With Josh Smith out due to injury, Hawks need someone to step up in Game 3 against Celtics

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The Boston Celtics picked up a solid victory without Rajon Rondo in the lineup earlier this week in Atlanta, evening their series against the Hawks at one game apiece. One has to wonder, then, what might happen on Friday night now that momentum is in the favor of the Celtics, the game will be in Boston and Atlanta standout Josh Smith is a game-time decision due to a knee injury (Update: Adrian Wojnarowski reports that he’s out).

Suffice it to say, the Hawks will have their hands full when the game tips off in the Garden at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — and that’s before delving in to whether they’re able to stop the machine that was Paul Pierce in Game 2 of the seven-game series.

Pierce was tremendous earlier this week while evening the series, scoring 36 points and grabbing 12 rebounds as he jumped into the driver’s seat while Rondo served his one-game suspension. “The Truth” shouldn’t need to shoulder quite as much of the load on Friday night, though, considering Rondo will be back in the lineup and the early offense will likely be sent through Kevin Garnett if Smith is out (or even plays at less than 100 percent, for that matter).

In all likelihood, then, it would seem the wildcard for Game 3 will be what the Hawks opt to do in the absence of “Smoove” Smith. Their most-likely option is bringing Marvin Williams off the bench —  or maybe even Tracy McGrady considering he’s looked good in limited minutes this series — but it might not hurt to go (relatively) big by inserting NBA Development League stalwart Ivan Johnson into the starting lineup. It would hurt the size in the second unit, but considering Greg Stiemsma isn’t often an offensive force for the Celtics, that might not be a problem as long as Johnson and Jason Collins are able to stay out of foul trouble.

The positives of bringing the bruising Johnson into the fold as a starter are that he’d be able to set an early precedent that easy baskets aren’t going to be an option considered he and Collins have already nearly negated Garnett’s impact on the series. Johnson also matches up well with Brandon Bass and, though he doesn’t exactly bring a lot to the table on the offensive end (save for this, of course), the Hawks offense has been predicated on isolation looks anyway in the first two games of the series. At least with Johnson in the starting lineup, Atlanta would have an advantage as far as rebounds are concerned while leaving a couple of solid scoring options available for a burst off the bench.

As far as the rest of the game is concerned, it’ll be up to the Hawks to keep their offense moving — not just in the wake of what might be the loss of Smith, but also due to a stagnation that has occurred for some reason quite a but during the second half this season (and reared its ugly head more than normal in Game 2, too). Starting guard Joe Johnson addressed that concern during media availability with the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this week.

“In the first two, three quarters we are probably at our best running and getting up down the floor. Then in that fourth, for whatever reason–fatigue maybe—we just get a little stagnant and our offense just doesn’t flow as much. That is something we will look at on tape and try to make adjustments, and I am sure we will do better.”

The Celtics don’t have nearly as many things to worry about considering they’re back on their homecourt, they have their starting point guard back and have seemed to do just fine with Avery Bradley getting more minutes while veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen recovers from injury. It certainly isn’t ideal to be missing a starter, but when considering the Hawks are without their best three big men — Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia — it’s not all that bad when put into perspective.

There’s still a lot of time left in the series, but Game 3 seems awfully important for Atlanta. If they’re able to replace Smith’s production and pick up a win in Boston, all will be well … if they’re unable to do what the Celtics did in Game 2, though, it seems like it’ll be tough for the Hawks to make up lost ground.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.