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Bucks vs. Lakers takeaways: Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates, Khris Middleton returns in big win for Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE — The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks are the past two NBA champions, and were among the title favorites again heading into this season. Neither has looked like it through the first month, however, in large part due to injuries. The most notable of which is LeBron James‘ abdominal strain, which kept him out of Wednesday night’s matchup and sapped some of the juice from the game. 

But Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were still out there, and you’re never going to be bored when that’s the case. Especially not when the former put up a dominant 47 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bucks to a 109-102 win. 

The Lakers got out to an early double-digit lead, but the Bucks worked their way back into the game late in the first quarter. From there, they were largely in control and led by as much as 12 before the Lakers went on a run to briefly retake the lead early in the fourth. That’s when Khris Middleton — back in the lineup after a bout with COVID-19 — stepped up and put the Bucks back in front for good with a part of 3-pointers. He finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists on the night.

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Westbrook led the Lakers in defeat with 25 points and 12 rebounds, while Davis added 18 points and nine rebounds. The Lakers have now dropped back to .500 on the season at 8-8 but should be bolstered by LeBron’s return later this week. 

Here are some key takeaways from the game: 

1. Giannis dominates from the opening tip

It took Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks a few minutes to get going, but once they did they never looked back. He threw down an emphatic dunk for Milwaukee’s first points of the game, and in the next 90 seconds added three more finishes at the rim. He kept up that aggressive mindset all night long. 

“He was in attack mode,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He really, competitively and from a mindset, really wanted to be his best. When he’s in attack mode that’s usually when he’s at his best. I thought he made some great passes too. Giannis was special tonight.”

That he was. He had 28 points in the first half and finished with 47 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 18-of-23 from the field. It was a season-high for him, and also made him the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1995 to go for at least 45 points and shoot 75 percent from the field against the Lakers. 

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The Lakers had no answer for most of the night and were only able to slow him down for a brief period when they switched to a zone in the second half. Giannis eventually solved that, however, and took over down the stretch. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including eight in the final 3:09. The most important of which came with just over two minutes remaining, as he bullied Talen Horton-Tucker under the basket, converted an and-one and flexed to an ecstatic crowd. 

Giannis has been terrific all season long, but it hasn’t always translated to wins for the shorthanded Bucks. This time, though, with another great player in Davis on the other side, Giannis brought a little extra and it didn’t go to waste. 

“[Davis is] one of the best players in the league,” Giannis said. “You have to come ready. If you don’t come ready it’s going to be a long night. You have to have your guard up. You have to be ready to compete against a guy like Anthony Davis. Guys like that, if they smell fear they go at you. And vice versa. If I see somebody scared of me, I’m like going all night. I’m not gonna stop. You gotta be ready to take the challenge, and you gotta be willing to take the challenge also.”

2. Middleton returns, comes up clutch, makes history

The Bucks have been beset by injuries and absences all season long, but they’re finally starting to get back to full strength now that Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are both in the lineup again. Middleton had missed the past eight games after testing positive for COVID-19, but was cleared and ready to go for this one. 

That proved to be crucial for the Bucks. Though he was rusty early, missing his first five shots in the first half, he started to find a rhythm later on. He went for 12 points, four rebounds and three assists on 4-for-7 from the field in the second half alone, and hit some huge shots in the fourth quarter.

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“It was just, my form was way off,” Middleton said. “But I kind of expected that. First game back after a while, not really touching the ball for almost two weeks. Knowing that, you know, gonna be a little rusty. Just try to take the best shot possible. Play within the game but be aggressive at the same time. Just staying with it and knowing that at some point I was gonna find it.”

After leading by as much as 12, the Bucks fell behind early in the fourth with Giannis on the bench. At previous times throughout the season, the game has gotten away from them at similar points. Now, with Middleton back, they have a secondary option who can carry the offense for stretches. With just about nine minutes left, Middleton hit back-to-back 3s to turn a one-point deficit into a five-point lead. The Bucks never trailed again. 

“Feels good to have him back,” Giannis said. “Good to be back on track. We’ve missed him. Just having him out there, he draws a lot of attention. Like, people gotta guard him and he’s gonna make the right play… He definitely helped the team. Hit two back-to-back 3s for us, gave us momentum, made great plays down the stretch defensively, offensively. It’s good to have him back.”

If getting back on the court wasn’t enough, Middleton also put his name in the history books. With the second of his clutch 3s in the fourth quarter, he tied Ray Allen for the most 3s in Bucks franchise history with 1,051. 

3. Bucks have a chance to get back on track

Between a rash of injuries and Khris Middleton’s COVID-19 absence, the Bucks have not looked like themselves. Even after their win over the Lakers, they’re 7-8 and would not even be in the play-in tournament if the season right now. The last time they were under .500 this late in the season was back in 2017.

After winning the title last season, the team is far from panic mode. At the same time, they know they have to start stringing some positive results together before the gap between them and the top of the Eastern Conference gets too big. 

“We gotta start winning games,” Giannis said. For me it’s not the most important thing. For me the most important thing is to get better and build good habits and play the best basketball down the stretch in May and June. But at the end of the day it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you keep losing so now we gotta switch that mentality. We gotta win games, go out there and play hard, play together.”

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They have a chance to do just that in the next few days. For one, they have Giannis, Middleton and Jrue Holiday all healthy again for the first time since the first week of the season. Including the win over the Lakers, that trio has now played three games together this season, and the Bucks are 3-0 with a plus-40 point differential. In addition, the rest of their homestand features games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons and the Orlando Magic (twice) — three of the worst teams in the league. 

“This is a good opportunity now that Khris is back for us to start getting back on track,” Giannis continued. “Start building some games right here. We’ll see. I cannot predict the future but we’re in a good place right now.”





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Jets Mailbag: Impressive Lambert making case to stick with big club

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WINNIPEG — Leave it to Mark Scheifele to provide a little perspective on the situation.

No, the Winnipeg Jets centre was not trying to pour cold water on the situation that has fans in a frenzy these days, thanks to the performance of speedy forward Brad Lambert during the past two pre-season games.

Scheifele was asked a simple question about his own personal experience, which includes lighting it up and making an impact in his first NHL training camp as an 18-year-old back in the fall of 2011.

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Of course, the circumstances are different this time around, yet Scheifele is able to relay some valuable information on what Lambert is potentially facing during these final two pre-season games against the Calgary Flames, provided he gets into both tilts.

“You can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” said Scheifele. “I think I led the pre-season in scoring. This is exactly what I was talking with my dad about the other day and we were talking about that time, and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t that bad. I can play in this league.’ And then I played my first regular-season game. The pre-season is a different animal than the regular season.

“But at the time, I was kind of high on life and then the first couple of games brought me down to earth.”

Scheifele ended up playing seven games with the Jets before he was returned to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, but not before scoring his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lambert has done everything that’s been asked of him so far and then some, prompting a vast shift in the narrative of what would be best for his personal development.

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When training camp began, it would not have been out of the question to expect the first-round pick to potentially play some games in the Western Hockey League this season but now, some folks are wondering if he might end up finding a way to force his way onto the opening-day roster, perhaps even the opening-day lineup.

The most likely outcome is Lambert ends up with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, but his performance suggests he’s ahead of schedule and looks like a good bet to get into some games with the Jets, whether that’s right out of the gate or as the season moves along.

Jets head coach Rick Bowness hasn’t been afraid to heap praise on Lambert in recent days, but he also has pushed for patience, as someone who understands how big the jump to the NHL is — even for a guy who has been playing hockey professionally since he was 16 years old.

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“You can’t teach what that kid does with speed. It’s unreal how fast he is,” said Bowness. “We’ll teach him how to play the game and understand the game a little better. That will be our job, but some of the things he does, that’s just natural and it’s beautiful to watch when he gets going.

“Listen, that decision will be made over the next little while, in terms of where he starts and where he plays. He hasn’t played his way out of here yet. I love working with kids and this kid has got a few more days to develop and to see where it goes.”

Lambert appreciated the responsibility heaped on him by Bowness — which included three shifts during the three-on-three overtime and a chance to participate in the shootout on Saturday against Edmonton.

“Honestly I didn’t know how it was going to go. Every day is a new opportunity,” said Lambert. “Trying to do everything I can to take advantage of every opportunity I get. Just work hard every day and learn every day.”

During a training camp where much of the focus centred around the defence corps, how Lambert fares in the game — or games — against the Calgary Flames figures to attract a lot of attention this week, especially after skating on a line with Cole Perfetti on Monday.

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“He looks fast, he’s got some skill. That’s what we kind of saw instantly since he started practising the first couple of days,” said Scheifele. “He definitely has a lot of promise, a lot of high-end talent, which is awesome.”

On to your questions for the monthly mailbag (thanks to all for your submissions):

The top-six seems to be fairly set in stone in terms of personnel, if not deployment with Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Cole Perfetti. However if we see an early and prolonged injury to one of them, who do you think has the best chance of being the replacement in the absence of Andrew Copp or Paul Statsny on the third line?

Does Morgan Barron or David Gustafsson’s offensive AHL pedigree win, or the experience of Mason Appleton or Jansen Harkins or would they pull Brad Lambert all the way up from the Moose, assuming that’s where he ends up? — Cody Magnusson

Injuries are part of the game, so it’s natural to wonder who would get a promotion, either from within or from the minors. As for Lambert, the Moose seem like the most logical landing spot — though he could delay that with a strong showing this week. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the injury occurs while Lambert is in the AHL. If that’s the case, he would make the most sense to get the recall if a winger is required to play top-six minutes and to contribute to the power play. As Bowness pointed out, Lambert already has NHL speed to go along with his natural instincts. If a centre goes down with an injury, it would be interesting to see if the Jets considered moving Cole Perfetti to the middle. Morgan Barron and Jansen Harkins have both been given brief auditions on the top two lines and would also be under consideration, but remain in a battle for work on the third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton.

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What is your evaluation and grade on Rick Bowness from his day one with the Jets? — Craig Zamzow

What we know about Bowness so far is that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind and he hasn’t hesitated to make difficult decisions, beginning with the choice to remove Blake Wheeler as captain. Bowness’ passion for the game and intensity have been on display since the start of training camp and his ability to communicate with the players is evident. My evaluation is that he’s doing what was expected when he was hired to replace Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry. He’s planning to implement an aggressive system that should suit the roster as it is currently configured, but the success of the Jets will boil down to their willingness to commit to the defensive structure. Ultimately, Bowness will be evaluated on how this team performs, but the early signs are that he’s been able to connect with this group. I’d like to reserve the grade until the season gets going, but he’s off to a strong start.

With Rick Bowness and the new coaching staff, is there a player that would be a surprise to make to the starting roster and is there a player that you’d be surprised if they didn’t get a starting roster spot? — Eric Hjorleifson

With just under two weeks to go before the Jets open the season against the New York Rangers, there is plenty of time for the teaching of systems to continue and some additional clues about the final roster decisions should come to the surface during these final two pre-season games.

A player that would be considered a surprise to make the roster, at least going into training camp, would be forward Saku Maenalanen. The Finnish forward has made an impact in the three games he’s played and began this week skating alongside David Gustafsson and Sam Gagner. Maenalanen is a strong skater, plays a physical game, can kill penalties and has shown some skill as well. He’s definitely a candidate to win a job on the fourth line right now and even got an audition for the Jets’ third-line left-wing vacancy on Saturday against Edmonton.

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As for the second part of the question, that answer is a bit cloudy right now. Going into camp, my projection was that both Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg would be in the opening-night lineup and while that might still be the case, neither player has created enough separation in the competition to push past the bulk of the veteran group, at least to this point. With Friday’s game expected to be close to the opening-night lineup, there needs to be a level of urgency from all of Samberg, Heinola and Logan Stanley, if he’s playing.

“Players play their way out of here. They make that decision for us,” said Bowness, reiterating a point he made early in training camp. “These next couple of games, they will make that decision for us. They’re either going to play their way on, or they are going to play their way off by showing us they are not ready. Two games to go and guys are obviously running out of time. Every shift, for the guys that are on the bubble, every shift is important at this point.”

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Where or how would you rate the team in its development cycle, given that a rebuild is the start and Final contender is the end of the cycle? — Vern Fecteau

The Jets find themselves in an interesting spot when it comes to the development cycle. The window of opportunity appears to be tied to a core group that has several prominent players with the ability to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024, barring an extension or two. The Jets also have an interesting stable of prospects, including guys like the aforementioned Lambert and forwards like Rutger McGroarty (who is beginning his freshman season with the University of Michigan Wolverines) and Chaz Lucius in the system along with D-men like Declan Chisholm, Elias Solomonsson and Simon Lundmark, among others.

So there is some additional talent coming, but it’s clear from the off-season decisions made by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff that the team believes it is still in win-now mode — otherwise several veterans would have likely been moved in deals aimed at strengthening the future.

That’s not to say there won’t be a trade before the season begins, but it appears the Jets believe their window of contention remains open, even if most pundits feel this is a team that is destined to finish in the muddy middle. The Jets are not rebuilding, nor have they fully reloaded. They’re counting on internal growth right now and look like a team that could finish anywhere from third to sixth in the Central Division, depending on how things come together and should be in the mix for a wild-card berth.

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Should the Jets consider playing Pierre-Luc Dubois more on the penalty kill? He is big, has a great reach and is aggressive. Plus, using him in all situations would certainly help in signing the player, don’t you think? Lee Davis

This is a great question — and not just because it’s been one I’ve been pondering myself. Dubois has a lot of qualities that should make him an effective penalty killer, and several of those have been mentioned by you. If the pre-season games are any indication, Bowness won’t be afraid to lean on his star players to contribute and that includes time while short-handed.

The only drawback is that adding these heavy minutes to the equation could impact production at even strength. However, it’s worth considering, depending on the situation. The other thing to keep in mind is that Bowness plans to find ice time for his fourth line and most players in the running for jobs there are guys who should be capable penalty killers.

When it comes to using Dubois in all situations as a way to encourage him to sign longer term, it probably wasn’t an accident the Jets had Dubois serving as an alternate captain in each of the three pre-season games he’s played so far. That’s not a guarantee he will be among those wearing an ‘A’ once the final decisions are made, but it’s clear he’s under consideration for one of the jobs. It was already clear last season that Dubois was becoming part of the leadership group and that figures to be the case, whether he’s wearing a letter or not.

How safe is Mason Appleton’s job on third line right-wing? He was very underwhelming last season in his return from Seattle. And he didn’t really stand out in the first pre-season game. — @AavcoCup

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Appleton now has two pre-season games under his belt here and his job as the third-line right-winger with Adam Lowry seems safe to me. He’s going to play an important role on the penalty kill and is going to be counted on to help augment the secondary scoring that will be necessary for the Jets to take a step forward. In his 19 games with the Jets after being reacquired from the Kraken, Appleton produced only two goals and four points but one thing to consider is that his shooting percentage was 6.7 — or roughly half of what he converted during the 2021 season when he had 13 goals in 56 games (13.6 per cent).

That’s not to suggest Appleton is going to push for 20 goals for the first time in his career, but he should push for something in the range of what Brandon Tanev registered (14 goals, 29 points in 80 games) before cashing in as an unrestricted free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season was a whirlwind for Appleton, from being selected in the expansion draft to being traded for the first time in his career and returning to the team that chose him in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Appleton sounds like he’s in a positive head space and excited about the role he’s going to be asked to play.

“I don’t think I put a ceiling on it. The coach has full control over where guys play in the lineup. And winning and losing dictates a lot of the line charts,” said Appleton. “So wherever I am to start, obviously you want to continue to climb and get better in this league, no matter where you’re at. Even the best players, they always want more, more, more. That’s just the mindset to have. Obviously you want to work as hard as you can every day to get to that next step, play a couple more minutes, get some power-play touches, whatever it is. You want more, always, and that’s just the natural mindset of a competitive athlete.”

What is the status of the Jets’ Russian players they drafted over the last few years? I believe they are still playing in Europe or the KHL. Are they still part of the Jets’ plans going forward? — Robert Dyck

Forward prospects Nikita Chibrikov (second round, 2021) and Dmitry Rashevsky (fifth round, 2021) remain under contract in the Kontinental Hockey League through this season and then one would imagine the Jets will try to bring both players over to play in North America.

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Rashevsky has developed nicely, racking up 19 goals and 35 points in 48 games for Moscow Dynamo last season and he’s got seven goals and 10 points in 14 games so far. He’s a skilled winger that can finish and it’s not out of the question to expect him to push for NHL work as early as the 2023-24 season. As for Chibrikov, he remains a solid prospect who is expected to spend this season in the KHL but has yet to play a game with Moscow Spartak. Obviously the timetable for the arrival of Rashevsky and Chibrikov could vary, but both players remain part of the Jets’ plans going forward.

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Kenny Pickett Set Unique NFL History In His Debut

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(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have turned another page in their storied history when rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett took over for Mitchell Trubisky during their Week 4 game against the New York Jets.

While the former Pitt Panther threw three interceptions, he also had ten completions for 120 yards.

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Pickett also had two rushing touchdowns.

It remains to be seen if the Steelers will have Pickett start in Week 5.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin did not give a definite answer on who their starter will be versus Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, but recent reports indicate it is the rookie’s job for good.

Steelers players like wide receiver Diontae Johnson expressed their endorsement for the only quarterback taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Regardless of how the situation unfolds, Pickett had a historic performance during his professional debut.

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ESPN Stats and Info tweeted, “Zero of Kenny Pickett’s 13 pass attempts against the Jets on Sunday hit the ground. 10 went to Steeler’s receivers, while 3 found the hands of Jets’ defenders. That’s the most pass attempts in a game in NFL history without any hitting the ground.”

Save for the three picks, a case can be made for Pickett having a perfect game of completing all 13 pass attempts.

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But he will have to work on his ball placement because some of his interceptions were thrown high.

 

The Clamor For Pickett Intensifies

The Steelers might benefit from a change behind center because Trubisky has struggled in the Steelers’ first four games.

The former North Carolina standout completed just 59.5 percent of his passes for 653 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

His highest output was 207 yards against the Cleveland Browns.

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The team hoped that Trubisky could become a solid bridge quarterback until Pickett is ready.

But with the way things are going, they will have to go with the rookie to save their season after losing three of their first four games.

The post Kenny Pickett Set Unique NFL History In His Debut appeared first on The Cold Wire.





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