With two wins in Chicago, Wizards seize control over Bulls

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Bradley Beal aggressively swung his arm, and Kirk Hinrich pushed Beal then removed his goggles as if to show he were ready for more.

Suddenly, a fairly common tangle during an inbound play turned bigger as teammates separated both players. Hinrich breathed heavily and stared daggers at Beal, who paced and smiled.

Like the second-quarter tussle, the Wizards were calm and loose and the Bulls were over-aggressive and tight in Washington’s 101-99 Game 2 overtime victory Tuesday. With a pair of stunning wins in Chicago, the fifth-seeded Wizards have taken a 2-0 series lead and complete control in the first-round matchup.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road are 15-3, and half those series ended in sweeps.

  • 2011: Dallas Mavericks beat Los Angeles Lakers in conference semifinals, 4-0
  • 2010: Boston Celtics beat Orlando Magic in conference finals, 4-2
  • 2008: Utah Jazz beat Houston Rockets in first round, 4-2
  • 2005: San Antonio Spurs beat Phoenix Suns in conference finals, 4-1
  • 2005: Houston Rockets lost to Dallas Mavericks in first round, 4-3
  • 2003: New Jersey Nets beat Detroit Pistons in conference finals, 4-0
  • 2001: Los Angeles Lakers beat San Antonio Spurs in conference finals, 4-0
  • 1999: New York Knicks beat Atlanta Hawks in conference semifinals, 4-0
  • 1995: Houston Rockets beat Orlando Magic in NBA Finals, 4-0
  • 1995: Houston Rockets beat San Antonio Spurs in conference finals, 4-2
  • 1994: Phoenix Suns lost to Houston Rockets in conference semifinals, 4-3
  • 1993: Chicago Bulls beat Phoenix Suns in NBA Finals, 4-2
  • 1987: Seattle SuperSonics beat Houston Rockets in conference semifinals, 4-2
  • 1985: Philadelphia 76ers beat Milwaukee Bucks in conference semifinals, 4-0
  • 1983: Milwaukee Bucks beat Boston Celtics in conference semifinals, 4-0
  • 1977: Portland Trail Blazers beat Los Angeles Lakers in conference finals, 4-0
  • 1970: Los Angeles Lakers beat Atlanta Hawks in division finals, 4-0
  • 1969: San Francisco Warriors lost to Los Angeles Lakers in division semifinals, 4-2

Tuesday, the Wizards jumped to a 29-12 advantage and led until midway through the third quarter. But by the middle of the fourth quarter, the Bulls led by 10 – a 27-point swing.

Washington wasn’t rattled.

Beal scored nine of the Wizards’ 11 points in the final three minutes of regulation, and then Nene  – the Game 1 hero mostly held quiet – began overtime on a personal 6-0 run.

That overlapped with the Bulls missing 12 straight shots, a drought that extended back to late fourth quarter. As the Bulls scrambled the game just slipped further away. Still, with a chance to tie in the final seconds, Hinrich missed a pair of free throws.

Washington hadn’t made the playoffs in five years, and Chicago’s streak of making the postseason is even longer.

But that hardly mattered Tuesday.

Even when the Wizards seemed to run out of effective plays as they steadily blew their lead, they never let the moment overcome them. If Chicago were going to come back, it would take a prolonged, energy-draining effort.

And to the Bulls’ credit, they provided that.

D.J. Augustin (team-high 25 points and seven assists) ran pick-and-rolls over and over, and Taj Gibson (22 points and 10 rebounds) tore through Washington’s defense. Usually, getting such great contributions from reserves would boost a team to victory, but Chicago’s starters weren’t collectively up to snuff.

Joakim Noah (20 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) and Mike Dunleavy (nine points on six shots with four assists) played well, and Jimmy Butler played a lot (all 53 minutes). But Carlos Boozer (five points on six shots) struggled on both ends, Hinrich’s fervor did slightly more harm than good, and despite having many opportunities, Butler never made an imprint on the game.

At its worst, Chicago let its offense stagnate, settling for jumpers late in the shot clock. Unlike Game 1, when the Bulls scored just fine, that ultimately did them in.

The Wizards, on the other hand, found creative solutions to the trudge of playoff basketball and Chicago’s defense. With Noah and Gibson stifling the pick-and-roll better than Game 1, Washington focused more on spacing the floor. Beal finished with 26 points, and John Wall (16 points, seven assists and three steals) had his moments.

All that would have gone for naught, though, if it weren’t for a little attitude. In addition to Beal and Hinrich, Trevor Ariza and Joakim Noah received double technicals. The Wizards would just not back down against team everyone described to entering the series as – and often looked Tuesday – tougher.

“We expected it to be physical,” Beal said in his televised on-court interview. “It got out of hand a little bit, but we did a great job of staying the course.”

Beal withstood one more challenge after the game – a punishing chest slam from a pumped-up Wall. It’s just two games, but the fifth-seeded Wizards have every reason to celebrate their newfound triumph.

The Bulls, on the other hand, have seen better days and expected better even in this challenging season. As the Wizards patted each other on the back, Hinrich removed his goggles once again, dejectedly handing them to a Bulls staff member as he walked off the floor.

History says the Bulls are as likely to return to the United Center as they are to get swept in Washington.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.