Game of the night: Orlando reminds Atlanta of the gap between the Hawks and the elite

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Last season, Orlando swept Atlanta right out of the playoffs. Then this summer, both teams essentially went with the status quo.

So maybe we should not be surprised by Monday night’s outcome, a 93-89 Orlando victory. Except that the Hawks were off to a fast start, had a new coach, have been incorporating radical ideals like “off the ball movement” into their offense, so maybe this would be different. Maybe things had changed.

Nope. This game had just about everything the Hawks needed to beat the Magic — no Jameer Nelson, the Magic being cold from three, Atlanta off to a fast start, Vince Carter and Dwight Howard in foul trouble — and it was still the Magic.

The Hawks are still the Hawks — a good team a step or two behind the elite in the East. And pretty much locked in there. And the Magic are still in that elite.

As for this game, the Hawks got off to an early lead because they were getting points in transition. Not that the pace was fast but the Magic were not getting back in transition. As Dwight Howard was yelling at Vince Carter to do. It begs the question of why the Hawks don’t generally try to run more, why they are in the bottom 10 in the league in pace when they have so many athletes on the roster who can finish a break. But we’ve been asking that question for years.

As expected the pace ground down and Orlando caught up.

One big thing that was different from last playoffs — Atlanta chose not to double Howard on the block. They went with a lot of Jason Collins (who starts) and Zaza Pachulia (who should start and get more minutes than Collins because neither is all that great defensively but at least Pachulia can score a little). Howard finished with 27 on 50 percent shooting and 11 boards — an increase in points and rebounds over his season average, but down in shooting percentage.

But that one-on-one post play allowed the other Hawks to stay home on Magic three pointers, and the result was the Magic shot 18.2 percent from deep.

In a close game late, the Hawks are still the Hawks — a lot of Joe Johnson either coming off picks or in isolation. They have more movement in the offense, but under pressure they reverted to bad habits. The Magic are still the Magic — a lot of pick-and-roll, although with Nelson out it was a lot of Carter/Howard pick-and-roll.

Same as it ever was with the Hawks defending the pick-and-roll — they love to switch it. The Larry Drew Hawks may not switch everything as they used to, but they switch a lot. Late in the game that led to trouble — Josh Smith had already switched on to Vince Carter, so when Howard came out to set up the pick Orlando had a bunch of matchups they liked. Carter had the ball and now Al Horford on him and did what he should with that matchup and attacked off the high pick, got the bucket-and-one. That meant with15.5 second and Orlando’s two point lead became… well four points because he missed the free throw, but it became a two possession game and that was it.

This early in the season is too early to read anything into April and May in the NBA. But this game felt like last playoffs, when the Magic were just wholly superior to the Hawks. It’s hard to see how anything is really different now.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.