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.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.

Report: Kings’ Buddy Hield in 3-point contest

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Players who’ve attempted more than seven 3-pointers per game while making more than 40% of them this season:

Sharing company with only the greatest shooter of all-time will earn Hield a spot in the 3-point contest.

Carmichael Dave of KHTK Sports 1140:

Sacramento getting three players into the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year speaks to the team’s nice collection of young talent. Bogdan Bogdanovic (who won MVP last year) and De'Aaron Fox return to the game. No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III replaces Hield, who ages out.

Hield has a chance in the 3-point contest, though the league is better from beyond the arc than ever. He’ll certainly have plenty of competition.

PBT Extra: Five players to watch heading into the NBA’s trade deadline

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It’s going to be a slow NBA trade deadline this year.

The reason it will be relatively quiet on Feb. 7 (the deadline day) this year is reflected in the five players to watch talked about in this PBT Extra. The bottom line: There are far more buyers than sellers.

Take Trevor Ariza in Washington, for example. A number of playoff teams are looking for wings on expiring contracts to help them out — the Rockets and Lakers are at the front of that line — but Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said the team the team will not tank, so is Ariza even available.

Or, what about Terrence Ross in Orlando? Another wing a lot of teams have interest in, but is Orlando selling?

And while the Dallas Mavericks have made public overtures about reconciliation with Dennis Smith Jr., sources tell me the plan on both sides is still to find a trade, it’s just right now the offers are lowball ones (because the Mavs have no leverage and there will be good young point guards such as Terry Rozier and D'Angelo Russell available in July as restricted free agents, and teams like them better).

Still, there will be trades. These are the guys to watch.