ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Until Al Horford went down in December, the Hawks looked like the only Eastern Conference team not named the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers that wasn’t a complete joke. Even after Horford underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn right pectoral muscle, they were able to make the playoffs and give the top-seeded Pacers a serious scare in the first round. A lot of that credit goes to the offensive scheme installed by first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. Newcomers Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll thrived in Bud’s spacing-heavy system alongside Kyle Korver, and even the toughest defense in the league found it a nightmare to figure out.

Signature highlight from last season: Korver, who has been one of the deadliest long-range shooters in the NBA for a decade, broke Dana Barros’ long-standing record of 89 consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer. Korver’s streak didn’t end until it reached 127.

Key player changes: The Hawks mostly filled in around the edges, leaving their core as-is but swapping out some role players. They drafted power forward Adreian Payne and signed former Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha to bolster their perimeter defense. Backup point guard Lou Williams was traded to the Raptors, replaced by Kent Bazemore.

Much more pressing, of course, was the scandal that broke last month. Majority owner Bruce Levenson copped to sending a racially insensitive email about fans attending Hawks games, and agreed to sell his stake in the team. Then, details of even more racially insensitive remarks made by GM Danny Ferry about free-agent forward Luol Deng during a scouting meeting surfaced, kicking off a firestorm that resulted in Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence.

Keys to the Hawks’ season:

How much of a distraction will the off-the-court mess be to players? The Hawks enter the season with Budenholzer overseeing basketball operations during Ferry’s leave, and ownership in limbo. Even though the roster and coach are relatively stable, situations like this can weigh on teams — just look at the Clippers in the weeks immediately following this spring’s Donald Sterling revelations. They’re going to have to answer questions about it, and at some point a new ownership group will come into play. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but hopefully the players and Budenholzer will be able to tune out the drama and focus on basketball.

Will Horford stay healthy? The Hawks’ 39-43 record last season doesn’t look great on its own, but they played much of the year without their two-time All-Star center. When Horford went down on December 26, the Hawks were 16-13. Over the rest of the season, they went 23-30. Horford has had two season-ending injuries over the last three years, but he’s been largely durable throughout his career and he’s only 28. Budenholzer implemented the five-out lineup after his injury, and although it took some time to get it in place, it was extremely effective by the time the playoffs came around. Horford isn’t an outside shooter, but he’s a skilled defender who gives the Hawks the kind of weapon on both sides of the ball they didn’t have without him.

Is Jeff Teague the long-term answer at point guard? The Hawks let Teague test restricted free agency last summer. He ultimately signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks, which Atlanta immediately matched. He had a solid year, but there’s been nothing to indicate the Hawks view him as a foundational piece, or that they wouldn’t be open to trading him. They’re very high on second-year point guard Dennis Schröder, who didn’t play much in his rookie season but should get more opportunities this year. There’s a chance he could take some of Teague’s minutes if he blossoms and make the five-year veteran expendable.

Why you should watch: The Hawks have one of the prettiest offenses in the NBA, a ball-movement-heavy machine adapted from Budenholzer’s time with the Spurs. They’ll hit a ton of three-pointers, and a healthy Horford is extremely fun to watch.

Prediction: 48-34. Provided Horford stays healthy, the Hawks are in a position to compete for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Horford’s return and the addition of Sefolosha will strengthen Atlanta’s defense, while their offensive scheme remains extremely tough for opposing defenses to figure out.

LeBron James scores season-high 40, leads Lakers past Zion Williamson, Pelicans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James had 40 points and eight rebounds in his first career meeting with Zion Williamson while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, 118-109 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds to remain unbeaten in his three meetings with his former team this season.

In the Lakers’ first game after an emotional memorial service for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Monday, James opened up a close contest with back-to-back buckets at the rim with about three minutes left. Danny Green sealed it for Los Angeles with his fifth 3-pointer with 51 seconds to play.

Williamson had 29 points and six rebounds in his first career showdown with James and Davis, his predecessor as the Pelicans’ centerpiece. In his 13th NBA game, Williamson scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, but managed only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Ingram had 34 points against his former team, but just six in the final period as New Orleans lost for only the second time in seven games.

Williamson was still injured for the Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season with the Lakers, but the No. 1 overall pick’s delayed debut in Hollywood was as entertaining as everyone hoped. Williamson had several impressive dunks in his usual fearsome floor game, and only six missed free throws kept him from surpassing his career high of 32 points.

Davis is the leading scorer and rebounder in New Orleans franchise history, making six All-Star teams during his tenure. He went just 6 for 21 from the field in this meeting, failing to score 40 points against the Pelicans for the first time.

Lonzo Ball had 10 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and Josh Hart scored three points in their second return to face the Lakers, who traded them to New Orleans along with Ingram last July for Davis.

The Pelicans also got three first-round draft picks in their princely haul for Davis, who had requested a trade. Davis has been just as good as the Lakers hoped in propelling them back to NBA championship contention, while the Pelicans are getting an All-Star season from Ingram alongside Williamson in an increasingly potent core.

James scored 11 points in less than two minutes early in the third quarter to stretch the Lakers’ lead to 14 points, but Ingram scored 10 in the period to keep it close.

Alex Caruso provided the Lakers with his usual injection of energy in the fourth quarter, particularly with a stunning block of Ball’s shot at the rim that left Ball flat on his back. Caruso finished with eight points and eight assists.

Best in the East by far, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Bucks past Raptors 108-97

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 22 points and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night in a matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Eric Bledsoe scored 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20. Milwaukee (50-8) was playing the second game of a back-to-back after winning in overtime at Washington Monday.

Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double.

Behind by 12 points late in the second quarter, the Bucks rallied to beat the Raptors in their first game in Toronto since losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last May, completing a disappointing collapse after winning the first two games of that series at home.

The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.

Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.

It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.

Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.

Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.

VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.

Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.

Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.

After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.

Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.

OG Anunoby dunks and Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t stop it (VIDEO)

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Pascal Siakam has gotten the lion share of accolades for making a leap with his game this season in Toronto. Deservedly so.

More quietly, OG Anunoby has made a leap as well, continuing his trajectory as an athletic wing, and this season he is attacking the rim with a fury. That includes dunking hard — and not even Giannis Antetokounmpo can stop it.

I have an issue with the comment here: He did not dunk on the Greek Freak. It’s not like Antetokounmpo was camped out in the paint and Anunoby went at and over him. Watch Antetokounmpo, he is at the top of the key when he sees Anunoby going to the rim and he makes a run to try and get the block — 99 percent of players watch that play and admire the dunk. Antetokounmpo made a colossal effort and just fell short. He wasn’t worried about ending up in a poster; he tried to make a play.

This is why Antetokounmpo gets some Defensive Player of the Year love — that hustle sparks the Bucks’ defense (best in the NBA this season, by a wide margin).

And on other plays it leads to this.

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.