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After strange season, Hawks hope they’ve figured things out

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ATLANTA (AP) — Maybe the Atlanta Hawks finally figured things out.

If so, their timing is impeccable.

After a regular season marked largely by perplexing inconsistency, the Hawks turned in some of their best performances over the final week.

Two victories against defending NBA champion Cleveland, including a 26-point comeback. Another win against the Boston Celtics, the top-seeded team in the East.

Now, heading into an opening-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards, the Hawks are overflowing with confidence.

“I think we’re playing probably as good or better than we have all year, especially offensively,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. “That’s what you want to be doing going into the playoffs. I think the team’s in a good mindset, a good place.”

Make no mistake this season was a disappointment for the Hawks, who just two years had a franchise-record 60 wins and were the top seed in the East. Last season, they slipped to 48-34 and underwent a major shake-up that included the signing of polarizing center Dwight Howard and the promotion of Dennis Schroder to starting point guard.

Instead of improving, Atlanta dropped even farther (43-39) and was actually in danger of missing the playoffs before the final-week surge.

Even though the Hawks will be making their 10th straight postseason appearance, the team has generated little buzz around the NBA or even in its own city, where home games continue to be marked by thousands of empty seats and most sports fans seem more focused on the start of baseball season, the NFL draft and a promising new soccer team, Atlanta United.

Howard shrugged off the lack of support.

“Keep `they’ outcha life,” he said. “All the people who don’t believe in us, that’s `they.’ You’ve got to keep `they’ outcha life. It doesn’t matter what `they ` want. It matters what we want.”

Atlanta’s offensive improvement has coincided with a reduction in Howard’s minutes late in the season, and Budenholzer seems intent on sticking with an extended rotation during the playoffs. He praised the play of the bench, which includes former starter Kent Bazemore, Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Mike Dunleavy and Jose Calderon.

“We have a deep bench and I think we’re going to try to use as much of it as we can,” Budenholzer said. “We’re in a little bit of a unique position where, at least going into Game 1, the plan is to keep a deep rotation and play a lot of guys and continue to massage that. If we need to adjust in a game, we will.”

Off the court, All-Star forward Paul Millsap shook things up by dressing down the team when things looked especially bleak – a change of pace for the normally soft-spoken player. He demanded better ball movement. He urged the bench players to get into the game. He wanted to see teammates high-fiving each other and playing with enthusiasm.

“Just the little things,” Millsap said. “We’re trying to get back to that, which makes a really good basketball team. Down the stretch, I wanted to emphasize that. These last few days, you’ve seen a completely different group.”

The Hawks will continue to go with a starting lineup that includes Tim Hardaway Jr. and rookie forward Taurean Prince. That leaves Bazemore coming off the bench, an unusual role for someone who’s in the first year of a $70 million contract.

He isn’t complaining, saying this is “the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

Indeed, after battling injuries late in the year, Atlanta has everyone ready to go against the Wizards, who won the season series 3-1.

Game 1 is Sunday in Washington.

“I think we’ve got a helluva team,” Schroder said. “Everybody’s back now. We showed what we can do and who we can beat. We’ve just got to keep competing and doing the same things.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 .

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.

Phoenix Suns with quality solar eclipse joke on Twitter

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With the cooler-than-I-expected solar eclipse on Monday came a lot of bad solar eclipse jokes on Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does. Especially the NBA Twitterverse. We knew a lot of “where on the flat earth will Kyrie Irving watch the eclipse?” jokes were coming.

There were a couple of good ones, however.

Appropriately, the Phoenix Suns won the day.

One personal favorite here, an old meme that never goes out of style.