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Atlanta Hawks’ Youth Movement Is Ahead Of Schedule

The Atlanta Hawks are already seeing early dividends on a hybrid youth movement, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard



NBA observers often talk about player timelines. In other words, a 30-year-old player is considered to be in or near their prime, but with a narrow timeline of only a few years to contribute on a contending team. Thus, many observers feel that teams should surround their veterans stars with veteran role players so that the bulk of the roster is on a similar timeline.

Atlanta Hawks coach and President of Basketball Operations Mike Budenholzer, along with GM Wes Wilcox, have opted for a hybrid approach that blends a veteran front court with a full-blown youth movement at the guard and wing positions while still aspiring to advance in the playoffs. In Saturday’s 116-98 win over the Washington Wizards, 23-year-old Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder became the first player in franchise history to score at least 20 points in each of his first three career playoff starts.

“The exciting thing when we think about Dennis is he’s going to continue to get better,” said Budenholzer after Game 3. However, Atlanta’s coach was quick to temper enthusiasm with the Hawks trailing the Washington Wizards 2-1 ahead of Game 4 tonight at 8 PM at Philips Arena.

“He’s had some success to date, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” said Budenholzer. “We’ve got to keep focused on Game 4. He’s got to focus on being great defensively and getting better. No doubt we’re excited about where he is, but I think we’re more excited about where he can go.”

While Schroder shares the scoring lead with Paul Millsap at 25 points — and leads the Hawks with eight assists per game — another shocking performance has come from rookie small forward Taurean Prince, who has started all three playoff games while averaging 14 points, trailing only Schroder and Millsap. Prince leads the regulars with an astounding 57 percent on three-pointers. Among players averaging at least 25 minutes in the playoffs, only Kawhi Leonard has a higher true shooting percentage.

“Every time Taurean touches the floor, he’s out there hustling,” said Millsap. “He’s starting in the playoffs because of that. That’s the approach you’ve got to have as a rookie.”

Schroder said he sees a bit of himself in Prince.

“When I first got into the league I was the same way … hard-headed a little bit, but trying to get better every day,” said Schroder. “What he’s doing in the playoffs, it’s just great. He’s got to keep doing it for us to win games.”

Once again, Budenholzer was quick to restrain any enthusiasm, noting the continued importance of Prince’s defensive assignment against Otto Porter Jr.

“He’s growing right before our eyes,” said Budenholzer of Prince. “The challenge of staying with Porter … he’s got to continue to do that. He can’t relax on that end of the court.”

After averaging 13.4 points (third on the Wizards) on 43.4 percent shooting from three during the regular season, Porter has been limited to seven points on 25 percent three-point shooting in the playoffs. Budenholzer and Wilcox made an absolute commitment to youth when they traded veteran point guard Jeff Teague to the Pacers last summer as part of a three-team trade that netted Prince. If Rookie of the Year voting were pushed back to account for performance in early playoff rounds, Prince would likely be among the leading candidates.

Meanwhile, fourth-year shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. — the third part of Budenholzer’s injection of youth into the starting lineup — has struggled far more than Prince and Schroder. In an exclusive interview with Basketball Insiders following Sunday’s practice at Philips Arena, Hardaway said he is locked in on his defensive assignment against Bradley Beal.

“He’s one of the best players on the team, one of the best two guards in the league,” said Hardaway. “I think I’m trying to sacrifice my shots just to be able to go out there on the defensive end and defend him, just try to do whatever I can to make it tough on him.”

Hardaway joined the chorus praising the efforts of Prince as a starter, adding that he knows some of the struggles he’s gone through to reach this stage.

“He’s a rookie and he has to learn the Coach Bud system same as I did when I first got traded here,” said Hardaway. “His performance as a starter, he’s doing an absolute tremendous job — especially on Otto Porter — limiting his three-point attempts.”

Hardaway also spoke highly of the leadership Schroder has displayed in spite of his youth.

“That’s what we like about him, his tenacity on both ends of the floor, his willingness to go out there and get his teammates involved,” said Hardaway. “He’s doing everything that you ask from a point guard at a young age, so he has a bright future. Once he picks it up on defense, he leads by example, which fuels us on that end of the floor as well.”

Hardaway added that Schroder embraces the challenge of facing one of the NBA’s top point guards in John Wall.

“He’s playing against an All-Star,” said Hardaway. “He loves that challenge. He does a great job of just staying in the moment and not getting too down on himself. But when he does, he kicks into high gear. That’s very rare for some players.”

In addition to Hardaway, another Hawk who has made sacrifices is Kent Bazemore, who transitioned to a sixth-man role when Budenholzer moved Prince and Hardaway into the starting lineup. For the playoffs, Bazemore has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 50 minutes played. Far from complaining about the change, Bazemore has embraced it and become one of Prince’s greatest supporters.

“Every time he walks on the floor I tell him to be special,” said Bazemore. “I’m happy for him to be thrown out in the fire as a rookie and kind of answer the bell. He’s out there playing with immense energy and making plays.

“He’s going to be great.”

Prince is just behind Bazemore among Atlanta’s net rating leaders, so it appears that Budenholzer’s lineup decisions are paying dividends. And while Hardaway has struggled offensively more than any other Hawk, Budenholzer has shown confidence by keeping him in the starting lineup.

The Hawks still face an uphill battle to make it out of the first round after falling into a 2-0 series hole. But the decision to surround veteran starters Millsap and Dwight Howard with a youth movement — and throw those players into the fire with key roles in the postseason — should benefit the Hawks for years to come.

Buddy Grizzard has written for and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.


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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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