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      Hawksquawk Premium Memberships & Donations   10/24/2015

      Want to help keep the lights on around here and the ads to a minimum?  Premium Memberships Become a Hawksquawk Premium Member (aka Hawksquawk Supporter) with packages starting as low as $5 per month. All donations go to maintain Hawksquawk in the present and help with upgrades for the future. Click here to access the store.  New Donations System Some of you have asked for this in the past and we now have a system in place to accept donations. These can be as small as .01 and as large as you want. For your convenience we have created a few standard donation amounts. You can be a big help by making a donation. All donations go to help supporting the site and adding new features plus supporting the existing ones. Click here to access the store A Hearty Thank You For those of you who have helped out Hawksquawk by making donations in the past we want to say thank you and of course very much appreciate any donations in the future as well but please do not feel obligated in any way. Please note that existing memberships will be converted over into the new system so please be patient as those have to be manually entered into the system. 

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  1. “I call this dance move the ‘Joel Embiid’!” Remember those times the Atlanta Hawks could just bring their B-game to the table, and still run said table on most nights against the Philadelphia 76ers? Well, hopefully, you enjoyed those games, because those days appear to be tabled for the foreseeable future. Nobody’s chanting “fo-fi-fo” up in the City of Brotherly Shove just yet, but the Sixers arrive in Atlanta for tonight’s game (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Philly) having won eight of their last ten, including last night’s thrilling 93-92 comeback win at home against Portland. That’s the best string of Sixer success since the outfit led by Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala broke into the 2011-12 season with an early 9-1 run. By comparison, they were 7-24 before this latest stretch, 10-72 all last season. It’s not just patsies, either, that Philadelphia (15-26) is pheasting on. This past week, the Sixers took out visiting Toronto and knocked off the Bucks in Milwaukee. Last week, they fumigated the Hornets at home, one week after putting a late scare into their old rival Celtics in Beantown. For long-middling franchises like the Hawks, winning ten out of 12 doesn’t cause anyone around town to start planning parade routes. But for a team as historically miserable as the latter-day 76ers, these days, it’s as if the Mummers never left South Broad. 2016 #1-overall pick and soon-to-be-rookie Ben Simmons placed an exotic pet cat atop his head for an Instagram earlier in the week, and just that simple act has spawned a flurry of #RaiseTheCat tweets among Philly’s Pheline Phaithphul. Need we mention that Simmons has yet to play a regular-season game? All that town needed to go paws-itively cat-crazy is the most magnetic personality since Allen Iverson to finally make an impact on the floor. Back in October, Joel Embiid was in just his second game as a pro, when the Hawks obligatorily pasted the Sixers, 104-72. Yet he was thrilled with what he perceived as a dominant performance (14 points, 2 blocks, 2 rebounds in 15 minutes) versus former All-Stars Dwight Howard (2 points, 3 blocks, 7 rebounds in 19 minutes) and Paul Millsap. “Everybody has flaws,” Joel not-so-humble-bragged to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I thought I took advantage of that by attacking (the Hawks’ bigs) and creating fouls. I got the shots that I wanted.” Such paltry contributions don’t excite Embiid anymore. He’s become a per-minute-MVP candidate, for turning around Philly’s fortunes while remaining on a team-mandated 28-minute restriction. 22.9 PPG, 2.5 BPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, and nearly one made three-point shot per game would be a dream for most starting NBA bigs, to say nothing of these averages Embiid produced in his past 15 appearances (in just 26.8 minutes/game). There are also 3.8 turnovers per game in those abbreviated stints, but hey, this is Philly, and at least he’s trying. Beyond just the highlights and the numbers, Embiid has emerged as the NBA’s premier social media magnet, building legions of fans awaiting his next tweet or Instagram post. Whether it’s flowering praise upon longtime crush Rihanna, bottling Shirley Temple drinks for a city that needs, if nothing else, sugary beverages, or revealing he and Johnny Football were summertime pals, Joey Basketball is taking the NBA world by storm, off the court as much as on. Sixers coach Brett Brown is certainly happy to still be along for the ride. His former boss, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, rarely reveals many “joys in life,” but one of them apparently is “to watch (the 76ers) win basketball games, because if there’s any team that deserves it, it’s those guys,” he told ESPN.com. “They’ve had it really tough for all the obvious reasons,” Coach Pop explained, “and there’s nobody in this business that is more positive, and more day-to-day upbeat than Brett Brown.” The signs that Brown had something simmering even without Simmons has been evident for a couple months. When the Hawks raised their record to 9-2 on November 16, they were the Eastern Conference’s most defensively-efficient team (95.1 D-Rating, 2nd in NBA), and despite combusting every now and then, they remain so (102.5 D-Rating, 5th in NBA). But in the games since that November 16 date, it’s the Sixers – yes, the Sixers – who have boasted the most efficient defense in the East (103.4 D-Rating, 5th in NBA since 11/17). Coincidentally, Embiid began stringing consecutive games together, even more so by mid-December with just 2 DNPs in Philly’s last 17 games (4th in team D-Rating since 12/14). Sixer opponents have shot just 46.9 eFG% in January; only Atlanta’s next opponent, the L.A. Clippers (46.3 eFG%) has been better. It’s just been a matter of the 76ers’ offense finding a way to catch up, and T.J. McConnell has helped in that regard. He has averaged 7.1 APG (2.1 TOs per game) in his last 20 games (8.1 APG in January; 2nd in NBA for Assist Ratio this month), and Philadelphia is 8-2 with McConnell as a starter. Helping cut down on the mistakes keeps Philly (still NBA-worst 17.2 January TO%) in contention by eliminating the runouts at the other end of the floor. McConnell can dish out lobs to Embiid, but he is also feeding the Sixers’ second-leading scorer well. Ersan Ilyasova arrived along with another future protected first-round pick from OKC in exchange for Jerami Grant back in November, and Philly Phans will start calling him “E.I.” if he keeps sinking jumpers. The ninth-year forward is averaging a career-best 15.3 PPG as a Sixer, including 2.2 threes per game. He has ebbed this month (35.3 January 3FG%), but he has been balancing that offense by crashing the glass and scoring more efficiently around the rim (career-high 65.7 FG% within 3 feet). Compensating for Ilyasova, Robert Covington’s jumper is beginning to reappear (41.7 3FG% last six games; game-winning contested 3FG last night vs. POR), while rookie forward Dario Saric has been putting some big plays together. The Sixers built up their confidence by coming back to win last night while Embiid was on-and-off and finally off the floor after hyperextending his knee. He was left behind in Philly for scheduled rest, but the spirited 76ers should still be a tough out in tonight’s contest without their current franchise rookie star. Right before finding their defensive groove, the Sixers visited Philips Arena on November 12, Embiid again a scheduled DNP. Even without him, Philadelphia sprinted to a 27-23 first-quarter lead, led by Saric’s seven points. Then Atlanta turned on the jets along the way to a 117-96 win. The trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kyle Korver, and Dennis Schröder sank half of their 20 three-point shots, while Dwight Howard and Kris Humphries (combined 23 points and 20 boards) pummeled Jahlil Okafor and the Sixers’ frontline around the glass. A ton of Philly’s turnovers involve either Embiid (5th in NBA for TOs per game; 3rd in TOs per 36 minutes) experimenting, or teammates desperately trying to feed him the ball. They’ll miss his impact on the floor, but his absence should help them keep Atlanta from piling up easy buckets in transition. The Hawks’ 17.4 points per-48 off turnovers ranks second in the East, while the 17.6 points the 76ers allow ranks as the second-worst in the conference. This will be a chance for Nerlens Noel, who contended Mason Plumlee’s would-be-game-winner at the rim to seal the victory last night, and perhaps Okafor to shine, or at least to showcase their skills for other teams. Inactive until mid-December, Noel enjoyed 20+ minutes of playing time in consecutive games for just the second time this season. Those minutes came courtesy of the sudden mid-game absence of Embiid, along with continued ankle soreness for Okafor (season-high 26 points last Saturday @ WAS). Noel’s opponents have shot just 40.8 FG% (2nd-best in NBA, min. 4.5 opponent FGAs) on shot attempts he has defended, a value that compares favorably with the favored Embiid (39.6 defended FG%, 1st in NBA). Similarly marginalized after a rocky rookie season, Jahlil was DNP’d in seven of the last ten games, including the last two Sixer games. If he doesn’t play, Brown will likely turn to Richaun Holmes. Despite limited minutes, the second-year big has more points and rebounds versus Atlanta than against any other team. All of these frontcourt players know their playing status is in jeopardy with the pending arrival of a healthy Simmons. The long-tanking Sixers actually have an incentive to keep winning. Besides Embiid’s insistence on carrying this team into the postseason, Philadelphia also has a pick-swap option with the Kings, thanks to the summer 2015 deal that relieved Sacramento of Nik Stauskas. The Kings just lost Rudy Gay for the season, have lost four straight and seven of eight, and now sit perilously (0.5 games) in front of Philadelphia in the NBA standings. Atlanta will need much more out of their bench players than they presented in last night’s 102-93 roller-coaster ride versus Chicago. Hardaway’s near-halfcourt buzzer-beater to close Atlanta’s 35-13 first quarter mattered much more than it should have. The reserves allowed the Bulls to stampede back from 30 points down, at the start of the fourth quarter, to within 5 in the closing minutes, forcing coach Mike Budenholzer’s hand in making Millsap and Dennis Schröder 25 points on 11-for-14 FGs vs. CHI) re-lace their shoes. If the Hawks’ starters, led by Schröder (70.7 FG% last 3 games), Howard and Millsap, take care of the ball and defend well enough through three quarters to build a sizable lead, coach Bud will turn to once again to the other Mikes (Scott and Dunleavy, with Muscala still out), plus 10-day pickup Gary Neal and rookies DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince, and expect they won’t again turn a laugher into a thriller. Scott (4 assists in 21 minutes vs. CHI), particularly, must provide a stronger defensive presence around the paint and take some pressure off Humphries, while Prince must make better decisions with the ball in their hands. Philly doesn’t really need Embiid to compete for 48 minutes tonight, but they’d much rather save up their budding big men to face Dwight and the Hawks in the playoffs. Wait, did I actually type that? Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. “Hey, coach, I left you a gift over there. It’s a necktie!” All of our Atlanta Hawks have passed the final stage of the Bad Loss Protocol, and are cleared to participate in this evening’s matchup with the Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; WGN in CHI) at Philips Arena. To be declared free from the acute effects of CTH (Chronic Traumatic Hawkaflopathy), each Hawk must achieve acceptable marks during the following diagnostic tests: No signs of derisiveness (like bellies sore from laughter) directed toward the teams ranked above them in the standings. Yes, the Cavaliers got their doors blown off at Golden State, the Raptors suffered The Wrath of Embiid, and the Celtics were knocked off by the same Knicks team that Atlanta edged in New York just days before. But that’s no reason to get smug, especially when there are desperate rivals, like the Pistons and Bulls, expecting to come out and play like their hair is on fire. No indications (like scraped palms and knees) that they’re fine with playing at, or below, the level of lesser-achieving competition. Squeaking past a New York team without Kristaps Porzingis, the Hawks waltzed into Detroit’s palace self-satisfied with their 9-1 run, especially with the knowledge that the opponent’s top perimeter scorer and wing defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, would be sitting out. Whether the Bulls’ leading rebounder, Taj Gibson (sore ankle, but probable), enters the proceedings today should be of no consequence whatsoever to Atlanta (24-18). No strained necks from constantly looking over their shoulders at what the Thursday Night punditry has to say, or neglects to say, about the team and its key contributors. As the Falcons can attest, if they’re waiting for the Heath Evanses of the world to come around, they have the wrong goals in mind. 42-18 is only a favorable score when the Falcons are winning at the Georgia Dome, not when the Hawks are helping the Pistons drub them in the first quarter. No sour dispositions from fretting over who got voted, or eventually makes it, into the All-Star Game. All the good people of Stankonia were insufficient to get Dwight Howard more fan votes than Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova (thanks to fans a bit too sugar-high from Shirley Temple drinks). Meanwhile, human lunchpail Paul Millsap has lived a charmed All-Star existence for the past several seasons, and Kyle Korver received a mysterious late bump from Ohio (blame the voting machines, or the Russians) to pull ahead of Dennis Schröder. But dwelling on such petty affairs sets up the Hawks to get steamrolled by a highly worthy All-Star starter in Jimmy Butler (career-highs of 24.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.8 APG). This Butler is truly doing it, putting together a campaign that rivals, if not exceeds, the cherished MVP season of Derrick Rose from 2010-11. Jimmy Buckets is, at once, Chicago’s best hope as a clutch shooter and a defensive wing stopper. And Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is, slowly, figuring out how best to utilize him. Everyone outside of West Madison Street could have anticipated that the Bulls, with free agents Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo sharing the starting backcourt, would struggle as a team shooting the ball accurately and getting stops. Indeed, the starters, inclusive of Butler, Gibson, and Robin Lopez, rank last in the league with a 47.4 eFG%. Even with backups included, the Bulls take the fewest threes (20.3 3FGAs per game, two fewer than 29th-ranked San Antonio), and make the fewest (31.7 3FG%, last in NBA). Chicago is saved from being dead-last in true-shooting (52.5 starter TS%, 29th in NBA) only due to the starters’ propensity for drawing shooting fouls (18.7 starter FTAs per game, 4th in NBA) and hitting them (80.6 starter FT%, 7th in NBA even with Rondo, who now sulks from the bench). Aside from Butler’s routine heroics of late, Chicago has been able to rely on second-chances (NBA-highs of 29.5 O-Reb%, 16.2 second-chance PPG, +4.8 net second-chance PPG) when opponents fail to box them out. Opposing guards, meanwhile, have had field days against the Bulls, averaging 40.7 field goals per 100 possessions (3rd-most in NBA). Similar to the Hawks, Chicago’s saving grace is that their opposing guards rarely earn trips to the free throw line (19.4 opponent FTAs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA; Atlanta’s 19.7 ranks 3rd). The 99-98 loss to Dallas at the United Center on Tuesday was made possible by the Bulls’ inability to contain Deron Williams and J.J. Barea on drives, or to account for three-point shooters, like Seth Curry, or Wesley Matthews in the closing seconds. Replacing the erratic Rondo in the standard lineup (+1.9 net points per 100 possessions) with momentary Hawk Jerian Grant (+27.5 net points per-100), or the ball-dominant Wade and Gibson with Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic (+22.1 net points per-100), have been a boon for the Bulls’ offense. However, Hoiberg has turned lately to Michael Carter-Williams, who struggles like Rondo offensively but at least puts in some effort on defense, and German rookie Paul Zipser, who must be living off his preseason exploits, in place of Gibson. Atlanta can immunize themselves from Butler’s recent late-game dominance (10.0 4th-quarter PPG in January, 2nd in NBA) if they neutralize the things the Bulls do well, from the opening tip. That includes rebuffing Lopez on the offensive glass; denying Butler, Wade and MCW space to roam inside while depriving them of trips to the charity stripe, deflecting bailout passes and getting out to properly contest the few pseudo-reliable shooters Hoiberg trots out (Mirotic, McDermott, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, and Isaiah Canaan). All of that requires overcoming the final symptom of onset "CTH": players with sore hands from sitting on them, waiting on their teammates to get on the floor and provide the necessary spark. As an example, the Hawks offset the brilliance of Butler (39 points, 4-for-9 3FGs, 7 assists, 6 steals) and Wade (25 points, 10-for-17 FGs, 5 steals) back on November 9 with a highly-balanced effort at Philips Arena. In that game, eight Atlanta players scored in double figures, including former Bull Thabo Sefolosha with a stunning 8-for-9 FGs off the bench. The team shot a collective 50.6% from the floor, including 45.0% on threes, while sinking 22 of their 27 free throws. Howard (18 points, 10 rebounds, incl. 6 O-Rebs) rendered Lopez’s board-crashing (one O-Reb) ineffective. Solid offensive starts, like the 35-27 opening quarter exhibited against Chicago in November, obviates the indignity of Millsap lobbing threes (1-for-5 3FGs @ DET) in futile efforts to diminish unnecessary blowout margins. Inspiring the Hawks to play their A-game from the tip shouldn’t be as hard as it seemed on Wednesday night in Auburn Hills. All it takes to avoid yet another unsettling bout of "CTH" is to find somebody on the coaching staff willing to “tell the truth”, before it's too late. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  3. It’s never too early to take up a second career! The Atlanta Hawks are right near the top of the NBA… in one key category. The Bulls’ flop last night to Dallas dropped the Hawks into a tie with the Spurs (10-6), and 1.5 games behind the mighty Warriors (12-5), among the NBA’s best records versus teams at-or-above .500. Wins over Cleveland, the Spurs, Toronto, the Rockets, Pacers and Bucks, plus near-misses against the likes of the Celts and Warriors, suggest the Hawks (24-17) deserve the small cushion they’ve gained above the rest of the playoff pack, halfway through the NBA season. What has kept that first-round-homecourt margin from getting any larger has been Atlanta’s underwhelming record against the lower rungs of the league. Versus teams like tonight’s hosts, the Detroit Pistons (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit), only the Bulls’ record against sub-.500 teams is worse (among the East’s Top 11) than Atlanta’s 14-11. The good news is, the Hawks have not dropped a game to a team with a losing record since collapsing in Minnesota back on December 26, and five days before that to those same Wolves at Philips Arena. Beginning with December home victories over the (at the time, with a winning record) Knicks and Pistons, Atlanta has rattled off seven-straight against the league’s current lower tier. But as the Dwight Howard-less Hawks showed against the Porzingis-less Knicks in New York on Monday, the Hawks still have their work cut out for them before they can fully rebuild consumer confidence in their competitive product. Speaking of confidence, normally, a “vote of confidence” from a team owner is a dreaded sign of bad things to come. But Tom Gores’ thumbs-up for coach/exec Stan Van Gundy just feels different. “I have full confidence in Stan,” Gores told reporters at halftime of the Pistons’ 102-97 win over the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday, Detroit bookending their 5-game West Coast road trip with victories. “We are having a hard time, and Stan and I are very real about that,” the Detroit Free Press reported Gores as saying, “but we also know that we have a great group of guys. We believe they’ll work through this. We’ve hit a bump in the road and that’s what success is about, you gotta work though it.” Detroit is carrying the third-highest salary load in the NBA, albeit due to past mistakes. They’re eighth in guaranteed salaries next season, and top-ten in guaranteed salaries for the three seasons after that. Yet, at 19-24, they stand at 10th in the East, last in the Central Division, and two games behind those 8th-seeded Bulls. Things were expected to trend upward with the arrival of star guard Reggie Jackson, but it has decidedly not been the case (8-14 since Jackson’s return). Conversely to Atlanta, the Pistons hold a 6-16 mark versus current break-even or winning teams, the last W coming at home against LeBron-less Cleveland back on December 26 (before that? The 121-85 blowout in Millsap-less Atlanta, way back on December 2). Despite the playoff push from just nine months ago, Piston fans don’t seem terribly enthused. Their average attendance at the cavernous suburban Palace of Auburn Hills ranks 28th out of 30 NBA teams. Yet, as it pertains to Stan Van’s status, file it under “What else are ya gonna do?” Gores knows that Van Gundy, who fumed throughout December as things went haywire, cares deeply about his team’s on-court effort. “This isn’t the YMCA, this is the NBA,” zinged Van Gundy to the Detroit News and reporters pregame, when asked about the team’s defensive intensity. “This is high-level basketball; you’ve got to play it hard, aggressive and smart. It’s not enough to say they’re trying hard.” Gores is willing to let the man who cut bait on Joe Dumars’ disastrous Josh Smith contract work through the back end of Smoove’s buyout, which concludes this season. The Pistons have a few walking-wounded struggling to play as well. Logging the most minutes-per-game on the team, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (40.4 3FG%) strained a rotator cuff early in the Pistons’ blowout loss in Oakland last Thursday, and the 23-year-old ironman will miss his third-straight game. Mega-rebounder Andre Drummond (NBA-high 36.1 D-Reb%) and his frontcourt mates Jon Leuer (out) and Aron Baynes (active) are each dealing with varying knee maladies. Detroit’s adversities should bode well today for a rested Howard, assuming he gets plenty of post touches and runs the floor. Dwight matched Drummond’s 15 rebounds, in five fewer minutes, during the 105-98 win on December 30 that nudged the Hawks back above .500 for the season. There was a time, up until around 2011, when Howard shot 59-60 percent on free throws consistently. Now he’s trending upward again toward that area (65.4 FT% in last 15 games), making it tougher for opponents to defend him around the rim without giving buckets away. Having to defend Howard straight-up specifically makes it harder for Drummond (team-high 1.5 SPG) to toil as an eager help defender. Once defensive ace Paul Millsap (January: 13.4 second-half PPG, 1st among East PF/Cs; 52.2 second-half FG%) and Dennis Schröder (28 points, 13-for-16 FGs @ NYK on Monday) inevitably find their offensive grooves, and the pace picks up, it becomes harder for Jackson and Tobias Harris (combined 12-for-31 FGs @ ATL on Dec. 30) to keep up. Detroit is the league’s most reliable defensive rebounding team (80.0 D-Reb%). The wall-building Pistons are, somewhat amazingly, more adept at one-and-done whenever Drummond (79.2 team D-Reb% On-Court; 82.2% Off-Court) takes a breather. This suggests it’s crucial for the Hawks to execute well in setting up, and delivering, first shots during its possessions. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is 7-for-22 on field goals in two games this season versus his father’s current employer, going 2-for-8 (0-for-3 3FGs) back on December 30 as he watched Kyle Korver (22 points on 7-for-13 shooting) carry the day offensively. But he came alive once again in the fourth quarter on Monday to hold off the Knicks, 108-107, matching Schröder with 9 points in the final frame. He’ll find less defensive pressure on him with KCP out-of-action. Detroit has been cuddling, snuggling, and petting for well over 100 games. Yet there are finally signs their tireless work on their Hatchimal is paying off, as second-year forward Stanley Johnson may at last be breaking out of his offensive shell. SVG granted Johnson significant playing time in the past 3 games, and he has responded by going 5-for-9 on threes (26.4 3FG% prior 40 appearances) and tying a career-high with 6 assists in L.A. on Sunday. That’s not quite enough to make Stan Van a Stanley-stan. But with KCP still injured, Johnson’s the most reliable defensive wing the coach has in the stable, and he can help prop up the league’s best defense in transition off turnovers (NBA-low 13.1 points per 100 possessions off TOs). If he keeps this up, Johnson will push “KST” test subject Marcus Morris (41.2 FG%, lowest since rookie season) further down in Van Gundy’s rotation. Possibly sensing a flame under his butt, Mook put up a team-high 23 points (incl. 4-for-8 3FGs), playing in all but five minutes during Detroit’s win in Los Angeles. While not exceptional against the Knicks (12-for-32 team 3FGs), the Hawks’ three-point accuracy on Monday met-or-exceeded 37.5 3FG% for the seventh time in the past eight games (43.1 team 3FG% in January, 3rd in NBA behind the Spurs and Celtics’ 43.4%). Before January rolled around, Atlanta’s 32.6 3FG% ranked 29th. Even Kent Bazemore (42.4 3FG%) is showing signs of life… at least, beyond the arc (41.1 2FG%). With the ankle injury for Mike Muscala, Coach Mike Budenholzer was compelled to turn to Kris Humphries to relieve Millsap and Howard. Kris’ 3-for-3 triples and team-high seven boards in 24 minutes helped get Atlanta over the proverbial Hump in New York. Expanding contributions from Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy, and Taurean Waller-Prince would also help improve flexibility for Coach Bud’s rotation of bench forwards, at least until Muskie returns. Schröder and the Hawks have benefitted from the improving play of backup guard Malcolm Delaney (last 9 games: 51.8 FG%, 4.6 APG, 1.9 TOs/game; 37.4 FG%, 2.6 APG before). The rookie currently ranks 5th among all NBA players (min. 15 minutes/game) with a 98.0 D-Rating, a value that was especially good (91.2 in October/November, 2nd in NBA) before the team’s November/December nosedive. While NBA.com stats are always sketchy in this area, his high rating suggests Delaney (5 assists and 2 steals @ NYK) and his teammates are doing something right. Another solid two-way effort by Delaney versus Pistons reserves Ish Smith (13 assists @ ATL in his last start on Dec. 2) and Beno Udrih could help the Hawks gain a decided advantage. Atlanta is 11-4, with just one loss (Boston) since November, when he collects four or more dimes in a game. Last month, it took consecutive home wins over the Knicks and Pistons to get Atlanta back on track. This time around, a two-game parlay would extend the Hawks’ road streak to six (most since the 12-game magic during December/January of 2014-15) and earn the team its 14th road win on the season, potentially tops in the Eastern Conference. Relying just a little more upon a player once self-identified as Superman could have the Hawks looking up, up, and away from the bottom half of the East. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “Excuse me, sir? Hi! By chance, have you seen Derrick Rose anywhere around here?” The arc of the regular season is long, but it bends toward playoffs for the Atlanta Hawks. Aiming for their ninth victory in their past ten games, they swoop into Madison Square Garden on the observed MLK Day holiday to take on the New York Knicks (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in Gotham, NBATV everywhere else). At least, the ones that bother to show up. Whatever you do, don’t look down! The tier below the Hawks (23-17) in the Eastern Conference has morphed from a Crab Barrel to a Musical Chairs show. From 2.5-3.0 games below Atlanta, you’ll find five teams, including division rivals Washington and Charlotte, within a half-game of one another. If the East’s Top 4 hold firm, one of those playoff hopefuls will find themselves watching the postseason from home. Atlanta can stay above the fray if they continue pulling off wins on the road. A win today in Manhattan would move the Hawks into a tie with those annoying Celtics for the Eastern Conference lead, with 13 away-game victories. Below the “Musical Chairs” tier has formed the “Look Out, Here Come the Sixers” tier, and the Knicks (18-23) have taken up residence there. New York has lost ten of its last 12, including a 102-98 overtime defeat at Philips Arena back on December 28. They flew back home after getting waylaid in Toronto, the Raptors building up a 38-point third-quarter lead before letting off the gas pedal and winning 116-101. Derrick Rose going AWOL last week has taken over almost all the headlines (Mama Rose has relocated to NYC, so all’s well on that front). Following a hit-piece blog post from Phil Jackson ally Charley Rosen, Carmelo Anthony is offering hints that he’s willing to revisit his no-trade clause if the Zen Master (who has himself taken an odd vow of silence) wants him gone. And coach Jeff Hornacek is threatening to rearrange some more deck chairs on the Knicks’ ship. But an even more press-stopping issue for the Knicks is the problematic Achilles of the team’s future headliner. Kristaps Porzingis began feeling soreness during the Christmas Day loss to Boston. After struggling with his interior play in Atlanta (3-for-9 2FGs, 5 TOs on Dec. 28) and New Orleans, the lanky Latvian was held inactive for three games. Four games after that, his hampered mobility suffered a recurrence, and he was DNP’d in the Knicks’ past two contests. “They (the medical staff) want to make sure I’m good, 100 percent healed before I step on the court,” Porzingis said, as reported by the New York Post, “We don’t want this to happen again.” Allowing his heel more time to heal would be ideal. Unfortunately, the Unicorn’s replacement in the lineup, Lance Thomas, caught the business end of Jonas Valanciunas’ elbow yesterday, suffering an orbital bone fracture and concussion symptoms. Still, Porzingis will sit out today, making things even tougher for the Knicks up against Atlanta’s formidable frontline of Dwight Howard (17.0 PPG, 20.0 RPG, incl. 7.5 O-Rebs/game, vs. NYK this season) and Paul Millsap (Hawks-high 11 combined assists, zero TOs vs. NYK in 78 minutes). Joakim Noah (14 points and 16 boards @ ATL) is similarly soldiering on, despite a sore right shoulder (left-shoulder surgery ended his last season with the Bulls, around this same time). If Noah also cannot go, Hornacek will rely more heavily upon space-eater Kyle O’Quinn and up to four rookies: Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Maurice Ndour, Marshall Plumlee, and the turnover-prone Willy Hernangomez (NBA-high 54.3 FG% among rookies). No matter the combination, the Hawks’ bigs (without Mike Muscala, who is back home healing an injured hoof from Sunday’s game) are capable of exploiting a Knicks team that focuses on the offensive boards (4th in O-Reb%, largely due to ranking 27th in 2FG%) much more than the defensive ones (29th in D-Reb%). In Moose’s absence, coach Mike Budenholzer needs to look more toward not only Kris Humphries, but the underutilized Mike Scott. Both players will need to be present around the defensive glass to help limit the wayward-shooting Knicks to one-shot possessions. Anthony (42.6 FG%, lowest since his 2003-04 rookie season) will try to show he’s playing inspired ball on MLK Day in MSG. But the Knicks could use more than the one-dimensional offering provided by Melo yesterday afternoon: 18 points, one rebound, one assist, one block, one free throw. If only to showcase him to potential trade-deadline suitors (pending the clause waiver), Melo remains a lock in the starting lineup, no matter how bad things get. The more likely shakeup among the starters would involve supplanting Courtney Lee (2-for-9 FGs @ TOR on Sunday) with former Hawk Justin Holiday (17 points, 3-for-5 3FGs in 26 bench minutes @ TOR). Rose (45.2 FG%, best since his first All-Star season in 2009-10) is not only back in the locker room, but is trying to feign leadership by puppeteering his head coach. “I told (Hornacek) he has to be on us hard about defense,” Rose told the Post this weekend after practicing for the Toronto game. “Like, beat it in our heads where we get tired of hearing him talk about it.” While it’s nice for Rose to encourage his coach to find his inner Thibodeau, the point guard struggles to lead by example on the floor, and his primary backup Brandon Jennings isn’t doing any better. New York is surrendering the most points per game (108.3, 6th-worst in NBA) since 1988-89; the only Eastern Conference team allowing more resides one borough to the south. Ron Baker helped resuscitate the Knicks in the final quarter yesterday, and the rookie guard may be eating into both Rose’s and Jennings’ floor time in the near future. Nonetheless, Rose has returned, so now all that’s left is for Atlanta to figure out where Dennis Schröder’s game has gone. Dennis struggled in his last appearance at MSG (0-for-8 FGs, 3 assists in 21 minutes of the Hawks’ 104-94 loss on Nov. 20), but lit up the Knicks with 27 points on 11-for-21 FGs back home in December. Struggling mightily in the past two games (5-for-19 combined FGs, 9 assists, 6 TOs) after a solid road trip, Schröder could use a dominant performance today to shake off the cobwebs. With the Knicks’ injury-saddled frontcourt overly focused on the offensive side of the ball, Schröder should be able to break out in transition to break out of his slump. Hawks fans enjoyed a cameo appearance yesterday from Kent Bazemore, whose 24 points (4-for-7 3FGs) fell one short of his season-high. Baze’s confidence can remain high today if he’s focused defensively on the Knicks’ guards, and not switched onto lengthier forwards like Anthony and Kuzminskas. Expecting consistently-good performances out of Bazemore and the Force MDs – backup guard Malcolm Delaney (9 assists, 2 TOs in 26 minutes vs. MIL on Sunday), and newcomer sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (20 points, 4-for-5 3FGs vs. MIL) – may be a bit too much to ask at this stage. Thus, it’s crucial for Atlanta to get Schröder and former Knick Tim Hardaway, Jr. (0-for-3 3FGs vs. MIL; 0-for-7 FGs vs. NYK on Dec. 28) going strong from the outset. A solid first half from the Hawks’ starters and a spirited second half from the bench crew would go a long way toward keeping the Knicks (3-19 when losing after three quarters) submerged, and have their fans looking to find ways to enjoy the remainder of the holiday. For everyone on and off the floor, it’s a day on, not a day off. Have a Wonderful MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. “Oh, deer…” A Wisconsin team arrives in Atlanta, and loses on a Sunday in January. Hopefully, that will be the case not only once, but twice, this month, beginning with the Atlanta Hawks emerging victorious in this Sunday matinee with the Milwaukee Bucks (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Fox Sports Wisconsin in MKE). There remain plenty of close friends up and down Atlanta’s roster, but keeping one’s enemies closer continues to be a challenge for the Hawks (22-17). On Friday night, they fell behind to Boston by 15 points in the first quarter (before crawling back to tie in the second, down 4 at the half). Similarly, Atlanta slipped behind by 20 in the third quarter before knotting things up in a wild finish. Dennis Schröder struggled to control the tempo (third-lowest game pace this season for Atlanta), and Dwight Howard was unable to help the Hawks build a rebounding advantage (50.0 Reb% vs. BOS), setting the stage for the heroics to come from Isaiah Thomas in the final quarter. For a game that wound up excitingly even, Atlanta’s players and coaches placed themselves behind the 8-ball early and too often. It’s always tough to keep a team featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo at arm’s length. But the Hawks don’t want a repeat of their game in the Badger State back on December 9, when Atlanta fell behind by 20 at halftime and had to claw back to win, 114-110. The month before, here at Philips Arena, Atlanta (without Howard or Thabo Sefolosha) blitzed the Bucks with a bench-fueled 31-9 second-quarter advantage, and held an 18-point lead in the third quarter, but needed to hang on when Giannis (26 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists @ ATL on Nov. 16) and Jabari Parker (25.0 PPG, 3.0 SPG vs. ATL this season) repeatedly brought Milwaukee back within a couple scores of the lead. A little less turbulence with be preferable today before the Hawks head north to meet the Knicks tomorrow. The steady presence in both contests versus Milwaukee was Paul Millsap (22.0 PPG, 61.5 FG%, 11.0 RPG, 1.5 TOs/game vs. MIL), who had his hands full keeping Giannis (5.0 TOs/game vs. ATL) and Parker in check. Keeping Milwaukee’s star forwards busy defensively should free up Dennis and Dwight for bounceback performances today. It’s likely Schröder won’t have to endure any Yo Mama snaps from Matthew Dellavedova today. Delly (37.2 FG%) has been known to grate on opponents on the court with his play more than his mouth, but has ceded his starting point guard spot to a rookie, Greater Atlanta Christian alum Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon’s offensive poise has caught up with his assertiveness on defense, quickly gaining the confidence of coach Jason Kidd. As of now, the second-round draftee out of UVa is leading all rookies in Win Shares, scoring (9.2 PPG) and assists (6.3 APG as a starter, plus 14.0 PPG, 95.8 FT%, and 5.1 RPG) while committing just 1.5 turnovers per game. With Brogdon taking over at the point, the Bucks (20-18) have won 5 of their last 7, including a win in San Antonio without Giannis around in the clutch. Schröder must rely on pick-and-roll action to screen Brogdon out of plays and exploit Milwaukee’s shakier defenders, particularly Parker, ex-Hawk Jason Terry, swingmen Tony Snell and Mirza Teletovic, and foul magnets John Henson and Miles Plumlee. Malcolm Delaney (17 points and 6 assists, 1 TO) had a productive game versus Boston, and will again be challenged today to make Delly rely more on his shooting (7-for-21 FGs vs. ATL) than his distributive skills (8 assists in 18 bench minutes in the Bucks’ 116-108 win vs. MIA on Friday). The Bucks thrive on interior scoring (NBA-high 50.1 paint points per-48), meaning that Howard (23 minutes vs. BOS) must be active stemming Milwaukee’s offense without falling into early foul trouble. Dwight has not blocked 2 or more shots in a game since the Hawks beat the Bucks back on December 9. Burned repeatedly by Boston, Atlanta is the only NBA defense allowing over 50.0 eFG% on pick-and-roll ballhandler plays (51.6 opponent eFG%, 47.4 opponent FG%). But Dwight and Dennis will get a reprieve playing a Milwaukee team that applies these plays infrequently (12.8% of plays, 4th-fewest in NBA) and shoots just 42.1 eFG% (4th-lowest in NBA). In the battle of the Moose, Greg Monroe (10.8 PPG, Bucks’ only double-digit-average scorer aside from Giannis and Jabari) seeks to wear down the Hawks with post moves and mid-range shots. Also playing off the bench, Atlanta’s Mike Muscala, whose three-pointers helped the Hawks turn the tide in Milwaukee last month, must counter by stretching the floor on offense while getting stops and sparking transition with rebounds (five D-Rebs in 54 minutes vs. MIL) on defense. Tim Hardaway, Jr. struggled at the outset in Milwaukee in December, but just like on Friday, came through with big buckets in the final quarter, providing 20+ points for the third time in his past six games (58.3 3FG% in that span). If Atlanta does a better job of contending through the first three quarters, the wing combo of Sefolosha and Hardaway should be sufficient to help the home team pull through today. The Hawks (22-17) need to keep their distance from the Bucks (1.5 GB) in the standings, not on the floor. Stifling interior defense plus better closeouts along the perimeter should be enough for the Hawks to get the job done, and to discourage cheese-headed Wisconsinites from desiring a return to downtown Atlanta anytime soon. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  6. “And, in 2017, I’ll pillage your rebounders, too, Atlanta!” The greatest enemy to the Atlanta Hawks franchise is in town this weekend. By any legal means necessary, this man MUST be stopped. “How about bringing the @ ATLHawks to Seattle!!!!?” That was Cincinnati-born, Richmond-raised, Seattle-spoonfed Russell Wilson in 2014, butting his nose where it didn’t belong, during the very height of Deng Fever plaguing our beloved basketball team, tweeting from 2,635 miles away. Oh, great. Why not call them the @ SEAHawks once they get to the Emerald City, Russ? “#Supersonics I vote yes!” Nobody even asked you, you sponge-haired freak! The second-highest-rated QB in NFL history (the top-rated QB ever arrives here the following week) forgot that he needed to stick to football. For that, his reprimand will be getting Vic-timized on Saturday, as his season draws to a fitting conclusion – once again – in the Georgia Dome. Ciara, please, come get your boy! Right down the street this weekend – tonight, in fact – there’s a Sea-Tac native who, likewise, could stand to learn a lesson about meddling in Atlanta Hawks affairs. He’s easy to find if you look down, as he’s rocking a Seachickens hoodie around town today. The star of the visiting Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Save Yourself the Agony in BOS; ESPN everywhere else), Isaiah Thomas had been whispering sweet nothings in the ear of Al Horford, ever since the longtime Atlanta pivot interrupted his winter break to head to the 2016 All-Star Game. Then, Isaiah swooped in during free agency and helped GM Danny Ainge (I hope his finger still hurts) pry him from the pragmatic Hawks’ clutches. Here’s what this coup was supposed to do. It was supposed to kneecap the team that ultimately punked Thomas and the upstart Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Their ploy was to move the Hawks out of the way, for good, clearing the path for Boston’s ascension back into championship relevance. Further, Horford’s presence was supposed to woo Kevin Durant away from OKC, forming a Superteam that could rival contenders like, oh, say, the Warriors. Theoretically, acquiring the top PF-C in the free agent class was supposed to make the Celts a more serious rebounding team. And, with Horford joining forces with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and ATLien rookie Jaylen Brown, Boston could formally seize Atlanta’s place as the top defensively-efficient team in the East. Farewell, Atlanta, good luck with your fire sale. Look out, Cleveland, here we come! Add a $26.5 million big man and stir, that was the grand plan in Beantown. A few months into the season, how is that working for them? The pre-Horford Celtics of 2016 finished with 48 wins. The Horford-infused Celtics of 2017 (24-15) are currently on pace for… 50 wins! Wow, quelle différence! LeBron is quaking, I’m sure. The 2016 Celtics finished the regular season sixth in total rebounds per game, but 26th in D-Reb%. They added Al, and they’ve somehow managed to get even worse: 25th in team RPG, dead-last (30th) in D-Reb%. Gee, do they miss Jared Sullinger that much? Perchance, they’re still waiting for Durant to arrive? Boston’s leading per-game defensive rebounder? No, don’t look at Al (5.3 RPG), nor Kelly Olynyk, nor Amir Johnson, nor Jonas Jerebko, not Tyler Zeller. Try on Avery Bradley (5.9 RPG) for size – at 180 pounds, the lightest player (Thomas included) on the Celtics’ roster. Unfortunately, he has been out recently with a strained Achilles, and is not available for tonight’s game. Celts fans are self-assured that Bradley’s injury in Game 1 of last year’s postseason series with Atlanta was the difference between winning and losing. Without Bradley or Zeller (sinus infection) around, Toronto had not one (Jonas Valanciunas, with 23), but two (DeMar DeRozan, with 13) players enjoying career-highs in rebounds, as the Raptors stormed past the C’s on Tuesday night. The only other NBA team with under a 74.0 D-Reb%, besides Boston? You guessed it. Toronto. The next night, despite Boston prevailing at TD Garden, each of the Wizards’ five starters, and bench man Jason Smith, wrested at least two offensive boards away. Among the Celtics’ frontline, further shorthanded without Johnson (ankle, questionable for tonight) around, only Crowder could muster a physical response. But the reaction only came after the game, and was a bit too on-the-nose. When it comes to defense, the Celtics are indeed making history… just, not in the way they anticipated. Their team defensive rating (105.8 opponent points per 100 possessions, 20th in NBA) is presently the storied organization’s worst since the 15-67 squad coached up by M.L. Carr back in 1996-97. Yes, the rock-bottom team that had its bosses assuaging fans: “Relax, we’ll be good again soon. Rick Pitino is coming to fix everything!” After Boston started out its first seven games with the league’s worst defensive efficiency (112.3 D-Rating), all it took was an uptick in December (not long after Horford returned from concussion protocol) for a writer for Celtics.com to declare, in his article’s title, “C’s Becoming Elite Defensive and Rebounding Team.” No, not “Lite”… not “Effete”… “Elite” was no typo. Such scribbles are emblematic of an organization, from Ainge to Tommy Heinsohn and right on down, that makes its living blowing smoke up gullible people’s patooties. Their logo does wink at you while gnawing on a pipe, though, so no one can say they weren’t warned. Clawing their way out of their mid-season malaise, during Atlanta’s current winning streak (since Dec. 28) the Hawks have produced a league-best 96.1 D-Rating, something few individuals paid to write about such things outside of the ATL has bothered to mention. In the same period, those “Becoming Elite” Celts have bested only the Kings, Nuggets, and Pistons with their 111.8 D-Rating (27th in NBA). $enor Horford… what do you have to say for yourself? “I need to get rebounds when I can,” stated Horford as quoted in the “Elite” Celtics.com article, probably nasally, “but my priority is to box my man out, and make sure we hold the team to one shot.” While the Horford-less Hawks allow 13.6 second-chance points per-48 (8th-most in NBA), they score 14.1 (6th-most in NBA) themselves. And the Horford-full Celtics have given up 13.9 (5th-most in NBA), outscored on that basis by 1.9 points per-48. It’s all scheme, you see. The “Elite” author explains that Boston coach Brad Stevens wants his big men to clear the lane by boxing out… so that the Guards (which explains Bradley, to a lesser extent Smart) can swoop in and grab the boards themselves. On a per-36 basis, there are 10 Celtics averaging between 4.9 and 6.1 defensive rebounds. Al insists he’s following the directives of not only his current coach, but his former one, too. “I remember that Bud in Atlanta was like, ‘I don’t care if you get two rebounds. I just want you to box out and our guards will figure it out. We need them to be great at rebounding for us to be a good team.’” Even if that’s a mild exaggeration (was Korver ever close to “great” at rebounding?), might it be that Al Horford’s replacement on the Hawks isn’t Dwight Howard after all, but Mike Muscala? Is Moose Al’s power animal, or vice versa? Super-sibling Anna Horford has her brother’s team diagnosed. “…The C’s need a true center. We need Al at the 4,” she tweeted a couple weeks ago, laying to rest where La Familia Horford’s perceptions lie about his willingness to play to his size in the post. Anna expounded, “Adding some more height/solid backup would help tremendously.” Maybe another $26 million or so should be budgeted toward this expense. What do you say, Coach Brad? “It’s a good question,” Stevens said to the Springfield Republican before the Wizards game. “I’ve said it all year, we’re not going to win many rebounding battles. If we can manage it, then we have a chance to win.” Little defense, little rebounding, few problems. Right, Coach Brad? “If we’re the same in April as we are now, we’re in trouble,” foreboded Stevens, before Tuesday night’s loss to the Raps. Professional pundits, where are the alarm bells? Records don’t matter, right? If you can’t make stops, can’t board, can’t fathomably beat Cleveland or Toronto (0-4 versus those two clubs this season) in a series, aren’t you supposed to be “blowing it up”? Isn’t that how this works? Doesn’t somebody out there need Olynyk, or Amir, or Bradley, to fashion themselves a serious contender for LeBron’s crown? Instead of a hot stove in Boston, ESPN is pushing Stevens as a hot candidate for the All-Star Game (T-Lue can’t coach it, per rules, so it’s up to a mid-season race for second place in the East). “That would be big,” said Thomas (28.2 PPG and 90.5 FT%, 4th in NBA), the Mighty Mouse with the mightier mouth, said to ESPN prior to Tuesday’s game. “Not just for (Stevens), but for this organization and the direction we’re going in. Hopefully, we can make that happen for him.” Stevens draws a lot of praise, just for quickly making Boston playoff-relevant again. The fourth-year coach senses, though, that more important than some mid-season honor is avoiding another first-round washout this spring, especially at the hands of hardly-hyped teams like the Hawks. Without at least a series victory, anything Stevens sells will wind up smelling like his initials. The burning question, then, is, how far can his self-made All-Star point guard carry this flawed team? “Right behind Westbrook and Harden” is where Isaiah says he sees himself among the MVP contenders. Defense allegedly wins championships, yet Thomas (437th out of 437 players in Defensive Real Plus/Minus, as tabulated by ESPN without much fanfare, and Player #436 is not even close) knows that his best defense – his only defense – is a hella-good offense (8th out of 437 in Offensive RPM). Isaiah (110.2 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA w/ min. 30 minutes per game) is wagering that his ability to score and draw fouls off dribble penetration (NBA-high 10.1 PPG off drives) while assisting on three-point shots (Celts 3rd in 3FG attempts per game) is more than enough to outweigh the decidedly negative impact of his presence on the defensive side of the floor. Thomas can posture and pose about his animosities toward the marquee lead guards in the East. But there is undoubtedly one, and only one, point guard whose face he has pinned to a dartboard somewhere. Thomas (24.2 PPG but 39.5 FG% in 2016 Playoffs) was supposed to be the only gnat on the floor during last year’s playoff series with the Hawks. Yet here he was in Game 3, frustrated, swatting Dennis Schröder across the head after the backup guard scored another layup against him. The refs acted blind to that, but not when Dennis retaliated with a hip check on the next possession, T’ing up both guards. Isaiah would be punished with a Flagrant-1 later by the league. “If he doesn’t slap me in the head, we’ll be fine,” quipped Dennis during pregame warmups. Don’t let Jae “boop” you, either! 2016 was supposed to be Thomas’ playoff coming-out party, and were it not for Schröder, the Hawks might very well have obliged. Instead, Dennis closed out Game 6 in Boston with a flourish of plays at both ends, and all a flummoxed Thomas could do is front when his season came to a screeching halt. “We’ll meet you in the back,” Isaiah warned Dennis after the game. “We” who? You and your secret pal Al? “In the back” half of next season? Whether shooting or passing off drives, there is relatively little difference between Thomas’ and Schröder’s effectiveness. Where Thomas stands out is in how much more frequently he draws whistles from the refs. Dennis (7.9 PPG off drives, 5th in NBA) draws personal fouls in just 8.2 percent of his drives, 2nd-lowest among the NBA’s 25 most-frequent playmakers on those plays, leading to 1.8 fewer free throw attempts per game than Thomas (fouls called on 15.0 percent of his drives). Schröder (20.0 PPG, 41.7 3FG%, and 6.6 APG during 7-game win streak; 19 points, 10 assists, no turnovers vs. BRK) is fully capable of beating Thomas incessantly off the dribble, drawing help and finding open teammates. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry hung out on the perimeter when Thomas got lost on Tuesday, burying 5 of his 6 three-point attempts to go along with 9 assists. On Wednesday, the Celtics helped Thomas with John Wall (4-for-21 FGs), but the Wizards point guard still dished out 10 assists while committing just one turnover. Get a bead on Thomas, and as Jeff Teague might say, it’s “Too Little, Too Late” for Isaiah. Brown (ankle) and Johnson will each try to go tonight, providing Horford some reinforcements at the forward positions. In any case, Stevens might continue to start Jordan Mickey at center and leave the starting 4-spot to the desirous Horford, who ought to have a decent-sized dossier on Paul Millsap by now. Sap, conversely, has seen Ye Olde Jab Step enough times to know not to bite. Millsap’s field goal shooting is at a career-low 43.7 FG% (including a pedestrian 47.6 2FG%). But that’s somewhat to be expected, given his newest starting frontcourt mate lives and thrives in the lane, drawing defenders further inward. Even alongside Howard (7.3 post touches per game, 3rd in NBA; 0.99 points per post touch, best among 5 most frequent NBA players for post touches), Paul’s 17.6 PPG remains the best in the past three seasons, plus he’s passing the ball more confidently than ever (career-high 4.0 assists per-36; Hawks-tenure-low 2.3 TOs per-36). On top of that, Paul’s arguably more effective as a two-man tandem defensively alongside Dwight (league-best 95.1 D-Rating as a two-man lineup; +7.4 Net Rating; Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha’s 95.2 ranks 2nd) than he was in the past three seasons with Al (100.3 D-Rating in 2015-16; +4.4 Net Rating). Boston’s top 2-Man pairing is Horford and Crowder (+5.8). Whichever frontcourt starter doesn’t draw Horford should be capable of feasting against Mickey, Jerebko, Olynyk, or the injury-slowed Johnson. The C’s can only switch and help but so much, given the need to provide cover for Thomas. Dominating the boards will be crucial against a Celtics team that is 12-0 when they snag more than 49% of the available rebounds. On offense, spreading Atlanta’s bigs onto each side of the floor, and having Tim Hardaway, Jr. (62.1 3FG%, 17.2 PPG in January) and/or Muscala (5-for-9 January 3FGs) chipping in with some perimeter shots off the bench, would provide a cornucopia of options to help the Hawks’ point guards excel tonight. Outscoring Isaiah is not as important as out-producing him as a distributor and a defender. Building up a cushion through three quarters will prove useful when Thomas shows up for his end-of-game (NBA-high fourth-quarter 9.8 PPG) stat-padding. Directing Isaiah, as a ballhandler, toward the sidelines, and keeping him from picking up cheap shooting fouls, will make things simpler for Atlanta at closing time. There will be plenty of green representation in the Philips Arena stands tonight, especially Boston clover green, and Seattle neon green, egging on Isaiah and the Celtics. But on 70s throwback night, the only greens that matter are lime and volt. The Hawks (just 10-7 at home) benefited from a spread-out schedule over their past ten games (21 days), versus a mostly struggling array of opponents. While the upcoming games are more home-friendly, the next ten games are condensed into 16 days. They’ve won enough of late to earn themselves a bubble in the conference standings, but a win tonight would go a long way toward helping the Hawks climb up a tier, and further away from the Eastern Conference Crab Barrel (5th through 11th seeds) that’s 2.5-to-5.5 games behind them. Boston, meanwhile, is eager to get a win for Not-so-Big Al, and desperate to avoid slipping into the barrel themselves. You can count on any of Thomas, flop-meister Marcus Smart, or the Villa Rican villain, Crowder, instigating in hopes of some retaliation that thins Atlanta’s ranks, either to beat the Hawks tonight, or to induce suspensions that might cost the Hawks a game or two in the standings. Atlanta’s players are experienced enough against this outfit, hopefully, to know not to fall for any Celtic shenanigans. Based on current trends, even with Horford having moved to Boston, even with Thomas magnifying himself, even with Ainge hoarding a truckload of draft picks, thanks largely to the improving play of Schröder, it’s really Atlanta’s Future that’s looking bright. Wouldn’t you concur, Russ? Speaking of Dennis the Menace... Hey, Mister Wilson! I’ve got a novel idea for you. Since you seem so concerned, once your fellow Sea-hag Isaiah shoots his way into a big-money contract, how about you pair up with him, and buy out Wyc Grousbeck and company? I’ve got just the perfect name when you poach an NBA team back to the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Sea-eltics! I vote Yes!!!! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “Wait… don’t he have, like, a flight to catch?” Wet eyes, heavy hearts… can’t lose! The Atlanta Hawks are straining to move forward without yet another integral member of their modern era. Yet even without Ryan Kelly -- whoop, I mean, Kyle Korver – around anymore, The Hottest Team in the East looks to extend their winning streak to six, with a victory in Dallas against the Mavericks (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Fox Sports Southwest in DFW). Pace? Or Space? Mike Budenholzer wasn’t really faced with such questions when he took over the helm of the Hawks back in 2013. Already having kicked the tires on guys like Lou Williams and the Anthonies (Morrow and Tolliver), Bud’s running buddy Danny Ferry settled on Korver and newcomer DeMarre Carroll as the future at the wing spots. The pair came alive as starters together, their floor-spreading coinciding with the increased stretchiness of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, and the improved shooting and decision-making of Jeff Teague. The collective rise of the pace-and-space Hawks created a scale of on-court success not seen in Atlanta in a generation, if ever. Pace AND Space was working just fine for Atlanta. Sometimes, though, you want coffee, tea, AND milk, but you’re not granted that much choice during your flight. Certainly not in coach… I’ve tried. Kyle was among the few fortunate ballers to enjoy the pinnacle of his NBA career as one of the senior members and vital cogs of his team. He arrived here in his young 30s, and hadn’t started regularly since he was benched back at age 25. Running marathons through screens in the halfcourt, he was catching-and-shooting with Teague, Carroll, Millsap, and Horford each reaching their basketball primes. Fast forward a couple seasons later, though, and Korver had quite a bit company in the 30-and-up club. Coach Bud wants to push the ball, wants to haggle opponents into errors, wants to capitalize quickly and assertively. But it’s a tough sell when you have three and (when Thabo Sefolosha has to sub for Kent Bazemore) often four guys on the floor together who have surpassed 30 years young, two of whom had to come back from oddly broken legs in recent years, one of whom had to miss preseason planning due to a knee procedure, one of whom just got here and is figuring things out. To be sure, the minds are willing. But while this isn’t quite the Over-The-Hill Gang, the Sugar Hill Gang ain’t that much older. Since Bud’s arrival, Atlanta has been among the NBA masters at spacing the floor and creating open perimeter jumpshots. But without the ability to make those shots routinely, what’s the point? Korver (40.9 3FG%) had done the best under the circumstances to hold his end of the bargain together. But he’s not the spring chicken he used to be in creating space for himself. Around Korver these days were a cast of clunkers, from Baze to Sap to Thabo to Malcolm Delaney, who are shooting the ball from deep with Smoovian accuracy, at best. Nevermind that nobody has an appetite for Dwight Howard to start letting it fly. Nevermind that there’s a whole other side of the floor that brings its own set of challenges as time marches on. Pace. Space. CHOOSE ONE. The (small-d) decision could no longer be put off by the Hawks, not after a 2016 year marked by disappointing defeats and one dastardly departure. Bud pressed the “Pace” button, and out of the machine popped starting point guard Dennis Schröder, who gets to run the show and help keep Howard feeling rejuvenated. He has helped Bud direct a higher-tempo attack for the Hawks (100.0 possessions per-48 in 2016-17, 8th in NBA) than in previous seasons (99.4, 96.2, 96.9), even while bringing the elder statesmen along for the ride. By virtue of Bud selecting the “Pace” button, out goes Korver, who gets to now join the Club Med of the NBA. Club Cav has the most productive set of 30s-ish players in the league, attended to as needed by Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. In Kyle’s stead are steeds of young wing players eager to show what they can do with added playing time. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (last 3 games: 18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 61.8 FG%, 66.7 3FG%) has been showing signs of life after a rough start to the season. Taurean Prince may soon rejoin fellow blue-chipper DeAndre’ Bembry (3-for-4 FGs @ NOP on Thursday; out today due to death in family), after the former spent time surfing off the D-League coast of Long Island. These players may, someday, be floor-spacing threats, but that’s not why they’re here now. The Pace will do just fine, until the Space gets here. The identity of the Hawks going forward is not one that emphasizes the importance of a Threezus. Going forward, the intended imprint is one that wears opponents down, still sharing the ball but attacking the paint with speed and athleticism, without ceding much in the way of defensive cohesion. How much of a balancing act is this, on the head of a pin? Of the 15 teams (top half of the league) that allow the fewest points per game in the NBA, Atlanta (20-16) is the only team that ranks among the top 10 in pace. The only other team top-15 in pace and per-game scoring defense, Kyle’s Cleveland, ranks 14th in pace. Mark Cuban has not had a stellar 18 months. Things started heading south, arguably, when the billionaire owner swung-and-missed on the 2015 DeAndre Jordan deal (more specifically, he got tagged out going for an inside-the-parker). Tough sledding in 2016 as continued as Cuban got outfoxed by a fellow mogul, TV star, and social media rival who gets a plum new gig in just a couple weeks. And throughout this time, the man who made Dallas great again has watched the erosion of not only his team but its long-tenured captain. Dirk Nowitzki was as much of a no-brainer to stick around as any major free agent the summer. A 38-year-old icon, just a half-decade removed from earning an NBA Finals MVP, signing for two years at $25 million apiece won’t cause many to bat an eye. Back when he came on the scene, seven-footers from Europe with handle and range weren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Now, it’s an annual draft-time commodity. Over 1300 games later, though, the 2007 league MVP is doing the best he can to stay on the floor after suffering through not one, but two strained Achilles tendons. “It’s getting better,” said Nowitzki to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, after logging 28 minutes in a 102-95 home loss to Phoenix, the most floortime since his second injury absence ended. “Legs are still heavy in the second half, but been working toward the right thing, working toward feeling better out there.” The whole Mavs team seemed lead-legged at the close of Thursday night’s game. A layup by Deron Williams (team-high 6.8 APG) knotted things up at 93 apiece, but the final two minutes featured Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight closing things out with nine unanswered points. The Mavs have struggled to lasso opponents from the perimeter, one of five teams allowing over 40 percent shooting from the corners, and including a league-worst 39.4 3FG% above-the-break. To tighten up things on the interior, they conducted essentially a free agent trade, with Zaza Pachulia coming to the Warriors and Andrew Bogut (9.3 RPG; team-high 1.0 BPG) joining Harrison Barnes (team-high 20.6 PPG; NBA-high 2.3 FGs per game on iso plays) along the trip from Golden State. But lately, the rim-protecting Aussie sounds as though he’s about ready to check out. Bogut asked coach Rick Carlisle if he could volunteer himself out of the starting lineup, allowing Dirk to play stretch-5 and Barnes to remain at power forward. Carlisle is putting a nice face on that, although it helps that Barnes and Nowitzki have been far better as a 4/5 tandem from a plus-minus standpoint than Bogut and Nowitzki so far. Plus, Barnes “holds his own despite being a little undersized at times” at the 4-spot. Barnes and Nowitzki hope to draw Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard outside the paint with the threat of copious mid-range jumpers. Albeit by design, Atlanta allows an NBA-worst 44.1 2FG% on mid-range shots, and only Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (9.5) allow more mid-range buckets per game than the Hawks (9.3 2FGMs per game). Doing so would grant the Mavs a puncher’s chance offensively, opening up lanes for penetration by Williams and kickouts to perimeter threats like the resurgent Wesley Matthews (2.9 3FGs/game) and shooter-sibling Seth Curry (39.4 3FG%). After the Hawks allowed New Orleans to make 15-of-35 on shots from downtown, Bazemore and Sefolosha will have critical roles in creating deflections and making perimeter looks tougher. Atlanta’s Schröder should be able to thwart Williams’ drives and produce on a few of his own. Any activity that gets D-Will in foul trouble will put a dent in the Mavericks’ passing game, such that there is one (19.6 team APG, 27th in NBA). The only other Mav with more than three dimes per game, J.J. Barea (5.2 APG) has Achilles issues of his own and has been mostly inactive since mid-November. Devin Harris is almost a full time 2-guard under Carlisle, while with the recent waiver of Mr. Jackson, the Pelican is the only employed Pierre in the NBA. The Mavs’ one saving grace had been one of the Hawks’ bugaboos. Dallas leads the NBA by forcing 16.3 turnovers per 100 possessions (Atlanta’s 15.5 ranks 4th). Hawks’ players have committed under 15 turnovers (not counting team TOs) in each of their last eight victories, while Atlanta’s player TO tallies have gone down from 16.9 per game in October/November, to 13.9 in December, to 12.3 through three games this month. Sound execution from the guards on both ends of the floor will allow the Hawks to continue playing inspired basketball. Hopefully, Coach Bud won’t need to remind the players that Kyle Korver isn’t coming through that door. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. “This Barclays Center sure is a nice place, eh, Dennis?” So, what did your team get by parting ways with Joe Johnson? Meeting tonight for the first time this season, both the Atlanta Hawks and the host Brooklyn Nets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC) have had their destinies significantly shaped, for better or worse, by the July 2012 trade featuring the plainest-named star in the NBA. Paying what was, then, a ginormous salary agreed to previously under the Atlanta regime, Brooklyn squeezed three-and-a-half seasons, and one Paul Pierce-fueled postseason series victory, out of the 7-time All-Star (just one All-Star appearance as a Net). Back in that fateful summer of 2012, Atlanta could not have conceived that the swap options Brooklyn offered would not only prove useful, but occasionally teeter toward a lottery pick. Brooklyn could not have foreseen that the season before they would buy Johnson out of his contract, it would be the Hawks, not the Nets, going eye-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, dispatching Joe Cool and the Nets along the way. Neither of the Duke-alum general managers who agreed to the 2012 blockbuster deal would have predicted that, by 2017, they would each be distant memories in their respective NBA locales, largely for reasons that have nothing to do with this mega-deal. Here we stand, Hawks and Nets tipping off at the Barclays Center, and the man who defined these teams’ histories over the course of the past decade is coming off the bench in Salt Lake City. That leaves us fans to ponder: what is left in Joe Johnson’s wake? Who are Joe’s legacies? Well in Atlanta’s case, for starters, we got full seasons and playoff contributions from DeShawn Stevenson and Johan Petro. Anthony Morrow stuck around for a cup of tea, then was dealt for a late-season run by the Kobe-stopping Dahntay Jones. All of them, including Jordan Farmar and the troubled Jordan Williams, were off the roster before training camp preceding the the 2013-14 season. There was also some cap space engendered by the Joe trade, and signed into it were two shooters, Lou Williams, and Kyle Korver. There was also a 2013 first-rounder. Atlanta shipped that pick, Shane Larkin, as part of a three-team draft-day deal and received a haul that included China’s future statue, Jared Cunningham, along with picks that became Bebe Nogueira and Mike Muscala. For a couple months, Brooklyn teased the Hawks with the prospect of a 2014 swap for a lottery pick, before Joe resorted to All-Star mode and made the Nets look decent again. Before becoming a Sixth Man of the Year winner, Lou was sent to Toronto in the summer of 2014, along with Bebe, for the opportunity to waive John Salmons goodbye. In 2015, the Hawks nearly had the best of both worlds: a number-one conference seed, and a chance to secure a seat in the draft lottery. Alas, this time the Nets tantalized all the way until the final game of the season before their playoff berth was clinched. Receiving Atlanta’s spot, Brooklyn selected Chris McCullough. The Hawks swung yet another three-team, draft-day deal, using their selection of Kelly Oubre and converting it into the Knicks’ Tim Hardaway, Jr., plus a 2019 second-rounder from Washington. Last week, Korver begat the retiring Mo Williams, a dragged-kicking-and-screaming Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and a top-ten protected first round pick in 2019, all arriving from Cleveland. Including that plus two future recruits to Hawks University (a 2017 second-rounder from Brooklyn; the 2019 pick from the Wiz), Atlanta has two legacies to the Joe Johnson deal that remain on the floor tonight: Hardaway, and Muscala. For whatever their flaws, Hardaway and Muscala have become integral contributors. Timmy (last 4 games: 19.3 PPG, 59.4 FG%, 65.4 3FG%) even more so, now that the Hawks have sent Korver packing. With the departures of Korver and Ryan Kelly, Moose becomes Atlanta’s best bet at hitting the occasional shot from the 3-point arc (team-high 44.8 3FG%), at least until Dunleavy gets back up to speed. At the other end of the floor, what does Brooklyn have to show for itself, after buying out Joe last February? Quite a bit, at least numerically, if you count McCullough plus the cap space created from the buyout. That flexibility allowed the Nets to bring in Sean Kilpatrick and the since-jettisoned Henry Sims, undrafted free agents, in the back half of last season. The roster was also repopulated around centerpiece Brook Lopez, with free agents including Luis Scola, Justin Hamilton, Randy Foye, Joe Harris, and the since-dispatched trio of Greivis Vasquez, Yogi Ferrell and Anthony “Bustin’ Rebel” Bennett. With owner Mikhail Prokhorov looming above the franchise, the Nyets can’t possibly be the Nyets without spending a few extra rubles. The team swung-and-missed on offer mega-bucks sheets for Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe in the summer, and again in mid-season while making a play for Donatas Motiejunas. They also brought into the fold lunchpail forward Trevor Booker and hair-gel-aficionado Jeremy Lin to serve as starters during the Nets’ transition. Lin, however, has struggled with a hamstring strain, and he’ll miss his 25th game (7th in a row) tonight. Booker injured his hip during Brooklyn’s 105-95 Sunday matinee home loss to the 76ers, their 10th defeat in the past 11 games, and his status for tonight remains up in the air. To top off the teardown-and-rebuild, the Nets elected to follow the lead of Joe’s current employer, and pluck a Mike Budenholzer disciple off the Atlanta Hawks’ bench. After concluding his final playoff run with the Hawks, Huntington native Kenny Atkinson returned to the island he once geographically shared with NYC’s biggest borough. Joining forces with Brooklyn’s newest general manager, Spurs-Guy Sean Marks, Coach Kenny remains effusive in praise for his former boss. “Fantastic all-around coach,” Atkinson said of Coach Bud during his introductory presser, “really taught me about building a program and building a culture on and off the court.” As Hawks fans know, Atkinson is not in the mold of the freak-out, panic-button, antacid-swilling win-now taskmasters to whom the league once grew accustomed. Patience is literally Kenny’s virtue. After watching the products of Hawks U., Atkinson’s brass are willing to wait for Nets Community College to grow into something bigger under his and Marks’ watch. After years of being sold on champagne dreams with Riunite on Ice talents, Brooklynites these days know the deal. Still, Nets fans have seen enough to know which players they want to see more, and less, of on the court. They’ll hand you a Coney Island dog, with relish, if you would take Bojan Bogdanovic (35.8 3FG%) off their hands. Defensively, he and Kilpatrick formed the “Bad and Bojie” duo at the wing spots, a problem Atkinson is trying to ameliorate by replacing SKil with Harris (also 35.8 3FG%) in the starting unit. Rookie Caris LeVert is not your Casanova, but fans would prefer seeing more of Hardaway’s former Wolverine teammate, who was acquired in the dealing of Thaddeus Young to Indiana. There’s a little less desire to see 2015 draftee Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whose jumper remains wayward as he also seems lost with respect to his defensive assignments. Lin’s perpetual absence has forced the Nets to go with youth at the point. New York City’s least absent point guard is Isaiah Whitehead, a Brooklyn native and a second-round rookie out of Seton Hall. As his team-high 2.9 APG shows, he’s still figuring this whole thing out. Third-year pro Spencer Dinwiddie got some D-League seasoning and, with his contract newly guaranteed, should expect to see more time bringing up the ball in Brooklyn. Like Paul Millsap in the first year of his Hawks tenure under Atkinson’s eye, Lopez just started seriously shooting the rock from outside this season. Already, B-Lo is Brooklyn’s most accurate perimeter shooter (36.4 3FG%), most recently going 3-for-7 for 9 of his 26 points against Embiidelphia. Brooklyn will simply hope that his newfound floor-spacing will distract Atlanta’s Dwight Howard and open things up for the Nets’ offense inside. Also getting the jump-shooting big-man tutorial is backup center Justin Hamilton (34.3 3FG%, 2-for-4 3FGs, 16 points off the bench vs. PHI). Lopez is a continual trade target, and if the Nets pull the trigger on a deal, it seems they’re content with letting Hamilton ride out the remainder of the season as a starter. Either Hamilton (shifting Lopez to the 4-spot) or the lightly-used Scola will start if Booker cannot go today, although Nets fans would like to see more of the young and lanky McCullough. Ivan Johnson doppelganger Quincy Acy was brought in on a ten-day today, replacing Bennett, and is available to play. Brooklyn may not be winning ballgames, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Much of their league-low 8-28 record is attributable to their woeful road mark, a league-worst 1-17 away from Barclays. Never mind that, you see, the way their future draft pick control is set up… Suffice to say, there is little benefit to tanking. Thanks to the deal the old regime made with Boston, the Celtics get the Nets’ lottery slot this spring. The Hawks (21-16), though, cannot afford to screw with the Celts’ lottery odds. They need a seventh-straight victory to keep Boston (23-14, in Toronto tonight) close in the standings and set up a semi-titanic clash back in Atlanta on Friday night. Atkinson, like Budenholzer, is imploring his team to push the tempo, and these Nets are running (NBA-high 104.1 possessions per-48), even if it’s full-speed into a brick wall on most nights (NBA-high 16.6 TO%). On the good side, they are listening when Atkinson, drawing from his Mike D’Antoni roots, warns them not to fall enamored with mid-range shots (7.6% of offense, 2nd-lowest in NBA behind Houston). Masterful ball control from Dennis Schröder (20.2 PPG, 40.0 3FG%, 6.0 APG, 3.0 TOs/game during win streak), and on-ball pressure defense without fouling the Nets (18.2% of offense from FTs, 7th in NBA), should be sufficient for Atlanta to set the tone early tonight. Stifling defense from Millsap (NBA-best 99.1 D-Rating, min. 20 games and 25 minutes/game) and Dwight Howard (100.5 D-Rating, 2nd to Rudy Gobert among starting centers w/ same criteria) should keep Lopez and the Nets out of the paint (45.1 PPG-in-the-paint, 7th in NBA), and more reliant on perimeter shots (31.4% of offense from 3FGs, 6th in NBA) contested by Atlanta’s wing defenders. Hawk opponents have hit on just 31.5% of their three-point attempts during this win streak. Neither team should expect the former star, Joe Johnson, to be watching from afar. He’s prepping for Korver, LeBron and visiting Cleveland tonight. Besides, he’s just striving to be the best guy named Joe coming off Utah’s bench these days. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “If you call me Simon or Theodore ONE more time…” The Hottest Team in the East (double-checks standings… yup!) swoops into New Orleans today (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports NO). The Atlanta Hawks are hoping to extend their winning streak to five, one night after vanquishing Orlando. Beating the Magic 111-92 last night was a small measure of vengeance after Orlando tallied 131 points in Atlanta just weeks ago. Last week, the Hawks’ 105-98 win over the Pistons somewhat avenged a 121-85 home drubbing from a few weeks prior. Now, Atlanta hopes to make amends for the first bad home loss of the season, when a 4-10 Pelicans squad waltzed into Philips Arena just days before Thanksgiving and made the Hawks look like jive turkeys. The 112-94 pasting (34-14 in the opening quarter) occurred even while supernova Anthony Davis (career-highs of 28.9 PPG and 11.9 RPG, NBA-highs of 2.6 BPG and 10.4 FGMs/game) sat out much of the game due to a minor injury. The Golden State Invitational is in full swing. There is but one solitary playoff slot open for the Western Conference’s sub-mediocre contenders. The Pelicans are right in the mix, vying with the Kings, Blazers, and Nuggets for that 8-seed and the right to host Steph and KD for a pair of home games in April. New Orleans enjoyed this opportunity back in 2015, and they’d love another shot at postseason futility. Along with the Hawks’ next opponent (Dallas), the Pels (14-22) are mired amid a tough Southwest Division that includes the Spurs, Grizzlies, and red-hot Rockets. They’re just 1-6 against those foes, but one good thing they have in their pocket is their success against teams from the other conference. Monday’s 90-82 loss in Cleveland (after leading through three quarters) dropped N’Awlins to a still-spiffy 8-4 record against the East, including the resounding victory in Atlanta back in November. Sporting a .500 record since stumbling out of the season blocks at 0-8, Alvin Gentry’s club has won four of their past five, while getting reinforcements for the run toward the playoffs’ first round. Arriving to the season late while attending to family matters, Jrue Holiday’s jumper isn’t quite where he wants it (39.1 FG% since December 1). But lately, he has been dropping dimes (last ten games: 9.0 APG, 1.9 TOs/G) the way locals drop beads on Mardi Gras revelers. Down goes Tim Frazier to the second-string, but he won’t be any relief for the Hawks, not after he put up season-highs of 21 points and 14 assists (9 in the second half) in Atlanta, widening the rout to 35 points before the Hawks woke up in the third quarter. Tyreke Evans returned in mid-December and has been brought along slowly after recovering from knee surgery. Unfortunately, Quincy Pondexter will undergo another knee surgery that will cause him to miss the entire season. But the Pellies compensated by ending the long, international nightmare that was Donatas Motiejunas’ contract situation in Houston, signing the seven-foot forward to a prorated vet-min deal on Tuesday. The minute Donuts stepped off the plane at Louis Armstrong, he became a better prospect to relieve Davis than any of Gentry’s other options (Terrence Jones, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Cheick “Please” Diallo). But having not played on an NBA floor in 8 months, he’ll probably be too rusty to participate tonight. “Hopefully, it’s not going to take long to get back in game shape,” said Motiejunas during his presser. “I’m doing whatever I can to be ready as soon as possible.” The Pelicans’ recent surge coincided with coach Gentry’s decision (spurred on by a certain team consultant, perhaps?) to fully embrace small-ball, committing Davis and Jones (17 points off the bench @ ATL on Nov. 22) to the 5-spot while all but shelving Asik and Ajinca. They’ve been looking to off-again, on-again starter Dante Cunningham (41.7 3FG% in last 8 games, quickly returning from a fibula fracture) to be their stretch-4, although that may change once Motiejunas gets up to speed. It didn’t take until February, but rookie shooting guard Buddy Hield no longer seems afraid of his own shadow. Moved into the starting lineup in December, after a rough offensive start, Hield has shot a scintillating 53.3 3FG% over his past ten games. Yes, it’s kind of a default situation given the rookie crop these days, but Hield was named Rookie of the Month for December. Buddy’s budding and Davis’ dominance, unfortunately, have not put enough of a dent into New Orleans’ woeful offensive inefficiency this season. Ranking 29th in O-Rating (100.9 points per 100 possessions; NBA-low 100.6 since December 1), the Pels manage to score just 13.8 points per-48 off turnovers (28th in NBA). They shoot just 47.5% inside the 3-point arc, and don’t crash the offensive boards (17.9 O-Reb%, last in NBA), leading to very few second-chance scores (10.2 points per 48, 29th in NBA). The Hawks defensive challenge is to turn New Orleans’ offense inside-out. They want to entice leading scorers Davis (27.9 3FG%), Holiday (33.3 3FG%), and Jones (21.2 3FG%) to ply their wares from the perimeter, while keeping Frazier (38.2 3FG%), E’Twaun Moore (39.1 3FG%), Hield and Langston Galloway (36.4 3FG%) from getting open long-range looks. “K.Y.P.” is in full effect for the Hawks, who are moving back toward respectability in the perimeter defense department. Atlanta has kept seven of their last eight opponents from making a third (33.3%) or more of their three-point attempts (compared to just once in the 11 games before those). A healthier crew of Thabo Sefolosha, Paul Millsap, and Kent Bazemore has helped in this area. The Hawks benefitted once again from some favorable whistles, this time against the Magic (9-for-10 FTs) yesterday. But keeping foes off the free throw line, in and of itself, hasn’t translated into victories. Only one other time this season, out of six games, did Atlanta prevail while holding opponents to 13 or fewer FTAs. That was against Houston, who loves shooting threes but only made a third of them (12-for-36 3FGs). With Dwight Howard’s ability to keep opponents from making hay inside (22.6 opponent PPG-in-the-paint, 2nd-fewest among Centers with 25+ minutes/game), keeping New Orleans off the charity stripe while coaxing them to settle for well-contested mid-range two-pointers should be enough to stifle their offensive production over the course of 48 minutes. On offense, high ball screens directed by Dennis Schröder (last 4 games: 7.3 APG, 50.9 2FG%) should free him up for drives that force the Pelicans’ most active defender, Davis (team-high 1.5 SPG), to make plays on the ball. Unibrow is talented and flexible enough to divert Schröder’s drives, or to recover on the roll man, but he can’t cover the opponent’s entire halfcourt on his own, especially the opposite side. It’s up to Atlanta’s wings and forwards to stay in motion, freeing themselves up for passes from their lead guard and keeping the offense from stagnating. A headbanded Bazemore (17 points, 3-for-3 3FGs and 4 assists @ ORL) kept his head together and helped in this regard, as did Kyle Korver (4-for-5 3FGs vs. NOP on Nov. 22), who struggled with his shot last night but snuck in seven assists in under 17 minutes. New Orleans’ record is 3-11 when their opponents ring up 25 or more assists in a game, something Atlanta has done in their past three games. After piling up the points on the fastbreak (24-3) versus San Antonio on Sunday, the Hawks mustered just six fastbreak points in Orlando. Defensive rebounders sparking transition scores will be vital against the Pelicans, who are 2-13 this season when they’re outscored on fastbreak points. Even if individual Pelicans excel at times tonight, another balanced team effort spread out over four quarters should keep the Hawks’ good times rolling. A successful road trip may or may not be Big, but no one on this team should expect it to come Easy. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. Stupid Head Coach Tricks! How much have the Atlanta Hawks learned? Beginning with tonight’s affair in Orlando against the Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), the forthcoming 4-game road trip should be quite revelatory. The Hawks pulled off the trifecta in its homestand this past week, culminated by a stunning overtime victory over the daunting San Antonio Spurs. Prior to that run, though, confidence seemed to be at a new low, the Hawks sandwiching a narrow escape in Denver with two offensively poor defeats at the hands of the Timberwolves. Atlanta is giving out hints that it’s ready to pull ahead of the middling pack in the LeBronference. To do that, they need to begin stringing together convincing road victories, not just last-minute scrambles and mad dashes in the fourth quarters. They must especially perform consistently well against sub-.500 teams. The road trip ahead is full of exactly those kinds of teams. After Orlando (16-20), the scene shifts tomorrow to New Orleans (14-22), and both opponents have already flummoxed the Hawks in Atlanta. After that, bottom dwelling teams in Dallas (11-24) and Brooklyn (8-25) await the Hawks’ arrival in the coming days. The Hawks will get a chance to boost two elements that will factor into the East playoff race: their records on the road (currently 8-9, worse than Orlando’s 9-9), and versus the West (currently 5-9, same as Brooklyn’s). The Magic know all about the up-and-down basketball Atlanta patterned in December. A seemingly corner-turning victory in San Antonio on November 29 was followed by a loss in shorthanded Memphis two days later. That was followed by an encouraging three-game road winning streak, and then, a three-game losing streak. Then, a big 131-120 win in Atlanta was followed by a home loss to the Clippers the next day. Then a win, a loss, a win, a loss, a two-game win streak, a two-game losing streak. That means Orlando’s road win on Monday against the Porzingless Knicks could serve as a harbinger, either as a loss tonight versus the Hawks, or the extension of another win streak that artificially inflates hopes around the Magic Kingdom. The Magic pulled out the victory in New York without the continued services of Evan Fournier (17.8 PPG). Orlando’s leading scorer has been out for the past five games with a bruised heel. Whether Fournier (likely to play) starts or not, the Magic hope for a repeat performance from replacement starter Jodie Meeks, who eclipsed the season-high 20 points (4-for-6 3FGs) he contributed back home in the ATL last month with 23 points on a Hardaway-esque 6-for-7 3FGs on Monday. Meeks’ sharpshooting allowed backcourt mate Elfrid Payton (career-high 14 assists @ NYK, tying his output @ ATL) to penetrate and pepper the court. Against the Knicks, half of those 14 assisted baskets were within five feet of the rim, and many more involved dishes to open shooters from 16 feet out. Were it not for Magic coach Frank Vogel’s concerns about team defense, the effort against the Knicks was good enough to maybe earn Payton and Nikola Vucevic (13 rebounds, 5 O-Rebs @ NYK) their starting gigs back. It’s not clear that the move is working, anyway, as Magic starters’ D-Rating dropped from 102.0 (10th in NBA) to 109.3 (24th in NBA) since Elf and Vooch were relegated to bench status. While they are reserves, the duo is still averaging more minutes than replacements Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin, and Vogel seems hesitant to change that. Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings were of little use defensively against Payton and Augustin, but Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder ought to be more up to the task. Schröder (19 points, season-high 13 assists @ ORL on Dec. 13) has certainly begun to blossom as an offensive player, but his defensive imprint still leaves much to be desired. Dennis (1.2 loose-ball recoveries per game, 7th in NBA) has registered just 3 steals just once this season, back on November 25 in Utah, and registered no swipes in four of his past eight contests. After helping secure multiple defensive rebounds in nine of his first 11 appearances, Schröder has mostly deferred to the forwards and centers in three of the past ten games. Schröder (last ten games: 20.2 PPG, 49.4 FG%, 7.1 APG, 3.0 TO/G) will continue to excel for the Hawks (14-5 when his D-Rating, bball-ref formula, is 113 or less, incl. 5 wins in a row) when he makes his presence felt at both ends of the floor. Without the ability to get stops, Atlanta and Orlando (9 player TOs, season-high 58.6 team FG% @ ATL in December) may again engage in the freewheeling, AND1-mixtape style of ball that is to neither Vogel’s nor Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer’s liking. The Hawks could not force the Spurs into a lot of mistakes, but along the way to victory on Sunday, Atlanta did not commit many of their own (11 player TOs vs. SAS). In addition to Schröder, expect a more active and assertive on-ball defensive effort out of Paul Millsap (32 points, 13 rebounds vs. SAS), whose streak of games with at least one steal ended on Sunday at 13. Millsap and Howard tightening things up around the rim, plus active hands from Thabo Sefolosha and the Hawks’ guards and wings beyond the paint, should be enough to cool the Magic down. Much of Atlanta’s defensive lapse versus Orlando in the prior game was attributable to the bench brigade. The Magic made 13 of 15 shots within 5 feet of the rim in the first half, many of those beginning with Mike Muscala trying to hold the fort in place of Dwight Howard, and ending with Elfrid Payton, Jeff Green, and Meeks feasting. Moose’s minutes are down, but his on-floor impact has improved of late (+27 combined plus/minus in last two contests), Coach Bud adding a dash of Kris Humphries to help lessen the load. Buoyed further on offense by Tim Hardaway, Jr., if the bench can stop hemorrhaging opponent points, we’re likely to see a fine start to Atlanta’s road trip. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot, and Never Brought to Mind? ((Blame it on the champagne! Cutting this draft game thread short to get rested up for the games today. Catch y’all later!)) The block is hot, the block is hot! It’s a busy Sunday sports afternoon in downtown Atlanta. Hopefully, the NFC South champion Falcons will make quick work of the New Orleans Saints and sew up a #2 playoff seed. If so, at halftime, fans in the Georgia Dome may consider sauntering down Dominique Wilkins Way to see if the Hawks can keep the San Antonio Spurs (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA, NBATV elsewhere Sorry, ESPN lied to me) from extending their win streak to five. For Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, there’s been no letting up on his mastery over his former heir apparent. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is still angling for a first regular-season win over his ex-boss. The last time the Hawks defeated San Antonio in Atlanta, in March 2010, Coach Bud was on the Spurs’ bench, and then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson was almost on his way out of town, despite what would be a 53-win season. To counter Manu Ginobili’s 38 points and Tim Duncan’s 29 points plus 13 rebounds, to prevail 119-114 in overtime, Atlanta needed 22 points and 18 boards (!) from Al Horford, and 26 & 9 from Marvin Williams. San Antonio (27-6, 1.5 games behind Golden State) has since won 11 straight games over the Hawks, piling onto a head-to-head win streak in San Antonio that extends back to the mid-1990s. In addition, here are the resulting scores when Popovich’s Spurs visited what’s purported to be Atlanta’s “home” floor, ever since Budenholzer flew the coop and took the reins here: 105-79 in January 2014, 114-95 in March 2015, 103-78 in December 2015. A victory today is paramount, for Atlanta (17-16) to complete a 3-game homestand successfully. But short of that, the Hawks have to keep teams, whether it’s the Spurs or the Timberwolves, from leaving them in the dust. Tim Duncan has hung up his jersey for the final time, but Atlanta may catch an additional break if San Antonio’s leading scorer is unable to go. Hey, Kawhi Leonard? To kick off 2017, how about a greasy pork sandwich, served in a dirty ashtray? Leonard has struggled with a stomach bug and digestion over the past few days, missing his first pair of games this season. Having the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year (2.0 SPG), 2016 MVP runner-up, and San Antonio’s top offensive threat (40.1 3FG%; career-highs of 9.9 FTs/game & 92.2 FT%) taking another couple of days off would theoretically (these are the Hawks we’re talking about here) be beneficial to Atlanta today. Despite The Claw’s defensive prowess, Leonard is needed on the floor more than ever to keep the Spurs balanced offensively. Staying clear of foul trouble (1.5 personals per game, lowest since his rookie year) is perhaps the reason his shot blocking activity has declined (0.5 BPG, down from 1.0 last season). If he starts today, Atlanta will rely on Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to shoo him off the 3-point line and settle for interior shots (career-low 49.9 2FG%). Dennis Schröder needs to get his wings post touches that force Leonard to defend the ball up high. Jonathan Simmons stepped up in Aldridge’s absence, the swingman putting up 19 points (most since his season-opener) to help the Spurs come back from a first-half deficit to beat the visiting Trail Blazers on Friday. A former ABL standout and D-League tryout, Simmons is highlight-reel-caliber, but has struggled enough with consistency and focus to keep Coach Pop suppressing his playing time. Kyle Anderson stepped into the starting lineup in Kawhi’s place, leading all starters with 8 boards against Portland. Leonard’s illness has also forced the issue on power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the five-time All-Star who has been hesitant to take over games. Facing his former team for the second time in 8 days last Friday, despite Kawhi being inactive, LMA took just 3 field goal attempts, finishing with 8 points (the Spurs still beat Portland by 18). Despite the 2015 free agent prize’s deferential nature, Aldridge did step things up in the prior three games (26.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 64.0 FG%). Aldridge’s team is eager to get him more mid-range looks. Given that they’re shooting fewer and fewer three-pointers each season (26.7 percent of FG attempts from 3-point range, 28th in NBA; NBA-high 41.0 3FG%), the Spurs are using Aldridge and newcomer vets Pau Gasol and David Lee to diversify the offense. Despite Duncan’s departure, the Spurs also keeping the tempo low (26th in pace) to accommodate their big men. To speed things up, the Hawks have to keep the pressure on Tony Parker (5 assists, no TOs vs. POR on Dec. 30) at both ends, and force someone else on the floor to make quick decisions with the ball. Dwight Howard (13.4 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 78.3 FG% last 8 games) and Paul Millsap have to outrun the Spurs’ bigs and be in position to score when Schröder and the Hawks’ ballhandlers are setting up plays. Kyle Korver (22 points, 3-for-8 3FGs vs. DET on Friday; 6-for-13 3FGs past two games) will be blanketed by Danny Green, but the more that Schröder and the Hawks’ wings can produce while Korver is away from the ball, the more likely Spurs’ defenders will draw help from Green and grant Kyle the cracks of daylight he’ll need to produce from the perimeter. Matching San Antonio’s diverse attack will keep the Hawks competitive for 48 minutes, something we haven’t seen against the Spurs in awhile. Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “You Gettin’ Mad... I’m Gettin’ Rich!” “DESTROYED! BASKETBALL!” Things sure were revving up in the Motor City the last time the Detroit Pistons met the Atlanta Hawks on the neutral court known as Philips Arena, a December day not much different than today (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit). Why, it was only four weeks ago, when the league’s most-shy 3-point shooting team strolled into the Lamelight Factory and shattered their franchise record with 17 three-point makes (on 29 attempts). Sure, the Hawks were missing their Anchorman in Paul Millsap (hip). But the Pistons likewise enjoyed their biggest victory of the year margin-wise, 121-85, without their team’s leading scorer. Reggie Jackson (knee, thumb) had been out all season, but was ready to hop on the wave two nights later back home against Orlando. Surely, a surge to the upper room in the Eastern Conference was around the corner, right? Well, not exactly. They flopped against the Magic. The next game, though, they toppled their division-rival Bulls at The Palace. Happy days are here again, right? Well, not quite. A season-low 77 points in a loss at Charlotte (despite a familiar-sounding 26 & 20 performance by Andre Drummond) was quite a bummer. However, after that game came a resounding 117-90 victory in Minnesota (Drummond with 22 & 22). So, it’s Morning in Auburn Hills, right? Well, not really. The Pistons returned home and suffered an inexcusable 97-79 loss to the 76ers (and, no, Joel Embiid did not play). But, hey, after a couple days off, Detroit bounced back and prevailed in Dallas. Now, the ship is steering in the right direction, right? Well, hold your horses. Back-to-back defeats at Washington (allowing a season-high 122 points) and back home versus the Pacers meant it was time for the tried-and-true Players-Only Meeting! Leading scorer Tobias Harris felt relieved after the meeting, convened by backup big Aron Baynes after the 15-point loss to Indy. “It’s a dialogue about communication for everybody… it was good to just get everybody talking,” Harris told the delayed postgame media. Marcus Morris gave his best Bluto impression. “Are you going to play for the next man beside you, or are you going to play for yourself?”, he paraphrased for reporters. So, all for one, one for all, right? Well, not quite. See, Jackson (45.7 eFG%, lowest eFG% among top 35 NBA players in Usage%) kinda got the impression that the team’s frustrations were directed squarely toward him. After all, things were on the uptick before he returned – hey, did you not see how good we looked against Atlanta, without you??? So, a miffed Jackson decided to come into Chicago playing not so much Detroit Basketball, but something more like Deez Nuts Basketball, declining to take a shot, even when open, until nearly halftime. The result? A 113-82 drubbing. That’ll learn ‘em, R-Jax! “That wasn’t us,” said the always forthcoming Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, “That was him.” Atlanta knows all about up-and-down, one-step-forward, two-steps-back basketball. I joked just yesterday, though, that the Hawks’ alternate logo ought to be a Black Box. Through all the ups and mostly downs, if you catch so much as a hint of off-court dissension on this team, from either coaches or players, your flight has officially landed inside a volcano. That’s never the situation in Detroit, certainly not when their head coach is anywhere within eight miles of a microphone. I present to you, via MLive and the Detroit Free Press, the many smooth stylings of “Stan Van Gundy: Master of Panic.” Reflecting after the loss to the Suxers, after returning from Minnesota: “We weren’t ready. To hell with the weather… You’re an NBA player. It’s your job to be ready to play. But I didn’t do my job in getting them ready to play.” After the loss to the Pacers: “We’ve definitely got to look at some things, lineup and rotation-wise. That unit (Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Harris, Drummond) is clearly not working… So, the question is, how long do you stick with it?... There’s no question we’re not as good as before (Jackson’s return)… Our offensive frustrations have taken a toll on our defense. It shouldn’t, and it’s not a legitimate excuse. But I’m just giving you the facts.” After the third-straight double-digit loss, in Chicago: “Team meeting, my [patootie]. Like I said before, that stuff means nothing; it’s what you do on the court. Talking is easy… It was a disgusting performance, by all of us. Me included. It was unprofessional. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Whatever you want to say, it was terrible… Looks to me like a lack of effort, a lack of heart… I guarantee you on Wednesday night, we’re not trottin’ that (starting) five out there again.” Riffing on players, like Drummond, concerned about fewer touches since Jackson’s return: “I told them today I don’t really care… you know what, my basic message today was, ‘Do your job’… Does the plumber get a motivational speech in the morning? No… He either does his job right or he doesn’t get paid… I don’t know in how many jobs, and I said this to them, does your employer pay you and then also take responsibility for your happiness? That ain’t the way it works.” All of that, and more, from The Notorious M.O.P. in just the past 18 days. If Coach Bud’s mealy-mouthed postgame commentaries bore you to tears, go catch some interviews in the Pistons’ locker room after a bad loss. Oh, and he’s not done. SVG is virtually down to using toes to find something he can point at people with, so he’s trying a different tack. “When a team is having the problems we’ve had this many times, it’s on me,” he told the media after a 25-point loss at home to the Bucks on Wednesday, “I’m not going to get in here and blister the players… I’m responsible. I got to figure out what needs to be done. Quite honestly, I’m embarrassed. I’m not getting it done. I’m NOT getting it done.” Detroit has one win in their past seven games, and that exception was gifted to them on Monday by Tyronn Lue, after the Cavs coach DNP-REST’d LeBron James. Close-shave losses to Golden State and Memphis served as encouragement, but the Milwaukee loss knocked them for yet another loop. Tonight, will they be able to once again sip from the Fountain of Relevance in Atlanta? While they indeed whooped the Hawks by 36 points back on December 2, Van Gundy surely noticed when the Hawks (16-16) got waxed on Toronto’s floor the very next night, by 44 points… and what happened in that same building less than two weeks later. After such high hopes to start the month, a loss in Atlanta tonight would plummet the Pistons (15-19) to 12th in the LeBronference, the very bottom of the East’s Crab Barrel. “We’re in jeopardy right now,” said You Know Who. With the curtains wide open, the Wizard of Osmosis is pulling on whatever levers he can find. Harris (16.3 PPG), the Pistons leading scorer, now comes off the bench, Stan Van turning to Tobias’ super-efficient sub Jon Leuer in the starting lineup. His play as a reserve (last 3 games: 23.3 PPG, 55.8 FG%, 52.9 3FG%, 8.3 RPG) has sparked the bench offensively, but Leuer’s effect on the starting-unit’s defensive intensity has yet to bear fruit. The Pistons’ three-point barrage back on December 2 essentially ended the Hawks’ ability to distract viewers with their then-top-ranked defensive efficiency. Their slippage has them at 7th place in D-Rating entering today’s action, although still 2nd in the East, ahead of Milwaukee and Detroit. Among the NBA’s top ten teams in D-Rating, only the Hawks and Pistons have a negative Net Rating, a tell-tale sign of offensive struggles. Behind Drummond, the Pistons, for their part, have also led the league with 84.5 D-Reb % in December (NBA-low 9.5 opponent second-chance PPG, only team allowing less than 10), so second-chances may be hard to come by for Atlanta, even for Dwight Howard (1 O-Reb in 25 minutes vs. DET on Dec. 2). This suggests that the first shots need to be good ones. For Hawks’ ballhandlers Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and (yes) Kent Bazemore, it means knowing when to attack the paint, like when they’re guarded by Jackson instead of KCP, and when to find passing lanes, rather than forcing the issue when Drummond and Baynes form walls and seal off penetration. Despite his considerable girth, Drummond (1.0 BPG) is decidedly not a shot-blocker, preferring to make stops by drawing charges and making steals when he’s not boxing out. He will be occupied with sealing off Howard and averting lob plays, so players on the opposite side of the floor from D8 need to be active, ready to receive the rock and finish plays from that side. Continuing to recover from a sore groin muscle sustained last week, Hardaway is a past-due target to get to the bucket, especially when KCP strays to help with Schröder. Hardaway was 0-for-7 shooting over just 13 minutes versus his prior team, the Knicks, on Wednesday. And in the UM alum’s last meeting with the Pistons, he was a few more wayward clanks (0-for-6 3FGs) from being disowned by his assistant-coach father. He and Bazemore (3-for-11 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 2) need to make more cuts to the hoop and be prepared to produce more assists for Schröder (11 assists, 1 TO vs. DET) via interior buckets. While Hawks foes like the Pistons have had a field day from the perimeter this month (NBA-high 40.5 opponent 3FG% in December; 11.6 opponent 3FGs per 100 possessions, 2nd-most in NBA), Atlanta continues its own slide in that area (8.3 3FGs per 100 and 31.6 3FG%, 3rd-worst in NBA). If your team relies on your 6-foot-8 power forward, shooting 31.0 3FG% and rocking a swollen eye, to take the most three-point attempts, you’re not making it easier on your team to win games. Instead of allowing Millsap to think he’s somehow spreading the floor, allow him to work on Harris and Leuer inside. The Hawks must feed the tandem of Howard and Millsap, and allow them to create better outside options for players paid to hit those shots, like Kyle Korver (3-for-5 3FGs, 1-for-5 2FGs in the OT win vs. NYK). Kyle’s last five triples have come by way of passes from either Howard, Millsap, or Mike Muscala. Facing a back-to-back, Coach Bud sat Thabo Sefolosha (season-low 16.6 minutes) in the second-half of the loss against Detroit, and Baze was given a rest in the final quarter. So Detroit’s decision to go buckwild from deep (11-for-20 3FGs) was no accident, especially after a first-quarter test (5-for-6 3FGs) revealed the water was fine. Both Kent and Thabo should be healthy enough to contribute major minutes tonight, making perimeter looks on the back end of the clock tougher for the Pistons. Detroit’s 32.9 3FG% since that game (27th in NBA) is not much better than Atlanta’s 32.1% (28th). Just as NBA opponents have figured out they should go ahead and let Atlanta fire away from outside, they’ve also learned not to bail out the poor-shooting Pistons with ticky-tack fouls. Detroit’s 18.0 personal fouls drawn (per 100 possessions) are the league’s lowest this month; their 19.8 FTAs per-100 in December are ahead of only Dallas’ 19.7. Plus, the lion’s share of those hacks are directed at Drummond, whose 44.2 FT% (41.1% this month) is actually a career-high. One half-full way of looking at the Hawks’ late-December stretch is that they have not lost consecutive games since December 5. They also haven’t won back-to-back contests since December 9, or consecutive home games since November 16. But these are low bars that they can clear tonight. Considering Bud’s hard-to-beat mentor (and the source of Van Gundy’s plumber philosophies) Gregg Popovich is swinging by on New Year’s Day, this is no time for the Hawks to resort to half-empty basketball. Let’s save all the drama tonight for the guys in the other locker room. Hit Dem Folks! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Who? George Karl? Man, he’s Old Hat…” After a disappointing finish on Christmas Day versus the Celtics at Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks fly into A-Town to face the visiting Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG in NYC). No, that’s not a typo. The way they’ve performed over much of the past forty days, the Hawks are the “road team” in 30 NBA arenas, until further notice. Rue to Atlantans who have stayed True To Atlanta throughout this month-plus-long funk, their Hawks (15-16) coming back to Philips Arena with their tailfeathers between their legs after getting walloped once again. Their latest furball was coughed up in lowly Minnesota, falling behind the Wolves by 28 in the third quarter, 29 in the fourth, after their hosts had just returned on a cross-country red-eye from a loss in OKC the night before. Just five days prior to that game, those same Wolves sprinted out to a 12-2 start before the Hawks decided to take the Philips Arena floor. The “home” game before that, with a chance to take over the top spot in the Southeast Division, Atlanta watched Charlotte zip to a 16-point third-quarter lead. The “home” game before that one, the Hawks let one of the NBA’s worst offenses score 30+ points in three different quarters, watching Orlando go up 12 near the end of the half, then up 13 midway through the final quarter. The “home” game before that, down 15 at “home” in the third quarter versus OKC, while Russ Westbrook is resting. Before that, they go down in the 30s against Kyle Lowry in Toronto, then slipping down into the 40s once Fred VanVleet subs in. Before that, a “home” game against a Pistons team that’s today on the verge of implosion, yet Detroit’s up by 24 before the clock could reach halftime, up 33 at the end of the third, 36 by the end of the game. Losing by 15 in the Lakers’ house, by 27 in Utah, by 18 at home against New Orleans, down 20 in Milwaukee. Inexcusable double-digit deficits leading to inexplicable L’s, with some crawl-back W’s sprinkled into the mix every now and then. That is no way to live. What’s that? We’ve won five of our last nine? “Oh, good for you!” [/christianbalevoice] “True” as we may seem, Hawks fans won’t be coming downtown to offer up Citizen Kane applause for bad, lifeless, uncompetitive “pro” basketball. What’s “True”? We’re just fine with leaving the empty seats for the wannabe Jesse Itzlers of the world to fill tonight. Carmelo Anthony has no time to worry about his wife’s teen-era NBA squad. He’s got his own set of problems to deal with. His Zen Master boss is less concerned about tying the knot with Jeanie Buss than he is about reminding people that Melo holds the ball too long. His former coach is peddling a tell-all book at Christmastime, leaking snippets to entice the anti-Melo contingent to get in their pre-orders while they still can. Anthony called Phil Jackson’s critique “negativity,” and a “temporary black cloud”. Then along comes George Karl to rain on his parade even more. Karl cites Melo’s “low demand of himself on defense… no commitment to the hard, dirty work of stopping the other guy,” and comparing the Knicks star to a “blister” that offered a “sweet release” (ick.) once his trade demand went heeded by Denver. Karl also offered up a side heaping of shade when he pinned Carmelo’s shortcomings on a non-existent father; in his case, a father that died from cancer when Melo was 2 years old. Would ya like to hear more about Melo? Why, Karl will be very happy to tell you, for just $19.99, plus shipping and handling. Anthony understandably wants to steer the subject away from the self-satisfied Grumpy Old Men, and back toward his contributions toward a Knicks team that, at 16-14, is 5th in the duck soup called the Eastern Conference. Off the court, before the Christmas Day game, he and his foundation delivered a new car to the family of a teen struggling with a rare form of cancer. On the court, a give-and-go layup from Carmelo assisted by Joakim Noah helped New York tie the Celts with just 1:06 to play, a sign of the work coach Jeff Hornacek has been putting into the revamped Knicks offense. But then, with 40 seconds to go and Boston back in front by 3, Melo lapsed into the type of Melo-ball that must have had Phil running to reporters screaming, “See?”, while warming the cockles of wherever Karl’s heart resides. Melo, in the space of 20 seconds: a missed 3, but gets the ball back after a rebound by Noah; ball-stopping iso dribble in the far corner, fumbling the ball while trying to get a contested shot up on Avery Bradley, who strips and steals the ball away. Now, Anthony’s got much more than bitter coaching legends straying from his corner. Relying so heavily on isolation plays from him plus guard Derrick Rose, New York’s 41 made baskets featured just 11 assists. The Knicks’ comeback march from 13 points down with under 5 minutes to go in the game was made possible by 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, whose 3-pointer (assisted, ironically, by Melo) and And-1 basket in the space of 15 seconds whittled an 8-point deficit down to 2. The Porzstar also had 7 of his 12 rebounds in the final quarter, plus four blocks, a pair of threes and a pair of steals in the game. No player in NBA history has averaged more than two triples and two swats over the course of a season, but Porzingis (2.1 3FGs per game, on 40.3 3FG%; 1.9 BPG) is right on the cusp. Nobody wants to hear about Carmelo’s 29 points (on 33 shots; 9-for-24 FGs; 9-for-9 FTs) versus the Celtics. No one wants to hear about KP’s five turnovers against Boston, either. But everyone seems eager to talk about one of Anthony’s two turnovers, the one that mattered when the game’s outcome still hung in the balance. Melo was once paraded about as the toast of Gotham, but now, it’s Porzingis who’s the Big Apple of Knicks fans’ eyes. No more transitioning: fans want Kris P Kreme to be the top billing, right now. Once again tonight, Anthony will do all he can to steer the narrative away, from the growing urge to steer him away from Manhattan. The Hawks had no answers for him (31 points, 12-for-22 FGs) back on November 20, Atlanta shooting just 6-for-21 as a team from the perimeter while Melo casually sunk four of his eight attempts from deep. Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap were at wit’s end. But perhaps Atlanta will have defensive help tonight in the form of Thabo Sefolosha (3 blocks, 3-for-4 3FGs @ MIN), who had missed the game at MSG and two games prior to it to rest a sprained knee. If he bothers to pass the ball, Anthony could find Courtney Lee waiting in the wing. Lee’s 46.7 3FG% ranks 2nd in the NBA, and it’s even better from the corners (54.3 3FG%). Rose, Porzingis, and Melo aren’t exactly creating looks for Lee, so Hornacek is encouraging him to take more shots when he receives the ball, even when contested, rather than waiting for someone to find him wide open for catch-and-shoot attempts. Lee has been dealing with a sore wrist and sat out of practice yesterday, but he is listed as probable to play tonight. Your ex-Hawk killer for the evening is Justin Holiday, now on his fifth team in four NBA seasons. J-Ho ranks second to Brandon Jennings with 6.7 PPG coming off the Knicks’ bench, while also shooting 38.2 3FG% and 85.3 FT%. If Thabo is occupied helping contain Carmelo, then Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are going to have a busy day trying to keep Knicks like Lee and Holiday cool from outside. Former Knick Tim Hardaway, Jr. will test his groin during warmups before it’s decided whether he’ll play. Your leading dime-dropper on the Knicks? It’s not Rose (4.4 APG), it’s Jennings, whose 5.4 APG are mostly delivered while coming off the bench. Jennings has been beneficial to New York so long as he’s not expected to do much more than distribute (37.2 FG%; career-low 30.8 3FG%) when he’s in the game. With Rose and Jennings being such poor on-ball defenders, today’s game is another test to see if Malcolm Delaney (1-for-4 FGs and 4 TOs @ NYK on Nov. 20; 1-for-6 FGs and 4 TOs @ MIN on Monday) has reached the floor. Dennis Schröder went 0-for-8 shooting the ball in MSG last month, and will again be counted upon to bounce back quickly after a subpar game in Minnesota. It will begin by pressuring Rose out of his comfort zones, and forcing turnovers, before Rose initiates his fantastical forays toward the hoop. 36.5 percent of Rose’s attempts are at the rim, the highest proportion since his rookie season in Chicago, and his 55.7 2FG% drops off precipitously as he settles for shots further out. Paul Millsap was shooting 2-for-13 in Minnesota, a game interrupted by an inadvertent third-quarter elbow that has his eye swollen even today. “I didn’t play any worse than before I got elbowed,” he told the AJC after the game. The All-Star forward insists his vision isn’t obscured by his swollen eye, and it won’t be further obscured tonight by the 7-foot-3 Knick defending him. Besides, Sap can probably do better than 2-for-13 with his eyes closed. Defensively, look for Millsap to switch out to defend Noah, who is more dangerous as a post passer and a pick setter than as a scoring threat, and for Dwight Howard (18 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocks vs. NYK in November; 20&12, 9-for-9 FGs @ MIN on Monday) to use his size to keep Porzingis’ paint scoring down. On Monday night, Dwight could only watch as Karl-Anthony Towns matched Howard’s perfect shooting day with an 8-for-8 display of his own (incl. a Porzingian 3-for-3 3FGs), while also getting almost anything else he wanted (11 boards, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 1 TO). Howard will try to make amends tonight, but to help keep him anchored in the middle, Millsap will need to stay on Porzingis when the lanky Latvian hangs around the three-point line. It shouldn’t take injuries and ailments for Mike Budenholzer to recognize there are other players down on the bench at his disposal. Yet there sat Minnesotan Kris Humphries, who finally entered in the final quarter with Atlanta losing by 24, promptly dropping 12&5 on the T’Wolves. Even with Hardaway unavailable, Taurean Prince subs in for the first time during that quarter for Kyle Korver with Atlanta down 94-66, and together with Humphries the Hawks begin cutting the Wolves’ deficit in half, even while Towns and Zach LaVine were still in the game. Budenholzer is supposed to know his personnel well enough to pull the plug and switch things up, well before games like this get out of hand. He certainly can’t hide behind the team president for building him a 15-man roster on the cheap. Whether at “home” or abroad, double-digit deficits only seem to encourage Coach Bud to double-down on what hasn’t worked. The Hawks coach’s persistence in not adjusting game plans and personnel is eroding consumer confidence in not only his product, but his means of production. If (when) the Hawks on the floor revert to that head-buried-in-sand mode again tonight, we’ll see whether Coach Bud has learned anything from the fourth quarter in Minnesota. Sure, the Hawks need more time to recalibrate and gel and whatnot. But it doesn’t mean fans should expect to endure collective flops on the floor against mediocre competition, especially whenever Atlanta’s only guaranteed All-Star Weekend participant is on the 1s and 2s. Dig another double-digit-deep hole in front of a Knicks-friendly crowd tonight, and Hawks’ fans shouldn’t be surprised if Itzler fills in for Sir Foster (DNP-he’s in Paris for France’s All-Star Game) and plays some “Go NY, Go NY Go!”, just for old time’s sake. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. Looks like SOMEBODY got everything they wanted! Still on the road, so nothing fancy for tonight’s contest between the Atlanta Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP). No Dwight (back), but Junior (groin) is probable, upgraded from earlier today. Atlanta (15-15) hopes to stretch their ref-aided road winning streak to five, and get a measure of payback in Minnesota (9-21). The Wolves dropped to 5-10 on the road with a 112-100 Christmas Night loss in OKC, but their record at the Target Center has been even more off-target (4-11). Hopefully, the Hawks play with more energy than they showed (also without Dwight) during their 92-84 loss at Philips Arena last Wednesday, especially in the opening half (Wolves 49-44) and the final quarter (Wolves 25-15). Kris Humphries could be key for the Hawks to avoid getting thoroughly outrebounded by Minnesota as they were last week (52-35) in Atlanta. Coach Tom Thibodeau only played eight Wolves last week, and expect a short roster again tonight, after 11 players saw action last night. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “Merry Christmas, ya filthy Manimal!” ((Stuck in Orlando holiday traffic, so couldn’t finish tonight’s preview. Just gonna pull a Hawks and mail it in early… lol! Cheers!)) It seems Mike Malone has finally gotten out of his own way. And for that, fans of tonight’s hosts of the Atlanta Hawks, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), are reveling in the joys of the holiday season. It wasn’t easy getting here. "You guys got to understand, he’s not going to be the same player he was last year.” That was the Nuggets head coach last month, Malonesplaining to the pestering media why his 2016 All-Rookie 1st Team phenom (no, not Emmanuel Mudiay), Nikola Jokic, was watching his minutes erode, shuffled off to the bench in favor of tarnished team icon Kenneth Faried. This, after he shone so brightly at the end of last season. I mean, can’t “you guys” see, Jokic was overrated? “Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) was out, Wilson Chandler was out. Last two months of the season we played our young guys, we played them 35 minutes a night almost. We’re healthy, we have guys playing, so everybody stop expecting Nikola Jokic to be something he’s not. I think it’s unfair to him." The Nuggets made it all the way to December 12 without more than one single two-game win streak. Malone was so excited about the return of behemoth Jusuf Nurkic that he slid Jokic over to power forward, a position he hadn’t played since his days in Serbia, and was shocked – shocked! – to find out twin-brute frontcourts have gone the way of the Do-Do. So, naturally, the coach punishes Jokic further by relegating him to mop-up duty in favor of Faried, which turned out to be more of a “see why I don’t start you?” exhibition for the Manimal. So, maybe we’ll try… Darrell Arthur at the 4-spot? Nope. Finally, Malone comes to his senses, replacing Arthur and Nurkic with Wilson Chandler (the steadiest player on the roster all season) and Jokic. And the smaller-lineup Nuggs promptly won three straight, Jokic shooting 74.2% from the field and dishing out 6.3 APG while bringing 9.3 RPG and 16.7 PPG to the fray. The glimmer of hope shined, bright enough for even Malone to see, during Denver’s 20-point loss in lowly Dallas on December 12, when Jokic put up a season-high 27 points (10-for-12 FGs) with 11 boards and 4 assists. Now a starter, Jokic upped the ante when Dallas came to Denver one week later: 27 points (13-for-17 FGs), 15 rebounds, 9 assists, leading the way to a 10-point victory this past Monday. He and the Nuggets struggled one night later, when the host Clippers handed them a mirror. But nobody wants to hear, “Hey, you guys, it was just the Mavs!” from Malone anymore. Nurkic was fine and all, but the problem in Jokic’s case was he worked best as a high-post five who didn’t have to defend quicker and more experienced fours. Playing the Itches together turned Denver into the Itchy and Scratchy Show, comically screwing up spacing for every offensive player on the court. Forcing Chandler and Jokic to come off the bench came across to Nuggets fans as needlessly undermining the team’s most productive frontcourt players, and passing off Jokic’s rookie season as some garbage-time aberration wasn’t going to fly. ((blah-blah-blah Jokic really good, Harris and Mudiay working out, Faried's being shopped, Dwight and Timmy’s out, so play more Bembry and Hump, go get 'em Dennis, don’t let Jameer kill us, blah-blah-blah…)) Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. …and starring Danny McBride in, “TOM THIBODEAU: The Wonder Years!” No, the Suns are not terrorizing opponents. But lately, they have been tenderizing them, in advance of upcoming games versus the Atlanta Hawks. Phoenix was the warm-up act for Oklahoma City over the past weekend, ahead of Atlanta’s Monday night thriller. As the Hawks were hanging on for dear life in OKC, the Suns had Minnesota Timberwolves fans biting their nails with the Suns, just days before their team headed south to visit Atlanta (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP). Will the Hawks offer themselves up as the entrée, following Minnesota’s appetizer? Or will Atlanta finally treat the fans who bothered to show up to a holiday feast? Despite winning four of their last six overall, the Hawks (14-14) continue giving increasingly skeptical fans at the Strobelight Factory less and less reason to desire a return visit. Despite the halftime entertainment on tap at the end of this month, since mid-November Atlanta has performed at home exactly the way you might expect of a battle rapper named “Juzt 1 Chain”… half-baked efforts versus semi-serious competition, leading to one lonely W among the last six games in their own building. It’s hard enough to get amped about heading downtown to see the Hawks during these wintry eves. It’s even harder when one considers the prospect that they might get shown up on their own floor by the likes of low-draw teams like New Orleans, Detroit, Orlando, and Charlotte. This is literally the Ish Smith Phase of the home schedule, yet the Hawks have been falling woefully short. Never mind 2 Chainz. Keep losing at home to teams like Minnesota in mid-week, and it’ll take 2Pac crawling out from his grave just to fill up Philips’ lower bowl. Atlanta’s not the only NBA team struggling to keep their own fans enlivened and engaged, though. The Wolves have the past two Rookies of the Year in Karl-Anthony Towns (22.3 PPG, 11.1 RPG; 28&15 vs. PHX) and Andrew Wiggins (22.0 PPG, 38.4 3FG%). They can boast of a highlight-reel-making dunkster who is just beginning to round out his offensive game in Zach LaVine (20.8 PPG, 38.1 3FG%, 86.2 FT%). They have a still fresh-faced point guard in Ricky Rubio (3.5 assist/turnover ratio) with an even fresher-faced backup, lotto rookie Kris Dunn, waiting in the wings. On top of all that, they’ve got a new head coach in Tom Thibodeau, who won at least 45 games during all five seasons in his last NBA stop. None of that brimming potential has translated into win streaks (a win tonight would give them two in a row for the first time this season), or turnstiles turning, for Minnesota. Sorry, Hawks fans, but it’s not looking too hot for that extra first-round draft pick in 2017, the one that cost us (“cost” may not be the proper word here) forward Adreian Payne. With the Wolves sitting at 8-19 (3.5 games behind division rival Portland; 1.5 games above the basement) and the Western Conference playoff picture calcifying by the day, it’s likely the lotto-protection on Minnesota’s first-rounder will simply carry over to 2018. As often suggested previously, if the Wolves (zero playoff games since 2004) aren’t handing over this pick by 2020, the NBA franchise with the worst home-percentage attendance (outside of cavernous Auburn Hills) may have to relocate to Fargo, or perhaps the Corn Palace. It’s not like Atlanta needs to help them relinquish the pick, though, with losses tonight and next Monday in Minneapolis. And it isn’t like they’re not trying earnestly to get it to us. In order, here are your top seven NBA teams in Net Rating efficiency during the FIRST halves of their games: Warriors, Clippers, Cavs, Raptors, Timberwolves, Rockets, Spurs… wait, the Timberwolves? One of these things is not like the other! Why are all the other teams ranging from 12-to-21 games above-.500, while Minnesota sticks out like a sore thumb, at 11 games below a break-even mark? Pulling that off literally requires the league’s worst SECOND half rating and, indeed, the Wolves have been achieving that (minus-13.4 2nd-half net rating). That includes a 112.1 D-Rating (worst in NBA, not counting OTs) in back halves of games. In Houston over the weekend, they were enjoying a nine-point lead in the last minute of regulation before D’Antoniball happened, the Wolves done in by James Harden’s 10 points in OT. Minnesota’s opponents are treated to 15.3 free throw shots per game (2nd-most in NBA, ahead of just the aforementioned Suns) in the third and fourth quarters, while shooting 38.7% on threes (2nd-highest in NBA, barely ahead of Dallas’ 38.8 opponent 3FG%). You’d be waning, too, if your ears had to endure the dulcet tones of Coach Thibs for 48 minutes per night, plus locker room banter, plus practice runs. [WARNING: Unwavering Sam Mitchell Apologist talking!] Thibodeau was brought on to immerse this youthful bunch in the Dark Arts of Pick-and-Roll NBA defense. The Wolves are impressionable, and it’s impossible for their coach to ever be tuned out (believe me, I’ve tried; the mute button is overrated). But his team, by design, is not yet instinctive. He hollers “BLUE!”, and they start looking around for Mr. Edwards. Thibodeau was a raving success at his prior locales, in Boston (as an assistant) and Chicago (as the head honcho). But young pupils like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Kevin Garnett literally walked in the door with some defensive aptitude. Not so with these young pups; Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich are the closest thing to experienced defensive savants Minnesota has to offer. A defensive mindset has to be hammered home, and Thibs brings the vocal sledgehammer to every opponent possession. On the floor, Minnesota’s not looking to Rubio, or KAT, or Dunn, to quarterback the defense. They’re receiving and interpreting instructions like a first-time IKEA furniture purchaser. The anticipation of what their coach is about to bark, and the reaction times needed for processing the directives, leaves them a step too slow against opposing pro offenses, especially when the game shifts to the final quarters. [/WARNING] Tonight’s game will be a test to see how much the Hawks have learned about their own resiliency, specifically when opponents go on runs in their house. Against visitors like the Pelicans (66 first-half points), Magic (72 first-half points) and Pistons (58 first-half points), Hawks players abandoned many of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s gameplans, resigned to tipping their caps while pumping up personal stats with iso-ball, in attempts to scurry behind boxscores after the games. The Wolves are going to sprint and leap and play their tender hearts out in the first half. Will we see a different response from Atlanta during, and after, Minnesota’s attempts to string buckets together? Dwight Howard (back) remains questionable for tonight’s contest, and his ability to contain Towns from putting up mouthpiece-spewing numbers would be beneficial to Atlanta’s cause. Only 21, Towns has deft footwork in and around the paint, reminding yours truly [WARNING: Exaggerated Equivalency Ahead!] of peak Al Jefferson. But unlike Big Al, this young Wolf is blessed with superior range and hops, and less of an affinity for Popeye’s. [/WARNING]. Towns will likely switch off with Dieng to defend whichever is the cooler Hawk among Howard and Paul Millsap (30 points, 11 boards at OKC on Monday), in hopes of averting foul trouble. Along with Dieng, the league’s third-best offensive rebounding team (NBA-high 16.0 second-chance PPG) is likely to crash the glass when Howard isn’t patrolling, and Towns will try his wares at three-point shooting (34.0 3FG%, 36.4% on the road) when Hawk defenders don’t properly account for him. Wiggins’ improving jumpshot (also 40.0 2FG% from 16 feet out) has added a second dimension to his contributions (scoring, and not much else) on the floor. The long-distance shooting comes at the expense of his ability to post up fellow wings, something Maple Jordan (then-career-best 33 points in his last visit to Atlanta, in November 2015) could exploit against Kent Bazemore or backup guard Kyle Korver. Wiggins is, however, likely to stray off his assignments when on defense, while LaVine often gets caught anticipating his next highlight-reel offensive play. Baze needs to exploit that by continuing to attack the paint and make plays, as he did in OKC (4-for-7 2FGs, 6 assists) on Monday. It’s a similar deal for Kyle (6 assists, including the game-winning dime to Paul Millsap; 2-for-4 3FGs vs. OKC), who continues to look for other open shooters even as he strains to find daylight along the three-point line. Dennis Schröder (31 points, 10-for-10 FTs, 8 assists vs. OKC) must execute plays quickly and force the pace of play at both ends, disallowing the Wolves from getting comfortable in halfcourt battles. He needs to be ready to attack just as Minnesota defenders adjust to the siren song of their head coach’s demands, but avoid the crafty hands of Rubio, whose team-high 1.5 SPG is currently a career-low. Turnovers are never so much a problem when you’re averaging 20.6 PPG and 7.7 APG with shooting splits of 53.8/50.0/88.2 in a calendar month, values Schröder has been producing in December. But the Hawks will want to ensure his turnovers (3.1 TOs/game this month, down from 3.3 in prior games) do not translate into easy offense for Minnesota at the other end. Forwards Thabo Sefolosha and Millsap have to run the floor to keep Wiggins, Towns and LaVine from making quick transition sprints to the other hoop. Atlanta’s beleaguered bench must step things up several notches, and there’s no better outfit to show improvements against than the underutilized Timberwolves (league-low 13.9 minutes per game by reserves). Especially when pitted against the likes of Shabazz Muhammad, Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica, plus-performances by Tim Hardaway, Jr., Korver, and Mike Muscala are essential to take pressure off the Atlanta starters. Right now, Bob Rathbun could be a better option than Mike Manbun (last 5 games: 86 minutes, 1.6 D-Rebs per game) when it comes to securing boards. The 6-foot-11 Muscala has only two more defensive rebounds on the season than Dennis, and that stat needs to change, stat. Whether it’s Lou or Marvin Williams, Hawks fans have had enough of the ex-Hawk Makes Good tour routinely coming through Philips Arena. If anybody is talking about Adreian Payne’s evening by game’s end, it’s going to be just another long night at the Factory. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. AMC Presents: THE WALKING DNP-CD After yet another ridiculous display from Russell Westbrook on Saturday, will the Oklahoma City Thunder guard go Super Saiyan on the Atlanta Hawks tonight (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma) in OKC? Westbrook ran roughshod over the Phoenix Suns over the weekend, his latest triple-double virtuoso performance including a career-high 22 assists to accompany 26 points and 11 rebounds, guiding the Thunder to a cruise-controlled 114-101 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Russ acknowledges the incessant post-game talk about getting triple-doubles, or not getting one, or averaging one (for the record: 30.4 PPG, 11.0 APG, 10.5 RPG), has been grating on a player who gets easily bristled anyway. “Honestly, man, people and this triple-double thing is kind of getting on my nerves, really,” he advised the Oklahoman this past week. “People think if I don't get it, it's like a big thing. When I do get it, it's a thing. If y'all just let me play -- if I get it, I get it. If I don't, I don't care. It is what it is. I really don't care. For the hundredth time. I don't care. All I care about is winning, honestly. All the numbers (bleep!) don't mean nothing to me.” The difference between a Most Valuable Player candidate and a disreputable stat-padder is that Westbrook’s efforts have been leading to winning basketball for a team that was sapped of a lot of talent over the summer. But despite prevailing in seven of its last ten games, wins haven’t been coming easy of late for the Thunder (16-11). Backcourt mate Victor Oladipo sprained his shooting wrist over a week ago, in the first quarter against visiting Boston. Westbrook would carry OKC to victory against Al Horford and Friends, but his team experienced tough sledding in its next two games on the road. The Thunder fell 114-99 in Portland, then 109-89 in Salt Lake City, with hardly anyone aside from Westbrook and Enes Kanter able to provide offense, and no guards able to make stops. Oladipo, who remains out tonight, is OKC’s second-leading scorer and (by default) assist-maker, and top 3-point maker. So when Jerami Grant couldn’t fill the bill as a replacement starter, coach Billy Donovan switched to former Hawk Anthony Morrow, the sharpshooter who lit up Philips Arena with a season-high 4-for-6 3FG performance a couple weeks ago in a 102-99 Thunder win. On Saturday, Morrow’s three triples helped the Suns set early. In the NBA West, a slide toward .500 basketball only risks a dogfight with Portland to avoid the eventual 8th-seed and a first-round meeting with Golden State, but that’s what OKC wishes to avoid. In the mediocre East, a .500-ish record places your team anywhere between the 3rd-seed and the 11th. And Atlanta finds itself on shaky ground in the 10-spot (a half-game in front of the rising Wizards) after falling flat late in the first and second halves of its 107-99 home loss to Charlotte. Against the Hornets, pick-and-roll defense was poor, and closeouts along the perimeter were shaky at crucial junctures. Westbrook (32 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists @ ATL on Dec. 5) sniffs out weaknesses and mistakes to exploit in opposing defenses. Guards Dennis Schröder and Malcolm Delaney have to make swifter and wiser decisions on screens than Hawks fans witnessed on Saturday night. Schröder also has to finish on drives in the paint, remember to feed Dwight Howard (23 rebounds, but 6 FGAs vs. CHA; 2 FGAs off putbacks, none assisted by Dennis) early and often, and force Westbrook to make defensive plays that go beyond transitional rebounds. One of the few Hawks who made a positive impact at both ends on Saturday was Kent Bazemore (6-for-9 2FGs, 5 assists, one crazy block). No one will confuse Kent with Stella, but while he doesn’t completely have his groove back he will have his starting spot back, for now. Coach Mike Budenholzer intends to watch his minutes closely, although he has been on the floor about as much as starter Thabo Sefolosha in recent days. It will be not Thabo, but Tim Hardaway, Jr. who returns to the bench, and that’s a bit of a surprise. More pressing for the coaching staff than watching the status of Bazemore’s sore knee is the lack of defensive impact among the reserves. Atlanta’s bench ranks dead-last in the NBA this month with an atrocious 119.5 defensive rating. Predictably, the Thunder bench’s offensive efficiency isn’t stellar (99.3 December O-Rating, 26th in NBA, even with Enes Kanter), but Atlanta’s bench isn’t much better (99.7, 23rd in NBA), despite the inclusion of Kyle Korver to the unit. Bazemore and Sefolosha will log plenty of floor time not only helping to contain Westbrook and close out on shooters, but to help Hawk reserves (league-worst -19.5 December net rating) from leaking lots of oil. (If I could use Purple as a protest font color to get Bud to play a certain somebody, I would). Paul Millsap (24 points vs. OKC on Dec. 5, second-most this season; last six games: 19.8 PPG, 4.3 APG, 2.0 SPG) needs to dominate his matchup with rookie Domantas Sabonis, and the Hawks getting productive paint touches will draw help from Andre Roberson away from the perimeter, freeing up Atlanta’s guards and wings for quality perimeter shots. Of course, there will be plenty of misses among Atlanta’s long-distance shot volumes. But when Westbrook gets the rebound or the outlet pass and begins to make a head of steam in the other direction, there had better be five Hawks in position and awaiting his arrival across the halfcourt line. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. “I GOT MY SUIT AT SPENCER’S GIFTS! HO-HO-HO!” Recent games against Milwaukee, Orlando, and Toronto serving as a representative sample, the Atlanta Hawks have struggled to string together a consistent series of quarters, starts, or games. Yet, nobody in the Eastern Conference has time to play the violin for them, least of all the visiting Charlotte Hornets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in CLT and ATL; 92.9 FM in ATL). The Southeast Division leader by default, Charlotte (14-13) concludes its five-game road trip at the Strobelight Factory tonight. They’re trying to salvage this wreck of a trek after dropping all of the previous four games, including last night’s 96-88 loss in Boston. If they wanted to (they won’t), Atlanta could empathize with a Hornets team that led 50-41 at halftime before running out of gas, losing 55-38 in the second half. With Kemba Walker absent for personal reasons (active for tonight), the Hornets had no answer for the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas. Also awakening in that second half was our old amigo, Al Horford (18 points, 8 boards, 5 blocks), and his comfort in and out of the paint surely continued to peeve coach Steve Clifford. The Hornets coach might enjoy mincemeat over the holidays, but he rarely minces words. Not since Olivia Newton-John rocked neon leotards has anyone uttered “The P word” so ardently. "The game came down to Physical play. If guys aren’t willing to be more Physical, we’ll be an up-and-down team, we’ll struggle to make the playoffs," Clifford told the Charlotte Observer. This, after the Hornets dropped their third-straight game in Washington on Wednesday, casually watching Marcin Gortat transform into Ivan Putski around the boards. Coach Cliff wasn’t done. "If we want to play with the Physicality we choose to at times, we have a chance to be a good team…”, he conveyed to the Observer. Any other Observations, coach? “It’s our greatest weakness. “It’s evident (against) teams that aren’t even Physical off the ball. I’ve been telling them for three weeks now: (Other teams are saying) ‘Make it hard on them. Bump them off every cut, bump them off every screen.’ Sooner or later, we have to respond." The return of Walker (career-bests of 46.6 FG%, 41.2 3FG%, 22.6 PPG) will be the wind beneath the Hornets’ wings tonight. But to keep Clifford from seeking out the number for the phone booth closest to Ivan Johnson, Charlotte’s players need the combination of girth and guile from Cody Zeller that successfully befuddled Atlanta’s Dwight Howard in the third quarter of the Hawks’ 100-96 loss in the Queen City on November 18. Fans can literally mark the moment differentiating a Hawks team that was cruising toward a 10-2 record (5-1 on the road) and the team we have now, one that sits at 13-13 and is often left wondering if anyone caught the tag number on the truck that ran them over. Having successfully fended off a fourth-quarter rally, the Hawks were up 89-86 in Charlotte when Zeller (9-for-10 FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 18) took the proximity of Dwight Howard’s pointy elbow and responded with a sell job that would have made Charlotte’s own Ric Flair proud. Dwight got ejected, Kemba got to the rim unimpeded, the Hornets turned the tables and won, and the Hawks haven’t been quite the same since. We know better than to suggest that the Hawks’ surprising 125-121 win in Toronto was the indication that the team is finally turning a corner, on some uptick after bottoming out several times in recent weeks. But a juxtaposition of the last Hawks-Hornets matchup with last night’s Raptors game suggests there may be some comforting signs. First and foremost, Dennis Schröder isn’t second-guessing himself and playing tentatively. Hardly a factor with 11 points on 5-for-12 shooting (0-for-5 3FGs) in Charlotte, Atlanta’s point guard went toe-to-toe with Kyle Lowry last night and came away with 24 points (8-for-12 FGs, 2-for-4 3FGs) plus a team-high six assists. He is taking more initiative to ensure that offensive plays are executed all the way through, not stifled by the team’s own lack of motion. Also creating hardly any impact as a starter in Charlotte (5 points, 2-for-6 FGs in 29 minutes) one month ago, Kyle Korver seems to be growing more at-ease, as he returns to a familiar career-long role as an off-the-bench sniper. Kyle confidently nailed six triples last night, and had close calls on several more attempts, as his 19 points helped create just the cushion the Hawks needed before, and during, Toronto’s inevitable second-half rallies. Charlotte’s defensive ace Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was slightly used yesterday in Boston, so expect extended minutes by MKG to alleviate Nicolas Batum (22 points, 6-for-19 FGs @ BOS on Friday) and try cooling off Korver tonight. This time around, Howard won’t be duped by Zeller (1-for-7 FGs @ BOS) and the Hornets’ antics in their desperation to play Physical and somehow throw the Hawks’ center off his game. We were treated to a surlier, more assertive Dwight on offense last night (27 points, incl. 7-for-10 FTs; 17 rebounds, incl. 7 O-Rebs) and his activity kept the Raptors on their heels literally from the jump. He has seen a good sample of what referees will and won’t tolerate, and is adjusting his game accordingly. Charlotte has averaged a league-low 31.0 paint points per 48 minutes since their losing streak began, and it will be incumbent upon Walker, Batum, and Ramon Sessions to not only find avenues to penetrate, but also to draw Paul Millsap and Howard’s attention and feed Charlotte’s big men (including Spencer Hawes) for assisted interior shots. Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, and Hawes all have inclinations to run to the perimeter, especially if they used tape of Orlando’s visit to Philips Arena for scouting purposes. But their direction under Clifford is to force more action around the rim, in hopes of getting Atlanta’s bigs in foul trouble and once again opening things up late in the game. Clifford wants to see their body talk. Promptly after beating the Hawks in Charlotte, the Hornets’ fortunes took a dip with a four-game slide. They recovered enough to move up to 3rd in the East, but now they are anxious that their losing skid will extend to a season-long five games, relinquishing the gains they made on Atlanta just one month ago. Hawks fans, though, have heard a similar sob story from incoming visitors in recent weeks. And they’d really like to see a different ending. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY…” Will the Atlanta Hawks widen the Eastern Conference Crab Barrel? Heading into another tough matchup with the Raptors in Toronto (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot), followed by a Saturday night trip back home to face the Hornets, it’s sure shaping up that way. Our half-baked Hawks found plenty of offense on Tuesday. Problem was, they allowed Orlando (without Nik Vucevic) to get plenty more, in a 131-120 torching that was just the latest in a trend of embarrassing and/or lopsided losses. Orlando came in as the worst offense in the NBA outside of Philly or Dallas (or Atlanta). Guess who currently has the best? Toronto (18-7) is threatening to shatter all-time NBA records for offensive efficiency. At 115.3 points per 100 possessions, that rate would be the highest in recorded league history (since such records were first kept in 1983-84). It’s better than Golden State’s current 113.5 O-Rating, and better than the Showtime Lakers of 1986-87, history’s current season-long leader. In more modern times, only Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry’s Suns of 2009-10 (112.3) came close to what the Dubs and Raps are doing right now. Toronto is accomplishing this with a 2-guard that makes just 28.6% of his threes. They’re led, of course, by DeMar DeRozan (career-high 28.0 PPG; 2.9 more shots per game than last season, in 0.3 fewer minutes). Thanks largely to DeRozan, Toronto’s the only team that averages over one point per possession (1.03) on isolation plays, resulting in scores nearly half (49.6%) the time. Interestingly, the Hawks have a league-high 49.6 eFG% on isos, but as you know, relying just 6.0% of the Budball offense on those plays renders that fact trivial. The Raps are breaking offensive records while averaging just 20.4 APG (26th in NBA). The antithesis of Budball, Dwane Casey’s club knows that their assists come not from passing, but in setting screens that allow Kyle Lowry (last ten games: 23.4 PPG, 56.8 FG%, 59.2 3FG%, 7.3 APG) to improvise. In addition to isos, the Raps (guided by Lowry) lead the NBA with scores on 46.8% of P&R ballhandler plays, their 50.7 eFG% on those plays a league-best, their 0.96 points per possession behind only Portland’s 0.97. The roll man hardly gets touches (28th in play frequency), yet even they feast, the Raptors scoring on an NBA-high 57.7% of roll man plays. Unlike the Hawks, who are constantly a work in progress/regress, there is no round-hole training in store for the Raps’ many square pegs. Casey allows his top talent to control the ball and make the plays they’re most comfortable executing. By doing so, his team becomes the RON RAPRS, by eliminating the TOs (12.3 turnovers per 100 possessions, 2nd-lowest in league to Charlotte’s 12.0). Against the eight teams that turn the ball over the least, the Hawks’ record is 0-5, allowing 126.7 PPG in those last three matchups. Included in that group is the 128-84 pasting endured at the hands of the Raps on this Air Canada Centre floor just two weeks ago, the biggest beatdown Toronto has ever enjoyed against anybody pretending to be an NBA outfit. The Hawks let the bottom fall completely out on December 3rd with a 42-14 Toronto advantage in the final quarter, Atlanta unable to keep the lead from widening even after Casey put four backups and rookie Pascal Siakam on the floor to close things out (our old friend Bebe Nogueira had 9 points and two blocks in the 4th). Toronto players coughed up the ball just 12 times (28 assists; 13-for-24 3FGs), compared to the Hawks’ 18 (21 assists; 7-for-28 3FGs), a modest number for the visitors these days. The Hawks can give themselves half a chance tonight, not just by keeping the turnover margin close, but by keeping Toronto Canada-Dry at the line, where they get 26.1 shots per contest (second in the East only to…? Yep, Charlotte’s 26.5). Atlanta actually did this two weeks ago, “holding” Toronto to a season-low (for both teams) 11 FT attempts, or else that 44-point margin might have gotten even worse. Hawks defenders have to draw lines from the rim out to the three-point break lines, and keep Lowry and DeRozan from getting open or lightly-contested looks from within the “funnel zone.” On-ball defenders need to ICE Toronto’s sideline screens and make their dynamic duo work from the corners and baselines. Dennis Schröder and Thabo Sefolosha should rely on the baseline/endline plus help from the Hawks’ bigs to keep Lowry and DeRozan out of the paint and settling for well-contested shots. Paul Millsap (DNP @ TOR on Dec. 3) allowed Serge Ibaka to have a field day from outside on Tuesday, and must rotate out to the perimeter and contest Patrick Patterson (season-high 17 points vs. ATL on Dec. 3) whenever the Raptor forward is in the game. Atlanta’s wings have to help the bigs clog the middle, and make Toronto’s passes out to corner-oriented shooters like Terrence Ross (44.7 3FG%) and DeMarre Carroll a tougher task. Swapping out the TNT duo (Timmy ‘n Thabo) with the K&K Music Factory (Kyle ‘n Kent) has led to good vibrations at the starts of the first and second halves for Atlanta (last 3 games: starters 5th in O-Rating, 14th in D-Rating). But it’s also led to a lack of explosiveness by the reserves (last 3 games: bench 12th in O-Rating, 28th in D-Rating). There’s no help coming for the M&Ms (Moose and Malcolm), who have melted after energetic starts to the season, even before losing the offense/defense contributions of Hardaway and Sefolosha. Better coaching effort is needed for Mike Muscala (plus/minus: +4.3 first 11 games, -7.2 last 14 games, no “positives” last 9 games) and Malcolm Delaney (+8.5 first ten games, -8.0 last ten games with one “positive”) to better understand their defensive roles. The reserves also must stop getting caught out of position when transitioning to D, or else they’ll continue to get blitzed by benches like Toronto, whose offensive efficiency (117.7 O-Rating and +15.1 net rating, best in NBA) is even better than the starters (113.7, 3rd in NBA). When bench players like Orlando’s Elfrid Payton (career-highs of 26 points AND 14 assists, +47 on/off vs. ATL) and Jeff Green (+55 on/off vs. ATL) are getting carte blanche shots, someone is not doing their homework. Ross (6-for-8 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 3) has decided to use breakaway dunks to advertise his candidacy for All-Star Saturday Night, and Atlanta needs to keep him off SportsCenter/SportsCentre tonight. Mike Budenholzer might help the struggling bench out by allowing a third “T” (rookie Taurean Prince) to share some of Kyle Korver’s and Kent Bazemore’s duties. Prince has been relegated to spot duty (less than 2 minutes) in the past two games. Despite some struggles in the past couple weeks, including his last visit to Toronto, expanded minutes for Taurean could help Atlanta better contest opponent shots. If Muscala struggles to make a positive defensive impact from the jump, Coach Bud should not hesitate to turn to a third “K” (ex-Raptor Kris Humphries), if only in search of an immediate spark until the Hawks finish benefitting from the insurance collection on the fourth “T” (Tiago Splitter). Thanks to a conference full of underwhelming teams, the off-days (five in the past six) have helped the Hawks (12-13) more than anything they’ve done on the floor. As frustrating as Atlanta’s season has been over the past month, you look up in the standings, and there is Charlotte, the East’s third-seed of the moment, just 1.5 games ahead of them. It’s almost a mirage! Taking each game seriously, and one at a time, and pulling off at least two out of their next three, might be just enough for the Hawks and Hornets (14-12) to trade places in the standings. Continuing to perform with predictable unpredictability, though, would have more and more Hawks fans staring in the other direction. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker was excused from tonight’s game in Boston for personal reasons, and will be ready to go on Saturday night in Atlanta. A two-game weekend losing streak prior to a trip to OKC would allow the Hawks to build a bridge for fellow division foes Washington (1.5 GB) and Orlando (2.0 GB) back into playoff contention. The Hawks claim there’s still plenty of camaraderie in the locker room, but letting the Wizards and Magic up for air is not the kind of bridge-building anyone has in mind. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. “THESE cats were 9-2?” Which creature has one voice, and yet, becomes four-footed in the morning, then two-footed at noon, then three-footed by the evening? Per ancient myth, for centuries, untold numbers of Greek visitors were flummoxed, stumped – and then, promptly devoured – by the mighty Sphinx, for failing to come up with a correct answer to the above question. Alas, the responses to the world’s most perplexing riddles often prove amazingly simple. Oedipus eventually solved the riddle, and the once-formidable Sphinx responded by devouring itself. In modern times, that’s what it looks like we’re witnessing with the offense of Mike Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks, a stunned Sphinx eating itself alive. To be fair, though, there’s no evidence the latest visitor -- Russell Westbrook, star of the Oklahoma City Thunder (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma) -- suffers from any sort of Oedipal complex. The Greek hero Westbrook takes after is more likely to be Narcissus, and the resulting behavior – authoritativeness, superiority, self-admiration, exploitation – is producing far better results on the current-day NBA floor than whatever these furballs are that Atlanta has coughed up over the past several weeks. Lil’ Rage leads a furious, and almost single-minded, attack for the Thunder (13-8, winners of five straight), the current NBA leader in minutes played, points scored (31.0 PPG, 2nd in NBA), field goals shot, free throws shot, and assists dished out (11.3 APG, 2nd in NBA). Plus, at a ridiculous 10.8 RPG (9th in NBA), this 6-foot-3-inch point guard can literally initiate his own offense from the defensive end of the floor. “Just grabbing the ball before the other team does,” Westbrook explained (narcissistically!) after snagging 17 boards (16 defensive) last night, to go along with 28 points and a dozen assists, along the way to a 101-92 victory over Anthony Davis’ visiting Pelicans. Westbrook’s feat is enough to make Davis’ output of 37-and-15 look small by comparison. “(Davis) can’t just beat us by himself,” said Thunder big man Enes Kanter postgame, “That’s what a really special player does, look at Russell. Getting his stats, but making everybody else better.” Westbrook’s usage percentage, 41.0%, would blow away not only his career-mark of 38.4% (2014-15 season), but also the King of Go-It-Alone basketball, Kobe Bryant’s 38.6% during the 2005-06 season. Despite the Lakers offense resembling more of a data point than a Triangle under the auspices of Phil Jackson (your third-leading scorer? Smush Parker!), Kobe carried the team to a 45-37 record and a 7-seed. Naturally, when it comes to playoff possibilities, and beyond, Westbrook and head coach Billy Donovan have to be thinking, “Why Not OKC?” Combine Westbrook’s take-charge attitude with the current state of collective catatonia from the Hawks, and the possible absence of OKC center Steven Adams (sprained ankle last night), and fans at the Dimlight Factory have a good chance at witnessing the NBA’s first-ever Triple Twenty Game, nevermind a sixth consecutive Triple Double. Since 1983, the closest any NBA Monstar has came to a 20-20-20 feat (for points-rebounds-assists) was when Earvin Johnson put up a Magical line of 24-17-17 in an April 1989 win over the Nuggets. Shaq tore down the Nets with 28 points, 24 rebounds and 15 swats in November 1993. In his last visit to Philips Arena, in November 2015, Westbrook had team-highs of 34 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists – this on a team that featured co-stars Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. But the Hawks, with former Thunder mate Thabo Sefolosha starting ahead of Kent Bazemore (fancy that!) prevailed, 106-100. Well, so much for sharing! Budenholzer’s current crew of Argonauts appear doomed in their long quest to nab the Golden Fleece, and their ship seems perilously close to sinking prematurely. The Hawks (10-11, 1-9 in last ten games) have been blown out by almost epic proportions in recent losses, and may have to sail headlong into tonight’s contest once again without Commodore Paul Millsap (hip) around to steer. An era that once valued the ideals of everyone contributing, sharing, and placing an emphasis on team defense, seems to have given way, and probably at the worst conceivable time for a Hawks team that has long been satisfied with building a constellation instead of relying on one particular supernova. Although Adams (69.0 FG% in last 4 games) snapping out of an early funk has much to do with OKC’s recent turnaround, they can turn to Westbrook when the going gets tough and expect him, granted enough time, to sort things out. The Hawks know they have no Westbrook, Durant, no LeBron, no Harden, no Curry, no DeRozan, no Isaiah, no Lillard, no Wall, no Kawhi, no Kemba, no Blake, no Melo, no Davis to turn to on their roster when adversity strikes. There’s not even a reliable Lou or a Jamal off the bench to change things up on the offensive end. For the past several seasons, that fact proved to be, more often than not, a competitive advantage for the Hawks. Uncertain which Atlanta player was going to have a big game? How could you, as an opponent, figure it out, when the Hawks weren’t sure themselves? You, as a fan, need somewhere around 45 wins, with an occasional playoff series win, and an All-Star or two thrown into the bag? Why pay such big prices, when Atlanta can get it for you wholesale? Sadly, Budenholzer’s Riddle seems to have been solved by opposing NBA coaches. Pack the paint, and dare the Hawks to try anything other than bricks and dead-end drives. Beat the weathered-down, over-30 starters down the floor in transition, before they can figure out whether they’re coming or going. Confound Atlanta’s open catch-and-shooters by out-pointing them with your iso-oriented, double-teamed stars and subs. And then sit back and watch the Hawks consume themselves, shifting outside of their element into iso-oriented drives, thoughtless passes, and aimless spot-ups, in desperate and futile attempts to match the things your team already does well. The Hawks talk a good game in the locker room about steering the ship around together. But when the inevitable mouth-punch arrives, players on the floor start looking inward for answers. Rome was not built in a day, and it’s going to take a lot more than one evening for the Hawks to turn their fortunes around. But tonight’s as good a place to start as any. An overriding objective is to have Westbrook push toward a 20-spot in two other categories – turnovers (where the Hawks must punish the Thunder in transition, not the other way around), and personal fouls. Over the course of his career, OKC is 31-41 (18-27 on the road) in games where Russ logged at least 6 turnovers and 3 personals. The Thunder is making do without second-string guard Cameron Payne (foot), as Donovan turns to rookie Semaj Christon (5 assists, 1 TO vs, NOP yesterday) and Victor Oladipo more often than he’d like when Westbrook needs a rare breather. For all intents and purposes, Dennis Schröder (21.8 PPG, 52.9 FG%, 8.0 APG in last four games; two TOs in last 50 minutes of play) is officially the Jason of Atlanta’s Argo. He must put Westbrook to work on the defensive end, and beat him down the floor in transition for simple scores. Quick enough to go under screens and still thwart drives, Dennis must guide Westbrook away from the middle of the floor and toward help defenders, where the Thunder guard will be more inclined to give up the rock. Westbrook’s tantalizing ballhandling skills cause many an opponent to get caught ball-watching, to the benefit of his Thunder teammates. Schröder’s floor mates must use active hands to cut off passing lanes to Oladipo (team-high 2.2 three-pointers per game, 39.5 3FG%), bench acquisition Jerami Grant (39.3 3FG% in OKC), and rookie sharpshooter Domantas Sabonis (46.0 3FG%), the latter having served his team just fine as a rookie starting stretch-4. If everyone is doing their jobs, there will be no need for the Hawks to allow Russ to pile up bonus points at the charity stripe. No more than two defenders need worry about contesting his shots, one if they’re beyond the three-point line (33.0 3FG%). Westbrook has accounted for 58 percent of his team’s free throw makes, shooting 84.0 FT% through eight road games. If anyone gets to the line for OKC, it should be his teammates (59.2 road FT% for OKC w/o Westbrook). Dwight Howard (1.2 post-up FGs per-game, lowest among 15 bigs getting four or more post-up possessions per game) must run the floor and work from post-to-post, dominating his matchup with the offensive-minded Enes Kanter (career-high 60.2 2FG%). Howard has not been credited with two or more assists since getting escorted out of the November 18 game Charlotte a bit early, the Hawks 4-1 in those games prior to his ejection. When getting touches, D8 must read the defense quickly; if a high-percentage post shot is not in the works, kick it out to Schröder and the Hawks’ wings, rather than sucking up precious shot clock time, risking more turnovers (19.1 TO% on post-ups, 2nd-highest among those 15 bigs) and drawing fruitless fouls (19.1 shooting foul% on post-ups, highest among those 15 bigs). If Howard, or any of the Hawks’ starters, are unnecessarily lethargic in running the floor, setting screens, getting open, deflecting passes, or closing out on shooters, Coach Bud must make a sub as soon as possible. There is no need to watch leads evaporate into thin air, or holes turn into caverns, in the opening quarters, just hoping the players’ rust will somehow wear off on the floor. That goes for tonight, and all games going forward for Atlanta. If the riddle has clearly been solved (“Man!” is the answer to the Sphinx riddle above), it’s on this coaching staff to drum up some new riddles, and to do it quickly, before their team devours itself. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. LOTTERY TREADMILL BY: ORLANDO MAGIC, PRICELESS How much would you pay to go win 30-35 games? That’s an uncomfortable question facing the Orlando Magic, who come into Atlanta on a sudden downturn to face the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) for the first time in the regular season. One franchise has been an NBA Playoffs participant for nine seasons running; the other is desperate to avoid stretching their string of postseason absences to five years. One team is the closest to being under the salary cap line ($5.1 million over) among the five teams in the Southeast Division. The other team is $7.5 million further over the cap ($12.6 million over) -- highest in the division, third-overall in the East, eighth-overall in the NBA. All the above statements are contradictory. It was June 2012, and both the Hawks and the Magic had caught a case of Spurs Fever. When the 2011-12 season ended, both organizations chased after executives of the Western Conference leaders in San Antonio. Seeking a fresh start, Orlando hired the fresh-faced Spurs’ director of basketball operations Rob Hennigan, at age 30 the youngest GM in the league. Eager to rebuild without a full teardown, Atlanta, in turn, zeroed in on the Spurs’ VP of basketball ops, Danny Ferry, hiring him just days later. Under Ferry, out went Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, the VetMins, and coach Larry Drew. In came Mike Scott, Paul Millsap, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, coach Mike Budenholzer, Dennis Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. Out went Ferry, eventually. But a lot of his low-budget gambles paid off, and the Hawks not only sustained themselves as a postseason mainstay, they reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in their history. While the Johnson deal made Hawks fans pull up a chair to the Ferry feast, it was the alleviation of the incessant Dwightmare in Orlando that made Rob “You Blind” Hennigan the NBA’s hotshot wunderkind. Within two seasons of the four-team deal, the Lakers (Dwight Howard) and the Sixers (Andrew Bynum) were already suffering from Buyer’s Remorse, while the Nuggets (Andre Iguodala) had squandered whatever gains they had made. Hennigan further pilfered the Nuggets in 2014 by giving Arron Afflalo back in exchange for young gunner Evan Fournier. Further, Orlando had lucked their way into obtaining the prize of the Dwight mega-deal, their future stud center: Nikola Vucevic, a double-double machine! And just look at all the lottery picks coming their way! Atlanta hasn’t drawn a lotto pick since 2007; the Magic have had five such picks in the past four seasons. Under Hennigan’s watchful eye, the future seemed so bright! Well, the future is here, and it’s become blinding to Magic fans. Ferry’s 2013 coaching hire has outlasted even his tenure and gained a Coach of the Year nod while picking up where Ferry left off. At the same time, Hennigan’s Magic stalled under the direction of former Spurs acolytes Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego. Taskmaster Scott Skiles dragged the Magic to a 35-47 record last year, but quit after the season, and was so fed up we may need to convene a search party to find him today. In season #5, Hennigan is on coach #4: former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who is adamant about putting a defensive imprint on a roster lacking in that department ever since bidding adieu to Howard. About all those lottery picks. The Magic drafted Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Euro-stash Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja, and Domantas Sabonis. Saric was swapped on draft day for their point-guard-of-the-future, Elfrid Payton, whose collegiate reputation as a plus-defender (like Bazemore, a former Lefty Driesell Award winner) hasn’t translated to the pros. Oladipo and Sabonis were sent packing (with Ersan Ilyasova) to Oklahoma City, Orlando in turn receiving Serge Ibaka (1300 blocks since 2009-10, most in NBA; Dwight 4th with 1010) in its quest to prove it’s serious about becoming defensive-minded. Oladipo and Sabonis are thriving as starters with the Russellaires, while Ibaka has become more of a three-point bomber (career-high 40.7 3FG% on 3.2 attempts per game) than an on-ball defender. First Gordon (career-low 41.3 FG%), and now Payton and Vucevic have been benched under Vogel, while Hezonja is being bubble-wrapped in search of trade partners. Speaking of trades, December 15 ushers in the availability of many more players on NBA rosters to deals, specifically summertime acquisitions like Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, and D.J. Augustin. Ibaka and Biyombo were brought on to show the fanbase the team is serious about spending cash to win, and (after sending Tobias Harris to Detroit for Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings last season’s deadline, a move suspected as having been ordered from on-high, above Hennigan) finally dead-serious about defense, Green and Augustin notwithstanding. But in the process, the duo of Ibaka and Biyombo (plus Green) have managed to crowd Gordon and Vucevic out of meaningful minutes. While the team D-Rating finally began to pick up in recent weeks (103.5, 12th in NBA; 16th last season), the O-Rating has fallen through the floor (98.0, below everyone but Philly’s 96.8). Just weeks ago, the Orlando Sentinel’s Brian Schmitz opined that Hennigan's plans have, “flopped as spectacularly as New Coke, pay toilets and ‘Zoolander 2.’” New Coke… ouch! Atlantans don’t need that reminder. The team that’s third-highest over the salary cap in the East now sits 11th among the conference’s 15 teams, slightly ahead of 12th-seed Washington. This, after having lost three games in a row, including allowing 121 points in a Saturday night home loss to 9-15 Denver. Further, the Magic’s 10-15 record has been puffed up by a weak schedule (league-low 45% winning percentage among played opponents, as per PlayoffStatus.com), so things could get worse soon. These days, Magic fans are straining to recall just what was so bad about Otis Smith. “A big build-up has been replaced by a big letdown,” said Schmitz. Hennigan, who received a Jeff Fisher-lite contract extension in 2015, now stands on the shakiest ground for an NBA GM anywhere outside of New Orleans (although at least Dell Demps has a shield in Ferry now). Hennigan’s desperate to swing some deals, soon; as of this Thursday, every player aside from leading scorer Fournier (re-signed this summer, trade-restricted until January 15; career-low 36.4 3FG%) will be immediately on the block, before CEO Alex Martins considers putting Hennigan’s job on it instead. Atlanta has been working through offensive struggles of its own, as a recent dip slipped them into a momentary tie with the Magic in the standings. Hawks fans and players alike have ample reason to want a widening of the 2.5-game gap between the two teams, for reasons that go well beyond the former Magic franchise star who now suits up at center in Atlanta. Hennigan spent the past two offseasons at the OPM (Other People’s Money) ATM, and at least once, his maneuvering has cost the Hawks. He swung for the fences in 2015 by flying up to Atlanta, ringing All-Star Millsap’s doorbell, and offering him a long-term max-contract. The Hawks’ scramble to counter-offer Millsap cost them precious time once Toronto rolled into town, too, and pried Carroll free. The Magic had no interest in acquiring Sabonis in the 2016 Draft, but they did have an interest in keeping the stretchy big man from falling into Atlanta’s lap. Picking right in front of the spot their division rival had recently traded up into, Orlando snatched up Sabonis and shipped him to OKC for what is shaping up to be a one-year (or less) rental of Ibaka, whose $12.25 million contract expires this summer. As per at least one media report, they were also trying to stick mouse ears on Bazemore, one of many teams coveting the rising swingman in free agency before he chose to stay in the ATL. The first team to call Baze this summer, the Milwaukee Bucks, could only watch on Friday night as their top free agent target was on the sideline, sore knee and all, doing his best Tony Manero impression. That’s because, against all convention, his Hawks were committed to Staying Alive. Bazemore was rooting his Hawks to a 114-110 victory, featuring the improbable erasure of a 20-point Milwaukee lead, the biggest comeback win in the NBA this season. In this pace ‘n space era of NBA hoops, 20-point deficits are becoming the new 10-point deficits. Orlando knows this well: they beat Philadelphia last month after falling behind by 18. Yet the Hawks (12-12) should not grow accustomed to digging such holes for themselves, with the intention of somehow triumphantly crawling out. This win was improbable largely due to the Hawks’ inability, once again, to get the full offense in gear, up until the third quarter. This particular bounceback was made possible by the continually improving play of Schröder (career-high 33 points; 17 in the opening quarter, 8 in the final one), the steady mind of Millsap (23 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks), and the team’s collective recognition that sound ball movement and off-ball player movement are what grant their offense advantages from one game to the next. “The level to which our activity dissipates when we’re not making shots is… you can’t do that in this league,” Coach Bud noted to the AJC and postgame reporters. Another woeful first-half outing (3-for-17 3FGs) was flipped with 8-for-13 3FG shooting in the third-quarter, and 8-for-13 2FG shooting in the pivotal fourth. All eight of Atlanta’s major participants logged at least two assists in Milwaukee, seven of the octet with at least three. Half of Howard’s two dimes turned out to be the most momentous of the game, setting up Tim Hardaway, Jr. with a corner three that finally wiped out the deficit and had Bazemore nearly splitting the inseam of his skinny pants in jubilation. “Bazemore said at halftime, this could be a turnaround for our season,” noted Hardaway to the AJC. “It just shows with the resiliency in this locker room and playing for each other, it’s at an all-time high right now. We need it more than ever after having that tough stretch.” Atlanta (12-12) also could use some consecutive non-game days to recuperate and regroup; they haven’t had any since November 13-14. Three off-days precede tonight’s game with the Magic, and two more follow ahead of a challenging road-home back-to-back with the Raptors and Hornets. The time off may have been enough to have Bazemore, this past weekend’s Ring-of-Honoree up at Old Dominion, out of leisure suits and in uniform for today’s game (currently listed as probable). But the recovery period has given the starting small forward time to study and recalibrate after a struggling start to the season (career-low 35.8 FG%; 29.1 FG%, 3.4 RPG in his past ten games). Sefolosha (41.4 FG%, 18.8 3FG% in last ten games) has been similarly poor in recent weeks on the offensive end and, like point guard Malcolm Delaney, gets caught up in trying to score in isolation when times get tough. But Thabo’s ability to rebound, pick off passes, and defend bigger and taller opponents has made him a more favorable play than Kent alongside Hardaway, whose defensive work is beginning to reap dividends (minus-6.3 opponent differential FG% on defended shots, 7th-best among NBA guards and wings w/ min. 10 games & 5.0 opponent FGAs per game). Sefolosha also avoids turning the ball over, which helps all the more when he’s actively involved (last two starts: 9 assists, 1 TO) in Atlanta’s ball movement schemes. Opponents have gathered a team-high 9.3 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes with Bazemore on the floor (13th-most in NBA, min. 15 games played). When he returns as a starter, Baze’s willingness to apply his wingspan in ways that help Howard and Millsap minimize opponents’ extra chances will enhance his, and the team’s, defensive effectiveness. Bazemore’s shot mechanics may be hampered by the anticipation that he’s going to miss the field goal attempt. Kent has seven offensive rebounds in his last five games (five O-Rebs in the prior 17 games). In four of those recent games, at least one of his offensive rebounds came from following his own shot. Those missed shots ranged from 2 to 24 feet, three of them from 15 feet out, and that says nothing of the second-chances he pursued but didn’t get. Teammates have also gotten into the act of chasing the rebound after an expected Bazemore miss. Adherence to Budball dictates not just taking the open shot created within the flow of the offense, but getting back in defensive position as priority over chasing follows, no matter how inaccurate the shot becomes. Kent’s own confidence in his offense will improve if he’s focused on execution as he was coached, instead of acting in anticipation of poor results. The Magic (33.3 team 3FG%, 71.2 FT%), like the Hawks (32.3 3FG%, 70.7 FT%), have not been sharp shooters from the perimeter, or the charity stripe. But while Atlanta is a much surer shot inside the arc (51.1 2FG%, 5th in NBA), the same cannot be said of Orlando (46.2 2FG%, 29th in NBA). The Magic’s cause could be helped if Vucevic would shoot better than 52.9% within 3 feet of the hoop, and if Vooch, Ibaka, and Gordon would grow less enamored of long 2-point attempts. But Howard and the Hawks will be ready to turn probable rebounds into transition points at the other end. Vucevic is questionable to play due to a back contusion sustained last week, while Biyombo has been hampered by an injured shoulder. Schröder and Delaney will work to thwart drives by Augustin and Payton, the latter’s field goal percentage dropping precipitously away from the rim (63.4 at-rim FG%, 31.2 FG% from 3 feet out). That’s part of what has prompted Vogel to turn instead to Augustin in the starting lineup, but the pairing of Augustin and Fournier in the backcourt has the Magic leaking oil on defense. Neither put much pressure on opposing guards, and their funneling of ballhandlers into the teeth of the Magic’s shot-block-hungry front line (5.6 team BPG, 4th in NBA) tends to leave somebody open. Orlando has allowed at least 109 points in the past four games, putting its offensively inefficient team behind the 8-ball, especially against higher-paced teams. Small forwards have feasted on the Magic in each of their last three losses, a good sign for Atlanta’s struggling shooters. And while Orlando last won in Washington a week ago, they had few answers for the speedy John Wall (52 points on 45 total shot attempts). Atlanta will want no repeat of the prior two regular season meetings with the Magic. The back-to-back defeats in February included a low-percentage buzzer-beating jumpshot by Vucevic in Orlando, and a 117-110 overtime loss the next day in Atlanta. Orlando had not won two straight in over a month before those victories, and while the wins seemed to be a pick-me-up, ending a similar three-game skid, the Magic would not win two in a row again for another 45 days. That second loss had Orlando eroding a 20-point deficit of their own (Hawks up 28-8 in the first quarter, 71-53 midway through the third), and OT was forced by a 29-18 Magic advantage in the fourth quarter. Vucevic, Payton, Fournier, and even Hezonja piled up a combined 26 points in the paint in the rematch, something Howard will seek to minimize in keeping the Magic from evening up their road record (6-7) this season. The Hawks need this win tonight to keep the vibes positive, but also to keep the Magic trending downward. After all, nobody needs Hennigan around next summer drumming up new schemes to stick it to the Hawks again. For once, let’s make Hennigan pay. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  22. “Gin? Do you see gin? I don’t see any gin!” Top 3 in-conference records in the NBA East? Well, for starters, there’s the Cavaliers at 12-4. Then, there’s the Celtics at 10-4. Right behind them? Your Atlanta Hawks, who come into today’s visit with the Milwaukee Bucks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin) sporting a sound 9-5 mark versus its fellow conference teams. So, why are the Cavs and C’s looking fancy with first- and third-seeds, while your Fine Feathered Friends are peering at the playoff picture from the outside? The conference, after Cleveland and probably Toronto, is shaping up to be a tightly wound pack for the rest of the field, down to the 11th and perhaps even the 12th seed. To distinguish oneself among that subset, it helps tremendously to take care of business on the road, especially versus teams that would (or should) not be favored to win if they were playing in your house (yes, Phoenix, I’m looking at you). Beating Western teams is cool, but an average-or-above road record not only increases the likelihood of a 2-through-4-seed in the East, it does wonders for your team’s first-round confidence if you wind up 5-through-8. The Cavs got tripped up by Atlanta less than a month ago, but reasserted their spot atop the East, thanks to a 6-3 record in away games. Boston is merely 5-4 at home, but they’ve got Tommy Heinsohn on the verge of writing love letters when they leave the Gahden, going 8-5 on the road so far. It’s early, but the four Eastern Conference teams with above-.500 road records rank 1-through-4 in the East, a similar deal for seven teams out West. As for the Hawks? Well, they come into the worst-named NBA stadium (the BMO Harris Bradley Center -- what is that, even?) trying to avoid a slide to 4-9 away from Thank Goodness We’re Not T. Rowe Price Philips Arena. After a nice 3-1 road mark to start the season, Atlanta (11-12) could only come out on top in one of their next eight away games. While those contests were packed in the space of 18 days, with two home games in the mix, the Hawks’ next nine road games are spread out over 33 calendar days, with six interspersing games back home. That allows Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks’ crack coaching staff significantly more time to prepare and adjust as needed. South Wisconsin does it like nobody does! The Bucks’ halftime entertainment on this Flashback Friday features one-hit wonder Montell Jordan (“Let’s Ride”? “Get It On Tonite”? Please, nobody’s trying to hear that). The L.A. dance-floor crooner (now Gwinnett County preacher!) is aware he needs to get his groove on before he goes to get paid. Yet, with all respect due to Montell, there’s just one guy on the floor of this Who’s This Harris Bradley Guy Center consistently showing people How to Do It. If you’re able to say Giannis Antetokounmpo without clicking your tongue, you’re a better person than I am. You could also say Giannis is a certified G, and a bonafide stud, already at the newly tender age of 22. This forward-guard is 6-foot-11, boasting a 12-foot-2-inch vertical, a foot-long hand and a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and while Jason Kidd can’t teach that, he’s certainly giving it his best try. Aside from Antetokounmpo, only centers David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon have averaged over 20 PPG, 8 RPG, two blocks and two steals per game in any season. Giannis, however, is not a center, and he throws in 6.1 APG for good measure, providing Kidd a multifaceted weapon that can be deployed everywhere except beyond the offensive 3-point line (23.9 3FG%). He compiled 15 points, 12 boards and 11 assists (plus four blocks and a pair of steals) in Wednesday’s win over Portland, and his next triple-double game would already tie him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (8) for the all-time Bucks franchise mark. The nine-time All-Defensive Team member, coach Kidd is crafting a team with a young, defensive imprint, led by Antetokounmpo and the surprisingly nascent center John Henson (2.2 BPG in 11 games since becoming a starter, in place of Miles Plumlee). Even Greg Monroe, relegated to Kidd’s bench, is getting into the act (team-high 2.6 steals per-36, up from 1.1 last season). Buck opponents have shot an NBA-low 42.7 FG%, including 37.6 2FG% in-the-paint (outside the restricted area) and a league-low 31.8 3FG% (29.4% above-the-break). As for offense? Well, it’s not their forte, but even without Khris Middleton around, Milwaukee (50.8 2FG%, 7th in NBA) is showing they have more than enough to fill in the gaps. Slashing power forward Jabari Parker (21.8 PPG) is slowly finding his range (46.5 2FG% from 16 feet out; 32.8 3FG%). Plus, they’ve got ATLien rookie Malcolm Brogdon (41.9 3FG%, team-high 92.0 FT%) and hired guns Mirza Teletovic, Tony Snell, Jason Terry and Michael Beasley (probable, sprained foot). That’s to say nothing of point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who deserves nothing being said of him. In one of their finest quarters of play, the Hawks (led by a bench brigade of Taurean Prince, Tim Haradway, Jr., and Ryan Kelly) rattled off 19 consecutive points in the second quarter along the way to a 31-9 frame against the visiting Bucks on November 16. Milwaukee did their best to scramble back in it during the second half, led by Parker’s 15-point third-quarter, whittling a 24-point Hawk lead down to three late in the final quarter. But the deficit proved just a little too big for the Bucks (39.8 team FG%) to overcome as the Hawks maxed out their record at 9-2. Atlanta’s 48.6 team FG% in their 107-100 win was the highest allowed for any Bucks opponent this season. While the Hawks went on to stumble their way into December, Milwaukee (11-9) has prevailed in six of their past eight games, including five of their last six. That stretch included a sound thumping of the Cavs at home and a close loss to the Spurs after a 13-point halftime lead, plus – wouldn’t you know it – a pair of road wins, at Orlando and in Kidd’s personal catnip of Brooklyn. As Bob Rathbun noted earlier today, Buckshot results in 108.8 PPG and 48.3 FG% at home, compared to 94.7 PPG and 41.4 FG% outside of Milwaukee. Thus, the Hawks need to take the things they do best and put that show on the road, if teams like the Bucks are to be defeated in their own house. The league’s leader at 4.5 offensive rebounds per game, Dwight Howard (7 O-Rebs, 17 total rebounds vs. MIA) should decide if he wants to help produce second-chance points for Atlanta, one of the worst perimeter shooting offenses in the league (32.1 3FG%, 28th in NBA; 30.3% of FGAs from 3-point land, 12th-highest in NBA; 4-for-19 3FGs vs. MIA). Or if, alternatively, Dwight wants to help thwart quick scores by Milwaukee, the East’s top fastbreak-scoring offense (16.5 fastbreak PPG, 5th in NBA). In transition, Antetokounmpo and Parker are likely to have a bead on Thabo Sefolosha and Paul Millsap (4 steals, 3 blocks vs. MIA on Wednesday), respectively. So, it’s probable that Howard will not want to get caught parked beneath the offensive hoop when his teammates loft long-range shots or turn over live balls (Milwaukee’s 18.9 PPG off TOs, 2nd in NBA). Notably, only one of Dwight’s seven O-rebs against the heat on Wednesday followed a teammate’s shot from outside the paint. Instead, expect Howard and the Hawks’ pivot players to be actively involved in high screens to spring Dennis Schröder (last 4 games: 48.3 FG%, 87.5 FT%, 8.0 APG, 1.5 TOs/game), Malcolm Delaney and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (active after banging his knee vs. MIA on Wednesday) free inside. The long arms of Henson and Antetokounmpo converging on Schröder and the Hawks’ driving guards naturally raise the degree of difficulty for shots off penetration. Rather than being stationary and watching the guards force up circus shots, Atlanta’s forwards need to move toward the corners and provide outlets for the guards’ passes. Budball, Activate! When three-point shots go up, there is no time to admire the handiwork; the Hawks’ forwards must get back on defense and account for Giannis and Jabari, who each benefitted from some practice-session tutelage from Kussin’ Kevin Garnett this past week. Granted extra floor time with the momentary absence of Kent Bazemore (knee, mind), look for an active defensive effort from rookie Taurean Prince off the bench, especially if the starters fail to keep up in transition. As demonstrated at the start and the close of the Hawks’ 103-95 win over Miami, Schröder (8-for-15 FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs) is doing a better job of sensing when, and how, to call his own number. Delaney (last five games: 34.8 eFG%, 18.6 assist%; 41.7 eFG% and 28.4 assist% in prior games) gets caught up in iso-ball and must disabuse himself of the notion that he’s starring for Lokomotiv Kuban. Howard’s primary backup, Mike Muscala, has had a career season on offense, generally boosting the Hawks’ bench production. But his biggest challenge is becoming evident on the opposite end of the floor. Moose has secured the rebound on just 16.7% of contested rebound opportunities, the lowest among 56 at-least-occasional centers averaging at least 15 minutes per game. Granted, a lot of that can be attributed to pairings with Howard, who gets first dibs when they’re in together (Dwight+Moose +14.1 D-Reb% as a 2-man combo). But when Muscala plays the 5-spot alongside Millsap (Sap+Moose -6.5 D-Reb%), he must do a better job of boxing out and securing the board. Defensive rebounding is a task that’s especially pressing for Muscala tonight, given Millsap’s and Sefolosha’s varied defensive efforts to keep the Bucks outside the paint (49.3 PPG in the paint, 2nd in NBA). Just like there’s no 20-point shot that at once erases a double-digit lead, there’s no 3-game victory that instantly vaults Atlanta back into contention in the East. It takes a trend to make yourselves trendy, and these Hawks are charged with getting their confidence back on track. There’s no better place to do that than on the road, where the Hawks have struggled mightily in recent weeks. It’s time to Buck the trend! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  23. MOOD. So, we’ve finally reached the floor, right? Right? All the signs are there that a bounce is in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Miami heat pay a visit to the Flickering Light Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA). A little home cooking and practice, a tweak to the starting lineup, some recuperation time for the forwards. And an opponent that’s 7-14 and struggling to string complete nights together with an incomplete roster, arriving in town after a 114-103 loss to New York last night. I’ve already misspelled the heat’s hometown. Right now, it’s M*I*A*M*I. Goran Dragic strained a shoulder last night, shortly after healing his swollen ankle, and will try to give it a go after pacing the heat with 29 points (11-for-17 FGs). Dion Waiters got a tear in an unmentionable, barely-spellable area and is out of action. Josh Richardson is a no-go due to a sprained ankle, and Justise Winslow hasn’t played in nearly a month as he deals with a sprained wrist. James Johnson? Rotator cuff strain. Luke Babbitt? Hip flexor. Wayne Ellington just returned after sitting out the start of the season with a quad contusion, Derrick Williams just getting back up to speed last night after missing time with back spasms. There’s not even time to waste mentioning Chris Bosh anymore. I’m halfway expecting Radar, Hot Lips Houlihan, and Klinger in a muumuu to accompany coach Erik Spoelstra and the heat tonight. The Hawks (10-12), hoping to plug their seven-game losing streak, know that no one in the stands is suffering a case of fan-nesia. Or, at least, that’s what they should know. M*I*A*M*I last came to Philips Arena in February without top-scorer Dwayne Wade (knee), fellow All-Star Bosh (calf), or mega-rebounder Hassan Whiteside (suspended). Yet the Hawks, coming off the All-Star Break, allowed for The Josh McRoberts Variety Hour to air. McBob’s 19 points and 10 assists off the bench (plus Luol Deng’s 30 points) propelled the heat to an 115-111 victory. Atlantans know the heat could put Burnie in the lineup, and an inexcusable L for the Hawks could still not be ruled out. With so many walking wounded, who does Spoelstra turn to in a pinch this time? “He’s got better rookie Win Shares than Malcolm Delaney… MCGRUDER!” The undrafted K-State product in his first NBA season has been pushed front-and-center into the M*I*A*M*I starting lineup. Last season, Rodney helped lead their Sioux Falls affiliate to the D-League title. Currently on a nine-game Threak, McGruder is working in tandem with Ellington (and bench man Tyler Johnson) in hopes of spacing the floor for Dragic drives and Whiteside post maneuvers. They’ll be met tonight by Atlanta’s newly-formulated starting pair at the wing. Thabo Sefolosha filled in capably at small forward in place of Kyle Korver, who seemed to find some footing off the bench during the latest loss to OKC. Thabo will slide to small forward, and will be joined tonight by Tim Hardaway, Jr., who takes over at shooting guard while Kent Bazemore sits out a couple games to be treated for a sore knee. Timmy had 15 bench points, including 5-for-6 2FGs, in the Hawks’ 93-90 win at South Beach on November 15, back when things were going pretty good for his ballclub. He and Thabo combined for 5 of Atlanta’s 14 steals in that game, a tally the Hawks haven’t surpassed since (13 steals at OKC being the high-water mark lately). While the “TNT” duo has benefitted by being part of far more efficient bench rotations, Hardaway-Sefolosha has netted the Hawks +6.2 points per 100 possessions (as per Basketball-Reference). Throw in Paul Millsap (probable, while continuing to nurse a sore hip), and the trio leads the Hawks with +19.6 net points per-100. Today’s matchup of strategies will feature Hack-a-Hawk versus Hack-a-heat. M*I*A*M*I comes into this game as the league’s worst free throw shooting team (66.5 FT%), and the only other NBA squad clanking more than thirty percent of their shots are their hosts tonight, Atlanta shooting 69.9 FT%. After allowing the Knicks to pile up 56 points in the paint last night, versus their own 36, the heat will have little appetite for Millsap (4 missed FTs in Monday’s loss to OKC; 73.2 FT%, lowest in past three seasons) and Dwight Howard (career-low 48.3 FT%) getting easy buckets. Coach Spo will rotate in Udonis Haslem, Willie Reed and Williams (4 personals in 15 minutes vs. NYK), to help keep McRoberts (9 rebounds and 5 assists vs. NYK) and Whiteside (NBA-high 14.9 RPG; career-high 25 rebounds vs. ATL on Nov. 15; 23 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks vs. NYK) out of early foul trouble. M*I*A*M*I hopes the extra whistles will help slow down Mike Budenholzer’s preferred pace (101.5 possessions per-48, 6th in NBA; 102.7 before Nov. 18, 100.3 since) to one that’s more to their weathered 9-man rotation’s liking. The heat has once again called upon a shot doctor to help fix their free throw woes. Rob “The Shooting Guy” Fodor has long been in South Florida helping players with their busted shot mechanics, including the father of Hardaway (63.0 FT%, down from 89.3% last season), who starts tonight and could use a little tutelage as well. Fodor’s advice didn’t pay off at home for the heat against the Knicks (11 missed FTs in the 11-point loss; Whiteside 3-for-9). But Spoelstra is confident his team can turn it around, particularly in away games, where they have managed to shoot just a little better (67.8 road FT%). Dennis Schröder got a front-row view of a maestro in action on Monday, Russell Westbrook’s floor leadership on full-court display especially in crunch time. Still learning on-the-fly, Schröder (last 3 outings: 16.3 PPG, 46.5 FG%, 87.5 FT%, 8.3 APG, 1.3 TOs per game) has the benefit of scouting the league’s starting lead guards and picking up traits that could help his game as well. That includes the more experienced guards of the Southeast Division, like Dragic, who is about as good as can be when it comes to finishing in the paint. It’s easy to see why Schröder struggles at times to finish on drives to the hoop; Howard’s man is usually in the vicinity, rather than chasing pick-and-poppers outside the paint. Dennis makes 49.7% of his attempts within 10 feet of the hoop, with a much-higher proportion of attempts coming beyond 3 feet from the rim than in 2015-16. But the challenge is often the same for the point guard who plays alongside Whiteside. And yet Dragic continues to excel. Goran is a taller, sturdier guard, and while he has struggled mightily at times with two-point jumpers outside the paint, he remains surehanded when he gets inside. While his 57.4 at-rim FG% is the lowest since his rookie season, The Dragon still breathes fire within ten feet of the hoop (53.1 2FG%). Coupled with a career-best 42.1 3FG%, Dragic remains a reliable offensive asset whenever he calls his own number. He’s balancing his best scoring values (17.8 PPG) since his All-NBA 3rd Team and Most Improved Player campaign in 2013-14, with his best assist numbers (6.7 APG, 10th in NBA) since 2012-13. Schröder could find better looks around the rim tonight if he uses his speed to force the issue on the break. Dennis’ 1.4 PPG on fastbreaks is bottom-third among starting guards, and probably not where Budenholzer needs him to be considering the tempo the coach prefers. But Dennis has had to work with an assortment of starting lineup mates lumbering and laboring with lingering leg issues. With Hardaway and Sefolosha running the wings (and Korver waiting-in-the wings off the bench), Schröder’s enhanced activity in transition could be one spark Atlanta’s offense needs (NBA-low 92.3 O-Rating in last 20 days; Dallas and Philly rating 97.5; NBA-low 49.4 TS% since Nov. 18) to shake out of its doldrums. The Hawks should know better than to look down on its opponents, not the least of which because there are many fewer teams in the standings to look down upon. After climbing the Wall last night, Orlando has caught up with Atlanta at 10-12 (no matter the sport, we just can’t shake free of these Central Florida teams). Now, the heat have a chance to shrink their gap with the Hawks down to just 1.5 games. Despite their current record and their myriad injuries, M*I*A*M*I went 2-2 and 2-1 in road trips over the past three weeks, including a squeaker in Utah last Thursday. They would like to get this trek off to a roaring start before playing in a back-to-back at Cleveland and Chicago over the weekend. But a rested, refocused, resolute Hawks team won’t give their division-foe visitors the satisfaction this evening. Right? Right? Honor our past and present service members on this Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  24. "GOOD JOB! GOOD EFFORT!" ~lw3
  25. “IT’S A RAP!” My whiny groveling about the unfairness of the Atlanta Hawks’ recent schedule is sure to come to an end soon. But not today! Atlanta returned home after a five-game-in-eight-days road swing, enjoyed one day “off”, then got pummeled by the Pistons last night, keeping their toothbrushes packed for a red-eye to Toronto in advance of today’s game against the Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Sportsnet ONE up yonder). They got tenderized at home by the Pelicans one night before starting that wretched road trip, too. Toronto, meanwhile, has hardly had to move a muscle since returning from Milwaukee on Black Friday. They got two days off before playing the Sixers, a day off before facing the kneecapped Grizzlies, and one more free day ahead of back-to-back games featuring the visiting Lakers and Hawks. Atlanta is the third contest of a six-game homestand in T-Dot. LeBron’s slip-sliding Cavaliers arrive two days from now, and the nice-try T-Wolves three days after that. A 1-4 dip turned around to a 5-0 surge for the Raptors (13-6). But fortuitous scheduling has just a little bit to do with that. More impactful has been an offense, led by scoring ace DeMar DeRozan (career-bests of 28.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.3 APG), that has set a flamethrower to the nets. How nice would it be to be ranked fourth in the league for 2FG%, third in the league for 3FG%, and second for FT%? On top of that, how nice it is to rarely turn the ball over (12.2 TOs per game, 2nd-lowest in NBA), the third-best team at taking care of the rock when adjusting for pace? The Raps have the second-best O-Rating in the NBA (113.0, a shade behind Golden State), an efficiency affording Dwane Casey, a typically defensive-minded coach, quite a few luxuries. For perhaps the first time, DeRozan has established himself as the clear 1-A superstar on the team, allowing point guard Kyle Lowry (20.6 PPG, 41.4 3FG%, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG) even more room to roam than in past seasons. With Lowry and Toronto-born backup Cory Joseph running the show, there’s no urgency for second-year guard Delon Wright to return from offseason shoulder surgery. Their biggest free agent signing, Jared Sullinger, also needs not rush to come back. Toronto has more than gotten by with rookie first-rounder Pascal Siakam in the starting power forward spot, and that should continue today as All-Star Paul Millsap (hip) recuperates back in Atlanta. Seventh-year vet Patrick Patterson (35.9 FG%) has had a horrendous start to the season offensively, but he has been fine with coming off the bench behind Siakam and generally staying the heck out of the way. Casey doesn’t have to overwork center Jonas Valanciunas (career-high 13.2 PPG and 9.6 RPG), and rookie Jakob Poeltl barely has to leave his seat. That’s because Casey’s finally making judicious use out of former Hawks project Bebe Nogueira (69.2 FG%; 1.8 BPG in just 18.5 minutes/game). Perhaps most importantly to Casey, he can choose which night of back-to-backs he can rest DeMarre Carroll, the Junk Yard Dog looking more like a Westminster finalist (15.3 PPG, 59.0 FG%, 47.8 3FG%, 1.3 SPG and 1.3 BPG in his last 4 games) in recent days since his last respite. How do the Raptors decide which game to play Carroll, like when choosing between the Lakers and the Hawks? “I think it’s more how we’re going to guard, the best guy on the team, whoever the best player is,” Carroll suggested recently to The Athletic. “If we’re playing a team that’s a (more balanced) team, I’m more prone to sit out that game rather than if we’re playing a Kevin Durant or a LeBron or Paul George. I think that’s the biggest factor, I feel.” Well congratulations, Kent Bazemore, you’re considered higher up on the best-player rung than Luol Deng. Carroll was DNP’d in last night’s game against the Lakers, and Toronto didn’t need his help to drain the Lake Show with a resounding 113-80 win. Playoff hero Norman Powell had been used sparingly, but logged a season-high 32 minutes and contributed 16 points in Carroll’s absence. Now JYD ver. 2.0 will get a chance to sink his teeth into the Hawks. His 3.8 career PPG and 2.2 RPG against Atlanta (nine games, just two starts) are his lowest marks versus any team. Casey may disagree with Carroll’s assessment, or the notion that Carroll would like to get a healthy go at his previous NBA team (“I don’t care what the player wants to do. It is what is best for the Toronto Raptors to win.”), but DMC is accurate on one aspect. We’re certainly a less “balanced” team than the Lakers right now, in more ways than one. The Hawks’ offense continues rocketing toward the NBA basement, most recently in last night’s 121-85 abomination at the Lowlight Factory. Best demonstrated during the 2016 Playoffs versus Kevin Love and the Cavs, the Hawks have shown that their confidence and composure fall completely through the floor whenever they struggle to get former sharpshooter Kyle Korver (2-for-8 FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs) going while their opponents have no problems having a field day from the perimeter. Terrence Ross (42.6 3FG%) will try to help Lowry and Carroll go bombs away against the Hawks again, one night after Detroit posted a demoralizing franchise-record 17 treys (58.6 team 3FG%) on Atlanta, the Pistons’ opponents (6-for-24 3FGs) unable to provide much of a response. Last night’s game (re-)confirmed that things are likely to get worse for the Hawks (10-10) before they get better. But one sliver of good news for the Hawks is they’ve played well on the back end of back-to-backs this season, posting a 4-1 record (wins over HOU, CHI, MIL, at IND, loss at GSW) while outscoring opponents 106.0-98.8. That last home drubbing by New Orleans was followed by an 11-point road victory in Indiana. So it’s reasonable to expect, even while a little shorthanded, that the Hawks will cobble together a more competitive effort from the jump in Toronto. Without Millsap around, it’s essential for Dwight Howard to have much more than a casual observer role, as was the case yesterday (1-for-4 FGs, 6 rebounds, 5 personal fouls) against Andre Drummond and Detroit. Howard (1.1 APG and 6.0 Assist%, lowest since his rookie season 12 years ago) must be more active than sitting around the basket waiting for lobs and putbacks. Getting Dwight more touches and relying upon him to kick the ball back out of the paint when double-teamed should begin to thaw the Atlanta offense, force DeRozan and Lowry to expend more energy than they’d like on defense, and allow the Hawks to stay in contention for much more than one quarter tonight. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record