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  1. "I'm Sorry, Baze. But, like Triple H says, it’s What’s Best for Business!" Okay, Minnesota, listen here. Let us help you, help us, help you. Our Atlanta Hawks are not making the NBA playoffs for the first time since “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Buy U A Drank” were bangin’ on the airwaves. But that’s nowhere near a BFD as your Timberwolves being on the fringe of being a playoff participant for the first time since Usher, Lil Jon and Luda were screaming “Yeah!”. Snoop wasn’t even Dropping It Like It’s Hot yet. Heck, your boy Prince and the New Power Generation had just released Musicology, and still had FIVE top-10 albums yet to work on. So most folks think you, Minnesota, are pulling for the Hawks (what’s left of them, anyway) to do their letter-best to trip up the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma). Beating your Northwest Division rival and low-seed competitor, one night after they nearly blew it at home against Sacramento, would seem to make it easier for you to make the Western Conference cut. But we know better. That’s because we know our Hawks aren’t the only club whose receipt of a Top-14-protected pick hangs in the balance over the coming weeks. Everyone knows we have your first-rounder, postseason-pending, from abandoning ship on The Adreian Payne Project back in 2015. But few realize you’ve been holding onto OKC’s pick, pried free from Utah (2015’s Enes Kanter trade), ever since giving up on The Ricky Rubio Experiment. Both picks melt into a pair of future second rounders if they’re not used in this or the next two seasons. That’s not so much a BFD in your case, as your starting lineup is a virtual First Round Pick Museum already. But there’s no telling if you’ll get a better deal out of OKC’s pick in the coming seasons, so long as Russell Westbrook (25.2 PPG, 10.1 APG) and Friends stick around the plains. Further, your own pick could be very valuable for us here in the ATL, as it’s standing probably won’t get much better in future years. Besides, all Hades will break loose if we’re all still sitting here two years from now with your conditional pick somehow still in play. So, Minnesota, here’s what we can do for each other. Until you clinch, T’wolves, you continue to take advantage of the breaks you’ve been given. Much like when you outlasted Golden State without Curry this past weekend, you can prevail in D.C. tonight without John Wall around. The Spurs may not have Kawhi back at 100% on Saturday against your well-rested squad. Sure, you’ve got a tough opponent schedule ahead of you. But there’s no need to wait two weeks from now, when our Hawks pay a visit to the Target Center, for you to notch your next victory. Meanwhile, here in Atlanta (20-47), we’ll do our part to make sure your division rival, the Thunder (40-29, just 2.0 games in front of 9-seed Denver and **rubs eyes** 10-seed San Antonio), don’t get to add a lottery pick to their currently star-studded stable. Otherwise, OKC’s ability to add a young star prospect on a rookie-scale deal might be enough to entice Paul George (career-high 41.0 3FG% and 2.0 APG) and Carmelo Anthony (35 points behind Reggie Miller for 19th all-time; 7-for-14 FGs vs. SAC on Monday, 1st time above 50 FG% in 20 games) to play this thing out in the Sooner State. Tonight, we vow not to sit around and just let Westbrook (7-for-34 3FGs post-All-Star Break) ply his wares from the perimeter, since that seems to work against the Thunder’s better interests on most nights. Trying to out-shoot the Hawks from downtown hasn’t been that hard of a task, as the Thunder (52.0 3FG%) demonstrated the last time these teams faced off, and as the Bulls (45.9 3FG%; 77 combined 3FGAs) were all too happy to do over the weekend here at Philips Arena. But Russ jacking threes (5.5 3FGAs in OKC losses, 3.4 in wins) takes him off the free throw line (6.7 FTAs in losses, an even-more Russ-diculous 7.2 in wins). He hasn’t been MVP-caliber at the charity stripe this season (career-low 73.4 FT%, down from career-high 84.5 FT%), which might be part of the reason he’s settling for shots outside the paint so frequently. Because many of those jumpshots come in isolation (4.4 iso FGAs per game, 4th in NBA; 0.85 points per possession, lowest among top 9 NBA iso-shooters), the copious treys tend to stifle the ball movement by Russ, individually (102.2 O-Rating and -10.1 Net Rating in losses, 115.1 & +16.8 in wins), and the Thunder as a team. Hawks point guards Dennis Schröder (probable, sprained elbow) and Isaiah Taylor (probable, sprained ankle) will stay up on Westbrook and go over screens, compelling the Thunder guard to do what he does best, drive to the rim (NBA-high 18.9 drives per game; Dennis’ 16.2 ranks 4th in NBA), and set up his teammates for less-contested scoring chances (14.3 assist% off drives, second only to Chris Paul among players with 10+ drives/game; Dennis’ 9.1% ranks 27th) when the Atlanta defense contracts. The three leading scorers for the Hawks when last these teams met, on December 22, aren’t available. Marco Belinelli (27 points) and Ersan Ilyasova (22 points) are currently in the pregame line at either Pat’s or Geno’s, while Malcolm Delaney (20 points) remains out with a sprained ankle. With Atlanta Competitanking their way out of a 16-point second-half hole, it took a lucky triple from Westbrook with two seconds left to avoid overtime at The Peake and escape with a 120-117 win. You’re welcome, Minnesota. Oh, and the Hawks’ top assist-man from that game, Kent Bazemore, has exited stage left due to a bruised knee bone. That doesn’t mean Hawks’ whiteboard wizard Mike Budenholzer will make things simpler for OKC to overwhelm tonight. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t mean Thunder coach Billy Donovan will make it easy for ATL to underwhelm. We know how it works around here by now. Steven Adams (NBA-high 4.9 screen APG; questionable, bruised hip) comes down with a bout of australopithecus afarensis or somesuch. Westbrook slips and slides like he did last night, PG13 tweaks an ankle. Next thing you know, our poor Hawks have to pretend-contend with the likes of grizzled vets like Raymond Felton, Nick “yep, still here” Collison, and replacement starter Corey Brewer (15.0 PPG, 53.8 FG% in last 3 games/1st 3 starts w/ OKC). It would help the Thunder if Andre Roberson (out for season, torn patella) was available. But for as long as George is in the game, he’ll be tasked with keeping Taurean Prince (career-high 38 points, 7-for-13 3FGs, 9-for-10 FTs) from smelling himself once again, trying to force errors by getting him to put the ball on the floor and not in the air. Only the Thunder (NBA-high 15.9 opponent TOs, 16.8 deflections & 9.4 loose-ball recoveries) get foes to make more mistakes than our pesky Hawks (15.8 opponent TOs). The good news for you, Minnesota, is that while Atlanta gives up (17.7 opponent PPG off TOs) nearly as much as they get (NBA-high 18.4 PPG off TOs, tied w/ OKC) from turnovers, the Thunder are masters of turnover transition (NBA-low 14.2 PPG off TOs). The less George contributes, the less this factor matters. So we’ll try to keep him out of foul trouble (team-high 2.9 PFs/game, tied w/ Adams). Shorthanded as the Hawks may be, they’ll have their full frontcourt complement in tow, including Tyler Cavanaugh (probable, ankle sprain) and Money Mike Muscala (career-high 19 points vs. CHI; 8-for-11 3FGs in last two games) to back up Dewayne Dedmon and probable All-Rookie snub John Collins (15-for23 2FGs in last three games). Hopefully for OKC, Collison, Patrick Patterson and rookie Dakari Johnson will be needed only to relieve Adams (16 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 22), not supplant him. For all the attention on you, Minnesota, Oklahoma City’s schedule is looking quite arduous as well. Houston, Toronto, Golden State and Boston are all on OKC’s docket among 11 consecutive games versus above-.500 clubs, a stretch that commences when the Thunder return home to deal with your fellow playoff-contending LA Clippers. They won’t get another gimme until their April 11 season finale, at home, versus the Grizzlies. The importance of making relatively easy wins relatively easy should not be lost on OKC. So, don’t worry about what we’re doing over here, Timberwolves. You take care of business on your end, and just help us help you achieve our mutual objectives. On that note: hey, Tom Thibodeau, this is no time to be out here tinkering with newcomers in your backcourt rotation. That task is for lottery-bound teams like our Hawks, not yours. You’re free to give D-Rose his obligatory 40 minutes per night… but only AFTER you clinch. Capisce? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. “No, but seriously, Nick, I’ve been good this year!” Trying to cram games around the schedule for teams not included in the NBA’s traditional Christmas Day lineup is often a chore, but no lumps of coal await the Atlanta Hawks in their stockings. After burrowing through a quick jaunt to Oklahoma City tonight to face the Thunder (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), our Hawks will sneak in one last run back home, on Christmas Eve Eve versus the Mavericks, then enjoy up to three days of festive rest, their longest break since Black Friday weekend. The Thunder would love to focus on sleigh-ing Chris Paul, James Harden and the Houston Rockets, their visitors on 12/25. But first, they have Coach Bud’s Hawks, tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena, then a rematch with Quin Snyder’s Jazz in SLC, tomorrow, to put up with before Monday’s primetime game on ABC. Oklahoma City (16-15, 11-4 at home) thumped visiting Utah on Wednesday to finally creep above .500 for the first time since Halloween. But they know a precarious fifth-place in the Western Conference is not where anyone expected them to be at this point in the season. There is no doubt that “What is wrong with the Thunder?” will be the theme for much of the Christmas Day NBA coverage. But all the predictable concern-stipation from basketball’s media-wonks will get amplified if OKC (8-3 this month) slips up in either of their preceding games. Around Squawkland, we’ve already rinsed out that whole “What’s wrong?” narrative, beginning with coach Billy Donovan’s need to contemplate seeking another line of work, continuing by gauging Carmelo Anthony’s interest in pursuing a high-scoring sixth-man role, and Russell Westbrook’s interest in relinquishing the ball earlier in the shot clock, and finally ending with consideration of 2018 free agent Paul George perhaps finding a new NBA jersey under his tree, no later than by the trading deadline. The reigning MVP deserves plenty of leeway to sort this whole thing out on the floor. But only Ben Simmons averages more touches per game (103.1) than Westbrook (96.0; Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder averages 91.3, 3rd-most in NBA). And no one holds the ball longer than Russ, 9.3 minutes per game accounting for more than a fourth of his average time on the court. That stifles the production of on-court threats like Anthony and George, who had grown quite accustomed to isolation play with the ball in their hand and plenty of time on the possession clock. Despite ranking fourth in the league for isolation possessions himself, Westbrook’s 0.89 points per iso possession (37.6 iso FG%, down from 38.8 FG% last season) is not only well below those of burlier playmakers like LeBron James (1.28) and Harden (1.09), but also Schröder (1.01, 44.4 iso FG%). Melo (6th-most iso possessions in NBA) isn’t faring much better (39.1 iso FG%), leading many to suggest they need to share the floor a lot less. George, 10th in iso possessions as a Pacer last season, has been the odd-man out in OKC (22nd in iso plays) and barely registers a blip (34.4 iso FG%) once he finally gets featured in the offense. Fortunately for the Thunder’s starting lineup, they have Steven Adams (NBA-high 16.4 O-Reb%) back after missing time with concussion symptoms and handling cleanup duties with aplomb. They also have Andre Roberson to limit run-outs by opponents at the other end. Roberson also works well in the halfcourt with Adams (32.4 defensive roll-man FG%) to stifle foes’ pick-and-roll plays. But Donovan has yet to find a second-string rotation that keeps opponents in check while his top scorers catch a breather. OKC’s most-utilized 5-Man lineup without any of The Big Three (Raymond Felton, rookie Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and struggling free agent Patrick Patterson) have tallied just 15 minutes on the floor together. For any scenario that unfolds for their stars and their coach in the future, tonight, the Thunder need to do something that other NBA clubs have had no problem doing in recent weeks, and that’s blow out the Hawks’ discombobulated bench (minus-6.1 points per-100 possessions this month, 7th-worst in NBA). Atlanta’s reserves have displayed a propensity for blowing early leads of varying sizes. Offensive-oriented scorers have struggled to shoo anyone off the three-point line, or to keep opponents from tipping-in second-chance points. Defensive-minded players like DeAndre’ Bembry get sloppy when they’re – okay, he’s – expected to handle the ball. Then, bearing many of the same problems, the starters struggle to re-establish the squandered momentum upon their return. The holes dug by the Hawk reserves would be much steeper if not for the energies exerted by new-jack jumping jack John Collins (18 points on 6-for-7 FGs, 9 boards, but 4 TOs vs. IND on Wednesday). Despite going 1-5 in recent games, Atlanta has held leads well past the mid-point of first quarters, in five of those past six contests, at the time of Dennis’ first substitution (five times by Isaiah Taylor, and once by Malcolm Delaney). By the time he checked back into the game, each time before the mid-point of the next quarter, the Hawks found themselves playing from behind in five of those six games. The exception occurred in Wednesday’s loss, when the Pacers tied up the game at 36 apiece while Schröder sat, after Indy was down 21-17. The modest average lead of +3.3 PPG was gone, thanks to an average net swing of -6.7 PPG over an average stretch of about seven minutes. For the Competitank to roll efficiently against, and occasionally over, teams like the Thunder, Atlanta needs its bench crew to limit turnovers, as scoring on the other end tends to be OKC’s specialty (19.4 points per-48, 2nd in NBA behind red-hot Toronto). Further, Atlanta will need starters (NBA-high 14.4 opp. second-chance points per-48; OKC starters’ 15.4 points per-48 is an NBA-high) and reserves alike to box out and keep bigs like Adams and Dakari Johnson from racking up freebie points on extra-chances. Much like Donovan, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer must find a rotation that sustains leads better. Unlike Coach Billy D, Coach Bud is in under no pressure to figure that out. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  3. 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
  4. “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
  5. Unless Lauvergne pushed the date forward, his contract for 2016-17 was just guaranteed back on August 15. (EDIT: Correction on that "full" guarantee...) ~lw3
  6. “Al Jefferson swears this stuff will cool your nerves. Bottoms up!” 51 rebounds?!? Wide-load Jared Sullinger and the Celtics; the league’s per-game rebounding leader Bulls; the Magic in TWO overtimes. None of them managed to collect 50-plus boards in a game against the league-leader in rebounding percentage, the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the Atlanta Hawks did just that, along their way to a 106-100 victory less than two weeks ago. Atlanta’s 14 offensive rebounds also tied a season-high among OKC opponents. And, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky Hawks are back tonight in OKC (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Oklahoma), aiming for their third straight win! What to do? What to do? As a rule of thumb, if rebounding is your team’s forte, and if it’s the Hawks who have done the best job so far in out-rebounding you, it might be time to consider a different line of work. With his team getting the night off, head coach Billy Donovan and his staff watched last night in horror as Zaza Pachulia’s 17 rebounds were all for naught on behalf of a Dallas team that fell, 98-95, while being held to 36.0% shooting by visiting Atlanta (14-9). 51 opponent rebounds by the Hawks is veritable disaster for the Thunder. 51 opponent rebounds by the Mavs against the Hawks? Meh. Just makes things a lil’ interesting… Most teams are striving in vain to out-leap the uber-lanky Kevin Durant, and out-muscle Serge Ibaka. Most teams are trying to get presidential candidates to vow they’ll build a wall around Enes Kanter (1st in NBA with 17.1 O-Reb%; six O-rebs @ ATL Nov. 30) and make Turkey pay for it. Most teams, after allowing 20 offensive rebounds and 100 shot attempts while watching their top perimeter threat go just 1-for-6 on threes on the road, would simply tip their cap and call it a night. But the Atlanta Hawks aren’t like most teams, and Mike Budenholzer isn’t like most coaches. Like a girl’s age to R. Kelly, an opponent’s offensive rebounds ain’t nuthin’ but a number to Coach Bud. Last night’s victory raised the Hawks to 8-2 on the season (6-7 otherwise) when their opponents seize MORE than 12 O-Rebs in a game. The last loss for Atlanta under this condition was nearly a month ago. Last season? 23-7. They’re pulling the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ even more often now, and yet they are #Winning more than Charlie Sheen (these days, anyway). Budenholzer sees beaucoup offensive rebounding chances for the opposition as a signifier that shots are anything other than “Nothin’ But Net.” And the production bears that out. In those ten games this season when Hawk opponents are going “off” on offensive boards, they haven’t shot above 45% from the field in any of them. In the remainder, opponents shot at least 45% in seven of those 13 games, and Atlanta is 2-5 in those seven games. “I thought our defense was good. When you are playing good defense there is probably more opportunities for offensive rebounds,” the coach responded to the AJC during last night’s postgame commentary. “I thought (the Mavs) were taking tough, contested shots. Some were coming up short with tough bounces.... I’d like to be better on the boards but it’s usually a sign you are getting a lot of stops.” Hey! I heard that over there, quit that snickering! Yes, he called them “stops.” We oughta help Bud come up with a more apropos term. Yields? Restraints? Impedances? BudStops? By any other name, Paul Millsap knows you have to make some “stops” when it counts in the clutch. “I think our defense did great,” Millsap (team-high 9 D-Rebs, 3 steals, 6 free throws, and 20 points vs. Dallas) said last night. “We didn’t do a great job on the offensive rebounding but down the stretch we got some key rebounds and executed on the offensive end.” By any other name, Donovan knows all about the Hawks’ ability to produce “stops.” The Thunder (13-8) still got 48 rebounds (13 offensive) during their loss in Atlanta, and they needed all of them, and more, in a game where they shot just 39.8 FG%, including 7-for-19 from downtown. When OKC’s leading defensive rebounders in a game are their two pillar scorers, Russell Westbrook and Durant (combined 69 of their 100 points, 15 of their 35 defensive rebounds), that suggests a lot of players – Ibaka, Kanter, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Andre Roberson – aren’t pulling their weight. That has to change tonight, allowing KD (9th in NBA for 2FG%, 5th in 3FG%, 4th in PPG, 32-and-10 at Memphis on Tuesday) and Russ (6th in PPG, 1st in assist percentage) to spend more of their energies on getting buckets, and less on retrieving misses, while testing their rest advantage against Atlanta. With Ibaka, the Thunder’s Big Three shot a respectable 28-for-57 in Atlanta last month, a task made all the more arduous with the pestering defense provided by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, but they got no help from their teammates (9-for-36 shooting). Westbrook came alive with 17 points in the final frame (mostly by calling his own number, to the exclusion of Durant) to wipe out a 10-point Hawk lead, setting the stage for the Teague Time layup line to take hold in the last two minutes. Without KD, the Thunder again had to turn to Westbrook the last time the Hawks came to Chesapeake Energy Center. Despite shooting just 8-for-24 from the field, Westbrook enjoyed a 17-for-17 shooting day from the charity stripe, and his 15-point fourth-quarter outburst were needed for playoff-hungry OKC to overtake a Hawks team that was missing both Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver. In that game last March, it was the Hawks backups, specifically Dennis Schröder and Pero Antić (combined 7-for-11 on threes) that carried the day for the offense and helped Atlanta stay in front until the final six minutes of the game. A repeat of last night’s performances by Schröder and fellow reserves Kent “Big Shot” Bazemore, Tiago Splitter, and Mike Muscala (16-for-28 combined FGs) would help keep the Hawks in even better position to win tonight’s game. As Pachulia knows, it often takes an ex-Hawk to try and out-Hawk a Hawk, and the Thunder got that effort out of Anthony Morrow (6-for-10 3FGs) back in March. But Morrow and Waiters were 3-for-19 shooting in Atlanta, and they need to hit under-contested shots to take the pressure off OKC’s big guns. Swingman Andre Roberson and center Steven Adams were rendered all but negligible in their efforts to defend against the Hawks last month, with Adams shut down in the opening half and Roberson particularly flustered throughout the game. Donovan hopes the Thunder’s 125-88 trashing of the Grizzlies in Memphis on Tuesday is an encouraging harbinger of things to come. Yet it will be interesting to see if Donovan continues to start the duo of Roberson and Adams tonight, or if he’ll turn elsewhere on the roster for immediate help. Westbrook has been dazzling as a distributor (16 assists, 3 TOs @ MEM on Tuesday), but when he is your best pass-first option, by far, something’s amiss. Russell’s 14.4%-assisted two-pointers are a career-low, and his 35.5%-assisted threes are way down from 51.2% during his MVP-nominated effort. D.J. Augustin (career-low 17.6 assist percentage) isn’t the best passer, but someone has to help Westbrook play off the ball. Waiters? (gulp.) Today is his birthday, and OKC’s 11-3 when he logs at least two dimes… so go for it, Billy! The campaign to get Cam Payne meaningful minutes is picking up steam after the rookie returned from a strong D-League stint. Donovan has emphasized he’s counting on Payne to dish the ball to justify his playing time. Al Horford (9 first-half rebounds and 8-for-15 FGs vs. OKC, 7-for-12 2FGs @ DAL) ran circles around Adams the last time out, and then Collison committed three swift turnovers in the space of four-and-a-half minutes. Second-year player Mitch McGary isn’t quite ready-for-primetime but is back after a quick D-League run down the street. Kanter (one steal, eight blocks in 21 appearances) would likely suffer a similar fate to Adams, but if Donovan can re-orient Enes to the defensive rebounding duties tonight, he may be able to have a greater impact on the outcome. As long as you can croon-and-swoon and woo the likes of Heidi Klum on the regular, does it really matter that you don’t have Tyson Beckford’s face? Much like Seal, Budenholzer understands that winning ugly is still winning, especially on the road. We’ll see tonight if his devil-may-care approach works with less than 20 hours of rest in between road games. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “Chill, Harry! This ain’t yo’ cousin!” The only Trapping going on tonight will be on defense. But coming off a letdown in San Antonio, will the Atlanta Hawks regroup, and Put On for their city against the high-rising Oklahoma City Thunder (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Oklahoma)? Tonight’s homegrown halftime and postgame performer, the no-longer-young Jeezy, should fill a few extra seats in the stands. But by and large, this crowd won’t be here just for Tha Snowman: you know these fans came to see KD and Russell ball. After some floundering while working through some kinks under new coach Billy Donovan and enduring Kevin Durant’s hamstring injury, OKC (11-6) comes into the Highlight Factory at full-strength. Lately, they’re rolling Thunder: winners of four straight and the last three by double-digits. In those past three games, Durant has been stepping up, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week averaging 30.3 PPG while shooting an MVP-runner-up-quality 58.5 percent on his shots. Oklahoma City enjoyed two days of rest after Friday’s 103-87 home win over Detroit, one in which KD hit four of his nine threes and still found time to hit all ten of his free throw attempts and collect 12 defensive rebounds. It’s the kind of elevated, all-around performance the Thunder have come to expect out of the #2 pick from the 2007 draft. As for the #3 pick, well… Hopefully, Al Horford won’t think he’s Ballin’ ‘cause he got a block. The Hawks (11-8) need more full court intensity from Donovan’s collegiate star pupil, certainly more than the paltry four rebounds Al amassed over 21 minutes on Saturday while watching the esteemed Tim Duncan pile up 18 rebounds with ease. Like Durant, Horford’s out to Get That Broccoli this summer, but only one of these two future free agents is playing like they want much of it. If you lookin’ for Al, will he be on the block? On offense, Horford can continue to draw Steven Adams out of the paint with jumpshots, but he must call for the ball and produce around the rim, particularly when OKC shifts to the defensively non-resistant Enes Kanter. OKC’s opponents take a league-high 32.0 shots per game around the restricted area. Shotblocking help by Ibaka (2.5 BPG, 4th in NBA) and Adams (1.7 BPG) represent the Thunder’s usual last-lines of defense. Contracting the Thunder centers toward the hoop and enticing help from Ibaka and Durant will make life around the perimeter simpler for Paul Millsap and the Hawks’ wing shooters. If Al isn’t gonna Church Off on these Courts, he’ll leave the Hawks behind the proverbial 8-ball. There’s got to be some Love in this (Basketball) Club for boxing out, particularly tonight when Durant and centers Adams and Kanter (57.5 FG%, 6th in NBA) cherry-pick for caroms off missed shots by Thunder guards. Westbrook (27.2 PPG, 4th in NBA; 9.9 APG, 2nd in NBA; 31.5 3FG%) had himself a subpar game versus Detroit: 14 points on 5-for-14 shooting, plus a whopping 11 turnovers before fouling out. But Russell’s 6-3 tall like he ten-feet tall, and after a shot of Mountain Dew Kickstart or two, he will be committed to charging (literally) to the hoop, in hopes of favorable buckets and whistles. When Russell misses shots, he knows the league’s leader in offensive rebounding (30.4%, only team above 30% in the NBA) has his back. Among Thunder guards D.J. Augustin (44.7 3FG%, 13th in NBA), Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow, the best defense is a lot of offense. Andre Roberson will keep himself busy all night occupying Kyle Korver. But one of Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore will find open shots, or draw attention from Durant and Ibaka away from Millsap. So long as they, and the ball, keep moving on halfcourt sets, Atlanta’s many catch-and-shooters will find the Thunder tend to Leave You Alone. Trap all day, play all night: after vanishing in San Antonio (2-for-10 FGs, 4 TOs), Jeff Teague has got to be a Go Getta. Not only must he impede Westbrook without fouling and quarterback his own halfcourt offense, but he must be the key to the Hawks’ transition scoring game, which rivaled their football cousin’s red zone offense in futility against the Spurs. Thunder opponents get nearly ten steals per game (2nd-most in NBA), accounting for OKC’s 17.1 turnovers per game -- only Philly (19.0) commits more. The Hawks remain second in the league with 20.9 PPG off turnovers, and are the only NBA team with a net average of five or more points off TOs (+5.8 PPG). Teague can reignite the Atlanta offense by displaying some Hustlerz Ambition, getting out on the break and converting at the rim. Layups are nice, but fans will Luv It if Jeff finishes a dunk or two. Bazemore (11 points, 7 rebounds, one technical foul @ SAS) found himself flailing away at the ball, and the air, displaying constant frustration with referee calls in the second quarter on Saturday, as the wily Spurs mounted their decisive run to put the game on ice early. Baze came off the bench on Saturday night, and that will continue tonight as Sefolosha plies his trade against his old buddy KD. Composure was key in San Antonio, and it will remain so tonight. Granted plenty of chances, Durant and Westbrook will get their fortuitous plays, but that is no reason for anyone to Lose their Mind. Let’s Get It! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. Another big body can't hurt OKC, especially for him at that salary. http://newsok.com/okc-thunder-hasheem-thabeet-agree-on-two-year-deal/article/3689870 ~lw3