Posts Tagged ‘Kyle Korver’

Horford savors Hawks’ breakthrough


VIDEO: Al Horford played hero for the Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals

ATLANTA — Al Horford never put a timetable on it.

He wasn’t thinking that far ahead when the Hawks made him the third pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and he went from two-time college champion to starting center for a struggling outfit in Atlanta, where he knew enough to know that there would be no Final Fours and contending for titles right away.

Fast forward eight years and Horford and the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage, facing off against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the right to go to The Finals. To say this ride has been something of a roller coaster would be an understatement of epic proportions. And not just this stunning season, one that began with no one outside of the Hawks’ most die-hard of supporters believing this sort of dream season was possible, but the entire trip from the moment he arrived to now, the moment when he and the Hawks have truly arrived.

“I think you acknowledge it,” Horford said of the Hawks’ breakthrough to the conference final round for the first time in the franchise’s Atlanta history. “But then you move on and realize that is more work to be done. That’s what I did after Game 6 in Washington. It was like, ‘man, that’s good but we still want more and we are still looking forward to the next round.'”

The compressed schedule for mountain climbing in college makes it much easier to get caught up in the moment at that level. Superstar players spend one, maybe two and rarely three seasons on campus before departing for the adventure that is professional basketball. Horford did not enter Florida as a guaranteed pro, a surefire one-and-done prospect headed for the top of the Draft. His journey was different.

And he knew that from the start. That’s what made winning back-to-back titles with the Gators so great. Same goes for a NBA career that began with him being selected behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant eight years ago. The road to back to respectability for the Hawks has been an arduous one. The fact that it’s been paved on Horford’s watch, with his blood, sweat and perhaps a tear or two over the years, makes this moment even sweeter than you might imagine.

Once the youngster of the bunch — playing alongside Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia, Mike Bibby and others — Horford’s the seasoned veteran now. A three-time All-Star, he’s the one pointing the way for youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, alongside fellow veterans and All-Stars Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and veteran swingman DeMarre Carroll. 

As much hard work as it takes to grind away this long before reaching the conference finals, it also takes a ton of patience to continue plugging away with all of the distractions, on and off the court, that came up along the way. The cast of characters has changed dramatically and there have been regime changes in the front office and coaching ranks. The one constant has been Horford and his undeniable work ethic and desire to be better this year than he was the year before.

“You’ve got to look at yourself as an individual and it depends on where your goals are,” he said. “I always wanted to be a better player. I always wanted to challenge myself. For me it’s just, I feel like the league is changing quickly and every year I want to make sure I can be better and to put my team into a position to be successful. That’s always my mindset, to make it a point of just getting better and not feeling content with what you have done.”

Horford has found a kindred spirit in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose arrival before the start of the 2013-14 season ushered in a totally different program than what the Hawks were used to. The emphasis on player development and individual skill building became more than just operational procedure. It became a mission for all involved.

The results are obvious.

The best season in franchise history during the regular season. The breakthrough, finally, to the conference finals. And who know what else looms on the horizon in the next two weeks. There are children growing up in Atlanta who will identify Horford’s time with the Hawks as some of the greatest times in franchise history, from the flash of the Highlight Factory days to this trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four and the matchup against LeBron, the face of a generation in the NBA.

“When you get to this point, if you want to be one of the best teams, you have to go through the best players and teams,” Horford said. “There are no shortcuts when you get to this stage of the season. We have a huge challenge in front of us, and we obviously don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but I think this is the way you want to do things.”

Numbers preview: Hawks-Cavaliers


VIDEO: All-access: The top-seeded Hawks and Warriors advance

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Though they both looked vulnerable at times, the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business to give us the conference finals matchup we’ve been anticipating since the Hawks went on a 33-2 run after Thanksgiving.

This series is a contrast of styles. The Cavs are a team that relies heavily on LeBron James, especially with Kevin Love out for the postseason and Kyrie Irving dealing with leg injuries. The Hawks, meanwhile, like to share the wealth.

While James has been to the conference finals seven times in his 12-year career, this is the first trip there for the Hawks since 1970. Kyle Korver (in 2011 with Chicago) and Paul Millsap (in 2007 with Utah) are their only rotation players who have been here before.

But the Hawks have the knowledge that they tore up what had been an improved Cleveland defense in the final regular-season meeting between the two teams. In the regular season, only one team — New Orleans — scored more efficiently against the Cavs than Atlanta did.

The Cavs scored pretty efficiently against the Hawks too. And the conference finals promises to bring new wrinkles to this matchup. James faced the San Antonio Spurs in the last two Finals. To get there again, he’ll have to get through the Spurs of the East.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Eastern Conference finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Atlanta Hawks (60-22)

Beat Brooklyn in six games.
Beat Washington in six games.
Pace: 96.8 (6)
OffRtg: 102.0 (9)
DefRtg: 98.2 (2)
NetRtg: +3.9 (4)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Hawks playoff notes:

Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)

Beat Boston in four games.
Beat Chicago in six games.
Pace: 92.9 (16)
OffRtg: 108.2 (1)
DefRtg: 98.8 (4)
NetRtg: +9.5 (1)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Cavs playoff notes:

The matchup

Season series: Hawks won 3-1 (2-0 in Atlanta)
Pace: 95.4
ATL OffRtg: 114.2 (2nd vs. CLE)
CLE OffRtg: 110.8 (4th vs. ATL)

Matchup notes:

Hawks weigh rest versus rhythm


VIDEO: Will John Wall be ready for the Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals?

ATLANTA — The Washington Wizards, All-Star point guard John Wall in particular, needs rest.

He needs every second, every minute of every day between Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to rest that fractured left wrist and hand of his.

The Hawks, on the other hand, would just as soon get back to it as quickly as possible. The three days between games slows their momentum. They need to continue their rhythm more than they need three full days of rest between games.

It’s a delicate balance, managing the NBA playoff schedule, depending on which side of the good vibrations your team is on. For the Hawks, getting back on the winning track in Game 2 felt good. Taking a few days to cool off might not be to their benefit.

In fact, the quicker they get back to it, the better. Saturday’s 5 p.m. ET tipoff for Game 3 cannot get here fast enough.

“It feels good, physically it gives our bodies a rest,” Paul Millsap said of the break. “Mentally, we continue to prepare as a team and get better and either way I think it’s good for us.”

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said the time off allows he and his staff to lock in and tweak things and correct any areas where there has been noticeable slippage in his team’s performance. Jeff Teague‘s sore ankle also has time to rest, as does Al Horford‘s sore finger and whatever other bumps and bruises the Hawks are dealing with at this time.

“To have a couple of days to pay a little more attention to detail and pay attention to the purpose with which we do things, you feel like you can do it in practice and not be overtaxing,” Budenholzer said. “so hopefully, when we play on Saturday we’ll know much more. But hopefully, when you have a couple of extra days of practice it’s always a good thing.”

The grind of the quick turnaround from a Game 6 win over Brooklyn on a Friday night to a 1 p.m. tip Sunday for Game 1 against the Wizards, a game the Hawks lost, took its toll. So any natural break in the action between games can be used to the their advantage this time around.

“I think the break came for us at a good time,” Kyle Korver said. “We had a really quick turnaround between series. We had a really physical games here lately. I think we played the late game in New York. And I think I got to bed at 4:30 in the morning, came here and watched some film (on Saturday) and then played the early game on Sunday. And it’s been a couple of physical games in this series, so for us, for me and a lot of us, these couple of days in the middle have been great and you have to take advantage of them.”

The time off gives the Hawks a chance to recharge their batteries and the Wizards a chance to figure out how they proceed potentially without Wall in the mix. Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce and Ramon Sessions, who started in Wall’s place in Game 2, will all have to maintain an extremely high level of production to offset the absence of Wall, if he’s not cleared to play in Game 3 and or Game 4.

It doesn’t change any of the preparation plans for the Hawks, though. Wall’s status for the weekend is still being evaluated. The Hawks can’t wait. They leave for Washington tonight and will practice in Friday on site, readying themselves for a game Wizards team with or without their All-Star point guard in uniform.

“It was good to get back in the win column in this series,” Korver said. “We know we have to win one there (in Washington), so that’s our mindset.”

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 200): Cinco De Playoffs!

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — It’s a holiday.

Pick one.

Cinco De Mayo … Taco Tuesday … the NBA’s conference semifinals on both sides of the playoff conference divide are upon us.

Whatever you do tonight and for the foreseeable future, you’ve got the playoffs to enjoy. And so far, there have been no disappointments.

The newly minted KIA MVP, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, are making sure of it. Same goes for LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and (soon to show up) J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers; Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls; John Wall, Bradley Beal and Paul Pierce of the Washington Wizards; Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul (as soon as he returns from resting that hamstring) of the Los Angeles Clippers; Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks, James Harden, Dwight Howard and … ah, you get the point.

Instead of focusing on who is not coming to our Cinco De Playoffs party, we’re focusing on those who are present on Episode 200 of The Hang Time Podcast. And despite a tremendous marketing campaign to the contrary, there are plenty of guys interested in playing hero this time of year. In fact, it’s a right of passage.

So whoever you root for, wherever you are, pull up a seat and join us for Episode 200 of The Hang Time Podcast: Cinco De Playoffs?

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, Andrew Merriman.

– 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: Stephen Curry is your new KIA MVP

Morning Shootaround — May 2


VIDEO: All the highlights from Game 6 of Hawks-Nets

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks finally move on | Spurs, Clippers face off in Game 7 | Billy Donovan meets Oklahoma City
| Report: Kings not interested in trading Cousins

No. 1:Hawks finally move on — Most observes figured the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks wouldn’t have much trouble in the first round of the playoffs against the eight-seed Brooklyn Nets. Instead, it took the Hawks six games and one overtime session to eliminate the Nets, which finally happened last night as the Hawks won Game 6 in Brooklyn, 111-87. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann writes, it may have taken them a while, but the Hawks finally looked like a No. 1 seed again …

With the Eastern Conference well in hand once they beat the Cavs for a third time in early March, Atlanta lost some of its momentum over the final month of the season. And they didn’t look like a 60-win team for much of this series.

But Game 6 was clearly their best. And the short turnaround before the conference semifinals might allow them to take some momentum into Game 1 against Washington.

“We lost Game 4, and you never want that to happen,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But I think we were moving in the right direction, 4, 5, 6. At the end of the day, you got to get back to work and get prepared for Game 1. If you assume anything, you’re in trouble. But I think this was great for us, to play playoff basketball, to compete like you have to in the playoffs.”

“We didn’t play that well the first three games,” Kyle Korver added. “I didn’t think we had our edge. I think coming here and losing two kind of woke us up. I think we can still play better, but we come out of this series playing better than we did going into the playoffs, for sure.”

***

No. 2:Spurs, Clippers face off in Game 7 — Today is being billed as one of sports’s biggest days: The Kentucky Derby, Mayweather/Pacquiao, the NFL Draft, Yankees/Red Sox. But the day’s biggest event may just be Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. The Clips and Spurs were arguably the two hottest teams in the NBA over the last few weeks of the NBA season, and their improbable first matchup has not disappointed. And as Sekou Smith writes, looking at the numbers in the context of history just adds interest to tonight’s game…

Doc Rivers has a 5-5 career record in Game 7s, 5-2 at home. Gregg Popovich is 3-2 in his career, 1-1 on the road.

Doc and the Clippers have the most compelling numbers on their side is the 79.8 percent winning percentage (95-24) home teams own in Game 7s. But on the flip side, there has been a road win in a Game 7 in each of the past three postseasons and all in the first round (Brooklyn over Toronto in 2014, Chicago over Brooklyn in 2013 and the Clippers over Memphis in 2012).

Does it mean anything?

Not really. At least not in a tangible way that either the Clippers or Spurs will be able to use after opening tip.

Both Pop and Doc won Game 7s on their home floors last season, the Spurs beat back Dallas in the first round last season and the Clippers did it a day earlier against Golden State. So they have fresh memories of what needs to be done in this situation, as do their teams.

For all of Pop’s playoff experience, no active NBA coach knows the rigors of Game 7s the way Doc does. The Boston Celtics played in seven of them during his time running the show there, his veteran crew tested in each and every way imaginable during their glory days together.

All that said, the Spurs’ lone Game 7 win on the road in four tries, came in 2008 against the New Orleans Hornets and their All-Star point guard … one Chris Paul.

If you believe in any of the minutiae, that any of these numbers have a story tell, that should be more than enough to chew on between now and game time.

***

No. 3:Billy Donovan meets Oklahoma City — Eight years after a one-day stint as the head coach of the Orlando Magic, Billy Donovan is back in the NBA as the new head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, replacing the recently removed Scott Brooks. And in his introductory press conference yesterday in Oklahoma City, Donovan showed that while he may not have much NBA experience, he’s willing to put in the work to succeed, writes Darnell Mayberry

But on several occasions in his near 40-minute introduction to the local media Friday afternoon, Donovan tackled each and every question posed to him about the challenge he faces in jumping from college to the pros. And with each answer, Donovan was confident and candid, thoughtful and thorough.

When it was all over, Donovan had said plenty to make you believe he has what it takes to be an exception to rule and find success as a college-to-pro coach.

“One of the things with me is I’m going to work extremely hard,” Donovan said. “I’m curious to learn and grow. I think there’s unbelievable people that are going to be around me. I’m excited about learning and growing. That’s really, really important to me. And I hope I can put people inside the organization, and even the players, in a position where they can learn and grow as well.”

Donovan acknowledged that there will be an adjustment period. He was so frank about that reality that he referred to his transition as “starting from scratch.” But he maintained a presence about him that exuded self-assurance and left a room full of reporters, family, friends, players, assistant coaches and Thunder chairman Clay Bennett with little doubt that he could do the job.

“I feel very strongly about the game of basketball and what I’ll be able to learn and how quickly I’ll be able to learn it,” Donovan said. “And there’s no question it’s going to be a transition period. I don’t anticipate that. But that’s something that I think that I’ll go through and work through and I’ll have great people around me to help me if I come to any road blocks or things like that that are a struggle. And I feel very confident with the people inside the organization.”

***

No. 4:Report: Kings not interested in trading Cousins — The idea that an NBA team would be interested in trading for Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Cousins is that rarest of combinations in today’s NBA: A sturdy 7-footer who seems to relish playing under the rim, collecting buckets and rebounds. So rumors yesterday of interest in Cousins from the Boston Celtics made sense, particularly for a team like Boston with a treasure trove of draft picks and in need of a superstar to go along with their role players. But as Bill Herenda writes for CSNBayArea.com, the Kings have their own plans for Cousins …

The Kings want to make a playoff run next season with DeMarcus Cousins as the centerpiece of the franchise, league sources told CSNCalifornia.com.

The Celtics reportedly have significant interest in Cousins and are expected to utilize their bevy of draft picks to secure the center from Sacramento, according to an ESPN report.

Cousins, a first time All-Star this season, averaged career-highs of 24.1 points per game and 12.7 rebounds per game, while finishing tied for third in the NBA with 47 double-doubles despite missing 23 games due to illness and injury.

The NBA can be a fickle, mercurial place and nowhere was that more apparent than in Sacramento last season.

The Kings fired Michael Malone, who had bonded with Cousins, after an 11-13 start to the season. Assistant coach Ty Corbin took over, but Sacramento stumbled to an 18-34 record before a long, public courtship with George Karl was finally consummated at the All-Star break.

With contradicting media reports that Cousins was against the hiring of George Karl, the 24-year-old issued a statement in February stating that he was not against playing for the sixth-winningest coach in the history of the NBA.

Karl lead the Kings to an 11-19 record over the final 30 games of the season.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Do the Spurs and Mavericks have a legit chance of signing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency? According to Marc Stein, they feel like they do … Things in Brooklyn haven’t exactly gone to plan for the Nets … Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer finished third in executive of the year voting, even though he had basically nothing to do with building the Hawks roster. According to Ken Berger, GMs voted for Bud as a reflection of their admiration of the work done by Danny FerryKevin Love could get a nice raise by opting out of his contract this summer, even if he intends to stay in Cleveland …

Emotional Budenholzer praises Pop after Coach of the Year win


VIDEO: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer thanks Gregg Popovich for taking a chance on him

ATLANTA — He did everything he could to keep his emotions from getting the best of him.

Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is notorious for wanting to do any and everything he can to avoid the spotlight. Guiding his team to a franchise-record 60 wins and the top spot in the Eastern Conference is the worst way to accomplish that goal.

With the eyes of the basketball world on him Tuesday afternoon, Budenholzer stepped to the podium to accept the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year for the 2014-15 season, and from the minute he leaned into the microphone he had to fight back the tears. With praise for all of his mentors — most notably his own father, Vince Budenholzer, a legendary high school coach in Arizona, and San Antonio Spurs coach and his longtime boss and friend, Gregg Popovich — Budenholzer had to fight back the tears when speaking about what both men have meant to him throughout a lifetime immersed in the game that he loves.

He thanked his father for instilling in him a passion for the game that Popovich helped him hone as a longtime assistant, first as an intern with the Golden State Warriors and for 18 years after that with the Spurs.

“It seems only appropriate to finish with the real Coach of the Year, Gregg Popovich,” Budenholzer said as he wrapped up his acceptance speech at Philips Arena. “This award has a permanent spot on his desk in San Antonio. He just takes it out every couple of years and shares it around with the rest of us. I might be able to sneak back into his office and put it back down.”

Appropriately enough, it was Popovich, at the urging of the Hawks after they found out Budenholzer had beaten out Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd for the top spot this season, who called and informed his former protegé that he’d won the award. Boston’s Brad Stevens was fourth and Popovich fifth.


VIDEO: Popovich explains how he told Budenholzer about the award

“There are some things better kept between Pop and myself,” a smiling Budenholzer said later how Popovich broke the news. “And I’ll go so far as to say … He was nice, really nice, and he assured me that he was not pulling my leg.”

Budenholzer’s surprising resuscitation of the Hawks’ brand after just two seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. A perfect January and a 19-0 stretch overall led to four All-Stars, Budenholzer and his staff coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars in New York in February. The Hawks’ 60-win season and dominance all season led to Budenholzer posing for pictures with Pop’s trophy.

From a 38-win team and No. 8 seed in the playoffs after his first campaign to their current status as the No. 1 seed is not something anyone forecasted this team in the summer as they were reeling from the drama caused by derogatory comments in emails from part-owner Bruce Levenson and insensitive comments from general manager Danny Ferry that led to Ferry’s indefinite leave of absence.

“There is a certain degree of satisfaction that adds to it,” Budenholzer said. “We feel like this is a group that they believe in what they are doing and we obviously believe in them as players. And we’re trying to build something together. A lot of us were put together, but there were some pretty important people that we joined in Jeff Teague and Al Horford and Kyle Korver and even John (Jenkins). This group has really come together and it does mean something extra.”

Budenholzer praised Ferry, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who introduced him Tuesday, ownership and the entire organization for giving him the opportunity. He’s stayed in contact with Ferry, who was not in attendance, and did not shy away from handing out credit where he felt it was deserved.

“He’s been incredibly supportive of me from Day 1,” Budenholzer said of Ferry. “He’s very happy for me and continues to be. So it was good. But it’s been a tough year for everybody and hopefully, everybody has handled it to the best of all of our abilities.”

On a team with balanced scoring and devoid of one individual superstar to garner MVP mention or first-team All-NBA mention, the one individual award the Hawks had the best chance of winning was Coach of the Year.

Horford called it an honor extremely well-deserved, knowing his coach would want nothing to do with the pomp and circumstance that comes along with NBA postseason awards.

“He is the type of person that is all about the team,” Horford said. “So he is not going to want to take any credit for it. But it’s because of him. He really deserves that award, so I’m very, very happy for him. I just think that the whole mindset of working as a team. That goes a long way. One through 15 all the guys here believe in what we’re doing and what he’s preaching.”

Budenholzer’s approach — each man as responsible as the next for not only his own individual improvement, but also the collective improvement of the entire group — is what resonates with his players.

He showed up with the sparkling credentials, but he didn’t get a free pass, particularly from the veterans. Sure, they saw the tremendous gains in player development from veteran guys like Teague, Korver, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll as well as youngsters like Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala. Still, there was a connection that had to be made in order for the Hawks to take that next step as a group. And Budenholzer and his staff clearly put in all the necessary work to make that happen, following that Pop/Spurs blueprint as best they could.

“I’ve played for a lot of coaches, so I’ve seen plenty of situations and it wasn’t an instant thing,” Elton Brand said. “We didn’t get the head coach from San Antonio who won all the championships with the Spurs. It still took time. What’s his system about? Do we have the personnel to get it done? We had all the usual questions. And then we had a little success, started winning, made the playoffs and it takes off from there. But he still had to work for it. He had to earn the trust, just like any coach, even one from that background and that Spurs family tree. He didn’t just walk in the door and it was instant. He had to come in and earn everyone’s respect and show us his character. He did that, and that’s what makes this even more special.”

Horford, Hawks know better than to underestimate Nets on playoff stage


VIDEO: Al Horford talks playoffs on Inside Stuff

ATLANTA — Having been there a time or two themselves, the Atlanta Hawks are well aware of the folly involved with taking the Brooklyn Nets lightly.

The sub-500 record, the uneven season and seemingly indifferent attitude about trying to be an elite team, given the highest payroll in the league, will not be a factor in this No. 1 vs No. 8 first-round playoff series against the Eastern Conference juggernaut Hawks and the slipped-in-through-the-backdoor Nets.

So they know better than most the faulty thinking in assuming they will see the same Nets team they swept 4-0 during the regular season.

“Doesn’t mean a thing,” Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “Gotta win four games. And then try and win four more. It’s the playoffs.”

All-Star guard Kyle Korver agreed that Hawks’ regular season dominance over the Nets is meaningless the moment the game tips off this afternoon at Philips Arena.

“It’s hard to win any playoff series, no matter who it is,” he said. “We won some games against them this year. But their team has changed a lot over the course of this year. They had guys who were injured or really out of sync or whatever. And I think if you ask them, they probably feel like they’ve played their best basketball over the last 15 games or so of the regular season. They definitely present some challenges for us. They have great size, they’ve got some guys who have had great careers. They are well coached. We have a ton of respect for them.”

The Nets certainly boast personnel that suggests they should be much higher on the playoff food chain in the Eastern Conference than the 8th and final seed. Joe Johnson, a seven-time All-Star and one of the backbone of the Hawks’ turnaround from lottery outfit to playoff time during his time here, has shined in the postseason crucible before. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have plenty of postseason experience as well.

Any team with those three players in a rhythm at the same time can be dangerous in a playoff setting.

But the Hawks enter this postseason in a different space, with a confidence that has often been absence during their 8-year run, the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference. Having All-Star center Al Horford healthy and back in the mix for an entire season is a huge boost as well.

The Hawks’ first and last, prior to this season’s mercurial run, playoff trips came with the No. 8 seed and underdog tag their fans have grown accustomed to dealing with in these postseason scenarios. Both times, against the eventual champion Boston Celtics eight years ago and against the Indiana Pacers last season, the series stretched to seven games.

Horford was an integral piece of the that series against the Celtics, shining as a rookie in his first postseason appearance. He watched in designer suits last season, unable to come back from a torn pectoral injury that cost him most of the season.

“It’s not just me,” Horford said. “I still think the most important thing is we have another year together as a team in this system. And we have last year’s experience. I know you cannot replace experience, you cannot take anything or any opposing team for granted. You have to respect the other team for doing what it takes to get here. But I am really excited to come out here and see what I can do to help this team win.”

As excited as he is to see the floor today, the rest of the Hawks are just as anxious (not “nervous,” as DeMarre Carroll was quick to point out) to see him back in the playoff mix as the anchor of this crew on both ends of the floor.

“It’s big, his ability to spread the floor,” said All-Star point guard Jeff Teague. “but it’s also him on the defensive end being the anchor. Him being able to get up and down the floor and run and try to get Brook Lopez to try and keep up with him. We just have to play with a lot of pace. Al’s definitely excited to get back on the floor and to be able to play in front of our great fans again in the playoffs.”

Numbers preview: Hawks-Nets


VIDEO: The Association: An all-access pass for the Hawks’ playoff push

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Atlanta Hawks were the biggest surprise of the 2014-15 season, ripping off a 33-2 stretch after Thanksgiving to vault into the top spot in the Eastern Conference and never showing any real signs of weakness after that.

The Hawks are the only Eastern Conference team that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They went 21-12 against teams that finished the season with winning records and scorched an improved Cleveland defense in their last regular season meeting.

Yet few believe that this team is heading to The Finals. Despite their similarities to the team that won the championship last season, there are questions about how Hawks’ formula for success, both on offense and defense, will hold up in the postseason.

Those questions might not be answered in the first round against a team that is fortunate to be here. The Brooklyn Nets are the only playoff team with a negative point differential and not by a narrow margin. The Nets were outscored by 236 points this season. They were 24-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, but lost 17 games by more than 15 points.

They still have a talented roster, but it’s not nearly as cohesive as that of their opponent. And though Brooklyn showed improvement after the All-Star break, it still had a pretty porous defense.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Hawks-Nets, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Atlanta Hawks (60-22)

Pace: 96.2 (15)
OffRtg: 106.2 (6)
DefRtg: 100.7 (7)
NetRtg: +5.6 (4)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Brooklyn: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Hawks notes:

  • Assisted on 67.6 percent of their baskets, leading the league in assist rate for the third straight season.
  • 79.5% of their jump shots were uncontested, the highest rate in the league, according to SportVU.
  • Ranked last in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just 21.4 percent of available offensive boards.
  • Allowed just 1.01 points per possession in transition, the lowest rate in the league, according to Synergy.
  • Kyle Korver had the best effective field goal percentage on both contested jumpers and uncontested jumpers among players with 100 of each.

Brooklyn Nets (38-44)

Pace: 95.0 (24)
OffRtg: 101.9 (18)
DefRtg: 105.0 (24)
NetRtg: -3.1 (22)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Nets notes:

The matchup

Season series: Hawks won 4-0.
Pace: 96.6
ATL OffRtg: 118.3 (1st vs. BKN)
BKN OffRtg: 99.8 (17th vs. ATL)

Matchup notes:

Morning shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: Top plays from games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jackson pleads with Knicks season-ticket holders | Korver gets on track a bit | Lakers lottery hopes take hit

No. 1: Jackson pleads with Knicks season-ticket holders — Much like their high-glamour brethren in the Western Conference (that would be the Los Angeles Lakers), the New York Knicks have endured a disastrous season. From the franchise-record 60 losses this season to losing superstar Carmelo Anthony to injury, 2014-15 has been awful for New York. Team president Phil Jackson, however, continues to ask Knicks fans — and specifically season-ticket holders — to take the long view with his plan for the team. Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com has more:

Phil Jackson has asked New York Knicks season-ticket holders to “remain optimistic” amid what has been one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

In a letter and video message sent out on Monday, Jackson tried to reassure the team’s fan base, saying he has a “clear plan” in place for this 2015 offseason.

“While I know this has been a challenging season for our team on the court, I can also tell you that everyone in the organization is working tirelessly to get our Knicks back to a place where we are once again competing at the highest level,” Jackson said in a video message obtained by ESPN New York that doubled as a pitch to season ticket holders to renew for the 2015-16 season.

In the letter, Jackson talked about the roster moves he’s made to clear up cap space for free agency. The Knicks are expected to have at least $25 million in cap space this summer.

“We have made key roster moves to free up significant cap space that will provide us greater flexibility to acquire talent in this summer’s free agency,” Jackson said. “And for the first time in many years, we expect to have a top pick in the NBA Draft this June. These are key steps to building a roster of players that have both the talent and character to win in New York and who, alongside Carmelo Anthony, will become a team that can become a consistent winner.”

Jackson briefly acknowledged the failures of this season in the video and letter.

“Despite the disappointing 2014-15 season, we are steadfast in our resolve to do what is necessary to deliver on our ultimate goal of bringing a championship back to New York,” Jackson said.

Jackson signed a five-year contract reportedly worth $60 million dollars to take over as Knicks president a little more than 12 months ago.

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks clinch Eastern Conference | Mavericks lose Ellis | What’s next for Thunder, Durant? | Shaq would have stayed in Orlando

No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …

The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.

That’s probably a good thing.

“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.

“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”

The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.

Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.

But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.

“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”

***

No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …

The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.

Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.

Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.

Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?

“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”

The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.

“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”

It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.

Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.

Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.

“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”

***

No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …

The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”

The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”

In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?

What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.

Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.

It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.

And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.

I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.

The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.

But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.

***

No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in OrlandoShaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …

Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.

The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.

O’Neal never played for the Magic again.

The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.

The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.

And he left.

“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”

O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.

“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.

“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.

“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract