NBA Playoffs, Magic Hawks Game 1: Orlando beats Atlanta so bad that Cleveland gets the message

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Hawks_loss.jpgThat was THE statement game of the playoffs.

Everyone keeps on assuming that we are destined for a Cleveland vs. Los Angeles Finals, Kobe and LeBron. Just like everybody assumed that we were going to get that last year.

Orlando is here to remind you they were the best team in the East last year and they are a better team this year. The regular season is nice and all, but the Magic are built for the playoffs.

They sent a message by demoralizing and demolishing Atlanta 114-71 in game one.

The game was actually close through one quarter (27-25 Orlando) but the seeds of destruction had been sewn. Orlando was shaking off the rust, and their defense was starting to really come around. Dwight Howard had four blocks early (he finished with five) and soon the Hawks were no longer cutting to the basket but relying on isolation, which led to long jump shots. And misses.

Midway through the first quarter, Atlanta coach Mike Woodson took out his starting center in Al Horford, with the theory that he could later match him up against Magic backup center Martin Gortat and exploit that matchup. But he replaced Horford with the zombie that is Jason Collins, and suddenly Howard went to work. Collins committed two fouls and was out of the game again almost before he was announced.

Zaza Pachulia came in, but Howard just started backing him down for dunks. So the Hawks started to aggressively double Howard in the post — and now you have played right into the hands of the Magic. A kick out pass, the extra pass and JJ Redick or Jameer Nelson or someone is just draining open threes.

The Magic went on a 17-0 run in the second quarter and won the quarter 28-10. The Hawks were 4 of 17 shooting in the quarter with seven turnovers (which led to easy transition baskets).

The third quarter was worse, the Magic won that one 32-11 as lanes opened for Magic players to cut to the hoop, get the pass and have nobody at the rim to stop them. The Magic scored 32 points in the paint in those two quarters alone. Howard finished with 21, Vince Carter with 20, Nelson with 19. And they sat a lot.

Game two is not going to be exactly like this. The Hawks cannot play this bad again. But in their regular season matchups less severe versions of this same scenario played out. The Magic have a starting five that can best the Hawks starting five, and the Magic bench blows Atlanta out of the water. The Magic have matchup advantages they can easily exploit, while Howard takes away the easy baskets the Hawks try to get off their mismatches.

The Magic have made a statement. The Hawks were simply the vehicle. The Cavaliers were the intended recipients.

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.

Isaiah Thomas nutmegs Knicks center Marshall Plumlee (video)

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Isaiah Thomas usually saves his best play for the fourth quarter, but the Celtics guard showed out early with this pass between Marshall Plumlee‘s legs to get Kelly Olynyk a layup.

Thomas uncharacteristically just didn’t have enough late. Though he scored 39 points, he shot just 2-for-9 in the final period, as the Knicks pulled away for a 117-106 win.

Kevin Durant misses dunk so hard, ball flies past halfcourt (video)

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Kevin Durant played great in the Warriors’ win over the Thunder last night, but – perhaps fueled by excess emotion – he missed this incredibly emphatic dunk attempt.

Later, Russell Westbrook showed his former teammate how to do it (sparking their apparent conversation):

James Harden outduels Giannis Antetokounmpo as they produce fantastic highlight video

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James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo met in a battle of two of the NBA’s best point guards. (Still weird to say.) The final lines:

  • Harden: 38 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocks
  • Antetokounmpo: 32 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks

The winner? Harden and the Rockets, who topped the Bucks, 111-92.

But the real winner? Anyone who gets to watch this highlight video. It just gets better as it goes.