NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …
The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.
That’s probably a good thing.
“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.
“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”
The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.
Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.
But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.
“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”
No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …
The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.
Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.
Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.
Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.
Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?
“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”
The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.
“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”
It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.
Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.
Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.
“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”
No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …
The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”
The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”
In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?
What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.
Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.
It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.
And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.
I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.
The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.
But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.
No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in Orlando — Shaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …
Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.
The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.
O’Neal never played for the Magic again.
The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.
The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.
And he left.
“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”
O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.
“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”
As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.
“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.
“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract …