Posts Tagged ‘Zaza Pachulia’

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

Sanders Frustrated By Short Minutes

VIDEO: Larry Sanders might need more quality minutes for more quality work

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MILWAUKEE – It is pro sports’ chicken-or-egg quandary, setting up an eternal conflict between coaches and athletes: Does a player play more when he plays better, or does the player play better when he plays more?

Milwaukee center Larry Sanders is solidly in the camp of the latter. Bucks coach Larry Drew? Leaning more toward the former right now.

Sanders – the 6-foot-11 defensive savant whose breakthrough 2012-13 season included strong support for the Defensive Player (seventh) and Most Improved (third) awards, as well as a four-year, $44 million extension over the summer – is one frustrated shot-swatter and rebounder at the moment.

Through Milwaukee’s first three games, his production is down significantly: 2.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 17.3 minutes, compared to last season’s 9.8, 9.5, 2.8 and 27.3. After taking an average of 8.5 shots and making about half (50.6) in 2012-13, he has shot 4-for-16 so far, in a mixed bag of jump hooks, short jumpers and layups.

Sanders has been the opposite of smooth, offensively, looking at times like he’s wrestling a lawn chair. And in his view, he hasn’t broken enough of a sweat to do much better. He played 21:37 in the Bucks’ 97-90 loss to Toronto Saturday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, contributing four points, four boards and one block.

“I feel like I’m capable of being in the game at the end and helping my team win, coming up with blocks and rebounds,” Sanders told NBA.com before exiting the locker room swiftly. “I haven’t been able to get my rhythm out there. I understand foul trouble situations, but tonight I wasn’t in foul trouble.

“Last year I finished so many games. I feel like that’s when I lock in the most. But I haven’t been able to get in the game to finish. That carries over to the next game. When you sit the last three quarters of each game, I can’t have no carryover. And it’s hard for me. I’m still a young player. It’s only my eighth year playing basketball.”

Sanders, 24, has played only 15 of his 52 minutes so far in the second half. He logged 3:12 at New York Wednesday, 5:34 at Boston Friday and 6:18 against the Raptors after the break. But then, the Bucks outscored the Knicks 52-34 after halftime and the Celtics 58-35. They had a 39-34 edge on the Raptors through 18 minutes of the second half Saturday before slipping back to lose the game by seven (and the half, 46-44).

Drew’s lineup in the fourth quarter Saturday primarly was O.J. Mayo and rookie point Nate Wolters in the backcourt, Khris Middleton, John Henson and 18-year-old project Giannis Antetokounmpo up front. That group, over the first 6:07 of the quarter, erased Toronto’s 12-point lead, getting the Bucks even at 85-85.

Drew subbed in Caron Butler for Middleton, who had missed a pair of free throws and a couple layups, over the final 3:04. Milwaukee got no closer than three.

“Throughout the game,” Drew said, “I just didn’t feel like we put a burst together, where we were really moving and flying around. So I elected to go smaller in the fourth quarter, move Khris to the four and Giannis to the three, and it got us going. At that point, I was really going to ride that group.”

Said Sanders: “That makes sense. But it’s not that group – Caron goes in. It’s about trust. Who you trust down the stretch, that’s who you’re going to play.”

If this is a trust issue, it may well be a temporary, evolving one. Drew has on his hands a roster that’s not just new to him but new to each other. He’s searching for combinations, with even his starting lineup fluid for now. His top two point-guard options – Brandon Knight (right hamstring strain) and Luke Ridnour (back spasms) – have been out, which messes with everyone’s rhythm.

Also, Drew has Zaza Pachulia as an option at center, a familiar face from the coach’s three seasons in Atlanta. Pachulia has averaged 13.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 26.0 minutes – though it’s a small sample size and the burly veteran didn’t play in the fourth quarter Saturday, either.

Drew suggested some of Sanders’ struggle on offense and frustration overall stems from adjusting to his third coach (after Scott Skiles and interim Jim Boylan) in 10 months. “It’s him still trying to learn this system and trying to learn his teammates,” Drew said. “He had some point-blank shots right around the basket – he just couldn’t get ‘em to drop.

“I thought that Larry played with some energy though. That’s the thing that, in my conversations with him, I want him to bring on a nightly basis. The other stuff will fall into place.”

Henson – the second-year forward who has had to scrape for his own minutes amid the newness, despite his strong summer in Las Vegas – said he has tried to calm Sanders, whose emotions sometimes outstrip his maturity.

“I talk to Larry, because he’s one of my best friends on the team,” Henson said late Saturday. “I told him, ‘You’re going to close 90 percent of our games.’ He’s just frustrated right now.”

Henson thinks Sanders might be pressing to show the world he’s worth the fat contract extension he received in the offseason. Sanders doesn’t feel that way, though. And Drew said, even if he did, he shouldn’t.

“Yeah, I’ve had that conversation,” the coach said. “There’s no need to press now. He’s in a good position. I know a lot of guys who get in that position of not knowing what their future holds, they do have a tendency to press. But for him, nah, there’s no need to press. Just go out there and play.”

And there’s the rub. Sanders puts the emphasis in that sentence on “go out there.” Drew, at the moment, is focused on the “play.”

This isn’t so much Larry vs. Larry as it is one Larry seeing things differently from the other Larry while serving separate agendas. One man’s chicken to the other man’s egg, with 79 games to go.

Report: Teague Signs Bucks’ Offer Sheet





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – First it was Larry Drew, then Zaza Pachulia and perhaps now Jeff Teague, who will leave Atlanta for Milwaukee.

Drew, the former Hawks head coach, no doubt played a significant role in the Bucks adding Pachulia in free agency and certainly instigated the Bucks’ presenting Teague, a restricted free agent, with a reported four-year, $32 million offer sheet that has been signed already, a deal first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

The Hawks have three days to either match the offer or Teague will rejoin his former coach and teammate in a Bucks uniform. The Bucks have a restricted free agent point guard of their own in Brandon Jennings. The two teams had discussed possible sign-and-trade deals involving the two players, and veteran free agent guard Monta Ellis, but those talks never produced a substantive deal.

A two-year starter, Teague averaged 14.8 points and a career-high 7.2 assists this season for a Hawks team that made a sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs. While he doesn’t carry the household recognition that Jennings does, due mostly to the way Jennings entered the league (after a year of post-high school work in Italy), he’s every bit the athlete and arguably a more polished player at this stage of their respective careers.

Teague, 25, is also two years older and certainly sturdier at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, nearly 30 pounds heavier than Jennings. The fact that the Bucks and Hawks explored trade opportunities says something about the value both franchises placed on their incumbents. You can debate which one of them is the better player right now, as plenty of fans and pundits have already, but Teague is the only one with a signed offer sheet today. And the fact that it’s from the team Jennings has started for the past four seasons speaks volumes not only about that debate but also about what sort of market there is for restricted free agent point guards this summer.

While neither one of them is considered to be among the elite at one of the most crucial positions in the league, the Bucks’$8 million a year offer to Teague indicates they believe he’s more than capable of replacing Jennings and providing an upgrade at the position. His familiarity with Drew’s system also gives the Bucks an inside advantage that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Busy Saturday Of Free-Agent Deals

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Plenty of free-agent action swept through the Association on Saturday, headlined by power forward Josh Smith going to the Detroit Pistons and cashing in on the type of contract he’s dreamed about.

Others also reached verbal agreements with new teams, but keep in mind none of these deals become official until Wednesday when the league’s moratorium on signing new contracts and finalizing proposed trades is lifted.

Some of the other notable activity from Saturday:

  • Earl Watson agreed to a one-year, $1.4 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hawks Will Rebuild From Scratch





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 or basically 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 JohnsonJosh SmithAl HorfordMike BibbyJosh ChildressMarvin WilliamsZaza PachuliaShelden 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.

Same Ol’ Hawks? Maybe … Maybe Not





ATLANTA – Josh Smith and Al Horford know the routine. They know what it looks like to everyone on the outside. They’ve been at this long enough in this town to know that their doubters grow exponentially in the wake of an ugly loss or two, as is the case for the Atlanta Hawks in their first round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers.

“People love to throw dirt on us after one game,” Smith said. “It never fails.”

The Hawks struggled mightily in Indiana, getting worked over and physically whipped by a bigger and much more rugged Pacers team en route to the 0-2 deficit they carry into Game 3 Saturday night at Philips Arena.

“We tend to be at our best when people are doubting us,” Smith said. “There’s no other way around it really. It’s who we’ve been for years now. Just when you are ready to count us out, we’ll surprise you.”

The only problem is, they are not those same ol’ predictably unpredictable Hawks we’re used to. That team was dismantled last summer when new general manager Danny Ferry took over and traded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams before he got his new business cards printed up.

The roster gumbo Hawks coach Larry Drew has had to stir to keep this team afloat this season didn’t look anything like the mismatched crew that rolled to five straight playoff appearance prior to this season with a core of Smith, Horford, Johnson, Williams and Zaza Pachulia, who played in just 52 games this season before an Achilles injury that required surgery ended his season.

That the Hawks made it six straight is a testament to Drew and his staff and the guys healthy enough to finish a tumultuous and injury-plagued regular season that also sacked Lou Williams (torn ACL) on Jan. 18, after he’d played just 39 games in his first season with his hometown team.

So no, these are not necessarily those same ol’ Hawks we’re all used to, not with nine free agents on the roster and a head coach whose contract is up this summer as well. This is a team in transition, not the young up and coming Hawks from three or four years ago..

“It’s very different, very different. There’s no question it’s totally different,” Horford said. “I think that Josh and I and even Jeff [Teague], we’ve had to deal with major adjustments this year. It even goes back to last year with me going down, the team adjusted and played well. And then this year, we’ve dealt with injuries throughout the year, Zaza, Lou and a number of other guys have missed time. We use something crazy like 40 different [starting] lineups and through everything we’ve been able to adjust. That’s one of our strengths, actually, that we’re able to play through injuries and whatever adversity comes our way.”

Horford and Smith earned their postseason stripes battling back from adversity in their first playoff series, an epic seven-game tussle with the No. 1 seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics in the first round in 2008. The Hawks got their noses bloodied in two games in Boston but rebounded at Philips Arena with two huge wins to even the series.

The home teams went on to win each of the next three games with the Celtics winning big in Game 7. But the Hawks had established themselves on a national stage. They played 33 playoff games in the three seasons that followed, taking two steps back for every three steps forward.

The Pacers present an intriguing problem for the Hawks in that they are big and physical, deep and athletic, with a mix of young talent (Paul George) and veteran leadership (David West) that makes them extremely difficult for the Hawks to counter in a series.

Still, the Hawks are not the least bit deterred by their current predicament (blame it on that experience from the Boston series six years ago).

“This is not doom and gloom at all for our group,” Drew said. “We’ve done some good things in this series. There are certainly some things we have to do better in order to get a win. But we’re coming into [Game 3] with a lot of confidence and knowing the importance of the game and we’ll come out and play our best basketball. Anything is possible in the playoffs. Home court is very important. You look around the league at the different playoff series and that point is made night after night. We know we’re in a situation where this game has tremendous importance and we know how well we have to play tomorrow and I’m expecting our guys to come out and do that.”

More importantly, they need no prompting to realize the gravity of what awaits them if they can’t hold off the Pacers on their home floor. The next team to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series will be the first.

“We all know what’s at stake,” Smith said. “That’s what made this postseason really special for us. We had so many new faces getting acclimated to this team and to this franchise, and that goes from the front office on down to the team. It’s a special group to have fought through the injuries and all of the drama, not knowing who was going to be here after the [February] trade deadline and all of the stuff that has comes along with it. And here we are, still right smack in the middle of this series.”

If you let these guys tell it, they’ve got the Pacers exactly where they want them to be, within reach.

“The way the first two games have gone … you know better than I do, a 2-0 series is nothing to us,” Horford said. “Game 3 is the biggest game for us. It’s going to define what will happen in this series, not anything that happened in those first two games and not anything that anyone says about us can do that. We’re still in a good position because we’re right in the middle of it like we always are.”

Morning Shootaround — March 25

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: The Rockets are three games up on the Lakers for the No. 7 seed, so it doesn’t look like Houston will have to face San Antonio in the first round if everything holds tight. As we all know, that can change between now and season’s end … and maybe it would be great if it did. After the Rockets and Spurs hooked up last night in Houston with a classic down-to-the-wire showdown, a Texas tussle in the first round might be a great new chapter in these teams’ rivalry. James Harden put on the hero’s cape last night, hitting a game-winning leaner with 4.5 seconds left to clinch the victory. Here’s hoping the Spurs (or Rockets) make the movement necessary to make this first-round series a possibility.

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News of the morning

Nets worried about Johnson | Report: Blazers likely to let Maynor test market | Pachulia still hurting | Report: Hoiberg drawing NBA interest

Nets’ Johnson banged upThe Nets are two games behind the Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead and have gotten improved play from Deron Williams in the last month or so. As close as Brooklyn is to a division crown, it’s hard to imagine where they’d be were it not for the play of Williams — especially considering that his backcourt mate, Joe Johnson, has been struggling of late. Johnson is averaging just 13.3 ppg in March and has struggled with his shot and is now suffering from a bruised quadriceps he suffered in a loss to the Clippers. He sat out Sunday’s win over the Suns, but as Roderick Boone of Newsday reports, the Nets are worried about Johnson’s long-term prognosis:

As for Joe Johnson, he suffered the bruised quadriceps when he bumped into Blake Griffin in the third quarter of the Nets’ 101-95 loss to the Clippers. He said it was swollen and tight Sunday, so the Nets made the decision to sit him out, starting Keith Bogans in his place.

Johnson was unsure if he’ll be able to play when the Nets face the Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

“It’s frustrating for me because all these little knick-knacks are starting to happen with me down the stretch of the season,” Johnson said before the game, “and this is the most important part of the season at this point right now. So that’s probably the most frustrating thing. It’s not about where we are playing and who we are playing. I always want to be out there with the guys. I hate sitting out and watching. That’s the hardest part.”

Since the All-Star break, Johnson hasn’t been the same explosive player. He’s averaging 13.8 points, down from the 17.0 he posted before the break, and his three-point percentage has taken a serious dip, dropping by nearly 8 percent.

“Yeah, I’m concerned, because he’s come back and he’s not healthy yet,” coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “I just think it’s very similar to what we were talking about with Deron. You saw the difference when Deron came back and felt good and was close to — 100 percent is the wrong word, but when he’s the best he’s felt all year, it made a big difference.

“Every time I ask Joe how it feels, he says he’s OK. Again, he wants to play. But I think that if you look at the numbers and you look at what Joe’s done since the injury, it’s not the same Joe. So yeah, we need to get Joe Johnson back healthy. If he’s healthy, then he’ll play the way Joe Johnson plays.”

That’s why Johnson didn’t shoot down the possibility of taking some time off to make sure he doesn’t play until he’s as close to normal. Last thing he wants to do is jeopardize his status for the playoffs.

“I think my health is more important right now at this point,” he said. “Just to heal up the little wounds because obviously, man, we want to do something major in the postseason, so I don’t want to go into the postseason with these things bothering me.”

In other words, he doesn’t want to find himself in uncharted territory.

“Every year going into the playoffs, man,” Johnson said, “I’ve been extremely injury-free, healthy and ready. This is a little different, but I will definitely be ready when I’m supposed to.”

Is it frustrating for Williams that he and Johnson can’t be together and healthy?

“Yeah,” he said, “but if we are still winning, then everything is all right. We won today without him, so that’s good. But we are going to need him. There’s no doubt about that. We are going to need him and we are going to need him healthy, so the most important thing for him is for him to get rest and for him to get healthy. He’s been battling. He’s been playing through a lot of pain. You can see it, you can tell. So he’s been a warrior out here in the games he has played.”

Report: Blazers to let Maynor test marketSo far, the Eric Maynor-Portland Trail Blazers marriage has been a successful one. Portland picked up the steady backup point guard from the Thunder at the trade deadline for Georgios Printezis and a trade exception, and Maynor has done a solid job of spelling presumptive Rookie of the Year winner Damian Lillard since arriving in Oregon. Maynor, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is someone whom the Blazers would like to retain, but they’re also willing to let him test the market. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more on what might be next for Maynor and the Blazers:

In the 14 games since Maynor joined the Blazers, Lillard’s scoring has improved by nearly three points, from 18.4 to 21.2 per game, and his shooting numbers have soared. Lillard is shooting 7.1 percentage points better from the field (41.8 to 48.9) and almost 10 percentage points better from three-point range (34.9 to 44.6 percent) with Maynor on the roster.

Maynor will return to Chesapeake Energy Arena as a visitor for the first time in 3 1/2 seasons on Sunday. And he’ll do so with an appreciative group of new teammates that have embraced his arrival as exactly the jolt they needed for the stretch run.

Maynor says he carries no animosity or added motivation into Sunday’s matchup against his former teammates. But he admits it will be “weird” to walk into Chesapeake Energy Arena a visitor and go at his long-time friends.

When Reggie Jackson emerged as a capable backup while Maynor rehabilitated from his injury, he lost his job. And as the trade deadline approached, Maynor was looking for a chance to play, so Oklahoma City granted his wish. He said the sides parted amicably.

“I appreciate everything they did for me for the 3 1/2 years that I was there,” Maynor said. “It was a great 3 1/2 years. But I wanted to go somewhere else and play, get some more minutes. We parted ways. Everything was good while I was there and I always still keep in touch with people there. But I’m happy to get a chance to play.”

And the Blazers — who are 8-6 since his arrival — are happy to have him. Perhaps no one more so than Lillard.

And perhaps the best part of it all is that both Maynor and coach Terry Stotts insist Maynor isn’t 100 percent in sync with his new teammates just yet.

“I think it’s still a work in progress,” Stotts said. “I’m getting more comfortable with how I can help him from an offensive standpoint. He’s getting more comfortable with our defensive system. He’s still understanding the dynamics of our team.”

How much time he will get to learn those dynamics remains unclear. Maynor will be a free agent at the end of the season and while the Blazers can guarantee he stays by extending him a qualifying offer this summer — making him a restricted free agent — it would come at a price. Maynor’s qualifying offer is $3.4 million, with a hefty $5.85 million cap hold that would eat a substantial amount of the Blazers’ offseason spending money.

Early reviews suggest that the Blazers and Maynor are a good match. But it seems unlikely the team would mortgage so much of its offseason spending power on a backup point guard. It seems more likely the Blazers will allow Maynor to become an unrestricted free agent and pursue him with the rest of the NBA. It’s the same move the Blazers made last offseason with JJ Hickson and he ended up returning.

Pachulia done for season?With their win in Milwaukee in yesterday’s matinee, the Atlanta Hawks are maintaining their grip on the No. 5 seed in the East and have won five of their last seven games. While Atlanta is merely .500 in March, they’re holding things together without key reserve big man Zaza Pachulia, who has been out the last 15 games. Chris Vivalamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has more on when Pachulia may (or may not) return:

Zaza Pachulia did not accompany the Hawks on the road trip as he continues to rehabilitate a sore right Achilles. Pachulia remains out indefinitely with the injury that will have cost him 21 games, including the past 15, by the time the Hawks return home.

A decision on Pachulia’s status for the remainder of the regular-season could come next week.

Report: Teams interested in Iowa State’s HoibergFred Hoiberg the NBA player spent 10 seasons in the league, carving out a solid niche as a 3-point marksman, most notably for the Kevin Garnett-era Minnesota Timberwolves. After his playing days were cut short by a heart condition, Hoiberg had a front-office role with Minnesota before returning to his alma mater, Iowa State, where he eventually became coach. In three seasons as coach of the Cyclones, Hoiberg has taken them to two consecutive NCAA tournament berths, ending a seven-season drought of postseason play. His work in Ames hasn’t gone unnoticed by NBA types, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, and some teams are showing interest in Hoiberg as an NBA coach:

Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has emerged as an intriguing NBA head-coaching candidate, multiple front-office executives told Yahoo! Sports.

After resurrecting the Cyclones program and nearly pushing them into the Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA tournament, Hoiberg’s college coaching success, combined with his pro pedigree, has convinced league officials he’s the ideal college coach to make the transition to pro basketball.

 “If I had to make a hire this year, [Hoiberg] would be one of the first calls I’d make,” one NBA general manager told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday. “He is a natural for our league.”

Among seven GMs contacted on Sunday, there wasn’t a single one who expressed skepticism about Hoiberg’s ability to make an immediate leap to an NBA coaching job should he have a desire to do so.

Two GMs who expect to have openings told Yahoo! Sports that they planned to feel out Hoiberg’s interest in the NBA once they begin search processes.

Prying Hoiberg out of Ames, Iowa, won’t be easy. He grew up in Ames, graduated from Iowa State and has shown a strong inclination to coach his alma mater for the long term. Long ago, his popularity and loyalty in the community gave him his nickname of “The Mayor.” Hoiberg has long expressed a desire for his children to have a similar upbringing in Ames as he did.

Eight years ago, Hoiberg’s NBA career ended prematurely with heart surgery for an enlarged aortic root. Doctors inserted a pacemaker into Hoiberg and future heart procedures haven’t been ruled out.

Nevertheless, Hoiberg has the perfect disposition, proven Xs-and-Os acumen and understanding of the NBA to make himself an attractive candidate. The Cyclones play a fast, pro-style offense.

“It would need to be a long-term commitment, because he could stay at Iowa State forever,” says one assistant GM who stays in contact with Hoiberg.

ICYMI of the night: A little bit of point guard-on-point guard rejection makes for a nice Monday morning treat … :


The Lakers’ Most Devastating Loss Yet?



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ATLANTA – In a season marred by one stunning loss after another, the Los Angeles Lakers might have suffered the most devastating setback of them all against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.

With Kobe Bryant crumpled in the corner of the floor in front of the Lakers’ bench at Philips Arena with 2.6 seconds to play, all the work the Lakers have done to redeem themselves from a pitiful start to this season flashed before their eyes.

Bryant landed awkwardly with Hawks swingman Dahntay Jones underneath him after his baseline jumper that could have tied the game bounced off the rim. The way the crowd (which was a raucous pro-Lakers group a la Staples Center Southeast) went silent, you’d have thought it happened in Los Angeles.

A severely sprained left ankle will sideline Bryant indefinitely. X-rays of the injury were negative, but Bryant was clearly in pain and limped to the sideline for the final 1.5 seconds of the shorthanded Hawks’ 96-92 win. The Lakers’ chances of finishing off their miraculous reversal of playoff fortunes might also have to be a limp to the finish if Bryant is out for an extended period.

Much was and will be made of the play that Bryant was injured on, with the initial shot fired by Bryant.

“As defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can’t walk underneath players,” Bryant said. “That’s dangerous for the shooter.”

He later Tweeted his frustrations:

Jones, sensing the coming firestorm, refuted all charges and argued that he was only doing his duty as a defensive stopper and nothing more:

Whatever the chatter, the damage has already been done to the Lakers. (more…)

Blogtable: Shaking Up Atlanta




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 12: The bumbling Heat | Shaking up Atlanta | Rock bottom for Lakers?


Larry Drew said he’s gonna make changes with the Hawks. Ideas?

Steve Aschburner: I’m the wrong person to opine on this because I was in the building Monday night when the Hawks scored just 20 points by halftime against Chicago at United Center. Hey, the entire Atlanta team, in the second quarter, scored five more points than I did. So I’m prone, as they say, to throw the baby out with the bath water – and then slap the baby’s parents. But I’ll focus on one possible change: Josh Smith. Before the game, Drew talked about Smith being overdue for All-Star selection. But in the game, the talented but temperamental player sulked, jawed with referees and got T’d up for throwing the ball hard at ref Ken Mauer. Nice enough guy and supremely skilled, but the Hawks should not commit on a max deal to him and dare not lose him in free agency for nothing. Trade him before the Feb. 21 deadline.

Fran Blinebury: What’s he going to do — put Zaza Pachulia in the starting lineup for Al Horford, Devin Harris in for Jeff Teague and expect everything to change? Despite what Drew said, it is very much his job to coach effort, to have his players inspired and motivated every night. As soon as a coach throws up his hands and says it’s not, he’s inviting himself to be the change.

Jeff Caplan: Sign up on LinkedIn and get your resume up to snuff. Look, this team had a nice start, but it doesn’t have the pieces to make a deep playoff run. It didn’t with Joe Johnson and it doesn’t know. There’s been a sense ever since Danny Ferry took over as GM that Drew was a short-timer. Ferry’s done a great job clearing out salary and making room to add more pieces, but that process likely won’t start until the summer when Drew will likely be hitting the pavement.

Scott Howard-CooperScore more than 58 points. Change that. Assuming you mean ideas for changes with the team he is given, since that is LD’s department, not trades, there aren’t many changes to make. Tell Josh Smith to lay off the jumpers? Good luck with that conversation.

John Schuhmann: I’m not sure why he put Lou Williams back on the bench in the first place. They were having some success with a starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Williams, Kyle Korver, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Then they lost a few games in a row and Drew went away from it, even though that lineup wasn’t really the problem. Lineup change or not, I think they’re just coming back down to earth a bit. They’re not as good as they were when they were No. 3 in the East, and they’re not as bad as they’ve been over the last seven games.

Sekou SmithLarry Drew, who’s done a fine job as the Hawks’ coach, better be careful. He doesn’t have a contract beyond this season and is working under a general manager who didn’t hire him. The easiest change to make for a team with a roster full of guys on one-year or expiring deals is a coaching change. The rumors of the Hawks trading Josh Smith have been rumbling for five years. Ignore them. He’s not going anywhere. The stunner, the move that would really shake things up is if the Hawks were to consider it, would be to entertain offers for Al Horford, whose trade value would be sky-high (young and productive power forward with a reasonable contract).