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    Hawks at Suns

    By lethalweapon3, in Game Previews,


    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!


    “How Ya Like Me Now?”

    Gird your loins! One night after getting molly-whopped by a random NBA foe for the third time in the past four games, the Atlanta Hawks pick their beaks up off the floor to find the Golden State Warriors (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Bay Area in SFO) awaiting their arrival. Tonight, Atlanta is confronting the most talented, most exciting, most formidable basketball player known to mankind.

    We’re talking, of course, about Zaza Pachulia.

    Sure, we could spend time waxing poetic about the possibility that Draymond Green (team-highs of 9.0 RPG, 6.9 APG, 2.2 SPG, 1.6 BPG) may not be available to play, having twisted the ankle on his non-kicking leg while trying to avoid teammate Ian Clark’s Adam’s apple under the rim last Friday night at the Staples Center.

    After all, but for Green’s late-game heroics, the Hawks might have pulled off an upset over the Curry-less Warriors last season at Oracle Arena. Both Clark and Green sat out on Saturday, but the Dubs still held Minnesota at bay, 115-102, for their 11th straight victory. The only L in their past 15 games came against the same foes that vanquished Atlanta last night -- the Lakers, back on November 4 -- and they’ve beaten L.A. twice since.

    Green feels “pretty confident” he’ll suit up and play today. But there is no need to dwell on who is suiting up at forward for the Hawks’ opponent-du-jour, especially given the past two games have seen Atlanta (10-7) fall flat against a Utah team that was missing Derrick Favors, and a Lakers team that was absent Julius Randle.

    All-Star and leading scorer Paul Millsap’s inability to exploit mismatches versus inferior competition, whether by his own lethargic shortcomings (4-for-11 FGs and 5 rebounds in each of his past two games) or his teammates’ inability to keep the ball moving in his direction, has fueled the Hawks’ offensive swoon.

    You can toss in the early departure of Anthony Davis in last week’s flop versus the Pelicans for good measure, Millsap just 4-for-9 on field goals in 23 ineffective and short-leashed minutes. Atlanta is 9-0 when Paul posts a positive plus-minus. You can either feed the Anchorman, and reap the benefits of his production early and often, or just sit back and accept that the Hawks’ ship be sinking.

    We could focus on the Warriors’ impressive on-court efficiencies, ranked 1st in the NBA for offensive rating, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, assist/turnover ratio, and assist percentage (franchise-record streak of 30+ assists ended vs. MIN on Saturday; franchise-record 47 assists vs. LAL last Wednesday), plus 2nd over the past week in defensive rating after experiencing some struggles out of the gate.

    A low-cost free agent acquisition, Pachulia swapping starting lineups with Andrew Bogut has contributed to Golden State ranking near the league’s basement (tied-27th) in D-Reb%, a factor the increasingly trolled Dwight Howard could use to his advantage if he’s got the energy to run the full floor.

    Alas, after making the Lakers (28th in D-Rating) look like defensive juggernauts in both the second and fourth quarters of play yesterday, and after allowing the low-scoring Jazz to look like the ’82 Nuggets in those same quarters, any further detail would be a waste of time.

    Over-reliant on Howard’s ability to protect the rim, the Hawks have relaxed on opposing ball handlers. Atlanta collected at least ten steals in each of their first six games, and in eight of their first ten contests. They’ve had just one double-digit tally in the last seven games, the exception being 11 steals in the win at Indiana. After failing to force double-digit turnovers in just six games in 2015-16, this season’s Hawks are already halfway there before the close of November, this following blowout losses to New Orleans and the Lakers (9 opposing-player TOs apiece).

    Worries about Stephen Curry swishing highlight-reel jumpers from Sausalito are pointless if Atlanta remains passive, failing to contest shots, drives, catches and passes from the perimeter. Kyle Korver looks like he could use a road map once he’s screened out of an opponent’s offensive play, while Kent Bazemore finds himself getting mouse-in-the-housed too often in isolation.

    That spells trouble when the Warriors space the floor out for Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, the latter the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week. The lack of quarterbacking from Dwight Howard and Dennis Schröder must be rectified for the Hawks’ starting unit to fix their defensive flaws.

    The Warriors (15-2) already look like the world-beaters they were designed to be. But Atlanta’s greatest challenge on the floor won’t be named Steph, or Kevin, or Kevon (Looney) or Klay, or Zaza. As of this moment, the Hawks’ greatest impediments to success are in their own heads.

    Some trepidation in the face of adversity can be expected from a roster with under-experienced components playing key roles, as is the case for Atlanta at the point. But it’s unacceptable as a lasting hallmark for an NBA team featuring three over-30 starters with significant playoff experience, under the direction of a lauded coach that should know by now how to make adjustments that stop opponent runs and keep games under control. Beating the Warriors tonight is secondary to a larger objective: the Hawks have to quit beating themselves.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “Just Keep Truckin’ On!”

    Coach Mike Budenholzer found himself thoroughly outcoached on Friday night, at the hands of his former lead assistant. Quin Snyder’s visiting opponents played right into the strengths of his Utah Jazz team along the way to a 95-68 rout, an Atlanta output that was offensive in only one sense of the word.

    Coach Bud and his Atlanta Hawks will seek to bounce back today, but they’ll have to do it against the reigning Coach of the Year’s former lead assistant: Luke Walton, formerly of Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, now head honcho for the Los Angeles Lakers (9:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), who already has one W against Atlanta under his belt. Oh, and Kerr’s Warriors await these Hawks for a game tomorrow night as well. Keep those replacement whiteboards handy!

    Both teams come in having dropped four of their last five, but the circumstances are a bit different in the case of Los Angeles (8-9). This remains a season of nurture for Walton’s Lakers, whose sole victory in the past week was a two-point win at Staples Center versus OKC. They embark on another high-mileage four-game road trip after tonight’s game.

    “I want the basketball to be fun for our players and for our fans, something that’s fun and exciting to watch,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told USA Today recently. “And I want the team to get better as the year progresses. I don’t know what that means in terms of wins and losses, but if we’re a better team a month from now, or three months from now, or five months from now, than we are today, and we’re fun to watch, I think our fans, our partners, will be on board, and I think we’d have something to build on.”

    L.A.’s recent losses were at home to the Spurs and Bulls, then during a home-and-home series against the Warriors, the Western Conference champs winning games by margins of 149-106 and 109-85. Amid that 5-game stretch, D’Angelo Russell (team-high 4.8 APG) was shelved for a few weeks, having received a PRP injection for his sore left knee. Julius Randle (team-high 8.1 RPG; 3.9 APG, second on team) missed the series with the Dubs due to a hip pointer. Larry Nance, Jr. remains questionable after spraining a thumb against Golden State.

    This season remains about bringing along these younger Lakers (including rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac, the latter on D-League assignment, plus guard Jordan Clarkson), allowing them to cut their teeth and build up their confidence while slowly mastering Walton’s gameplans.

    With the injuries piling up, plus Nick Young (sprained toe, returning tonight) sitting out the last game, Walton has turned to Jose Calderon to man the point, and shifted Luol Deng to power forward while granting Ingram the first starts of his career against Golden State. Ingram scored 16 points in Oakland during the bigger blowout loss, and was harassed into 3-for-18 shooting but contributed 9 rebounds in the rematch at Staples.

    Another schedule inversion is in the works for the Hawks, shifting from a plodding Utah team (last in pace) that prides itself on defense (second to Atlanta in D-Rating) to a high-tempo Laker team (4th in pace) that isn’t totally sure how that defensive side of the floor works (next-to-last in D-Rating).

    Since scratching out an impressive 6-4 start to the year, the Lakers have allowed at least 109 points in each of the past seven games (2-5). They’ve needed to score at least that many points in all but one of their eight victories, including the 123-116 win at Philips Arena on November 2, when they outscored the Hawks 72-56 in the second half to overtake the lead. It’s been tougher to keep up the pace (and get stops) with Russell on the mend and Calderon (six assists in each game vs. GSW) pushing the ball.

    While player development remains the theme, at the ends of games Walton will incorporate his veterans to help the Lakers close out close contests. Their leading scorer is sixth-man extraordinaire Lou Williams (16.4 PPG, 41.0 3FG%, team-high 4.2 FTAs per game), who made himself right at home by spraying the Hawks with 16 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter of L.A.’s win at the Highlight Factory.

    Much like the Lakers with Russell, Atlanta’s coaching staff and veteran teammates are responsible for ensuring their young starting point guard doesn’t suffer from a crisis of confidence. Dennis Schröder’s 43.8 2FG%, 76.5 FT%, 29.5 assist percentage, 1.1 steal percentage, and 5.9 rebound percentage are the lowest marks since his short-leashed rookie year. Dennis has led the team in assists just three times during the Hawks’ last nine games.

    His hot start versus Utah (12 first-quarter points) was not rewarded in kind by his teammates stepping up their play (31.3 team FG%, lowest since January 2013 @ CHI, third-lowest by NBA team this season), and his production wilted (6-for-19 FGs, two assists, two TOs in 29 minutes) trying in vain to carry the team.

    Unlike past seasons with Al Horford (16.7 assists percentage last season, highest among non-point guard Hawks) at center, Schröder’s passes into Dwight Howard (6.3 assist percentage, lowest since 2007-08) are usually one-way propositions. Howard registered zero assists against the Lakers in Atlanta, the loss spoiling his 31-point, 11-rebound effort versus his old club. The Hawks (10-6) are 1-4 when Howard comes away with no assists, a record inclusive of each of the Hawks’ last three defeats.

    Do-it-all Paul Millsap (career-best 18.2 assist%) and fellow starters Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore have elevated their assist rates from last season to help out. But Atlanta’s slip-sliding offense (21st in O-Rating) will get a boost if Howard and Schröder go beyond mere lob-hunting to improve their 2-man game. Allowing league-highs of 26.1 assists per game and 50.0 paint PPG, the Lakers serve as an ideal palate for Atlanta’s starting center and point guard to hone their mutual skillsets.

    Howard can “assist” by doing more than just passing the ball out of the post when the double-team comes. The Hawks’ 9.1 screen assists rank just 18th in the league, and their 0.84 points per possession on off-screen plays rank 26th.

    Versus Utah, Atlanta’s wing players failed to beat their assignments down the floor in transition, allowing the Jazz to set the tone with their brand of basketball. The Lakers don’t provide the same scale of effort, and it’s on the Hawks to produce on the fastbreak. This includes not only Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, and Taurean Prince, but also Kyle Korver hustling down to the corner-3 spots.

    L.A. allows 16.8 fastbreak points per game, third-most in the league. The Lakers are one of just five teams that have opponents hitting 40.0 3FG% or better from each corner; Utah is among that quintet, but Atlanta (2-for-5 corner 3s on Friday) failed to exploit that. The Hawks’ are shooting just 31.8 3FG% above-the-break (26th in NBA), so until their mechanics improve, the closer corner shots are where it’s at.

    The Hawks have the talent, experience and skills to beat the Lake Show at their own high-tempo game. The trick is doing it early and sustaining it long enough (well beyond the opening half) that the Lakers’ top stat-padders can’t impact the outcome as the contest draws to a close. Breaking the Lakers’ will with the fervor that Kris Humphries uses to break backboards would take away the bad taste of Utah and turn momentum upward as the scene quickly shifts to Oakland tomorrow night.

    Let’s Go Hawks!



    I’d imagine the Black Friday lines in Salt Lake City’s retail establishments are more cordial, serene, and sensible than any place you’d find in the ATL. After a Thanksgiving Day gathering that was probably highly sober and decaffeinated, the Atlanta Hawks won’t be leaving Utah with any crazy deals on flatscreens. But before hitting the road for Hollywood, the Hawks would like to come away with a W over Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ROOT Sports Utah in SLC) at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

    The Jazz (8-8) have had several critical players on the shelf since the start of preseason games. George Hill (20.4 PPG, 5.0 APG, 1.1 TOs per game) was looking like the star of this summer’s three-team deal between Atlanta and Indiana before spraining a thumb several weeks ago. Before returning on Wednesday to drop 22 in a solid home win over the rival Nuggets, Hill was joined by Atlanta-raised big man Derrick Favors (bruised knee) on the IR, a list which already included guard Alec Burks (ankle, knee).

    Even with wing scorer Gordon Hayward (19.7 PPG, 40.5 FG%) having returned after missing the start of the season, that’s a lot of offensive punch for a team (96.8 team PPG, 27th in NBA) often lacking in that area. 11 different Jazzmen have been featured in Snyder’s starting units this season.

    Fortunately for the Jazz, Snyder keeps a slow and steady pace (93.4 possessions per-48, lowest in NBA), allowing players on the floor to stay fresh and put the screws to opponents defensively (league-low 94.4 PPG allowed) behind center Rudy Gobert (top-ten in NBA with 10.6 RPG and 2.3 BPG) and reserve Jeff Withey. Denver could only shoot 33.3% from three-point range, 31.1% from even closer, and 58.1% on free throws on Wednesday, as the Jazz skated to a 108-83 rout at The Viv. Utah is also fortunate to have three former Hawks on the roster.

    Many Hawks, past and present, have made their poor mothers weep by announcing their next career destination. Joe Johnson has been the best of the ex-Hawks bunch currently in the Beehive State, matching Hill with 44.2% on three-pointers while continuing to exploit post-up matchups wherever they arise.

    Shelvin Mack earned his stripes with the Jazz during last season’s run that fell just short of the playoffs. While he has struggled lately (20.0 FG% last four games), he has served as a utilitarian option while Dante Exum continues to learn the ropes. Boris Diaw is being brought along slowly after missing time with a leg contusion, but is more of a veteran locker-room leader at this stage of his career. (We won’t count lightly-used guard Raul Neto, who the Hawks traded away on Draft Day in 2013).

    Such that there is one, the Jazz offensive gameplan does not include many fastbreaks (9.0 PPG per-100 possessions, 28th in NBA) or rushing to score off opponent’s turnovers (13.5 PPG per-100 possessions, 29th in NBA), the latter probably good news for Atlanta (17.4 TOs per 100 possessions, tied with Philly for most in NBA; 17 assists, 21 TOs during 96-85 win @ IND on Wednesday). Instead, Utah’s goal is to set up the halfcourt play and use continual player movement until they find the ideal mismatch.

    It could be Hayward finding avenues to the hoop off cuts, or Johnson backing down a lighter opponent, or Gobert with deep post position, or youngsters taking advantage of their relative athleticism, be it forward Trey Lyles (49 FG% last five games), Exum, or the continuously emerging third-year guard Rodney Hood (16.9 PPG, 45.1 FG%, 37.8 3FG%).

    If no advantages are discovered then, late in the shot clock, the ball works it way back to Hayward, Hood, or Hill, something Kent Bazemore (4 steals @ IND) and the Hawks will need to anticipate and disrupt. Gobert will set screens (6.1 screen assists per game, 2nd in NBA), and Diaw will dish from the paint, to allow their top scoring trio more daylight.

    The Jazz rely on ballhandlers not feeling pressured to do something outside of their comfort zones. Unlike four of Atlanta’s five starters (excepting Kyle Korver’s 1.8), just one Jazz player (Hayward, 2.3) averages two or more turnovers per game. Much like league-leading Charlotte, Utah (13.5 TOs per 100 possessions, 10th in NBA), will dare teams to play them “straight up”, entrusting their senior players to make fewer crucial mistakes in the clutch than their adversaries.

    The Hawks (10-5) will want to find opportunities to beat the Jazz down the floor in transition, and to get shots early in the clock with sound ball movement, particularly when Jazz defenders are double-teaming and failing to close out on individual shooters quickly.

    Controlling the pace from the jump will involve better planning and preparation from Dennis Schröder, swifter mechanics from Kyle Korver, and enough post touches for Dwight Howard (23 points on 10-for-12 FGs, 20 rebounds, 9 offensive @ IND) and Paul Millsap (8-for-14 2FGs, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks @ IND) to force Gobert and Withey into foul trouble. With Korver (DNP-CD @ IND) returning, Atlanta’s starters must do better than the 1-for-12 shooting display they turned in from three-point range on Wednesday.

    Atlanta’s reserves will need to box out for defensive rebounds and, keyed by Malcolm Delaney (6-for-6 FTs, 1 assist, 1 TO in 22 minutes @ IND), push the ball down court to wing scoring options like Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway and Taurean Prince (8 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes @ IND). The Hawks should avoid wasting precious seconds gathering, pump-faking, and pounding the ball through the hardwood floor – that is, if they intend to have parents with dry eyes by game’s end.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “For Thanksgiving? I’m having beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes, lamb, rams, Hawks, dogs, chicken, turkeys, rabbit – YOU NAME IT!”

    [DISCLAIMER: I’m on the road today! So I’m gonna make like my Hawks and half-*ss this one, mailing it in using the preview draft as I left it hours before last night’s tailfeather-whooping at the hands of the Pelicans. Bolded items were not verified following last night's drubbing. Feel free to correct any errors or provide updates on injury statuses. Cheers!]

    The past meets the future tonight! Dennis Schröder visits former Atlanta Hawk Jeff Teague and his hometown Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, to see which point god rules the present. Onto the tidbits!

    Trading places! While Schröder struggles with his all-around efficiency (-2.3 Box Plus/Minus, as per Basketball-Reference, 4th-lowest among regularly starting NBA PGs), Teague is doing his best to crawl out of the muck after a disappointing start out of the blocks. Jeff was passing well, but had a hard time finding the basket in his first ten games (37.1 FG%, 24.3 3FG%, 14.2 PPG, 6.4 APG). He bounced back in his next four (55.3 FG%, 46.2 3FG%, 20.5 PPG, 7.3 APG), keeping pace with the likes of Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook head-to-head as Indiana (7-8) stayed above the Eastern Conference’s playoff meniscus.
    Teague peaked with a season-high 30 points and 9 assists, plus a career-high 6 steals, as Indy outlasted the Russellaires in OKC in an overtime thriller this past Sunday. His reward? A rested Stephen Curry awaiting him back home the very next night.
    The Pacers had to go into Monday’s Warriors game without not only superstar Paul George (ankle) or backup swingman C.J. Miles (knee), but budding big man Myles Turner (15.0 PPG; NBA-best 7.0 Block%). A blowout was a foregone conclusion, and that was well before Teague’s hockey-stick leg suffered another ankle sprain midway through the third-quarter. He was benched for the rest of the contest while G-State was up by 29, but should be taped up and raring to go against his old club.
    Outside of Deutschland, nobody’s chomping at the bit to stuff All-Star ballots for Schröder in his first full season as an NBA starter. But it’s probably best to chart Dennis’ progress as a Hawk not relative to Jeff Teague 2015 (All-Star season), 2016, or 2017, but Teague 2012, Jeff’s first season as a starter following a postseason breakout in 2011.
    In the first 14 starts of that strike-shortened 2011-12 season, a 23-year-old Teague averaged 12.4 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 2.4 TOs per game, while shooting 45.1 FG%, 62.9 FT%, and 46.4 3FG% on 2.0 attempts per game. Atlanta’s record in that stretch? 10-4, including three wins in a row after losing Al Horford for the season on Indiana’s floor. While Teague 2012’s perimeter shooting would eventually fall back to Earth (34.2 3FG% in 2011-12), his season-long free throw accuracy (75.7 FT%) elevated to where Dennis is as of today.
    Today, the 23-year-old Schröder is more aggressive than Teague in driving inside, drawing more contact and foul calls (75.6 FT%) but turning over the ball far more (14.5 PPG, 5.8 APG and 3.3 TOs per game). Even with Horford out of the picture, Teague 2012 was relatively more reticent as a lead guard (career-low 19.1 usage%), deferential to not only Josh and the Johnsons (Joe and Ivan), but guys named Jerry and Jannero. Dennis’ 24.9 usage% currently leads the team, and he could certainly afford to have another ballhandler alongside him on the floor, something that Teague 2012 (Captain Kirk Hinrich) was afforded.
    Team exec Larry Bird is getting what he wanted from coach Nate McMillan, their Pacers currently ranking 10th in the league for pace (3rd in the East), their 100.6 possessions per-48 up slightly from 99 under Frank Vogel in 2015-16. Guards Monta Ellis, Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey are always around to get shots up quickly for the Pacers offense. But the wear-and-tear is already showing on the interior for Indiana.
    The Pacers’ 73.8 D-Reb% ranks close to the bottom of the league. While George goes for strips, Turner aims for help blocks, and newcomer Thaddeus Young (team-high 1.8 O-Rebs per game) chases putbacks, there are few Pacers around to snare the defensive boards. Backup bigs Al Jefferson, Lavoy Allen, and Kevin Seraphin are too slow-of-foot to fit into McMillan’s higher-tempo rotations.
    Perhaps reflective of their struggles to sustain defensive cohesion over the course of halves, Indiana’s first quarter defensive efficiency (93.5, 3rd-best in NBA) plummets to 115.6 (2nd-worst in NBA) before halftime, and their third-quarter D-Rating of 104.7 slips to 110.7 (4th-worst in NBA) during the final quarters of games. Look for D-League recall Rakeem Christmas to get more play on the Pacers’ front line tonight, particularly if Turner is a no-go.
    While they may be a bit lead-legged after last night’s game versus New Orleans, today’s contest could work in Atlanta’s favor early if Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and Mike Muscala are able to run the full court, and if Schröder can get around the injury-slowed Teague to set up the bigs for shots in and around the restricted area. Indy is the fifth consecutive opponent to face Atlanta with at least one day off (same deal for the Hawks’ next five foes), and the Pacers could sure use it. But a superior show of energy on the floor would be enough to give the Hawks a (turkey?) leg up on the opposition tonight.

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks!


    “Just stop it, Omer! Stop it! You’re making me laugh!”

    It’s Gucci Time! Cut the lights on at the Highlight Factory. The 1st Year Out Da Feds is going swimmingly well for Gucci Mane, the East Atlanta rapper providing the musical interlude as the Atlanta Hawks host the New Orleans Pelicans. (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports NOLA). Tidbits follow.

    Get Ur Weight Off, Patna! -- Winners of two straight home games, the visiting Pelicans are struggling to shed perceptions that they’re overly dependent on one tremendously good player. Losers of two straight on the road, the Hawks (9-4) are trying to shed presumptions that they’ll fold like a cheap suit once a little adversity hits during a game. For some inspiration, both teams can look to The Artist Briefly Known as Guwop, who shed a metric ton of pounds while doing time for his crime! The East Atlanta Santa is shaped more like a candy cane now and is darn-near unrecognizable, the telltale ice cream cheek tattoo notwithstanding. The ex-con committed to dumping the Lemonade (more specifically, the stuff he used to mix in it, and I don’t mean sugar) from his post-penitentiary diet.
    The League vs. Anthony Davis -- Unibrow remains more than worthy of the Spotlight, even though his nightly production often winds up getting Wasted. The reigning Western Conference Player of the Week leads the NBA in scoring (31.7 PPG) and blocks, not just the Spider-Solitaire-at-work variety (3.0 BPG), while putting up career-best averages in rebounds (11.5 RPG, 6th in NBA) and steals (1.9 SPG, 7th in NBA). His improved maneuvering is earning him better looks in the paint (55.5 FG% betw. 3-16 feet; 40.7% last season) and drawing more trips to the line (career-high 11.1 FTAs per game, 81.3 FT%). His 38-and-16 helped New Orleans fumigate the Hornets in OT on Saturday, one night after Charlotte pulled a fast one on the Hawks. After “containing” Kristaps Porzingis to a single offensive rebound on Sunday, Atlanta will try to use boxscore-filling Paul Millsap to keep Davis out of the paint, and more reliant on his long-range jumper (32.6 FG% from 16 feet out).
    I Think I Love Her -- USWNT soccer star Lauren Holiday successfully delivered a baby boy, one month before successfully removing a brain tumor. As new mothers are apt to do eventually, Lauren ordered her caretaker husband to get the heck out the house, and that’s been of great benefit to the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday has wasted little time getting acclimated off the bench, averaging 21.5 PPG and 8.0 APG in two games. His return has helped the Pelicans (4-10) double their win total while alleviating the lightly-experienced but steady third-year player Tim Frazier (7.6 APG, 2.4 TOs/game). Holiday (44.4 3FG%) and Langston Galloway (season-high 23 points, 6-for-11 3FGs vs. CHA; “Jrue is a maestro out there. He’s finding everybody,” he told Pelicans.com) are shooting perimeter shots well, allowing coach Alvin Gentry to rely less on starter E’Twuan Moore (30.8 3FG%) and rookie Buddy Hield (24.6 FG%).
    The Appeal: Germany’s Most Wanted -- Goodbye, Manhattan! Dennis Schröder should be coming into today’s action with clearer eyes and a fuller heart, after putting up a clunker (0-for-8 FGs, 3 assists, 3 TOs in 21 minutes) against the Knicks during a Sunday matinee. Backup Malcolm Delaney wasn’t any better (1-for-4 FGs, 4 assists, 4 TOs in 21 minutes), and the point guard power outage (plus a bunch of flubbed shots around the rim) contributed mightily to Atlanta’s biggest deficit in a loss this season. The Hawks are 6-0 this season when Schröder’s plus/minus is zero or higher, and they’ll need Dennis and Delaney to get back on the positive side versus Holiday and Frazier.
    6-for-17 Brick Squad -- Decent perimeter shooting helps the Hawks neatly mask their shortcomings. The team is 7-0 when shooting above 35 percent on threes, but the Views From Zone 3 are not as pretty (2-4) when Atlanta falls short of that mark. They’ve been especially “BURR!” of late, not coming close to 35 percent in their last three games (28.4 3FG%) and they barely cleared the 35% bar in Miami (35.3 3FG%) last Tuesday. To hear more “Bingo!” tonight, their teammates must get in better position for catch-and-shoot opportunities when the point guards are coming off screens and driving. Pelican opponents have hit 8.4 above-the-break 3FGAs per game, 3rd most in the league.
    Speed Bumps -- Dwight Howard will try to make amends from the jump, after granting Knicks backup center Kyle O’Quinn carte blanche (4 O-Rebs, 7 total, plus 6 points in 1st quarter) on Sunday. Howard (18-and-18 @ NYK) should have little trouble neutralizing Pelicans center Omer Asik, if he can make Asik pay for abandoning him to help Pelican defenders. Backup Alexis Ajinca is returning to action after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury, while Terrence Jones (illness) may sit this one out.
    The Return of Mr. Perfect -- Thabo Sefolosha (67.5 2FG%) is likely to return from his mild knee sprain, helping put various Pelican ballhandlers in the Trap House while replenishing the depth of what has been the league’s premier bench unit. He and Kent Bazemore should Go Head and exploit any advantages they can find against New Orleans, who have struggled mightily to find a steady contributor at small forward. Dante Cunningham supplanted free agent pickup Solomon Hill in the Pels’ starting lineup, but the Pelicans are eagerly anticipating a December return from Tyreke Evans (knee, blood clots) to fill the gap. Gone are inefficient ballers Lance Stephenson and Archie Goodwin, and incoming is swingman Anthony Brown, a former Laker rookie and the top overall pick of this year’s D-League Draft.
    Back on Road -- Gucci will be performing only at halftime, but Hawks players have no time to hang out for a postgame concert, anyway. After tonight’s game, the team immediately takes to the air to resume their road trek. Tomorrow’s pit stop in Indiana will be followed by games in Utah, Staples Center (Lakers), Oakland (Warriors), and Phoenix to round out the month. While the road trip is a bit daunting, the Hawks can’t afford to get caught tonight looking ahead. It’s best to work out the kinks and fix your flaws in November... when you don’t have Everybody Looking.
    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “Dolan’s posse on my tail, ‘cause I’m in demand!”

    It’s Breakfast at Madison Square Garden! The Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks are taking Centre Court a little early this Sunday (12:00 noon Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC). I’ve got a busy week ahead myself, so rather than a full spread, in these game threads I’ll provide some tidbits for the upcoming games, including some strawberries-and-cream for this mid-day matchup.

    What is up, schedule gods? Only two games so far this season involved the Hawks (9-3) facing an opponent coming off a back-to-back. The Hornets had two full days off before nipping Atlanta’s six-game winning streak in the bud on Friday night. Recent Hawks opponents included the Bucks (three days off), and the Rockets (two days off), and the Cavs (two days off). When Atlanta returns home, they’ll take on a Pelicans team that had two days of rest. Today, they visit a Knicks squad that has been off since Thursday, although that team has spent much of its time stewing.
    The Knicks (5-7) thought they were climbing out of an early-season rut after home wins over Dallas and Detroit this past week, but they were sent reeling once again when they were tripped up in Washington by another reeling team. Before toppling New York, the Wizards (now 3-9) had just dropped their third-straight game one night before in Philadelphia (now 3-10), where’s it’s not always sunny.
    “On the road you should be 10 times [as focused], it should be 10 times more important to go in somebody’s house and win,” lamented sixth-man guard Brandon Jennings to Newsday following the loss to the Zards. “This is a team that was desperate for a win and they got one. They just lost to Philly and they come and beat us? Nah… We definitely need to be more desperate. Every game, from here on out we need to be desperate. We play for the New York Knicks. Everybody wants to beat us. It’s a known national team.”
    The Knicks have been running in different directions on offense, at times trying to execute Jeff Hornacek’s new schemes, at times looking over their shoulder as the Zen Master implores the team to run more Triangle sets, at times getting iso-happy and doing their own things. They ended their night in D.C. on the losing side of a 119-112 score, but things were much worse when they found themselves with just 42 halftime points and down 87-65 through three quarters.
    New York is at their best when they key in on post-up plays, using the crafty maneuvering of Carmelo Anthony (22.3 PPG, 53.1 2FG%) and the height and length of Kristaps Porzingis (20.3 PPG, 54.4 FG%) to their advantage. The Knicks are one of two teams (joined by their borough mates in Brooklyn) that have made more than half of their shots on post-up plays, scoring at least one point league-high 53.1 percent of the time.
    Counter-intuitive to the offensive mindsets of Jennings and Derrick Rose, New York takes just 22.0 drives per game (2nd-lowest in NBA), scoring just 15.8 PPG (2nd lowest in East) off drives toward the hoop.
    Until recently, Anthony and Rose have been playing too much of a two-man game to the exclusion of their teammates, including the prodigious Porzingis. While each have started to produce more plays for Kristaps (40.0 3FG%, 35 points vs. DET on Wednesday), they need to get others involved along the perimeter, including swingmen Courtney Lee and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (each 40.0 3FG%) and ex-Hawk Justin Holiday (42.3 3FG%).
    The Knicks’ real problem, to few people’s surprise, is on the other end of the floor. New York allows 108.8 points per 100 possessions to opponents, a shade ahead of Portland (108.9) for the worst mark in the NBA. With all of his height, Porzingis is often deployed to help defensively deficient guards patrol the three-point line (37.0 opponent 3FG%, 4th-highest in NBA), the Knicks find themselves springing a leak around the rim. They allow 15.4 second-chance PPG (3rd-worst in NBA) as opponents’ 26.3 O-Reb% ranks as the 4th-most in the league.
    The Knicks also board-crash a lot on the offensive end (27.3 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA), but that doesn’t help them get back in transition as well as they’d like. Center Joakim Noah remains admittedly slowed by past injuries, and Hornacek has turned more often to Porzingis as a “small”-ball 5 than to reserve big man Kyle O’Quinn (career-low 10.2 minutes per game).
    For the Hawks’ frontline, the head-to-head matchups with the Knicks will seem transitive relative to the opponents in Charlotte. Paul Millsap goes from facing ample backside to ample upside with Porzingis. Dwight Howard got the Ashton Kutcher treatment from Charlotte’s Cody Zeller, and now the seasoned Noah will pull whatever tricks he can out of his bag, in his limited time on the floor, to distract and dissuade Howard from getting the job done.
    Whether it’s due to foul trouble or an injury or an ejection, Millsap (team-high 17.3 PPG) has willingly covered for Howard’s absences on the floor to the best of his ability, as has the improved Mike Muscala. But as demonstrated in the closing minutes in Charlotte, going into crunch-time without Howard on the floor is not sustainable.
    Kent Bazemore will have his hands full with Anthony and will need to help force tough mid-range jumpers without fouling. Bazemore has struggled defensively against taller opponents, especially when they’re granted touches in the paint. Including his need to make Anthony work on the defensive end, Bazemore’s floor time will be integral to Atlanta’s success today, especially if Thabo Sefolosha (knee sprain) remains unavailable.
    The Knicks are pressed to begin the process of shifting from Melo to Porzingis as a first-option in their offense. Similarly, the Hawks also some transitioning to consider. If starting guard Kyle Korver is on the floor for nearly 30 minutes, as was the case versus the Hornets, it’s likely not with the intention that he get three three-point attempts up. His 4.7 3FG attempts per game are the lowest since his years as a reserve in Chicago and Utah.
    It is important for coach Mike Budenholzer to direct more of the ball from the point guards and bigs out to get Kyle (40.4 3FG%, career-high 55.6 2FG%) more touches. But as Korver becomes less effective as a decoy on offense and a helper on defense (no rebounds, steals or blocks @ CHA on Friday), it is time to other options starting at the 2-spot, including a guy that was once the lead scorer for a banged-up Knicks team.
    In exchange for a one-year rental of rookie Jerian Grant, the Knicks disposed of Tim Hardaway, Jr., who now resides in Atlanta. He does have a ways to go with perimeter shots (32.8 3FG%) and passing, and his free throw shooting has momentarily regressed (65.6 FT%). But he is attacking the rim with authority (66.0 2FG%, 3rd in NBA; Muscala’s 73.6% ranks 1st), and is building rapport with Atlanta’s first and second units.
    Baze (34.8 3FG%, 7-for-10 2FGs but 4 TOs @ CHA) as the starting 2-guard is the better long-term play. But the Hawks’ bench may be better served in the interim by a pairing of Korver with the eventually returning Sefolosha at the wing. Among Atlanta’s top-20 2-man combos, either of Hardaway or Sefolosha are part of six of the Hawks’ seven-best lineup tandems, in terms of net points per 100 possessions (the sole starter in that septet being Millsap). Baze-and-Kyle are at minus-3.4 net points per-100 (201 minutes together), while Baze-and-Timmy are a positive +7.2 (71 minutes). The not-so-grumpy, not-so-old men Kyle-and-Thabo have been +32.4 points per-100 net scoring, but have only shared the floor for 21 minutes this season.


    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “We don’t give a d*mn about no d*mn Gucci Night!”

    As the twin-engine aircrafts approach for landing, they catch Rich Cho’s knowing eye. Cho races to the bell tower, alerting his boss from the belfry that it is time. The guests are arriving!

    “This gentleman seeks to reverse the downward story arc of his career.” Cho whispers to his manager the deepest-held desires of his visitors, as each subject disembarks. “This enterprising fellow wishes for his dyed hairstyle to become the viral rage of his foreign land.”

    The manager who runs the whole place is attired in a dashing white suit and Hanes T-shirt, and equally white sneakers, a silhouette of his likeness from sprier times affixed to their tongues and heels. At the reception area, he greets his newest lei-adorned arrivals at once:

    “My dear guests, I am Mr. Jordan, your host. Welcome… to Kemba Island!”

    Teams like the visiting Atlanta Hawks are finding it harder to meet up with the host Charlotte Hornets (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast,92.9 FM in ATL) and come away with a W. To do so, at some point, you are compelled to deal with this isle’s namesake.

    You could almost name a nice salad dressing after the number of islands sitting all alone in the NBA Sea. Cousins Island, Davis Island, Harden Island, Lopez Island. But Kemba Island is among the few isolated locales where its inhabitants have been legitimately prospering.

    Entering the pros with a collegiate championship in hand and a winning All-American persona, in recent years, Kemba Walker was left to the Bermuda Triangle of basketball’s collective consciousness. A predictable ballhandler, limited mid-range shooter, a modest defender, situated in a small NBA market. “Dime-a-dozen,” became the read, especially in a star-guard-loaded league where one Charlotte-based NBA guard was emerging to take the world by storm.

    In days long before the Dab arrived, the Kemba Walker Dance was the craze that kept Uptown heads bobbing. But by the time of Walker’s fourth season, the excitement had grown stale, and NBA eyes were shifting elsewhere. And that’s a shame because Walker, now in his sixth pro season, has only just begun ascending into the All-NBA atmosphere.

    Walker joins Charlotte-raised Stephen Curry as the only NBA hoop stars averaging 25 points and 5 assists while exceeding shooting splits of 45/45/80, his career-best 25.8 scoring average buttressed by career-best shooting of 50.0 2FG% and 47.8 3FG%. Kemba’s assist-turnover ratio of 2.75 ranks 6th among point guard starters, assisting on 32.4% of his team field goals to rank 8th (just behind Dennis Schröder’s 32.5%).

    Notably, unlike many of the Carolina Ranger’s do-it-all cohorts, his Hornets (7-3) are winning ballgames, victors in five of their last seven contests, with three losses to Toronto, Cleveland, and Boston by only single digits.

    Despite their early success, the Hornets have just one victory in their cap against a team currently above-.500 (Utah, who has lost two straight). They’re looking for an impressive win at the rebranded Spectrum Center, and they hope Atlanta (9-2), one of the few Eastern Conference teams whose opponents have held a worse winning percentage (44%), will be just the quality opponent to come to the island bearing gifts.

    Charlotte mimics latter-day Atlanta in forgoing offensive rebounds (27th in O-Reb%), in hopes they’ll get back in decent position to force tough shots and make defensive stops. So far, that’s working well. The Hornets rank 5th in the league with 79.3 D-Reb%, contributing to their 99.4 D-Rating ranking 4th in the NBA, two spots behind second-place Atlanta (95.1).

    A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, plus Nic Batum, beloved ex-Hawk Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller, are defensive-oriented role players on the top line, easing pressure off Walker (1.9 SPG, 10th in NBA) to adhere to his opposing guard assignment. The supporting cast of starters, and bench players, also know their roles when they get to the other end of the floor.

    Specifically, keep moving while Walker (30 points, 5 steals @ MIN on Tuesday) is setting things up, and when a teammate gets the ball from Kemba, find your shot or make the assist, but don’t waste time hesitating and risk losing the ball. Charlotte’s 6.7 secondary assists per game ranks third behind Golden State (9.7) and Atlanta (7.1), and their total 24.2 team APG ranks 5th.

    Offensive ball control is at the core of the Hornets’ gameplan (league-low 5.1 team SPG), which is bad news for a Hawks team that thrives off opponent goofs (10.0 SPG and 17.1 opponent TOs per 100 possessions, 2nd in NBA). Kemba has been credited with just 4 bad passes (via Basketball Reference) in his ten games so far, compared to over one per game last season, which wasn’t bad, either.

    Backup players Ramon Sessions, Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky (20 bench points, 5 assists @ MIN) and Spencer Hawes have little interest in passing the ball. It’s catch-and-shoot city for the Hornets (5th with 28.5 catch-and-shoot PPG, 0.1 PPG more than 6th-place Atlanta), at least until the fourth quarter, when it comes time for Kemba (7-for-7 2FGs in clutch situations, 86.7 fourth-quarter FT%) to don the cape.

    In his pregame commentary, Hornets coach Steve Clifford cited “offensive energy, and we can’t turn the ball over,” as keys to victory tonight. As FanSided’s The Step Back noted yesterday about Charlotte: “They’ve built their identity on not making mistakes, which forces you to beat them straight up.” Atlanta will find takeaways even more scarce without Thabo Sefolosha (NBA-high 5.2 steals per 100 possessions) around to pester Hornets all across the floor.

    But playing Charlotte “straight up” will be much simpler tonight with the return of Dwight Howard (early career-highs of 62.2 FG%, 1.8 SPG and 5.9 offensive RPG), who sat out Atlanta’s 107-100 win against Milwaukee after bruising his thigh one night before.

    The Hornets don’t gamble for steals much, an indication that the passing lanes to Howard should be clearer for Schröder and the Hawks’ passing game. Similar to Walker, the lion’s share of Dennis’ turnovers (just 8 bad passes in 11 games, a departure from past seasons as a backup) derive from going full-bore on drives and losing the ball.

    When the driving lanes are clogged, Schröder should be able to find Kyle Korver (1-for-1 3FGs shooting from Dahlonega, 5 assists vs. MIL) and Kent Bazemore (3-for-5 3FGs vs, MIL) at the wings to let it fly. He’s had ample time scouting Walker while watching from the sidelines as Jeff Teague’s second-in-command. There should therefore be little trouble for Dennis to run the offense on this particular island, as he continues his transformation from Gilligan to the Skipper.

    But Schröder’s on-ball defense will also be needed to deny Walker his preferred spots (like the top of the key, and the left-corner 3-point zone) and keep him out of the lane, considering Clifford has expressed great interest in raising the Hornets’ paint points.

    Atlanta has benefitted from a weak strength-of-schedule, but now the challenge steepens as they embark on a stretch of 7-of-8 games on the road to conclude the month. Including the Hawks (3-1) and the Hornets (4-1), the league’s top six teams presently in the standings have a stellar 26-4 collective record in away games. Sustaining their position atop the Eastern Conference standings will necessitate full court production that is as sound away from home (league-best 88.5 D-Rating in away games, but 23rd-ranked O-Rating) as it has been at the Highlight Factory.

    While the Hornets don’t force many live-ball turnovers, they will press in transition to catch opponents off-guard and out of position (17.9 PPG off turnovers, 7th in NBA; Atlanta’s 20.5 PPG ranks 2nd). Bazemore and rookie Taurean Prince will have critical roles in slowing and thwarting the Hornets in transition. If Atlanta is successful with minimizing unforced errors, and stopping Charlotte from churning Hawk mistakes into points, their stay will feel a lot more like Fantasy Island, and a lot less like LOST.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


    The phonetically correct pronunciation is: “SHEESH!”

    It always helps to get chummy with a hedge-fund manager. Or, so I’ve heard. He can fill up your foundation coffers, hire your kids for plum jobs, throw some weight around to stifle some bad press, offer up his jet when you need a quick plane ride or two. He can also buy a basketball team, kick its sitting head coach to the curb, and hand that job over to you, once you recognize your own employment situation kinda sucks.

    People, let me tell you ‘bout Jason Kidd’s best friend. Marc Lasry’s a warm-hearted person who will love Kidd ‘til the end. But the hardwood is far from all the places where Lasry’s allegiances lie. In return for his undying support to Clan Clinton, Lasry was one presidential election away from being offered a primo White House executive gig under the new administration, a duty likely requiring him to abdicate his fiduciary duties with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Well, the Electoral College has spoken. And J-Kidd dodged a big one. What does an under-contract NBA head coach, with a losing (79-94 in Milwaukee) record on a regressing team, who ISN’T hired by his good buddy, look like? Larry Drew.

    To be fair to Kidd, who signed an extension through 2020 this past summer, similarly well-heeled co-owners Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan publicly say they’re thrilled to have a coach (and de facto GM) with the playing experience and caliber of Kidd hanging around in Brewtown. But truth be told, they’d be just as ecstatic about somebody else, too. After-all, no one can hedge as well as hedge-fund managers do.

    But no matter, Lasry stays. And so does Kidd, who now gets to focus on keeping his Bucks (5-4) overachieving, including a victory in Atlanta against the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin).

    What makes 5-4 overachieving? One of the worst offenses in basketball last season relied heavily on guard Khris Middleton (and, to lesser extents, Jerryd Bayless, and O.J. Mayo) to save the day when it was time to hit perimeter big shots. Bayless bid adieu this summer to go do the same job in Philadelphia. O.J. Mayo O.J. Mayo’d his way out of the league altogether. And then, scoring leader Middleton went under the knife after tearing his hammy in September, declared out-of-action until at least March.

    Middleton’s injury was a huge blow for a team looking to improve upon last season’s 33-49 record. But the setback occurred early enough to encourage Kidd to throw caution to the wind, refashioning Milwaukee’s offensive attack into one built on grit (Jabari Parker), guile (world-champion Boomer barnacle Matthew Dellavedova), and ginormous length.

    The Giannis Antetokounmpo Point Guard Experience is Dead. Long live the Giannis Antetokounmpo Point Forward Experience! Alpha-Bits is posting up around the paint and posting up big-time numbers (21.3 PPG, 5.3 APG, 8.2 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 2.1 BPG, 57.9 2FG%, 75.5 FT%, all career-highs so far) almost completely across the board in his fourth NBA season, the 6-foot-11 manchild using his Go-Gadget reach to find leverage against garden-variety NBA opponents.

    In the Bucks’ last game on Saturday, a 106-96 victory over visiting Memphis, Giannis (27 points, 5 assists) bullied around James Ennis to start the game, then ran down the court for alley-oops, and then became a distributor, a chameleon the Grizzlies couldn’t catch no matter how often they adjusted.

    Giannis’ defensive exploits were also on full display versus Memphis (six rebounds, four steals, four blocks), the only NBA baller currently averaging at least two swats and two swipes. His range could still use a lot of work (17-for-60 beyond 5 feet from rim; NBA-high 9.0 FGAs per game within 5 feet, 70.4 FG%), as was the case for Jabari (19.1 PPG, 34.8 3FG%). But, in the mind of a man once known as Ason Kidd, that’s just part of his grand plan.

    Key to the Bucks’ mini-resurgence is a commitment to shooing opponents off the perimeter and forcing tough 3-point shots, perhaps more than just coincident with Kidd adding former Hawk Stacey Augmon to the coaching staff.

    Milwaukee foes are hitting an NBA-low 30.8% on threes, 29.1% above-the-break (Atlanta ranks second with 30.5 opponent 3FG% in this zone). Kidd is throwing Bucks, like the late Shawty Lo at the Blue Flame, at opposing perimeter shooters. He’s got Dellavedova, rookie Malcolm Brogdon (1.3 SPG), and preseason acquisition Tony Snell to hassle would-be shooters, plus Parker and Antetokounmpo running and roving to make looks extra difficult.

    The Bucks will keep an eye out for Atlanta’s Kyle Korver (42.9 3FG%), who’s out to make amends after a quiet Tuesday night in South Florida. But they’d better pay similar attention to Deadeye Dennis Schröder (42.9 3FG%), who isn’t high-volume lately, but is 4-for-4 in his past two games.

    Schröder (five away from 2,000 career points) has hit nylon on his first three-point attempt in each of his past four games. And then there’s always a surprise like the Muskie Musket of Mike Muscala, whose back-to-back threes gave the Hawks some breathing room at the close of the third quarter last night. Or Tim Hardaway, Jr. (20 points @ MIA), or Kent Bazemore, or Thabo Sefolosha. The Bucks are not used to an opponent capable of spreading the floor as well as Atlanta, but they’ll try their best to keep the Hawks cool.

    Shutting down the outside allows the Bucks to dare teams to engage in a duel inside the 3-point line. Led by Antetokounmpo and Parker, the Bucks average an NBA-best 49.6 PPG in the paint, the only NBA team (+7.8) faring better than Atlanta (+7.6) in outscoring opponents in the paint. Only the Hawks’ last opponent, Miami (34.1) gets more restricted-area shots per game than Milwaukee (33.1), and the Bucks’ 63.4 restricted-area FG% ranks 5th, three spots below second-ranked Atlanta (66.9%).

    All this activity in the paint is custom-made for the Hawks’ Dwight Howard. But along the way to schooling Miami’s rebound-happy Hassan Whiteside last night, Howard (11 points, 11 boards, 5 TOs but 3 steals @ MIA) bruised his lower thigh in the third quarter. He’s questionable for tonight, but it’s a perfect setting on a back-to-back to rest Dwight’s quad and unleash the Moose (not you, Greg Monroe).

    Muscala continues to lead all NBA centers with a -20.4 percentage-point differential on field goals defended within 6 feet of the rim (min. 4 opponent FGAs per game). As for Milwaukee, the Miles Plumlee Starting Experiment was DOA, Kidd returning on Saturday to blocks-or-bust John Henson to man the middle, with Monroe the primary backup 5.

    If Hawks ballhandlers can get their bigs the ball, either of Muscala (65.5 FG%, NBA-high for min. 5 games and 5 FGAs per game) or a one-legged Howard (62.2 FG%, 4th in NBA for same category) should be able to feast. Moose has also racked up eight assists (zero turnovers) in his last 41 minutes of play. Kris Humphries must step it up if Howard’s a no-go tonight.

    If the middle gets muddled for Milwaukee (as Paul Millsap is apt to make things with his active hands), there’s always Monroe, the bench big who has been making his living with putbacks and the occasional jumper from the elbows. And who’s awaiting the kickout over at the right corner, where the Bucks’ 1.4 threes per game (NBA-high 50.0 right-corner 3FG%) is below only Miami’s 1.6?

    That safety valve could be sixth-man gunner specialist Mirza Teletovic (career-high 42.1 3FG% so far), who set an NBA-reserve-record 181 threes last season in Phoenix. It could be the resurgent Rashad Vaughn (41.4 3FG%), or Delly, or offensive fillers Jason Terry and Michael Beasley (season-high 19 points vs. MEM on Saturday), or even Parker (34.8 3FG%) or, in the worst case, Snell (team-high 5.3 attempts per game, 26.2 3FG%).

    Kidd’s Bucks don’t take many threes, but 94.3% of their makes are assisted (2nd in the league behind, you guessed it, Miami, who they’ll visit tomorrow). Far better known for this sort of thing, Atlanta’s 91.2% of threes assisted ranks 4th in the NBA.

    “…the best teammate I have ever played with in these four years,” Giannis told NBA Australia recently. Sorry, Larry Sanders, Giannis isn’t referring to you. No, he’s talking about Outback Jesus. Dellavedova and Antetokounmpo are making hay offensively on screen plays, most notably with Delly as the screener, mimicking plays the guard often ran with point-forward par excellence LeBron James. Milwaukee’s roll-man plays lead to an NBA-best 67.9 eFG% and 1.31 points per possession.

    The Hawks should be mindful of the need to hedge those screens (not like those fund managers would) when Giannis is the ballhandler, in part to stop a Greek Freak Streak toward the rim, in part to make him move laterally and put the ball on the floor where it could reasonably be reached.

    Despite the obvious size mismatch, guards pestering Antetokounmpo outside the paint can also encourage him to pick up the ball and either take long-range shots over them (advantage Hawks) or look for open shooters, the latter a tougher task if Delly is occupied by a switched big and Hawk forwards are hunting for deflections and steals (NBA-high 10.6 team SPG).

    Both the Hawks and the Bucks produce an NBA-high 19.3% of their offense from plays following opponent turnovers. The bad news is the Hawks crank out a league-high 17.7 TOs per 100 possessions. Another slopfest is in the offing against the Bucks (15.7 TOs per-100, 9th-most in NBA), Atlanta arriving home just hours after combining for 44 turnovers with the heat during the Hawks’ 93-90 win.

    If Schröder (5 TOs @ MIA, fortunately not 6 in the closing seconds), who can get under opponents’ skin himself, has bothered to read the scouting report, he won’t allow Dellavedova’s antics to distract him from executing the proper plays.

    The similar principle applies with Atlanta’s transition defense as it does when playing against LeBron. If Giannis has so much as a step on his defensive assignment when a loose ball goes Milwaukee’s way, that Hawk might as well go make a gyro and some tzatziki sauce, because it’s a wrap.

    The safest NBA coaching seat outside of Texas remains secure, so long as J-Kidd’s buddy system remains intact (right, Marc? Marc?). While the reinforcement of his job security gives a victory tonight less urgency, Kidd is still looking to show his Bucks are on the upswing. Because you can never tell when outside influences might force your one-percenter pal’s hand.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


    “8 Surefire Keys to Success: (1) Inherit Magic, Worthy and Kareem. (2) Inherit Ewing, beat the Bulls without MJ. (3) Go get Zo and Timmy. (4) Draft D-Wade. (5) Go get Shaq. (6) Go get LeBron, Bosh, and Ray. (7) ??? (8) PROFIT!”

    “And there’s the cowbell. Your final score from the Wigwam: the Anderson Packers 110, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks 87.”

    It took the franchise that is today the Atlanta Hawks just three games to fall below .500. Replacing the head coach early in the 1949-50 season to Red Auerbach slowed the slide, but didn’t end it. Despite three franchise moves, one NBA championship, three more Finals appearances, seven more Final Four appearances, and two more playoff visits, it would take the Hawks over 20 years before they concluded a season knowing they’ve won more games in their history than they’ve lost.

    Outlasting the Denver Nuggets at Wharton Field House in Tri-Cities’ October 1949 season-opener allowed this franchise to be one with more NBA victories (1) than defeats (0) on its ledger. They could not say that again until December 9, 1969, having relocated from Moline to Milwaukee to St. Louis and, finally, to Atlanta. That brief above-.500 status would disappear, in less than one calendar year.

    The Hawks slipped back into becoming a break-even franchise in November 1970, and kept right on slipping for most of the next seven years. When they reached that .500 status again, it was February 1989, and by then the Third Atlanta Renaissance was well underway.

    Sustaining regular season success for the longest stretch in its history, the Hawks maxed out (51.5 Win% all-time, 52.7% in Atlanta) after the strike-shortened 1998-99 season ended. When team management gambled on names like Rider, Reef, Robinson and Ratliff, Terry, Toine and Tyronn, the descent back into a losing legacy wouldn’t take long.

    “And there’s the horn. Your final score from Staples Center: the Los Angeles Lakers 106, and your Atlanta Hawks 90.”

    Mike Woodson had barely taken over the coaching reins from Terry Stotts when the loss on November 7, 2004 dropped the Hawks’ all-time record back below .500. The Hawks’ all-time-worst season record of 13-69 in 2004-05 created yet another ditch, one from which it would take over 12 years, nine consecutive playoff appearances and three head coaches just to try climbing out.

    As of today, with Mike Budenholzer running the show, the Hawks’ all-time record sits at 2,657 wins, and 2,658 losses.

    The Hawks have an opportunity to move back into above-.500 territory as a franchise if they can be victorious in this upcoming back-to-back series, both games showcasing a young and long-limbed opposing talent. They visit the heat tonight in Miami (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA), where center Hassan Whiteside has been racking up double-doubles (8 in 9 games; 23 points and 17 rebounds last night vs. SAS), mostly in a vacuum.

    In what seems like a broken record, the Hawks will then return home where an opponent enjoying several off-days awaits them. This time, it’ll be Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, the franchise that replaced the Hawks up in Milwaukee.

    It took the heat (presently 87 games above .500 all-time) six seasons from their franchise start in 1988 to end a regular season with a winning record, and even that mark was a mere 42-40. Within a couple years, Pat Riley took over as coach and team president, and by 1996-97, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, Sr. were lighting the South Beach pilot.

    One reset to Dwyane Wade and Shaq, with Riley alternating between GM and coach, and the heat were celebrating their first championship in 2006. Miami was still 22 games below-.500 as a franchise, and minus-52 when The Big Three decided to set up shop there.

    Another reset to Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, under the managerial eye of Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra, and by 2013 (now, officially, a “winning” NBA outfit) two more trophies had come down the pike. In the time it takes to abandon AmericanAirlines Arena, the heat are always doing something to have their fair-weather fans running right back toward the front doors.

    The takeaway from Miami’s less-than-three decades of NBA existence is clear. If you can turn around your franchise story quickly, within the span of the first two decades, the stench of past mistakes don’t stick around and hover over you for very long.

    No one’s around Miami to guffaw about the days of Rory Sparrow, Rony Seikaly, and Sherman Douglas, or the time they thought they hit the draft jackpot with “Baby Jordan” Harold Miner. No one recalls when the heat turned to Ricky Davis and went 15-67 (again) in 2007-08. Organizations long-associated with success are perceived as reloading and rebuilding, while others (Kings, Hawks, etc.) are perpetually presumed to be somehow regressing, no matter what they do.

    The Big Three are no longer suiting up for the heat, but Riley remains, primed for yet another reset. LeBron James surprised everyone with a move back to Ohio in 2014. Riley locked up Chris Bosh that summer to a long-term max-deal, but not Wade, the franchise face who had always seemed willingly deferential, salary-wise, for the sake of his team.

    Miffed by a lack of communication over the summer, free agent Wade decided to follow LeBron’s lead and headed for home. Meanwhile, an impasse over Bosh’s perilous health status has made the likelihood he’s played his last basketball for the heat a foregone conclusion. So, what’s left around here?

    “I don’t trust them anymore… they give promises they don’t keep.” “They,” to 2013-14 Third-Team All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic, were the Phoenix Suns, who continued to crowd him out of star-quality floor time with brutally redundant guard acquisitions. And “The Dragon” wasn’t shy about spewing fire upon his employers in public. In 2015, right before the deadline, he issued a trade ultimatum to his reluctant team, who had to be scratching their heads a bit.

    Dragic didn’t want a trade to a team with a better record than the Suns (one like, say, the then-red-hot Hawks). No, he demanded to be shipped to a team like Miami, one with reliable, accomplished stalwarts like Wade and Bosh on the roster. Together with an emerging pickup pivot in Whiteside, Dragic felt his addition would be enough to reignite the Superteam era in South Beach for years to come. Trusting Riley and the heat, Goran re-upped with the heat in the summer of 2015. Miami, Dragic conjectured, was an organization he could rely upon, one that would allow him to lead them back on the road to glory.

    Well, that turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation. Two postseasons later, Miami has one playoff series victory (thank you, Purple Shirt Guy) to show for its trouble. Wade and Bosh are on the outs, as are two first-round picks to Phoenix, including perhaps next summer’s top-7-protected pick. “We have a pick this year,” Riley insisted to NBA.com recently, referring to this protected pick while tipping his hand as to his true feelings about this season’s aspirations.

    Meanwhile, Dragic (16.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 48.3 3FG%) has slowed his roll, not the least of which due to a sprained ankle that has kept him on the shelf since injuring it last Thursday. Having just shedded his walking boot yesterday, his status for today’s contest remains questionable.

    Miami nearly bumped their heads on the repeater-tax ceiling last season, and now Riley is cleaning house by going young. “Nobody who was 30 and up was coming back,” stated Joe Johnson, a buyout-acquisition for last spring’s playoff run who now resides in Salt Lake City, to the Miami Herald this past weekend. Wade shouldn’t feel too bad, because Luol Deng didn’t get a call from Riley, either.

    In the starting lineup, Wade has become the shoot-first, shoot-last Dion Waiters (12-for-26!!! FGs, 27 points last night @ SAS), and their former All-Star Bosh was morphed into Luke Babbitt (Spoelstra switched to Derrick Williams last night, to little avail). Gerald Green left for greener pastures (he thinks), while Amar’e Stoudemire hopped over to Israel.

    And that leaves Dragic, aside from the statuesque Udonis Haslem the oldest active player on the roster, now age 30 with a gimpy ankle. Riley told NBA.com: “We feel that with Hassan, and with Justise (Winslow) and Tyler (Johnson) and Josh (Smith… just kidding! Richardson), and some of the new guys who we got this summer, four or five of those young guys can create a nucleus.” That quote literally highlights Dragic by omission. Dragic won’t get to steer his way toward a “trustworthy” NBA locale this time around. It appears Riley is shopping him around, hoping another first-round pick will land in his lap.

    Now the good news in Miami is, Whiteside is still here, and isn’t going anywhere. Yes, the heat are down to 2-7 on the season, losing last night in San Antonio, on Saturday to Joe’s Jazz, who themselves had a lot of missing pieces (Derrick Favors, George Hill, Alec Burks, Boris Diaw), and in Wade’s triumphant return to Miami last week. Yes, they’ve dropped five straight, and four of five at home.

    But Whiteside is certainly putting up the numbers, satisfying Fantasy GMs everywhere: NBA-high 14.9 RPG, 11 defensive; 2.4 BPG, third-best in the league. Among the NBA’s top-ten rebounders, only Anthony Davis’ 30.5 PPG eclipses Hassan’s 18.1. And who knows if Miami would have prevailed in their seven-game playoff series with Toronto, had Whiteside (and the Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas) not gone down with injuries in Game 3, helping to make Bismack Biyombo a $72 million backup? How can Coach Spo channel his prized center’s efforts in a way that, Riley be damned, leads to more Ws?

    Whiteside hardly needs to compete with his own teammates for lob catches, rebounds and putbacks. So there are times in heat games where, à la Mike James of yore, he seems enthralled with padding his stats rather than doing non-boxscore things, like staying with his man, setting effective picks, and passing out of the post.

    Whiteside (9.7) is the only player getting more post touches per game than Atlanta’s Dwight Howard (8.8). But among the NBA’s ten top post recipients, his frequency of passing (9.2% of the time) is tied with Andre Drummond for second-lowest. While Howard has a scintillating 2.5 TO% with the ball in the post, Whiteside’s 10.3 TO% is behind only Drummond.

    Spoelstra gave Whiteside a quick hook in the third quarter of Saturday’s home loss to Utah, after he lackadaisically allowed Rudy Gobert to treat the rims like a playground swingset. The season-long challenge for Spoelstra is to keep the notoriously moody Whiteside from flaming out, no matter how far the heat sink in the standings. “We’re not even ten games into the season. We’re not getting down,” Whiteside assured the postgame media after Monday’s loss. “We had a tough schedule so far, so we’re going to keep pushing. We played the Spurs great.” That last statement was half-true.

    Miami almost completely turned the tables on the Spurs, bouncing back from a 55-30 first-half deficit to hold San Antonio to 26.2 FG% in the second, “winning” the back half 50-39. Offensively, without Dragic around, Spoelstra is relying on a committee of replacement starter Richardson (just back after tearing an MCL in offseason workouts) and Tyler Johnson to hold the fort, while also looking to Winslow and Josh McRoberts to play point-forward roles. So far, that aspect of the offense is working well.

    Winslow contributed five assists, Johnson six, McRoberts three against the surprisingly complacent Spurs (4 total steals?) on Monday, with not one turnover committed among the trio. Miami would fare much better over the course of 48 minutes moving the rock and getting teammates involved, rather than dumping the ball to Whiteside and Waiters and watching them suck the life out of offensive possessions (96.5 O-Rating, 47.2 eFG%, and 49.9 TS%, all next-to-last in NBA).

    Tonight’s free throw shots are brought to you by your friends at The Thundersticks Company. Miami (67.2 FT%, 66.1% at home) and Atlanta (68.2 FT%, 66.3 on the road) are the only NBA teams sinking less than 70 percent of their free throws, one of the few categories in sports ((looks at Blair Walsh)) where “2 out of 3” is bad.

    It’s easy to point an accusing foam finger at higher-profile foul magnets like Whiteside and Howard. But teammates like Waiters (11-for-21 FTs), Paul Millsap (72.1 FT%) and the once-surehanded Tim Hardaway, Jr. (65.2 FT%) haven’t helping matters. Sooner or later, there will be an abnormally high number of muffed free throw attempts, or crucial misses with “Dos! Minutos!” remaining, that costs these teams a victory. Hopefully, the Hawks (not just Howard) are actively working on their mechanics. Both bigs must be ready to keep the lane clear of opponents whenever the predictable free throw miss bounces off the rim.

    Dwight? Sap? Thabo? May I add one more name into the hopper for way-too-early DPOY candidates? Opponents that currently shoot 58.2FG% on shots within six feet of the rim are connecting on a paltry 32.3 FG% when faced with the imposing arms, antlers, and Man Bun of Mike Muscala.

    That differential of minus-25.9 percentage points is the best among any NBA player defending at least three such shots per game (min. 5 games played). That measure of rim protection has been better than that of either Hassan (minus-19.5, 6th in NBA) or D8 (minus-17.1, 8th in NBA). Having not just one but two centers adhering to The Pachulia Principle around the rim is making halfcourt defense a breeze for the Hawks.

    Dare I add one more way-too-early contender? Using the same criteria, Tim Hardway, Jr.’s -20.7% differential on three pointers defended ranks 2nd in the NBA. That’s even better than Sefolosha, whose minus-12.5% on ALL opponent shots (min. 5 FGAs defended) ranks 7th and just below Whiteside (minus-12.7). Second-place on that list is Miami’s James Johnson, who will be entrusted to come off the bench and cool off anyone, like Hardaway (5-for-10 3FGs vs. PHI on Saturday) or Kyle Korver, who gets hot from the perimeter.

    Balanced offensive execution by the Hawks, under the direction of Dennis Schröder (8 assists, 5 TOs vs. PHI), and persistent on-ball defensive pressure are essential for keeping the heat at Biscayne Bay all night. But minimizing Miami’s points off turnovers will further stifle the heat and get the Hawks one step closer to being an above-.500 NBA franchise again. Sustaining that fullcourt effort well into the future, under the watchful eye of Coach Bud and Friends, will ensure the Hawks step firmly out of the red, and into the green, for good.

    Let’s Go Hawks!