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    Hawks at Spurs

    By lethalweapon3, in Game Previews,

    “I don’t always drink. But when I do, you can be darn sure it’s something better than Dos Equis!”

    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!
    “Puh-leeze! I’ll never be a backup to this tubby guy!”

    Road Warrior Hawks? Or Road Kill?
    After blazing to a 4-0 road start, the Atlanta Hawks have dropped their last four away from home. It gets no easier as they head to a back-to-back post-Thanksgiving set, heading straight to San Antonio tomorrow after a little bear-wrestling with the Memphis Grizzlies  tonight.
    After Golden State and the Spurs and Cavs, parity has been strong throughout the league: only nine teams sit at 3-games-or-more above .500 at this stage of the season. The Grizzlies (9-7) look to trade places on that list with the Hawks (10-7) as these teams have been moving along contrasting trend lines.
    Up until about ten days ago, if you needed to talk to somebody about a scheme that no longer seemed to work, you could belly up to a bar on Beale Street, where Grizzlies fans were singing the blues. The Grit and Grind philosophy of the past near-decade was giving way to getting Grounded and Pounded. Through November 16, Memphis’ 53.3 opponent eFG% was the highest in the league. Only the stuck-in-mud Pelicans and the fizzling Rockets had a worse defensive rating.
    Opposing teams found success running against the Blue Bears, who seemed stuck in hibernation (16.7 opponent fastbreak PPG, 3rd most in NBA). The minus-6.3 PPG differential in the fastbreak department made up the bulk of Memphis’ average 6.4 PPG deficit through the first 12 games. Head coach Dave Joerger hasn’t necessarily fixed that defensive issue (17.3 opponent fastbreak PPG after Nov. 16, 2nd most in NBA) but he is insisting on pushing the ball more on the offensive side (19.3 Memphis fastbreak PPG after Nov. 16, 4th in NBA). They needed better defensive rebounding to spark their transition play.
    Memphis was the 12th-worst team in defensive rebounding percentage prior to November 17, and since that time, they’ve been the league’s best (84.0 D-Reb%). It’s more impressive of a turnaround when you consider the Grizzlies have been playing without both Zach Randolph (sore knee, missed past four games) and Brandan Wright (sore knee, missed last eight games), and first-round rookie Jarell Martin (broken foot) was sidelined for the season before training camp started.
    Joerger has turned to the Greens (Jeff and JaMychal) to fill in at power forward for Randolph and help take some of the pressure off All-Star center Marc Gasol (career-low 6.9 RPG). Z-Bo remains questionable for tonight’s game versus Atlanta, and if the Grizz will be happy if they can get away with continuing to rest his continually achy knee, ahead of a gimme on Sunday versus visiting Philadelphia. Gasol attributes his own funk to a lack of offseason basketball, as he worked out but eschewed participating in international competition for the first time with Team Spain, and believes the rust is finally coming off.
    Memphis started off 3-6, but has since won six of their last seven games. Part of that spark involved a riverboat gamble in taking Mario Chalmers off of tax-saddled Miami’s hands. They figured Chalmers (36.8 FG%, 87.2 FT%) would be a better option for perimeter scoring and defense than Beno Udrih, who was packaged to Miami along with center Jarnell Stokes, and thus a better complement with Mike Conley when the Grizzlies elected to deploy a smaller backcourt. Memphis also received former Hawks draft-and-tradee forward James Ennis, who is being brought along slowly. The turnaround since the trade has averted a further shake-up of either the coaching staff or the roster, at least for the time being.
    Conley has boosted his own scoring, averaging 20.1 PPG in his past six games while shooting 54.9 percent from the field (12.5 PPG and 34.7 FG% in the prior ten) with a superb ratio of 6.2 assists to 1.0 turnovers per game in this recent stretch. He’ll make for a fascinating duel at point guard against Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, whose 6.4 APG ranks 13th in the league and a shade behind Conley.
    With Conley, plus Tony Allen and Matt Barnes doing their Thing 1-Thing 2 impressions on defense for Memphis, ball control and shot selection will be crucial for the Hawks. After a stretch of underwhelming performances by guard Dennis Schröder (21.7 FG%, 2.7 APG, 2.7 TO/G in last three games), head coach Mike Budenholzer may turn to Shelvin Mack first off the bench, if not tonight then certainly tomorrow in San Antonio.
    Countering Allen (3.8 steals per 100 possessions, 3rd in NBA), Thabo Sefolosha (3.4 steals per-100, 6th in NBA) has been superb defensively, but has also found a comfort zone on the other end of the floor, shooting 70.8 FG% in his last three appearances while getting 1.3 SPG and 1.3 BPG. His ability to make Allen and Barnes pay for veering away from him to cover Kyle Korver (61.1 3FG% last four games) could be instrumental in the Hawks bouncing back from their disappointing performance in Minnesota. Sefolosha could also benefit if Kent Bazemore (ankle, questionable for tonight) returns to action soon.
    Either of Bazemore or Sefolosha would be a boost to woeful bench play for Atlanta, which reared its ugly head (5-for-25 FGs, four assists, six turnovers) in Minnesota. On the season, the Hawks’ 28.8 bench PPG is 7th-worst in the league, compounded by a disappointing ratio of 7.9 assists to 6.0 turnovers per game.
    The Hawks won’t discontinue their slide down the standings if they continue to experience uneven play by its reserves, if they continue to fail in producing turnovers and converting them into points, and if they find themselves more dependent on defensive rebounding from Korver (9 @ MIN) than its centers (Al Horford and Mike Muscala combined for 6 @ MIN).
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “It’s the Andrew Wiggins Show! Brought to you by your friends at Toothpaste!”

    Can we at least do better than the Sixers?
    The Minnesota Timberwolves have banded together away from home, their 5-2 road record including a 117-107 win in Atlanta on November 9, an OT victory in Chicago, a double-digit win in Miami, and two losses by a combined margin of seven points. Here at the Target Center, site of tonight’s rematch with the Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports North), they’ve been a mirror image of themselves.
    The Wolves (6-8) were 0-6 in front of their home crowd, coming into Monday’s action. They then found themselves down 13 in the first half, then six points with five minutes to go, against a deliberately winless Philadelphia team that ended their 0-17 spell in this same building last year. Thankfully, Philly said, “Sike!” once again. Two nights after bailing Miami out from a 17-point second-half deficit, they gifted Minnesota 20 points in the final five minutes to let the Wolves off the hook.
    After starting off the season playing well on the road, the Hawks have dropped their last three away games, and know they must put in a better 48-minute collective effort than the Suxers did to avoid stretching the skid to four.
    While it took a minute, Wolves fans were treated to a howling good time at the close of Monday’s comeback victory, thanks to Andrew Wiggins. His 15 fourth-quarter points brought him to within a point of the career-high 33 points he enjoyed at Philips Arena a couple weeks ago. Wiggins’ assertiveness on forays to the rim drew attention away from his teammates, and he made his opponents pay when he dished the ball off a drive to a struggling Kevin Martin for the game-clinching three-pointer.
    Wolves coach Sam Mitchell moved K-Mart II back into the starting lineup, hoping it would spark the former high-scoring wing to get beyond his shooting woes. He made two of his five attempts from downtown in Atlanta, but on the rest of the season is 7-for-31, contributing to a career-low 36.5 FG%.
    Until now, Smitch could turn to stretchy rookie big Nemanja Bjelica (3-for-5 3FGs, 4 assists @ ATL) and Zach LaVine (yes, Lavine: 38.3 3FG%) when he needed sparks of perimeter firepower off the bench. But with Bjelica having missed the past two games with knee soreness and questionable for tonight, Minnesota (last in 3s made and attempted; 27th in 3FG%) needs to lean on Martin more.
    It was a rough outing on Monday for Karl-Anthony Towns (6 points, 2 rebounds with foul trouble) in his first head-to-head with Philly’s Jahlil Okafor (25 points, 12 rebounds). He’ll try to make up for it with a repeat of his performance in Atlanta (17 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks) a couple weeks ago. Behind Wiggins (15-for-22 FGs), KAT and an active bench, the T’wolves were able to overwhelm the Hawks to the tune of a 72-point first half.
    Atlanta (10-6) will need a stronger defensive effort keyed by Al Horford, who had light work on Dikembe Mutombo Night (11 points, 4 rebounds, one finger-waggable block) but faced little resistance from Jared Sullinger (7 points and 5 boards). Mike Muscala blocked a pair of shots but was otherwise ineffective off the bench, so we’ll see if Edy Tavares eats away at the minutes of Roseville’s Finest tonight, while Tiago Splitter continues to rest his hip.
    Jeff Teague (16 points, 9 assists, 3 turnovers) was a fairly steady influence in his return to the starting lineup yesterday, a contrast to an erratic Dennis Schröder (1-for-7 FGs, four assists, 5 TOs vs. BOS). Teague’s defense on a flustered Isaiah Thomas (1-for-6 2FGs) was noteworthy, a good sign heading into his meeting tonight with a different class of lead guard in Ricky Rubio. The Hawks will want to impede Rubio’s penetration, without fouling, and close out on the recipients of his passes, forcing somebody else to make plays. Without Rubio or Bjelica dishing the rock, the rest of the Wolves have an assist-turnover ratio of 0.98.
    Schröder fits many of the characteristics of a player who will get needled by Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett. That’s a good thing if it’s during the flow of the game and Dennis is playing better, since it will take KG’s defensive attention away from the multi-talented Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 9 rebounds last night). Schröder needs to find his open bigs on his dashes to the glass.
    Filling in for Hawks starter Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha had a pretty complete game last night (7-for-8 FGs, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks), and it’s good to have some help off the bench from rookie Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs, career-high six rebounds) in his third consecutive game of 20-plus-minutes. After playing just briefly yesterday, Justin Holiday is likely to get into the act tonight to help relieve Kyle Korver (team-high 33 minutes, 3-for-3 3FGs vs. BOS) and Sefolosha. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was thrilled to be back on the floor last night and may get some burn again as well.
    Two-way production from a deep bench could make a difference for Atlanta in tonight’s game. Mitchell is struggling to find defensive answers between Gorgui Dieng, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Andre Miller, and Damjan Rudez, which is another reason Tayshaun Prince was relegated in favor of Martin.
    In the aftermath of coach Mike Budenholzer’s incidental ref-bump and subsequent fine, it’s no coincidence that Atlanta was whistled for a season-tying 25 personal fouls on Tuesday, sending the Celtics to the line for 26 free throw shots. The Wolves (28.1 FT attempts per game, 4th in NBA; 79.9 FT%, 5th in NBA) will be thankful for some favorable calls, especially the tenacious Garnett, Wiggins and Martin. The Hawks’ ballhandlers and screen-setters must avoid the risk of offensive foul calls that will slow down the game in Minnesota’s favor.
    Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Yes, today! Yes-yes-yes!”
    If you’re an Atlanta Hawks fan who cannot be in attendance for tonight’s festivities at Philips Arena honoring the finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo, and you have the added misfortune of viewing the broadcast of tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM) on cable, and you have no control of the mute button and the channel changer, bless you.
    You, like Ernie “The Elevator” Johnson, will endure the indignity of dismissive attitude from at least one “host” who can be counted on to impart upon you why everyone should go watch some other station’s commercials in prime time. “Nobody wants to watch these teams play,” will be the anal-yst mantra.  “What time do the Warriors come on?”
    This game is merely an unappealing appetizer for the main dish, as a withered former MVP tries, likely in vain, to stop the current one from remaining undefeated and making NBA history. By the looks of these particular television “hosts”, they’re usually satisfied with any dish that crosses their noses. But no, not the Hawks and Celtics, not on what’s purported to be a “special TNT Tuesday” (“special” in the sense we’ll all be kinda busy come Thursday).
    Besides, the Eastern Conference Finals has already been wrapped up in a bow. Just like this time last year, don’cha know? “The only teams in the East that will matter in the spring are Cleveland… Chicago…” will be the utterance, just before the mental version of brain freeze from a slushy kicks in, and some perpetual underacheiver like Washington or Detroit gets some love on the broadcast before the Hawks and Celtics tip-off.
    Losers in five of their last seven games, and coming off a costly, white-flag-waving loss against the shorthanded Cavs in Cleveland, the Hawks (9-6) have brought this shade upon themselves lately. “They sure could use a Dikembe Mutombo right now,” you will certainly hear, referencing the iconic, shot-stuffing, Hall of Fame-inducted center. Deke anchored a couple of the greatest defensive teams of the 1990s in Atlanta while also serving willingly as an ambassador on many fronts, on behalf of a league hungry to expand its global imprint.
    As grand a presence as he was on and off the court, Mutombo never led the way to a division title or a Conference Finals for Atlanta. The All-Star who fills his shoes today at the 5-spot for the Hawks has done those things, and it stands to reason he’ll someday find his #15 hanging near #55. But before he can inspire the world with great deeds, Al Horford still has a ton of work to do on the hardwood.
    The team’s relative per-possession defensive rating (relative, that is, to the league average) is as low as it has been since Horford’s second season. While his blocked shots (1.7 BPG) are at career-highs, Al’s defensive rebounding (4.9 per game) is lower than in any of his healthy seasons. Opponents’ 11.9 offensive RPG are the most since 2006; coupled with the Hawks’ preference to concede offensive boards themselves, their opponents’ 45.9 total RPG are the most since 1983.
    Compounding matters for Horford and the Hawks, the key player brought in to at least compensate for an anticipated drop in rebounding efficiency following DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antić’s departures, Tiago Splitter, is already hobbling with a bum hip and sits out tonight. Coach Mike Budenholzer will have to make the call whether to Release the Edy Kraken. The alternative is to ramp up the floor time for Mike Muscala, who is himself being brought back slowly after a season-opening ankle injury and had been joining Mike Scott in relieving an overtaxed Paul Millsap (career-high 34.3 MPG).
    “That Jared Sullinger. He is… a really, really good player.” That’s the kind of in-depth assessment you can expect tonight from those who form kinships with NBA players that struggle with conditioning coming into every season. After a John Lucas intervention in the offseason, Sully endured a preseason doghousing by Celtics coach Brad Stevens and the lack of a contract extension offer (unwanted anyway) by GM Danny Ainge.
    But at a critical juncture, as the season tipped off, Jared fully embraced what Stevens was doing, with him and his similarly-skilled teammates, accepting his bench role rather than moping. In turn, Stevens was impressed not only with Sullinger’s upbeat attitude but the effort he was putting in on the defensive end. Just four games into the season, it’s Sullinger (13.4 O-Reb%, 8th in NBA; 36.7 3FG%) and Amir Johnson, not Tyler Zeller and David Lee, starting games for the C’s. On this deep squad, Sullinger ranks sixth in minutes, but leads the way in defensive rebounds and is one of seven Celtics with at least one steal per game.
    The Celtics (7-6) are adjusting without defensive maven Marcus Smart available off the bench; his injured lower leg requires rehab that will sideline him for at least a couple weeks. Terry Rozier is not quite ready for prime time, and with Avery Bradley (43.1 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs at Brooklyn on Sunday) playing through knee soreness, Boston will play a lot more of reserve guard Evan Turner tonight. Highlighting Boston’s similar struggles with defensive rebounding as a team, Turner ranks second on the team in that per-game category, behind Sullinger.
    Stevens is pushing his more inexperienced backcourt players to make more impactful contributions, particularly in Smart’s absence. “They’ve got to make plays that can help us separate and win,” Stevens told the media on Sunday. “Fair or unfair at that age, that’s the position that we’re in with our backcourt right now, and that’s great for them.” That includes not only Rozier and James Young, but R.J. Hunter, who returns to Atlanta after a stellar collegiate career playing for his father at Georgia State. R.J.’s three-pointer that toppled not only his father off a stool, but 3-seeded Baylor in the NCAA tournament, still resonates around town as the top sports story of 2015, Hawks included.
    While still a Panther, Hunter was a lunch guest of Kyle Korver (63.4 TS%, 5th in NBA), who proceeded to mentor the young gun about playing in the pros and offered himself up as a tutor, demonstrating his uniquely-honed and elaborate shot mechanics. "He taught me his process. But I lost focus," Hunter recently shared with the Springfield Republican. "It was like step 30, and I was like, 'Bruh, have you shot the ball yet?' It's just crazy."
    "But to have that focus, that's why he shoots the way he shoots. Everything is so meticulous and step-by-step with him. And I think that's why he shoots 50 percent, because every time he misses he knows why, because it's such a step-by-step (process). Every time I talk to him I just try to ask him how he gets so consistent. And I think he just has it down to a T."
    The Celtics’ defense lapsed during a 111-101 loss in Brooklyn on Sunday. Hunter, however, contributed two steals in the space of under eight minutes, and while he never took a shot, he was part of the crew that whittled down the Nets’ 17-point lead to a manageable seven in the third quarter.
    In comparison to Boston’s stingy septet (11.5 SPG, 1st in NBA), the Hawks (9.7 SPG, 3rd in NBA) have four players averaging at least one theft. But they tallied only three steals in Boston, the Celtics committing a season-low ten player TOs (one in the second half) as they pulled away for the 106-93 victory on November 13.
    For the Hawks, one of that quartet of players, Kent Bazemore, remains out rehabbing his ankle, while the ankle of Jeff Teague (1-for-9 2FGs on Saturday) was thrown prematurely into the fray during the 109-97 loss in Cleveland after Dennis Schröder got into early foul trouble. Atlanta’s backcourt rotation must pressure Boston’s lead guards at the perimeter. The wings must do a better job of cutting off the passing lanes, and the bigs must focus on patrolling the paint and boxing out, ready to out-gallop their man in transition.
    Very little of this will matter to the insightful studio hosts down the street on Techwood Drive. Tonight is all about the re-coronation of the Warriors. “They’ll have a chance to win 19 straight games, and go undefeated in a calendar month!” you will hear of the Golden State Juggernauts. “Now that’s impressive. Something like that has probably never happened before!” Hopefully, Ernie will wag a finger at such a notion.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Now that I see it from your perspective… You were right, Flo. This does look kinda silly!”

    One year and six days ago, the Atlanta Hawks were right where they are today: on the verge of getting dusted by King James version 3.0 and his Cavaliers, in a very awestruck Cleveland (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio).
    Working Kevin Love and a new head coach fresh from Euroleague into the mix, the Cavs seemed to have finally shaken off the rust with a resounding 127-94 victory on that day, featuring a scintillating 71-point opening half. Kyrie Irving showed synergy with Love and LBJ, Dion Waiters looked to be finally turning the corner, Tristan Thompson brought the requisite energy off the bench, and even Joe Harris was a thing.
    The cobwebs shed, Cleveland was clearly on its way back to their rightful place atop the Eastern Conference, for the first time since 2010, James’ last season hooping in the Buckeye State. As for Atlanta? Well, thanks for playing. See you in the second round, maybe.
    That November day in 2014, no one could possibly have predicted what Shelvin Mack would do to the Cavs in the Hawks’ next trip to Quicken Loans Arena just one month later. No one foresaw Jeff Teague making his All-Star statement by undressing Irving in a 127-98 payback win, compelling King James to offer his co-star point guard a postgame tutorial.
    No one could have expected the Hawks spoiling LeBron’s 30th birthday just two weeks afterward, or winning the regular-season series 3-1 during a magical season defying all expectations and forcing the path to the NBA Finals to roll, for the first time ever, through the ATL.
    No one foretold the need for Cleveland to shake up the shooting guard spot and the bench corps just for the Cavs to turn their season around, or that, without Love and occasionally Irving, it would take the antics of an Australian not named Kyrie to steer the Conference Finals decidedly in their favor. All that could be known, on that crisp November day, was the 5-4 Hawks were who we thought they were, and the 5-3 Cavs were who everyone predestined them to be.
    Last year’s first game of the season series between these eventual Eastern Conference finalists is a teachable moment for this year’s contestants. Tonight’s outcome might make for some momentary momentum-building, but it won’t be the determinant as to whether the 9-3 Cavs or 9-5 Hawks are The Real Deal in the East, and especially whether they’ll remain so.
    As has been customary, both teams come into tonight’s meeting banged up. The Hawks may not quite have Teague (ankle) back in the saddle, and Kent Bazemore (ankle) won’t be available to help Thabo Sefolosha (+2.9 defensive box plus-minus, 2nd among non-PF/Cs) and Paul Millsap wrangle with LeBron (27.2 PPG, 6th in NBA).
    The injury/availability situation for head coach David Blatt and the Cavaliers coming into tonight is even steeper. They’ve managed a sound 9-3 start without their starting backcourt. Kyrie Irving continues to recover from offseason knee surgery, while Iman Shumpert’s pre-training wrist injury has him sidelined through at least all of December. Mo Williams returned to Cleveland and resorted to his borderline LBJ-aided All-Star form (15.5 PPG, 5.3 APG) in Irving’s place. But now soreness in his ankle and leg caused Mo to miss Thursday’s home win over Milwaukee, and has him sitting this one out as well.
    The depleted backcourt depth means professional irritant Matthew Dellavedova (5.9 APG) has few places to hide. The Hawks will have their eyes peeled to advise the refs when Delly resorts to his notoriously Gilloolian antics. But Dennis Schröder must keep a level head and avoid the types of overreactions that could have him observing the game from the bench.
    We’ll probably see quite a bit of former Hawks draftee Jared Cunningham, who contributed seven points in 17 minutes for the Cavs on Thursday. J.R. Smith was accused of Wayne Bradying a New York teenager last week, but unless there’s more meat to those bones the Hawks should expect to see him lofting lots of shots tonight.
    Those are just the guard issues for Cleveland. Starting center Timofey Mozgov has struggled out of the gate, and now a deltoid strain will have him sitting for a couple weeks. Anderson Varejao has been slowly worked back into Blatt’s rotation, the 11 minutes logged on Thursday the most for him in almost two weeks, while lightly-used backup Sasha Kaun is out tonight while celebrating the birth of a child.
    The circumstances at center will require Cleveland to get their money’s worth out of their not-so-frugal frontcourt. Someone is going to pay Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson a cumulative $195 million between now and June 2020, but for now Thompson has been dutifully behind Love on the depth chart. Thompson (9.2 RPG, 17th in NBA) will likely have to move to the top line alongside Love (12.1 RPG, 4th in NBA).
    Aside from rebounding opponent’s missed shots, neither has been a stalwart defensively. Last regular season’s Cavs-Hawks games featured Paul Millsap (55.4 FG% vs. CLE, highest vs. any East opponent) and Al Horford (63.9 FG% vs. CLE) tag-teaming on Love like New Day, so effectively I was reaching for my trombone whenever he was isolated on either of Atlanta’s All-Star big men. 
    Continuing to exploit Love and Thompson inside will keep James camped around the defensive paint to help rather than roving the perimeter and scheming his dangerous runout plays (Cleveland’s 15.9 fastbreak PPG is 2nd in East). That would be beneficial for Kyle Korver (63.9 TS%, 4th in NBA; 66.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA) to continue honing his three-point arsenal. Big contributions by Tiago Splitter and the Mikes, Scott and Muscala, will help keep up the pressure on the shallow Cavs’ frontline.
    Although partially by Blatt’s design, Cleveland gives up a league-high 8.4 field goals per game between 5 and 15 feet from the rim. A few floaters from Schröder should have a tenderizing effect on the Cavs’ defense.
    The Cavs’ biggest bugaboo so far has been free throw shooting (69.8 FT%, 27th in NBA). While the Hawks’ light approach to fouling (17.1 personal fouls per game, 2nd fewest in NBA) is unlikely to make this an issue early in the game, it may become a factor if the Cavaliers have to turn to anyone aside from Love (88.4 FT%).
    Embarking upon their NBA-high 15th game of the young season while juggling the needs for rest and rehabilitation, Atlanta has been fortunate that the degree of difficulty hasn’t been all that high. Only the Magic, Spurs, and Mavs have enjoyed a weaker opponent strength-of-schedule than the Hawks, to this point. But things are about to change significantly in the coming weeks.
    After two days off (for the first time all season) following tonight’s contest, the Hawks have another four-game-in-five-day stretch to deal with.  A nationally-televised home game with the feisty Celtics is immediately followed by a three-game Thanksgiving Weekend road trip where Atlanta faces the hungry Wolves, the gritty Grizzlies, and the Spurs-y Spurs.
    All of that is followed by a three-game homestand hosting Angelenos named Westbrook, DeRozan, and (for the last time) Kobe. Afterward, the Hawks finally get four full days off to recalibrate, ahead of a three-game-in-four-nights stretch facing the Mavs and replaying the Thunder and Spurs.
    Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks staff will prioritize the health of his key contributors and developing players over the need to produce any “statement victories.” Still, if the Hawks get through the next several weeks and still find themselves near the top of the standings, the statements will write themselves.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    A mopey and flustered team, yearning to find answers amid injuries and poor execution, saunters their way into tonight’s game at Philips Arena. Not only that… the Sacramento Kings will be there, too!
    After a smoldering 1-7 start, DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings are the ones doing the crowning lately, winning three straight home games versus Eastern foes. They’re in the proper mood to kick off their Southeast Division road swing by toppling the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) for the first time in a long while.
    The now 2-9 Nyets shook off their Hawks Hex last night, enduring a muffed final minute of play from the Hawks to notch their first regular-season victory over the Hawks in seven tries. That should definitely inspire the Kings (4-7), who have grown a bit tired of getting dabbed on (or, is that bapped on?) by the ATL. They haven’t defeated a Hawks team since Mike Bibby’s not-so-triumphant return to ARCO Arena in Feburary 2008.
    How long ago was that? Sacramento needed a huge night from Ron Artest (three and a half years away from the epiphany before his name change) and a little help from Shelden Williams, to pull away from a playoff-starved Hawks team led in scoring by Josh Childress. The Kings' last victory at Philips came in March 2006. So, yeah, it’s been a minute.
    It has also been quite some time since the Hawks (8-5) lost four straight games in an NBA regular season, as could be the case following tonight’s action. Midway through the fourth game of the Hawks’ six-game slide in March 2014 (and absent a streak-stripped Kyle Korver), coach Mike Budenholzer benched an ineffective Jeff Teague in favor of Dennis Schröder and Shelvin Mack, who promptly committed seven of Atlanta’s 26 turnovers as Minnesota cruised at home.
    Two-and-a-half years later, Teague and Kent Bazemore watched the Brooklyn game from home (don’t kick the furniture!) while nursing their sprained ankles. And while Schröder (10 assists, 3 TOs) and Mack could not be directly blamed for costly turnovers, the lack of disorganization on the floor last night without Teague around was evident, well beyond the season-high 20 turnovers.
    Veteran All-Stars like Paul Millsap (5 TOs) and Korver (2-for-6 3FGs, 3 TOs) looked lost on offense. And the speediness of Schröder could only be displayed in the halfcourt, as designed plays broke down and Schröder (2-for-7 2FGs, 1-for-4 3FGs) was often left to settle for drives into the teeth of the Nets’ defense for points. The inertial development of plays during possessions (91.6 pace, 3rd lowest of season; 88.8 pace vs. Utah) played right into Joe Johnson’s hands. And that was just the problems with the offense, as the Hawks put up a season-low 88 points and 96.1 points per 100 possessions.
    “The execution was terrible, the defense was terrible,” Millsap admitted after the loss last night. He should know. Bench man Thabo Sefolosha’s total of seven defensive rebounds equaled the cumulative total of frontcourt starters Al Horford, Millsap (plus-minus of -16), and Tiago Splitter. That’s never a good sign when Cousins (28.0 PPG, 3rd in NBA; 11.0 RPG), the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, and Kosta Koufos (12.1 O-Reb%, 11th in NBA) are in town after two days’ rest. While Cousins’ rebounding volume is down after shifting mostly to the 4-spot, he still ranks 7th in D-Reb% while taking time to shoot 44.8% on threes (take notes, Al-Star).
    The Nets were turning the ball over nearly as much as the Hawks in the first half, featuring some egregiously unforced errors. But unlike Atlanta, Brooklyn found the spigot (3 second-half player TOs). Eight of the Nets’ 10 participants got at least one steal, including Thad Young, whose five steals outnumbered that of the Hawks’ starters (three). The Hawks are forcing 18.7 TOs per game out of opponents within the friendly confines of Philips Arena (11.0 team SPG), but just 13.8 per game away from home (8.3 team SPG). Hopefully, the defensive energy will pick up a notch tonight.
    Meanwhile… turmoil? What turmoil? DMC knew what happened the last time he was forced to sit with an injury: by the time he returned last season, the coach he bonded with was canned and the carefully-crafted team mojo was gone. Forced to sit with an Achilles strain after two close losses to the Clippers and a 1-2 start to 2015-16, Cousins foresaw a McHaleian series of events unfolding again, when the Kings dropped four straight, the first two of the skid by double digits.
    The grass-cutting, snake-showing tension that simmered all summer boiled over upon Cousins’ return, after an 18-point home loss to San Antonio. This time last season, Cousins could tear into Michael Malone with his building frustrations, and he could count on Michael Malone throwing verbal heat right back at him. But instead of going in on Cousins for chewing out both he and GM Vlade Divac, Kings coach George Karl thought it better to clam up, head upstairs, and tattle.
    Karl pined openly for another shot as a head coach anywhere, and certainly knew what he was stepping into when he took the Kings gig almost a year ago. Yet essentially, Karl was all set to punish DeMeanUs Cussins for being DeMeanUs Cussins, marching up to Hotline Blinging team owner Vivek Ranadive to request his All-Star center be fined, if not outright traded. Still dreaming of a future with his pal John Calipari coming to Cowtown, Ranadive made it quite clear, to the NBA’s sixth-winningest head coach of all time, where his allegiances lie: if it’s down to He Goes or I Go, you may not like my response. Shut up, and coach.
    Ranadive runs his franchise like a NBA 2K competitor, but his Players Over Everything stance seems to have steeled the resolve in the Kings’ locker room, at least until the next dovetail. Cousins has since redirected his frustrations toward the Pistons, Nets, and Raptors. In the last three games, the Mobile Marauder has averaged 36.3 PPG and 10.7 RPG and shot 60% on three-pointers while building a kinship with the similarly-seething point guard Rajon Rondo.
    Remember when last season’s rumor mill had the Kings inquiring about acquiring Schröder and developing him into the “next” Rondo? Well, they’ve found their next Rondo and -- whaddya know -- it’s Rondo himself! Just when you thought Rondo’s menacing play was dead, a hand rises from the grave. Rondo ranks second in the NBA in assists (9.5 APG) and 7th in steals (2.1 SPG). Any schemes designed to get Rondo into foul trouble are good ones, as the alternate point guard options are of the shoot-first variety.
    Steals aside, Rondo and the returning Darren Collison (out last five games, hamstring) have to do a lot of gambling and scrambling to make up for a defensively-challenged roster. As a team, the Kings are 28th in blocks (3.5 BPG) and 24th in defensive efficiency (104.4 opponent points per 100 possessions). No other team, not even (formerly) McHale’s Rockets, have opponents converting over 70 percent of shot attempts in the restricted area (73.9 opponent FG%).
    That’s all with rookie Willie Cauley-Stein starting at center, and his status is up in the air after sustaining a head injury versus Toronto. Cousins almost has to stay at power forward for defensive purposes, as the alternatives (Rudy Gay? Caron Butler? Quincy Acy? Eric Moreland?) aren’t too hot. Koufos will likely get the nod if Cauley-Stein (70.6 FG%, because dunks) cannot go. Atlanta will need much more interior production out of Horford and a rested Tiago Splitter (12 minutes @ BRK) to counter Sacramento’s frontline play.
    For Gay, the best defense remains a good offense (post-rookie career-low 18.2 PPG, 46.7 FG%; career-low 0.2 BPG and -1.0 defensive box plus-minus). Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver have to make Gay pay whenever he’s lackadaisical on the defensive end.
    At the other end, Atlanta defenders have to close out properly on Sacramento’s 3-and-not-much-D players along the perimeter, including starters Gay and Ben McLemore, and ex-Spurs Marco Belinelli (36.5 3FG%, team-high 4.7 attempts per game) and James Anderson. The challenge will continue to be heightened as Bazemore remains out for tonight’s action. Cousins’ newfound range is likely to draw Millsap and Horford even further away from the rim than they are already, and it’s intriguing to see how Rondo and the Kings intend to take advantage of that.
    Whether it’s Teague (questionable to play), Schröder, or Mack handling the rock, their teammates have to create openings for their passes out of the paint. In particular, the bigs must roll to the basket with greater fervor if the Hawks are to successfully exploit the Kings’ defensive flaws tonight. After several games of futile execution, it’s time to acknowledge that Point Guard Drives Matter.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Wait… who ate the last Patti LaBelle Pie???”
    Well, at least they’re losing better! Lionel Hollins’ Brookyn Nets return home to Barclays Center to host the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, YES Network) after a four-game road swing. The Hawks (8-4) have been around to brighten the spirits of four at-or-below-.500 teams, and Hollins hopes his Nets (1-9) will be next in line for the gifting.
    Brooklyn finally got in the win column last Wednesday, blowing past the waffling Rockets in Houston on the strength of a 27-15 fourth quarter. Two nights later, the Nets could not stop DeMarcus Cousins from piling up 30 second-half points, falling by just two in Sacramento. The next night, Jarrett Jack (28 points, nine assists) and Thaddeus Young helped the Nets race to a 17-point first-half lead versus undefeated Golden State. 21 points later from Stephen Curry after the first half, Brooklyn found itself headed for an overtime loss.
    It’s part of a recurring theme that the Nets, virtually designed by management to be shallow and defensively challenged, needs to find enough gas to in the second halves to win ballgames. Two weeks ago, Brooklyn waltzed into their Philips Arena lockers with a 44-41 halftime lead, but couldn’t keep Atlanta from shooting 59% from the field and putting up 60 points in the second half.
    It’s not all deck-chair-rearranging for Hollins just yet, though. Sliding rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (3-for-6 FGs, season-high 13 rebounds @ GSW) up to the top line has paid dividends, while Jarrett Jack, Brook Lopez and Bojan Bogdanovic are playing with better consistency, at least on offense, limiting the necessity for woeful bench options Shane Larkin, Markel Brown, Wayne Ellington, Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson to see much of the floor. Brooklyn will need a stronger performance out of their handsomely-paid small forward, however. Especially as Atlanta’s starter at the 3-spot (Kent Bazemore) gives his sprained ankle a rest.
    In his Nets’ last visit to Atlanta, Joe Johnson (10.8 PPG, 32.5 FG%, 19.4 3FG%; 3-for-12 FGs @ GSW) contributed a team-high six assists but shot just 1-for-10 from the field during the 101-87 loss. Aside from his passing (4.4 APG, 1.5 TOs/game), Joe’s presence on the floor has been largely ceremonial to this point. He passes Michael Jordan on the NBA all-time list with 1,073 games played tonight.
    ''That first half (versus Brooklyn on November 4), everybody missed open shots,'' Dennis Schröder said after filling into the starting lineup for a rested Kyle Korver and scoring 20 points (3-for-6 FGs). Returning to the site where he last started for Team World on All-Star Weekend, he’ll fill in at point guard this time around, as Jeff Teague continues to rest his own sprained ankle. ''In the second half, we picked up our intensity on defense. Played team defense and played with the same pace on offense.''
    With Paul Millsap’s turnaround baseline shot rimming out on Sunday, Atlanta’s 97-96 loss to the Jazz ended a 30-game winning streak at Philips Arena when the Hawks held opponents under 100 points. But Utah’s failure to reach the century mark had more to do with their control of the game tempo (and the 50/50 balls) than Atlanta’s defensive approach. Mike Budenholzer gave his usual post-loss shpiel, that defensive rebounding “isn’t where it needs to be.” That’s largely because, more times than not, his most important defensive rebounder hasn’t been where he needs to be.
    Thus ends the dream sequence that Al Horford plays in his mind about his most momentous moment in an NBA jersey. It didn’t work out quite that way, six months ago. But the Hawks needed everything Al could give them to avoid going back to Washington down 3 games to 2. The 23 points, 18 of them on 9-for-17 shooting inside the perimter. The one… one… wide-open three-pointer he swished from the corner, late in the game. The five blocks. The ability to run circles around Marcin Gortat. Most importantly, the rebounds; 11 of them, six offensive and none more crucial than the last one of the game.
    When the Hawks needed to avoid going down 3-2 versus Brooklyn in the prior playoff series, Al came through with 20 points and 15 rebounds, including ten defensive boards. It’s the last time we’ve seen double-digit defensive rebounding from this All-Star in a game.
    Atlanta need not wait until springtime to see their Heroford bloom. But the pivot who needs to be Option A under the rim has double-digit rebounding performances just twice through 12 games at the early stage of this season, this after collecting ten or more 16 times in 76 appearances last season. His tallies in the last three games have dwindled from eight, to six, to five. The three D-Rebs in the loss to Utah matches his season low from the opener versus Detroit.
    Al’s current 18.0 D-Reb% is below, by my back-of-napkin count, that of at least 25 starting NBA centers (at par with the Nets’ Lopez) and such notables as Thabo Sefolosha, Rajon Rondo, Nemanja Bjelica, Ryan Anderson and Will Barton. It’s one thing to strive to become less of a center and more of a combo forward; it’s another thing to abdicate duties for Millsap (career-high 7.3 DRPG) and other non-center teammates to do on your behalf.
    In 2014-15, Atlanta was 17-5 when Horf’s D-Reb percentage fell BELOW 15%, and 16-9 when it exceeded 25%. So, to be fair, defensive rebounding from Horford, in and of itself, isn’t indicative of a likely victory. But one other factor seems to be at least correlated.
    Horford has also gone three full games without drawing a single shooting foul; he has maxed out at four foul shots in any game this season. Last season, Atlanta was a ridiculous 42-4 in games where Al had just ONE free throw ATTEMPT; a pedestrian 14-16 without one. As useful as he aims to become from the perimeter, Horford has to roll and cut to the basket more and mix things up inside. Between his interior play and Schröder’s drives, getting Lopez and Thaddeus Young in foul trouble could be beneficial in establishing the advantage in the fourth quarter.
    Thabo Sefolosha will work to properly D up Joe, but Atlanta’s defense must rotate well to compensate when Millsap comes over to help with Joe’s inexorable post-ups. Like the four teams that have vanquished the Hawks so far this season, Brooklyn’s shooting is far from top-tier (46.0 eFG%, 29th in NBA; 26.5 3FG%, last in NBA), despite taking a league-high 81.8% of their shots in two-point territory. But like the Pistons, Celtics, and Jazz, the Nets are sufficiently self-cognizant to crash the offensive glass (26.4 O-Reb%), especially versus the Hawks.
    Korver, Sefolosha, and/or Justin Holiday can provide help on Lopez and Young, so Horford can center ((cough)) his focus on securing defensive rebounds and sparking the Hawks’ transition plays. Horford should find little resistance in out-pacing B-Lo, who had another foot scare last week. But he and Tiago Splitter need to be the players initiating fastbreaks with their rebounds.
    With transition-play-leaders Teague and Bazemore both out, Sefolosha, Millsap and Holiday can help Atlanta push the pace on a team that would much rather be stationary (97.4 possessions per-48, 25th in pace). A pressed and frazzled Brooklyn defense should open up some Net-scorching looks from downtown for Korver, who’s shooting 55.0% on threes since sitting out the last Nets-Hawks meeting.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    Once again, we’ll likely miss Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer roaming the sidelines for this early Sunday tilt against the Utah Jazz (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain Plus), leaving the X’s and O’s to his trusty assistant, Kenny Atkinson. Like Coach Bud, one of former trusty assistants, in particular, can always be counted on for hard-hustling teams, along with downright hilarious stares and glares from the sideline.
    At first glance, Russian-meat-jello afficionado Quin Snyder looks like one of those meanie parents with their children tethered to leashes whenever they’re out in public, just daring anybody to try telling them how to raise their yung’uns. In reality, he’s molding a youthful but spirited team, and building a mindset that they need not settle for less, that “on the verge of being good” isn’t good enough.
    “I think we’ve realized we really haven’t accomplished anything,” remarked Gordon Hayward (16.7 PPG), whose shot has gone wayward (39.8 FG%, 30.3 3FG%) at the outset of this season. Utah’s leading scorer was briefly reflecting upon the second half of last season, when the Jazz went 19-10 after the All-Star break and nearly backed into the eighth and final playoff spot. He asserted than it’s not the players, but the media, who have been “really hyping us up and hyped us up all offseason, and we really didn’t deserve any of that.”
    If Snyder could play one instrument in a jazz orchestra, he’d go for Sad Trombone. “I’m not dampening any enthusiasm,” he said, before assuredly dampening someone’s enthusiasm, “but I am being realistic about who our group is – and that’s what our group needs. We need to be realistic about the level (of NBA competition) that’s out there and, if we want to reach it, it’s a hard road.” This young Jazz team (4-5) isn’t relying on social media and pundit outsiders to give them feedback. Just Snyder, and Snyder alone.
    And my, what a young crew this is. The oldest player on the roster is a Millsap – the third youngest of the Millsap hoop clan, Elijah, who just turned 28 three months ago. But rather than cowering, they’re rallying around their crotchety second-year coach and adopting his precepts for re-building a successful franchise.
    Speaking of hard roads, the Jazz’s four-game road trip, wrapping up today in the ATL, really wasn’t too harrowing. A four-point loss in Cleveland, after giving up a fourth-quarter lead, was followed by a one-point setback, in Wade-less Miami, that was close to the vest throughout despite Utah missing human eraser Rudy Gobert (ankle), who’s second in the league with 3.1 BPG.
    Gobert, who grew up a couple hours north of the site of the recent tragic events in Paris, missed Utah’s 102-93 loss in Orlando and remains questionable to play this evening, as is second-year swingman Rodney Hood (foot). Both players were participants, however, in shootaround this morning. Snyder’s troopers have generally had to mold together away from Salt Lake City. After this evening’s affair, Utah gets two days off before Toronto visits, for what will be just the Jazz’s third home game out of 11 so far.
    He was a Hornet in high school, a Yellow Jacket in college. Now in his sixth professional season, Atlanta native Derrick Favors is really putting the sting to opponents. Averaging nearly a double-double with 15.0 PPG and a career-high 9.1 RPG, Favors is now contributing a Millsapian 2.4 SPG (2nd in NBA for steals per 100 possessions) to go along with 1.7 BPG. Plus, his per-minute turnovers and fouls are as low as ever. It’s hard to ask for much more, but if we were Quin, we’d curry Favors to raise that free throw accuracy up above 66%.
    Favors forms an offensive triumvirate with Hayward and sixth-man Alec Burks (55.0 3FG%, 3rd in NBA), who missed the back end of last season after suffering a shoulder injury. Unless point guard Trey Burke emerges, however, this season will feel like a bit of a wild card for Utah. They’re certainly missing Australian import Dante Exum, who is out this season after tearing his ACL in offseason play for his national team.
    Instead of starting Burke, Snyder has gone with former Hawks second-round pick Raul Neto, who hasn’t done much yet to earn a Stat of the Night (3.4 PPG, 2.0 APG, 27.0 FG%), but seems to have picked up defensive concepts better than Burke (46.4 3FG%, 11th in NBA) to this point. Burke (team-high 16 points @ ORL, 7-for-12 FGs, 4 assists, 1 TO) will come off the bench and do all he can to forget his last meeting versus the Hawks in SLC (2-for-19 FGs, 0-for-11 on small-t treys). Burke did contribute a season-high 11 assists at the Highlight Factory during a close loss to one year ago, when the Hawks held the Jazz to nine fourth-quarter points and seized the lead on a Kyle Korver three in the final minute of play.
    Burks (22 points, 8-for-10 2FGs @ ATL last November) and Hood have filled in the playmaking gap for Utah’s slow-cooking offense. But for the Hawks, the best playmaker on the floor today needs to be Dennis Schröder. Jeff Teague gets to rest his rubbery ankle after spraining it before halftime of Atlanta’s 106-93 loss in Boston on Friday night. Schröder will continue to get some help from point-center Al Horford (8 assists, no TOs @ BOS on Friday). Horf will continue daring centers to step outside the paint, but he must be a more active body at the other end to keep opponents on their heels. Horford has grabbed more than five defensive caroms just once in his last six appearances.
    Favors will do all he can today to slow his old mentor. While it is understandably a small sample size, Paul Millsap’s averages of 20.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and 3.3 APG are career-high marks versus any NBA outfit, and there’s little denying he enjoys showing his old employer all the new tricks he’s picked up since leaving the Wasatch Range behind.
    Anybody who came to the game tonight to see a head-to-head between the windmill-armed centers Gobert and Walter Tavares will likely come away disappointed. But both Tavares and Lamar Patterson are back on the roster after having a productive two-game stint with D-Leaguers in Austin. Less likely is a matchup between ex-Wolverine star guards Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.
    What fans will want to see is a renewed commitment to team defense by the Hawks (8-3) that has slipped in the past week or so. Opponents’ offensive efficiency has exceeded 100.0 points per 100 possessions in Atlanta’s last three contests, and four of their last five games. Their 3.2 steals per 100 possessions versus Boston was by far the lowest of their season, compounded by a 63.8 D-Reb percentage that was the lowest since its opening-night loss to Detroit. Kent Bazemore and Justin Holiday will need to seal off the perimeter, allowing former Jazzmen Korver and Millsap to help secure the defensive boards and ignite the fastbreak for Schröder.
    Things get no easier if Rudy (12.1 O-Reb%, 12th in NBA) is a Go for today’s action. But in addition to Horford, if Tiago Splitter (career-low 5.3 D-Rebs and 0.6 Blocks per-36; one block in last eight games) cannot be more productive as a defender, it will be harder for the Hawks coaching staff to keep Tavares in tutorial mode. Even without Gobert, rookie Trey Lyles and vets Trevor Booker and Jeff Withey loom around the rim.
    Snyder is in as good a position as any NBA head coach to gameplan against the Hawks and help the Jazz stem their three-game slide. How well the Jazz sop up his mad-scientist wisdom will go a long way toward determining how competitive today’s action will be.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “…but, there are TWO I’s in Isaiah!”
    3-4? Who gives a flip about 3-4? It’s a great time to be a Boston Celtics fan. As fans of the Atlanta Hawks, their visitors tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England), if we were to give Celtics fans a nugget of sage advice, it would be this: “Don’t get too smug!”
    The tantalizing inevitability of a playoff appearance coupled with a precious, precocious lottery pick ultimately proved to be a tease for the Hawks in the aftermath of the 2012 Joe Johnson trade to Brooklyn. Nets GM Billy King, however, did not learn a lesson from his mistake, and in the undying quest to “Be Mediocre NOW!” he relieved the Celts of two crumbling pillars from its championship past.
    King gave away an unprotected 1st rounder in 2014 (James Young, eventually, taken 17th), and 2016, and 2018, plus a 2017 right-to-swap. Today, Paul Pierce is two teams removed from Brooklyn, in L.A., while Kevin Garnett has come full circle and is chilling out again in Minnesota. And Jason Terry is looking up “Tattoo Removal” on Google somewhere.
    Meanwhile, as many NBA teams are scratching and clawing with dreams of playing in June, Boston is in it essentially to draft at that time. The Wrath of Danny Ainge begins in earnest with this year’s draft. If The Season Ended Today (sorry for the jinx), Boston would have its own lottery pick, plus Brooklyn’s. And no, they’re not done.
    Thanks to last December’s deal to take ticking timebomb Rajon Rondo off their hands, the first-rounder acquired from Dallas is only protected for slots 1-through-7. If Minnesota continues feeling their oats, their first-rounder, 1-through-12 protected, via last January’s dealing of Jeff Green to Memphis for the disposable Tayshaun Prince (now in Minnesota, coincidentally), will also fall into Ainge’s grubby hands. If you haven’t had occasion to visit Tankathon’s website lately, don’t worry: they’re not hurting for clicks. Celtics, Nuggets, and Sixers fans have plenty of reasons to check it out daily.
    So, is Boston going to return to the postseason after a strong finish to last season (20-11 post-All-Star-break; the first-place Hawks, comparatively, were 17-11)? Who cares? What’s the rush? With Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens going absolutely nowhere (and that’s supposed to be a good thing) and as much as $51 million in salary coming off the books ahead of a free agent bonanza summer, what’s the difference between two, three and four lottery picks?
    So, one night after whupping the Bucks on the road, the Celtics didn’t have a single player capable of going toe-to-toe with rejuvenated star Paul George (26 points, 10 rebounds) in Wednesday night’s 102-91 defeat. So what? You want a supahstar rocking Celtic green, right now? Grab a Sam Adams and cool your jets! There’s a good chance That Man is arriving in another season or two.
    Barring some unfortunate commentary about, like, Manhattan having the best clam chowder bar none, Ainge will be around to see all of these draft picks come to fruition. Soon, the NBA might have to turn its Executive of the Year trophy into a fleece jacket.
    The crew that Stevens fields is not only playing hard for their current NBA employer, but also the next one. That goes especially for stretchy trade-target bigs Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk.  Sully (team-highs of 8.3 RPG and 44.4 3FG%) is in full Show-and-Disprove Mode, after Ainge did not offer the future restricted free agent a contract extension two weeks ago.
    Aside from perhaps swingman Jae Crowder, the starting lineup is wonderfully interchangeable. You can take Avery Bradley (missed Wednesday’s game; lower-leg contusion) out, and put Evan Turner in. Need more defense? Sub out Leading scorer Isaiah Thomas (team-high 20.6 PPG) for Marcus Smart (back after injuring his big toe). Rest Amir Johnson and let David Lee tip off. Or Olynyk. Or Tyler Zeller. Or Jonas Jerebko. Or …
    Crowder and backcourt mates Smart, Thomas, Bradley, James Young and rookies Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter are the closest things Boston has to “mainstays” on the roster, and even they could be had if somebody wants to relinquish another juicy pick or two (put your hand down, Billy, you’re fresh out). But do not be mistaken: the Celtics have no intention of tanking. Ainge is proving to another of his division rivals that you can play Hinkie-ball without resorting to Stinky-ball. And not knowing what cast of characters Stevens will toss out there makes it hard for opposing coaches to effectively gameplan.
    What the Celts have, collectively, are knockout defenders (95.3 opponent points per 100 possessions, 5th-lowest in NBA; 46.7 opponent eFG%, 7th-lowest in NBA) without a seasoned knockdown shooter (28.4 3FG%, 27th in NBA; 7-for-30 3FGs at Milwaukee, 4-for-24 vs. Indy). Their defensive intensity tends to mirror that of the Hawks: defensive rebounding be-damned (opponent O-Reb 27.2% for BOS, 26.5% for ATL) in lieu of pressing and clawing as the ball approaches the paint.
    Only Boston’s opponents (19.6 TOs per 100 possessions) turn over the ball at a rate higher than Atlanta’s (18.2 TOs). Thanks in part to Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha, and Kent Bazemore ranking 3rd, 5th, and 7th among NBA forwards, Atlanta has averaged 10.9 steals (2nd in NBA), bettered only by Boston’s 11.4 SPG (Crowder’s 3.4 SPG 1st in NBA), while Atlanta’s 24.5 PPG off turnovers is rivaled only by Boston’s 23.6 PPG. So if things hold true to form, expect a wild slopfest tonight at TD Garden.
    Atlanta (8-2) has only coughed up the ball 15 times or fewer in nine of its ten contests this season, while forcing 18 or more player turnovers from their foes in seven of those ten games. Wednesday’s come-from-behind victory versus the Pelicans was the first where the Hawks (15) committed more turnovers than their opponents (12). Boston will try to make it two games in a row.
    Jae will Crowd the perimeter, seeking to help Smart frustrate Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder while picking off passes intended for the Hawks’ open shooters. The Hawks will have to avoid stationary perimeter positioning, and thrive off cross-court passes and dribble hand-offs; the less the ball touches the floor versus Boston, the better for Atlanta.
    The Celtics’ guards will also drive persistently, and it’s up to the Hawks’ perimeter defenders to goad them into settling for wild shots, not letting Thomas (88.0 FT%) make hay at the the free throw line. Atlanta’s big men have to box out and keep Sullinger (13.2 O-Rebs per 100 possessions, 9th in NBA) and Lee from cherry-picking around the hoop.
    If you need a Career Night Award winner for this evening, place your bets on Hunter. The former Georgia State star has been gaining Stevens’ trust and is getting close to 20 minutes a night lately as his team searches for somebody capable of hitting jumpers with some measure of consistency.
    The Hawks’ motto so far seems to be: “Playing from in front? Run away, while you can. Playing from behind? Catch us, while you can.” Sloppy at the starts of most games, Atlanta ranks 4th in the Association for fourth-quarter PPG, 3rd in fourth-quarter plus-minus, 4th in fourth-quarter net rating, 3rd in fourth-quarter APG, even 6th in fourth-quarter RPG.
    Atlanta fans can be understandably frustrated that while their team, more often than not, have tended to come out on top, games get way more uncomfortable when the Hawks aren’t applying talons-to-neck from the jump, especially versus inferior and/or banged-up competition. With Kenny Atkinson leading the charge tonight (Mike Budenholzer flew back home this morning, to tend to a family matter), we’ll see if he can spark some of that old reliable Sense of Urgency at tipoff. No matter how tonight’s game goes, Boston is going to be just fine either way.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Where the Miller Lite women at?”
    The New Orleans Pelicans are officially off the schneid, climbing to 1-6 after topping the Mavericks at home last night. They had a chance at their first win there last Friday, wiping out a 17-point fourth quarter lead by the Atlanta Hawks in the space of just six minutes, a run that proved to be quite instructive for the Hawks a few days later.
    The Pels needed a Career Night from their star, Anthony Davis (career-high 43 points, 33 in the second half; 4 of his team’s 9 steals; 3 of his team’s 7 blocks), just to make things interesting at the end. Can they notch their first road victory tonight at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports New Orleans), if the pterodactyl-winged Davis cannot join them?
    Davis’ hip hopped just before halftime in yesterday’s 120-105 victory over Dallas, shortly after contributing 13 points and 5 rebounds in the second quarter alone. It was a 16-point advantage at that point for the Big Easy Birds, who sprinted to a crowd-pleasing 12-0 start and never relinquished the lead, Dallas’ closing flurry too little, too late to evaporate a 28-point lead. Ryan Anderson’s season-highs of 25 points (10-for-16 FGs) and 11 boards, plus recent arrival Ish Smith’s 12 assists, helped New Orleans hold serve the rest of the way.
    X-rays on his hip contusion proved negative, yet Davis is listed as doubtful to appear tonight. For a continually banged-up outfit, it helped to have center Omer Asik back in the saddle against the Mavs. But he, like Jrue Holiday (15 minutes last night) is time-restrained by head coach Alvin Gentry. Asik was only supposed to log five minutes on the front end of the back-to-back, but wound up totaling 15 minutes through the third quarter, after Davis did not return.
    How much more Asik plays tonight, and how limited the playing time is for he and Jrue (also listed as doubtful), will be worth monitoring. Eric Gordon (season-high 22 points, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL last Friday) will try picking up the offensive slack, while Luke Babbitt (13 points, 4-for-4 2FGs vs. ATL) will strive to be tonight’s Career Night beneficiary, by sharing Davis’ spot at power forward with Anderson.
    The Hawks (7-2) catch a bit of a break themselves, as Jeff Teague (24 points, 9 assists, 3 blocks!, 6 TOs vs. Minny) earned no suspension for Bjelica-slapping the opponent during the frustrated stretch where Minnesota finally regained momentum from the Hawks. The Flagrant 2 foul imposed on Teague means he won’t get suspended until he gets three more infraction points during the season.
    While it was to no avail, Dallas’ quartet of Dirk Nowitzki, Charlie Villanueva, Zaza Pachulia, and Dwight Powell, plus forward Justin Anderson and guard Deron Williams (26-for-38 combined FGs in-the-paint) tried to bruise the defensively fragile Pels (110.3 opponent points per-48, worst in NBA; 58.2 opponent FG% in-the-paint) on the interior. Atlanta can try similar tactics, including the improving decision making of Dennis Schröder (16 assists, 4 TOs last three games), into the mix.
    But, unlike Dallas, the Hawks must not fail to get back and set defensively in transition, a continual problem on Monday when the Timberwolves blazed to 72 first-half points and a seemingly insurmountable 34-point lead early in the third quarter. Gentry still wants his Pelicans to run, even if it’s into the ground, against a Hawks team that just played its fifth game in seven days.
    Atlanta may be going through a bit of a metamorphosis with Kyle Korver’s role in the offense. Threezus has been the essential catch-and-shoot king during his Hawks tenure, leading the NBA with 8.5 PPG (and 49.9 FG%) on catch-and-shoot field goal attempts last season; in 2013-14, his 50.6 FG% (8.3 PPG) also was tops. Thus far this season, Kyle’s 5.4 catch-and-shoot PPG (42.9 FG%) ranks him behind Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore (a scintillating 68.0 FG%), and 29 others.
    Instead, Korver seems increasingly reliant on dribble hand-off plays (9-for-14 FGs, 2nd-most attempts in league, behind J.J. Redick) to get openings. Are these new wrinkles in Mike Budenholzer’s offense? Are these plays better-suited for Kyle’s early-season conditioning, or are opponents getting finally hip to the game, and closing out better off screens designed to get him open? It will take more time to see if this is The New Normal, but Kyle’s teammates could stand to do a better job of creating better catch-and-release looks for him.
    Also part of the metamorphosis is Al Horford’s attempt to join Paul Millsap in the three-point-shooting party. While it is admirable to forsake the long-range two-pointers, and his 23.4 3-point shot-volume ratio is only slightly ahead of Jeff Teague’s, Horford’s 31.7 eFG% on spot-up shots ranks only behind Matt Barnes (31.5 eFG%) – and Millsap (27.8 eFG%) among the league’s Top 20 spot-up jumpshooters. Particularly on a team that de-emphasizes offensive rebounding, Millsap and Horford could stand to drive more often from the perimeter and make plays for teammates.
    With drives and cuts to the lane, Al could draw more contact and take advantage of his 88.9 FT%, currently on just 2.0 FT attempts per game. Teague and Millsap are the only Hawks getting to the free throw line with any frequency, but Atlanta’s top eight scorers are shooting a collective 83.5% from the free throw line.
    Pushing the rock at a high pace is good if you know what you’re doing; otherwise, you’re just ballin’ out of control. Last season, only the Warriors exceeded 100.0 possessions per-48 in the league for a full season. This year, New Orleans (103.2 pace) is among 14 teams in that 100-plus club; the Hawks (99.98) are among seven other teams just a shade behind them.
    Remove the Dubs from the equation, and the Top-7 NBA teams in pace have a combined record of 12-30; take out Atlanta’s next opponent, Brad Stevens’ frenetic Celtics, and the cumulative record of the remaining five drops to 9-27. Energetic play must be combined with efficient shot selection, and with sound halfcourt and transition defense. The team that displays these elements best on the floor over four quarters should have a leg up tonight.
    Thank You Veterans! And Let’s Go Hawks!
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