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Hawks clinch 5th seed in Eastern Conference with win over Hornets

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ATLANTA (AP) After a maddening, up-and-down season, the Atlanta Hawks seem to be getting hot at just the right time.

Playoff time.

Dwight Howard had 19 points and 12 rebounds as the resurgent Hawks won their fourth straight game, routing the listless Charlotte Hornets 103-76 on Tuesday night to wrap up the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks will face the Washington Wizards in the opening round of the postseason.

“We think we can beat anybody that’s coming our way,” guard Dennis Schroder said. “We’ve still got to get better, but we’re heading in the right direction for sure.”

A week ago, Atlanta’s playoff hopes were in jeopardy after a dismal stretch that included two losses to Brooklyn, the worst team in the NBA.

Then, in a sudden turnaround that epitomized the team’s inconsistent play all season, the Hawks knocked off East-leading Boston and recorded two straight stunning victories over the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, including Sunday’s comeback from a 26-point deficit .

This one was never in doubt. Charlotte played its regular-season finale already eliminated from the playoffs and without its best player, Kemba Walker.

It showed.

Atlanta raced out to a 63-44 lead by halftime, shooting 71 percent (24 of 34) over the first two quarters.

“There was a lot of good stuff at both ends of the court,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said, before adding a word of caution . “We’ve been here before. We’ve got to stay hungry, stay edgy. The last four or five games, it’s been a simple message: compete and play together.

All 13 players scored for the Hawks, who were able to rest their starters in the second half. Paul Millsap and Ersan Ilyasova added 10 points apiece.

“We showed that we’ve got a bunch of guys who are ready to play,” said backup point guard Jose Calderon, who was on the court for more than 17 minutes. “That gives us confidence.”

Jeremy Lamb led the Hornets with 21 points, but it was a forgettable ending to a disappointing year in Charlotte.

“The season was a letdown for us,” Lamb said. “We’ve just to learn from it.”

TIP-INS

Hornets: Closed the season with a five-game losing streak. … Michael Kidd-Gilchrist became the third Charlotte player in the last four seasons to start at least 81 games in a season. Walker and Marvin Williams did it last season. … Lamb is a native of suburban Norcross. … The Hornets shot just 33 percent from the field.

Hawks: Howard posted his 53rd double-double of the season. … Thabo Sefolosha scored four points in 15 minutes after missing eight games with a right groin strain. … Atlanta announced before the game that manager of basketball operations Malik Rose will serve as general manager of their new D-League team beginning next season. … How long had it been since the Hawks defeated the defending NBA champion in back-to-back games? It last happened in February 1984, when Atlanta beat Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers on consecutive nights.

KEMBA SITS

The Hornets shut Walker down for the final two games of the regular season, officially because of left knee soreness but largely to ensure he didn’t sustain a needless injury for a team already eliminated from the playoffs.

Walker finished at 23.2 points a game, the best year of his career.

Charlotte was also without another double-figure scorer, Marco Belinelli, who missed the last three games of the season with a strained left finger.

MILLSAP’S AWARD

Before the game, Millsap received the team’s Jason Collier Memorial Trophy for community service.

The award is named after the former Hawks center who died in 2005 at age 28 from a heart condition.

UP NEXT

Hornets: Summer vacation. Finished at 36-46, a significant drop-off from the 48-34 mark posted by last year’s playoff team.

Hawks: Close the regular season at Indiana on Wednesday night. The game means nothing to Atlanta, but the Pacers are still trying to lock up a playoff berth.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Cavaliers, Warriors sweeps mean time to rest, get mental breather

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant can take some pressure off that tender left calf. LeBron James has extra time to recoup after barely leaving the floor in the first round.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr scheduled some medical appointments as he deals with debilitating symptoms still affecting him nearly two years after complications from a pair of back surgeries.

The two star-studded teams expected by many to face off once more in the NBA Finals each swept through their respective first-round playoff series in four games, leaving ample time for the Cavaliers and Warriors to rest up, heal up and prepare for the next opponent.

“It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am,” James said. “I’ve played so many games over the years, the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”

Of course guys like James and Draymond Green are already eager to get back on the court.

Cleveland now knows its next opponent is Toronto, while the Warriors were still waiting out the Clippers-Jazz series.

“Definitely have gotten antsy to play,” Green said Friday. “But you see that break and you’re excited about it, just to get that time to rest and get everybody back as close to 100 (percent) as possible for the next round. At the same time you do get antsy to get back on the floor and back in the rhythm of things. I think it’s been a good week for us to sweep and get this time off.”

Durant, still receiving treatment on his left leg and knee, spent Thursday at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue threw a huge watch party Thursday night so players and members of the organization could see the Raptors close out the Bucks in six games.

Golden State scrimmaged Friday to stay sharp, while Cleveland players have competed in such ways as racing on cardiovascular machines in the weight room to stay fresh and motivated.

James led the league in minutes during the regular season then played nearly 44 per game in the first-round sweep of Indiana – familiar territory after the Cavs also swept Detroit in the first round last season, then followed by eliminating Atlanta in the minimum four games.

“I’m ready to get this thing going, but obviously I’m not going to rush the process,” James said. “… But, yeah, I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing.”

In 2015, when the Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving suffered a freak Game 1 injury when he fractured his left kneecap, and Kevin Love was already lost to a dislocated left shoulder.

Last June, Stephen Curry had returned from a knee injury but never fully got healthy and the thought was the Warriors wore down after chasing and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record with 73 victories.

“If you could sweep every series that would be perfect,” Durant said, “because you just want to play well and then you’ll worry about the rest afterward. That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so it’s good to have a few days to get your bodies right and your mind right and just get back to the drawing board in terms of individual work, team work.”

In the Warriors’ case, it also has meant more time working with Mike Brown as acting head coach while Kerr is away. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year missed Games 3 and 4 at Portland because he was in such discomfort, having dealt with headaches, neck pain and nausea that recently became worse.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is most known for sitting several star players at once without regard to anything but his team’s best interest, others have caught on and replicated the strategy of spelling players in order to pace for the long haul.

In March 2015, the Warriors lost at Denver with Curry watching – along with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut – in the first game of a back-to-back. Oh, did Kerr take heat for it, even personally answering a few emails. And the Warriors reached out to other upset fans and sent along care packages.

“As a coach your responsibility is to keep your players healthy and there are times when guys need a night off,” Kerr said.

In December, Cleveland caused an uproar by resting James, Love and Irving in a loss at Memphis. Lue then sat several starters for the final game of the regular season against Toronto, and the teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday.

Now, the Cleveland coach insists, James can handle the heavy minutes when it matters most.

“His body can take it,” Lue said, “so I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

 

Chris Paul told Paul Pierce: “You’re not ending your career in Utah”

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When the Clippers lose their final game this season — maybe Sunday, maybe not for weeks — the Hall of Fame career of Paul Pierce will come to an end.

It’s not why Doc Rivers was leaning so heavily on Pierce Friday night, that’s more desperation on a shorthanded (and not that deep to start with) lineup. The Clippers got away with 20+ minutes of Pierce on Friday and still got the win.

He even served as an inspiration for Chris Paul, as CP3 said in his postgame press conference.

The best part of that video? DeAndre Jordan‘s reaction.

You can be sure Utah Jazz fans will take this comment as a slight and let CP3 hear about it next season. As for the Jazz players, they are heading into Game 7, how much more motivation do they need.

John Wall’s chasedown block of Dennis Schroder, layup saved game for Wizards (VIDEO)

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Washington had been up 22 points in the third quarter and seemed to be cruising to a win in Atlanta, and with it a trip to the second round… but it would not be that easy. The Hawks made their push back, knocking down threes and chipping away at the Wizards lead until it was all the way down to 93-90, a one possession game.

Then John Wall took over.

It started with the big play you see above — a chasedown block on Dennis Schroder, which turned into a Wall layup on the other end.

That play changed the momentum. Washington closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on just 25 shots. The end result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Steve Ballmer loses control after Austin Rivers three, creates another meme

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Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer has been a meme machine this series. First, there was the sad face after the Clippers Game 5 loss at home.

Then Friday, there was his reaction to an Austin Rivers three.

Ballmer’s reactions may be the best part of the Game 7 between these teams Sunday.