NBA Playoffs: Dwight’s one-man show comes up short against Hawks

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One couldn’t possibly expect, ask, or demand more of Dwight Howard than the Magic center gave in Game 1, and yet the Atlanta Hawks were somehow still able to take an early series lead with an efficient opening salvo. Atlanta is clearly equipped to compete in this series, and though they took a brutal 46-point, 19-rebound performance from Howard, the limitations of the other Magic players on both ends of the court allowed the Hawks to take Game 1, 103-93.

It might be a bit generous to say that Atlanta’s Jason Collins allows the Hawks to defend Howard one-on-one in the post; Collins wasn’t much of a difference-maker, as Howard went above, through, and around both Collins and anyone else tasked with defending him. However, the fact that Collins is on the roster allows Hawks head coach Larry Drew to make a defensive commitment to Orlando’s peripheral players. The fact that Howard can’t single-handedly beat the Hawks isn’t an indictment of his offensive game, but simply a statement about the dynamics of basketball. Howard will need help from more than one of his teammates (Jameer Nelson, thanks to a truly fantastic third quarter, finished with 27 points and six rebounds) if the Magic are to win this series, but the limitations of Orlando’s roster are as glaring as ever.

Nelson has the ability to create shots for himself — as he showcased on Saturday — but the rest of the Magic are largely reliant on others to produce points for them. Howard kicking the ball out of double teams is typically one such avenue for shot creation, but if the Hawks are committed to shackling Orlando’s perimeter players, then the Magic offense will be similarly restricted. Nelson simply doesn’t have the playmaking ability to orchestrate a traditional offense (and before you even start, Hedo Turkoglu doesn’t, either), and without an additional source of shot creation, Orlando’s offensive potential is a bit limited.

When faced with the full attention of Atlanta’s perimeter defenders, Orlando’s standstill shooters made just 27.3 percent of their three-pointers. Jason Richardson scored four points on 2-of-8 shooting. Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass were held scoreless on six combined field goal attempts. The aforementioned Turkoglu shot 2-of-9 from the field. Each is a solid offensive player in their own right, but simply lacking in that ever-important ability to consistently generate quality shot attempts against defensive pressure.

Consider the Magic’s counterparts: the Hawks had five double-digit scorers, all of whom shot 50 percent or better from the field. That’s not exactly the type of team-wide performance we should expect from Atlanta for the duration the series, but at the very least the Hawks have more players capable of functioning as self-sustaining sources of offense than the Magic do. That doesn’t guarantee that the Hawks will be able to keep their offense afloat against what’s sure to be a motivated Magic team teched for revenge in Game 2, but it was enough to keep Orlando at arm’s length down the stretch and secure a crucial Game 1 victory.

As persuasive as Atlanta’s case was in Game 1, this performance was a statistical aberration of sorts; one shouldn’t expect the Hawks to be quite so efficient from the field going forward (42.9 percent from three-point range is an awesome — and ultimately unsustainable — mark), and odds are that the Magic defense will bounce back with a vengeance, even if their lack of shot creation will continue to be a problem. Still, the potential for the rumored upset is certainly present, even as Dwight Howard piles up points, hedges effectively on every screen, and secures every rebound in a 10-foot radius. This series could stand as an exercise in the limits of superstardom, as even a game-changing force like Howard is left a spectator to the shortcomings of his own teammates.

Only high schoolers who would’ve been consensus draft candidates to receive $125,000 minor-league offer

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The NBA’s minor league’s plan to offer players $125,000 salaries straight out of high school sparked two major questions:

  • Who will receive that offer?
  • Who will take it?

Former NBA player Rod Strickland and former WNBA player Allison Feaster will run the program, and they’re answering the first question.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA is limiting eligibility for the professional path program to prep players who would be considered consensus candidates for the draft if there were no early entry rule to prohibit them. Feaster will work with a group that includes Strickland and the NBA’s basketball operations and player development staffs to evaluate the potential players.

“It will be elite prospects with a readiness for a professional league,” Feaster told ESPN. “We want to target players who would not be going to a university if it weren’t for the NBA eligibility rule. That’s more or less what’s going to dictate this.”

Feaster expects a “handful” of players to be part of the initial group in the professional path. Feaster and Strickland emphasized that the program will be judicious in choosing those eligible for the pro path opportunity.

For reference, 17 high schoolers were picked in the final two drafts (2004 and 2005) before the NBA implemented its one-and-done rule. So, that suggests about 8-9 players annually will get offered the $125,000 deal.

That still leaves the other question: Who will take it?

Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t have. Shoe companies are still spending the most money, and they’re heavily invested in the visibility of college basketball.

But every prospect’s situation is unique. With Strickland and Feaster in place, we’ll soon see how players receive this new path.

76ers sound caught off guard about Markelle Fultz stepping away

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Markelle Fultz has played in all 17 of the 76ers’ games this season, starting until they traded for Jimmy Butler. A couple weeks ago, Fultz called himself generally healthy.

Then, Fultz’s agent, Raymond Brothers, informed the 76ers the guard wouldn’t play or practice until visiting a specialist Monday. Fultz will miss at least three games – against the Pelicans, Cavaliers and Nets.

76ers coach Brett Brown:

It’s kind of the first real sort of red-flag-type news.

This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard. But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. If that’s what it is, then we’ll support him.

76ers general manager Elton Brand:

We thought it was the regular bumps and bruises.

There’s nothing that we saw medically that didn’t allow him to play.

This yet another odd turn in a saga that already included plenty of contentiousness, animosity, rumors and cringe-worthy moments. At this point, it’s hard to be shocked by anything with Fultz.

It’s also hard to take the 76ers seriously when they suggest it seemed like business as usual. Fultz’s shot is disturbingly broken. There is clearly a problem. Maybe letting Fultz play without fretting over the issue was the right course, but how surprised can Philadelphia be that he took a more drastic measure?

Hopefully, the specialist helps Fultz identify and fix this issue.

Bulls’ Denzel Valentine likely to miss entire season

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Bulls wing Denzel Valentine has had a rough go of it.

A lottery pick two years ago, battled ankle injuries during his rookie year and underwent ankle surgery after the season. He stayed mostly healthy last year, but his season still ended early for knee surgery. Then, over the summer, he got torched in the Drew League by Frank “Nitty” Session, who questioned how Valentine was in the NBA:

And now…

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Denzel Valentine was originally expected to miss one to two weeks after suffering a sprained ankle on the second day of training camp. One setback led to another, and on Monday the Bulls announced that the third year guard will undergo surgical reconstruction on that left ankle. He’ll miss four to six months, the team announced, effectively ending his season.

The long end of that timeline will keep Valentine sidelined the entire season. The short end would allow him to return late in the year, but with Chicago so dismal, there’s little incentive to rush him back.

Valentine is under contract next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. He might need to prove himself to make Nitty’s question still relevant.

Report: J.R. Smith and Cavaliers separating as they seek trade

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DETROIT – Yesterday – yesterday! – J.R. Smith explained why he didn’t leave the Cavaliers when, a few weeks ago, they pulled him from the rotation and gave him the offer to step away.

“I can’t do that to the city and the fans,” Smith said. “A lot of people have been backing me since I’ve been here. I feel like it’s been a new start since I came here. The way the fans embraced me, the way that I’ve embraced the city, my teammates, I can’t do that to them.”

But Smith also said Cleveland is tanking and reaffirmed his desire to be traded. That probably set wheels in motion.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

Smith – who’s guaranteed $18.59 million on a contract that will surely end after this season – carries negative trade value. The Cavs shouldn’t attach the sweetener necessary to dump him. They’re better off just paying him for now.

Because just $3.87 million of his $15.68 million salary for next season is guaranteed, Smith’s contract could prove useful in a trade.

If Smith would reduce his guarantee with a buyout, let him go. But Smith probably shouldn’t do that without a new job lined up.

So, the stalemate continues.

If everyone is happier apart, all the better. Smith wasn’t making a difference on the court for a team he correctly identified as tanking.