Bulls' Rose passes the ball around Pacers' Hibbert during the first half of Game 1 of their NBA Eastern Conference first round playoff basketball game in Chicago

NBA Playoffs: Chicago struggles, but Rose comes to the rescue

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The Chicago Bulls finished the regular season with an NBA-best 62 wins. The Indiana Pacers finished the regular season with 37 wins. There was not supposed to be a lot of suspense surrounding the two teams’ first-round matchup. However, nobody told the Pacers they were supposed to go quietly against the Bulls, and the NBA Playoffs got started with an absolutely fantastic game.

The Pacers set the tone early by making jumper after jumper against Chicago’s top-ranked defense. The Bulls out-scored the Pacers 44-32 in the paint and 26-11 from the free-throw line, but the Pacers led for most of the game because of their sharp jump shooting. Darren Collison and A.J. Price were able to nail off-the-dribble threes when Rose went under the screen against them. Danny Granger was able to drain some quick-release catch-and-shoot jumpers with barely any room. Tyler Hansborough could not miss from 18 feet. The Pacers hardly got any wide-open threes or easy opportunities at the rim against the Bulls’ defense, but it didn’t matter — they were able to score on the Bulls’ defense because they believed that they could make any shot on the floor at any time.

The Bulls didn’t have much working for them on offense outside of Derrick Rose going to the basket. Fortunately for them, the Pacers had no chance of stopping Derrick Rose when he decided to go to the basket. Rose went 0-9 from beyond the three-point arc on Sunday, and only one of his 10 field goals came from outside of 15 feet. But even when Indiana tried to play Rose for the drive, he was able to snake his way into the paint and either make a twisting layup or draw a foul — Rose made 7 shots in the painted area, and sunk 19 of his 21 free throw attempts.

With 2:32 remaining in the game, the Pacers had a six-point lead. Then Derrick Rose took over. After a missed Tyler Hansborough layup, Rose fired an absolutely gorgeous pass to Joakim Noah for a dunk that cut the lead to four. On the next two possessions, he converted an impossible and-1 and hit a floater to tie the game. With the game tied at 99, Rose drove the lane, forced the defense to collapse, and hit a wide-open Kyle Korver for a three. In less than two minutes, Rose single-handedly turned a six-point deficit into a three-point lead, and a loss into a win. That’s what MVPs do.

This was a great win for the Bulls, but it did reveal that they could have some serious problems going into the playoffs. The Bulls’ depth was one of their greatest assets in the regular season, but they would have fallen to a 37-win team on Sunday if Derrick Rose didn’t have an absolute masterpiece of a game. Carlos Boozer was hampered with foul trouble, and was completely outplayed on both ends of the floor when he was in the game. Joakim Noah provided great energy and grabbed eight key offensive rebounds, but shot poorly. C.J. Watson, Taj Gibson, and Ronnie Brewer barely made an impact, and Omer Asik barely played.

In the playoffs, most teams tighten their rotation and rely less on their role players; one has to wonder if that will hurt a team as deep as the Bulls. The Bulls got what they needed from their supporting cast: Luol Deng made some big shots, Kyle Korver made all four of his threes, and Kurt Thomas was in the right place at the right time in that way he always seems to be. Still, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best players on the floor Sunday were all wearing Pacer jerseys, and that has to worry fans hoping to see the Bulls go all the way.

I think this will be the closest game of this playoff series — The Pacers couldn’t miss from outside, the Bulls couldn’t buy a jumper, and Chicago was still able to scrape out a victory. Still, the Pacers did reveal that the Bulls have some weaknesses, and those weaknesses could come back to bite them later in these playoffs.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) reacts against the Atlanta Hawks in the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.

Larry Bird on Frank Vogel’s future with Pacers: “I don’t know what’s going to happen”

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24:  Team President Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the Miami Heat during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play smaller and faster this season. The Pacers started the season doing that, but they weren’t defending consistently and not winning enough (dropping 7-of-11 through one stretch in December), so coach Frank Vogel started to play bigger and slower. It worked well enough for the Pacers to make the playoffs and go seven games deep in the first round against the Raptors.

Team president Larry Bird isn’t happy — he doesn’t like that Vogel changed the team’s style. For that reason, it’s unclear if Vogel — whose contract is up — will be back with the Pacers next season. Here is what Bird told Greg Doyle of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday he hasn’t decided whether to bring back coach Frank Vogel for a seventh season, telling IndyStar: “It’s no secret — I want us to score more points…

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird said….

“Frank’s a great guy. He’s going to be fine no matter what happens. If he’s back, he’ll be fine here. If he’s not, he’s not. We’ll see.”

If Vogel were allowed to walk away, a host of other teams would line up to pay him. Houston would be an interesting fit (although that franchise reportedly has its sights set on Jeff Van Gundy).

Here’s the question Bird and team owner Herb Simon need to answer: If not Vogel, who do you have that’s better? Think about the coaches still on the market, who is better than Vogel?

Vogel gets his teams to defend like few other coaches in the league (the Pacers were third in the league in defensive rating this season with a largely overhauled roster), and that is the foundation of any winning team. Force an “offensive coordinator” assistant on Vogel if you want, but to give up one of the better young coaches in the NBA would be a mistake by the Pacers.

And if you want to play smaller and faster, get — and in the case of Solomon Hill try to keep — players who fit that style. Right now the Pacers roster is not constructed to be great that way.

Hornets future unclear with 4 starters becoming free agents

MIAMI, FL - MAY 01: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets takes the floor during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on May 1, 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  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – The Charlotte Hornets have a major decision ahead of them this offseason – keep the core group from a team that tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference or revamp the roster by adding new pieces.

With four starters set to become free agents and only seven players under contract next season, the Hornets have the flexibility to make major changes if they so choose.

Coach Steve Clifford said Monday he’d prefer to coach the same group again, but acknowledged it might be difficult to re-sign everyone given the NBA salary cap.

Much of the Hornets future could be predicated on what happens with unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum, whom Clifford acknowledged will be the team’s No. 1 priority in free agency. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points along with 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Hornets during the regular season, although his production was limited in the postseason due to a foot injury. The Hornets lost in seven games to the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Batum could command a max contract this offseason due to the increase in the NBA salary cap. And while it is debatable if he’s worth that much, Clifford knows he’s a valuable cog in the starting lineup.

When asked if he wants to return next year, Batum said, “Why not?,” saying this past season was one of the most enjoyable of his eight-year NBA career. He liked the freedom Clifford gave him and the idea of being one of first two options on offense.

“I want to talk to (the Hornets) first, for sure,” Batum said of free agency. “July 1 will be a crazy day, but will Charlotte be my first call? Yes.”

However, Batum indicated he only wants to return if the Hornets make an effort to bring back the nucleus of this year’s team.

He said the chemistry of this year’s Hornets team was outstanding, on and off the court.

Along with Batum, three others starters – Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson – are also unrestricted free agents. Backup Jeremy Lin is almost certainly going to opt out of the final year of his contract given he has outperformed the $2 million salary he’s set to make in 2016-17.

“If you asked me would I be interested in coming back, there’s no question in my mind – it’s a resounding yes,” Lin said. “I would be very interested in coming back.”

Lee, Williams and Jefferson also indicated their desire to return to the Hornets as well, but it remains unclear if general manager Rich Cho can – or even wants to – bring everyone back for another run at the playoffs or if he’ll look in a different direction to upgrade.

Cho is expected to meet with the media later this week.

“I feel like any time, especially in pro sports, when you keep a group of guys together for three or four years, whatever the case may be, you can do some really good things,” Williams said.

A look at what the Hornets face this offseason:

BIGGEST NEED: Rebounding. The Hornets rebounded well in the regular season, but Clifford said the team’s struggles on the glass in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat was a big reason it was ousted from the playoffs.

GOOD NEWS: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed all but seven games due to shoulder injuries, is expected back next season. The former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft is considered the team’s top defensive player.

BAD NEWS: By virtue of making the playoffs, the Hornets don’t have a lottery pick and may not have a chance to find the dominant offensive player that Clifford so desperately covets in the draft.

TOUGH ENDING: Kemba Walker said while losing to Miami in Game 7 was disappointing, the season is “one to be proud of.” Walked add, “At one point we were 17-20 and then we finished the season with 48 wins. I don’t think anybody expected that. Nobody even thought we would make the playoffs, so for us to force a Game 7 against a really good team like Miami.”

ZELLER AT CENTER: The Hornets plan to stick with Cody Zeller at center next season – instead of power forward – but Clifford said he still wants the 7-footer to work on his outside shot.

Doc Rivers says he doesn’t plan to break up Clippers’ core

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers leans on the scorer's table during the second half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Trail Blazers won 108-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Once again the Clippers had an impressive 53-win season where they were sixth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating — something done without Blake Griffin for large stretches of it — but it ended early in the playoffs. This time the reason was a legitimate one — Chris Paul and Griffin were lost to injuries — but the results are the same.

Is it time for a major overhaul in Los Angeles?

Not if you ask coach/GM Doc Rivers. Here is what he said on Monday, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times and Dan Woike of the Orange County Register.

Those free agents Rivers likes are key bench guys: Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jeff Green. In the summer of 2017, Rivers and everyone else on the planet expects Paul and Griffin to opt out.

While the Clippers are good there is one big problem — Golden State is better and not going anywhere. They loom over the West like Everest. And that’s not to mention the Spurs will continue to be good and, depending on what happens with their key free agent, Oklahoma City is a very good team. The top of the West is stacked, and it’s hard to see the Clippers climbing out of it as currently constructed. They are in a loop where they are good but not good enough.

Changing that is not simple.

There are plenty of rumors that the Clippers will seriously listen to offers for Griffin this summer, and that they laid the groundwork for it at the deadline. But with Griffin showing some age and wanting a long max contract a year from now, how much are teams going to give up to get him if they could lose him in free agency? And will those teams want to keep him at that price in 2017? While the Clippers may be open to a deal they are a win-now team that can’t just get prospects and picks back for him, they need to get better now. That deal may not be available.

The Clippers most likely will come back with their core next season and make one more run at it, just because better options will not present themselves.

But the Clippers will be out there looking for a blockbuster.