Indiana Pacers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

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.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.