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.

Deandre Ayton misses coronavirus test, arrives late to underway Suns-Thunder game

Suns center Deandre Ayton
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Another testing issue for Deandre Ayton.

This one comes at a terrible time for the Suns.

Phoenix is trying to complete a longshot run to the playoffs and playing the Thunder in a key game today. But Ayton arrived late to the arena after missing a coronavirus test yesterday.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like many Suns, Ayton has played well in the resumption. Phoenix doesn’t have another big-man option like him, especially with Aron Baynes sidelined. The Suns started Dario Saric in a small lineup today.

Ayton arrived to the arena and is warming up on an exercise bike. He could still get into the game and make a difference.

Already locked into the 4-6 range in the Western Conference and perhaps trying to keep its top-20-protected first-round pick, Oklahoma City is playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder. None of those will players will make a late entrance into the game.

Also: It’s ridiculous this wasn’t publicly disclosed sooner. The NBA continues to tout transparency while trying to draw more gambling revenue. Yet, a major lineup issue like this remains secret? That opens the door for some bettors to get inside information, which would be so damaging to the league’s integrity.

Kings now sole owners of second-longest playoff drought in NBA history

Sacramento Kings
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The Kings’ 2018-19 season ended with optimism.

Facing a meager over/under of 25.5 wins, Sacramento surged to 39 wins – its best record in 13 years. Under Dave Joerger, the Kings played a fast and fun style. De'Aaron Fox made historic improvements. Buddy Hield broke out. Several other young players showed promise.

Sure, the Kings missed the playoffs for a 13th straight season – matching the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. But they were on track to end the skid soon enough.

Except, of course that’s not how it went in Sacramento.

The Kings were eliminated from the postseason chase yesterday, ensuring a 14th straight season outside the playoffs. That alone is now NBA’s the second-longest-ever postseason drought, breaking a tie with the Timberwolves (2005-17). Only the Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers’ 15-year non-playoff streak (1977-91) is longer.

Here are the longest postseason droughts in NBA history:

The Suns could still reach 10 straight years outside the playoffs, but they’re still in the race this season.

The Kings might not be far from climbing this list, either.

Their future looks far bleaker than a year ago. Sacramento fired Joerger to hire Luke Walton, who has underwhelmed. Buddy Hield signed a lucrative contract extension then had a rough season. Fox progressed, though he didn’t make the desired leap into stardom. Other young players had ups and downs. Luka Doncic casts an even larger shadow from Dallas. The Kings’ organizational turmoil continues.

This was a feel-bad season in Sacramento, anyway. All the preceding losing only adds to the misery.

The Kings enter next season with one last chance to avoid the longest playoff drought in NBA history, and they do have a chance. But there’s only pessimism now.

Damian Lillard throws pass away from basket, off Tobias Harris, into hoop (video)

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Damian Lillard was making everything yesterday.

EVERYTHING.

Lillard, who scored 51 points in the Trail Blazers’ win over the 76ers, even got a bucket on this wild pass off Tobias Harris.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s even better to be both.

LeBron James admits he’s still adjusting to playing without fans

LeBron James
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LeBron James has played to overflowing gyms and arenas since he was a sophomore in high school. There is always a crowd around him to watch him play. Or a massive crowd of reporters around him after the game. Or throngs of fans when he travels through China on a shoe tour. LeBron has always packed the house.

Until now. There are no crowds, no fans at the NBA’s restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s now games in a stripped-down, made-for-television gym. And LeBron admitted to reporters after the latest Lakers’ loss he is still adjusting. Via Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time,” James said following the Lakers’ 116-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in…

“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”

LeBron has still been very good in the bubble — 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists a game — but he has not been quite the otherworldly, MVP candidate level player he was before the shutdown. His true shooting percentage of 51.9 at the restart is down from 57.7 before the break (and it has been below the league average since the restart). The Laker offense overall has scored less than a point per possession in the bubble and has been the worst offense in Orlando (leading to a 2-4 record so far). It’s not all LeBron, the Lakers as a team have struggled to get their pre-hiatus traction back, the chemistry is not quite right. But we know who leads this team.

LeBron and company also know they need to find that rhythm soon. They will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and face and eight seed — likely Portland or Memphis — that had to battle its way into the postseason. That team, whoever it is, will come in battle-tested and motivated.

The fans will not be there to pick up LeBron and the Lakers.

“I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game,” James said. “Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today. To all the fans out there that come watch me play, I miss you guys and hopefully someday I can get back to that interaction.”

Someday we all hope for that.

In the short term, LeBron and the Lakers need to find their groove in a fanless world.