Hawks take a 2-1 series lead over top-seeded Pacers

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When the Pacers put together the monster run to win Game 2 using their top-ranked defense, it was worth noting just how much the offense was continuing to struggle, which made you wonder if that was something that the team would be able to fix in time to win on the road and claim a lead in this series.

In Game 3 in Atlanta, the answer was a resounding no.

Paul George had early foul trouble that caused him to lose any sense of rhythm offensively, and Roy Hibbert was so ineffective on both ends of the floor that he was benched for the entire fourth quarter. The result was the Hawks pulling away for a 98-85 Game 2 victory that sent Indiana to a 2-1 series deficit.

“We’ve got to do a better job creating shots for ourselves,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said afterward, in making the most obvious of statements.

Make no mistake — the Pacers didn’t get here on the strength of their offense, which was ranked just 22nd in the league in terms of points per 100 possessions. But throughout the season, George was consistently able to string together solid performances, which were enough to keep the Pacers in it when their defense did the job.

But Indiana’s defense is no longer as formidable as it once was. The Hawks present matchup problems that the Pacers are still struggling to deal with three games into this series, with Jeff Teague’s quickness being at the top of that list. More importantly, Indiana hasn’t at all been able to stop Atlanta from doing what it’s done all season long, which is shoot a high volume of three-pointers and make a high percentage of its free throws.

The Hawks were second in the league during the regular season in three-pointers attempted per game with 25.8, and killed the Pacers from distance in this one by shooting 12-of-34 from three-point distance. Not a great percentage, but the ones that went down were huge, and the offense is predicated on outside shooting. When defenses start to key on it, the speed of Teague and his ability to get into the paint to create shots for himself and his teammates ends up causing rotation nightmares, as partially evidenced by Atlanta getting to the free throw line a whopping 37 times.

Hibbert is supposed to be the team’s anchor defensively, but the Pacers don’t need a rim protector on the floor if their defense is going to willingly allow the Hawks to take so many open threes. His ineffectiveness (four points, two rebounds, zero blocked shots, 2-of-9 shooting) caused Vogel to finally realize it, and he played Hibbert just under 19 minutes in total, only 6:30 of which came in the second half.

Despite Hibbert’s troubles and the Pacers’ desperate stance in the series, Vogel wasn’t ready to abandon his center just yet. But he did acknowledge that he would at least consider the possibility.

“We’ll look at everything,” Vogel said, when asked if he might take Hibbert out of the starting lineup. “We can’t say that right now. But I have great confidence in Roy Hibbert.”

Asked why he wouldn’t make the change given the circumstances, Vogel went with the bulk of the season’s work as the reason rather than the most recent developments.

“We won 56 games with him as our starter,” Vogel said. “That’s the simplest answer.”

But when pressed as to whether Hibbert will start in Game 4, he left the door open for a change to be made.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Probably.”

Whether Hibbert starts or he doesn’t is of little consequence. Indiana’s offense remains a disaster from a team standpoint, with careless passes leading to needless turnovers, or things devolving into forced isolation sets in the worst possible moments.

If that continues, it won’t matter whether Hibbert plays or he doesn’t, because this series will end in the Hawks’ favor before Indiana is able to make any truly impactful personnel decisions.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

Associated Press
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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

Associated Press
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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.