NBA Playoff Preview: Orlando vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Magic: 52-30 (No. 4 seed)
Hawks: 44-38(No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Hawks 3-1

KEY INJURIES
Magic: J.J. Redick, missed 16 straight games with an abdomen issue but is expected back for playoffs; Gilbert Arenas’ knees are, well, still Gilbert Arenas’ knees, but more days off in playoffs should help him; Daniel Orton is out for playoffs, but he wasn’t seeing big minutes anyway.
Hawks: Jason Collins missed several games with a sprained ankle, but played a few minutes in season finale and will be a go for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Magic: Off. 105.7 (10th in NBA); Def. 99.4 (3rd in NBA)
Hawks: Off. 103.7 (20th in NBA); Def. 104.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEY MAGIC

Dwight Howard: He’s at the heart of what the Magic do at both ends of the floor — he anchors the defense, he is the post player/pick setter on offense. The Magic offensive plan is simple — let Howard get his, then when the other team doubles start passing out of it and hit threes. That doesn’t work if you can single-cover Howard. He struggled some this season against Jason Collins, but with time to prepare it may be different. Howard has the tools to blow Collins out of the map, the question in how long does it take him to figure it out and start doing it.

Ryan Anderson: Another guy who will be key at both ends — he is going to get a fair amount of time on Al Horford (Howard and Bass also will get time on him). Horford is the best Hawks player this season, he must be slowed. Also, Anderson’s ability to step out and hit threes (hitting 41.1 percent in last 10 games) will pull Atlanta bigs away from the basket, giving Howard and/or Bass more room to grab offensive boards.

Gilbert Arenas: Atlanta should get bench points out of Jamal Crawford. Should. But it will be up Arenas to match that with some points of his own and getting the second unit going. But the real key is for Arneas to do that in the flow of the offense — when he breaks out and starts jacking up shots in isolation the Magic offense will sputter and open the door to the Hawks.

THREE KEY HAWKS

Jason Collins: He is the X-factor in this series. During the regular season he was able to single cover Howard and that allowed the other Hawks defenders to stay home on the Magic’s many shooters. To do it for a total of 93 minutes in four regular season games is one thing, can he keep that up during a seven-game series? If so the Hawks have a chance.

Jamal Crawford: Put simply, Atlanta need scoring off the bench so they need Crawford. They really need last-season’s Crawford, who operated out of isolation sets and simple pin-downs to get him free. This season Larry Drew made the Hawks offense more complex and Crawford has been one of the guys struggling to adjust. They need him now.

Josh Smith: He is not a good jump shooter (39 percent on long twos, taking 4.3 per game), but he takes them anyway and it kills the Hawks offense. If he does that in this series Howard will grab the board and the Magic will be off and running. Also, there are reports he is the locker room malcontent and the Hawks will need everyone on the same page.

OUTLOOK

With Jason Collins, the Hawks think they have some who can single-handedly match up with Howard, and that is why they think they have a chance. But can you really see Dwight Howard getting stopped for long by a Collins twin? Look for the Magic to run some on the Hawks (a bad transition defensive team anyway) and in doing so get Howard some early deep position. And they will try to get fouls on Collins.

The Hawks are basically the same team that the Magic swept out of the playoffs last season. New coach, they have Collins and Hinrich, but things are not that different. The Magic have come back to the pack a little, but they are still a 50-win team with a dominant player.

PREDICTION

It’s not going to be a sweep like a year ago, but it will be pretty close.

Magic in 5.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.