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Slumping Hawks facing tough week against Celtics, Cavaliers

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ATLANTA (AP) — The playoffs are no longer a certainty for the struggling Atlanta Hawks, whose immediate concern has shifted from postseason seeding to not being pushed out the door.

And after losing nine of their last 11, the challenge just got more difficult.

The Hawks, who have slipped to sixth in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoff standings, will play three games in four days against the conference’s top two teams. They play Boston at home on Thursday night before two games against Cleveland.

It’s a critical stretch for a team that is only one game ahead of seventh-place Chicago and two games ahead of Miami and Indiana, who are tied for eighth.

“Maybe this will be the fight that we have to put up to really get us going,” guard Kent Bazemore said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got some very tough teams left, some very good opponents.”

All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed seven straight games with left knee synovitis before playing a reserve role in a 91-82 loss at the Nets on Sunday.

Coach Mike Budenholzer said Millsap “was OK, not great” against Brooklyn and had a good practice on Tuesday. Millsap said he hopes to play his normal starting role against the Celtics.

Two recent losses to Brooklyn, which has the worst record in the NBA, are not the confidence-boosting games needed for a team now preparing to face the East’s best teams.

“I think for our confidence and for our morale, we have to get these wins,” Millsap said. “We have to get out there and compete, because when we do get to the playoffs we have to be playing pretty good basketball. This is a pretty good test for us. Hopefully we just rise to the occasion.”

Millsap said the playoffs begin now for Atlanta.

“I think we’ve got to see it like that,” Millsap said. “I think we’ve got to prepare ourselves as such.”

After the back-to-back games against Cleveland on Friday and Sunday, the Hawks close the regular season with games against Charlotte and Indiana next week.

Atlanta was without three starters – Millsap, Bazemore (right knee bruise) and Thabo Sefolosha (right groin strain) for a few games. Bazemore has returned but Sefolosha may not play against Boston.

Much is on the line for Budenholzer, who as president of basketball operations made such offseason decisions as giving Bazemore a $70 million deal for four years and center Dwight Howard a three-year contract worth $70.5 million.

“This is the most enthused I’ve seen him in a long, long time,” Bazemore said of the coach. “He wants it just as much as we do. … When you see him get that rage in his eyes, it does something for you.”

Millsap smiled when told of the description of Budenholzer’s “rage” and said “I’ve seen love. It just all depends on how you look at it.”

Budenholzer was amused by his players’ differing insights into his demeanor and said: “It’s way more love. It’s a passion of love.”

The coach said he has “a great group of guys” – even if the ill-timed slump has added unwelcome drama to the close of the regular season.

“I think we were making progress in this past week and then I think Sunday was a little bit of a step back,” he said. “We want to always be making steps forward and making progress.”

Danny Ainge unwittingly leaks Celtics’ draft pick on call with Terry Rozier during live show (video)

AP Photo/Bob Leverone
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Terry Rozier takes solace in how much Danny Ainge believes in him.

But I didn’t appreciate how deep their bond went.

Appearing on Bleacher Report’s live draft show, Rozier was asked to predict the Celtics’ No. 27 pick. So, Rozier called Ainge to ask. Shockingly, Ainge answered – with Boston on the clock. Almost certainly not knowing the call was public and live, Ainge revealed the likely selection:

Good thing the Celtics stuck with Robert Williams. That would have been extremely awkward otherwise.

As is, it was only a little awkward. Williams said today he doesn’t like to be called Bob.

Report: Rival teams expect Paul George to consider 1+1 contract with Thunder

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Paul George has openly stated the appeal of playing for his hometown Lakers. He has also openly stated the appeal of staying with the Thunder.

That has created significant confusion about his upcoming free agency.

Could George find a compromise outcome?

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

More than one rival team has suggested to me that they expect George to strongly consider a two-year deal with the Thunder at $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20 that includes a player option to return to free agency next summer.

This makes sense on paper.

A 1+1 contract would give George more time to determine whether he and Russell Westbrook can win together in Oklahoma City without getting stuck there long-term if they can’t. The Thunder were starting to put it together when Andre Roberson got hurt. Perhaps, Roberson getting healthy would swing Oklahoma City’s fortunes.

George would also be eligible for a higher max salary in two years – 35% of the salary cap, up from 30% if he signs now. So, a short-term contract would allow him to maximize his potential earnings.

But George said he wanted to sign somewhere long-term this summer. He also suffered an extremely gruesome leg injury just a few years ago. He might not want to bypass guaranteed money to gamble for a little more later.

Are these rival teams just looking at the general outlook for a player in George’s position without considering his specific circumstances? Or do they know something? George could have informed teams he might become available in 2019 or 2020 so they should prepare.

I’m skeptical this is more than speculation by opposing teams. But the possibility that they’re basing their expectations on inside information makes this worth monitoring.

Heartbreaking: Watch Mikal Bridges explain joy of joining hometown 76ers while they trade him to Suns (video)

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Mikal Bridges‘ mom jumped up, pumped her fists and screamed “Yes!” through her giant grin.

The 76ers – the organization she works for in human resources – had just drafted her son No. 10 overall. Bridges, a Philadelphia native who played at Villanova, seemed as if he’d stay home for his pro career.

Bridges:

She’s very, very excited. She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She was about to cry and all that. She said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’d try to hold it in. But no, she’s very excited. I’m her only son. I’m a little mama’s boy. Her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.

Except, as Bridges was talking, the 76ers were trading him to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

That extra pick carries major value. Even if you like Bridges much more than Smith – which I did, especially considering their fits in Philadelphia – that’s hard to pass up. The NBA is a business after all.

But it’s lamentable how this played out.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

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The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?