Atlanta Hawks Smith reacts as the Indiana Pacers West walks across the court in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff NBA basketball game in Atlanta

Hawks run past ice cold Pacers to even series 2-2

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Suddenly, the Indiana Pacers don’t look so in control of this series anymore.

The Pacers defense that got them to the No. 3 seed in the East and helped them race out to a 2-0 series lead went missing for long stretches on Monday night — especially their transition defense. And that allowed the Hawks to get some easy buckets on the break, and for Josh Smith to remind everyone what an impressive athlete he is for a big man.

Smith had 29 points (a career playoff high), made some key plays down the stretch and the Hawks beat the Pacers 102-91. That evens the series up at 2-2 with Game 5 Wednesday night back in Indiana.

Which is good news — the Pacers were a dramatically better team at home.

On the road in Atlanta they struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm, although part of that is that once again Hawks coach Larry Drew went to his big lineup with Johan Petro at center, Al Horford at the four and Smith at the three (although in the fourth quarter Drew went back to his smaller lineup with Horford at the five and it worked).

Despite the size Indiana spent the first six minutes of the game making a point of establishing Roy Hibbert in the paint, and with that slowed-down style they were able to get back and set their defense. They were able to play their game, they were able to grind.

Then the Pacers just stopped — they settled for jump shots that they seemed to always miss, and the Hawks grabbed the boards and got out and ran. The Hawks are so much better and so much more entertaining when they get out and run, but they too often do not.

Atlanta ended the first quarter on an 8-0 run thanks to Indiana misses and the fast breaks and penetration they allowed. It was capped off by transition Devin Harris floater layup to end the quarter and Atlanta led 22-21 after one.

It didn’t end there, the Hawks extend that run to 16-1 run and eventually all the way to a 25-6 run as the Hawks knocked down 7-of-8 from three in the second quarter. Meanwhile the Pacers shot 7-of-21 in the second quarter (not that they were a whole lot better later, they shot just 38.1 percent for the game). Atlanta pulled away and it was 57-40 Hawks at the half.

Once again, Paul George had trouble getting going with Josh Smith guarding him, and he finished 6-of-16 shooting on the night (21 points).

The Pacers started to grind the lead down again in the second half and make it a game again for a couple reasons. One, they slowed the game down again. Second, both Harris (dehydration) and Horford (four fouls) were on the bench and the Hawks matchups went away. The Pacers went on 15-2 run and we had a game again as the Hawks shot 3-of-21 in the third quarter. It was a seven point game entering the fourth.

But the Pacers could get no closer than four all through the fourth quarter. It was 86-81 Hawks with 3:30 left when Smith hit a three (one where you could hear the crowd start to groan as he took it then go wild when it splashed through the net). Next Hawks possessions Horford drove across the lane but Hibbert did a good job on him, the shot missed but Smith got the offensive rebound, made a smart pass out top to Kyle Korver who drained another three. It was a nine point lead, and while the Pacers tried Smith slammed the door with a minute to go when he put away a dunk in transition off a George missed shot.

The Hawks had an offensive rating of 110 (points per 100 possessions) in this game — that is 7.7 points better than their season average and 13.4 points better than what the Pacers allowed on average this season. That is a couple games in a row the Hawks have broken the Pacers code.

Game 5 Wednesday will be interesting — can the Hawks keep up their defensive effort and get some easy buckets in transition on the road? Or do we see the Pacers from the first two games again?

We’ll see, but it likely comes down to that Josh Smith vs. Paul George battle.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 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 condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.