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AFTER THREE YEARS of finishing out of the postseason, Woodson saved his job in 2008 when the Hawks grabbed the last playoff spot and extended the Celtics to seven games in their first-round series. His reward: a contract extension of just two years. While his Hawks already had 46 wins through week's end, their most since 1997--98, Woodson still needs a strong playoffs to secure his future.
Why? Part of the reason is the way the Hawks struggle away from home, with a record of just 16--24 at week's end. "They don't have a lot of fight when they get down on the road," says a Western Conference scout. "When they fall behind, they stop playing hard." Of greater concern is Woodson's troubled relationship with talented forward Josh Smith. The two have butted heads frequently, with occasional well-publicized blowups. The latest came last month, when Woodson benched Smith, 23, for the second half of a loss to Charlotte after the two had a halftime shouting match. "The thing is, they are both at fault," says the scout. "Josh is immature. And [Woodson] wants to be a no-nonsense, in-your-face coach, but you can't do that when you haven't won anything. The guys who coach like that—Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Jerry Sloan—are all proven winners."
Hawks G.M. Rick Sund has praise for Woodson, saying that he likes how the Hawks can win with an up-tempo style or by slugging it out. But it's also true that Sund, who came on board in 2008, hasn't had the chance to handpick his own coach. A first-round win could be the difference between Woodson earning a contract extension and spending next season answering questions about his lame-duck status.
BEFORE A DEVASTATING injury to his left knee two seasons ago robbed him of his athleticism—changing him from "a paragraph in the scouting report to a couple of sentences," as one scout put it—Jermaine O'Neal was one of the most dangerous low-post players in basketball. Miami is pinning its postseason hopes on his ability to once again be a force. The team is built to spread the floor and play two-man games: NBA scoring leader Dwyane Wade is one of the best finishers off the pick-and-roll, and Miami has a wealth of three-point shooters, including Daequan Cook (39.4% from three-point range) and James Jones, who has been regaining his stroke after struggling with a right wrist injury. If O'Neal can force teams to double-team him in the post and knock down 15- to 18-foot jump shots off pick-and-pops, he will open the floor for everyone. Since coming to Miami in a trade on Feb. 13, O'Neal has been solid, averaging 12.8 points and 5.2 rebounds while playing in 26 of 27 games. "When I get completely comfortable, I'm confident I'm going to regain my All-Star form," O'Neal says.
A strong postseason will help O'Neal, 30, shed a perception that his work ethic has been less than stellar in recent years. Sources from his previous teams, Toronto and Indiana, say that the coaching staffs were often frustrated by O'Neal's effort in practices and in the weight room. Says one source, "He would talk about all the work he was going to do, and then he would go in, ride the exercise bike for a little while and be done." Such words sting O'Neal. "That's b.s.," he says. "I played hurt. I played to the detriment of my health. It's extremely sad for anyone to suggest I didn't work hard."
ON THE SPOT
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN the Boston Celtics and their two most recent acquisitions, Mikki Moore (left) and Stephon Marbury (right), is a symbiotic one. The Celtics are counting on these midseason pickups to contribute to a title defense; the players, if they come through in the postseason, can resuscitate careers that were on life support due to inconsistency (Moore) and inscrutability (Marbury). "We absolutely need them," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But one of the reasons they are here is that they wanted a shot at showing they can still play."