NBA Playoffs: Atlanta shocks Chicago in Game 1

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It’s time to go back to the drawing board, NBA world. These Atlanta Hawks apparently aren’t ready to crumble under the Chicago Bulls’ might just yet, as the underdog club — predicted by most to win but a single game in this series (or less), and predicted by yours truly to be overrun by Derrick Rose — stole Game 1 on the road, 103-95.

Although the focus will largely be on how the top-seeded Bulls fell short in the inaugural game of their second round series, let’s not forget that the Hawks won this thing. Atlanta was the unmistakably better team on Monday night, and though the sustainability of the Hawks’ offense will understandably be questioned, public doubts don’t make Joe Johnson’s jumpers count for any less. So long as Johnson and Jamal Crawford and the entire Hawks crew can continue to hit their shots, the reliability of Atlanta’s methods is a non-issue. For now, the Hawks were good enough on both ends to control their first game against the Bulls, and each contest from here on out will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Atlanta can’t and won’t win them all, but we should be past the point of devaluing the Hawks’ makes for probability’s sake. Their weaknesses are well known, and there’s no use reinforcing them until the clock finally does strike midnight.

Like it or not, Johnson was spectacular. He took some tough shots and broke free from the offense at times, but he scored 34 points on 18 shots, and went a tremendous 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. Johnson helped build the lead in the first quarter, hit timely shots that broke the Bulls’ momentum in the third, and closed despite facing plenty of traps down the stretch. Call it the hot hand, call it random chance, or call it a quality shot maker converting on his tough looks, but Johnson was far and away the game’s most effective offensive player. The fact that Tom Thibodeau saw it fit to run aggressive ball pressure at Johnson in the fourth at all speaks volumes, as does the Hawks’ victory in spite of that pressure. Crawford also connected on half of his field goal attempts — in spite of his shot selection — and finished with 22 points.

Atlanta deserves a ton of credit for their collective defense against Derrick Rose. Jeff Teague worked his tail off to stay in front of Rose, but it was a team-wide effort that forced the league’s MVP into bad passes and deterred his drives into the lane. When Rose did manage to get to the basket, the Hawks contested effectively; Atlanta pestered Rose into 4-of-9 shooting in his attempts at the rim without fouling him in the act of shooting a single time, an even more impressive accomplishment when considering the boost to Rose’s shooting from transition and semi-transition opportunities. In the halfcourt offense, Rose had no means to create efficient shots, and he settled for too many threes (seven attempts with just two makes) as a result. Honestly, Rose is as deserving of blame as the Hawks are of praise; both contributed to Rose’s inefficiency with their decision-making in Game 1, but it should be interesting to see the Game 2 response from both parties.

Larry Drew has to be pleased with Teague’s work on offense in addition to his defensive work against Rose. Five assists to just one turnover is pretty solid for a young guard seeing his first meaningful action of the playoffs, but Teague also impressed with his creative intermediate game. Teague’s 10 points were mostly off of floaters and runners, carved out from that fluffy middle ground between the protected interior and the preventative perimeter front. Being able to manufacture makes in that space is quite valuable, and Teague’s patience was essential in creating those opportunities.

The rest of the series will write its own story, but this first game belonged to Atlanta. They held their own on the boards despite the surrendering a considerable advantage to Chicago in that regard during the regular season. They took a nice performance from Luol Deng (21 points, 8-12 FG, six rebounds) in stride, and still won regardless. They kept Derrick Rose out of the paint, and scored at a rate of 118.4 points per 100 possessions. That — along with the shooting of Johnson and Crawford, and the sturdiness of Teague, for that matter — could change overnight, but this is the world as we know it. The Atlanta Hawks are up 1-0, and everything that will be, will be.

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Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.

Kings’ rookie Marvin Bagley III out 10-14 days with left knee bone bruise

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The No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, Marvin Bagley III is having a solid season. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game coming off the bench. He’s got a good 59.2 true shooting percentage and the 6’11” big man gets most of his buckets at the rim or at least in the paint although he can hit threes when he steps out there (taking one a game but hitting 35.7 percent). He’s lost on defense, as most rookies are, but there is some potential there.

The Kings are going to have to get by without him for the next 10 to 14 days due to a bone bruise in his left knee, the team announced Friday night.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sacramento loss to Golden State, when Bagley was battling for a rebound and landed awkwardly. He got a bucket out of it because he was “cherry-picking” after not being able to run back down the court, but he waved to the coaches and asked out after scoring. Bagley left the game, had to be helped to the locker room and did not return.

With Bagley out expect to see a lot more Justin Jackson. Harry Giles III has been out of the rotation of late but he could potentially get a little run, too.