Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers - Game Two

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.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns didn’t know what to expect in the competition, given that it was his rookie season, and practice didn’t fully prepare him.

“Oh, I came in today at I think it was 11:00 in the morning and got a practice run,” Towns said after the competition. “But it doesn’t translate to what it is when you have millions of people watching, thousands of people in the stands and also your heart racing like mine was. So just to have that instance of just a feel of how it was.”

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

Towns sees his title as validation for the NBA’s decision to add big men to the competition, as well as a victory for bigs who are skilled in more than the traditional ways.

“The bigs were amazing today,” Towns said. “We were able to just come out with a W, and I’m glad I was able to help the bigs come out with this trophy. This is bigger than me. This is for all the bigs out there, with the game changing the way it is, to show that bigs can stand up with guards, skillwise.”

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.