NBA Playoffs: Bulls bounce Hawks, will need more from Boozer vs. Heat

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Chicago’s Game 6 dominance was in no way a surprise. Though Atlanta has played effective basketball at various points during this series, games like this one fall in line with the initial assessments of the Bulls’ superiority.

The Hawks exceeded most projections of their playoff performance, but their postseason success didn’t change the fact that the Bulls were, and are still, the better team. Their defense is more reliable. Their offensive execution is more consistent, even if the end product is flawed. They had the best players in this series on both sides of the floor, the better bench, and the superior coach. The Bulls were going to win this series because, ultimately, they’re the Bulls. Call that oversimplified analysis if you will, but being the considerably superior outfit is typically enough to win a playoff series, even if Atlanta figured things out for a game or two and a half.

The Bulls we saw on Thursday night were the fully functioning model, geared to bother the hell out of the opponent’s offense and skilled in doing so. Atlanta posted an effective field-goal percentage of just 37.2 percent, a commendable mark even against an opponent known for their troublesome tendency to settle for contested jump shots. It’s common NBA rhetoric to say that an offense “got whatever looks it wanted,” but in this case, Chicago’s defense consistently forced Atlanta into whatever looks that it wanted. Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah dictated the outcome of this game with their ball pressure, and the Hawks’ 14.2 turnover rate only stands as further evidence of the Bulls’ ability to cause trouble on D.

Offensively, Chicago had it easy. That tends to be the case when Carlos Boozer is working to find open space and — even more importantly — actually hitting a shot or two. Boozer hasn’t had the most impressive playoff run thus far, but he’s absolutely essential to Chicago’s success going forward. Atlanta and Indiana put up a fight, but neither is even close to Miami in terms of two-way efficacy.

The Heat defense is going to test the Bulls’ offense in ways it hasn’t even seen this postseason, and Boozer will have to keep working and finishing if the Eastern Conference finals are to be anything other than the end of the line for the Bulls. It’s odd that Chicago’s second-best offensive player has become something of an X-factor in these playoffs (an impact player with the potential to come and go, but hardly stable), but that inconsistency has historically been a part of Boozer’s postseason game. Deng, Noah, and the Bulls reserves may be able to compensate for Boozer’s lack of production on his less effective nights, but performances of this ilk are what the Bulls will need almost every night out against the Heat.

Jeff Teague did an incredible job of taking over the point guard responsibilities for the Hawks on a moment’s notice, and in spite of the fact that coach Larry Drew had consistently chosen to keep Teague on the bench over the course of the regular season. His success came on a borrowed opportunity, but Teague’s scoring was brilliant and his playmaking promising. Atlanta doesn’t have much hope for internal improvement, but Teague does provide a lone bit of hope.

I won’t miss these Hawks, and you shouldn’t either. There won’t be some summer night where we collectively long for a Joe Johnson iso or a Josh Smith ill-advised 3-point attempt. This team was confounding and irritating, and it’s never pleasant to see skilled players conquered so often by their own vices.

We should all miss the Hawks of Games 1 and 4 though, that brilliantly talented and athletic club that would show up from time to time. They’re capable of running a prolific offense and a versatile defense, and harness the power of an interesting, dynamic group — from Johnson to Teague to Smith to Horford — in concert rather than as a solo performance from a self-ordained virtuoso.

Either way, we bid farewell to both the good Hawks and bad, and greet what’s sure to be a phenomenal Eastern Conference finals series with open arms.

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Report: Paul George reached out to Damian Lillard to clear the air

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NBA players talk a lot of smack. The Clippers’ Patrick Beverley is a constant stream of it.

Both Beverley and Paul George got into it with Damian Lillard in the Clippers recent win over the Trail Blazers (when Lillard missed some clutch free throws). That spilled over to Instagram after the game when Lillard called out George for switching teams so often.

However, it got nasty when family and friends got involved. George’s girlfriend Daniela Rajic and Lillard’s sister, La’nae, went at each other on social media — La’nae Lillard called Rajic a stripper, Rajic called La’Nae a cow.

All that prompted George to call Lillard and clear the air, Chris Haynes of TNT said during the Blazers broadcast Tuesday.

Lillard and George have a history that goes back to last playoffs and what Lillard did to that Thunder. That beef is still around.

Players are generally pretty good about leaving the game on the court, and while it spills over to social media now and again it’s just an extension of the game. Family members tend to throw gas on those fires. That happened here.

Lillard used all that fuel — he has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) since that Clippers’ game. In doing so, he pushed Portland to two wins and the eighth seed in the West.

Three Things to Know: What you need to know about race for West play-in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What you need to know about race for West play-in

Four teams were alive in the chase for the final playoff spot in the West when they got out of bed Tuesday morning — Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, and San Antonio — and four were still alive when they went to bed Tuesday night.

But things looked very different by the end of the day. Portland — by virtue of a 61-point game by Damian Lillard, and helped by a Memphis loss — was the eighth seed and the team everyone else was chasing. The eighth seed has a huge advantage in the play-in series that is coming (it only has to win one of two games, the nine seed must sweep them both), and Portland had taken that away from Memphis. Still, nothing was secure yet.

Here are the play-in scenarios for each team (all four teams play Thursday).

Portland: Beat Brooklyn and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. They control their own fate. If the Trail Blazers lose they only keep the eighth seed if everyone else loses. If Portland loses but two of the other three teams also lose, then the Blazers are the nine seed.

Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — who likely will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis regains the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose, they need both the Suns and Spurs to stay in the playoffs.

Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks to go 8-0 in the bubble, or they are out. And even going 8-0 may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eight, just one and they finish ninth).

San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and they are out. Even with a win San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is a longshot).

2) Damian Lillard ties career-high 61 to will Portland to critical win

Paul George and Patrick Beverley talked smack from the bench, and it made Damian Lillard mad. You wouldn’t like Lillard when he’s mad…

If you’re an opponent. For the rest of us, it’s pure basketball joy. In the two games since the Clippers ran their mouths in a win, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) and willing Portland to two wins and the eighth seed. On Tuesday, Lillard dropped 61 on Dallas.

You had better respect his f****** name and his game.

3) Devin Booker should be the bubble MVP, drops 35 to keep bubble Suns perfect

The NBA is giving out awards for the bubble — an NBA Player of the Seeding Games and NBA All-Seeding Games Team — and Devin Booker is going to pick up some hardware. Or should, at least.

The Suns remained perfect at 7-0 in the bubble on Tuesday beating what’s left of Philadelphia 130-117 behind 35 from Booker.

Booker has craved respect he feels he hasn’t gotten up to this point, mostly because the Suns’ teams he has been on are terrible (and the defensive issues of those teams fall partly on him, although there is much more at play as well). In the bubble, he has earned that respect.

Respect alone won’t get the Suns into the play-in series, another win won’t even do that (as noted above, the Suns still need help even with a win). But the respect is there, and that is something.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.