NBA Playoffs, Magic Hawks Game 2: Magic overpower Hawks in second half to take 2-0 lead

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Carter_Game.jpgSurprisingly enough, the Atlanta Hawks were competitive for much of game two. They were able to move the ball while limiting mistakes, actually managed to get to the rim and the line with some consistency, and scored almost 100 points against the Magic’s defense. They made six of their 11 three-point attempts. They shot 97% on their 31 free-throw attempts. They had twice as many offensive rebounds as Orlando did. Jamal Crawford and Al Horford both had bounce-back games. 

In spite of all of that, the Hawks are going back to Atlanta with a 2-0 deficit. Why? First of all, some of Atlanta’s bad habits reared their ugly heads in the second half. More importantly, it’s almost impossible to beat Orlando when they play like they did on Thursday night. 
In the first quarter, the Magic went to Dwight Howard early and often. The Hawks had absolutely no way to stop him. Howard got position, made a quick move, and got a basket, alley-oop pass, or a foul. Nothing the Hawks did made any difference. In the first quarter alone, Howard scored 18 points on 6-6 shooting from the field and 6-8 shooting from the line while drawing nine fouls on seven different Atlanta defenders. Against the Hawks’ undersized frontline, Dwight Howard suddenly looks less clumsy and frustrated and more like an unstoppable engine of doom who dislikes referees and loves sleeves. 
With Howard looking unstoppable and Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis making everything they threw up from the perimeter, it looked like the Magic were on their way to another easy victory. The Hawks had other plans. They played well enough offensively to weather the storm in the first quarter, going inside themselves and making open threes when the Magic rotated. Howard went to the bench after picking up his second foul early in the second quarter, and Atlanta went on a quick 10-2 run while he sat to take the lead. When Howard came back into the game, Atlanta hit enough open mid-range shots to keep the lead, and went into the break leading by eight. 
The turning point in the game came early in the third quarter. While converting an and-1, Howard got a bloody nose that sent him to the locker room because of the “blood rule.” With a six-point lead and Howard off the floor, Atlanta had a golden opportunity to push the lead to double-digits. They didn’t. The Hawks inexplicably took their foot off the gas pedal, committing lazy turnovers on the offensive end and failing to play tough defense when the Magic had the ball. When Howard checked back in two minutes after leaving the floor, the Magic had cut the lead to one, and Atlanta no longer had control of the game. 
Orlando took the ball to the ball to the basket aggressively in the third quarter, scoring 35 points in the period. Atlanta hit enough shots to keep themselves in the game, but a buzzer-beating three by Jameer Nelson gave Orlando a one-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
After executing on offense all game long, Atlanta finally went cold in the fourth quarter. Joe Johnson started holding the ball at the top of the key for way too long, and the Hawks only scored four points in the first 4:59 of the final quarter. 
That’s what opened the door for Orlando. Their outside shooting is what allowed them to barge through it. With 8:48 remaining in the game, Vince Carter hit a three to put the Magic up by six. That’s what started the barrage. Over the next four minutes, the Magic hit five more jumpers, with three of them coming from beyond the arc. When the dust had settled, the Magic were up 16 with just under five minutes left to play. Game over. You know the Magic are going to have a run of outside shooting like once or twice every game — on Thursday night, the run came at the worst possible time for Atlanta. 
A few other notes:
-Dwight Howard had a monster game. 29 points, 17 rebounds, and only one missed shot from the floor. If he can stay on the floor (39 minutes on Thursday) and make his free throws (13-18 from the line), he’s all but unstoppable. Unanimous All-NBA selections don’t happen by accident.
-Vince Carter looked great in the second half. Not only was he making some very tough shots, but he was aggressive when running the pick-and-roll and unleashed a few dunks I didn’t know he had in him anymore. Every now and then, he gives you glimpses of why he’s considered one of the most talented players to pick up a basketball. As Malcolm Gladwell observed in 2006, it’s easy to see why Vince remains so respected and feared in certain circles — he bases his game around things that almost nobody else can do.
-Give Al Horford a lot of credit. He looked to attack when Gortat was in the game, and had a lot of success with that little 15-footer from the right side when Howard was patrolling the paint. 24/10 for Horford, on 9-13 shooting from the field.
-The Hawks outscored the Magic by four points during the 34 minutes Jamal Crawford was in the game. They were outscored by 18 points during the 14 minutes Mike Bibby was in the game. 
-Joe Johnson is not making a great case for himself as a max free agent right now. Someone will end up giving him the money, though. 
-Josh Smith did a good job of being aggressive, but finished with a 6-15 shooting night and five turnovers. He needs to play much more disciplined basketball if the Hawks want to have a chance — some of those turnovers were pure carelessness, and Hubie Brown caught Smith walking back on defense more than once.
The Hawks should give themselves a pat on the back for showing that they can compete with this Magic team, even on the road. If the Magic didn’t play a nearly perfect offensive game, Atlanta could easily have stolen this one. The Hawks are much better at home than they are on the road; we’ll see if they can make this a series by taking both games in Atlanta. 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 8: LeBron James #23 helps Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers to his feet after Love was fouled during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 8, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Trail Blazers 105-100. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.

Chris Bosh: “Just being smart and cautious” pulling out of All-Star Game

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 09: Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat shoots during a game against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — You could hear it in Chris Bosh‘s voice, he wanted to be part of this All-Star Weekend in the city where he first made a name for himself as an NBA player. He specifically wanted to be part of Saturday’s Three-Point Contest as a big man.

Instead, he is out of everything All-Star Weekend due to what team officials said is a strained calf. The announcement came late, Bosh had done the Friday morning media availability and talked like a man going to play, and then a couple of hours later it was announced he was out.

“Yesterday I was upbeat, but it just kind of lingered,” Bosh said. “I tried to treat it and all these things, but it’s just one of those funny things where if you feel like it’s not really turning a corner, you know calves can turn into really major, major problems. Any other circumstance, I’d try to push through it, but it just didn’t make any sense to do it.”

The concern is that this is more than just a calf muscle injury. Bosh missed much of last season with blood clots in his lungs, a life-threatening disease. Those lung clots can be caused by deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the leg. The fact the NBA let him out of All-Star Weekend that late (and called Al Horford on vacation in warm Cancun and told him to get to frigid Toronto) is a sign of caution and a little concern by the league.

Bosh doesn’t think this is a repeat of that, although he expects to undergo an MRI soon just to be safe.

I’m pretty optimistic,” that it’s not, Bosh said. “I’m always making sure. When we get back to Miami we’ll do everything we need to do to treat this…. 

“Just being smart and cautious. I’m just taking it a day at a time. I’m trying to make sure that I go and get it checked out. We’re doing everything we need to do here; there’s not much we can do now. Of course, the trainers and doctors will take another look at it and re-evaluate it, and just make sure.”

This is the smart move, what Bosh dealt with last season is not something to ignore and hope it gets better.

That doesn’t mean Bosh likes it.

“I’ve been kinda down the last couple days,” Bosh said. “But I’m here, and I still get to take in everything and enjoy what I can. I was really looking forward to competing (in the Three-Point Contest) because that something unique for me, but there’s nothing I can do.”

The Heat are off until Feb. 19. Bosh said he hopes to be back on the court then, but he doesn’t know.