NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Hawks: 40-26 (No. 4 seed)
Celtics: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Boston won the first two games of a three-game regular season series by a total of five points. The Hawks’ victory came when the most was on the line, however, as Atlanta upended a short-handed Celtics team last Friday to give themselves a lead for the East’s No. 4 seed that they’d never relinquish.

KEY INJURIES
Hawks: Al Horford played just 11 games for Atlanta this season since suffering a torn pectoral muscle in early January. There was some speculation that he might be able to play against the Celtics, but the latest reports say that he’s definitely going to miss the first round … Fellow big man Zaza Pachulia is day-to-day with a sprained left foot, but he’ll likely be available to start the series against the Celtics.
Celtics: The Celtics took the last few games of the regular season to heal up, costing themselves homecourt advantage while trying to ensure they’d be healthy against Atlanta. It worked for the most part, too, considering Ray Allen is the only player expected to be listed on the injury report when the season starts Sunday, and even then he’ll be listed as “probable” due to a right ankle injury.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Hawks: Off. 104.9 (16th in NBA); Def. 101.2 (6th in NBA)
Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)

THREE KEY HAWKS:

Joe Johnson: It’s incredibly difficult to believe that Johnson won’t be a huge part of this series considering he’ll likely be counted on to shoulder the majority of the scoring load for Atlanta throughout the playoffs. The swingman went through a bit of a slump through the first few weeks of April, but ended the season on a high note — and, for the history buffs among us, Johnson began his NBA career as a member of the Celtics in 2001 before being traded midseason for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers (whoops!).

Josh Smith: The enigmatic forward hasn’t made a lot of fans over his career due to a lot of people focusing on what he doesn’t do well on the basketball court. When one pays attention to what Smith does do well, however, they see that he’s a solid defender, a good rebounder (when he concentrates on that part of the game, of course) and is actually passing the ball better than every other big when looking at his 20.6 percent assist rate.

Jeff Teague: The quick-footed point guard broke out around this time last year when he was inserted into the starting lineup against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls during the second round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Teague will need to step his game up in the postseason again this year, too, as his matchup against Rajon Rondo could easily be the deciding factor if he’s unable to step up in the playoffs once again.

THREE KEY CELTICS

Rajon Rondo: It was almost a given this season that when the Celtics were on national television, their point guard was going to have a magnificent game. The Celtics-Hawks series will be nationally broadcast in its entirety, however, meaning Rondo will be counted on to carry quite a bit of the load — if not scoring, certainly distributing — while trying to move his team to the second round as injury-free as possible.

Kevin Garnett: The Celtics struggled early this season, but things seemed to undergo a huge change when head coach Doc Rivers decided to move Garnett to the center position. He might not be as good as he once was, but considering the Hawks have had dealt with massive center issues, he should have at least one more series in which he’s able to showcase his game-changing talent.

Paul Pierce: Way to go out on a limb and pick the three healthy Celtics starters as the three Boston players key to the first round, our lovely readers are probably saying upon seeing Pierce’s name in this slot. The longtime Celtic will certainly be important for Boston’s chances in the first round, however, as the Celtics could use some scoring until Ray Allen returns to full health.

OUTLOOK

This series probably isn’t the sexiest of the eight matchups in the first round of the postseason, but it should be one of the best. The veteran-laden Celtics are likely making one of their last runs in the postseason and, fortunately for them, they got better as the season rolled on. The Hawks are trying to get a monkey off of their back this year, too, considering they enter the playoffs with the memory of losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals the last three years. With both teams likely playing with a sense of urgency, it’ll be interesting to watch whether the Celtics are able to excel after starting the series on the road.

PREDICTION

These games could easily be very boring considering two of their three meetings during the regular season resulted in the winner scoring less than 90 points. Low-scoring basketball could also mean playoff-physical basketball, though, and both teams have two former D-League call-ups capable of delivering in those types of circumstances (say hello, Ivan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma). Hopefully it isn’t ugly basketball filled with missed perimeter jumpers, but it wouldn’t be so bad to see a sort of throwback game when the series starts on Sunday night.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, the veteran savvy of the Celtics should prove to be key.

Celtics in 6.

Joel Embiid misses out on about $29 million by making just All-NBA second team

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury could cost him in free agency.

It might have already cost Joel Embiid.

The 76ers center made just the All-NBA second team, landing behind the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis. Davis surged after Cousins went down, earning overall credit from All-NBA voters, who were also increasingly likely to view him as a center rather than just a forward.

As a result, Davis made the All-NBA first team at center – costing Embiid about $29 million over the next five years.

Embiid’s contract extension, which kicks in next season, calls for his starting salary to be 25% of the salary cap (the typical max for a player with his experience level). If he made the All-NBA first team, his starting salary would have been 30% of the salary cap .

Though the exact cap won’t be determined until July, here’s what Embiid is projected to earn on his standard max and what he could’ve earned on the super max (with 8% raises in both cases):

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Obviously Embiid will still earn a lot of money, and he and Philadelphia have a bright future.

But it’s hard not to think, if Cousins didn’t get hurt, Embiid would be even richer.

At least the 76ers have more cap space to pursue their big goals.

Rockets to wear patches to honor Santa Fe shooting victims

Houston Rockets
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HOUSTON (AP)–  The Houston Rockets will wear patches on their jerseys to honor the victims of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

The patches will read: “Santa Fe HS.” It’s one of several tributes the team plans following Friday’s shooting. Eight students and two teachers died at the school, located 30 miles from downtown Houston.

The school’s high school choir will perform the national anthem. There will be a moment of silence and a video tribute before tipoff.

Santa Fe’s senior class and administrators have been invited to attend the game as guests of owner Tilman Fertitta. The Rockets also will honor first responders on the court.

Proceeds from Thursday night’s charity raffle will go to the Santa Fe Strong Memorial Fund.

Rockets went all-in for Game 4. How much do they have left in tank for Game 5?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Despite trailing 2-1 as the top seed in the Western Conference finals in a season his star deemed “the year,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni claimed all the pressure was on Warriors in Game 4.

Of course, nobody believed D’Antoni.

D’Antoni didn’t even believe himself.

He played P.J. Tucker 44 minutes, James Harden 43 minutes, Chris Paul 42 minutes and Trevor Ariza 41 minutes in Houston’s win. That was the first time four teammates played 40 minutes in regulation of a non-elimination playoff game in a half decade.*

*The Pacers gave 40 minutes to Paul George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson in Game 6 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. After that win, Indiana lost to the Heat in Game 7. Since, only the Warriors – who used Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference finals against the Thunder – have played just seven players in a playoff game.

D’Antoni’s rotation revealed his desperation to win Game 4. And who could blame him? A 3-1 deficit to this mighty Golden State squad would have been nearly insurmountable.

Not only did D’Antoni lean heavily on his top players, he didn’t even spread around the remaining minutes. Just seven Rockets played in Game 4 – Tucker, Harden, Paul, Ariza, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and Gerald Green.

How fatigued will those players be in Game 5 tonight?

In the last 20 years, teams have used just seven players in a playoff game 28 times. In their following game, those teams went 10-15. (Two were eliminated.)

Here are the full results:

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Teams have used so few players just twice in the previous decade, but the super-shortened rotation was once a D’Antoni specialty. The practice only waned while he was mostly missing the playoffs with the Knicks and Lakers. In fact, 14 of the last 18 times a team used just seven players in a playoff game, D’Antoni did it.

The most recent previous example came in Game 5 of last year’s Rockets-Spurs second-round series. Houston lost by 39 and got eliminated in the next game – which became known for Harden running out of gas.

Will the result be different this time?

The Warriors have their own physical-readiness issues. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are banged up. Golden State coach Steve Kerr should probably tighten his rotation, especially removing Nick Young. It’s not as if the Warriors gave up on Game 4, either. Draymond Green played 45 minutes, Kevin Durant 43, Klay Thompson 39 and Curry 39.

These conference finals are shaping up to be a great battle. It might be one of attrition.

Carmelo Anthony responds four times to Instagram post calling Kyle Korver better: ‘FOH’

AP Photo/David Goldman
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Carmelo Anthony was the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He had just led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman, and some fans and media advocating taking him No. 1 overall ahead of LeBron James (and Darko Milicic).

Korver was the No. 51 pick in the same draft. He looked like this:

Fifteen years later, Anthony and Korver are still in the league. Korver is helping the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, and Anthony and the Thunder already got eliminated. That sparked an Instagram post that clearly irked Anthony:

Anthony has had a better career than Korver. But who’s better right now? It depends on the terms of the debate.

Anthony is still a more-skilled all-around offensive player. (Neither gains credit for their defense.) Anthony can create in ways Korver just can’t.

But any team running its offense through Anthony now is asking for a bad time. Even if that’s that the best style for maximizing him individually, he’s no longer good enough to justify having the ball that much.

Korver is a far superior complementary player. He’s an elite 3-point shooter who moves well off the ball. Anthony struggles in that role.

In a hypothetical game between Anthony plus four average players and Korver plus four average players, I’d lean toward Anthony’s squad. But an actual NBA team capable of winning needs players better than both, and at that point, I’d rather have Korver.