Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Knicks, Pacers advance, leaving Bucks, 76ers with big questions; Kentucky Derby picks

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🏀 Good morning to everyone, but especially …

THE NEW YORK KNICKS AND THE INDIANA PACERS

They blew a 22-point lead. They overcame a 10-point deficit. Now, they’re heading to the second round, and they did it their way. The Knicks topped the 76ers118-115, in a back-and-forth thriller emblematic of their series as a whole.

Jalen Brunson willed New York to the finish line, as he has so many times this remarkable season. The crafty lefty scored 41 points, 12 of which came in the final seven minutes. He’s the first Knick to score at least 40 points in four straight playoff games since Bernard King in 1984.

But he was far from alone. Donte DiVincenzo, a marvelous offseason acquisition, scored 23 points and hit five 3-pointers. But Josh Hart hit the biggest 3 with 25.1 seconds left to put the visitors up for good.

All the while, New York gathered 20 offensive rebounds, turned 12 Philadelphia turnovers into 22 points and got 113 of their 118 points from their starters. They’re tough as nails, unfazed by big moments and unrelenting.

Now they get the Pacers, who cruised by the Giannis Antetokoumpo-less and Damian Lillard-hampered Bucks120-98, for their first series win since 2014, when a young Paul George was starring in Indiana.

This year’s squad has another young star in Tyrese Haliburton, but it was his backup who played hero. T.J. McConnell scored 20 points on just nine shots to ignite the hosts. He did it all when Indiana needed him most, Jack Maloney explains.

  • McConnell: “He was a major part of the Pacers’ defensive game plan to pressure the ball all 94 feet and speed up the game. The Bucks jumped out to an early lead, but once McConnell checked in, he changed the game. Late in the first quarter, he picked up steals on back-to-back possessions to create easy baskets for the Pacers, including one on an inbounds pass. … Offensively, McConnell was doing his usual playmaking by getting into the lane at will and collapsing the defense, but he also gave the Pacers a huge boost in the scoring department.”

The gritty Knicks against the high-flying Pacers will be fun.

👍 Honorable mentions

👋 And not such a good morning for …

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Getty Images

THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS AND THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

It’s easy to think of the Bucks as the team that could have been. But that would mean ignoring the team that was. And that team, frankly, fell woefully short.

Since the end of last season …

  • The Bucks fired championship-winning coach Mike Budenholzer and hired Adrian Griffin, a first-time head coach thrust into a win-now position. They fired Griffin in January despite a 30-13 record after a litany of issues that ranged from bizarre to damning.
  • In came Doc Rivers, a coach best known for his recent playoff failures. He went 19-23, including the postseason. Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Khris Middleton playing together in just eight of 42 games didn’t help.
  • After the Bucks made the bold and stunning move to acquire Lillard (who was long expected to go to the Heat), he proceeded to put up his second-worst shooting percentage (42%) and 3-point percentage (35%) in a full season in his career.
  • The Bucks knew acquiring Lillard and losing Jrue Holiday would hurt their defense, but they figured the offensive improvement would more than cover for that. It didn’t. Milwaukee improved from 15th to sixth in offensive efficiency but fell from fourth to 19th in defensive efficiency.
  • Plus, in a true nightmare scenario, Holiday ended up on the Celtics and has helped elevate them to clear-cut Eastern Conference favorite.

Eight of Milwaukee’s top nine players in terms of minutes per game are over 30. Antetokounmpo, still right in his prime, will turn 30 next year. The Bucks are running out of time and resources to take advantage of that prime and appease Antetokounmpo, Sam Quinn writes.

  • Quinn: “There’s nothing coming up the pipeline. There’s not some recent draft pick that looks primed to fill in the gaps of the declining players. The Bucks are just old, and getting older. They’re devoid of the assets they’d need to trade for help, and they’re already hovering around the second luxury-tax apron for next season, so they’re not going to have the money in free agency to sign younger players either. They’re not going to be able to address the flaws of this year’s teams with minor moves around the edges.”

Jack Maloney, who covered the Bucks all year, adds perspective to another early exit.

The 76ers, meanwhile, at least have some flexibility. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey (technically a restricted free agent, but he’ll almost certainly return) are the only key players due back. Sam talked about why LeBron James should join them. Regardless, Philadelphia will be a huge player this offseason.

Still, it’s an awfully disappointing way to enter the offseason … again. Embiid is seemingly never healthy when it matters most. Tobias Harris, making nearly $40 million, didn’t even score. Maxey came back down to Earth. Even a stunning Buddy Hield re-emergence wasn’t enough. Still, the common denominator of the postseason disappointments is Embiid, whose fourth-quarter struggles in such a close series loomed large, Sam notes.

👎 Not so honorable mentions

🏇 Kentucky Derby preview, expert picks

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Getty Images

The 150th Kentucky Derby is tomorrow, and though I know very little about horse racing, I do know I’ll be watching.

Luckily, we have a lot of people who know a lot more about horse racing than I do, so I’ll let them do the work.

First we have everything you need to know about every horse in the race, starting with favorite Fierceness (5-2). You can find every other horse’s profile here courtesy of Gene Menez … if you’re a SportsLine subscriber.

And you should be, because our SportsLine experts are on a heater. Here are our expert picks:

Oh yeah, and Jayson Werth has a horse running.

🏀 College basketball transfer portal winners and losers

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USATSI

There truly is no offseason in college basketball, with the coaching carousel spinning and the transfer portal ballooning to nearly 2,000 entrants.

But the carousel stopped spinning a while ago as Wednesday was the deadline to enter the portal. And with the last few names becoming public Thursday that means it’s time to evaluate winners and losers.

Kansas entered last season ranked No. 1 thanks to a strong transfer class, and that will likely be the case in 2024-25. The Jayhawks are one of the biggest winners of the portal cycle, David Cobb writes.

  • Cobb: “A lack of depth and perimeter punch proved fatal for Kansas last season. There will be no such issues for the Jayhawks in the 2023-24 season. … KU has positioned itself for a return to Big 12 supremacy by landing a blockbuster transfer haul. AJ Storr (Wisconsin), Rylan Griffen (Alabama), Riley Kugel (Florida) and Zeke Mayo (South Dakota State) are each in the CBS Sports Transfer Rankings and will combine to give coach Bill Self a deep group of offensive weapons to pair with an excellent returning core of Dajuan Harris Jr., KJ Adams Jr. and Hunter Dickinson.”

Speaking of the transfer ratings, David rounded out his top 80. Here are the top available players.

  • 3. C Norchad Omier (Miami)
  • 5. G Kadary Richmond (Seton Hall)
  • 13. C Clifford Omoruyi (Rutgers)
  • 15. G DJ Wagner (Kentucky)
  • 18. G Wooga Poplar (Miami)

📺 What we’re watching this weekend

Friday

🏀 Game 6: Cavaliers at Magic, 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏒 Game 6: Canucks at Predators, 7 p.m. on TNT
🏀 Game 6: Clippers at Mavericks, 9:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏒 Game 6: Stars at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. on TNT

Saturday

🏇 Kentucky Derby, 6:57 p.m. on NBC
🏀 Game 1: Nuggets vs. Timberwolves, 7 p.m. on TNT
Mets at Rays or Mariners at Astros, 7:15 p.m. on Fox
🏒 Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 8 p.m. on ABC

Sunday

🏀 Game 7: Magic at Cavaliers (if necessary), 1 p.m. on ABC
🏒 Game 7: Golden Knights at Stars (if necessary), TBD
🏒 Game 7: Predators at Canucks (if necessary), TBD
🏒 Game 1: Hurricanes at Rangers, TBD
Giants at Phillies, 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Game 7: Mavericks at Clippers (if necessary), 8 p.m. on TNT

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