Kawhi Leonard’s $152M extension with Clippers looks disastrous after latest postseason injury

The Los Angeles Clippers scored a Game 4 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday to even their first-round series 2-2, and they did so without the superstar services of Kawhi Leonard, who missed his second game of this series with knee inflammation. There is no timetable for his return and he remains out indefinitely.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Since Leonard arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019 as something of a championship mercenary after what he pulled off in Toronto, he has managed to suit up for just 28 of the Clippers’ 41 playoff games. Throw out 2020 when Leonard played all 13 games of L.A.’s second-round run, and he has been sidelined for multiple games in each of his last three postseasons.

In 2021, the Clippers looked like a top-shelf title contender before Leonard tore his ACL in Game 4 of the conference semis against Utah, which kept him out for the remainder of those playoffs and for the entirety of the following season.

Last season, Leonard averaged 35 points through the first two games of the Clippers’ first-round series against Phoenix, then he tore his MCL and missed the next three as L.A. was eliminated in five.

Who knows if we’ll see him again this postseason, or how long the Clippers can last without him. At this point, you would be a fool to think Leonard can be depended on to make it through a full postseason in good health. And if he can’t do that, the Clippers cannot compete for a title. And if the Clippers cannot compete for a title, it becomes pretty hard to justify the three-year, $152 million extension they handed Leonard this past January.

Oh yeah, you forgot about that? The Clippers just signed up for three more years of this. They allowed themselves to be fooled after Leonard managed to stay healthy through the first three months of action. This is a classic stock-market blunder. You allow yourself to believe that whatever is currently happening will keep happening.


Leonard getting hurt again was only a matter of time, and it’s only going to get worse over these next three seasons. By the end of this latest contract, Leonard will be 35 years old, and the Clippers will have paid him just shy of $350M over six seasons.

And if you’re paying all that money to Leonard, then you pretty much have to pay James Harden, who’s a free agent this summer, in addition to George, who’s also a free agent. What’s the alternative? To let them walk for nothing and open up a new arena with a hobbled Leonard and a bunch of C-listers?

They have no choice but to go all-in, yet again, with the Leonard-George tandem that has now added Harden, because on top of all the actual cash they’ve paid these guys, they also bear the burden of the trade that brought George, who was a package deal with Leonard, to Los Angeles from Oklahoma City, which cost them Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is going to be on the MVP short list for the next decade.

The Clippers are throwing good money after bad. All the cash they’ve already paid Leonard is a sunk cost. SGA is gone. Giving Leonard another $150M, plus whatever silly money they’re going to throw at Harden and George to keep this pipe dream alive this summer, is not bringing any of that back.

They should’ve cut their losses and looked to trade Leonard and/or George. Instead, they traded what was left of their future capital for Harden, tripling down on a losing hand. Now they owe their next six first-round draft picks, either straight up or via swaps, to the Thunder for what’s left of the George deal and the 76ers. Once they overpay Harden and give George, who will have heavy competing offers, at least what Leonard got, they’ll be committed with an even worse hand than the one they started with.

It’s a disaster, and if George has more foresight than the Clippers and thinks to himself: ‘Do I really want to bank the last years of my prime on a co-star that is virtually guaranteed to turn up injured in the playoffs?’, it’s going to get even worse.

Because unlike Harden, George is going to have options. Nobody is going to pay Harden what the Clippers are almost forced to pay him given how invested they already are, but George could head to the 76ers, for example, who have max space, and leave the Clippers with two over-the-hill superstars making prime-superstar money.

George has to be considering it, right? This just hasn’t worked with Leonard. They’ve only played 181 of a possible 410 regular-season games together over five years. That’s 44%. Meaning more than half the time George takes the court with the Clippers, Leonard isn’t with him. He’s either been injured or load managing in an effort to avoid injuries, only to get injured in the payoffs anyway.

I’m going to say it again: This is a disaster for the Clippers. It’s nobody’s fault, necessarily. Leonard can’t help his failing body, and in the summer of 2019, there wasn’t single a team in the NBA that wouldn’t have thrown every organizational egg it had into the Leonard-George basket. But at a certain point, reality has to trump fantasy.

Leonard suddenly turning up healthy for an entire playoff run, and the Clippers then turning that playoff run into a championship, is a fantasy. Reality is what is happening, and has been happening all along. Leonard is once again in street clothes. The Clippers are clinging to first-round life again. And now they have three more years of this reality to look forward to, at a cool $50M a year. Yikes.

Why Knicks’ Josh Hart did not need to make a shot to have an ‘unbelievable’ Game 4 vs. Sixers

For a guy who shot 0-for-7, turned the ball over five times, committed five fouls and missed half of his free throw attempts, Josh Hart had a marvelous game on Sunday.

Typically, a statement like this is followed by a reference to the intangibles that Hart brings to the New York Knicks, the energy and leadership and subtle stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score. But much of what Hart brought did show up in the box score. He pulled down 17 rebounds, five of them on the offensive glass. He dished five assists, blocked three shots and played 46 minutes in a 97-92 win against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of their first-round series.

“Josh was unbelievable,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said.

It would have been nice if Hart had again made four 3s — as he had in each of the three preceding games, after not once hitting that mark all regular season — or at least not regressed to the mean this sharply, but the Knicks didn’t need his scoring this time. Jalen Brunson dropped 47 points, OG Anunoby was more aggressive than usual and Miles McBride gave them just enough juice off the bench for them to eke out the victory and put Philadelphia on the brink of elimination.

It was enough because the Knicks held the Sixers to 101.1 points per 100 possessions at Wells Fargo Center and 76.2 per 100 in the fourth quarter. (For reference, the league’s least efficient offense, Memphis, scored 106.8 per 100 during the regular season.) That doesn’t happen without Hart.

“Josh was everywhere,” Thibodeau said. “And he was the trigger. He was the trigger of the defense.”

Hart, who stands 6-foot-4, may not be the first player to come to mind when you think of rim protection. Early in the fourth quarter, though, he zoomed from the right block (where he was in help position to deter Joel Embiid from driving) to the left side of the rim, where he rejected Nicolas Batum’s dunk and forced a turnover. Shortly after that, Hart blocked Tobias Harris at the rim and started a fast break.

A week earlier, in between Hart’s 13-rebound performance in the series opener and his 15-rebound performance in Game 2, a reporter asked Batum what made Hart so good on the offensive glass. “I don’t know,” Batum said. “If he’s got a secret, give it to me, please.” Only three players have a higher rebounding average than Hart in the playoffs, and they’re all centers: Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Jarrett Allen.

Hart rebounded his own missed free throw on Sunday. He prevented a putback dunk by boxing out big man Paul Reed. Late in the third quarter, he created an open 3 for Donte DiVincenzo before hitting the ground.

“I mean, I had to do something,” Hart said, referencing his turnovers and poor shooting. “Offensively it just wasn’t there today, but when you have that, you have to try to figure out ways to still make an impact in the game. And for me, that was rebounding and pushing; offensive rebounding, trying to get extra possessions. I looked athletic on a couple of blocks, so that was nice.”

Thibodeau never basks in victories, but he does seem to take a certain pride in the grimier ones. Following Game 4, he praised the team for its fight after falling behind by 12 points in the first quarter. “We need everyone just hustling like crazy,” Thibodeau said. This is Hart’s specialty. In the game’s opening minute, he picked up Embiid in transition, fronted him and deflected the ball out of bounds. In its 47th minute, he took away Maxey’s driving lane, then closed out perfectly on Harris’ corner 3.

Anunoby’s defense against Embiid will be the bigger storyline entering Tuesday’s Game 5, but, when Thibodeau was asked about Anunoby’s ability to defend up and down the positional spectrum, he made a point of saying that “the same could be said for Josh.” In the game that gave New York a 3-1 lead, Hart started off chasing Maxey around, then spent plenty of time protecting the paint. And when Oubre decided to challenge him one-on-one, it didn’t end well for the Sixers:

When the Knicks try to end the series at Madison Square Garden, they’ll hope to have the version of Hart that was knocking down 3s and making Philadelphia pay for leaving him open. For years, though, Thibodeau has repeatedly said in press conferences that “you don’t have to shoot well to play well.” This is true all the time when it comes to Hart; on Sunday, he just took it to an extreme.

Six new picks, but no buyer’s remorse at the top

he NBA regular season is over, and that means the vast majority of the NBA’s top rookies have finished their first league season in the association. Victor Wembanyama, Brandon Miller, and Chet Holmgren are the three finalists for this year’s Rookie of the Year award. Wembanyama and Miller went 1-2 in the 2023 NBA Draft, while Holmgren missed his true rookie season after Oklahoma City selected him second in 2022.

As the rest of the league hits the couch this week and enjoys the first round of the NBA Playoffs, now’s a good time to look back at the 2023 draft and redo some selections. If only we knew then what we know now.

  1. San Antonio Spurs: C Victor Wembanyama, France
    Original pick: Wembanyama

Let’s put it plainly… he’s every bit as good as advertised. Wembanyama came to the NBA with more hype than arguably any prospect since LeBron James, and a year later, there are no fewer reasons for that level of enthusiasm. Because he’s unlike any physical prototype we’ve ever seen before, there were understandable concerns about whether his body could hold up, but durability was not an issue this year as he played 71 games. Defensively, he led the league in blocks by a wide margin (he averaged 3.6 per game, and Walker Kessler was next at 2.4), and he likely would have gained more traction for Defensive Player of the Year if he played on a more competitive team.

Offensively, the 20-year-old looks every bit capable of being a primary option on a contending team down the road. It wasn’t just that he averaged over 21 points in less than 30 minutes per night while shooting 47% from the floor, 33% from 3-point range and 80% from the line, or even that he handed out nearly 4 assists per game. It was the growth he showed during the course of the season. Before Jan. 1, Wemby averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, 3.3 assists (vs. 3.3 turnovers), and 3.1 blocks on 44/29/79 shooting. After March 1, he averaged 23.7 points, 12 rebounds, 5.4 assists (vs. 4.4 turnovers), and 4.4 blocks on 46/32/75 shooting. Beyond the numbers, this guy was must-see TV because virtually every night, he made some type of logic-defying play that no one else in the league could duplicate because of his massive length and ability to cover the court, coupled with his defensive dominance and offensive escalation. I’m already jacked for Year 2 in the Alamo City.

  1. Charlotte Hornets: SF Brandon Miller, Alabama
    Original pick: Miller

The Michael Jordan-led front office took a lot of criticism over the years, but let’s give credit where credit is due; they (finally?) got their lottery selection right. The choice was between Miller and Scoot Henderson. It was considered a toss-up by most, including Hornets fans, many of whom were unhappy on draft night. A year later, there now appears to have been a clear right answer, and MJ’s group made it. Miller averaged 17.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.5 stocks per game with 44/37/83 shooting splits, but he averaged over 20 points per game in the last game of the season after becoming more of an offensive focal point for Charlotte, and thus a key to opposing defensive scouting reports.

There were signs of offensive stardom, with 29 games with 20+ points and 4 games with 30+, in large part because he fused what made him great in high school, the mid-range game, with what defined him at Alabama, his 3-point shooting. This year, he showed the foundation of a true multi-dimensional weapon, with the versatility to make defenses pay for various coverages. His 2.5 made 3-pointers per game were the third-most by a rookie in NBA history while the mid-post and pull-ups that were frowned upon in Nate Oats’ system have returned.

Whether Miller blossoms into a true alpha scorer or tops out as a Robin to someone else’s Batman remains to be seen. The key variable may be his ability to put pressure on the rim, which was the biggest question mark going into last year’s draft. He attempted only about 18% of his total shots at the rim this year, which ranked in the bottom 10% of the league.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers: PG Scoot Henderson, G League Ignite
    Original pick: Henderson

This is where it gets interesting. On draft night, Portland was perceived to have the easiest pick of the night, other than San Antonio. They would just take whoever Charlotte didn’t take. That ended up being Henderson. In retrospect, that looks like a decision that should have considered numerous other options. One year into their NBA career, Wembanyama is at a level all by himself, and Miller actually is too, albeit notably behind Wemby. Who follows depends on if you believe there is another player that has legitimate star upside. That was certainly the belief for Scoot on draft night. Now, it is less clear. While there was plenty of context around his disappointing year — he had the pressure of replacing arguably the best player in franchise history and was limited by injury at more than one point — that doesn’t account for the discrepancy between what we were expecting and what we saw.

Here’s why I still go with him at No. 3. While the probability isn’t as high as it was a year ago, there are still all-star caliber outcomes that are possible here, and I’m just not sure there’s another player with a higher probability of reaching that level, even if there were others that had better rookie seasons. Henderson showed important progression as a shooter this season, particularly off the dribble, but was surprisingly incapable of finishing at the rim. Given his strength and body type, that’s definitely an area he should be able to improve. Finally, patience is a requisite at the point, more so than any other position in the NBA, and given the upside still exists, he’s still a worthwhile get at No. 3.

  1. Houston Rockets: SF Amen Thompson, Overtime Elite
    Original pick: Thompson

There’s a lot of different ways Houston could go in a re-draft, but they also have plenty of reasons to feel good about their pick. Thompson not only made significant strides over the course of the season, but he also did it while impacting winning (he had a net rating of +30.1 when on the floor with most of Houston’s starting unit. In the first half of the year, he played 17 minutes/night and averaged 7 points, 4.8 boards, and 2.3 assists. In the second half of the season, he played 27.5 and put up 12.1, 8.4, and 2.9. He even punctuated his late gains with a triple-double in the season finale of 18 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and three blocks.

Coming into the draft, Thompson was billed as a potential jumbo lead guard. Ironically, he had the most success this year when utilized as an undersized forward, or even big, in small-ball line-ups. He’s every bit the dynamic athlete advertised, and under Ime Udoka, he’s weaponizing that to be an ultra-versatile, playmaking defender and elite perimeter rebounder. The offense, in particular the shooting, still needs a lot of work, and the extent to which that develops will ultimately determine his upside, but that’s exactly what we expected a year ago. What’s changed since then is the floor; he’s shown the other ways he can change the game and impact winning.

  1. Detroit Pistons: SG Cam Whitmore, Villanova
    Original pick: Ausar Thompson

Ausar Thompson was the pick on draft night, and while that’s still a reasonable take, in retrospect the Pistons might consider the logic of adding a total non-shooter to a young core that already has shooting concerns. Unless, of course, they believed he had true star potential – which does not yet seem like a practical outcome. I feared it was a bit of a reach and have not yet been proven wrong.

So, what are the other options? Keyonte George might be intriguing here because his on/off-ball versatility and shooting could fit in nicely alongside Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, but the defensive end would be a concern. You could make a similar argument for Brandin Podziemski. The player left on the board though with the highest upside is Whitmore. Ironically, his draft day slide was reportedly rooted out of the intel from Detroit, where GM Troy Weaver’s DMV roots were believed to give him access to better intel on Whitmore.

Ultimately, Whitmore slid all the way to 20 and spent a lot of time with Houston’s G League affiliate to start the season. Once he cracked the rotation though, he showed the extreme scoring potential many scouts saw last year, albeit with the same limited passing ability. He averaged 12.3 points per game in just 18.7 minutes, equating to 23.7 points and 3.2 made 3-pointers per 36 minutes as a 19-year-old rookie.

  1. Orlando Magic: SG Brandin Podziemski, Santa Clara
    Original pick: Anthony Black

The Magic went with Black on draft night, and while this doesn’t look like the ideal choice in retrospect, I’m not convinced it doesn’t work out long-term, especially if Black can sustain this year’s shooting numbers. If they were to redo the pick today, knowing what we know now, Podz might get a longer look given his rare ability to impact winning as just a 21-year-old rookie. He led the Warriors in plus-minus this season (and was second among all rookies) while averaging nine points, nearly six rebounds, and four assists (with a better than 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio). He also led the league in charges drawn with 38. There would be questions about his upside this year, but Black’s combination of skill, feel, and sheer intellect for the game made him one of the most underrated prospects in last year’s draft.

  1. Washington Wizards: C Dereck Lively, Duke
    Original pick: Bilal Coulibaly

French star Coulibaly was a home-run type swing on a young and ascending, albeit very unproven, prospect. It was considered a surprise on draft night and a year later, it looks like this might have been a little high for Coulibaly. In contrast, Lively would have given the Wizards arguably the best center in the draft not named Wemby. He plays a role that has proven to be translatable from day one as a shot blocker, lob threat, and rim protector. Lively may not have much star potential, but he could have been a long-term building block for a Wizards team that won only 15 games this year and has only a select few players they should be interested in retaining.

  1. Indiana Pacers: PF GG Jackson, South Carolina
    Original pick: Jarace Walker

With the four-spot being the gaping hole in both the Pacers’ rotation and long-term depth chart, they went with Walker on draft night, albeit after making the heady move to move down a spot and pick up a future asset. Given the maturation he’s shown this year, Jackson would be in the mix here if we were to do it all over again, as he’s exceeded all expectations in Memphis since joining the team as a second-round pick with an unguaranteed deal. He averaged nearly 15 points per game, made 36% of his 3-pointers, had 12 games with 20-plus points, and four with 30-plus. Most importantly, his energy level and overall approach seem to be vastly different than they were at South Carolina.

  1. Utah Jazz: SG Keyonte George, Baylor
    Original pick: Taylor Hendricks

Hendricks was the pick here on draft night, while the Jazz were able to find extreme value seven picks later by grabbing George at No. 16. In retrospect, George wouldn’t be on the board here, and there’s a chance he could be scooped up before now. He’s a very clear part of the future in Utah after averaging nearly 16 points and five assists in the last 25 games of the season. He finished fifth among all rookies in scoring and second in assists per game, all of which happened before his 20th birthday. His defense… well, that’s another story, but suffice it to say it’s a work in progress.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder: PG Cason Wallace, Kentucky
    Original pick: Wallace

I think the Thunder got this one right, even if Jaime Jaquez was still on the board (and Ausar Thompson, too, in this scenario). Wallace was an NBA-ready two-way guard and a better shooter than advertised. He knocked down 42% of his 3-pointers and came up with the game-winning stop in Game 1 of the NBA Playoff against the Pelicans. He is consistent and mature beyond his years with extreme durability – he was one of just 17 players in the league to play all 82 games this year. At worst, he projects as an elite two-way role player for a long time, but the most likely outcome is a starting guard with on/off-ball versatility.

  1. Magic: PG Anthony Black, Arkansas
    Original pick: Jett Howard

As I said above, I still have hope for Black in Orlando. He’s the type of defender they value, he can play — and defend — multiple positions, he has a high basketball IQ and the potential to be a big initiator or lead guard. His shooting was the major question mark going into last year’s draft, but he converted 39% from 3-point range this season, albeit in limited supply. While he is admittedly not in the postseason rotation right now, I think there are enough reasons for Orlando to want to double down on this investment, especially when they have a sure thing like Podz already on the board in this scenario.

  1. Dallas Mavericks: SF Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
    Original pick: Dereck Lively

Lively was a terrific pick in this spot last year, and Dallas would do that again every day of the week. But Lively is off the board in his redraft, so the Mavs are in a pickle. The player who Jaquez has proven to be is too good to slide any further. The fit is nowhere near as good with the Mavs as with the Heat, but based on everything we have seen at both UCLA and now with the Heat, Jaquez would have figured out how to get on the floor and help impact winning.

  1. Toronto Raptors: SF Ausar Thompson, Overtime Elite
    Original pick: Gradey Dick

This pick was about taking the best shooter on the board. The Raptors took Dick over Jordan Hawkins. While that is certainly debatable, what is interesting about the Raptors now is that they suddenly find themselves without the long and athletic multi-positional wing types that they seemed to prioritize for so many years. Ausar Thompson is one such wing, and so while the shooting would have undoubtedly been a concern on a team that already lacks great spacing, he would make sense given Toronto’s track record and current roster construction following midseason trades of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

  1. Pelicans: SG Jordan Hawkins, UConn
    Original pick: Hawkins

Like the Raptors, the Pelicans were looking for shooting. Whether Gradey Dick was still on the board or not, Hawkins still makes a lot of sense. While his production has been very up and down, as too has his overall opportunity, there’s no question he has the shooting potential to become a mainstay in the rotation.

Out of the lottery: Bilal Coulibaly, Jarace Walker, Taylor Hendricks, Jett Howard, Gradey Dick

2024 First Four picks by proven model

The Virginia Cavaliers and Colorado State Rams meet in a 2024 First Four matchup on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. The Cavaliers (23-10), who placed third in the ACC at 13-7, are making their 26th overall appearance in the tournament, winning it all in 2019. The Rams (24-10), who are making their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance, are looking to advance for the first time since 2013, when they made it to the Round of 32. This will be the first time the teams have ever faced one another.

The game from the UD Arena tips off at 9:10 p.m. ET. Colorado State has a plus-8 point differential in 2023-24, 53rd-best in the nation, while Virginia has a plus-4 differential, 124th-best. The Rams are 2.5-point favorites in the latest Colorado State vs. Virginia odds from SportsLine consensus, while the over/under for total points scored is 121. Before making any Virginia vs. Colorado State picks, be sure to see the college basketball predictions and betting advice from SportsLine’s proven model.

The model simulates every Division I college basketball game 10,000 times. It enters the 2024 NCAA tournament on a 148-106 roll on all top-rated college basketball picks dating back to last season, returning more than $1,700 for $100 players. It also has a strong 29-19 (+810) record on top-rated spread picks this season. Anyone following has seen huge returns.

Now, the model has set its sights on UVA vs. Colorado State in the First Four 2024. You can head to SportsLine to see its picks. Here are several college basketball odds and trends for Colorado State vs. UVA:

Colorado State vs. Virginia spread: Colorado State -2.5
Colorado State vs. Virginia over/under: 121 points
Colorado State vs. Virginia money line: Virginia +121, Colorado State -144
CSU: The Rams are 16-16 against the spread, including 3-7 in the last 10 games
UVA: The Cavaliers are 17-15-1 ATS in 2023-24
Colorado State vs. Virginia picks: See picks at SportsLine
Why Colorado State can cover
Senior guard Nique Clifford is one of four Rams averaging double-digit scoring. In 34 games, all starts, he is averaging 12.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals in 30.3 minutes. He is connecting on 52.3% of his field goals, including 38.2% from 3-point range, and 76.2% from the free-throw line. In the 85-78 Mountain West Championship quarterfinal win over Nevada on Thursday, he registered a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. It was his eighth double-double of the season.

Also helping power the Rams is senior forward Patrick Cartier. He has scored 10 or more points in 19 games, including a season-high 21 points in a 76-68 win over New Mexico on Jan. 2. He had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in a 70-62 win over Wyoming on March 2. In 33 games, including 32 starts, he is averaging 10.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 23 minutes. See which team to pick at SportsLine.

Why Virginia can cover
Sophomore guard Ryan Dunn is a big part of the Cavaliers offense, and is connecting on 55.2% of his shots from the floor. He has reached double-digit scoring 11 times, including five double-doubles. He scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a 69-52 win at Louisville on Jan. 27. In 33 games, all starts, Dunn is averaging 8.2 points, seven rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals in 27.5 minutes.

Also helping power Virginia is senior forward Jacob Groves, who registered a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds in the 66-60 overtime win over Boston College in the ACC quarterfinals on Thursday. It was his first double-double of the season. He has scored 10 or more points 11 times, including an 18-point effort in a 65-53 win against Notre Dame on Jan. 31. He has 15 starts in 33 games played, and is averaging 7.5 points and 2.8 rebounds. He is in his first season with the Cavaliers after two years at Eastern Washington and two years at Oklahoma. See which team to pick at SportsLine.

How to make Colorado State vs. Virginia picks
The model is leaning Over on the total, projecting the teams to combine for 134 points. It also says one side of the spread is the better value. You can only see the pick at SportsLine.

Jayhawks’ leading scorer out with bone bruise in knee

Kansas star Kevin McCullar Jr. will miss the 2024 NCAA Tournament due to a nagging knee injury, coach Bill Self announced Tuesday. The No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region will face No. 13 Samford on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament without their star, hurting their chances at winning a second title in three seasons.

McCullar missed a handful of games in the regular season and the entire Big 12 Tournament due to the injury, described as a “bone bruise.” Kansas was also without star big man Hunter Dickinson during the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks lost their opening game to Cincinnati and will look to rebound against a dangerous Samford team this week.

“Kevin is not going to play,” Self said. “He said his knee pain has not subsided any and it’s too bad for him to be able to contribute. Kevin will not play. … we are shutting him down for the tournament.”

McCullar averaged 18.3 points, 6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 45.4% shooting this season. The fifth-year senior was enjoying the best season of his career after averaging 10.7 points per game a season ago.

“Like I’ve said all along … it’s a bone bruise,” Self told reporters in January about McCullar’s injury. “So, I’m anticipating him being able to go. But I don’t know to the extent or how much it’ll bother him or anything like that.”

With McCullar out, Kansas freshman Elmarko Jackson could be in line to start in his place. The former highly touted recruit is averaging 4.2 points and 1.7 assists on 39.7% shooting this season.

Why Samford’s style is problematic for Kansas
Kansas faced a tough matchup against Samford even if McCullar was healthy. The Bulldogs won the SoCon regular season and tournament titles by playing an up-tempo brand of basketball that presses full-court on every possession, which is going to test Kansas’ endurance and depth.Samford ranks No. 3 nationally in bench usage, getting 44.8% of its minutes from players outside the starting five, according to KenPom.com.

The Bulldogs frequently deploy 11 players as part of their regular rotation and try to wear down opponents over the course of the game. Kansas ranks No. 318 in bench minutes, getting just 23.7% of its minutes from the bench. That percentage is likely to be even lower without McCullar in a high-stakes game.

The pressure will be on veteran point guard Dajuan Harris to break the press on nearly every possession, and he may have to play all 40 minutes. With the game being played in the altitude of Salt Lake City, Utah, that could be a problem for the Jayhawks.

Dickinson must play big
While McCullar is out for the season, rest of Kansas — which played its one and only Big 12 Tournament game without both McCullar and Dickinson in the lineup — is expected to get Dickinson back in the lineup in the first round. That puts the pressure on the Michigan transfer to produce in a big way in the absence of KU’s other star. Dickinson is averaging 18.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game on the season for the Jayhawks but hasn’t been as efficient in games without his fellow co-star. With no McCullar and a matchup against a small Samford frontline, a KU win may lie in how well he plays.

It’s felt like Hunter Dickinson hasn’t been as efficient without Kevin McCullar, so ran the numbers. Small sample size, but Dickinson shoots 57.4% from the field in games McCullar plays and 43.1% in games he misses.

KU needs an efficient and productive Dickinson this week.

— CJ Moore (@CJMooreHoops) March 19, 2024
Self has short bench going forward
Four Kansas players averaged north of 30 minutes per game this season but only one player outside that core four — Johnny Furphy — played more than 20 minutes per game on average this season. The Jayhawks’ top of the roster when healthy could match up well with any team but its notable shortfall was in its depth, or lack thereof, and Self’s options aren’t particularly appealing.

In the Big 12 Tournament, Self played Elmarko Jackson 34 minutes and Nick Timberlake 27 minutes in an effort to backfill the lost production of McCullar, while freshman Jamari McDowell played his second-most minutes (24) in the loss. Per Pivot Analysis data, KU has a negative net rating when McDowell has been in the lineup and Timberlake and Jackson rate second and third worst among regulars in the rotation. All three have at times flashed at various points this season but Self has mostly veered away from them save for having to do so due to injuries. He has no other levers to pull but the ones at his disposal suggest KU might struggle to get quality production from its backcourt for as long as it is still in the NCAAs.

Colorado State vs. Virginia prediction, best bets by proven expert

The 2024 First Four features a matchup between the Virginia Cavaliers (23-10) of the ACC and the Colorado State Rams (24-10) of the Mountain West in Dayton, Ohio. The Wahoos finished the regular season in third place in the ACC before losing to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament semifinal round. CSU finished the regular season in seventh place in the Mountain West and would go on to lose to eventual champion New Mexico in the conference tournament semifinals. UVA will be making its ninth appearance in the last 10 NCAA Tournaments. The Rams are making their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and 12th all time.

Tipoff is 9:10 p.m. ET at UD Arena. The latest Colorado State vs. Virginia odds via SportsLine consensus list the Rams as 2.5-point favorites, while the over/under is 121. Before making any Virginia vs. Colorado State picks, be sure to see the college basketball predictions and betting advice from SportsLine expert Jimmie Kaylor.

Kaylor is a betting and DFS expert for SportsLine, who has covered college sports and the NFL for close to a decade as a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. His background as a former high level athlete — he was a Division-I All-American and professional athlete — gives him a unique perspective when building his fantasy lineups and locking in his betting picks. He has his finger on the pulse of the college basketball landscape and has been cashing in big for SportsLine members for the last two years.

Kaylor enters the 2024 NCAA Tournament on a 19-9 run on his college basketball picks for SportsLine. He is up 10.1 units, returning a profit of $1,010 for $100 bettors. Anyone who has followed his picks this season is way up.

Now, the Kaylor has his sights on Virginia vs. Colorado State in the First Four 2024 and just locked in his picks and predictions. You can head to SportsLine now to see his picks. Here are several college basketball odds and trends for Colorado State vs. UVA:

Colorado State vs. Virginia spread: Colorado State -2.5
Colorado State vs. Virginia over/under: 121 points
Colorado State vs. Virginia money line: Virginia +123, Colorado State -147
CSU: The Rams rank 12th in the country in strength of schedule.
UVA: The Cavaliers allow 59.6 points per game.
Colorado State vs. Virginia picks: See picks at SportsLine
Why Colorado State can cover
The Rams climbed as high as No. 13 in the national polls during the regular season. The Rams’ non-conference resume included wins over Creighton, Colorado, Washington and Boston College, and their overall strength of schedule ranked 12th in the country. Niko Medved’s team is experienced and ranks among the top teams in the country in efficiency on both ends of the floor.

Senior point guard Isaiah Stevens leads the charge for CSU. The program’s all-time leading scorer is averaging 16.9 points, 7.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game, and is a true floor general. The Rams have leaned on a trio of transfers in Nique Clifford (12.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists), Joel Scott (12.9 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Patrick Cartier (10.5 points, 2.6 rebounds) to round out their core group of players. See which team to pick at SportsLine.

Why Virginia can cover
Virginia is one of the top defensive teams in college basketball. The Wahoos enter Tuesday allowing only 59.6 points per game. That figure ranks third in the country, and Tony Bennett is one of the most accomplished head coaches in the NCAA Tournament field.

Virginia is led by guards Reece Beekman (14.3 points, 6.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 steals), Isaac McKneely (12.5 points, 3.0 rebounds), and Ryan Dunn (8.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks). Dunn is an extremely athletic wing who is widely considered a likely first round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. The Cavaliers have played in eight of the last nine NCAA Tournaments. See which team to pick at SportsLine.

How to make Colorado State vs. Virginia picks
Kaylor has analyzed Virginia vs. Colorado State from every angle and he’s leaning Over on the point total. He has also discovered a critical X-factor that has him jumping all over one side of the spread. He’s only sharing what it is, and which side to back, at SportsLine.

Victor Wembanyama is rightful Rookie of the Year favorite, but his DPOY odds are another story

Here’s all you need to know about Victor Wembanyama’s relatively “disappointing” NBA debut: by scoring 15 points in 23 minutes, he still outscored both LeBron James (25 in 42) and Michael Jordan (16 in 40) on a points-per-minute basis in his first NBA game. He wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t as dominant as he was at points in the preseason, but if even a “bad” Wembanyama game puts him ahead of the two greatest players of all time in any metric, that’s a reasonable indication that his rookie season is going to be special.

Vegas has reflected that in the obvious way. Wembanyama has been a minus-money favorite for Rookie of the Year at most books since he was drafted. The best price you’ll find for him now is -120 at DraftKings, with most books offering him at even shorter odds. The implication here is that Wembanyama has a greater than 50% chance of winning Rookie of the Year, and that probably sells him a bit short. If he stays healthy, based on what we’ve seen out of the other top rookies in both the preseason and their season openers, he’s almost certainly going to win.

But there’s been another interesting bit of odds creep on the Wembanyama front that warrants a bit more investigation. If Vegas is to be believed, Wembanyama is already a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Different books are offering different numbers.

At DraftKings, for instance, you can grab him at +2500. At BetMGM, however, he’s all the way down to +1000. Only four players have shorter odds than him there: Jaren Jackson Jr., Evan Mobley, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Just behind him? That would be Bam Adebayo, a four-time All-Defense choice that anchored a unit that led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. He’s available at +1200. Double Wembanyama’s +1000 odds and you get Brook Lopez, last year’s runner-up, and Rudy Gobert, a three-time winner of the award, available at +2000. This is a gentle reminder that Wembanyama has played one NBA game.

Betting markets aren’t meant to be an accurate representation of likelihood. They reflect the public’s interest in betting on a particular outcome. Wembanya’s odds imply that he has a 9% chance to win the award. The truth is that he’s a very public name right now. Fans want to bet on him because he is the most exciting defensive player to enter the NBA in years. His actual odds, based on league history, are significantly lower.

The biggest reason why is the lack of precedent. No rookie has won Defensive Player of the Year. No teenager has either. Jackson Jr. won it at 23 a year ago, and that was his fourth NBA season. Another 23-year-old, Alvin Robertson, won it in his second season, and that fits a different trend. When perimeter players win the award, they tend to do so at younger ages. Of the eight Defensive Player of the Year awards to go to players in their age-24 or age-23 season, five went to perimeter players (Robertson, Kawhi Leonard, Ron Artest and Michael Jordan). Wembanyama is obviously a big man.

Big men face different challenges. A big one for younger rim-protectors is avoiding fouls. Wembanyama experienced this on opening night. He would have played more than 23 minutes if he hadn’t picked up five quick fouls. Jackson still struggles with over-fouling to this day. It’s a solvable problem, but it rarely happens overnight. At one point in Jackson’s career, he averaged 5.9 fouls per 36 minutes. Getting down to 4.6 last season was a victory. Notably, Jackson won the award despite playing only 28.4 minutes per game last season. Foul trouble contributed to that. Jackson overcame it by lapping the field in most rim-protection metrics. Wembanyama might find a way to do so as well, but he’d still have two major obstacles to overcome.

The first is durability. While minutes are not baked into Defensive Player of the Year, this season introduced the league’s first minimum threshold for qualification. While Wembanyama won’t need to play 65 games to qualify for Rookie of the Year, he does have to hit that minimum in order to qualify for Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs are known for being cautious, and Wembanyama’s body will need to adjust to NBA-level physicality. Wembanyama has never played more than 34 games in a professional season. He’d have to nearly double that total to reach 65, which is no certainty.

Even if he does, he’s somewhat beholden to his teammates. Every winner since 2008 has played on a defense ranked in the top five. Last season’s Spurs, with largely the same roster sans-Wembanyama, posted the worst defensive rating in NBA history by allowing 119.6 points per 100 possessions. They’ll be better this season. Not only are the young players more experienced, but the team is actually going to try to win games. But that sort of jump seems pretty unrealistic. The Mavericks are among the NBA’s best offenses, but for what it’s worth, the Spurs allowed 117.8 points per 100 possessions in their opener.

With all of this in mind, you probably shouldn’t bet Wembanyama for Defensive Player of the Year. As exciting as his candidacy would be, there’s just little precedent for a player in his situation actually winning. His odds might offer a bit of value on candidates you prefer, but with so little basketball in the books, your offseason picks should still be your favorites.

Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has right idea about embracing off-ball duties

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is arguably the best driver and one of the best overall creators in the league, but his excellence in this regard isn’t entirely unique in a league largely dominated by ball-dominant stars.

That’s why he knows he needs to embrace his duties off the ball if he and the budding Thunder, who are committed to playing an inclusive style of offense with their array of multi-skilled players, want to realize their collective potential.

“The best teams that have played the game, the teams that have won the most games, won the most championships, they play together,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters a day before OKC opened its season with a 20-point victory over the Bulls.

“I don’t know if you saw the ‘Last Dance’ documentary,” SGA continued, “but there was a point in Michael Jordan’s career where he had to learn the Triangle offense and learn to play [without] the ball in his hands 24/7. So if Michael Jordan has to do it, I definitely have to do it.”

This is one of those elements of basketball that makes perfect sense through an objective lens, but when you’re in the heat of a game, as the best player, there is always going to be an instinct to take matters into your own hands.

There’s a time and a place for that, and certainly, SGA is going to rank among the leaders in scoring, assists and usage. As he should. But over the years we’ve seen the apparent ceilings of these single-star systems that rely, perhaps too often and heavily, on the stagnant, individual creation of a Houston James Harden, a Portland Damian Lillard, a Luka Doncic or Trae Young.

Not only is this type of give-the-ball-to-the-best-player-and-get-out-of-the-way offense predictable, but it runs the risk of alienating the players with whom the star is sharing the court. This is one of Steve Kerr’s core beliefs with the Warriors; when everybody feels involved on offense, everybody commits to the other parts of the game and buys into the system as a whole.

A more equitable, democratic offense in which everyone, to a degree, is empowered with a say in the outcome of a given possession is less viable, of course, if you don’t have multiple players capable of creating the necessary offensive advantages to justify taking the ball out of your best player’s hands.

But the Thunder do.

Sure, SGA is the best of the bunch, but Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, rookie Cason Wallace and even Lu Dort can operate at the point of attack, particularly in a flowing system, instigating defensive breakdowns and creating for shots and/or openings for teammates. When this happens, SGA can find himself on the receiving end of the creation rather than having to do the heavy lifting all the time.

In the clip below, SGA begins off-ball as Jalen Williams starts the possessions with an entry to Giddey. The intent of the design is to get SGA the ball on the move, which happens on the dribble handoff, but nothing materializes. The possession keeps flowing. SGA hits a roll pass to Giddey, who kicks out to Williams, who swings it back to SGA for a wide-open 3-point attempt.

Pay no attention to the missed shot. This is an inclusive offense in which SGA works both on and off-ball as multiple people become involved, and it results in a great shot on the backend.

A player of SGA’s caliber can create that same shot for himself most of the time, but getting it this way, at least some of the time, keeps the whole offense engaged and the defense guessing.

Here again, SGA starts off-ball and simply makes a cut to the top as Williams and Giddey go into their own two-man game. Giddey especially, but Wiliams too, is too good with the ball to not be provided with some consistent opportunities to do his thing.

This time, it’s Giddey getting into the lane and finding Williams on the baseline cut.

You’ll notice that SGA doesn’t do anything on this possession but stand behind the 3-point line as a floor spacer. That’s fine. When we talk about stars committing off-ball, not everyone can be, or even should be, running around like Stephen Curry. SGA isn’t that kind of on-the-move shooter. His off-ball movement will be more about subtle relocations and timely cuts that drag defenders with him. Sometimes, in fact, his just stepping aside to allow others to create, while being ready as a secondary playmaker if necessary, is good enough.

Watch the clip above again. SGA could’ve demanded the ball on the initial defensive rebound, but Dort grabs and goes. Once Giddey successfully sucks in the defense, watch Zach LaVine as he loses track of Williams. Look at his eyes. He is watching SGA, who is one pass away. LaVine is expecting the ball to go back out to him. It’s a natural instinct. He’s the best player.

This is the attention stars command just by existing as an off-ball threat, and the openings it creates for others. LaVine, preoccupied with SGA’s whereabouts, is paying no attention to Williams as he cuts right behind him.

I have one more play to highlight, and I love it. The rookie Wallace gets to start this possession, with SGA stationed at the elbow. Again the design is for SGA to come off the cross screen and receive the ball, but the action is cut off. So Wallace goes the other way to Chet Holmgren.

At this point, SGA can do one of two things: Run to the ball for a hand-off, as a lot of ball-dominant stars would, or cut through the lane, taking his defender with him, thus allowing for Wallace to circle back and become the primary playmaker on this possession. He chooses option B. And Wallace gets a clean look that he knocks down.

Again, this is nothing fancy. It’s just a superstar taking the occasional opportunity to empower teammates, even rookies, with creative duties he would be justified in taking for himself. For one game, it added up to 30 assists for the Thunder, 20 of which came from someone other than SGA. Giddey had six. Williams had five.

But over the course of a season, this adds up even more. Everyone is involved, so when the time comes that they need to make a big play in a big game, they’re ready. And equally important, SGA isn’t wearing himself out as the Thunder have honest hopes of making a deep playoff run.

It’s great stuff, from a great player, who is taking the right approach to make sure the Thunder put their best foot forward, collectively, in becoming a great team.

Christian Wood passed his first defensive test as a Laker with flying colors

The Los Angeles Lakers made perhaps the biggest addition of their offseason when they signed Christian Wood in September, but when any player is available that late in the offseason, there’s usually a pretty good reason. In Wood’s case, there were several. Splitting his first seven NBA seasons across seven different teams was a reasonable red flag. Some effort and locker room concerns loomed particularly from his time with the Houston Rockets as well, but his biggest weakness by far has been his defense.

Most advanced metrics have painted Wood as a significant defensive negative throughout his NBA career. He’s never posted a positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus. His -1.8 Defensive EPM ranked him in the 12th percentile league-wide last season. Despite strong performances out of most lineups featuring Wood and Luka Doncic last season, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd yanked his minutes around in part because of defense. After he signed with the Lakers, Wood issued a statement saying that he was “motivated after what Dallas did.”

Wood still hasn’t earned the minutes he wanted out of the Mavericks, but he’s making the most of the minutes he’s getting by doing the things the Mavericks could never get him to do. Facing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit and the prospect of an 0-2 start, Wood turned what could have been a brief bench stint into arguably the best defensive quarter of his career. For significant stretches of the 12-minute period, Wood defended arguably the NBA’s best scorer and more than held his own.

Wood wasn’t Kevin Durant’s primary matchup. Several Lakers got shots at him, and when it counted, the Lakers leaned on Anthony Davis against the former MVP. But on some of the biggest plays of the night, it was Wood generating the stops the Lakers needed to win. He sticks to Durant like glue on this play, with the Lakers trailing by three, and forces a miss off of the backboard.

One minute later, Durant tries to get the switch onto the shorter Gabe Vincent, but Wood sticks with the play and contests Durant’s miss.

Jusuf Nurkic thinks Durant is headed for a back-cut on this play, but when Wood takes it away and Durant tries to pivot back to the ball, Nurkic throws it away.

Neither Wood nor Davis has the bulk of the traditional center, but both make up for it with exceptional positional athleticism. Having two big men that can move the way they can creates some of the most dangerous blitzes you’ll ever see. Together, they managed to eclipse even the 6-11 Durant’s vision, and that forced an easy interception by James. Even if Durant had successfully completed the pass, one of the big men could have scampered back into position.

This is Kevin Durant we’re talking about here. Naturally, Wood didn’t blank him completely. But after scoring 30 points in the first three quarters, Wood and the Lakers held him to a respectable seven in the competitive portion of the fourth quarter. Even when Durant made shots, Wood at least made him work for them. There were no effort concerns on Thursday.

After a tumultuous year with Kidd, Wood seemed to make a fan out of Darvin Ham on Thursday. “I thought he did about as good as anyone can do,” Ham told reporters after the game. “He made a commitment to me when we signed him that that was a part of his game that he wants to get better at. With his length, his agility, he’s able to contest at a high rate.”

Those tools always gave Wood at least reasonable defensive potential. Whether he ultimately lives up to them consistently remains to be seen, but the Lakers offer an environment far more conducive to growth on that end of the floor than his previous teams. Despite playing for seven different franchises, Wood has never seen the court in a playoff game. He did play for a playoff team during the 2018-19 season when he suited up 13 times for the Milwaukee Bucks, but he finished that season with the New Orleans Pelicans. The lead assistant on that Bucks team, though, was Darvin Ham.

Now Ham is leading a contender in Los Angeles that is fresh off of a trip to the Western Conference finals. LeBron James is by far the most accomplished veteran Wood has ever played with, and Davis can cover up just about anyone’s weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. Wood may never be a great defender, but as he proved on Thursday, he’s capable of being a good one outside of the chaotic environments he endured in Dallas and Houston. He told Ham he was committed to defense, and against Durant, he more than delivered.

‘It’s really just a feast for us’

MILWAUKEE — The most surprising aspect of Damian Lillard’s historic debut with the Milwaukee Bucks, at least to his teammates, may have come after the game. As soon as the locker room doors opened to the media, there was Lillard, dressed in a raspberry-colored sweatsuit, ready to go. A bewildered Giannis Antetokounmpo, his body draped in ice, couldn’t believe it. Neither could Bobby Portis.

That’s “Dame Time,” Antetokounmpo said, pointing to his wrist.

Thursday night was indeed “Dame Time,” as Lillard poured in 39 points to lead the Bucks to a 118-117 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 14 of the team’s final 16 points down the stretch, chipped in eight rebounds and four assists, and set the franchise record for most points in a debut.

As far as first impressions go, it would have been difficult for Lillard to deliver a better one. This was Milwaukee’s first chance to see the real Lillard experience, and Fiserv Forum was electric as he closed the show with a series of clutch buckets and free throws.

Watching him work on TV is one thing, but seeing it in person is special. Even his teammates, fellow NBA vets who have been around the league and seen it all, were impressed. Here’s a look at Lillard’s Bucks debut through their eyes.

“It was tough man, he was hooping,” Cameron Payne said. “It was crazy, we really ain’t got to see that Dame yet. That was our first time seeing him go crazy on our team, because in preseason he was getting trapped. We really didn’t get to see that. But he put on a show tonight. I know he’s gonna keep that going. The boy looked good.”

Lillard got off to a slow start from the field, missing four of his first five shots. Even so, his impact was obvious. The extra attention the Sixers had to show him opened up lanes and opportunities for his teammates. “They have to pick him up right as he crosses halfcourt,” Chris Livingston said. “That’s gonna do a lot of good things for our offense.”

Before I could even finish asking Jae Crowder if he could feel the defense start to panic when Lillard had the ball, he was already nodding in agreement. “That’s what I took away the most,” Crowder said. “Just seeing how much attention he draws.”

Less than six minutes in, Lillard ran the floor in transition and caught a hit-ahead pass from Malik Beasley. Immediately, four different Sixers moved his way. So Lillard swung it to Khris Middleton, who fired a skip pass across the court. Beasley and Brook Lopez were both so wide open that they collided going for the ball, and Lopez still had plenty of time to reset and bury the triple.

All Crowder could do was laugh.

“They both tried to go for it because they were both open,” Crowder said. “You can only trap so many guys on the court. That was a play that really showed how much attention he draws and how we can get shots off of him.”

As the night went along, Lillard started to find his offense. There was a three-minute stretch in the second quarter where he caught fire, scoring 14 points, which had the crowd “geeked,” according to Payne. And then in the fourth, Lillard took over again.

Once up by 19, the Bucks trailed by eight with 6:47 to play. Then Lopez and Crowder hit back-to-back threes to cut the deficit to two; Lillard handled things from there. He scored 14 of the team’s final 16 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:57 remaining that put them ahead for good.

The highlight of that scoring binge was a truly ridiculous 3 from about 30 feet to put the Bucks up by five at the 1:13 mark. Lillard drove left, went behind his back, crossed over and stepped back before catching nothing but net.

Payne just chuckled thinking about it. “He’s tough man, he’s tough. They’re like layups for him, for real. It’s just crazy.”

So did Portis. “That was smooth. Lined it up, the crowd goes ‘three!’ and cashes it. Great moment for him in his first game with us.”

“I thought that was pretty conventional,” Robin Lopez said.

As if he hadn’t done enough already, Lillard then sealed the win by hitting a pair of free throws in the closing seconds. Though he’s officially been a member of the team for less than a month, the Bucks already trust him to close the show.

“Even tonight on the bench, it was like towards the end of the game — it was four minutes, five minutes — Jae, Cam, you know, they were like, ‘Dame, finish them. Close it out’,” Lillard said. “And it wasn’t them telling me, ‘you gotta score, you gotta do this,’ it was just they trust my judgment and trust me making decisions. And all the way down to the very last play where I got fouled and I went to the free-throw line.

“They inbounded it to Giannis and I was reading him like, ‘what do you want to do?’ And he was like, ‘come get the ball.'”

Lillard was, in Antetokounmpo’s eyes, “unbelievable.” It’s hard to argue with that, and the best news for the Bucks and their fans is they’ll get to watch it for at least seven more months.

“It’s a lot of fun, especially when there are so many other great players out there with Dame,” Robin Lopez said. “It’s really just a feast for us. We get to watch a lot of good basketball.”