NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Thumbnail image for Hawks_loss.jpgLast season: 53-29, three seed in the East. The Bucks pushed them seven games in the first round, then Orlando swept them in the second.

Head Coach: Larry Drew. Basically the Hawks decided to fire their coach and go for change by hiring the old coach’s right hand man. Interesting theory. Drew may have been the top assistant for just fired Mike Woodson, but swears he’s a different man with different plans. Maybe so. The real question is can Drew coax more out of essentially the same roster?

Key Departures: Woodson was the big one. The Hawks also had the rights to Josh Childress, who spurn their contract offer for Europe two seasons ago and now is now running with the Suns.

Key Additions: They kept Joe Johnson, who was a free agent. They’ll regret it in a few years, but they did it. Keeping Johnson was a Hawks priority and they made it a reality by making him higher paid than LeBron James this summer. But it’s not this year or next they’ll regret, it’s five years from now when he is still making max money but is performing like Michael Finley they’ll be sorry. Maybe the current Hawks ownership plans on being out the door by then, so it will not be their problem.

Larry Drew as coach is the one addition that matters. Also added to the roster were Josh Powell, Etan Thomas, Jason Collins and Jordan Crawford. Some small time role guys, nothing changes to the core.

Best case scenario: The Hawks jump into the elite of the East and compete for a title.

For that to happen: They make a trade for another elite player and the unwieldy ownership group decides to take on more salary. Seriously, that’s the only way it will happen. Because to expect more from the same roster is unrealistic. At best.

But lets say the roster does not change, what do they need to happen to take a step forward or three?

Better play at the point guard to start. Mike Bibby is your starter, but he has slipped over the years to a below average player. In a conference with Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson and Derrick Rose (just to name a few from teams at the top of the East) it’s going to be very difficult to make the jump with below average play at the point. Jeff Teague has been told to be more aggressive, be more selfish and take the job. Own it. He’s got talent, but we’ll see if he can.

Al Horford needs to take a leap forward, as well. Horford is already an All-Star, a guy who gave Atlanta 14 and 10 last season while taking on more of the offense and having his shooting percentage go up. He’s not a natural center forced to play against the beasts in the East (Dwight Howard, Shaq) but if the new motion offense in Atlanta can get him the ball in good positions to score he can take another step forward.

Larry Drew needs a system to get this team some easy buckets, rather than fighting through so much isolation ball to get them. That starts by getting the Hawks to run more (which ties into getting them to defend better, they were a pedestrian 13th in league last year in points given up per possession). In the half court, ball and player movement will allow the athletes on the Hawks to get some better, easier looks. All of it combined should mean more monster dunks from this athletic squad, which would be good for all of us.

Basically, the culture and system need to change for the Hawks to get more out of their talents. And that still may not be enough to make a big leap forward in the east.

More likely the Hawks will: To paraphrase Roger Daltrey: Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks.

They didn’t change the roster, they brought the same team back. They changed coaches but got the No. 2 guy from the old regime in. They are basically fielding the same team but expecting more in a conference that got a lot deeper and a lot tougher.

The things to watch are defense and point guard. If the Hawks can play better defense, convert that into some easy transition buckets, and get better play out of Jeff Teague (or Mike Bibby, although that is unlikely) at the point, they can improve. But even that keeps them on the second tier in the East.

The Hawks will be good, don’t think anything else. This is a quality roster. They will be fun to watch. They will win a lot of games. But if the expectation is to get out of the second round of the playoffs, then they will fall short. They remain good but not good enough.

Prediction: 51 wins. The Hawks will be as good or slightly better than last year, but as the East got deeper we dock them just a couple wins. In reality, they are in the regular season second tier in the East — along with Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee — who will finish between 48 and 55 wins. Health and who blends best fastest will determine the order. But they will be in for a tougher first round playoff series than last year, and that one went seven games.

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.

Blazers passing impressive as they push first-half lead to double digits (VIDEO)

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Back home, the Portland Trail Blazers looked far more comfortable.

Feeding off the energy of a loud crowd at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers stretched out to a first-half lead thanks to a level of impressive ball movement and energy we have not seen from them all series. Check it out.

This may go down as the Myers Leonard game, he had 13 points in the first half.

Portland stretched their lead to as much as 18 and was up by 13 at the half. I wouldn’t call that comfortable because, well, Golden State, but it’s the best the Blazers have played all series.

Rockets will not bring defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik back next season

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Before the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 112.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 25th in the NBA.

After the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 105.3, second best in the NBA. In the playoffs, the Rockets had a 107.3 defensive rating despite six games against the Warriors.

There are multiple reasons for that change, but a key one: The Rockets backed up the Brinks truck and brought assistant coach and defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to help fix the problems.

Bzdelik will not be back with the team next season, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Technically Bzdelik was fired, although that is not an accurate description of really what happened here. This was not because of poor job performance, it was a question of if he really wanted to be there, and the Rockets wanted someone all-in. Understandably. This is a Houston team still on the cusp of a title, just one that has run headlong into the Warriors dynasty in recent years. A dynasty that likely will look a lot different next year, opening the door in the West. The Rockets want to push through that door.

That said, replacing Bzdelik will not be easy.

It’s one of a number of challenging choices for the Rockets this summer.