NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Hawks: 40-26 (No. 4 seed)
Celtics: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Boston won the first two games of a three-game regular season series by a total of five points. The Hawks’ victory came when the most was on the line, however, as Atlanta upended a short-handed Celtics team last Friday to give themselves a lead for the East’s No. 4 seed that they’d never relinquish.

KEY INJURIES
Hawks: Al Horford played just 11 games for Atlanta this season since suffering a torn pectoral muscle in early January. There was some speculation that he might be able to play against the Celtics, but the latest reports say that he’s definitely going to miss the first round … Fellow big man Zaza Pachulia is day-to-day with a sprained left foot, but he’ll likely be available to start the series against the Celtics.
Celtics: The Celtics took the last few games of the regular season to heal up, costing themselves homecourt advantage while trying to ensure they’d be healthy against Atlanta. It worked for the most part, too, considering Ray Allen is the only player expected to be listed on the injury report when the season starts Sunday, and even then he’ll be listed as “probable” due to a right ankle injury.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Hawks: Off. 104.9 (16th in NBA); Def. 101.2 (6th in NBA)
Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)

THREE KEY HAWKS:

Joe Johnson: It’s incredibly difficult to believe that Johnson won’t be a huge part of this series considering he’ll likely be counted on to shoulder the majority of the scoring load for Atlanta throughout the playoffs. The swingman went through a bit of a slump through the first few weeks of April, but ended the season on a high note — and, for the history buffs among us, Johnson began his NBA career as a member of the Celtics in 2001 before being traded midseason for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers (whoops!).

Josh Smith: The enigmatic forward hasn’t made a lot of fans over his career due to a lot of people focusing on what he doesn’t do well on the basketball court. When one pays attention to what Smith does do well, however, they see that he’s a solid defender, a good rebounder (when he concentrates on that part of the game, of course) and is actually passing the ball better than every other big when looking at his 20.6 percent assist rate.

Jeff Teague: The quick-footed point guard broke out around this time last year when he was inserted into the starting lineup against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls during the second round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Teague will need to step his game up in the postseason again this year, too, as his matchup against Rajon Rondo could easily be the deciding factor if he’s unable to step up in the playoffs once again.

THREE KEY CELTICS

Rajon Rondo: It was almost a given this season that when the Celtics were on national television, their point guard was going to have a magnificent game. The Celtics-Hawks series will be nationally broadcast in its entirety, however, meaning Rondo will be counted on to carry quite a bit of the load — if not scoring, certainly distributing — while trying to move his team to the second round as injury-free as possible.

Kevin Garnett: The Celtics struggled early this season, but things seemed to undergo a huge change when head coach Doc Rivers decided to move Garnett to the center position. He might not be as good as he once was, but considering the Hawks have had dealt with massive center issues, he should have at least one more series in which he’s able to showcase his game-changing talent.

Paul Pierce: Way to go out on a limb and pick the three healthy Celtics starters as the three Boston players key to the first round, our lovely readers are probably saying upon seeing Pierce’s name in this slot. The longtime Celtic will certainly be important for Boston’s chances in the first round, however, as the Celtics could use some scoring until Ray Allen returns to full health.

OUTLOOK

This series probably isn’t the sexiest of the eight matchups in the first round of the postseason, but it should be one of the best. The veteran-laden Celtics are likely making one of their last runs in the postseason and, fortunately for them, they got better as the season rolled on. The Hawks are trying to get a monkey off of their back this year, too, considering they enter the playoffs with the memory of losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals the last three years. With both teams likely playing with a sense of urgency, it’ll be interesting to watch whether the Celtics are able to excel after starting the series on the road.

PREDICTION

These games could easily be very boring considering two of their three meetings during the regular season resulted in the winner scoring less than 90 points. Low-scoring basketball could also mean playoff-physical basketball, though, and both teams have two former D-League call-ups capable of delivering in those types of circumstances (say hello, Ivan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma). Hopefully it isn’t ugly basketball filled with missed perimeter jumpers, but it wouldn’t be so bad to see a sort of throwback game when the series starts on Sunday night.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, the veteran savvy of the Celtics should prove to be key.

Celtics in 6.

Mavericks don’t use scandals as excuse for poor play vs. Lakers

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long week for the Dallas Mavericks. First Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for saying on Dr. J’s podcast that he told the team they would be better off losing. That was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell report of sexual harassment run rampant — starting with the team CEO — and a corporate culture on the Mavericks’ business side that allowed it this behavior to flourish. Then on Friday, Mavericks’ star rookie Dennis Smith Jr. was named in a report about players who took money from agents while in college.

Did all that bleed over to the slow start and ultimate 124-102 blowout loss to the Lakers Friday night?

“I don’t know, we had some good looks…” Dirk Nowitzki said of the impact of the scandals, adding the rust from the All-Star break may have impacted the team’s play more. “Once you’re out there, you don’t necessarily really think about what is going on off the floor. You’re in a zone, you play, you compete with your team, we just didn’t play hard enough, compete hard enough at times.”

“I’m not going there, I think this is just a situation where Los Angeles jumped on us and we didn’t have enough answers,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also blowing off the idea of the scandals getting in the players’ heads. “The guys we have in this locker room, we just have to show up the right way, and our level of force was not there.”

It’s difficult to say if the Mavericks did feel any impact from the controversies swirling around the team — they were already one of the worst teams in basketball (18-41, and they have been outscored by an average of 3.2 points per 100 possession). They have a bottom 10 offense and defense. A bad outing vs. the Lakers isn’t necessarily tied to everything outside the locker room, especially for a team in the middle of the Tankapaloza going on around the NBA (their owner said as much). Put simply, Dallas was already bad before the waves of controversies hit.

Cuban was right, even if it cost him — this team should tank, lose a lot of games the rest of the way, and work to get a better draft position.

The code words for that is “developing younger players.” Which Dallas is and should be doing.

They are also trying to evaluate their free agents coming up this offseason — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — to see if they are part of the future. How does Carlise divide up the minutes over the final stretch of the season to help make those decisions?

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete. Last year’s team went through a tough year, won 33 games, and was one of my favorite teams to coach because of the character of the guys — but this year’s probably been even more fun. All these undrafted guys are so grateful to be here, they want to get better, and do compete hard, and that’s an exciting thing….

“Nerlens won’t play tonight (Friday), won’t play tomorrow, but will be available Monday and I want to get him out there and see how he plays with some of our other younger guys. We’ve got to look at what this could potentially look like, because some of these guys are free agents and decisions will have to be made.”

The Mavericks also will learn how those players deal with scandals.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 26, Bucks beat Raptors 122-119 in OT

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks felt extra good about getting a rare win against the Toronto Raptors.

Antetokounmpo had 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Milwaukee snapped Toronto’s seven-game win streak with a 122-119 overtime victory Friday night.

“We haven’t beaten them in a while so the win feels a lot better, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said. “They’re a great team, too.”

Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton each scored 21 points as the Bucks won the opener of an eight-game stretch against teams in playoff contention. Jason Terry scored 14 points, and John Henson and Thon Maker each had 12.

“It’s a big gut-check and a big win for us,” Middleton said. “This is the best team in the East and we proved that we could beat them on the road.”

DeMar DeRozan scored 33 points for the Raptors, who had won five straight home games against the Bucks, and 15 of the past 17 meetings.

Toronto also eliminated Milwaukee in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. The teams will not meet again in the regular season.

Serge Ibaka had 18 points, and Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam each scored 17 for Toronto.

“We didn’t deserve to win,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “They outworked us, the outplayed us, they outthought us. Whatever adjective you want to use, they did it to us tonight.”

Jonas Valanciunas‘ buzzer-beating dunk for Toronto sent the game to overtime. He finished with 10 points.

Toronto suffered its first home loss since Jan. 26 against Utah. The Raptors are an NBA-best 24-5 at home.

“It’s good to have a tough loss like this,” Lowry said. “It kind of re-focuses us. We can get beat on any given night and we’ve got to come out there and play hard every night.”

The Raptors trailed 110-108 with 3.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter after Middleton split a pair of free throws. Following a timeout, Toronto inbounded the ball to Valanciunas, who paused before driving for the tying dunk.

Toronto scored the first five points of the extra session, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Terry and Middleton capped an 8-0 Bucks run, giving Milwaukee a 118-115 lead with 1:58 left.

Valanciunas stopped the run with a dunk, but Antetokounmpo’s jumper with 13 seconds left put the Bucks up 120-117.

DeRozan cut it to one with a dunk but Terry answered with a pair of free throws in the final second. DeRozan’s long inbounds pass to C.J. Miles was knocked away at the buzzer to give the Bucks the win.

 

Jrue Holiday hits game winner, Anthony Davis has 45, Pelicans beat Heat in OT, 124-123

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami’s third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans’ winning streak – and 42 or more three times – raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points.

Neither team was able to build a double-digit lead during game which riveted a boisterous crowd with its fast pace and array of highlights on both ends of the floor. There were 13 ties and nine lead changes.

New Orleans scored 37 fast-break points. Davis threw down seven dunks. He converted one alley-oop while being fouled and also turned a steal into a fast-break layup as he was fouled. And the All-Star wasn’t the only one blocking shots for New Orleans. Emeka Okafor, now in his second 10-day contract after being out of the league for four-plus seasons, had five blocks.

After trailing much of the second half, the Pelicans appeared to be seizing control with a 10-0 run during which Holiday scored eight points, giving New Orleans a 104-99 lead with 2:51 to go.

But the Heat rallied to tie it at 106 on Wade’s free throws.

Davis hit a jumper with 23 seconds left and Wade missed on the other end, but a rebound contested by several players fell to Dragic in the paint, and he hit an uncontested layup to tie it again.

The Pelicans had 14 seconds to set up a winning shot, but Davis’ drive was cut off along the baseline and his awkward layup attempted missed and the game went to overtime after Miami was unable to get a shot from an inbounds play with .8 seconds left.

 

Jimmy Butler leaves game with apparently serious right knee injury

Associated Press
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The Basketball Gods have not been appeased, and apparently have dealt the NBA another serious injury to a star player.

Jimmy Butler — Minnesota’s leader, an All-Star, and a guy having a fringe of the MVP ballot NBA season — went down grabbing his knee on this play against the Rockets Friday night.

Butler reportedly said “it’s torn” while being helped off the court.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau said it was a right knee injury that would be re-evaluated with an MRI tomorrow.

This is a non-contact injury that has the appearance of an ACL tear (hope that is not the case). Butler had ripped an offensive rebound away from Nene and was making a move to go back up when he went to the ground grabbing his knee.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game. He was selected an All-Star but chose to sit out that game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for running players into exhaustion with heavy use (ask Joakim Noah) and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other elite programs trying to keep players fresh.

This is troubling for a Timberwolves team looking to end an 11-year playoff drought — Minnesota is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. While tied for the three seed going into Friday night, Minnesota is just four games from falling out of the playoffs in a competitive West.