NBA Playoff Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Atlanta Hawks: 38-44 (8 seed)
Indiana Pacers: 56-26 (1 seed)

KEY INJURIES

Andrew Bynum hasn’t played since March 15, and the Pacers have officially ruled him out from participating in this series. Nothing new for the Hawks — Al Horford, Gustavo Ayon and John Jenkins have all been out for the season due to injury for a while now.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

Atlanta Hawks: Offense 103.4 (15th in the NBA). Defense 104.1 (14th in the NBA)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Can Roy Hibbert get right? Hibbert started off the season on a Defensive Player of the Year pace, protecting the rim for the league’s top defense. He still may win the award, despite his personal (and the Pacers overall) drop-off since the All-Star break. But Hibbert’s honestly been a shell of himself on both ends of the floor recently, and with the Hawks starting Pero Antic at center who shoots 3.4 three-pointers per game, Hibbert is going to have his hands full if he’s the one responsible for that matchup. Whether it’s Antic or not, however, Hibbert needs to use this series against a weaker opponent to get himself back to anchoring the defense that his team will need to rely on in the postseason’s later rounds.

2. Atlanta’s three-point shooting: The Hawks were second in the league in three-pointers attempted during the regular season, averaging 25.8 per game which was second only to the Houston Rockets. They also feature the best shooter in the game from beyond the arc in Kyle Korver, who knocked down his shots from distance at a league-best 47.2 percent on the season. This is what Atlanta does, but they’ll need to do it much better against a Pacers team that doesn’t allow points in the paint very easily. Despite averaging the second most attempts from beyond the arc during the season, the Hawks converted them at a rate that was good enough for only 13th in the league — that number has got to go way up for Atlanta to have a chance at extending this series.

3. Indiana’s intensity: The Pacers were shot out of a cannon to begin the season, determined to make sure that they would finish the year with home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs after losing a Game 7 in Miami last season. Indiana achieved its goal, but stumbled to the finish line and compiled a record of just 16-14 since the All-Star break. The Pacers saw just how dangerous Atlanta can be when you don’t come mentally prepared, and were shellacked by the Hawks by 19 points back on April 6 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. The Pacers will need to regain the swagger and team offensive cohesiveness that they proved capable of in the first half of the season.

PREDICTION

This really comes down to Indiana proving that they are still the best defensive team in the league, and using that to fuel an offense that struggles plenty in its half court sets. The Hawks likely light it up at least one game, but there shouldn’t be enough there to sustain success against a Pacers team that is built for the playoffs.

Pacers in 5.

Anthony Davis opens All-Star game wearing DeMarcus Cousins’ jersey

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LOS ANGELES – Anthony Davis often relies on his Pelicans teammates to set him up.

Tonight, he gave a nod to one of them.

Davis started the All-Star game wearing DeMarcus Cousins‘ No. 0 jersey. Cousins and Davis were both voted starters then drafted by LeBron James, but Cousins can’t play due to injury.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

Very cool gesture by Davis. He’s an excellent teammate.

No, Joel Embiid didn’t cheat during the NBA Skills Challenge

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The Internet got itself all in a huff on Saturday as they watched the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge. In particular, the matchup between Chicago Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid stirred up a bit of controversy.

Specifically, folks accused Embiid of cheating.

During the passing section of the obstacle course, Embiid didn’t actually make any of his passes into the ring. He then proceeded on the next section and was neck-and-neck with Markkanen as they tried to finish out the head-to-head competition. Markkanen won, but that didn’t stop folks from saying the 76ers All-Star had circumvented the rules.

We now know that’s not true.

According to the rules (provided on the NBA media site, page 47 of the 2018 NBA All-Star Media Guide) Embiid was allowed to move onto the next section even though he hadn’t completed any of his passes. A player only has to exhaust the rack, not complete a pass. It appears rules sort of assume that if a player stands there trying to complete a pass three times they’ll fall so far behind they won’t be able to catch up.

Re-watching the video, it appears Embiid knew this rule to the game and figured if he didn’t make the first one he would quickly try to blast the next two passes off the rack so he could then move onto the next section.

Embiid even took to Twitter to head off accusations that he had cheated.

Via Twitter:

Trust. The. Process.

Rumor: Jeff Hornacek shoved Joakim Noah during confrontation

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The saga between the New York Knicks and Joakim Noah has been ongoing for sometime, with the latest story being that there was some kind of verbal altercation between the former All-Star big man and head coach Jeff Hornacek.

Noah has not played for the team since Jan. 23, and he is now separated from the Knicks as they try to find a solution to shed him from their roster.

We now have a better idea of what kind of urgency New York has to make that move.

A report from the New York Daily News has given us more information about the confrontation between Noah and Hornacek. The latest addition to the story is that it was not just words between the Knicks coach and Noah, and that Hornacek actually pushed Noah first during the confrontation.

The two then had to be separated.

Via NYDN:

Noah was banished from the Knicks after an altercation with coach Jeff Hornacek during a practice last month. The disagreement stemmed from Noah’s lack of playing time, and it turned physical the day after he logged only five minutes against the Warriors.

While no punches were thrown, the Daily News learned that Hornacek was the first to shove Noah before they had to be separated.

In our last update on this story, Dan outlined how that could be made possible. No team is going to trade for Noah at this juncture in his career, so the only real option for New York is to waive him.

Here’s how that looks, according to our own Dan Feldman:

If the Knicks waive Noah without a buyout, they’d have two options after paying out the rest of his $17,765,000 salary this season:

Pay Noah $18,530,000 next season and $19,295,000 the following season
Pay Noah $7,565,000 each of the following five years via the stretch provision

It just keeps getting weirder and weirder during a lost season in the Big Apple.

Kobe Bryant tells Shaq he was planning to leave Lakers for Bulls (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal got their three championships together as members of the Los Angeles Lakers. The two stars were part of the three-peat team that won in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But the story that perhaps overshadows those accomplishments in the modern era is the story of Kobe vs. Shaq, and the long-standing beef that was between the players even after they split in 2004.

The back-and-forth between the two is part of the fabric not just of the Lakers, but of pop culture as it surrounds basketball. The Shaq/Kobe beef even has it’s own Wikipedia page that’s longer and more well-sourced than most of the papers I wrote in college. It’s impressive.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq sat down in a long special that aired on Saturday as All-Star Weekend ramped up that revealed quite a bit about their time together and their relationship. One of the more interesting anecdotes was Kobe telling Shaq that he was planning on leaving the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls in 2004. That plan was quashed when the team sent O’Neal to the Miami Heat in July.

Via Twitter:

That would have been a major shift for LA and for Chicago. The Bulls drafted both Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon that year, and traded for Luol Deng. The team improved by 24 wins the following season, and adding Bryant may have altered that trajectory and of course sent shockwave of consequential changes through the league. Heck, Scottie Pippen retired that October, but perhaps he would have stayed for one more year with Kobe?

The rest of the interview was interesting, and there were lots of tidbits of information that had people talking. Bryant and O’Neal rehashed their fights, Shaq’s infamous rap dissing Kobe, and mooning Sacramento Kings fans after beating them in the 2002 playoffs.

The biggest takeaway from the interview was how the one-upsmanship between Shaq and Kobe, although subtle, still remains.

As context, Bryant has done a fair bit of career revisionism as he tries to alter his public image now that he’s not a player. He’s painted himself as a “storyteller” and has tried to make his single-mindedness appear praiseworthy rather than destructive. It’s mostly so he can sell shoes well into his 50s à la Michael Jordan.

In the sit down between the two Lakers greats, Shaq did some legacy revision of his own. He played off his continuous egging of Bryant over their careers as simple media manipulation, calling himself a master marketer. It really was a thing to see something that hilariously disingenuous, especially as much of the conversation between the two — including many admissions on each side — were about times they made each other sincerely angry.

The two finished the interview by taking photos next to some championship trophies (Kobe with more, of course) and exchanging laughs and hugs.

You can watch the full interview in the video above.