With Josh Smith out due to injury, Hawks need someone to step up in Game 3 against Celtics

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The Boston Celtics picked up a solid victory without Rajon Rondo in the lineup earlier this week in Atlanta, evening their series against the Hawks at one game apiece. One has to wonder, then, what might happen on Friday night now that momentum is in the favor of the Celtics, the game will be in Boston and Atlanta standout Josh Smith is a game-time decision due to a knee injury (Update: Adrian Wojnarowski reports that he’s out).

Suffice it to say, the Hawks will have their hands full when the game tips off in the Garden at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — and that’s before delving in to whether they’re able to stop the machine that was Paul Pierce in Game 2 of the seven-game series.

Pierce was tremendous earlier this week while evening the series, scoring 36 points and grabbing 12 rebounds as he jumped into the driver’s seat while Rondo served his one-game suspension. “The Truth” shouldn’t need to shoulder quite as much of the load on Friday night, though, considering Rondo will be back in the lineup and the early offense will likely be sent through Kevin Garnett if Smith is out (or even plays at less than 100 percent, for that matter).

In all likelihood, then, it would seem the wildcard for Game 3 will be what the Hawks opt to do in the absence of “Smoove” Smith. Their most-likely option is bringing Marvin Williams off the bench —  or maybe even Tracy McGrady considering he’s looked good in limited minutes this series — but it might not hurt to go (relatively) big by inserting NBA Development League stalwart Ivan Johnson into the starting lineup. It would hurt the size in the second unit, but considering Greg Stiemsma isn’t often an offensive force for the Celtics, that might not be a problem as long as Johnson and Jason Collins are able to stay out of foul trouble.

The positives of bringing the bruising Johnson into the fold as a starter are that he’d be able to set an early precedent that easy baskets aren’t going to be an option considered he and Collins have already nearly negated Garnett’s impact on the series. Johnson also matches up well with Brandon Bass and, though he doesn’t exactly bring a lot to the table on the offensive end (save for this, of course), the Hawks offense has been predicated on isolation looks anyway in the first two games of the series. At least with Johnson in the starting lineup, Atlanta would have an advantage as far as rebounds are concerned while leaving a couple of solid scoring options available for a burst off the bench.

As far as the rest of the game is concerned, it’ll be up to the Hawks to keep their offense moving — not just in the wake of what might be the loss of Smith, but also due to a stagnation that has occurred for some reason quite a but during the second half this season (and reared its ugly head more than normal in Game 2, too). Starting guard Joe Johnson addressed that concern during media availability with the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this week.

“In the first two, three quarters we are probably at our best running and getting up down the floor. Then in that fourth, for whatever reason–fatigue maybe—we just get a little stagnant and our offense just doesn’t flow as much. That is something we will look at on tape and try to make adjustments, and I am sure we will do better.”

The Celtics don’t have nearly as many things to worry about considering they’re back on their homecourt, they have their starting point guard back and have seemed to do just fine with Avery Bradley getting more minutes while veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen recovers from injury. It certainly isn’t ideal to be missing a starter, but when considering the Hawks are without their best three big men — Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia — it’s not all that bad when put into perspective.

There’s still a lot of time left in the series, but Game 3 seems awfully important for Atlanta. If they’re able to replace Smith’s production and pick up a win in Boston, all will be well … if they’re unable to do what the Celtics did in Game 2, though, it seems like it’ll be tough for the Hawks to make up lost ground.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.