Hawks have no answers for Pacers offense, now are down 2-0

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The Atlanta Hawks have a problem. Well, right now they have a lot of problems, but one is bigger than the others — they cannot stop the Indiana Pacers offense.

That would be the Pacers offense that was 19th in the NBA in points per possession this past season (or if you prefer the offense that averaged 94.7 points per game, 23rd in NBA). That would be the Pacers offense that nobody feared. Their defense was what made this team a threat. The offense was the weak link. But the Pacers put up 109 points in Game 1 against the Hawks.

Then in Game 2, they beat that and cruised through the fourth quarter to a 113-98 win. That puts the Pacers up 2-0 heading to Atlanta for Game 3 on Saturday night.

Give the Hawks credit for standing up and trying to match the Pacers energy and physicality, but while the Pacers play their style for 48 minutes the Hawks have lapses. And those lapses mean Pacers runs and the Hawks keep finding themselves in holes they cannot get out of.

Indiana got its best games from its big stars Wednesday. Paul George was aggressive from the start and finished with 27 points (on 11-of-21 shooting). George Hill had 22 points (on 12 shots) and Roy Hibbert had a strong game with 15 points and 9 rebounds.

The Hawks did a much better job of attacking, trying to get points in the paint and pushing the pace early in the game. It worked early in the first quarter, but as the pace slowed down some the Pacers got their defense set and contested everything. Hawks shot just 42.1 percent for the first quarter. Plus, that aggressiveness from the Hawks led to two Josh Smith fouls in the first three minutes of the game and he sat a long time, making the Hawks easier to defend.

At the end of the first quarter came a great example of the the kind of mental lapses that did the Hawks in. Going for a final shot Devin Harris tried to drive, he ran into the brick wall that is Hibbert so he tried to fall and draw the foul but didn’t get the call. Indiana grabbed the loose ball then the Hawks’ Johan Petro committed a foul on Paul George in the backcourt with 0.7 seconds left (George hit one of two free throws). Then the Hawks turned the ball over on the inbound and with 0.4 the Pacers got off a final shot (Hibbert knocked down a three but released it just a click after the buzzer so it didn’t count). All that may have been just one point but it really summed up the kind of lapses the Hawks had all night.

The Pacers much-feared defense, which struggled some at the end of the season, once again didn’t distinguish itself. The Hawks are scoring plenty. It’s the kind of trend that could get the Pacers in real trouble in the next round against the dangerous Knicks offense. If Frank Vogel has one thing to focus on the next few days, it is this.

But that weakness didn’t matter because the Hawks couldn’t slow the Pacers offense. It wasn’t just the shooting, it was the Pacers turning the ball over less, getting more offensive rebounds and being more aggressive so they drew more fouls.

And that aggressiveness wore the Hawks down. Somewhere late in the third quarter you could see the energy the Hawks had fade away. They had tried to match the Pacers, but by the fourth they had all but thrown in the towel. There were a couple pushes by the Hawks, but the Pacers would answer and grow the lead. The Hawks body language was that of a defeated team.

At home the Hawks may have keep that energy back up — they were a dramatically better team at home this season. They need to play faster, they need to keep their big men out of foul trouble and on the court, they need a lot of things.

But the biggest is they need to find a way to stop the Pacers offense. Fast.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.