Paul Pierce wills Boston Celtics to victory, ties series with Atlanta Hawks

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The Atlanta Hawks looked like a solid basketball team for about 35 minutes of Tuesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics, the team in danger of falling behind 2-0 in the seven-game series when they were forced to play without their starting backcourt. The Celtics looked like they’d return to Boston in a hole after trailing by 11 points late in the third quarter, too, but  like he’s done quite a few times since first donning Boston Green way back in 1998, Paul Pierce decided it was time to take over.

Pierce looked excellent in the first quarter as he scored 13 of the team’s 24 points, but even that performance wasn’t enough foreshadowing to lead everyone to believe he’d take the game’s final stanza over quite like he would. By the time things were done, in fact, it almost seemed as though Pierce said, “No Ray Allen? No Rajon Rondo? No problem!” as he hoisted the Celtics on his back on the way to 36 points, 14 rebounds and an 87-80 victory to tie the series at one game apiece for prior to Friday night’s Game 3 back in Boston.

The veteran wing sat idly by as the Celtics ran the offense through Garnett. Pierce took over midway through the fourth quarter when he smelled blood (thanks to the Hawks going into a terrible isolation offense) and ferociously attacked. The team’s fourth-quarter catalyst scored seven of nine Celtics points midway through the fourth quarter to move the game from a 60-60 tie to a 71-65 lead — capped off with an ode to Tim Tebow for good measure — and Boston would hold off the Hawks the rest of the way.

Pierce’s game will no doubt be talked about most as the reason Boston was able to steal a game in Atlanta despite missing both Allen (due to injury) and Rondo (due to suspension), but it could just as easily be attributed to Atlanta losing focus after playing pretty well through the first two and a half quarters of basketball. It certainly didn’t help that Josh Smith headed back to the locker room late in the fourth quarter with what was later diagnosed as a sprained knee, but even before that happened, the Hawks’ offense looked awful.

Atlanta shot worse than 35 percent from the field and, while it’d be great to be able to say that was due to a defensive battle, the Hawks simply quit trying to execute on the offensive end as the game progressed. Jeff Teague attacked the rim with reckless abandon instead of finding the open man off the drive like he did earlier in the game, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith were unable to create off the dribble and didn’t have any cutters to pass the ball too before they threw up errant shots (the two missed 23 combined field goal attempts) while the rest of the Hawks simply aren’t built to score in the isolation offense head coach Larry Drew drew(?) up.

As far as the rest of the game was concerned, it was great to be able to focus on some of the role players while the key guys were out — once getting past the fact that Sasha Pavlovic, Ivan Johnson, Keyon Dooling and Willie Green are all playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs, anyway. Kirk Hinrich didn’t have an impressive box score with just eight points, but his impact was much greater as he was by far the headiest guard in action Tuesday night; D-League stalwart Ivan Johnson and Jason Collins were able to basically bottle up Kevin Garnett before Drew left Collins in too long and he picked up his sixth foul up early in the fourth quarter; and Avery Bradley, another player that spent a significant amount of his rookie season in the NBA Development League, showed solid moxie as he played more than 41 minutes while picking up three steals, three blocks and just a single turnover as the team’s starting point guard.

It’s tough to say that the second game of the series mattered immensely as far as the big picture of the series is concerned since it’s possible Smith will be out due to the knee injury, Allen and Zaza Pachulia will return from injury and Rondo will be back from his one-game suspension. That said, though, it’s pretty difficult to imagine the Hawks will be able to overcome Pierce if he plays like a man possessed once again on Friday night.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).