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Game 3 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the round one matchup between the Wizards and Hawks, and picks Game 3.

Buddy Grizzard

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If there’s one thing that’s predictable about the remainder of the Atlanta Hawks-Washington Wizards first round playoff series, it’s that Markieff Morris is unlikely to reprise his “double MMA” comment he made ahead of Washington’s 109-101 win Wednesday to take a 2-0 series lead. After Hawks power forward Paul Millsap complained that “they were playing MMA” after Atlanta’s loss in Game 1, Morris told the Washington Post he planned to turn up the physicality in Game 2.

“I guess if that’s MMA, then what we do next might be double MMA,” said Morris.

Officials Marc Davis, Sean Corbin and David Guthrie responded by calling 55 fouls in Game 2. Morris picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game and was limited to 20 minutes and three points on three shots. The whistle became so frequent that “ref you suck” chants rained down on the officiating crew. One person who wasn’t complaining was Millsap, who said, “I liked it” when asked about the physical nature of Game 2 and how it was officiated.

“It was a tricky game to coach because you were coaching foul trouble,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks.

Another trend to watch for in Saturday’s Game 3 — as the series shifts to Philips Arena in Atlanta — is turnovers, which have haunted the Hawks. Atlanta committed 19 turnovers to just 12 for Washington in Game 1, followed by 18 for the Hawks and 11 for the Wizards in Game 2. The Hawks trailed 101-98 after Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 12-footer with 2:32 to play in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and were within five points with less than two minutes to play in Game 1. Both games have been tight, so the turnover differential has been costly for Atlanta.

“We’re at our best, just like they are, when [we] get steals and force turnovers,” said Brooks.

Washington has been able to take advantage with a veteran backcourt against Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder and shooting guard Hardaway — both starting in the playoffs for the first time. Atlanta has been outscored by 16.5 points per 100 possessions in former Laker Jose Calderon’s 16 minutes for the series, the fourth-worst net rating among Hawks with at least 10 minutes.

Atlanta’s backup point guard position has been so unsettled this season that Budenholzer has at times gone without a point guard and allowed Hardaway and Kent Bazemore to initiate the offense. Budenholzer tried that configuration to disastrous effect in Game 2. Atlanta opened the second quarter with Hardaway and Bazemore joining Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Muscala. Bazemore turned the ball over to open consecutive possessions, and Budenholzer called timeout to get Calderon in the game less than two minutes into the quarter.

The issue cropped up again in the fourth quarter as Wall drew a charge on Bazemore for a turnover then followed with an 18-footer to stretch Washington’s lead to 101-96 with 2:47 to play. Moments later, Wall knocked the ball away from Bazemore and ran out for a dunk that made it 103-98 with 1:07 to play. Twice the Hawks were within three points in the game’s final three minutes, and twice Wall forced turnovers against Bazemore and converted baskets that made it a two-possession game.

But Atlanta’s guards and wings are not alone in their struggles. For the series, Atlanta is being outscored by 19 points per 100 with Howard on court and nearly 21 with Millsap. In general, the starters have been outperformed by the Wizards’ superior unit and have needed contributions from the bench to keep games close. However, Howard was much better in Game 2, posting a +4.7 net rating that was best among Hawks with double-digit minutes. Strangely, after Muscala subbed in for Howard with 3:38 to play in the third and the Hawks leading 73-67, Howard did not appear again, totaling just 20 minutes. Atlanta was outscored 42-28 the rest of the way.

“They had some foul trouble and they were playing a lot of small lineups,” said Budenholzer when asked why Howard played so little. “It was just a little bit of a gut feel and trying to keep a little bit more shooting, a little bit more space [on the court].”

Millsap liked the strategy.

“We think we play small ball better than anybody in the league,” he said from the podium.

But Howard had few answers in the postgame locker room, answering a series of questions with, “I don’t know.”

While Budenholzer continues to tinker with strategy, one aspect that’s been under-reported has been Beal’s defense in limiting Hardaway to 7-for-26 shooting. The Hawks are scoring just 86 points per 100 possessions with Hardaway on court but 127.8 when he’s on the bench.

“We’ve finally really locked in defensively the last two games, which is something we’ve been talking about for a while,” said Brooks. “I’m proud of the way Brad played, because he didn’t shoot the ball well but he competed. He didn’t give in to a bad shooting night.”

And while Marcin Gortat’s pair of double-doubles has made life difficult for Atlanta’s front court — and Wall and Beal are a handful for anyone — don’t think Budenholzer has forgotten about Otto Porter Jr. Among the league’s most accurate three point shooters, Porter has been relatively quiet, scoring 10 points in Game 1 followed by four in Game 2. Despite the slow offensive start, Porter’s +32.7 on court net rating is the best in the series.

“Our attention to Otto Porter is pretty significant,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s been a big part of kind of how their team has evolved and grown this year. I think because Otto Porter’s such a good three point shooter over the course of the season, our guys are aware of it. We’re trying to limit his opportunities.”

Game 3 Prediction: Wizards take a 3-0 lead. Atlanta’s backcourt is simply too inexperienced to compete with a pair of stars at the peak of their careers. Additionally, Millsap and Howard are in the bottom three in net rating for Atlanta in the series, ahead of only Hardaway among Hawks with at least 10 minutes played. Look for Washington to make this a short series.

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

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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