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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.”

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results:

 

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

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Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

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Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.