Game of the night: Orlando reminds Atlanta of the gap between the Hawks and the elite

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Last season, Orlando swept Atlanta right out of the playoffs. Then this summer, both teams essentially went with the status quo.

So maybe we should not be surprised by Monday night’s outcome, a 93-89 Orlando victory. Except that the Hawks were off to a fast start, had a new coach, have been incorporating radical ideals like “off the ball movement” into their offense, so maybe this would be different. Maybe things had changed.

Nope. This game had just about everything the Hawks needed to beat the Magic — no Jameer Nelson, the Magic being cold from three, Atlanta off to a fast start, Vince Carter and Dwight Howard in foul trouble — and it was still the Magic.

The Hawks are still the Hawks — a good team a step or two behind the elite in the East. And pretty much locked in there. And the Magic are still in that elite.

As for this game, the Hawks got off to an early lead because they were getting points in transition. Not that the pace was fast but the Magic were not getting back in transition. As Dwight Howard was yelling at Vince Carter to do. It begs the question of why the Hawks don’t generally try to run more, why they are in the bottom 10 in the league in pace when they have so many athletes on the roster who can finish a break. But we’ve been asking that question for years.

As expected the pace ground down and Orlando caught up.

One big thing that was different from last playoffs — Atlanta chose not to double Howard on the block. They went with a lot of Jason Collins (who starts) and Zaza Pachulia (who should start and get more minutes than Collins because neither is all that great defensively but at least Pachulia can score a little). Howard finished with 27 on 50 percent shooting and 11 boards — an increase in points and rebounds over his season average, but down in shooting percentage.

But that one-on-one post play allowed the other Hawks to stay home on Magic three pointers, and the result was the Magic shot 18.2 percent from deep.

In a close game late, the Hawks are still the Hawks — a lot of Joe Johnson either coming off picks or in isolation. They have more movement in the offense, but under pressure they reverted to bad habits. The Magic are still the Magic — a lot of pick-and-roll, although with Nelson out it was a lot of Carter/Howard pick-and-roll.

Same as it ever was with the Hawks defending the pick-and-roll — they love to switch it. The Larry Drew Hawks may not switch everything as they used to, but they switch a lot. Late in the game that led to trouble — Josh Smith had already switched on to Vince Carter, so when Howard came out to set up the pick Orlando had a bunch of matchups they liked. Carter had the ball and now Al Horford on him and did what he should with that matchup and attacked off the high pick, got the bucket-and-one. That meant with15.5 second and Orlando’s two point lead became… well four points because he missed the free throw, but it became a two possession game and that was it.

This early in the season is too early to read anything into April and May in the NBA. But this game felt like last playoffs, when the Magic were just wholly superior to the Hawks. It’s hard to see how anything is really different now.

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.

Three things to Know: Towns hits game-winning free throws in night of stars returning

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Karl-Anthony Towns returns and hits game-winning free throws

Karl-Anthony Towns could not have been happier.

“This is what movies is made of,” Towns said postgame (via Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic). “You come back, 51 games missing, sellout crowd, Target Center and you get the ball with seven seconds left, no timeouts. You’ve got to make it. I mean, it doesn’t get better than that. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Towns did make it, well the free throws, anyway. The Hawks’ John Collins fouled Towns on his final shot — something upheld by a review — then KAT sank both free throws to give Minnesota the 125-124 win.

Towns finished with 22 points and showed a little rust shooting 8-of-18 (but hitting 2-of-3 from beyond the arc), which is to be expected after being out since Nov. 28 with a calf strain. The Timberwolves got a needed win in the tight West playoff chase, and did it without Anthony Edwards (still out with a sprained ankle).

The Hawks got hosed on what would have been their chance on game-winning free throws.

There were 3.6 seconds left on the clock after Towns’ free throws and the Hawks called time out to set up an inbounds play. That ended up being a Collins 3-pointer that did not hit the rim, but Atlanta’s Saddiq Bey was in position for the offensive board and appeared to be fouled by Taurean Prince. After the game, referee crew chief Ben Taylor told a pool reporter his crew missed the call.

“On postgame review we see it. It appears that Prince moves back into Bey’s space, and we should have assessed a foul on the play.”

Trey Young finished with 29 points and eight assists to lead Atlanta. The Hawks remain the No.8 seed in the East, one game up on Raptors (they are now three back in the loss column from the No.7 seed Heat, who will be next to impossible to catch).

2) Ja Morant comes off bench in return from suspension, scores 17

Ja Morant was welcomed back with a standing ovation and a roar from the Grizzlies faithful Wednesday night.

“Obviously, I’m thankful and grateful for everybody who has been supporting me during this time,” Morant said, via the Associated Press. “It definitely helped me a lot. Definitely made me feel a little better. Eased everything that’s been going on. Felt good to be back. Super excited and glad we were able to get the win.”

Morant had missed nine games (eight due to a league suspension) following an incident where he flashed a gun in a club and broadcast it on social media. Morant took time away and got counseling in Florida on how to better manage the stress in his life.

He didn’t play hoop or workout much during that time, so he came off the bench and had a minutes limit in his return while he plays himself back into shape. Time away or not, the explosive hops are still there.

Morant finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting in a 130-125 Grizzlies win over the Rockets. Jaren Jackson Jr. continued his hot play with 37 to lead Memphis.

The win put the Grizzlies two full games up on the Kings for the No.2 seed in the West.

3) Luka Dončić scores 30 in return, it’s not enough to beat Warriors

Luka Dončić returned after missing five games with a left thigh strain and it didn’t look like he missed a day — 30 points,17 rebounds, and a couple of ridiculously good assists.

It just wasn’t enough, not with Kyrie Irving out (foot soreness).

In a defense-free game — the losing Mavericks had a 127.6 offensive rating— Stephen Curry and the Warriors had a couple more buckets and picked up the 127-125 win. Curry finished with 20 points, while Jonathan Kuminga led the Warriors with 22.

That’s not what anyone is talking about out of this game. Instead, it’s the bizarre inbounds play that gave the Warriors two easy points.

Toward the end of the third quarter, Golden State’s Anthony Lamb missed a straight-on 3-pointer and the rebound caromed out of bounds. The baseline referee points it would remain the Warriors’ ball, but then instantly transitions into pointing the other direction to call a Mavericks timeout. That confused the Mavericks, who thought he signaled their ball. After the timeout came the inbounds play.

The Mavericks thought it was their ball (although why nobody came down to take the ball out is confusing), and after the game owner Mark Cuban sent out this angry Tweet and said he would file a protest over the game.

Referee crew chief Sean Wright explained the call postgame.

Initially on the floor the original signal was in fact Golden State ball as this can be seen on video. There is a second signal but that signal is for a mandatory timeout that was due to the Mavs.

The Mavericks’ loss drops them a game below .500 and tied with the Lakers for the 9/10 seeds in the West play-in. The Warriors remain the No.6 seed.