On the learning curve of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the storm around Russell Westbrook, Andrew Bogut’s retirement and the future of marijuana
|Apr 25||Public post|
His upper body looked like a bottle turned upside-down. The shoulders were phenomenally wide, and his hips were as narrow as the middle of an hourglass. Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like a superhero from a comic book as he dressed in the visitors’ locker room in Boston Tuesday night.
Then he turned around, and his unlined face reminded you that he is only 23 years old.
“You’re still a young player,” I said, and he nodded. “Are you still learning from this series? Step by step along the way?”
Less than an hour earlier, his Bucks had lost Game 5 of their opening-round series to the Celtics.
“I learn every day,’’ he said. “That’s what it’s all about. Get better every day. Help your team win. I’m learning.
Antetokounmpo has been playing without expectations. Everyone who sees the 2.11-meter Greek Freak knows that he may become the best player in basketball someday. But he wasn’t being held accountable to that standard yet.
Even though he had won Game 4 in Milwaukee with a last-second tip-in and was averaging 25.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7 assists (while shooting 60.5%) in five games against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo was still being viewed as a prodigy exploring his future. This was only the third playoff series of his young career. He has been an All-Star twice. His coach in Milwaukee, Jason Kidd, was fired three months ago, and no one knows who will be coaching Antetokounmpo and his teammates – all 28 or younger with the exception of Jason Terry – next season.
The Bucks and their developing star have performed as if they’re still trying to understand who they are and who they can be. Four important Celtics – including All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – were missing from Boston’s rotation, but the Bucks have been unable to take advantage. When backup guard Marcus Smart returned to the Celtics for Game 5, he provided the energy and defensive playmaking that were crucial to Boston’s 92-87 win.
The Celtics went small and forced Antetokounmpo to pass out of double-teams Tuesday. He generated a near-triple-double of 16 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists, and yet he did not impact the game so much as his older opponent, Al Horford, who drove the Celtics with 22 points and 14 rebounds. And so the Bucks found themselves one game away from elimination because they had been able to generate only 10 shots for Antetokounmpo.
New stars are emerging in these playoffs.In New Orleans, 24-year-old Anthony Davis has needed six seasons to learn how to convert his talents into leadership. In Utah, the Jazz have surprised Oklahoma City by grabbing a 3-1 series lead around 25-year-old center Rudy Gobert and rookie scorer Donovan Mitchell, who is 21. The Pacers’ Victor Oladipo, 25, has pushed LeBron James to a pivotal Game 5. Rookie Ben Simmons and 24-year-old Joel Embiid have led Philadelphia to the second round, where they’ll be waiting for either the Bucks or the Celtics and their young duo, Jaylen Brown (who is 21) and rookie Jayson Tatum (20).
All of those young stars have benefited from playing for teams that have decided how they need to play and are committed to that winning style. The Bucks have not been able to develop a strategy of their own around Antetokounmpo. Joe Prunty, the interim coach, took over for Kidd in late January with no commitment that he will be running the team after this season. His job, until the Milwaukee owners decide otherwise, is temporary. That’s why this will be such a big summer for the Bucks: They must invest in a coach who can devise a game plan that will bring out the best in their bright young star.
For the time being, Antetokounmpo is learning how to win in the playoffs without the support and structure that Davis, Gobert, Mitchell, Oladipo, Simmons, Embiid, Brown and Tatum all have in their respective cities. As he sat in his corner of the visitors’ locker room after Game 5, Antetokounmpo ate a dinner of chicken and rice, scrolled through his phone, and all the while appeared to be lost in his own thoughts.
“After a game like this, are you learning how to regulate yourself?” I asked him. “Not let yourself get too high, too low?”
“You can never get too high or too low,” Antetokounmpo said. “You got to always keep your composure. Stay focused. And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to come out to Game 6 and try to get a win. That’s it.”
“Because you can only learn how to do this the hard way, right?” I said. “You can only learn it by doing it.”
“Of course,” he said. “Thank God I got great teammates around me that can help me with that, and great coaches.”
The next game or two are going to revolve around Antetokounmpo. Can the Greek Freak learn how to win this series ahead of schedule? Can he push his team into the next round, in spite of their organizational difficulties? No one should be expecting Antetokounmpo to dominate Game 6 (and possibly Game 7) as if he were an older star. And yet he has the talent to do just that.The Thunder in trouble.If they lose in the first round to the underdog Jazz, who hold a 3-1 series lead, will Russell Westbrook end this season as the most controversial star of the NBA?
The question of Westbrook’s priorities has been developing for two years. It began with people asking whether Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because Westbrook refused to share the ball. (Of course it isn’t fair to blame Westbrook entirely for the departure of Durant, who was lured to Golden State by the Warriors’ championship-ready roster.) If the Thunder go on to lose to Utah, then the blame will definitely fall on Westbrook. His team ranks dead last in the playoffs with 16.3 assists per game. In Game 4 the Thunder managed only 10 assists – 2 fewer than Utah’s team-first point guard Ricky Rubio.If they fail to advance, and Paul George departs as a free agent this summer, will the Thunder entertain trades for Westbrook in order to rebuild? It may be better to trade him before he can leave Oklahoma City without a return of draft picks and young players.
It is surprising that a player who has averaged a triple-double each of the last two seasons could be viewed as self-absorbed and unable to elevate his teammates. But that is the story that is building now around Westbrook as he approaches age 30. The NBA has become a ball-movement league, and isolation play is turning into a dead end. Can he adapt his game in order to contend for championships?
Andrew Bogut announces NBA retirement.While returning home to Australia this week to sign a two-year contract with the Sydney Kings, Bogut insisted he was finished with the NBA. “This is the greatest coup in the history of the NBL,” said Kings coach Andrew Gaze on behalf of Australia’s National Basketball League.
Bogut, 33, had played only 50 NBA games over the past two seasons with the Mavericks, Cavaliers and Lakers. Bad luck had set back the 2.16-meter center for much of his career. “I’ve played more years than anyone thought I would with the injury issues I’ve had,” Bogut told Fox Sports. “If I tweak my hamstring or hurt my quad or calf, that’s my conditioning’s fault. I’ve never had those types of injuries. When I do something, it’s a ‘car accident’ type injury – perfect angle, bone break.”
Bogut was the rare NBA player who combined toughness with skill. Few big men were better defenders, passers or decision-makers. After joining Milwaukee as the number 1 pick of the 2005 draft, Bogut was moved in 2012 to Golden State in an exchange for guard Monta Ellis. It was an unpopular trade at the time – the Golden State owner was booed by fans – but the departure of Ellis enabled the Warriors to remake themselves around the unique talents of Steph Curry, who had been sharing leadership of the team with Ellis. Along the way Bogut helped the Warriors to establish a defensive mentality as an important player on their 2014-15 championship team.
The NBA trend toward small ball led to a lesser role for Bogut, who in 2016 was traded to Dallas so that the Warriors could create cap space to sign Kevin Durant. But Warriors fans will never forget his important role in the building of their dynasty. And he always had a sense of humor:An open discussion on marijuana.Matt Barnes, 38, who retired after winning an NBA championship with the Warriors last season, told Bleacher Report that he routinely smoked marijuana before games. “It wasn’t every single game, but in 15 years it was a lot,” Barnes said. “All my best games I was medicated.”
Because it has been an illegal and controversial drug in the U.S., American politicians have prevented government agencies from studying marijuana’s long-term impact on the health of those who use it. Alcohol has long been the traditional means for athletes to relax after games, but Barnes insists that a majority of NBA players rely on marijuana – in part because it spares them of hangovers and other harmful side effects associated with alcohol.
“It relaxed me, it was something that allowed me to sleep easier, it was something that took pain away — because I’m not really big on alcohol or pain killers,” Barnes said in another interview this week. “It was something that just put me in a different area where I was able to relax and be at peace for a small part of my day.”
Not only has Adam Silver indicated that he is open-minded to learning more about marijuana and its potential role in the NBA, but the commissioner is also in favor of legalizing gambling on NBA games throughout the U.S. Altogether this could be a time of remarkable change for the NBA.
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