NBA notebook: Clear-cut front-runner for league MVP has emerged, and it's Giannis

A. Sherrod Blakely

BOSTON -- There's a long list of things you fear when playing the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Him making three-pointers?

That ain't one of them … until now.

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The reigning league MVP was raining the 3-ball in Milwaukee's 111-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night in a matchup of the two teams that shared the best record in the NBA.

Milwaukee winning the game wasn't all that surprising considering how well they have played this season and the game being on their floor.

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But the way they went about it, with Antetokounmpo scoring on drives, dunks, and 3-pointers (a career-high five to be precise), was the kind of performance that not only elevated the Bucks to an impressive victory but also puts even more fear in the hearts of teams in the East.

"If he's hitting that shot, it's a wrap," an Eastern Conference scout texted NBC Sports Boston on Thursday night. "You can't defend him out there AND be expected to try and take away his drives, too."

Said analyst Reggie Miller, "You got Giannis out here looking like he's Ray Allen."

Indeed, the performance secured his front-of-the-line status towards a second NBA MVP award.

And it wasn't just because he had a strong game that included knocking down more 3-pointers than he has ever done in his life.

But he did so on the largest stage you can have in a regular-season game, against the only team that had as many as wins, a team that fielded a pair of MVP-caliber talents in LeBron James and Anthony Davis who were both outshined by Antetokounmpo's brilliance that ended with a 34-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist night.

It was the performance of a champion-in-the-making, a performance that forces all to take notice and strikes even more fear in the hearts of teams trying to take this on-the-rise superstar down.

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G-LEAGUE UNIONIZING?

As reported by multiple outlets this week, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) is having discussions with players about establishing a union for the G-League.

Those conversations are expected to center around pay and an enhanced benefits package.

There are several aspects of this that have to be worked out before it becomes a reality.

But unionizing the G-League, maybe more than anything else, strengthens the NBA's hold on having the best talent stateside.

Improved salaries would make it more likely that talent that's maybe a notch or two below being in the NBA, consider playing in the G-League versus overseas.

A league executive pointed out to NBC Sports Boston that one of the selling points for the G-League has been the direct pipeline its teams have to the NBA.

"If the salary discrepancy closes some, you could see a greater influx of talent in the G-League, which makes for a better product with better players which ultimately helps the NBA," the executive said. "And in the end, that's good for business."

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BAM! ANOTHER STAR IN MIAMI

Following Miami's upset win at Philadelphia, Heat guard Jimmy Butler was asked about the critics who say that Miami is just a one-star team.

"Who's that star, Bam? I'll take Bam as our star any day."

He's referring to Bam Adebayo who has had a breakout season and has been a key to Miami's impressive 20-8 start which puts them among the top three teams in the East.

Adebayo is averaging a double-double of 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.

The third-year center continues to trend in the right direction as his stats almost across the board, are at career-high levels this season.

His size, strength and athleticism to defend both his position and be solid on pick-and-roll switches, has been huge for the Heat this season.

But what has really caught the eyes of folks has been his passing which puts him among the game's elite centers when it comes to playmaking for others.

He has already had a pair of triple-doubles this season, with Denver's Nikola Jokic being the only center in the league to average more assists per game than Adebayo (4.6).

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CENTERS OF CELTICS' ATTENTION

Every NBA team, no matter how talented they may appear to be, has a roster need. Some are more nuanced while others are straight-up, in-your-face obvious.

While the Celtics are not pursuing any bigs vigorously at the moment, league officials anticipate that will change in the coming weeks.

The word among execs is the Celtics are still high on the collection of bigs they have: Daniel Theis, Enis Kanter, Robert Williams III, Vincent Poirier and two-way contract signee Tacko Fall.

All five have missed time this season due to injury, including Williams (hip) and Poirier (finger), who are each expected to be out for at least three weeks.

"They would love to upgrade the position, but with who? And what's it going to cost? And are they willing to pay that price?" the exec told NBC Sports Boston.

Some of the more popular names you will hear associated with the Celtics include Houston's Clint Capela and Oklahoma City's Steven Adams are two names that will be heard quite a bit between now and the Feb. 6 trade deadline as potential trade options.

Cleveland's Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are another pair of names to be considered, although Love is unlikely due to health concerns and his contract which calls for him to be paid more than $91 million over the three years he has left on his contract beyond the 2019-2020 season.

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DAVID BLATT IS BACK

So, the Knicks have added David Blatt to the payroll as a "consultant," the kind of news that immediately had folks talking about Blatt as the next head coach of the Knicks.

Blatt tried to nip that in the bud immediately by mentioning in his initial statement on taking the consulting job, that he's retiring from coaching.

That's not a surprise, especially when you consider the success he has had internationally for decades as well as in his season-and-a-half with the Cleveland Cavaliers that included a trip to the NBA Finals as well as the best record in the East at the time of his firing in January of 2016.

He was replaced by Tyronn Lue who went on to lead that team to an NBA title.

The decision to bring Blatt in is one of the better moves made by the Knicks president Steven Mills, who became friends with Blatt when the two were at Princeton.

While Blatt has never been on the front office side of the game before, his understanding of how to build highly competitive teams is something that could greatly benefit the Knicks.

And if we're being honest, it's not like bringing in Blatt can make matters any worse for the Knicks, who continue to be among the worst teams in the NBA.

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NOT YOUR AVERAGE, JOE

There's no question that Kyrie Irving's extended stay on the sideline nursing a shoulder injury has been a huge plus for his replacement Spencer Dinwiddie.

Truth be told, it's Joe Harris that will be the big winner when all is said and done.

Harris, a member of Team USA this summer along with a quartet of Celtics, will be a free agent this summer and is well-positioned for a monster payday.

For years, Harris has been among the best shooters in the NBA having been ranked among the 90th percentile or better in 3-pointers the past three seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Still, the difference now is the volume of shots has increased with Irving's absence, but the consistency remains elite.

So, no one should be surprised when the Brinks truck pulls up to the Harris household this summer with a multi-year deal worth significantly more than the $8 million he's currently pulling down.

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FAST BREAK

-The world got to see just how explosive a tandem Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can be, as the dynamic duo each had more than 40 points in the Clippers' 124-117 win over Minnesota. George had 46 points while Leonard lit the Timber Pups for 42.

-Luka Doncic is pretty versatile, on and off the floor. At times, he'll do interviews in not one, not two, but three languages - English, Spanish and his native Slovenian.

-Markelle Fultz may never live up to the lofty billing that comes with being the No. 1 overall pick, but it's clear that he's a legit NBA player. He's averaging 11.7 points for the Orlando Magic, starting in 22 of 27 games this season. And while his 3-point shooting hasn't been great (23.3 percent) his scoring and playmaking (his assists to turnover ratio is better than 2:1) has been decent this season.

-Wilson Chandler is set to return to the Nets following a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA's drug policy. With his return, the Nets waived Iman Shumpert, who was added in part due to injuries to ex-Celtic Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert.

-Speaking of returning from suspensions, Phoenix big man Deandre Ayton, who was also suspended 25 games for violating the NBA's drug policy, made his return this week and tallied a double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds) in the Suns' 21-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But Phoenix fans, don't get too excited. The Suns have ruled him out for the game Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder with an ankle sprain.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Hornets, which tips off Sunday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Tommy have the call at 6 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

NBA notebook: Clear-cut front-runner for league MVP has emerged, and it's Giannis originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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