Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic - Game Two

NBA Playoffs: Magic defense edges out Hawks in Game 2

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The Orlando Magic still haven’t figured out how to get consistent offensive production out of their perimeter players, but they made one drastic improvement from Game 1 to Game 2: the Magic defense is now in full effect. Atlanta played a competitive game by putting up a strong defensive front of their own and hitting some tough shots along the way, but top-notch production from Dwight Howard and the return of Orlando’s elite defense were enough to seal the win, 88-82.

The structure of the Hawks’ offense isn’t the soundest — any team that relies too heavily on contested jumpers is destined for some hiccups — but the onus was still on the Magic to impact to enforce their will on that end of the court. The common rhetoric states that Orlando’s defense “starts with Dwight Howard,” but that particular phrasing couldn’t be further from the truth. Howard is the finisher. He contests almost every shot in the paint, and collects defensive rebounds at an amazing rate. The Magic defense starts with the efficacy of perimeter defenders; when Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, and Hedo Turkoglu are scrambling to rotate and cover the open man, Dwight Howard is better positioned to defend the rim and alter shots. Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson deserve credit as well for their work in rotation, as Orlando unleashed a team-wide defensive effort to limit Atlanta to 93.2 points per 100 possessions.

This is closer to the potent D the Magic boasted during the regular season, and could be the key to besting opponents who employ a strategy of defending Dwight Howard one-on-one — as the Hawks have done in this series thus far. Howard again piled up the turnovers, but his seven giveaways were eclipsed by hyper-efficient shooting (9-of-12 from the field, and a fantastic 15-of-19 from the line) and incredible production (33 points, 19 rebounds, eight offensive boards). Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia deserve credit for their defensive effort against Howard, but clearly their efforts weren’t enough to seriously curtail Howard’s output.

Howard aside, the Magic shot just 27.3 percent from the field. That’s horrific, and Atlanta’s team defense deserves a lot of the credit. Yet Orlando still managed to take their first win of the series, in no small part due to the Magic’s terrific offensive rebounding, a failure of a different kind for Atlanta’s team D. In addition to Howard’s eight rebounds on the offensive end, Bass and Anderson combined to grab eight of their own, pushing Orlando’s offensive rebounding rate up to a game-saving 43.5 percent.

The Hawks provide a very different story; Atlanta shot a superior (relative to Orlando’s miserable marks) but still subpar 39.5 percent overall, but even a nice defensive performance couldn’t secure a win in Game 2. Even with a fine showing the Hawks’ defense isn’t quite potent enough to win in spite of their offense in this context, just as their offense would so rarely win in spite of their defense; Atlanta has to be on their game on both sides of the ball to be more than merely competitive against Orlando, and that just wasn’t the case tonight. Jamal Crawford (25 points, 8-17 FG) had it going and Josh Smith (17 points, 8-14 FG, six rebounds) provided some nice supplementary scoring, but otherwise the Hawks’ offense just couldn’t get much of a spark. They did a great job of weathering runs with periodic bursts, but Joe Johnson was too inefficient and Al Horford too unproductive. I’m not sure either of those problems are easily remedied, either; most of Johnson’s problems were issues of shot selection that have plagued him for years, and Horford’s opportunities were limited by Orlando’s scrambling. Larry Drew will have his work cut out for him in jump-starting the Hawks’ offense to acceptable levels, but he’s been faced with the same inefficiency all season and has made little progress on that front. Atlanta ranked 20th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, and one shouldn’t expect that standing to change overnight just because the postseason is in swing.

The Hawks are right there. They were perhaps within a handful of offensive rebounds of taking a 2-0 series lead in spite of all of their weaknesses, and they’re competitive enough that the Magic can take nothing for granted. Defensive might must be proven and maintained on a game-by-game basis. Howard must continue to be aggressive, and do his best to slash those turnovers. Orlando’s shooters have to keep working to get open, even as their quality attempts become fewer and fewer. Otherwise, Atlanta has the potential to make this series far too long and far too interesting for Stan Van Gundy’s liking, exponentially increasing their likelihood of taking the series with each win along the way.

Buckle up — there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”

Report: With new building set to open, Sacramento pushes to host 2020 All-Star Game

The Sacramento Kings released the NBA basketball team's new logo, Tuesday, April 26, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. The new logo has a reshaped crown and new typeface meant to convey a modern look. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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In just a few weeks, the new arena that kept the Kings in Sacramento is set to open. It’s a well-designed basketball-first facility that both the fans and players should love.

Now the Kings want to show that building off to everybody and host a future All-Star Game, reports James Ham of CSNCalifornia.com.

It’s not uncommon for a team with a new building to get to host the All-Star Game. The 2017 game is in New Orleans, 2018 is in Los Angeles, 2019 will go to Charlotte if the “bathroom bill” is repealed (or strongly modified). That makes 2020 the next one up.

The Kings new building is in downtown Sacramento, in a growing area close to the California state capital. The only question is whether that area has enough hotel rooms and nearby convention space to handle the massive influx of people that come to an All-Star Game. The league office has this mapped out, it knows how many hotel rooms it needs in close proximity to the arena, for example. If Sacramento can meet all those qualifications, it could well land the February showdown.

Sixers players have dinner with Will Smith

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24:  Actor Will Smith attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Focus" at TCL Chinese Theatre on February 24, 2015 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Ali. Men in Black. I am Legend. Fresh Prince. Suicide Squad. Independence Day. Plus more than a few movies he’d like us to forget (hello Hancock).

Will Smith is all that — and part owner of the Philadephia 76ers.

As training camp opened, Smith took his team out to dinner, according to the Sixers official site.

Jahlil Okafor and his teammates weren’t told that the Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning entertainer from West Philadelphia would be dining with them.

“It was great, it was a lot of fun,” said Okafor, who participated in Tuesday’s practice, despite sustaining a minor ankle sprain a few weeks ago. “Will Smith is my favorite celebrity, my favorite actor. It was great to hear him speak.”

Smith shared stories and passed along advice to a crowd consisting mostly of early to mid 20-year olds who grew up on his movies and albums.

“I think the main thing he said is the company you have around you,” Joel Embiid said. “He was trying to explain the people you have around you affect the type of person you are. He was just trying to tell us to have good people around. That’s the main thing I got from that.”

It’s a good lesson for the Sixers in what could be a season of lessons coming for the Philadephia. This team is going to be better than it was a year ago, but don’t confuse that with good. They may get there someday, but there are a lot of hard lessons to learn between now and then.

But it’s a lot more fun to get some of those lessons from Will Smith.

Report: Other teams offered Denver first round picks for Will Barton, answer was no

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 23:  Will Barton #5 of the Denver Nuggets reacts after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Nuggets defeated the Suns 104-96. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Picking up Will Barton as part of the Arron Afflalo trade a couple of seasons back was one of the smartest moves of the Nuggets front office. Before last season they signed him to a three-year, $10 million deal and he blossomed as his jumper became a real weapon — this season he’s a guy to watch in the Sixth Man of the Year race.

A good player on a good contract? You can be sure other teams will try to poach him.

Which is exactly what happened, reports Christopher Dempsy at the Denver Post.

Now he’s being praised after a breakout season that landed him in the thick of the conversation for postseason awards, that had other teams offering first-round picks to nab him, and that had opponents highlighting him on scouting reports as a player to stop.

At age 25 Barton is part of a young core in Denver that includes Emanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and others. Why would Denver let Barton go?

At some point maybe Denver will move him to get a player at a position they need more. But that time is not today, Barton is still part of the plan in Denver. And it’s going to take him a lot to pry him away (that first round pick is going to have to be high up the board).