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.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.