Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Hawks’

Wizards’ culture shift in full swing

VIDEO: Glen Rice Jr. ties the game with a 3-pointer from the corner for the Washington Wizards

LAS VEGAS — That breakthrough season and playoff run was just the beginning for the Washington Wizards.

That flash we saw from the John Wall and Bradley Beal-led Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals is still going strong into both free agency and here in the Samsung NBA Summer League, where youngsters like Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. are busy doing work with their veteran peers keeping a watchful eye.

Wall and Beal were in attendance at the Thomas and Mack Center Saturday night when Rice went off for 36 points in a triple-overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs. Veteran free agent Al Harrington is working the sidelines as a volunteer assistant under Wizards assistant Sam Cassell, keeping his finger on the pulse of a team whose culture shift is clearly in full swing after years of building to this point.

“We’re trying to get our hands on that trophy,” a smiling Harrington said after the win over the Spurs. “It’s just a good vibe all around since the season ended. All of our guys, the young guys and the older guys, are grinding and trying to get to that next level. Everybody recognizes the opportunity that is staring us in the face and we have to be ready. Everybody has to be ready.”

In a summer that began with the Wizards making the first big splash by keeping free-agent center Marcin Gortat on $60 million deal, the hits have kept on coming for this crew. Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker departed in free agency, but  Wizards boss Ernie Grunfeld went to work and rebounded by acquiring former Finals MVP Paul Pierce on a two-yer deal and veteran big men Kris Humprhies and DeJuan Blair in sign-and-trade deals to bolster the bench.

And for anyone dismissing the moves — the Pierce deal in particular, due to the mileage Pierce has piled up over the course of his stellar career — his coach in Brooklyn last season, believes the Wizards have taken a major step forward this summer with the acquisition of these veterans.

“Washington got better,” Kidd told reporters here last week. “You’ve got a veteran guy who understands what it means to be a professional, comes to work every day and understand what it takes to win a championship. … He won’t have any problems [fitting with the Wizards]. He’ll be fine.”

The Wizards will be, too, based on the busy work they have done this summer. Teams either get better or worse with their offseason work. Staying the course, for anyone other than the champion Spurs, simply doesn’t work.

“It’s just a matter of the process of getting better,” Kidd said. “You see that with Gortat coming back. The backcourt is very talented. So they lose a player, a piece, but they’re not afraid to go out and get a player that can help them. They’re going to be one of the top teams in the East.”

That’s the plan. Harrington said that was the vision of all involved when the season ended. They felt like they let the Pacers off the hook in the playoffs. “Trust me, it won’t happen again,” he said. “Our guys are better now because of what we learned about ourselves in that series.”

LeBron James heading home to Cleveland leaves a void at the top of the Southeast Division. And much like the work the Wizards’ summer league squad is putting in to capture top honors, when the regular season begins the varsity crew will battle for the No. 1 spot with the Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets.

“It’s there for the taking,” Harrington said. “You see the way we are working now in the middle of the summer. We changed the culture. And now we’re feeding the beast, making sure everybody knows what goes on when the lights come on in the regular season. We need [Rice Jr.] and Otto ready to go from the start. Our depth is going to be our strength. It’s go time from the first day of training camp.”

Payne works to adjust to the NBA game

VIDEO: Adreian Payne gets high for the flush on the break

LAS VEGAS — When Adreian Payne was 15 years old, he realized he needed a summer job. He was, after all, a teenager, and Payne heard the same siren song of commerce that appeals to adolescents everywhere.

“I wanted to be able to buy myself something,” Payne recalls. “I wanted to go to the mall with my friends and stuff like that.”

And so Payne, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, went out and got a job. As a janitor at his own middle school.

To Payne, it was a great gig.

“I swept, took gum off of the desks, mopped. It wasn’t bad, because I knew everybody there at my school, and it was the summer so there wasn’t anybody there. But I knew the janitor, I knew the lunch lady, all the staff. It was kind of fun. Being young I played around sometimes, but it was fun.”

Once he saved up enough money, Payne went to the mall and bought a pair of shoes. These days, as the recent first round pick of the Atlanta Hawks, with the requisite rookie scale contract, Payne’s shopping horizons have broadened a bit: “I’m looking for an apartment right now, actually. That will probably be the next thing I get.”

Payne spent the past week in Las Vegas with the Atlanta Hawks at the Samsung NBA Summer League exhibiting the drive and skill that made the Hawks interested in him to begin with. As a four-year player for coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State, the 6-foot-10 Payne developed into a deft outside shooter, knocking down 3-pointers at a 42 percent rate as a senior. That combination of size and shooting ability should fit perfectly into the spread-and-shoot system the Hawks implemented last season under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer.

“Being able to shoot the ball can translate to anything, any level,” Adreian said. “But [the NBA game is] a lot different, the speed of the game, and the players are more athletic. So it’s just a matter of you just getting more comfortable out there, trying to find the pace of the game so your shots still come and you’re in rhythm, still. So I’m just trying to get my shot off quicker but not in a rush. But just quicker, more efficient, less movement.”

Payne helped lead the Hawks’ summer squad to a 2-3 record in the round-robin format, and played 28 minutes today in the Hawks’ 78-71 elimination round loss to the Houston Rockets. Payne finished with 11 points but struggled from the field, finishing 4-for-15, including 1-8 on three pointers.

“They were telling me to get my shots, try to slow myself down, run the offense and let them come. They was coming, they just wasn’t falling,” Payne said with a laugh.

Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham coached the Hawks summer league squad, and saw plenty to like from Payne.

“It’s one of those situations where you always love the fact you have to tell a guy to slow down as opposed to pick it up. He just needs to know how to be quick but not in a hurry,” said Ham. And then, to emphasize the point, he repeated it quickly and in a hurry: “Quick but not in a hurry.

“He gets going and he’s going full speed and that’s normal for guys coming out of college,” Ham said. “They want to do everything a thousand percent, at a hundred miles an hour, and you can’t fault him for that. He’s from a heckuva program and Coach Iz[zo] did a great job with him. We’re just going to try to refine him a little bit and teach him how to play with a change of pace, so to speak.”

Coming into today’s loss, Payne averaged 12.8 ppg on 40 percent shooting from the field in Atlanta’s five previous games. Ham said the Hawks know he can get his shot going.

“His shooting element is there,” said Ham, “the defensive element is there, making athletic plays, we just gotta get him to stop fouling so much.”

Is that easier said than done with rookies?

“Oh, absolutely,” Ham continued. “Because in college, they actually play a lot more physical than we do in the NBA. At the NBA level, the big key is not to impede progress, so referees are a little more ticky-tacky with how they call fouls as opposed to in the college game, where you can get into guys and put your forearm into ‘em when they face up and all of that. So it’ll take some time, but he’s a smart kid, a smart player, he’ll make the proper adjustments.”

One adjustment Payne has made thus far has been trying to add shotblocking to his defensive repertoire, something he says he wasn’t able to display at Michigan State.

“[Coach Izzo] wanted me to stay on the floor — I was getting in foul trouble. So the rules here are a lot different than they are in college — you have verticality here, in college you don’t. So it’s a lot different.”

Accordingly, another part of Payne’s adjustment has been studying tape of the NBA game to increase his familiarity with the league. While at Michigan State, he said, NBA games weren’t often on his TV — “I watched a lot of college games.” Video games were no help either — “I suck at 2K.”

“I’ve been watching a lot more NBA now, and I love watching it,” Payne said. “Now that I’m here in the league I’ve been watching a lot more film, been watching film with Coach Ham, and just trying to get better.”

VIDEO: Adreian Payne gets the stiff rejection against the Rockets

Morning shootaround — July 13

VIDEO: Daily Zap: July 12


Decision day for the Rockets | Only a two-year deal for James | Pierce keeps it moving | Deng the next domino?

No. 1: Decision day for the Rockets — The Houston Rockets have a new small forward, having agreed to a four-year deal with former Wizard Trevor Ariza. Does that mean that they’re ready to part ways with their old small forward? Not necessarily. The Rockets have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday to match the three-year, $46 million offer sheet that Chandler Parsons signed with the Dallas Mavericks. And they may feel like Ariza and Parsons could play together, as Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes:

The Houston Rockets are still strongly considering the Dallas Mavericks’ offer sheet for Chandler Parsons after reaching agreement on a four-year, $32 million contract with free-agent forward Trevor Ariza, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Ariza’s contract is on a declining scale, paying him $8.6 million, $8.2 million, $7.8 million and $7.4 million over the next four seasons, sources said.

The Rockets are expected to take until 11:59 p.m. ET Sunday to match the three-year, $46 million offer sheet the Mavericks gave Parsons, sources said. The Rockets could give Parsons some minutes at power forward, allowing them to play him and Ariza together.


No. 2: Only a two-year deal for JamesLeBron James could be a free agent again next season. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that James only signed a two-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it has a player option for 2015-16, allowing him to look for a new deal again next summer. But Windhorst writes that it isn’t about James not being truly committed to Cleveland. It’s about the additional money he could make with a new deal in a year or two:

Depending on how the new television contracts are put together, the salary cap is projected to leap to as high as $80 million in 2016. There is also uncertainty with the current collective bargaining agreement starting in 2017, another reason James wanted to keep his long-term options open when it comes to the structure of his contract.

James’ off-court earnings, which top $40 million per year according to some estimates, allow for him to take some short-term risk to maximize long-term earnings.

James has earned $129 million over his 11-year career but has only earned the max salary three times during that span.


No. 3: Pierce keeps it moving — It was weird seeing Paul Pierce in a Brooklyn Nets uniform last season. It may be even weirder seeing him in the Washington Wizards’ red, white and blue this year. In a bit of a stunner, Pierce and the Wizards agreed on a two-year deal (for the mid-level exception) on Saturday night. Michael Lee of the Washington Post has the story:

Refusing to stagger after the stunning defection of Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets, the Washington Wizards shook off the disappointment and made a shocking deal of their own by landing Paul Pierce.

Pierce, a 10-time all-star and likely Hall of Famer, agreed to sign a two-year deal for the full mid-level exception worth $10.8 million, according to a multiple people with knowledge of the situation. He has a player option for the second year.

The 36-year-old Pierce spent the first 15 years of his career with the Boston Celtics, winning a championship in 2008, and his former teammate and current Wizards assistant Sam Cassell played a huge role in recruiting him to Washington. He averaged a career-low 13.5 points last season in Brooklyn but gives the Wizards a proven big-game performer and another veteran mentor to help expedite the progression of franchise building blocks John Wall and Bradley Beal.


No. 4: Deng the next domino? — Ariza, James and Paul Pierce have found new homes, while Parsons will either be a member of the Dallas Mavericks or Houston Rockets when the clock strikes midnight on Sunday. But where does Luol Deng land in this game of small forward musical chairs? The Miami Heat have been trying hard to make him James’ replacement and stay near the top of the Eastern Conference, but other teams (Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix) are still in the mix for Deng, as ESPN’s Marc Stein reported late Saturday:

Sources say it’s possible Wade’s looming deal with the Heat might not be finalized until next week while negotiations with Deng continue. But Miami’s current aim is assembling a core that features Wade and Bosh with newcomer Josh McRoberts and Deng if they can complete a deal with the former Chicago Bulls All-Star.

Dallas and Atlanta remain interested in Deng as well, with sources saying Saturday that the Phoenix has also jumped into the mix for Deng, who was traded from Chicago to Cleveland in January after years of trade rumors.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Nets could still be a playoff team this season, but championship dreams are basically out the windowIt’s a “wait ’til next year” situation in BostonIs LeBron Melo’s Jordan?The Thunder got what they needed in Anthony Morrow … The Kings and Isaiah Thomas weren’t on the same page.

ICYMI of The Night: After his Summer League debut, Jazz rookie Dante Exum sat down the The Starters:

VIDEO: Starters: Dante Exum

Morning Shootaround — July 4

VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki agreed to a three-year, $30 million deal with the Mavs yesterday

Reports: James’ agent meets with other teams | Reports: Anthony promised max offers from Lakers, Knicks | Reports: Riley, Heat interested in Pau, others | Report: Bosh next on Rockets’ wish list | Report: Hawks make early pitch to Deng

No. 1: Report: Finalists could emerge to interview James; Aldridge: Multiple teams already met with LeBron’s reps — Two of the biggest fish left in the NBA free agency pond — LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony — are starting to get their moment in the sun. For James, it seems he and his agent are trying to turn the heat up on Miami boss Pat Riley. Our David Aldridge reports that James’ agent met with at least four teams last week not named the Miami Heat. That news was originally broken by’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein.

Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski similarly reports that if Riley can’t bring a strong cast into Miami soon, there may be final interviews with potential non-Heat suitors for LeBron next week. Here’s more from Wojnarowski on that story:

After conducting meetings with three NBA teams interested in pursuing free-agent star LeBron James, his agent suggested to owners and executives present that a failure of Miami president Pat Riley to rapidly recruit a strong supporting cast could bring finalists back to meet with James himself next week, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Rich Paul, the agent for James, invited three teams – Cleveland, Dallas and Phoenix – to the offices of his Klutch Sports headquarters to listen to pitches.

The meetings took place on Wednesday and Thursday, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Some executives believe there’s an opportunity because of a disconnect between James and his teammates, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Another executive attending the meeting flatly said, “I think it’s a smokescreen.”

James has maintained a desire to take a full max contract with a starting salary of $20.7 million, sources said. Wade and Bosh are still reluctant to take severe cuts in their contracts, sources told Yahoo Sports, creating a financial disconnect among the three.

“There’s clearly a breakdown in communication between LeBron and [Wade and Bosh],” one executive who participated in the meetings over the past two days told Yahoo Sports. “[James is] giving Riley time to go get players for them but if that doesn’t happen in the next few days … LeBron seems ready to explore the market.”

And here’s Aldridge on how the move by LeBron’s agent is affecting the other moves in free agency:

Where the information came from is not the issue. The message is. And it is clear to anyone who’s been paying attention: Riles, you’re really on the clock.

For weeks, the operating principle throughout the league was that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were acting in concert. Perhaps not literally, but certainly, each had an idea of what the other was planning to do. Why would Wade walk away from a guaranteed $41.5 million over the next couple of years if he didn’t know James was returning to Miami? Why would Bosh indicate a willingness to take a pay cut if he wasn’t certain he’d be playing with the other SuperFriends for the next few seasons?

Now, suddenly, we are told that Wade and Bosh have no idea what James is going to do, and that Paul is lining up alternatives for his client. Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday that three finalists could be brought back to Cleveland, where Paul met in person with the Cavs, Mavericks and Suns this week, early next week. Nowhere, now, is there reassuring talk that James will return to the Heat.

That will surely get Riles’ attention.

Miami’s hopes of adding a centerpiece “Big Fourth” free agent were always iffy, but as free agency has begun this week, the Heat have had to watch the likes of Marcin Gortat and Kyle Lowry go elsewhere, in part, because Miami just couldn’t commit enough money to guys looking for their big career payday.

With Miami locked in below $10 million in cap room, it couldn’t make a realistic pitch to Gortat, who took $12 million a year from Washington to stay with the Wizards, or to Lowry, who took the same $12 million a year to stay in Toronto with the Raptors. And with other free agents that could help like Trevor Ariza also looking for big raises, the Heat will continue to be strapped to find an accomplished veteran to take their offers, whatever they may be.

So Miami is concentrating on getting commitments from shooters like Anthony Morrow and Marvin Williams. But they’re not going to come cheap, either, no matter their desire to play for a contender (assuming the Big Three re-sign there). And Riles has to find players as he cocks an ear to the Midwest, and a city he thought his superstar player had left in mind and body, but which is still there, likely a stalking horse, to be sure, but one that must be taken seriously, its revenge/reunion fantasies still intact and getting oxygen as we speak. Or, write.


Hawks set up well to add a star

VIDEO: East Draft Review: Atlanta Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The big free agent destinations for this summer are Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.

But what about Atlanta?

Few teams are set up to sign a star better than the Atlanta Hawks, who created more cap space with a trade reportedly agreed to on Sunday.

John Salmons is under contract for $7 million next season, but the Hawks only have to pay him $1 million if they waive him by Tuesday. That’s exactly what they’re expected to do, so by trading Lou Williams‘ $5.45 million deal (Lucas Nogueira doesn’t have a contract), the Hawks have created an additional $4.45 million of cap space.

As it stands, that gives the Hawks more than $13 million of cap space total. Assuming they extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents Shelvin Mack (more important now that Williams is gone) and Mike Scott and don’t extend one to Gustavo Ayon (who played just 26 games last season), they have a little more than $15 million in cap space.

That’s not enough to offer a max contract to LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, but it’s enough to make a serious upgrade on the wing, where DeMarre Carroll started 73 games last season.

It’s just not cap space that makes a star player a good fit in Atlanta. It’s the supporting cast.

The best way to complement a star who draws the attention of extra defenders is with shooting. And starting with Kyle Korver, the Hawks have an abundance of that. They ranked fifth in 3-pointers last season and fifth in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint. It was their ability to space the floor with all five guys that gave the Indiana Pacers a world of trouble in the first round of the playoffs.

Bigs Paul Millsap and Pero Antic can step out beyond the 3-point line and Al Horford — expected to make a full recovery after December surgery on a torn pectoral muscle — has been one of the league’s best mid-range shooters over the last few years.

Those bigs are also good rebounders, and Jeff Teague is a solid point guard who can make defenses scramble on the pick-and-roll. That takes pressure off a star to carry the offense by himself.

Of course, beyond James and Anthony, there’s not a real offensive star (on the wing) to be had in free agency. Lance Stephenson might be the closest thing, but he doesn’t quite fit into the Spurs East model that Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer are trying to build in Atlanta (neither does Anthony, really).

And so, while Ferry did well in clearing contracts to get to this point, his tenure with the Hawks can’t be ruled a success until he actually gets the team back where they were — making three straight trips to the conference semifinals — before he got there.

Joe Johnson‘s contract is kind of ridiculous, but the Joe Johnson that we saw in the playoffs this year is exactly the kind of the player that would fit in well with the Hawks right now. Ferry has done well to set up a strong supporting cast, but there’s one more big step to take.

Morning Shootaround — June 24

VIDEO: The DraftHQ crew discuss Joel Embiid’s pro prospects


Report: Plenty of suitors for Anthony | Report: Scott favorite to land Lakers’ gig | Thomas opens up about free agency | Parker’s dad denies talk of Jabari tanking workouts

No. 1: Report: Field of Anthony suitors gets deep — New York Knicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony officially opted out of his contract yesterday, making him the No. 1 unrestricted free-agent target this summer. As such, he’ll get plenty of calls from the teams many expect to pursue him … and a lot more that might surprise you to be among the fray, too. According to’s Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein, no less than seven teams are expected to chase Anthony, although who will talk to him first and when remains unknown:

Carmelo Anthony has yet to publicly reveal the process by which he plans to entertain other teams in free agency now that he has opted out of his contract with the New York Knicks, but the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers are among the teams that expect to have the opportunity to make their pitch to him starting July 1, according to sources close to the situation.

Teams can’t formally contact free agents until 12:01 a.m. ET July 1, but sources told that the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat are two more teams that could join the race for Anthony, depending on how things play out before, during and after Thursday’s NBA draft.

The Bulls are widely regarded as the early favorite to steal Anthony from the Knicks, with sources saying Monday that Chicago has been quietly planning for this free-agent pursuit for months, going back to the January trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland. Sources say every move Chicago made during the season’s second half — including the seemingly minor signings of veterans Ronnie Brewer, Lou Amundson and Mike James to very tradeable contracts — was made with the hope they might be helpful in a potential sign-and-trade with the Knicks for Anthony.

Sources say the Rockets, meanwhile, have begun working on trade exits for center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin to clear enough space under the salary cap to make a representative offer to Anthony.

The Lakers are in the advantageous position of having enough room under the salary cap to make a maximum offer to Anthony without having to clear any salary, but it is believed Anthony would want them to strengthen their roster before he would seriously consider a move to L.A. Sources say the Lakers, to that end, have been exploring their options with the No. 7 pick in Thursday’s draft and have told teams they are prepared to package the pick with the expiring contract of Steve Nash (owed $9.7 million next season) for the right offer. reported Sunday that the Mavericks, armed with plenty of cap space themselves, likewise expect to be granted a face-to-face sit-down with Anthony.

Earlier this month, reported the Heat had begun internal discussions about pursuing the former scoring champion to try to grow their Big Three into a Big Four, but the Heat could pursue Anthony only if LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade opt out of their current deals later this week and are willing to take less money to re-sign and play alongside Anthony.

The Hawks would have to clear approximately $10 million to $12 million in salary-cap space to pursue Anthony, but sources indicate that is one of the many options Atlanta is considering, making it a sleeper team to watch.


Pacers backed Hibbert out of loyalty, need big man’s reset now

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Relive the first-round series between the Pacers and Hawks

INDIANAPOLIS – Nene, the one-name Wizard, is playing at the moment like an All-Star. Marcin Gortat was invaluable to Washington’s rise to the postseason and push past the Chicago Bulls in the first round.

And the Indiana Pacers almost couldn’t be happier to face them.

It’s rare when any NBA team welcomes an opponent that has formidable big men on its roster, but in the Pacers’ case, that means center Roy Hibbert gets to come out and play. Indiana’s league-leading defense was built around its 7-foot-2 tower in the middle. Its offense hums best when Hibbert is available for putbacks, short jump shots and his toy box of little flips and hooks. So the matchup with the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, and the mismatch it brought for Hibbert, was a problem that became an issue and nearly festered into a situation.

The Hawks spread the floor and hoist 3-pointers more than any other team in the playoffs – actually, that should be hoisted since Indiana did put them down in seven games. But that series went to the max in part because Hibbert was so ineffective chasing Atlanta’s Pero Antic or Paul Millsap out to 3-point range. It took the bigger man out of his comfort zone defensively and often left him harmlessly in the DMZ between the restricted area and the arc. He doesn’t have the game or the role in Indiana’s attack to punish the Hawks at the other end in a heavy dose of post-ups. Ultimately, he wound up on the bench, his confidence seemingly bottomed out.

Hibbert’s effectiveness had waned late in the regular season, too, so the criticism already coming his way intensified. There rarely is anywhere for a guy his size to hide, but this was way worse, his struggles played out and picked at in the glare of network TV coverage.

Throughout, though, the Pacers had his back.

“They never felt like I was in any sort of danger of not playing,” Hibbert said Sunday, a little agitated as a small group of reporters asked him about his struggles. “We didn’t really listen to or cater to any of the stuff that was being said on the outside. So as far as all that goes, that was whatever people wanted to say.”

Hibbert’s teammates and coaches knew all about the Xs & Os that meant he would be less effective against Atlanta. They also know his sensitive nature and how it might hurt him, not contributing and then taking heat publicly for that.

And they view Hibbert as a friend and a brother. That meant staying loyal and supportive was vital well beyond self-interest in their playoff ambitions.

“All of it was loyalty,” All-Star wing Paul George said. “We’re loyal to each and every one of our guys here. Roy Hibbert is a big brother, someone who’s been in my corner when things weren’t going well for me. I was always in his ear, always in his corner, telling him to stay confidence and ‘Don’t allow anything to creep into your mind.’

“He’s been an All-Star two times now. It’s not like he’s some average player – he’s a big-time player for us. It was just a tough moment. You’re not making shots and … Roy’s a guy who likes to be active on social media. So I think a lot of it got to him. But he’s got to just be above that.”

Forward David West said: “More than anything, we’re a better basketball team when he’s engaged and he’s playing well and he’s being productive, and when he’s on the floor. It was about making sure he didn’t get too low – we knew he was down on himself and disappointed he couldn’t contribute the way he wanted to.”

West knows how fragile any player’s confidence can be, especially someone like Hibbert who isn’t gifted with the sort of superior athletic ability to which he can turn to create, on talent alone, some positive moments for himself. Hibbert without confidence might as well be sitting in the stands.

“It’s hard to recover [confidence],” West said. “I think that’s human nature. But with him, everybody was encouraging. He was just trying to work hisself out of what he was in, and before Game 5, before Game 6, it was just the same message [from teammates]. ‘You’re going to have the best game of the series for us.’ And then he came through [in Game 7].”

Hibbert took five shots in the first quarter and made four of them. He blocked two shots in the second and, as the misfiring Hawks scrambled for offense wherever they could find it, had three more swats after halftime. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes, after averaging 4.0 points, 3.2 boards, 0.7 blocks and 20.3 minutes in the first six games, while shooting 30.3 percent.

Now Hibbert gets to battle with Nene, a terrific athlete with a mid-range game that keeps him five or six feet inside the 3-point line. Gortat is a traditional center who is at his best inside.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Sunday he saw no extra spring in Hibbert’s step, either from the Game 7 performance or the sense now of being more needed. But now at least, any frustration the center feels likely will come on the court, not from being the fork at a soup kitchen.

“I’ve seen him go through struggles in the past,” Vogel said, “and he usually comes out of it at some point, usually quicker than he did this time. I’m not saying he’s out of it, but … when you see a guy play well, you know he’s capable of doing it. He’s doing the right things, he’s putting in the work. Usually that sort of thing turns around.”

When Hibbert turns around, he’ll see a bunch of Pacers behind him. They have his back.

Forget style points, Pacers get where they hoped to be

By Steve Aschburner,

VIDEO: Hawks vs. Pacers: Game 7

INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe this is how it’s going to go for the Indiana Pacers.

No “A” game, no style points, no drive-by games or series. Real skin-of-their-teeth stuff.

No collapses either, though, not in any complete or fatal sense. Stubbed toes, sure, but no missed steps. No coach or teammate thrown under the bus, even if Frank Vogel and Roy Hibbert had a few telltale scuff marks from getting kicked briefly to the curb.

The Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, dispatched their first-round opponents with a decisive 92-80 beating Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, advancing to the East semifinal round against the Washington Wizards. That represents everything they could have done to this point, right? There was no bye available to skip directly to the East finals, no bonus to be had (beyond a few extra days off) for doing in four or five games what they accomplished in seven.

Then again, it took Indiana the maximum to get past the No. 8 seed, a sub-.500 entry whose best player (Al Horford) hasn’t played a lick since December due to injury. The Pacers were pushed to flex their home-court advantage about a month earlier than they’d planned and even then, they only went 2-2 at BLFH in the series.

Even then, it took the Hawks missing 59 of 79 3-pointers (25.3 percent accuracy) in Games 6 and 7 combined for the Pacers to put them down. Atlanta shot 38.5 percent in the series, 30.4 in the clincher. Indiana did block 13 shots (six by David West, five by Hibbert and a breathtaking snuff at the halftime horn by Ian Mahinmi against a dunk-minded Jeff Teague), but it was clear the Hawks felt they misfired way too often on their own.

“I think it’s always important,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said, “to give the defense credit when we don’t shoot well, but … I thought we had some good looks at the rim, some good looks in transition. We had some good looks at three’s.”

In other words, no disrespect to the Pacers but Paul Millsap (6-of-21), Teague (5-of-16), Mike Scott (5-of-14) and the rest would like a few of those looks again, please.

All of which is to say, Indiana got done what it was supposed to and, frankly, what it had to do to avoid a summer of a thousand cuts. People have been poised to either proclaim the Pacers back or pronounce them dead, and here they are, two weeks into the postseason, right where they and everyone expected them to be.

Mission (gasp!) accomplished.

Dominant? No. Despite Paul George‘s huge game (30 points, 11 rebounds) and series (six double-doubles) and some early-season defensive stats, most inside and outside the Pacers’ circle have been fooled too often by false starts – vs. Chicago, vs. Miami, vs. OKC – to claim they’re back-back.

But disqualified? No, not that either. They remain somewhere in the middle, not exactly who they’d been but stirring a bit from what they had become. No longer headliners, not yet flatliners.

Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel couldn’t lie when asked if the mood in his locker room afterward was more elation or relief. “I don’t know, maybe a little of both,” he said.

Vogel has been the guy with his fingers in the dyke as Indiana, so stellar in the season’s first half, sprang leak after leak after leak. Defense, confidence, George’s shooting, chemistry, Hibbert’s emotional state and so on – Vogel was on the verge of doffing a shoe and a sock, the way the leaks kept opening.

“I don’t feel like we ever strayed that far from who we are, especially on the defensive end,” Vogel said, resolutely half-full vs. half-empty.

Hibbert’s big fade late in the season was blamed on fatigue. His near-disappearance in this series got attributed to a “matchup challenge,” Atlanta’s “stretch five” attack stranding him in no man’s land defensively. While there was considerable truth in that, the 7-foot-2 center and the guys who play around him were relieved that he roused from the slab in Game 7.

He’d been no factor in the previous three, totaling six points, five rebounds and four blocks in 49 minutes. But he topped that in just 31 this time: 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks. Vogel gave Hibbert credit for 4-for-6 shooting in the first half and the big guy tied for the game’s top plus/minus with 16. He’d been minus-12 in a mere 12 minutes in Game 6.

This was a man who finally could exhale. And look forward to a foe in the next round with some legit bigs (Washington’s Marcin Gortat and Nene).

“Despite what everybody says, we know we’re a good team,” Hibbert said. “Nobody said it was going to be easy. One thing Coach talked to us was, when the Celtics won their [2008] championship, they got taken to seven games by the Atlanta Hawks [in the first round]. So I’m sure people were talking about them as well.”

Uh, not like this.

But that’s where Indiana is at now, the what crowding out the how as they try simply to win four more in the next seven.

“I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t concerned. Of course,” forward Chris Copeland said. “I hate to get into that. I believe it feeds negativity. I don’t like to acknowledge anything other than the success we’ve had. For me, we should just keep looking up.

“When you keep looking back and saying, ‘We’ve had struggles, and this and that,’ I think it brings on second-guessing yourself. Are we back? You start to question.

“Everything to me, despite the bumps in the road, has gone fine to this point, when you really think about it. Where did we go? We went to the next level. Now we’re 0-0 just like we would like to be. Let’s just keep it moving.”

Maybe it goes like this for Indiana, grimier, less convincing, for another round. Or more.

Pacers’ collapse unlike any other

By John Schuhmann,

VIDEO: Pacers vs. Hawks: Game 6 Preview

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Indiana Pacers are on the brink of completing a special kind of collapse.

No *playoff team of the last 20 years suffered a greater point differential drop-off from before the All-Star break to after it. And now, Indiana is a game away from becoming just the sixth No. 1 seed to lose to an 8 seed in the first round.

* The only team of the last 20 years that suffered a bigger drop-off in NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) was the 2011-12 Portland Trail Blazers, who went from outscoring teams by 5.3 points per 100 possessions before the break to getting outscored by 7.7 after it.

What’s interesting is that other teams that have suffered big collapses after the All-Star break (and still made the playoffs) have done just fine in the postseason. The teams with the next two biggest collapses won the championship. And the two teams after that pulled off first-round upsets.

Biggest drop-off, pre-to-post-break NetRtg among playoff teams since 1994-95

Season Team Pre-break Post-break Diff. Seed Result
2013-14 Indiana +8.6 -2.1 -10.7 1 Down 3-2 in first round
2004-05 San Antonio +12.3 +3.3 -9.1 2 Won Finals
2011-12 Miami +11.1 +3.0 -8.1 2 Won Finals
1995-96 Houston +4.9 -2.8 -7.7 5 Lost in conf. semis
2010-11 Atlanta +1.1 -6.6 -7.7 5 Lost in conf. semis
2002-03 Utah +5.5 -1.5 -7.0 7 Lost in first round
2004-05 Seattle +4.5 -2.1 -6.6 3 Lost in conf. semis
2002-03 New Jersey +7.7 +1.3 -6.4 2 Lost in Finals
2012-13 San Antonio +9.0 +2.6 -6.3 2 Lost in Finals
2009-10 L.A. Lakers +6.9 +0.8 -6.2 1 Won Finals

There’s a stronger correlation between how well a team does in the playoffs and how well they did before the break than how well they did after it. Of the 36 teams who made The Finals since 1994-95 (not counting the ’98-99 lockout season), 22 had a better NetRtg before the break than after it.

But no playoff team dropped off as much as this year’s Pacers. That they remained the No. 1 seed is truly amazing. This has been a special kind of collapse and it could be over after Game 6 in Atlanta on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Blogtable: Winners, losers so far

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.

BLOGTABLE: Winners, losers so far | The Vogel dilemma

VIDEO: The Wizards finish off the Bulls and win their first playoff series since 2005

> Winners and losers of the first round? Player and team, please.

Steve Aschburner, Leaving Donald Sterling (loser) and Adam Silver (winner) out of this, I’d go with LeBron James as the biggest winner so far just because of the clear path he and the Miami Heat appear to have to their fourth straight Finals and possibly third straight championship. Sweeping Charlotte earns them extra rest, they won’t have to face pain-in-the-rump Chicago at all and the big projected challenge from the Pacers doesn’t look like it will materialize. One of the biggest losers has to be Indiana and, specifically, guard Lance Stephenson. An almost-All Star and an early favorite for Most Improved Player, the Pacers’ shooting guard saw those honors slip away. His team’s swoon and his increasingly helter-skelter play might have cost him millions in free agency this summer.

Fran Blinebury, Thanks for the two Nerf balls sitting on the tee. John Wall and the Wizards are the obvious winners. Third playoff win for franchise in last 35 years and most of the country outside D.C. gets to see how good Wall is. As far as losers, could it be any other player than Roy Hibbert and any other team than the Pacers?  In more than three decades of covering the NBA, I have never seen a group or an individual fall faster than a bag of bag of hammers off a roof.

Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, John Wall has been telling us for a while now that he’s the best point guard in the league. Not sure I’m buying that yet, but what a breakout party he’s having in the postseason. This is only the beginning. As for team, hard to top Washington as the surprise of the postseason, but give me Terry Stotts’ Portland Trail Blazers. My biggest loser so far is the man who will likely soon accept the MVP trophy, Mr. Kevin Durant. As for the team, the Thunder certainly are disappointing, but the Indiana Pacers are the only true answer here.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comBiggest winner: the Wizards. Beating the Bulls would have been impressive enough. Beating the Bulls in five, while winning close games on the road, grinding out wins against that Chicago defense is a big accomplishment. Biggest loser: Donald Sterling. And not just of the first round.

John Schuhmann, Team winner: Washington, for finding ways to score against a the league’s best non-Indy defense, despite a lack of their precious corner threes, and for having an open lane to the conference finals. Individual winners: Free agents for Toronto (Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez) and Washington (Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Booker) who are earning themselves some money by playing well in the postseason. Team loser: Indiana, of course. Individual loser (other than Roy Hibbert): James Harden, because his defense has been awful, his offense hasn’t been much better, and because he hasn’t been alive as long as Fran’s been covering the NBA.

Sekou Smith, John Wall and the Washington Wizards are clearly my biggest winners. I remember all of the bellyaching that went on when the Wizards presented him with that huge contract extension. He justified the Wizards’ faith by leading his team into the playoffs and past the Chicago Bulls in the first round. He’s already paid back at least a down payment on that extension. My biggest loser is, and this comes before we even know what happens to them, is Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers. It’s almost too easy, picking on them, after the way they have performed (or not) against the Hawks. Hibbert’s tough guy talk from last season’s playoff run is coming back to bite him in the worst way. That 0-for-everything performance of his in Game 5 the other night sums it up perfectly.

Lang Whitaker, All Ball Blog: Let’s stay in the same series. Biggest winner thus far has to be Mike Budenholzer. He didn’t really rate in the coach of the year voting but he took a team with nothing to gain and convinced them to share the ball and play defense. Even after Al Horford went down and they had a dreadful post-All-Star stretch, they snuck into the playoffs and Budenholzer been masterful thus far in pushing the Pacers to the brink. The biggest loser? Roy Hibbert. In a crucial Game 5 at home, Hibbert went for zero points and zero boards, against a team without a center. Again, Hibbert went for 0 and 0 against a team with no center that mostly uses a 31-year-old “rookie” at the 5. Hibbert has been struggled, and Indiana has mostly followed his demise.