NBA Playoffs: The Hawks can fly to the sun, but may burn just the same

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Thumbnail image for johnson_game.jpgAtlanta, even as the three seed, even with a sweep over Boston, even with a win against Orlando, even for as great as they’ve been at times, still enter as the unknown, silent partner of the NBA playoffs. 

Which is a shame, because they may feature the most balance in terms of talent of any team in the postseason. They have a dynamic power forward that can dominate at both ends of the floor. They have the rare elite shooting guard in Joe Johnson, and the sixth man of the year in Jamal Crawford. Their big man, Al Horford, was an All-Star. But still no one expects much of them. 
Here’s how the Hawks can raise the bar and then smash their ceiling with it. 
1. Get J-Smoove involved. Josh Smith’s improved play has been incredible. If the Hawks get him the ball and get him involved in the flow, he can not only produce points, but open up the offense for teammates. He feeds off his involvement and that boosts his production. The Hawks should focus on getting Smith in the post against weaker power forwards and feeding him off curl screens to penetrate on bigger defenders. As long as Smith stays away from shooting from mid-range, and continues to attack, the Hawks will be in good shape. 
2. Control the glass: The Hawks feature one of the best rebounding schemes in the league. Al Horford isn’t the most physically gifted player, but he has that ability to simply make it to the ball that you can’t teach. Combine that with Smith’s athleticism and Zaza Pachulia’s size and you have a a team that can dictate possessions against any team. 
3. Release the Joe-Ken!: Joe Johnson can destroy his own team with too many ISO sets. But when he’s locked in, he can take over a game like few players in the league. The Hawks have to be willing to live with Johnson absorbing possessions in pursuit of that ability because there’s nothing more demoralizing than Johnson crossing your best defender up and draining a mid-range. Let Joe be Joe. 

Malone says Jokić turned off by ‘ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation’

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There has always been some element of “if you don’t see things the way I do you’re an idiot” in the NBA MVP conversation. Between sports talking heads and fevered fans on social media, there have always been some pushing the edge in the MVP debate.

However, something about Nikola Jokić looking like he would win a third-straight MVP around the All-Star break — fueled by Tim Bontemps straw poll at ESPN — turned the conversation much more intense much earlier this season. And it got nasty — again driven by ESPN on-air personalities. Some past MVP votes were re-litigated through the lens of this season, while other fans and media equated backing their guy with tearing down someone else (often Jokić, but sometimes Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, the other frontrunners). That has turned Jokić off from the conversation, Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after his team beat the Wizards Wednesday.

Here’s the full quote:

“I think this year unfortunately has just taken a really ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation, and I think it’s really turned a lot of people off, including [Jokić]. And what’s happening now is there’s so many guys that could win the MVP this year. Great candidates. Joel Embiid is a great candidate, Luka Doncic is a great candidate, Jayson Tatum, whoever you want to put in that mix, those are all deserving. But what happens in today’s society is that everybody, it’s like when I was a college coach and all the negative recruiting. It’s not promoting my guy, it’s ripping down every other guy. And that’s just ridiculous.

“This game, as Adam Silver told us at the All-Star break, the game is in a great spot. The league’s in a great spot. We have great players. Celebrate them. Don’t criticize, don’t tear them down. Build them all up, and whoever wins it, good for them. And that’s one thing that’s been really disappointing this year with the whole MVP conversation and all the hot takes. It’s really just gotten ugly and nasty, and I really don’t care for it.”

Malone isn’t the only person saying this. Jeff Van Gundy talked about this on the Lowe Post Podcast.

“Can we stop trying to put people down?” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said recently. “We should be celebrating our guys in the league. Giannis, Jayson Tatum, Joker, all of them are great. We don’t need to push one down to elevate the other guy. They all are completely different players.”

The NBA may not always like the tone but it LOVES the debate — it does not want everyone hugging it out. They want drama and tension. They want an argument. And in an online world where tearing someone down gets more clicks/eyeballs than lifting someone up, the debate was always going to get ugly at times.

[Side note: What grates on voters (*raises hand*) is when people jump in our mentions or timelines saying that this stat or style of play – clutch points, defense, some advanced stat, head-to-head play — makes it clear and obvious that it has to be Player X. The NBA goes out of its way to get a very diverse group of voters in terms of background, and everybody brings their own criteria to the table. As it should be.]

There is no single NBA-sanctioned definition of MVP for a reason — the league wants the arguments.

Which this race is providing. You can make a legitimate argument for Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmpo. It’s boring (and bad sports talk) to say there is no bad choice among them… but there is no bad choice among them.

That said, some passion and a little edge are welcomed in the conversation. Ideally, people just know where the line is.

 

 

PBT Podcast: Kings a playoff threat? Plus some summer free agent talk.

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The last time the Sacramento Kings were in the playoffs, there was a Bush in the White House and Pixar released the first “Cars” movie.

They are back with a vengeance this season, going into the playoffs with a top-three seed and an elite offense, but how far can they go once in there? Maybe a long ways if things break right, and Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin of NBC Sports get into all of that.

They discuss the passing of Knicks legend Willis Reed, then Corey’s Jukebox compares Jayson Tatum to Eddie VanHalen’s “Eruption.”

Finally, they focus on some possible free agents this summer maybe making their final runs with teams — will Draymond Green be back with the Warriors? What about Kyrie Irving with the Mavericks? The Knicks want Josh Hart back but are not getting a discount, and don’t be surprised if the Heat and Trail Blazers try to make some big moves.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron James begins on court work, shoots down report of return before season’s end

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Lakers fans’ dreams of their retooled roster — one that was impressive for the three games everyone was together just after the trade deadline — getting healthy and making a surprise run through the Western Conference start with one simple premise:

LeBron James getting back on the court.

There was good news on that front Thursday following his evaluation. The Lakers announced that LeBron started “on-court activity” and a “gradual basketball movement program” to return from a foot tendon issue that has sidelined him for 12 games. However, no official timeline was given for LeBron to return to the court.

At almost the same time that news broke, it was leaked to multiple reporters that LeBron was targeting a return for the final week of the season. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin summed it up well on SportsCenter:

“A league source familiar with LeBron James’ thinking told me that he believes LeBron will push for sometime over the final three games the Lakers play in Los Angeles — April 5 against the Clippers, April 7 against the Suns, April 9 against the Jazz — to target that range so long as there are no setbacks in his rehab to make his comeback. Get back onto the court, get a little bit of a dress rehearsal before either the play-in tournament or a playoff berth for the Lakers.”

Within an hour after the reports of a LeBron return timeline broke, he shot them down on Twitter.

There is zero chance word of LeBron targeting the final week of the season was leaked to at least four well-sourced NBA and Lakers’ reporters randomly or by someone that all of these people did not trust. Choose to read between the lines what you will, or who you think is pressuring whom, but this did not get out on accident. There is unquestionably a desire to get LeBron back on the court in Los Angeles before the end of the season. The Lakers need LeBron for any kind of playoff run and they don’t want to just throw him in the mix for a play-in game.

The Lakers are currently tied for 9/10 in the West with Dallas, just half a game back of the Thunder and Timberwolves for the 7/8 seeds, and 1.5 games back of the Warriors as the No. 6 seed (although they will be difficult to catch, especially with Golden State having now won two in a row on the road — the Lakers would need a record two games better than the Warriors the rest of the way). Los Angeles is also half a game up on the Pelicans and Jazz for falling out of even the play-in. The Lakers need wins.

LeBron would help with that, but he says there still is no timeline for his return.

Jaylen Brown on future with Celtics: ‘I will stay where I’m needed and treated correct’

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Jaylen Brown may have one more year on his contract after this one — a fully guaranteed $28.5 million — but in today’s NBA, it’s already time to talk about his next contract.

That next deal will not be a simple extension with the Celtics (unless the extension rules change dramatically under the new CBA being negotiated). Under the current rules, Boston can offer an extension starting at around $36 million a season, however, if he goes to free agency his max contract would start at $44 million. It’s an easy call for Brown.

That means Brown would be a free agent. While Boston could offer larger raises and a fifth year other teams cannot, Brown would have the option of going anywhere he wants. Would he want to stay in Boston, playing with Jayson Tatum? Logan Murdoch of The Ringer asked him, and Brown’s answers raised eyebrows.

“I don’t know. As long as I’m needed. It’s not up to me,” he says. “We’ll see how they feel about me over time and I feel about them over time. Hopefully, whatever it is, it makes sense. But I will stay where I’m wanted. I will stay where I’m needed and treated correct…

“I just enjoy the time that you have now,” he says. “If it’s your whole career, it’s your whole career. If it’s not, it’s not. Some of the greatest players of all time haven’t finished with their organization. Michael Jordan retired a Wizard. As much as we like it here and enjoy being here, you see where life takes you. You see how the process goes. All you do is really focus on what’s in front of you right now, to be honest. But I don’t really know or want to answer that question because that type of stuff makes Celtics fans speculate and go crazy. Especially right now, I’ll just say we’ll get there when we get there.”

Some have tried to spin those comments as “Brown is not fully committed to Boston.” To my eyes, it reads more like a message to the Celtics that if they don’t want to pay him the max another team will. Brown is an All-NBA level player on the court and a smart, independent mind off it — one not bound to convention. He wasn’t going to play the “this is the only place I ever want to play” game that placates fans, even when the players don’t mean it. Brown was honest.

If Brad Steven and the Celtics toy around with trying to get Brown for less than the max, he’s got options. For example, the Hawks are watching the Atlanta area native, a source told Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“One reason the Hawks are trying to unload (John) Collins is to get that cap space and be in position to add someone, another star, with Trae,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “It is not easy to get free agents to Atlanta but Jaylen Brown would be different—they want to be in position, at least, to make a move if he wants to be there. I think there is not question they are watching the situation with him. Closely.”

Most likely, the Celtics will re-sign Brown out in the summer of 2024 and this is all moot. But if the Celtics have a couple of rough playoffs, things could feel different. Whatever happens, Brown is open to it.