Celtics guard Marcus Smart said that the referees gave him an “excuse” in explaining their decision to overturn a charge call against reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the closing minutes of Boston’s 119-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, a call that would have caused Antetokounmpo to foul out of the game.
“Wish we got a better one,” Smart said when asked if he’d received an explanation for the call. “The excuse was I was late on drawing the charge.
“Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about. It was Giannis’ sixth foul. [They] didn’t want to get him out. Let’s just call that spade a spade.”
The play, which came at the 1-minute, 28-second mark of the fourth quarter, would have given the ball back to the Celtics with the score tied at 107. It also would have sent Antetokounmpo to the bench for the rest of the game. Instead, he was given a basket when the call was changed to a block — a basket that came after Antetokounmpo made a dribble move to fake out Jayson Tatum, then did a Eurostep to get into the lane and to the basket.
After Antetokounmpo made the free throw, Jaylen Brown missed a 3-pointer on Boston’s ensuing possession and Khris Middleton answered with a made 3 of his own, giving Milwaukee a 113-107 lead it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Antetokounmpo said he felt Smart was moving on the play.
“First of all, that’s his opinion. But at the end of the day, when I had the conversation with him, I respect him as a player,” Antetokounmpo said of Smart afterward.
“I think he’s a great player. One thing I respect about him is that he’s the first guy on the floor, he trusts his teammates, he plays hard, he guards the best player. So, that’s what I told him at the end of the game. I said, ‘I respect you, I respect you play hard and I just play hard.’ There’s nothing more to that. I’m not coming at you, that’s not my personality. I just try to stay focused, try to help my team win, and I know that he’s going to try to talk all the time and get me out of my game, and I respect that he’s doing that because he’s trying to get me out of my game. I understand. When I sit down and I calm down, I look back and I understand what he’s trying to do.”
Antetokounmpo, already one of the most physical and difficult players in the league to officiate, finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. He repeatedly forced the officials to make calls, or not, in the final few minutes.
One minute before the charge that was overturned, Smart wanted a push-off to be called on Antetokounmpo as he drove to the rim for a layup that put the Bucks up 107-105. It was just one of many physical moments between Antetokounmpo and Smart, a likely All-Defensive Team selection, throughout a physical and competitive game that saw the teams combine to shoot 68 free throws and be called for 54 fouls.
Then, after the charge was overturned, there was a review to see if Antetokounmpo had committed a hostile act after he ran into Celtics center Daniel Theis on Milwaukee’s next defensive possession. After the review, it was determined that he did not.
“They just said [Theis] didn’t get hit in the stomach,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They said they could not call a personal foul, so that must be when you go to the review to see if it’s a hostile act, I guess you can’t call a personal foul. That was what they told me. So we moved on.”
Referee James Capers told a pool reporter after the game that Antetokounmpo was in a normal defensive stance and touched the belt line of Theis.
“It was not in the groin area, and therefore there was no illegal act on the play,” Capers said.
Antetokounmpo then came back down and scored his last points of the night on an and-1 layup in the lane over Theis to ice the game for the Bucks, capping off a dominant individual performance that helped Milwaukee survive without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and key reserve Pat Connaughton, both of whom remain out as they recover from COVID-19.
Boston, meanwhile, got a dreadful 2-for-18 performance from Tatum, with one of his makes coming when Antetokounmpo actually tipped the ball into the basket himself. Guard Kemba Walker scored 16 points in 19 minutes as he was limited in his return from a sore left knee.
The Bucks, though, were happy to see their star make it through the game and pick up the win.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m human,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said with a smile, when asked if he’d been worried Antetokounmpo would foul out.
“There’s so many things happening on the court and I thought it was a good job of officiating to blow the whistle, no call and just try and go and discern what had happened and nothing had happened. And then the block/charge, those are tough calls. I think that’s one of the great things about replay and actually had a huge impact. We’re fortunate that both of those situations, I guess, correctly were officiated and reviewed.”
The Giannis-Luka rivalry can define the NBA’s future
During the final moments of the first five-minute quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks’ first five-on-five scrimmage since the NBA’s shutdown in March, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s team found itself down a bucket. When a long miss by the opposing team caromed off the rim and floated toward the baseline, Antetokounmpo launched himself with both feet, and splayed himself horizontally across the baseline plane to lunge for the loose ball.
Upon watching their leader risk bodily harm in pursuit of an inconsequential possession, teammates gasped collectively. The practice court in the bubble is mounted a few inches above the floor, an awkward margin that should give anyone, let alone a superstar, pause. The team had all but sewn up the East’s No. 1 seed, with little riding on the final regular season games other than re-finding their rhythm and arriving into the postseason healthy.
But there was Antetokounmpo, behaving as if a title was on the line, injuries be damned. He snared the ball before it fell to the hardwood, and tipped it back to Kyle Korver.
“What he does is insane,” says Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “It’s a level of competitiveness that sets a tone for everyone — not just players, but the staff and the entire organization.”
Giannis’ team ultimately won the scrimmage, though it was a result that wasn’t recorded and largely forgotten by all present. What they did remember was Antetokounmpo’s dive. Over the next week, Wes Matthews, Marvin Williams and others, have laid out themselves for seemingly inconsequential possessions. Antetokounmpo set the bar that first scrimmage, and the Bucks have cleared it.
Over in the Dallas Mavericks’ camp, the team was reacquainting itself with its top-ranked offense. As an exercise in recall that’s not uncommon in Dallas, head coach Rick Carlisle drew one of the Mavericks’ sets on a whiteboard, and asked the players to identify it by name.
The group included several veteran players, a couple of whom had been in Dallas for a few seasons. But it was Luka Doncic who called out the play, even though the Mavericks hadn’t run it with any regularity since the opening weeks of the season. Only Doncic didn’t use the play’s 2019-20 name, but rather its designated name from the previous season.
“This is the way his computer works,” says Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. “He can remember everything from this year and last year. His basketball recall is part of his brilliant basketball mind.”
While Antetokounmpo and Doncic certainly aren’t the only NBA players who will abandon caution in practice to set a tone, or possess computer-like brains that can simulate NBA basketball on a whim, they are extreme outliers in a league of outliers. These qualities are essential ingredients in their respective stardoms, which were on display Saturday night in Orlando, just the third meeting between them.
Doncic’s Mavericks prevailed 136-132 in overtime, but the game revealed a glimpse of a future that seems inevitable: a rivalry that could define the NBA for a generation with parallel career paths, potential Finals showdowns, and a co-branding partnership of sorts that could represent the NBA the world over.
While both came to the NBA as European teenagers, Antetokounmpo and Doncic achieved their superstardom quite differently. Antetokounmpo was a 19-year-old playing in a second-tier Greek league, averaging fewer than 10 points per game. Even on the eve of the NBA draft, only a small handful of NBA teams had seen him play live basketball. By the time Doncic was 17, he was named the ACB’s Player of the Week after putting up 23 points and 11 assists for one of the preeminent professional basketball teams in the world. If Antetokounmpo was a curio, Doncic was the Second Coming.
Despite the contrasting journeys across the Atlantic, both Antetokounmpo and Doncic personify the 21st century NBA superstar: Big, dynamic, multi-skilled playmakers who defy classification by position. (Antetokounmpo’s Basketball Reference page lists him as “Power Forward and Point Guard and Small Forward and Shooting Guard.”). Doncic is a 6-foot-7 point guard who, in addition to being his team’s best passer, is also its most effective post player.
Selected No. 15 overall in the 2013 draft, Antetokounmpo, 25, grew into his body and acquired the skill set to accompany it gradually over several seasons. This process required intensive training, study and preparation. Doncic arrived in the NBA as fully formed as a teenager can, with the vision, intuition and tools more commonly seen in a multiple All-Star.
While Doncic accomplishes more on the perimeter, Antetokounmpo gets more done above the rim. No player in the league pressures defenses — in the open floor, in the paint, in isolation, vertically, horizontally — than Antetokounmpo. Rare is the possession where he, irrespective of defensive scheme or situation, Antetokounmpo isn’t a lethal threat to score at the rim. He’s also the rare NBA player who can control the game on the defensive end of the floor with his overall quickness and anticipation, his capacity to cover ground and erase mistakes, and his knack for making gaps and seams disappear instantly.
Luka Doncic earns his 17th triple-double, at 21 becoming the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in that category.
With the Bucks having locked down the East’s top seed, Antetokounmpo — likely to win his second consecutive MVP — looked comparatively mortal on Saturday night, taking a good number of his attempts from long range. He scored 34 points in 33 minutes, while collecting 13 rebounds and five blocks. We’ve been marveling at his vision, stride and movements for several seasons, it’s easy to shrug when he corrals a miss and turns the court into a casual slalom course, charging 90 feet with four dribbles and finishing at the rim, as he did early in the third quarter. In no other era would we call this a transition bucket, but Antetokounmpo can ignite a break at will. He can also transform a workaday pick-and-roll possession in the halfcourt into a hammer dunk with one fluid movement off the screen, as he did with George Hill in the opening half. This is the reality of playing with or against Giannis — every ordinary possession can be commandeered into a highlight.
“Giannis is an MVP, he’s a hell of a player-it’s like almost impossible to stop him and we did a great job, especially Maxi, Dodo,” said Doncic. “They were on him. It’s tough to stop him; but we work hard, we trust each other, and just keep going and going.”
Milwaukee’s ascension from middling Eastern Conference team with some promise to a juggernaut with title aspirations can be traced to Antetokounmpo’s ability to perform these exploits and torment defenses nightly. He is not only the NBA’s most dominant player, but its most consistent.
Doncic’s control of the game is exerted through tempo and movement. If Doncic wants to play fast, the game will be played fast. If Doncic wants to pick apart a defense with surgical precision, then everyone on the floor must scrub in and perform the operation. And if Doncic wants to bend a defense to his will with a sudden movement or fakery, that defense will react desperately.
Giannis Antetokounmpo works his way to the basket and flushes a left-handed slam dunk.
Right from the outset, Saturday night was a bright window into Doncic’s otherworldly talent, with one exquisite stunt after another. First, he came off a double screen and faked a wraparound pass on the drive to breeze past two defenders for a layup and the foul. Soon after, he slung a pinpoint, left-handed pass across his body to Dorian Finney-Smith in the weak-side corner for an open 3-pointer. TIme and again in traffic, he found cutters — Tim Hardaway Jr. on the weak-side baseline, Delon Wright diving from the perimeter while Doncic was trapped under the basket, then Wright again streaking down the lane while Doncic somehow navigated a pass around Antetokounmpo.
By the time it was over, Doncic had unleashed a couple of step-back 3s, orchestrated a beautiful two-man game with Kristaps Porzingis, and perhaps most jaw-dropping of all, dropped a between-the-legs pass to Max Kleber in traffic for an easy slam and one before polishing off the game with a contested runner in the lane. He finished with 36 points, 14 rebounds and 19 assists (a career-high), with only two turnovers.
“He’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever played against,” Antetokpounmpo said after the game. “He’s making the whole team better, and he’s going to keep getting better.”
Dallas’ roster is not exactly a catalog of shot creation, yet the Mavericks boast the NBA’s top-ranked offense — that’s the work of a 21-year-old basketball savant.
The appeal of the transcendent NBA superstar whose fame extends beyond the basketball world resides in more than just a collection of superlatives and go-to moves. Over the past 40 years, those who have reigned as the “face of the league” have been engaged in a large-scale branding exercise that’s both commercial and narrative. Magic and Larry resuscitated the league with a sharp rivalry; Michael translated a new kind of competitive dominance into an unprecedented commercial power; Iverson had a valence that was countercultural; then came Kobe and LeBron, each an expert mythmaker who leveraged his story and success to build a wide-ranging portfolio that consisted of far more than shoes.
While we have a pretty good idea how Antetokounmpo and Doncic will further refine their on-court games to incredible effects, how they’ll carry the mantle of Global NBA Brand is more difficult to envision, at least at present.
In the years since he established himself as one of the league’s top talents, Antetokounmpo has shunned the gloss and attention that envelops shiny new stars. While not nearly as introverted as Tim Duncan, Antetokounmpo has insisted in Duncan-like fashion that teammates be included in any requests for individual coverage. Though he’s genuinely interested in selling shoes, Antetokounmpo’s default setting has remained as a gym rat who divides his time between the Bucks facility and his family, including newborn son Liam. Whether these inclinations are born out of his journey as a Nigerian-Greek immigrant with a strong filial piety, there’s another factor at play, say those who work most closely with Antetokounmpo:
The notion of preening as the face of the NBA before winning a championship is simply incomprehensible to Antetokounmpo.
Once he has led his teammates to a title, there’s an expectation that his broad smile and genial personality will reveal itself to the global masses. While the party will rarely if ever be at Giannis’ house, and he’s unlikely to be a Banana Boat league socialite, he will more readily introduce himself to the world.
Still only 21, Doncic shares some commonalities with Antetokounmpo, though he’s more naturally gregarious. Doncic’s brand of stardom is likely to be less about the commercial (though he is a committed sneakerhead) or off-court visibility. What drives Doncic toward stardom, say those in Dallas, is his insatiable love of basketball theatrics. When Doncic thinks about stardom, he doesn’t imagine a signature shoe or holding court surrounded by NBA peers. It’s strictly about hitting the biggest shot with the most dramatic flair. It will be about the showmanship on the floor, not the salesmanship off it.
Selling Antetokounmpo and Doncic as its headliners is a fitting outcome for a league whose global ambition has been a defining characteristic. The spectacle of their games is perfectly suited to the digital age, where snippets can be consumed and shared in a flash. They bring a stage presence that’s as essential as it is electrifying in a world where there is more competition than ever for the attention of viewers.
The extent to which that is enough for a Giannis-Luka NBA to mesmerize the world will depend on the depth, drama and fire of that rivalry.
Pacers’ T.J. Warren, NBA bubble’s leading scorer, ‘on different planet’
With 39 more points on 15-of-22 shooting in a 116-111 win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, it’s Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren who bumped his average to 34.8 points on a scalding 60.5% shooting, including 55.6% from 3.
Pacers star Victor Oladipo said his teammate is “on a different planet right now” but Warren has a much more grounded explanation for his recent success.
“It’s me just putting in the time and work in the offseason,” Warren said. “During the time off just staying locked, staying in love with the game and just being myself when I’m out there. I’ve got a good supporting cast, good family and friends, so that helps a lot. And the organization, the Pacers welcomed me in with open arms and brought me in, so I’m just grateful for everything right now.”
Warren dropped a bubble-high 53 in the Pacers’ opening game and has scored at least 30 in four of the five games the Pacers have played. Other than the one “off” game where he scored 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting, which was the Pacers only loss so far, Warren is averaging 39.5 points on an outrageous 66% shooting.
Against the Lakers, Warren did it on both ends, defending Anthony Davis for the majority of the game while also leading the Pacers again in scoring. And he went on a 7-0 run by himself in the final 90 seconds, including the dagger 3 to put the Pacers up six with 10.6 seconds remaining.
“At the end of the day, I could’ve done something and made a play, but you’ve got to feed the hot hand, this is basketball,” Oladipo said. “If a guy is playing well on our team, give him the ball, give him the opportunity and let him know I have the trust in him to make a play down the stretch. Once that happens, who you gonna guard now?”
What is up with the bubble version of T.J. Warren? Does he have a new routine? Eating differently?
“I’ve really just been taking more time for myself,” Warren said. “Meditating more.”
The Pacers’ next game is against the Miami Heat, which features some prior beef between Warren and Jimmy Butler. In January, the two scuffeld and talked serious trash to each other, with Warren getting ejected while Butler blew him kisses as he left the court. So with that context in mind, Victor Oladipo was asked if going up against Butler and Heat could crank Warren’s motivation to another level.
“Hey look, T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Oladipo said. “It don’t matter what I say, it don’t matter what you say, it don’t matter what somebody down the street say — Johnny, Barley, Ms. Susie — he locked in right now. I don’t need to encourage him to do anything, he’s going to put the ball in the rim regardless of who’s out there.”
The game against the Heat is significant, at least in terms of numerical seeding in the East, with Pacers having an identical record as them. With Warren scorching, and the recent beef history with Butler, on top of the implications and possible future matchup in a playoff series, Monday’s game against Miami will be one to watch.
With Domantas Sabonis out with a foot injury, and the initial uncertainty around Oladipo’s health and status, the Pacers are quietly one of the bubble’s biggest surprises, and largely because of Warren’s rise to bubble stardom. It’s not as if it’s come completely out of nowhere. Warren averaged 19 points a game and had five 30-point games before the restart. He’s always been a capable, high volume scorer, but the big change is the Pacers actively looking to Warren to be a primary scorer.
“He’s just playing in the flow of the game,” coach Nate McMillan said. “He’s not forcing anything. He’s taking shots he can make.”
Denver Nuggets rally past Utah Jazz as clock issues mar overtime
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The first double-overtime game inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, a thrilling 134-132 victory for the Denver Nuggets over the Utah Jazz, was overshadowed by a pair of clock operation malfunctions at the end of the first overtime period.
The first came with 3.4 seconds remaining, after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell had hit a jumper to make it 119-117 Utah. Following a Denver timeout, star center Nikola Jokic took the inbounds pass, dribbled to the hoop and scored.
There was only one problem: the clock never started.
The officials then reviewed the play, and after reviewing how long it took with a digital shot clock, determined that the play had taken 3.1 seconds — meaning that Jokic’s shot counted, and that Utah would get the ball back with 0.3 seconds to go.
This time, however, the problem wasn’t that the clock didn’t start — but, rather, that it was started too quickly.
When Joe Ingles inbounded the ball, the clock began before anyone touched it. That meant that Utah got a second chance to win the game, but Jordan Clarkson‘s heave at the buzzer missed long, and the game shifted to a second overtime.
For his part, Jokic said he wasn’t worried about his shot not counting.
“I thought it must count because everybody played,” Jokic said. “Just because somebody didn’t put the time on … you could just calculate the difference. So I was feeling OK [about it].”
Mitchell blamed himself for leaving time on the clock for the Nuggets to score at the end of the first overtime.
“That’s really the only reason that I’m upset, because I should know that. I should know how to attack around four or three [seconds remaining],” Mitchell said. “That’s a mental error on my part.
“I feel like if I do that and hit the same shot, they don’t have an opportunity [to tie the score]. So that’s on me. I definitely had that mental error, but at the end of the day, it’s a learning process and I’m glad we’re learning it now and not Game 4 or 5 in the playoffs.”
Eventually, Denver — with Jamal Murray back on the court for the first time inside the bubble after sitting out with a hamstring injury — was able to prevail, behind Jokic’s monster effort of 30 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in 42 minutes, including going right at Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, multiple times late in regulation and overtime and having success, including fouling Gobert out of the game late in the first overtime.
The game only made it to overtime at all because of some ridiculous heroics by Mitchell, who scored seven points in the final 10.8 seconds to allow the Jazz to erase a six-point deficit and set up some free basketball.
Mitchell hit two free throws and then, after Michael Porter Jr. lost the ball out of bounds, hit a 3-pointer out of a timeout to cut Denver’s lead to one. After Nuggets forward Jerami Grant split a pair of free throws, Mitchell — who finished with 35 points, six rebounds and eight assists — went coast-to-coast layup and, after snaking through Denver’s defense, found a clean path to the rim and laid the ball in to send the game to overtime.
In the second overtime, Denver managed to pull away thanks to Murray, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, who scored five straight points to give Denver the lead for good. Utah was hurt by the absence of Gobert, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds in 41 minutes before fouling out.
The Jazz still had one final opportunity to escape with a win after Murray missed a pair of free throws with 4.2 seconds remaining, but Mitchell’s heave from halfcourt fell short, and the Nuggets escaped from a game they once trailed by as many as 18 points with a win.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder didn’t give a direct answer when asked about how the clock malfunctions were handled, particularly the one on the Jokic bucket.
“It’s hard to point to any one thing,” Snyder said. “The refs have their job to do, and we have our job to do.”
With the win, Denver is now two full games ahead of Houston for third place in the West. Utah, on the other hand, is percentage points ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth place — setting up the very real possibility that these two teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs when they begin on Aug. 17.
Information from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon was used in this report.
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