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Bucks in thick of Central race for now

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Bucks in thick of Central race for now

MILWAUKEE (AP) Before the season, few figured the Milwaukee Bucks would be challenging for the Central Division lead.

Yet here they are at 15-12, just a half-game behind division-leading Indiana and tied with Chicago entering Thursday night's games. With Detroit and Cleveland struggling, the Central is currently a three-team race between Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee.

The Bulls are eagerly awaiting the return of star guard Derrick Rose from a knee injury and the Pacers are in similar situation with injured star Danny Granger, with both not expected back until February at the earliest. That leaves the Bucks, often maddeningly frustrating so far this season, with an outside chance of grabbing their first division title since 2001.

``Based on the records, you have to think (there's a chance),'' says Mike Dunleavy, Jr., one of the team's most consistent players this season. ``Nobody has separated themselves to this point. Until somebody does that, it's anybody's race.''

It's been an up-and-down season for the Bucks, who opened eyes with a 6-2 start but followed that with just two victories in their next nine games. After a four-game winning streak, Milwaukee has alternated wins and losses, and like many teams in the East, is trying to separate itself from the pack.

``We're 15-12,'' coach Scott Skiles says. ``I don't think we're a finished product yet. We're still trying to figure out some things.''

After a bruising stretch of four games in five nights, the Bucks got a bit of a breather with just one game - a 108-93 victory over Brooklyn on Wednesday night - over the course of a week. Along with getting a chance to rest weary legs and get injured players healthy, the break also let the Bucks get back on the practice court to clean up some loose ends.

``We're OK right now, but we can get better,'' guard Monta Ellis says. ``Hopefully we make that run and separate ourselves. We just have to worry about us; one day, one game at a time and see what happens.''

The Bucks' defense, a hallmark of Skiles-coached teams, has taken some time to come around, but has started to show some consistency. Milwaukee is 11th in the league, allowing 96.75 points per game and in the middle of the pack defending shots, holding opponents to 44 percent shooting.

Shot blocking has become the Bucks' specialty this season. Larry Sanders who is tied with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka for the league lead with 3.0 per game. As a team, Milwaukee is second in the league with 7.54, just slightly behind the Thunder overall.

``Our defense is getting to an acceptable level,'' Skiles says. ``It's getting better, there's no doubt about that. As long as we don't (take shortcuts), we're in pretty good shape. Then, of course, we have really good rim protection. We just have to make sure that when we're ahead, or playing behind, we're playing the same way.''

As the defense has become more consistent, the offense has often struggled. Milwaukee is 21st in the league with 95.46 points per game and 25th from the field, connecting at a 43 percent clip. The 3-pointer was supposed to be a strong suit for the Bucks this season, but even with sharp-shooters like Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings and Ellis, Milwaukee is near the bottom of the league with a 32.5 percent average.

They showed signs of life Wednesday, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and going 10 for 17 from behind the arc. In his last three games, Ellis is averaging 28 points and five assists while shooting 50 percent (31 of 62) from the field. He was the lone bright spot in Milwaukee's 94-82 loss to Cleveland last weekend, scoring a season high 37 points.

During that same stretch, Jennings is averaging 14.6 points - slightly below his season average of 17.6 - but when his shot hasn't been falling, he's found other ways to contribute, as when he dished out eight assists the case in a 99-94 victory at Boston on Dec. 12.

The pressure on that duo will be lessened slightly as Beno Udrih returned to the court Wednesday after missing 12 games with a sprained ankle. Before the injury, Udrih was a key weapon off the bench, averaging 8.3 points in 18 minutes.

``We've been a little bit thin back there,'' Skiles says. ``We're getting healthy again and may be in a situation where they don't have to play 40 minutes. Hopefully that will be the case.''

For the Bucks to make a move, they can start by protecting their home court, where Milwaukee is just 8-6 this season. It's not a new problem: The Bucks were just 22-19 at home during the 2010-11 season and 17-16 during the lockout-shortened campaign a year ago.

By contrast, the Bucks were 28-13 in Milwaukee during the 2009-10 season, when a late surge earned them the sixth seed in the playoffs.

``We have to win that game,'' Skiles says. ``We can't keep letting that happen, especially at home. We have to be much better at home.''

Five of the Bucks' next eight games are at home, but it starts with a bang: The defending NBA champion Miami Heat visit on Saturday.

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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution

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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution

JUPITER, Fla. -- Police in Florida have charged New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft with misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution, saying they have videotape of him paying for a sex act inside an illicit massage parlor.

Jupiter police told reporters Friday that the 77-year-old Kraft hasn't been arrested. A warrant will be issued and his attorneys will be notified.

The charge comes amid a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking in the area surrounding Palm Beach County. About 200 arrest warrants have been issued in recent days and more are expected.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl earlier this month in Atlanta. The team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Update: A spokesperson for Robert Kraft issued a statement, denying Craft's involvement. "We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity," a spokesperson said, via Michael Del Moro. "Because this is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further. 

This is a developing story. Visit NBC Sports Boston for the latest Robert Kraft news and updates. 

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Radio silence from Bryce Harper hasn't quieted Mark Lerner's confidence in Nationals

Radio silence from Bryce Harper hasn't quieted Mark Lerner's confidence in Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Fans on the sidewalks at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches are held back by wire fence, just a few feet away from players clicking past in spikes on concrete. It emulates two priorities: access and the idea the team’s managing principal owner, Mark Lerner, had when he was a kid at spring training.

“You want to be able to see your favorites,” Lerner said Friday.

When Lerner, 65, comes to West Palm Beach, he still does that. He stops in the clubhouse to distribute handshakes and hugs. Running into Anthony Rendon on a crosswalk near the fields really lit up Lerner, who is still using a cane following an amputation of his lower left leg in 2017 necessitated by the diagnosis of spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

Not in West Palm Beach is a player Lerner had a close relationship with. On the day Manny Machado was introduced in San Diego, Bryce Harper remained, to the astonishment of many, unemployed. 

Lerner last addressed Harper’s free agency when he sat for radio interviews, Dec. 10, the day Patrick Corbin was introduced. He said the Nationals were no longer in the mix for Harper. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract which had an expiration date: when free agency began, it would be retracted. Harper declined, vaulting the baseball world into a months-long saga filled with tension, misinformation and growing exasperation.

“Nothing’s certainly changed on our end; we’ve moved on, as I said back then,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington. “We had to. There was no way we could wait around. Bryce I’m sure will make his decision, hopefully in the next few days. But, we filled out our roster and like I said, we wish him nothing but the best. There’s always that -- the door’s cracked a little bit. I have no clue at this point what they’re up to. I mean, we really haven’t heard from them in a couple months.”

The prospect of a wait was of prime concern before the season ended. Washington used its personal window to negotiate with Harper, producing a lucrative baseline offer, with the aforementioned end date. Not long after, Corbin received a six-year, $140 million from the organization, which stood throughout the offseason as the benchmark in both length and total value prior to Machado’s decision. If Harper accepted the Nationals original offer, they would not have been able to pay Corbin, according to a source.

The organization moved forward plugging holes at catcher, second base and in the bullpen. It deemed the current outfield foursome as more than satisfactory. Also looming was the possibility of another year over the competitive balance tax, something that prompted the team to start shuffling finances late last season when it was clear the playoffs were not an option.

“It’s a pretty severe penalty if you go over and it’s been our goal all year to stay under that,” Lerner said.

Which complicates the future. Anthony Rendon is entering the final year of his contract. Rendon and the team are open to an extension, which has been discussed here and there for 18 months. Rendon reiterated his position when speaking with reporters earlier this week. Lerner turned his visual affection for Rendon into words Friday. 

“We love Tony to death,” Lerner said. “He’s certainly one of the greatest players in the game today. He’s an even finer person. His activities with the youth baseball academy back in D.C. are phenomenal. He does it under the radar. It’s very important to him. Just a great example of the way a professional athlete should conduct himself. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites for a reason.”

Washington rose perennial losers upon coming to Washington to an organization with annual prominent expectations. It chose not to retain manager Dusty Baker, instead hiring Dave Martinez in an attempt to push the team beyond the first round. Martinez’s arrival came with the edict that something more than division titles and first-round bow outs were now necessary for the team. The Nationals finished 82-80 last year during a season filled with injuries, under-performance and often mediocre fundamental baseball. Lerner suffered through with the irritation of a typical fan.

“I have my routine [following losses]. I go into a closet and scream a little after,” Lerner said with a laugh. “No, no. That’s one thing that’s good about baseball. You’re going to play the next day. But I go home. I’m totally depressed. I won’t turn on the sports news or anything and get up the next morning, it’s a new day, get up and go after it again today. When I’m sitting down there, I’m very passionate as a fan. I’m yelling at the umpires like everybody else. I want to win. I hate losing exhibition games let alone regular-season games.”

Enter 2019. The Nationals are amid the favorites in a taught National League East. Short-term fixes frame the team’s mainstays. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin possess the three long-term commitments in the clubhouse. Rendon may be next. The Nationals want to retain that talent level, avoid the tax and put together a team with a chance to win the division or more. Harper’s talent made that possible when here. His price made it difficult going forward. They decided to try it without him. 

“Our goal every year is certainly to make the playoffs,” Lerner said. “In reality, we look back where we are in the world and where our needs are. It’s not just…certainly, we don’t want to go crazy with free agency. But we said when we first got the team, we’re going to build up the minor leagues, we’re going to get to a point where we can start to dabble in free agency, which we did with Jayson Werth, and when we find a need or a special player, we’re going to go after that player if it makes monetary sense for us. Our philosophy has never changed but, certainly, our goal is to make the playoffs and hopefully deep into the playoffs.”
 

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