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  • Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    lethalweapon3
    “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), 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



    lethalweapon3
    “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
    lethalweapon3

    Hawks at Pistons

    By lethalweapon3, in Game Previews,

    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

    lethalweapon3
    “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

    lethalweapon3
    “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
    lethalweapon3
    “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

    lethalweapon3
    “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

    lethalweapon3
    “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

    lethalweapon3
    “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

    lethalweapon3
    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