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.

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.

John Wall’s chasedown block of Dennis Schroder, layup saved game for Wizards (VIDEO)

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Washington had been up 22 points in the third quarter and seemed to be cruising to a win in Atlanta, and with it a trip to the second round… but it would not be that easy. The Hawks made their push back, knocking down threes and chipping away at the Wizards lead until it was all the way down to 93-90, a one possession game.

Then John Wall took over.

It started with the big play you see above — a chasedown block on Dennis Schroder, which turned into a Wall layup on the other end.

That play changed the momentum. Washington closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on just 25 shots. The end result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Steve Ballmer loses control after Austin Rivers three, creates another meme

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Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer has been a meme machine this series. First, there was the sad face after the Clippers Game 5 loss at home.

Then Friday, there was his reaction to an Austin Rivers three.

Ballmer’s reactions may be the best part of the Game 7 between these teams Sunday.