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.

Who should be the All-Star Game reserves? Besides Westbrook? Here is our picks.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles during the first half against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on January 16, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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The All-Star Starters are inyou don’t have to like them, but the choice has been made. In case you decided to spend Thursday night binge-watching Westworld, here are the All-Star Starters as selected by you, the fans (with a little help from the players and media so we didn’t have a Zaza moment).

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
Isaiah Thomas (Boston)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

Now it falls to the coaches, who vote this week for the reserves (to be announced next Thursday night, Jan. 29, on TNT). Who should the coaches pick? Here are our selections (we follow the format the coaches do with two guards, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards:

KURT HELIN:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Chris Paul (to become Damian Lillard)
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Frontcourt: Marc Gasol
Wild Card: Gordon Hayward
Wild Card: Mike Conley

Westbrook is a given, he should have started over Curry in my book (but I’m not going to make a big stink about the two-time MVP getting to start the ASG). Chris Paul should get the nod for the other guard slot, but with him out injured, I would give it to Lillard (despite his defense). Also, to me, Cousins, Green, and Gasol are all givens considering how well they have played this season. Hayward gets overlooked, but he is a cornerstone for Utah, the fourth-best team in the West. My hardest decision was between Conley and Rudy Gobert for the final wild card slot, I felt bad leaving the “Stifel Tower” off. C.J. McCollum and LaMarcus Aldridge also were on the bubble for me but just missed the cut.

EAST reserves:
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Frontcourt: Paul George
Frontcourt: Paul Millsap
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Kemba Walker

There are so many good point guards in the East and I wanted to get them all on the team, but that meant some sacrifices in the front court — no Joel Embiid, no Kristaps Porzingis. Which pains me, because I want to see those guys play, particularly Embiid, but I couldn’t put him on the list at the expense of Kevin Love (who has grown so very comfortable in his role with the Cavaliers).

DAN FELDMAN:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Chris Paul
Frontcourt: Rudy Gobert
Frontcourt: Gordon Hayward
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Wild Card: DeMarcus Cousins
Wild Card: Marc Gasol

Chris Paul was playing excellently before getting hurt. He deserves the recognition. Let Damian Lillard and Mike Conley duke it out to be his injury replacement. The rest of my West reserves lined up easily, though I wonder whether I should have found a spot for Blake Griffin, who was also stellar when healthy.

EAST reserves:
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Frontcourt: Paul Millsap
Frontcourt: Paul George
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Kemba Walker

Remember, I choose All-Stars by picking the best players, not parsing 40-odd games. Though both methods produce similar results, my way opens the door for Paul George, who has proven his ability over the years but has underwhelmed so far this season. There wasn’t much separation between Paul Millsap, George, Kemba Walker, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis.

DANE CARBAUGH:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Mike Conley
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins
Frontcourt: Marc Gasol
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Wild Card: Rudy Gobert
Wild Card: Damian Lillard

CP3 and Blake Griffin not being here hurts, but that’s only due to injury. Conley has made improvement at age 29 and after signing a massive contract. Also, did I mention he broke his freaking back? Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, I’m not sure how we can ever as a nation start to heal after he wasn’t named as a starter. Meanwhile, I added Draymond and left off Klay. Green is the machine that powers Golden State, and given my 50/50 distribution I’d rather see some other guys make it than just see every Golden State player. That goes for you too, Zaza.

East reserves:
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Frontcourt: Kristaps Porzingis
Frontcourt: Joel Embiid
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Hassan Whiteside

I’m choosing here based off of both who deserves to be here and who I want to see play. It’s a 50/50 split, which is why both The Unicorn and The Process make the cut. Wall has played outstanding, but leaps by Lowry and Thomas move him to a Wildcard spot. I also want Whiteside to be the only guy in an exhibition game where nobody plays defense to just chase guys around for blocks and do nothing else.

Three things we learned Thursday: Give the people what they want, and they want Curry

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stand on the court in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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1) The All-Star Starters are in and Russell Westbrook is out. But was he screwed? In case you missed it, the Starters for the All-Star Game in New Orleans Feb. 19 were announced. Remember, this is a combination of fan votes (50 percent) plus players (25) and selected media (25). Here is who is in:

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

The big outrage online: Stephen Curry is starting and Russell Westbrook is not. But is that really something to be outraged about? People are flipping out because the two-time reigning MVP is starting the All-Star Game? I will grant you that if you are voting based on who has had the best first half of the season, it should be a Westbrook/Harden backcourt, and if I had voted that would have been my call (it was the call of the media and players). What happened under the scoring system (where players were ranked where they finished in the three voting groups) was that Curry, Westbrook, and Harden all ended up tied. In the case of a tie, the fan vote breaks it and the fans voted for Curry first, Harden second, and Westbrook third. Westbrook will undoubtedly be there with the coaches picking the rest of the roster (that’s announced next Thursday).

This is an exhibition game, and while being selected can matter to a player it’s still just a show. The idea is to give the people what they want — within reason, no Zaza, and no Dwyane Wade starting — and they wanted Curry. So start Curry.

Westbrook is now my bet to come in and decide he wants to take over and win All-Star MVP. Because he can.

2) John Wall on one coast and Karl-Anthony Towns on the other put on the big shows for the night. While the Internet was arguing Westbrook/Curry, there was actual NBA basketball being played, and there were a couple of impressive performances.

John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists to lead the Wizards past the slumping Knicks 113-110, and he sealed the game with this rebound over Derrick Rose then taking it coast-to-coast for the slam (Wall will be an All-Star reserve picked by the coaches.).

Then on the other coast Karl-Anthony Towns had 37 points — 15 in the fourth quarter, including all the clutch shots when it mattered — to give Minnesota the win over a very shorthanded Clippers team.

3) Pau Gasol fractures hand in warmups, is going to miss some time. Not that the Spurs will lose games now. Pau Gasol fractured the fourth metacarpal in his left hand — the bone that connects the ring finger to the wrist — during warmups Thursday night and the former All-Star and NBA champion is going to miss time. The Spurs haven’t put a timeline on it, and it depends on how severe the break was, but he’s out at least a month and maybe two.

This isn’t ideal for the Spurs, but they have actually been better this season when Gasol is on the bench compared to playing (a stat with a lot of noise, but it speaks to the depth of the team). David Lee got the start Thursday night and expect to see more Dewayne Dedmon.

That first game without Gasol? Lee had 16 rebounds, Kawhi Leonard dropped 34, and the Spurs beat the Nuggets 118-104. That team just keeps on rolling. The best part of that game, watching Gregg Popovich get ejected.

 

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.