Atlanta Hawks

Around the Rim: Hawks fly high at home

1. Joe Johnson ignites late
It might sound impossible, but Atlanta has Boston’s number in the playoffs. After taking a 97-92 victory over the top-seeded Celtics, drawing the series to a 2-2 tie, the Hawks have now won five out of their previous six games against the Cs in the postseason. Joe Johnson posted 20 points in the fourth quarter for a game-high 35 points while Josh Smith played out of his mind with 28 points, six rebounds and seven blocks. Everyone and their momma figured this of all the series would end in a sweep, but after taking a 2-0 lead in Boston, the Celtics are winless on the road in the postseason. The Big Three combined for 59 points, but Boston could only muster 17 points in the final period when Johnson and the Hawks exploded for 32. Game 5 will be back in the friendly confines of Beantown on Wednesday.

2. Bust out the brooms

After busting their asses to make the postseason, the Nuggets’ hard work was for not following a four-game sweep at the hands of the Lakers. Denver didn’t roll over and die, but they died none the less, falling 107-101 in their own arena thanks to Kobe Bryant’s 31 points, including 14 in the final six minutes. Bryant’s playoff average this season is now up to 33.5 points per game after he was good for 28.3 during the regular season. LA is now waiting on the winner between Utah and Houston who play Game 5 tonight. Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony both fouled out of the game in the final minutes, allowing Bryant to do his thing without Denver’s superstars on the court. J.R. Smith was the Nuggets high-scorer with 26 points while Allen Iverson and Anthony combined for 43 points. The Lakers look primed to make their first Western Conference finals since Shaq Daddy was in town behind the big efforts of Bryant, Lamar Odom (14 pts, 12 reb) and Pau Gasol (21 pts).

3. Orlando moves on
The kid did it again. For the third time in the series, Dwight Howard recorded at least 20 points and 20 rebounds by tallying 21 of each in Orlando’s 102-92 win at home over Toronto, advancing to the second round for the first time since in 12 years. The Magic dominated 4-1 behind Superman’s super play. Following postseason career-highs of 39 points and 15 rebounds in Game 4 Saturday, Chris Bosh finished with just 16 points and nine rebounds in the Raptors’ playoff finale. Orlando is now waiting on the winner between Philadelphia and Detroit, currently tied at 2-2 following a pair of disappointing performances from the Pistons. All five starters for Orlando and sixth man Keith Bogans finished in double-digit scoring, led by Howard’s game-highs and Jameer Nelson’s 19. Rashard Lewis was impressive as well, going off for a double-double of his own with 18 points and 13 rebounds.

Monday’s Player of the Day: Josh Smith vs. Boston 37 min, 28 pts (FG: 8-16, 3FG: 0-6, FT: 12-13), 6 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl, 7 blk

Buzzer Beater: After 24 seasons, 2,186 games, 1,381 victories and five championships, Pat Riley’s coaching career appears to finally be ka-put. The Hall of Famer is coming off the worst year of his career, winning just 15 games with the heatless Heat who has replaced Riley with the now-youngest coach in the league Erik Spoelstra. It was obvious Riles was on edge all year, so it’s not surprising he wants to end the suffering. However, he will maintain his position as president, overseeing Miami’s immediate future which could include the drafting of Michael Beasley if the ping-pong balls bounce right.

Ironically enough, on the same day Riley retires, a key contributor from his Laker days was named NBA coach of the year. Byron Scott led the Hornets to the West’s second best record (56-26) and their first postseason appearance in four years.

Atlanta Hawks

Around the Rim: Birds of a different feather

1. The Hawks are flying high
Portland is currently running away with the “Overachievers of the Year” award, but the Hawks are quietly still in the race. Joe Johnson poured in 26 points and handed out 11 assists to give Atlanta a 107-95 home victory over Indiana, but, perhaps even more importantly, it gave the Hawks their first five-game winning streak since 1999. Atlanta is now 15-12 on the year, good for the Eastern Conference’s fourth best record, giving the Hawks a legitimate chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 1998-99. In addition to Johnson’s offensive firepower, Josh Smith is having an awesome year, averaging 17.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.92 steals and 3.12 blocks per game. The Hawks can now sit back and somewhat enjoy the fruits of their labor; they don’t play again until Saturday when they travel to Dallas and after that, Atlanta is off until next Wednesday when they head to Cleveland for a contest against King James and the Cavs.

2. Boston looks mean in green

The Celtics headed West for the first time this year on Wednesday when they traveled to Sacramento for a contest against a struggling Kings team. The result for Boston was the same on the west coast as it was on the east coast, an easy victory. The Cs cruised to an 89-69 win behind 47 points from the big three and 13 from the trio’s sidekick Rajon Rondo. Boston is now 23-3, marking the fourth time in franchise history that the Celtics have started with a 23-3 record. Two of the previous three times it was done Boston went on to win the NBA title (1963-64 and 1961-62). After playing in only their 11th road game of the year, the Celtics continue their road test when they head to Seattle tonight, followed by back-to-back road games against the Jazz and Lakers on Saturday and Sunday.

3. Jazz build a lead, blow a lead and get a win
Utah managed to take a 16-0 lead against Dallas on Wednesday and then gave it all right back as they went into halftime up just a single point. Luckily, the Jazz finished like they started, outscoring the Mavs 52-44 in the second half and held on for a 99-90 victory at home. Dirk Nowitzki kept his squad in the game down the stretch, but Carlos Boozer came up big for the Jazz in the closing minutes, scoring six of the team’s final seven points, giving him 21 for the night. Deron Williams finished with 17 points and 12 assists to match Andrei Kirilenko’s offensive output. With the loss, Dallas falls to 6-8 on the road while Utah improves to 10-2 at home. The Jazz desperately needed the win after losing nine of their previous 11 games and falling behind Portland in the Northwest Division standings.

Wednesday’s Player of the Day: Chris Paul @ Memphis 36 min, 40 pts (FG: 17-25, 3FG: 5-8, FT: 1-1), 5 reb, 9 ast, 5 stl

Thursday’s Game to Watch: Cleveland (13-16) @ Dallas (19-10)
Dallas still hasn’t regained the form that earned them their top seed in the playoffs last season; at least not on the road. But inside the friendly confines of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, it’s a whole other story. The Mavs are 13-2 at home despite Dirk Nowitzki’s sub par performances of late. On the other side of the court, there is nothing sub par about LeBron James this year. James is averaging a league-best 29.3 points to go along with 7.2 rebounds and 7.7 assist per contest, but the King’s court has been extremely inconsistent. For the past six games Cleveland has alternated wins and losses, their most recent contest being a 96-82 Christmas day beating of the Heat. The up and down trend could continue tonight as Cleveland is a pathetic 5-10 away from home.

Buzzer Beater: Jason Kidd tallied 13 assists in a loss to Detroit on Wednesday, moving him into sixth place on the all-time list with 8,972 career dimes. Kidd passed the Glove who now sits at seventh with 8,966. 14 years into his career, the passing machine should be pretty close to the NBA’s greatest assist men in history, right? Wrong. Kidd is still 6,834 assists short of reaching John Stockton’s mark of 15,806. With a career-average of 9.2 assists per game, it will take Kidd about 743 more games to set a new milestone. In other words, Kidd needs another nine seasons at that pace to accomplish what Stockton did in his 19 years with Utah.

Miami Heat

Around the Rim: The Heat burn the Suns

1. Suns drop it like its hot
Perhaps we misheard, but we could have sworn that the Phoenix Suns were going to use their embarrassing loss to the Timberwolves as motivation for the remainder of the season. Well, between Saturday and Monday, that plan flew out the window because in their very next game, the Suns got beat at home…by the Heat! We know that any team can beat any other team on any given night in the Association, but the Suns, who many consider to be the best in the West, just lost consecutive games to teams that are now a combined 9-30 on the season. Does the 117-113 loss spell the end of all hope for Phoenix fans? Of course not, but they are allowing the Lakers to creep back into the division race and the Suns’ schedule isn’t (and virtually can’t) get any easier. Here’s what’s on tap for Phoenix: vs. Utah, @ New Orleans, @ San Antonio, @ Dallas, vs. Toronto, @ Lakers.

2. The sleeping giant finally awakes

You might not know it by looking at the stoic, solemn expressions that almost never leave his gigantic face, but Yao Ming is a serious competitor. Labeled as a soft stick figure for the first few years of his career in Houston, Yao pretty much dispelled the myth that he’s got no heart on Monday when he called his club “soft” after losing to Philadelphia, their second consecutive defeat.

When you are soft yourself, everything will feel tough,” Yao said. “It’s not because they are so tough. It’s because of how soft we are.

“It’s weird that we changed that quick. I never had that feeling. I feel like they traded me to another team, a new team I’ve never been on before.

Finally! The Rockets have been waiting for over five years for you to step up and take control of this squad. Now Houston is, at last, ready to start winning. At least Yao is and that’s more than we knew before.

3. Another angry giant
We told you how Shaquille O’Neal is more than a little pissed about not touching the ball enough. Shaq is averaging career-lows across the board, but it’s not his age that is getting the best of him. Nope, as always, with Shaq it has to be someone else’s fault.

If I’m taking 20 shots a game and I’m only making two, then you can say my production is going down,” O’Neal told the Miami Herald on Friday.
“But I’m still shooting 60 or 65 percent from the field. So they’ve got to find better ways to get me the ball. It should be simple.”

Shaq was asked whether he had voiced his concerns inside the Heat organization.

“I shouldn’t have to [expletive] communicate that.

Monday’s Player of the Day: Josh Smith @ Orlando 45 min, 25 pts (FG: 7-20, 3FG: 2-4, FT: 9-13), 16 reb, 5 ast, 4 stl, 4 blk

Tuesday’s Game to Watch: San Antonio (17-3) @ Golden State (11-9)
Since Tim Duncan came to the Spurs, San Antonio is 42-5 against the Warriors, undefeated through 19 games at home and sporting a 33-5 mark in Oakland. Luckily for Golden State, the Spurs could be playing for the third consecutive game without the former two-time MVP who is still nursing a sprained knee and ankle. The bad news for the Warriors is that, even without their man in the middle, San Antonio has beaten Dallas and Utah to extend their current winning streak to five games. Golden State has slowed down a bit in the win column after going on a tear when Stephen Jackson returned to the lineup, but they are still racking up the points and have the ability to run anyone right out of the gym. This should be a great matchup regardless of Duncan’s availability.

Buzzer Beater: Heeee’s baaaack! LeBron James was cleared for the Cavaliers game against the Pacers on Tuesday and the move couldn’t have come at a better time. The Cavs have lost every contest that James missed – five consecutive – and now sit 5 ½ games behind the division leading Pistons. Before the injury, LeBron owned the entire NBA, racking up four triple-doubles while leading the league in scoring with 30.7 points per game. At least James got to show off his impressive wardrobe during the sick leave.

Miami Heat

Around the Rim: The Miami Meek

1. Even the Blazers are punking out Miami
The Heat were easily extinguished by the Blazers last night as the Portland upstarts came through in the crunch. Meanwhile, the vets on Miami just let another game slip through their fingers, their fourth consecutive botched contest. Pat Riley appears to have finally accepted the fact that his squad is pitiful, 4-14 pitiful to be exact. Dwayne Wade did all could, coming up one assist short of a triple-double, but Brandon Roy torched the Heat for 25 points while Travis Outlaw chipped in with 20 off the bench to go with one humongous slam dunk in the 112-106 victory. Shaq’s performance continues to decline in the twilight of his career, but he still managed to give a facial to Portland center Joel Przybilla, just not in the manner you’d think. Less than a minute into the game, Shaq sent Przybilla to the floor and then proceeded to smash the ball into his face, bloodying his nose, as the Diesel stumbled over the top of the fallen Blazer. Enjoy this face-smashing view from the cheap seats.

2. They just got (everybody now) MIC’D UP!!

The Nuggets and Mavericks got together last night for a contest that saw Denver take a 122-109 victory, giving Dallas their sixth loss in nine games. But the play on the court was only half the story, coaches Avery Johnson and George Karl became the guinea pigs for the NBA’s latest experiment. The coaches in general don’t seem too happy about the league’s decision to mic up coaches, which is mandatory, and players, which is optional. So, how exactly does the average fan benefit from the latest multimedia move? Well, you get tremendous insight that you never had access to before. Besides the newly implemented and binding media timeout interview with coaches, there are all sorts of other juicy sound bites for your pleasure. Check out this stuff and just try to keep your mind from melting.

Soon after, TNT showed a montage of audio collected from the microphones.

“Let’s go, enjoy this thing,” Karl said at the start of the game.

“Good hustle men, keep it up,” Johnson said during a timeout.

“Let’s go. Let’s go, let’s go,” Stackhouse said, clapping his hands on the court.

“Way to go, Stack,” Johnson was later shown saying following a basket by his microphone-wearing swingman.

3. Now Jason Kidd probably has a headache
Wait, wait, wait; you mean to tell us that Jason Kidd might have actually had a migraine headache on Tuesday? That’s not possible, it was a power play to highjack the Nets’ cash or to get traded. Remember, he was “on strike.” Or maybe not. Kidd laid out his side of the story and, guess what, it makes sense. He had a headache and he didn’t play, simple as that. Give the guy a little credit, he’s a veteran and a professional when it comes to the game of basketball. Heck, the guy is 34 years old and he’s 1.3 rebounds away from averaging a triple-double for the sorry franchise. We don’t doubt that he might want out of Jersey, nobody could blame him for that, but Kidd has never given any indication of being a complete numbskull like, oh we don’t know, Stephon Marbury.

Thursday’s Player of the Day: Josh Smith vs. Minnesota 45 min, 28 pts (FG: 11-19, FT: 6-7), 7 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl, 7 blk

Friday’s Game to Watch: Utah (13-6) @ San Antonio (16-3)
Less than a week ago things were looking grim for the San Antonio Spurs after Tim Duncan was carried off the court by his teammates. Four days and a huge win over Dallas later, Gregg Popovich is saying the Big Fundamental has a 50/50 shot to be in the starting lineup against the Jazz. Duncan’s return only adds to Utah’s uphill battle. The Jazz are 13-6 and went to the Western Conference Finals last season, but the franchise hasn’t won a game in San Antonio since Feb. 28, 1999 – 19 consecutive losses. But you can’t count out the Jazz based on history alone because even if Duncan logs some minutes, he’ll have his hands full trying to stop the NBA’s player of the month for the West. Carlos Boozer averages 24.9 points, 11.4 boards and 2.9 assists for the Northwest Division leaders.

Buzzer Beater: With 2.2 seconds left on the clock following Marko Jaric’s layup, it appeared that Minnesota was about to grab their third win on the season. But appearances can be deceiving, just ask Joe Johnson who nailed a jumper at the buzzer to give Atlanta the slightest of victories, 90-89. While winning is normally good enough, when you barely eek out a win against the most pathetic team in the league, even a buzzer-beater leaves you bummed out.

It’s got to stop sooner or later, man,” he said. “I honestly thought this was a 25-30 point win for us tonight.

25-30 point win? Don’t flatter yourself Joe. You do know that your team’s average margin of victory during its eight wins is just 7.5 points, right?