NBA Playoffs: The one where the Bucks are hoping for a playoff miracle against the Hawks

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Thumbnail image for johnson_game.jpgThree weeks ago, Atlanta and Boston were jockeying for the three seed not so much to avoid Cleveland in the second round (although that’s part of it) but to avoid Milwaukee in the first round. Nobody wanted a piece of the Bucks, they were on fire. Brandon Jennings was playing well at the point, John Salmons was suddenly an All-Star at the two, and Andrew Bogut was playing like a number one overall pick in the paint. They were good.

Then Bogut went down with a gruesome-to-watch elbow injury, was out for the playoffs, and here we are. The Bucks were not the same team. They did not strike fear into anyone. The Bucks did manage to go 4-2 in that stretch — because they still defend as all Scott Skiles teams do — but it wasn’t the same.

One of those two losses was to the Hawks, in a game where both teams brought it trying to win. The Hawks pretty much dominated that day; they outmanned the Bucks everywhere on the floor.

I fear that is what we will see here. A game where the Bucks team was outmanned by a Hawks team that has arrived, played out four times over.

Each year for the last few the Hawks have steadily gotten better, they have been climbing the ladder until now, where they are knocking on the contenders’ door. Josh Smith has finally blended his game perfectly with all those fantastic Atlanta athletes. This is the big test playoffs for them, can they enter the elite (before Joe Johnson gets a deal that is too long from some other team this summer as a free agent).

The test for the Hawks this playoffs is not in the first round. But they do still have to get through it.

There are a couple interesting matchups to watch. First, can the young Brandon Jennings (and Like Ridnour, who plays a lot of key minutes for the Bucks late at the point) expose Mike Bibby on defense? Bibby has aged and can’t hang with the quick guards, although he still contributes on offense by finding the holes and hitting the spot-up shots.

The problem is, when the going gets tough late the Hawks close with soon-to-be Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford running the point, and he can flat out ball.

If the Bucks are to have any chance in this series, John Salmons is going to have to dominate Joe Johnson. The Bucks just can’t have a shootout here, they have to take Johnson out of the flow. Which is hard because he shows flashes of being the dominant max player he gets paid like. If his shot is falling he is wicked, and Johnson can just take over games. Salmons is going to have to do it at both ends for there to be any chance.

Josh Smith is going to have a little trouble with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (I feel like you always need to use his middle name for some reason), because Mbah a Moute brings it on defense. He hustles. But he’s a scrapper and Smith is an amazing athlete who will still get his on the court. Smith is going to dominate this matchup as the series moves along and he gets used to the defense, and that will be a key for the Hawks.

Sort of the same situation at center — Kurt Thomas gets as much out of his body as is left, he still plays smart, but Al Horford is a physical beast that will dominate this matchup inside.

The Bucks will not quit, Scott Skiles teams never do. They will defend. Skiles will try some crazy lineups looking for a spark.

But in the end, talent wins out 99 percent of the time in the NBA. And the Hawks have a lot more talent, a lot better athletes around the floor. They are going to win this, if not in a sweep then in five. And the Hawks will be looking forward, because their real test is in the next round, which is when they can open the contenders’ door and walk right through.

NBA: Kenneth Faried got away with foul on decisive basket in Nuggets’ win over Bulls

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The Bulls’ biggest loss Friday was Jimmy Butler to injury. His absence certainly contributed to a loss to the Timberwolves the following night.

But Chicago also lost to the Nuggets on Friday, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if the game were called correctly down the stretch.

With Denver up two points and 21.1 seconds remaining, Kenneth Faried offensively rebounded a free throw and scored. The Bulls then intentionally fouled down the stretch, and Faried and Danilo Gallinari added a few free throws in the Nuggets’ 115-110 win.

One problem: Faried should’ve been called for offensively fouling Taj Gibson on the key putback, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Faried (DEN) extends his arm into Gibson (CHI) and dislodges him, affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

This was a huge swing. Instead of Taj Gibson – a 69% career free-throw shooter – going to the line for two attempts with Chicago down two points, Faried put the Nuggets up four. Even if Gibson split at the line, the Bulls would have been in significantly better shape.

As usual, we can’t know what would’ve happened if this call were made correctly. But it significantly set back Chicago.

NBA considering if jump-on-back foul should be flagrant foul

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The video above is an intentional foul — Chris Paul jumped on the back of Dwight Howard. The same thing has happened to Andre Drummond.

Is it a flagrant foul?

The Boston Celtics tweeted this out on Sunday.

The NBA was quick to let people know that this is just something under consideration — there has been no change in the rules. This may well be where the league is headed, but it’s not there yet.

The NBA defines a flagrant foul as “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” To me, leaping on a player’s back like that qualifies. (A flagrant two foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact” and leads to an ejection; this is not that.)

Jared Dudley — one of the more vocal players on union issues — added a good point.

Consider this part of the coming changes on the intentional fouling rules period. But this one tweak could come much faster.

NBA: Foul on Cavaliers that sparked Celtics’ comeback called in error

Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith makes a move on Boston Celtics' Evan Turner (11) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Cavaliers were in great shape against the Celtics on Friday, leading by four points with seven seconds left.

Then, it all went so wrong for Cleveland.

J.R. Smith was called for fouling Evan Turner on a made layup, cutting the margin to two points. Turner missed the free throw, but the ball went out of bounds off the Cavs. Then, Avery Bradley made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Boston the win.

Rewind, though, and an incorrect call drove the sequence, according to the NBA.

Smith shouldn’t have been called for fouling Turner, per the Last Two Minute Report:

Smith (CLE) makes incidental contact with Turner’s (BOS) body as he attempts the layup.

If this were officiated correctly, the Cavs would’ve had the ball and a two-point lead with 5.9 seconds left. That’s not a lock to win – they’d still have to inbound the ball and make their free throws – but it’s close.

Cleveland is definitely entitled to feel the refs wronged them out of a victory.

Report: Kevin Durant has “done his due diligence on the Bay Area”

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Kevin Durant has not made up his mind about what he will do as a free agent this summer. Until his playoff run ends, whenever that may be for the Thunder, his focus will be on bringing a title to Oklahoma City.

But even he admits he can’t help but think about free agency a little.

The buzz around the league is Golden State is at the front of the line if Durant decides to leave OKC, and he has done some research, reports Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors play in front of an intimidating Oracle Arena crowd and are expected to debut a new San Francisco arena in 2019. Durant has quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area, too, sources told Yahoo Sports.

His people — specifically agent Rich Kleiman and personal manager Charlie Bell — would be stupid not to have done some research on not only Golden State but on every other team he might consider: Houston, Miami, Washington, both teams in Los Angeles, the Knicks, and on down the line. Golden State, playing with Stephen Curry, certainly would have its attractions.

I’m still in the camp that Durant signs a 1+1 deal to stay in Oklahoma City (meaning he can opt out after one more season, in 2017), and it’s all about the cash. While he could get 30 percent of a $90 million cap this summer (about $27 million a season to start), with one more year of service in 2017 Durant could get 35 percent of $108 million ($37.8 million to start). That’s a lot of cash. Plus he gets one more chance at a ring with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both are 2017 free agents.

But you can be sure whatever Durant decides, it will be well researched and thought out. And he’s not going to announce it in a live special on ESPN.