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    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans


    “Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!”


    Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting.

    Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt.

    To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time.

    Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away.

    So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue.

    It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized.

    To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster.

    Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order.

    While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core?

    Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade?

    The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners.

    Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger.

    Let’s Go Hawks!






    “Everyone has a plan… until they get punched in the mouth!”

    Even the originator of this famous boxing quote knows, firsthand, how a well-crafted pugilistic plan to stick-and-move and rope-a-dope becomes, “Chew his dang ear off!” once things clearly aren’t going his way. Turning any of the Cleveland Cavaliers into Van Gogh isn’t in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Eastern Conference semifinals scene shifts to the Highlight Factory for Game 3 (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). But to avoid getting exposed once again, this time at home, the Hawks have to come up with a multifaceted approach that goes well beyond Plan A.

    “We came in with a gameplan we thought was really good,” said a hopelessly flummoxed Al Horford, “and it got discarded really quick.” Plan A had the Hawks jumping out to a 7-2 lead and feeling pretty good about themselves at the outset of Game 2. But Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers have this thing called an adjustment, you see. The first of an NBA-record 18 first-half triples rained down on Horford’s Hawks, and they found themselves with no logistical answers.

    Kyle Korver continued to be stifled and the Hawks were a dithering 2-for-11 on threes in the first half, while the Cavs were a blistering 18-for-27. When it was well past time for a Plan B, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer unveiled… what’s this? A zone defense??? Where’s my Nick Young meme when I need it?

    Things aren’t turning out much different for the Hawks in this series than it was for the Boston Celtics in the opening round. There was a nip-and-tuck affair late in Game 1, and a virtual pillaging by the home team from the start of Game 2. Atlanta built its confidence knowing it could take the things that Boston does best, and do them even better.

    Cleveland’s players have the same confidence regarding the Hawks. They have more players capable of penetrating and kicking out, players who don’t need 17 screens in a possession just to get separation and an accurate shot off along the perimeter. These Cavs know, if they can drown the regular season’s best perimeter defensive team in a barrage of triples, they can break the Hawks’ beaks early.

    While Korver struggles to make himself relevant (first three-point attempt a desperate heave with his team already down by 27), and his teammates make his decoy plays look like dead ducks, the Cavs are nailing shots with hands in their face, shedding defenders off one dribble, and catching-and-sinking ricochets off Mike Muscala’s forehead.

    The Hawks can also recall how cocksure they were heading out on the road to Game 3, after going up 2-zip on Boston, and how that turned out for them within just a few days. Among Cavs assistant Larry Drew’s favorite utterances was the word “Respond,” and the Cavs show they know how to do that from one possession to the next. The Hawks have to find the trait that allows them to respond in kind, not simply waiting in vain hope that The Law of Averages will eventually turn in their favor.

    The 38-point lead the Cavaliers established in the first half could have been worse if the Cavs had better looks inside; they were just 6-for-21 on 2FGs (4-for-18 in-the-paint) in the half. Kevin Love’s six offensive rebounds and 3-for-4 shooting from deep made up for another woeful interior performance (0-for-8 2FGs) in Game 2.

    But the extra foot-in-the-box by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, the extra defender sticking out to show when LeBron James and Cleveland’s point guards came charging across the paint, left them consistently a step short when the Cavs effortlessly kicked the ball out. Paul Millsap and Horford have to defend the paint, get strips, pull chairs, and rebound with the understanding that help isn’t coming. They also have to demand the ball on offense and finish in the paint consistently, first, before trying any high-wire-act shots along the perimeter.

    Eight Cavalier turnovers (three Hawks steals) does not make for a winning recipe for Atlanta in any game, much less versus the defending Eastern Conference title holders. Teague, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha must be aggressive with ballhandlers, rather than sitting back and allowing Cleveland to flawlessly execute their set plays.

    Budenholzer finally graced Atlanta with Kris Humphries’ presence with Cleveland up 35 midway through the third quarter, Mike Muscala entering the fray with the Hawks down 18 not long into the start of the second quarter. The Hawks cannot afford to waste time and wait until they’re falling behind by double digits before relieving Horford. Same deal with Jeff Teague and Korver -- don’t give up on Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway prematurely -- and if Mike Scott subs in, it needs to be for Millsap, not Horford.

    In the building that’s home to live mascots going rogue, dancers that pass out, shot clocks and timekeepers that may or may not be functional, and spectacularly failing trampoline dunkers, the Hawks are convinced a dash of home cooking will be a huge inspiration to come out victorious. Because sight lines, or something.

    But if Hawks fans wanted to see yet another postseason can of azz-whooping opened upon their favorite team, they’d hop in the time machine, and just watch Woodsonian-era basketball. Hawks fans are not here to endure another drubbing thanks to way-too-rigid game planning. Without major shifts in competitiveness and coaching strategy to stem Cleveland’s runs out of the gate, Hawks fans may not be here for Game 4, either.

    Let’s (Freaking) GO Hawks!



    “That’s enough of Schröder for me! I fold!”


    Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes.

    Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak.

    Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously.

    The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did.

    We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry.

    Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture.

    The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier.

    J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%.

    Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him.

    To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest.

    If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead.

    Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds).

    Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty.

    The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls.

    Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “Et tu, Lué?”


    “Now, if you want to CROWN them, then CROWN their {BLEEP!}”

    It’s hard to believe we are nearly ten years removed from a watershed moment in pro sports history. It was October 16, 2006, and Dennis Green, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks’ red-bird football cousins over in Arizona, was about to go ballistic.

    Green had a front-and-center view as his disappointing team, in its first Monday Night Football home game in recent memory, made one Cardinal error after another, blowing a multiple-touchdown lead to an undefeated Chicago team that had previously been bulldozing the NFL. Coming into that game, the Bears’ 5-0 start had many pigskin prognosticators suggesting a new Super Bowl Shuffle was right around the corner. Denny Green wasn’t down with the perception that a coronation was in order.

    “The Bears are what we thought they were,” the dumbfounded coach responded to a seemingly innocuous question, lurching into a frank discussion that was a lot like watching milk reach a boil in the microwave. Green smacks the microphone, and the dais seems to jump from the impact. You can bet the reporters jumped, too.

    “…they are who we THOUGHT they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!”

    This was a stunning development, not just for the fiery angst but the mouth from which it bellowed. Denny Green was like a real-life “227” Dad! Not a pushover by any means, but a pleasant, easygoing, mild-mannered fellow, pragmatic to a fault. Everyone expected disappointment, and frustration, from Green after the game, but no one in the media saw this reaction coming. Atlanta sports fans, however, may trace Green’s latent path to Vesuvius all the way back to January 1999.

    Back then, his 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were all set for a coronation, after racking up the most points ever scored in NFL history. The Vikes had long been an NFL bridesmaid, but seemed on-track to finally win their first-ever Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want to play along, though, capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes to seize their place as the NFC’s Super Bowl participant.

    Over seven years later, Green foresaw a small chance at redemption, tripping up a former division rival that was just beginning to enjoy its own scent. And he watched his team pounce, and then literally fumble the opportunity away. The Bears eventually did make it to the Super Bowl by season’s end, but they didn’t win it all. Green and many of his key players weren’t around two seasons later, when the Cardinals found their way to the big show, too.

    Fans of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers see that the coast is pretty clear for another trip to the NBA Finals, a journey that resumes tonight with their second-round Eastern Conference playoff round with the Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT, post-game on Fox Sports Southeast). They also perceive this playoff run as their best hope at ending a 52-year championship drought.

    There are four Eastern Conference teams left standing after the opening playoff round. Three of them are top-ten in the league in team salaries. One is the Hawks, once again a bottom-ten payroll team. What does an extra $35 million buy you? Cleveland certainly hopes to find out.
    After nine seasons of postseason hoops, everyone seems certain the Hawks are what they’ve always thought they were. Atlanta has a chance to radically alter NBA observers’ perceptions, via this series. But that only happens if they can be a team that redefines what the Cavaliers think they are.
    The Hawks’ first-round series with the Boston Celtics concluded in fairly satisfying fashion. Relying on their recalibrated defense, Atlanta held the Celtics to a playoff-low 38.4 FG% and 27.5 3FG%. But just about everything is different with this next round’s opponent. Instead of a 5-foot-9, 185-pound score-first, playoff-under-experienced, first-time All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, the offensive tour de force Atlanta faces is LeBron James, an unselfish 6-foot-8, 250-pound, a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ who desperately wants to bring an NBA title to his home state.

    While Thomas turned to the likes of Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, James has fellow All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving (Playoffs-high 27.5 PPG) and Kevin Love at his disposal. Rather than a team that struggles to get hot from distance, Cleveland hit 36.3% of its three-point attempts during the regular season (7th in NBA), and 41.3% in the opening round (2nd in Playoffs). Instead of an opponent that thrived on high-tempo affairs, the Hawks face a Cavs team that enjoys slowing things down to a grind (28th in pace).

    While the Celtics relied on Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger to counter Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Cavaliers can turn to Love, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov. Boston ranked 26th in D-Reb% while Cleveland ranked 5th, not to mention ranking 9th in O-Reb%. Boston was just testing the bounds of their confidence. The Cavs exude it, facing a team they dusted in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as they chase after their 2016 destiny.

    For all the attention paid to James as a bruising scorer, he is most dangerous for Cleveland as a passer and an active help defender. In the Cavs’ 20 losses during the regular season, he scored slightly more points (25.4 PPG), and rebounded more (7.9 RPG), but took a higher volume of tougher shots (48.5 FG%, 27.5 3FG%), and made significantly fewer assists (5.0 APG), than he did in 56 victories (25.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 53.5 FG%, 32.5 3FG%).

    LeBron giving up the ball when he’s under pressure is not, in and of itself, good news for Atlanta. In addition to his heroball-quality 30.3 PPG (just 43.8 FG%) and 11.0 RPG, in the 2015 ECFs, LeBron picked apart the Hawks with 9.3 APG in their four-game sweep. This season, Cleveland was 40-5 (23-1 at home) when James contributed more than 5 assists. He also barely registers a blip in steals during defeats (0.95 SPG) compared to 1.52 SPG during wins (Cavs 30-3 when LBJ gets at least 2 steals).

    The more James resembles volume-shooting DeMar DeRozan, the better for Atlanta’s prospects. Restraining James from collecting the ball and finishing plays around the restricted area (without excessive fouling) will go a long way, and different defensive looks from a combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford will help in that regard. But the Hawks can truly help their cause by ensuring that their supporting cast denies James easy dimes to open shooters and bigs hovering around the hoop.

    LeBron’s occasional dunks may feel like knockout punches, but they’re mere body blows relative to his constant threat to find open shooters. J.R. Smith (40.0 3FG%) will spot-up at will, so deflecting kickouts in his direction will be beneficial, as is the case for Kyrie Irving (32.2 3FG%) at the ends of the shot clock. The Hawks must also limit open catch-and-shoot opportunities for Matthew Dellavedova (41.0 3FG%), Channing Frye (37.7 3FG%), James Jones (39.4 3FG%), and Richard Jefferson (38.2 3FG%).

    Millsap, Horford, and Mike Scott (68.1 eFG%, 3rd in Playoffs) need to pile up points in transition against Thompson, Love, and veteran perimeter marksman Frye, none of whom are defensive stalwarts. The same could be said of Irving and J.R. Smith, signaling the need for Jeff Teague (35.5 Assist%, 2nd among current Playoffs participants), Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway to remain aggressive in getting to the paint and forcing Cleveland, a team that prefers to force undesirable shots and secure the defensive rebound, to make stops.

    After dusting off Detroit in Round 1, Irving’s confidence has never been higher, but Teague, who had time to rest a bum ankle sustained in Game 6 against Boston, has the kind of two-way game that can create a deflating effect when it’s on-point. Schröder will be pushed, prodded, and trolled by the usual suspects, but is figuring out that his best clapbacks don’t require words at all.

    Horford’s mid-range game was poor in the first round, but the more the Hawks attack the interior, the better his chances to thaw out his jumper and make him a legitimate multi-faceted offensive threat. The more defensive breakdowns the Hawks can exploit, the more James’ attention can be directed away from the offensive end. Horford has suffered through his share of playoff-series drubbings, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2010. But he was also instrumental the very next season, when he led his team in rebounds and assists as the Hawks knocked off the favored Magic in six games.

    In 2008, Doc Rivers went from being an NBA head coach on shaky ground to one with an NBA championship ring. But Doc needed one of his old teams to lay down on the road for him to shake free of the skeptics. Now, another former Hawks point guard is pulling for a similar fate. Tyronn Lue needs to reach The Finals, at least, to sustain LeBron’s confidence and justify the seat he shifted into at the expense of David Blatt.

    Lue was supposed to strategically make the Cavs perform at a higher pace, but that accelerated play has yet to come to fruition. While the Hawks/Celtics series was the highest-paced series in the East’s first round (just a shade behind Houston/Golden State), the Cavs/Pistons series was the slowest.

    To push the pace on the Cavs, the Hawks cannot pass up good shots in hopes of a great shot later in the shot clock. Atlanta has to avoid the urge to force halfcourt shots that aren’t there, but when there is a good look, the Hawks must take them without hesitation (Al, we’re looking at you).

    Atlanta must also ensure there’s proper coverage for James in defensive transition, regardless of whether or not the shots fall. A sound offensive effort from Korver and Kent Bazemore (3.2 TO%, 2nd-lowest in Playoffs), who will get chased constantly by Matthew Dellav-he’lldiveonya and Iman Shumpert, would be nice. But poor shooting stretches can be overcome if the defense on Cleveland’s fastbreaks and perimeter shots remains stellar.

    Yes, James is the effective coach/GM/POBO for the Cavs. But Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has three playoff series wins under his belt, plus a wealth of tactical knowledge relative to Lue, who can at least turn to Larry Drew when the Cavs need a decent offensive play coming out of timeouts. At some point in this series, the coaching advantage along Atlanta’s sideline needs to be resoundingly clear and reflective of the competitive play on the court.

    The Hawks effectively chose this conference semifinal matchup at the conclusion to the regular season; if they intended to get thumped once again by the Cavs, there was no reason for wasting energy and crawling into another conference finals just to do that. Surely, though, Atlanta had loftier plans in mind.

    If, instead, they aim to shock the NBA world, an effort which requires at least one victory here in Cleveland at The Q, they might as well do it early and build their own confidence going forward. The Hawks know these Cavaliers as well as anyone left in the Eastern Conference does. But anytime the Cavaliers stumble during this playoff series, how often will these Hawks let them off the hook?

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “Never Forget…”


    Any Way You Want It, That’s The Way We Need It. Any Way You Want It…

    Atlanta Hawks fans have gone on many a Journey with their favorite NBA squad over the past five-plus decades. Whether you’ve been Ryde-or-Die with them for fifty-plus years, or just hopped on board in the perennial playoff era of the last ten, you’ve built up quite a Bucket List in that time. High up on that list, the Hawks can, tonight, cross off a to-do that’s lingered seemingly forever: go into the house of the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Go app, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT for the locally-impaired), and send them packing for the summer.

    Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, Fred Jones, Mickael Pietrus, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert. Guess what they all have crossed off their Bucket Lists? All of them have hit big shots to help eliminate the Celtics, and they did it in Beantown. Not only that, they were among six different NBA teams that left Tommy Heinsohn sobbing into his Sam Adams on the TD Garden sideline in just the past 15 years alone.

    Shumpert and J.R. Smith took care of business in Boston, on two different teams in the previous three seasons. Jason Kidd has gotten it done thrice, as an in-his-prime Net and a past-his-prime Knick. How about our old wayfaring friend Anthony Johnson? He’s been-there-done-that FOUR times, with THREE different NBA teams (not the Hawks, obvs). It’s a bit like skydiving. It looks challenging, and it is. But after you’ve see George H.W. Bush willingly jump out a plane every five years or so, not so much.

    “Not Magic, or Doctor J, it’s Andrew Toney that keeps me awake at night!” So reportedly claimed Matthew Dellavedova’s power animal, current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, back in the 1980s, about which player worried him most whenever playoff time rolled around. Atlanta is chock-full-o’ Toney-caliber players. But which ones are willing to emerge tonight as the Hawks’ Boston Strangler?

    Could it be Al Horford (last 3 games: 27.6 FG%, 6.3 PPG), who apparently needs to see his shadow before coming out offensively against what should be an overmatched Celtics frontline? Rumored to be quietly managing a groin strain, Horford has been distributing the ball well (5.0 APG, 0.7 TOs per game) in those last three appearances, but needs to be less passer, and less passive, in Game 6.

    In his rookie year of 2008, in an injury-riddled season of 2012, Al’s playoff odysseys came to an end in this building. Closing out the C’s here tonight with an impressive All-Star-quality effort should be Shoni-Schimmel-huge in importance to the upcoming free agent big man.

    Could it be Paul Millsap, who did not need a monumental scoring effort in Game 5, but has had two of the greatest individual performances of his career against these Celtics in this month alone? A double-barreled blast of Millsap and Horford would go a long way toward finally getting these Hawks over this little hump (a pellet or two of Big Hump wouldn’t hurt, either). Paul knows all about apparitions, and he’s even not talking about the ones that have chased the Hawks around Boston for eons.

    “I think we learned that when we have a team down, it keeps coming back. It’s like a haunted ghost, it keeps coming after us,” Millsap noted, shortly after his team petered away a 16-point second-half lead in Boston along the way to a Game 4 OT loss. “We’ve had opportunities to put people away all year and haven’t gotten it done for whatever reason. And now’s the time to learn that lesson and try to implement it.”

    The Hawks went small (an adjustment, from coach Mike Budenholzer? Is this real life?) and Mike Scott (7-for-9 FGs in Game 5), Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore (4-for-9 3FGs in Game 5) and Thabo Sefolosha flipped the script on the Celtics in the second quarter on Tuesday. But an eerie hand rose from the crypt in the second half, when Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger hit shots to whittle Atlanta’s double-digit lead down to five. Who you gonna call?

    To bury the Green Goblins for good, Atlanta went with two graveyard shifts, one featuring Teague, Kyle Korver (16 3FGs, 3rd-most in Playoffs), and Horford, then one led by reserves Dennis Schröder, Scott, and Sefolosha. The Hawks widened the lead to 17 by the close of the third quarter and finally heeded Boston the Band’s sage advice: Don’t Look Back.

    On the road for the final time in this series, the Hawks will need the same collective focus and poise tonight, to make the spirited Celtics get ghost and notch Atlanta’s first playoff victory on Boston’s parquet floor since 1988. As Millsap said, now is the time to “put people away,” and Coach Bud has had ample time to figure out the rotations to get it done.

    Paul at least sounds like he kinda gets it. Referring to the blown leads, “it reaches a certain point where if something constantly keeps happening, it’s who you are, he said. “And it’s not who we are. We want to be better than that.” Both teams have had enough experience in this series alone to know their opponents Don’t Stop Believin’ just because a big run has them mired in a mid-game hole.

    Isaiah Thomas won’t exactly be standing there with Open Arms, ready to embrace a season-ending loss in front of his legions of newfound fans. A surefire future stand-in for actor J.D. Williams, Thomas is concerned about not just the agony of defeat, but the agony of Da Feet, his ankle having twisted up like an Auntie Anne’s on National Pretzel Day. Still, there’s no way Thomas is going to let Teague and Schröder, the latter having successfully shaken off an ankle injury in this series himself, dictate the proceedings tonight.

    It probably peeves the Hawks’ lead guards that Thomas, after struggling through most of Games 1 and 2, was receiving inspirational texts from a longtime ATL-area resident, diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson. Our Hawks can barely get life advice from Latrell Sprewell, much less encouragement from our local NBA retirees. “Keep fighting,” Thomas reported A.I. advised him after Game 2. “(The Hawks) did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta. Now, it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.”

    Dude, were you not a 76er? What in Billy Penn’s name are you doing, cheering up a Celtic, of all people? No more endless TGI Friday’s appetizers around here for you, Bubba Chuck! While Thomas has enjoyed counsel from Hall of Fame-caliber guards, his favorite hoops mentor is always forthcoming with advice, and fortunately, there’s one particular insight that has helped Atlanta adequately defend Thomas at home in this series.

    “Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips I can’t tell you guys about,” hinted Winning Isaiah, after dropping a career-high 42 points on Atlanta in Game 3. But prior to Game 5, Isiah-without-the-extra-A Thomas expertly illustrated on NBATV how the Celtics star is in the catbird seat whenever he can barrel down the middle of the floor, ball in hand.

    Zeke showed that when a small but quick guard like Thomas can drive from the center of the court toward the paint, he’s got the most direct path to the hoop, he has optimal vision of what’s happening on each side of the floor, he can use his dribble to keep his on-ball defenders guessing on direction, he can create confusion among help defenders, and he can improve the likelihood of drawing fouls.

    The Hawks were at their defensive best in Game 5, and in Games 1 and 2, when they denied Thomas (NBA-leading 17.2 drives per game in playoffs, five more than second-place Teague) access to the middle of the court. Instead, they met him at half-court and funneled his activity toward the corners, where it’s easier to trap him and coax him into deferring the ball. When Thomas played off-ball, the Hawks maintained their emphasis on denying him the rock at the top of the 3-point arc.

    Neutralizing this aspect of Thomas’ game put the onus on his teammates to get open and execute plays before the Hawks’ defenders could properly rotate. His floormates did that quite well at home. But after repeatedly failing to replicate that effort on the road, it is Thomas Who’s Crying Now.

    “(Atlanta’s) game plan was to let the Other Guys beat us. It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates for (Atlanta) to put two (defenders) on the ball every time I have it,” Thomas grumbled after Game 5. “Other Guys have to step up and make plays. That’s what it comes down to. If (the Hawks) try and do it again in Game 6 (and they will), it comes down to Other Guys making plays. I’m just going to get the ball out as quickly as possible out of the trap.”

    When the finger-pointing point guard finds himself stuck in the AT&L phone booth, the Other Guys he calls upon ought to include Marcus Smart (7 first-quarter points in Game 5), who has drawn champagne throughout this series from his dry-well of a jumpshot, but can afford to create more havoc on baseline drives to the hoop.

    Those Other Guys also include Amir Johnson (65.6 FG% this series, 3rd in NBA), who must get post touches and make Millsap more of a man-defender than a helper, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Smart and Turner (16 playoff TOs, most in East) must keep the ball moving, and need to consider the option of dishing the ball right back to Thomas in the event they can catch a trapping Hawks defender sagging back to his main assignment.

    Did someone mention poise earlier? When you’ve got a cornered animal, you don’t need Dennis Schröder poking it. Schröder (4-for-7 FGs in Game 5, just one TO in 14 minutes) must treat Game 6 as Dellavedova Practice, and ignore any wolf tickets Thomas and the Celts wish to sell. Boston will try to play Atlanta’s ball-handlers physically in hopes of reactions that draw the undivided attention of the Step-Brothers (referees Scott Foster and Tony Brothers).

    While Boston tries to get subcutaneous, both to rattle Schröder into making mistakes and simply to motivate themselves, Dennis can be enough of a Menace by adhering to his defensive principles and having a sound, multi-dimensional plan in mind when he drives to the hoop. There’s no time to get in the last dig, it’s simply time to put people away.

    Building off five steals from Korver, and three from Sefolosha in less than 20 minutes of action, Atlanta finally established a significant turnover advantage (20 for Boston, 12 for Atlanta) in Game 5. Failure to secure 50/50 balls in the opening quarter had the Hawks slow out of the starting blocks, but the amped-up activity after Atlanta’s opening 18 minutes (18 points, 70 in the next 18 minutes of the 110-83 win) helped blow the game open.
    That must continue in Game 6 for the Hawks, including their 19-8 advantage in fastbreak points, 30-19 in assists, and 44-32 in paint points. Korver, Sefolosha, and Bazemore’s synergy at the wing spots must be evident tonight, via their abilities to defend perimeter shooters without fouling, securing defensive rebounds and sparking transition, making Thomas move more laterally and less downhill, beating their man to desirable spots at the other end, and scoring on cuts to the paint.
    There’s no reason to wait until Game 7 before the Hawks and Celtics have to head their Separate Ways. Even without the Celtics and the Ruins playing at TD Garden, there’d still be plenty to whet the appetites of Boston sports fans. The Pats get to make their annual draft-steals in another day or two. The Sawx are only now loosening their belts, and the MLB and MLS seasons ought to be wrapping up around the time Tom Brady returns from his deflating suspension.
    Celtics fans can happily turn their attention toward a summer filled with multiple first-round draft choices and free agent fascination. First-round exits are always disappointing, but easier to swallow when you’ve got 17 title banners hanging in the rafters.

    Back in Atlanta, there is little rush around here for anyone to turn their sights toward the Falcons, the Dream, or the Bravos (the expansion Blaze just started playing lacrosse, so, there’s that). Hawks fans have seen enough of the Celtics at the Highlight Factory, and there’s no desire to see visitors in an elimination game this weekend. Maybe save that for a later round, guys!

    While the Hawks dare not look ahead, they certainly wouldn’t mind Friday becoming a rest-and-recovery day, rather than preparation for an all-the-marbles Saturday Night game back home. And while they can’t acknowledge it publicly, the players are fully aware of the significance to their franchise’s history, and their own NBA legacies, if they can shake free of some longstanding Hawks Hexes tonight.

    So Hold Tight, Hawks Fans. Hold Tight…

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “Marcus, when’s the next 2-for-1 Special at Supercuts?”


    The fine folks in the produce section at Whole Foods would want nothing to do with the Atlanta Hawks after coming up empty in their last trip to Boston. Rotten-tomato shooting for the better part of 3.9 quarters, wilting like lettuce on both ends of the floor as the outcome hung in the balance, and just one playoff performer (finally!) earning his celery. Add to that yet another corny overtime effort, this latest one enough of a carrot to entice the host Celtics into easily evening up this first-round NBA Playoffs series at two apiece.

    It’s hard for Hawks fans to be cool as cucumbers as the scene shifts back to the Highlight Factory tonight for Game 5 (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT). Particularly when their whole team looks like they could’ve had a V8.

    As far as Game 4 goes, to put it in my best Stefon voice, “This Game Had Everything!” Botched rebounds, botched ball handling, botched assignments, botched closeouts, botched cross-court passes, botched substitutions, blown technical free throws, blown open jumpers, blown layups, blown double-digit leads, a shumble… You know, a shumble! That thing where you have a chance to take a game-winning shot in the closing seconds, but don’t run anything resembling a play and fumble away the shot as time expires. A shumble! Atlanta’s hottest club is D’OH!

    But you can’t blame Paul Millsap, not this time, anyway. Awakened by the Spirits of 1988, Sap shook off his notorious playoff shackles and dropped a playoff-career-best 45 points (19-for-31 FGs) on the C’s in the Gahden, while also taking time to register 13 boards (five O-Rebs) and four swats. And thank goodness Regular Season Paul Plus finally bothered to appear on the floor, because his teammates (combined 18-for-69 FGs) were seemingly still stuck in the showers.
    It’s been like this for quite awhile now for the Hawks, who talk as good a game as anyone about playing together, sharing the ball and getting things done as a team instead of leaning on one or two dudes to carry the day. For all of that All for One, One for All shpiel, all you get lately is Moe, Larry, Curly and Aramis on some nights; Porthos, Athos and Shemp on others.

    A normally wayward jumpshooter, second-year guard Marcus Smart (7-for-15 FGs in Game 4, 3-for-8 3FGs) has stepped up and is swishing the types of shots the Hawks (9-for-37 FGs) were supposed to be making, leaving the door cracked open for Isaiah Thomas (Playoff-high 28.2 PPG, 9-for-16 FGs in Game 4) to blow through it in the clutch.

    The Celtics guards’ success at one end tends to discombobulate the Hawks at the other, as Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder (six TOs, 7 made and 24 missed FGs in Game 4) strive to go it alone offensively. Teague’s dish to Millsap with just over nine minutes to go, widening Atlanta’s lead to six points, was the last assist either Hawk guard could muster. In that same span, Boston’s trio of Thomas, Smart and Evan Turner connected on six dimes together, helping the Celtics turn the tables in their favor and salt the game away.

    Teague’s shumble (fumpshot?) shouldn’t have even been necessary, but for poor “strategery” on coach Mike Budenholzer’s part to have Kyle Korver in the game, ostensibly, for defensive purposes, while Teague sat after giving Atlanta the lead with 20 seconds to go. From the top of the key, Thomas screened around Thabo Sefolosha and treated Korver like a lamppost along his way to the hoop for the acrobatic game-tying basket, all in a manner of five seconds.

    The disparity in dribble-penetration, unburdened lane access, and in-paint production between Atlanta’s and Boston’s guards set the stage for the Celtics tying up this series. Despite the Hawks limiting Boston’s star to five free throws, 16 of Thomas’ 28 points came in the paint in Game 4. Smart was 3-for-6 on field goals inside, including a crucial fourth-quarter dunk while knifing unimpeded across the baseline. Meanwhile, Teague was 1-for-6 on FGs in the paint, Schröder 2-for-4 but susceptible to untimely turnovers on his drives. To flip this series back in Atlanta’s favor, the Hawks’ execution on drives and halfcourt defense by their perimeter players needs to improve significantly.

    While Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson (7-for-8 combined FGs in-the-paint in Game 4) were feasting inside, Al Horford (1-for-2 FGs in-the-paint, zero shots around the rim, 1-for-6 outside the paint) was content with being a center hovering around the periphery. That also needs to change for the Hawks, particularly given the iron is so unkind to Al and Paul’s teammates. Boston outscored Atlanta 52-40 in Game 4 on paint points, after being outscored by an average of 45.3-38.7 in the first 3 games of the series.

    While Atlanta’s transition defense has been imperfect, the Hawks did outscore Boston in points off turnovers in Games 3 and 4 (45-37 combined) despite the turnover margin being relatively even. While taking care of the rock on offense is crucial, Atlanta needs to better pressure Thomas and his mates into putting the ball on the floor, fostering the kind of indecisiveness that results in simpler strips, deflections, and interceptions. The Hawks managed just 16 points combined off Celtic turnovers in the first two games of the series at home, as did Boston.

    It’s unfair for anyone to rely on Millsap for another Herculean offensive performance in Game 5, but his paths to the hoop will be eased if Boston has to take Atlanta’s jumpshooting wings (Kent Bazemore 1-for-5 3FGs in Game 4; Sefolosha 0-for-3; Korver 0-for-4 in second half plus OT) seriously. Brad Stevens slipped Smart onto Millsap in the fourth quarter and slowed his roll (1-for-5 FGs) enough to give Boston the chance they needed.

    Coach Bud seems to have fallen back out of favor with Tim Hardaway, Jr. (four seconds in Game 4, four more than Kris Humphries) but he needs to rely on a deeper rotation in this series, exploiting what ought to be a depth advantage and minimizing the risk of foul trouble for Atlanta’s top performers.

    The Celtics’ media crowed about how the Hawks will fold like a crepe when it matters, but things technically won’t matter until one team gets their 3rd win tonight. Time is even more of the essence for both teams, now that LeBron is kicking back in his lair, drumming up clever ways to troll the folks who are dead certain he doesn’t drive a Kia.

    After blowing two chances to build an insurmountable series lead, Atlanta comes into Game 5 disappointed, yet knowing they can turn Game 6 in Beantown into an elimination game for their opponents. The problem is the visiting guys in greens know they can do the same, if they can coax the Hawks into another vegetable of a performance. Which players have the onions to shine under the pressure of primetime? Which team wants to “turnip” and produce when it really counts? Lettuce find out.

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “How am I feeling? Slap happy!”


    Fuh-nool? Fah-neel? Feh-noil? Fan-wheel?

    As long as I can recall, I’ve been advised how to properly pronounce Faneuil Hall, and I still forget. Besides the marketplace, though, Boston has plenty of wonderful sites to see: the USS Constitution, Paul Revere House, Bunker Hill Monument, JFK Museum, Fenway Pahk… all in all, it’s a splendid place to visit. Once.

    The Atlanta Hawks have seen enough of New England in the springtime. There is no reason to plan a return trip anytime soon. That is, unless they slip up again in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Boston Celtics (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, TNT if you can stomach it).

    Advancing in the playoffs gets done quicker when you can prove yourself capable of beating teams in their own gym, in front of their rabid crowd. The 2015 Hawks managed to do it three times, despite blowing their own homecourt advantage, in order to earn their maiden voyage to the conference finals, however much by the skin of their beak. Every year since 2009, a visitor prevailed at Philips Arena along their path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Getting the job done in Game 4 obviates the need to do it in Game 6, and maybe the need for a Game 6 to even occur. Alas, Atlanta’s performances away from the Highlight Factory, without Sir Foster on the 1s and 2s, Harry the Hawk scrambling his eggs, or Ryan Cameron rocking the mic, have lately left much to be desired, to say nothing of their season-long results versus shorthanded teams like the Celtics (missing Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley) in Game 3.

    On March 28 in the Windy City, the Hawks allowed 31 first-quarter points, then surged ahead of the Bulls by 15 points midway through the third period, only to find themselves needing to hit free throws in the final four minutes just to win by two. A couple nights later in Toronto, the Hawks were outpaced for three quarters by the Raptors, before Atlanta's bench players came alive and kept the outcome from becoming a complete laugher.

    Coming off a successful homestand, the Hawks played a valiant game in Cleveland for all of one quarter before letting LeBron and Kyrie pull the ripcord. Two nights later, they mailed in their chance at a division title, falling flat against a Washington team fielding half of its players with little precious left to play for beyond pride.

    It only took one win after seven straight playoff losses, but Celtics Pride was revived on Friday night, as Isaiah Thomas (42 points, 5-for-12 3FGs, 7-for-12 2FGs) asked the Hawks’ defense what the five fingers said to the face. After the Celtics could muster just 15.5 free throw attempts per game in Atlanta, Thomas used the favorable whistles at TD Garden to his decisive advantage, getting 15 of Boston’s 33 free throw shots, and making 13 of them.

    Thomas will return for Game 4 despite whacking Dennis Schröder (8-for-10 2FGs, 20 points) across the mug, which is actually good news for a Hawks team that would allow air to get a triple-double. The Celtics wanted to make this series more physical, and pump-faked, flopped, and pimp-slapped their way back into contention, baiting the Hawks into their preferred style of play.

    Brad Stevens’ inclusion of two catalysts into the starting lineup, Evan Turner (five steals, 17 points, seven assists, five TOs in Game 3) and Jonas Jerebko (12 rebounds, four assists, in Game 3) also allowed the Celtics to shift the tone of the series. Benching slower-of-foot Jared Sullinger allowed the older but spryer Amir Johnson (7-for-8 FGs in Game 3) to have a field day around the rim and put more defensive pressure on Al Horford (4-for-7 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs in Game 3).

    Do-some-but-not-all-Paul! We’re now three games into the offensive black hole that has been Playoff Paul Millsap (3-for-8 2FGs, two O-Rebs in Game 3). The Hawks’ leading scorer, rebounder, ball-stealer, shot blocker and frontcourt assist-maker in the regular season hasn’t led Atlanta in much of anything in this series (31.3 FG%, 12.5 3FG%, 6th among Hawks in PPG, 3rd in RPG, 4th in APG, 3rd in SPG, 2nd in BPG).

    Credit the Boston defensive game plan for neutralizing Millsap’s availability as a scoring option on many possessions. But the Anchorman’s sinking contentment with being relegated to role-playing (specifically, staying back for rebounding and transition defensive purposes) is overtaxing the Hawks in many ways on the floor.

    Kyle Korver (5-for-9 3FGs, fouled out at critical juncture of Game 3) finds himself swiping and grasping at everything within reach. Kent Bazemore (8-for-19 FGs in Game 3) takes it upon himself to lead the team in jumpshots. Horford (team-high 6 assists, probable for Game 4 despite a groin strain) becomes the Hawks’ floor leader. Mike Muscala comes in for two minutes and is immediately jacking up shots. Isolation plays, and dribble-drives into the teeth of the Celtics defense without open outlets, become the order of the day.

    A lot of this extra activity is related to Millsap’s reluctance to improve his own positioning, to roll to the hoop on screens, and to demand the ball to make plays in the post. With any of Bazemore, Korver, or Thabo Sefolosha on the floor, the Hawks have ample transition defenders and help rebounders, allowing Sap more room to roam at the offensive end. It’s past time for Atlanta’s jack of all trades to show he’s a master of something beyond being a defensive pest.

    Whenever Thomas or Marcus Smart (2-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) hits a big shot, and the Garden crowd goes wild, the immediate impulse by Jeff Teague and Schröder (7 combined assists, 6 TOs, 0-for-8 3FGs in Game 3) is to go back at him or their individual defenders on the offensive end.

    The Hawks guards need to remain committed to setting up the team’s optimal shots rather than the payback shot, moving the ball and putting Thomas to work defensively. Persistent motion from the Hawks’ bigs can keep the Celtics’ interior defense guessing, but it’s up to Atlanta’s ballhandlers to find them and feed them.

    No matter their role in the offense, all of the Hawks have to finish when they get the ball in the paint. After a power-outage in the first-quarter of Game 3, the Hawks surged ahead only to flounder in the fourth quarter. Scrambling back into contention, and gaining the lead, after falling behind by 20 points, can bring on fatigue, but that is no excuse for missing 7 shots within six feet of the rim in the final quarter of the game. In Game 2 back home, Atlanta made six of seven shots from that close range. That Celtics may be able to slap and flop at will, but they’re not moving the rim.

    If the Hawks prevail in this series, that likely concludes the homecourt advantage going forward. Any success that follows hinges on Atlanta’s resolve when playing away from their home nest. The Hawks need to show better maturity, poise, and balance to make Game 4, not Game 6, a farewell party at the Garden for the Celtics.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “Atlanta’s Kent is smokin’ haht!”


    Readers know by now that yours truly grew up a 76ers fan. Pretty much any Sixers fan aged 40-plus remembers the joy of their team beating the Lakers in L.A. and winning the 1983 NBA Finals, “fo-fi-fo” and all that. But an even more fond memory didn’t even result in an NBA title. It involved a game one season before, one in which Boston Celtics fans showed up rocking… bedsheets.

    No, there was no school desegregation protest going on. The Sixers had blown playoff advantages in previous seasons, often in tragicomic fashion, often right in the eerie, decrepit, yet revered Boston Garden. The 76ers blew a 3-1 playoff lead versus the Celtics in 1981, and were on the verge of doing it again in the 1982 conference finals. Celtics fans knew their team had a psychological leg up in this bitter playoff rivalry with their conference rivals, and dressed up The Ghosts of Playoff Pasts to ensure Philly wouldn’t forget.

    It was up to Doctor J and the soon-to-be-named Boston Strangler, Andrew Toney, to exorcise these ghosts and break their hex to return to the NBA Finals. Decades later, the Atlanta Hawks are in a prime position to follow the Spirits of 76ers and terminate a ghoulish playoff history in Boston, beginning tonight in Game 3 of their first-round series (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, ESPN2). Will the Hawks be Ghostbusters, or will they remain spooked by the specter of raised expectations?

    March 29, 1960, Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Bob Pettit scored 35 points, he and cat-quick guard Si Green keying a second-half comeback as the Hawks overcame a 7-point halftime deficit to win by 13, boos raining down from the Gahden faithful in what was called “a dogfight to the end,” despite 30 points from Bill Sharman and a then-playoff-record 40 rebounds from Bill Russell.

    April 6, 1973, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semis. Behind Herm Gilliam, the Hawks turned the tables on the Big Green Machine after ending the first-quarter down 29-16. John Havlicek totaled 83 points in the first two games of the series, but could only muster 18 points in Game 3. Lou Hudson with 37, Gilliam with 25, Pete Maravich with 24. Head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons credited a scrumptious team dinner in Boston the night before: “It helped us get it all together.”

    May 18, 1988, a pivotal Game 5 of the conference semis. The Hawks stormed ahead with 43 fourth-quarter points, shocking the Celtics and forcing a titanic elimination game back in Atlanta. Boston had previously prevailed in 133 of 141 games at the hallowed Gahden, and an unlucky 13 straight games versus the Hawks in that building. “Everybody felt sorry for us that we couldn’t win here,” said coach Mike Fratello, who shifted a struggling Dominique Wilkins to shooting guard late in the contest. “When you’re going against a streak like that, you just have to work through it.” Nique shot a Durant-esque 7-for-22, but finished with 25 points after the Czar’s benching and re-positioning. Kevin Willis carried the day with 27-and-14, Doc Rivers had 21 and Cliff Levingston added 16 off the bench.

    And, that’s all, folks! 29 playoff games by the Hawks in Beantown, and in 26 of those occasions, the guys in green came away victorious. In all but one of those previous nine playoff series, the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage; the Hawks fumbled away Game 2 at home in 2012, and that was all she wrote. Tonight’s Hawks hope Atlanta’s playoff losing streak in Boston halts at nine games.

    Much like reaching the ECFs in 2015, a win tonight would place the Hawks in fairly uncharted territory as a franchise. The last time the Hawks went up 3-0 versus anybody was in 1970, a 4-1 series win over the Chicago Bulls. And there was apparently a tectonic shift since the last time Atlanta swept anybody, a 2-0 sweep of the Houston Rockets in a 1979 Eastern Conference first round series. Never in its history, not in Tri-Cities, Milwaukee, St. Louis, nor Atlanta, had this team run the table in a seven-game series.

    To place themselves in position to break out brooms on the TD Garden parquet floor, the Hawks must collectively check off boxes that aided their cause in the comfier confines of Philips Arena. In Atlanta, the Hawks held the Celtics to a Playoffs-low 38.4 effective field-goal percentage and limited their opponents to a 19.0 offensive rebound percentage (2nd-lowest in Playoffs), 8.0 points off turnovers (lowest in Playoffs) and just 15.5 free throw attempts per game (2nd-lowest in Playoffs). In the fastest-paced series so far in this postseason, the Hawks have posted a league-high 17.5 fastbreak PPG, compared to Boston’s 11.5 PPG.

    The Hawks have gotten the job done thus far without appreciable offensive input from regular-season leading scorer Paul Millsap (1-for-12 FGs, 1 assist, 5 TOs in Game 2), more than one half of perimeter fire from Kyle Korver (5-for-6 3FGs in 1st half of Game 2), or reliable bench output (1-for-6 3FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs).

    Millsap and Kent Bazemore combined to shoot just 3-for-26 from the field, but made enough defensive plays in Game 2 to ensure the Hawks went wire-to-wire in an 89-72 win. The Celtics have been adamant about using Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson to make post play troublesome for Millsap. But with Atlanta’s perimeter game slowly opening up and Al Horford (3-for-4 3FGs in Game 2) finding his groove, Crowder will be less able to provide help and stop Millsap from wrecking shop on the Celtics’ inferior interior.

    Dennis Schröder showed signs of life early in Game 2 but sprained an ankle late in the contest. If he can go, he’ll need to focus on forcing mistakes and contested shots out of Marcus Smart (probable after sustaining a rib injury early in Game 2) and Isaiah Thomas without fouling. If not, while Jeff Teague will provide a heavier workload, those tasks will fall to Kirk Hinrich, one of two veterans (including Kirk Humphries) rested by coach Mike Budenholzer who are likely to see more playing time on the road.

    Boston is seeking to avoid a franchise-record tying eighth consecutive playoff defeat, and one can bet the Garden will be amplifying crowd noise at every sense of Celtic momentum. The Hawks were unable to force the Celtics into committing turnovers in Atlanta, and will have to gain an advantage in this area during Games 3 and 4 to quell a boisterous but increasingly desperate crowd.

    It’s up to Thomas (3-for-9 2FGs, 1-for-6 3FGs, 7-for-8 FTs in Game 2) to get the Celtics’ offense purring, not just from looking for his own shots. Boston’s 30.5 catch-and-shoot attempts per game lead the Playoff field, but their 26.2 FG% on those shots is a league-low. The omnipresent fear of Hawks ripping-and-stripping the ball away keeps the Boston offense looking harried as players think twice about putting the ball on the floor.

    Thomas and Smart (five assists in 60 combined Game 2 minutes) must do a better job of feeding teammates in ideal positions to score quickly. Boston cannot thrive off of iso plays from Amir Johnson (6-for-9 2FGs in Game 2) and Evan Turner (5-for-10 2FGs in Game 2) alone. Head coach Brad Stevens may replace Smart with Turner, a solid passing wing, in the starting lineup in hopes of more consistent offensive results.

    The Celtics guards must get the ball into Jared Sullinger (14 mostly ineffective minutes in Game 2, 2-for-5 FGs) and Johnson in the low post. Without touches and activity around the rim, the cherry-picking Sullinger will receive another short hook in favor of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko, the latter better capable of matching Horford’s floor-spreading arsenal. Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) remains highly questionable to appear in Game 3.

    That old Massachusetts Mystique doesn’t just taint the perspective of Hawks fans. We’ve secretly replaced balanced perspective and analysis with CSN New England sports-yap host Michael Felger’s crystal-clear commentary. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference!

    “The Hawks will be the Hawks,” Felger bellowed back on Monday, with Atlanta holding a 1-0 lead in the series, uttered with an air of certainty that would give his team’s winking-bum logo a run for its money. No worries, Felger assured the Celtics faithful, because Atlanta will “fold when it matters.” Because, history, duh! And elfin’ magic! “We now turn to FS1 correspondent Curt Schilling,” is the only statement more certain to be uttered in the near future than “Hawks blow it in Beantown, again,” to hear Felger tell it.

    Felger, his fellow Celtics fans, and the team they adore would do well to heed a voice from their fading past… although he’s not walking through that door anytime soon.

    “We felt we were a better team than Atlanta,” said Larry Bird back after that 1988 Hawks victory. “Maybe that’s why we lost.”

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “No, that call wasn’t B.S. But you are!”


    Bitter! Party of One!

    We’ll never know, but one would think that being involved in some manner for 17 championships, all with one NBA franchise, would tend to mellow a person out. The added fortune of having Bill Russell carry your water through much of that early run should assist with one’s contentment. Alas, Thomas William Heinsohn has a deep-seated issue with the franchise now known as the Atlanta Hawks, who look to hold serve tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT if you dare) and build a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with Heinsohn’s Boston Celtics.

    Tommy Boy entered the league as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 1956, winning Rookie of the Year over Russell (acquired from the St. Louis Hawks via draft-day trade, who arrived late to the NBA due to the Olympics). His Celtics needed two overtimes against the Hawks to win its first-ever NBA title in 1957. As a nine-year NBA player, Heinsohn went on to end his career as an NBA champion in every single year… but for one.

    Apparently, memories of 1958 still stick in the Hall of Famer’s craw. If the NBA Finals were Wrestlemania, and Heinsohn the Undertaker, the ’58 Hawks would be his Brock Lesnar. As a soother for this seether, however, it’s the Celtics who have handed the Hawks their Last Rides for the better part of six decades since -- nine times in nine playoff meetings, seven times since the franchise packed up and relocated to Atlanta in 1968.

    Nearly 58 years have come and gone, and while the Hawks’ sharply-dressed Hall of Fame color analyst has a statue of his likeness outside Philips Arena, Tommy has grown too old and tubby to even serve as a stand-in for his team’s logo. Which is his right. But the crotchety color commentator has only half of the fat-and-happy persona down pat. What’s making his ample belly ache these days? The era that had the Hawks on the business end of the Celtics’ leash appears to finally be reaching its sunset. Tommy doesn’t seem to like that. And now, with his salad days a distant memory, he’s directing his venom at one man, in particular.

    “… (Al) Horford, as much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player,” hissed Heinsohn, after the Celtics’ 102-101 too-little-too-late road loss in Game 1 on Saturday night. “Get a man on him, and he has trouble scoring.” We’ll never know if Tommy had to provide the front money for Paula Pierce, when the rookie Horford earned his ten stacks by plopping a jumper above a prone Pierce, sealing Game 3 in 2008 and quashing designs on a series sweep and a perfect path to another clover-leaved coronation. In any case, Tommy comes off like a man with an axe to grind, and that’s never a good look from an 81-year-old man who’s losing teeth to grind. Never mind a fellow as accomplished as Heinsohn.

    Horford, to his credit, has just enough panache to get that dirt off his shoulders. “That’s his opinion, you gotta respect it,” Al responded when pressed by the media for a schoolyard response. “I’ve been in this league a long time,” added Horford, whose NBA playing career has now lasted as long as Heinsohn’s. “I know I have to focus on my team and this is the playoffs, we’re in a great position and we have a great opportunity.”

    Indeed, Al will keep his focus on the tasks ahead, preferring to catch lobs from his guards rather than quibbling over grumpy old men lobbing shade from the TV booth. Besides, while even Al recognizes he’s still quite a ways from Springfield, Tommy’s broadside says less about the star-quality of Atlanta’s four-time All-Star than it does the cast of characters whose arduous job it is to stay “on him.”

    But if Oscar the Grouch just inferred you need to get on his level, you’re probably crossing Sesame Street off your summertime destination list. That notion was not lost on Heinsohn’s broadcasting colleague, who was quick to clean up Tommy’s verbal vomit regarding the upcoming unrestricted free agent, on behalf of Boston GM Danny Ainge.  “I’ll tell you what,” said Celtics’ TV studio host Kyle Draper, “if (Horford) put on Green next season, Tommy wants his jersey retired, hanging from the rafters.” They may all have to settle for Al’s Volt Green banner instead.

    It’s not as though Tommy’s completely off-base, as he’s merely seeking to motivate his team from afar. Boston remains very much in this series, as demonstrated in the second half Saturday, when head coach Brad Stevens’ club charged back valiantly from 19 points down to hold a momentary second-half lead. But Stevens knows what “getting a man on Horford” usually entails, and the results for the Celtics are less than ideal.

    Way too often, that means abdicating the paint when Horford (team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive, in Game 1) is not posted there, and Atlanta’s 52-36 points-in-paint advantage made all the difference in the series opener. It risks exposing the rim to the likes of a cutting Kent Bazemore (6-for-7 FGs at-rim, 8-for-10 FTs, playoff-career-high 23 points and 8 boards).

    “Getting a man on” Horford also means keeping up with the center in transition, impeding his rolls toward the hoop, and picking off those dishes from his point guards. And if your “man on him” options are Jared Sullinger (4-for-14 FGs, 4 D-Rebs in 20 minutes of Game 1), birthday-boy Kelly Olynyk (questionable to play, with a sore shoulder) and Tyler Zeller (DNP Game 1), without defensive help, you’re behind the proverbial 8-ball more times than not.

    What’s scary for Boston is that there were stretches where Jeff Teague (12 assists, most in any NBA Game 1 this weekend, 7 to Horford) and Dennis Schröder weren’t even looking Horford’s way. Even less so Paul Millsap (6-for-11 FGs in 36 minutes, 7 of his 14 points in the first 6 minutes of Game 1), as the desperation to get Kyle Korver (a Durant-envious 0-for-7 3FGs, but 9 rebounds) going from long-range, and Schröder (0-for-6 FGs) going from anywhere, allowed the Celts to get the Hawks’ claws off their necks.

    For much of the national TV audience, this was their first time becoming familiar with a Hawks team that needs Korver’s triples to sustain leads or reduce deficits, but not necessarily to win games. Atlanta finished 5-5 this season when Kold Korver went 0-for-anything, 16-10 when he sunk just one three-point shot.  Usually, it’s because he’s helping in other ways beyond just stretching the floor.

    Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha combined for 22 of Atlanta’s 40 defensive rebounds in Game 1, alleviating Atlanta of the need for Horford and Millsap to seal off all comers around the rim. Eight of Boston’s top nine participants came away with at least one O-Reb, yet that was mostly the product of plenty of long rebounding chances from the Celts’ missed threes. The Celtics made more than twice as many three-pointers (11-for-35 3FGs) as Atlanta (5-for-27 3FGs), but missed a couple more than the off-target Hawks did.

    Keeping the Hawks down from downtown becomes much more of an uphill battle without Boston’s premier perimeter defender available. Avery Bradley (out with a strained hamstring) not only served that role, but was also the Celts’ most accurate three-point shooter in the backcourt, his 36.1 3FG% a shade ahead of top-scorer Isaiah Thomas’ 35.9%. Stevens will green-light Olynyk (40.5 3FG%), if available, and Jonas Jerebko (39.8 3FG%) to help keep Boston relevant from deep.

    Stevens will also deploy his rookies, Georgia State alum R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier, as an offense/defense rotation off the bench. Hunter is thrilled about the prospect of making an impact in his first NBA playoff series. “I don’t have any fear of anyone in the league right now,” said Hunter, a beneficiary of lunchtime collegiate tutorials from Korver and visits from his fellow high school alum, Teague, while at GSU.

    “I think right now, especially with the Hawks, how they cram into the paint, I can definitely be that spacer.” Hunter contributed his momentary career-high 12 points in a rookie-high 20 minutes during a November 24 loss in Atlanta, and is 6-for-8 on threes in four games against the Hawks.

    Defensively, the top Sixth Man of the Year vote-getter in the East, Evan Turner, and flop-meister Marcus Smart will be relied upon to reach a bit deeper into their bags of tricks. Turner (4-for-13 FGs in Game 1) knows from past experience that he’d best leave the defensive assignment of Teague to Smart. He’ll try to do a better job of fronting Bazemore (probable, knee stiffness), Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (fully-healed groin strain), while getting help from Jae Crowder (limited laterally while recovering from an ankle sprain during the regular season).

    “Guys like (Bazemore), we gotta try to limit them,” said Thomas. “We can’t have guys like that having big games. That hurts us if we have guys like Teague and those guys going off and then a guy like Bazemore is going off as well.”

    When called upon, Mike Scott has to play every NBA game as though it’s his last, as he knows it might well be. Scott, who certainly qualifies as one of Thomas’ “guys like that,” was the only difference-maker for the Hawks off the bench (14 points and 5 boards in 18 minutes, 2-for-4 3FGs). Head coach Mike Budenholzer believes his Hawks can only compete at their optimal best when there’s a strong, balanced bench effort supporting the starters.

    Schröder finished third in 6MOY voting among the East’s bench men, and fifth among NBA guards. But Budenholzer needs his top reserve to focus on on-ball defense first (especially when matched up against Thomas or Turner), setting up teammates second, and hero-ball forays to the hoop last.

    After struggling for much of the past couple weeks (last 7 games: 30.0 FG%, 1.4 D-Rebs per game in 10.3 minutes/game), Kris Humphries (DNP in Game 1 and in the Wizards-Hawks series last year) may be getting preserved for crunch-time situations when a veteran presence is needed in the paint. Or, he may have been brought in with the intention all along to boost the confidence of Mike Muscala, who appeared briefly in Game 1. Either way, both bigs have to be ready to produce, as the Celtics throw out everything they have trying to get Millsap (1 steal, 3 blocks, 1 personal fouls) and Horford in foul trouble.
    Horford was called for his third and final foul of the game with under two minutes to go, an event Stevens hopes will arrive earlier tonight (Tony Brothers, please help!). Atlanta could not capitalize on Boston’s tempo-thwarting hack-fest early in the third-quarter of Game 1. But by the time the dust settled, the Hawks had 11 more free throw points than the Celtics, despite missing 5 more attempts than Boston. Boston disallowed any field goals in the final two minutes, but Horford, Bazemore, and Teague making 8 of their final 10 freebies helped make the outcome academic.

    Any time your color analyst leaves viewers yearning for the likes of Dominique Wilkins, you’ve got issues. Those Hawks fans stuck settling for the CSN New England broadcast of Game 2 wouldn’t mind a steadier and better-balanced effort from Atlanta, one that leaves Tommy Heinsohn tearing out whatever hair he can still reach.

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    “So glad my Dad’s buddy’s favorite player wasn’t Etan Thomas!”


    First things first. As Chris Hardwick says near the end of every @midnight show, “Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe…”

    What you’ve accomplished, or didn’t, since Halloween doesn’t matter. Who you defeated, or didn’t, or couldn’t, doesn’t mean a thing. Nor does whatever it is you achieved last year.

    You’re the Atlanta Hawks. All that matters is, you worked to earn first-round homecourt in the NBA Playoffs, and now you’ve got it. Game 1 is here. Your Hawkamaniacs are right here in The Highlight Factory, rocking the Volt Green and ready to shout their lungs out. And you’ve got the Boston Celtics (7:00, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Go app, ESPN if thou must) in your house. Whatcha gonna do, brudders?

    Now, if I may, full disclosure.

    As a result of countless movie-night duties from my drunken fratboy era, I devolved into becoming quite the kickfighting flick aficionado. I’m not even talking about quality Shaw Brothers stuff, with the white-bearded kung fu masters and dudes yapping in hilariously delayed overdubs while flipping around in yellow jumpsuits. I’m talking Psycho Burmese Ninja Kickboxer 12 here. I’m told there’s therapy for this sort of thing.

    This is all Ralph Macchio’s fault, you see. It all started innocently enough, mimicking the Rocky formula to wax-on wax-off success as The Karate Kid. But then, Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, messed around and franchised it. Soon, along came the Muscles from Brussels, knocking ‘em out the box while doing splits everywhere. Suddenly, everyone who can scratch their ear with their pinky toe fashioned themselves as America’s Next Action Film Star.

    After three, or three hundred, of these films, you grow inured to the copy-paste formula of this fluff. Take some Euro-American black-belt in reality who’s not wild about the prospect of one day waking up as a 50-year-old point fighter, and dress him up as some jamoke who’s down on his luck.

    Have him run into a past-his-prime Mister Miyagi guy who’s got no more protégés since his dojo’s been trashed by some bad gang, the same head-busters who’ve been bullying the sad sap hero around the neighborhood. Enter the dimepiece, a Pearl Pureheart who empathizes with the hero’s plight but manages to get abducted by the baddies. To save the damsel-in-distress and win her heart, the hero and his meek yet vengeful master team up, the hero willingly enduring one arduous exercise after the next to “toughen up” while taking random Fortune Cookie advice to heart.

    The underdog hero gets the job done, eventually, but not until he backflips his way through the adversity of dozens of competitors interlocked in some sort of super-double-secret, inter-disciplinary, multi-national brawl. A tournament, held in an underground lair that somehow pays its electric and sewer bills but nobody sane knows about, owned by a megalomaniac with hundreds of bloodthirsty fans as his gambling buddies. Conceptually, this was what passed for MMA in the days before MMA.

    From one flick to the next, in the middle of the movies, you begin to notice the very same guys getting their heads beat in. These are happily paid stuntfighters, experts at turning an absorbed kick into a triple salchow before going splat on the mat. Their sole raison d’être is to make The Big Hero, and The Big Villain, look unstoppably good. And their characters are hopelessly done in by predictable fatal flaws. Who told the Scottish dude to show up in a kilt? Sumo-dude, TKD-kicker-dude, seriously, diversify your skillsets, please!

    There’s often the friendly drunken sidekick who thinks he’s just as good without working half as hard, whose snapped neck becomes just one more thing the hero has to get vengeance for. There’s usually the street-toughened ex-ex-ex-con, who never seems to figure out winding up punches from behind his head has disastrous consequences. There’s always the capoeira master who flips all around the cage but, sadly, thinks leaping into the spine-crushing arms of his behemoth foe is a splendid idea.

    The stuntfighters are all incredibly talented, hard-workers at their crafts, unquestionably athletic, occasionally entertaining, and ultimately grist for the mill. They’re fast-forwardable opponents serving as filler for the middle of any random 90-minute flick, mere agents for the attempt to keep viewers tuned in for the real showdown that awaits them before the credits roll. There’s no need to care about the stuntfighters' story arcs, because they won’t be upright much longer. I identify our latter-day Hawks with these guys.

    We’re heading into our ninth consecutive year of watching the Hawks enter the NBA’s Kumite, and, yes, “Two Teams Enter, That Other Team Leaves” is the likely eventual result. But, at least for once, I’d enjoy it if these Hawks were unafraid to diverge from the script a little.  Atlanta has faced 13 opponents over eight seasons, each one taking at least two games from the Hawks during their 7-game series. The core of the team has done this postseason thingie for a few years together now, suffering through plenty of beatdowns, and putting up with a lot of junk along the way. I’d like to see Atlanta discover its Johnny Badass gene.
    I’ve got no expectations of being the Big Hero everybody pulls for. But the best butt-whooping flicks always has that moment where it’s looking like things might not shake out for the scripted hero, who’s forced to do something... well, heroic… to save the day. That’s because of a Big Villain that earned his world-beater status. It sure would be fun to see our Hawks become Bolo Yeung, or Sho’Nuff, or Goro, or the dude who fights in a kimono that breaks out the bear claw where his hand used to be. No, they won’t be The Last Dragon standing. But by now, why can’t our Hawks be Cobra Kai? Sweep The Freaking Leg, Jeffy!

    Swagger, without the necessary skills, leaves you like the 2008 Hawks, going bravely and literally head-to-head with opponents, even when everyone sees you are not on their level. Skills, without accompanying swag, leave you like the 2009 and 2010 Hawks, or like last year’s edition, a mightily-crafted sandcastle just waiting to be kicked into nothingness by some basketball bullies. It’s merely a matter of pulling the two components together.

    These Hawks clearly have the skills. They’ve bringing probably the second-best defense in franchise history (oh, those ill-fated 1999 Hawks) to the table, plus an offense that, while off-kilter from time to time, has but one NBA Champion peer when it comes to sharing the basketball and creating assist-worthy shots.

    In fits and starts, the swagger is coming along as well. Few young players have the brazen, unshakeable confidence of Atlanta’s top sixth man, arguably one of the best bench threats the NBA East has to offer. Mix his fastball in with the sliders and knuckleballs expertly lobbed by battle-tested vets Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap, and you’ve got a rotation that could even help the Bravos win a series or two. The point guard Dennis understudies, Teague is quick to remind everybody who is too small or too slow to stop him for getting to the hoop.

    The most effective Villains don’t allow middling, inferior opponents any oxygen, no daylight to shine. That has long been Atlanta’s issue no matter where they’ve been seeded. From Delonte West and Rashard Lewis, to Brandon Jennings and John Salmons, to Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavannoya, they all used the Hawks in their quest to emerge as America’s Next Big Clutch Playoff Performer.

    Their presence in Hawks series have that uncanny way of making you want to add the warning, “THESE OPPONENTS ARE CRAPPIER THAN THEY APPEAR”, at the bottom of your screens. Players who either are looking for a fat new contract, or justifying one they recently got, have long used the Playoff Hawks as the palette for their Rembrandts. The Celtics are loaded with these kinds of guys.

    NBA All-Homonym First-Teamer Isaiah Thomas (career-high 22.2 PPG) is poised for a big household-name breakout. The Little Engine that Could became a Bullet Train in just his fifth NBA season.  The 2011 second-rounder reestablished himself as a starting-quality guard in November, and has rewarded the Celtics with All-Star virtuoso performances ever since.

    His starting backcourt mate, Avery Bradley (career-best 15.2 PPG, 1.5 SPG), is hoping to cement his place as the league’s preeminent perimeter defender. So is Bradley’s teammate, Marcus Smart. Until the rest of his game picks up (25.3 3FG%, passing Toine 2000 and Smoove 2014 for worst 3FG% with at least 200 attempts), Smart will settle for making a name for himself as the league’s youngest team enforcer and crap-stirrer.

    Center Jared Sullinger (career-high 8.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG) seeks to shed not just a pound or two, but his sullied reputation as a player whose conditioning issues might weigh him down from ever achieving NBA greatness. Considering some Boston-area sportsmen, he’s thrilled that NBA uniforms don’t come equipped with belts. Kelly Olynyk wants to be known as anything other than the Poor Man’s Fabio that kimura’d Kevin Love right out of the 2015 playoffs.

    Tyler Zeller hopes to join Sullinger in restricted free agency, and stout playoff performances off the bench may lead to some nice summertime offers. It’s a similar deal for Evan Turner, who continues trying to show his 2014 comments about his former teammate Korver’s defensive skills weren’t hypocritical.

    No one is questioning Amir Johnson’s two-year, $24 million deal, and he wants to keep it that way (68.2 FG%, 8.2 RPG since March 15) after a strong end-of-season push. Villa Rican forward Jae Crowder (career-best 14.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG) got his five-year, $35 million contract last summer, too, and wants to foster the indispensable glue-guy love DeMarre Carroll created last year during the Hawks’ campaign.

    All of these aspirations have been well-managed by their young mad-scientist head coach Brad Stevens, who The Vertical just yesterday touted, “might be the NBA’s next great coach.” Stevens joins reigning Coach of the Year (for another couple days) Mike Budenholzer in setting up players for career-years without an overreliance on individual players dominating the ball.

    There are so many hopes for a rise to prominence, a return to glory, up in Beantown. And yet, Stevens’ crew is still looking for their first playoff game victory today. That’s because they ran right into The Big Villain in 2015, LeBron’s Cavs outpacing the Celtics 4-0 in the opening-round series, despite losing Love, before going on to steamroll the Hawks along the path to The Finals.

    The Hawks have the tools to close the door on Boston’s aspirations, and to keep the door sealed shut. They can do many of the things the Celtics do very well (perimeter defense, transition scoring, passing offense, efficient point guard play, floor-stretching frontcourt play) and can often do it better. Integral to the Hawks getting their Tong Po on in this series is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shot-blocker, and ball-stealer.

    This will be the third-straight postseason in Atlanta for do-it-all Paul Millsap, and it is past time to see Playoff Paul (40.4 FG% last 2 playoff years; 15.2 PPG and 8.7 RPG in 2015) at least resembling Regular Season Paul (51.2 2FG%, 17.1 PPG, career-high 9.0 RPG), a three-time All-Star. Millsap and Al Horford need to dominate their matchups in the post and around the perimeter, relying on help rebounding from the wing players to capitalize upon their unique help-defender skills.

    The more effective Millsap, Horford and ex-Celtic Kris Humphries are on the interior, and the more efficient Korver, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (game-time decision, participated in shootaround today despite his strained groin) and Kent Bazemore are with perimeter jumpers, the less confident Thomas and Smart will be containing Teague and Schröder in space.

    The pace that both coaches preach will make games in this series wild-and-wooly for long stretches, as was often the case during the regular season. The Celtics’ regular season ended well, but only after a 62-36 first-half deficit versus Miami, a decisive 39-13 second-quarter hole at home against Charlotte, and a 51-36 second half deficit in this same building that muted a 71-point first-half effort by the C’s. Boston goes on big runs, but they give up as many as they get.

    Point guard stewardship can make the difference for Atlanta, who must build more sustainable runs to keep Boston out of reach at the ends of games. Schröder, in particular, must cut down on turnovers and hurried shots while disallowing Smart from getting under his skin.

    Armed with a healthy Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta must stem Boston’s desire for runouts off turnovers and bailout shots by Thomas. Long-rebound chances will abound from a Celtics team that shot the third-worst percentage on three-pointers (33.5 3FG%, 28th in NBA), so limiting Johnson, Smart and Sullinger from producing second-chances will go a long way toward cutting off the air for the Celtics (25.1 O-Reb%, 2nd-highest in East).

    Booted in the past two postseasons by the #1 seed, the Hawks have sufficient know-how to understand what they need to do to win playoff games, along with knowing what not to do, as well as just about anyone in the Eastern Conference field, certainly enough to leave these less-experienced Celtics green with envy.

    The NBA world is ready to fast-forward straight through these NBA Playoffs in anticipation of Golden State versus Cleveland at the end. The Big Hero, against The Big Villain: a tale as old as time. Watching their ninth sequel, rather than enduring another bloody ending, it would be a lot of fun for Atlanta fans if their Hawks can figure out a way to flip the script.

    Let’s Go Hawks!