Josh Smith

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.

Three Things We Learned Thursday: DeMarcus Cousins puts up numbers, but will Pelicans keep up pace?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 23:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 and Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans react during the first half of a game against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center on February 23, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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The NBA got back to work on the court Thursday night after all the drama of the trade deadline day, but if you missed out on it because you were breaking down Donald Trump’s “clasp and yank” handshake we have you covered with the big takeaways from the day.

1) DeMarcus Cousins puts up 27 and 14 but Rockets expose question in rout of Pelicans. DeMarcus Cousins tried to give the people what they paid to see Thursday night — he got deep position and sealed his man inside for buckets, he showed his shooting range near the top of the key, and on the other end he blocked four shots. Cousins put up 27 points and 14 rebounds in his Pelicans debut.

However, the Houston Rockets ran the Pelicans out of the building in a 30-point win, a game where most of the second half was garbage time. The game made Chris Herring at fivethirtyeight.com look prescient — Cousins’ Pelicans couldn’t handle the pace of the Rockets. That’s maybe not a shock in the sense that the Rockets play at one of the fastest paces in the league and have played faster and faster as the season has worn on (fastest in the NBA in the past 10 games). What’s not as well known is the Pelicans play at a top 10 pace for the season. However, Cousins likes to hold the ball and has been having a career-best season in one of the NBA’s slower offenses. He can get out and run, he can play and play well in an uptempo offense, but it’s not where he’s at his best. How is Alvin Gentry going to find a balance between these competing forces?

Thursday night was not going to answer every question, particularly on a night when Jrue Holiday plays poorly at the point and turns the ball over against a team that thrives on live-ball turnovers. But how fast the Pelicans play with Cousins, and how much coach Alvin Gentry staggers Cousins and Anthony Davis, will be things to watch in the coming weeks.

As for the Rockets, just acquired Lou Williams had a team-high 27 points. He’s going to fit in just fine, thank you very much.

2) Who won the deadline day trades? Dallas. If you talk about which teams had the best last couple weeks in the run-up to the trade deadline, then the Pelicans (despite the loss Thursday) and Toronto Raptors are the clear winners.

However, who had the best Thursday? Who had the best trade deadline day itself? The Dallas Mavericks.

We’ve all watched them try to find their next center for a while, complete with the DeAndre Jordan drama and Blake Griffin barricading the door (not really). Now the Mavs got their guy — Nerlens Noel. He’s athletic, he rolls to the rim and finishes strong in the paint, and he’s just 22. Sure there are questions — Noel has a worrying injury history and a limited offensive game (but he stays in his lane) — but he was going to be a highly sought after restricted free agent this summer and the Mavericks just got his rights and now can match any offer. Which will likely be expensive ($100 million?), but he could anchor the Mavs inside for a decade.

The real reason this is a win for Dallas is all they gave up was Justin Anderson (a potentially nice “3&D” player), Andrew Bogut (who the Sixers will waive), and what was billed as a first-round pick but is top 18 protected this year so it will revert to two second rounders. That’s almost nothing.

3) Watch Kemba Walker and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put on a show and force OT in eventual Pistons win. If you want the most entertaining game of Thursday night, it was the Hornets and the Pistons going to overtime as Walker and Caldwell-Pope exchanged buckets. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

Walker finished the night with 34 points, but Caldwell-Pope had 33 and his Pistons got the 114-108 win at home.

Kyrie Irving, LeBron James lead Cavaliers past Knicks, 119-104

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James recorded his 48th career triple-double and Kyrie Irving scored 23 points, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-104 victory over the New York Knicks, who hung on to superstar Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose at Thursday’s trade deadline.

James scored 18 points and had 13 rebounds with 15 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season.

Anthony, the subject of trade rumors because of a strained relationship with Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, scored 20 points, going 9 of 25 from the field.

Kyle Korver scored 20 points for Cleveland, which is 8-1 in February and has beaten New York 10 straight times.

Courtney Lee had 25 points for New York, which has lost six of seven and is 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s second-leading scorer, left the game with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return.

New York took an early lead in the first game since the All-Star break for both teams, but the Cavaliers closed the first half on a 25-8 run. Cleveland built the lead to 72-51, but Anthony scored eight points in the third quarter and kept New York in the game.

The Knicks trailed 87-79 entering the fourth, but the Cavaliers quickly regained control. James scored on two layups while Korver and Channing Frye each hit two 3-pointers, pushing the lead to 110-91.

James, who had eight assists in the fourth, also turned in two outstanding defensive plays. He swatted Rose’s layup attempt into the courtside seats in the second quarter and pinned Lee’s breakaway drive against the backboard in the fourth.

Rose, another subject of trade rumors as the deadline approached, scored 13 points.

TIP-INS

Knicks: C Joakim Noah (sore left hamstring) traveled with the team to Cleveland, but coach Jeff Hornacek said no timetable has been set for his return to action. . Lee has been battling an illness, but has stayed in the lineup despite not being fully healthy.

Cavaliers: James’ missed layup earlier in the quarter fooled the arena PA announcer, who began calling the four-time MVP’s name as the ball spun out. …. Irving missed a free throw in the second quarter, snapping a streak of 29 made foul shots in a row.

OAKLEY RETURNS

Former Knicks forward Charles Oakley watched his former team in his hometown. Oakley sat next to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in a front row seat adjacent to Cleveland’s bench.

Oakley attended his first Knicks game since being arrested after getting into an altercation with security guards at Madison Square Garden earlier this month.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Cavaliers: Host Chicago on Saturday night.

Rockets rout Pelicans, 129-99, in DeMarcus Cousins’ New Orleans debut

Houston Rockets guard James Harden watches his 3-point shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Houston. Houston won 111-92. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Boogie-and-Brow era in New Orleans is off to a highly inauspicious start.

The Pelicans’ tandem of newly acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis was no match for the surging Houston Rockets on Thursday night.

Reserve Lou Williams hit seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points in his Rockets debut after a trade from the Lakers, and Houston crushed New Orleans, 129-99.

Davis had 29 points, and Cousins finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds after he was acquired from Sacramento during the break. But New Orleans turned the ball over 20 times couldn’t keep pace with the firepower of the Rockets, who hit 20 3-pointers.

Eric Gordon scored 19 points and Ryan Anderson added 17 in both players’ first game in New Orleans since leaving the Pelicans. James Harden had 13 points and 14 assists.

Houston led by as many as 35 points when Gordon’s free throws made it 100-65 late in the third quarter.

Patrick Beverley had 12 rebounds for Houston. Montrezl Harrell added 10 points for the Rockets, who shot 49.5 percent (45 of 91).

After New Orleans acquired Cousins, nicknamed “Boogie,” in a deal involving five players and two draft choices, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hoped Cousins and Davis would thrive playing off one another while point guard Jrue Holiday initiated offensive sets. But Holiday had arguably his worst game this season, turning the ball over seven times and finishing with only six points and four assists.

The crowd was charged up for both Cousins’ debut and Davis’ resumption of a sensational season following his record 52-point performance on Sunday.

Both players received rousing receptions during introductions and the crowd roared when Cousins hit a jumper for games’ first points.

Cousins and Davis each scored eight in the first quarter, but it was also apparent that the integration of new personnel had New Orleans a bit out of sync. The Pelicans turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, leading to 17 Rockets points.

The Rockets also hit nine 3s in the opening half, including three each by Gordon and Williams, and led 66-50 at halftime.

By the end of the third quarter, the crowd that had been so rowdy at tip-off was starting to file out with their team down 100-67.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Houston has won seven of the past eight meetings. … The Rockets hit at least 10 3s in a game for the 55th time in 59 games this season. … The Rockets, now 41-18, have matched their win total for all of last season.

Pelicans: Before the game, New Orleans waived F Terrence Jones and signed G/F Hollis Thompson to a 10-day contract. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Jones, who joined New Orleans on a one-year contract this season, was released to help him find a team where he could play more. Thompson played a little more than four minutes and scored three points. … The Pelicans are now 14-16 at home.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Host Minnesota on Saturday night.

Pelicans: Visit Dallas on Saturday night.

Damian Lillard rallies Trail Blazers to 112-103 win over Orlando

Portland Trail Blazers' C.J. McCollum (3) and Damian Lillard (0) celebrate a basket by McCollum against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. McCollum had 32 points and Lillard had 29 in the team's 114-113 win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Damian Lillard scored 33 points, C.J. McCollum added 22 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Orlando Magic 112-103 on Thursday night to snap a three-game losing streak.

After trailing for much of the game, the Trail Blazers rallied in the fourth quarter behind Lillard’s 17 points. Recently acquired center Jusuf Nurkic also had 12 points and 12 rebounds during the much-needed win for the Portland.

The Trail Blazers spoiled Terrence Ross‘ debut with the Magic after being traded last week for Serge Ibaka. Ross, who is supposed to added athleticism and a scoring punch, managed just 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting with his new team.

Nikola Vucevic scored 25 points and Evan Fournier added 20 as the Magic lost for the sixth time in seven games.

Portland trailed by 11 points early in the fourth but then outscored the Magic 16-4 during a stretch that ended with the Blazers taking a 96-95 lead on a 3-point shot in the corner by Lillard with 5:20 left.

After trailing by as many as 14 points in the third, the Trail Blazers used an 11-0 run to pull within three late in the period with Lillard and McCollum doing most of the damage. But that was as close as the Blazers could come as the Magic pulled back out front with Vucevic hitting some big shots and then D.J. Augustin burying a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give the Orlando an 85-77 lead going into the fourth quarter.

The new-look Magic were inconsistent in the first half with a permanent small lineup and the addition of Ross. But they played well enough to take a 55-46 lead into halftime.

Ross missed his first four field goal attempts before knocking down a 3-pointer that gave the Magic their biggest lead of the half at 37-26 lead with 8:22 remaining in the second quarter. Otherwise Ross struggled from the field, going 1 for 7 for the half.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Forward Al-Farouq Aminu did not play Thursday because of continued problems with his left knee. Aminu missed the Blazers’ last game before the All-Star break against Utah on Feb. 15 because of a left knee sprain. … Nurkic was inserted into the starting lineup. … With his 3-pointer early in the third quarter, Lillard has now made at least one 3-pointer in a career-high 37 consecutive games dating back to Nov. 22. It’s the second-longest streak in franchise history.

Magic: Point guard C.J. Watson, who was recently inserted into the starting lineup, is listed as day-to-day with a sore right Achilles tendon. Watson said he expects to miss about a week to allow the injury to heal. … With Watson out, Frank Vogel went with a starting lineup of Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Ross and Vucevic.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Portland continues its four-game road swing with a stop at Toronto on Sunday.

Magic: Orlando will host Dwight Howard and the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.