NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

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After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Clint Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

Bulls’ Kris Dunn breaks teeth on dunk landing (video)

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Kris Dunn struggled in the first three quarters of the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Warriors last night. Then, he and Chicago played better in the fourth quarter.

Yet, that was the worst period for Dunn – because this happened.

Bulls:

Ouch.

Dennis Rodman checks into rehab after DUI arrest

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The agent for former NBA star Dennis Rodman says the Hall of Famer has checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center after a weekend DUI arrest.

Rodman’s agent, Darren Prince, tells The Associated Press that Rodman checked into Turning Point Rehabilitation Center in Paterson, New Jersey, on Wednesday to deal with his longtime struggle with alcoholism.

Rodman was arrested in Southern California late Saturday on suspicion of DUI after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Newport Beach police say Rodman failed field sobriety and breath tests.

This is Rodman’s second time in rehab. He spent three weeks at Turning Point in 2014 after returning from North Korea, where he organized an exhibition basketball game involving retired NBA players for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rodman said he needed to decompress from the trip.

Three Things to Know: Two game suspension for Ariza, Green, without punch being thrown

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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) NBA suspends Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green two games for Clippers’ locker room incident.
The NBA wanted to send a clear message: Try to enter another team’s locker room and you will pay the price. Literally. Players who do this will lose multiple game checks with a suspension. I get that — a locker room brawl has the potential to erupt into something very ugly. (James Harden and Chris Paul were not suspended because the league found them to be in more of a peacemaker role, not being the aggressors.)

However, what about guys who throw actual punches in games? On the court. That gets less of a suspension? The NBA’s suspension criteria is off.

Just a quick recap of what happened Monday night at Staples Center: It got to be a very chippy game between the Rockets and Clippers. It had been an emotional game from the start with Chris Paul’s return against his former team — an organization he ripped a couple of times since leaving. On the court Blake Griffin bumped into Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and those two exchanged heated words. Ariza ripped Griffin’s leg tights during a play with a foul. Austin Rivers – out for the game and wearing a suit on the sidelines – was incredibly vocal (remember Paul called out nepotism between Austin and Doc) and Ariza responded, which led to another argument with Griffin. After the game, Ariza and Gerald Green tried to use a not-really-secret tunnel behind the locker rooms (where players often meet after games to talk) to try to enter the Clippers locker room and confront Rivers. There was a lot of yelling and insulting, but no punches were thrown.

My quick thoughts, in bullet points:

• I get wanting to send the “you can’t enter the opposing locker room looking to fight” message, but does that really warrant a larger suspension than guys who throw actual punches while on the floor? Serge Ibaka and James Johnson each got one game suspensions for throwing punches in full view of the cameras, so the video could be re-shown on every highlight package coast-to-coast for 24 hours. That seems soft if you get two games for yelling at a locker room door.

• If it’s two games for Ariza and Green, how many does Aaron Afflalo get for his wild haymaker punch attempt the other day? Does he get less than Ariza/Green because Nemanja Bjelica has some Floyd Mayweather in him and knew how to duck the punch?

• Nothing for Griffin running into D’Antoni? Watch the video and it’s pretty evident to me Griffin intentionally tried to brush back the Rockets’ coach — something Mark Jackson pointed out in the broadcast Wednesday Griffin has done before. However, Griffin gets off scot-free in this. Was D’Antoni out of the coach’s box? Yes. But if that’s the enforcement rule then every coach since Phil Jackson didn’t get out of his chair can be run into because they all go out of the box and venture near (or in many cases) the court. Where D’Antoni stood was not the least bit uncommon. Griffin got lucky.

2) Those Clippers won again Wednesday, beating the Nuggets and shaking up both the West playoff race and the trade deadline. Lost in all this: The Clippers are playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night they beat the Denver Nuggets 109-104 behind 20 points from Griffin and 17 from Lou Williams, who is playing well enough coaches have to consider him for the All-Star Game next month in Staples. That’s six wins in a row for Los Angeles and if the playoffs started today they would be in. Doc Rivers has to get some consideration for Coach of the Year considering where he has this team despite losing CP3 and then a rash of injuries.

The best race to watch the second half of this season is for the final three playoff slots in the West: As of Thursday morning the Pelicans, Clippers and the Trail Blazers are all tied with records of 23-21, and the Nuggets are just half-a-game back at 23-22. (Oklahoma City is just 1.5 games ahead of the tied three, but it feels unlikely they get caught; Utah is 4.5 games behind Denver, but with the injuries to the Jazz it’s hard to imagine them making up the ground.) Using its algorithm, fivethirtyeight.com says the Clippers (78 percent chance), Pelicans (77 percent) and Nuggets (73 percent) will get in, while the Trail Blazers have just a 57 percent chance of beating one of those teams out. Over at Cleaning the Glass, Ben Falk projects the Pelicans in the sixth slot at 45 wins, Denver with 43, and the Clippers and Blazers each with 42 (he has the Clippers just slightly ahead in projected wins). The reality is much more boring: The teams among those four that can stay the healthiest the second half of the season will get in.

Unless there is a trade. The Clippers have been listening to offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams (but reportedly so far have been unimpressed with what other teams are pitching). We can talk about what team president Lawrence Frank wants to do, but in reality this is an ownership-level question: Do Steve Ballmer want to hold on to two of his three best players and make a run at a bottom three seed in the playoffs because he just wants to win, or does he approve getting a jump-start on the rebuild with whatever assets they can land in this deal. Fans love to say “blow it up” but Ballmer and the Clippers could have done that last summer when CP3 forced a trade, they didn’t. So now they’re going to do it at the deadline when they could get less back in deals? Plus, does Ballmer want to try to get approvals for his new arena while his team struggles on the court?

3) Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely. Again. Ugh. Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine NBA games this season. He didn’t return from a quad injury (which he played through last season and bothered him through the summer) until Dec. 12. He was rounding into form when he had to sit for a few games due to an injured shoulder, then on the day he was rumored to be re-entering the lineup the Spurs announced he is out again indefinitely with the same quad injury. The reports were the Spurs expect this to be shorter than the last time he was out, but there is no timetable.

With LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level and the Spurs being the Spurs and not beating themselves, they will be fine in the regular season. They are projected to win about 50 games, and they will make the playoffs as the three or four seed.

However, in the playoffs they need a fully-functioning Leonard to be a real threat to anyone. The Spurs need his defense and his athleticism, they are too old and slow without him and that can get exposed in a series. If Leonard is still out as we get into March, then it’s time to be concerned. Until then, the Spurs are just going to Spur — for example beating the Nets 100-95 Wednesday behind 34 from Aldridge.