NBA Playoffs: Bulls get back to basics, even up series against Hawks

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If Game 1 between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks was an aberration — after all, the Hawks converted tough jumpers at an extremely high rate, and rode the high of those makes into a well-executed defense and an improbable victory — then Game 2 was oddly typical.

The Bulls are no strangers to offensive inefficiency, and on those nights when Derrick Rose struggles to keep his turnovers down or his field goal percentage up, Chicago still holds the means to gut out ugly wins. For all of Rose’s strengths, the Bulls didn’t climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings due only to the brilliance of his drives or his ability to set up his teammates; Chicago won a gaudy number of games by leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed and dominating the boards on both ends of the court. The Bulls are as active and bothersome as any team in the league on the defensive end, and though Game 2 began with the MVP trophy being presented to Rose in front of his home crowd, it ended with the Bulls taking care of business in a manner that only included Rose as one valuable part of a successful team-wide effort.

The Bulls were back to their dominant ways on the glass, as they grabbed 32.6 percent of the available offensive boards while limiting the Hawks to a far lower mark on the other end. Joakim Noah — who had seven offensive rebounds and 14 boards overall to go along with his 15 points — was the star in that effort, but Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng grabbed a combined 19 defensive rebounds to prevent the misfiring Hawks from securing any extra opportunities.

Atlanta’s shot selection finally came back to bite them, and without a superior rebounding performance like the one they had in Game 1, the Hawks had no means to score reliably. Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith made some particularly questionable decisions, but the less prolific output from Joe Johnson (who finished with 16 points, just a few shy of his 34-point outburst from Game 1) was just as damaging to Atlanta’s cause. The Bulls didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but the Hawks still had trouble keeping pace, and scored at a rate of just 83 points per 100 possessions. That mark is atrocious, but was an inevitable result of Atlanta’s desire to shoot contested jumpers and live with the consequences.

The problems of Atlanta’s offense were due to no explicit fault of Jeff Teague’s, as the emergency point guard dropped a team-high 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. That said, Teague’s limitations did come into play; Johnson and Crawford initiated much of Atlanta’s offense, and while that strategic decision minimized Teague’s turnovers (he didn’t commit a single TO in Game 2, after giving the ball away just once in Game 1), it put a lot of pressure on Atlanta’s ball-handling wings to create a stable offense. That’s possible when all of the Hawks’ jumpers are falling, but once the defensive pressure increases and the exasperation sets in, the Hawks sometimes stymie their own offense at the point of attack. To a degree, it becomes less about what the Bulls are doing defensively and more about what the Hawks aren’t doing offensively. The ball movement becomes unproductive, the cuts and curls are mere tokens, the effort to really run a legitimate offense is subpar. These are the realities of the typical Atlanta Hawks, and even though Teague is doing an admirable job of filling in for Kirk Hinrich, the absence of the Hawks’ true starting point guard has stifled their already stiflable offense considerably. Things were going to be tough for Atlanta to maintain their offensive production even with Hinrich in the lineup (as-was?), but now this team seems capable of little more on the offensive end than splashes of hot shooting and benefiting from their occasional good fortune. It’s not easy for any team to execute against Chicago’s defense, but Atlanta doesn’t make it any easier on themselves, either.

Game 2 fell more in line with series expectation, though it’s likely that Chicago’s offense will improve from here through schematic means; we already saw a foundation for improvement with an increase in side screen-and-roll action, a fairly effective counter to the defensive pressure that had kept Rose from getting to the basket in Game 1. If the Bulls continue to work those side angles and implement more variety into their pick-and-roll attack while spacing the floor well, they’ll create more opportunities for Rose to charge toward the rim with a full head of steam or use his active dribble to create new passing lanes. Atlanta, on the other hand, is still too reliant on the bounce of the ball, not to mention the often questionable decision-making ability of its high-usage players. Johnson, Crawford, and Smith are often too willing to take a poorly chosen shot or stop the ball with isolation play, and though on their best days those three are a sight to behold, the norm is something a bit less fantastic. It’s 4-of-14 shooting for Smith with four turnovers. It’s 2-of-10 shooting from Crawford and a -9 plus-minus for the game, the single lowest for any player on either team. It’s dreadfully low scoring efficiency in what could have been a very winnable contest.

This is the result of a game in which the Hawks are the Hawks and the Bulls are the Bulls. If Atlanta wants to win a few more games and make this a series, they had better start working toward a few more aberrations.

Anthony Davis and Pelicans enter yet another season full of speculation about their future together

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In Anthony Davis‘ lifetime, 22 players have made an All-NBA first team during their first six seasons. Just seven did so without reaching a conference finals in that span. Of those seven, only one began his seventh season with his original team.

Anthony Davis is set to become the second.

Davis, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, has made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once in six years with the Pelicans. He’s following the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves while advancing in the playoffs only once with them, in his ninth season.

That’s the same Kevin Garnett whom Anthony used as somewhat of a cautionary tale about remaining loyal to a franchise. And the most recent example of someone who became an All-NBA first-teamer so young without reaching the conference finals: Chris Paul, who engineered a trade from New Orleans after his sixth season there.

Uneasy parallels abound for the Pelicans as they try to keep Davis happy.

Of course, Davis is neither Paul nor Garnett nor anybody but Anthony Davis. Davis has mostly stayed on message: His priority is winning in New Orleans.

I believe that. But what if he determines he can’t win enough with the Pelicans? Will he choose them or a team he believes offers a better chance of on-court success. That, I don’t know.

The Pelicans should gain clarity next summer, when they can offer Davis a super-max extension that projects to be worth about $240 million over five years (about $48 million annually).

If he were to wait to leave in 2020 unrestricted free agency, Davis would have a projected max with another team of about $152 million over four years (about $38 million annually). Even if he got traded before then so he could re-sign with his new team in 2020, his projected max would still be “just” about $205 million over five years (about $41 million annually). He can get the super-max from only New Orleans.

If Davis is predisposed to stay with the Pelicans anyway, why wouldn’t he just take that monster offer next summer?

Again, speculation centers on New Orleans’ underwhelming results since drafting him No. 1 overall in 2012. The Pelicans have tried to fast-track their ascension around Davis, repeatedly trading first-round picks. They haven’t won enough to justify that strategy, and it has resulted in a roster primed for disappointment going forward.

Jrue Holiday is nice. Nikola Mirotic is underrated. Julius Randle could take another step. Otherwise, New Orleans’ supporting cast doesn’t make a convincing case.

Of course, the Pelicans could exceed expectations. They sure did last year, winning 48 games and sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers even after DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury.

Davis is locked up for two more years. If he makes another All-NBA team next season, he’ll be eligible to re-sign for the supermax in 2020 no matter how he performs during the 2019-20 season. Next season is not necessarily a breaking point.

But it’ll be another data point in Davis’ ongoing assessment of New Orleans. That assessment will be guided by a new agent (maybe Rich Paul, who represents Lakers superstar LeBron James) – which only adds variability to the equation.

The stakes are high. The small-market Pelicans would likely fall into into irrelevance if they lose Davis, which is precisely why they won’t rush to move him. But if they’re going to lose Davis, they’re better off trading him while his value nears its peak so they can get assets that will help in a new era. Whichever team gets Davis will likely vault up the championship-contention ladder.

Eyes will be on Davis and New Orleans, searching for any sign of discord. That might not be fair considering all Davis has done to fit in with the Pelicans, but it’s also reality. The vultures are swarming.

It has been this way for years now. Davis and the Pelicans are used to it, and neither he nor the team has budged much from their stated plan of sticking together.

But the super-max-extension window is around the corner with only the upcoming season in between. It’ll be a big one for determining whether everything in New Orleans is still on track.

Report: Jimmy Butler-Timberwolves meeting moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles

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Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau are meeting today, not necessarily for Butler to express his desire to leave the Timberwolves – but maybe!

This is a huge meeting with big ramifications for Minnesota and even across the league. Every detail is subject to inspection until we know more.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Butler, like many NBA players, spends his summers near Los Angeles. The meeting being held there could be for numerous potential reasons.

But it feels significant Thibodeau is coming to Butler’s turf rather than the other way around.

Without better options, Heat settle for sentimentality

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Dwyane Wade took discounts from the Heat for years, seemingly expecting a larger windfall down the road.

It won’t come.

But Wade and Miami will enjoy one last dance together.

Wade is re-signing with the Heat on a one-year minimum contract he said would be for his final season, concluding a nostalgic summer in Miami. The Heat also re-signed local legend Udonis Haslem to another one-year minimum deal.

I wouldn’t expect much from either player on the court. If anything, Wade might prove destructive if the the 36-year-old uses his cachet to assume a larger role than he should handle. Haslem has barely played the last couple years, and that probably won’t change.

Still, there’s something to be said for proper sendoffs. Considering the high standards Wade and Haslem helped set for the franchise by winning three championships, this was unlikely to be a banner year in Miami, anyway. There’s value in honoring Wade and Haslem one more time.

Mostly, the Heat acted like a solid, stuck team this summer – because that’s what they are. That probably contributed to them not rewarding Wade for his prior sacrifice.

Yet, Miami eclipsed the luxury-tax line to sign Wayne Ellington, a helpful cog, to a one-year, $6.27 million deal. The tax isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season, so there’s still plenty of time for the Heat to dodge it. In fact, I predict they will. But by at least temporarily exceeding the tax line, Miami gave itself its best chance of maintaining its level of play.

The Heat sure didn’t upgrade, though. They made no draft picks and didn’t touch their mid-level exception. Their only outside addition to receive a guaranteed salary was Derrick Jones Jr., who signed a minimum contract with a second year unguaranteed. The 21-year-old athlete is a worthwhile flier, but he sure isn’t a difference maker.

Neither are Wade and Haslem anymore – outside of our fond memories of the pair, and that counts for something. Just not enough to change Miami’s trajectory.

Offseason grade: C

Report: Jimmy Butler ‘isn’t dead set’ on demanding trade from Timberwolves

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Jimmy Butler says he’ll meet with the Timberwolves today – not yesterday, as initially reported.

The far bigger issue: What will happen in the meeting?

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

I’m told, though, that while Butler has serious questions about the direction of the franchise, he’s still willing to hear Minnesota out, and isn’t dead set on demanding a trade elsewhere.

Butler probably wouldn’t demand a trade. That gets players fined. Paul George laid out a far more likely roadmap last offseason: Butler could inform Minnesota he won’t re-sign next offseason. Left to their own devices, the Timberwolves would probably trade him.

But would it get to even that point? That’s the big question looming over the day. If Butler hasn’t yet made up his mind, that would give Tom Thibodeau a chance to convey a plan.

Of course, this isn’t entirely up to Butler, either. If Minnesota must choose between Butler and Karl-Anthony Townswho reportedly won’t sign his rookie-scale extension until the Butler situation is handled – Butler could get dealt regardless of what he wants.

So much could come to a head today, but apparently there isn’t an inevitable outcome. Is Butler leaning a certain way, though? “Isn’t dead set” on demanding a trade isn’t exactly a huge vote of confidence.