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NBA PM: Time to Restart in Atlanta?

Should the Atlanta Hawks make major changes or keep their core intact?

Cody Taylor

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For the second time in as many seasons, the Atlanta Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers — with both outcomes ending in a four-game sweep.

Last year’s defeat occurred in the Eastern Conference Finals, while this year’s result happened in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, it seemed like the Hawks were poised to avoid another four-game sweep this year after their performance in Game 1 last Monday.

Atlanta was down by as many as 18 points during that game and came back to eventually take an 88-87 lead with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter. However, Cleveland finished the game on a 17-5 run to win, coming up with clutch shots down the stretch. While the Hawks lost, they showed fight in that game and looked like they’d be able to make it a competitive series.

The Hawks followed up that performance by completely falling flat in Game 2, losing 123-98. They returned home for Game 3 and were rolling for much of that contest. They led by as many as 11 points before unraveling in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers outscored the Hawks 36-17 in the fourth quarter and took a 3-0 series lead. By this point, it looked as though the Cavaliers were on their way to another sweep.

The results of this year’s matchup with the Cavaliers were especially troubling for the Hawks as they have now lost their last 12 playoff games in a row to Cleveland. Aside from Game 2’s blowout loss, the Hawks led at one point during every other fourth quarter in the series, but just couldn’t close the Cavaliers out.

For a Hawks team that has made the playoffs an East-high nine straight times, this year’s defeat leaves many questions moving forward. Perhaps the most pressing questions surround the roster. During the team’s current playoff run, they advanced to the Conference Finals just one time.

Given that the team has failed to compete for a championship, is it time to hit the restart button in Atlanta? While making the playoffs nine consecutive times seems like an accomplishment in its own right, it clearly hasn’t been enough to challenge for a title — at least not with the Cavaliers in the picture.

As currently constructed, the Cavaliers have their core players – Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert – all locked up under contract for at least the next two seasons. While LeBron James is only officially under contract for this season, he’s expected to continue signing one-year deals with Cleveland to take advantage of the rising salary cap.

Barring some big offseason changes this summer, it doesn’t appear that the Cavaliers will be leaving the top of the Eastern Conference any time soon. While they have their long-term plans seemingly set in stone, things are not as clear for the Hawks.

Big man Al Horford is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and is expected to command maximum-contract offers. He could be a great addition for a team on the market after averaging 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game this season while shooting 34 percent from three-point range.

There could be as many as 20 teams in the league that could offer Horford a max-deal, and he could be tempted to sign with another contender. At this point, Horford hasn’t offered much comment on his pending free agency, although he did express his gratitude for the city of Atlanta over the years.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Horford said after yesterday’s game. “We just had a tough loss. My main priority tomorrow is to meet with the team and the coaches one last time (for the season) and go from there and figure out how we can be a better group.

“I’ve set up [in Atlanta] with my family. We all live here. We live here in the summer. We live here year-round. I’m very grateful for all the people here. They have taken me in from the very first day, even though I was a Gator. They loved me. I really love the city.”

Players coming up on free agency often say all of the right things this time of year. A number of things could change between now and the beginning of free agency that could prevent Horford from staying. Although it seems unlikely, the team could opt to go in a completely different direction and not try to re-sign him.

In addition to Horford, Kent Bazemore will also become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He posted huge improvements this season as he boosted his points per game from 5.2 last year to 11.6 this campaign. His rebounds increased from three per game to 5.1 and his steals nearly doubled from .7 to 1.3.

Bazemore proved to be one of the best bargains in the league this season, as he earned just $2 million. As a guy who has made a living on the defensive side of the ball, he stands to earn a significant payday this summer with a number of teams expected to take a look at him. He’s previously said that he would like to return to Atlanta, but it remains to be seen if the Hawks will be able to re-sign him.

The Hawks have just eight players guaranteed on the roster for next season. After Horford and Bazemore, Kirk Hinrich and Kris Humphries will also become unrestricted free agents, while Mike Scott and Lamar Patterson are on non-guaranteed deals for next year. In addition, the team holds a $1,015,696 option on Mike Muscala.

Another question on the roster seems to be at the point guard position. While they still have Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder on the books for next season, they could decide to trade one of them this offseason. There have been times throughout the season that indicate moving forward with both point guards may not work out.

We often saw Schroder on the court over Teague down the stretch in many crucial games this postseason, which could signal their desire to keep him over Teague. Schroder also hasn’t hid the fact that he’d like to be a starter. It seems as though this will be a decision to monitor as the offseason begins. Teague is owed just $8 million next season, which could be a great bargain for a team in need of point guard help considering the cap will be rising to around $92 million.

Regardless of which players will be back next season, the team has plenty of decisions to make. In the event they let Horford walk, they could have as much as $37.4 million in cap space.

While Horford can still play at a high level, the team could sense that they’ve gone as far as they can with this group and opt to make wholesale changes. With just under two months until the start of free agency, the Hawks will have plenty of time to weigh all of their options.

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 Daily: Towns, Wolves Prepared To Take Next Step

Tom Thibodeau and Karl-Anthony Towns look back on a successful season and gaining meaningful experience in the postseason.

Spencer Davies

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For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA Playoffs.

Sure, the exit was early and the experience was short-lived, but the way the younger players and team finished out spoke volumes to head coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I told the players, I said, ‘I’m very proud of what you did,’” he said following the Wolves’ loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 5.

“To get out of the hole that we were in, to win 47 games, to get into the playoffs after 14 years of not being in the playoffs, to do it in a very tight playoff race, to finish one game out of the fourth spot—it’s a major jump from where we were two years ago.”

It all started with the final stretch of the year and the winner-take-all matchup between the Wolves and the Denver Nuggets where it was win or go home.

“I think it’s huge,” Thibodeau said of how Minnesota closed out. “I think the last month of the season was really good for us because of how tight the race was. In many ways, it was similar to playoff experience.

“And then having the final game of the season mean so much, whether you were gonna get in or not get it in, that had a Game 7 feel to it. I thought that that helped us going in.”

For Karl-Anthony Towns, his first taste of the postseason was valuable to building his character as a professional.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially in these playoffs,” Towns said. “You understand a little bit of the difference between the regular season and postseason. We haven’t been there in like 14 years, so there’s experience that needed to be garnered and we wanted to take that next step. We came up short, but we’re very confident in ourselves leading up to next year.”

Towns was especially grateful for his teammates and their teachings throughout the season. He mentioned the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson for the advice they gave him.

“Learned a lot from them,” Towns said. “Especially going through the experiences we had to go through this year. “We went through a lot of adversity. We’ve had injuries, tough schedule, tough last stretch to get in the playoffs. Found a way to scratch out wins and put ourselves in this position.

“We’re very blessed that every single day we went to work, we got to see each other and fight. I couldn’t ask for any better teammates. To be able to be out here with these guys is a true blessing. I’m honored to be able to work with them every day and learn from them.

“It’s an amazing thing when you look back at the season to realize the narrative that was almost written for us. To get to this point is almost storybook—having to go through so many obstacles.”

Unfortunately, though, the Wolves’ playoff life only lasted five games against the league’s top-seeded Rockets. However, there is a silver lining in the grander scheme of things.

Playing against an experienced team with two of the best in the game today—James Harden and Chris Paul—Minnesota can come to understand why that brand of basketball has led to such a great product on the floor and apply it to themselves.

“I’ve been around both of those guys,” Thibodeau said. “They’re great talents. They can hurt you a lot of different ways. They hurt us with the pass [Wednesday]. With our young guys, we talk about the importance of trusting the pass.

“When you watch the veteran teams, you can see that that’s what they do. They’ll make the right play. The game will tell you who’s gonna get the shots. They’re not worried about their shots. They’re worried about the team getting good shots. We have to get to that. The defensive part of it is something that we have to continue to work on.”

Thibodeau continually pointed out the change in how the organization has handled its business top to bottom.

“Everything matters and that’s how you improve,” he said. “That’s why I felt that I was very proud of this team.

“When you come out of the hole that we were in, when you have to change the entire culture of an organization—there’s gonna be steps that you have to take along the way. It’s a tough league. The Western Conference is loaded. It’s hard to get wins in this league and I think you have to understand that, so you also have to understand the commitment that needs to be made to be a great team.”

So taking the lessons learned from this series, what is the next step for the Wolves?

“Just continue to build,” Thibodeau said. “We need to have another strong summer, have to have a strong fall. We need to have everyone make a commitment to continue to improve and learn.

“It never ends. That’s the thing about this league. You’re always gonna be challenged. If you have the good fortune to win it, when the next season starts, you start at zero again. You’ve got to prove yourself again. That’s why it’s so important to work every day. You have to prepare yourself for this.”

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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