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    Pacers at Hawks

    By lethalweapon3, in Game Previews,

    “Not-So-Stupid Human Tricks! Presented by Oral B.”

    Atlanta Hawks players, lift one hand over your heads, fingers extended! Now, bend at the elbow and drop your hand behind your neck. Got it? Okay, press your palm repeatedly against your back. Did it? Good! Thus ends the praise you’ll get for 86’ing the 76ers on Wednesday night.
    Yes, you made a little socialist NBA history by dispatching the Keystone State Kopz with nary a Hawk getting to 14 points on the day. “Feel the Bern!”, and whatnot. Active hands (13 steals), active hips (40+ D-Rebs for the second-straight game, six Philly O-Rebs), and active heads (28 assists) all made the difference in a 38-point washout.
    There’s no time to dwell on it, though. The team that crop-dusted you this past week, the Indiana Pacers, are on the docket.  Actually, they’re here, at the Highlight Factory (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM, Fox Sports Indiana, ESPN), and rarin’ to go before a national prime-time audience.
    A couple hours north of Philly, the Pacers withstood a second-half rally from Joe Johnson’s Nets before pulling off their third win in four games. Despite the momentary prosperity, and despite having just zipped past the Hawks in their own building, Indiana (26-23) sits precariously in the East’s 7th-seed spot, with Detroit (who they’ll host tomorrow) and Charlotte beginning to make a charge. Thus sets up another prime opportunity for Atlanta (29-22).
    Not only can the Hawks bounce back from the 111-92 defeat at the Fieldhouse last week, featuring a decisive 23-2 closing run by the hosts, but they can further submerge a conference threat that’s now in the throes of yet another identity crisis.
    Danny Granger was Mister Pacer during the post-Malice, Jim O’Brien era, peaking in 2009 with his one All-Star appearance and a Most Improved Player nod. But by the time the Pacers cobbled together a team capable of pushing for the Eastern Conference crown, under Frank Vogel, it was time for Granger to leave center stage. This Paul George kid seemed to have the talent to be the franchise face, so why wait?
    Those sentiments proved accurate when, by 2013, it was George winning the MIP as the oft-injured Granger took a backseat. By 2014, George led the charge to the top of the East standings with 56 wins and a trip to the conference finals. Paul George had indeed become Mister Pacer.
    Now one unfortunate offseason injury and one-and-a-half seasons later, the Pacers are possibly at another crossroads. George’s bounceback in November certainly justified the All-Star love he received from voters. But despite a career-high 23.1 PPG it’s clear that, at least offensively, George is struggling.
    The increased shot volume from deep (7.2 3FGAs per game) isn’t enough to explain PG13’s overall struggles with his jumper (career-low 40.8 FG%, 37.2% on 2-point jumpshots). A much more prolific scorer throughout his career, Danny Granger was shooting 41.6% from the floor in 2012 when it was becoming clear the high-usage should be transferred to someone else. George’s usage percentage has risen to a career-high 30.3%, even with more offensive-minded talents like Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, and a solid 3-and-D point guard in George Hill, at his side.
    Tack on a turnover ratio (13.0 per 100 possessions) that’s sixth-highest among players with 30+ minutes per game (13.5 per 100 since December 1, highest in NBA), and you can see that for some Pacer fans, the honeymoon is just about over. And they may have a future franchise-face waiting in the wings.
    The Pacers just missed the playoffs on the last game of the season, but their reward was lotto-rookie Myles Turner (16.6 PPG, 54.2 FG%, 2.9 BPG in last 9 games; 20 points on 9-for-17 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 28) has lately been deemed the most fortunate thing to happen in Naptown sports since Andrew Luck showed up on the scene. The immense potential shows in the big man’s sweet mid-range jumper and his ability to be active on the glass.
    That was on display in his third-ever start against the Fightin’ T-Lues on Monday. Turner snatched six offensive rebounds against the Cavs, and one of his four blocks pinned what would have otherwise been another highlight-reel dunk by Cleveland’s GM, LeBron James, a fourth-quarter play that re-energized the Fieldhouse and helped hold Cleveland at bay until overtime.
    Alas, Turner’s still a 19-year-old rookie who’s prone to making 19-year-old rookie mistakes. He missed an assignment for a high screen designed to free up Monta Ellis for a game-winning shot that could have avoided the eventual loss to Cleveland in overtime. Ellis and teammates promptly hounded the rookie, who was quick to offer a mea culpa. After all, two days before, Turner’s poorly executed screen left Ellis in No-Man’s Land at the end of the clock, resulting in overtime versus the Nuggets.
    If you’re wondering why the Pacers played like their hair was on fire versus Atlanta last week, the home loss to the Cavs dropped Indy to 3-7 in games decided by a single possession, the most losses in the league according to Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz. While Turner was accepting blame, the team’s resident All-Star (3-for-15 FGs, 8 assists but 5 TOs) seemed a bit too eager to engage in some redirection. “Just some LeBron fans out there,” George excusplained following the game, followed later by, “Obviously, the calls weren’t going my way tonight. It happens.”
    George has rarely been an efficient shooter or a consistent decision-maker with the ball in his hands, but the prospect of Indiana falling out of the playoff picture has some fans eager to flip the script earlier than what anyone planned. Vogel isn’t about to go that far. But having won his conceptual tug-of-war with GM Larry Bird, the Pacers coach is out to prove, with Turner, that only shooting stars break the mold.
    “We don’t use the team ‘smashmouth’ around here anymore,” Vogel cheered to reporters back before Thanksgiving, when the new-look Pacers were firing from all cylinders while playing small-ball with George at the PF spot. But the tune has changed. Hey now, Paul George, you’re an All-Star, but we’re moving you back to the 3 for good. Hibbert and West, Redux? “That’s what we’re evolving back into,” Vogel told reporters after the Cavs game, “a dominant defensive unit that plays great big, plays smashmouth basketball, dominates with defense and rebounding.”
    The bigs, starters Turner and Ian Mahinmi (out with a sore back, replaced by Jordan Hill), are down for that, and George (career-high 2.0 SPG) doesn’t mind a little less pounding in the paint. What will make Vogel’s design work, however, is a defensively active Ellis. He obliged with fourth-quarter steals of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha last week, as the Hawks came unglued. Including that victory, Indiana is 6-1 when Ellis (25 points, 5-for-7 3FGs) leads the way in scoring. But a balanced effort, plus a diversion of the offense away from George, should help the Pacers turn things around quickly.
    While the primetime national TV spotlight will be on George, there’s another All-Star Paul on the floor likely to draw some attention. Not long after the announcement that he’s headed to his third-straight All-Star Game, Paul Millsap tweaked his ankle at the Fieldhouse, exiting the contest 13 minutes in, and has been gingerly sleepwalking his way through the schedule ever since.
    In his past three games, the Atlanta anchorman has scored just 11.7 PPG on 34.4% shooting from the floor, primarily camping out on the defensive end for blocks and defensive boards. The Hawks will need an active two-way Sap versus Turner and George. It will help Al Horford to exploit his matchup with Jordan Hill.
    Jeff Teague shook out of his slumber in his hometown with nine first-quarter points, and carried the Hawks offensively (20 points). But he and Kyle Korver (1-for-7 3FGs last Thursday, 1-for-15 vs. IND this season) were mostly bystanders at Teague Time, when the Pacers made their winning fourth-quarter run. Bazemore has also fallen out of an offensive groove (35.3 FG%, 14.3 3FG%, 62.5 FT%), before the game against Philadelphia, and hopefully that game helped to shake him out of it. Both teams have been solid defenses that turn turnovers into points, and Bazemore can help the Hawks get an edge in that department tonight.
    Millsap’s return against the Pacers means that Mike Budenholzer won’t have to rely on a three-wing lineup (Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha, alongside Teague and Horford) to save the day against Indiana’s bigger lineup. But Korver, Bazemore, and the Hawks backcourt must find openings along the perimeter, and convert, to encourage the Pacers to unpack the paint. This time, when the fourth-quarter rolls around, can the Hawks keep their enemies closer?
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    Hawks at 76ers

    By lethalweapon3, in Game Previews,

    Is it just me, or does it seem like every time it’s the Atlanta Hawks’ turn to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, as is the case tonight at The (don’t call it the Wells Fargo) Center (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Philly), the Sixers are on some sort of lukewarm streak?
    Just a few weeks ago, Atlanta was in Philly in need of a slumpbuster, having previously lost three of four games. Meanwhile, the 76ers were on an Amoroso’s-style soft roll, prevailing in half of their prior six games after starting the season with a woeful 1-28 record.
    This time, the Sixers enter tonight’s game winners of three of their last seven. The last of those losses was on Saturday, to mighty Golden State in the closing seconds of regulation. Two other losses involved opponents forced to find ways to outlast them in overtime. In the ten games since the Hawks held off Philadelphia by a 126-98 score, behind 22 points from Kent Bazemore, the 76ers have only suffered one loss by 20 points, compared to 10 times in the 37 games before that.
    The Competi-tank is rolling, full-spead ahead. And it’s quite clear who’s driving it on the floor.
    For two months, Sixers management endured a mixture of laughter, concern, and harsh critique from the media, fellow owners, and even some fans no longer willing to simply Trust The Process. Owner Josh Harris brought in Jerry Colangelo as an emergency manager of sorts, and Mike D’Antoni to help with head coach Brett Brown’s high-tempo offensive schemes.
    The Sixers promptly re-acquired point guard Ish Smith, who has been claimed by 10 different teams since starting his career as an undrafted free agent in 2010, and plugged him into the starting lineup right away. Literally, right away. “To me, it’s still amazing that when he showed up in Phoenix (after the trade) an hour before game time,” recalled Colangelo, to CSN Philly, “that he put a uniform on and stepped out on the floor and led to team to a win, a badly needed win.”
    Smith (15.9 PPG, 8.1 APG, 2.9 TOs/game w/ PHI) has proven quite adept at making the 76er offense look functional for significant stretches. He jacks up a ton of shots (8-for-28 FGs and 0-for-6 3FGs, but 16 assists in a double-OT loss @NYK two weeks ago) when Plan A isn’t going as planned on Philly’s  possessions. But he generally keeps his team in contention when he’s avoiding turnovers. In six Sixer victories, Smith averaged 2.0 TOs/game, compared to 3.4 in losses.
    Ish strode into Philly reinvigorating Nerlens Noel (52.4 FG%, 10th in NBA) with lob plays, and bouncing passes into leading-scorer Jahlil Okafor. But against rim-contracted defenses he’s begun diversifying by finding open shooters around the perimeter.
    Swingman Hollis Thompson is shooting 56.5 3FG% over his last six games. Nik “Sauce Castillo” Stauskas has been living up to his closed-captioned name with 46.2 3FG% in his last ten appearances. Last season’s surprise Robert Covington had a shaky start out of the blocks but has shaken off his gun-shyness and hitting 3.6 threes per contest (42.0 3FG%, 15.5 PPG) in his past 8 games.
    “What’s in vogue now is, don’t leave three-point shooters, remarked the reliably forthcoming Brown to CSN Philly recently. “Play the pick-and-roll two-on-two, and make those guys (Ish and Noel) score… but don’t leave Covington, Hollis and (Isaiah) Canaan… So, when (Smith)’s dancing and he’s playing in a static halfcourt pick-and-roll, he’s forced to save the day a lot because there’s nobody open… So, you go back to speed. When he gets the ball in the first three-to-five seconds of the shot clock, that’s where his real change is.”
    “It’s hard to find a static set defense where I’m not going to leave Covington or Stauskas or whatever. Now all of a sudden the gym’s broken. I think in that environment, he’s gotten to the paint and found people.”
    As a result of more sensible high-paced play, the Sixers’ January shooting efficiency (51.3 eFG%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 50.7 eFG%) ranked 4th-best in the Eastern Conference, although their free throw shooting (62.2 January FT%, last in NBA) has been less-than-desirable. Smith (43.9% of FGs assisted in NOP/PHI, 5th in NBA) and his understudy, T.J. McConnell (37.5% of FGs assisted, 7th in NBA) are leading the charge.
    Ish (6-for-10 FGs, 7 assists, 4 TOs vs. ATL on Jan. 7)and the Sixers have enjoyed three days of rest, allowing plenty of time to witness the Hawks hovering around their nadir against Miami on Sunday, then cobbling together some of their best basketball in a while versus Dallas one evening later. The difference lied in the assertiveness and effectiveness of Atlanta’s starting backcourt.
    Smith’s collegiate teammate Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver were a combined 3-for-17 (0-for-7 3FGs) from the floor in Miami, then made more effective use of screens to shoot 17-for-23 (11-for-13 3FGs) back home against the Mavs.
    Following a month of offensive reticence even against lesser competition, Teague’s season-high 32 points and 8 assists (2 TOs) were a sight for sore eyes. As one might expect, the Hawks are a solid 19-2 when Teague finishes games with a non-negative plus-minus, 23-6 when Korver does the same. As Philly's Noel and Jerami Grant (1.5 BPG each) clog the lanes, the Hawks guards will again need to make good on perimeter shots early, in order to soften the middle.
    The 76ers will have to find ways to disrupt Atlanta’s ball movement, as the Hawks compiled 36 assists (second-most this season) in Philadelphia last month, with seven separate Hawks producing at least three assists. Noel, McConnell, and Covington are all among the league’s top-20 in steals per 100 opponent possessions.
    Hawks fans would love to take the prior month of basketball and shove it into Davy Jones’ Locker. However, there was one element of the January games worth redeeming. Say hello (and, hopefully, not goodbye) to the most NBA’s efficient defensive team since January 1 (99.2 opponent points per 100 possessions).
    While the easy-bake schedule had a lot to do with it, so far in Calendar Year 2016, the Hawks have held the opposition (per 100 possessions) to 40.1 points-in-the-paint (3rd-lowest in NBA, down from 41.9), 12.5 second-chance points (13th-lowest, down from 13.1), and 11.1 fast break points (7th-lowest, down from 12.5). Opponents shot 49.8 eFG% (14th-highest in NBA) before January 1, and just 46.6 eFG% (lowest in NBA) afterwards.
    While it often means foes need two, three, or four bites at the apple before a shot goes down, the Hawks’ have held opponents to an NBA-low 54.5 FG% around the restricted area and 37.0% (5th-lowest) on other shots in-the-paint. Tack onto that 30.1 opponent 3FG% (2nd-lowest, behind the Warriors’ 28.0%) on shots above- the-break.
    Atlanta held Dallas, who lost Deron Williams early and was on the back end of a back-to-back, below 37-percent shooting for the second time this season along the way to a 112-97 victory on Monday. They’ll need another stout effort from the wings to limit the Sixers’ catch-and-shoot options for Smith and McConnell.
    One January bugaboo involved opponent’s points off turnovers (17.5 per-100, 9th-most, up from 16.2 through Dec. 31). Atlanta was outscored in points off TOs since January 1 (16.6 per game, -1.0) after leading the league in this category (20.3 per game, +4.4) through the end of 2015. While the differentials seem incremental, the loss of focus to thwart offenses before shots go up leaves Atlanta susceptible to the Jamal Crawfords, Monta Ellises and Archie Goodwins of the world at critical junctures.
    Also, referees have been less-than-kind to Atlanta in the New Year. Opponents had a free throw attempt rate of 24.7 (per 100 FGAs, 4th-lowest in NBA) through December, a value that rose to 29.9 (7th-most in NBA) in the games that followed, contributing to 4.8 additional free throw attempts per game. And hack-a-ball isn’t the sole explanatory factor. For Dallas, their blowout loss on Monday was ameliorated by the doubling of the Mavs’ free throw attempts (38 to 19), with whistles blowing just about every time a Hawk swiped at the ball (season-low 2 steals).
    Sounder shot decision-making and superb team rebounding (season-high 45 D-Rebs vs. DAL) made the free throw disparity a non-factor for Atlanta on Monday. Eleven Hawks crashed the defensive glass, and particularly players whose shots weren’t falling at the other end of the floor. Bazemore (9.3 defensive RPG in last 3 games) and Paul Millsap were a combined 5-for-20 from the floor, including 0-for-10 on threes, but compiled 19 defensive boards between them.
    Last month, the Sixers’ brass also brought back maybe their best possible cheerleader-slash-babysitter. Elton Brand spends half his time dropping professional knowledge on the rookie Dookie, Okafor, as well as the many yung’uns on the roster, and the other half sniping away at Philly’s detractors.
    For obvious reasons (Fab Five vs. Duke), Elton’s already not a huge fan of Jalen Rose. So when the Disney Sports commentator suggested over the weekend that the Sixers “don’t deserve to be mentioned on ABC,” Rose found himself getting Brand-ed on Twitter. “Disrespect the team now,” tweeted Brand. “Get it out while you can, (Jalen). These boys will be on top for a long time soon enough.” Rose could only issue a passive-aggressive parting shot in response. “You know it’s love, EB! #keepgettindemchecks”
    It remains to be seen if the former Hawk’s tutelage will help the defensively-challenged Okafor (21 points, 9-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 7) deal with Al Horford (15-for-25 FGs vs. PHI this season). Al has done light work in his past five games (14.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG) but has shot the ball quite well in that stretch (55.0 2FG%, 53.3 3FG%), going Plinko on his last five threebies.
    Al also got his hands on five offensive rebounds in his last trip to Philly, resulting in six of his 18 points. Horford and Tiago Spltter’s board-crashing helped Atlanta offset Philadelphia’s 14 O-Rebs (six by Noel). Splitter remains home to rest a bothersome hip. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was pleased with Mike Muscala’s readiness and performance against the Mavs and will likely bring him off the bench early once again, backed by Edy Tavares.
    Dennis Schröder (4-for-6 FGs, 5-for-7 FTs) got to the free throw line often against Dallas, highlighting a bench group (16-for-29 FGs) that took plenty of pressure off of Atlanta’s starters. The Hawks can enjoy a similar result tonight if the reserves (22-for-42 FGs vs. PHI on Jan. 7) help secure rebounds inside, control the ball, and make smart shots when they get open.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Let’s kick off Black History Month in style!”

    You really can’t expect much more than you’ve gotten out of Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks. They come into Atlanta tonight (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest) aiming for their fourth win in five games, the sole exception being a blowout loss to a red-hot Golden State. They’ll also look to snap a four-game losing streak against the Hawks head-to-head.
    Amid a stretch of five games in seven days before the All-Star break, Carlisle is running a master-class in conserving player energies. Future Hassel-HOFer Dirk Nowitzki sat out from yesterday’s home game vs. Phoenix, in advance of tonight’s contest. While his 44.8 FG% is the second-lowest of his storied career, Dallas (28-22) is a stout 12-3 when Dirk (5-for-12 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) contributes at least 20 points in a game.
    Former Hawk and almost-All-Star Zaza Pachulia (career-best 10.8 RPG) rested a sore leg for three games last week, then returned and picked up right where he left off (12.5 PPG, 13.5 RPG in wins versus Brooklyn and Phoenix to wrap up a homestand). He and Dirk are adequately running a Statler and Waldorf frontcourt, delivering plenty of silly media soundbytes while betting which player can log the most dunks by season’s end (Z-Pac’s up 9-4, for those keeping score at home).
    The one player who was a wild card at the start of the year due to the prior season’s injury, free agent acquisition Wesley Matthews, leads the team in minutes played. Wes is mired in a shooting slump (37.6 FG%, 28.4 3FG% in last 15 games) but insists he’ll play his way out of it. “Look, he’s fine,” Carlisled remarked after yesterday’s game. “I’m not going to fistfight him tomorrow to try to get him to sit out.”
    The Mavs have a well-seasoned roster whose top 8 players in minutes-per-game are aged 27 and up, and six of them (excepting Matthews and swingman Chandler Parsons) are at least 30. One of them, former Hawk Devin Harris, has missed the past several games and was left back in Big D to heal his sprained toe.
    Mark Cuban is more interested in fielding a League of Legends team than pulling any moves as the trade deadline approaches. “Nothing is really tempting to us,” Cuban told Mavs.com recently. Injecting youth for the sake of youth ahead of the playoffs only threatens Dallas’ team chemistry.
    Collectively, Dallas doesn’t turn the ball over (12.3 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), as only DFW-raised Deron Williams exceeds two TOs per game. They set up lots of three-point shots (28.0 3FGAs per game, 4th in NBA) and tend to make their free throws (10th in NBA for FT%).
    The one bad free throw shooter among their top scorers in Parsons (61.6 FT%), who is bouncing back in other aspects of his offensive game (January: 16.1 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 43.8 3FG%). Much like Atlanta, they shy away from crashing the offensive glass (20.4 O-Reb%, 29th in NBA), save for easy opportunities for Pachulia or JaVale McGee.
    Unlike Atlanta, the Mavs do clean up on the defensive end with a focus on rebounding (34.2 D-Rebs per game, 3rd in NBA) over blocks (28th in NBA) and steals (25th in NBA). Altogether, they’re smack in the middle of the league (15th in NBA) in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Yet they’re over-achieving at 10th in the overall NBA standings. That’s because they have veteran leadership that actually leads, a no-nonsense coach armed with a contract extension that still won’t accept mediocrity, and a vocal owner that’s willing to pull strings and take risks at the first sign of slippage.
    Dallas will try to make more hay out of the turnovers they produce against Atlanta. In their last meeting in mid-December, the Mavs committed just 9 turnovers to the visiting Hawks’ 15, yet were outscored off turnovers by a 17-16 margin as the Hawks wrested back the lead in the final three minutes to prevail, 98-95.
    Bench players like J.J. Barea (0-for-6 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) and Dwight Powell did light work in yesterday’s game, Jeff Hornacek’s swan song in Dallas, and will be expected by Carlisle to help Dallas push the pace. Raymond Felton filled into the starting lineup in place of Nowitzki and recorded six assists (zero TOs) as the Mavs went small against the Suns.
    As for the Atlanta Hawks (27-22), losers in their last three games, and in five of their last six? When they decide to give their fans something worth writing about, we’ll mention it.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Phew! Got LeBron out of here just in time!”

    The race to be the Best of the Rest is still on! For all their losing ways of late, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to regain their clutch on the third-seed in the Eastern Conference, with another road win in Miami against the heat (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports). With another road loss, what would be their third in their last four away games, they could drop as far as sixth.
    The Hawks can’t say their Southeast Division foes haven’t given them ample opportunity to pull away. Charlotte floundered but is surviving through the absences of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson, while the Wizards have struggled to keep Bradley Beal on the floor.
    Orlando has stayed relatively intact but have missed Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo for spells recently. Only the Magicians have failed to regain their footing in the division, and even with amid an 8-game losing skid, they’re still just 5.5 games behind Atlanta (27-21).
    Erik Spoelstra’s club went through a 2-8 stretch in mid-January, with wins coming only at Phoenix and at Denver, grinning and bearing their way through the schedule despite injuries hampering Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and Hassan Whiteside (strained oblique, missed last four games and out again today).
    In addition to dealing with injuries, home games like today’s have become a rarity for Miami. After a home-friendly start to the year, this will be just the second game at AmericanAirlines Arena since January 6. The heat return home with their spirits lifted after three straight road wins in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee. But even after today’s game, the heat hit the road again for three games (at Houston, Dallas and Charlotte), before returning to host the Clippers and Spurs.
    Part of Miami’s turnaround of late has to do with boosting the pace and making smart offensive plays. Looking as healthy as he has in awhile, Wade has led the charge in his past four games (25.3 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.0 TOs/game, 51.3 FG%). The heat are not great 3-point shooters (32.9 team 3FG%, 27th in NBA), and Wade isn’t wasting much time with those (8 3FG attempts since Miami won in Atlanta on Dec. 14, no 3FGs made since Dec. 16).
    What he is doing is penetrating lanes, getting to the free throw line (10-for-13 FTs @MIL last Friday), dishing the ball to teammates in advantageous positions (15 total assists in last two games). He’s also finding his comfort zone on long-distance two-pointers, particularly on the left side of the rim. But it’s not all on offense where the 34-year-old star is making his mark.
    “He can’t do it the whole game,” Chris Bosh remarked to the Palm Beach Post, “but late in the game he can guard their best guy. Period. And that guy’s probably not gonna get open. If he really wants to, he ‘s gonna lock him up.” The heat have only won by four or five points in their past three games, and Wade has been prominent in sealing the deal.
    Wade stripped Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim on Friday with under 30 seconds to go, keeping the big Buck from tying the game. If Miami is turning to Wade to help out in the paint, particularly since Whiteside and Chris Andersen (knee soreness) cannot go, Atlanta’s perimeter shooters have to be primed and ready to catch-and-shoot quickly. The Hawks were not aided on Friday by either Kyle Korver or Mike Scott (combined 2-for-13 3FGs).
    Ultimately, if you’re going to get a jump on Miami with offense, you’d better do it early. Even with the recent absence of Whiteside, the heat has the league’s best fourth-quarter defensive rating (97.7 opponent points per 100 possessions) and hold teams to just 41.7 FG% in the closing frame. Thanks to this, according to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, their fourth-quarter +1.1 is their only net positive point differential in quarters of games.
    Despite a +1.7 fourth-quarter differential that ranks 4th in the league, the past two games (17-21 vs. LAC, 17-29 vs. IND) haven’t helped Atlanta’s standing. After playing from behind for much of the contest, the Hawks clawed their way to a 90-88 lead in Indy on Friday night, only to pull the rip cord and watch the Pacers go on a blistering 23-2 run to close the game out.
    Despite playing through nagging injuries from time to time, the Hawks have held together physically, if not psychologically, through much of the season. All-Star forward Paul Millsap sprained an ankle midway through the loss in Indiana, but is expected to be good-to-go at tip-off time today.
    Still, all of the signs of pending collapse are there for Atlanta, after a disappointing January (6-8) that concludes this evening. Having played the East’s second-easiest strength of schedule so far (48% winning percentage of played opponents, as per PlayoffStatus.com, they now face the East’s most daunting schedule going forward (54% winning percentage of remaining opponents).
    Particularly without Millsap, the Hawks could find no means of stopping Indiana’s offense. Al Horford was out-Horforded by rookie first-time starter Myles Turner in Indiana, and needs to put up a stronger two-way effort against his fellow floor-spreading big Bosh (22.0 PPG, 52.8 FG% in last six games) today. Both Millsap and Horford need to keep starting center Amar’e Stoudemire occupied in the paint.
    With the aid of Deng and rookie reserve Justise Winslow, Miami clamped down on the Hawks’ starting guards (Jeff Teague and Korver 4-for-24 FGs) in last month’s 100-88 win. Kent Bazemore was left open and carried the team offensively (28 points, 11-for-18 FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs), but he cannot get it done himself.
    Thabo Sefolosha’s offense (4-for-5 FTs, 13 points) awoke after a month-long slumber, but Atlanta’s reserves universally struggled on the floor defensively on Friday. The bench has to keep Gerald Green (20 points on 9-for-14 FGs in Miami’s 100-88 win in Atlanta on Dec. 14) from getting the green-light shots he wants, particularly in transition. Tyler Johnson is questionable with a strained shoulder, adding to the need for the Hawks’ bench to build a sizable advantage.
    Dragic returned against Milwaukee (12 points, 8 assists) after missing eight games with a calf injury, and it’s hoped he’ll continue elevating the pace of play (29th in NBA) for Miami. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder need to be the one-two punch for Atlanta that pushes the tempo and puts Dragic (and Wade) to work on defense, early and often.
    The Hawks will be visited by Miami on February 19, and by that time the trading deadline will have expired. Despite the recent upturn in play for the heat, another slide will likely compel team president Pat Riley to make critical trade offers that get the team below the punitive luxury tax apron. Today is the last opportunity Atlanta will have to kick those executive phone calls into high drive. Another losing skid for either team would drop them from the Best of the Rest and leave them competing among the Least o the East.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Need a new mascot, Hawaiian Punch? I’ve got just the guy…”

    The Atlanta Hawks got a chance to scout both the Clippers and the Indiana Pacers, as both upcoming opponents played on Tuesday. That didn’t seem to help the Hawks avoid a muckfest and a loss to the Clippers last night. Ahead of tonight’s matchup with the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Indiana), the Pacers themselves got a day off to rest and scout the opposition. Will that reflect in their play before an increasingly nervous home crowd?
    In the Eastern Conference, after Cleveland and Toronto, who’s the Best of the Rest? Much like the Clippers, the Pacers compressed the Hawks offense in Atlanta, riding Monta Ellis’ 26 points to a 93-87 win in December 28, ending a four-game losing streak. Indiana then eked past the Hawks in the standings in mid-January to peak at 22-16, the choice was becoming quite obvious.
    Well, that was before Indiana (23-22) dropped six of their last seven, the one break being a three-point victory in Phoenix. Now they sit in the East’s 8th-seed spot, with four teams closer to catching them than they are of catching Atlanta (27-20).
    All-star starter and franchise face Paul George (31 points, 11 rebounds in 38 minutes vs. LAC on Tuesday) doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge a little fatigue in his comeback season from a broken leg. To the Indianapolis Star, George recently attributed his inconsistent play of late to, “just being overly confident that I can go out and still do the things I was doing (earlier in the season),” when PG was November’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
    The notions that the perennial MVP candidate is “all the way back” from his injury have ebbed. “It’s not the case. It’s hard and it’s weighing on me right now, it’s weighing on my body, it’s weighing on my mental (approach). It just sucks knowing where you were at.”
    Since breaking out of the gate in November (27.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 45.9 FG%, 45.5 3FG%), George’s offensive production has slid (22.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 38.9 FG%, 34.4 3FG%, 3.7 TOs/game). Tuesday’s game was just the second time in the last 25 games he made 10 or more field goals (compared to nine times in his first 20 games). After pouring on 34 points in Sacramento and 31 against the Clippers in losing causes, George (career-low 41.5 FG%) is crying out for some consistent help.
    The next four leading scorers for Indiana, guards Monta Ellis (43.5 FG%, 27.9 3FG%), George “Blondie” Hill (44.1 FG%, 44.8 2FG%), Rodney Stuckey (41.0 FG%, 20.8 3FG%) and swingman C.J. Miles (39.2 FG%) haven’t fared all that much better. So head coach Frank Vogel is turning more and more to a rookie big that’s been turning plenty of heads lately.
    Pacers (former) reserve Myles Turner was unleashed in Denver a couple weeks ago, and turned in an 11-for-13 FG shooting display for 25 points that featured a very comfortable mid-range game. Five days later, thanks to his 31 points (12-for-17 FGs, 7-for-9 FTs) and 8 rebounds, Indiana was one of the rare teams that escaped the wrath of Golden State reasonably unscathed, a 12-point loss at Oracle. Turner had little problem getting shots off against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers, scoring 16 off the bench (7-for-11 FGs for 16 points in just 18 minutes). Turner’s teammates shot just 38.9% from the field in Tuesday’s loss.
    “Definitely want to look at that,” Vogel told reporters recently, about the possibilities of pairing Turner and Ian Mahinmi together (they tried this last week in Phoenix, briefly, before Mahinmi re-sprained an ankle). “I like the idea of those guys playing together.” Especially since it may be a good reason to suspend the grand Larry Bird Experiment and pull George further away from the basket as a small forward.
    Bird is pretty much left to shrug his shoulders on Vogel’s plan to go back to playing big. “We talk about it daily,” Larry Legend told Pacers.com. “I think he feels comfortable going with two bigs. I wanted to score 103 points a game.” The Pacers sit at 102.3 PPG (2nd in the East), with George’s occasional struggles, so not much to fuss about there.
    Ideally, Bird wanted George to spend the lion’s share of time at the 4-spot so he wouldn’t be chasing guards around the perimeter, but the wear-and-tear of defending in the paint is showing, too. “If (Vogel) feels that’s what he thinks will get us the most wins, that’s what we should do.” With the green-light to revert to the days of Hibbert and West, all Vogel needs are some wins at his sails. Vogel announced late today that Turner will begin his starter duties tonight at power forward, ahead of Lavoy Allen.
    “I know my bro Myles Turner should (have) made that Rising Star list. Keep Ya head up bro(.) We will show who are the best rookies this year!!” This nugget of pseudo-fraternal love was tweeted by Joe Young, the backup guard to Hill that is beginning to work his way into the rotation as well.
    Young’s time to shine came courtesy of the injury to Stuckey (sprained foot/bone bruise) and paternity leave for Hill. Against the Nuggets, the second-rounder scored 15 points (7-for-11 2FGs) and added 7 assists with just a single turnover. Versus the Warriors, the former Oregon star made half of his 12 shots along the way to 16 points, plus 8 assists in a season-high 28 minutes.
    Young isn’t restless, but he is hungry to improve his shooting and defense to increase his floor time. He’ll also need to control the ball better, and his four turnovers against L.A. on Tuesday in ten minutes won’t help his cause.
    George is not the only Paul to openly express some fatigue in recent days. “Tired!” was the first utterance from Paul Millsap, responding to Olivia Harlan in his halftime interview amid last night’s game. Horford was similarly caught grabbing his own shorts as the half was winding to a close.
    This was despite the Clips being the team that flew in to complete their road trip with a back-to-back, and despite the team forgoing shootaround for a pregame walkthrough. It was Horford who was flung to the floor like a rag doll in the Clippers’ game-winning play, an Easy-Bake dish from Chris Paul to Jordan for an open jam. With the game again on the line, it was Millsap who blew two shots from close-range that could have at least produced overtime.
    Millsap has just heard that he’ll be headed to the All-Star Game for a third-straight time, and his honor should not be tainted by last night’s performance. It should be noted that while Millsap and the Hawks are rightfully derided for their “clutchiness” of late, it is currently the All-Star starter George’s Pacers with the most losses (7) by one-possession in the Association.
    Still days removed from their West Coast road trip, will the Hawks continue to look, and sound, as though they’re suffering through jet lag? Atlanta players committed a season-worst 22 turnovers (9 by Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder; 8 by Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha) against Los Angeles. Both the Pacers (20.1 points per-48, 1st in NBA) and Hawks (19.7 points per-48, 2nd in NBA) feast on opponents’ turnovers. So when the Hawks coughed up 20 turns (6 by Teague) against in their last trip to Indiana on December 28, the outcome wasn’t all that hard to predict.
    Just like the Pacers’ ten missed free throws came back to haunt them in a 91-89 defeat at the hands of the Clippers on Tuesday, the Hawks met a similar fate one night later. They resorted to hacking Jordan (7-for-12 FTs) and coming away looking hypocritical (7-for-14 team FTs) in the 85-83 setback that wasted an otherwise solid defensive effort against a shorthanded and road-weary but still star-studded team.
    Finally a starter, Turner will provide a great match-up for Millsap (team-high 24 points vs. IND on Dec. 28) and Horford (5-for-8 2FGs, 1-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC). A superior rim protector to Mahinmi, Turner is also willing to come out to defend Horford’s jumpers, or those of anyone in his vicinity. But the limited defense at the wing for Indiana (28.7 opponent restricted-area FG attempts per game, 4th-most in East) is leaving them exposed to cutters when he vacates the paint.
    “We can talk all these stats defensively,” Bird lamented in a Pacers.com midseason interview, “but how many times did we get beat backdoor the other night in key situations?” As Pacer defenders scramble to cover leaks into the paint, there are often open shots available in the corners (7.1 opponent corner 3FGAs per game, 4th-most in East). Unlike last night, this is an ideal setup for Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott to feast and take some pressure off of Millsap and Horford. Perhaps, one other Hawk as well.
    Despite all the turnovers and 41.9% shooting against the Pacers in December, the Hawks stayed in contention late, thanks to 14 points (6-for-8 FGs) and 7 rebounds off the bench by Thabo Sefolosha. Besides his scoring, seal-tight defense in tandem with Paul Millsap on George (3-for-14 FGs, 9 points) helped hold the Pacers to just three points in the closing three minutes of action.
    If anyone, Sefolosha can certainly sympathize with George’s challenges of recovering from a broken leg during a full season of basketball. Those 14 points on December 28 were the most Thabo has contributed in any ballgame since (last 14 games: 5.3 PPG, 5.3 3FG% - not a typo, 39.7 FG%). While his defense remains valuable (at least one steal in each of his last seven games), the Hawks must find a way to get Sefolosha going offensively, lest his teammates struggle as defenses play them 5-on-4.
    Vogel did not have to gameplan much for a very cold Kyle Korver (0-for-8 3FGs) in his last meeting with Atlanta. In his last three games, though, Korver has shown a greater comfort level with shot/pass decision-making, and it shows in his improved accuracy from deep (66.7 3FG%). Ellis will scratch-and-claw at the ball as a help defender but does little to get through screens, like the one that helped Korver get free and granting the Hawks their final lead late in last night’s game.
    The need to help Ellis may spring Hill free from his occupation of Teague and/or Schröder, or George from the Hawks’ forwards. All of these players should be prepared to receive the ball and get to the rim quickly. An emphasis on smart passing and player movement over excessive dribbling will keep the ball out of George (2.0 SPG) and the Pacers’ greedy clutches and bring Atlanta’s turnovers back down to sane levels.
    “I am looking at 9-and-0!” If you’ve heard this a lot in the past couple of months on Atlanta sports radio (92.9 FM), that’s because the drive-time hosts were looking ahead at the football Falcons’ schedule and predicting great things. We know how that turned out. It was similarly simplistic to look ahead to a soft January schedule for the Hawks and know that, at the very worst, barring health issues, they’d extend their winning months of basketball (discounting Octobers) to ten.
    Now sitting at 6-7 for the month, the Hawks are out to close out a disappointing January right at .500. Both teams want to climb out of the Eastern Conference’s crab barrel soon, and a win tonight for either squad would go a long way in the fight to become the Best of the Rest.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Stick and Move! Stick and Move!”

    To the fans who planned on trolling Josh Smith tonight, as the L.A. Clippers face the Atlanta Hawks at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, PRIME), I am sorry to break it to both of you.  The New Day has been deferred until mid-March, as Smoove was rocketed back to Houston. But have no fear, Paul Pierce is here! He’s already called Series, I’m sure! And he will be far busier for the Clips than he ever anticipated.
    This just in: Funny thing… it turns out, the Pimp Hand isn’t all that strong. Blake Griffin had to learn this the hard way a few days ago, when he two-pieced a co-worker at a Toronto restaurant. While an equipment staffer is being soothed back home with Microsoft Money to pay for his swollen face and make the whole ordeal go away, Griffin is the one who needs to wear a mask around Tinseltown. That’s because he decided Keeping It Real was more important than maintaining the structural integrity of his shooting hand, imperiling the Clippers’ postseason seeding prospects.
    Griffin was already aware, over the weekend, that he would be unavailable for this week’s contests in Indiana and Atlanta. This, after plans to return two weeks after tearing his quad in a Christmas game were already delayed, may have served as underlying frustration. But now, his pugilistic exploits on his fellow employee and reported pal will cost him a return trip to Toronto in a couple weeks, 4-to-6 more weeks on the pine to mend, plus whatever post-appeal punishments get handed down by the team and the Association.
    Odds are, with the money available to paper over the issue, Griff will never face charges for his battery. But barring a major kiss-and-make-up event, this flare-up will hover over team morale for awhile. The Clippers (29-16) ran through nine straight less-than-imposing opponents, and despite losing half of their past six, the prevailing sentiment was, “Imagine how good we can be, once Blake gets back!”
    Now, the prospect of playing 15, 20, or even more games Griffin-free, plus whatever added time it takes for him to get re-acclimated with shooting, dribbling, passing and defense on the floor, has L.A. wondering just how sustainable this latest run at the Conference Finals is, really. Is the toast of Rodeo Drive about to hit Skid Row?
    Clippers GM/coach Doc Rivers had already tired of his fellow former Hawk, sending Josh Smith plus cash back to H-Town in exchange for some fava beans. It was supposed to be addition-by-subtraction, the supposition being that Griffin was on the verge of returning, and Rivers had already demonstrated the Clips had a puncher’s chance (sorry) to win any game, even while Smoove and Lance Stephenson were busy slapboxing each other on the sideline.
    Instead, it’s up to the 38-year-old Pierce (8.2 PPG, 37.3 FG%, 35.9 3FG% since starting in place of Griffin), Atlanta’s favorite postseason foil, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (19 points w/ PHI vs. short-handed ATL last March) to hold the fort at the forward spots for an indeterminable period. Backup center Cole Aldrich (career-high 5.9 PPG) has earned enough trust for Rivers to part ways with Smith, and will see more minutes alongside Jordan when the Clips want to risk going big with their lineup. For this trio, their job is basically to defend as best they can, and not turn the ball over as they defer to the Clippers’ remaining stars.
    All-Star Chris Paul (NBA-high 51.0 Assist%; 9.6 APG), league-best perimeter shooter J.J. Redick (48.9 3FG%), and Paul’s Hooper-wife DeAndre Jordan (NBA-high 71.4 FG%; 13.5 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 19 rebounds vs. IND last night) will all continue to elevate their shot volumes in Griffin’s absence. Meanwhile, Rivers will rotate bench guys like Wesley Johnson (5-for-6 3FGs vs. IND last night), former Hawk and current trade-bait Jamal Crawford (NBA-high 92.0 FT%), Stephenson, Doc’s son Austin, and Pablo Prigioni, in hopes he’ll find someone with a hot hand.
    The strategies have borne fruit so far, as the Clippers conclude what is already their third five-game road-trip on the season. L.A. has come away victorious in their last three games on the second night of a back-to-back set, after losing their first four this season.
    In the battle of Demon Deacon alums, Jeff Teague will be challenged to stay in front of Paul, but he and his teammates must recognize that Paul is much more dangerous as a passer than as an interior halfcourt shooter (47.8 2FG%, his lowest since 2006-07). The Clippers don’t turn the ball over much (13.0 TOs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA), so forcing L.A. into suboptimal shots and rebounding will be critical. Despite the decoy Jordan presents, 35% of the Clips’ points coming in the paint is a league-low, so the more mid-range shots (and fewer threes and free throws) induced by the Hawks, the better.
    Atlanta must keep Jordan out of lob territory, seal off passing lanes allowing Paul to kick out to perimeter shooters, and contest Paul’s three-point shots (4-for-8 3FGs vs. IND) late in the shot clock without bailout fouls. It’s essential for Hawk defenders to minimize catch-and-shoot opportunities for Jordan (62.7 TS%, 4th in NBA despite 41.4 FT%) and Redick (64.8 TS%, 2nd in NBA behind Curry).
    On offense, Al Horford (49.6 2FG% from 16 feet out; 8-for-12 FGs, 2 rebounds vs. DEN on Monday) should be able to play pick-your-poison with Jordan (2.2 BPG, 3rd in NBA). Either come out of the paint to contest Horford’s jumpers, or camp out and allow Paul Millsap to wear down Pierce or Mbah a Moute on the low block. Millsap’s mismatches can also open up shots for the Hawks on the weakside and in the near corner.
    Led by Paul (2.0 SPG), the Clippers managed to exert enough energy last night to hold Indiana scoreless for about eight minutes in the second half, then fended off a late rally from Paul George and the Pacers to escape with a 91-89 win. They would certainly appreciate a low-pace game tonight. The Clippers will foul (31.0 opponent FTA rate, 3rd in NBA) when they need to slow the game down, so Millsap (86.0 FT% last 11 games) and the Hawks must convert when they’re granted trips to the free throw line.
    Three is the magic number not only for Redick but Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who has sunk at least three triples in his last three games for the first time since Black Friday. Kyle has also assisted on three-or-more baskets in his last four contests. His four assists in Monday’s win over the Nuggets raises the Hawks’ record to 8-1 this season (20-2 last season) when he logs at least four dimes. Korver needs to keep his body and the ball in motion, to keep Redick and the Clippers’ perimeter defenders guessing.
    The Hawks’ fastbreak opportunities will come not off of turnovers but from defensive rebounds and catching L.A. flat-footed on quick inbounds after they score baskets. Even as trade winds begin to swirl, Atlanta has the energy and the focus advantage coming into tonight’s action, so it’s on them to find different ways of beating the Clippers to the punch (sorry).
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I Can Has Rebound?”

    Are our Atlanta Hawks playing down to the level of their opponents? Or is this simply their new level? In either case, we’ll get to see the Hawks play at a level not experienced all season tonight – Mile High, or however far up the Denver Nuggets play at the Pepsi Center (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude).
    The thin air hasn’t been kind for Our Fine Feathered Friends in the past decade or so. The last time Atlanta pulled off a W in the 303, Lorenzen Wright, Tyronn Lue, and Shelden Williams were all starters. Back in December 2006, Salim Stoudemire dropped 21 off the bench to help Joe Johnson erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and barely outpoint Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony.
    Since then, no matter if it was George Karl, Brian Shaw or Melvin Hunt running the sideline, the Nuggets have always held serve at home. The Hawks’ downright laughable display in Phoenix on Saturday night produced little confidence that things will change tonight.
    Al Horford grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds (12 defensive) against the remnants of the Suns, but he and the Hawks could only sit back and watch as Tyson Chandler (27 rebounds, 13 offensive, by himself) took their lunch money and bought himself a chimichanga.
    Yes, the Hawks (26-19) were without All-Star forward Paul Millsap for personal reasons, and he’ll be back and ready to go tonight. But just because you have a missing link doesn’t mean you have to play like one. Deadspin even took time to comment on the absurd closing minutes as two teams “just kind of (running) around like a bunch of puppies in the snow.”
    The wide-open spaces around Atlanta’s hoop have to look tantalizing to Denver’s three-headed monster at center, consisting of rookie Nikola Jokic (61.4 TS%, 10th in NBA; 17 points and 3 blocks on Saturday), Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. In a pinch, Nurkic and his immediate family could back up the Broncos’ O-Line in Super Bowl 50.
    Forward Kenneth Faried (53.6 FG%, 5th in NBA; 3.7 O-Rebs per game) has a sore adductor and while it’s unlikely he’ll appear, after seeing Chandler’s exploits, he certainly will do all he can to get in this game. That’s just four of seven Nuggets (26.4 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) averaging at least one offensive board per game.
    Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (1.1 O-Rebs per game 19.3 PPG, 7.8 FT attempts per game) is known to do some slashing-and-crashing himself. The 16 freebies he earned in Saturday night’s home win (plus the game-winning fade-away with 24 seconds left, along the way to 30 points) left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson (himself a former Coloradoan) grasping for answers, if not air.
    “A guy’s shooting 16. Great player, but a guy’s shooting 16,” RJax bemoaned, while poring over Danilo’s line in the postgame boxscore. “I attack the basket more than most players in the league and I can’t get a free throw. I shot two free throws. We shot 19, he shot 16 by himself. It makes no sense.”
    It can make sense if you lack defenders capable of keeping Gallo from forays into the paint without committing cheap fouls. The Hawks have two such players in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but both will be out to make amends after their half-baked play in Phoenix.
    Sefolosha (3 steals vs. PHX) certainly can’t be blamed for Archie Goodwin’s game-winning prayer, but he’ll have to do better than the 1-for-9 FG shooting he turned in. Despite a team-high 21 points and his game-tying baskets during the Benny Hill-themed conclusion, Bazemore blew dunks, free throws, and chunks defensively throughout much of the game. His glee over his Carolina Panthers victory last night will hopefully translate into better play at both ends today.
    Bazemore lacks the size to wrangle with Gallinari inside, so Mike Budenholzer will look to switch Millsap (4th in NBA for defensive win shares) onto him. That would grant Bazemore and Sefolosha more time to keep human energy-shot Will Barton, Gary Harris and jump-shooters Randy Foye and Mike Miller cool from long-range.
    While he’s still 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring, Barton has cooled off significantly (34.4 FG%, 29.5 3FG%, 11.5 PPG in January) after a torrid December run (20.8 PPG) had him in the hunt for Sixth Man of the Year. The defense-oriented Harris (career-high 5 steals vs. DET) is improving across-the-board on the offensive end, but will be tasked tonight with chasing Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. PHX) off the three-point line.
    The heady play directed by Nuggets coach Mike Malone has translated into some surprising wins and many more competitive outcomes. It’s been nearly a month since Denver (17-27) last dropped a contest by double digits. They’re hoping to make this eight-game homestand that concludes tonight a winning one. During this stretch, the Nuggets posted wins over a sleepy Golden State and Indiana, plus close-shave losses to Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis.
    Malone will rely on more interior offensive play to wear down Horford and Millsap, knowing the duo is getting little help so long as Tiago Splitter continues to look like an accidental tourist on the floor. If Faried remains out, Denver will need big minutes from forward Darrell Arthur (18-and-11 vs. GSW; career-best 41.5 3FG%) to spread Atlanta’s defense thin. They’ll also need someone capable of feeding the big men the ball.
    That’s where Emmanuel Mudiay (18 points, 4 assists and 4 TOs vs. DET on Saturday) comes in. The rookie returned for the Nuggets’ homestand after missing a month due to injury, and he continues to find his footing as a shooter (last 8 games: 37.6 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 55.2 FT%) and a passer (5.6 APG, 3.1 TOs per game). But as ballhandlers go, Mudiay (16.0 TO%, highest among starting NBA point guards) is about the only option Malone has available. Jameer Nelson can only coach from the sideline as he heals an injured wrist. That the next leading player in assists per-36 is Mike Miller tells you about all you need to know.
    Jeff Teague (10.5 PPG, 37.3 2FG%, 19.6 TO% this month) picked a fine time to let slip The World’s Worst Secret, after his Hawks fell flat once again on the road. “I’m dealing with an ankle injury,” he advised to a pestering C-Viv at the AJC. “That’s okay, I’ll be back,” which are soothing words to hear, if you happen to be rooting for The Terminator.
    This was a stretch of games for Atlanta where it would have been in the team’s best interest to rest that ankle, let lead conditioning guy Keke Lyles do some of his magic off-line, and allow Dennis Schröder (19 points, team-high 5 assists off bench vs. PHX; 36.2 Assist%, 9th in NBA) and Shelvin Mack to fully cut their teeth.
    If he (and Coach Bud) insists on him starting, he might as well make himself useful. Other high-turnover opponents (Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams) have come out smelling like roses in recent games against Atlanta, and point guard-by-default Goodwin (24 points, 8-for-9 FTs) looked like Steve Francis with drives to the hoop on Saturday.
    If Teague (4-for-13 FGs, 3 assists, 5 TOs vs. a shell of a team in PHX) can neither get the separation he needs to zip past subpar opposing guards and finish plays inside, nor stay in front of cat-quick guards like Mudiay, then he needs to be in Budenholzer’s “player development” purgatory until he demonstrates that he can, once again, do these things.
    Teague contributed 3 or more steals in 21 games last season, but just four times in 42 appearances this season and in none of his last 11 games. While there’s much attention laid on his shots around the rim (career-low 49.2 FG% on lay-ups), the once-patented floater is just about gone from his arsenal as well (career-low 30.2 FG% between 3-10 feet from rim).
    If the starting point guard struggles to produce points, and struggles to guard, there’s simply no point in starting. Even as Millsap’s return to the lineup will boost the scoring, hustle, and rebounding, the Hawks’ success tonight will be sustained for as long as their lead guards can reliably carry them.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “My! Three Suns!”

    Get Off My Well-Manicured Lawn! As tonight’s battle looms between the Atlanta Hawks and whatever passes as the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona) these days, the building frustration over the flameout of the Suns (13-31) has owner Robert Sarver ornery, about… you guessed it… millennials. Kids these days.
    “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks,” Sarver railed recently, “and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it. I'm not sure if it's the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I'm not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it's like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations.” This confirms that one of the Suns’ towel boys also runs their Twitter page.
    Sarver may be having a tough time dealing with one of the elder millennials, in particular, on his executive team. GM Ryan McDonough may have waited too long to deal Keef after that “setback with his brother” (the more recent setback, anyway), and now has a caustic mess on his hands. The Suns swung for the fences this summer by signing 35-year-old Tyson Chandler to $13 million this year, plus $39 million more for the next three seasons. They wound up with a bloop single, when the move to acquire Chandler was insufficient to pry LaMarcus Aldridge from San Antonio’s grasp.
    After getting shaded by Goran Dragic last season, McDonough rewarded Brandon Knight for his half-season of loyalty with a 5-year, $70 million extension this summer. Struggling to keep Phoenix afloat on most nights without Eric Bledsoe (out for season after knee surgery) sharing the backcourt, Knight went to L.A. yesterday to check out an aggravated abductor strain, and is questionable to play tonight after missing Thursday’s blowout loss to Aldridge’s Spurs.
    As Dragic, miffed about being crowded out of the backcourt by mates Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, was getting dealt last February, McDonough also helped out his old buddies (GMs: stop doing this!) by sending Thomas to the Celtics. None of Dragic, Knight, or Bledsoe will be an All-Star this season, but it turns out Thomas has a very good shot. The Suns will get the Cavs’ first-rounder this summer for their trouble, but there’s reason to believe neither of McDonough or head coach Jeff Hornacek will be around town to find out what happens with it.
    Horny’s been dead-coach-walking for some time now, but he can at least point to the rash of injuries the Suns have been dealing with, plus the Mole-keiff Morris situation, as reasons for the disappointments this season. He could blame his boss directly, but that’s just something millennials would do before deleting their Instagram posts. Anyway, as of the moment, he’s still there.
    Two of Hornacek’s top assistants weren’t so lucky. Sarver canned Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting after falling at home to the Suxers, just ahead of a game versus Cleveland, something David Blatt probably found to be a tad rash at the time. With the continued lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive end, Phoenix’s slide has continued (one win in its last 16 games), and now the injuries have reached the point where Hornacek might have to sign a 10-day himself.
    Blaming tired legs for Shaqting-a-Fool on a dunk try versus the Pacers on Tuesday, Morris strained his shoulder in the process. Knight and Jon Leuer (back spasms) are officially out tonight, while Morris, Mirza Teletovic (ankle), and P.J. Tucker (bruised chest), are all wild cards to suit up in orange-and-purple against Atlanta tonight. Ronnie Price (toe) recently joined Bledsoe among the guards that were shelved post-surgery.
    Hornacek was left with just nine players (two of them 10-day contracts, forward Cory Jefferson and guard Lorenzo Brown) at his disposal on Thursday against the Spurs. In turn, San Antonio disposed of Phoenix in the fourth quarter despite some spirited play from guys like center Alex Len. Chandler (5.4 PPG, 20 blocks in 35 games) has been not much more than a well-paid nanny for Len to this point, but did give Phoenix its money’s worth with 20 rebounds against the Spurs, while Len surprised with a couple monster yams on Spurs monster-rookie Boban Marjanovic.
    If there’s one millennial Sarver won’t shake his fist at, it’s the youngest player in the league. Against Indiana, Devin Booker (17.7 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 34.9 3FG% this month) became the third-youngest NBA player to drop 30 or more points in a game, bested only by Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He followed that up by pouring in 24 points and five assists against a tough Spurs defense. This wasn’t supposed to be Devin Booker’s Team already, but the Suns have been left with little choice.
    Without Knight, the Suns will again be limited at point guard, leaving Hornacek to turn to Dennis Schröder’s troll-victim Archie Goodwin. There is no reason for Jeff Teague and Schröder to struggle on either end against Goodwin, Sonny Weems or whomever the Suns throw out there to handle the rock.
    Even Knight (3.5 TOs/game, 7th in NBA), often guilty of doing way too much in crunch time, would have created lots of points-off-turnovers for the Hawks. Despite having two top-ten TO-committers on the floor together in Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, it was Atlanta who coughed up the ball six times in the final quarter on Thursday, as they failed to mount a comeback against a similarly-fatigued Sacramento team.
    Phoenix will try to use Mirza (42.5 3FG%, 12th in NBA), their healthiest leading scorer in T.J. Warren (11.1 PPG, 41.5 3FG%), and/or Booker to spread out Atlanta’s defense and then use Len and Chandler to crash the boards for putbacks and extra-chance points. But the Hawks (26-18) have the health, depth, and energy to outpace the Suns and use defensive pressure to keep plenty of Suns shots from getting up in the air in the first place.
    The Hawks have no excuse for finishing their evening below 110 points, especially coming off the paltry offensive display in Sactown two nights ago. Phoenix started the much giving up 142 points to the Kings and has allowed a league-high 112.0 PPG (40.1 opponent 3FG%, NBA-highs of 48.8 opponent FG% and 29.4 opponent FT attempts) in January. Atlanta is 21-2 when scoring in triple digits in regulation, including 11-0 when exceeding 110 points, 16-1 when surpassing 105.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “((COUGH)) Sorry! Just wolfed down too much Hot Chicken!”

    You’ll forgive the dinnertime product placement but, until very recently, you ever heard of Nashville Hot Chicken? Certainly, not this new-wave carpetbagger.  Yours truly had achieved a fairly comfy existence for a decade or four, including a trip or two to honky-tonk tourist-trap Lower Broad, without ever hearing of this culinary contraption. Suddenly, Fast Food, Inc. is foisting this entrée onto consumers at every commercial-break opportunity. It’s a wonder that Dirty Grandpa isn’t gnawing on some NHC. But, is it real? Is it finger lickin’ good? And will it last long enough for me to care?
    One other smoky-hot thing you may not have been introduced to heretofore? The Sacramento (Hot) Kings, coming off a Staples Sweep of the Clippers and Lakers. The Kings are poised to win on back-to-back nights for the first time since this season, if they can defeat the Atlanta Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), who just outlasted Portland last night.
    In so doing, Sacramento (18-25) will have won four in a row for the first time all season and, more significantly, would gain a foothold on the eighth-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. But are these Hot Kings real? Are they genuinely good now? Will the good vibes last long enough for anyone outside of Sactown to care?
    East Point’s Finest, former Olympian and Hawk All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s decent but brief NBA career was winding down when he finally got to taste the playoffs in 2006 (ending an NBA record drought) with Rick Adelman’s Kings. Led on the floor by Mike Bibby and an exiled Ron Artest, the Kings fell in the opening round to Nazr Mohammed’s and Mike Budenholzer’s San Antonio Spurs in six games.
    The Kings enjoyed brief stays in the postseason just twice in their first 13 seasons in the California capital, before Adelman’s arrival. But by 2006, an eighth-straight playoff appearance was ho-hum, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. In came former Lon Kruger and Mike Fratello assistant Eric Musselman, who could tell Coach Bud a thing or two about starting one’s head coaching career off on the wrong pedal foot. Out went Adelman, and with him went the last vestige of Sacramento’s playoff history. At least Reef hung around town for a little while longer.
    In the decade since, Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, and Ty Corbin have all been run through Sactown’s coaching grist mill. The franchise itself was oh-so-close to getting snatched out of town until two madmen (Mayor Kevin Johnson and team purchaser Vivek Ranadivé) collaborated to save the franchise from the clutches of the Pacific Northwest and also build a new palace that the team moves into next season. How nice would it be, though, to exit the dusty Sleep Train Arena with a couple playoff games?
    Don’t worry if you’re thinking that heads are getting too big here. Similar to the Pelicans of yesteryear, dreams of future championship contention can wait. Ranadivé has his fingers and toes crossed that by the time tax day comes around, his meddling maneuvers (including the reintroduction of George Karl to the sideline) and his team’s undying faith in the surly set of point guard Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, will bear fruit in the form of a first-round playoff series. And not just any series, mind you: one that brings Norcal’s spiciest hoop star, Steph Curry, and his Golden State Warriors back into town.
    By design, Sacramento’s offense has been Nashville hot (100+ points in 10 of their last 11 games) and the defense, like the aforementioned chicken, seems deeply coated in lard (100+ opponent points in 10 of their last 11 games). The one exception among the Kings’ opponents occurred last night, as Sacramento “held” the Lakers to 97 points. Coach Karl’s high-paced squad will graciously give up three-point shots (NBA-high 29.2 opponent 3FGAs per game). But if you’re hopelessly incapable of making them (LAL 4-for-25 3FGs yesterday), that’s not their fault.
    Despite having the touted “best big man in the game” in Cousins (4th in NBA in scoring and RPG, 1st in Usage%, 36-and-16 last night at Staples), the Kings are still spread a bit thin upfront. Lotto rookie Cousins’ and Rondo’s Wildcat cousin Willie Cauley-Stein starts by default, since he can dunk and swipe at everything resembling a basketball. Meanwhile, it might take a week before anyone realizes Kosta Koufos (10th in NBA in O-Reb%) swapped unis with Tiago Splitter. Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay have timeshared at the starting 4-spot (shifting Cousins back to center) and, well, just no.
    Karl, Vivek and the Kings’ competitive philosophy seems to be, “Hurry Up and Shoot, So We Can Hurry Up and Score.” A league-high 16.3% of Kings buckets (incl. 11.8% of their 2FGs) come with 18-22 seconds still left on the shot clock. It’s Reno Bighorns Basketball, writ large. Unfortunately for the Kings, the “Shoot” and “Score” roles get interchanged on many nights. Even yesterday, the Kings could not muster more than 6-for-20 from outside, even as guys like Kobe and Lou Williams presented as little resistance as possible.
    Defensively, the bigs will cluster around the paint, working like a co-op, striving to keep lanes clogged for 2.9 seconds at a time, and leaving it to Rondo (1.8 SPG) to provide a modicum of pressure to the opposing ball handler. While opponents are encouraged to swing the ball around and snipe away from the perimeter, Sacramento is susceptible to waving the white flag when said ball handler (0.86 opponent points per possession, just below Brooklyn and Portland; 48.0 eFG%, 3rd-highest in NBA) gets past Rondo (or Darren Collison) off a pick.
    The frenetic but limited frontcourt situation results in Sacramento allowing the fewest shots around the rim (34.5 opponent restricted-area FGAs) but a league-high 63.7% of those shots going in. Cousins (1.3 SPG, 2nd among NBA centers; 1.3 BPG) plugs just enough leaks to keep the Kings from giving up more than their league-high 107.9 opponent PPG. Perhaps, in a season like this, that’s all they’ll need.
    With last night’s win over the “Lackers,” DMC is back above-.500 (17-16) with the Kings in games played on the season. DMC was 9-6 last season, too, before he got injured at Vivek got crazy with Malone, but that’s neither nor there at this point.
    To stay winning, of course, Cousins has to maintain his on-court composure, such that it is, and not cost his team and himself by throwing ‘bows at sleeping almost-giants like Al Horford. Doing that back on November 18 marred his own 24-point (13 in the 1st quarter), 12-rebound performance at Philips Arena, and enlivened both Horford (mostly in the first half) and Paul Millsap (23 points, 16 boards) enough to halt, similar to tonight, the Kings’ incoming 3-game winning streak.
    The wet-nap that Dennis Schröder’s play reliably brought to clean up Atlanta’s messy starts lately finally dried up in Portland last night. His defense on Blazer guards was superior to Jeff Teague’s in the first half, but by the second half he proved a menace merely to courtside photographers, as he struggled to find the cup (3-for-13 FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs).
    Teague Time (6 second-half dimes) arrived just in time to help Atlanta pull away, but Schröder’s limited floor time (under 20 minutes in the past four games) will be useful on the second night of a back-to-back against Rondo (11 points, 17 assists @ LAL yesterday; 12 points, 12 boards, 10 assists, 7 TOs @ ATL on Nov. 18) and Collison.
    In place of an injured Teague, Schröder contributed 22 points and 6 assists (1 TO) in Atlanta’s 103-97 win back in November. Millsap referred to his team’s reserves (9-for-26 FGs, incl. Schröder; 1-for-7 3FGs) as “elite” in the postgame commentary, and we’ll need to see more production from them tonight to know Sap wasn’t merely speaking with tongue-in-cheek. The defensive rebounding (14.3 bench D-Rebs per game, 5th in NBA) and steals (NBA-high 4.3 bench SPG) this month suggest notions of the reserves’ potential impact is more than a non-starter.
    The Hawks prevailed in that November meeting without not only Teague, but Kent Bazemore (3-for-6 3FGs @ POR, matching Millsap’s 23 points), as both starters rested ankle sprains. Baze and Thabo Sefolosha will be instrumental in thwarting the Kings’ fast breaks, disrupting outlet passes from Cousins and the guards to finishers like Gay and Ben McLemore, and to sharpshooters like Omri Casspi (7th in NBA for 2FG%, 4th for 3FG%) and Marco Belinelli. Forcing Sacramento to resort to Plans B and C later in the shot clock will slow the tempo and work to Atlanta’s advantage.
    The Kings need to take better advantage of opponents boarding the Sleep Train on the back end of back-to-backs. They’re 1-5 in those scenarios thus far, including losses to their last two opponents (New Orleans and Golden State) before embarking on their successful three-game road trip.
    Meanwhile, the Hawks (26-17) have won here in their last seven trips going back to 2009, have won 15 straight in this head-to-head series, and are 7-3 (incl. their last 3 tries) on the back half of back-to-back sets this season. Extend those streaks with sound play at both ends tonight, inch a little further up in the East standings, and who knows? Maybe we even can market the thing. “Atlanta Hot Wings”… sounds tasty to me!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Miss Me Yet? Yes? No? Maybe So?”

    Welcome to Snub City! The Atlanta Hawks have headed West, and are out to get back above-.500 on the road. Unfortunately, as was the case last season, they could not have possibly picked a worse time to run into Damian Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, ESPN, KGW-TV in PDX).
    Around this time last January, Baby Hooper showed off his Bitter Beer Face to the world when he was unable, at the time, to grab a spot on the Western Conference All-Star roster. Coincidentally, Lillard was in the ATL, planning to make an example out of a high-flying Hawks squad, thereby showing the NBA voters, the coaches “who feel I wasn’t good enough,” just what they’d be missing in mid-February.
    “A wise man once told me,” D-Lill mused on Instagram, “it ain’t always gone be peaches and cream but somebody has to pay for the reason it’s not.” Confucius, no doubt! Well, forty minutes of 6-for-20 shooting and six turnovers later, Atlanta had their 18th-consecutive victory under their belts, and even those voters in Lillard’s camp were having second thoughts.
    Now, it’s time to cue the synthesized violins once again. Lillard was perhaps the most notable snub as USA Basketball announced, on Monday, the 30 finalists for the U.S. National Men’s Basketball Team that will be going for the literal gold this summer.
    Dame was previously one of the final cuts for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup team in 2014 (his current teammate, starting center Mason Plumlee, made the cut, and returned for a 2015 mini-camp, but didn’t even get a call for 2016). Lillard’s embitterment toward the 2014 experience probably didn’t help his cause. “If I’m going to invest myself in something, I want to have a real opportunity in that,” Lillard told the Oregonian. “I felt the decision was already made before the decision was made. Whether I played good or bad, it didn’t matter.”
    As it stands, Lillard (24.4 PPG) is the highest-scoring NBA player, and second-best assist-maker among active Americans (behind tomorrow night’s opponent, Rajon Rondo), that will have to buy a ticket if he wants a shot at a trip to Brazil. Any designs on the part-time rhyme-spitter cutting videos with Snoop Dogg in Escadaria Selarón may have to get scrapped.
    Well, guess who trips into Rip City just as this news drops? Lillard is quite certain to play Blame it On Atlanta, now that he’s certainly not headed to Rio. “Ignore the dream killers and doubters,” he tweeted yesterday, “or just use them to fuel your [emojis of fire, or something]” (Mike Scott can probably translate for me). Tack on the likelihood that he’ll again be on the outside looking in when the All-Star votes roll in, and you can bet he’s already hit the studio to drop some bars on all this for his next mixtape. Help a brutha out: you got anything that rhymes with Colangelo?
    While Lillard goes for 50 (shots, if not points) tonight, it will be up to Jeff Teague to keep him in check, while ensuring the Hawks remain balanced offensively and control the pace of the game. Lillard generally stays out of the corners, and if a shot above-the break (7.6 FGAs per game, 2nd in NBA) isn’t available, he’ll tend to take a step or two inside for a mid-range J off a screen. Or he’ll try to slip past defenders on isolation drives to the hoop (6.1 restricted-area FGAs, 3rd among NBA guards).
    The good news is that Lillard shoots blanks going for points at point-blank (47.3 restricted-area FG%, lowest among NBA guards with 4+ shots per game) even more than Teague (49.5 restricted-area FG%, 6th-lowest) or Schröder (49.1 FG%, 5th-lowest). But it’s incumbent on the Hawks guards to avoid bailing Lillard out with fouls and limiting kickouts to McCollum (the Most Improved Player award candidate who, like Lillard, isn’t exactly shy around a microphone) and Crabbe (46.9 January 3FG%). It’s also on the Hawks’ frontcourt mates to box out for what should be a plethora of defensive rebounding chances.
    Here’s my crack at deciphering the nuanced offense of the Portland Trail Blazers (19-25), which I’ll call Stotts’ Steps:
    1) Do you have the ball? If Yes, Go to Step 2. If No, Get Ready for That Rebound!
    2) Are you Damian Lillard? If Yes, Go to Step 3. If No, Jump to Step 5.
    3) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Dribble Around a Screen or something, and Go to Step 4.
    4) Now do you see a shot you like? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to C.J. McCollum.
    5) Are you C.J. McCollum? If Yes, Go to Step 6. If No, Jump to Step 7.
    6) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to Allen Crabbe.
    7) Are you Allen Crabbe?  If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Go to Step 8.
    8) Are you Al-Farouq Aminu? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Stop Wasting Time Reading This, Pass the Ball, then Go Back to Step 1!
    Stotts’ Go-Back-to-Step 1 Guys include Ed Davis (2.9 O-Rebs per game) and Plumlee (2.7 O-Rebs per game), and Harkless (collects a team-high 47.9% of O-Reb his chances). Thanks to this cleanup crew, the Blazers produce 15.0 second-chance PPG (2nd in NBA). Neither of Davis, Harkless or even Leonard are starters, however. The Noah Vonleh Experiment continues in earnest, and while it hasn’t reaped dividends yet (3.3 PPG, 3rd-lowest among NBA starters; 39.5 FG%, same scoring and shot percentage as last season in Charlotte’s doghouse), the second-year starting power forward did follow Stotts’ Step 1, and nabbed nine boards in just 17 minutes in D.C. on Monday.
    Terry Stotts’ elaborate gameplan took a hit when both Lillard (plantar fasciitis) and McCollum (sprained ankles, 20.5 PPG) were unable to participate in Atlanta back on December 21. In their place, second-year guard Tim Frazier gave it his all for 47 minutes, after totaling 48 minutes in the prior 28 games. He and the balance of Blazers kept Jeff Teague cool, but had no answer for Dennis Schröder, whose performance off the bench (18 points in 17 minutes, 3-for-4 3FGs) could hardly be defined as toothless.
    Portland’s whole team (including sporadically-used center Chris Kaman) is healthy now, allowing Stotts’ Steps to go into full execution. Key to the flow chart working is that at least one of Lillard (14th in FG made; 5th in FG missed) or McCollum (5th in FG made; 4th in FG missed) must get hot for the Blazers to have half a chance. When that fails, you get duds like Saturday (Lillard and McCollum 10-for-36 FGs) when Portland got blown out, 114-89, by the Suxers in Philly.
    When both members of the Blazers’ Dynamic Duo are on, like on Monday (16-for-32 FGs, McCollum 6-for-10 3FGs), all Portland needs is a little extra push (Plumlee a double-double plus 7 assists; Meyers Leonard 4-for-7 3FGs) to run teams like the Wizards off the floor. The Blazers are 17-6 when shooting an eFG% above 50.0%, 2-19 otherwise.
    Despite the momentary loss of McCollum and Lillard, Portland sat right that 50.0% Mendoza line in Atlanta last month, and only lost by a single-digit deficit, 106-97, after scrambling from behind with a full-bore 39-29 fourth quarter. The Hawks’ commitment to Budball (2 O-Rebs) allowed Portland to reach a season-high 94.7 D-Reb%. But Portland’s weakened depth allowed Mike Budenholzer to limit floortime for Paul Millsap and Al Horford (24.5 minutes apiece, Sap’s lowest of the season) and exploit the reserve quartet of Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Scott, and Tiago Splitter (20-for-29 FGs).
    While this particular road trip has some cushy opponents on the schedule, the Hawks have already proven (in Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New York, Minnesota) they can play down to their competition as well as anyone else, especially away from the nest.  Atlanta has dropped 10 of its last 16 away games after winning its first four on the road this season.
    All four of the upcoming opponents are among the ten least-efficient defenses, and are among the least successful in forcing misses on threes above-the-break. Yet this stretch over the next six days will be a great opportunity for the Hawks to whet their defensive chops, taking on many individuals who believe their best defense comes by way of a smoking-hot offense.
    Among the next four opponents, Portland is ninth in scoring efficiency, two teams (Sacramento and Denver) are top-ten in the percentage of field goals assisted, two teams (Denver and Portland) are in the top-ten for O-Reb%, two teams (Sacramento and Portland) are top-ten for eFG%, and the Kings and Suns, bless their hearts, push the pace about as much as Golden State, with varying results.
    This trip poses a fine challenge for Atlanta (25-17) to drag their opponents’ scoring average on the season (100.1 PPG) back below triple digits. Only Atlanta (100.6 D-Rating, 10th in NBA but 7th in East) and the Chicago Hoibergs (100.7 opponent PPG) are ceding a per-game average of 100 or more among the East’s current Top 7 teams. The Blazers, like Phoenix and Sacramento, are among the ten most frequent turnover-per-possession committers. Atlanta will get a bigger leg up than they did at home against Brooklyn and Orlando if they convert consistently off turnovers from the outset.
    Might we have a new Threezus on our hands? Hitting 55.5% of his threes this month (5th in NBA, min. 2 attempts per game) has Teague over the 40-percent threshold, which would blow away last year’s season-finish of 34.3 3FG% and his small-sample second-season career-high of 37.5%. Defense, passing, and finishing in the paint (career-low 42.3 2FG%) haven’t been up to snuff for Agent Zero, but it’s hard to quibble with the noticeable improvement in his perimeter shooting.
    As of now, there are nine NBA players in the 40/40/80 club (min. 2 3FG attempts per game) averaging at least 10 PPG (Steph, KD, Klay, Kawhi, Khris, Redick, Neal), and two rock the Torch Red: Teague (41.9 FG%/40.7 3FG%/84.5 FT%) and Kent Bazemore (46.5 FG%/41.9 3FG%/85.7 FT%). Coincidentally, over in the 50/40/80 club, regardless of scoring (min. 2 3FG attempts per game), there are just four guys presently on that Mount Rushmore: Steph, KD, Kawhi… and oh, hello there, Mike Scott (50.5 FG%/40.5 3FG%/80.0 FT%). We see you, Ben Sullivan!
    Portland’s foes shoot a league-high 43.8 FG% on in-the-paint shots outside the restricted area, but their 39.9 PPG is the league’s third-lowest. The ability for Millsap (9 first-quarter points vs. ORL on Monday) to draw defensive help for Vonleh should open up decent options all over the floor. Properly reading the Blazer defense should create plenty of hockey assists for the Hawks.
    But the key will be on defense, where Atlanta’s guards and wings must deny penetration and easy passing lanes for Lillard and McCollum, while the bigs must seal off the paint and minimize extra chances for the Blazers. Getting this road trip off on the good foot entails thwarting Portland at every Stotts’ Step along the way.
    Let’s Go Hawks!