“Look, I’ve had it with all your Beyoncé crap, Rick! For the last time… Beck deserved to win Album of the Year, and that’s the bottom line!”
After Toronto trounced the Hawks in Atlanta last Friday, more than a few Hawk Littles were ready to make way for the Raptors to retake their place atop the Eastern Conference. Not even a week later, and Toronto finds itself even further back than they were coming into that contest. The Hawks can thank tonight’s visitors to the Highlight Factory, the Dallas Mavericks (7:30 PM Eastern, SportSouth, Fox Sports Southwest), for extending the Raptors’ losing skid to three last night. They can certainly thank some of them, at least.
The Mavs (39-20, 4th best record in Western Conference, 3rd in the Southwest Division) recently bolstered their bench with the acquisition of the Manischewitz-bathing Amar’e Stoudemire. They are also riding a three-game winning streak. While that should be cause for optimism, coach Rick Carlisle has been busily bickering at turns with Rajon Rondo and the postgame media. The perpetually petulant point guard exchanged bon mots with his head coach after either failing to notice, or outright declining, Carlisle’s attempts to call a time out.
Rondo is adjusting from running plays at-will for most of his career to having to look over his shoulder for the play calls to arrive from the sideline. When he doesn’t bother to do so, it only adds to the tension between him and Carlisle. After a brief squabble during the timeout, Carlisle stapled Rondo to the bench for the remainder of the second half.
It’s the second time this has happened in roughly a month. In January, while Jimmy Butler and the remains of Derrick Rose were running roughshod over the Mavs’ defense, Carlisle elected to give Rondo the final five minutes off during a close game with Chicago, in favor of the butter-churning Devin Harris. Yesterday, the quick hook arrived in the middle of the third quarter, and Dallas’ reserves led the turnaround of a 62-53 deficit into a 99-92 victory.
Rondo is certainly the top playmaking talent that Dallas has, and his 19-assist game against the Hawks in November may have encouraged the reportedly cynical Carlisle to go along with management’s plans to acquire him. But Harris and J.J. Barea (combined 27 bench points and 8 assists) and Raymond Felton are still together on the Dallas Ballers Club for a reason.
Rajon notched double-digit assist tallies in 12 of 22 games while laboring in Celtic green this season. Under Carlisle’s watch, Rondo has done so just twice in 25 games for the Mavs, and that includes 11 assists against Atlanta back when he first arrived in December.
Dallas boasted the league’s highest offensive efficiency (113.6 points per 100 possessions) before acquiring Rondo (30.9 jumper FG%; 40.8 FG%, 28.0 FT% in Dallas), but it ranks just 11th in the league since then. He seems to struggle at times finding the optimal offensive floor balance alongside Monta Ellis (2nd in NBA for field goals made and attempted), and opposing teams sag off of him to help shield the Mavs’ more potent offensive threats.
Both players soak up much of Dallas’ shot clock while handling the ball, although that’s not a huge problem when all Dirk Nowitzki (6.5 TO%, 4th lowest in NBA) needs are his stepback jumpers, and all Tyson Chandler (70.7% True Shooting, 2nd in NBA behind Atlanta’s Kyle Korver) is looking for are lobs and putbacks.
Where Rondo has made a positive difference is with the team defense. Dallas’ defensive efficiency rating has been 5th best in the league (99.7 opponent points per-100, just ahead of Atlanta’s 99.9) from the time Rondo arrived; it was 20th ranked before Rondo’s first game with in The Big D. When he’s on, he keeps pressure on opposing lead guards, allowing Ellis (2.0 SPG, 5th in NBA) to gamble more and relieving Chandler and the Mavs’ past-their-prime frontcourt rotation of the duty to thwart every drive from the perimeter.
Tonight, Rondo will be needed to curtail the relentless drives from the Hawks’ Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. The latter filled in for an injured Teague in December and led the way for red-hot Atlanta, scoring a game-high 22 points against his childhood idols Rondo and Nowitzki.
Schröder leads the NBA with 12.0 points per-48 on drives to the hoop (Teague ranks 4th with 10.1). Well-placed screens of Rondo from Al Horford and Pero Antić can help spring the Hawks guards loose, either for dimes from the paint or open perimeter shots. Without Rondo on the floor, all the remaining Mav guards can do is try to outpoint their foes.
Despite nine assists from Dennis, both he and Jeff (combined 10 of Atlanta’s 20 turnovers) got sloppy in Milwaukee on Sunday as the Bucks clawed their way back into the game in the second half. The pair cannot afford poor execution against a Dallas team that ranks fifth in opponent turnover ratio (16.5% of opponent possessions, just ahead of the Hawks’ 16.3%), fifth in points off turnovers (18.9 PPG, just ahead of Atlanta’s 18.4), and fifth in fastbreak points (16.4 PPG).
Hawks players exceeded 20 turnovers in each of their past two games after doing so just once (also against Milwaukee) in their previous 54. Kent Bazemore, Korver, and DeMarre Carroll will all have critical roles getting back on defense in transition.
In New York, Stoudemire proved he’s capable of breaking glass in case of emergency. Will he be there to crash the glass for Dallas come playoff time? While Hawks fans clamor for better defensive rebounding, MFFLs know the Mavs rank dead last in the league for defensive rebounding percentage (71.8 D-Reb%). They’re the only team that’s been worse in that department than Milwaukee (72.0 D-Reb%), against whom Paul Millsap (23 points; season-high 16 rebounds, 8 offensive) had a field day on Sunday.
Coach Mike Budenholzer has expressed willingness for the Hawks to abandon offensive rebound chances in exchange for more stout transition defense. But it may be part of the back-half-of-the-season strategy to have Millsap and Horford (8 rebounds, 4 offensive) exploit teams that are even weaker than they are (Atlanta’s 22nd in D-Reb%) when it comes to boxing out.
Against Toronto (24th in D-Reb%) last Friday, five of Sap’s 8 boards came on the offensive end, as did four of Al’s 12. Horford has averaged 11.0 RPG (3.1 O-Rebs per game) in the past nine games, 6.8 RPG (1.5 offensive) in the prior 45 appearances. Millsap also contributed a game-high seven assists during the December 22 victory in Dallas.
Carlisle is turning more toward Al-Farouq Aminu to help Tyson Chandler and company out on the boards. The Atlanta native and hipster-eyewear salesman snagged 12 rebounds last night, matching his season-high from four nights before. Aminu and the king of old-man-hops, starter Richard Jefferson (10 points and 10 rebounds vs. Charlotte on Sunday), are filling in admirably for Chandler Parsons, who remains out after spraining his ankle against the Rockets last week. While the Maverick starters struggled against the Hawks in December, it was Charlie Villanueva (4-for-6 3FGs) and Jefferson who keyed a big second-half comeback that fell short.
Al likes it when you call him “Poppa Grande!” The newest dad on the Hawks’ roster and his Miss World-class missus would appreciate any extra time they can get together this spring at home with their bouncing bundle of joy. The new arrival, and all that comes with him, won’t become an in-season distraction for Horford on the court. To the contrary, we may see an uptick in his performance as the Hawks push toward multiple season-clinching scenarios -- including homecourt advantage in the East.
Let’s Go Hawks!