NBA Playoffs: The Hawks can fly to the sun, but may burn just the same

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Thumbnail image for johnson_game.jpgAtlanta, even as the three seed, even with a sweep over Boston, even with a win against Orlando, even for as great as they’ve been at times, still enter as the unknown, silent partner of the NBA playoffs. 

Which is a shame, because they may feature the most balance in terms of talent of any team in the postseason. They have a dynamic power forward that can dominate at both ends of the floor. They have the rare elite shooting guard in Joe Johnson, and the sixth man of the year in Jamal Crawford. Their big man, Al Horford, was an All-Star. But still no one expects much of them. 
Here’s how the Hawks can raise the bar and then smash their ceiling with it. 
1. Get J-Smoove involved. Josh Smith’s improved play has been incredible. If the Hawks get him the ball and get him involved in the flow, he can not only produce points, but open up the offense for teammates. He feeds off his involvement and that boosts his production. The Hawks should focus on getting Smith in the post against weaker power forwards and feeding him off curl screens to penetrate on bigger defenders. As long as Smith stays away from shooting from mid-range, and continues to attack, the Hawks will be in good shape. 
2. Control the glass: The Hawks feature one of the best rebounding schemes in the league. Al Horford isn’t the most physically gifted player, but he has that ability to simply make it to the ball that you can’t teach. Combine that with Smith’s athleticism and Zaza Pachulia’s size and you have a a team that can dictate possessions against any team. 
3. Release the Joe-Ken!: Joe Johnson can destroy his own team with too many ISO sets. But when he’s locked in, he can take over a game like few players in the league. The Hawks have to be willing to live with Johnson absorbing possessions in pursuit of that ability because there’s nothing more demoralizing than Johnson crossing your best defender up and draining a mid-range. Let Joe be Joe. 

TNT to cover NBA games with only former players, no traditional play-by-play men

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19:  Grant Hill #33 of the Phoenix Suns looks to move the ball as Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers defends in the first quarter of Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 19, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — TNT will use broadcast teams featuring only former players and no traditional play-by-play men during five NBA doubleheaders later this season.

The “Players Only” schedule runs Monday nights from Feb. 27 to March 27 and includes matchups such as Golden State-Oklahoma City on March 20 and Cleveland-San Antonio a week later.

Brent Barry will serve as the primary host of one team with Derek Fisher and Grant Hill, while Greg Anthony partners with Kevin McHale and Richard Hamilton on the other.

Lisa Leslie and Dennis Scott will serve as reporters.

Turner Sports says Thursday that Chris Webber will anchor the studio coverage with Isiah Thomas and Baron Davis, and that additional NBA players will contribute to the five-week program.

James Harden presents fan with game ball on her 100th birthday (video)

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden took some time out after the Houston Rockets’ win over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks to give a fan a present on a her 100th birthday.

Video shows Harden signing a ball for the woman and spending a few moments sitting next to her in her courtside seat and posing for pictures Wednesday night.

Harden told ESPN’s Doris Burke in an interview that he told the woman how “blessed” he was to be able to have a chance to meet her.

The Houston guard also put on a good show for the fan during the game, scoring 38 points in a 111-92 victory over the Bucks.

Paul George dunks on DeMarcus Cousins while getting whacked in the face (video)

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Kings center DeMarcus Couins appears set to become the first player to sign as a veteran designated player. The Pacers hope Paul George will follow.

But in the Pacers’ win over the Kings yesterday, George beat Cousins.

Not even Cousins thwacking George in the face could stop this dunk.

Report: Khris Middleton could return to Bucks before All-Star break

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 16:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena on January 16, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The Bucks projected Khris Middleton to miss about 70 games when he tore his hamstring before the season. That extended absence often leads players just to shut down for the year, but Middleton vowed to return in time for the playoffs.

He might get back far sooner than that.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sources told ESPN.com the Bucks think Middleton, who suffered a hamstring tear just days before the season began, “has a chance” to return to the lineup during a three-game homestand next month before the All-Star ‎break.

Whether Middleton ultimately makes his season debut before or after the All-Star Game, he is expected to be kept on a minutes restriction as he eases way his back from the injury, sources said.

The Bucks have started Tony Snell, who has held his own as an outside shooter. But Middleton will upgrade Milwaukee on Snell’s biggest strength and provide massive defensive improvement. After a strong start, the Bucks have really struggled lately on that end.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has led Milwaukee to a 20-21 record, though the team is better than its won-loss mark indicates. The Bucks will be even better with Middleton, who will rival Jabari Parker as their second-best player and fit seamlessly.