Posts Tagged ‘Mike Budenholzer’

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

Season On The Brink For The Hawks?

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Magic

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

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

The injuries.

The close losses.

The missed opportunities.

The injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hawks’ Teague Ready For (All-)Star Turn?




VIDEO: Jeff Teague does it all for the Hawks in an overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers

ATLANTA – It’s a good thing Jeff Teague doesn’t have to rely on … uh, Jeff Teague to crank up the hype machine on his All-Star campaign. Because the Atlanta Hawks’ point guard would rather discuss anything but his obvious candidacy for one of those coveted spots on the Eastern Conference reserves list.

Make no mistake, Teague wants on that prestigious list. He makes that clear night after night during his fifth and finest season in the league. He’s just not willing or able to commit himself to the sideshow that is lobbying on his own behalf, which is actually pretty refreshing.

In an era when some players are busier on Twitter and other social media sites than they are on the court on a given night, Teague is decidedly frills-free in his approach to the game and everything else that comes with along with his status as the healthy face of the Hawks. Al Hoford, who was headed for his third All-Star nod before suffering a season-ending right pectoral muscle tear on Dec. 26, is physically unable to perform that duty now. That leaves the work to a committee headed by Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver.

“I honestly don’t worry about that stuff,” Teague said before leading the Hawks past the Indiana Pacers to snap a three-game losing streak Wednesday night at Philips Arena. “I just play, do my job and let everything else take care of itself.”

That shouldn’t be hard in an Eastern Conference All-Star landscape where Teague is the head of the snake of one of just three teams with a winning record (the Pacers and Miami Heat are the others). And with the likes of Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams either injured or suffering through injury-plagued seasons, there is an opening for some fresh blood in the All-Star point-guard mix.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel praised Teague’s work this season and said he’s absolutely on the short list of players that Eastern Conference coaches need to consider when filling out their All-Star reserves ballots.

“The history of the league has rewarded winning teams,” Vogel said. “He’s certainly and All-Star level, an All-Star caliber player. He’s having a terrific season and carrying the load now even more that Horford is out. And I know he is the focal point of our game plan every time we play these guys. They are spread out more and they have 3-point shooting bigs, and I think that just opens up the court for him to go to work and makes it more difficult to help. And he’s just growing, he’s developing and each year he’s gotten better. Like I said, he’s a terrific young guard.”

Seven months ago the restricted free agent wasn’t even sure he’d be wearing a Hawks uniform. Teague signed an offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks, where his former coach Larry Drew landed, and was prepared to start over in the Central Division. After spending his first four seasons here in Atlanta, with the team that drafted him with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 Draft, Teague was mentally prepared to start over if the Hawks didn’t match the Bucks’ four-year, $32 million offer.

Once the Hawks made it clear that they planned to rebuild with Teague at the controls, he was able to make peace with his situation and dive into the point-guard friendly system of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. Atlanta’s new boss learned a thing or two about tutoring young point guards after helping mold San Antonio Spurs All-Star Tony Parker‘s game over the years.

“I’m happy to be here, I love Atlanta, the city … it’s perfect for me,” Teague said. “I’ve been here my whole career, so I was glad to be back. We’ve got all good guys, nobody looking for extra. Just all good guys working hard and trying to get better and trying to win. So at the end of the day, it’s a perfect environment for me.”

A perfect environment with the perfect coach. Budenholzer’s meticulous approach intrigued Teague. His collaborative approach also struck a chord with the extremely laid back Teague, whose easygoing nature should not be confused for any lack of desire or effort to try to dominate the opposition on a nightly basis.

“He pulls me aside all the time just to talk basketball,” Teague said. “I’ve never had that happen before. It’s just the perfect system for me, the perfect blend. And we’re all still trying to figure it out. As the year goes on I think we’ll get better and better at doing what we do.”

They’ll have to do it without the security blanket that Horford provided. Horford’s steady face-up game allowed the Hawks to lean on their “system” in the fourth quarter of games, to let Teague and Horford’s chemistry to shine through.

“We’re running the same stuff but it’s definitely different without Al,” Teague said. “In the fourth quarter we usually go the high pick and roll with me and Al. And that was real effective for us. I honestly didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot with Pero (Antic) and Elton (Brand), so we’re all still getting adjusted, I’m still getting comfortable with those guys and learning where they want to be and where they like to get the ball in those situations. We’re still learning each other and still learning on the fly right now.”

Teague has already put in the necessary work to garner favorable All-Star consideration. He’s averaging career highs across the board, in points (16.9), assists (8.0), rebounds (2.8) and minutes (33.5).There is still plenty of work to be done, something Teague is the first to admit. His 3-point shooting remains streaky as ever, he made just 3-for-17 from deep in the five games prior to Wednesday night’s game.

Still, the overall strides made in his game from last season to this one are glaring and should not be overlooked when All-Star bids are discussed.

“I just know how valuable he’s been to us,” Budenholzer said. “He’s kind of that engine that gets us going. And any success we’ve had this year, he’s been a huge part of that, taking on the responsibility with the ball in his hands a lot and generating shots for others and for himself. I know there are a lot of good point guards, and I’m a little bit biased, but I think he deserves to be [on that list].”

At least someone is willing to lobby for Teague, even if he won’t.

Hang Time One-On-One … With Al Horford

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Al Horford‘s season came to an abrupt end on Dec. 26 when he reached for the ball and tore his right pectoral muscle, the second such injury in three seasons for the Atlanta Hawks’ two-time All-Star center.

Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in 2012 and missed four months recovering from that injury, coming back in the playoffs that season but missing all but 11 regular season games during the 2011-12 season. But the heat and soul of the Hawks’ franchise will not let this latest injury setback deter him. He’s vowed to return better than ever while continuing to serve as an influential voice and presence for his team during his recovery.

Just so we’re clear on the impact Horford had on the Hawks this season, his first playing alongside someone other than Josh Smith (now in Detroit) in the frontcourt, you need to consider what sort of company he was in as the Hawks’ leading scorer and rebounder.

At the time of his injury Horford was one of just six players – LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers and DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings were the others — leading his team in points and rebounds.

Now Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and guys like Elton Brand and Pero Antic are left to help fill the massive void left by Horford’s absence for a Hawks team that has overachieved this season.

Interestingly enough, those are the same guys Horford expressed extreme confidence in when I sat down with him before his injury for the latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series …



VIDEO: Al Horford opens up about his Hawks, his city, his journey and much more in this HT One-On-One

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Doc, CP3 Praise Hawks’ Teague




VIDEO: Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is off to a fantastic start this season

ATLANTA – Chris Paul is used to showing up at arenas on the road and dealing with the challenge of being the measuring stick for opposing point guards. It’s been that way for some time for the Los Angeles Clippers’ star.

That said, it’s always a special challenge facing his good friend, protegé and fellow Wake Forest alum, Jeff Teague. Teague’s splendid work this season has helped propel the Atlanta Hawks into the top half of the playoff chase in the Eastern Conference up to this point at least.

Tonight’s Clippers-Hawks matchup at Philips Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) provides one of two regular-season opportunities for Teague to see where he stands.

Paul has always been in a different point-guard stratosphere, but might Teague be closing that gap, albeit slightly, this season? Both Paul and Clippers coach Doc Rivers , who acknowledged the challenge both players will face tonight after the Clippers’ Wednesday morning shootaround, believe so.

“Guarding Chris Paul every night is going to be very hard, as is guarding Jeff Teague every night,” Rivers said. “They’re a little bit different in what they do and the way they play. And Teague, over the last two years, I don’t know of any guard that has improved more. I mean, he’s really become a heck of a basketball player.”

Teague is shattering his career numbers of 9.5 points and 4.3 assists this season with career-bests in points (17.4), assists (8.1) and rebounds (2.8). He is also a legitimate contender for one of the guard spots on the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, thanks to a door being opened by injuries to other stars along with his improved play.

“Man, [he has improved] a lot,” Paul said. “I think JT is so much more aggressive now than he ever was. And that comes with confidence, which he should have. The team made some moves and freed him up to play with the freedom so he knows he’s the guy. And he’s been hooping all season long.”

We’ll see if he can keep it up tonight, at Paul’s expense.

Duncan Does What Only He Can




VIDEO: Tim Duncan delivers the dagger to the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Years from now, when folks are cruising through the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and stumble upon Tim Duncan‘s name, I hope they realize exactly what a unique NBA creature he was.

San Antonio’s rock throughout the Spurs’ run as one of the best franchises in all of sports, Duncan’s skill set separated him from the pack of the greatest power forwards and big men who came before, during and probably after his playing days.

You saw him last night, at 37 and into his 17th season of his glorious grind, running off of a screen with the game on the line against the Hawks as Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer,  who spent 19 years with the Spurs, knew exactly what was coming. There he was knocking down a shot that players of his ilk (Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, etc.) would have struggled to make, had anyone even thought of running a play like that for them at a similar late stage of their Hall of Fame careers.

There is a reason, even with Duncan shooting a career-worst 44 percent this season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t hesitate to draw up a game-winning play for the most fundamentally sound big man ever. There’s a reason he opts for Duncan over the likes of All Stars (and fellow future Hall of Famers) Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in these instances that require a sure thing.

Only in the Land of Duncan does this happen. He made history, of course, Monday night, becoming the oldest player to record a 20-point, 20-rebound game since the league began recording rebounds. And yet he’ll be overshadowed this morning by flashier highlights from games around the league (that Indiana-Portland game was a showcase of young up-and-coming talent and teams).

Thank your lucky stars that all of today’s technology will allow us to enjoy Duncan’s brilliance for years to come, long after has left the stage and his exploits have faded from the memory of not only his generation, but those that follow.

He is just now cranking up his production this season. He got off to a slow start — it’s allowable for a player with his long list of accomplishments — but is averaging a much more Duncan-like 16.6 points (on 56 percent shooting) and 10.2 rebounds over his past five games.

“I feel a lot healthier now,” Duncan told reporters after the win over the Hawks. “For a while there, I was dealing with some stuff, but now my body is feeling good and I’m starting to get my legs underneath me.”

When healthy, he is still capable of dominating the competition.

Duncan showed us during the Spurs’ run to The Finals last year that he still had plenty left in his tank. His reign as the league’s true big man monarch has not ended … not officially.


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks about his shot to beat the Hawks

Moment Has Passed For Smith, Hawks




VIDEO: Josh Smith talks about the surreal feeling of his first trip home as a Detroit Piston

ATLANTA – Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.

His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.

The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.

The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.

The outcome of the game, a 93-85 Hawks win, wasn’t on anyone’s mind as Smith stood among a crowd of reporters in the hallways outside of the Pistons’ locker room before the game.

All anyone wanted to know was how strange it was for Smith to walk into this building on the wrong side? What was it like coming “home” but no longer being a member of the family? What would it be like going against former teammates like Al Horford and Jeff Teague, guys he called his “friends and brothers” when it was all over, for the first time in his career?

Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).

He’s focused on the Pistons  now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.

“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”

That spot had to seem awful familiar Wednesday night.

Smith got a bigger rise out of the crowd with his attempts and misses from deep than anyone other than the Hawks’ Kyle Korver, whose streak of games with a made 3-pointer was stretched to 85, which is just four shy of the NBA record. That’s the beauty and the curse Smith has been blessed with. He has the ability to get fans out of their seats, for reasons good and bad.

The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.

It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.

It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.

“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”

They did, show him just a little love. And yes, he earned it. Smith does rank in the Hawks’ top 10 in games played, points, rebounds, steal and blocks. Yes, he deserved it.

But now it’s time for everyone to move on.

The moment has passed!


VIDEO: Josh Smith with the steal and slam against the hometown Hawks

Hawks Rookie Schroder Wows Countryman, Role Model Nowitzki

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DALLAS – Impressive.

The face of the German national team over the past decade-and-half didn’t hesitate to put forth the one-word assessment. Dirk Nowitzki got his first in-game introduction — a full 36-minute showcase in Wednesday’s preseason game between the Mavericks and Hawks — to 20-year-old point guard Dennis Schroder, the 6-foot-1 future of the German team.

With Hawks starting point guard Jeff Teague taking the night off, the rookie got his first start of the preseason and scored a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with four assists and a pair of steals. For much of the game he was as billed — quick, agile with a flashy handle, a nuisance to defend and, yes, overall impressive. His game, like the tattoos that stretch the entirety of his seemingly endless arms, screams American streetball over the German professional league he was recently shredding.

“This was really my first time seeing him go up and down, and he already impressed me in the [pre-Draft] workout,” Nowitzki said. “For as young as he is, his court presence is pretty good, the way he’s talking, just his overall — swagger is a stupid word, but it’s there. He’s got a confidence about himself. He’s fast, he’s got long arms. I think he’s going to have a good career in this league.”

If it sounds like Nowitzki, 35 and entering his 16th season, might have enjoyed having his potential pick-and-roll partner in international competition (assuming Nowitzki opts to play again) on the Mavs, there could be some truth to it. The Mavericks, slated to pick 13th in the 2013 Draft and still seeking a long-term answer at point guard, scouted Schroder during a pre-Draft workout.

It was there, on the Mavs’ practice court, that Nowitzki met Schroder. He marveled at his abundance of raw talent and handed him his phone number, telling the youngster to text him any time he needed to talk.

“I text with him a lot and he gives me advice every time when I need something,” said Schroder, who left Germany at the same age that Nowitzki once did. “His career is amazing. Every German player looks up to him, and same with me.”

On Draft night, Dallas traded down to 16th with Schroder still on the board. They traded down again to 18th and selected Miami point guard Shane Larkin, whose development has been stunted by a broken ankle sustained during Summer League preparation. Schroder was gone, taken 17th by the Hawks, becoming the first native German drafted in the first round since Nowitzki went No. 9 in 1998.

Rookie shows flashes of growth

Schroder’s preseason has been a mix of blinding promise and inevitable learning curve. His eight buckets against the Mavs was one fewer than his preseason total entering the game. He’s 17-for-45 from the floor (37.8 percent), 2-for-15 from beyond the arc (13.3 percent) and just 4-for-8 from the free throw line. His seven turnovers Wednesday, a concern going back to Summer League, jumped his preseason total to 19. He’s averaging more turnovers per game (3.8) than assists (3.4).

“It’s an amazing feeling to play in the NBA right now,” the 168-pound Schroder said. “You have to get used to it because the European leagues, how they play is completely different. The preseason has helped me a lot and the Summer League, too. Every point guard here is strong and athletic, so I have to try to get stronger and try to compete every game.”

The misfires and turnovers are buffered by the skill and raging potential: the pivot at the elbow that freed him for a jumper that swished through; the crossover dribble and step-back against Shawn Marion for another mid-range jumper that dropped; the blow-by into the lane for a layup and later for a kick out; the baseline hesitation and spin past Jose Calderon that drew a foul.

“He’s made a lot of good, positive impressions on all of us, including myself,” first-year Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Defensively he has some natural ability to be disruptive and have an impact on the game. That’s where he’s going to earn everybody’s respect and earn his minutes. But offensively his ability to use his speed and get in the paint, his decision-making, his vision, for his age we’re excited about how he can grow.”

Hard work in Germany pays off

In soccer-absorbed Germany, only now is Schroder beginning to create something of a buzz. He is also not the typical face of German basketball. One glance tells you he is not Uwe Blab, Detlef Schrempf, Nowitzki or even Tim Ohlbrecht.

Schroder was born and raised in Braunschweig, a city of about a 250,000 people located in the northern part of Germany, some 220 miles north of Nowitzki’s much smaller hometown of Wurzburg. His mother is from Gambia, a small country on Africa’s west coast, and his father, who passed away several years ago from heart failure, was German. Schroder’s first language is German and he speaks fluent English.

At 16, when he learned of his father’s failing health, he promised to abandon the skateboard he spent many hours tooling around on to make a hard push in basketball, and to take care of his mother and siblings.

He played in the top German league, one of only a handful of black German players, rising quickly from a minimal bench role his first season and later into a star. He said he hopes he’s opened doors for a rising number of young, black basketball players behind him: “It’s not easy to play in the German leagues and you’re black. My best friend, he plays in the German League, too. It’s not easy, but I hope I opened the door for him, too, so he can make it one day in the league.”

Schroder’s 28-year-old sister and her 6-year-old daughter moved and live with him in his Atlanta home. His 25-year-old brother will join them in the coming months.

A fitting reunion with a role model

Schroder officially begins his NBA career next Wednesday in the Hawks’ season-opener in Dallas. In a coincidental, if not appropriate, twist, the paths of Germany’s top basketball exports over the last 25 years will come full circle.

“I told him that it’s actually funny, my first game in the NBA was against Schrempf, and I was the young guy, he was the old guy playing in his last couple years,” Nowitzki said. “There was a bunch of German media and this year is the same thing. I was on the road back then, too, and he’s going to start here against me and I’m obviously the older guy now and he’s the younger guy. He’s impressive. He’s only going to get better. He’s obviously got to learn to shoot off the dribble a little better, shoot the 3-ball, but everything else is there.”

Whether Nowitzki and Schroder ever play together on the German national team remains to be seen. Nowitzki opted not to play in last summer’s European championship coming off the first knee surgery of his career. Schroder passed up his first opportunity to concentrate on settling into his new city and team. At the European championships last month, the undermanned German squad failed to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and is unlikely to receive one of the final wildcard spots.

That halts the country’s international competition likely until 2015 at the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Nowitzki, who guided Germany to the 2008 Games but didn’t get back in 2012, has expressed a desire to make one last run at Olympic glory. Noting that he will be 38 in 2016, he isn’t making any promises just yet.

“I hope he plans [to play] so we can play together,” Schroder said. “Every German player wants to do that, to play with him, and that is my dream.”