Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Atlanta Hawks

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.

Serge Ibaka lifts Magic over Pistons 98-92 in return of Reggie Jackson

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, left, and Jeff Green (34) celebrate against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Orlando won 98-92. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — For about ten minutes on Sunday night, it appeared the Detroit Pistons had solved the Orlando Magic’s lock-down defense.

Like the rest of the NBA, they will have to keep searching for answers.

Orlando gave up 27 points in the first 9:30 but then shut the Pistons down in a 98-92 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys, because that team was averaging 118 points their last three games, and that was on the road,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “We held them to 92, and most of that was our second-half defense. They were at home, and they got 42 points on 37 percent shooting in the second half.”

Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, while Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic have held 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100 points.

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka said. “We knew we could play defense, and now we’re playing for each other on offense. We knew we could play this well. We just had to keep working.”

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit’s first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

“I felt good out there, but I wish we could have gotten a win out of it,” Jackson said. “I think there might have been a little rust, but I was able to do everything I need to do. I wouldn’t be out there if I was going to be physically limited.”

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“We were terrible on defense,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Our offensive numbers were good enough to win, especially against that defense, but we didn’t guard anyone. We just didn’t want to put in the effort.”

On Jackson’s first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play – he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead.

Morris had 14 points in the first 7 minutes but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Magic scored 35 points in the second quarter to take a 58-50 halftime lead. Orlando shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half to Detroit’s 51.2 percent and only turned the ball over four times.

“We’re starting to see the value of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “If we pass with good timing, good intent and good delivery, it will help us shoot the ball, and we’ve got good shooters.”

The Magic led by 11 late in the third, but the Pistons narrowed the gap to 78-73 at quarter’s end. Orlando moved the margin back to double figures with nine minutes left, with the Pistons struggling to get open looks against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Ibaka ended a Pistons run with a 3-pointer to make it 90-80 with 5:32 to play, then blocked Drummond’s dunk attempt at the other end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to pull the Pistons within 95-90, but Jeff Green clinched the game with a turnaround jumper.

TIP INS

Magic: Former Piston Jodie Meeks had seven points in 15 minutes in his second game of the season. Meeks only played three games last season for Detroit due to chronic foot problems.

Pistons: Jackson spent most of the game matched up against D.J. Augustin, the main player given up by the Pistons in the three-team trade that brought him to Detroit in 2015.

TROUBLE FROM THE LINE

The Pistons were 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the first half, with Drummond missing four in a row. He came into the game shooting 47.4 percent from the line after setting a league record at 35.5 percent in 2015-16.

RARE STREAK

The Magic have won two straight road games for the first time this season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-88 on Friday.

ONLY A SINGLE-DOUBLE

Vucevic fell two rebounds short of his seventh straight double-double. He had a nine-game double-double streak in 2012-13.

 

Brilliant dig: Knicks fans chant “Derek Fisher” as Kings’ Matt Barnes inbounds ball

Sacramento Kings' Matt Barnes (22) reacts during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (Photo/Andres Kudacki)
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I had hoped never to write of this again, but alas… remember when Matt Barnes got in a fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over the latter spending time with Barnes’ estranged wife? It cost Barnes a couple of game suspension.

Barnes is playing well for the Sacramento Kings this season, who were making their annual stop in Madison Square Garden Sunday. As Barnes was inbounding the ball in the fourth quarter, some Knicks fans started a “Derek Fisher” chant.

It’s not original, some Pacers fans had done it before. But it’s still a Cameron Crazies worthy ploy.

The Knicks got 20 points each from Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose to get the 106-98 win, despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*

Russell Westbrook’s no-look, two-hand, behind-his-head pass ignites Thunder break

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Russell Westbrook was just himself — hustling, attacking, and getting his fifth triple-double in a row Sunday night against the Pelicans.

But the play of the night didn’t get him any points or an assist. It was Westbrook hustling, getting to the floor to get a loose ball, then making the showtime pass to start a Globetrotters-like fast break that ended with an Andre Roberson dunk.

Westbrook had an impressive dunk of his own.