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.

Kobe Bryant on race for Podoloff Trophy: “We might see our first co-MVPs this year”

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The race between James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the 2017 NBA MVP has narrowed to a two-man race toward the end of the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder star is averaging at triple-double this year, and the Houston Rockets guard is doing things nobody has ever done on a basketball court before.

It’s a tough decision to decide between them, so much so that even former Los Angeles Lakers great and 2008 NBA MVP Kobe Bryant can’t do it.

Speaking on ESPN on Sunday, Bryant said he thought the league might have to just bite the bullet on Westbrook vs. Harden.

“We might see our first co-MVPs this year,” said Bryant.

That would be a huge step for the league, but I’m not entirely sure they would do it. There have been co-NBA All-Star Game MVPs in years past, but never league MVP.

Still, can you decide between Russ and Harden? The Mamba can’t.

Watch Rockets C Nene lead the break, eurostep past Enes Kanter (VIDEO)

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Houston Rockets center Nene is from Brazil, but on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder the South American native went full euro.

On a fastbreak possession, Nene took on Thunder big man Enes Kanter near the rim and absolutely shook him with a nasty eurostep.

The play was so good that it forced Oklahoma City to call a timeout as James Harden and the rest of the Rockets bench met Nene on the court to celebrate.

Kobe Bryant says he didn’t even have NBA League Pass until a month ago (VIDEO)

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What has retired all-time NBA great Kobe Bryant been doing with his time? A little of this, a little of that. Apparently that doesn’t include watching non-national NBA games.

Speaking with ESPN’s Jemele Hill and Michael Smith on SC6, Bryant revealed that he went to go watch a little NBA while he was getting a workout in at his house and realized he didn’t have the NBA package hooked up on his cable.

Via Twitter:

I don’t know if I totally buy this. On one hand, Kobe is a busy guy and he did spend two decades living and breathing the NBA night in and night out. I would expect that after all that time he might want some kind of relief.

Then again, to think that Kobe doesn’t have multiple assistants that would have handled that sort of thing already is sort of silly. The only benefit here is Kobe trying to sell that he’s just relaxing and not paying attention to the league too much, which is hilarious.

Kobe, we all know who you are by now. You’re watching the league, man. You’re Kobe. We get it. You didn’t suddenly turn into The Dude.

Let’s just hope Kobe’s League Pass works right off the bat. We all know how much of a hassle it can be.

Damian Lillard dismisses playoff expectations as pressure, says it insults regular people

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The Portland Trail Blazers have had a disappointing season thus far. The team is just 34-38 before their game with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, and they’re battling it out for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs with the Denver Nuggets.

This comes as after expectations rose greatly following the 2015-16 campaign which saw the Blazers finish 44-38, good enough for the No. 5 spot in the West.

Portland has looked better after trading Mason Plumlee to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, but it might be too little too late. Meanwhile, team leader Damian Lillard isn’t bowing to the idea that last season’s good fortune raised the bar so much that it put undue pressure on his team.

Speaking with Sporting News, Lillard said he thinks the idea is really more about pressure vs. challenges.

Via SN:

Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.

Look at the Wizards, they were kind of on the same wave as us. Didn’t even make the playoffs while we did. Now this year they’re the second-best team in the East. The adversity made them better. It can make us better, too. What I come from and my background made me who I am. As comfortable as I am with the good times, I’m also comfortable in adversity. Yeah, I might feel some type of way when somebody comes for me or says my name. But when it’s all said and done, it ain’t gonna rock me.

This is interesting to hear an NBA player say out loud. One, because I’m not sure I entirely believe it. You can have pressure without it having to be something that threatens your overall wellbeing.

Then again, maybe we’re arguing linguistics here. There’s definitely a different emotion from, say, trying to make sure you make rent and aren’t evicted to the street vs. trying to make the NBA playoffs. If one emotion is being defined as pressure, it makes sense to call the other a challenge.

It’s also interesting to hear an NBA player speak in those kinds of terms. There are a few guys around the league who seem to be relatively grounded and give out quotes like this from time-to-time. The absurdity of the NBA — playing games, making millions, and having folks worship you — would easily bend reality for most of us.

In any case, the challenge of making the playoffs for Portland is not going to be an easy one to overcome. Going into Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers, the Trail Blazers are a game behind Denver for the final spot.

Portland will face Denver on Tuesday, March 28 in perhaps their most important game of the season.