HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – If Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was any indication, we should be in store for an entire series that could go down as an instant classic.
That would eliminate the need for any off-court hype-including Twitter beefs, random pot shots through the media and any of the other extra-curricular foolishness that can sidetrack some good ol’ fashioned playoff-level drama that happens on the court.
U can knee or kick me every time u drive 2the rim. Ill be there 2protect the rim. That wasn't inadvertent. Battier knew what he was doing— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) May 23, 2013
Calling out Heat forward Shane Battier for being a dirty player isn’t a crime. Surely, Battier has been called worse throughout the course of his college (Duke) and professional career. Doing it now, though, with Game 2 of this series just hours away (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), is just completely unnecessary.
Miami guard Mario Chalmers (bruised left shoulder) said today he expects to play in Friday’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, reports TNT Analyst David Aldridge. Chalmers suffered the injury when he ran into Pacers forward David West in the second half.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra indicated that Chalmers could have played in Game 1 after the injury.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We’ve got plenty of time to debate the final play of the Miami Heat’s 103-102 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Game 2 isn’t until Friday night. So let the second-guessing begin.
The question is simple, should the Pacers have had their rim protector extraordinaire Roy Hibbert on the floor for the final play of a game? There were just 2.2 seconds to play and LeBron James spun to the basket and finished with the lefty layup to win it, thanks to Paul George‘s defensive gaffe (he overplayed the pass after seeing Ray Allen fly past him to the wing on a beautifully designed play). Pacers coach Frank Vogel has already said that if he had it to do over again … kudos to him for coming clean, many of his colleagues around the league would bark at us for questioning him.
Watch the play (above) again and play coach. Would you rather go small and give up those last two layups LeBron scored (the first was a driving layup on George Hill) or do you take your chances with Hibbert, praised by Vogel recently as the best rim protector in the game, and force the Heat to beat you with a lower percentage shot from distance?
George answered the question for me when he admitted afterwards that he needed to force LeBron to take a jumper rather than give up the clear lane to the basket. Had Hibbert been on the floor, that path would have at least been a bit cluttered. Tyler Hansbrough, who was fantastic earlier in the game, was chasing Allen on that last play but did not close off the lane the way Hibbert might have if he were in there.
I know it’s hindsight now and that everything but what Vogel did looks like a better option now. Sorry. That’s the way it works when we all get to play armchair coach after the fact.
Their current teams have the right to match any offers they receive, meaning that the lucrative, long-term deal some of these guys are looking for might come with strings attached. Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks plays a marquee position in a market that doesn’t seem to fit his persona or personality.
He turned down a $40 million extension in the fall, making clear his intention to push for a bigger deal or an eventual departure — he could play the 2013-14 season on a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014 — from Fear The Deer territory.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: A first-team All-Rookie pick in 2010, Jennings solidified his credentials as a starting point guard in four seasons with the Bucks. He started 289 of the 291 games he played in and helped guide the Bucks to the playoff twice in his first four seasons. A big time scorer, Jennings has the charisma and personality to help you win games and sell tickets. What he’s not saying: He’s still barely 170 pounds soaking wet. There are still some front office types who think he’s more of a poor man’s Allen Iverson instead of the young Mike Conley they hoped he might be at this stage of his career. What he’s worth: Jennings believes he’s worth every penny of a max deal somewhere. Remember, he famously boasted that he was better than Ricky Rubio and has gone about the business of trying to prove as much night in and night out. But a max deal is out of the question in Milwaukee and probably anywhere else. The Bucks aren’t going to bid against themselves for a player who has made it clear that he is interested in playing in a bigger market. He’s already turned down a four-year offer with $40 million, making it clear that he intends to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and let the market set his value. Likely landing spot(s): The Bucks have the right to match any offers. Any interested teams know that all they have to do is wait this situation out and pursue Jennings in the free-agent summer of 2014.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: Teague is coming off of his best season as a pro, having averaged career highs in points (14.6) and assists (7.2) while asserting himself as a true lead guard for a playoff team. He’s only scratched the surface of his potential and, at 24, is still young enough to project major upside in the coming years. What he’s not saying: Teague is not a great defender at what is easily the deepest position in the league. And his assist numbers (3.0) in 29 career playoff games suggest that he might not be on track to become the elite facilitator a team needs in a point guard. What he’s worth: The Hawks didn’t do him any favors by not even offering him an extension on his rookie contract before the Halloween deadline. Making that pill even tougher to swallow for Teague is the fact that the two point guards drafted directly ahead of him in 2009, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday ($10 million a year) and Ty Lawson ($12 million a year), both agreed to terms on four-year deals at the deadline. If they’ve set the bar — Holiday blossomed into an All-Star this season while Lawson had an equally strong case but missed out in a deep crop of Western Conference point guards — Teague is in a tough negotiating spot with the Hawks. Likely landing spot(s): Teague needs a team desperate for a young point guard to present an offer sheet that exceeds what the Hawks might be willing to pay (anything near $10 million a year would be a bit of a shock). Utah is still searching for a long-term answer at point guard and could poke around and see if the Hawks will let Teague walk. But the Hawks are likely to keep him on a qualifying offer and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Tyreke Evans, G, Sacramento Kings
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: A Rookie of the Year and at one time considered the future face of the franchise in Sacramento, Evans averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his first season. A super-sized point guard, he used his size and skill to his advantage in that role with the Kings. He’s most definitely selling the Tyreke Evans we all saw his rookie season. What he’s not saying: While he didn’t experience the steep statistical drop off in his next three seasons, Evans is fighting the perception that he bottomed out during those three seasons. The Kings certainly seem to have moved on from Evans being a franchise cornerstone during these past three seasons, hence the absence of an extension offer. Isaiah Thomas supplanted him at point guard and Evans has played out of position ever since. What he’s worth: This is where things get tricky for Evans, because some team with cap space to work with is going to eyeball Evans and remember that he’s a 6-foot-6, 220-pound combo guard with an ability to run a team and calculate the risk of snatching him away from an uncertain situation with the Kings. If Darko Milicicgot $20 million from the Minnesota Timberwolves, someone has to be willing to offer Evans a similar deal. Likely landing spot(s): Dallas and Atlanta are both in full-blown roster-rebuild mode and could use a talent like Evans at a reasonable price to help get things rolling. He could be the steal of the summer if someone makes a play for him and waits to see if the Kings will match the offer or let him walk.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: With the eternal premium on productive big men, Pekovic showed flashes of being an absolute nightmare in the low post for opposing teams. A 7-foot, 300-pound block of granite, Pekovic averaged 16.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg last season and held it down in the Timberwolves’ frontcourt without Kevin Love available for the majority of the season. He’s got a size/skill-set combination that makes him a rarity in a league that treasures big men who can play high impact basketball on both ends of the floor. What he’s not saying: The only problem with Pekovic is the 174-game sample size teams have to work with in evaluating the upside of a big man who is 26 and perhaps already deeper into his physical prime than you want a third-year player to be. What he’s worth: The Houston Rockets used a three-year, $25 million offer sheet to pry Omer Asik away from the Chicago Bulls last summer. An offer like that could work similar wonders for someone trying to slip into the Twin Cities and sneak out with a starting center. Likely landing spot(s): Minnesota can’t afford to let him walk, not with the regime change and whatever other roster changes Flip Saunders and his new crew have in store. Plus, Pekovic has become a cult favorite in Minneapolis.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent. What he’s selling: A three-year apprenticeship under the great Tim Duncan can’t be a bad place for a big man to start when resume building. Splitter’s third NBA season turned out to be the charm, as he finally showed some signs of being the low-post factor he was billed as when the Spurs made him their top Draft pick in 2007. The Brazilian big man finally earned a regular spot in Gregg Popovich‘s rotation, another sign and seal of approval, averaging career highs in points (10.3), rebounds (6.4) and minutes (24.7). He made 58 starts this season, 52 more than he did in the two previous season combined. What he’s not saying: Those previous two seasons mentioned were less than stellar. Splitter has ideal size for a NBA big man but didn’t leave a large footprint early on, the transition from Spanish League MVP to NBA regular being much tougher than anyone anticipated for him. What he’s worth: Like almost every skilled big man, Splitter is going to be worth more than a man half his size with better credentials. That’s just the way things work in this league. He’s due for a significant raise from the $3.9 million he’s earning this season. In fact, he should have no trouble doubling that in a free agent market (for unrestricted and restricted free agents) that is relatively light on centers. Likely landing spots: The Spurs have the right of first refusal and will exercise that right if the offers come in at the right number. But Dallas and Atlanta have to have him on their short lists, with several other teams focusing in on him early on in the process.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Only eight teams remain in the playoffs, meaning the fans of 22 other teams have turned much of their attention to the offseason and the free-agent summer of 2013 in particular.
We will encounter a familiar name there, one Dwight David Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers, who along with Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, will be at the center of all things come July 1 (when free agency kicks off in all of its usual craziness).
There are a dozen teams, most notably Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Utah, Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, Charlotte and Washington, with the cash to spend and the flexibility to significantly tweak, and, in some cases, totally remake their rosters. All these teams need is a free agent willing to give them a chance to make the proper sales pitch.
For the top-level free agents — and this summer that list it two truly elite players deep, Howard and Paul — the list of potential suitors will be exclusive. Only those franchises with championship potential need bother.
But that’s what makes the summer, the scramble by a large number of teams for the same small group of big-time free agents. We have more than seven weeks to before free agency goes into complete crazy mode, but why wait until then to get the party started?
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year and five-time rebounding champ, Howard is a seven-time All-Star and, when healthy, the NBA’s most dominant big man. When your down year sees you lead the league in rebounding and still help power the Lakers to a playoff spot in an absolute train wreck of a season, you’re worth every penny a team throws at you. What he’s not saying: He still a putrid free throw shooter and has been known to struggle with decision-making. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $118 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Lakers have no choice but to beg him to stay, with Kobe Bryant on the mend from Achilles surgery and no one else on the roster capable of carrying the mantle as face of the franchise. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas will launch all-out assaults to sway him. Likely landing spot(s): Lakers. They can offer $30 million more than anyone else. Howard will have a hard time walking away from that kind of cash.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A six-time All-Star and culture-changer (see Clippers before and after his arrival), Paul is the best in the business at his position, a gold medal winner and an All-Star Game MVP. Toss in his work as a pitch man (Cliff Paul comes with the package) and it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most recognizable players in the game today. What he’s not saying: He has to stay healthy. He’s not getting any younger and he has to get to winning in the postseason, the one glaring hole on his so-far sparkling NBA resume. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $108 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Clippers are desperate to hold on to him. But they have coaching issues to resolve before that can happen. Houston, Atlanta, Dallas will all make pitches in hopes of prying Paul away. Likely landing spots: Clippers … depending on what happens with Vinny Del Negro. Like Howard, Paul would have to walk away from extra cash if he decides to go elsewhere. But he’s hungry for a title, wherever he goes.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: An absolute game-changer when he’s focused, Smith makes plays only a few players in the league are capable of on a given night. For all the drama and criticism thrown his way, he helped power the Hawks to six straight playoff appearances. What he’s not saying: His shot selection and motor remain issues. After nine years in Atlanta, his next spot needs to be an ideal fit, because this is likely Smith’s last big deal. He has to make sure it’s in a place where he can thrive. What he’s worth: A max contract of approximately $95 million over five years doesn’t fit here, not from the only team (the Hawks) that can offer him that much. But a deal worth approximately $75 million to $85 million over five years is doable. Smith turned down a $47 million extension offer from the Hawks, so he’s obviously looking for a starting salary of $16 million-plus. Who might be buying: The Hawks say they are interested in keeping Smith, at the right price, of course. Houston, Boston, Phoenix, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the Lakers will all investigate this situation. Likely landing spots: Houston is the frontrunner and is the ideal fit and a place Smith would be comfortable. (more…)
The best fourth quarter scorer in these playoffs, Robinson served the Heat by scoring the final seven of his game-high 27 points (he also had nine assists) in the defining minutes of the game. He did all this after needing 10 stitches to close a gash over his lip, courtesy of a LeBron James elbow and head smash during a scramble for a loose ball.
“Get stitched up and continue to battle,” Robinson told reporters after the game.
LeBron’s already snagged the “King” nickname. But after watching Robinson the past eight games (and, really, the past eight seasons), is there any doubt that he’s the pound-for-pound king of toughness in the NBA?
Yes, that’s high praise for a third-string point guard. And Robinson remains one of the more unpredictable players in the league. His highs, though, trump his lows every time. Tell me the last time a third-string point guard outdueled the MVP on the night he received his trophy? Robinson became the NBA’s first three-time Sprite Slam Dunk champ and built a cult fanbase from New York (where he spent his first four and half seasons in the league) to Boston to the Bay Area and now Chicago and beyond.
Nowhere is Robinson more beloved than in his native Seattle, where he was the big man on campus at Ranier Beach High School, where he was a three-sport (football and track, too) star. Unlike many of his NBA colleagues who love to fantasize about being crossover stars in the NFL, Robinson could have pulled it off.
He was a All-Pac-10 Freshman Team pick at cornerback at the University of Washington, where his father, Jacque Robinson, was a Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl MVP. Nate Robinson was believed to have a much brighter future in that sport.
But he chose basketball instead and the rest is pound-for-pound history for a player who says he’s having the time of his life with this Bulls team.
“There’s something special about this group,” Robinson said. “It feels like we’ve been playing together for, like, 10 years. I told [Bulls] Coach [Tom Thibodeau], we just love to play for each other.”
Hoops fans love having players with Robinson’s toughness on their team. That’s why he’s the king/captain of the Hang Time Pound-For-Pound Toughness Team. These are the guys still working in these playoffs who give up every ounce of what they’ve got on a nightly basis for their respective teams, be it blood, sweat, tissue, tears or whatever else is needed.
The other starters:
David West, Indiana Pacers
6-foot-9, 250 pounds
An absolute bruiser, West changed the entire culture of an organization in Indiana with his reserved-but-unwavering leadership style. The Pacers have become the picture of defensive toughness and consistency since West arrived. West is a physical specimen who has found a way harness his brute strength and play under complete control at all times. He’s a huge reason why the Pacers are up 1-0 on the New York Knicks in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
6-foot-7, 220 pounds
Another reserve who has moved into a starring role during this postseason, all Butler has done is play every single minute in three straight playoff games (Games 6 and 7 against the Brooklyn Nets and Game 1 against the Heat). That’s 48 straight minutes for three straight games while guarding the likes of the Nets’ Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and the Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With his tireless work on both ends of the floor, Butler has done a masterful job filling in for Luol Deng while also showing the sort of mettle of a future star.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
7-foot-1, 265 pounds
The Memphis branch of the Gasol basketball family tree is much sturdier than the Los Angeles version in every way imaginable. Pau Gasol has always been considered the most skilled big man in the family. But the toughest Gasol, the recently crowd Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year, does his home work near Beale Street. He’s got it all … brains, brawn and he can ball.
Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
6-foot-4, 214 pounds
A defensive stopper everywhere he’s been, Allen’s junkyard dog attitude inspired the Grit and Grind movement in Memphis (where you could fill out a Pound-For-Pound roster with the likes of Zach Randolph and others). Allen’s greatest trait is his fearlessness, which was on full display during the Boston Celtics’ title run in 2008 and has been as identifiable as his No. 9 jersey is since he joined the Grizzlies three seasons ago.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls; Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs; Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks; Chris Andersen, Miami Heat.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The locals will talk about it forever.
What would the Hawks have been like with Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams? Or Rudy Gay or Brandon Roy instead of Shelden Williams orbasically anyone other than Speedy Claxton?
Conference finals appearances instead of first round exits? Global recognition of a basketball brand reborn with superstar talent instead of a league laughingstock (after a 13-win season in 2004-05) and the team that can always be counted on not to come through when they should?
Hypothetical questions with no clear-cut answers make the Hawks’ past every bit as murky as their immediate future. They enter free agency this summer with only six players under contract, four Draft picks (two in each round) and approximately $33.1 million in cap space for their GM, Danny Ferry, to work with in rebuilding the roster.
The Hawks choices in the Draft and free agency have come to define the franchise over the past eight years more so than anything they have actually done on the court. They ended an eight-year playoff drought after the 2007-08 season with a core group of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Mike Bibby, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams and Acie Law. That group kicked off a run of six straight playoff appearance that came crashing to an ugly end Friday night at Philips Arena in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their first round series.
It was the official end to not only their season but also an era for the Hawks, who have just three players — Horford, Lou Williams and rookie John Jenkins – under guaranteed contacts for next season. Even Hawks coach Larry Drew, who has been on staff (the last three as head coach) throughout this entire era, does not have a contract for next season.
We’ve seen the last of these Hawks as we know them, Drew acknowledged as much after the Game 6 loss.
“Even with the injuries to Zaza and Lou, we were able to juggle some things around, move people around,” Drew said. “And we stayed together. We did not fragment. We stayed together even when it got tough. A lot of people didn’t predict us to make the playoffs. No one gave us a chance, but this group hung in there. They persevered and I’m really proud of them.”
It was an honorable finish to a tumultuous season for all involved. A team loaded with three times as many pending free agents as players under guaranteed contracts, has issues that go above and beyond the professionalism required to do the job under those circumstances.
That said, Ferry is sticking to his plan. He’s going to be rebuilding basically from scratch, with nine players heading into free agency July 1.
Smith, one of the only remaining building blocks from the franchise’s last rebuild and a long-time source of division within the franchise (some folks loved the hometown kid who flashed signs of being an All-Star caliber player over the years while others loathed the enigmatic performer who clashed with his coaches and drove fans nuts with his play), going into the summer as one of the marquee names on the market.
It’s time for Smith and the Hawks to go their separate ways, amicably, of course. Everyone involved knows that it’s time for a mutual parting of the ways for the good of all involved.
Point guard Jeff Teague is a restricted free agent and while he’s shown loads of improvement since Drew took over for Woodson, there remain questions about whether or not he is best suited as the starting point guard for this team.
Ferry can make a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, from all of the second-guessing, head-scratching and eye-rolling that has surrounded the Hawks for years. No one will vilify him for cleaning up the mess made before he arrived last summer, the one he started clean up himself by moving both Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades last summer.
It’s the uncertainty of what’s to come, however, that makes skeptical Hawks fans nervous. There will be big fish on the free agent market, guys like Los Angeles Lakers’ big man and Atlanta native Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul, stars capable of turning an uncertain situation around by signing their names on the dotted line.
The Hawks have the necessary resources to pursue those two, who will be first and second, in whatever order, on every free agent wish list of a team with money to spend this summer.
The summer of 2013 is the Hawks’ biggest since the summer of 2005, when Johnson (sign-and-trade) and Marvin Williams (No. 2 pick overall in the Draft) were added to the mix. That was the beginning of a painstaking rebuilding process that ultimately led to six straight playoff appearances, the second-best stretch of its kind in the Hawks’ Atlanta history.
For a franchise that has endured a recent stretch of complete insignificance during that playoff drought, followed by the past six postseason runs, a return to the non-playoff abyss is a bit frightening.
That’s what made the end of Friday night so bittersweet for Horford, who has only known the playoffs during his time with the Hawks and in the league.
“I feel for our fans,” he said. “I know they wanted us to do better. I felt like, as a team, we did about as much as we could. We had some adversity and we handled it well. We had a good season, looking at the big picture. One thing I appreciate about these guys was how they competed. Even tonight, we could’ve gone the other way. That is something I’m proud of the guys for.”
The “guys” will look a lot different next season.
In fact, Horford might be one of the only truly familiar faces around if Ferry carries out his master plan.
ATLANTA –Lance Stephenson was just a kid the last time the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks squared off in the playoffs. The Coney Island native barely remembers the infamous “Hicks vs. Knicks” battles and all of the drama that came along with those heated and physical contests that have an indelible place in the history of both franchises.
“I really can’t remember much other than Reggie Miller hitting big shots and changing the game around,” Stephenson, the Pacers’ shooting guard said before admitting that he rooted for a team on the opposite coast while growing up in Brooklyn. “I was like nine-years-old. I was a Lakers fan. I didn’t care about the Knicks. I was all Lakers. Magic Johnson, Shaq, Eddie Jones, Kobe [Bryant] with the fro.”
Stephenson and his Pacers will get a chance to write their open chapter in this storied rivalry, courtesy of their 81-73 Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night at Philips Arena. The Pacers chased away one ghost, snapping their 13-game losing streak to the Hawks in Atlanta, proving they can win in a hostile environment. They’ll chase another in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Knicks, winners in a series-clinching Game 6 of their own in Boston Friday night. Game 1 of that series is Sunday afternoon.
Stephenson and the Pacers can’t wait.
“It’s gonna be great, playing in front of my friends and family and in my hometown with the bright lights,” Stephenson said. “It’s gonna be great.”
It’s also going to be a completely different undertaking, dealing with the No. 2 seed Knicks and those raucous crowds, that arrive on time, at Madison Square Garden.
Let’s be real, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and a much deeper and more seasoned Knicks team presents more significant challenges than a Hawks team that the Pacers should have handled in four or five games instead of six. The Pacers get just one day off between games. They flew straight from Atlanta to New York late Friday night and will have to use Saturday as a preparation day.
“This next round is going to be a totally different beast,” Pacers forward David West said. “We’re going to have to defend probably one of the best one-on-one players in the game [in Anthony]. They play small at times, too, so we know there will be some funky matchups but for the most part, we have to just concentrate on what we can control, our energy and effort and how we defend. But we have to be ready to go.”
The same way they were against the Hawks in the final two games of their first round series. After getting run off the floor here in Games 3 and 4, the Pacers went home and cleaned up a bit before Game 5. They showed up for Game 6 focused and ready to break down a Hawks team that seemed vulnerable from the start Friday night.
They led by as many as 19 points early, weathered the Hawks’ late run and put the finishing touches on the win with All-Star swingman Paul George scoring just four points on 2-for-10 shooting, both series lows). West and George Hill picked up the scoring slack, tying for game-high honors with 21 points each. Roy Hibbert added 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Stephenson chipped in with 11 rebounds of his own, eight points and six assists, helping the Pacers make the final push needed to finish off the Hawks.
The Pacers finally imposed their physical will on the Hawks, outrebounding them 53-35, long enough to break the Hawks down when it matter most, a strategy they’ll have to try to repeat against the Knicks.
“We finally got the monkey off our back in this building,” Hill said. “”It felt good tonight. We were more physical and made them take tough shots around us. We capitalized on the offensive end and made some shots, trying to get to the paint and playing inside-out. We’re happy but we have to get our hard hats back on with another game in 48 hours.”
A return to their defensive roots was the key to beating back the Hawks and will be the key against the Knicks, too.
“Our defense has been our identity all year,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that was the key to the last two victories. We held them to 33 percent shooting [Friday night]. We needed to guard the three[point line], we needed to guard them on the break and we needed to limit them to one shot and this was our best game in the series in doing those three things.”
The Knicks and Hawks operate in a similar fashion, albeit with much different personnel. Hawks coach Larry Drew was Knicks coach Mike Woodson‘s lead assistant for six years with these same Hawks before replacing Woodson three years ago. They share similar philosophies and similar schemes.
The Pacers split the regular season series with the Knicks with the home team winning all four games, same as they did with the Hawks. But the Knicks won’t be pushed around inside as easily as the Hawks were. The Hawks don’t have a defensive presence anything like Chandler or an enforcer like Kenyon Martin.
“Madison Square Garden is a place where you know it’s going to be crazy energy in there,” West said. “Obviously, they play well at home. We have to go in the memory bank and remember how we had some success against them during the [regular season]. It starts with Carmelo and keeping him and J.R. under control, to the extent you can control them. Our focus just has to be possession by possession, know their going to make runs, and we have to play to our advantage. Our defense is our strength and our ability to make it an ugly, grind-it-out game. And that’s what we’re looking forward to, a great series and a great Game 1.”
The Pacers passed the pre-test. They showed they could go on the road, in a tough environment and win a game when the crowd is against them and they don’t control the emotional momentum. There is confidence that is built under those circumstances, no matter who the opponent might be.
Again, the Knicks pose different challenges because they can play at different tempos, they have more than one or two players you have to worry about shooting from distance and they can spread the floor and isolate Anthony and Smith on basically anyone when they need to manufacture possessions and shots.
And they’ll have that crowd and the Garden, the same one Stephenson played in nearly a dozen times during his standout career at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High.
“I had a lot of big games at the Garden” Stephenson said and then smiled. “But this is just a regular game to me. We just have to go in there, limit our mistakes, play hard and try to get wins in their building.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For those who truly love the reality TV drama of the NBA playoffs, this is what we pay and hope for every year. Elimination time, 48 minutes with everything on the line plus seasons (and sometimes careers) hanging in the balance.
The posturing is over. Wear black if you want to (New York Knicks), but if you’re not careful and don’t treat Game 6 with the urgency required, the funeral you’ll be attending might be your own (if the Boston Celtics are able to force a Game 7, that will put pressure on the Knicks that could shake the very walls of Madison Square Garden).
The Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are all facing a win-or-go-home circumstance in their respective Games 6 battles tonight. Each one of them trails 3-2 and each one of them will have some serious thinking to do in the aftermath of defeats.
That said, the Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies do not want to let this opportunity to end things slip away. A Game 7, be it at home or on the road, comes with an increased level of intensity that can make anyone crack.
So we’re going game-by-game and detailing exactly what is on the line tonight for the winner and loser of these games:
What’s on the line for the Knicks:Everything! An entire season comes down to whether or not they can survive their own foolishness. Suddenly the Knicks aren’t in a playful mood. Too bad they didn’t adopt that philosophy before Game 5, when they had a chance to end this series on their home floor. Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith have to redeem themselves for their words and actions beforeand during that Game 5 disaster. Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, needs simply to return to the MVP form he showed down the stretch of the regular season and early on in this series. Just 21 assists in two games is not the sort of ball movement that led the Knicks to that 3-0 series lead. They either find a way to fix that or face the possibility of a Game 7 at home, which sounds like a good thing … until you remember that the Celtics would welcome another opportunity to silence Spike Lee and the rest of the Knicks faithful at the Garden.
What’s on the line for the Celtics:An era! The Big 3 era ended last season when Ray Allen bolted for Miami. But that was the ceremonial end. The official end comes when this team sees its season finished. No one knows what Danny Ainge has in store for this group when it’s all over. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is a master at preparing his team for big games, but the Knicks did much of the work for him this time by calling out the Celtics. That’s usually all the incentive Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need to get their fires raging. They responded like the true (and aging) warriors that they are. And they’ll bring a Game 7 zeal to Game 6 and dare the Knicks to match their effort before a home crowd that should be in a full lather by lunch time. While the Knicks have focused their attention elsewhere, Jeff Green has gone about destroying them in the past two games. The Celtics’ supporting cast will be the difference if this series goes to a Game 7.
What’s on the line for the Pacers:Legitimacy! The Pacers fancy themselves as championship contenders this season. And they are serious about it. Problem is, their performance on the road in this series suggests otherwise. If they can’t handle an inconsistent bunch like the Hawks on the road, what exactly can coach Frank Vogel‘s crew do against either the Knicks or Celtics in the conference semifinals? Paul George and David West have designs on leading the Pacers deep into the playoffs, but they better finish this series off first without having to host a Game 7 in the first round. A little help from Roy Hibbert would help. Vogel keeps talking about his team still being young and needing to learn some things along the way. Learning how to survive a mess of your own making with a Game 7 against an inferior foe can’t be what he had in mind.
What’s on the line for the Hawks:The (immediate) future! It’s no secret that the organization is pointing to this summer, and free agency, as their salvation. Any noise the Hawks made in this postseason was strictly for the men in uniform and on the sideline (most of them are playing out the final years of their respective deals). A sustained postseason run is just more advertising, sometimes good and sometimes not so good, for coach Larry Drew and stars Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and others. The fitting way to end their six-year run of consecutive playoff appearances is to go out the same way they did in that first-round series against the Celtics in 2008, losing in a Game 7 in Boston. There is more respect earned going down like that than there is in going down on your home floor in Game 6. (more…)
Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:
LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.
JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.
SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coachGregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)