Posts Tagged ‘Mike Budenholzer’

Payne works to adjust to the NBA game


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

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

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

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

To Payne, it was a great gig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that easier said than done with rookies?

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: Adreian Payne gets the stiff rejection against the Rockets

Hawks’ Schroder has eye on big stage


VIDEO: Dennis Schroder leads all scorers as the Hawks take down the Warriors

LAS VEGAS – Dennis Schroder knew he was up against the clock.

“I watched until the 70-minute mark, then I went to the game,” the Atlanta Hawks’ 2013 first-round pick said.

He was in Las Vegas with the Hawks’ Summer League team and they had a game Sunday evening, taking him away from watching his countrymen in the FIFA World Cup final against Argentina.

“We watched it in the locker room a little bit,” said Schroder, who grew up playing soccer before he took up basketball. The Hawks, though, had to take the floor before the match got to the 113th minute, when Mario Goetze scored to give Germany the 1-0 lead and the championship.

“It’s always good when our nation wins a world championship or a European championship,” Schroder said.

The 20-year-old won’t get the chance to compete on the world stage later this summer as a full-fledged member of the German national team. The Germans did not qualify for the FIBA World Cup (which until now has been called simply the world championships) in Spain.

The Germans weren’t helped by the fact Dirk Nowitzki has not played for the national team since 2011 in the European championships when Germany failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

Schroder, the first native German drafted in the first round since Nowitzki went No. 9 in 1998, will play for Germany in the 2015 European championships with hopes of getting his country back to the Olympics for the first time since Nowitzki led them to the 2008 Beijing Games. Schroder has hinted in recent interviews that Nowitzki could decide to play once again in an effort to get the country to Brazil in 2016.

But before all of that, the 6-foot-2 point guard is focused on his NBA career and carving out a consistent spot in second-year coach Mike Budenholzer‘s rotation. Schroder played in 49 games last season and went through long stretches of watching from the bench.

The level of competition, Schroder said, was an intense eye-opener after playing two years professional in his home country where at times he could put in cruise control, yet still be the best player on the floor.

“You have to compete every night and I think that was the biggest adjustment for me is to compete every night against the best point guards in the world,” Schroder said. “That was the toughest thing to do.”

There is opportunity for Schroder behind starting point guard Jeff Teague. The Hawks traded Lou Williams to Toronto, leaving Shelvin Mack, as his prime competition.

Schroder is a quick penetrator and a primarily pass-first point guard whose shooting need works. He can be flashy and breathtaking with a first step that darts him toward the basket. His lightning-quick first step might be the reason he showed up to Vegas with a gold stripe running through the front of his hair.

“It’s me,” Schroder said of the stripe. “Everybody knows it’s me.”

The goal is for everybody to know who he is by his play on the floor. So far in Las Vegas, he has delivered both up and down performances. He put up a highlight-reel effort with 30 points on 9-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range and 9-for-10 from the free throw line in Sunday’s double-overtime loss. However, he also had eight turnovers in 32 minutes against a team made up exclusively of D-League players.

Through three games Schroder’s averaging 18.0 ppg and 3.3 apg. He’s shooting 44.7 percent (17-for-38), which is an improvement over his 38.3 percent last season (23.8 percent from 3). The No. 17 overall draft pick last summer is a skilled and confident player, but he also knows there is work to be done before he reports to training camp in October looking to play a much more significant role for the Hawks.

“What I’m working on is leading a team, talking to them, and try to focus on my shot a little, 3s and 2s, but the biggest thing is lead the team,” Schroder said. “I don’t worry about it [his role next season]. I worry about practicing hard and try to do the  things that I can control.”

Atlanta determined to change its free-agent standing in NBA

Al Horford (left), coach Mike Budenholzer and Paul Millsap comprise the Hawks' core.

Al Horford (left), coach Mike Budenholzer and Paul Millsap comprise the Hawks’ core.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Perception and reality have a strange way of intersecting during the summer for the Atlanta Hawks.

A franchise “on the rise” in a world-class city and a robust free-agent crop would appear to be a match made in basketball heaven. NBA players love Atlanta and the proof is in the countless number of current and former pros who call the city home — even the ones who never wore a Hawks jersey during their playing days.

Yet the perception around the league is that the Hawks struggle annually to lure big-name free agents, while the reality is they are currently not in the business of chasing free-agent ghosts for the sake of changing perceptions.

Yes, the past two summers the Hawks have had the cap flexibility to be major players in free agency. And they’ve explored all of their options, with names both big and otherwise. They have also shown the restraint many teams can’t in throwing money at a name whose game doesn’t fit the system and program they are building under general manager Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer.

Both men have deep ties to the San Antonio Spurs and they’ve brought many of those sensibilities with them. That includes being extremely selective in the players they consider for inclusion into their program. But if the Hawks are going to shed their not-ready-for-prime-time label, they need a watershed moment (making a conference final) or signature player (the statute of limitations on Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is up) to propel the movement.

The Houston Rockets won the free-agent sweepstakes last summer by snagging Atlanta’s own Dwight Howard. But it was a hollow victory after Howard and Co. had a disappointing first-round effort against the Portland Trail Blazers, proving that there are no guarantees when trying to make a roster splash.

The Hawks pursued Howard, who quite frankly never had any interest in returning to his hometown to play for various reasons that had nothing to do with the Hawks, and were first-round playoff fodder as well. But they did so after pushing the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers to a Game 7, coming four quarters from shocking the basketball world. It gave the Hawks a momentum that has lingered around Atlanta and is spreading beyond the city limits.

Whether or not it spreads into free agency — so far Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore serve as the Hawks’ major acquisitions — is not the focus for the Hawks. They have a broader perspective than just this summer. (And in all fairness, the Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns all went into the summer swinging for the fences in free agency only to strike out on the biggest names as well.) (more…)

Hawks snag Sefolosha on 3-year deal


VIDEO: Thabo Sefolosha is a defensive wiz and the ultimate system guy for the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Some of Danny Ferry‘s best work as general manager of the Hawks has come during these summer months, when many of his colleagues are spending lavishly for players Ferry is busy bargain hunting for players who perfectly fit the Atlanta Hawks’ system.

Ferry might have found his latest gem in defensive wiz Thabo Sefolosha, who agreed to terms on a 3-year, $12 million deal earlier today, as first reported by RealGM.

Sefolosha, a starter in Oklahoma City the last five seasons, fills the void on the wings for the Hawks, who traded veteran reserve guard Lou Williams to Toronto earlier this week.  Sefolosha averaged 6.3 points and 5.6 rebounds in 61 starts last season and served as Thunder’s defensive ace on opposing team’s best perimeter player.

The Hawks proved last year, their first under coach Mike Budenholzer, that they could plug different players into their system and get fantastic results. Paul Millsap earned his first All-Star nod in his first season with the Hawks while guys like DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, Pero Antic and Shelvin Mack had standout seasons. 

Sefolosha was a mainstay in that Thunder lineup during that franchise’s rise from lottery outfit to legitimate contender, working alongside the reigning KIA MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook.

The Hawks have an offensive specialist on the perimeter in veteran shooter Kyle Korver. Sefolosha gives them kindred spirit on the defensive side and a player versatile enough to fit into whatever small-ball, Spurs-lite scheme Budenholzer has in mind for the future.

Once again, Ferry is loading the cupboard with great fits at reasonable prices, the same as he did last summer when the Hawks were flush with cap space and spent wisely (if at all).

Hawks set up well to add a star


VIDEO: East Draft Review: Atlanta Hawks

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

But what about Atlanta?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Pop led Spurs out of Finals doldrums

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich accepts his third Coach of the Year award

SAN ANTONIO – Last summer was unlike any of the previous 17 in Gregg Popovich‘s career as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The long days passed, but the doldrums from the Spurs’ heartbreaking Finals defeat to Miami bogged down like a stagnant lake in the Texas heat.

The 2013 championship was right there, 28 seconds from glory for a proud San Antonio franchise, the model of the NBA if not professional sports as a whole. But everybody knows what happened next. Popovich lived with it every day thereafter until he finally could not any longer, when the players returned to begin, somehow, a brand new season.

“The way we lost in the Finals wasn’t an ordinary loss; it was pretty devastating,” Popovich said Tuesday afternoon at the Spurs’ practice facility as he received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy. “And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way; don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that, and you move on. In all of our lives there are many things more important than winning and losing basketball games and that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that, so I’m very proud of them for that.”

Their resiliency also came during a period of transition on the bench. Popovich’s longtime aids, Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, became head coaches.

But nothing seems to phase this group. With Manu Ginobili turning 36 over the summer and Tim Duncan celebrating his 38th birthday on Friday, neither had to return, or return in better shape than they finished the previous season. When this season could finally have been the one that signaled the inevitable descent it seems has been predicted for the past half-dozen seasons, the Spurs won 62 games, the second-most of Popovich’s 18-year career and earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with the league’s top record.

With the Spurs, everything is a collective effort. They win together, lose together and plan how to win again together.

“We’re fortunate,” Popovich said. “These guys don’t care about stats, they only care about winning basketball games. You might get a championship, you might not, but you give it your best effort. But these guys could all have better stats. I play them for 29 or 30 minutes a game in their careers and their stats suffer because of it, but that sacrifice helps our entire team. and this year, whatever adversity we had — every team has adversity — but our bench really helped us through that. We would not have had the same success without what our bench did. I think that and the leadership that our older players showed helped us get through the hard times.”

In accepting his third Coach of the Year trophy, joining only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners, Popovich spoke sincerely. He praised owner Peter Holt for granting he and general manager R.C. Buford, who sat next to his friend of more than two decades at the table during the news conference, the freedom to do their jobs, and said he was humbled to be singled out among the many worthy candidates this season that included first-year coaches Jeff Hornacek at Phoenix and Steve Clifford at Charlotte, plus Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts and others.

None faced quite the unpredictable psychological hurdle that Popovich did with his heartbroken team.

“I think his steadfast attention to detail and facing the realities of last season’s end and immediately getting it behind us was really important,” Spurs general manager Buford said. “And his approach with his staff was different because it was a different staff, but the energy and the leadership we’ve seen has been consistent throughout his time as a coach.”

But of course it wouldn’t be a Popovich press conference without a measure of snark, and Pop didn’t disappoint.

When asked about losing his two longtime assistants, he interrupted the questioner:  “Thank God.”

Asked where he displays his Coach of the Year trophies, Popovich said: “They’re on the hood of my car. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

As a younger man, Popovich dreamed of a playing career in the NBA before turning to coaching, getting his start as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. Asked if he knew he wanted to coach in the NBA once he didn’t make it as a player, Pop responded: “Larry Brown screwed me as a player. He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me back when he was the Nuggets coach.”

Brown, of course, is one of Popovich’s mentors and who helped him get to the NBA, a place Popovich said was never truly a goal. He said he would have been happy to live out his days where he spent his early coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California.

“For me, the NBA was watching on TV back when they had the long nets and watching the ball go through the long nets; I really enjoyed that,” Popovich said. “I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach. I could do it the rest of my life, it was fantastic, I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. The NBA was never a dream or thought of, ‘I’m going to go to the NBA and be a coach and do this.’ I had no clue.

“We run a lot of the same drills to be honest with you, pivoting drills and sitting on chairs, silly things like that, but all fundamental basketball stuff. After that, let the players play. They know how to get it done.”

So, too, does Pop.

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

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