Giannis Antetokounmpo nearly notched another triple-double despite playing in just 19 minutes in the entire game, putting up 16 points along with 10 assists, eight rebounds, two blocks and, most importantly, zero turnovers.
Khris Middleton continued his hot shooting after busting out of his long slump for 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field, including a scorching 4-of-4 from behind the three-point line.
Malcolm Brogdon was his usual efficient self, notching 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field while George Hill had one of his better scoring outings as a Buck with 12 points off the bench.
An argumentative year has followed mercurial scorer Jimmy Butler from Minnesota to Philadelphia, with Butler ‘aggressively challenging’ Sixers coach Brett Brown, according to a report from ESPN.
Butler’s reported frustration comes due to his frustration with his role within Philly’s Big Three structure that sees him as the third piece of a dynamic led by the young duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
“Butler has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system, including a recent film session in Portland that some witnesses considered ‘disrespectful’ and beyond normal player-coach discourse,” the ESPN report, full of league sources as you’d expect from Woj and Shelburne, included. “.. Butler’s sluggish assimilation into the Sixers environment is causing some concern about his long-term viability and fit with the organization, league sources said.”
1. Raptors (28-12) Last week: 1
We’re sticking with the Raptors at No. 1, but it’s not without serious doubt. They’re dealing with an injury to Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard rest days, but they’re just 5-5 over their last 10. For now, they keep the top spot, but the East looks wide open right now with their struggles.
A day after Leonard made his first homecoming to San Antonio as a member of the Toronto Raptors, Pippen said the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 Finals MVP has improved on things the Hall of Famer had noticed before their meeting.
“I kind of admired his game and told him I’d been watching him and could see he’s been getting better and better,” Pippen said. “And things I felt like he could work on to become even a better player. And I felt like he’s filled all those voids.”
Things went sour between Leonard and San Antonio last season when there was a disagreement over how to handle the tendinopathy in his left quadriceps that bothered him throughout 2017-18. Leonard wound up playing only nine games with the Spurs — none after mid-January — and missed San Antonio’s five-game loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
There’s been chatter about the Raptors pursuing Wizards guard Bradley Beal, but Washington wants two players and two draft picks for him, according to sources.
That would cost the team budding star Pascal Siakam and wing OG Anunoby, plus some filler salary and two future first-round draft picks. The Raptors already owe this year’s pick to the Spurs, and they would have to persuade Washington to take a pick as far out as 2023.
That’s a longshot. Trading for Beal means gutting the young talent Toronto would need if Leonard left in free agency after this season. Beal would address the Raptors’ need for shooting and playmaking, but the team would have to potentially bankrupt its future to get him.
The Raptors have mortgaged enough to make the most of this season, and hopefully keep Leonard in place, as it is. But Toronto could make a reasonable push for another backup point guard to ease Lowry’s burden.
Toronto has downgraded Kyle Lowry to doubtful for the game. He was questionable for Thursday in San Antonio … The Bucks are finishing a rare home-home back-to-back, after facing Atlanta on Friday … Leonard has led the Raptors in scoring for the last five games … This one gets the Raptors to the midway point of the 82-game regular season.
“My biggest takeaway was I think we didn’t consistently execute, especially offensively,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
“When you’re chasing the game like that, it kind of looks sometimes like selfish play, but it’s just guys trying to make a play a little too soon. We had two or three of those. …
“But, in saying that, I can’t sit here and say we executed well on defense, either, because they were lighting us up. They were scoring and driving and kicking and shooting and shooting open, so we didn’t execute very well on either end.”
Leonard led the Raptors in scoring for the fifth straight game with 21 points. He has scored at least 20 points in a career-best 15 consecutive games, averaging 30.1 points and shooting 52.3 percent (157 of 300) from the field, 37.5 percent (30 of 80) from 3-point range and 87.1 percent (108 of 124) at the free-throw line during that stretch.
The Raptors (28-12) have been playing without Kyle Lowry (back) and Jonas Valanciunas (thumb). They have had Leonard and Lowry — who has missed nine of the past 10 games — in the same game only 21 times this season. Valanciunas is out and Lowry is listed as doubtful for Saturday.
– 15 straight: Kawhi Leonard scored 21 points in Thursday’s loss, continuing his career-best stretch of 15 consecutive games scoring at least 20 points. Leonard is averaging 30.1 points on 52 percent shooting over this span. On the season, he is averaging 27.1 points and 8.0 rebounds (leading the team in both categories) I 34.8 minutes per game. He has also topped the 30-point threshold 11 times this season.
– Injured list: Though the status of Kyle Lowry for Saturday’s game is to be determined, the Toronto point guard has missed nine of the team’s last 10 games, including Thursday’s loss in San Antonio. Saturday in Milwaukee will be the team’s 41st game, marking the official halfway point of the regular season. Lowry and Leonard have appeared in just 21 of those 41 games together as injury woes have hit the team and lineups have had to be shuffled. The last time Toronto had Leonard and Lowry on the floor together was Dec, 9, against this Bucks team.
For the past month, the Raptors have essentially clawed out enough victories to stay near the top of the East. There have been some high quality wins (vs. the Warriors or the Jazz, for example), but they’ve also gotten kicked in the teeth by the Magic, Spurs, and, the very same Bucks they’re visiting tonight. What’s more, Toronto has gone 5-5 over their last ten, and the absence of both Kyle Lowry (super important to everything the team does) and Jonas Valanciunas (specifically important in a couple of key ways) has really begun to show. It gives them a built-in excuse for this difficult stretch, but still: it would be nice to see them healthy, and winning.
And that’s because the Bucks now represent (to me, anyway) the most significant challenge to the Raptors in their quest to get to the Finals. Milwaukee went 12-4 in the month of December, and is now 9-1 in their last ten games. They beat the Raptors both times they’ve played — on the road, and at home. They also have the number one offense in the league, and the third-best defense. And, of course, there is also Giannis Antetokounmpo to consider.
“I felt badly about it,” Popovich said of the way Leonard was treated by fans. “Kawhi’s a high-character guy. We all make decisions in our lives with what we’re going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So I felt badly, in all honesty.”
There was nothing Popovich or the Spurs could do about the reaction of fans, however, when the game began. Every time Leonard touched the ball, the fans made it a point to express their displeasure with the star who, after playing only nine games last season, made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the franchise any longer.
It may only be January, but the potential for the outcome of Saturday’s game to play a decisive role in the identity of the Eastern Conference’s top seed at the end of the season shouldn’t be underestimated.
Of course, on the simplest of levels a win for the Bucks would see Milwaukee extend their existing 0.5 game lead over the Raptors at the top of the East.
Beyond that, though, a home victory would move Milwaukee to 3-0 against Toronto this season, and wrap up the season series in a remarkably stress-free manner.
This is very much unfamiliar territory for the Bucks in their recent history, but considering just how well they’re playing at present, securing homecourt throughout the duration of the Eastern Conference playoffs (and potentially beyond) is a realistic goal.
Not only is it realistic, but it’s worth pursuing too. The Bucks have been outstanding at home since moving in to Fiserv Forum, boasting a league-best home record of 18-3 and having won every home game to date against Eastern Conference opponents.
The Bucks are looking like serious contenders, and a win on Saturday would only improve Milwaukee’s platform to compete on that front.
Whatever happened was serious enough for Kawhi to not only want to leave but to also be willing to burn it all down on his way out. There was an easier path to exiting, one that could have been much more orderly. All Leonard had to do was let the 2017/18 season play out and in the summer ask for a trade. It would have been easy and everyone’s reputations would have been preserved. Instead he either refused to play when he could have or at the very least kept the franchise in the dark during the recovery process, teasing them with return dates that he’d then miss. There were leaks to the press, Tony Parker slander and generally a scorched earth approach that left the Spurs with so little leverage that they couldn’t even get a good enough offer from Leonard’s preferred destination even if they would have been open to trading him there.
I could always understand that he wanted out but I could never figure out why he chose to go about it the way he did. There’s no reasonable motivation for it. That’s why I’ve been waiting for the final piece of the puzzle that would help me make sense of it all. I was hoping against hope that Leonard’s return to San Antonio would provide it.
It didn’t happen. There were plenty of big stories but none that had new information. Pop and Kawhi kept it respectful leading up to the game. So did the players for both teams. It was predictable, yet still disappointing. As tip-off approached, I was resigned to not getting the closure I was looking for.