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.

Kevin Durant misses game vs. Nets with sprained ankle, status vs. Thunder in doubt

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Not that the Warriors needed him with Stephen Curry going off again, but Golden State was without Kevin Durant on Sunday in Brooklyn due to a sprained ankle.

Durant is officially day-to-day, but that brings up the question of whether he will be ready to go Wednesday night when the Warriors travel to Oklahoma City to take on his former team. Chris Haynes of ESPN asked Durant about it.

While some blowhards will talk about him dodging the Thunder, the Warriors course here is obvious — they do not want to rush him back for any game in November. Even one against Russell Westbrook. Ankles with stretched ligaments are easy to re-injure if not fully healed, and the Warriors don’t want this to be chronic and last through more of the season.

Durant is averaging 24.9 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists, and — with all due respect to fellow former MVP Curry — he is the best player on the Warriors. Maybe the best player in the world right now, period. Durant can score at will, and he had become a key part of the Warriors’ fifth-ranked defense blocking 2.2 shots per game (their offense is No. 1 in the league).

Three Things to Know: Aggressive Lonzo Ball is what Lakers need from him

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Here’s what you missed while creating Arya Stark memes to mock the iPhoneX.

1) Aggressive Lonzo Ball racks up triple-double, pushes Lakers to win in wild game. This is the Lonzo Ball the Lakers need. This is the Lonzo Ball Lakers’ coach Luke Walton wants to see when he says he needs him to be aggressive.

Ball picked up his second triple double in just more than a week Sunday night against Denver, with 11 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists. He still wasn’t efficient as a shooter — 5-of-13 overall, and a decent but not great finisher going 4-of-6 at the rim and 4-of-8 total in the paint — but he pushed the pace (a very fast 106 possessions) and got teammates involved with a good mix of throw ahead passes and pushing the ball by the dribble up the court. It kept Denver on its heels all night.

Ball put his mark on this game — and that’s what the Lakers need from him. I’m not going to overreact to this positively the same way I was not going to overreact negatively to his rough start — he’s a 19-year-old NBA rookie. It’s a process, one that takes time. After Summer League the hype machine — thanks to his father and a zealous fan base — spun out of control. Summer League is a far cry from the NBA and Ball is a reminder of that, it’s still a big step up. Ball needs to work on his conditioning, his handles, his shot, and his decision making at pace will improve with practice (Sunday was a step in that direction). Just be patient and we’ll see how good a player he develops into.

Ball pushed the Lakers to a 127-109 win (thanks in part to Julius Randle‘s 24 points), but Los Angeles got a lot of help from Denver — specifically coach Mike Malone and leading scorer/playmaker Nikola Jokic getting ejected in the second quarter. Malone was hot, feeling fouls were being committed on Jokic and not being called, and after Kyle Kuzma put an arm in Jokic’s back and pushed him down on a rebound (subtlety, it was a veteran-style move) Malone stormed onto the court during play and got in the path of referee Rodney Mott and challenged him. Mott immediately ejected Malone and then Jokic when he said something.

Malone can get out the checkbook now, he’s going to get a healthy fine for that one.

2) Joel Embiid with the Tweet of the Day (plus some Markelle Fultz news). The Sixers’ big man Joel Embiid wrote maybe the most perfect Tweet on Sunday: He owned up to an ugly come-from-ahead loss to Golden State while still managing to throw shade at the Warriors. Plus he got in a Draymond Green reference.

Embiid is just magic with social media.

The other news out of the Sixers camp Sunday was an update on Markelle Fultz — which the team had leaked the day before would be a positive one. The update: Fultz is progressing but will be out another 2-3 weeks, then he will be re-evaluated. I guess that’s what passes for positive with the Sixers and injury updates.

Also, to the people out there on Twitter throwing dirt on the career of Fultz or calling him a bust — stop it. You are close to what Dean Wormer said about Flounder. We are a month into Fultz’s NBA career, and we have 0.0 percent knowledge of how that career will go. But if you think he can’t come back from an extended layoff and succeed, please look at Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, go talk to Blake Griffin while you’re at it, then get back to me.

3) The Orlando Summer League is no more. This is big news for basketball junkies and hoops nerds: The late June/early July Orlando Summer League that has run for 14 years is no more. The Orlando Magic, which operated the league and ran it before the big NBA Summer League in Vegas, killed it, a story broken by Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel. Eight teams played there last year — Orlando, Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit, Indiana, Miami, New York, and Oklahoma City — but the NBA League Office wants all teams playing in Las Vegas. That is now closer to reality. Also, the Magic didn’t make any money off the tournament, so that limited incentive to keep it.

Some coaches preferred Orlando — Stan Van Gundy lamented the demise of the Orlando league (in part because he lives in the city in the off-season and throws a party for the coaches at his house). The Vegas Summer League has big crowds and all the distractions of Las Vegas, while the Orlando league was not open to the public (although games were shown on NBA TV) and that led to more focused development. Some coaches and GMs preferred that. (The flip side of that argument: I’ve been told by team executives they like the distractions in Vegas, because it shows them which players are focused on the game, and which ones are easily pulled off track.)

There still is the Rocky Mountain Review that the Utah Jazz relaunched a couple of years ago, which draws a handful of teams. But the NBA is finding Summer League a money-making success and wants its teams concentrated there in July.

Wild night in L.A.: Lonzo Ball has triple-double; Nuggets coach, Nikola Jokic ejected

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lonzo Ball had his second career triple-double and Julius Randle scored 24 points in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 127-109 victory over the short-handed Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.

Ball had 11 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and 11 assists in the 20-year-old rookie’s first triple-double in front of his hometown fans at Staples Center.

Brook Lopez scored 21 points and Jordan Clarkson added 18 for the Lakers, who surged to a 24-point lead in the first half and easily won for just the second time in seven games.

Denver coach Mike Malone and top scorer Nikola Jokic were ejected in the second quarter after Malone stepped onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach and his best player when Jokic joined in the argument.

Forward Paul Millsap also left with a sprained left wrist in the second quarter of a miserable night at Staples Center for the Nuggets, who lost for just the second time in six games.

Ball and Magic Johnson are the only Lakers with multiple triple-doubles in their rookie seasons. Johnson had seven, and his new point guard has two in his first 17 games.

Randle added seven points and five assists in a stellar game off the bench.

 

LeBron James on Colin Kaepernick: “He’s been blackballed”

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LeBron James has never been shy about speaking his mind, this season even more so it seems. That’s why it made sense that sooner or later, The King of the NBA would weigh in on an issue that has captivated the sports community: kneeling, national anthem protests, and Colin Kaepernick.

Speaking at Cass Technical High School in Detroit on Sunday, LeBron said that he though Kaepernick’s absence from an NFL roster was the result of clear action by teams to blackball the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback.

James, speaking not only from the perspective of the most influential current NBA player on the planet but as an NFL fan, said that he felt Kaepernick was better than most backups.

Via ESPN:

“I do know Kap is getting a wrong doing. I do know that. Just watching, he’s an NFL player. He’s an NFL player and you see all these other quarterbacks out there and players out there that get all these second and third chances that are nowhere near as talented as him. It just feels like he’s been blackballed out of the NFL. So, I definitely do not respect that.”

“The only reason I could say he’s not on a team is because the way he took a knee,” James said. “That’s the only reason. I watch football every Sunday, every Thursday, every Monday night. I see all these quarterbacks — first-string, second-team, third-team quarterbacks — that play sometimes when the starter gets hurt or are starters that play. Kap is better than a lot of those guys. Let’s just be honest.”

James, along with players like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, has previously helped lead the way in the NBA when it’s come to social activism and high-level activism.

The NBA does have a rule about standing for the national anthem, and commissioner Adam Silver said before the season started the league would handle any infractions as they came.

Meanwhile, guys like Stan Van Gundy have also come out and called guys like Kaepernick “patriots”.

LeBron said that if he owned an NFL team that he would sign Kaepernick. Perhaps that will happen sooner rather than later?