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Dante Exum Getting His Confidence Back

Dante Exum talks about bouncing back from his ACL tear and regaining his confidence.

Cody Taylor

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Suffering a serious injury can be one of the hardest things for a basketball player to experience. These setbacks are always frustrating, and recovery time can vary from player to player.

While the negatives of injuries are obvious, there can be some good that comes from going through this process. Of course, players may not admit that during their road to recovery, but there is an opportunity to take some positives from their time on the sideline when they return to the court.

For Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum, his road back from an ACL tear a year ago has allowed him to see some of those positives that come with riding the pine. Exum missed all of last season while rehabbing from a torn left ACL and spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines.

During this time, Exum was able to gain a better understanding of the game, which helped boost his basketball IQ. Sitting injured on the sidelines is obviously not where a player wants to be, but it proved to be a learning experience for him.

“I was sitting with a coach every game and on the road I was watching every game,” Exum told Basketball Insiders. “I was watching so much basketball and just getting the chance to learn away from the game not being able to play. I still think the best way to learn is to play, but it gave me a different perspective.”

Each player’s path in rehab can be different. Some respond to treatment quicker than others. Players that have suffered serious injuries, like an ACL tear, say there is a lot of downtime in the process.

It’s easy to see how some players can become down on themselves during this time, as there is a lot of uncertainty regarding ACL tears. Guys have returned from knee injuries and picked up where they left off, while others have needed more time to return to playing at a high level (or they simply don’t reach that level again).

Part of the process of getting back on the court includes increasing their confidence and being able to trust their body again during games. Once a player is able to return, a big part of returning to form is playing as if no injury occurred.

“[Gaining confidence] was the biggest thing that we were trying to work on throughout this whole rehab,” Exum said. “Definitely in the later stages, when it got to that point where I was starting to play again, it was just about getting the confidence back in the knee and the ability to play again. It took time but I had [confidence] before the season started.

“I think in the flow of the game, I definitely don’t think about it. Once it gets hit once in awhile, it kind of reminds you that it’s there. You kind of go, ‘Okay, yeah it’s there.’ It’s fine and I keep playing and it’s back to normal.”

Exum suffered his injury while playing last year with the Australian national team. News of the injury proved to be a huge blow to the Jazz last season as it left a huge hole at the point guard position. The team was forced to rely on several point guards throughout the season, like Trey Burke, Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto and Erick Green.

While Exum had a relatively quiet rookie season two years ago, his absence in the lineup still proved to be a big loss. For a team that prides itself on its defense, losing a great defender in Exum was a blow to their defensive identity. Even without Exum, the Jazz still finished inside the top 10 in defense last season.

For a few seasons now, the Jazz have been labeled as a team on the rise. The Jazz’s young core of Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Exum and others is among the best in the league. The team went out over the offseason and added veterans like George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to give its lineup some good balance.

The Jazz finished just one game out of the playoff race last season. The young core had some inconsistent play over the last month of the season, which allowed the Houston Rockets to sneak into the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Adding the three veterans seems to be helping so far this season.

The team has gotten off to a solid 7-4 start this season and find themselves fifth in the West. The defense currently ranks fourth in the NBA, giving up just 99.4 points per 100 possessions. The 7-4 start seems impressive as the team just wrapped up a five-game Eastern Conference road trip that saw them win four of those contests.

In 11 games this season, Exum is averaging 6.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. His shooting percentages have improved compared to his rookie year, as he’s shooting 43 percent from the floor, including 36 percent from three-point range. Exum said he didn’t believe his shot was necessarily broken, but just needed to find some consistency.

With so much time spent during the rehab process, Exum is back stronger than ever. He said he worked out his upper body a lot during rehab and even his lower body once he was able to. It seems like a safe bet that he’ll continue to improve this season as he gains his confidence back and adjusts to playing with his teammates.

“We had all of September to kind of work that out and through preseason as well,” Exum said. “It was obviously hard last year being out of the team kind of feeling like an outsider, but I definitely feel like I’m back on the team.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect

Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.

Drew Maresca

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Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.

Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.

But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.

Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.

But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.

“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”

High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.

Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.  

But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.

Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).

So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.

Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.

Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols

Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.

Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.

Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.

“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”

So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.

Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.

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NBA

Dennis’ Defense Key to Lakers’ Title Run

The Lakers realize that they need Anthony Davis in order to defend their title. After four games without Dennis Schroder, they also understand the true value of their starting point guard.

Chad Smith

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As of late, the path to an 18th championship banner has gotten more difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team had lost four games in a row and five of their last six before Friday night’s victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. With Anthony Davis sidelined until after the All-Star break, Frank Vogel is forced to rely on the team’s depth and experience to navigate through the next four weeks.

The absence of Davis has undoubtedly put more of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of LeBron James, but that may not be in the best interest of the Lakers in the long run. While James has been adamant about playing every game and earning his fifth MVP trophy, he has nothing to prove to anyone. Even at the age of 36, James is still widely regarded as the best player in the world.

A healthy and motivated superstar like James is a nice luxury to have, but the void left by Davis needs to be filled collectively by the rest of the roster. Kyle Kuzma figured to slide right into a prominent role with Davis sidelined but Kuzma himself then had a back strain that forced him to miss some time. Over his last three games, Kuzma is averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 28 percent from the field.

The rest of the frontcourt players – Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Markieff Morris – have needed to step up their production but haven’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. The Lakers even tried using smaller lineups with Wesley Matthews and Talen Horton-Tucker receiving an uptick in minutes. Vogel was then blindsided with another blow to his roster.

Dennis Schroder was forced to miss four straight games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Schroder has quietly been a brilliant addition, providing valuable on-ball and perimeter defense to this Lakers team. While there was a lot of buzz heading into the season after Los Angeles acquired the point guard from Oklahoma City, many wondered how he would fit in with the starting unit.

Schroder stated before the season that he envisioned himself as the starting point guard, taking some of the responsibility and burden of running the offense away from James. To his credit, he has been exceptional in that area, and Vogel has praised the guard for earning the starting role. Schroder’s defense has been a tremendous boost for the Lakers, and the numbers tell the story.

Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense, ranking first in defensive rating (105.8) and second in opponent scoring (106.1), according to Basketball-Reference. They also boast a top-five net rating and lead the league in blocks as a team.

James has referred to the 27-year old as ‘Dennis The Menace’ for good reason. Schroder has been a tenacious defender on the perimeter and a real pest for opposing point guard. This is where his value to the team is noticed the most, glaringly obviously without him on the floor.

In their highly-anticipated matchup last Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, Vogel was looking forward to sticking Schroder on Kyrie Irving in an attempt to slow down one of the best offenses in NBA history. Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Irving and James Harden had their way with the Lakers’ backcourt.

In their next game against the Miami HEAT, Kendrick Nunn scored 27 points in their win over Los Angeles. The Washington Wizards defeated the Lakers as Russell Westbrook (33) and Bradley Beal (32) scored at will. The Utah Jazz throttled the Lakers as well and Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell each nearly had a triple-double. In Schroder’s return, the Lakers not only won the game but were also able to hold Portland’s seventh-ranked offense to just 93 points.

Schroder had started all 29 games this season before that game against Brooklyn. Offensively, he has been quite consistent this season when comparing his two previous years in Oklahoma City. He started just 16 times in his 144 games in Oklahoma City, often playing behind Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His shot attempts are down this season – but his free-throw attempts are up as he gets to the rim and thriving in his role as a playmaker.

Beyond that, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft had been having a sensational February. Last month, he averaged 17 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

When Davis and James are on the floor together, they’re able to feed off of one another and stagger their offensive aggressiveness. Without Davis, it will be more important for Schroder to generate the offense while keeping up his tenacity on defense. Simply put, those are things that no other point guard on the roster can provide.

It may not have been the extended absence that Davis is facing, but Schroder missing games in the future could cost them in terms of playoff seeding. The Western Conference is loaded as now the Lakers must fend off the Phoenix Suns for the third seed. With the rest of the season’s games being unveiled last week, the Lakers have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league.

Stopping or slowing opposing point guards will be a difficult task for the Lakers without Schroder in the lineup. Guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Jamal Murray can cause problems, and that’s just in the Western Conference. Should Los Angeles meet a team like the Nets in the Finals, Schroder’s defensive prowess will be vital to their success.

The good news for the Lakers is that seeding shouldn’t matter as much this season. Despite some fans being allowed into arenas, there are no expectations of having anything near full attendance later this season. The home-court advantage is minimal, and if the Lakers are fully healthy for the postseason they should still be the favorites as the defending champions.

Like all contenders, Los Angeles will be very active in the buyout market. Finding an inside defensive presence is crucial, while shooting upgrades will be available too. But what will be most difficult to find is an asset like Schroder, a contributor that provides so much on both sides of the ball.

Aside from James and Davis, Schroder just might be the most important player for the Lakers as they prepare to defend their title.

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NBA

The Five Most Intriguing Second Half Matchups in 2020-21

Drew Maresca breaks down the second-half of the 2020-21 NBA schedule, identifying the five most intriguing matchups.

Drew Maresca

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Needless to say, 2020 forced us all to accept uncertainty in all facets of our lives – and that includes sports. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of missed games, the NBA did not announce a complete schedule entering the 2020-21 season.

But the NBA – as well as most of the sports world – continues to forge ahead through the pandemic, hosting fans and even holding an abbreviated All-Star Weekend. More to the point, the NBA is now comfortable enough with its product through the first two or so months to announce its schedule for the rest of the way.

There are a number of interesting takeaways from a delayed schedule release. The biggest of all, perhaps, is that the Los Angeles Lakers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, which should aid them as Anthony Davis works his way back from an Achilles injury. The New York Knicks, who haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2013, will end their season on a hellacious west coast trip, might it derail their playoff hopes? Further, we found out that fans are the real winners, with 44 nationally televised games between Mar. 14 and May 10, airing on ABC, ESPN and TNT.

But good regular season games are of the highest importance. As much as the playoffs generate most of the league’s intrigue, legends are built in the regular season, too. The late, great Kobe Bryant scored 81 points on a January night in the regular season. He also scored 60 in his career-finale during the final game of the 2015-16 regular season. Michael Jordan scored 55-points in his return to Madison Square Garden, following a nearly two-year long hiatus, in March – also in the regular season.

With that in mind, let’s examine the five most intriguing matchups of the second half of this year’s regular season.

5. Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks, Mar. 15

This is a New York thing. Pride is on the line. The Nets have only been New York City residents for nine years – still, they’ve had more success in their short time within the boroughs than their New York neighbors. Worse, now the Nets look poised to compete for a championship with James Harden recently joining Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. All that comes after convincing Durant and Irving to join the Nets instead of relocating to Manhattan.

But the Knicks appear to be on the upswing themselves, currently in possession of the sixth-best record in the East. That culminates in a hostile matchup between division rivals for city-wide bragging rights. Let’s throw in, 2,000 or so basketball-starved fans in the World’s Most Famous Arena, and you have a recipe for drama.

4. Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz, May 7

Simply put, Jazz/Nuggets games are everything that’s good with basketball. It involves two very good teams, who also happen to be division rivals, and great individual matchups. One team features the best defensive center in the NBA. The other has, possibly, the most unique offensive center in the history of the game. They both feature great shooting guards – one is more of a freak athlete, while the other is more of a technical assassin.  They both boast solid role players, but at different positions. Utah possesses the third-best offensive rating in the league, while Denver sports the fifth-best. They are also the third- and fifth-best three-point shooting teams in the league, too. Adding to the matter, they put on possibly the best series in the 2020 NBA playoffs from inside the bubble.

Basically, the more Jazz versus Nuggets games the better.

3. Brooklyn Nets at Utah Jazz, Mar. 24

This one is for the purists. It features the ultimate clash of styles, with the league’s best offense – Brooklyn boasts an offensive rating of 119 – bumping heads with the second-best defense in Utah. Interestingly, the Nets do play the Lakers, who currently own the league’s best defense, in early April, but with Davis’ return up-in-the-air, it’s hard to place too much significance on that matchup.

And the Nets/Jazz game is probably more interesting to basketball fans, anyway. There are intriguing individual matchups like Mike Conley/Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell/James Harden to watch. There’s also the issue of the Jazz dealing with Durant, should he return in time, and the Nets’ subpar bigs against the league’s best defensive center. Plus, the idea that the Jazz, hailing from a significantly smaller media market, are less established and unknown – a complete fallacy, of course – will play into the intrigue around them down the stretch.

If that weren’t enough, the Nets are one of the league’s hottest teams, having won eight of their last 10 games. And the Jazz are even hotter, boasting the league’s best record and winning nine of their last 10. The two teams have played only once this season, an early January affair that resulted in a 34-point Brooklyn win, so there’s still lots of feeling out to be done. Still, this one has NBA Finals preview written all over it.

2. Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks, Apr. 12

Upon first glance, it makes little sense to include this matchup with these other high-stakes games. But let’s remember, LeBron James in Madison Square Garden is must-see TV. He dropped 50 points at MSG in 2008, 52 in 2009 and he secured a 32-point triple double in 2010. While James is extremely likely to return next season (and possibly beyond) in an attempt to unseat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, he is currently 36. Any minor tweak can have long lasting implications. So while James still has all of his powers, we can probably agree that LeBron at MSG is an event that supersedes the regular season.

1. Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, May 6th

Lakers/Clippers has been the rivalry in the NBA since the start of the 2019-20 season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to see it on this list. The rivalry might seem a little watered down due to the fact that they’ll play each other again before May – but this one will be far more important for two reasons. First, while Davis may not return before their Apr. 4 matchup and, if he does, he’s likely to be on a minutes restrictions. Beyond that, it’s entirely unlikely that he doesn’t return prior to this one so seeding – and possibly even the division crown – could be on the line. Granted, in a Los Angeles-Los Angeles, Western Conference Finals, seeding makes no less difference than usual, but it could make all the difference in literally every other playoff scenario. This game is prime time stuff. Think Brooklyn versus New York with actual, real-time ramifications.

The NBA schedule is usually released before the season without much fanfare. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things, and now even the release of the second-half of the season’s schedule is an event. And while it might seem forced to some, this write says the more basketball activities – and ultimately games – the better.

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