1. When The Elite Meet, Hawks Have Edge
BOSTON -- Despite winning the first two meetings of the season against the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson refused to elevate the status of his team to NBA elite before Monday's game.
After Monday's 102-96 victory at the TD Garden, he doesn't have to. Having now rallied from halftime deficits three times against the Celtics this season, including twice on Boston's home turf, the Hawks have established themselves as legitimate postseason contenders simply with their play against a foe regarded by some as the class of the Eastern Conference.
Sure, the Celtics were playing without Kevin Garnett when the Hawks defeated them twice in the past four days. Yes, Atlanta has just as recently wilted against top competition (see Saturday's 32-point drubbing in Orlando).
But as Boston discovered two seasons ago during its own title run, no one wants to see the Hawks in the postseason. And isn't that the true sign of an elite squad?
Boston fans are still recovering from last year's heart-stopping, first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. It's hard to imagine anything could live up to that, but the Celtics and Hawks have put on such a show the first three games this season, it's hard not to root for a postseason encore.
But that's looking too far ahead for Woodson's taste.
"We're still learning how to win," he said before Monday's game. "I think when you win 50-plus games ... then you're considered elite. We're still trying to learn how to get there.
The Hawks have 24 wins a month before the All-Star break. They're on pace for 53 wins, which would meet that elite barometer.
Atlanta shimmied to within a game of the Magic in the Southeast Division with Monday's triumph, and Woodson told his troops to proceed with a goal of securing the division crown. At absolute worst, he wants his charges to finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference and assure themselves some early home-court advantage in the postseason.
But as Atlanta showed Monday night, it has the ability to win on an elite team's court.
"In order to get to where we're trying to go in this league, we have to go through Orlando, Boston and Cleveland," said Joe Johnson, who poured in 36 points against the team that drafted him. "We've been pretty successful against Boston this year, but we just got to try to get some wins down the stretch."
For their part, the Celtics suggest their confidence is stirred, not shaken, by their struggles this season against the Hawks. While the Celtics have plenty of crutches, quite literally, given the injuries and illness they've endured lately -- Rasheed Wallace was a game-time scratch Monday with a foot injury, and he was filling in for Kevin Garnett, who is expected to miss 10 more days with a hyperextended right knee -- coach Doc Rivers stressed that he likes his team's chances against any team in the league.
And he will not let the Celtics lean on excuses.
"We can't feel like a victim," said Rivers. "The one thing I told our team [after Monday's loss] was that losing close games is simply unacceptable."
After all, elite teams don't lose close games.Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
2. Is T-Mac Headed For Washington?
ESPN The Magazine
While the Houston Rockets realize that trading Tracy McGrady will not be easy, the club now believes it has a better than 50 percent chance of moving the fading superstar before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, according to league executives.
The Rockets are in discussions with several clubs about McGrady, but sources say two of the teams near the top of their wish list are Washington and Chicago.
Nothing is imminent with either team, but there are potential deals with both clubs that Houston would be interested in pulling off.
Washington, which league executives believe is in cost-cutting mode after the Gilbert Arenas disaster, could have McGrady for a deal featuring Caron Butler and some expiring contracts, perhaps Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
Chicago, which has definite interest in McGrady, also has the combination of young talent and expiring contracts the Rockets are looking for. There is a Bulls player Houston covets, but it's not clear who that is. Since the Rockets surely realize that Derrick Rose is untradable, logic suggests it's Joakim Noah.
The player the Bulls would like to move is Kirk Hinrich. He's even ahead of Tyrus Thomas on their list of players they'd love to trade. Thomas is being offered around the league as a sweetener in any Hinrich deal. But Hinrich has two years and $17 million left on his contract after this season, so there's not a great market for him.
Believe it or not, sources say Philadelphia has not completely ruled out a McGrady-for-Andre Iguodala deal, if only because if the losing continues Sixers ownership may order a fire sale.
• For the full Broussard blog entry, click here.
3. All Is Not Lost, Detroit
Greg (Detroit): Chris I need your help! Please talk me and the rest of the Detroit fan base off the ledge. Is there any help in sight? Or are we doomed for another season of Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon fighting for shots?
Chris Sheridan: The only words I can offer to pull you away from that ledge are these: The Chauncey Billups trade was the first part of a process that is only halfway complete. The Gordon/Villanueva signings were Step 2, and the Tayshaun Prince trade is next, IMO, and Rip Hamilton's value could peak at the trade deadline, when he'll be an enticing name on the market that could really help a playoff-bound team.
So let the process reach Steps 3 and 4 before deciding whether to move back onto the ledge. This is turning out to be a throwaway season. And yes, I know two of those in a row is difficult to take after six straight ECF appearances, but think of the folks in New York who have suffered a whole heck of a lot more, and for a lot longer, than Pistons' fans.
•To read the entire Sheridan chat, click here.
4. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Monday night's slate of games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
5. Extreme Behavior
LeBron James, Cavs: The man wearing one orange shoe and one blue shoe for the second straight night went for 37 points, 11 dimes, eight rebounds and four blocks in the 117-114 road win over Golden State. Mismatched and on a roll.
Detroit Pistons: When you lose by 33 points to a Chicago team that has shown itself willing to cough up huge leads, you are officially in trouble. The Pistons' 13-game losing streak hits D.C. on Tuesday.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"That was a dumb play for me to go try to knock him down. He's probably the last guy in the NBA you do that to."
-- Warriors rookie Stephen Curry, on attempting to prevent Shaq from putting in a layup
6. Return Of Melo
Carmelo Anthony, who missed the last five games with a right knee bruise, scored 24 points against Damien Wilkins and the Wolves in the Nuggets' 105-94 victory.
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Suns Blow Another Lead in Win
After dominating the early going and jumping out to a 41-17 lead a couple of minutes into the second quarter, the Suns collapsed once again to the point that they trailed 86-85 with eight minutes remaining.
With all due respect to a gutty Milwaukee team that got thrashed Sunday night in Los Angeles, this was a sloppy Suns team that committed 17 turnovers and had more than a few defensive breakdowns.
Blowing leads has become more common than sunshine in January in Phoenix.
The Suns blew a 20-point lead Tuesday in Sacramento, a 15-point lead Wednesday against Houston and a 13-point lead Friday against Miami. Amazingly, the Suns have still won three of their last four despite blowing double-digit leads in every one of them.
The trend goes beyond this week. During one stretch in the middle of December, the Suns blew leads of 19 to Orlando, 17 to Denver, 20 to San Antonio (cut to one) and 15 to Portland in consecutive games.
That's why Gentry, with red eyes glistening, stepped to the interview podium as disgusted as a winning coach can get.
"There's a pattern that we've established with ourselves, and we have to find a way to work our way out of it," he said. "We get a win out of it, but we have issues that we have to resolve if we're going to be a good team. Every night we can't come out and play like we're world champs for 16 minutes and then give it all back."
To read more, check out Schwartz's TrueHoop Network blog, ValleyoftheSuns.