NBA AM: Hawks Stifling D Forces Split
After losing six straight games to back into the playoffs at the close of the season, the Atlanta Hawks have found a renewed energy and focus thus far in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks have strutted into the Amway Center to begin the postseason, taking one of two from Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
"Yeah, that’s all you can ask for," Hawks’ forward Josh Smith said of the split in Orlando. "If you can’t get two of them, at least try to steal one. We still have home court advantage [after losing game two]. We just got to be able to come in to a sell out crowd in Phillips Arena and try to use our fan advantage to try and win games."
Despite Howard’s spectacular performance so far this series (39.5 points on 71 percent shooting, 12.2 rebounds, 2 steals, 2.3 blocks per game), the Hawks have limited the rest of the Magic players and now hold home court advantage going back to Atlanta for game three Friday night. The way this series has developed is a stark change from last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals in which Atlanta was swept from the playoffs by Orlando by an average of over 25 points per game.
"I think last year they kind of whooped-up on us a little bit, but that was last year," Hawks’ reserve forward Marvin Williams told HOOPSWORLD. "I think every player in here will tell you that. I think we’re extremely confident in ourselves against that team and we’ve got seven games to show it."
"I’ve been saying we’re a different team," Hawks’ center Al Horford said. "We’re a much more confident team than last year… No question, I know a lot of guys on this team want to be better, want to play for bigger things but this is what we have right now and we have to handle our business here in the first round."
An emphasis on physical play and a swarming defensive philosophy has injected the Hawks with a newfound swagger, and put the team in the driver’s seat as the series swings over to Phillips Arena for a pair of games.
"I think we handled the physicality well, we matched it and I think we cranked our defense up as well," Smith said. … "[We're] just scrambling, helping each other out, fighting over screens; just doing everything necessary in order to keep our man in front of us."
For two games at least, the Hawks defense has shown some teeth. Atlanta has held Orlando to under 40 percent shooting (39.8 percent) for the series, and Smith says an increase in the team’s overall toughness has played a major role.
"We just cranked up on the toughness," Smith said. "We didn’t want physicality to be a reason why we got knocked out of this series. We want to be able to match their physicality because they have a lot of physical bigs and a couple of tough-nosed guard. So we’ve got to be able to keep that up and keep bringing it to those guys and keep pushing forward."
Exacting revenge on the Magic is certainly first on the Hawks’ agenda, but first round success isn’t exactly a new thing for this young team. Atlanta has made it out of the first round in each of the past two seasons, but have stumbled in the semifinals, getting swept each time.
Williams, who’s been there every step of the way, believes the lessons learned from those past series will benefit Atlanta both in the present and future.
"We’ve been here before," Williams said. "The last couple of years we’ve made the playoffs and we’ve done some good things, done some bad things and I think the biggest thing is that we’ve learned from them. We’re in a position to make it to the next round and we’ve got to take advantage of each game."
Atlanta gets a chance to take a 2-1 series lead Friday night at home with an 8 p.m. EST start time.
Lakers’ Gasol Ready To Man Up
A hefty reason for the Los Angeles Lakers first game flop against the New Orleans Hornets was the unenthusiastic and all-around poor play of big man Pau Gasol. The Lakers were outscored 52-34 in the painted area in game one to a Hornets team missing it’s best inside scorer in David West.
The 7-foot Spaniard made just 2-9 shots from the field in game one against the Hornets, marking his lowest shooting percentage for the year (22.2 percent) and making it only the second time all season he’s made fewer than three baskets in a game.
Gasol atoned for his poor performance Tuesday in Los Angeles.
"I know when I have to be more aggressive and I know when I just have to be more productive out there. I wasn’t able to do that in Game 1," Gasol told Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles. "It’s more my fault than their credit. I just have to do a better job on being more assertive out there, establishing myself, getting good position [and] making myself available for my teammates to deliver the ball. That’s about it."
A career 53.6 percent shooter and 18.4 point per game scorer in the playoffs, Gasol told ESPNLA that he looks to come out with a different mindset in game two.
"[There will be] definitely more of a sense of urgency and a sense of, ‘We’re better than you and we’re going to beat you,’" Gasol said. "That’s kind of the mindset that you need to have in the game in order to beat a team that has some confidence."
The Lakers will get their chance to right the ship tonight at the Staples Center with a 10:30 p.m. EST scheduled start time.
Well-Rested Kidd Doing Damage
At 38 years old, Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd is off to one of the best starts of his playoff career. Averaging 21 points on 64 percent shooting from the field (56 percent from deep, including a career-high six 3′s in game one), along with six assists and just one turnover over the first two games; Kidd is playing like a man possessed thanks to some much-needed rest to close out that season.
After last year’s playoff disaster, in which Kidd averaged just eight points per contest and shot just 30 percent from the field as Dallas was outed by the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games, Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle reduced Kidd’s minutes sharply throughout this season. Carlisle lowered the 38-year old’s time on the court from 36 minutes in 09-10 to a career-low 33.2 this year, while Kidd also sat out two of the Mavericks’ final five games of the season just to make sure he was rested and ready come playoff time.
"We need to make sure that Jason’s fresh going into the playoffs," Carlisle told ESPN Dallas’ Jason Caplan, even as Dallas was trying to secure the second seed in the West.
The Mavericks’ coach valued Kidd’s fresh legs come playoff time over any type of vying for seeding, and that savvy move seems to have paid dividends.
In last night’s game two against the Portland Trail Blazers, Kidd picked up the slack offensively to start the second half. The point guard kept the Mavericks afloat to start the third quarter, scoring the Mavericks’ first nine points on 4-4 shooting, including 1-1 from 3-point range. Dallas would not relinquish the lead again after Kidd’s perimeter jumper put the team up 59-55 with 9:17 left in the third.
"I don’t know how many shots he hit exactly coming out of halftime, but he hit the first three or four," Carlise said after the game. "Again, with our team, we need different guys to step up at different times, and finding that person or having the guys on the floor find that person is key."
Kidd finished with 18 points, eight assists and no turnovers on a night in which the Mavericks tied a team-record for fewest turnovers with just six giveaways for the contest.
The determination Kidd burst in with to start the third quarter set the stage for Dirk Nowitzki to shine in the fourth. Few expected Kidd to step up into that second-scoring role that Dallas has seemed to lack in being bounced from the first round in three of the past four years, but that’s exactly what he’s done and it’s led to a 2-0 series lead for the Mavs.
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