NBA Playoffs, Magic Hawks Game 2: Magic overpower Hawks in second half to take 2-0 lead

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Carter_Game.jpgSurprisingly enough, the Atlanta Hawks were competitive for much of game two. They were able to move the ball while limiting mistakes, actually managed to get to the rim and the line with some consistency, and scored almost 100 points against the Magic’s defense. They made six of their 11 three-point attempts. They shot 97% on their 31 free-throw attempts. They had twice as many offensive rebounds as Orlando did. Jamal Crawford and Al Horford both had bounce-back games. 

In spite of all of that, the Hawks are going back to Atlanta with a 2-0 deficit. Why? First of all, some of Atlanta’s bad habits reared their ugly heads in the second half. More importantly, it’s almost impossible to beat Orlando when they play like they did on Thursday night. 

In the first quarter, the Magic went to Dwight Howard early and often. The Hawks had absolutely no way to stop him. Howard got position, made a quick move, and got a basket, alley-oop pass, or a foul. Nothing the Hawks did made any difference. In the first quarter alone, Howard scored 18 points on 6-6 shooting from the field and 6-8 shooting from the line while drawing nine fouls on seven different Atlanta defenders. Against the Hawks’ undersized frontline, Dwight Howard suddenly looks less clumsy and frustrated and more like an unstoppable engine of doom who dislikes referees and loves sleeves. 
With Howard looking unstoppable and Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis making everything they threw up from the perimeter, it looked like the Magic were on their way to another easy victory. The Hawks had other plans. They played well enough offensively to weather the storm in the first quarter, going inside themselves and making open threes when the Magic rotated. Howard went to the bench after picking up his second foul early in the second quarter, and Atlanta went on a quick 10-2 run while he sat to take the lead. When Howard came back into the game, Atlanta hit enough open mid-range shots to keep the lead, and went into the break leading by eight. 
The turning point in the game came early in the third quarter. While converting an and-1, Howard got a bloody nose that sent him to the locker room because of the “blood rule.” With a six-point lead and Howard off the floor, Atlanta had a golden opportunity to push the lead to double-digits. They didn’t. The Hawks inexplicably took their foot off the gas pedal, committing lazy turnovers on the offensive end and failing to play tough defense when the Magic had the ball. When Howard checked back in two minutes after leaving the floor, the Magic had cut the lead to one, and Atlanta no longer had control of the game. 
Orlando took the ball to the ball to the basket aggressively in the third quarter, scoring 35 points in the period. Atlanta hit enough shots to keep themselves in the game, but a buzzer-beating three by Jameer Nelson gave Orlando a one-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
After executing on offense all game long, Atlanta finally went cold in the fourth quarter. Joe Johnson started holding the ball at the top of the key for way too long, and the Hawks only scored four points in the first 4:59 of the final quarter. 
That’s what opened the door for Orlando. Their outside shooting is what allowed them to barge through it. With 8:48 remaining in the game, Vince Carter hit a three to put the Magic up by six. That’s what started the barrage. Over the next four minutes, the Magic hit five more jumpers, with three of them coming from beyond the arc. When the dust had settled, the Magic were up 16 with just under five minutes left to play. Game over. You know the Magic are going to have a run of outside shooting like once or twice every game — on Thursday night, the run came at the worst possible time for Atlanta. 
A few other notes:
-Dwight Howard had a monster game. 29 points, 17 rebounds, and only one missed shot from the floor. If he can stay on the floor (39 minutes on Thursday) and make his free throws (13-18 from the line), he’s all but unstoppable. Unanimous All-NBA selections don’t happen by accident.
-Vince Carter looked great in the second half. Not only was he making some very tough shots, but he was aggressive when running the pick-and-roll and unleashed a few dunks I didn’t know he had in him anymore. Every now and then, he gives you glimpses of why he’s considered one of the most talented players to pick up a basketball. As Malcolm Gladwell observed in 2006, it’s easy to see why Vince remains so respected and feared in certain circles — he bases his game around things that almost nobody else can do.
-Give Al Horford a lot of credit. He looked to attack when Gortat was in the game, and had a lot of success with that little 15-footer from the right side when Howard was patrolling the paint. 24/10 for Horford, on 9-13 shooting from the field.
-The Hawks outscored the Magic by four points during the 34 minutes Jamal Crawford was in the game. They were outscored by 18 points during the 14 minutes Mike Bibby was in the game. 
-Joe Johnson is not making a great case for himself as a max free agent right now. Someone will end up giving him the money, though. 
-Josh Smith did a good job of being aggressive, but finished with a 6-15 shooting night and five turnovers. He needs to play much more disciplined basketball if the Hawks want to have a chance — some of those turnovers were pure carelessness, and Hubie Brown caught Smith walking back on defense more than once.
The Hawks should give themselves a pat on the back for showing that they can compete with this Magic team, even on the road. If the Magic didn’t play a nearly perfect offensive game, Atlanta could easily have stolen this one. The Hawks are much better at home than they are on the road; we’ll see if they can make this a series by taking both games in Atlanta. 

Doc Rivers out as Los Angeles Clippers coach

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When the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and never got out of the second round of the NBA playoffs, changes were going to be coming to Los Angeles. A team with lofty aspirations — and that gave up a lot of their future to contend now — can’t fall on its face like that without consequences.

But nobody saw Doc Rivers being out as the Clippers head coach.

That’s just what happened, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Rivers confirmed it on Twitter.

Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers as a free agent in part to play for Rivers, and the coach was instrumental in recruiting Leonard to Los Angeles. That was the reason most around the league thought Rivers’ job was safe despite some questionable coaching rotation moves against the Nuggets (staying small and trusting Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic when that clearly was not working).

There is no way Doc Rivers is out without Leonard giving his okay to the move.

Rivers signed an extension a year ago and Woj said he had two years remaining on his contract. That suggests a firing, no Rivers choosing to walk away.

As for who is next, Tyronn Lue has been the Rivers’ lead assistant and makes a logical choice to step in and take over. He is popular with the team’s players and has won a ring as a coach before.

However, it’s possible the Clippers look elsewhere. Jeff Van Gundy was suggested by Wojnarowski. Mike D’Antoni is out there if the Clippers want to make a radical move.

The new coach will take over the ultimate win-now team. Los Angeles has elite talent in Leonard and Paul George, the Sixth Man of the Year depth (Harrell, a free agent, and Lou Williams), and quality perimeter defenders. In the clutch, they could turn to the two-time Finals MVP. 

Except all that talent really never meshed together, in part due to injuries and other things keeping the team’s core from playing much together. Yet there was a sense of entitlement around this team — the Clippers acted like they could flip the switch and win.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Williams said after the Clippers were eliminated. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time.”

The Clippers are all in with this roster. To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. 

The Clippers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to get two years, two playoff runs with those stars. They wasted the first one of them.

The new coach, whoever it is, will have a lot of pressure not to let another season slip away.

Report: Victor Oladipo looking to leave Pacers this offseason

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
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Victor Oladipo was reportedly leaning toward leaving the Pacers in 2021 free agency.

He might prefer to exit sooner.

Jared Weiss of The Athletic:

Victor Oladipo looking to move on this offseason, according to sources

Oladipo has had an enjoyable and fruitful time in Indiana.

It’s also easy to see how he’d hold bigger ambitions on and off the court.

The Pacers control the situation for now. Oladipo is under contract next season at $21 million. But the specter of him leaving in 2021 unrestricted free agency applies implicit pressure. Indiana could trade him rather than risk him walking for nothing.

Of course it’s not fait accompli Oladipo would leave the Pacers in 2021 free agency. They’re looking for a new coach, and maybe that hire would help motivate Oladipo to stay. Indiana could take the upcoming season to sell him on a new direction. If going that route, the Pacers could still pivot before the trade deadline. That plan would allow Oladipo time to get healthy and boost his trade value (or suffer a setback and tank his stock).

Oladipo’s impending free agency also gives him some leverage in trade talks. He can signal an intent to re-sign with only certain teams, motivating those teams to trade for him (and dissuading other teams).

But at this stage, even if Oladipo is ready to leave, Indiana still holds most of the cards.

LeBron James first star in decades to face former team in NBA Finals

Lakers star LeBron James vs. Heat
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When LeBron James left the Heat in 2014, he claims someone from Miami told him, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your career.”

Heat president Pat Riley said his plan for Miami “all of a sudden came crashing down.”

Six years later, LeBron and the Heat are in the NBA Finals.

LeBron remains a driving force of championship contention. After Miami, he led the Cavaliers to the 2016 title (proving wrong his doubter with the Heat). Now, he’s flourishing with the Lakers. Even at age 35, LeBron is a superstar who held the allure to recruit a co-star in Anthony Davis. That’s a championship recipe.

The Heat have nearly completely turned over their roster since LeBron left. (Only Udonis Haslem remains.) Riley remained committed to winning immediately throughout this post-LeBron era and hit on the right combination of players for this moment. Miami lured Jimmy Butler, drafted and developed Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, traded for capable veterans Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala and found undrafted gems Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. It’s a remarkable story of team-building.

Now, LeBron and his former team meet on the biggest stage.

This is just the third time an All-Star has faced his former team in the NBA Finals:

  • LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Miami Heat in 2020
  • Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers) vs. San Francisco Warriors in 1967
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1957

After years of coming up short, Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors grew tired of each. San Francisco traded him to Philadelphia, bottomed out and drafted Rick Barry. Barry and Nate Thurmond – who moved from power forward to his more-natural center with Chamberlain’s exit – lifted the Warriors to the 1967 NBA Finals, where they lost to Chamberlain and the 76ers.

The Celtics were so smitten with a young center from University of San Francisco, they traded star center Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 NBA Draft… Bill Russell. Russell led Boston to more than a decade of dominance, NBA Finals trips in his first two seasons coming against Macauley’s Hawks. The teams split, the Celtics winning in 1957 and St. Louis winning in 1958.

A few other players were All-Stars in another season and still producing near – using that term generously in some cases – that level when facing their former team the NBA Finals:

  • Adrian Dantley (Detroit Pistons) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1988
  • Paul Westphal (Phoenix Suns) vs. Boston Celtics in 1976
  • Charlie Scott (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Paul Silas (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Dick Barnett (New York Knicks) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1970
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1958

It’s obvious why these situations are rare. When on a team that could be good enough to reach the Finals without him, stars usually stay put. After losing a star, teams usually fall off.

But these are unique circumstances.

A Northeast Ohio native, LeBron wanted to win in Cleveland. Then, he wanted to live in Los Angeles. He still has the talent to dominate and the power to get his teams to mortgage their futures to surround him with immediate talent.

Riley is one of the greatest executives in league history. He created a culture in Miami that helps the Heat get through thick and thin. It’s one of the reasons LeBron joined the organization. Even after he left, the Heat focused on winning quickly and player development – then hit enough right breaks on this run through the bubble.

Make no mistake: Miami is the underdog of this story. LeBron’s continued reign was far more predictable. The Heat have been in precarious situations over the last few years before coming out ahead now.

That’s why Riley was so upset in 2014. He said he even considered going Dan Gilbert until a friend talked him out of it.

In his infamous letter, Gilbert wrote, “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Of course, the Cavs came up comically short. They were awful while LeBron won two titles in Miami.

And LeBron has already won a ring since leaving the Heat. But Miami has the opportunity for revenge that Gilbert could only dream of.

LeBron has an opportunity, too. In 2016, when the Cavaliers and Heat had a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron called it his preferred matchup. That was somewhat about his friendship with Miami star Dwyane Wade, who has since retired. But there are are still plenty of familiar faces in the Heat organization.

You know what they say about familiarity…

Report: 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons don’t get along

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren’t the cleanest on-court fit. Occasionally, they’ve shown signs of personal animosity.

But is there a full-blown rift between Embiid and Simmons?

Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer (writing about Tyronn Lue’s coaching candidacy, which has taken a backseat to Mike D’Antoni’s):

As a Los Angeles Lakers player, Lue won NBA titles in 2000 and 2001 while playing with Hall of Famers and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who like Simmons and Embiid didn’t get along.

The Shaq-Kobe feud cut wide and deep. Does the Embiid-Simmons situation really match that?

It doesn’t have to in order to be a problem.

Shaq and Kobe were such good basketball players, they won three championships together despite their issues. Winning cures most ills. Shaq and Kobe worked through their differences while the Lakers were on top.

Though premier young talents, Embiid and Simmons aren’t Shaq and Kobe as players. The 76ers lost in the first round, a disappointing result that only increases pressure and tension.

For years, Philadelphia has committed to building around Embiid and Simmons. That appears to remain the plan.

That’s tricky enough simply based on their skill sets. It’s even more difficult if those two don’t get along.