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.

Report: Re-signing Nerlens Noel Mavericks’ top off-season priority

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This is a Mark Cuban owned team, you don’t think the Mavericks are going to make a serious run at a free agent come July 1? Pelicans’ point guard Jrue Holiday has long been known to be a target, but there will be others.

But keeping their new core together, including restricted free agent Nerlens Noel, is the top priority, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rumors like this are out there in part from Dallas to hope to chill the market for Noel. While he could be a defensive force who provides some scoring around the rim, with Noel’s injury history they may be able to get him at less than max money — because if he’s at the max the Mavericks are flirting with the luxury tax (and Cuban isn’t going to want to pay the tax for a borderline playoff team at best).

What Dallas fears is what Brooklyn did last season to Allen Crabbe in Portland and Tyler Johnson in Miami — some team to come in with a max or near-max offer sheet that drives up the price. Dallas will match, they will keep the young core together, it just gets more expensive.

Next season in Dallas will be a deserved big farewell to Dirk Nowitzki. He will be the focus, but behind him Dallas will try to be building for the future. They made the trade deadline move to make sure Noel is a part of that, the only question now is how much it costs them.

Magic Johnson on drafting Lonzo Ball: “what I needed was a leader”

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Nobody, not even his critics with the Lakers, question that D'Angelo Russell had talent. What they questioned from the start was his work ethic and maturity. I was told by sources with the team he often was the last one to team meetings, often one of the first out of the gym, and the whole Nick Young thing spoke to the maturity question. Byron Scott took a lot of heat as Lakers’ coach for benching him, and Scott’s communication skills were lacking, but he had reasons. Russell also just 21 and maybe he finds his way, but the Lakers weren’t willing to wait anymore.

Which is why the Lakers were willing to move him to Brooklyn in the Brook Lopez trade, and why the Lakers went after Lonzo Ball in the draft, Magic Johnson said, via Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

Is Lonzo Ball a leader? Only time will tell, he has the potential.

Will players want to play with him? Yes, if the passing skills he showed in college transfer to the NBA. If guys know they will get the rock if they run/cut, then they will do just that. It’s some simple B. F. Skinner stuff here — if players are rewarded they will keep doing it. Get them the rock in transition and they will get out there every time.

Ball has flaws in his game, there are certainly questions about his defense, and how that awkward shot translates remains to be seen (it goes in but his time to get it off will decrease at the NBA level)? Will he be a scoring threat in the half-court? He’s got work to do. But answer those questions and the Lakers may have the key piece to help anchor a franchise he’s been looking for.

Sacramento Kings waive guard Arron Afflalo

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) The Sacramento Kings have waived guard Arron Afflalo one year after signing him as a free agent.

The Kings cut ties with Afflalo on Friday before his entire $12.5 million contract for 2017-18 would become guaranteed. Afflalo will get $1.5 million instead.

Afflalo averaged 8.4 points and 2 rebounds in 61 games this past season for Sacramento. He has averaged 11.3 points per game in his 10-year career.

 

Frustrated fan: John McEnroe says Knicks a ‘total train wreck’

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NEW YORK (AP) — John McEnroe had a ringside seat for the ugliest bout at Madison Square Garden last season.

He was sitting just feet away when former Knicks star Charles Oakley was surrounded by security officials at his seat, shoving them away before being handcuffed and arrested while watching a game in February.

Even before that, the tennis great had begun to lose patience with his favorite team.

“It’s like a total train wreck,” McEnroe said.

The low point during a miserable 2016-17 season came when Oakley was dragged out of MSG in the first quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A fan favorite as a player, he had fallen out of favor with the organization in retirement after critical comments about the team and MSG chairman James Dolan.

McEnroe, who often travels for his tennis or other obligations, wasn’t aware of the history between Oakley and Dolan.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that Charles had said bad things about him,” McEnroe said. “I hadn’t been up on that, so it wasn’t awkward for me when he sort of poked me in my back, Charles, right before the incident happened. I was like, `Hey Charles, how are you? This is my son, Kevin.’ He was with me.

“So I didn’t put 2 and 2 together and I didn’t know what had happened or really what had transpired,” he said. “So maybe Jim was already uncomfortable because of past history or whatever and then when Charles and the security guys started to go at it, even before they started to come up to him I was like, `Uh oh, this is not going to go well, at all.”‘

McEnroe is clearly visible in replays of the skirmish that were shown that night and throughout the next day.

“To see Charles Oakley have handcuffs put on him was horrible. Like, I was sick to my stomach, as well as almost every other fan that was in there watching this as it took place,” McEnroe said. “I bet you Jim Dolan – this is just my opinion – had to feel terrible about what that was.”

McEnroe grew up in and still lives in New York, and considers MSG his home arena. The inside cover of his new book, “But Seriously,” is decorated with ticket stubs from games and concerts at the arena, including a Knicks playoff game. But like many Knicks fans, he’s getting fed up with what he sees.

“I mean I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was a kid, so this is just getting beyond belief,” he said.

McEnroe has owned a home in Malibu, California, for more than 30 years. He often trained in Los Angeles as one of the world’s top players during the early-to-mid 1980s, befriending Lakers executive Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis, whose husband Kurt played for the great Lakers teams of that era that were led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Watching this was like, I’m sitting there going, why the hell am I a Knick fan again?” McEnroe said, “because this is just absolutely unbelievable, watching Showtime.”

Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who won five titles as Lakers coach, as Knicks president in 2014. But the team has missed the playoffs every season under Jackson, who feuded with Carmelo Anthony last season and didn’t speak to reporters at all while the team went 31-51.

“I mean, he’s known as the Zen Master, like a master talker, and then he’s not talking to anybody,” McEnroe said of Jackson. “So this whole thing seems to have gone completely off the rails.”

Jackson is still hoping to trade Anthony, who has a no-trade clause. McEnroe said he was never the biggest fan of Anthony’s game, but that the All-Star forward didn’t deserve the treatment he received last season.

“It’s crazy to treat a guy that way,” McEnroe said. “It seems like, even if it would be better for both guys if they weren’t there – the Knicks and him – the whole thing just seems, I can’t believe how bungled this has gotten.”