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.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

AP
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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.

Joel Embiid, his mask, Sixers three point shooting too much for Heat in Game 3

Associated Press
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Joel Embiid is back and all is right with the world in Philadelphia.

From the opening tip Tuesday night, this felt like an old-school playoff game. It was chippy, with the referees futilely trying to use technicals to settle people down. Dwyane Wade was yanking on Justin Anderson’s arm away from the play. Justise Winslow was stomping on Joel Embiid’d goggles. Goran Dragic’s hatred of Marco Belinelli was on full display.

All of which is to say it was what we want in a playoff game — intense. No love lost. It was a battle royal for three quarters.

Then in the fourth quarter it quickly became a blowout. Because Philadelphia — with Joel Embiid back in the lineup — is that good. And that dangerous. Especially when they hit 18 threes on the night.

The Sixers won the fourth quarter 32-14, behind Embiid and Ben Simmons combining for 15 in the quarter and playing great defense. With that, the Sixers won Game 3 on the road 128-108. Philly now has a 2-1 lead in the series, with Game 4 on Saturday in Miami (and that game becomes vital for the Heat).

Embiid is a force of nature, even if he was showing some rust in this game after missing three weeks with a concussion and orbital bone fracture. Embiid was a disruptive force on defense from the opening tip, finishing with four blocks but that doesn’t begin to get into the number of shots he altered. His ability to make plays on the perimeter and recover is impressive and was on full display.

On offense, he led the Sixers with 23 points, on just 11 shots. He was 3-of-4 from three and got to the line for 15 free throws — Hassan Whiteside could not handle him in the paint, or when Embiid got the ball and drove.

When Embiid sat the Sixers’ pace instantly picked up, they were getting transition chances, moving the ball around and getting good look threes. Philly hit 18-of-34 threes (52.9 percent) and when the outside shots are falling it opens up the drives and everything the Sixers want to do in the paint.

It was a tale of two teams for the Sixers — one with Embiid, and a faster one when he sat — and Miami had trouble adjusting to the different but effective versions of the Heat.

Simmons finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists. He also did this, which is some insane handles for a guy 6’10”.

Handles so smooth!

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Dario Saric and Belinelli each had 21 for the Sixers.

Goran Dragic playing his best game of the series, finishing with 23 points on 13 shots.

The game was choppy for stretches, there were turnovers and an uneven feel to the game in the first half, but it was close with the Heat up 64-63 at the break. Both teams made runs, but the other always answered. It was close through the third quarter, too.

Then in the fourth, the Sixers found themselves on both ends, and it was over. The Heat play hard, play smart, but they don’t have the talent of the Sixers and when Philly finds its groove there is little Miami can do.

Justise Winslow stepped on Joel Embiid’s mask (VIDEO)

AP
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Joel Embiid started for the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. The Game 3 matchup between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia was an important one with the teams tied, 1-1.

Embiid had previously vented his frustration on social media about the perceived slowness of his return to the floor from an orbital fracture.

Now, the Cameroonian big man is back for the Sixers and playing with a huge mask and goggles.

But the mask didn’t come without its problems for Embiid. It clearly affected his shooting and ability to handle the ball, as evidenced by a missed alley-oop in the second quarter, among other things.

There’s also the matter of how other players are treating Embiid and his mask. At one point, Embiid’s googles ended up on the floor and Heat forward Justise Winslow purposely stepped on them.

Via Twitter:

That’s harsh.

Embiid will have to adjust to using the mask since it’s unlikely he will be cleared to play without it soon. Hopefully he has some backups just in case the first couple sets get broken.

Tractors worth $50,000 stolen from Scottie Pippen’s farm

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HAMBURG, Ark. (AP) — Authorities in rural Arkansas are investigating the theft of more than $50,000 worth of equipment from a farm owned by former NBA star Scottie Pippen.

Investigator Mark Griever of the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office says two tractors were stolen from the farm in Hamburg, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pippen’s family is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Griever says Pippen owns the livestock farm with his brother.

Pippen, who now lives in Florida, is a native of Hamburg. Pippen won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.