NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Atlanta


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

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.

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)


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.


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.


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.


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.

Watch Justin Timberlake drain half-court shot, a couple of three pointers

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Justin Timberlake is filthy.

At least in this NBA video he is.

Maybe the world’s biggest performer right now — and part owner of the Memphis Grizzlies — swung by the Washington Wizards practice facility and drained a few shots like it was nothing. The man can’t stop the feeling.

We see you, JT 👀 (repost @justintimberlake & @washwizards)

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Three Things to Know: What is with more and more coaches, players ripping referees?

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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.

1) As playoffs near and pressure mounts, coach/player release valve is to vent at referees. Sunday we saw the latest in the run of coaches or players ripping NBA officials, leading to questions of just how strained are the relationships between the two sides. The most recent guy to vent was DeMar DeRozan after the Raptors did not get calls down the stretch in a loss to the Thunder at home Sunday.

DeRozan is about to get his second fine of the season for criticizing officials.

Also, in this case DeRozan is right — Corey Brewer absolutely fouled him on a drive to the basket when the Raptors were down two with :30 seconds left in the game. It was a critical missed call by Marc Davis and the crew. Then a frustrated DeRozan got tossed. Then Serge Ibaka got tossed for continuing on the same arguments DeRozan was having. Then Dwane Casey got thrown out for something a fan said behind him because by this point the officials had a case of rabbit ears (the best part of the Casey ejection was OKC’s Brewer laughing and shaking his head at the bad call). The Last Two Minute Report on this should be ugly.

That follows on the heels of Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry venting “you can’t guess on plays.” Which itself was on the heels of Stan Van Gundy venting “we got absolutely screwed all night” after a loss to red-hot Portland. Both of those coaches were fined $15,000 Sunday for their outbursts.

What gives with all the venting at officials?

Welcome to the stressful time of the NBA season. With playoff chases going on and pressure mounting on coaches and players, they need a release valve and so the officials take the brunt of it. Sure, there have been enough tensions between players and referees all season that there was a sparsely attended meeting All-Star weekend between the players and referees unions, but the reality is tension between coaches/players and referees existed when George Mikan was playing and it will exist 25 years from now. Players are trying to gain every advantage, referees are trying to enforce the rules in a fast-paced, hard-to-officiate sport, and the tension is natural. There are peaks and valleys, but it’s always there. It always has been.

Right now, the Raptors feel the pressure that this is their window — with Cleveland and Boston stumbling (and banged up), this year is Toronto’s best shot at a trip to the Finals, and they know it. Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans are in the midst of a fight to make the playoffs. Stan Van Gundy feels the pressure of keeping his jobs (GM and coach) in a league where the buzz is he’s going to lose at least one of those titles. Every game takes on added meaning, the pressure makes everything feel heavy, so guys need to vent and the officials become the target. That doesn’t mean the coach/player is wrong — DeRozan was not, the officials were terrible at the end of Sunday’s game — but that’s not the only reason Toronto lost (Serge Ibaka was bad, Steven Adams pushed the Raptors around inside, and I could go on).

It’s the time of year in the NBA when the referees get an outsized portion of the blame when teams and fans are frustrated with a loss. And that will continue right through the playoffs.

2) By the way, Thunder won and Russell Westbrook has five straight triple-doubles. The mess with the officiating obscured what was an entertaining basketball game Sunday in Toronto.

Oklahoma City was a team that looked on the playoff bubble a couple of weeks ago, but since has rattled off six straight wins. There are three reasons for that. First, their defense is back to being top five in the NBA (it had fallen way off when Andre Roberson went down). Second, Corey Brewer has become the rare buyout signing that actually has a real impact — he has stepped into Roberson’s starting spot and given them three-point shooting and a solid veteran presence on both ends.

The third reason, Russell Westbrook is a beast. He had 37 points, 14 assists, and 13 rebounds against the Raptors.

For those of you out there who are saying, “See, this loss is why I can’t trust the Raptors in the playoffs,” you’re just wrong. You need some context. This was the Raptors third game in four days, and it had an early (1 p.m. ET) start. At the end of the game, the Raptors just looked tired. If you’ve watched Toronto all season, they have done well in the clutch. They are 22-14 in games within five points in the final five minutes this season. Nothing to see here, move along.

3) West playoff chase update: Thunder, Pelicans, Rockets, Trail Blazers all pick up wins; Timberwolves, Clippers pick up losses. There were some key games in the West playoff chase on Sunday. The Pelicans picked up a quality win against Boston as Anthony Davis went off for 24 points and 11 rebounds. James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists as the Rockets beat the Timberwolves. Finally, Portland had little trouble getting their 13th straight win, knocking off the Clippers.

Sunday’s action means Portland remains the three seed and the Thunder the four seed, and those teams seem to be moving toward locking in those spots. The Pelicans are the six seed, and with a couple of losses in a row now the Timberwolves have fallen back to the eighth and final spot. Still, Minnesota is 1.5 games up on Denver (ninth seed) and 2 games up on the Clippers, who have lost three in a row at the wrong time of the season.

James Harden scores 34, Rockets hold off Timberwolves 129-120

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists, and Houston held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-120 on Sunday night for the Rockets’ 26th win in 28 games.

The West’s top team led by as many as 25 before the Timberwolves, holding on for dear life in a tightening playoff race, pulled within five in the fourth. The loss dropped the Wolves into the eighth playoff spot after they started the day in a three-way tie for fifth.

Harden had 11 points in the final 6:34, including a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left that effectively secured the win.

Chris Paul and Clint Capela each had 16 points for the Rockets.

Jeff Teague led Minnesota with 23 points, Andrew Wiggins had 21, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jamal Crawford each added 20.

The Wolves got a burst of energy after a fourth-quarter scuffle between Gorgui Dieng, Paul and Gerald Green. Green was ejected for coming to Paul’s defense after a frustrated Dieng pushed him down after a foul. With the pumped-up crowd chanting “Gor-Gui!,” Derek Rose had back-to-back layups to pull the Wolves to 109-102. But Paul hit a jumper with Crawford in his face, and Harden easily drove past Dieng for a layup to give the Rockets some breathing room.

Minnesota’s 19-6 run made it 115-110 with 3:58 to play before Trevor Ariza hit a 3, and the Rockets were able to answer every Wolves bucket to hold off the rally.

The game was seemingly over by halftime; Houston shot 63 percent, hit 11 3-pointers and led by as many as 24 in the first half while turning the ball over only three times. Harden had 10 assists in the first half, when the Wolves were as close as three before Houston reeled off a 12-0 run and didn’t allow Minnesota to recover.


Jimmy Butler targeting return to Timberwolves before end of season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Jimmy Butler could return to the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves before the end of the regular season, if he stays on track with his rehabilitation from knee surgery.

Butler spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since the meniscus injury he suffered Feb. 23 at Houston . He confirmed an initial recovery estimate of four to six weeks. Even on the long end of that timetable, he’d likely have two games with the Timberwolves before the postseason.

Butler said he’s confident in both his ability to heal in time and the team’s ability to hang on to a spot in the playoffs. The Wolves entered their game against the Rockets in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, but no room for a slump.

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