NBA Playoffs: Atlanta shocks Chicago in Game 1

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It’s time to go back to the drawing board, NBA world. These Atlanta Hawks apparently aren’t ready to crumble under the Chicago Bulls’ might just yet, as the underdog club — predicted by most to win but a single game in this series (or less), and predicted by yours truly to be overrun by Derrick Rose — stole Game 1 on the road, 103-95.

Although the focus will largely be on how the top-seeded Bulls fell short in the inaugural game of their second round series, let’s not forget that the Hawks won this thing. Atlanta was the unmistakably better team on Monday night, and though the sustainability of the Hawks’ offense will understandably be questioned, public doubts don’t make Joe Johnson’s jumpers count for any less. So long as Johnson and Jamal Crawford and the entire Hawks crew can continue to hit their shots, the reliability of Atlanta’s methods is a non-issue. For now, the Hawks were good enough on both ends to control their first game against the Bulls, and each contest from here on out will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Atlanta can’t and won’t win them all, but we should be past the point of devaluing the Hawks’ makes for probability’s sake. Their weaknesses are well known, and there’s no use reinforcing them until the clock finally does strike midnight.

Like it or not, Johnson was spectacular. He took some tough shots and broke free from the offense at times, but he scored 34 points on 18 shots, and went a tremendous 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. Johnson helped build the lead in the first quarter, hit timely shots that broke the Bulls’ momentum in the third, and closed despite facing plenty of traps down the stretch. Call it the hot hand, call it random chance, or call it a quality shot maker converting on his tough looks, but Johnson was far and away the game’s most effective offensive player. The fact that Tom Thibodeau saw it fit to run aggressive ball pressure at Johnson in the fourth at all speaks volumes, as does the Hawks’ victory in spite of that pressure. Crawford also connected on half of his field goal attempts — in spite of his shot selection — and finished with 22 points.

Atlanta deserves a ton of credit for their collective defense against Derrick Rose. Jeff Teague worked his tail off to stay in front of Rose, but it was a team-wide effort that forced the league’s MVP into bad passes and deterred his drives into the lane. When Rose did manage to get to the basket, the Hawks contested effectively; Atlanta pestered Rose into 4-of-9 shooting in his attempts at the rim without fouling him in the act of shooting a single time, an even more impressive accomplishment when considering the boost to Rose’s shooting from transition and semi-transition opportunities. In the halfcourt offense, Rose had no means to create efficient shots, and he settled for too many threes (seven attempts with just two makes) as a result. Honestly, Rose is as deserving of blame as the Hawks are of praise; both contributed to Rose’s inefficiency with their decision-making in Game 1, but it should be interesting to see the Game 2 response from both parties.

Larry Drew has to be pleased with Teague’s work on offense in addition to his defensive work against Rose. Five assists to just one turnover is pretty solid for a young guard seeing his first meaningful action of the playoffs, but Teague also impressed with his creative intermediate game. Teague’s 10 points were mostly off of floaters and runners, carved out from that fluffy middle ground between the protected interior and the preventative perimeter front. Being able to manufacture makes in that space is quite valuable, and Teague’s patience was essential in creating those opportunities.

The rest of the series will write its own story, but this first game belonged to Atlanta. They held their own on the boards despite the surrendering a considerable advantage to Chicago in that regard during the regular season. They took a nice performance from Luol Deng (21 points, 8-12 FG, six rebounds) in stride, and still won regardless. They kept Derrick Rose out of the paint, and scored at a rate of 118.4 points per 100 possessions. That — along with the shooting of Johnson and Crawford, and the sturdiness of Teague, for that matter — could change overnight, but this is the world as we know it. The Atlanta Hawks are up 1-0, and everything that will be, will be.

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O.J. Mayo says abusing prescription painkillers triggered NBA ban

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Last year, O.J. Mayo was banned from the NBA for at least two years due to a drug violation. Aside from stating a plan to come back, Mayo didn’t say much publicly.

Until now.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

He acknowledged smoking marijuana and abusing a prescription pain medication that triggered his two-year ban because it is on the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list. (He emphatically denied testing positive for hard drugs like cocaine.)

Mayo also concluded that he had been “overwhelmed” by a string of difficult life events: his father, high school basketball star Kenny Ziegler, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for distributing crack cocaine, his brother was placed in juvenile lock-up, a close friend went to jail, and another was killed. “I was bred to play basketball and I thought I could balance everything,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

That’s part of an interesting feature on Mayo, who’s training for his come back. Golliver’s story makes it easy to pull for Mayo.

But the guard will be 30 when he’s eligible to apply for reinstatement, and he played lousily in his last three seasons with the Bucks.

Hopefully, Mayo has and keeps his personal life in order. But returning to the NBA will be an uphill battle.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.