It seems unlikely that the streaky, 27-year-old guard will garner a higher salary on the open market than the one he’s turning down, but his unwillingness to stay in Milwaukee and his reported interest in teaming up with Dwight Howard undoubtedly fueled this decision. Ellis is one of the most explosive scorers in the league. However, he’s coming off the worst shooting season of his career at only 41.6 percent from the field on 17.5 attempts per game. An offense simply cannot be successful with its main scorer shooting so many shots at such a low clip, and Ellis will need to adjust his game if he hopes to be a contributor on a championship-caliber team.
For the Bucks, they still seem to have interest in Ellis, as they were unwilling to part with him during last season’s trade deadline and they reportedly offered him the extension mentioned earlier.
Unfortunately for Milwaukee, it appears they will have to overpay for the guard if they want to retain him. The other half of the Bucks’ starting backcourt, Brandon Jennings, may also be looking to leave Milwaukee As a restricted free-agent, the Bucks can match any offer sheet Jennings signs.
No matter what the backcourt looks like on opening night, the vibe from the organization and new coach Larry Drew is they plan to build around young big men Larry Sanders and John Henson.
ATLANTA – After nearly two decades of helping to build one of the finest operations in all of sports, of working with and learning from one of the masters in Gregg Popovich, why leave now?
Why leave San Antonio after what could be Pop’s last stand, the last championship ride for the mighty Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the controls?
Why now, instead of one of the countless other times over the years when some team came calling?
Mike Budenholzer answered the question before anyone could ask it during his introductory news conference at Philips Arena this morning. The new coach of the Atlanta Hawks was quick to point out the three critical elements that led him to his first head coaching job after 17 years as an assistant in San Antonio.
First up was a committed ownership group. Next came the presence of Hawks GM Danny Ferry and, finally, the roster flexibility Ferry created. That flexibility will allow these two ex-colleagues and current friends to work hand-in-hand crafting a team from the ground up into the mold they both envision, each of them no doubt using their Spurs experience as a template.
We need to be clear about one thing, though: this hire never happens without Ferry. The Hawks succeeded where plenty of other franchises have failed in the past, snatching away Pop’s heir apparent, because of that Spurs connection. So when Budenholzer speaks glowingly of the opportunities in front of him right now back in both San Antonio and here in Atlanta, he was speaking from a genuine place.
“It’s been a pretty amazing 48 hours, I’ll be very honest with you,” he said. “It’s exciting for my family, exciting for me. The opportunity to come here with the Atlanta Hawks, when you couple that with coming to the NBA finals, I’m living a dream.”
We won’t know for a while whether or not this is truly the home run hire it appears to be. The Hawks don’t have a full roster right now. Al Horford, one of three players with a guaranteed contract for next season, was the only current player mentioned by name this morning.
But if Budenholzer’s pedigree means anything (and Ferry’s belief that he could turn out to be the next longtime assistant turned coaching star comes to fruition), he could be the man that helps the Hawks finally turn the corner from playoff regular to legitimate championship player in the East.
No assistant coach in the league has been better prepared for the rigors of what he’ll face with the Hawks.
“His path is similar to Frank Vogel‘s, Erik Spoelstra‘s and [Tom] Thibodeau’s,” Ferry said, “And I think those guys are some of the best coaches in the league right now. Bud is prepared [for this].”
The Hawks are ready for the change, too. With Larry Drew as coach the past three seasons and Mike Woodson for six seasons before the that (with Drew as his top assistant), the Hawks had settled into a certain groove. Ferry’s arrival last summer was the most significant shake-up in vision the franchise had seen in nearly a decade.
“I’m definitely not a sexy hire,” Budenholzer said. “Thankfully, that wasn’t on Danny’s shopping list.”
Ferry had a very specific coaching ideal in mind. Budenholzer met all of the criteria and more.
“Part of what’s exciting about this for me is he has a great understanding of the league,” Ferry said. “He’s been part of San Antonio. He wasn’t just in San Antonio like some of us were, he’s been there for the duration. He’s seen how it evolved. He’s seen how it has grown. Mike, [Spurs GM] R.C. Buford and Pop were the ones who were there the whole time.”
The directional shift the Hawks organization is undergoing right now began last summer with Ferry’s arrival, not this latest move. Whatever growth there is will be marked by both men having input on the process.
“I think that whoever the coach was in our situation needed to have a clear vision of how he wanted to play and needed strong base of knowledge of the NBA, because there are a lot of decisions to make. We’ll make those collaboratively, and there are very important decisions in the coming months and years with how we are set up right now.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Every time the music stops in this latest game of NBA coaching musical chairs, former Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew finds himself looking for a seat.
And yes, he is now officially a “former” Hawks coach as of Tuesday afternoon. That’s when the Hawks announced that they hired Mike Budenholzer, the longtime assistant to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, to take over Drew’s old job. Budenholzer joins Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix) and Steve Clifford (Charlotte) as assistants who move over to the first chair next season. And there are still several more big-name assistants — Indiana’s Brian Shaw is the biggest, and he is not being allowed to interview for other jobs during the Pacers’ run — who could be in line to move up.
There are still vacancies in Milwaukee, Detroit, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (Clippers) that need to be filled. Drew is a candidate in Milwaukee (he’ll interview for a second time this week) and is interested in the Clippers’ opening.
But as of this morning he’s still twisting in coaching no-man’s land after the Hawks filled his job without ever officially severing ties with the man who led them to three straight playoff appearances during his tenure. Drew was a Hawks assistant for six seasons before that, the final three of those culminating in playoff trips under then-coach (and now-Knicks coach) Mike Woodson.
Drew’s contract expires June 30 and he went into this process with a complete understanding of what Hawks GM Danny Ferry was doing. It’s not like someone snatched the rug from underneath him. Ferry is going for the complete franchise makeover, complete with 12 or 13 roster spots to fill in addition to Budenholzer and whatever staff he can put together.
Ferry made it clear that while he didn’t mind dancing with the coach he inherited last summer when he took over Atlanta’s basketball operations, he was going to keep an eye out for his own guy. His history with Budenholzer, both as a player and executive with the Spurs, was an obvious connection.
Drew understood that the chance of him returning to the job he did so well the past three seasons was slim at best. He fielded questions about his status all season, never once bristling at a process with an outcome that many of us saw coming the day Ferry was hired. All that said, it’s still bizarre for some to see a coach under contract, at least for another month, replaced by someone whose current job (at that time) required him to help prepare the Spurs for another long playoff run.
Bucks general manager John Hammond has to make the next move where Drew is concerned. His pool of candidates to take over in Milwaukee shrinks every time the music stops. Clifford and Budenholzer were reportedly on Hammond’s short list before being taken off of the market. And now Drew and Houston Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson are believed to be the finalists.
Drew has 128-102 record as a coach and those three playoff appearances in three seasons working in his favor … not that it served him very well in whatever attempt was made to keep his job with the Hawks. Sampson has history with the Bucks, having worked as an assistant under former coach Scott Skiles for three seasons.
Drew’s coaching experience is going head-to-head with Sampson’s connection and the trend of assistants being elevated to top jobs. How much longer Drew remains on the coaching carousel depends on the which set of factors carry more weight in Milwaukee and perhaps elsewhere.
The coaching vacancy landscape can change in an instant — just ask former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. The Memphis Grizzlies have to decide what they’re going to do with Lionel Hollins, whose contract is up. He’ll be a hot candidate for several of these remaining openings if he and the Grizzlies decide to part ways.
That’s why if you are Drew, you want a seat now … before that music stops again.
The Atlanta Hawks will be allowed to negotiate a contract with San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer during the Spurs’ nine-day break before the beginning of the NBA Finals if Budenholzer is the team’s choice for its next head coach, according to a league source.
Budenholzer has been with the Spurs for 18 years, the last five as Gregg Popovich’s top assistant. He is well regarded around the league and knows Hawks general manager Danny Ferry quite well from Ferry’s days as an executive in San Antonio before being hired last year by Atlanta.
Budenholzer is believed to be the front-runner in Atlanta to replace current coach Larry Drew. Though Drew is still under contract with the Hawks, Ferry has said there is a chance that the team could give Drew, whose current deal expires June 30, a new deal. But both the Hawks and Drew are proceeding as if he will not return.
Drew is scheduled to interview Wednesday in Milwaukee for the Bucks’ vacant head coach job. He and Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson are the finalists for the Bucks’ position; former Lakers assistant Steve Clifford, a third finalist in Milwaukee, was hired Monday by the Bobcats to fill their head coach vacancy.
Budenholzer has also interviewed in Detroit and with the 76ers for their head coach positions. The Pistons are expected to choose this week between former Portland coach Nate McMillan and current Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks. McMillan also interviewed with the Hawks, as did former Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy. But Van Gundy has told teams he is likely to stay out of coaching for at least the next year.
The window for Budenholzer to negotiate a deal was created when San Antonio completed its four-game sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals Monday night. The Finals are locked in for a June 6 start, either in Miami if the Heat defeat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, or in San Antonio if Indiana comes back to defeat Miami.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The locals will talk about it forever.
What would the Hawks have been like with Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams? Or Rudy Gay or Brandon Roy instead of Shelden Williams orbasically anyone other than Speedy Claxton?
Conference finals appearances instead of first round exits? Global recognition of a basketball brand reborn with superstar talent instead of a league laughingstock (after a 13-win season in 2004-05) and the team that can always be counted on not to come through when they should?
Hypothetical questions with no clear-cut answers make the Hawks’ past every bit as murky as their immediate future. They enter free agency this summer with only six players under contract, four Draft picks (two in each round) and approximately $33.1 million in cap space for their GM, Danny Ferry, to work with in rebuilding the roster.
The Hawks choices in the Draft and free agency have come to define the franchise over the past eight years more so than anything they have actually done on the court. They ended an eight-year playoff drought after the 2007-08 season with a core group of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Mike Bibby, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams and Acie Law. That group kicked off a run of six straight playoff appearance that came crashing to an ugly end Friday night at Philips Arena in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their first round series.
It was the official end to not only their season but also an era for the Hawks, who have just three players — Horford, Lou Williams and rookie John Jenkins – under guaranteed contacts for next season. Even Hawks coach Larry Drew, who has been on staff (the last three as head coach) throughout this entire era, does not have a contract for next season.
We’ve seen the last of these Hawks as we know them, Drew acknowledged as much after the Game 6 loss.
“Even with the injuries to Zaza and Lou, we were able to juggle some things around, move people around,” Drew said. “And we stayed together. We did not fragment. We stayed together even when it got tough. A lot of people didn’t predict us to make the playoffs. No one gave us a chance, but this group hung in there. They persevered and I’m really proud of them.”
It was an honorable finish to a tumultuous season for all involved. A team loaded with three times as many pending free agents as players under guaranteed contracts, has issues that go above and beyond the professionalism required to do the job under those circumstances.
That said, Ferry is sticking to his plan. He’s going to be rebuilding basically from scratch, with nine players heading into free agency July 1.
Smith, one of the only remaining building blocks from the franchise’s last rebuild and a long-time source of division within the franchise (some folks loved the hometown kid who flashed signs of being an All-Star caliber player over the years while others loathed the enigmatic performer who clashed with his coaches and drove fans nuts with his play), going into the summer as one of the marquee names on the market.
It’s time for Smith and the Hawks to go their separate ways, amicably, of course. Everyone involved knows that it’s time for a mutual parting of the ways for the good of all involved.
Point guard Jeff Teague is a restricted free agent and while he’s shown loads of improvement since Drew took over for Woodson, there remain questions about whether or not he is best suited as the starting point guard for this team.
Ferry can make a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, from all of the second-guessing, head-scratching and eye-rolling that has surrounded the Hawks for years. No one will vilify him for cleaning up the mess made before he arrived last summer, the one he started clean up himself by moving both Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades last summer.
It’s the uncertainty of what’s to come, however, that makes skeptical Hawks fans nervous. There will be big fish on the free agent market, guys like Los Angeles Lakers’ big man and Atlanta native Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul, stars capable of turning an uncertain situation around by signing their names on the dotted line.
The Hawks have the necessary resources to pursue those two, who will be first and second, in whatever order, on every free agent wish list of a team with money to spend this summer.
The summer of 2013 is the Hawks’ biggest since the summer of 2005, when Johnson (sign-and-trade) and Marvin Williams (No. 2 pick overall in the Draft) were added to the mix. That was the beginning of a painstaking rebuilding process that ultimately led to six straight playoff appearances, the second-best stretch of its kind in the Hawks’ Atlanta history.
For a franchise that has endured a recent stretch of complete insignificance during that playoff drought, followed by the past six postseason runs, a return to the non-playoff abyss is a bit frightening.
That’s what made the end of Friday night so bittersweet for Horford, who has only known the playoffs during his time with the Hawks and in the league.
“I feel for our fans,” he said. “I know they wanted us to do better. I felt like, as a team, we did about as much as we could. We had some adversity and we handled it well. We had a good season, looking at the big picture. One thing I appreciate about these guys was how they competed. Even tonight, we could’ve gone the other way. That is something I’m proud of the guys for.”
The “guys” will look a lot different next season.
In fact, Horford might be one of the only truly familiar faces around if Ferry carries out his master plan.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Winning at home is a given. It’s what the Indiana Pacers are supposed to do when facing a lower-seeded opponent in the playoffs. Bullying said opponent is always a good thing, too, especially when you are trying to shift the pressure back on the Atlanta Hawks the way the Pacers did with their 106-83 Game 5 beat down of the Hawks Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But now comes the real challenge for the Pacers, armed with a 3-2 lead and the chance to end this series in Game 6 Friday night in Atlanta.
Do it again.
Be the bully.
Impose your will.
But, do it away from home this time.
Do it in Atlanta, where you haven’t won since 2006. Snuff out that 13-game losing streak on the Hawks’ home floor. Make those of us who are still skeptical of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference contender status believers.
It’s easy to play the tough role at home. Both of these teams have done that through five games. If you want to be taken seriously, though, you’re going to have to make a statement on the road at some point. If you don’t believe that, ask the Memphis Grizzlies (who used a huge road win in Los Angeles Tuesday night to take control of their first-round series against the Clippers).
Pacers’ big man and unquestioned leader David West understands what needs to be done. He showed as much in Game 5 with a much-needed breakout performance (24 points on 11-for-16 shooting from the floor). For all the things All-Star swingman Paul George can do to take over a game, the Pacers need a show of force to get past the Hawks and move on to whatever challenges await them in the conference semifinals.
West instigated things in Game 5 and his teammates followed. George finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, Roy Hibbert with 18 and nine and Lance Stephenson 12 rebounds as the Pacers outmuscled the Hawks on the boards 51-28. West finally backed up his barking with the production and the Pacers reaffirmed their control in this series. Now they have to take this show on the road.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, take a couple of jump shots and get our guys going and get our flow,” West said. “We looked at the film [from Games 3 and 4 in Atlanta] and we left about 30 to 40 points on the board down there just not concentrating on our finishes. We didn’t give up that four or five minutes stretch we gave up in the two games at their place where they were able to extend the lead and make us fight uphill the rest of the way. It’s more about us, we were just a little bit more focused, we’ve had a couple of fiery film sessions and really, really challenged guys to own up and I thought guys did a good job responding to that. We were the initiators and not so much reacting to what they were doing.”
The Pacers earned the clear advantage in Game 5 with a show of physical force, one that caused the Hawks to melt down with Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson earning technical fouls, causing coach Larry Drew to chide his team afterwards for losing their composure and not playing smart.
It had nothing to do with the Pacers’ scheme or their analytics. It had to do with Pacers’ coach FrankVogel‘s favorite word, “disposition.”
Improved disposition on both ends of the floor by the Pacers, the better team by basically every measure, have to find a way to do what they did in Game 5 in Game 6 Friday night at Philips Arena.
Vogel disagrees, of course. He’s still clinging to the notion that this is tactical battle instead of an emotional test of wills.
“It’s just about how we’re playing in that building versus this building,” Vogel said. “I think there has been a series of moves in this series where you play a game and something works or doesn’t work and you make an adjustment. Their adjustments down there, give Drew credit, changed the momentum. Hopefully, we changed it back into our momentum and hopefully we can get game 6.”
West knows better. You lose 14 straight games in Atlanta and the pressure shifts right back on the home team for Game 7. The skeptics come roaring back into the picture, questioning the Pacers’ mettle.
A legitimate contender, the sort of big-time outfit the Pacers’ paper profile suggests they are, finds a way to end this series in six.
“We just have to fight,” West said. “We can’t have those spells where we’re on somebody else’s floor, where we for four to six minutes we are turning the ball over and giving them extra opportunities. We’ve got to to be able to go in there and handle that environment and control the basketball game. Go inside, set the tone defensively and let the chips fall where they may after that.”
. ATLANTA – The battles rages on between “Good Josh [Smith]” and “Bad Josh.”
The duel between the enigmatic and energetic sides of the Atlanta Hawks’ mercurial star was on full display in what could easily serve as a case study of his game, the Hawks’ season-saving 102-91 Game 4 win over the Indiana Pacers that evened their first round playoff series at two games each Monday night at Philips Arena.
Hawks fans are used to this reality show, cheering Smith wildly when he makes a spectacular play and then jeering him seconds later when he parks at the 3-point line for a 3-pointer no one else in the building wants him to take. It’s a surreal atmosphere, one you have to witness for yourself to comprehend just how peculiar it can be.
It’s gone on like this the better part of the last nine years, Hawks fans reaching for their blood pressure medicine one second and then leaping out of their seats the next. It’s a love-hate relationship with one of their own that Oklahoma City Thunder fans have developed with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, only Westbrook isn’t hearing it from a crowd of fans in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Smith doesn’t flinch, no matter how loud the crowd gets. And they rode the emotional roller coaster with him on this night, play after crazy play from start to finish as Smith scored a career playoff-high 29 points with 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals. It was his first 25-point, 10-rebound playoff game and came in his 50th postseason appearance, a nice robust number for a player who continues to confound not only the fans but some of his teammates as well.
“This was definitely one of those ‘ooh, aah’ moments with Josh,” Al Horford said. “He gives you those ‘oohs’ and then those ‘aahs.’ It’s kind of a ‘Yes’ and then ‘No’ thing going on. That’s the way it is. I think [the fans] obviously want Josh to be successful. Everybody loves him here. Sometimes we do question his shot selection. But tonight he hit some big shots down the stretch, made some huge plays for other guys down the stretch and made plays to help us win this game. I know it might drive some people a little crazy. But it works for us and that’s just the way it is.”
The fans stayed on for the good and bad Monday night, pulling their hair out in the third quarter as he missed all six of his shots from the floor, including all three of his 3-point attempts, and just half of his 12 free throws as the Hawks’ 18-point lead shrunk to just four late in the quarter.
That same crowd rose to their feet in the final tense moments of the game. Smith scored seven of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, shot 3-for-4 from the floor, dished out three assists, grabbed two crucial rebounds and blocked a shot. His 3-pointer with 3:08 to play pushed the Hawks’ lead to 89-81. His rebound of a Horford miss with the Hawks’ clinging to an 89-83 lead was followed by a no-look pass to Kyle Korver on the wing for the 3-point dagger that pushed the lead to nine with 2:33 to play and muted any chance the Pacers had of coming back.
“That was the biggest play of the game right there,” Horford said. “He was aware enough to find Kyle and Kyle had a clean look and knocked it down. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
Korver was huge off the bench, scoring 19 points and draining five of his eight shots from beyond the 3-point line. Anthony Tolliver nailed all three of his 3-pointers, too, helping Smith blow the game open during a 35-19 run while Horford was in foul trouble and on the bench for all but three minutes of the quarter.
“Tolliver and Korver really lit us up,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have to do a better job closing out on those guys so they don’t get going early.”
The Hawks shooters got going because Smith was cooking, inside and out (he scored 10 points in the quarter) and controlling the action (he also had five rebounds). Toss in his defensive work on Pacers All-Star Paul George in Games 3 and 4, a series-changing adjustment from Hawks coach Larry Drew, and it’s clear that Smith is one of the main reasons Hawks fans will get a chance to see Game 6 here Friday night.
“I thought Josh Smith played a phenomenal game,” Drew said. “It was a challenge trying to defend Paul George and he took the challenge.”
Smith has never shied away from those challenges, same as he’s never wavered in his confidence in his own abilities to do the things people assume he can’t or better yet shouldn’t, in certain situations. It’s the beauty and the curse of his game. It’s also a quality you have to see up close to appreciate, according to Hawks guard Devin Harris, who couldn’t help but smile when asked about his first year watching Smith deal with the love-hate dynamic from the hometown fans.
“I think that’s just Atlanta. And him being here, being from here, that just a unique relationship they have with one another,” Harris said. “I thought he was dialed in from (minute) one tonight. He just piggybacked from what he did in Game 3 and was a force for us. When he plays like that, we’re a very good team.”
A team that gave the Pacers fits yet again, beating them for the 13th straight time at Philips Arena. A team capable of perhaps winning this series, though the Hawks will have to win a game in Indianapolis to do so. Smith is confident, even if others are not, as he should be. For all the hate that comes his way, Smith will finish his ninth season in elite company. He passed Kevin Willis for fourth place on the Hawks’ all-time postseason games played list. He’s also one of just four players in NBA history to have 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 1,400 blocks at 27, joining Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon.
“Energy and effort,” Smith said of the things the Hawks need to take with them for Game 5 Wednesday night. “If we play with those things and play together … that’s what it will take for us to compete up there in arena.”
There will only be jeers up there for Josh … good or bad.
ATLANTA – The Sunday afternoon film session wasn’t necessary. The Indiana Pacers knew they’d departed from normal in their Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in real-time, as they were being pushed around the floor at Philips Arena.
The film session only reinforced what they already knew, what everyone watching knew by halftime of Game 3; the Pacers let the Hawks off the mat and fumbled their chance to put a stranglehold on this series.
The Hawks had plenty do with it, of course. They came home and used some timely adjustments and some home-crowd energy to get back into the series. But the Pacers were awful generous for a team that has designs on a deep playoff run. They offered little resistance once the Hawks opened up a big lead, trailing by as many as 28 points after halftime and never getting closer than 18.
Again, you don’t need a film session to know that you’ll be receiving two thumbs down for a performance like that.
“It would have been understandable if we tried to do the things that we do and they just took us out of it,” Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George said. “We created all the mistakes. We didn’t come in ready to play. And the tape told it all. We did it. We didn’t come out ready to play.”
For a team that crawls into the playoffs that might be an acceptable excuse. But not for the No. 3 seed. Not with a 2-0 lead in the series and nothing but opportunity ahead of them. That’s what makes tonight’s Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) so unbelievably crucial for a Pacers team that has failed in 12 straight tries to win in Atlanta.
They cannot afford to “give” the Hawks any more life if they expect things to go as planned. George cannot allow Josh Smith to bottle him up in Game 4 the way he did in Game 3. Roy Hibbert has to chase away whatever Atlanta demons have plagued him over the years and dominate in the paint. David West, the Pacers’ leader and emotional backbone, cannot allow himself to get caught up in the swirl of foolishness that he did, throwing Al Horford to the ground and earning a Flagrant 1 foul before halftime. And the Pacers cannot be as careless with the basketball tonight as they were Saturday night, when plenty of their 22 turnovers helped fuel a 42-10 Hawks first half run that decided the game.
“That was probably the most disappointing thing, watching the video,” West said of all the unnecessary miscues. “Just being out of sync, not putting the ball where guys wanted the ball, the simple careless stuff. Again, stuff that we’re not going to overreact to that stuff, but we do know it’s of the utmost importance that we take care of the basketball if we want to win this series.”
The Hawks (14.3) and Pacers (14.5) ranked 21st and 22nd, respectively, in turnovers during the regular season. So for the Pacers to be as careless as they were was startling and even more pronounced in the video session, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel could rewind each and every mistake over and over again.
“These guys care, they work extremely hard, but they’re not always going to be perfect,” Vogel said. “And you have to point [the mistakes] out and hold them accountable and make sure you are drilling the right things to make sure we are executing the right way.”
One poor game can’t undo an entire season worth of playing at a high level. And West most definitely won’t allow the Pacers’ subpart effort and performance in Game 3 to beat them again in Game 4.
“The biggest thing for us is to refocus,” West said. “We still haven’t played great defense in this series, we’re still waiting on a great defensive performance from us. Again, it’s just about us taking care of that basketball. I really don’t know what else to say. Twenty-four turnovers, or whatever it was, is just way to many for a team that lives in transition, lives on transition [3-pointers] and transition dunks to be effective. We just played right into their hands.”
The Pacers can’t do that again, they better not if they want to a chance go home and finish this series in five.
They looked like anything but that Saturday night as the Hawks knocked them down and never let them get up in a 90-69 win that was historically bad for a team that showed up to Atlanta with a chance to take complete control of the series.
“I thought we had a chance to take total control of the series,” Pacers forward and team leader David West said. “But live and learn, I guess. I’m glad we have just one day and not a couple of days to mull it over. I still feel like as long as we keep the turnovers low, the game is much more favorable to us. We just have to be more resolute in everything we do.”
The one glaring advantage from Games 1 and 2, Paul George working against the defense of Kyle Korver at the start of games, changed in Game 3 when Hawks coach Larry Drew adjusted his starting lineup. Johan Petro moved in as the starting center and Josh Smith moved over to small forward, where he could spend his time focusing specifically on George.
The lineup tweak was not the difference, according to Pacers coach Frank Vogel. It was the mindset change of the Hawks and his team’s inability to match that change, that cost them most.
“I thought their disposition was the difference in the game,” Vogel said, “not the different lineup that they played.”
Maybe. But the lineup change meant different looks for Al Horford, too, as he battled West more often than he did Roy Hibbert. HIbbert’s length bothered the Hawks’ big men in the first two games. He wasn’t a factor in Game 3. Horford responded with 26 points and 16 rebounds, both playoff career highs.
“Their big lineup changed up the tempo and style of the game,” said Hibbert, who finished with nine rebounds, eight points and two blocks in 24 minutes of action. “I’ve got to play stronger on both ends and make myself available in the post. Their big lineup makes a difference defensively because they’re longer and they get their hands on more balls.”
The Hawks used all of that to their advantage in Game 3 and are sure to try to duplicate that effort in Game 4. They sensed the Pacers were vulnerable early. They forced them into some uncomfortable positions and then watched as they uncharacteristically fell apart under the pressure (they turned the ball over 22 times).
Vogel is not nearly as worried about the schematic changes as he is about his team’s intestinal fortitude. He’s fostered a “hit first” attitude with his team, a mantra and style that led the Pacers to the No. 3 seed in the East this season. So it only makes sense that his team return to their roots for Game 4, while also cleaning up the slippage in the other areas that were obvious to anyone watching.
“We didn’t bring the necessary sense of urgency [to Game 3],” he said. “Clearly, we had a difficult day offensively. We had difficulty with our screens, setting up, and executing. We had a tough shooting day from the perimeter as well. I think we were emotionally ready, but I think (the Hawks) just played with more desperation than we did. Playing on the road in the playoffs is very different than playing regular season games, very different than playing at home in the playoffs. We’re a very young team … part of growing pains. To feel this, to experience this, we have to grow from these experiences and get better from it.”
They have to do it overnight if they want to regain complete control of this series.
ATLANTA – If the Hawks were looking for a bruiser, a goon, a bona-fide lip buster even, they could have found someone who fit the profile better than Jeff Teague.
Ivan Johnson, Johan Petro, Mike Scott, DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones would all get the part over Teague in an open casting call for the role of NBA enforcer. The wiry strong but slight Teague would get laughed out of the audition.
Yet there he was Saturday night at Philips Arena, delivering the symbolic and very real elbow to the back of Indiana Pacers’ bully David West, with seven minutes to play in the first half of a game the Hawks dominated from three minutes in until the finish. Their 90-69 blowout win in Game 3 of this first playoff series not only allowed the Hawks the bounce back effort needed after two rough road losses to start the postseason, but also served as a statement game for Teague and his teammates.
They were up 21 when West shoved Al Horford to the ground on a fast break, earning a Flagrant 1 foul for his lick. Something had to be done. Teague knew it and didn’t hesitate. His instincts just kicked in.
“Well, kinda” he said, rubbing his low-cut mohawk. “I thought the play he made wasn’t right. So I had to let him know we were going to be there, that we’re not going to back down from anybody. I think that’s the same way they play. They try to be very physical and tough about it. And David West is a strong guy. He plays hard and plays physical. But I think we met the challenge tonight.”
For this one night the Hawks did exactly that, extending the Pacers’ losing streak at Philips Arena to 12 straight games, regular and postseason combined.
The Hawks held the Pacers to a new franchise playoff low 27-percent shooting, the previous low set against the Pacers in 1994. The 30 points they allowed in the first half sets a new franchise playoff record, and the 69 points allowed in the game is tied for the second-lowest mark in franchise playoff history.
Horford dusted himself off after that shove from West and roasted the Pacers for career-playoff highs in points (26) and assists (16), joining Dikembe Mutombo and Moses Malone as the only Hawks since the 1986-87 season to 25 or more points and 15 or more rebounds in a playoff game.
The Hawks used a 42-10 run to stagger the Pacers in a fight that was over by halftime. Hawks coach Larry Drew made his adjustment, a lineup change for the bigger with Petro instead of Kyle Korver, and Josh Smith locked in defensively on Pacers All-Star Paul George — it worked to perfection.
But the biggest adjustment was in attitude. They refused to be pushed around for a third straight game by West, Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers.
Horford couldn’t believe it when he realized that it realized that Teague was the first responder on that shove from West.
For the record, Horford said he thought West’s play was a hard foul but not anything dirty. It wouldn’t have mattered by then anyway. The Hawks left Indianapolis desperate for a win; desperate to show their home crowd that the team they saw on screen in Games 1 and 2 was not the team that would show up for this one; desperate to shut up the critics who bash them, rightfully mind you, for being such an inconsistent bunch.
Horford said he was going to work the way he did Saturday night no matter what anyone else said or tried to do about it.
“I was just being aggressive, playing with a lot of energy,” he said, crediting the circumstance and the late-arriving but raucous home crowd equally for energizing his team. “My teammates did a good job time and time again of getting me easy baskets. They were finding me whether it was off help or drive and kick. Defensively, I just wanted to set the tone and be more aggressive. I go out there with that same mindset every game. Tonight, I had to step up and make some plays on the offensive end.”
Smith served in a similar capacity on the defensive end, limiting George’s opportunities and effectiveness early by confining the Pacers’ best offensive player to a small patch of real estate on the wing and limiting his forays into the paint to a minimum.
“I just tried to keep a body on him, knowing and understanding that he is the focal point on the perimeter, as far as what they do offensively,” Smith said. “I just tried to stay engaged, tried to be elusive a little bit as far as pin downs were concerned. That was pretty much the game plan.”
Teague and Devin Harris did their part, too, thoroughly outplaying their counterparts in blue (George Hill and Lance Stephenson) on a night when the Hawks’ starters combined to shoot just 6-for-26 from the floor.
“This team has done something it’s done all year long, and that’s respond,” Drew said. “After two losses in Indiana, and coming home … I really felt we would respond. We came out early and the energy was there. We had some guys that played tremendous tonight. It all started with Josh Smith. I thought his effort on Paul George really set the tone for the game. George is such a terrific player. He’s really elusive off the dribble, and to throw a guy like Josh, who has the versatility to defend all five positions … I thought Josh really set the tone.
“The other guy I thought did a phenomenal job defensive was Jeff Teague. He got a couple of fouls early, but I thought he did a really good job in defending George Hill. The first two games of the series, George Hill has really played well. He’s shot the ball extremely well, but tonight I thought our guys took the defensive challenge. Our defense was the thing that really got us going.”
The defense, energy, resilience and refusal of at least one man to see the Pacers kick sand in the Hawks faces anymore. The Hawks shut the Pacers down offensively and turned them over (22 for 24 points) enough to blow the game open and keep West, Hibbert and George from capitalizing on their obvious size advantage.
“I thought they beat us at each position tonight; not with the different lineup that they played,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t take care of the ball very well. When you don’t screen with physicality and you don’t separate out of those screens, and don’t execute your sets, and let the other team take your airspace, it’s going to leave you with a poor shooting night and a lot of turnovers.”
Wherever the physicality of the series goes from here, Game 4 Monday night promises to be another bruiser, Smith insists the Hawks are ready.
“Yeah, it’s the playoffs. Adrenaline is flowing and emotions are running high,” he said. “It is going to get a little chippy, especially down there in the paint. The bigs for Indiana, they play a physical game and all we’re trying to do is match their physicality and exceed it a little bit. We’re not backing down from anything and it should be a pretty good series.”
We know Teague is already locked in and ready to go.
“We’re not backing down from anybody,” Teague said, “No matter what.”