NBA Playoffs: Atlanta takes Game 4, Orlando is still searching

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We’re well past a mere first round scare or claims of an “upset alert.” With an 88-85 win in Game 4, the Atlanta Hawks have pushed the fourth-seeded Orlando Magic to the very edge of their playoff lives, a considerable achievement considering the regular season profiles of both teams. The Magic were the league’s fourth best team this season according to efficiency differential (per Hoopdata.com), while the Hawks were merely the 18th best. Atlanta flashed all of the flaws that their ranking would suggest on Sunday night, but it didn’t matter — the Hawks’ Game 4 performance was enough to secure a crucial victory.

The Hawks honestly tried their damnedest to lose this game. They turned the ball over on 15.4 percent of their possessions. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford tried to lock out the rest of their teammates on offense. Josh Smith pulled himself up by the net to chase a blocked shot, which resulted in an automatic goaltending violation — just one of his many head-scratching plays. With 28 seconds remaining in the game and holding just a three-point advantage, Crawford hijacked control of the ball and forced his team into a shot clock violation. One could go on and on with Atlanta’s blunders, but none of it would mean a damn thing; the Hawks made all of those mistakes and then some, and still pulled within a single victory of the second round.

In Game 4, the shot creation issues that have plagued the Magic throughout the entire series were exacerbated by a complete inability among Orlando’s players (save Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas) to connect on even their uncontested shot attempts. Jason Richardson’s absence hurt, if only because it’s hard to imagine that he would have played worse than Hedo Turkoglu (six points, 2-12 FG) or J.J. Redick (two points, 0-6 FG). Gilbert Arenas came back from the dead to contribute 20 points (on 18 shots) to complement Dwight Howard’s 29 points and 17 rebounds, but the rest of the Magic shot an atrocious 27.7 percent from the field, and a frankly amazing 1-of-20 from three-point range. Orlando isn’t an elite offensive team by any means, but they’re sinking lower and lower into the doldrums with every game. It’s widely known that Howard is the only standout defensive player on the roster, but he may be the only standout offensive player, too.

The Magic aren’t quite hopeless, but they haven’t yet demonstrated the ability to win this series. The defense has been up to par, but scoring at a rate of 93.4 points per 100 possessions (Orlando’s woeful offensive efficiency in Game 4) isn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately, Orlando doesn’t have many readily accessible avenues to efficient scoring. Jason Richardson is a genuine help, but he hasn’t established a game-changing precedent in this year’s playoffs; Richardson has largely been interchangeable with his ineffective perimeter-oriented teammates.

So where, really can Orlando turn for more offensive production? Arenas’ Game 4 outburst was nice for the Magic, but depending on Gil is a mistake given his disappointing play this season. Nelson and Turkoglu have proven completely inadequate as Howard sidekicks. Redick and Ryan Anderson can’t capitalize on their opportunities. Brandon Bass has been decent (relatively speaking), but can’t generate the scoring output that Orlando needs. Stan Van Gundy is undoubtedly kept up late at night pondering the best ways to maximize this roster’s offensive potential, but there’s no easy cure for his insomnia. The Magic defense has been there (and held the Hawks to 96.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 4), but no Magic player except for Dwight Howard could — or can — score with any consistency. Orlando’s collective fate isn’t yet sealed, but it may as well be; the skill sets of Orlando’s players aren’t likely to change between now and Game 5, which leaves precious few possibilities for the Magic’s revival.

Pistons consider shutting down Reggie Jackson for rest of season

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The Pistons have started Reggie Jackson. They’ve brought him off the bench. They’ve sat him entirely.

No role seems right for the point guard as Detroit has lost four straight and seven of eight.

Now, it seems the Pistons might just shut down Jackson, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury. He’s at least doubtful for tonight’s key game against the Heat.

Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy, via Fox Sports Detroit:

We’ve been thinking about this, actually for a long time, OK? And he’s been playing at — it’s just hard to put a percentage — but probably at about 80 percent. And as we get into this stretch of games in March where we’re playing a lot, the fatigue is just making it worse.

It wasn’t really fair to him. We were running him out there, putting pressure on him. He’s seeing things he should be able to do, and he just can’t do. He’s not feeling pain, but he just can’t make the plays he wants to make. And we’re trying to put him out there.

We were really struggling, and we just need to have guys who are at full energy and the whole thing. And as much as he wants to, he can’t right now. It’s honestly amazing what he’s done.

To his credit, he fought me on it. He wanted to keep going.

He needs some rest. We don’t know how long it will be. But he needs some rest and to be able to try to get his energy back and see if we can get him at full strength.

He’s been a warrior. He’s tried to fight through it. He’s been frustrated, because he sees openings and things on the court that he just hasn’t been able to get to. I think part of it is a confidence thing.

And I think the thing that we really look forward to, and he looks forward to, is getting a fresh start in the offseason and being able to go through the preparation for a season like he did last year. And not only get right physically, but really get his confidence back to be able to attack and make the plays he’s had.

Jackson hasn’t looked right this season, showing only fleeting moments of quality production. It’s unclear whether that’s his knee, confidence, regression to the mean after a breakout season last year, bad luck or some combination.

But it has the Pistons in dire straights. They’re 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position with tonight’s game against eight-place Miami crucial.

Detroit’s offense and defense have hummed better with Ish Smith, but despite the better chemistry he affords, the talent drop from Jackson is also glaring. It’s not as if the Pistons have soared with Smith. And relying on Beno Udrih for backup minutes is its own risk.

Van Gundy is talking a lot about next season when it comes to Jackson, which seems telling. The coach’s compliments seem designed to soften the blow.

The odds are against Detroit making the playoffs, but they might be higher without Jackson. The fact that that’s even considerable is also telling about Jackson’s season.

Joakim Noah says he’s cleared to play, which will allow suspension to begin

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The NBA suspended Joakim Noah 20 games — effective once he’s “physically able to play.”

Noah underwent knee surgery about a month ago, and though it seemed he’d miss the rest of the season, the Knicks said at the time he’d be reevaluated in 3-4 weeks. That gave the team cover to claim his suspension should begin this season.

So, Noah rushed to practice today, and no matter how unlikely he would’ve been to follow this timeline sans suspension, that will seemingly be enough.

Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

New York has eight games remaining, which would leave 12 for Noah to serve at the beginning of next season.

Obviously, the more of his suspension Noah serves during this lost season, the better. The Knicks might be a wreck next season too, but at least there’s a chance they’re ready to win (and a chance Noah can contribute). This year is confirmed hopeless.

 

After fun back-to-back wins, Kings deemphasizing veterans

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Break up the Kings.

No, really.

After consecutive thrilling wins — a historic comeback against the Clippers on Sunday and another one-point win over the Grizzlies, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger’s former team, yesterday — the Kings announced a changing of the guard.

Joerger, via CSN California:

This was maybe our last stand for the year, as far as you’re probably not going to see all those veterans play together the rest of the season.

Darren Collison, Garrett Temple, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver and Ty Lawson played major roles against Memphis. Expect their minutes to be cut down the stretch.

The Kings have “fallen” to the NBA’s eight-worst record. It’s unlikely, but a late-game surge could “drop” them to the league’s 10th-worst record.

That’s unviable for a team that put itself on the tanking track and loses its first-round pick (to the Bulls) if it falls outside the top 10. Sacramento must protect itself from bad lottery luck.

It might not require going full Suns, but the Kings should and will emphasize developing their young players — who, not at all incidentally, are less equipped to help the team win.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.