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.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.