The Atlanta Hawks continue to traverse the West Coast, thirsting for their second win on its five-game road swing. They arrive at their final destination on this particular tour tonight, the Talking Stick Resort Arena, where the Phoenix Suns await patiently (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona in PHX). The Suns have dropped three straight at home and are without a key cog at forward. But is the prospect of victory just another mirage on the horizon for these Hawks?
Two nights after a loss at Sacramento, the 2014-15 Hawks (absent Paul Millsap) arrived in Phoenix on a January night hoping to catch a similar break. What they experienced instead were a combined 39 rebounds from Suns bigs Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, subpar shooting from several Hawk starters and, despite the best efforts of role players like Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schröder and Mike Scott, a 24-foot prayer by Archie Goodwin that would not go unanswered. The bucket granted Goodwin his game-high 24th point and the 13-31 Suns a 98-95 overtime victory, what would be their only NBA win over a drought of 50 calendar days.
Despite enjoying what was possibly the game of his life, Goodwin would find himself sent out to pasture in the ensuing preseason, not the least of which because of the continual logjam that has been the Phoenix backcourt. Eric Bledsoe (19.2 PPG, career-high 35 points vs. DEN on Sunday; team-high 5.4 APG) has bounced fully back from the torn-meniscus surgery that cut his season short last December.
Bled’s had a minimum of 15 points, 5 dimes, and 5 boards in five straight games, the longest streak by a Sun since Jason Kidd went for six-straight back in 2000. Bledsoe is backed at the point by Brandon Knight (18.3 points per-36, 37.5 FG%), who rarely sees a shot that he doesn’t like, and Summer League standout Tyler Ulis (4.4 steals per-36).
At the time of the Hawks’ last visit, a teenaged Devin Booker was just coming into his own. Now the 20-year-old serves as Phoenix’s fresh franchise face and leading scorer (19.5 PPG), joining Bledsoe in the Suns’ starting backcourt.
Booker seeks to put up 30+ points in consecutive games for the second time this season. Behind him on the depth chart is former Golden State Warrior Leandro Barbosa, who never met a shot that -- well, you know -- and former Hawk John Jenkins. The Brazilian Blur will play with a heavy heart after being especially moved by the soccer club tragedy from Tuesday morning.
Perhaps the most improved player for the Suns (5-13) has been T.J. Warren. The third-year forward was averaging 20.0 PPG and 2.1 SPG over his first 11 starts. But in his next two games, something appeared amiss, and he has been declared out indefinitely to treat an unspecified head injury. His absence has put more pressure on Chandler (12.0 RPG, most in his career since 2006-07), Len (10.0 RPG, 2.7 BPG in last six games), and a Suns team that hasn’t defended driving guards like Schröder (season-high 9 2FGs @ GSW on Monday) terribly well.
Suns coach Earl Watson’s club has allowed over 110 points in 11 of their 17 games, and their two wins among that set of games required overtime. Sunday’s 120-114 home loss to the Nuggets featured Denver’s Jameer Nelson rolling back the clock for 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting. They also had Nik Stauskas looking saucy (8-for-9 FGs off the bench) in a 120-105 road loss at Embiidelphia two weeks ago. Still, much like Mike Budenholzer with Schröder, Watson refuses to heap criticism upon his emerging young guard.
“I’m kind of disappointed that expectations on Devin Booker [are] ... what he [doesn’t] do. Very disappointed,” the coach, himself a neophyte amongst his peers, recently remarked to the Arizona Republic, “I was with Kevin Durant when he had the worst plus-minus in the NBA. Not one time in OKC did we say what he couldn’t do. So I’m not even going to focus on the things he can’t do. For just turning 20, he does some amazing things. We know that we can’t ever speed up development in life, from a physical aspect or a mental aspect. So I’m not discussing anything negative about Devin Booker or challenges.”
While there’s very little pressure placed upon the youngsters in Phoenix to excel right away, the vets (plus Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough) are feeling a bit like Richard Pryor’s First Man on the Sun right now. Anybody and everybody above the age of 24 is ripe for the taking, especially as the losses pile up, and Watson’s charges are unrelenting, pushing a league-high pace (104.3 possessions per-48) and making it more of a struggle for players with a lot of mileage to keep up.
Warren’s injury has expanded hope from fans that the Suns will be compelled to go on a Bender soon. P.J. Tucker (only NBA player aside from Paul Millsap with 500+ rebounds and 100+ steals in each of past three seasons) stepped up in a starting role versus Denver (21 points, 8 rebounds on Sunday), but otherwise has continued to regress since becoming somewhat of a late bloomer in 2014.
Jared Dudley (41.4 3FG%; only player aside from Steph Curry and Kyle Korver with 38+ 3FG% in seven of last eight seasons) has been Phoenix’s most consistent perimeter threat, but has been slowed by persistent foot problems and sat out the Suns’ last game. Rookie power forward Marquese Chriss (43.0 FG%) has generally seemed lost since being moved into the starting lineup early in the season.
That leaves some hope among many that Watson will unveil Chriss’ fellow lottery rookie, Dragan Bender. The 7-foot-1 Croatian has seen limited action (10.1 minutes per game, 13th among 14 active Suns players), but the 19-year-old has shown Porzingis-style range (38.1 3FG%). With or without Bender, the Suns will try their hand at expanding the perimeter offense against Atlanta tonight. Their 11 3FGs versus Denver was a season-high, but so were the 13 treys that Denver hit against them.
I keep waiting for the Hawks to slide in terms of their defensive efficiency. And yet, for all their losing and blowouts suffered lately, here they remain atop the NBA with a 97.5 D-Rating. This, despite opponents scoring a league-high 19.7 points per-100 possessions off Atlanta’s turnovers. Foes have hit less than a third (33.0%) of their 3-point tries, and less than half of their two-point shots as well (48.0 2FG%), while defensive rebounding for the Hawks remains above-average.
Defensive attributes have not significantly shifted during Atlanta’s 1-6 skid. Since November 18, preceding the Hawks’ loss in Charlotte, opponent shooting has been on just a minor uptick (34.7 3FG%). Opponents have generally been pushed out of the paint, encouraged to jack up a high volume of long heaves (2nd-most opponent above-the-break 3FGAs since Nov. 18; just 34.2 3FG%) and mid-range jumpers (3rd-most mid-range 2FGAs since Nov. 18; a modest 43.4 2FG%).
These figures are not nearly as dominant as they were prior to the downturn, but they’re good enough to keep a moderately decent offense in games. The Hawks’ struggle has been demonstrating that they’re at least one of those offenses.
Schröder and Atlanta’s wing scorers should experience limited defensive halfcourt pressure whenever Booker or Knight are in the game, and should also be able to open things up for the Hawks on the break. Only Philly (18.4) and the Lakers (16.6) surrender more fastbreak points per-100 possessions than the Suns’ 16.3, although Phoenix is likely to return the favor in kind (16.8 fastbreak points per-100, 3rd in NBA; Atlanta’s 11.9 ranks 19th). Whichever team’s big men can get the ball out to their guards in transition more effectively will have an upper hand early on in tonight’s game.
Ever seen a Moose fly? Among 71 NBA centers tracked by SportVU (min. 10 games played), only Brooklyn’s Justin Hamilton (4.6 mph) has moved further along on NBA courts in less time than Atlanta’s Mike Muscala, a blistering pace of 4.5 miles per hour. Right behind Muscala on the “speed” list is Timofey Mozgov (4.45 mph), so Usain Bolt need not quiver. But the relative “speed” measure reflects the scale of activity Muscala brings to the table, coming out of the post to set screens, take open jumpers, and close out on shooters while also willfully running the full floor in transition. That “speed” advantage could prove especially useful this evening.
The spell of rest and scouting disadvantages for the Hawks (10-8) comes to a momentary end tonight, the Suns getting two full days off to prep for this matchup. They got to sit back on Monday night and watch the Hawks run themselves ragged in Oakland before falling short in the closing minutes to the Warriors. Millsap (hip) is questionable to play, as is the upgraded Scott (knee), suggesting Muscala may be a busy man tonight, perhaps logging minutes alongside Dwight Howard.
Going back to Milwaukee’s three days of rest before playing a Hawks team returning from a battle in Miami the night before, Atlanta’s last nine opponents (including Phoenix tonight) have had a total of 15 full days off prior to Hawks games, while the Hawks have had just six days off in between those games. Atlanta doesn’t get to enjoy a rest advantage until getting one day off before facing Russ Westbrook’s Thunder at home next week.
For Atlanta, the ability to create adjustments on-the-fly and apply them through practices (one cut short by a shattered backboard) and video reviews have been tough tasks lately. A victory tonight may help the Hawks to build some positive momentum as they head home. But if they fall apart in Phoenix, two nights after giving Golden State a run for their money? They might as well be walkin’ on the sun.
Let’s Go Hawks!