Every time Mike Muscala steps on the court in the Atlanta Hawks-Washington Wizards first round playoff series, John Wall’s eyes grow to the size of Valencia oranges. Dwight Howard has served as a deterrent to shots around the basket but when Muscala is protecting the rim, it’s like an aircraft marshaller signaling the runway is clear for takeoff.
Twice in the last two games in Washington, the Hawks have put Washington’s front court in foul trouble. Twice Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer has responded by preferring Muscala over Howard in the fourth quarter, and now twice the Hawks have suffered losses in the aftermath. Entering Game 5, the Wizards’ starters averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game as a unit due to foul trouble, according to Rashad Mobley of TruthAboutIt.net. But just as in Game 2, Budenholzer let the Wizards up off the mat.
“With Dwight out of the game, [it] gives us an opportunity to attack even more, because they don’t really have rim protection,” Wall told the Washington Post after Game 2. Budenholzer said he went with a “gut feel” in Game 2 after he left Howard on the bench as Washington closed on a 42-28 run, preferring to have more shooting on the floor. Muscala entered Game 5 shooting 18.8 percent for the series.
Muscala had some nice moments when the Hawks eliminated the Wizards in the second round to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history in 2015. But that was after Wall suffered multiple fractures to his hand and wrist. With Wall healthy and punishing the rim off the dribble, this is a completely different series.
To be fair, Howard was in foul trouble himself, having committed his fifth with 8:21 to play in the fourth quarter. And Ersan Ilyasova, the legitimate third big man the Hawks have sought for years, had his worst game of the series with a -7 plus-minus (that tied Game 4 hero Jose Calderon for game-worst) on 1-for-6 shooting. Wall confirmed to CSN Mid-Atlantic’s J. Michael Falgoust that the Wizards employed a strategy of double-teaming Paul Millsap to help Markieff Morris avoid early foul trouble.
Simply put, the Wizards’ front court can’t defend Millsap and Howard without fouling. Prior to Game 5, the Hawks held a 134-93 advantage in free throw attempts. The low number of post isolations attempted by Washington confirms that Howard is a deterrent at the rim. However, the Wizards held a 28-19 advantage in blocked shots entering Game 5. That trend would continue with Washington registering five blocks to just one for Atlanta. And for the first time in the series, the Wizards attempted more free throws than the Hawks (27-21). Wizards coach Scott Brooks had complained about the free throw discrepancy prior to Game 4.
Nevertheless, with 9:26 to play in the third quarter, Morris committed his fourth foul (three on Millsap, one on Howard). He would check back in with 5:45 to play in the fourth before committing his fifth foul on Millsap with 3:19 to play. Morris received a technical foul for arguing the call but Brooks left him in to close out the fourth.
Budenholzer elected to stay small, sending Kent Bazemore in to replace Muscala. Moments later, Taurean Prince scored to draw the Hawks within 98-96 with 2:51 to play. Washington would outscore Atlanta 5-1 the rest of the way while out-rebounding the Hawks 6-2 as Howard looked on from the bench. After Millsap said “we think we play small ball better than anybody” after Game 2, the Hawks now face a win-or-go-home scenario in Game 6 after Atlanta’s small lineup once again failed to close out.
Calderon was unable to replicate his second quarter heroics from Game 4 as Washington won the quarter 27-24 before winning the third 33-30 and closing out with an even 20-20 fourth. The Hawks led 34-27 in the second quarter before former Vice President Joe Biden was shown on the video board, triggering the loudest ovation of the night and inspiring a 21-9 Wizards run. Just as he did in Game 2, Brandon Jennings cooked Calderon.
The really bad news for the Hawks is that Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic had their best games of the series. Porter opened the third quarter with back-to-back threes before attacking the rim and drawing the third foul on Howard. Bogdanovic added 14 points and six rebounds. This was countered in part by Hawks small forward Taurean Prince, who became the first player since Tony Parker in 2002 to start his first five career playoff games as a rookie and score in double figures in all of them. However, Kent Bazemore’s six points on 12 shots meant Atlanta came up short on production from the small forward position.
Another new wrinkle, mentioned by Falgoust, was Brooks playing Beal and Jennings together with Beal initiating the offense. As mentioned in our Game 5 preview, Beal, not Wall, has been the Wizards’ most efficient player as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Thus, this adjustment made sense.
But the biggest difference in Game 5 — and one of the factors that will decide the series — is that the Hawks once again showed up in Washington without the mental focus and edge needed to win on the road. Howard didn’t bother to protect the rim on this Kelly Oubre Jr. dunk.
Millsap allowed Jason Smith to get a wide open dunk on a backdoor cut. Prince, whose defense has been outstanding, trotted back on one possession in the first half and allowed Bogdanovic a wide-open three. Atlanta missed seven of 21 free throw attempts. And Bazemore, who was successful on several lob attempts to Howard in Game 4, committed several first-half turnovers, including a lob to Howard that was off target.
Game 6 Prediction:
The easiest prediction for Game 6 is that Marcin Gortat will set at least two moving screens per quarter and none of them will be called. But between Budenholzer’s fascination with Muscala in fourth quarters and Atlanta’s lack of focus in three out of five games, it is apparent that the Wizards want it more. Muscala is arguably the fifth big man and 13th player on Atlanta’s roster. Larry Drew’s decision to play Jannero Pargo over Kirk Hinrich — whom the Hawks traded two first round picks to obtain — in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of Atlanta’s 2012 first round series against the Celtics was more justifiable than playing Muscala over Howard. Hinrich and Pargo were bench players. Howard is a $23 million centerpiece while Muscala is a former second round pick on a minimum contract. This isn’t Muscala’s fault. It’s Coach Budenholzer’s fault. And the Hawks will be going fishing after Game 6 as a consequence.
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.
NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge
Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.
Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.
Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.
“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”
Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.
July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists
Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.
“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”
On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.
“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”
Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.
“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”
In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.
“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”
When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.
In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.