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Bucks, 76ers eye East title with Leonard back in the West

Fri Oct 18 3:04pm ET
By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Basketball Writer

Players: Vince Carter, Kyle Korver, Dwyane Wade, Al Horford, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Josh Richardson, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Ben Simmons

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were a couple wins from beating Toronto. The Philadelphia 76ers were maybe a couple bounces from doing it a round earlier.

Neither team was good enough to finish the job last season, but both think this is their time after Kawhi Leonard went back to the Western Conference.

That left the NBA champions weakened and the Bucks and 76ers looking like the favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals - where perhaps they'd have to deal with Leonard again.

The Bucks appeared headed there in 2018-19, right up until midway through the East finals. Milwaukee had the league's best record at 60-22, with Antetokounmpo eventually winning MVP and Mike Budenholzer the Coach of the Year. But the Bucks couldn't get another victory after taking a 2-0 lead over the Raptors, who won the next four games to reach the finals.

The Bucks think they addressed some of their weaknesses and are ready to take another run at it.

''I think everybody on this team wants to show that last year wasn't just, you know, a year by accident that we just won 60 games,'' Antetokounmpo said. ''I think we had a great team. We got better but obviously there's going to be a lot of teams that expect us. They know us now and they're going to play hard.''

It took Leonard's shot that bounced on the rim four times before falling in at the buzzer in Game 7 to knock out Philadelphia in the second round. The 76ers come back with Al Horford and Josh Richardson but without Jimmy Butler or JJ Redick, hoping they've given coach Brett Brown the right mix around All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

''We know what the expectations are and we embrace it. It's not just Brett, it's all of us,'' general manager Elton Brand said. ''We're in that position now where just getting to the first round, getting to the second round, those expectations are gone. We're expected to win big and we embrace it.''

Leonard went to the Los Angeles Clippers but the Raptors still have Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam in their frontcourt that finally slowed down Antetokounmpo. He knows there will be many more teams gearing up to do the same starting next week.

''We've just got to be ready,'' he said. ''They're not going to give us nothing. We've got to go out there and take everything that we want and we've got to earn everything that we've got to earn this year.''

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Milwaukee - By bringing in Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews, the Bucks have surrounded Antetokounmpo with even more shooting to space the floor.

2. Philadelphia - Having Horford in Philadelphia removes one possible defender against Embiid.

3. Toronto - Gasol, Siakam and Serge Ibaka still make up an imposing frontcourt even without Leonard.

4. Boston - With Kemba Walker now in Kyrie Irving's former spot, the Celtics should have better chemistry even with a little less talent.

5. Brooklyn - No Kevin Durant yet, but enough pieces around newcomer Irving to reach the postseason again.

6. Orlando - Magic hope to pick up where they left off after a strong finish in 2018-19.

7. Indiana - Will get Victor Oladipo back at some point, but losing Bojan Bogdanovic will hurt.

8. Miami - Couldn't make a final playoff appearance in Dwyane Wade's last season in South Florida but could in Jimmy Butler's first.

Player Notes
Eric Bledsoe Nov 21 12:10pm ET

Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe tallied 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three triples, and a block in 25 minutes of a 135-127 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Bledsoe bounced back from shooting 28 percent from the field in his last two to shoot 47.1 percent. He looked to score at the rim, attempting a season-high 11 free-throws and making nine of them. Bledsoe has balled out in November, shooting 50 percent from the field and putting up 19.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. He's scored at least 28 points in two of the four games missed by Khris Middleton (leg) and should continue to shoulder some of the scoring load in his absence for the next several weeks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Nov 21 11:40am ET

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 33 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal in a 135-127 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Another game, another double-double for Antetokounmpo, who's logged one in every contest this year. The 24-year-old has somehow become more dominant inside the three-point line, shooting a career-high 67.7 percent on two-pointers. Antetokounmpo has even expanded to the three-point line, making a career-high 1.4 triples per game. The only concerns for Antetokounmpo are his inefficient free-throw shooting and turnover issues, though they haven't stopped him from living up to his ADP. He and the Bucks will take on a struggling Portland Trail Blazers team on Thursday night.

Larry Nance Jr. Nov 21 11:10am ET

Cleveland Cavaliers power forward/center Larry Nance Jr. entered the starting five for the first time all season during Wednesdays loss to the Miami Heat and logged a team-high 35 minutes. With Tristan Thompson (rest) out of the mix, Nance, who returned from a two-game absence due to a thumb sprain, collected 16 points and nine rebounds, also adding in two assists and two steals. Increased performance among the starters is nothing new for Nance, who nearly averaged a double-double (10.3 points, 9.8 rebounds per game) across his 30 starts last season. Hell likely shift back to a bench role for Fridays contest against the Dallas Mavericks with Thompson expected back, but Nance is a name worth keeping an eye on should either Thompson or Kevin Love miss any contests in the future.

Kevin Love Nov 21 11:00am ET

Cleveland Cavaliers power forward/center Kevin Love had a brief one-game absence before he notched 25 points and 13 rebounds against the Miami Heat on Wednesday. The performance was indicative of everything that makes Love special, as he knocked down five triples, added two assists and shot 8-for-13 from the floor overall. Playing without Tristan Thompson (rest) in the frontcourt, Love didnt so much see extra minutes as he did extra opportunities. Cleveland will likely be cautious with Love throughout the season, but when healthy, optimism abounds for a potential All-Star bid in 2019-20 for the Cavaliers star, who has logged a double-double in eight of his first 12 games.

Tyler Herro Nov 21 11:00am ET

Miami Heat shooting guard Tyler Herro may not have put together the prolific shooting performance that teammate Duncan Robinson did, but he did set a new career high in threes made in his own right during Wednesdays win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coming off the bench, Herro went 4-for-7 from long range, his highest total of triples made across his 12 professional contests. The rookie ultimately finished with 22 points, three rebounds and three assists across his 31 minutes, continuing to see a hefty workload while Miami is without Justise Winslow. Despite his reserve role, Herro has scored in double figures in three of his previous four games and has seen at least 29 minutes in six of the nine games that he has come off the bench.

Duncan Robinson Nov 21 10:50am ET

Miami Heat shooting guard/small forward Duncan Robinson caught fire from long range during the second quarter of Wednesdays win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, setting a new franchise record by making seven triples in a single quarter. Robinson remained behind the arc, ultimately finishing 9-for-15 overall, with all of his shot attempts coming from long range. His 29 points marked a new career high, as Robinson also logged a team-high 34 minutes. Even as the Heat eventually get back to full strength, the second-year sharpshooter has likely carved out a role in the rotation on a long-term basis, making him an appealing fantasy commodity for those in category formats.

Jimmy Butler Nov 21 10:40am ET

Miami Heat shooting guard/small forward Jimmy Butler couldnt find a rhythm offensively during Wednesdays win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, finishing 3-for-16 from the field. Despite those woes, he knocked down all 13 free throws that he attempted en route to collecting 21 points. His fantasy evening was far from a dud as he added a season-high four blocks -- his most in a single outing since Dec. 22, 2014 -- to go along with five rebounds, five assists and two steals. Currently leading the league in steals per game (2.7), Butler has thrived during his first 10 games in a Heat uniform.

Marcus Smart Nov 21 9:20am ET

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart continued with his recent good play on Wednesday, finishing a 107-104 overtime loss to the Clippers with 15 points and eight assists. He also had three rebounds and two steals in 40 minutes on the floor with zero turnovers. Smart was just 1-for-11 from behind the arc, but he still ended up as the team's second-leading scorer behind Jayson Tatum. Kemba Walker had a tough game with 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting. Smart is never going to be an effective scorer, but despite his poor shooting, the defensive specialist has actually boosted the Celtics offense nicely in recent weeks by getting at least 15 points in six of the last seven games.

Jayson Tatum Nov 21 9:10am ET

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 30 points in Wednesday's overtime loss to the Clippers, shooting 12-for-24 from the field and a superb 5-for-10 from downtown. He also racked up six rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks. The C's might have lost a bit of momentum lately with a pair of defeats, but Tatum keeps cruising nicely, averaging 23.4 points across the last five games. He'll face another top-10 defensive side in Denver next time out, but no matchup should phase him after crushing it against the Clippers.

Patrick Beverley Nov 21 9:00am ET

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley recorded his second double-double of the season on Wednesday, finishing a 107-104 overtime win against Boston with 14 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Beverley pulled down so many boards that Daniel Theis was the only other player to get into double figures in rebounding. He also scored the eventual game-winning basket with his fourth triple of the night. Beverley has demonstrated some really poor three-point shooting this month, but he's gone 7-for-14 from behind the arc in his last two games. The 31-year-old guard should get plenty of looks again on Friday against a Houston team that likes to run and gun.

Lou Williams Nov 21 8:50am ET

Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams provided a big spark off the bench Wednesday night against the Celtics, scoring a team-high 27 points on 10-for-21 shooting. He went 3-for-9 from deep and had a pair of assists and steals while posting an ugly seven turnovers. However, fantasy owners should forgive him for that, as this was only the fourth time this month that he registered over two turnovers in a game. It should also be encouraging for owners that Williams had an active role on offense even with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both playing. Sweet Lou logged 37 minutes in an overtime win and took the most shots. He gets a nice pace-up spot on Friday against his former team Houston.

Paul George Nov 21 8:40am ET

Los Angeles Clippers forwards Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared the court for the first time on Wednesday, helping the team beat Boston in overtime 107-104. George performed better and remained hot with a 25-point effort, while Kawhi finished with just 7-for-20 shooting on his way to 17 points. He filled the box score nicely with six rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks, but he was also the only Clippers starter with a negative plus/minus rating. George, who shot 8-for-18 from the floor, was just short of a double-double, finishing with eight assists and five rebounds. He now has 113 points in 111 minutes played. There could be some growing pains, but if James Harden and Russell Westbrook can co-exist together then George and Leonard should have no problems meshing well either. The two super-duos are set to meet on Friday in Los Angeles.

Luka Doncic Nov 21 8:00am ET

Mavericks' G Luka Doncic scored 67.50 fantasy points with 35 points scored, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a 142-94 win over the Warriors on Wednesday night. Doncic has scored an average of 64.83 fantasy points in his last 3 games.

Nikola Jokic Nov 21 5:50am ET

Denver Nuggets power forward/center Nikola Jokic continued his bizarre start to the season on Wednesday when he brought a lot of good with some bad in the huge win over the Rockets. Jokic scored an efficient 27 points on 12 of 19 shooting and added 12 rebounds, yet managed to record just four assists with seven turnovers in 32 minutes of action. Jokic has seen his numbers dip across the board this season, but we have seen the Serbian have slow starts in the past. This game, minus the turnovers, is a step in the right direction.

Jamal Murray Nov 21 5:40am ET

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray brought his fast hands with him on Wednesday as he recorded a career-high six steals in the 10-point win over the Rockets. Murray added 10 points with nine assists with two makes from three in 33 minutes of action on this night. It was not all positive for the Canadian though, as he did make just four of 16 shots from the floor and added five turnovers. Overall, Murray is having another solid campaign and he is averaging a career-high 1.5 steals a night which has been an added bonus for owners.

James Harden Nov 21 5:40am ET

Houston Rockets guard James Harden managed to record just 27 points, which is kind of crazy to say, in the 105-95 loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday. Harden did make half of his 16 shot attempts with seven of ten makes at the line and added seven boards, seven assists, three steals with four makes from three, but the Beard did have eight turnovers on this night. Harden snapped his streak of scoring at least 36 points at eight games and his seven makes from the line were a season-low. Overall, it was still a quality line from Harden and he will see if he can step up with a big game on Friday against the Clippers.

Russell Westbrook Nov 21 5:30am ET

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook connected on just 8-for-22 shooting from the floor to score 25 points in the loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday. Westbrook provided a less-than-stellar line overall as he added just five dimes with only two rebounds, but did make two triples with just a single turnover in 35 minutes of action. Westbrook has seen his rebounds take a major hit this season (just 7.9 a night) and this could easily do with teammate Clint Capela recording five-straight games with 20-plus rebounds. Things will not get easier for Westbrook either as his club has a rematch with the Clippers on Friday.

Clint Capela Nov 21 5:30am ET

Houston Rockets center Clint Capela continued his elite rebounding on Wednesday as he gathered another 21 boards to extend his 20-plus rebound game streak to five. Capela did not stop here as he added 12 points with a steal in 35 minutes of action against the Nuggets. He is the first player since Ben Wallace in 2003 to accomplish such a rebounding feat and he is rolling this season with his career year. Capela is poised to finish as a top-30 player this season and it also helps that he is blocking 2.2 shots a night this season.

Rudy Gobert Nov 21 5:20am ET

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert continued his block party on Wednesday as he swatted five more shots to help seal the win over the Timberwolves by a score of 103-95. Gobert also recorded another double-double as he scored 12 points with 15 rebounds and made two of three of his shots at the line in 35 minutes of action. Gobert has swatted five shots in two of his last three games and this takes his season average to 1.8 blocks a night. He is trending up quickly and the buy-low window is long gone.

Bojan Bogdanovic Nov 21 5:20am ET

Utah Jazz shooting guard/small forward Bojan Bogdanovic had the hot hand on Wednesday when he connected on six triples en route to a team-high 30 points to seal the win over the Timberwolves. Bogdanovic also added four rebounds with three assists and a steal in 36 minutes of action. Bogdanovic seems to be liking his new team as he is putting up 20.5 points with 4.1 rebounds so far this season. Beyond points and triples, you do not get much out of the sniper, but he does those two things very well.