A scoring Harden may prove to be burden for Rockets

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You can’t always win big with a great scorer. None of Wilt Chamberlain’s teams won a championship until he decided to pass. Dominique Wilkins has a statue in Atlanta yet he never took his Atlanta Hawks Jerseys past the Eastern Conference semifinals. There are others who never tasted champagne until they grew old and became a second or third option.

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Admittedly, the pile of names isn’t very big, but unless this season is the exception and not the rule, is James Harden destined to join it?

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He’s a major scorer, ranking No. 2 in the league in that department and is deadly anywhere on the floor. He finished runner-up in the Kia MVP voting last season and once again is pushing 30 points a night. He carried the team for long stretches last season while second-fiddle Dwight Howard dealt with injuries. Harden probably has a basket for every hair on his chin, and speaking of overgrown, aren’t the defeats this season for Harden and the Rockets starting to get thick?

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Rockets vs. Spurs

LaMarcus Aldridge scores 24 points and grabs nine rebounds to lead the Spurs past the visiting Rockets, 121-103.

Seven months after reaching the West finals, mainly on Harden’s labor, they’re clearly far behind the leaders. They are 26th in defensive efficiency, are giving up nearly 106 points a game on 46 percent shooting and are prone to fourth-quarter breakdowns. They’ve beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder Jerseys, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs Jerseys, yet are 0-2 against the Brooklyn Nets Jerseys and have also lost twice to the Denver Nuggets Jerseys. After firing coach Kevin McHale in a panic in November to force a shakeup, the Rockets haven’t gained any traction and are still struggling to find their mojo.

Supposedly, the big difference this season was adding a capable point guard to the mix and finally easing Harden’s ball-handling workload. In theory, trading for Ty Lawson last summer made perfect sense. He was to bring the dynamic that would give Houston an edge over the Clippers, Spurs and Golden State Warriors, the top-shelf teams in the loaded West. This way, Harden could play a bit more off the ball and the Rockets wouldn’t rely so heavily on Harden isolations to produce points. They’d have an extra dimension and another way of attacking teams and become less predictable. And by taking the ball out of Harden’s hands on occasion, the Rockets would yield fewer points off their own turnovers, since Harden leads the league in turnovers, something he’s done two of the last three seasons.

Our offense creates bad defense for us. I guess at times we do stop and hold the ball or just don’t move it as much.

– Rockets guard Ty Lawson

Instead, the Rockets are still pulling the bubblegum off their face after this experimental bubble burst quickly. Lawson struggled in the role and was benched and recently put on the trade market. New coach J.B. Bickerstaff dusted off the old playbook and Harden has the ball in his hands again, which is doing wonders for his scoring average 鈥?but not so much for the Rockets’ bottom line.

Harden is not the main problem with the Rockets right now. They simply can’t stop anyone (Harden’s often allergic reaction to defense contributes to that) and Howard is growing old by the minute. Nor is Harden an issue in terms of his offensive talent, which is Hall of Fame worthy. Not many are this shifty off the dribble, can reach the rim, can pull up for 3-pointers and get free throw attempts (which he leads the NBA in) like Harden. But when the ball is out of his hands, he looks ordinary and the Rockets look confused, and that’s why defenses are willing to trap him and take their chances.

“Our offense creates bad defense for us,” said Lawson, who wasn’t singling out Harden. “I guess at times we do stop and hold the ball or just don’t move it as much.”

While Lawson might not be the right point guard to place next to Harden, would any “pure” point guard work? Or do the Rockets have no choice but to use a “shooting” point guard — an old Jason Terry lately — whose main job is to stand on the perimeter and wait for a pass that may or may not come?

Warriors vs. Rockets

Klay Thompson explodes for 38 points, Draymond Green adds a triple-double with 16 assists as Warriors win it 114-100.

Which of course, doesn’t make Terry a point guard.

That’s the dilemma they face, the task of trying to find a way to maximize Harden’s obvious skills while being less predictable. GM Daryl Morey obviously agrees with this, otherwise, why did he trade for Lawson? Why not stick with Patrick Beverley and the same old formula that won 56 games? Because Morey knew the load could eventually wear down Harden come May and June, and that defenses would eventually figure the Rockets out, and that other players needed to become more involved in the flow. Again, those concerns were all well-founded.

Curiously, the Rockets halted a four-game slide, their second such this season, on Tuesday when Terry and not Harden controlled the ball late in a tight game. Terry played the role the Rockets envisioned for Lawson, although you wonder how many times can Terry, at 38, pull it off.

“In those type of situations,” said Terry, “I understand the time and the score, who we need to get the ball to and what actions need to be run. To be out there in those situations, I think that’s what they brought me here for.”

Hawks vs. Rockets

Al Horford scores 30 points and grabs 16 rebounds to lead the visiting Hawks past the Rockets, 121-115.

None of Harden’s teammates have ever said this publicly, but you wonder if cheap jerseys nba they’re OK with a steady diet of “iso-James” and if they believe it has run its course. Or if Harden is willing to change.

He presents a challenge for Morey as he tries to figure whether this year’s poor pairing with Lawson represents a hiccup, or a warning sign. If iso-James is here to stay, then the Rockets need quality shooters around him. The Rockets rank second in 3-pointers per game and make 35 percent of them — roughly what they did last season — but not enough to overcome their horrific defense.

With the exception of LeBron James, no other non-point guard dominates the ball like Harden. LeBron has a pair of rings to show for it, but only because he had a pair of Hall of Fame-worthy shotgun riders in Miami, who allowed him to play more off the ball than he did in his first tour of duty in Cleveland.

It is also possible that last season spoiled Harden. The Rockets finished second in the West despite Howard missing half the season. Harden was a one-man show and tore through defenses, generating MVP talk all season. He carried the team, and last summer earned a $200 million shoe contract. Therefore, why change anything?

When Lawson flamed out and the Rockets nearly bottomed out, there was no choice but to return to what worked, except from a long-term view, letting Harden control the ball again might be fool’s gold.

Surely, the Rockets have bigger concerns: How to keep Howard healthy, try to salvage the Lawson trade (or send him packing again) and how to defend better. They’re in repair mode right now and the task on the front burner is climbing above .500 and staying there.

But assuming that happens, if they don’t soon seek a way to diversify and stop relying so much on Harden isolations, they might find themselves, well, isolated from the pack of contenders.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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In MVP race (and NBA itself), elite point guards dominate

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Chris Paul’s true value to the Los Angeles Clippers has never been more obvious than during these 19 games Blake Griffin has been out of the lineup.

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It should not have taken extenuating circumstance to remind the world just how important it is to have an elite point guard in today’s NBA, but it did.

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“People forget, huh?” said Clippers sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford. “People forget what kind of leader he is, and that he’s been right there at the top of the point guard heap for years. He does whatever is needed that night. He doesn’t predetermine what he’s going to do. He plays aggressive, he’s always unselfish and he does whatever is needed to put us in a winning situation. That’s what the great ones do and they do it consistently, whether there is a spotlight on them or not. That’s what CP is all about.”

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To me, it’s like quarterbacks in the NFL these days. Everybody recognizes the importance of the position.

– Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, on point guards in the NBA

Paul, who has led the Clippers to a 15-4 mark in Griffin’s absence, is one of the marquee players at what is undoubtedly the NBA’s marquee position. In this age of pace and space, where the “traditional” big man has given way to hybrid point forwards like Draymond Green and Paul George, having an elite point guard has become a must for teams with designs on contending.

It’s safe to say that like big men in a bygone era and shooting guards after that, point guards rule the roost.

“No question about it,” said a veteran Western Conference advance scout. “It’s the first item on nearly every scouting report, even for the teams that are struggling. It starts with the head of the snake in this era, especially with the way teams are playing and all of the high pick-and-roll sets teams are running. This is the deepest and best pool of point guard talent I can remember.”

There are five points guards on this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder, led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who has held down the No. 1 spot since the start of this season.

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook checks in at No. 4, Paul at No. 6 and we have two newcomers, too: Toronto’s Kyle Lowry at No. 9 and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas at No. 10.

All five are All-Stars, highlighting the quality and depth at the position league wide.

“To me, it’s like quarterbacks in the NFL these days,” Crawford said. “Everybody recognizes the importance of the position. And if you have a Tom Brady Jerseys, a Peyton Manning Jerseys or better yet a Cam Newton Jerseys, your team has a chance to win big. If you don’t have someone of that caliber, it makes it tougher on everyone else. And that’s just reality.”

It starts with the head of the snake in this era, especially with the way teams are playing and all of the high pick-and-roll sets teams are running. This is the deepest and best pool of point guard talent I can remember.

– anonymous Western Conference scout

That reality will be on full display this weekend in Saturday night’s Super Bowl eve showdown between Curry’s Warriors and Westbrook’s Thunder (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), the first matchup between these two teams since Curry snatched the MVP trophy from Durant and the Warriors replaced the Thunder as the new super-team on the block.

The evolution of both players has been nothing short of remarkable. Curry, the league’s leading scorer, is in the midst of turning the basketball world on its head with his cosmic mix of shooting, scoring and playmaking on the runaway best team in the league. Westbrook, meanwhile, is a walking triple-double these days and has redefined his game and silenced all those who doubted his abilities as a facilitator.

“The improvement that Russell Westbrook has made is glaringly different this year,” said TNT’s Kenny Smith. “Because of his ability to rebound and pass the basketball, and get [Enes] Kanter, get [Steven] Adams involved this year, I would say he’s very improved in that area [of getting teammates involved offensively].”

The growth and development at the position league-wide is what’s truly remarkable. And there is nowhere where that is more evident than in Boston, where Thomas has transformed himself from a super sub into an All-Star.

“The right player at just the right time for that team,” Crawford said of his good friend and fellow Seattle-area native. “It doesn’t surprise me at all to see him in the All-Star Game. He’s exactly what you’re looking for in this new generation of point guards. He can do it all.”

The Top 10 in this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Curry Goes Off In D.C.

Check out the best from Stephen Curry’s 51 point performance in super slow motion.

Someone in the Silicon Valley needs to fast track a virtual reality device that would allow the rest of us mere mortals to experience nights like Stephen Curry does on a regular basis. A night like he had Wednesday in Washington (51 points, 11-for-16 shooting on 3-pointers, and a little dancing for good measure) has to be on the high end, even for a player who is running away from the pack in the MVP race this season. Curry scored a combined 50 points in the three games before that rout of the Wizards, his lowest three-game total of the season. He made up for that lull in one night.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Durant’s Game-Winning 3-Pointer

Kevin Durant crosses-up his defender and sticks the deep triple to take a three point lead with .5 seconds remaining in regulation.

Durant and the Thunder are hitting their stride just in time for Saturday night’s Super Bowl eve showdown against the Warriors at Oracle Arena. His 37 points and game winner against Orlando Wednesday highlighted Durant’s recent tear, he’s averaged 33.8 points on 51 percent shooting (44 percent from deep), 9.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists over the past five games. Durant and the Thunder have designs on doing what no other elite team has been able to do cheap nba authentic jerseys this season against the Warriors. We’ll find out Saturday night if they are up to the task.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

James Pushes Cavs Past Pacers

LeBron James scores 24 points and adds 12 rebounds as the Cavaliers hold off the Pacers in overtime, 111-106.

The Cavaliers have looked like a completely different team since Tyronn Lue took over for David Blatt, even though LeBron has continued his maestro work (23.8 points on 58 percent shooting, 8.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds in the first week after Blatt) as the catalyst for this crew. He’s helped facilitate the faster pace Lue desires and has made a concerted effort to make sure Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are fully integrated into whatever the Cavaliers are doing. It’s the buy-in Blatt never could get out of this group.

4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Westbrook’s Triple-Double vs. Magic

Russell Westbrook records a triple-double going for 24 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists in the victory over the Magic.

Westbrook is putting up a monster fight for Draymond Green’s title of “Mr. Triple-Double” this season. He’s currently working on a stretch of three straight triple-doubles and recorded perhaps an even more impressive milestone with his 24 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists in the win over the Magic. He joined the uber-elite list of Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Larry Bird as the only players to pile up those numbers in a game. And he’s the first to do it since Bird accomplished that feat (with 28, 19 and 15) on Jan. 3, 1982 against Atlanta. Westbrook is averaging a wicked 22 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds and two steals in his last 10 games and is more than ready for his matchup against Stephen Curry on Saturday night.

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Leonard’s Outstanding January

Spurs’ forward Kawhi Leonard is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Player of the Month in January.

Leonard has come back to earth a bit recently, averaging 17.5 points on 47 percent shooting in his last 10 games. But the way the Spurs spread the ball around, and as LaMarcus Aldridge gets more and more comfortable, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t need to lean on Leonard (or any other single player) to tote too heavy a load. Managing that balance the remainder of the regular season will be one of the Spurs’ biggest challenges. As expected, there’s been no drop off in Leonard’s defensive focus in the days leading up to his first All-Star Game appearance, where his defense will be the last thing anyone cares about in the big game.

6. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Paul Solid vs. Lakers

Chris Paul leads the way for the Clippers with 27 points 7 assists as they defeat the Lakers, 105-93.

The Clippers’ four-game win streak came to an end Wednesday against a Minnesota team that has struggled mightily on the road this season. The loss came in part due to a technical foul from Paul in the final seconds, which apologized for afterward. But he nothing apologize for with the way he’s performed without Blake Griffin in the lineup. The Clippers are 15-4 without Griffin on the strength of some of Paul’s best work. The Clippers need Paul at his best with a four-game road trip between now and All-Star Weekend, an Eastern Conference jaunt that starts tonight in Orlando, runs through Miami (Sunday) and Philadelphia (Monday) and finishes in Boston Feb. 10.

7. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 8

Green’s Double-Double At MSG

Draymond Green records 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists to lead the Warriors over the Knicks.

Green blamed himself for the Warriors’ tight finish in Philadelphia last Saturday. He said he was selfishly chasing a triple-double that night. He came up short, of course. But rebounded with triple-doubles in his next two outings for his league-leading ninth and 10th, respectively. He finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, two blocks and two steals in a win over the Knicks and 12 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a win over the Wizards. He followed that up with a trip to the White House to celebrate the Warriors’ championship with President Barack Obama. Saturday night’s matchup against the Thunder is the perfect way to cap off a whirlwind week.

8. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Butler Delivers In Bulls’ Win

Jimmy Butler scores 26 points with 10 assists, Pau Gasol adds 21 with 12 boards as Chicago takes it 114-91.

The minutes grind Butler has been on all season seems to have finally caught up with the All-Star swingman. Butler missed Wednesday’s win over Sacramento with left knee tendinitis. And he’s listed as questionable for tonight’s game in Denver (9 ET, NBA League Pass). The Bulls, who have had to deal with an avalanche of injury issues in coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season, cannot afford to work for any long stretches without Butler. When you check as many boxes a night as he does, there is no one player capable of replacing him in the lineup for an extended period of time. Butler averaged 22 points, 5 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals in his last four games.

9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Last week’s ranking: Not ranked

Lowry Gets Better Of Blazers

Kyle Lowry has a big night for Toronto, finishing with 30 points and eight assists as the Raptors defeat the Trail Blazers 110-103.

Lowry and the Raptors have quietly gone about the business of separating themselves from the rest of the pack behind Cleveland in the Eastern Conference standings. After Thursday’s win over the Trail Blazers in Portland (where Lowry survived his eight-turnover night to finish with 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals) the Raptors sit two games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot. And that’s due in large part to the consistent work Lowry and fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan have done leading the way for coach Dwane Casey’s crew. Disappointing performances in each of the past two postseasons has provided the perfect fuel for Lowry and the Raptors’ fire this season.

10. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: Not ranked

Thomas, Celtics Handle Pistons

Isaiah Thomas scores 17 points and dishes out 7 assists as the Celtics defeat the Pistons 102-95.

Don’t look now, but here come Thomas and the Celtics, who have moved into the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Thomas is a week away from enjoying his first All-Star Weekend as a member of the Eastern Conference team. And his team is surging with him, having won seven of their past 10 games and two straight heading into tonight’s showdown against the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Thomas, who is averaging 19.6 points, 6.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds during that 10-game stretch, will have his hands full with Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova on the other side tonight. But that’s just the way the Celtics’ catalyst likes it.

Others Receiving Consideration: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons Jerseys; Paul George, Indiana Pacers Jerseys; James Harden, Houston Rockets; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Paul Millsap, Atlanta

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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After Game 1, Hawks feel pain of 8 straight losses to Cavs

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CLEVELAND — Right now, the Atlanta Hawks Jerseys are the Detroit Pistons Jerseys. No more, no less.

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Whatever encouragement they derived from their Game 1 showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys Monday in their Eastern Conference semifinal — and they talked about deriving quite a bit, particularly from a second-half comeback in which they roared from 18 points down to one up — it’s worth next to nothing if they can’t find a way to turn “close” into a victory and “victory” into a series.

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The Pistons were encouraged, too, facing the Cavaliers way back in April in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. For three of the teams’ four games, Detroit hung around, made the Cavaliers uncomfortable, had chances to push ahead … and walked off night after night with nothing but some atta-boy points as balm for the sweep.

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Stan Van Gundy’s crew, at least, was taking playoff lumps and building springtime callouses by design. They were newbies to this postseason tournament business, several years behind the Hawks in timeline and expectations. They’ll be back, better for their failures next time.

By contrast, when Atlanta forward Kent Bazemore spoke optimistically after Monday’s 104-93 defeat about his team’s “growing pains,” it came across as kind of coddling and thus a little embarrassing, considering how much older, more experienced, presumably savvier and even saltier the Hawks are than the precocious Pistons.

Growing pains? This Atlanta team is closer to its end than its beginning. All on-the-job training was to have taken place last year, when the then-No. 1 seeded Hawks got unceremoniously run out in four games by LeBron James and a less formidable Cavaliers roster.

LeBron Goes Off

LeBron James grabs 25 points with 9 assists in the Cavaliers win over the Hawks.

Growing pains? The Game 1 loss makes it eight defeats in a row for Atlanta against the Cavaliers, including last year’s East finals and three regular-season meetings in 2015-16. That’s a fair amount of pain with very little growth. And no indication of real learning, based on the teams’ late-game execution.

The Hawks showed pluck in planting their heels at 72-54 with 3:56 left in the third quarter, the whole affair about to tilt severely out of control like what had gone on in the openers out West over the weekend. They used guard Dennis Schröder’s ability to hit shots when Cleveland defenders went under screens, alternated nicely with Schröder’s slithery drives inside as the basis for a 16-2 close to the third quarter.

Then they chipped away in the fourth, survived a mini-takeover by Kyrie Irving midway through the period and, on a running hook by Al Horford, went up 88-87 with 4:28 to play.

That’s when Cleveland’s poise saw-and-raised Atlanta’s pluck. The Cavaliers went with what works, what they’ve honed and grooved and made their own through two long seasons and a run to last year’s Finals. First J.R Smith looped around the floor one step ahead of defender Kyle Korver for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Then Kevin Love, on a 4-of-17 shooting night, snookered Bazemore into the air for contact in the right corner, and by hitting two of three foul shots had Cleveland up 92-88.

Next came the backbreaker, as far as Atlanta’s chances were concerned. Out of a Hawks timeout, with James chasing and denying Korver, Schröder lost the ball in traffic at 3:11. Exactly 62 seconds later, James veered into the lane at the opposite end, absorbed some contact and hit a layup. His free throw that followed make it 95-88 with 2:09 left.

In between Schröder’s turnover and James’ and-1, J.R. Smith had missed a pull-up jumper and James missed from 16 feet. But Tristan Thompson and then Smith ran down the rebounds.

That extended the possession. Kept pressure on the Hawks to defend, again and again. And chewed up clock — 62 agonizingly long seconds no longer available to Atlanta, even if it had been able to muster any consistent offense from that point.

Schroder Scores Playoff High

Dennis Schroder goes off for a playoff career-high 27 points in the Hawks loss.

“They hurt,” Bazemore said of the rebounds. “Thompson killed us last year by getting them second opportunities. When a team is good, [giving them] two or three cracks at a bucket, they hurt. It’s definitely frustrating on your end. Sometimes you’re boxing ’em out, doing a good job, but the ball bounces a different way and it bounces right into another guy’s hands. You’ve got to weather those things.”

Bazemore had soared high for an offensive board a little earlier, catching James flat-footed — a James Harden moment, social media cackled — to turn Paul Millsap’s missed 3-pointer into a reset and Millsap layup. Everybody knows the impact of those things. Cleveland just flexed them when they mattered most.

Against Atlanta in last year’s playoffs, Thompson claimed 17 offensive rebounds in four games — the entire Hawks roster grabbed 27. He had five in the second half Monday.

“Against the Hawks, in terms of Millsap and Horford, we are kind of the same ‘active’ bigs,” Thompson said. “For me, it’s just staying relentless on the glass. … As the third quarter and fourth quarter hits, that’s when I try to use my technique to create second-chance opportunities for my teammates.”

Said James, asked if Thompson’s contributions are similar to what Dennis Rodman gave the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls Jerseys: “What Dennis did for the Bulls on the floor — let’s make sure we know that part — ‘Double-T’ does for our team.”

Cleveland wound up finishing the game with a 17-5 advantage over the final 3:32 but it didn’t really qualify as a “run.” It was more slog than whoosh, a veteran team responding one cheap ncaa basketball jerseys possession at a time to very deliberately take the game out of the Hawks’ hands and place it next to them. The way you would if you caught a kid messing with the power tools.

Atlanta did plenty of things well, getting 27 points from Schröder and 15 offensive rebounds of its own. But it never shook Korver (0-for-1 in 37 minutes) free of the Cavs’ game plan. It might have used more Millsap on James when Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha were found wanting. And it couldn’t get the defensive rebound it needed most.

Growing pain? Hmm. We know this much: the Hawks’ pain is growing.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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Spurs’ Leonard developing into next ‘face of the franchise’

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It’s a franchise where the torch is passed so effortlessly and with such little fanfare that sometimes it’s hard to notice when it turns up in a different pair of hands.

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It moves from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili and through the years the Spurs barely change their grip or the expression on their faces.

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It is Kawhi Leonard’s turn and the accolades could just be starting. Already an NBA Finals MVP (2014) and an All-Star for the first time in February, the 24-year-old Leonard will likely finish high in the Most Valuable Player voting and become an annual contender for the honor.

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For now, Leonard has been named Kia Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, only the eighth player in history to get the award in consecutive seasons and the first non-center to win back-to-back since Dennis Rodman in 1990 and 1991.

In the Spurs’ orbit, the fifth-year forward may even have laid claim to title of best defender in franchise history, eclipsing the dogged, relentless Bruce Bowen, whose retired jersey hangs from the rafters of the AT&T Center.

“It’s not a big competition,” said Ginobili. “It’s him or Bruce. Bruce was remarkable. He did less plays that draw up highlights but he was as consistent as it gets.

“With Kawhi, the fact that he gets blocks and steals and dunks, that type of play draws more attention. But both are just incredible. And it’s not easy to get a Defensive Player of the Year Award. There are 450 players out there competing every night. What he does — what they did — every night is superb.”

“It’s always hard when they say he’s going to be the next this, the next that,” Parker said. “It’s somewhere you can aim. When I first came, they showed me stuff about Avery Johnson. But I wanted to aim higher. I’m sure Kawhi was the same. Bruce is the standard for us, defensively. He just aimed higher.”

Kawhi Leonard Interview

NBA TV’s Rashan Ali interviews the 2015-16 Kia Defensive Player of the Year, San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard.

Deliberately quiet and with so little fanfare, Leonard has steadily expanded his role and his influence on the Spurs to the point where everybody else has to talk about him, even when he won’t do it himself.

It was Leonard’s huge hand prints that were all over the Spurs 106-74 throttling of the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the playoffs on Sunday night as he scored 20 points, made four steals, blocked three shots and virtually smothered Memphis right from the start. It was the kind of all-around effort that had prompted coach Gregg Popovich to famously pronounce four years ago that Leonard would one day become the face of the franchise.

“Well, when he got here I realized what his work ethic was and how quickly he learned,” Popovich said. “Every player doesn’t have the ability to learn. Some stay the same. But he would be shown something by one of us and he would pick it up very quickly. He would come back in the gym and he would work on it again.

“As we saw him playing, you could tell pretty quickly that he was something special because of his physical attributes. They were pretty obvious. When you look at him 鈥?his shoulders, his wingspan, his hands, his foot speed, those kind of things 鈥?then when you put the work ethic together with the ability to learn, we knew pretty quickly we had something special.”

Leonard had to be special from the start, if for no other reason than to stifle the complaints from his new teammates when the front office traded respected and beloved point guard George Hill to Indiana on draft night 2011 for the right to make him the 15th pick in the draft.

“The campers were not happy when we came in and told them what we did,” Popovich said. “I don’t blame them. What did they know about Kawhi at the time? But we did it and it seems to have worked out for both teams.”

All-Star Top 10: Kawhi Leonard

Check out the top 10 plays from Western Conference All-Star Kawhi Leonard!

It was one thing to make the trade and another thing entirely for the hardly-effusive Popovich to make the bold statement about Leonard carrying the franchise.

“I think he said it pretty much from the get-go,” Parker recalled. “At the time, you have to trust Pop and (general manager) R.C. (Buford) obviously. They did a great job. You can see he was a pretty good defender. They told us he was going to be the next Bruce Bowen. We didn’t know he was going to be that good offensively. I think even Pop and R.C. didn’t know he was going to be that good offensively. Stuff like that you can’t know. He’s talented and he’s got potential. But if he’s gonna fulfill it, it depends on a lot of stuff — the work ethic, is he gonna work hard, does he want it, is he motivated to great. All that stuff it’s hard to know if it’s going to happen. We knew he was talented, that’s for sure.”

Ginobili shakes his head.

“I don’t remember when (Pop) said it,” he said. “I didn’t see it after the first season. I could tell he was going to be a very good player but I only realized he was going to be what he has become was during the first Finals (2013), when he was taking over and pressure didn’t bother him and he competed against LeBron, D-Wade and everybody cheap retro nba jerseys as just another guy. That’s when we all realized he was special.

“We all knew he was going to be good but it’s always hard to tell after a rookie season who is going to be an MVP candidate. You knew with LeBron or (Kevin) Durant because they were a different breed almost, but (with Kawhi) we saw it after a couple years, or a year-and-a-half.”

This was his breakout season offensively with Leonard averaging a team-high 21.2 points to go with 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, including a sizzling 44.3 from behind the 3-point line. He did all that while being the front man in a Spurs defense that ranked No. 1 in the league for the first time in 10 years and was the foundation for a team record 67 regular season wins.

“I felt like we all did a great job this year going into each and every game,” Leonard said. “Just being focused, knowing the team’s game plan, the personnel and just striving to stop the other team. I just hide behind them in the game, really.”

The torch gets passed and the heat never fades.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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Korver comes alive for Hawks, who smother dismal Celtics

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ATLANTA — Kyle Korver couldn’t find the bottom of the net with GPS in the Atlanta Hawks Jerseys’ Game 1 win over the Boston Celtics Jerseys on Saturday night.

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He took 10 shots and made just one, and tossed up a donut (0-for-7) from beyond the 3-point line, a dismal showing for one of the league’s premier distance shooters throughout the course of his career.

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Even the great shooters find themselves caught up in the matrix of their own making sometimes. It feels good, the muscle memory still works, but — for whatever reason — the shots just don’t go down.

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Whatever issues Korver battled over the weekend cleared up dramatically by Tuesday night, when his marksmanship from long range sparked a wicked first quarter run for the Hawks as they pushed their lead to 2-0 with a wire-to-wire 89-72 win at Philips Arena.

Korver With Four 3-Pointers

Kyle Korver nails four 3-point shots in the first quarter.

Korver drained four of his five 3-pointers in the opening minutes as the Hawks ran up a 21-point lead while also smothering the Celtics on the defensive end, holding them to a franchise-record low seven points in the first quarter.

With the offensive flowing early and the defense working in concert (the Hawks recorded a playoff franchise-record 15 blocks), they had no trouble turning back the short-handed Celtics, who played without Avery Bradley (hamstring) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder).

The bounce back effort for Korver, however, was simple.

“We all have pride, right?” he said. “I wanted to come out and play better in the second game. I think I was playing pretty focused. I came out and made a couple of shots early, which was great.”

And exactly what Celtics coach Brad Stevens was worried about. Korver sits atop his list of concerns whenever his team faces the Hawks. Tuesday night’s start only served to reinforce that concern.

“Korver is one of the main things we talk about every time we walk into this building, every time we walk into the hotel and every time we land in Atlanta,” Stevens said. “We know that we have to be in his airspace or else we’re toast. You knew coming off of a 1-10 game, he was going to have the hunger to make shots and take shots early on. We talked about that, but it was just a matter of we lost him a few times, and then our transition [defense] was bad, especially in that first quarter. We had some moments throughout the game where our transition [defense] was bad. That first quarter, they were moving at one speed that we weren’t at.”

The Hawks moved at that speed defensively all night, closing out on shots on the perimeter and consistently denying any and all access around the rim.

GameTime: Celtics-Hawks Postgame Analysis

Mike Dunleavy and Greg Anthony break down game 2 between the Hawks and the Celtics.

For a franchise with playoff milestones thicker than an old school phone book, the Celtics found themselves in uncharted territory for futility on this night.

They made just three of their 23 shots in that brutal first quarter and set the franchise record for the lowest-scoring playoff quarter since the league was founded in 1949.

“They outplayed us in every category in that first quarter,” Stevens said. “That wasn’t just the bad shots by any means. That was one team playing at a very elite level and one team not …The only part of the defensive effort that I was upset by was losing Korver a few times, and then the transition defense. But other than that, we really guarded. We just put too much pressure on ourselves to make shots later because every one of them mattered so much, just to have a chance to get back in the game. We can’t start like that.”

They also cannot let the Hawks, a team not noted for its shot-blocking prowess, control things that way again. The Hawks own the best field goal percentage defense in the league this season, even better than the San Antonio Spurs Jerseys.

But the best shot blocker in the building Tuesday night was former Hawks finger-waving Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who waived that finger for the TNT cameras several times to the roaring approval of the crowd.

That’s what made the Hawks’ rim-protecting effort so startling.

“They did a great job walling up,” said Celtics swingman Evan Turner. “A couple head fakes; if we had faked more or kicked it out it would have been a little bit better. They did a great job defensively. I don’t think all those blocked shots were straight out verticality. But, they did a great job defensively. They started off great and kept the lead the whole game.”

Boston Speaks Following A Game 2 Loss to Atlanta

Coach Brad Stevens and Evan Turner speak to the media following a game 2 loss to the Hawks.

It was all part of the plan, the safeguarding of the lane and the space above and around the rim. Isaiah Thomas and Bradley helped the Celtics back into Game 1 by attacking the heart of the Hawks’ defense. Without Bradley and Olynyk, two of their better shooters, available it was just a matter of setting that trap.

“They say we don’t have any rim protectors,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore said. “Al [Horford] and Paul [Millsap], our bigs, they are so crafty with their hands. Our guards stay pestering the ball. When guys nba throwback jerseys cheap drive in there, we just kind of filter them right there to the bigs, and they clean it up. Good hustle, those bigs protecting the rim. Thabo [Sefolosha], his length, he’s out on the perimeter blocking shots. It’s contagious. You get a block. You get a stop. You go down and get a bucket. We try to get the Hawks cycle going. That’s what we call it.”

When it’s working, the other side of that cycle includes Korver threatening the opposition with his ability to go off at any time from long range. He has to be accounted for at all times, and you see teams shading his way defensively even when he’s not making shots. It’s a formula the Hawks have used to their advantage time and again.

They’ll make sure to pack it for the trip to Boston for Game 3 Friday night, when the Celtics can ill afford another sluggish start.

The Hawks have their first 2-0 lead in a playoff series against the Celtics in franchise history. And they are 5-0 all-time when taking a 2-0 lead in a playoff series.

“We’ve been talking a lot of about a 48-minute game,” Korver said. “The beginning is part of that 48 minutes. We’ve gotten off to some pretty great leads in this series in the first quarter. We’d like to keep that going.”

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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