Hawks start hot, finish cold, Wizards take Game 1 on road 104-98.

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The Atlanta Hawks scored 37 points on 64 percent shooting in the first quarter.

The Atlanta Hawks scored 35 points on 25 percent shooting in the second half.

Spin that as an improved Wizards defense or the Hawks just missing good looks (reality is it was a mix of both), it doesn’t matter. The Wizards seemed to shake off the rust from their one-week layoff in the second half, slow the pace and change the game.  The Wiz hit the shots the Hawks defense gave them — John Wall and Bradley Beal combined for 46 points and 14 assists — and Washington stormed back.

The Wizards picked up a 104-98 win on the road, taking a 1-0 lead over the No. 1 seed in the East. Game 2 is Tuesday night in the ATL.

This is the fourth straight series the Wizards have won Game 1 on the road, an NBA record.

“Last year, like I think I told you guys, we were just happy to be in the playoffs, we were happy to move on, and we didn’t really have any high goals after the first round,” Beal said postgame. “But this year we expect more of ourselves, we expect to get past the second round, we have that same same desperation we had in the previous round.”

“I think they made more plays in the second half than we did,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said, putting it mildly. “I think defensively we just had a couple lags, a couple of lulls, that allowed them to get back in it and get a little separation. Offensively I think we’ve got to be more aggressive, we’ve got to get to the paint, attack more, and continue to move the ball, but I think that’s got to start with us being more aggressive getting to the paint.”

Atlanta was aggressive early. The Hawks of January — the team that went undefeated for a month and showed spectacular ball movement — had been largely absent through the end of the season and into the first round of the playoffs, but they showed up for the start of Game 1.

Atlanta came out moving the ball and hitting shots, going on a 9-0 run at one point and a 17-6 run in another both in the first quarter. The Wizards couldn’t keep up and trailed 37-26 after one. Then in the second quarter Dennis Schroeder used his speed to carve up the Wizards defense at the start while DeMare Carroll was knocking down threes and had 21 points in the first half.

Hawks lead comfortably 63-53 at the half, racking up an offensive rating of 131 points per 100 possessions in the first 24.

But this game was a tale of two halfs.

Washington tightened up its defense and cut off that penetration but even when the Hawks got the ball inside they didn’t finish. Plus the Wizards contested the arc better. Some of it was just the Hawks missing shots. In the first half, the Hawks were 13-of-18 inside eight feet and 9-of-17 from three. In the second half, the Hawks were 7-of-19 inside eight feet and 4-of-21 from three.

“I think the majority of the second half (we settled too much for jump shots)” Budenholzer said. “The thing you always have to be careful with, I thought we had some good looks, but I think we’ll get better looks, more consistent scoring if we’re more aggressive driving it.”

The Wizards played through injuries beautifully. John Wall injured his wrist on a hard fall in the second quarter but never left the game. Bradley Beal rolled his ankle and had to go back to the locker room in the second but returned to the game — noticeably hobbled and slower, but he returned.

Paul Pierce was his usual self in the playoffs, putting up 19 points and hitting 5-of-8 shots when contested (according to the Sports VU cameras). The Wizards also got strong bench play. Postgame Wizards coach Randy Whittman singled out Drew Gooden (12 points) and Otto Porter (10) for their contributions.

The Hawks did not — their starting lineup was +10 in 18 minutes of action, but that means when bench players were on the floor the Hawks were -16. Budenholzer got away with it against the Nets, but he might need to tighten his rotation now.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.