Posts Tagged ‘Blazers’

L.A.’s Law: Get him the ball

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s third law.

LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Game 6 law.

Now it’s the Blazers’ turn.

After early foul trouble and a double-teaming defensive vise of big men shut off the scoring faucet, the Blazers’ leading scorer needs to come back.

“I’ll be better tonight. I’ll play a whole lot better than last game,” said Aldridge following Friday’s shootaround, after shooting just 3-for-12 and finishing with only eight points in Game 5.

In a closely contested series where he has had to make constant tweaks to try to stop Aldridge, Rockets coach Kevin McHale came up with a winner on Wednesday night in Houston when he had Dwight Howard come immediately to Aldridge as soon as he caught the ball to wrap him up with Omer Asik.

“That was a different change for them, because they normally had not come so quickly,” Aldridge said. “They usually waited until I made a move, but they came quick.

“It was both. It was foul trouble, then I lost my rhythm.”

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said the Blazers will make small adjustments to free up Aldridge, but “won’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

Teammate Wesley Matthews says it doesn’t require anything more than the Blazers taking care of their business in making the transition from defense to offense.

“I think we got a little sloppy and need to tighten things up defensively,” Matthews said. “If we take care of things with our defensive rebounding, not give them so many second chances and then get the ball up the floor and get into our offense faster, we’ll be getting the ball to L.A. before they have a chance to set up.

“It’s not really something that’s home L.A. It’s on all of us. We’re in this together.”

Linsanity lets Rockets keep heads

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rockets top Blazers in Game 5 to stay alive

HOUSTON – In the end, it looked like every single reason that had pushed team owner Leslie Alexander to search around in the sofa cushions to find the $168 million and change to bring in a couple of big, big stars.

There was Dwight Howard going to work in the low post for nifty little jump hooks, powerful drives to the basket and also gobbling up critical rebounds coming down the stretch.

Here was the laboring James Harden at long last pulling a meaningful 3-point shot from somewhere out of his beard and coaxing it through the net just when the game was hanging in the balance.

At crunch time, for once in this compelling series, the Rockets didn’t get crunched.

But you’re crazy if you think Houston would have lived to play another day without a little ol’ dose of Linsanity.

It’s funny that Game 5 of this most compelling first round series should find Jeremy Lin in the role of fire-starter — and maybe season saver — getting the full-throated appreciation and roar from the Toyota Center crowd.

Before Sam Presti played Santa Claus and dropped Harden right down the Rockets’ chimney and before Howard had that ill-fitting season to live and die in L.A., this was going to be Lin’s team.

Flip the calendar back 21 months to the summer of 2012 and this was going to be his team. His face was ubiquitous on billboards that line the freeways, he could be seen smiling from the sides of buses.

Then Harden and Howard happened. Then Patrick Beverley arrived.

Things change.

They changed again dramatically from Game 4 to Game 5 as well. The last time Lin was seen was Sunday night when he shot just 1-for-6 from the field and made a critical turnover in the final minute of regulation that allowed the Blazers to go on tie and win in OT.

This time, Lin took the baton from Beverley, who has been sick and ailing for several days, and practically turned back the clock to those crazy nights when he became a worldwide phenomenon at Madison Square Garden.

He zigged when the Blazers’ defense zagged. He found the cracks that let him get into the lane and all the way to the basket. He found the openings and the nerve to pull up and stab in long jumpers just when the Rockets seemed ready to topple again.

“He had these two big 3-pointers at the end of possessions as the shot clock was ending,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “Those were big momentum plays for them and they took a little bit out of us.”

Lin finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals in the Rockets’ 108-98 Game 5 victory. But it was a six-minute span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Portland cut their lead down to a single point and he was practically a one-man roll of duct tape holding the Rockets together.

There was the unpredictable style, those unorthodox moves that take him from the baseline back out the top of the key in the wink of an eye and that unmatchable, often inexplicable verve that can pick up and arena and put it on his skinny shoulders.

“I felt like I needed to be more of a spark tonight,” Lin said. “I haven’t done a great job of that this series. After the last game, I was really upset and I just believed and focused,” he said.

That changed in Game 5 when the Blazers’ Wes Matthews said that Lin was a deciding factor in the game.

“It seemed like Jeremy Lin hit big shot after big shot,” said Matthews said. “He was attacking the rim, hitting shots. We have to do a better job defensively on him.”

He’s still like summer lightning. You never know where or when he’ll strike and the damage can be significant. But Lin now has to pick his spots and wait his turn in the bigger, grander hierarchy of the Rockets.

“Jeremy has had some very good games for us,” said coach Kevin McHale. We needed him. He had a great stretch there where he was able to break people down. They were trying to pressure him all over and he broke the pressure down and going in the paint and made a couple of floaters.

“When they’re putting that much pressure on us, it really is hard to run an offense. You’ve got to break people down.”

The Rockets will chalk it up as $168 million well-spent with Howard and Harden delivering at the end.

But when the season was hanging in the balance, it was that dash of Linsanity that kept them from losing their heads.


VIDEO: Lin and Parsons discuss Game 5 win

Hang time podcast (episode 158): the Sterling verdict and featuring Bob Rathbun

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Banned for life!

Those three words, those three simple words uttered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Tuesday, will alter the landscape of the league for generations to come.

The racist and bigoted comments from longtime Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be tolerated. Silver made that clear in response to a nasty exchange between Sterling and a lady friend of his that surfaced over the weekend.

We dive in on the fallout, the playoffs and all that comes with it this time of year in the NBA on Episode 158 of the Hang Time Podcast: The Sterling Verdict and featuring the TV voice of the Atlanta Hawks Bob Rathbun.

The Washington Wizards have already pulled off the first shocker of the playoffs, sending the Chicago Bulls fishing. Can the Hawks really pull off this first round upset of the Pacers? And the Grizzlies over the Thunder? The Trail Blazers over the Rockets?

Dive in for all of that and more on Episode 158 of the Hang Time Podcast: The Sterling Verdict and featuring Hawks TV voice Bob Rathbun …

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.


VIDEO: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver annouces that he has banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life

Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

Morning Shootaround — April 28



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Trail Blazers trying to change their destiny | Warriors-Clippers overshadowed by controversy | Ariza delivers a championship reminder for Wizards | Pacers’ anxiety levels high and still rising?

No. 1: Trail Blazers trying to change their destiny, up 3-1 on Rockets — Fans in Portland don’t have to rub their eyes. That 3-1 lead they have over the Houston Rockets is real and well-earned. With LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the Trail Blazers are in the midst of changing their destiny, writes John Canzano of the Oregonian, altering the expectations of an entire fan base and lifting the spirits of an entire state in the process:

Well, Portland beat Houston on Sunday 123-120. Goes without saying, the game went overtime. It was another peptic ulcer. And what we now have is a Blazers team that stands on the cusp of breaking all that franchise futility, up three games to one against the Rockets.

“One more,” LaMarcus Aldridge cried out after. “One more.”

The big guy spoke for the state.

Aldridge scored 29 points and had 10 rebounds. Great night. But not better than the fans who stood through most of the fourth quarter and an overtime, legs shaking, arms folded, dining on their fingernails.

I looked up at the 300-level at the beginning of the overtime and saw the silhouette of a man just standing, arms raised over his head for a solid, hopeful, minute. Down on the 200 level, a woman covered her eyes while Aldridge shot free throws later in the period, missing both. Below that, in section 119, a bald woman named Julie and her husband, Bill, held each other close, watching the final seconds melt from the clock.

“Fallopian cancer,” she said to me.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Not well,” she said. “So this is a nice night out.”

(more…)

Rockets need to find Harden to find way

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Blazers take commanding lead with 112-105 win in Game 2

HOUSTON — Since James Harden already has the beard, it might be time to add the big plastic nose and large glasses to complete the disguise.

Then again, he’s already doing a good job of going incognito against the Blazers.

If the Rockets are going to climb out of the 0-2 hole against the Trail Blazers, first they’ll need to put a lasso or handcuffs on LaMarcus Aldridge.

But just as important, they’ll have to find a way to get their two-time All-Star guard (and leading scorer) to put the ball into the basket.

Through the first two games of the playoffs, Harden has made just 14 of 47 shots (29.8 percent) from the field and looked very rarely and very little like the attack-the-basket, 3-point shooting scourge of the regular season.

In the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1, Harden shot just 8-for-28 and followed it up in the 112-105 Game 2 loss by hitting just 6 of 19. It is his worst two-game shooting stretch of the season.

“I’m not worried about my offense,” Harden said. “It’s basketball. You’re gonna miss shots. It’s basketball, like I said.”

It is a game where sometimes shots roll off the rim that usually go in and it is a game that occasionally comes with ebbs and flows.

Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews are shadowing him whenever he touches the ball and the Blazers’ defense is sagging into the paint to cut off his drives. That’s made Harden look like anything but the cool, confident, high-scoring star he usually is in Houston’s attacking offense. He was over-dribbling. He often looked unsure whether to pull up for a jumper or to make his way toward the hoop.

“I don’t know how much is us and how much is him missing shots,” said Matthews. “But we’ll take it either way. I don’t really care.”

The Rockets have to care if they’re going to resuscitate their suddenly flagging hopes in the next two games in Portland. Because even with Dwight Howard rumbling to 25 of his 32 points in the first half of Game 2 by dominating around the basket, Houston’s offense needs Harden to present more of a problem for the Blazers. He needs to be forcing the pace in the open court, taking advantage of his speed and innate ability to absorb contact and finish plays.


VIDEO: James Harden talks after the Rockets’ Game 2 loss

Harden averaged 9.1 free throws per game during the regular season, but got to the line twice in Game 2.

Of course, the trouble could be the tendency of defenses to tighten down and generally lock up in the playoffs.

The most troubling concern for the Rockets is that it could be a trend more than just a blip. In the last three playoff series in which Harden has played, he shot 18-for-47 (38.2 percent) against Miami in the 2012 Finals, 45-for-115 (39.1 percent) a year ago in the first round against Oklahoma City and now, this.

For the most part, Harden didn’t want to talk about his own troubles, preferring to change the topic time and again to the Rockets’ own defense.

“When shots are not falling, it’s tough,” Harden said when pressed. “They’re running their offense. They’re milking the clock and we gotta go back down and go against their set defense.

“Like I said, they’re a very long team. They’re a very good defensive team. But for the most part, we just gotta get stops.”

Yet they still have to get their leading scorer to put the ball into the basket with some level of real proficiency.

“We don’t have our same flow, our same mojo that we had, throughout the season,” he said. “We don’t have our same swag where we go out there and just play and have fun with. So we gotta get that back. We got to get our own swag back.”

Starting with their top gun.

Bad call admission by the league doesn’t make Rockets feel better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — It was a day late when the Rockets got their apology of sorts with the NBA’s admission that officials were incorrect in calling a foul on Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds left in overtime of Game 1. In fact, the foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard sent to the line for two free throws.

Of course, that an $5 will get the Rockets a venti coffee at Starbucks.

“I guess we need to go play the 10 seconds back,” Howard said with a grin following Tuesday’s practice. “We can’t do nothing about it now. It doesn’t matter. We just got to win Game 2.”

Teammate Chandler Parsons nodded his head.

“It’s obvious,” he said. “But it doesn’t do anything for us now that they’ve said that. At least they’ve owned up to it. It still doesn’t change the fact that we lost the game or are down 0-1.

“I don’t care either way. It almost makes me more mad they announced it knowing that it was wrong. One call, one play, it doesn’t determine the outcome of the game. We got to just play better and not let it get to that point.”

Beverley ready to bounce back again

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — Pat Beverley’s recuperative powers continue to surprise even his teammates.

After the feisty point guard re-injured his right knee in a collision with Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge with 1:04 left in overtime, most of the Rockets feared the worst.

But after an examination by team physician Dr. Walter Lowe Monday morning, Beverley has been cleared to play in Game 2 on Wednesday night against the Trail Blazers.

“I knew how I felt when I woke up this morning that I was OK,” Beverley said after going through practice with the team. “Hearing him agree with me was a blessing.

“I felt a real stiff little pain as far as the knee area where I hurt before. But I’m fortunate. I don’t know. I heal fast, I guess.

I woke up at home, tried to put some weight on it. Squat, it felt good. One leg jump, it felt good. Did this all at home. I just have an ability to heal.”

Beverley had torn the meniscus in his right knee on March 27 and missed eight games. He remained in the game Sunday night after banging into Aldridge on a pick, but hobbled off the court 20 seconds later after fouling out.

“Stoked,” said forward Chandler Parsons. “I didn’t see that coming. He never ceases to amaze me. I’m glad he’s healthy and went through practice today and hopefully he’ll be able to go Wednesday.

“Last night he was really shaken up and pretty much wasn’t walking, was really upset. I didn’t know what to think. I thought the worst.”

Center Dwight Howard expressed relief, both real and comical.

“I’m happy. Our prayers were answered,” Howard said. “He’s playing. I think he went home and just shook his leg a million times and whatever happened, it just popped right back into place. It’s amazing.”

The medical clearance means Beverley will be able to resume his head-to-head battle with Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who shot 9-for-19, scored 31 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had five assists in the first playoff game of his career.

Lillard and Beverley have squabbled on and off the court this season. Lillard has complained about Beverley’s aggressive tactics and Beverley went on a Houston radio show in response and label Lillard “a whiner.”

“He raises the level of the game when he’s out there,” Lillard said on Monday. “I wish him the best. Hopefully, he’s healthy. When I know he’s subbing in and out of the game, I think they’re just a better team.”

When informed of Lillard’s comments, Beverley did a double-take and then smiled.

“I don’t know if he’s trying to use reverse psychology on me,” he said. “I don’t know how to take it.”

Mavs blow it, then win It vs. Blazers

VIDEO: Mavericks win wild one against Blazers

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks described their listless defeat at Denver on Wednesday night as embarrassing. What might have they called losing to the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 30?

Because they did indeed upchuck a 30-point cushion and it wasn’t looking pretty as they trailed 98-92 with 4:26 to go. Ultimately, Dallas avoided the humiliation of a super-sized “L” lassoed around their throats. What would have gone down as the largest lead tossed aside on their home floor in franchise history turned into the strangest of comeback wins, an 11-0 spurt down the stretch securing a 103-98 win the hard way.

“We’ve been blowing leads all year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, leaving the carnage of five blown leads of at least 17 points unspoken. “We’ve blown a lot of big leads, so this is one of the realities that we face with this team, and we’re going to keep working to prevent it from happening next time. That’s all we can do, that’s all we can do. … With 19 games left, we’ve got to work to prevent because tonight, if you talk about doing it the hard way, there’s no harder way to do it than tonight.”

Dallas built a 40-10 lead and then was outscored 79-42 and trailed 89-82 with 8:36 left in the game.

Five times this season Dallas has blown leads of at least 17 points. Just a few nights ago inside the American Airlines Center, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls crushed a 16-point first-half deficit and beat Dallas. Afterward, Dirk Nowitzki said he almost wished they hadn’t of built such a big lead so early.

He’ll also recall the 21-point bulge the Mavs had in the first quarter at Toronto on Jan. 22 and eventually lost. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been overly shocking since Dallas led the Raptors by 19 in Dallas and sill lost.

The worst relinquished lead, though, had to be that January night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The Mavs were burying the Clips in the fourth quarter and cruising toward a huge road victory. They led 123-106 with 4:35 to go and lost in a wild ending, 129-127.

This one was equally crazy in the final minutes. Portland wasn’t amused that Dallas got into the bonus basically three minutes into the fourth quarter, and then a close blocking call on Damian Lillard with 24.6 seconds left in a tie game allowed the driving Devin Harris to complete a three-point play for a 101-98 lead.

“I didn’t agree with the call,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said not surprisingly. Lillard agreed. Harris, also not surprisingly, said he didn’t believe Lillard had squared his shoulders, therefor the proper call was executed.

“A charge or a no-call, yeah,” Stotts said of what should have been where he stood. “It was [a big play]. I’m not going to complain about the officials. I disagree with the call. It was the play of the game because it was a tie game and a three-point play. It changes everything.”

But it wasn’t the only play. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the third quarter, shooting 63.6 percent to win the quarter 36-18. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the period. But in the final 4:26, Portland failed to score on nine consecutive possessions and Aldridge missed his last five shot attempts after his alley-oop dunk gave the Blazers a 98-92 lead. He couldn’t convert late near the hoop in all manner of traffic and Aldridge couldn’t believe he didn’t hear a whistle.

“I definitely felt like there were some calls that they got earlier that I didn’t get late,” Aldridge said. “The one that Dirk pump-faked and the guy went up in the air, I did it in the paint, they didn’t call it. I feel like one of the offensive rebounds I got hit a few times, so I mean, I don’t know, but I have to be better in the stretch.”

With 19 seconds left and the Blazers needing a 3 to tie, there was a cross-up and Aldridge threw the ball out of bounds, effectively ending any chance of coming back in a game they had already come back from down 30.

“I had some big miscues down the stretch,” the Dallas native Aldridge acknowledged. “I missed some shots down the stretch, so you know, fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win — not taking care of business.”

Season On The Brink For The Hawks?

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Magic

The Atlanta Hawks have struggled to keep up their early-season success of late.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Sooner or later, one way or another, you knew it was all going to catch up with the Atlanta Hawks.

The injuries.

The close losses.

The missed opportunities.

The injuries.

They weren’t going to stay above the fray in the Eastern Conference mix behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat forever. Not without Al Horford. Not with coach Mike Budenholzer pushing every button possible to make up for the loss of the team’s franchise player after his season-ending pectoral muscle tear the day after Christmas.

It’s amazing it took this long for the wheels to come off for the Hawks. They held on to their top-four status in the East for a good month after Horford went down. Jeff Teague played his guts out before injuries interrupted his season and he hasn’t been as consistent since. Elders like Elton Brand and Kyle Korver and pups like Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack rose up when they were needed. Paul Millsap even earned an All-Star nod, the first of his career, stepping into the void to replace what Horford gave the Hawks on a nightly basis.

But here they are now, with the smoke clearing and the mirrors smashed, facing their most grueling stretch of the calendar with their season on the brink as they cling to the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Wednesday night’s game in Boston begins a season-defining road stretch that includes stops in Phoenix Sunday, Portland (March 5), Golden State (March 7), Los Angeles (the Clippers on March 8) and finishing up in Utah (March 10). Survive this stretch and there is still hope that the Hawks can get healthy enough in time to at least fend off late-season charges from issue-laden Detroit, Cleveland and even woeful New York.

If the Hawks get buried on this road trip, they’ll surely get caught (and be passed up) by one of those teams. Not that they are looking that far ahead.

“You never should look ahead that far,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. “We’re just trying to get better and trust the system and let our work do the talking.”


VIDEO:
Al Horford suffers a season-ending pectoral injury in Cleveland

The power of positive thinking might not save the Hawks this time around. They overachieved early this season and their above-.500 work through early February was fool’s gold. The Hawks are 2-9 this month and don’t exactly boast a road reputation that gives reason to think this big trip will end well.

They are 9-19 on the road with wins over the likes of Sacramento, Charlotte, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Of that group, only the Bobcats are in the playoff mix.

The only saving grace for the Hawks is that they are not alone. Every team in the Eastern Conference not named the Pacers or Heat have to operate like their season is on the line over the course of the next four to six weeks. That’s how fluid the playoff picture is. Whoever gets hot the fastest can chew up some real estate in the standings and push their way into that No. 4-5-6-7 mix in the pecking order.

“We talked about that Monday in our meeting after the [Sunday loss to Miami],” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, taking his cue from Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Thibs said it best, we cannot exhale right now. We have to push through these next couple of games and weeks because this next stretch can alter your season and what you want to do if you let the fatigue of the season get to you. We look at the loss columns for everybody and we feel like we’re right there. You have to bounce back from tough losses and get back at it. Miami and Indiana have separated themselves from the pack, so everybody else has to be fighting for that next spot, that No. 3 seed. And we’re grinding for it right now.”

The Bulls are also grinding without the face of their franchise, Derrick Rose. They’ve surely dealt with their fair share of injuries and adversity this season. But some teams handle it better than others. They are 16-8 since trading Luol Deng to Central Division rival Cleveland. While the Hawks struggle to dig out from under their February avalanche, the Bulls surge along.

Thibodeau oozes confidence when talking about his wounded group, insisting that they have more than enough to get the job done each night. The Bulls’ experience operating under duress in recent seasons certainly aids that cause. Their familiarity with one another (and Thibodeau’s hard-charging style) are assets as well.

The Hawks, with a first-year coach in Budenholzer and a largely revamped roster, have no such benefits. General manager Danny Ferry had a chance to look for some temporary roster help at the trade deadline, but didn’t come away with anything that would make a significant impact.

The fact is, the Hawks are still finding out if they are cut from that same tough fabric the Bulls are. Time will tell. And time, particularly the next 13 days or so, will tell about these Hawks. They are 10-17 without Horford and their confidence seems to be fading.

“The interesting thing about the East,” Hawks veteran guard Lou Williams said, “and I’m trying to say the politically correct thing here … a couple of wins in a row here and you’ll be right back in the fold. We recognize and understand that. So our job is just go out, take it one game at a time and see if we can put a string of wins together and get there.”

That’s much easier said than done at this juncture for the Hawks, who can hear the clock ticking on their season.


VIDEO: The Hawks fight back, but can’t finish off the Bulls in Atlanta