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.

NBA: Kenneth Faried got away with foul on decisive basket in Nuggets’ win over Bulls

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The Bulls’ biggest loss Friday was Jimmy Butler to injury. His absence certainly contributed to a loss to the Timberwolves the following night.

But Chicago also lost to the Nuggets on Friday, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if the game were called correctly down the stretch.

With Denver up two points and 21.1 seconds remaining, Kenneth Faried offensively rebounded a free throw and scored. The Bulls then intentionally fouled down the stretch, and Faried and Danilo Gallinari added a few free throws in the Nuggets’ 115-110 win.

One problem: Faried should’ve been called for offensively fouling Taj Gibson on the key putback, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Faried (DEN) extends his arm into Gibson (CHI) and dislodges him, affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

This was a huge swing. Instead of Taj Gibson – a 69% career free-throw shooter – going to the line for two attempts with Chicago down two points, Faried put the Nuggets up four. Even if Gibson split at the line, the Bulls would have been in significantly better shape.

As usual, we can’t know what would’ve happened if this call were made correctly. But it significantly set back Chicago.

NBA considering if jump-on-back foul should be flagrant foul

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The video above is an intentional foul — Chris Paul jumped on the back of Dwight Howard. The same thing has happened to Andre Drummond.

Is it a flagrant foul?

The Boston Celtics tweeted this out on Sunday.

The NBA was quick to let people know that this is just something under consideration — there has been no change in the rules. This may well be where the league is headed, but it’s not there yet.

The NBA defines a flagrant foul as “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” To me, leaping on a player’s back like that qualifies. (A flagrant two foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact” and leads to an ejection; this is not that.)

Jared Dudley — one of the more vocal players on union issues — added a good point.

Consider this part of the coming changes on the intentional fouling rules period. But this one tweak could come much faster.

NBA: Foul on Cavaliers that sparked Celtics’ comeback called in error

Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith makes a move on Boston Celtics' Evan Turner (11) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Cavaliers were in great shape against the Celtics on Friday, leading by four points with seven seconds left.

Then, it all went so wrong for Cleveland.

J.R. Smith was called for fouling Evan Turner on a made layup, cutting the margin to two points. Turner missed the free throw, but the ball went out of bounds off the Cavs. Then, Avery Bradley made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Boston the win.

Rewind, though, and an incorrect call drove the sequence, according to the NBA.

Smith shouldn’t have been called for fouling Turner, per the Last Two Minute Report:

Smith (CLE) makes incidental contact with Turner’s (BOS) body as he attempts the layup.

If this were officiated correctly, the Cavs would’ve had the ball and a two-point lead with 5.9 seconds left. That’s not a lock to win – they’d still have to inbound the ball and make their free throws – but it’s close.

Cleveland is definitely entitled to feel the refs wronged them out of a victory.

Report: Kevin Durant has “done his due diligence on the Bay Area”

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Kevin Durant has not made up his mind about what he will do as a free agent this summer. Until his playoff run ends, whenever that may be for the Thunder, his focus will be on bringing a title to Oklahoma City.

But even he admits he can’t help but think about free agency a little.

The buzz around the league is Golden State is at the front of the line if Durant decides to leave OKC, and he has done some research, reports Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors play in front of an intimidating Oracle Arena crowd and are expected to debut a new San Francisco arena in 2019. Durant has quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area, too, sources told Yahoo Sports.

His people — specifically agent Rich Kleiman and personal manager Charlie Bell — would be stupid not to have done some research on not only Golden State but on every other team he might consider: Houston, Miami, Washington, both teams in Los Angeles, the Knicks, and on down the line. Golden State, playing with Stephen Curry, certainly would have its attractions.

I’m still in the camp that Durant signs a 1+1 deal to stay in Oklahoma City (meaning he can opt out after one more season, in 2017), and it’s all about the cash. While he could get 30 percent of a $90 million cap this summer (about $27 million a season to start), with one more year of service in 2017 Durant could get 35 percent of $108 million ($37.8 million to start). That’s a lot of cash. Plus he gets one more chance at a ring with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both are 2017 free agents.

But you can be sure whatever Durant decides, it will be well researched and thought out. And he’s not going to announce it in a live special on ESPN.