Morning Shootaround

Morning shootaround — May 22


VIDEO: Highlights from Game 2 of the Western Conference finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry, Warriors lock up Harden | LeBron: Too much iso ball in Game 1Nuggets take their time vetting coaching candidates

No. 1: Curry: Warriors didn’t want to let Harden be ‘hero’ — Once again in the Warriors-Rockets West finals series, James Harden and Stephen Curry waged a fantastic scoring duel. And, once again, Curry’s squad came out on top, claiming a 2-0 series edge after Thursday night’s win. But it wasn’t an easy victory for Golden State as the Rockets had a shot at tying the game in the waning seconds. Curry and his “Splash Brothers” cohort, Klay Thompson, trapped Harden on the final possession, keeping him from a shot attempt in a move Curry says was definitely planned. Our Fran Blinebury was on the scene and has more:

The Splash Brothers became the Mash Brothers, squeezing the life and any last desperate attempt by the relentlessly splendid James Harden into a two-man vise.

It was a night when Curry (33 points, 5-for-11 on 3-pointers, six assists) and Harden (38 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) could have danced on the head of a pin with their fearless, peerless offensive fireworks.

“Sometimes I want to crack open a beer and get a courtside seat, because these two guys are the two best basketball players in the world,” said Bogut. “Steph knocks down a big shot and then we come down and try to stop James and he knocks down a big shot.”

Yet it was fitting that it all came down to a final stop.

“Got the ball off the glass, and I’m thinking, just to try to get an easy one,” Harden said. “They did a good job of having two guys on me, so I couldn’t attack, and when I looked up I saw a red jersey and it was Dwight, so I tried to throw it back to him. At that time I’m thinking five seconds on the clock, so I tried to get the ball back, and it was still two guys right there, and I watched the film, it’s just a tough, tough play.”

Tougher because Curry and Thompson have been playing the roles of the disrupters in the backcourt all season for a team that finds a sense of defensive urgency to keep digging itself out of tough spots when the alarm bells start clanging. It was the defense that turned everything around in the first round of the playoffs when the Warriors came from 20 points down in a rousing fourth quarter to win Game 3 at New Orleans. Then it was the defense that ultimately found a way to stifle the interior game of Memphis.

In their 10 playoff wins this spring, they have trailed by at least 13 points behind on six occasions. It’s not a coincidence that so many of those breathtakingly amazing and gorgeous shots come as the end product of simple down-and-dirty defense that stokes the fire.

“Once [Harrison Barnes] went for the layup and missed and Draymond tried to get the rebound it was kind of me and Klay and Andre [Iguodala] on the other side retreating,” Curry said. “You saw James kind of put his head down, you knew he probably wasn’t going to pass in that situation, so just to kind of stand him up before the 3-point line, Klay fronted him right to me, I was able to get a body on him. He threw it away to Dwight and threw it right back, so at that point, it’s just don’t let him get a shot off and try to be the hero, so we were able to get it done.”


VIDEO: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson lock down on James Harden at the end of Game 2

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Morning shootaround — May 21


VIDEO: Highlights from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Will Hawks have to replace Carroll? | Irving plans to play in Game 2 | Wizards plan to lock-up Beal | Rockets hopeful Howard can play tonight

No. 1: Hawks face prospect of replacing Carroll — The Atlanta Hawks were in the midst of what would become a fourth-quarter surge in Game 1 of the East finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeMarre Carroll picked off a pass and was headed the other way for a fast-break layup when a nightmare scenario happened for Atlanta. He crashed to the floor awkwardly as he went up to shoot and had to be helped off the court afterward. Our Lang Whitaker was on the scene for the play and has more:

The Atlanta Hawks sent four starters to the All-Star Game, yet it was DeMarre Carroll, the man left behind, who had been their most reliable performer in these playoffs. But after suffering a left knee injury during Atlanta’s 97-89 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Hawks are now left dealing with the possibility of an immediate future without Carroll involved.

“At this point, I think the doctors are saying it’s a knee sprain,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’ll have an MRI tomorrow, and we’ll know more tomorrow.”

Carroll was injured with 4:59 remaining in Game 1 while driving to the basket on a fast break. He didn’t appear to be touched as he fell to the floor, where he writhed in pain before being helped up and off to the locker room.

“It’s huge,” said Hawks forward Kent Bazemore. “Super unfortunate. Talk about a guy who works hard and has been playing well all year. I mean, it sucks. He’s the second guy — I mean, we don’t know what happened yet, but we lost Thabo [Sefolosha] already, and he is another valuable piece to the puzzle. We gotta just keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, and another guy step up.”

Carroll’s injury was the rotten cherry on top of an already dreadful night for the Hawks, who were outscored 23-16 in the third quarter and finished Game 1 4-for-23 on 3-pointers while being dominated on the boards, 60-43. If the Hawks were looking for a silver lining, perhaps there’s a glimmer in the way the Hawks closed the game without Carroll, finally managing to find some pace and closing to within four with a minute left.

“Baze got to step it up, Baze got to play his minutes,” said Hawks guard Dennis Schröder. “I’ve got to step it up, for sure. Everybody else, I think, when Coach says your name on the bench, everybody is ready. If Coach needs somebody, I think they’re ready.”

“We’re a very resilient group,” Bazemore said. “We know we’ve got to make a few adjustments, and Coach Bud is a great coach. He’s going to have us on our p’s and q’s coming into Game 2.”


VIDEO: DeMarre Carroll injured late in Game 1

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Morning shootaround — May 20


VIDEO: Highlights from Game 1 of the Western Conference finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rockets try not to fret Howard’s injury | Presti: Durant healing up so far | Dellavedova steps up | Knicks have a plan for No. 4 pick

No. 1: Rockets not fretting Howard’s injury too much (yet) — Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard had limited effectiveness in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last night after teammate Josh Smith rolled into his left knee on a play. Howard’s status for Wednesday’s Game 2 remains unknown, but based on the postgame buzz our Scott Howard-Cooper was able to sniff out, Houston is trying to remain optimistic as it awaits further updates:

The good news, because there actually is some: It was the left knee this time, not the one that cost him 41 games in the regular season, and the initial diagnosis on Tuesday night was that Dwight Howard had suffered a bruise when the impact from Josh Smith crashing into the leg in the first quarter could have been much worse.

The bad news: Almost everything else.

The Rockets lost the opener of the Western Conference finals to the Warriors on Tuesday at Oracle Arena, lost Howard for most of the night because of another knee injury, are unsure of his availability heading toward Game 2 on Thursday, and all while facing a team that never needs a second invitation to jet around the court playing small ball.

There was no telling in the aftermath of Golden State’s 110-106 victory how much the Rockets can expect, if anything, from Howard two nights later. Another update on his status is likely to come after practice Wednesday at the same Oracle Arena that thundered with noise right on schedule as the home team played in the conference finals for the first time in nearly 39 years.

Teammate and long-time friend Smith said “I’m really concerned,” but declined to elaborate what pushed him to that place as Houston gave no sense the injury was serious. Coach Kevin McHale, not waiting for the end of the first question at his postgame news conference, said “I don’t know. We’ll probably know tomorrow.”

Howard sounded the most optimistic tone of all, insisting: “I don’t think that it’s going to be something that is going to restrict me from playing for the rest of the series. Everything happens for a reason. I’m not going to kill myself over it. I’m just going to stay positive, stay focused and the doctors are going to do their job to make sure I get on the floor.”


VIDEO: Dwight Howard suffers a knee injury in Game 1

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Morning shootaround — May 19


VIDEO: Get geared up for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Gasol’s next move is anyone’s guess | Report: Paul, Jordan at odds on Clippers? | Reports: Pelicans get OK to talk with Gentry

No. 1: Next move for Grizzlies’ Gasol anyone’s guess now — When the Portland Trail Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, it opened up talk about where Blazers free-agent big man LaMarcus Aldridge would land this summer. Now that the Grizzlies have lost in the West semifinals to the Golden State Warriors, similar chatter is beginning with their big man, Marc Gasol. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein tries to get a feel for just where Gasol’s heart may lie as the summer approaches:

Marc Gasol’s fondness for the Bluff City has been well-chronicled. He went to high school there when Pau was playing for the Grizzlies, wound up in the Grizzlies’ organization via the same unforgettably controversial 2007 trade that sent Pau to the Lakers and, through an increasingly maniacal devotion to getting fitter and fitter, has seemingly shed half a person since his teen years to evolve into maybe the league’s best two-way center.

The Grizzlies are thus understandably jittery about Gasol’s looming turn on the open market and will remain so until they have him re-signed to a new max deal. San Antonio, specifically, is the team they fear most.

Yet it’s premature to try to establish the Spurs as some sort of favorite to steal him away, since they’re also widely expected to focus first on the guy perceived as this summer’s more gettable superstar: Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge.

What is obvious to everyone some six weeks out, especially the Grizzlies, is that Gasol is irreplaceable. The mere threat of losing him is chilling, because there’s no telling how long it would take Memphis to recover.

Most rival teams favor Memphis to ultimately win the Gasol sweepstakes because A) Gasol’s ties to the city are legitimately deep and B) he’s the unquestioned starting center on the NBA’s “I Just Want To Win” team. Which is another way of saying that few league observers can picture him leaving when there isn’t an obvious landing spot that immediately positions Gasol to do more winning than he’s currently doing with the Grizz — unless Tim Duncan retires to create a gaping hole in the San Antonio frontcourt.

Let’s face it: If the Grizzlies could just find the means to acquire a quality shooter or two to add to their “Core Four” of Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, based on all the problems they managed to give Golden State without a long-ball threat, they’d presumably be closer to real contention than any of the teams expected to pursue Gasol hardest in free agency.

Knicks? Lakers? Who else besides San Antonio can mount a legit threat?

Yet we repeat: Gasol has given his own coaches and bosses no hints. Unlike Aldridge, who, according to league sources, hasn’t been afraid to share the occasional whisper with a few well-placed folks about the prospect of leaving Portland, Gasol is saying pretty much nothing.

So it’s going to be a long 43 days until July 1 for the Tennessee incumbents.

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Morning Shootaround — May 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played May 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rockets survive the chaos to return to conference finals | Doc’s message to the Clippers | LeBron at his best? | Hawks and Josh Smith in conference finals

No. 1: Rockets survive the chaos to return to conference finals — The righteous rally from that 3-1 series deficit came with the fairly tale ending the Houston Rockets imagined, complete with the unusual suspects providing many of the highlights. But no one should dismiss the obstacles and adversity the Rockets faced in storming to three straight wins in their Western Conference semifinal showdown against the Los Angeles Clippers. Our very own Fran Blinebury, a man who chronicled past championship teams in Houston, puts the accomplishments of this current Rockets crew in context:

The Rockets didn’t just return to the Western Conference finals for the first time in nearly two decades. They did it in the very same manner as their famous forebears, with the kind of escape worthy of the Great Houdini.

Down 3-1 in a best-of-seven playoff series. They stood with their toes dangling over the edge of the cliff for three straight games and never felt their knees buckle.

Down by 19 points with less than 15 minutes to play in Game 6, they never blinked.

Son of Clutch City. Clutch City Jr. Clutch City 2.0. Pick your descendant.

“There’s only a handful of teams that have done that,” said the resurrected MVP runner-up James Harden after 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the clincher. “We were locked in since being down 3-1. We just said one game, one game, one game.”

When it finally came down to that one game — Game 7 — on a throwback Sunday afternoon at Toyota Center, they grabbed it by the neck from the opening tip and weren’t going to let go until the Clippers ultimately surrendered and the 113-100 victory was complete.

Harden attacked at the offensive end. Dwight Howard was tall and ferocious at the defensive end and every other player that coach Kevin McHale ran out onto the court kicked in his own contribution in some way. International veteranPablo Prigioni, on his 38th birthday, was every bit as important as either of the two marquee stars with his steals and his hustle and his relentless smarts.

This kind of comeback, this kind of emotional turnaround, doesn’t happen without a total buy-in from every single man on the roster. There cannot be a weak link, a single crack in the wall that allows doubt to leak through.

“The guys that we have in this locker room, it’s easy to get down 19 on the road and then just give in and say, ‘Maybe next year,’ ” Harden said. “But I think the injuries this year, throughout the entire year, it’s kind of made us fight through adversity no matter what. So we’ve always been short, down a man It’s always finding a way to get through, finding a way to fight it.”

That the overwhelming capper came just seven days after the Rockets had been whipped and beaten down and humiliated in Game 4 at Los Angeles to dig their 3-1 hole was surprising. That it came at the end of three straight desperation games was positively shocking. And it could be another two decades before another Rockets team — or any other, for that matter — matches that electric comeback.

“It just tells us that we are capable of winning three games in a row,” said McHale. “The guys in there just had a lot of fight and we don’t get to this if not for Trev [Ariza], [Corey] Brew[er], Josh [Smith], Dwight and Jet [Jason Terry]. What they put on in that fourth quarter in Game 6 was amazing. That 40-15 run, you don’t see that very often and I’ve been in this league for a long time.”

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Morning shootaround — May 17




NEWS OF THE MORNING
Moment of truth | Irving sits out | Father’s memory drives Kerr | Thibs or bust

No. 1: Rockets-Clippers reaches seventh heaven or hell — Very few words generate more buzz, more excitement, more stomach-churning anticipation than this: Game 7. After all the back-and-forth, all the blowouts and all the missed opportunities on both sides, now the Rockets and Clippers will settle the matter of who gets the last spot in the NBA’s version of the Final Four today when they square off at Toyota Center in Houston. Our Fran Blinebury says it will be remembered as the tale of comeback or collapse, depending on your perspective, when the matter finally comes to a head:

History and the home court gives the Rockets a decided leg up before the opening tip. Road teams have won just 24 of 119 Game 7s in NBA playoff history and only eight teams ever have come back from the 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series that Houston is attempting. The last time it happened was in 2006.

However, the Clippers faced the same situation in 2012, letting a 3-1 lead over the Grizzlies turn into a 3-3 tie and throat-tightening time. But they went into Memphis and won Game 7. The Clippers have also won seventh game showdowns last season against the Warriors and in the first round this season over the defending champion Spurs. In Las Vegas, the odds makers have the Clippers as a two-point favorite.

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No. 2: Ailing Irving held out of practice — The countdown clock to the Eastern Conference finals is down to three days and it looks like Cavs’ point guard Kyrie Irving will be happy to use up every single minute of that time as he hopes to heal a left knee injury that was tweaked in the close-out Game 6 win at Chicago. He’s also got some some other aches and pains, so our Steve Aschburner notes that Irving — uncertain for Game 1 against Atlanta on Wednesday night — was just a spectator when the rest of the Cavs hit the practice court on Saturday:

With days to go before the Eastern Conference finals begin in Atlanta, it wouldn’t have been shocking if the Cleveland Cavaliers’ entire squad had been held out of practice Saturday. But since most of their players did participate, point guard Kyrie Irving‘s lack thereof was duly noted by assembled media.

As the folks at Ohio.com reported:

[Irving] was held out of practice Saturday after reaggravating a left knee injury in Thursday’s closeout Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls.

An MRI on Monday revealed tendinitis in Irving’s knee. Irving has also been battling a right foot strain suffered in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

Cavs coach David Blatt said Irving saw the doctors again Friday. Blatt couldn’t give a definitive assessment of Irving’s status for Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks in Atlanta, but said the Cavs “hope” he can play.

“He going through a lot of treatment and we’re monitoring and just hoping that he progresses from here until game time,” Blatt said.

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No. 3: Kerr is guided by his father’s legacy — There are many reasons why the Warriors have advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in nearly four decades, but none more so than coach, Steve Kerr. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News tells the wonderfully poignant story of the man who shaped Kerr, his father Malcolm, who was gunned down by an assassin in Beirut back in 1984. It is highly recommended reading:

Kerr spoke at length about his childhood during a recent interview and credits both parents, working in concert across continents, to provide “everything I needed.” But in personality, Kerr said, he is wired like his father: Reserved but passionate (the father about Lebanon, the son about basketball), thoughtful but possessing a razor wit.

Kerr’s memories remain vivid all these years later, and he rattled them off: There is Malcolm, reading The New Yorker in the stands at Dodger Stadium. There is Malcolm, coming home from the office and making popcorn. There is Malcolm, emerging from his study to shoot baskets in the driveway.

And there is Malcolm, patiently waiting for his enraged son to settle down.

“He set such a good example,” said Kerr, who has three children. “I’ve tried to be the same way with my kids.”

The lessons imparted at home and the experiences gained overseas — “They all got thrown into bathwater and survived,” Ann said — combined to shape Kerr’s worldview, foster a sense of empathy and sharpen his interpersonal skills.

Those same skills would help carry him through a 15-year NBA career — a second-round draft pick, he won five NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs — and ease his transition to coaching.

“I developed a lot of compassion living in Egypt, seeing the poverty,” he said. “The discussions around the dinner table about world politics and understanding how fortunate we were — all that helped me gain perspective on life.

“That helped with teammates when I was a player and now as a coach.”

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No. 4: Bulls and Thibodeau need detente — Let’s face it. Despite all of the supposed excitement in the front office over Fred Hoiberg, there will be a learning curve if Fred Holberg makes the jump from the college ranks to head coach of the Bulls. And despite the fact that he’ll have his pick of the jobs in Orlando and Denver and New Orleans, Tom Thibodeau will have considerable building to do before he gets those teams to the current level of the Bulls. So David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune says the best shot at a championship for both sides is to find a way to work and stay together:

Unless Thibodeau’s successor is Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich, no new coach will be more qualified to get the Bulls to the NBA Finals quicker. Unless Thibodeau unseats David Blatt in Cleveland — possible, but still a long shot — it’s hard to imagine any team Thibs inherits being closer to winning their conference than the Bulls. Sorry, drama kings, both Thibodeau and the Bulls are better together than apart.

Compromise should be the goal — not the enemy — for Thibodeau and the Bulls management tandem of Gar Forman and John Paxson. It should be imperative to Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf that he intercedes to help them achieve it. Reinsdorf, 79, should understand that letting Thibodeau go now realistically removes the urgency from next season. Any new coach introduced, whether it’s Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg or Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry, delays any realistic championship run.

Creative tension is great until it shatters a championship window. With the White Sox, Reinsdorf presided over the soap opera that played out between then-general manager Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen. With the Bulls, back in 1998, Reinsdorf oversaw the clash of then-GM Jerry Krause and coach Phil Jackson. At least those previous odd couples won titles together before divorcing. The Bulls and Thibodeau are on the verge of splitting before ever playing into June.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Billy Donovan is going after some big names to assemble a high-powered coaching staff with lots of NBA experience in OKC…Dwight Howard, who leads the playoffs in technical fouls, admits that his emotions often get the better of him on the court…Before they take the court for Game 7 against the Rockets, the Clippers better make sure they’ve unloaded their emotional baggage from Game 6…Word is the Celtics are looking to move up in the draft to get Willie Cauley-Stein…Coach Randy Wittman believes Paul Pierce will return for another season with the Wizards…Members of the National Basketball Players Association are quite content with the direction and leadership shown by new head Michele Roberts.

Morning shootaround — May 16


VIDEO: Daily Zap for Friday’s two playoff games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry splashes on Memphis | Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 | Better days ahead for Wiz | Counting by 2’s in 3-point league

No. 1: Curry splashes on Memphis — On an almost nightly basis around the NBA, you’ll see this laughable sight: Some player who has no business hoisting shots from 3-point range, let alone some distance beyond that, will be heaving up ridiculous attempts from out-of-bounds on the sidelines. Or from halfcourt. The simple thought of “Planning to take that shot in the game, are ya?” never seems to cross their minds. But then there’s Steph Curry and a couple of his friends on the Golden State Warriors, who hoist the ball from such spots and have credibility enough to call them “field-goal attempts.” Curry was at it again while helping the Warriors oust Memphis for one of the berths in the Western Conference finals, per our own Shaun Powell:

There have been plenty of bubble-bursting shots in playoff history and while Jerry West‘s 60-foot runner in the 1970 NBA Finals is easily the Hindenberg of them all, was Curry’s three-quarters-length heave Friday one of the loudest pops heard since?

The noise is still banging in the eardrums of the Grizzlies, who were simply stunned by the sequence in the final seconds of the third quarter, just when they were mounting a comeback to prevent elimination. The FedEx Forum crowd was buzzing and begging the Grizzlies to seize control of Game 6 for the first time all night. Jeff Green rushed downcourt attempting to cut the Golden State lead to three when he was blocked. Curry scooped the loose ball and threw a chest-shot in the opposite direction … from near his own three-point stripe … and the ball didn’t even have the decency to bank off the glass or wiggle inside the rim first. It was true. Splash. Damn. For a city steeped in music, Curry just played a lullaby and put all of Memphis to sleep. The arena became that hushed.

“In mid-air,” said coach Steve Kerr, “I said, ‘I think it’s going in.'”

Yes, after the season he had, and the playoffs he’s having, we’re all conditioned to feel that way about Curry now, that when he misses a jumper, from wherever, it’s a head-scratcher. He’s the rare player who never loses confidence, who won’t skip a shot because he clanked one or two. That makes him dangerous and drives the defense crazy. And every time he touched the ball after that 62-footer, the crowd groaned before he even flicked his wrist. They knew. You knew.

Curry made 25 from deep in this series and the Grizzlies made 24. Curry made eight (out of 13) 3-pointers in Game 6, the Grizzlies four. He was a one-man 3-point demolition crew, none more crushing than from 62 feet. The Grizzlies collectively caved in the fourth quarter after Curry’s groin-kick and their season was done. Meanwhile, Curry’s legend and the Warriors move on, to a place where the franchise hasn’t been in 39 years, four wins from the NBA Finals, bringing the requisite superstar necessary to win a title.

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No. 2: Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 — It took one 10th of a second, maybe two, in which one of Paul Pierce‘s fingers still was in contact with the basketball to make it happen. But after the official replay review revealed the truth about The Truth, wiping out the corner 3 that would have sent the Hawks-Wizards game into overtime, Atlanta finally … finally … finally emerged from that Eastern Conference semifinals series to secure a spot in the conference finals. Our man Lang Whitaker was there to chronicle a little history:

Since moving to the Eastern Conference before the 1970-71 season, the Atlanta Hawks have made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals 15 times. But somehow, despite all those chances, things have never gone their way, and the Hawks have never been able to advance into the Eastern Conference finals.

Until Friday night. ATLast.

After a campaign where they surprised pretty much everyone during the regular season en route to winning 60 games and the Eastern Conference, the Hawks continued writing a new history by beating the Washington Wizards 94-91 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. For the first time in 45 years, the Atlanta Hawks have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

“I think the city really deserved this,” said Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, who led the Hawks with 25 points. “They needed this. I think we wouldn’t even be here without our fans.”

As with most things Hawks, it wasn’t easy and it nearly didn’t happen. Despite leading by 10, 81-71, with nine minutes remaining, the Wizards tied the game at 89 with 1:14 left to play. To take the lead for good, the Hawks turned to the very thing that defined them throughout the season: team basketball. Instead of going one-on-one, Jeff Teague found Carroll on backdoor cuts on back-to-back possessions, giving the Hawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

To be certain, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the Hawks should be considered “getting through,” but it’s still baby steps — during Atlanta’s dry spell, the Boston Celtics have been at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals 17 times. But after a summer of discontent for the Hawks, with general manager Danny Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence following making racist statements on a phone call, and then the franchise being put up for sale following an owner self-reporting racially charged emails, any type of good news would probably be embraced by Hawks fans. A 60-win season and trip to the Conference finals exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.

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No. 3: Better days ahead for Wiz — There was no denying the disappointment for the Washington Wizards. As far as some of their players are concerned, losing in the semifinals is a Groundhog Day hell that officially meant no progress from their elimination two rounds deep a year ago. There’s a difference between knocking at the door as a team on the rise and knock-knock-knocking as a legitimate championship contender. But setting aside the emotions of Friday night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out some of the progress on which the Wizards can build, once they get over this:

[The] Wizards did something in this postseason that they didn’t do last year and that they didn’t do in the regular season. They put the ball in the basket. They were the most improved offensive team in the playoffs.

A team that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency in the regular season changed its identity and looked rather potent. Inefficient mid-range shots became 3-pointers, and 40 percent of those 3-pointers went in. It was like the Wizards finally discovered what the rest of the league has known for the last few years.

With more space to operate, [John] Wall made it clear why he was the No. 1 pick in the Draft five years ago. No matter how the opponent defended him, he made the right decisions and the right plays.

With Wall out of the lineup for three games, Bradley Beal stepped up and showed why he was the No. 3 pick in 2012. He stuck to Kyle Korver all series and scored inside and out.

And with an opportunity like he’s never had before, Otto Porter looked like a top-three pick too. He was a 3-and-D small forward, slowing down DeMar DeRozan in the first round and staying active off the ball on offense.

And suddenly, you realized that this team has a lot of talent. Young talent. Wall turns 25 in September. Beal and Porter each turn 22 next month.

Paul Pierce provided leadership, swagger, and the ability to space the floor as a part-time four man. And if he chooses not to exercise his player option for next season, he will be missed.

But whether or not Pierce is back, the Wizards will continue to build around their three young perimeter players and a defense that has ranked in the top 10 each of the last three seasons. And they now have the blueprint – more versatility at the forward positions – that can push them toward a top 10 ranking on the other end of the floor.

When you have a top 10 defense and a top 10 offense, you’re a title contender.

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No. 4: Counting by 2’s in 3-point league — The Memphis Grizzlies are like pizza, if you think about it. Pizza is great. Pizza is welcome almost any time and any place, same as the Grizzlies are a hoot to watch and root for across the long, corner-three-loving NBA regular season. You slog along on a diet of what has become the same-old same old in this league – pesky perimeter guys buzzing around and feeling great about making 40 percent of their shots, as long as their toes are behind the right line – and then you spot the Grizzlies on the schedule. Hey, pizza! The problem with pizza, or in this case, Memphis’ pounding, bigs-based attack, is that it only gets you so far. Pizza is fun but it’s not welcome at the biggest events — holiday dinners, weddings receptions, fancy client meetings, The Finals. That’s not unlike the limbo in which the Grizzlies find themselves, unique and yet unloved, as far as the ring sizers go. Royce Young of ESPN.com evaluated Memphis’ style shortfall vs. Golden State:

The series was billed as style against style, with the Grizzlies’ traditional, two-big ground-and-pound against the Warriors’ contemporary all-purpose attack. And as it played out, it was the same old postseason story for Memphis: Enough to remain exceptionally competitive, but not enough to advance.

“The series was a good series,” [coach Dave] Joerger said. “It was about which style won out.”

The Grizzlies are very direct. They want to play inside-out, focusing everything at their two beastly bigs and reluctantly relying on the perimeter. But as Steve Kerr and the Warriors played their ace in the hole, cross-matching Andrew Bogut on [Tony] Allen, the Grizzlies didn’t have a countermove. More than any other team in the league, they are who they are. Their identity is forged in grit and grind, which unfortunately doesn’t include versatility and flexibility, hallmarks of today’s pace-and-space NBA.

“We have who we have,” Mike Conley said. “We have our personnel. We play through our personnel. We have big guys, and that’s what we have to play through our strengths. We can’t change that. We have to work with what we have. We’ve done a phenomenal job with it, but I think us going into next season, we have to find ways to free up guys on the outside, get guys that can get easy looks, try to open up and knock them down and get more opportunities for our big guys.”

The annoying narrative that still hangs around is that jumpers don’t win in the playoffs, that 3-pointers are a siren song of temptation, not of tried-and-true success. Well, no team is more interior focused and less reliant on jumpshooting than the Grizzlies …

The answer seems to be obvious. The Grizzlies have to adapt, have to adjust, have to evolve. They’ve played their stubborn way for five years now, and it’s produced admirable success. This is a unique roster that plays a one-of-a-kind style. Even more, this was probably the Grizzlies’ best team. They just couldn’t match the Warrior buzz saw, and that’s where lines get blurred. The Grizzlies had a terrific season; they also weren’t good enough. There’s something to be proud of in giving the Warriors hell; there’s also nothing tangible to take from it.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Pierce has 6 million reasons to return to the Wizards next season, but the challenge gets greater when you’re matched up with Father Time. … Change is coming in Chicago, writes our Steve Aschburner, with coach Tom Thibodeau‘s status in the air and Derrick Rose needing to recommit. … Some wonder why the Bulls’ alleged top candidate to coach next season, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, would leave just two years into his 10-year, $20 million contract. But the Cyclones’ athletic director expects Hoiberg to tackle the NBA challenge one of these days. … Uh oh: Phil Jackson allegedly maybe doesn’t like the idea of Isiah Thomas hanging around Madison Square Garden as president of the WNBA Liberty, according to the New York Daily News. … Golden State’s David Lee didn’t initially believe teammate Steph Curry when he told the veteran power forward the postseason would last long enough for him to play a role for the Warriors. Well, guess what?

Morning Shootaround — May 15


VIDEO: Daily Zap for Thursday’s playoff games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rockets say they are ready to go all the way | LeBron an underdog … never | Pierce’s bravado versus Horford’s grit | Warriors get defensive to turn series around

No. 1: Rockets say they are ready to go all the way — An epic comeback is one thing. But what the Houston Rockets played and lived through last night in Los Angeles was something bigger, at least that’s what it felt like on the inside (from the 2:29 mark of the third quarter until the end it was the Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and the rest of the crew’s show minus James Harden). Rallying from that monstrous deficit and staving off elimination in the conference semifinals was just the first step to much, much bigger things, according to Corey Brewer. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle witnessed the madness:

As the Rockets took off, the Clippers crumbled. They missed 15-consecutive fourth-quarter shots, many coming at the rim or on rushed, but open jumpers. They made just 4 of 22 shots in the fourth quarter with Chris Paul tacking on a 3 at the buzzer as the teams headed to the locker rooms.

“They outplayed us in every sense of the word down the stretch,” Blake Griffin said. “We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things. Got to be better.
“You could tell we kind of got stunned, and we didn’t respond well.”

When the Clippers were rolling, Griffin had put the exclamation point on their run with a 360-degree spin in the air on a layup. He was 12 of 15 for 28 points after three quarters, then missed all five of his fourth-quarter shots.

“There was times where it just seemed like everything was going their way,” Howard said. “Blake hit 360, 180, I don’t know what it was, and I said, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ But we pulled together, we just kept saying we’re not going to quit, we’re not going to give up, we done come too far just to end it like this, and we just kept fighting.

“Josh hit some big shots. Everybody played great tonight, and we never quit. That’s why we got the win tonight. We kept believing, no matter how tough it got out there, because there was some rough times out there. As a team, we never gave up on each other.

The Clippers did not give up. There was not time for that. But they did break down, missing the sort of shots that had built the lead and led to the blowouts over the weekend.

“You know, I thought we were trying to run the clock out, and we stopped playing,” Clipper coach Doc Rivers said. “They kept playing, and then once it got to eight, you could just feel it.

“I don’t think they thought that they had the game in the bag. I thought they thought, we walk the ball up the floor. I thought we got very tentative offensively, very few people even wanted to shoot in stretches, and you know, it happens. But it’s awful to watch. It’s awful for our team, and we have to figure out in the next 48 hours how to get them back, because we can’t get this one back. We gave this one away. There’s no doubt about that.”

Whether the Clippers gave it away, the Rockets took it or some combination of both, the teams head to Sunday’s Game 7 rolling in opposite directions. As Game 6 demonstrated, that does not mean much.

“I played in a lot of games in my life and you can get the vibe of games and think you have the chance to win,” Brewer said. “Like Trevor (Ariza) said at the beginning of the fourth – he said we are going to win a championship, but we have to win this game first.

“If we win this game right now, that’s how you become a champion.”

***

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — May 14


VIDEO: Daily Zap for Wednesday’s playoff games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Horford saves the Hawks | Warriors find the formula | Gasol says he’ll play Thursday | Rockets hoping to attack again | Casey to return as Raptors coach

No. 1: Horford saves the Hawks — After Paul Pierce drained a go-ahead 3-pointer with 14 seconds left, the Atlanta Hawks were in danger of going down 3-2 with the conference semifinals heading back to Washington, against an opponent that had it’s point guard back. But Al Horford saved the day, rebounding Dennis Schroder‘s miss and putting it back in the basket to put the Hawks on the brink of reaching the conference finals for the first time in 45 years. Sekou Smith was at The Highlight Factory for the wild finish

So if there is anyone affiliated with the Hawks who understood the significance of winning this game on this night, with all that was riding on the outcome, it was Horford.

The Hawks have checked every box during his journey from rookie sensation to face of the franchise. First up was just making the playoffs. Then it was advancing past the first round and now comes that final hurdle, making it to unchartered territory that is the conference finals … and perhaps beyond.

“It means a lot,” Horford said of crunch time play, “but more importantly we won. We all get to celebrate. And it’s about our team. I was just in that position and I just made a play. I’m just excited we’re in a position of 3-2 now, and took care of home … and now we have a chance to go up to D.C. and wrap the series up.”

***

No. 2: Warriors find the formula — The Golden State Warriors were the best team in the regular season (by a wide margin), thanks to top-two rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And they outplayed the Memphis Grizzlies on both ends of the floor in Game 5 of the conference semis on Wednesday to take a 3-2 series lead, as Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle writes

The Warriors laugh at Charles Barkley and others, who say their jump-shooting team can’t win a NBA title.

They laugh, because the Warriors know they aren’t merely a jump-shooting team.

They also sport the league’s best defense as they showed Wednesday night at Oracle Arena, where they made 14 three-pointers on one end and played championship-level defense on the other in beating the Grizzlies 98-78 and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.

Of the 180 NBA teams that have broken a 2-2 tie by winning Game 5 of a seven-game series, 81.7 percent have won the series. Game 6 of the best-of-seven series is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Memphis’ FedExForum.

“Our intent is to go down there and try to play the kind of defense we’ve played the past two games, which has really turned this series,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “I said the first couple of games that our defense was good enough, but it wasn’t championship defense. I was wrong. It wasn’t good enough. This is what it’s going to take, this kind of defense from tonight and Game 4.”

***

No. 3: Gasol says he’ll play Thursday — The Chicago Bulls’ season will be on the line in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT). So Pau Gasol, who’s officially listed as “probable” by his team, says he’ll fight through whatever hamstring pain he has after missing the last two games (two Cleveland wins). Our Steve Aschburner has the story

“I mean, right now it’s win or go home,” the 7-footer told reporters at the Bulls’ Advocate Center practice facility. “There’s nothing left but tomorrow’s game. What percentage I’ll be able to play? I don’t know, but whatever percentage I will be, that’s what I’ll give.”

Gasol, after doing a light workout Tuesday, said he felt no ill effects in his leg and he upped his rehab Wednesday to run a little harder, get up some shots and work through some basketball plays. He has not tried to jump yet and sounded as if his goal is shorter stints than his usual 32-34 minutes.

***

No. 4: Rockets hoping to attack again — No team in NBA history attempted more 3-pointers than this year’s Houston Rockets. But the Rockets extended their historical season by outscoring the Clippers 64-46 in the paint in Game 5 on Tuesday. To get Game 7 back on their home floor, they’re looking to do the same thing in Game 6 on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle writes

It was as much as anything the key to the Rockets escaping the ignominy and damage of their lost weekend in Los Angeles with a blowout win of their own to cut the Clippers’ series lead to 3-2 heading into Thursday’s Game 6.

There was, however, one more benefit that came with going at the Clippers instead of trying in vain to go around them. It’s better to hit than be hit. That’s not just a strategy, though the Rockets’ success on Tuesday started there.

“Basketball is a mindset,” McHale said. “Everybody is really talented. It usually is the toughest minded team that’s going to win.”

Though much of the series, that had been the Clippers. On Tuesday, the Rockets turned that around by attacking the paint as they had throughout the season.

***

No. 5: Casey to return as Raptors coach — Before the playoffs began, Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said that the postseason “influences everything” in regard to his offseason decisions. So, because the Raptors were swept by the Wizards in embarrassing fashion, we can expect some changes in Toronto. But those changes won’t start with the head coach, as Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun reports. Dwane Casey, who has another guaranteed year left on his contract, will be back for fifth season with the Raptors …

No news is good news for Dwane Casey.

While Raptors president/general manager Masai Ujiri has not declared one way or the other whether Casey will be back as the team’s head coach next season since the team crumpled to the mat in four games against the Washington Wizards, his return is not in question, sources have told the Sun.

What is less clear, is whether his coaching staff will remain intact, or whether there will be some alterations.

As multiple reports have indicated, there has been discussion about shaking up a staff that includes Bill Bayno, Nick Nurse, Tom Sterner, Jesse Mermuys and Jama Mahlalela (director of sports science Alex McKechnie also is an assistant coach), but what is not being said out loud is that nothing has yet been finalized and maintaining the status quo is also a possibility.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: John Wall came back from his broken hand and almost led the Wizards to a huge win … After a quick start, the Grizzlies couldn’t keep up with the Warriors on WednesdayMatthew Dellavedova picked up an after-the-fact technical foul for the leg lock that preceded Taj Gibson‘s flagrant foul in Game 4 … The Clippers aim to be better in their second chance to close out the Rockets … The Miami Heat, heading to the Lottery for the first time in seven years, should like what they see wherever they draft … and when it comes to the Draft, don’t underestimate the importance of the interview.

ICYMI: Al Horford rebounds the missed layup by Dennis Schroder and puts it back to win game 5 for the Hawks:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Al Horford

Morning Shootaround — May 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lebron carries Cleveland | Houston blasts off thanks to Harden | New Orleans fires Williams | Will Wall return tonight?

No. 1: LeBron Carries Cleveland Going into last night, the Cavs and Bulls series was tied two games apiece, sure, but the Cavs found themselves beset by injuries and in need of some help. Enter LeBron James. The King went for 38 points, a dozen rebounds, six assists and three steals, and carried the Cavs to a 106-101 Game 5 win, giving the Cavs a series lead and leaving them one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. As Steve Aschburner writes, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler may be one of the league’s best defenders, but stopping LeBron James is not only nearly impossible, it’s nearly thankless as well…

So he got dressed slowly? Butler should have been doing everything slowly, from walking to talking. He is doing so much in the series and it’s not enough. His Bulls team is down 3-2 and Butler is signed up for another four or eight quarters of hell.

“Nobody cares,” Butler said of the wear and tear, along with the psychic scars, this series has inflicted. “Nobody feels sorry for me anyway. I’m supposed to produce at both ends of the floor. Make shots. And guard. I’ve just got to do better.”

Do better. Chicago likes to think of itself as a blunt, no-nonsense town and that’s a big-shoulders way of approaching his duty on James. When he subbed back in to start the second quarter, knowing that a third foul would sit him down again, Butler wasn’t surprised to be lined up again against James. No rest for the weary.

“It’s just part of the game plan,” said Butler, taciturn as the Texan he is when talking serious business. “Just got to guard without fouling. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. But that’s that. Can’t change it.”

James roared to his best game of the five so far in the series and patted himself on his own back for avoiding even a single turnover. Meanwhile, Butler was down the hall, quietly licking his wounds and searching for ways to do better in a largely no-win situation.

“I don’t mind him being my shadow,” James said. “I don’t mind it at all. I’ll take all competition. I love going against Jimmy. I think it brings out the best in myself. And I try to reciprocate back to him.”

***

No. 2: Houston blasts off thanks to Harden The Los Angeles Clippers won Game 4 of their series against the Houston Rockets by 33 points, taking a 3-1 series lead in completely convincing fashion. Last night in Houston, with the Clippers holding the chance to close out the series, the Rockets fought back, making an adjustment to the starting lineup and getting a triple-double from a flu-addled James Harden in a big 124-103 win. As Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle, it may have taken them four games, but perhaps the Rockets finally found their groove against these Clippers…

“We weren’t aggressive enough the first four games,” Harden said. “We were timid. They have really good bigs. We made a conscious effort to go into attack mode.”

Rockets coach Kevin McHale tweaked his rotation a bit to play Harden for shorter stints, having him come out in the first quarter when Dwight Howard usually does. But when Harden returned, he took over, scoring 14 second-quarter points to take the Rockets to a 15-point lead. He still played 43 minutes, getting his first playoff triple double with a career playoff high 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

“James started warming into the game,” McHale said. He was moving the ball. We attacked. Finally, we got to the basket. We got points in the paint and tried to attack and played a little bit more like we tried to play the entire year.”

“We play better when we play inside-out, attack downhill. We’re one of the best teams at getting points in the paint and we just weren’t doing it.”

When he knocked down a corner 3 with 2:02 left, he had 26 points, the Rockets had a 21-point lead and Harden could finally head to the locker room early.

“He wasn’t feeling well all day,” McHale said. “He had a hell of a game. He had an IV this afternoon and he played a great game for us and we needed it.”

***

No. 3: New Orleans fires Williams The New Orleans Pelicans embarked upon a rebuilding program a few years ago, trading Chris Paul, drafting Anthony Davis, and slowly but surely creating a team that could be a postseason problem for the rest of the Western Conference. This season, the Pelicans not only made the playoffs, but they won a game against the mighty Golden State Warriors. So perhaps coach Monty Williams can be excused for showing up yesterday at the team’s facility thinking a contract extension was in order. Instead, writes John Reid, Williams was fired with a year left on his contract.

When Monty Williams came to the New Orleans Pelicans’ facility Tuesday morning for a meeting with executive vice president Mickey Loomis, he thought the discussion would be about a possible contract extension, league sources said.

Williams, whose contract was set to expire after the next season, had just ended the franchise’s four-year playoff drought and presumed he would be rewarded.

Instead, Williams was fired. He was completely taken aback by the decision, especially after recently receiving praise from ownership for reaching the postseason.

Loomis said the reason for the dismissal was more about the future of the franchise than Williams’ final season.

“I just felt like the end of the day, we had a good season and Monty did a great job, he’s done some really good things for us,” Loomis said. “But going forward, we just felt like our group needed something different to get to the next level.

“We’ve seen improvement from year to year. Obviously, we were excited to make the playoffs. But at the end of the day, the decision is to get to the next step up. We needed to do something a little different.”

Williams had a 173-221 record in five seasons with New Orleans and led the franchise to two playoff appearances, including his first season when he had All-Stars Chris Paul and David West.

Two weeks ago at his season-ending news conference, Williams spoke with excitement about the future of the team, which beat the Spurs to clinch a playoff berth and cap an improbable run down the stretch before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Western Conference’s top seed, Golden State. Williams, who guided the Pelicans to a 45-37 regular-season record, praised his players’ improvement over the past few seasons and looked forward to the possibilities.

“He was surprised, totally unexpected,” Loomis said of Williams’ reaction after losing his job.

***

No. 4: Will Wall return tonight? John Wall suffered fractures to his left wrist early in Washington’s Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, and he’s missed every game since. But with the series now tied at two victories apiece and the Wizards needing a win tonight in Atlanta, could Wall swap his sharp sideline suits for a spot on the active roster? He made an appearance at Wizards’ practice yesterday and is a step closer to returning to action, writes Jorge Castillo in the Washington Post

For the first time in nearly a week, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall dribbled a basketball with his left hand Tuesday, a minor but crucial step in his recovery. Wall will have the five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand re-evaluated before Wednesday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Coach Randy Wittman said, and a decision will then be made whether the all-star will return for the game against the Hawks in Atlanta.

Wall, who sustained his injury in Game 1 on May 3, is officially listed as questionable. “When they check him again,” Wittman said, “I’m sure they’re either going to say ‘No, we need more time’ or ‘It’s up to you’ from a pain standpoint.”

Wall did some light shooting with his right hand for the final portion of the Wizards’ walkthrough at Verizon Center open to the media Tuesday. He held his lightly bandaged left hand off to the side. The Wizards then closed the practice court while several players, including Wall, and assistant coaches remained. About 30 minutes later, Wall emerged breathing heavily and sweating.

“The swelling is minimal now,” Wittman said. “It’s still a little but nothing where it was. Like we talked about, the doctors wanted to reassess things after that. What he’s doing now is fine according to them, to get a little feel for it so see how it feels, number one, again, from a pain standpoint.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Pau Gasol is hopeful he’ll be healthy enough to return in Game 6 … Now that he knows his knee is sound, Kyrie Irving is playing with peace of mindAlan Anderson underwent successful surgery yesterday … Craig Sager continues his fight against leukemia … The Philadelphia 76ers unveiled new logos yesterday …