NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Just another Hawks season.

That’s the best way to put it after a year where despite losing Al Horford for the vast majority of the season, Atlanta managed to land a top four seed in the East. They had this bizarro season underneath the headline of “Boring.”

They would look awesome one night, as Josh Smith played at an elite level, and the team really gelled for long stretches. But then they would hit national TV and things would happen like the Heat not playing the Big 3 and still beating the Hawks, at home. It was like they were intentionally trying to look horrible at home.

Everyone was tired of the Hawks by season’s end. The inconsistent play, the isolation offense, the general blaise. The fans, the media, no one cared about them. They were supposed to lose in the first round, and they did.

But snuck under the talk of Ray Allen’s injury and Paul Pierce battling an MCL sprain along with a one-game suspension for Rajon Rondo was this: the Hawks played Boston tight. They were in that series, but the emotional lift from losing Rajon Rondo put a fire under the Celtics, and when they come out like that, they’re extremely difficult to beat. Meanhwhile, the Hawks’ bigest advantage against the Celtics was their size… and yet Horford took a few games to get back and then wasn’t 100 percent, and Zaza Pachulia, who always causes the Celtics issues, wasn’t around at all.

It was the kind of misfortune that creates a facade of failure. The Hawks were better than most people thought they were, but never good enough to matter, still.

Something had to change.

Key Departures: Joe Johnson has been an All-Star six times. Straight. Most people don’t really catch that, but it’s true. And Danny Ferry happily traded him for almost nothing after he took over the team as GM.

Johnson is an elite defender and at times can be a great scorer, but he’s also heavy on the isolation and not as efficient as he once was. Most importantly, the Hawks threw a max contract at him to keep him in 2010 that the Nets will be paying for at roughly the cost of the GDP of a small nation.

Ferry moved Marvin Williams to clear even more space, getting one of the most disappointing draft picks in team history and getting the memory out of people’s minds.

Jerry Stackhouse was let go, and Willie Green released in a sign-and-trade. Jason Collins was a very useful center the past two years but he also was not retained in free agency. Vlad Radmanovic, AKA VladRad, AKA Space Cadet, went to the Bulls.

Key Additions: In return for Johnson, Ferry took Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, and some filler, most of which has been waived or won’t see much time this season. The idea was clear. Create space from a team with none by any means necessary. Adding Morrow does give them a crack shooter, however.

He traded for Kyle Korver to add yet another shooter to a team that had very little last year and now has a ton.

For Williams, Ferry landed Devin Harris, giving him a capable backup point guard behind Teague, or a replacement if Teague doesn’t make the required leap.

The team signed Anthony Tolliver as a free agent to give them another stretch four and brought in Lou Williams to replace Willie Green.

They drafted John Jenkins who showed a lot of promise in Summer League.

Three keys to the Hawks season:
1) All-The-Time Teague: I’ve started referencing the phrase “Playoff Teague” the past two years because Jeff Teague is an entirely different player when the playoffs begin than during the regular season. He makes bigger shots, plays faster and harder, and blows you away with his athleticism and big-play ability. So why doesn’t he do that throughout the year? Why did he so often lose his job to Kirk Hinrich when Hinrich was healthy?

Teague has to become a consistent star this season, not something that’s easy for point guards in a point-guard dominant league. He has better shooters to drive and kick to, and will have a lot more freedom in the offense now that ISOJoe is working in Brooklyn. But Teague stil has to take every game as crucial and really lead this team. They can’t afford to just care about the big games, because they’re not going to win a lot of them with this crew.

Teague has to convince himself every game is on the big stage.

2) Is Josh Smith ready to be the guy? Josh Smith is in a contract year. He’s been passed over for All-Star spots despite being more than deserving, has been ridiculed for his penchant to take long-twos, and largely overlooked. He’s also played out of his mind the past two seasons.

Without Johnson, this is Josh Smith’s team. Al Horford will play a big role. Jeff Teague will direct the offense. But this is Josh Smith’s team now. He has to be more efficient, take a bigger load, and be willing to act as more of the finisher than set-up guy.

And, as always, stop with the long twos. For the love. The man is dominant in the post. This mid-range tyranny must end.

3) Will Drew open up the offense? He has a lightning-fast point guard who can drive and dish. He’s got a set of dominant post players in Horford and Smith. He’s got shooters galore with Morrow, Korver, and others.

But Larry Drew has stuck to the grind-it-out offense that kept his team mired in the mud. The team has athleticism and skill, and needs ball movement. There are no Kobe Bryants on this team, no LeBron James. But they have speciality players who can play well in their roles. This team may only go as far as Drew lets them. There has to be some imagination and push in the way the offense is set.

What Hawks fans should fear: Smith’s not elite. And without that, this team could fall prey to the “good enough to not be terrible, not good enough to do anything of note.” But then again, that’s where they’ve been for three years, so really what’s the difference?

The Hawks are moving towards an all-out rebuild eventually. This is the year in-between. But if the opportunity to snag a lottery pick comes available, bet that the Hawks will jump on it. Ferry knows he needs a new, legit star. He won’t hesitate to go get it via the draft.

How it likely works out: The Hawks could honestly wind up making the playoffs. They have good skill players, some athleticism, a good to great defensive coach and shooters. But they lack in total star power, we don’t know what Horford will look like after injury, whether Josh Smith will buy in, if Teague will make the leap, if Drew will open the offense up.

The Hawks won’t be terrible, but they may not be good either. This is one where we have to see what happens when you put all the ingredients in the oven.

And again, don’t discount the possibility of a midseason tank job. Ferry knows the long-term game here.

Prediction: 43-39, they’ll be right there for the eighth seed. Atlanta has a good set of players but not enough to be in the elite category. A long losing streak could be followed by a long winning streak, and much will depend on the health of their shooters. But Drew coaches defense so well, and Teague-Smith-Horford is enough to carry them to at least .500.

James Harden, Chris Paul lead Rockets to 13th straight victory

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HOUSTON (AP) — Nursing a sore knee, James Harden said he came close to not playing Saturday night.

When team doctors warned him that it would be painful, but he could play through it, he said, “Let’s go.”

Harden scored 31 points and Chris Paul had 25 and the Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 for their 13th straight victory.

The winning streak is the Rockets’ longest since a franchise-best 22 straight in 2007-08.

Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer over Malcolm Brogdon and was fouled, giving Houston an 11-point lead with less than six minutes remaining. In the last two minutes, Paul hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.

“Mentally, this was a big win for us,” Paul said. “We never let go of the rope. Every time they made a little push, we stayed right there down the stretch. James was out there, basically, on one leg. The mental toughness we showed as a team is what we take from this game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton had 23 points, and Brogdon added 20. Milwaukee has lost three in a row after winning six of seven.

“Harden made some tough shots and Chris Paul made some big shots down the stretch as well,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We gave ourselves a chance, but we just came up short.”

The Rockets grinded through frustrations, 15 turnovers and a below-average shooting night. Paul had a technical foul, Harden had a delay of game warning, and the Rockets faced serious adversity for the first time in weeks. Entering Saturday, Houston had dominated teams in its streak, winning all but two games by double figures with an average margin of victory of 16.9 points.

“We just didn’t have our best stuff tonight,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But we found a way. It was one of those typical grind games where you’ve just got to find a way somehow.”

Paul scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, overcoming a rocky first half where he missed all five shots he attempted and turned the ball over five times.

“I had never coached him in a back-to-back, but I’m thinking he’s kind of dead,” D’Antoni said. “Then, all of a sudden, he comes out in the third quarter and turns into Superman.”

Paul made 7 of 8 shots in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, also making all eight free throws in the game.

Harden scored 20 points or more for the 29th straight game, matching Houston’s franchise record set by Moses Malone.

Both Harden and Clint Capela (left heel contusion) were game-time decisions after suffering injuries on different collision plays in Friday night’s win over San Antonio. Capela sat out the game, and P.J. Tucker started in his place, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Behind Tucker, Nene scored a season-high 16 points, largely on thunderous one-handed dunks. The Rockets were outscored by the Bucks 44-40 in the paint and outrebounded 40-38.

Milwaukee and Houston traded blows in the first half, with the Rockets leading by three at the end of the first quarter. They were tied at 55 at the half. The Rockets haven’t trailed at the half since Nov. 25 in a 117-102 win over the Knicks.

The Rockets took an 84-79 lead into the fourth quarter.

At 24-4, the Rockets are tied for their best 28-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993-94 season when they won their first championship.

 

Knicks shut out Carmelo Anthony in 2nd half, beat Thunder 111-96

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden was much like the 6 1/2 years he spent playing for the Knicks.

A video played on the overhead scoreboard as part of a huge welcome from the fans and franchise, followed by a fast start that gave Anthony hope he could have everything he wanted.

Then things fell flat until the finish.

The Knicks shut out their former All-Star in the second half and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-96 on Saturday night for their fourth straight victory.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling for me, coming back here knowing the goal that I had and what I wanted to accomplish here and falling short in that category,” Anthony said.

Michael Beasley tied his season high with 30 points in place of injured Kristaps Porzingis, and Doug McDermott, acquired with Enes Kanter for Anthony, added 11 of his 13 after halftime to help the Knicks break open the game.

“This game was kind (of) about him and I thought we did a really good job of not letting that distract us and just focus on winning the game,” McDermott said. “And it felt great, especially being a part of the trade (with) Enes.

Anthony scored 12 points in the first half but was 0 for 5 after, perhaps low on energy after the Thunder’s three-overtime victory at Philadelphia a night earlier.

He made a 3-pointer for the Thunder’s first basket of the game after refocusing following a video tribute that caught him off guard, but finished 5 of 18 from the field as the Knicks played with passion and precision they lacked in Anthony’s final years in New York.

“You got to beat the best to be the best,” Beasley said. “He’s one of the best of our era.”

Russell Westbrook had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, who were trying to sweep a three-game trip that began with Paul George‘s winning return to Indiana on Wednesday.

But they couldn’t deliver a victory for Anthony back at Madison Square Garden, even with the Knicks playing without leading scorer Porzingis because of a knee injury.

“I think the guys just, they were ready for tonight’s game,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “And we caught them after a triple-overtime game so that probably helped us too, but our guys played hard all night which probably wore them down.”

Anthony received a pair of loud cheers during pregame introductions, before and at the end of a video tribute showing his highlights on the court and his charitable efforts off it that was played after the first four Thunder starters were announced. But the boos became more noticeable once play got underway, and soon they were coming every time he touched the ball.

“That was expected,” Anthony said. “They can’t cheer for me, I’m on another team.”

Later, the cheers were all for the Knicks, who after trading their leading scorer on the eve of training camp are a surprising 16-13 – better than Anthony’s new team (14-15). Anthony was booed one last time as he was removed with 1.4 seconds remaining.

Beasley had a hand in 12 of the Knicks’ final 15 points of the third quarter, scoring nine himself and assisting on Ron Baker‘s 3-pointer. That turned a two-point lead into an 80-73 advantage over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the period.

The Knicks pushed it into double digits in the fourth behind five straight points from McDermott – originally it was six by a 3-pointer was changed to a 2 after review – and he later made it 100-87 with a 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining.

The Thunder played without starting center Steven Adams because of a concussion.

 

Manu Ginobili game-winner caps 13-0 closing run to rally Spurs past Mavericks

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — At 40 years old, Manu Ginobili‘s refusal to slow down in his 16th season with the Spurs has been a source of inspiration to the team’s young core.

The man and the mantra helped propel San Antonio to an improbable victory over Dallas on Saturday night.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 22 points and 14 rebounds and the Spurs scored the final 13 points of the game, rallying for a 98-96 victory over the Mavericks.

Aldridge’s fall-away, 11-foot jumper tied the game at 96 with 23.4 seconds remaining and Ginobili’s driving layup with 3.1 seconds was the game-winning shot.

“He’s our grandpa,” 21-year-old Dejounte Murray said, chuckling afterwards. “He’s a beast, man. You’ve all seen what he’s done for this organization and he’s still around giving his wisdom to all the new guys. To see him coming in every day, I mean there’s not one day I’ve seen Manu not show up at the facility. Being a young guy, I’ve got to be there every day.”

Ginobili’s layup off the left side of the glass gave the Spurs their first lead of the game after trailing by as many as 16 points.

“We did a lot of good things, but the ending is unforgiveable,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.

Maxi Kleber had 21 points and Dirk Nowitzki added 19 for Dallas in the final regular season matchup between the Southwest Division rivals.

Kleber’s 3-pointer gave Dallas a 96-85 lead with 4:11 remaining, but the Spurs held them scoreless the remainder of the game.

The Mavericks drought included a turnover when Wes Matthews was unable to inbound the ball with 23.4 seconds remaining. Mathews threw the ball at Ginobili’s legs to avoid a 5-second violation, but the Spurs gained possession when the ball ricocheted off Matthews just as he stepped inbounds.

“We did everything right to lose,” Nowitzki said. “We missed shots offensively, bad turnover, gave them some offensive rebounds. Letting Ginobili go left down the stretch to lay it in. We literally had to do everything perfect to lose this one and we did.”

Aldridge had his 12th double-double of the season to help offset the absences of starters Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green.

Coming off a 15-point blowout in Houston on Friday night, San Antonio was able to avoid its third straight loss.

“We played with everybody in Houston and hoped to play a good game in which we could grow and learn from our mistakes while playing against the best team in the NBA right now and I don’t think we got anything out of it,” Ginobili said. “So, if after that poor effort we came here and played badly again and lost, it would’ve been a tough one. We are proud of this win.”

The Spurs missed their first five shots, all short jumpers from Aldridge and Pau Gasol, on their way to shooting 30 percent in the opening quarter. The Mavericks took advantage, charging to a 31-18 lead after the first quarter.

San Antonio’s reserves reversed the team’s fortunes in the third quarter.

Davis Bertans finished with 13 points and Ginobili added 12 off the bench.

 

LeBron James finishes left-handed alley-oop with head behind backboard

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We have reached the point with LeBron James and his legendary career that the incredible almost seems ordinary — he has made our jaws drop so many times it’s hard for him to clear the bar of amazing anymore.

He did Saturday night against Utah.

In transition, LeBron gave up the ball to Jeff Green, who returned the favor with an alley-oop pass. Just not a particularly good one, it was behind James.

So he reaches back with his left hand and throws it down as he ducks his head under the backboard. Then LeBron stops and stares at his left hand, like he can’t believe what he just did.

We can’t either.