Eastern Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Chicago vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Hawks: 44-38(No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Bulls 2-1, all three games took place in a three-week span in March. The Hawks win was by three points at home, the Bulls two wins (one at home, one on the road) were by 18 and 33 points.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Bulls: defeated Indiana Pacers 4-1
Hawks: defeated Orlando Magic 4-2

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)
Game 1 — Mon. May 2 at Chicago 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 2 — Wed. May 4 at Chicago 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 3 — Fri. May 6 at Atlanta TBD (ESPN)
Game 4 – Sun. May 8 at Atlanta 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 5 * Tue. May 10 at Chicago TBD (TNT)
Game 6 * Thu. May 12 at Atlanta TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 * Sun. May 15 at Chicago TBD (TNT)
* If necessary

KEY INJURIES
Bulls: Carlos Boozer will play but is battling a case of turf toe, which could make him less effective (Jazz fans, stop laughing).
Hawks: Kirk Hinrich, we don’t know the extent of his hamstring injury suffered in Game 6 of the Magic series, but he left the game and will have an MRI Friday.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Bulls: Offense 105.4 (12th in NBA); Defense 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Hawks: Offense 103.7 (20th in NBA); Defense 104.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS

Derrick Rose. He remains the focal point of the Bulls offense and the creator of most shot opportunities — but the Pacers and Paul George did a good job of making him less efficient. He shot just 37 percent in that series, the Pacers did about as well as could be expected, even though Rose made big plays as a closer in the series. In the Bulls two wins against the Hawks, he had big games, but he had just 12 in their one loss. The Hawks do not have a good defensive matchup for Rose, he should have more free space this series.

Luol Deng. He will draw some key defensive assignments, probably some Joe Johnson time as one might expect. He’s also key because in the Bulls two wins he had big games, 27 points in the 33-point blowout Bulls win. They will need his offense like that again.

Joakim Noah. As always his job is primarily defensive, but this time he draws one tough task — Al Horford. Yes, technically as the center he could draw Jason Collins for stretches, but let’s be serious, Collins has served his purpose for the Hawks and he is no longer a threat. In the Hawks regular season win against Chicago Horford had 31 and 16. Noah also will be the strong side help to silence the Hawks isolation sets. If he has a good defensive series the Bulls will win and win quickly.

THREE KEY HAWKS

Jamal Crawford. Coach Larry Drew went to more isolation sets in the first round against Orlando, and Crawford returned to his Sixth Man of the Year form. The Hawks need shot creation in this series, they need to find a way to break down the Bulls overload defense and Crawford is one of their best chances.

Al Horford. The real way to break down the Bulls defense is not isolations on the perimeter but beating them inside. Horford is a gifted interior player and it’s no coincidence he had 31 in the Hawks one win over the Bulls. For them to have any chance in this series he will have to have some monster games.

Joe Johnson. The Bulls defense is designed to shut down the exact iso-Joe sets that the Hawks have had success with in the first round against Orlando. Johnson is going to have to both hit some contested jumpers but mostly he has move the ball to the weakside with quick passes (skip passes ideally).

OUTLOOK

This is about the best matchup the Bulls could have gotten.

The Hawks ball-movement offense that didn’t work well for them all season long worked less well against the rest of the league worked less well against the Bulls. They averaged 80 points per game (down from 94.8) and had an offensive rating of 92.4 (points per 100 possessions, down from 103.2 during the season). The Hawks shot fewer threes, got to the line less often, didn’t rebound as well and a host of other problems.

But those are the old Hawks, you say. The new Hawks of this postseason — the ones who just knocked off the Magic — have gone back to more of the isolation sets they are comfortable with. They are getting more from Jamal Crawford.

The Bulls defense is designed specifically to stop isolation sets. It overloads the strong side and the only way you really beat it is good ball movement. Which we established the Hawks do not do well.

Meanwhile, the Bulls were basically just a slightly better version of themselves against the Hawks. Rose was good and when he was somebody — Deng mostly — came with him and that provided enough offense to win.

The Hawks best chance is to create turnovers and run more. The Bulls defense is a wall when it is set but they can be beat in transition. The Hawks need to create turnovers and push the ball on everything. They have to defend better than they have all season. They have to find someone who can slow Rose.

They need to play a lot better than they did to beat the Magic. The Bulls just need to be the Bulls.

PREDICTION

Like I said before, this may be the best matchup for the Bulls this playoffs.

Bulls in 5.

Ben Simmons leaves game in first quarter, to have MRI on lower back Sunday

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Philadelphia, routed by Milwaukee on Saturday night and still starting on the road if the playoffs began today, may have another problem coming.

All-Star Ben Simmons skipped Thursday night’s game against Brooklyn with a sore lower back. He gave it a go Saturday in a nationally televised game against Milwaukee, but in the first quarter went back to the locker room not to return.

After the game, the news got more ominous.

Wojnarowski also reported, “There is some level of concern surrounding the possible nature of the injury.” That sounds ominous.

Simmons is averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds a game for the Sixers this season as the starting point guard. He’s also been playing All-Defensive Team level defense. If he misses extended time, it will be rough on Philadelphia.

When there is word on the MRI results, we will have it here at NBC.

Bucks pull away in second half behind 31 from Giannis Antetokounmpo, rout Sixers

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks turned a tight game with the Philadelphia 76ers into a mismatch immediately in the second half, led by the reigning league MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 17 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 25 points and the Bucks beat the 76ers 119-98 on Saturday night in a matchup of Eastern Conference rivals.

Antetokounmpo scored Milwaukee’s first 11 points in the third quarter as the Bucks took advantage of the absence of Philadelphia big man Joel Embiid, who went to the bench less a minute into the period after picking up his fourth foul, and quickly put the game out of reach.

“We came out the third quarter and played fast,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were able to rebound the ball and just attack them. Joel had four fouls. That worked in our favor. We tried to be aggressive in the third quarter and set the tone.”

Antetokounmpo added eight assists as Milwaukee won for the 16th time in its last 18 games to improve its NBA-best record to 48-8.

The Bucks led 56-50 at the half before Antetokounmpo’s scoring outburst put the Bucks in control. Milwaukee would go on to outscore the 76ers 37-23 in the period.

Embiid, coming off a 39-point performance on Thursday night, had 17 points and 11 rebounds but shot just 5 for 18. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton also scored 17 points apiece for the 76ers, who fell to 9-20 on the road.

“I liked what I was seeing in the first half, and the death knock was Joel sitting,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “We just didn’t respond well to Milwaukee playing their tails off, and they shot the heck out of the ball.”

Philadelphia lost All-Star point guard Ben Simmons early in the first quarter. Simmons, who missed the 76ers’ previous game with lower back tightness, headed to the locker room after making consecutive driving layups, the second with a little more than 7 minutes left in the opening quarter. He didn’t return after the injured flared up.

“We never got in a rhythm. Losing Ben, then foul trouble, not making shots and some calls that could have gone a different way,” Embiid said. “But it’s on us.”

The 76ers shot just 35%, while the Bucks connected on 53% of their shots.

The Bucks got off to a scorching start, taking a 12-2 lead sparked by seven points from Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee led by as many as 11 in the quarter and held a 31-21 lead at the end.

Philadelphia pulled within 37-36 in the second before the Bucks used a 10-2 spurt to push the lead back to double digits.

Watch Dwyane Wade have his number retired by Heat

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Dwyane Wade is the greatest Miami Heat player ever.

He was at the heart of every championship the Heat won, he was active and beloved in the community, he was the face of the franchise.

Now his legacy is forever part of the American Airlines Arena — the Heat have retired his number.

Wade is a three-time champion, and 8-time All-NBA player, a 13-time All-Star, and a Finals MVP who averaged 22 points a game over his 16 year NBA career.

Next stop: Hall of Fame.

Stephen Curry cleared for contact, goes through full scrimmage with Warriors

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
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Stephen Curry is not sitting out the rest of the season. He wants back on the court — he’s targeting the first week of March — and the Warriors are not holding him out.

That got a step closer on Saturday when Curry went through a full scrimmage with the Warriors. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said this after practice, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Yeah he scrimmaged today, first day of scrimmaging,” Kerr told reporters at the Chase Center practice facility. “We only had seven other healthy players, so there were two coaches out there scrimmaging too, it was not pretty, but Steph looked great.”

The March return for Curry seems on track. Klay Thompson will not return to the court this season.

The Warriors are not playoff bound, but there is no reason to sit out Curry and tank, either.

First, that’s not the kind of culture the Warriors have built, coming off three titles in five years. Second, the fan base could use the boost of watching Curry drain deep threes after a disheartening season to this point. Third, and maybe most important, what exactly would they need to tank for, better draft position? This is a down draft to begin with, so anyone the Warriors select likely can’t help them much next season anyway (which is why there’s a lot of speculation the Warriors may try to trade the pick). Also, with the flattened out lottery odds, they don’t gain much anyway. The Warriors have the worst record in the NBA, but the three worst teams all have a 14 percent chance at the top pick, and the fourth worst is at 12.5 percent, fifth is 10.5 percent. Curry’s return for a month isn’t lifting the Warriors to the point teams will not want the pick.

We could all use to be reminded just how special Curry is as a player. Hopefully, we get to see that in a couple of weeks.