Posts Tagged ‘Hawks’

Pacers’ title dreams fading fast

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jeff Teague knocks down the shot of the night in the Hawks’ win over the Pacers

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — As much as this moment is about Jeff Teague and his improbable shot (and the shrug that followed it), Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, and the feisty spirit of the worst team (on paper) in the playoffs choking the daylights out of the best team (on paper) in the Eastern Conference, it’s not.

Not yet.

The Atlanta Hawks have to wait to get their due. They won’t get the credit they deserve for dealing what could be a death-blow to the Indiana Pacers’ season and their fading championship dreams because the demise of coach Frank Vogel‘s team is that epic.

Startling doesn’t do the Pacers’ free-fall justice. Not now. Not after you watch them get taken apart the way they did Thursday night in a 98-85 loss at Philips Arena by a Hawks team that didn’t have to play great to beat them. The Hawks did make 10 of their 18 second-half 3-pointers.  And they had their way with the Pacers off the dribble, cashing in with 37 free-throw attempts. But they only shot 38 percent and got outrebounded by 10.

And yet, they were still the tougher team when it mattered. They certainly played well enough to shatter whatever is left of the false sense of confidence the Pacers packed for this road trip.

“It feels out of character for us to play this way,” Pacers All-Star Paul George said of his team’s scattered effort. “We can’t get comfortable with this, especially if we have a dream of winning it all. We have to be much tougher than what went on out there tonight. Our toughness in questionable right now, to say the least.”

As much as this series is about the Hawks and their Cinderella story — the only team in the playoffs with a losing record leading the top team in the conference 2-1 as a huge Saturday afternoon Game 4 looms that could push the Pacers over the edge — it’s about the nightmare the Pacers will endure if things continue the way they have for 10 of the 12 quarters these teams have played so far.

This is about Vogel and 7-foot-2 All-Star center Roy Hibbert, the biggest man in the series who has come up the smallest (3-for-16 from the floor the past two games). Vogel tried to say the right things after yet another disappearing act from his center. He proclaimed his confidence in Hibbert. He called him his team’s anchor and said he hadn’t lost faith in him. But he stopped short of saying that Hibbert would be in the starting lineup for Game 4.

“We’ll look at everything,” Vogel said. “Can’t say that right now, but I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. He hasn’t played well to this point, but I do have confidence … we’re not going to quit on him. I know that. We’re going to keep working with him and try and figure it out. We’ll see. He’s our anchor, we won 56 games with him as our starter and that’s the simplest answer.”

Can they win three more with him as the starter in this series? Hibbert has scored a grand total of 18 points (yes, you read that right) in the series and hasn’t recorded a single block. He’s had just one double-digit rebound game in his last 27 outings. That’s not the sort of production any team expects from its highest-paid player.

“We’ve all tried to talk to him and keep him confident,” David West said. “It’s hurting him. He wants to help us and he wants to play well. He’s hard on himself. We’ve got to figure out a way to get him involved. He’s got figure out a way to get himself involved. It’s a long playoff series, so we’re not going to panic. We came down here to get one game and that’s what we’re intending to do.”

Whether or not they’ll do it with Hibbert playing a major role remains to be seen. Ian Mahinmi played the final five minutes and 30 seconds of the third quarter in Hibbert’s place and Luis Scola played the entire fourth quarter as Hibbert sat on the bench.

When pressed one last time about whether or not he’ll keep Hibbert in that first five, Vogel still wouldn’t give a definitive answer.

“We’ll see,” he said, “… probably.”

There isn’t much time to deliberate. Pacers boss Larry Bird was caught on camera with his face buried in his hands during one disastrous possession early on in the game. It’s an appropriate reaction and gesture for the Pacers’ entire body of work since the All-Star break.

A 33-8 record at the halfway point of the season has morphed into pure chaos on and off the floor. They’ve crumbled under the weight of expectations at nearly every turn, every triumph meet with a corresponding hiccup.

Earlier Thursday George admitted that the Pacers had gotten full of themselves after that great start. They foolishly believed their own hype before recognizing that there was another half of the season to be played and that they’d do so as the hunted and not the hunter.

“We were competing with Miami and chasing that No. 1 seed instead of just building habits and focusing on ourselves and becoming a better team,” George said. “I think that’s where we got off track and what led us down this road.”

The road could come to an end much sooner than expected for the Pacers, long before that Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals they hunted for so long.

That’s why as much as this should be about the Hawks and what they’ve accomplished, to this point, it just can’t be … not with the tire fire that the Pacers’ season has become.

Hawks ignore drama, focus within

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Game 3 tonight at Philips Arena is critical for both the Hawks and Pacers

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – His responses sound like something you’d get from RoboCop, layered but brief and all about his team. Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer knows how this game is played.

You don’t spend as much time in the playoff mix, as he did for nearly two decades as an assistant in San Antonio learning from longtime Spurs boss and recently minted Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, and not understand how the game between games is played.

The Indiana Pacers are a team mired in turmoil just hours before Game 3 of this first round series against the Hawks tips off at Philips Arena tonight. A Yahoo! Sports report detailing a practice “fist-fight” between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner prior to the Hawks’ Game 1 win in Indianapolis is the latest item to catch fire.

“Every team goes through that,” said Pacers All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who has struggled mightily in this series. “Sometimes, you’ve got to get things off your chest instead of letting things fester.”

Pacers coach Frank Vogel is reportedly fighting for his job with every game swinging the momentum one way or the other, so much so that Pacers All-Star Paul George acknowledged that he’s feeling the pressure to save Vogel from the unemployment line.

“It’s the NBA, we’re all coaching for our jobs,” Vogel said. “All I know is that I’ve got incredible support from Larry [Bird]. We all have high expectations and we’re trying to win the next game.”

While the Pacers grapple with their own internal, chemistry issues, Budenholzer has his Hawks focused on the opportunity knocking with the series tied at 1-1. There’s no sense in peeking across the way to see how fragile the Pacers are right now. It’s something Budenholzer neither either cares about nor can control.

All he can do is focus within, make sure his team is prepared to rebound from that Game 2 whipping and seize control of the series by handling their business at home. From the start, Budenholzer has set a certain tone in Atlanta. It’s one that has been devoid of the emotional roller coaster many teams experience throughout the course of a season, and one that should serve his team well now.

“Our emotions are in a good place,” Budenholzer said. “I can’t really comment on or reference them [the Pacers]. Our group is resilient and competitive. I like our team’s personality. We have a challenge in Game 3 and we have to step up mentally and emotionally. But our group has been very resilient and tough-minded all year. We’ve felt good about them all year and that hasn’t changed.”

Budenholzer, wisely, is content with his team sticking strictly to the game and how they can take advantage of whatever mismatches they have in this series, rather than getting caught up in the media swirl surrounding their opponents. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap aren’t answering questions about the crumbling foundation of their team. Budenholzer doesn’t have to defend the work he’s done this season to anyone.

The Hawks are the only team in the playoff field that had a losing record during the regular season. But if we’ve learned anything through these first few days of the playoffs it’s that the seeding, in almost every series, has proved to be meaningless. The Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls, considered by many to be dark-horse title contenders, are both down 0-2 in their respective series after hosting the opening games.

A team as complete as the Spurs have been stung by the playoff chaos. They got thumped in Game 2 by Dallas and now have to scrap to regain their home-court advantage. With upheaval all over the playoff bracket, Budenholzer is playing it smart by sticking strictly to basketball.

“For our group and coaching staff, the seeds and who does what and all of those things that are discussed externally, we don’t really spend any time energy or thoughts on that,” Budenholzer said. “We’re more focused on what’s between the lines. We have high standards and we stick to those. We’ll compete and see where we are.”

Where they are is sitting in a prime position to continue a playoff trend of surprise teams upending the favorites and potentially pulling off the unthinkable.

“If you look at the overall picture, we’ve done our job,” Millsap said. “We came up [to Indianapolis] and got one. Now we have to hold it down at home.”

George adjusts, Pacers rebound and pound Hawks

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers regain their composure and rout the Hawks in Game 2

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget the sticks and stones next time. Just go straight to the name-calling. And the bigger the name calling out the Indiana Pacers, the better.

The Eastern Conference No. 1 seed needed a wake-up call, apparently that Game 1 defeat at home to the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t quite enough. Neither was their mediocre, at best, finish to the regular season.

Getting called out by TNT’s Charles Barkley, however, seems to be just what the Pacers needed to find themselves before Tuesday night’s must-win Game 2 effort against the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

A subtle reminder from the Chuckster that they were embarrassing themselves for the world to see (he called them “wussies”) served as inspiration for a Pacers crew that has tried a little bit of everything to get their groove back. The Pacers reacted and rebounded the way you’d expect the No. 1 seed to after being humbled in Game 1. Their 101-85 drubbing of the Hawks won’t be inconsequential if they continue to handle their business in this series, which resumes Thursday with Game 3 in Atlanta.

Paul George won’t have to answer those awkward questions about his team’s fragile psyche if he keeps working the way he did in Game 2. He’s the one who demanded Frank Vogel allow him to take the challenge of guarding Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. It was his energy, on both ends, that fueled the Pacers’ 31-13 third quarter clubbing that broke the game open.

No offense to Roy Hibbert or Lance Stephenson, but it’ll be George’s sustained play that will guide the Pacers this postseason. Yes, the Pacers will need contributions from all over, yeoman’s work like Luis Scola provided Tuesday night. But your superstars carry you in the playoffs.

George knows as much. He’s never been shy about discussing the lofty aspirations he has for himself and his team. He showed that he was more than capable during the Pacers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. He showed it again Tuesday night, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals, infusing the Pacers’ attack with just the right mix of swagger and grit (his barking session with Teague and the entire Hawks bench early set just the right tone).

“That’s why he was in the MVP conversation early,” Vogel said.

George’s 3-point dagger to punctuate the Pacers’ run didn’t hurt either.


VIDEO: PG punctuates the Pacers’ third quarter run with this buzzer-beating pull-up 3-pointer

“We put our print on this game in the third quarter, which we’ve done in November, December and January basketball,” George said. “We got back to that. I thought we did a great job of really just locking in, coming out in the second half, on what we needed to do.”

His teammates chasing him down after that 3-pointer to end the third quarter was a cathartic celebration, one that validated the Pacers’ return to the frame of mind that George mentioned they had in November, December and January.

“We’re together,” he said. “We’re together. If that’s what it took for everyone to understand how close this team is, that’s what it was. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s what if felt like … that’s exactly what it felt like.”

That said, George and the Pacers need to be extra careful as the series shifts from their home floor to Atlanta. They still have plenty of work to repair the damage done to their brand since All-Star weekend. They haven’t even crawled completely out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves in this series.

They still have to snatch home-court advantage back from the Hawks and make good on their season-long yapping about the importance of securing that No. 1 seed in the East.

It won’t be easy. The Hawks are well aware of the matchup advantages they own in this series. Teague and Paul Millsap weren’t nearly as devastating as they were in Game 1, much of Teague’s struggles were due to George’s locking in on him on defense, but they’ll no doubt be energized by their home crowd and the huge opportunity that awaits in Game 3.

But even if his teammates are not yet up to the task, George seemed energized. Maybe that fishing trip the other day did wonders for the All-Star swingman. Perhaps getting away from the chaos in that way was just what he needed, and in turn exactly what the struggling Pacers needed.

George is the Pacers’ lone legit star, so he’ll have to carry the heaviest load the rest of the way regardless. As aware as any young star in the league of what needs to be done to become the sort of player he aspires to be, George knows better than anyone that this is a critical phase for the Pacers.

Had they gone down 0-2 to a feisty Hawks team, the “gone fishing” thing would have a completely different context. So that lack of urgency the Pacers exhibited in the first half, when the Hawks seemingly had control of the game, has to end now. There’s no room for that sort of lethargy from a team that claims to be focused on much bigger and better things.

The Pacers must finish this series and continue in these playoffs, by any means necessary, with George taking up whatever assignment needed to get his team back on track. That’s non-negotiable for a team that spent months building a bridge back to the Eastern Conference finals, a bridge that begins and ends on their home floor …

Provided, of course, George can lead them there.


VIDEO: Paul George and Luis Scola meet the media after the Pacers’ Game 2 win

Proud Hawks keep playoff streak alive

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jeff Teague talks about the Hawks clinching their playoff bid against the Heat

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – They did it with their best player sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle since Christmas, with a parade of journeymen and supposedly over the hill stars like Elton Brand filling in and playing huge minutes, with the likes of Pero Antic and Mike Scott, Cartier Martin and DeMarre Carroll playing vital roles.

Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, fantastic basically from start to the near finish of this regular season for the now playoff bound Atlanta Hawks, can probably walk around the city without being rushed by fans for autographs. Would you even know Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap if he walked up on you in street clothes?

Perhaps … but probably not.

Reserve guard Lou Williams, in and out of the regular rotation all season, is arguably the most recognizable face on the roster for locals, and that’s mostly because he played his high school ball in the area at South Gwinnett High.

These Hawks are the poster child for the anti-tanking movement, a motley crew if ever there was one, bound for a first round playoff matchup against either the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (the team they beat Saturday to secure their Eastern Conference-best seventh straight postseason trip) or the struggling Indiana Pacers.

Instead of accepting their fate after All-Star center Al Horford saw his season end the day after Christmas due to a torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks survived and advanced to yet another trip to the playoff line.

Williams, who scored 18 of the Hawks’ 29 fourth-quarter points, including the final 12 Atlanta points of the game, admitted that the opponent Saturday night did not matter. The outcome was the sole focus.

“It doesn’t make a difference (who the opponent was),” he said. “That was our second time beating them this year. We gave them an overtime run earlier this year. It’s a team we’ve played well against this season. It was just satisfying to get a win and be in the groove that we’re in.”

As stubborn as they are fearless, Mike Budenholzer‘s Hawks finished the season series with a 2-2 record against the Heat. They had the same mark against the Indiana Pacers, the team they’d face if the playoffs began today. Whoever earns that No. 1 seed will be dealing with a No. 8 seed just crazy enough to believe they can compete with the best.

They could have packed it in and headed for the lottery, like so many others. Their fans wouldn’t have blamed them. The prospect of a higher pick in the lottery and the wistfulness that comes with it make for an easy sell. What could be is always a powerful elixir when you know there is no hope for a championship.

The hard work and dedication it takes to earn a playoff berth, even in a year when the Eastern Conference is historically weak, shows a level of perseverance that the Hawks should be applauded for showing. They knocked the dysfunctional Knicks (and former Hawks coach Mike Woodson) out of the playoff mix, ending Carmelo Anthony‘s personal playoff streak at 10 seasons.

Budenholzer is working with a much different talent base than Woodson did when he started the Hawks’ playoff streak. Horford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia comprised the core group. Hawks boss Danny Ferry hasn’t had the time to build a comparable core group, yet.

They backdoored their way into the No. 8 seed in 2008 and promptly scared the life out of the top-seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics with an epic seven-game series that was as entertaining as it was intense, considering one team finished the regular season 66 wins and the other with 37. (It was arguably the Celtics’ toughest series during their championship run, seeing as how they only saw one more Game 7 — against Cleveland — during their march to the Larry O’Brien trophy.)

“I’m happy that we get to play more games and I get to talk more about improving, and getting better each practice,” Budenholzer said after his team outlasted LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat before a raucous home crowd Saturday night. “We want to build something here. Miami has been in the Finals for three years in a row. There are a lot of teams that have had a lot of success. It takes time to build your habits. (Miami’s) habits are outstanding. We want to continue to build our habits and continue to improve. Our group has really fought hard and competed hard this year. I think they got what they deserved.”

The Hawks got exactly what they earned, which is at least four more games for this bunch to show that sometimes it’s hard to break a habit of winning your way into the playoffs.


VIDEO: Jeff Teague leads the way as the Hawks earn their seventh straight playoff bid

Morning Shootaround — April 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat win the numbers game over the Pacers | Pierce becomes the 18th player to reach 25,000 | Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer … ever? | Raptors ready to hang another banner | Clippers to get Crawford back tonight

No. 1: Numbers that matter favor the Heat in Pacers seriesLeBron James made sure the Miami Heat evened their regular season series with the Indiana Pacers, going off for 36 points in the Friday night showdown on NBA TV and making sure there were no doubts heading into the playoffs that the two-time NBA champs are ready for all challengers. But while the Heat own the numbers game over the Pacers, Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote believes there are quite a few assumptions being made about the two teams everyone feels are destined for a playoff rematch in the Eastern Conference finals:

The Heat’s game against the Pacers here Friday night understandably was billed as the battle for No. 1 — for the top conference playoff seeding as the NBA postseason fast approaches. It was supposed to be crucial because it would determine who would have home-court advantage in a deciding Game 7 in these teams’ inevitable Eastern finals rematch.

Nice, neat little story line.

Only one small problem with the premise.

It assumes both teams will advance that far, a presumption that seems mighty flattering right now to one of those teams.

The Pacers look disheveled and done, frustrated and finished. They look lost, their downward spiral continued by a decisive 98-86 Heat victory at the downtown bayside arena, an outcome putting Miami in control of that top seeding.

Here is why the outcome had to be so disheartening for Indiana fans and such a shot of adrenaline for Miami’s chances of a third consecutive championship.

The Pacers were the Pacers again, healthy, rested and supposedly re-energized after their fatigued starters recently were given three consecutive day off.

And the Heat still was not the Heat, not fully, not with Dwyane Wade missing a ninth consecutive game on account of a strained left hamstring.

Yet LeBron James with 36 points led his depleted champions to a resounding triumph that tipped on a 16-0 Miami run to open the second half.

The Heat has too much offensive firepower, even sans Wade, for light-scoring Indiana, which has too little in the way of a counter-punch. Pacers top scorer Paul George has not been anything special most of the second half of this season, and Miami seems to have discovered a weapon to stop Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 behemoth who is a lumbering slug against the rest of the NBA but tends to take a star turn against Miami.

The Heat’s not-so-secret weapon against Hibbert? His name is Udonis Haslem. He held Hibbert to a whispering five points and one rebound Friday. Haslem had fallen out of the rotation this season but seems to be a big factor again as the playoffs loom.

“It’s great to have U.D. back,” James said of Haslem. “He’s the heart and soul of our team.”

Haslem gave up 6 inches and 55 pounds to Hibbert but won the matchup with hustle, with knee burns on wood earned diving after loose balls. Haslem turns 34 in June, right around the time of the NBA Finals. With obvious affection, coach Erik Spoelstra calls him “our old warrior.”

“He set the tone early,” Spoelstra said. “It’s what going on in here, which you can’t teach.”

As he said “here,” Spoelstra tapped his finger on his chest, over his heart.


VIDEO: The Heat’s Chris Bosh talks about the win over the Pacers

***

No. 2: Paul Pierce joins the exclusive 25,000-point club – Not that he needed the boost, but is there any doubt that Paul Pierce will join the Hall of Fame club one day now that he’s scored his pass to the all-exclusive 25,000-point club, becoming just the 18th player in NBA history to reach that mark? It’s a nod to not only his elite scoring ability but also his dedication to the craft and the longevity it takes to reach such heights. Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNewYork.com helps put Pierce’s accomplishment into better perspective:

Pierce became the 18th player in NBA history to score at least 25,000 career points in Friday night’s 93-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center.

“I told him, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ ” said teammate Kevin Garnett, who is also a member of the exclusive club.

” ‘Truth’ has been a big part of this league. He’s one of my great friends, best friends. We’ve had some accomplishments together, done some great things together, and tonight it was all about him. I’m happy for him.”

Pierce, Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are the only four active players in the league to have reached the milestone.

“It’s better to be in the championship club obviously,” Pierce said when told of the comment from Garnett, with whom he won a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008. “Statistical things, they come and go. There’s gonna be players in the future that pass me up, but when you win, that lasts forever. It’s great. I’m gonna enjoy being part of history. It’s just a testament to my hard work and consistency over the years and good health.”

Pierce came into Friday night’s game just five points shy of reaching the mark. He knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:09 remaining in the second quarter to give him 25,001 career points. Pierce had started off 1 of 5 from the field before draining the milestone shot.

“It’s hard not to [think about it],” said Pierce, who finished with 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting. “Everybody’s talking about it. My family’s here, my friends that’s all they’re talking about, and I was the same way when I reached the 20,000-point mark. I remember I couldn’t hit a shot in the first quarter because I was pressing just to get it. I’m just glad it’s over with and I can just focus on the rest of the season.”

Pierce received a nice ovation from the home crowd after his accomplishment was recognized by the public address announcer.

The 36-year-old has averaged 21.3 points per game during his 16-year career. He spent the first 15 seasons with the Celtics, and currently ranks second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list behind John Havlicek.


VIDEO: Paul Pierce joins the 25,000-point club

***

No. 3: Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer ever? — Welcome to the 50-point scorer’s club Corey Brewer, we had no idea you’d be joining the party. Since you’ve never scored 30 points in a game in your seven seasons in the league … until Friday night, of course, when you smoked the Houston Rockets for half of a hundred. Brewer also joined the elite list of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Rick Barry as the only players to score 50 points and collect six steals in the same game. The other three guys are either already in or locks for the Hall of Fame. Brewer … is not, as Ryan Feldman of ESPN Stats & Information explains:

Brewer is the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 50 points in a game without having previously scored 30 points in a game.

The lowest previous career high for a player to score 50 points in a game was 26 by Terrence Ross (earlier this season for the Toronto Raptors) and Tony Delk (in 2000-01 for the Phoenix Suns).

Brewer, in his seventh NBA season, is the most experienced player ever to score 50 points without having previously scored 30.

The only other players to score 50 before ever scoring 30 among players with at least two full seasons of NBA experience were Delk (fifth season in 2000-01) and Willie Burton (1994-95 season with the Philadelphia 76ers was his fifth season).

Brewer averaged 9.9 points per game in his career entering Friday, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for a player at the time of scoring 50 points. The lowest was Ross, who averaged 7.4 before scoring 51 back in January.

Brewer now averages 10.0 points per game, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for any 50-point scorer (including every career game for players after they scored 50). The lowest on that list? Walt Wesley (8.5 career points per game), who joined the 50-point club with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1970-71 season.

And let’s not forget about a few other notables:

Tracy Murray, who scored 50 for the Washington Wizards in 1997-98, averaged 9.0 points per game for his career.

Phil Smith and Phil Chenier both joined the 50-point club in the 1970s before ever scoring 30 in a game.

Dana Barros had eight 30-point games, all for the 76ers in 1994-95, his only season averaging more than 13.3 points per game. That season, he scored 50 against the Rockets on 21-of-26 shooting.

***

No. 4: Raptors ready to hang another banner with Atlantic Division title wrapped up – No one said it was going to be easy, the Toronto Raptors getting to the top of the heap of the Atlantic Division. After all, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks were both projected to finish ahead of them in the race this season. But as the sun rises this morning north of the border, it’s the scrappy Raptors (losers to the Knicks Friday night on their home floor) who have emerged victorious in the chase. Losing your way into winning a division title makes for a rather odd but satisfying celebration, according to Cousin Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

The lone banner signifying Raptors success will soon have another flying next to it in the Air Canada Centre.

It was an odd celebration — barely a celebration at all — but the Raptors did manage to secure the second Atlantic Division title in franchise history on Friday night.

Coach Dwane Casey was deconstructing a 108-100 loss to the New York Knicks at about the same time the players were bemoaning a lost opportunity and the Atlanta Hawks were providing a helping hand by beating the Brooklyn Nets to hand the division to the Raptors.

So while there were commemorative t-shirts mandated by the league — Atlantic Is Ours, they said — there was hardly a raucous celebration raging in the locker room.

“It sucks that we lost the game, especially with us trying to hold on to the third spot (in the East) but it feels great to win the division,” said DeMar DeRozan. “I don’t think anyone would have picked us to win it, so it is definitely an accomplishment.

“The feel is we are still anxious, we want more, we aren’t satisfied with anything. We still have much basketball to play and have a long road to go.

“We want to take advantage of it, not just get there and say we got there and say we got there when people doubted us. We feel like we can go in there and make some noise.”

***

No. 5: Clippers Crawford set for a Saturday return – The best sixth-man in the business is set for a Saturday return, per Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com. And it comes at the perfect time for the Los Angeles Clippers, as they welcome back Jamal Crawford in the lead up to the first round of the Western Conference playoffs:

Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford practiced with the team Friday and is expected to play Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.

Crawford has been sidelined the past five games with a strained left calf. It was the same injury that sidelined him for eight of nine games last month.

The Clippers are officially listing Crawford as a “game-time decision” for Saturday but he is expected to play for the first time since March 29.

“I think it’s huge from a chemistry standpoint to get everybody back healthy,” Crawford said. “At that point we’d just be missing Danny [Granger]. Just to get back into rhythm after missing some [time] would be huge. You want to play your best heading into the playoffs.”

Granger, who has missed the past six games with a strained left calf, shot with the team on Friday and is hoping to return for the team’s playoff opener next week.

Coach Doc Rivers last week thought Crawford and Granger would be out until the playoffs started, but with Crawford coming back and Granger on track to return next week, Rivers could have a fully healthy roster for the first time this season just as the playoffs begin.

“I think it’s great,” Rivers said. “I think it’s great for him and the team.”


VIDEO: Corey Brewer goes off for a career-high 51 points

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pacers have changed their tune now that the No. 1 seed seems to have slipped away …  The Warriors bounce back, bounce Lakers and clinch playoff berth … Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva is facing an uncertain future …  The Atlanta Hawks mourn the death of “Sweet Lou” Hudson …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Steph Curry goes off again and Big Al Jefferson shreds the competition inside once more …


VIDEO: All of the Lakers found out the hard way what it means to deal with Steph Curry

 


VIDEO: Al Jefferson 32-point, 10-rebound night was routine work for the Bobcats big man

 

Hawks, NBA mourn Lou Hudson’s death

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Hawks legend Lou Hudson died at age 69

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hawks great Lou Hudson passed away this morning at 69.

A six-time NBA All-Star, Hudson had been in a local Atlanta hospital on life support after a suffering severe stroke late last month. He was reportedly taken off of life support two weeks ago and remained in a coma until his death.

Lou Hudson

Lou Hudson was a six-time All-Star as a member of the Hawks.

Hudson is one of three Hawks with his number (23) retired, joining Bob Pettit (No. 9) and Dominique Wilkins (No. 21) on that elite list. Known as “Sweet Lou,” Hudson played 11 of his 13 NBA seasons for the Hawks and during his stellar career averaged 20.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

Hudson was a first round pick of the Hawks (No. 4 overall) in the 1966 NBA Draft after starring at the University of Minnesota in college, where he also had his No. 14 jersey retired. A native of Greensboro, N.C., Hudson was a three-sport star (football, track and basketball) in high school and was also drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1966 despite never having played a single down of college football.

But Hudson made his mark in a Hawks uniform. Beginning with the 1969-70 season, Hudson put together a stretch of five consecutive years where he averaged at least 24.0 ppg. He averaged 20 or more points in seven of his 11 seasons with the Hawks and still shares the franchise single-game scoring record, having put up 57 points against Chicago on November 10, 1969.

“Lou Hudson holds a special place in the Hawks family, in the hearts of our fans and in the history of our club,” Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon said in a statement released by the team. “As a fan growing up with this team, I’m fortunate to say I was able to see almost every game Sweet Lou played as a member of the Hawks. He was an integral part of successful Hawks teams for over a decade, and is deservedly recognized with the ultimate symbol of his significance to the franchise with the number 23 hanging inside Philips Arena. On behalf of the Hawks organization, I’d like to extend condolences to Lou’s family and friends.”

Ex-Hawks teammates Smith, Horford ponder what might have been

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Al Horford talks about his relationship with former teammate Josh Smith

ATLANTA – As different as they were and are, as players and people, the chemistry was undeniable. And it was instantaneous on the court for both Josh Smith and Al Horford, the former staples in the Atlanta Hawks’ frontcourt for six seasons.

Most folks agree they both played out of their comfort zones — Horford at center and Smith as some sort of hybrid power/small forward — but they did it with and energy and fervor. That duo fueled six straight playoff trips that spanned from Horford’s rookie season in 2007-08 through last season, Smith’s ninth and final campaign with his hometown team. After a first-round loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, Smith left town for free-agent riches in Detroit that weren’t available here.

Nearly a full season later, the No. 8-seeded Hawks host the playoff-eliminated Pistons tonight (7:30 ET, League Pass) in a make-up game that was postponed because of a snowstorm. Neither Horford nor Smith are expected to suit up for due to injuries. Still, the questions linger.

Were they friends … or merely co-workers? Was their a rift between them that made working together for say another six years impossible … or was their split precipitated simply by the business of the NBA? And what might have been if the Hawks had decided to build around and play through their undersized frontcourt stars from the start?

“I think we both have only wanted the best for each other in life,” Smith said of his relationship with Horford. “He’s a little different from what I’m accustomed to off the court, in terms of just our personalities and where we come from, but we were always cool on and off the court. We fed off of each other. Even when he made those All-Star teams when I was here, it was like I made it I was so excited for him. It took some of the sting away for me knowing that one of us was representing for our team. And that chemistry was instant because it equaled success. Playing with a guy of his caliber and feeding off of each other each and every night … it was special.”

The answers to those questions, and plenty more, flow freely from both men now that they’ve had some time to reflect on just how hard it is to sustain playoff-level success. The pain and disappointment of seasons filled with injury and unmet expectations have a way of clearing the past’s haze.

“I think we had different personalities, definitely. Josh is probably louder or whatever and I’m probably more laid back, but we got along because we’re both competitors and wanted to win,” Horford said. “He’s very smart. He’s a very smart basketball player. He gets the game and understands the game. I learned so much from him. We had a good relationship. It was definitely good.

“His mom and my mom would have karaoke nights, so I would definitely be over there hanging out with them and things like that. It was good, we definitely had a good relationship. Josh is a good guy. Like you said, there probably wasn’t a lot of emotion going on, but I respect his game and I respect him.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith had big hopes for himself in his first season in Detroit

Smith believes there was more they could have accomplished together, had they been allowed to finish what they started.

“I don’t think we hit a ceiling as teammates,” he said. “I think we didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to maximize our potential together. I think it could have worked. We could have a been a smaller version of the twin-towers down there on the block where we were both getting featured. Who knows what it might have been? You never know … until you have a coach who says these are the guys we’re going to go through every night and we’ll see what happens.”

The Hawks should be headed back to the playoffs, provided they survive the next two weeks. But they’ll have to do so without Horford, who tore his right pectoral muscle on Dec. 26 and has not played since. He tore his left pectoral muscle in 2011 and eventually came back for the playoffs, but he’s already ruled out trying to do so this time around. Paul Millsap, Smith’s replacement in the lineup, was an All-Star berth this season. But he’s never gotten the chance to develop the sort of chemistry with Horford that Smith had.

The Pistons, picked by many to be one of the upstarts in the Eastern Conference this season after adding Smith and Brandon Jennings to a core that included promising young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, struggled mightily to start 2013-14. They never mounted a comeback in the standings, coach Maurice Cheeks was fired 50 games into the season and now, it’s no secret that longtime Pistons boss Joe Dumars is expected to resign sometime soon.

Smith will shoulder much of the burden in Detroit. As the team’s highest paid player, the player Dumars targeted and landed in free agency, he’s paid to carry that weight. And he’s fine with that. He believes the Pistons can do what the Hawks once did: turn a struggling outfit into a playoff regular.

Talented big men in Drummond and Monroe are good building blocks, but the Pistons must work through whatever issues arise and cultivate the right chemistry, the kind Smith and Horford used to use to torment opposing big men.

“The thing that stood out to me was how they could both rebound and push the ball in transition,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the Smith/Hoford combo. “They could find each other and have plays that made them special. But they could find shooters on the perimeter, too. And just to have two big guys that could really rebound and push and make plays in transition, the ballhandling and passing, it made them different and unique.”

It was the differences that clicked with Smith and Horford. But there were plenty of similarities as well. Most notably, they are both fiercely loyal family men, and that included their extended, work families. Their mothers became fast friends while they were teammates, with those karaoke nights, dinners and card-playing parties at the center of many gatherings. Their moms, Paulette Smith and Arelis Reynoso, were perhaps even better friends off the court than their sons.

“My mother is an open-arms type of person, always wanting to cook for somebody and hang out,” Smith said. “When Al’s mom came here she was the same way, so naturally they embraced each other. And it was great to see. You never forget how someone treats your family. And I consider Al and his entire family as an extended part of my own, and I always will.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith’s high-flying ways have continued in Detroit

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”


VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.


VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

‘Nique Not Impressed With LeBron’s 61




VIDEO: LeBron James talks about his 61-point night

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Complete honesty is a beautiful thing, even when it steps on the toes of the narrative of the day.

Hall of Famer and former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins is a straight shooter. So when he went on a Twitter roll Tuesday night and mentioned that he was not impressed with the career-high 61-point night Miami Heat superstar LeBron James put up against the Charlotte Bobcats Monday night the basketball world responded.

Some agreed with ‘Nique, plenty more disagreed with his analysis … sampled here:

Revisionist historians will certainly see some merit in ‘Nique’s tweets and argue that LeBron performs on the regular against a diminished human product than what ‘Nique and his Hall of Fame contemporaries faced.

I would caution the Human Highlight Film, however, from suggesting that we all go back and watch the tape from start to finish. All we see these days are quick two and three-minute highlight clips of their exploits. The dunks, and fantastic shots and legendary plays and moments of their careers.

The full tape might show something else. Not every team played top-flight defense in the past. And you didn’t have to battle Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird every single night.

No one is more wistful about the past than I am. I grew up on the NBA ‘Nique is comparing and contrasting to the league LeBron is currently working in and dominating. So I understand exactly where he’s coming from. I just don’t agree completely with his thoughts.

LeBron and some of his contemporaries are doing things that haven’t been done in decades, since before Nique’s era …

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