Larry Drew, Josh Smith, Kyle Korver

Hawks head coach Larry Drew says team ‘took a step back’ after loss to Suns

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PHOENIX — Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew was at a loss as to why his team, which had won four straight and six of its last seven, played so poorly against the Suns and lost 92-87 on Friday in Phoenix.

He needed only to take a walk through his postgame locker room to find some potential reasons why.

“I told the guys after the game, I thought we took a step back tonight,” Drew told reporters afterward. “We reverted to some bad habits. And what’s mind-boggling is the first three games of the road trip how well we played, how well we shared the ball, how well we executed; defensively, how active we’ve been. All those things, they took a back seat tonight.”

The Hawks have played well at times this season, but watching their entire body of work, you simply get the feeling that something isn’t right. Despite the fact that they currently sit in fourth place in the East, you also get the feeling that it would be a longshot for them to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

It may be that the team’s mental makeup isn’t well-suited for long-term success.

Nothing about the way the Hawks played Friday made you think of the word “focused.” After Drew spent his pregame meeting with the media talking up the recent play of Al Horford (and with good reason), the Hawks spent the first quarter with the ball being dominated by Jeff Teague and Josh Smith, who combined to shoot 3-8 from the field in the period, while turning the ball over four times.

Smith was the worst of the two, missing two three-pointers and throwing the ball away three times, while his teammates saved two more horrendous passes that easily could have resulted in additional turnovers. Smith finished the night with just five points on 2-11 shooting, including going 0-5 from three-point distance. He also finished with five turnovers to cancel out his five assists.

Horford did have five attempts in the first, but only one of those came on a play specifically designed to get him a good look inside; two came on 20-foot jumpers that were just Horford’s decision, one came on a pick-and-roll that he initiated and converted, and the other he made while converting on a fast break. He ended up with 20 points on 16 shots, but Teague had more shots than Horford at the half, and combined with Smith to finish a dismal 5-21 shooting.

The Suns have won three straight, and ended the Spurs’ 18-game home-winning streak with an overtime win in San Antonio on Wednesday. The lineups Phoenix threw out there on Friday, however, especially in the fourth quarter when Goran Dragic was unable to return due to a lower back bruise he suffered in the third, should have allowed the Hawks to gain control; they could not.

Phoenix finished the game with Kendall Marshall, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Wesley Johnson, and Jermaine O’Neal on the floor, all of whom played the entire fourth quarter. Those five had no trouble holding the 11-point lead that the Suns entered the final period with, as the Hawks were still down 10 with 2:21 to play. In fact, the closest Atlanta got was at the buzzer, when a three from Horford gave us the game’s final margin.

After it was over, had you entered the Hawks locker room without knowing the game’s outcome, you might have had a difficult time determining that this was where the losing team was getting dressed. The vibe was upbeat, positive, and loud, with animated conversations coming from both the shower area and the main room, and with plenty of guys smiling and joking around.

A towel-clad Ivan Johnson made a humorous remark when warning reporters to clear the way for him to get to his locker, and he and Smith spent several minutes discussing one of the game’s chippier incidents involving Johnson and Markieff Morris. The gist of the conversation was Smith mocking Morris for whatever bravado he was attempting to show, while saying “We all know he wasn’t going to do anything.” Johnson replied assertively, “He sure wasn’t.”

Smith changed his demeanor when the cameras and microphones were turned on, of course, and when I asked him if he believed what his coach had said, that the team took a step back with this loss, he didn’t necessarily see it that way.

“One game and you throw it out,” he said. “We were owed one of these games. You’re going to have games like this, it’s just our ability to bounce back from it. We can’t hang our heads and really dwell on it, we’ve got to look ahead.”

It was apparent that the players had moved on the moment this one was over.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.

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)
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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.