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.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.

Little kid in silly green hat eliminates Avery Bradley in knockout (video)

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, left, gestures as Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) steps on the court in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacrament Kings, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Boston. The Celtics won 128-119. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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Tired of NBA players dominating kids during the summer?

Here’s the video for you.

Celtics guard Avery Bradley loses in knockout – thanks to the smallest kid in the clip, who’s wearing a shirt way to big for him and a silly green hat.

Brian Robb of Celtics Hub:

Children in NBA player camps everywhere, you have been avenged.

Marc Gasol says he nearly played in Olympics, his foot seems fine

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 24:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates against the Oklahoma City Thunder during  Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 24, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Marc Gasol missed the final two months of last season and Olympics with a foot injury.

When will the Grizzlies center return?

Gasol in L’Esportiu, as translated by Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype:

On his foot injury:

“I’m really well and looking forward to starting (the season). I miss the competition, playing and enjoying basketball. All indications are that the foot is fine. I’ve practiced with the (Girona basketball club) juniors all I could, especially half-court sets.”

On almost making it to the Olympic Games:

“I was a couple of weeks away.”

After hurting his foot, it always seemed highly improbably Gasol would play in the Rio Games. But maybe he wasn’t that far off.

It’d be a huge boost to Memphis if Gasol is healthy as he sounds. The Grizzlies kept their window for winning open by re-signing Mike Conley and signing Chandler Parsons this summer, but Gasol is central to that. If healthy, Gasol is in the running for the NBA’s best center.  Memphis went 30-22 with him and 12-18 without him last season (though other injuries contributed to the downfall).