Indiana Pacers players stand during a time out in an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis

PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

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SEASON RECORDS
Atlanta: 44-38, six seed in East
Indiana: 49-32, third seed in East

SEASON SERIES
Tied at 2-2. The Hawks won the first two, the Pacers the final two.

KEY INJURIES
Atlanta: The Hawks will be without Zaza Pachulia (Achilles surgery) and Lou Williams (ACL).

Indiana: Danny Granger is still out following left knee surgery, but he has been out almost all season.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)
Hawks: offense 102.7 (15th in NBA) defense 101.8 (10th in)
Pacers: offense 101.6 (19th in NBA), defense 96.6 (1st in NBA)

Differential: Pacers +5 (6th in NBA), Hawks +0.9 (13th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR ATLANTA

Jeff Teague: Atlanta always seems to be waiting for Teague to be aggressive. And when he is the Hawks are a much better team. Both Teague and Devin Harris are going to have to have a big series here — look back at the two Hawks regular season wins over the Pacers and you see Lou Williams carve up the Pacers defense, breaking them down and making plays. Williams is out after knee surgery, now Teague and Harris have to take over that role.

Hit their midrange looks: What the Pacers do on defense is follows the Spurs model — protect the paint, run guys off the three point line and make you take the less efficient midrange shots. It’s a good strategy. But you can put points on the board if you can knock down midrange shots and the Hawks are going to get a lot of those looks. Hit them Atlanta can do damage.

Al Horford: He can knock down midrange shots, which helps with the point above. But it is more than that — Horford’s ability to play away from the basket should draw Roy Hibbert out of the paint some, opening up driving lanes for Teague and Harris. Whether running the 4/5 pick-and-roll or just in the flow of the offense he is going to have to score a lot, defend like a beast on Brook Lopez and have a monster series for the Hawks to have a chance.

THREE KEYS FOR INDIANA

Get their defensive groove back: On the season, the Pacers have the best defense in the NBA. But in past few weeks they have not been — in the final 10 games of the season they allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions. That is nearly 9 points per 100 more than their season average. Put simply, they don’t score enough for their defense to be anything less than elite.

George Hill: You know the Pacers are going to get offense from David West, as solid pick-and-pop big as there is in the league. Paul George will get his. But the Pacers need more offense to come from somewhere and the most likely candidate is George Hill. He averaged 14.2 points a game in the regular season, if he can have a couple big games against the Hawks the Pacers are much closer to advancing.

Limit turnovers: The Indiana Pacers turn the ball over 16.2 percent of their possessions, second highest percentage in the league. The top spot on the list goes to the Houston Rockets, but they play a fast-and-loose style and can make it up more easily. For the Pacers every possession has to be more precious in their grind-it-out style and they need to take better care of the ball. It’s the Pacers’ bigs that need to change this — David West and Roy Hibbert each average more than two turnovers a game, they need to get that number down. Lance Stephenson is the other guy that can’t have one of those games.

OUTLOOK

This is the least anticipated of the first round matchups. This is going to be the NBA TV series because nobody will be watching. On one side you have the favorite that shuts other teams down but can’t really score themselves. On the other side you have a Hawks team where we feel like we’ve seen this movie before — be physical with them, play hard and they retreat.

Hawks GM Danny Ferry is remaking this roster — he traded Joe Johnson to Brooklyn last summer and this summer they are going to watch Josh Smith walk. This feels like a team that is crumbling and down the stretch they went 4-6 in their last 10. They seemed disinterested. It feels like if the Pacers get a couple early wins the Hawks will start making golf reservations.

I expect the Pacers to get their defensive groove back and smother the Hawks, but that’s the key. If the Pacers play like they did the last 10 or so games of the season — if they don’t defend — the Hawks will be right in this series. And the Hawks have talent, Horford and Smith will have huge games if they get the space to operate.

I just don’t see that happening. I see physical, low scoring, grinding gams that are exactly the way the Pacers want them. I see their defense just throwing a blanket over the Hawks while Paul George and David West give them enough to win.

PREDICTION:

Pacers in 5.

Watch the 50 best long-distance shots of last season (video)

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There’s something majestic about the ball floating through the air on a long shot headed toward the rim, especially when it splashes through the net.

Enjoy the top 50 of those baskets from last season.

Kevin Durant doesn’t like Durantula nickname either

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) poses with an emoji cutout during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Kevin Durant is long and thin, a combination that has inspired two great nicknames: “Durantula” and “Slim Reaper.”

Durant has already disavowed “Slim Reaper.”

Now, he’s professing his dislike for “Durantula.”

Henry Wofford of CSN Bay Area:

https://twitter.com/HenryWoffordCSN/status/780502572264075264

I see Durant is embracing his role as villain. This is a terrible opinion.

That leaves just loathsomely boring “KD” as a nickname, which is unjustifiable with such better options on the table. Durant might just have to buck up and accept “Durantula” and “Slim Reaper.” At least neither rolls off the tongue easily enough for people to address him that way in person.

Joakim Noah skips Knicks dinner with West Point cadets due to anti-war stance

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Professional Basketball Player Joakim Noah (C) attends the DKNY Women fashion show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows September 2016 at High Line on September 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week)
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week
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The Knicks have held training camp at West Point the last few years, and last night, the team dined with Army cadets:

But Joakim Noah didn’t participate.

Noah, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“It’s hard for me a little bit – I have a lot of respect for the kids here fighting — but it’s hard for me to understand why we go to war and why kids have to kill kids all around the world,’’ Noah said. “I have mixed feeling about being here. I’m very proud of this country. I love America. I don’t understand kids killing kids around the world.’’

Noah received permission from Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to skip the team function. He was the only member of the team not in attendance. Noah said his decision to skip the dinner and speech was not intended as a form of protest.

“It’s not my way of saying anything – I was not comfortable,’’ Noah said.

Noah has dual citizenship in the United States and France, the home of his father, Yannick Noah, the former tennis star. Noah admitted he’s “not very patriotic,’’ believing people should respect people more than “flags.’’

Noah’s view will be unpopular, but he has every right to hold it. There’s a growing current of people asking for more athlete activism, but people better realize: You might not always like the stance players take. For those who claim to value politically minded players, this is part of what you get.

Personally, I disagree with Noah. The Revolutionary War helped him secure the right to speak out on this. World War II kept his beloved France from being run by a tyrannical Nazi regime. Just because some wars are unjust doesn’t make all wars unjust. I also believe in honoring American soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.

But I also respect Noah’s right to seek a comfortable situation for himself. Some people can be anti-war and easily separate the soldiers as individuals. For others, apparently including Noah, all war machinery is intertwined.

Keep in mind, Noah didn’t actively disparage any soldiers. He’s not seeking supporters for a cause. He just chose not participate in an event he never asked to be apart of.

LeBron James on Cavaliers negotiations: ‘I just hate to deal with this s— again,’ J.R. Smith ‘did his part’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Kyrie Irving #2, LeBron James #23 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
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LeBron James has implicitly loomed over contract negotiations between the Cavaliers and J.R. Smith. LeBron shares an agent – Rich Paul, whose clientele (including Tristan Thompson) LeBron considers to be family – with Smith.

Now, LeBron is getting more explicit.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

LeBron has frequently praised Smith, including this offseason. If the Cavs haven’t gotten the message by now, it ought to be clear: LeBron values Smith and winning and believes the former will help the latter.

This doesn’t mean LeBron will leave in free agency in 2018, but with a rumor that LeBron believes delivering a title to Cleveland frees him to bolt if he so chooses, do the Cavaliers really want to test him? Do they really want to restrain a team capable of defending its championship?

I respect the Cavs’ desire to sign Smith to a sensible contract, and LeBron is well within his rights to advocate for a fellow player (and himself getting a better supporting cast). These negotiations are all about leverage – and LeBron is using his.