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.

Dwyane Wade returns to Miami Heat after birth of child

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade is back with the Miami Heat after missing nearly two weeks for the birth of his daughter.

Wade went through Miami’s gameday shootaround and will play Tuesday night against the Brooklyn Nets. He said his wife and their daughter are doing well, which allowed him to feel comfortable to resume his season.

“I’m going to obviously miss them,” Wade said. “It was tough leaving my little girl and my wife, but I’ve got to get back to work and I’ll see them again soon.”

Wade was away from the team for about two weeks because of the birth of his daughter. Wade and his wife Gabrielle Union-Wade welcomed Kaavia James Union Wade into the world on Nov. 7. Wade had been in Los Angeles with them since then, and flew back to Miami on Monday.

His return is most certainly welcome in Miami. The Heat went 2-5 in his time away, falling to 6-10 this season. They’ll play Tuesday without guards Goran Dragic (knee), Tyler Johnson (hamstring) and Dion Waiters (ankle recovery from last season).

“There’s a human element to this business and to the game and it is the most important thing,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The connection, your spirit, your emotions, everybody getting on the same page, and just seeing Dwyane back here with the guys there was a tangible boost in the energy today in the shootaround.”

Wade is Miami’s third-leading scorer this season at 14.3 points per game. He was in his best stretch of the season when he got the call that his daughter was coming a few weeks earlier than planned.

He said he felt the frustration level his team was going through during their current slide, and he tried to keep in touch via texts and phone calls. Wade kept up conditioning while in Los Angeles, but knows it’ll take a little time to get back to the level of a few weeks ago.

“I was so excited for my daughter to come, but I was like, ‘Baby, you know, your dad was playing in a rhythm. You could have waited a little while,'” Wade said. “I was just getting my legs under me, but great things happened to make me miss time, and now I’m back.”

The baby was born via a surrogate, which is one of the reasons why Wade felt taking a brief paternity leave was necessary.

Parents of surrogate-carried babies are told the first few days after the birth are critical to forging deep bonds with their child. Lots of skin-to-skin contact and talking to the baby helps with the bonding.

So Wade needed time, and the Heat supported the plan.

“So much of this league is mood of the team and confidence,” Heat guard Josh Richardson said. “With him back, we’re definitely a lot more confident moving forward.”

Union-Wade – who revealed she had nine miscarriages in her 2017 book “We’re Going to Need More Wine” – has taken time off work to bond with the new arrival. She’s been filming an upcoming project in Los Angeles, and when she’s back on the set, Kaavia James will be close by.

“She was working right up until we got the call,” Wade said. “When she goes back, my daughter will be going back to the set with her. Her trailer is fit for everything, the baby’s safety, everything. So our baby will be there with her when she’s at work.”

Wade strongly considered retirement during the offseason because of the baby’s arrival, not making the decision to return until just before training camp in September. He questioned whether it was fair to his wife and their family to still be playing and traveling while raising a baby.

He also wondered if he could handle being away from his daughter for long stretches.

“We went through a lot to get here,” Wade said. “My family had to come first right now.”

 

Kevin Durant fined $25,000 for telling fan to “shut the f*** up”

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The percentage of players who would like to tell a courtside fan to “shut the f*** up” would be close to 100.

However, there are 25,000 reasons players don’t do that. Kevin Durant found out the hard way. During the Warriors loss in Dallas Monday, Durant was being heckled by fans along the baseline calling him “cupcake” (an old Russell Westbrook insult) and it got under KD’s skin enough that he told the fans to “watch the f****** game and shut the f*** up.”

The league office, it turns out, does not like it’s players talking to fans that way — at least when it’s caught on video — so Durant was fined $25,000 on Tuesday.

Fans taunting players with the hopes of catching a reaction on video is a growing trend in recent years around the NBA, and so far the league’s response to that has been to remind fans around the court they can be removed for what they are saying (with a postcard note on each seat).

Personally, if you choose to engage a player that way during a game, he has the right to fire back and say whatever he wants. If you want to get in the NBA trash talk game, you have to be able to take it, not just dish it. Those are not the ground rules, however, so KD gets a fine.

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.