NBA Playoffs: Magic demolish the Hawks, turn the series on its head

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On Tuesday night, the Orlando Magic returned to the comforts of reality, while the Atlanta Hawks experienced a jarring awakening. The first four games in this series weren’t an accurate representation of the performance of either team, but Game 5 shifted the matchup back toward balance, as Orlando thoroughly dominated both ends of the court en route to a 101-76 victory.

Dwight Howard remains the best player taking the court in this series, but Tuesday’s game was won by the rest of the Magic rotation. They of the underwhelming first four games finally executed on offense up to their capability. Pick-and-roll play won the day, even with Howard serving only as a distraction; Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, and Jameer Nelson created a ton out of basic screen action, and generated points for themselves and their teammates by exploiting Atlanta’s weak defense. Nine Magic players scored seven or more points, a far cry from the solo act that had previously anchored Orlando’s offense by necessity during this series.

The Hawks will need substantially better defensive coverage if they’re to counter the Magic in Game 6, but there’s only so much that Atlanta can do in their current strategic framework. Covering the pick-and-roll is incredibly difficult without utilizing a third defender, but by electing to stay home on Orlando’s shooters, a two-man defense is all that Atlanta can really employ. The Magic seemed to be in a bind with their inability to involve any of their perimeter players in a fluid offense, but all it took to solve the riddle were a few well-placed screens and smart navigation of interior space. The Hawks hold the 3-2 series lead, but the pressure is on them to respond — and I’m not sure that they can.

The Hawks’ offense wasn’t going to stay afloat forever. Not with Josh Smith’s decision-making, Jamal Crawford’s quick trigger, and Joe Johnson’s willingness to take tough shots to his team’s detriment. Plenty of those difficult looks found the net in the first four games of this series, but Atlanta’s offense was impressive precisely because its success was fleeting. Logic told us that the Hawks shouldn’t be able to consistently create offense with such difficult shots, and that logic was correct. That didn’t stop the shots from falling, but it did suggest that if the series went on long enough, we may start to see a swing in a different direction in Atlanta’s shooting percentages. That swing came in Game 5, and Orlando dominated as a result.

That said, Orlando’s margin for error remains small. Stan Van Gundy can find some peace of mind now that his team’s shots are falling and the open attempts are coming a bit more easily, but the Magic must continue to execute their altered game plan without becoming too reliant on Howard’s post play. Orlando played terrific basketball without even having Howard on the floor in Game 5, and there’s no reason why that can’t develop into a trend over the remainder of the series; the Hawks have no player uniquely capable of punishing the Magic at the rim (the defensive job that Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have done on Al Horford, the Hawks’ top interior threat, has been unfairly overshadowed by Orlando’s more public failures), and proper defensive execution sans Howard can still take away most of what the Atlanta looks to do on offense.

Still, all it takes is a bit of luck — if, say, Crawford and Johnson can manage to produce on contested jumpers just once more while playing reasonably effective defense — to end Orlando’s season. The Magic are the better team in this series, but that fact would be irrelevant under the weight of a first-round exit, eve one fashioned with pull-up jumpers and poor shot selection.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.

Dwyane Wade says he wants to see plan for Bulls before deciding on player option

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I can think of $23.8 million reasons Dwyane Wade will be back with the Chicago Bulls next season. Sure, he’s made more than $175 million on the court and more in endorsements during his Hall of Fame career. Still, that’s a lot of money to walk away from and he has the player option. It’s Wade’s call.

When asked on Saturday, a day after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics (a game in which Wade was 1-of-10 shooting and -27), whether he planned to return to Chicago or test the free agent market again this summer, Wade only said that he wanted to get a sense of what the Bulls were going to do this summer before he decided. Here are some Tweets from the Wade interview from Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Wade wants a clear plan and direction from Bulls management? That’s a long line. Like the line at an Apple Store the day the new iPhone comes out length. Wade is way at the back of it.

If the Bulls rebuild, they will trade Butler, if not they will run it back with Wade, Butler, and likely Rondo. Obviously, if they do keep this core together a lot of pieces around them need to change and start to fit some kind of cohesive system.

Wade also defended coach Fred Hoiberg in the wake of “fire Hoiberg” chants from Bulls fans at the end of the game.

This is the one wish Wade will get, after firing Tom Thibodeau and hand-picking Hoiberg out of the college ranks, no way GarPax is going to fire him this summer and admit its mistake.

Everything else with Wade is up in the air.

Cavaliers, Warriors sweeps mean time to rest, get mental breather

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant can take some pressure off that tender left calf. LeBron James has extra time to recoup after barely leaving the floor in the first round.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr scheduled some medical appointments as he deals with debilitating symptoms still affecting him nearly two years after complications from a pair of back surgeries.

The two star-studded teams expected by many to face off once more in the NBA Finals each swept through their respective first-round playoff series in four games, leaving ample time for the Cavaliers and Warriors to rest up, heal up and prepare for the next opponent.

“It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am,” James said. “I’ve played so many games over the years, the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”

Of course guys like James and Draymond Green are already eager to get back on the court.

Cleveland now knows its next opponent is Toronto, while the Warriors were still waiting out the Clippers-Jazz series.

“Definitely have gotten antsy to play,” Green said Friday. “But you see that break and you’re excited about it, just to get that time to rest and get everybody back as close to 100 (percent) as possible for the next round. At the same time you do get antsy to get back on the floor and back in the rhythm of things. I think it’s been a good week for us to sweep and get this time off.”

Durant, still receiving treatment on his left leg and knee, spent Thursday at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue threw a huge watch party Thursday night so players and members of the organization could see the Raptors close out the Bucks in six games.

Golden State scrimmaged Friday to stay sharp, while Cleveland players have competed in such ways as racing on cardiovascular machines in the weight room to stay fresh and motivated.

James led the league in minutes during the regular season then played nearly 44 per game in the first-round sweep of Indiana – familiar territory after the Cavs also swept Detroit in the first round last season, then followed by eliminating Atlanta in the minimum four games.

“I’m ready to get this thing going, but obviously I’m not going to rush the process,” James said. “… But, yeah, I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing.”

In 2015, when the Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving suffered a freak Game 1 injury when he fractured his left kneecap, and Kevin Love was already lost to a dislocated left shoulder.

Last June, Stephen Curry had returned from a knee injury but never fully got healthy and the thought was the Warriors wore down after chasing and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record with 73 victories.

“If you could sweep every series that would be perfect,” Durant said, “because you just want to play well and then you’ll worry about the rest afterward. That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so it’s good to have a few days to get your bodies right and your mind right and just get back to the drawing board in terms of individual work, team work.”

In the Warriors’ case, it also has meant more time working with Mike Brown as acting head coach while Kerr is away. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year missed Games 3 and 4 at Portland because he was in such discomfort, having dealt with headaches, neck pain and nausea that recently became worse.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is most known for sitting several star players at once without regard to anything but his team’s best interest, others have caught on and replicated the strategy of spelling players in order to pace for the long haul.

In March 2015, the Warriors lost at Denver with Curry watching – along with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut – in the first game of a back-to-back. Oh, did Kerr take heat for it, even personally answering a few emails. And the Warriors reached out to other upset fans and sent along care packages.

“As a coach your responsibility is to keep your players healthy and there are times when guys need a night off,” Kerr said.

In December, Cleveland caused an uproar by resting James, Love and Irving in a loss at Memphis. Lue then sat several starters for the final game of the regular season against Toronto, and the teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday.

Now, the Cleveland coach insists, James can handle the heavy minutes when it matters most.

“His body can take it,” Lue said, “so I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

 

Chris Paul told Paul Pierce: “You’re not ending your career in Utah”

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When the Clippers lose their final game this season — maybe Sunday, maybe not for weeks — the Hall of Fame career of Paul Pierce will come to an end.

It’s not why Doc Rivers was leaning so heavily on Pierce Friday night, that’s more desperation on a shorthanded (and not that deep to start with) lineup. The Clippers got away with 20+ minutes of Pierce on Friday and still got the win.

He even served as an inspiration for Chris Paul, as CP3 said in his postgame press conference.

The best part of that video? DeAndre Jordan‘s reaction.

You can be sure Utah Jazz fans will take this comment as a slight and let CP3 hear about it next season. As for the Jazz players, they are heading into Game 7, how much more motivation do they need.