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.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.

Danny Green: Kawhi Leonard told me he wants to stay with Spurs

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The Spurs are reportedly worried Kawhi Leonard‘s camp wants to get him to the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks or 76ers.

Leonard hasn’t said much himself – except apparently to San Antonio teammate Danny Green

Get Up on ESPN:

Green:

I talk to him here and there, check up on him, see how he’s doing.

I think he wants to be in San Antonio. He’s let me know that. He’s let me know verbally he wanted to be there. So, we’ll see what happens.

Green has tried playing peacemaker throughout this saga – going as far as denying tension that clearly exists. He’s not the most reliable source.

And even if Leonard explicitly told Green he wants to remain in San Antonio, I’m not sure Leonard is confrontational enough to tell Green he wanted out, even if he did.

Those caveats acknowledged, this could be a huge revelation.

If Leonard wants to stay with the Spurs, the next step is meeting with them, mending their relationship and convincing them he deserves a super-max extension (which projects to be worth $219 million over five years). No matter how Leonard feels about San Antonio right now, if the Spurs don’t trust investing so much in him, that could lead to a fractured relationship and his exit.

So, there’s still a lot to sort out. But Green saying this means something.

LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head

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His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?

"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.

He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.

Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.

Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.

LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:

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Rockets played with fire with Chris Paul, got burned

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Chris Paul played 79 minutes in three days.

Prior to Games 4 and 5 of these Western Conference finals, he hadn’t done that in more than two years. He hadn’t done it without both games going to overtime in more than three years.

The Rockets leaned heavily on the 33-year-old Paul, and they’ll pay the price.

Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow. Given how quickly Houston ruled out Paul with a strained hamstring, he seems unlikely to play in a potential Game 7 Monday.

Injuries are somewhat – but not completely – random. Players are more susceptible when worn down. After missing the close of the 2016 postseason, Paul missed 45 games the last two regular seasons. He has accumulated a lot of mileage in his 13-year career.

Yet, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni drastically shortened his rotation, anyway. Not only did Paul play big minutes in this series, he shouldered a huge load. He took the reins of the offense at times, allowing James Harden to conserve energy for defense, while maintaining his own strong-two way play. That’s never easy, especially in these high-intensity games.

This was the risk.

We can feel bad for Paul and his predicament. We can also acknowledge Houston got this far by gambling on Paul’s health.

That’s not to say it was a bad bet. This is what you save him for, the biggest playoff series of his career and maybe one of the last before he exits his prime. The Rockets would have been far worse off to this point resting Paul extensively and protecting him. Even with such a heavy workload, an injury was never fait accompli. And Houston got plenty from Paul before he went down. He was instrumental to wins in Game 4 and Game 5 that gave the Rockets a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Now, they just must hope that’s enough of a head-start into a world of playing without Paul.