that he’s been through, he is tickled pink to be in the second round and playing against the Boston Celtics.”
Havlicek meant much to Cowens
Considering the greatness of John Havlicek and the impact he had not only on the Celtics but the NBA, it couldn’t be left to just one Sunday column to explain and detail the man and the player. We talked with Celtics great Dave Cowens again about Havlicek, the NBA in the 1970s, and how teams were able to score in the 100s without a 3-point shot.
First, Cowens said he holds no resentment toward today’s players, who earn far more than their predecessors. Cowens dealt with the next generation of players as a coach. In addition to being a player-coach at age 30 in 1978-79, Cowens coached the Charlotte Hornets for two-plus seasons (1996-99) and Golden State Warriors for one-plus season (2000-02).
“I don’t know if we have a right to be upset about [salaries and the benefits players receive],” he said. “In your day you do the best you can with what you’re given and that’s what [Havlicek] did. That was his job. Coming from where he came from, he didn’t expect anybody to give him anything.
“It’s all about what you earned. And you feel good about what you contribute, what you contribute and how you handle yourself. That’s where I come from and that’s what I appreciate the most.”
Cowens said the issue he does have with today’s players is their self-promotion and self-serving actions, especially after making a significant play.
“I just wish we could have more players who sort of understood that. If you do something good, you don’t have to celebrate it so much,” he said. “We already saw you do it, you know what I mean? Let it be for what it is. That’s why I rebel against all the hype now, and all the, ‘This is so great and that’s so wonderful and oh my God.’ Things that are just rudimentary and I guess that’s what sells nowadays and that’s the way society has been going.
“I’m glad I played in the era that I played in, and I don’t begrudge anybody. I’m glad the players are making a lot of money nowadays. I hope they do really well with it, their families and their communities.”
Cowens said he had several Havlicek stories but he pointed to one, when, during the end of his career, Havlicek would hold out of training camp and save his energy for the regular season. But his teammates were able to see him on a daily basis during his holdout.
“He was a good guy to be around, had a good sense of humor,” Cowens said. “There’s a story I told about when he would hold out and we’d be at Mass. Maritime [Academy] and we’d be going through two-a-days and he’d be over there in the canal fishing, waving to us when we were walking to another practice. But we knew what he was doing. We knew he was saving himself and eventually he’d sign and come to practice, which was OK. We didn’t hold that against him. Nobody was mad at him. It was kind of aggravating, that’s all.
“[Sometimes] he would lose his patience with us sometimes when we played without a whole lot of smarts. How he would go on a rant in the locker room and how he would try to humor us because it was so out of character. He was a pretty frugal guy, for sure. That kind of stuff, just normal locker room good stuff. But I just remember how clutch he was in game situations. When you needed somebody to score, he was going to get the ball. He wanted it in his hands because he was going to make a good decision.”
While the Celtics won NBA championships in 1974 and ’76, Cowens points to the dominance of the 1972-73 team that won a club-record 68 games. That team lost two in a row just once, in consecutive games against the Knicks. And with Havlicek suffering from a separated shoulder, the Celtics lost to the Knicks in seven games in the East finals.
“Very special,” Cowens said. “That 68-14 season, we lost more games at home than we did on the road. And we didn’t have long winning streaks. I don’t think we ever lost two in a row and that’s what our mantra was. You can’t lose two in a row. We had these kinds of things within our team that we wanted to adhere to.”
Havlicek scored 26,395 points without the benefit of a 3-point shot. Cowens said that may have been a positive for his generation because it put more emphasis on ball movement and attacking the rim.
Related: Some touching John Havlicek tributes, and other items . . .
“That probably helped him. He probably never dunked a ball more than a dozen times in his life,” Cowens said. “He didn’t need it to score the way the rules were in terms of not having a 3-point play as an option. Everything was done off of passes and cuts and taking that split-second opportunity when you know that you’re open to rise up and shoot it. It wasn’t an advantage to take a 23-footer, it was all about let’s see how close we can get to the rim.
“Just the whole style of play, the individuality, the one-on-one and all the dribbling just wasn’t part of how we played. He got all the points because he knew angles and he knew how to get open and he knew how to take advantage of every opportunity. He was very disciplined mentally and physically to be able to take advantage of those opportunities because it was important to him.”
In reflection, Cowens said Havlicek should be appreciated for his versatility and relentless style. He was drafted by the NFL’s Browns but chose basketball after participating in Cleveland’s training camp.
“This guy came in and he was a defender — and he ended up being the all-time leading scorer in Celtics history,” Cowens said. “He was reliable. He was a good passer and good setup guy and he could play three positions. He could play the 1, 2, and the 3. He gets drafted to play pro [football] and he never played college football. How does that happen? He was a heck of a receiver. He used to love to run.
“Playing with him was like playing with somebody like me, but he was better than me. It worked really well for us. We worked well together and then you had Jo Jo [White] and all the other guys coming in there. We all loved to run and go up and down the court.”
Silver floats ideas about big changes
Commissioner Adam Silver is constantly hearing that the 82-game schedule is too much, but what about 70 regular-season games and two midseason tournaments of 12 games? Silver has floated the idea of taking a page from international soccer and spicing up the regular season with midseason tournaments or even a play-in tournament for one playoff spot.
These ideas could be years away, but they are in the works.
“I’m particularly interested in looking at different kinds of formats — at midseason tournaments, for example, play-in tournaments — because even accepting that players have so many miles on their bodies, there may be better ways to present it,” Silver said. “Assuming guys are going to play 82 games, maybe there should be a certain number of games in the regular season and then there should be two tournaments throughout the season.”
The challenge would be selling such ideas to the fan who has never been subjected to a midseason tournament or play-in tournament in an American sport.
“I know for most of the American viewers, that’s a very foreign concept because we’re not used to having multiple goals throughout the season,” Silver said. “But it’s very commonplace in international soccer. It would take a while to develop those new traditions because I think initially the reaction may be who cares who wins the midseason tournament; it’s all about the Larry O’Brien Trophy. So we need to take a long-term perspective.
“We and the players have a common interest in maximizing viewership and maximizing interest. The format we have in place now — I’m a traditionalist on one hand, but on the other hand it’s 50 years old or so, presenting an 82-game season, and there’s nothing magical about it. I think it’s on the league office to always be challenging the way we do things.”
It’s apparent that changes are in store, but the question is how would the NBA fan respond. It’s a difficult decision because the traditional schedule has made for great ratings, especially over recent years.
“When you say we’re at that point now, I’d only say that I think these kind of changes can’t be done without enormous deliberation,” Silver said. “Part of it is just the formality that they need to be negotiated with the Players Association, but even if the Players Association came to us and said, ‘You guys know best, what is it you want?’ I wouldn’t know how to answer it. I think it’s going to require a lot more research, a lot more thoughtfulness on behalf of the teams, players, and the league working together.”
A pleasant surprise to the Big3 roster for the upcoming season; Hall of Famer and former Celtics great Nate Archibald is the coach of the Aliens, one of the four new teams. Archibald is healthy after undergoing heart surgery last year and has wanted to get back into basketball. The Aliens also feature former Celtic Kendrick Perkins, who has officially retired from the NBA. Other former Celtics in the Big3 are Joe Johnson and Al Jefferson (Triplets), Jason Terry and Patrick O’Bryant (Trilogy), Jermaine O’Neal and Nate Robinson (Tri State), Brian Scalabrine (Ball Hogs), Ricky Davis (Ghost Ballers), and Glen Davis and Ryan Gomes (Power). Former NBA first-round pick Royce White was the league’s No. 1 overall pick, giving him a chance to resuscitate his career after leaving the NBA because of anxiety issues . . . The hiring of Monty Williams by the Suns opens up the Lakers job for former Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. Lue has interviewed twice for the Lakers job and is the leading candidate. He is interested in getting back into coaching after being let go six games into this season by the Cavaliers, who are still seeking a coach and have interviewed former Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff and Utah assistant coach Alex Jensen. It seems the Cavaliers are looking for a younger coach to help foster their rebuilding plan. The Cavaliers have a lottery pick along with All-Rookie team selection Collin Sexton and perhaps the expiring contracts of Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, and Brandon Knight to offer in trade. Of course, the Cavaliers still have Kevin Love committed for four more seasons, so he will be the centerpiece of any rebuilding plan . . . Boston will be one of the host cities for the 3-on-3 Olympic qualifying tournament. The 2020 Tokyo Games will have eight men’s and women’s 3-on-3 teams competing for gold for the first time. The qualifiers begin June 22 in Detroit and will tour 22 other cities, including Boston on Sept. 7.
The Olympic 3-on-3 will be played in half court with a 10-minute game clock and 12-second shot clock. The first team to 21 or that leads after the 10-minute period wins. The qualifying teams will be chosen in the finals of the tournament in March 2020.