The Atlanta Hawks will soon be a playoff lock

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With a win tonight, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to lock up a spot in the playoffs. As we know, merely making an appearance in the postseason cures all ills; no malady can withstand the tide of good feelings that comes from playing in bonus basketball games, and the Hawks will be reborn again as Phoenixes once Game 82 is in the books. Right?

Cue Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Normally [securing a playoff spot] would be a footnote considering that a postseason berth has been a formality for a while. But with the way things are going for the Hawks, making it official would give them something to feel good about. “For the psyche, it would be great,” coach Larry Drew said Friday, “having gone through what we have gone through this month.”

It actually has been longer than that: Starting with a 117-83 loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 8, the Hawks have lost 14 of 21 games. They are 4-8 this month despite playing 10 home games. That loss to Philadelphia is one of three at home by at least 30 points this season. If the Hawks (40-32) earn 42 victories they would become the only winning team in NBA history to suffer that many lopsided home losses, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

…After an initial improvement in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) following the trade for guard Kirk Hinrich last month, the Hawks are struggling to slow opponents. Four of their past five opponents have scored more than 100 points, including middling offensive teams Chicago and Philadelphia. The Hawks’ offense has regressed, too. Last season the Hawks were No. 3 in the NBA in offensive efficiency. After ranking in the top third of the 30-team league for most of this season, they’ve slipped to 20th.

As bad as the numbers look, the Hawks’ intangibles have been worse. Drew said the team is “fragile” and gives in to adversity. Forward Josh Smith said the Hawks don’t back up each other. Horford said they need to be mentally tougher. Guard Joe Johnson has seemed most despondent, lamenting after the past two losses that all the players’ talk hasn’t resulted in action.

Playing the playoffs is, in itself, an accomplishment. But for a team as troubled as this year’s Hawks, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Securing a postseason berth not only fails to solve those items in Cunningham’s laundry list in his final paragraph, but it also won’t repair Atlanta’s broken rotations, magically put the ball in Al Horford’s hands, or prevent the Hawks from settling into poor isolation possessions. This is a playoff team and nothing more, and considering the same could be said of the Hawks of the last three seasons, it seems safe to say that the franchise has settled into a comfortable mediocrity.

The Hawks need work. From Larry Drew’s rotation to Josh Smith’s body language, this team is in need of change in a big way, and that’s not going to come overnight or even over a few weeks. It will require superficial adjustments, sure, but also substantive ones; a subtle re-allocation of shots or minutes won’t solve the Hawks’ problems or make them contenders. It’s going to take creative financing and actual player movement for Atlanta to make any kind of legitimate step forward, and unfortunately for Drew, it might possibly require a new head coach. It’s not Drew’s fault that his perimeter defenders can’t stay in front of their defensive assignments, but it’s on him that some of Atlanta’s more effective players stay glued to the bench while regulars do things I can only hope he didn’t ask them to do. There’s no system of accountability in Atlanta, and that’s a damning problem.

The Hawks may make the playoffs today, but as Cunningham noted, it should only be a formality. Atlanta’s entire campaign is something of a formality these days, and the same will be said of every subsequent one until this roster undergoes significant changes.

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.

 

Wizards show some fight, top Raps 122-103, get series to 2-1

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WASHINGTON (AP) — All of about 2 1/2 minutes into the game, Washington forward Markieff Morris and Toronto’s OG Anunoby needed to be separated after a near-fight that drew in other players.

Early in the third quarter Friday night, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was called for a flagrant foul when he swiped a hand across Bradley Beal‘s forehead as the Wizards guard went in for a breakaway layup. Later in that period, things really came close to spiraling out of control, but John Wall‘s bodyguard interceded when Washington’s All-Star jawed with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka.

As that scene unfolded on the court, spectators directed “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants at the opponents from Canada, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blared over the arena’s speakers. Amid all the ruckus, Beal and Wall kept their heads and helped the Wizards pull further and further away for a 122-103 victory.

What was once a dull, lopsided series is suddenly quite interesting.

Beal heeded his coach’s plea to “do his job” by scoring 21 of his 28 points in the first half, Wall delivered 28 points and 14 assists, and the eighth-seeded Wizards cut their Eastern Conference first-round playoff deficit to 2-1.

“We’re not going out to try to box every game,” Beal said, before describing Morris as “a bully with a smile.”

Added Beal: “We came out tonight with an edge about ourselves.”

After letting the Raptors grab the first 2-0 series lead in franchise history, the Wizards came home and checked off every box coach Scott Brooks presented. They got Beal more involved after he made only three shots in Game 2; they actually led after the first quarter, 30-29; they produced 19 turnovers that led to 28 points.

“They came out and punched us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “And we allowed them to.”

He meant that figuratively, of course, but the choice of words sure seemed apt.

The Raptors did appear to take the worse of the physical nature of the game.

DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 23 points, wore a Band-Aid under his right eye afterward. Reserve Pascal Siakam held a bag of ice over a cut on his lip that required three stitches.

“Ain’t nobody fighting out here,” said Lowry, who had 19 points and eight assists. “I mean, it got physical, but ain’t nobody fighting. It’s a heated moment, but that’s the game of basketball.”

Each team boasts a pair of elite, All-Star guards. This time, Washington’s pair came out on top.

The start initially had the look of “Here we go again,” as Toronto moved ahead 27-18. The Raptors, after all, outscored Washington by an average of 11 points in the first period over Games 1 and 2. But this time, Washington responded with a 12-point run capped by Beal’s 3 with under a minute left.

Beal scored 12 in the quarter a day after he, Wall and Brooks met to discuss ways to get Beal more involved in the offense. Entering Friday, Beal was averaging only 14 points in the playoffs, well below his 22.6 average during the regular season.

“We need both our guys to step up,” Brooks said about Beal and Wall. “It was good tonight.”

 

Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..