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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 .

Report: Teams are calling Clippers about DeAndre Jordan trades

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Injuries have ravaged the Clippers. They started the season 4-0 have been without three starters from opening night: Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia injury, he is still in a walking boot), Danilo Gallinari (strained left glute), and now point guard Patrick Beverley is out for the season after microfracture surgery on his knee.

All this has led to the Clippers losing nine in a row before beating the Hawks Friday night. All the weight of the offense has fallen on Blake Griffin‘s shoulders, and while he’s been good most of the game in the fourth quarter his numbers have plummeted, and the Clippers have stumbled.

It’s left the Clippers with a couple of hard questions.

Do they need a coaching change? There was a sense from sources around the league that Rivers is already on his way out — he was stripped of GM/president powers over the summer — and what kept him around was the couple of seasons at $10 million a year on his contract. That’s a lot of money for an owner to eat, even Steve Ballmer, but the time may be coming as a way to shake up the team.

The other, what to do with DeAndre Jordan? They could not work out a contract extension with him (Jordan was acting as his own agent), and one of the league’s top traditional centers is a free agent next summer, but new head basketball guy Lawrence Frank said they want Jordan to be a “Clipper for life.” Does Jordan want to be a Clipper for life? Do the Clippers really want him back, and if so at what price? Does a Clipper franchise trying to get approvals for a new arena in Inglewood want to rebuild now, because it does not help that process? If it’s time to move on and rebuild, do they need to trade him now?

Teams are calling about Jordan, reports Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post.

DeAndre Jordan, who can become a free agent after the season, has been coming up in trade conversations, with multiple teams talking potential trades. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank said last month that Jordan will be a “Clipper for life,” muddled matters, as does the limited number of teams who need a center and the size of Jordan’s contract ($22.6 million).

Jordan is an All-NBA center, a defensive force in the paint who sets a strong pick, rolls hard to the rim, can finish with the best of them, and is averaging 10.4 points (scoring and attempts are down without Chris Paul feeding him) and 13.4 rebounds a game. Jordan knows who he is and plays within himself.

It’s not hard to imagine how he could help teams such as Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, and a host of others. The question is what would teams be willing to give up to get him — they have to send back salary to match, but will not want to give up assets that help them win now. The Clippers will be looking for good young players and picks back in the package, which makes it hard for a team such as Cleveland to put together a package.

But before they discuss trade scenarios, the Clippers need to figure out what they want to do. Life has come at them fast this season and led to a lot of big-picture questions that Frank and Ballmer need to answer.

Lonzo Ball finishes one-handed alley-oop on Willie Cauley-Stein (video)

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So much attention is paid to Lonzo Ball‘s father, jumper and passes. Those are the major storylines for the Lakers rookie.

But he has such a diverse skill set, and this is absolutely part of it. Ball is a savvy off-ball cutter in the halfcourt with the athleticism to get above the rim and finish alley-oops.

But finish them over 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who was tracking the play (though slightly late)? That’s an eye-opener, even in the Kings’ 113-102 win.

Marc Gasol makes 3/4-court shot just after buzzer (video)

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When Marc Gasol‘s 3/4-court attempt went through the net, it seemed to barely matter the ball left his hands just after the first-quarter buzzer. After all, the Grizzlies led the Mavericks by 15, anyway.

Turns out, Memphis really needed that basket.

Watch Knicks string together 28-0 run against Raptors

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Toronto has been the second best team in the East this young season. Not that anyone is really convinced they will be called that by the time we get to the playoffs (or even the All-Star break, or even Christmas), but for the first 16-18 games of the season their new move-the-ball offense had them at 11-5 and looking solid.

Wednesday night the Knicks dismantled the Raptors.

Especially in the third quarter when the Knicks went on a 28-0 run to blow the doors off the Raptors (video above). The Knicks dominated the third 41-10, when Toronto shot just 1-of-16 from the floor.

New York is gaining confidence with each win this season, they are a fun team to watch that is starting to find an identity (now that a certain three-sided shaped one is not being forced upon them). Kristaps Porzingis is a monster, and while the Knicks overpaid the market for Tim Hardaway Jr. he has lived up to his contract this season. With rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina showing some nice defense and playmaking skills as a rookie (although he is undoubtedly still a work in progress), you can see a path to a strong future unfolding. There are real reasons for hope in New York. Someone just keep James Dolan distracted and away from the basketball operations side of the building.