The Milwaukee Bucks have been in NBA hell since the turn of the century.
They advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, losing to Allen Iverson and the 76ers in seven games. They haven’t won a playoff series in eight appearances since then.
During that 17-year span, they’ve had eight top-10 draft picks, and none has been an All-Star.
Call it a combination of bad drafting — they took West Virginia’s Joe Alexander at No. 8 in 2008, and he lasted less than two seasons in the league — and bad injury luck — Chicago native Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in 2014, suffered two torn ACL injuries in his four seasons with the team before signing with the Bulls in the offseason.
But so far this season, the Bucks are looking like serious contenders in the East. They were the NBA’s last unbeaten at 7-0 before dropping two of their last three — at Boston a week ago and at Portland on Tuesday.
Their 120 points-per-game average entering their road game against the Warriors on Thursday night (more on that later) is tops in the East, and it’s no secret who’s leading the charge.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka “The Greek Freak,” is averaging 25.8 points on 54.4 percent shooting, 13.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.2 blocks for the 8-2 Bucks. And four others are averaging in double digits in scoring — Kris Middleton (19.5), Eric Bledsoe (12.7), Malcolm Brogdon (12.4) and Brook Lopez (11.9).
But it all starts with Antetokounmpo, an All-Star and second-team All-NBA selection the last two seasons. Check out these monster finishes Sunday in a 144-109 victory over the Kings, when he recorded his second triple-double of the season with 26 points (on 8-of-11 shooting), 15 rebounds and 11 assists.
Consider the above our co-Dunks of the Week.
“It’s a compliment for our team, it’s a compliment for how hard we are playing and how we start the season,” Antetokounmpo said last week. “But we’ve got to keep our head down and keep getting better.”
And he’s doing it on both ends.
“Hopefully, one of the keys to Giannis being great is everybody around him being great,” first-year coach Mike Budenholzer said Sunday. “We can also talk about a lot of other guys who played well too. That’s a great sign for Giannis and a great sign for us.”
And a great sign for Bucks fans.
“NBA on TNT” tonight
Rockets at Thunder, 7 p.m.
Any time James Harden visits Oklahoma City, it’s a thing. Harden, averaging 27.8 points per game, spent the first three seasons of his career with the Thunder before they dealt him to the Rockets, who have won three straight since a 1-5 start, including a 108-104 road win against the Pacers on Monday in which Harden scored 28. Taking a little, ahem, thunder out of this matchup, however, is the possibility that the hosts could be without star Russell Westbrook, who sat out Wednesday against the Cavaliers because of a sprained left ankle suffered Monday against the Pelicans. Westbrook, who missed the first two games of the season recovering from a right knee procedure, is averaging 24.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.3 assists for the Thunder, who have won five of seven after an 0-2 start.
Bucks at Warriors, 9:30 p.m.
On paper, this one should be good. We told you all about the Bucks above. And the two-time defending champion Warriors need no introduction: Stephen Curry is averaging a league-high 31.3 points on 52.5 percent shooting overall and a blistering 50.8 (62-for-122) on 3-pointers for a team leading the league at 123.5 points per game.
Performance of the week
Nearly keeping pace with the Warriors in the West are the Nuggets, who are 9-2 — their best start since 1976-77 — after a 89-87 road loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday night. In fact, the Nuggets handed the Warriors their lone loss earlier this season.
A big reason for their emergence is the continued improvement of third-year guard Jamal Murray, who scored a career-high 48 points Monday night in a 115-107 victory over the Celtics in Denver.
Murray scored 23 points in the first half and 19 in the decisive fourth quarter. It was the most points for a Nuggets player since Carmelo Anthony’s 50 against the Rockets on Feb. 7, 2011, and tied Steve Nash for the most by a Canadian player in NBA history.
Murray, the Kentucky product who was the seventh pick in the 2016 draft, hit 19 of 30 shots, including 5 of 7 3 point attempts.
“He pretty much cooked us all night,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Yes, he did. Murray’s last attempt — a long 3 in the final seconds with the game already decided — bothered the Celtics, specifically guard Kyrie Irving, who tossed the ball into the crowd after buzzer.
“What kind of competitor wouldn’t it bother?” said Irving, who scored 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting. “I was (mad), but we’re not going to make a big thing about it. Congratulations to him on 48 points. He did it in a great fashion.”
Of course, celebrations such as this one — and there were plenty — in which Murray licked his fingers on his way back down the court after a first-half basketball, undoubtedly got under Irving and the Celtics’ skin as well.
Murray, whose previous career high was 38 points in January, was trying to become the fifth player in the NBA this season to hit 50.
“I didn’t have no conscious … I think that’s the reason I took that shot,” he said. “Everybody knew I was trying to get 50. That’s the problem. I didn’t mean no disrespect. My emotions took over. … I really just lose myself sometimes.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the veterans on his team talked with Murray about the late shot.
“He’s young. He’s still learning,” Malone said. “You never want to try to disrespect anybody. It wasn’t disrespect. He was trying to get to 50 points.”
Adding insult to insult, the NBA on Tuesday fined Irving $25,000 for his postgame ball toss.
Perhaps Irving can take solace in knowing the ball ended up in the hands of a true Murray fan.
Drama king (continued)
Yeah, Jimmy Butler is still in Minnesota nearly two months after requesting a trade.
Last we checked in with the Timberwolves, Derrick Rose stole the headlines, scoring a career-high 50 points on Halloween night in a victory against the Jazz. Two days later, Rose scored only three and played just five minutes because of left ankle soreness in a loss to the Warriors.
Butler, meanwhile, sat out against the Jazz because of what coach Tom Thibodeau called “general soreness.” Butler returned Friday against the Warriors and scored 21 in a 17-point loss — and celebrated with the Oracle Arena fans in Oakland, Calif.
Butler then sat two days later in Portland, having made it clear after the Warriors loss that he was the one calling the shots as to when he plays.
“I let them know,” Butler said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “They don’t know how my body feels. If I’m nicked up, then you can count on that. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Hollywood decided to play both games in Los Angeles — Monday against the Clippers and Wednesday against LeBron James and the Lakers. The Timberwolves lost both and are 0-4 on their five-game trip, which concludes Friday against the Kings in Sacramento, Calif.
Assist of the week
OK, OK, maybe we’re being a little hard on Butler. He did, after all, help teammate Tyus Jones watch his brother make his collegiate debut in person.
The Timberwolves had the day off Tuesday in LA, so Jones tried to book a flight to Indianapolis to watch his younger brother, Tre, play his first game for Duke, which was facing Kentucky in the nightcap of the season-opening Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. When the older Jones couldn’t find a flight that worked, Butler jumped in and chartered a plane for the two of them to take to Indy.
Butler didn’t make the trip, but Jones did and saw Tre, a freshman, pick up six points and a game-high seven assists in No. 4 Duke’s 118-84 rout of the second-ranked Wildcats.
“That’s my guy,” Tyus Jones said of Butler during the ESPN telecast. “Very selfless.”
Tweet of the Week
Suns big man Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the draft, is having a strong start to his NBA career, leading all rookies in rebounding entering Wednesday at 10.9 per game and ranking third in scoring at 15.9 ppg. But veteran Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, whose 11.5 assists per game lead the NBA, made Ayton look like a kid — twice — Friday in Phoenix.
And finally …
Remember when Jerry Krause went all in on the “Baby Bulls” in 2001? The GM drafted Thornwood big man Eddy Curry at No. 4 and paired him with fellow 19-year-old high school 7-footer Tyson Chandler — whom the Clippers had selected at No. 2 before dealing him to the Bulls for 1999 No. 1 pick Elton Brand.
Curry and Chandler enjoyed some success in Chicago — they made the playoffs in their fourth season — but the Bulls dealt Curry to the Knicks in 2005 and Chandler to the New Orleans Hornets a year later. Curry played three productive seasons in New York before injuries curtailed his career, which ended in 2012. Brand lasted 17 seasons before retiring in 2016 and now is the 76ers general manager.
And Chandler? At 36, he signed a one-year, $2.39 million deal with the Lakers on Tuesday, two days after the Suns waived him in the final season of a four-year, $52 million deal. He made his LA debut Wednesday night against the Timberwolves and contributed with two points and nine rebounds in a 114-110 Lakers victory.
The Lakers are Chandler’s seventh team in his 18 seasons. His career earnings, according to basketball-reference.com: $173,496,273.
Tribune news services contributed.