<span class="vcard">Kurt Helin</span>

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks

Five Things We Learned in NBA Tuesday: The Hawks clinched playoff spot in front of Josh Smith

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while going down the rabbit hole on conspiracy theories on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

1) The Hawks are officially in the playoffs. The first of the 16 NBA playoff slots have been filled — the Atlanta Hawks are in. They locked it down by coming from behind to beat the Houston Rockets in what was the most fun game of the night. With James Harden out for the night after going Bruce Lee on LeBron James, the Rockets had guys step up, such as Terrence Jones (18 points on 11 shots, plus eight rebounds) and Jason Terry (21 points). The Rockets also took advantage of a sloppy and defensively disinterested Hawks team in the first half. But while everyone was watching Josh Smith play games with the Hawks crowd, the Hawks players woke up. Atlanta went on a 21-3 run in the third quarter to take the lead, sparked by the guard play of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder. The Hawks are going to finish the top seed in the East, and as well as Cleveland is playing Atlanta is still a legitimate threat to come out of the conference.

2) The Denver Nuggets are undefeated in the Melvin Hunt era. When a coach gets fired — particularly one that completely lost the locker room — the players often come out with a more energy. That’s what happened with the Nuggets on Tuesday, they got 26 points from Danilo Gallinari and beat the Bucks 105-96. Ty Lawson had his best game in a while, and Kenneth Faried was doing this.

3) LeBron James moved past former teammate Ray Allen on the all-time scoring list. LeBron dropped 27 points on the Celtics in a blowout win (he was +35 on the night), and that was enough to move LeBron past his former teammate Ray Allen for 21st on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. When it’s all said and done, LeBron is going to be a lot higher on the list, but this was a nice milestone. And LeBron was putting up points with flair on Tuesday.

4) Rudy Gobert has arrived in Utah and the Jazz are far more interesting. I don’t know that the Most Improved Player award can go to a second-year guy — players are supposed to make a leap between their rookie and sophomore campaigns — but Utah’s Rudy Gobert is making his case. He has become a defensive force in the paint and on Tuesday, against a depleted Memphis team (no Zach Randolph) Gobert had 15 points (on 10 shots) and 24 rebounds. He was central to the Jazz knocking off the Grizzlies. Utah will lose more game than it wins the rest of the way, but this team has become a tough out nightly. They are building something.

5) Jeffery Taylor was dunking, and the Hornets could be a playoff team. The fine folks at NumberFire ran the numbers and figured out of the six teams battling for the two final playoffs spots in the East, the Hornets had the second best chance of getting in (behind the Pacers). With their win over the hapless Lakers, the Hornets moved into a tie for the eight seed in the East. Plus, they had Jeffery Taylor doing this:

Josh Smith calls Hawks fans “bandwagoners”

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks
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For nine seasons, Josh Smith was launching ill-advised jump shots while wearing an Atlanta Hawks jersey. Smith is an Atlanta native who averaged 15.3 points and eight rebounds a game for a Hawks in those years, alternating between showing off his stunning athleticism and poor decision making. The Hawks were largely mired in mediocrity during his run, which ended when he bolted for Detroit a couple years back.

Smith returned to Atlanta in a Houston Rockets jersey on Tuesday night, and Hawks fans let him hear it — every time Smith touched the ball they booed. He played back, hitting a big three then shushing the crowd.

After the win Smith didn’t hold back his thoughts, speaking with the fantastic Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.

“I mean, those fans are fickle, very fickle and bandwagoners,” Smith said. “It really doesn’t mean anything to me.”

First off, this is a different Hawks crowd than Smith is used to because they are into the game. The team changed their marketing strategy and focused on the people living in the city (not the suburbs), and that combined with just winning change the feel in the building.

“It’s’s been really fun to be a part of, just seeing everyone get behind us,” Kyle Korver told PBT recently. “We truly have a home court advantage now.”

That said, I’m not sure Smith deserved boos. He was who he was on the court in those years in the ATL, and off the court he was very active with area charities.

“I’d been here for nine years, and all I did was positive things in the community and with the basketball team,” Smith said.

The Hawks had the last laugh, coming from double-digits down to pick up the 104-96 win. The Rockets were without Dwight Howard and James Harden for this one. And it showed. But the Hawks will take the win, which clinched a playoff spot with the win.

Grizzlies suspend Tony Allen for Tuesday night’s game for “violation of team policy”

Memphis Grizzlies v Sacramento Kings
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It was a surprise announcement from Memphis coach Dave Joerger in his pregame media availability:

Tony Allen has been suspended by the team for Tuesday night’s game against the Jazz for a “violation of team rules,” as reported by Ronald Tillery at the Commercial Appeal. He offered no further details.

“It’s an isolated incident that happened. We’ve moved on. It’s over,” Joerger said. “He’s been great for us. I’ve played him more in February than any other time in the season. He’s been great accepting his new role, being some with the second unit and some with the first unit. He’s been locked in. He has had playoff focus. This is an isolated incident.”

In his last 10 games, Allen has averaged 8 points and 4.1 rebounds a game, which is right at his season averages. Where Allen will be missed is on the defensive end, where he is a stopper for on the perimeter. They could have used him against Gordon Hayward on the perimeter Tuesday night.

Also out for the Jazz is starting power forward Zach Randolph, due to illness.

 

Report: Mavericks, Heat in long line of teams interested in JaVale McGee

JaVale McGee
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Some of you are out there thinking, “Why would teams go after JaVale McGee except to see their jerseys on Shaqtin’ a Fool more often?”

Because it’s about cost and role. Not many teams were interested in paying JaVale McGee $12 million next season to be their starting center. However, paying him a minimum salary for part of the season to come off the bench for depth? You bet teams are lined up. McGee, for all his flaws, is an incredibly athletic big man who can be solid to brilliant in a limited role. He can block shots, run the floor and get a team some points. He would be the kind of reserve big man who would be a good bench boost to just about any playoff team.

And they are lining up, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

ESPN’s Chris Broussard reports that the Warriors are interested (Andrew Bogut backup). You can be sure that the Clippers are in that mix — Doc Rivers was primed for buyout season and has missed out so far — as well as Cleveland, and just about every other playoff team.

McGee is not going to be out of the league for long.

McGee was traded at the deadline from Denver to the Sixers, primarily so the Sixers could get a first round pick. Philadelphia agreed to buyout McGee — at full price — and pay him to get off their roster. McGee will be an unrestricted free agent once he clears waivers.

Nuggets need to decide direction, then hire coach

Kenneth Faried, Brian Shaw
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Brian Shaw needed to be let go; it had become very clear he had lost the locker room. The team is 20-39 and in a free fall. Frankly, the Nuggets should have done this sooner (or waited until the summer).

Of course, as soon as the vacancy came up a list of potential long-term successors started to float around — Mike D’Antoni, Avery Bradley, Alvin Gentry, Mike Malone, Vinny Del Negro.  But before the Nuggets start interviewing candidates, they need to sit down and answer one question:

What kind of team are they trying to build?

The seeds of Brian Shaw’s disaster of a tenure were sewn as he was hired. Remember that a couple of years ago the Nuggets had just completed a 57-win season and were considered very dangerous for the playoffs until Danilo Gallinari went down just before the postseason started (the shorthanded Nuggets lost in the first round). Then came a tough summer, which started when GM Masai Ujiri left for Toronto. Coach George Karl was in the last year of his contract and rather than extend him and give him more power in the organization, team president Josh Kronkie canned Karl.

The Nuggets hired Shaw, who was one of the top assistant coaches out there at the time, and he seemed ready. Management and Shaw were on the same page about wanting better defense and maybe slowing down the tempo more — not so much running and gunning. The problem was the roster — starting with Ty Lawson at the point and moving through the entire rotation — was built for up-tempo basketball. The Nuggets didn’t go out and reshape the roster to fit Shaw’s style, so he was stuck trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

Then came a perfect storm of problems. Shaw struggled to communicate and get the players to buy into his vision. As David West noted, this was not a mature locker room Shaw was trying to reach. Shaw didn’t adapt his system. Injuries continued to be an issue, with Gallinari never being the same, JaVale McGee and others missing extended time. It all started to spiral downhill, picking up momentum as the slide got worse this season.

Shaw deserves blame here; he deserved to be let go. But the seeds of the friction that was his demise ties back to a real disconnect between the style Shaw wanted to coach — what management said it wanted — and the roster he was given.

Denver needs to figure out what kind of team it wants to be before it hires its next coach.

With much of the current roster under contract for another year, if they want to go up tempo then Alvin Gentry would be an excellent fit. Mike D’Antoni could work well (again, if you give him a roster that fits his very particular tastes).

If the Nuggets want a more defensive-oriented team, Malone would be a great call. But while he can bring discipline, there is a need for a roster overhaul to make that happen. The Nuggets have the flexibility and cap space (especially after the salary cap jumps in 2016) to make roster changes if they so choose.

The Nuggets, known for not spending on coaches and front office people like other franchise, may go with a top assistant coach and give him his first time job (Boston assistant Jay Larranaga is suggested by Ken Berger of CBSSports.com).

Whatever they do they need to think it through and get the entire organization on the same page. It sounds like they are leaning that way.