NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

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After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis has 20 and 11, leads Pacers past Blazers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Domantas Sabonis had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Indiana Pacers to a 106-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Malcolm Brogdon had 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds while T.J. Warren and Victor Oladipo scored 15 points each for the Pacers, who have four of their last five.

CJ McCollum had 28 points and eight assists, Gary Trent Jr. had 20 points, and five rebounds, and Hassan Whiteside had 18 points and 16 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who have lost five of six.

The Pacers were able to hold off the Blazers’ late push.

After Brogdon made a jumper to give Indiana a 103-93 lead with 1:54 remaining, Portland went on a 7-0 run. McCollum’s floater made it 103-100 with 30 seconds to go.

Myles Turner drilled a 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to seal it.

The Trail Blazers went on a 10-1 run late in the first half to push ahead.

McCollum made a 3-pointer to give Portland a 42-40 lead with 3:13 to go in the second quarter. After a free throw by Oladipo, McCollum made another three and then a fadeaway to put the Trail Blazers in front 47-41.

Portland led 49-43 at halftime.

Report: Magic and Pistons talked trading for Nets Spencer Dinwiddie

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Leading up to the NBA trade deadline, at least two NBA teams talked about making a trade for Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. SNY’s Ian Begley reports that the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic had internal discussions about trading for Dinwiddie.

Dinwiddie started his NBA career with Detroit before being traded to the Chicago Bulls. After being waived following his only training camp with the Bulls, Dinwiddie signed later that season with the Nets.

That signing has proven to be one of the best finds of Sean Marks’ diamond mining process in Brooklyn. With the Nets, Dinwiddie has become a key rotation player. Last December, Brooklyn inked Dinwiddie to a three-year contract extension that started with this season.

This past summer, Dinwiddie was a key part of the recruiting process to bring free agent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn. Dinwiddie did that recruiting even though the addition of Irving cost him a spot in starting lineup.

Oddly enough, it’s the presence of Irving on the roster that could lead Marks to consider trading Dinwiddie. With Irving, Durant and Caris LeVert, that’s three players who need the ball a lot. And there is a lot of overlap in position there as well. With a hole at power forward, Begley posited that a Dinwiddie for Aaron Gordon swap might make sense for both Brooklyn and Orlando.

While no trade agreement was reached prior to the deadline, it’s possible that either Detroit (who projects to have $34 million in cap space this summer and needs to add talent) or Orlando (who needs offensive creators) could engage Brooklyn in trade talks this summer. It’s much easier to make a deal that involves big salaries in the summer when teams have more roster flexibility.

Report: Joel Embiid out at least one week with shoulder sprain

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NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters reports that Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid will be out at least one week due to a sprained left shoulder.

Embiid underwent further evaluations Thursday after being injured the previous night in a game at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those evaluations showed no structural damage. Embiid will be re-evaluated in one week.

That timeline makes it likely that Embiid will miss the entirety of the Sixers upcoming west coast trip, including games against both Los Angeles teams. Embiid’s absence, combined with that of Ben Simmons, will make it hard for Philadelphia to improve upon their woeful 9-21 road record.

With Simmons out due to an impingement in his back, and Embiid joining him on the sidelines, the 76ers have returned Al Horford to the starting lineup. Horford started with regulars Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, and fill-ins Glenn Robinson III and Shake Milton in Philadelphia’s home victory over New York on Thursday. That group is likely to continue to open games for Brett Brown until he gets his All-Star duo back in the lineup.

Report: Clippers would like to re-sign Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris as free agents

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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The Los Angeles Clippers will have to focus on building their roster around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George moving forward. They locked up several role players to long-term contracts over the summer, but face two critical free agent situations this offseason with Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris. Jovan Buha of The Athletic reports that the Clippers would like to re-sign both players.

Harrell has blossomed into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate while with the Clippers, and will be one of the better big men on the market this summer. Only six to seven teams project to have cap space this summer, but all of them have a need for a player like Harrell. That means LA will likely need to pony up this summer to keep their reserve big man.

The Clippers likely face the same sort of situation with Morris. They acquired him at the trade deadline and gave up a first-round pick to do so. With several picks and swap rights pending to the Oklahoma City Thunder from the Paul George trade last summer, that was a heavy price for Los Angeles to pay.

With the team capped out and lacking draft picks moving forward, LA has little ability to replace either Harrell or Morris if they leave. On the other hand, it could push the Clippers deep into the luxury tax if they retain both Harrell and Morris. Steve Ballmer has the deepest pockets in the NBA, but every owner has their limits. In the end, everything might come down to just how the Clippers season ends. Winning a title, or at least making the NBA Finals, would make it a lot easier to pay to keep the team together.