Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four

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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 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) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.