PBT First-Round Playoff Previews: Brooklyn Nets vs. Atlanta Hawks

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SEASON RECORDS

Nets: 38-44 (8th place in Eastern Conference)
Hawks: 60-22 (1st place in Eastern Conference)
Atlanta won the regular season series 4-0.

KEY INJURIES

Hawks: Atlanta’s Thabo Sefolosha is out for the season with a leg fracture suffered during an incident with police.

Though he only averaged 18.8 minutes per contest and recently missed 23 games with a calf injury, his defensive presence was of immense help to the bench unit, and the team suffered there in his absence.

Nets: There’s an outside chance that Mirza Teletovic may be back, after being ruled out for the season back in January. The team announced he has been cleared to resume basketball-related activities, and he practiced on Friday. But he will be continued to be listed as OUT for now. Alan Anderson, who missed the last seven games with an ankle injury, also practiced.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS

Nets: 101.9 points scored per 100 possessions (18th in NBA); 105.0 points allowed per 100 possessions (24th in NBA).
Hawks: 106.2 points scored per 100 possessions (T-6th in NBA); 100.7 points allowed per 100 possessions (7th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

Can the Hawks regain their early-season dominance: Atlanta crushed all comers in the first half of the season, rattling off a 19-game winning streak at one point, and winning 40 of their first 48 games — outpacing even the Warriors in the process. But the second half of the season wasn’t as easy. Sefolosha missed a total of 30 games, and the Hawks went just 17-13 in those contests. Whether it was due to losing their key defensive reserve, coasting to the regular season finish line, or no longer being able to surprise the opposition, Atlanta needs to find a way to get back to playing the elite level of basketball the team showcased for much of the season, and if they can, the Nets won’t be the only team that will have a ton of trouble in stopping them.

Nets must keep games close: In three of the four losses to the Hawks this season, Brooklyn was blown out by 17, 11 and 32 points. They lost the final one by just three, but Paul Millsap didn’t play, and the Nets entered the fourth period trailing by 12 points. (And, that was the day after the aforementioned police incident, so Sefolosha and Pero Antic didn’t play, either.) Brooklyn’s best chance to hang is to make the open shots when they come (which hasn’t happened lately), and to stay at home defensively, because they’re not athletic enough from a team-wide standpoint to help and recover before the Hawks zip the ball around to find the open shooters. The Nets can’t let huge deficits become the norm in this series, because they simply don’t have the offensive firepower to get out in transition and answer with huge runs of their own. Stay close and, well, at least there’s a chance.

Don’t leave Kyle Korver: In the four games between the teams during the regular season Korver is shooting 61.9 percent from three-point distance. The Nets can’t leave him to double-team someone else, and they shouldn’t send help, either, because that’s when the Hawks’ offense is at its best.

PREDICTION

We saw what the Nets look like when a team uses expert dribble penetration to set up its offense, and moves the ball well to create open shots. The Bulls shredded Brooklyn by doing exactly that just a few days ago, and the Hawks have shown that they can employ that strategy even better, and have done so consistently on a season-long basis. The Nets don’t have any advantages over this Hawks team, and Lionel Hollins knows it. I trust that he knows his team better than I do.

Hawks sweep it in 4 games.

Kawhi Leonard tries to downplay leg issue, “I’m good”

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Toronto won a gritty Game 3 at home — and are back in the Eastern Conference Finals — because of Kawhi Leonard.

From the opening tip, he was the man guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (although in a game with a lot of switching plenty of others also got their shot). It was the biggest adjustment Toronto coach Nick Nurse made — and it worked. Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 16 shots in the game and, according to ESPN’s tracking, was 1-of-9 when guarded by Leonard. On the other end, Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, and played 52 critical minutes. He was the MVP of Game 3.

And he did it all through a noticeable limp.

He landed awkwardly on a first-quarter layup and all game this clearly limited his mobility.

When asked about it after the game, Leonard shrugged it off.

For much of the season, whenever Leonard was mentioned so was with the phrase “load management.” He had missed all but nine games the season before with quadriceps tendinopathy — the treatment for that, and whether it was a muscular injury or not, was at the heart of Leonard’s discord with San Antonio — and in Toronto he missed 22 games in the regular season to help keep that issue at bay.

That may not be related to what is bothering him now, but the Raptors and Leonard had gone to great lengths to get him rest during the regular season so he would be ready for the playoffs. He has responded, being the best player in the East through the postseason so far. That includes hitting the game-winner to send Philadelphia home, then on Sunday keeping Toronto alive against the Bucks by force of will. But he has played a heavy load of minutes — physical, playoff minutes — to get there.

Will that slow Leonard Tuesday night in Game 4?

It can’t if they want to even this series. Milwaukee will play better in Game 4, keeping Antetokounmpo bottled up may be near impossible, and other Bucks had off-games as well (they shot 37.3 percent as a team in Game 3). Toronto will have to play better to keep pace. Marc Gasol will need to continue taking and hitting the threes (shots the Bucks dared him to take in the first two games), Pascal Siakam will have to have another big game, as will the Raptors’ bench.

But mostly, Leonard needs to be the best player on the floor again, the guy doing this:

If not, Toronto’s season will be on the brink.

After coaching search, Minnesota reportedly settles on owner-favorite Ryan Saunders for job

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“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]… I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

That was Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on his interim coach, Ryan Saunders, a statement made with about 20 games to go in the season. The Timberwolves reportedly negotiated the outline of a contract with Saunders, but when Gersson Rosas was brought in as team president, he was given the freedom to run a full coaching search.

He has settled on the guy the owner wanted, a story broken by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Rosas interviewed other candidates and ran a legitimate job search for the position, but it seems the smart political move for the guy new on the job to hire the guy the owner wanted, and the guy the star player bonded with.

That’s not to say Saunders is a poor choice, he earned this chance. Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler‘s sabotaging of the team’s season led to coach/GM Tom Thibodeau being shown the door. Saunders quickly developed a strong relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, who played much better under Saunders the second half of the season. There were other signs Saunders was up to the task and would be a good hire, not just a prudent one.

Now it appears Saunders has the job.

The real task for Rosas is to give Saunders a team that can live up to Towns’ potential. It will not be easy with a capped out roster and some anchor contracts (Andrew Wiggins).

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.