The Professional Basketball Championship Selection Committee chaired by Charles Barkley and consisting all manner of naysayers, have just two questions when it’s time to judge your worthiness for the postseason.
Who did you play? And, who did you beat?
To impress, you need to show you’re capable of beating those that impress the committee. The Atlanta Hawks’ 11-7 record doesn’t include gaudy victories, as only the Hornets (9-7), heat (10-5), Celtics (9-7), and the Grizzlies (9-8) have records above .500 on the young season. But vanquish the 13-3 San Antonio Spurs (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest), on their home floor (8-0) on the back end of a back-to-back, and you’ll get some Committee members to contemplate whether you’re worthy of more than mere NIT status.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich knows his protégé, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, has now gone two seasons without a regular season victory over his former employer as a feather in his cap. He also knows that, despite close calls for the Hawks in their last two visits to the AT&T Center, Atlanta hasn’t prevailed in San Antonio since Dikembe Mutombo bested Dominique Wilkins’ Spurs at the Alamodome in Coach Pop’s first season at the helm, in 1997.
If Popovich had designs on simply letting Coach Bud and the Hawks off the hook, he would not have left Tim Duncan (career-low 27.6 minutes/game, 10.0 PPG, and 8.3 RPG; 2nd in NBA for Defensive Box Plus/Minus) and Manu Ginobili (+20.5 Points per 100 possesions, 3rd in NBA) back home purely for rest, while the Spurs traveled to high-altitude Denver to pan the Nuggets. The team’s two elder statesmen will be refreshed for tonight, as the Spurs face their seventh-straight visitor on the second night of a back-to-back set.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Pop limits the minutes for some other Spurs tonight. Tony Parker (57.4 FG%, 1st among in NBA guards) could be capably spelled by speedy point guard Patty Mills (3.1 steals per 100 possessions, 9th in NBA). With Duncan back to rejoin free agent prize LaMarcus Aldridge (9.3 RPG, 15th in NBA), backups Boris Diaw (21.8 assists per 100 possessions, 1st among NBA bigs) and David West could each use a breather as well.
Bud has learned the importance of strategic rest, granting Thabo Sefolosha the night off before the Hawks’ most impressive road victory to date, a 116-101 in Memphis. Sefolosha will need all his batteries recharged tonight as he comes off the bench to wrangle The Claw.
Amazingly the second-youngest player on the Spurs’ roster, Kawhi Leonard (25 points, 4 steals and 5 blocks @ DEN) is as efficient a two-way player as you’ll find in the league (22.0 PPG; 46.8 3FG%, 6th in NBA; 6.8 TOs per 100 possessions, 7th-lowest in NBA; 4th in Win Shares per-48, 5th in Box Plus-Minus).
It will be interesting to see if the defensive effort on Kawhi can be a sufficient balance for the offensive advantage Paul Millsap (23 points and 14 rebounds @ MEM) can have going head-to-head with LMA, who is still learning his role on the defensive end of the floor. Do-It-All Paul joins Leonard as one of four NBA players (Steph Curry and Paul George the others) in the top-ten for both Offensive and Defensive Win Shares.
If Leonard roves off of the Hawks’ small forwards, Kent Bazemore and Sefolosha, to help defend Millsap, it’s up to Al Horford (16.3 assist percentage, 3rd among NBA starting centers) and Atlanta’s point guards to find the wings for open shots. The last time Bazemore, who returned for Friday’s victory after missing five games with an injured ankle, participated on the second night of a back-to-back, he exploded for a career-high 25 points against the woeful Wizards. It’s safe to assume tonight’s opponent will pose a greater offensive challenge.
How good has San Antonio been defensively? Without Duncan around, they held the Faried-less Nuggets to 80 points, the tenth time a Spurs foe was held below 90 points already. Their defensive rating leads the league, and their relative defensive rating (relative to the rest of the league) momentarily ranks as the best in franchise history. As noted by the Jeff McDonald of the Express-News, the Spurs have won four consecutive games without needing to eclipse 100 points for the first time in five years.
The Spurs don't plan on a Wild West shootout with Atlanta. Despite sinking three of his six 3-pointers in Denver yesterday, shooting guard Danny Green has been a bit of a mess on offense (33.8 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). But he still has enough defensive chops to put the clamps on Kyle Korver (63.8 eFG%, 3rd in NBA).
The Grizzlies have the highest opponent ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts (35.1 opponent FTA rate), a factor that Millsap exploted successfully yesterday (11-for-13 FTs). The Spurs (20.5 opponent FTA rate) are right there with the Hawks (22.0) at the opposite end of the spectrum. Atlanta ranks 4th in eFG%, and needs to be meticulous in finding the best available shots, not waiting until the end of the shot clock when the Spurs can best sink their teeth into ballhandlers.
San Antonio has much to be thankful for when it comes to Atlantans past and present. Besides helping the Spurs acquire just enough lottery balls to acquire Tim Duncan, giving up early on Diaw’s development, former GM and Dookie Danny Ferry committing to the development of Tar Heel Green, and then-Spurs coach Bud needling Spurs management to go after Leonard, Aldridge likely doesn’t return to the Lone Star State without the Hawks prying Tiago Splitter free.
Splitter surely regrets not being able to play his former championship mates as he continues to give his hip a rest. In his absence, the Hawks will need continued yeoman’s work out of Mike Muscala (season-high 11 points and 6 rebounds, plus 2 blocks @ MEM). It will be tough for Budenholzer to resist the temptation of countering with Edy Tavares if Popovich tries to deploy fellow 7-foot-3 giant Boban Marjanovic, who started in a teasing six minutes in place of Duncan yesterday.
In terms of games played, the Hawks do NOT hold the longest stretch of futility for an NBA team in the Alamo City. That mark actually belongs to one of the Spurs’ Western Conference opponents: the Golden State Warriors, losers of 32-straight. The Dubs don’t visit until March 19; if they’re still undefeated by then, we could have quite a titanic March Madness battle on our hands. Hopefully, The Committee will have Atlanta as a 2-seed by then. But the Hawks must impress people first.
Let’s Go Hawks!