End of the road
Good riddance to the Rockets. Tom Ziller will not miss you and neither will anyone else.
BOSTON -- In the corner of the cramped visitors’ locker room, Thabo Sefolosha quietly pulled his things together amid the frantic rush of a series-clinching victory. A year earlier he had been absent from the playoffs, recovering from a fractured tibia caused by overzealous New York cops. The Hawks had dearly missed his steady play and defensive presence last spring, never more so than against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Now fate has afforded Sefolosha and his teammates another chance against LeBron. This is a second chance for all of them. It’s a chance to prove that they are truly better than the team that concluded a historic, yet ultimately unsatisfying playoff run a year ago.
"My head wasn’t exactly in the middle of all this last year," Sefolosha said. "I’m just happy to go against them. It’s going to be a good challenge and we’re going to have to come out ready. I like our chances. I like our group. I like how we’re playing. It was very tough (last season). Very tough. But I try to think about what’s ahead, the positive things. It’s good to be competing right now. I’m just thankful and grateful for the opportunity."
To a man, the Hawks say they are better than last year. They’re healthier, for one. More experienced, for another. They like the way they finished out the season, quietly rolling into the playoffs on a sustained run, rather than coasting to the end of a high-profile 60-win campaign. They like playing this understated role. It suits them better. They have also embraced their identity as a smart and savvy defensive team -- the second-best in the league over the last four months -- as opposed to one that was known for its uber-efficient offense.
They are about to find out very quickly just how different they are with a rematch against Cleveland in the conference semifinals set to begin on Monday night. They do not need to be reminded that the Cavaliers swept them out of the playoffs last year in a lopsided conference final, or that the Cavs are now fully operational with Kevin Love and a much healthier Kyrie Irving in the mix. This second round series may be viewed by many as a necessary stepping stone for Cleveland’s inevitable march back to the Finals, but for the Hawks, this is their crucible.
"I think we’re a better team than last year, I really do," Kyle Korver said. "Our identity is more on the defensive end than the offensive end this year. I think we know that we’re going to have to play really well to beat (Cleveland). Our defense is going to have to be what it was in this series, if not better, and our offense is going to have to be a lot better. They’re a great team. They have a lot of individual talent. It’s a big challenge for us."
Personnel-wise, the Hawks are largely as they were. DeMarre Carroll was the only significant subtraction. Everyone else, from their familiar core of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Korver, to their role players is essentially unchanged. In Carroll’s place on the wing they elevated Kent Bazemore to the starting lineup and welcomed back Sefolosha. Their task will be trying to contain LeBron, who continued to run roughshod over the Hawks during the regular season.
Without Sefolosha, and with a knee injury limiting Carroll, Bazemore was thrown headfirst into the fray last season and Bazemore played as Bazemore does. He’s more seasoned now, which isn’t to say that he has changed. His energy and enthusiasm are infectious and add a layer of unpredictability for a Hawks team that generally plays things straight. He has come a long way, from the excitable reserve he was last season to a starting lineup mainstay.
"When you face LeBron in a series for the first time, it’s like a wow factor," Bazemore said. "You see him during the season three or four times, but when you've got to see him every night, every day, in back-to-back games, he’s a different beast. He’s a load. Last year, we got that out of the way, so I think we are ready to get out there."
On paper, the matchups do not favor Atlanta, although they are intriguing. Teague is one of the league’s better point guards, if not a tick below Irving’s All-Star level. Millsap has had a fantastic season and his matchup with the more-heralded Love will demand attention. In Horford, the Hawks have a skilled big man who can stretch the floor to counter Cleveland’s interior size. And Korver and J.R. Smith are two of the league’s premier long-distance shooters, both capable of shooting their teams back into any game on a nightly basis.
That was all true last year and none of it mattered in the final outcome. The Cavs controlled the boards, they dictated the pace and were superior in every aspect of the game. But if the Hawks proved anything in their first round series against the Celtics, it’s that they are not to be taken lightly. They may not wow you, they may make things hard on themselves at times with inexplicable bouts of inconsistent shooting, but they can still beat you in a number of different ways.
Their defense may not be filled with game-changing shotblockers or lockdown defenders in the traditional sense, but few teams execute their gameplans and assignments better. They don’t rely on any one player offensively, but they have enough players of varying skillsets throughout the roster that anyone can pose a problem on any given night. If it wasn’t Millsap going for 45 in Game 4, it was Korver getting hot in Game 5. In Game 6 it was Horford who shook loose during a decisive third quarter. Atlanta simply had too many options for the Celtics to contain.
"Good players, skill and speed at five positions," is how Celtics coach Brad Stevens put it. "That’s the way the game is played in a lot of ways now and it puts you in a tough spot."
A word or two about these Celtics. They have been called gritty overachievers for so long that people have lost sight of their true characteristics. While they played hard and played together, the Celtics more or less achieved what they should have this season. Several analytic models had them hovering around the 48-win mark coming into the season, which they hit, and many people believed that with the right matchup they could have had a deeper and more pleasant postseason experience.
The Hawks weren’t that matchup. They had too many shooting threats, too much size and too good a defensive scheme that rightly focused on containing Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics’ one true scoring threat. The Hawks were simply better and if not for some vintage Game 4 Garden weirdness, they could have taken this series in five games. The injuries to Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk didn’t help matters, but that’s been known to happen this time of year. Just ask the Hawks.
Regardless of who the Celtics drew in the first round, this was not a team that was going to contend for a championship because they were not constructed to compete for a championship. Rather than rebuild completely or spend wildly for short-term gain, team President Danny Ainge and his front office staff are trying to navigate a third way back to the top. In doing so they have become competitive without surrendering their prized assets or wasting their cap space. The goal is to not only have the means to acquire star talent, but also to create the kind of environment that attracts players of that caliber.
These are not novel thoughts. Everyone in the league knows this, from the free agents they will try to engage (yes, that includes Kevin Durant) to the teams they will try to deal with in pursuit of quality players in trades. What comes next is truly the hardest part of their process. They know this too. They are straddling the line between being in an enviable position for the future and being relegated to the league’s middle class. Neither are bad places to be, but after three years of steady growth it’s time to evolve yet again.
"People have told me all along there’s two really tough tasks," Stevens said after being eliminated. "One is getting to be a very good, competitive team at a top 10-15 level on offense and defense and give yourself a chance to be in the discussion we’re in now. And that’s been a path in the last three years to get there. And the next one is tough. And that’s been communicated before to me and we’re learning a lot. We learned a lot through this playoff series, but one of the things that I learned is we’ve got to get better."
Stevens wasn’t talking about the Hawks, of course, but he could have been. In some ways, they represent are a truer benchmark for the Celtics and the vast majority of would-be contenders than the elite teams out West and in Cleveland. They are proof that you can be a competitive, viable team without a transcendent superstar to carry the weight. What they have are quality players who have improved organically over the course of their tenure in Atlanta. Those players are better than what the Celtics have at the moment and better than a lot of other teams, as well.
These Hawks are good. Real good. They are about to find out just how good they truly are, but they have the comfort of knowing that they enter this rematch whole. This is their chance at redemption, yes, but also a chance to really show who they are on the game’s biggest stage.
As we turn our attention to the second round, the games become even more meaningful and the matchups become all the more important. Here are four players who will define the semifinals and one more for a Game 7 in Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard: By many measures, Leonard was the league’s second-best player this season. His ascent has been slow, steady and frankly amazing. He’s added to his game at every stop of the evolutionary ladder, from shooting to ballhandling to his work in the post. But it’s defense that was his first calling card and it’s on the defensive end where he has emerged as this generation’s premier wing stopper. Leonard will have one of the game’s ultimate assignments against the Thunder and Kevin Durant. The eyes of the basketball world will be on Leonard and this matchup.
Draymond Green: The case for Green as a top-10 player rests on his versatile skillset and his immense defensive value to the Golden State juggernaut. The case against his inclusion is the idea that he wouldn’t be as valuable without Steph Curry and the Warrior system in which he thrives. These are all semantic arguments, fitting for a player whose game is entirely contextual. What is clear is that Green is the Warriors’ best player in Curry’s absence. His task is not to carry Golden State, but to produce consistently and give them whatever they need whenever they need it. As he goes, so go the Warriors.
Kevin Love: We never got a true sense of Love’s postseason impact last season thanks to an unfortunate shoulder injury suffered against Boston at the end of the first round. Without Love, the Cavs ramped up their defense and reached the Finals, which did little to bolster his rep. Love showed his value by playing mostly center in the first round against the Pistons. His shooting opened the floor and he more than held his own on the boards. He will have fascinating matchups with the Atlanta bigs and this series will go a long way toward validating his place among the game’s best players.
Damian Lillard: There might be two dozen people who believe the Blazers have a chance against the Warriors, but you can bet that Damian Lillard is one of them. Lillard is confident enough to believe in his team and fearless enough to do something about it on the court. His leadership and savvy have been vital for Portland this season, to say nothing of his scoring and playmaking. He scored 146 points in four games against Golden State this season, including a memorable 51-point outburst in a win over the Warriors in February. He’ll need to be every bit as potent for the Blazers to pull this off, but you can bet he’s going to try.
Paul George: As Indiana’s first-round series with the Raptors reaches its end point, there is no more important player on the floor than George. He’s averaging better than 27 points a game while leading the Pacers in rebounds and assists. He might have to go all 48 minutes because when he leaves the court things get dicey for Indiana. As much as this series has been about Toronto’s continued inability to play consistently in the postseason, it’s also been about George seizing the moment.
Good riddance to the Rockets. Tom Ziller will not miss you and neither will anyone else.
The West is suddenly wide open, so Ziller and I discussed the injury ramifications of Steph Curry and Chris Paul while getting excited for ThunderSpurs.
It’s time to get familiar with this year’s draft prospects, which means it’s time for Kevin O’Connor’s excellent breakdowns. Here’s his look at Marquese Chriss, who is a boom-or-bust project.
"I think he can still dominate the game. I think he can still be a great player in this league. And I think he's going to leave Houston, so why not come here?"-- Chandler Parsons on Dwight Howard.
Reaction: Parsons’ unofficial role as Mavs’ ambassador will be put to the test yet again this summer. Dallas has holes to fill and veterans to sign if they are going to remain competitive in Dirk Nowitzki’s final seasons. Honestly, Dwight would make a lot of sense here, assuming he opts out of the final year of his contract.
"Times have changed. I want to be inclusive. I want people to enjoy going to work. I don’t want to battle or have confrontation, although in the course of a season there’s going to be some of that, but there is certain way to go about it. I think you treat guys the way you want to be treated."-- Portland coach Terry Stotts in Jason Quick’s excellent feature.
Reaction: I’ve been a big fan of Stotts’ work with the Blazers and he finally garnered national acclaim after leading Portland to a surprising playoff appearance despite replacing four starters in the offseason. His inclusive approach and even-keeled demeanor is a model for coaches in this era.
"He’s not really crazy athletic but he still destroys you, and he’s a nice guy. That was my biggest mistake as a rookie. I was like hitting him all the time and he was having trouble with it. And then he came over and talked to me a bit. He was like, ‘Hey man, how are you?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, what a nice guy.’ Then he just dropped 20 from there on. I told (Mark Bryant), and he was like, ‘That’s a vet move. Don’t do that. You can’t be nice.'"-- Steven Adams describing his early interactions with Tim Duncan.
Reaction: In so many ways, Duncan really is the anti-KG.
"If you don’t win a title, every year you have a speech. And I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a locker room where they’re easy. They’re emotional. A lot of tears. From a coaching standpoint, you love that. I tell my guys every year, at least teams that I think have a chance, you’ve got to start the year with the belief, and you have to be willing to get your heart broken."-- Clipper coach Doc Rivers.
Reaction: This feels like the point of reckoning for Doc and the Clips. Can they continue on this path or is it time to make difficult, painful choices about their core? There is an easy argument to be made for maintaining the status quo. Breaking up a perennial 55-win team carries a great amount of risk and uncertainty, but it also may be the best thing in the long run if they can get a substantial return on one of their stars (presumably Blake Griffin.) There are no obvious answers here, but Rivers would do well to consider every possible scenario this summer.
"He was over there telling me I should retire. I’m like, ‘Whatever. Not yet.’"-- Miami’s Dwyane Wade who had the last word for his heckler in Game 6.
Reaction: Wade’s brilliant shotmaking carried Miami down the stretch and the Purple Shirt Guy will go down in infamy if the Heat close things out in Game 7. Just an unbelievable performance of the game’s great closers.
The Spurs don't ever miss. Ever.