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.

Report: Heat to explore Hassan Whiteside trade options

Associated Press
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Is there much demand for Hassan Whiteside around the NBA marketplace?

The pro-Whiteside camp can point to some raw numbers: He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds a game this season (and 17 and 14 a season ago), he shot 54 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 24.1.

However, his shortcomings were on full display in the playoffs. In the first two games, when Philadelphia played small, Whiteside didn’t have a place on the court and saw limited minutes. When Joel Embiid returned things got worse — in the three games matched up against Embiid, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside played just 10 minutes in Game 5, where he was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. All through the series, Whiteside complained about his lack of minutes.

Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra are not on the same page, and the Heat would like to move him in a trade… but good luck with that. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.

In a tight financial market, the Heat are going to struggle to find a team with the space (or willing to create the space) to take on $51.5 million over two seasons. Even if they do, the Heat are going to have to attach sweeteners — multiple first round picks, or a pick and young players that interest teams (Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo, for example). It’s going to be a lot to give up to get out of that contract. Maybe in the summer of 2019, when the market loosens up and Whiteside is an expiring contract, they more easily can find a deal. This summer it would be difficult.

But expect the Heat (and Whiteside’s agent) to look for a trade. It’s time to part ways, it just may not be that simple to do.

PBT Podcast: What went wrong and what’s next for Trail Blazers?

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It was embarrassing, and left both fans and players of the Trail Blazers angry and frustrated — Portland was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now what happens in Portland? Is Terry Stotts in danger as the coach? What about GM Neil Olshey? Would they consider trading C.J. McCollum? Is there any way to offload the contract of Evan Turner?

Kurt Helin and the Northeast’s own Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest podcast, and Blazers fans may not like the answers. The pair also touch on other series around the league, like do the Pelicans have a shot against the Warriors? And, as required by NBA law, they touch on the Sixers run.

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.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

Associated Press
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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.