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    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    lethalweapon3
    “Never Forget…”

     

    Any Way You Want It, That’s The Way We Need It. Any Way You Want It…

    Atlanta Hawks fans have gone on many a Journey with their favorite NBA squad over the past five-plus decades. Whether you’ve been Ryde-or-Die with them for fifty-plus years, or just hopped on board in the perennial playoff era of the last ten, you’ve built up quite a Bucket List in that time. High up on that list, the Hawks can, tonight, cross off a to-do that’s lingered seemingly forever: go into the house of the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Go app, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT for the locally-impaired), and send them packing for the summer.

    Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, Fred Jones, Mickael Pietrus, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert. Guess what they all have crossed off their Bucket Lists? All of them have hit big shots to help eliminate the Celtics, and they did it in Beantown. Not only that, they were among six different NBA teams that left Tommy Heinsohn sobbing into his Sam Adams on the TD Garden sideline in just the past 15 years alone.

    Shumpert and J.R. Smith took care of business in Boston, on two different teams in the previous three seasons. Jason Kidd has gotten it done thrice, as an in-his-prime Net and a past-his-prime Knick. How about our old wayfaring friend Anthony Johnson? He’s been-there-done-that FOUR times, with THREE different NBA teams (not the Hawks, obvs). It’s a bit like skydiving. It looks challenging, and it is. But after you’ve see George H.W. Bush willingly jump out a plane every five years or so, not so much.

    “Not Magic, or Doctor J, it’s Andrew Toney that keeps me awake at night!” So reportedly claimed Matthew Dellavedova’s power animal, current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, back in the 1980s, about which player worried him most whenever playoff time rolled around. Atlanta is chock-full-o’ Toney-caliber players. But which ones are willing to emerge tonight as the Hawks’ Boston Strangler?

    Could it be Al Horford (last 3 games: 27.6 FG%, 6.3 PPG), who apparently needs to see his shadow before coming out offensively against what should be an overmatched Celtics frontline? Rumored to be quietly managing a groin strain, Horford has been distributing the ball well (5.0 APG, 0.7 TOs per game) in those last three appearances, but needs to be less passer, and less passive, in Game 6.

    In his rookie year of 2008, in an injury-riddled season of 2012, Al’s playoff odysseys came to an end in this building. Closing out the C’s here tonight with an impressive All-Star-quality effort should be Shoni-Schimmel-huge in importance to the upcoming free agent big man.

    Could it be Paul Millsap, who did not need a monumental scoring effort in Game 5, but has had two of the greatest individual performances of his career against these Celtics in this month alone? A double-barreled blast of Millsap and Horford would go a long way toward finally getting these Hawks over this little hump (a pellet or two of Big Hump wouldn’t hurt, either). Paul knows all about apparitions, and he’s even not talking about the ones that have chased the Hawks around Boston for eons.

    “I think we learned that when we have a team down, it keeps coming back. It’s like a haunted ghost, it keeps coming after us,” Millsap noted, shortly after his team petered away a 16-point second-half lead in Boston along the way to a Game 4 OT loss. “We’ve had opportunities to put people away all year and haven’t gotten it done for whatever reason. And now’s the time to learn that lesson and try to implement it.”

    The Hawks went small (an adjustment, from coach Mike Budenholzer? Is this real life?) and Mike Scott (7-for-9 FGs in Game 5), Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore (4-for-9 3FGs in Game 5) and Thabo Sefolosha flipped the script on the Celtics in the second quarter on Tuesday. But an eerie hand rose from the crypt in the second half, when Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger hit shots to whittle Atlanta’s double-digit lead down to five. Who you gonna call?

    To bury the Green Goblins for good, Atlanta went with two graveyard shifts, one featuring Teague, Kyle Korver (16 3FGs, 3rd-most in Playoffs), and Horford, then one led by reserves Dennis Schröder, Scott, and Sefolosha. The Hawks widened the lead to 17 by the close of the third quarter and finally heeded Boston the Band’s sage advice: Don’t Look Back.

    On the road for the final time in this series, the Hawks will need the same collective focus and poise tonight, to make the spirited Celtics get ghost and notch Atlanta’s first playoff victory on Boston’s parquet floor since 1988. As Millsap said, now is the time to “put people away,” and Coach Bud has had ample time to figure out the rotations to get it done.

    Paul at least sounds like he kinda gets it. Referring to the blown leads, “it reaches a certain point where if something constantly keeps happening, it’s who you are, he said. “And it’s not who we are. We want to be better than that.” Both teams have had enough experience in this series alone to know their opponents Don’t Stop Believin’ just because a big run has them mired in a mid-game hole.

    Isaiah Thomas won’t exactly be standing there with Open Arms, ready to embrace a season-ending loss in front of his legions of newfound fans. A surefire future stand-in for actor J.D. Williams, Thomas is concerned about not just the agony of defeat, but the agony of Da Feet, his ankle having twisted up like an Auntie Anne’s on National Pretzel Day. Still, there’s no way Thomas is going to let Teague and Schröder, the latter having successfully shaken off an ankle injury in this series himself, dictate the proceedings tonight.

    It probably peeves the Hawks’ lead guards that Thomas, after struggling through most of Games 1 and 2, was receiving inspirational texts from a longtime ATL-area resident, diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson. Our Hawks can barely get life advice from Latrell Sprewell, much less encouragement from our local NBA retirees. “Keep fighting,” Thomas reported A.I. advised him after Game 2. “(The Hawks) did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta. Now, it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.”

    Dude, were you not a 76er? What in Billy Penn’s name are you doing, cheering up a Celtic, of all people? No more endless TGI Friday’s appetizers around here for you, Bubba Chuck! While Thomas has enjoyed counsel from Hall of Fame-caliber guards, his favorite hoops mentor is always forthcoming with advice, and fortunately, there’s one particular insight that has helped Atlanta adequately defend Thomas at home in this series.

    “Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips I can’t tell you guys about,” hinted Winning Isaiah, after dropping a career-high 42 points on Atlanta in Game 3. But prior to Game 5, Isiah-without-the-extra-A Thomas expertly illustrated on NBATV how the Celtics star is in the catbird seat whenever he can barrel down the middle of the floor, ball in hand.

    Zeke showed that when a small but quick guard like Thomas can drive from the center of the court toward the paint, he’s got the most direct path to the hoop, he has optimal vision of what’s happening on each side of the floor, he can use his dribble to keep his on-ball defenders guessing on direction, he can create confusion among help defenders, and he can improve the likelihood of drawing fouls.

    The Hawks were at their defensive best in Game 5, and in Games 1 and 2, when they denied Thomas (NBA-leading 17.2 drives per game in playoffs, five more than second-place Teague) access to the middle of the court. Instead, they met him at half-court and funneled his activity toward the corners, where it’s easier to trap him and coax him into deferring the ball. When Thomas played off-ball, the Hawks maintained their emphasis on denying him the rock at the top of the 3-point arc.

    Neutralizing this aspect of Thomas’ game put the onus on his teammates to get open and execute plays before the Hawks’ defenders could properly rotate. His floormates did that quite well at home. But after repeatedly failing to replicate that effort on the road, it is Thomas Who’s Crying Now.

    “(Atlanta’s) game plan was to let the Other Guys beat us. It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates for (Atlanta) to put two (defenders) on the ball every time I have it,” Thomas grumbled after Game 5. “Other Guys have to step up and make plays. That’s what it comes down to. If (the Hawks) try and do it again in Game 6 (and they will), it comes down to Other Guys making plays. I’m just going to get the ball out as quickly as possible out of the trap.”

    When the finger-pointing point guard finds himself stuck in the AT&L phone booth, the Other Guys he calls upon ought to include Marcus Smart (7 first-quarter points in Game 5), who has drawn champagne throughout this series from his dry-well of a jumpshot, but can afford to create more havoc on baseline drives to the hoop.

    Those Other Guys also include Amir Johnson (65.6 FG% this series, 3rd in NBA), who must get post touches and make Millsap more of a man-defender than a helper, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Smart and Turner (16 playoff TOs, most in East) must keep the ball moving, and need to consider the option of dishing the ball right back to Thomas in the event they can catch a trapping Hawks defender sagging back to his main assignment.

    Did someone mention poise earlier? When you’ve got a cornered animal, you don’t need Dennis Schröder poking it. Schröder (4-for-7 FGs in Game 5, just one TO in 14 minutes) must treat Game 6 as Dellavedova Practice, and ignore any wolf tickets Thomas and the Celts wish to sell. Boston will try to play Atlanta’s ball-handlers physically in hopes of reactions that draw the undivided attention of the Step-Brothers (referees Scott Foster and Tony Brothers).

    While Boston tries to get subcutaneous, both to rattle Schröder into making mistakes and simply to motivate themselves, Dennis can be enough of a Menace by adhering to his defensive principles and having a sound, multi-dimensional plan in mind when he drives to the hoop. There’s no time to get in the last dig, it’s simply time to put people away.

    Building off five steals from Korver, and three from Sefolosha in less than 20 minutes of action, Atlanta finally established a significant turnover advantage (20 for Boston, 12 for Atlanta) in Game 5. Failure to secure 50/50 balls in the opening quarter had the Hawks slow out of the starting blocks, but the amped-up activity after Atlanta’s opening 18 minutes (18 points, 70 in the next 18 minutes of the 110-83 win) helped blow the game open.
    That must continue in Game 6 for the Hawks, including their 19-8 advantage in fastbreak points, 30-19 in assists, and 44-32 in paint points. Korver, Sefolosha, and Bazemore’s synergy at the wing spots must be evident tonight, via their abilities to defend perimeter shooters without fouling, securing defensive rebounds and sparking transition, making Thomas move more laterally and less downhill, beating their man to desirable spots at the other end, and scoring on cuts to the paint.
    There’s no reason to wait until Game 7 before the Hawks and Celtics have to head their Separate Ways. Even without the Celtics and the Ruins playing at TD Garden, there’d still be plenty to whet the appetites of Boston sports fans. The Pats get to make their annual draft-steals in another day or two. The Sawx are only now loosening their belts, and the MLB and MLS seasons ought to be wrapping up around the time Tom Brady returns from his deflating suspension.
    Celtics fans can happily turn their attention toward a summer filled with multiple first-round draft choices and free agent fascination. First-round exits are always disappointing, but easier to swallow when you’ve got 17 title banners hanging in the rafters.

    Back in Atlanta, there is little rush around here for anyone to turn their sights toward the Falcons, the Dream, or the Bravos (the expansion Blaze just started playing lacrosse, so, there’s that). Hawks fans have seen enough of the Celtics at the Highlight Factory, and there’s no desire to see visitors in an elimination game this weekend. Maybe save that for a later round, guys!

    While the Hawks dare not look ahead, they certainly wouldn’t mind Friday becoming a rest-and-recovery day, rather than preparation for an all-the-marbles Saturday Night game back home. And while they can’t acknowledge it publicly, the players are fully aware of the significance to their franchise’s history, and their own NBA legacies, if they can shake free of some longstanding Hawks Hexes tonight.
     

    So Hold Tight, Hawks Fans. Hold Tight…

     
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Marcus, when’s the next 2-for-1 Special at Supercuts?”

     

    The fine folks in the produce section at Whole Foods would want nothing to do with the Atlanta Hawks after coming up empty in their last trip to Boston. Rotten-tomato shooting for the better part of 3.9 quarters, wilting like lettuce on both ends of the floor as the outcome hung in the balance, and just one playoff performer (finally!) earning his celery. Add to that yet another corny overtime effort, this latest one enough of a carrot to entice the host Celtics into easily evening up this first-round NBA Playoffs series at two apiece.

    It’s hard for Hawks fans to be cool as cucumbers as the scene shifts back to the Highlight Factory tonight for Game 5 (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT). Particularly when their whole team looks like they could’ve had a V8.

    As far as Game 4 goes, to put it in my best Stefon voice, “This Game Had Everything!” Botched rebounds, botched ball handling, botched assignments, botched closeouts, botched cross-court passes, botched substitutions, blown technical free throws, blown open jumpers, blown layups, blown double-digit leads, a shumble… You know, a shumble! That thing where you have a chance to take a game-winning shot in the closing seconds, but don’t run anything resembling a play and fumble away the shot as time expires. A shumble! Atlanta’s hottest club is D’OH!

    But you can’t blame Paul Millsap, not this time, anyway. Awakened by the Spirits of 1988, Sap shook off his notorious playoff shackles and dropped a playoff-career-best 45 points (19-for-31 FGs) on the C’s in the Gahden, while also taking time to register 13 boards (five O-Rebs) and four swats. And thank goodness Regular Season Paul Plus finally bothered to appear on the floor, because his teammates (combined 18-for-69 FGs) were seemingly still stuck in the showers.
    It’s been like this for quite awhile now for the Hawks, who talk as good a game as anyone about playing together, sharing the ball and getting things done as a team instead of leaning on one or two dudes to carry the day. For all of that All for One, One for All shpiel, all you get lately is Moe, Larry, Curly and Aramis on some nights; Porthos, Athos and Shemp on others.

    A normally wayward jumpshooter, second-year guard Marcus Smart (7-for-15 FGs in Game 4, 3-for-8 3FGs) has stepped up and is swishing the types of shots the Hawks (9-for-37 FGs) were supposed to be making, leaving the door cracked open for Isaiah Thomas (Playoff-high 28.2 PPG, 9-for-16 FGs in Game 4) to blow through it in the clutch.

    The Celtics guards’ success at one end tends to discombobulate the Hawks at the other, as Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder (six TOs, 7 made and 24 missed FGs in Game 4) strive to go it alone offensively. Teague’s dish to Millsap with just over nine minutes to go, widening Atlanta’s lead to six points, was the last assist either Hawk guard could muster. In that same span, Boston’s trio of Thomas, Smart and Evan Turner connected on six dimes together, helping the Celtics turn the tables in their favor and salt the game away.

    Teague’s shumble (fumpshot?) shouldn’t have even been necessary, but for poor “strategery” on coach Mike Budenholzer’s part to have Kyle Korver in the game, ostensibly, for defensive purposes, while Teague sat after giving Atlanta the lead with 20 seconds to go. From the top of the key, Thomas screened around Thabo Sefolosha and treated Korver like a lamppost along his way to the hoop for the acrobatic game-tying basket, all in a manner of five seconds.

    The disparity in dribble-penetration, unburdened lane access, and in-paint production between Atlanta’s and Boston’s guards set the stage for the Celtics tying up this series. Despite the Hawks limiting Boston’s star to five free throws, 16 of Thomas’ 28 points came in the paint in Game 4. Smart was 3-for-6 on field goals inside, including a crucial fourth-quarter dunk while knifing unimpeded across the baseline. Meanwhile, Teague was 1-for-6 on FGs in the paint, Schröder 2-for-4 but susceptible to untimely turnovers on his drives. To flip this series back in Atlanta’s favor, the Hawks’ execution on drives and halfcourt defense by their perimeter players needs to improve significantly.

    While Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson (7-for-8 combined FGs in-the-paint in Game 4) were feasting inside, Al Horford (1-for-2 FGs in-the-paint, zero shots around the rim, 1-for-6 outside the paint) was content with being a center hovering around the periphery. That also needs to change for the Hawks, particularly given the iron is so unkind to Al and Paul’s teammates. Boston outscored Atlanta 52-40 in Game 4 on paint points, after being outscored by an average of 45.3-38.7 in the first 3 games of the series.

    While Atlanta’s transition defense has been imperfect, the Hawks did outscore Boston in points off turnovers in Games 3 and 4 (45-37 combined) despite the turnover margin being relatively even. While taking care of the rock on offense is crucial, Atlanta needs to better pressure Thomas and his mates into putting the ball on the floor, fostering the kind of indecisiveness that results in simpler strips, deflections, and interceptions. The Hawks managed just 16 points combined off Celtic turnovers in the first two games of the series at home, as did Boston.

    It’s unfair for anyone to rely on Millsap for another Herculean offensive performance in Game 5, but his paths to the hoop will be eased if Boston has to take Atlanta’s jumpshooting wings (Kent Bazemore 1-for-5 3FGs in Game 4; Sefolosha 0-for-3; Korver 0-for-4 in second half plus OT) seriously. Brad Stevens slipped Smart onto Millsap in the fourth quarter and slowed his roll (1-for-5 FGs) enough to give Boston the chance they needed.

    Coach Bud seems to have fallen back out of favor with Tim Hardaway, Jr. (four seconds in Game 4, four more than Kris Humphries) but he needs to rely on a deeper rotation in this series, exploiting what ought to be a depth advantage and minimizing the risk of foul trouble for Atlanta’s top performers.

    The Celtics’ media crowed about how the Hawks will fold like a crepe when it matters, but things technically won’t matter until one team gets their 3rd win tonight. Time is even more of the essence for both teams, now that LeBron is kicking back in his lair, drumming up clever ways to troll the folks who are dead certain he doesn’t drive a Kia.

    After blowing two chances to build an insurmountable series lead, Atlanta comes into Game 5 disappointed, yet knowing they can turn Game 6 in Beantown into an elimination game for their opponents. The problem is the visiting guys in greens know they can do the same, if they can coax the Hawks into another vegetable of a performance. Which players have the onions to shine under the pressure of primetime? Which team wants to “turnip” and produce when it really counts? Lettuce find out.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “How am I feeling? Slap happy!”

     

    Fuh-nool? Fah-neel? Feh-noil? Fan-wheel?

    As long as I can recall, I’ve been advised how to properly pronounce Faneuil Hall, and I still forget. Besides the marketplace, though, Boston has plenty of wonderful sites to see: the USS Constitution, Paul Revere House, Bunker Hill Monument, JFK Museum, Fenway Pahk… all in all, it’s a splendid place to visit. Once.

    The Atlanta Hawks have seen enough of New England in the springtime. There is no reason to plan a return trip anytime soon. That is, unless they slip up again in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Boston Celtics (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, TNT if you can stomach it).

    Advancing in the playoffs gets done quicker when you can prove yourself capable of beating teams in their own gym, in front of their rabid crowd. The 2015 Hawks managed to do it three times, despite blowing their own homecourt advantage, in order to earn their maiden voyage to the conference finals, however much by the skin of their beak. Every year since 2009, a visitor prevailed at Philips Arena along their path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Getting the job done in Game 4 obviates the need to do it in Game 6, and maybe the need for a Game 6 to even occur. Alas, Atlanta’s performances away from the Highlight Factory, without Sir Foster on the 1s and 2s, Harry the Hawk scrambling his eggs, or Ryan Cameron rocking the mic, have lately left much to be desired, to say nothing of their season-long results versus shorthanded teams like the Celtics (missing Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley) in Game 3.

    On March 28 in the Windy City, the Hawks allowed 31 first-quarter points, then surged ahead of the Bulls by 15 points midway through the third period, only to find themselves needing to hit free throws in the final four minutes just to win by two. A couple nights later in Toronto, the Hawks were outpaced for three quarters by the Raptors, before Atlanta's bench players came alive and kept the outcome from becoming a complete laugher.

    Coming off a successful homestand, the Hawks played a valiant game in Cleveland for all of one quarter before letting LeBron and Kyrie pull the ripcord. Two nights later, they mailed in their chance at a division title, falling flat against a Washington team fielding half of its players with little precious left to play for beyond pride.

    It only took one win after seven straight playoff losses, but Celtics Pride was revived on Friday night, as Isaiah Thomas (42 points, 5-for-12 3FGs, 7-for-12 2FGs) asked the Hawks’ defense what the five fingers said to the face. After the Celtics could muster just 15.5 free throw attempts per game in Atlanta, Thomas used the favorable whistles at TD Garden to his decisive advantage, getting 15 of Boston’s 33 free throw shots, and making 13 of them.

    Thomas will return for Game 4 despite whacking Dennis Schröder (8-for-10 2FGs, 20 points) across the mug, which is actually good news for a Hawks team that would allow air to get a triple-double. The Celtics wanted to make this series more physical, and pump-faked, flopped, and pimp-slapped their way back into contention, baiting the Hawks into their preferred style of play.

    Brad Stevens’ inclusion of two catalysts into the starting lineup, Evan Turner (five steals, 17 points, seven assists, five TOs in Game 3) and Jonas Jerebko (12 rebounds, four assists, in Game 3) also allowed the Celtics to shift the tone of the series. Benching slower-of-foot Jared Sullinger allowed the older but spryer Amir Johnson (7-for-8 FGs in Game 3) to have a field day around the rim and put more defensive pressure on Al Horford (4-for-7 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs in Game 3).

    Do-some-but-not-all-Paul! We’re now three games into the offensive black hole that has been Playoff Paul Millsap (3-for-8 2FGs, two O-Rebs in Game 3). The Hawks’ leading scorer, rebounder, ball-stealer, shot blocker and frontcourt assist-maker in the regular season hasn’t led Atlanta in much of anything in this series (31.3 FG%, 12.5 3FG%, 6th among Hawks in PPG, 3rd in RPG, 4th in APG, 3rd in SPG, 2nd in BPG).

    Credit the Boston defensive game plan for neutralizing Millsap’s availability as a scoring option on many possessions. But the Anchorman’s sinking contentment with being relegated to role-playing (specifically, staying back for rebounding and transition defensive purposes) is overtaxing the Hawks in many ways on the floor.

    Kyle Korver (5-for-9 3FGs, fouled out at critical juncture of Game 3) finds himself swiping and grasping at everything within reach. Kent Bazemore (8-for-19 FGs in Game 3) takes it upon himself to lead the team in jumpshots. Horford (team-high 6 assists, probable for Game 4 despite a groin strain) becomes the Hawks’ floor leader. Mike Muscala comes in for two minutes and is immediately jacking up shots. Isolation plays, and dribble-drives into the teeth of the Celtics defense without open outlets, become the order of the day.

    A lot of this extra activity is related to Millsap’s reluctance to improve his own positioning, to roll to the hoop on screens, and to demand the ball to make plays in the post. With any of Bazemore, Korver, or Thabo Sefolosha on the floor, the Hawks have ample transition defenders and help rebounders, allowing Sap more room to roam at the offensive end. It’s past time for Atlanta’s jack of all trades to show he’s a master of something beyond being a defensive pest.

    Whenever Thomas or Marcus Smart (2-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) hits a big shot, and the Garden crowd goes wild, the immediate impulse by Jeff Teague and Schröder (7 combined assists, 6 TOs, 0-for-8 3FGs in Game 3) is to go back at him or their individual defenders on the offensive end.

    The Hawks guards need to remain committed to setting up the team’s optimal shots rather than the payback shot, moving the ball and putting Thomas to work defensively. Persistent motion from the Hawks’ bigs can keep the Celtics’ interior defense guessing, but it’s up to Atlanta’s ballhandlers to find them and feed them.

    No matter their role in the offense, all of the Hawks have to finish when they get the ball in the paint. After a power-outage in the first-quarter of Game 3, the Hawks surged ahead only to flounder in the fourth quarter. Scrambling back into contention, and gaining the lead, after falling behind by 20 points, can bring on fatigue, but that is no excuse for missing 7 shots within six feet of the rim in the final quarter of the game. In Game 2 back home, Atlanta made six of seven shots from that close range. That Celtics may be able to slap and flop at will, but they’re not moving the rim.

    If the Hawks prevail in this series, that likely concludes the homecourt advantage going forward. Any success that follows hinges on Atlanta’s resolve when playing away from their home nest. The Hawks need to show better maturity, poise, and balance to make Game 4, not Game 6, a farewell party at the Garden for the Celtics.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “Atlanta’s Kent is smokin’ haht!”

     

    Readers know by now that yours truly grew up a 76ers fan. Pretty much any Sixers fan aged 40-plus remembers the joy of their team beating the Lakers in L.A. and winning the 1983 NBA Finals, “fo-fi-fo” and all that. But an even more fond memory didn’t even result in an NBA title. It involved a game one season before, one in which Boston Celtics fans showed up rocking… bedsheets.

    No, there was no school desegregation protest going on. The Sixers had blown playoff advantages in previous seasons, often in tragicomic fashion, often right in the eerie, decrepit, yet revered Boston Garden. The 76ers blew a 3-1 playoff lead versus the Celtics in 1981, and were on the verge of doing it again in the 1982 conference finals. Celtics fans knew their team had a psychological leg up in this bitter playoff rivalry with their conference rivals, and dressed up The Ghosts of Playoff Pasts to ensure Philly wouldn’t forget.

    It was up to Doctor J and the soon-to-be-named Boston Strangler, Andrew Toney, to exorcise these ghosts and break their hex to return to the NBA Finals. Decades later, the Atlanta Hawks are in a prime position to follow the Spirits of 76ers and terminate a ghoulish playoff history in Boston, beginning tonight in Game 3 of their first-round series (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, ESPN2). Will the Hawks be Ghostbusters, or will they remain spooked by the specter of raised expectations?

    March 29, 1960, Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Bob Pettit scored 35 points, he and cat-quick guard Si Green keying a second-half comeback as the Hawks overcame a 7-point halftime deficit to win by 13, boos raining down from the Gahden faithful in what was called “a dogfight to the end,” despite 30 points from Bill Sharman and a then-playoff-record 40 rebounds from Bill Russell.

    April 6, 1973, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semis. Behind Herm Gilliam, the Hawks turned the tables on the Big Green Machine after ending the first-quarter down 29-16. John Havlicek totaled 83 points in the first two games of the series, but could only muster 18 points in Game 3. Lou Hudson with 37, Gilliam with 25, Pete Maravich with 24. Head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons credited a scrumptious team dinner in Boston the night before: “It helped us get it all together.”

    May 18, 1988, a pivotal Game 5 of the conference semis. The Hawks stormed ahead with 43 fourth-quarter points, shocking the Celtics and forcing a titanic elimination game back in Atlanta. Boston had previously prevailed in 133 of 141 games at the hallowed Gahden, and an unlucky 13 straight games versus the Hawks in that building. “Everybody felt sorry for us that we couldn’t win here,” said coach Mike Fratello, who shifted a struggling Dominique Wilkins to shooting guard late in the contest. “When you’re going against a streak like that, you just have to work through it.” Nique shot a Durant-esque 7-for-22, but finished with 25 points after the Czar’s benching and re-positioning. Kevin Willis carried the day with 27-and-14, Doc Rivers had 21 and Cliff Levingston added 16 off the bench.

    And, that’s all, folks! 29 playoff games by the Hawks in Beantown, and in 26 of those occasions, the guys in green came away victorious. In all but one of those previous nine playoff series, the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage; the Hawks fumbled away Game 2 at home in 2012, and that was all she wrote. Tonight’s Hawks hope Atlanta’s playoff losing streak in Boston halts at nine games.

    Much like reaching the ECFs in 2015, a win tonight would place the Hawks in fairly uncharted territory as a franchise. The last time the Hawks went up 3-0 versus anybody was in 1970, a 4-1 series win over the Chicago Bulls. And there was apparently a tectonic shift since the last time Atlanta swept anybody, a 2-0 sweep of the Houston Rockets in a 1979 Eastern Conference first round series. Never in its history, not in Tri-Cities, Milwaukee, St. Louis, nor Atlanta, had this team run the table in a seven-game series.

    To place themselves in position to break out brooms on the TD Garden parquet floor, the Hawks must collectively check off boxes that aided their cause in the comfier confines of Philips Arena. In Atlanta, the Hawks held the Celtics to a Playoffs-low 38.4 effective field-goal percentage and limited their opponents to a 19.0 offensive rebound percentage (2nd-lowest in Playoffs), 8.0 points off turnovers (lowest in Playoffs) and just 15.5 free throw attempts per game (2nd-lowest in Playoffs). In the fastest-paced series so far in this postseason, the Hawks have posted a league-high 17.5 fastbreak PPG, compared to Boston’s 11.5 PPG.

    The Hawks have gotten the job done thus far without appreciable offensive input from regular-season leading scorer Paul Millsap (1-for-12 FGs, 1 assist, 5 TOs in Game 2), more than one half of perimeter fire from Kyle Korver (5-for-6 3FGs in 1st half of Game 2), or reliable bench output (1-for-6 3FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs).

    Millsap and Kent Bazemore combined to shoot just 3-for-26 from the field, but made enough defensive plays in Game 2 to ensure the Hawks went wire-to-wire in an 89-72 win. The Celtics have been adamant about using Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson to make post play troublesome for Millsap. But with Atlanta’s perimeter game slowly opening up and Al Horford (3-for-4 3FGs in Game 2) finding his groove, Crowder will be less able to provide help and stop Millsap from wrecking shop on the Celtics’ inferior interior.

    Dennis Schröder showed signs of life early in Game 2 but sprained an ankle late in the contest. If he can go, he’ll need to focus on forcing mistakes and contested shots out of Marcus Smart (probable after sustaining a rib injury early in Game 2) and Isaiah Thomas without fouling. If not, while Jeff Teague will provide a heavier workload, those tasks will fall to Kirk Hinrich, one of two veterans (including Kirk Humphries) rested by coach Mike Budenholzer who are likely to see more playing time on the road.

    Boston is seeking to avoid a franchise-record tying eighth consecutive playoff defeat, and one can bet the Garden will be amplifying crowd noise at every sense of Celtic momentum. The Hawks were unable to force the Celtics into committing turnovers in Atlanta, and will have to gain an advantage in this area during Games 3 and 4 to quell a boisterous but increasingly desperate crowd.

    It’s up to Thomas (3-for-9 2FGs, 1-for-6 3FGs, 7-for-8 FTs in Game 2) to get the Celtics’ offense purring, not just from looking for his own shots. Boston’s 30.5 catch-and-shoot attempts per game lead the Playoff field, but their 26.2 FG% on those shots is a league-low. The omnipresent fear of Hawks ripping-and-stripping the ball away keeps the Boston offense looking harried as players think twice about putting the ball on the floor.

    Thomas and Smart (five assists in 60 combined Game 2 minutes) must do a better job of feeding teammates in ideal positions to score quickly. Boston cannot thrive off of iso plays from Amir Johnson (6-for-9 2FGs in Game 2) and Evan Turner (5-for-10 2FGs in Game 2) alone. Head coach Brad Stevens may replace Smart with Turner, a solid passing wing, in the starting lineup in hopes of more consistent offensive results.

    The Celtics guards must get the ball into Jared Sullinger (14 mostly ineffective minutes in Game 2, 2-for-5 FGs) and Johnson in the low post. Without touches and activity around the rim, the cherry-picking Sullinger will receive another short hook in favor of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko, the latter better capable of matching Horford’s floor-spreading arsenal. Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) remains highly questionable to appear in Game 3.

    That old Massachusetts Mystique doesn’t just taint the perspective of Hawks fans. We’ve secretly replaced balanced perspective and analysis with CSN New England sports-yap host Michael Felger’s crystal-clear commentary. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference!

    “The Hawks will be the Hawks,” Felger bellowed back on Monday, with Atlanta holding a 1-0 lead in the series, uttered with an air of certainty that would give his team’s winking-bum logo a run for its money. No worries, Felger assured the Celtics faithful, because Atlanta will “fold when it matters.” Because, history, duh! And elfin’ magic! “We now turn to FS1 correspondent Curt Schilling,” is the only statement more certain to be uttered in the near future than “Hawks blow it in Beantown, again,” to hear Felger tell it.

    Felger, his fellow Celtics fans, and the team they adore would do well to heed a voice from their fading past… although he’s not walking through that door anytime soon.

    “We felt we were a better team than Atlanta,” said Larry Bird back after that 1988 Hawks victory. “Maybe that’s why we lost.”

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “No, that call wasn’t B.S. But you are!”

     

    Bitter! Party of One!

    We’ll never know, but one would think that being involved in some manner for 17 championships, all with one NBA franchise, would tend to mellow a person out. The added fortune of having Bill Russell carry your water through much of that early run should assist with one’s contentment. Alas, Thomas William Heinsohn has a deep-seated issue with the franchise now known as the Atlanta Hawks, who look to hold serve tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT if you dare) and build a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with Heinsohn’s Boston Celtics.

    Tommy Boy entered the league as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 1956, winning Rookie of the Year over Russell (acquired from the St. Louis Hawks via draft-day trade, who arrived late to the NBA due to the Olympics). His Celtics needed two overtimes against the Hawks to win its first-ever NBA title in 1957. As a nine-year NBA player, Heinsohn went on to end his career as an NBA champion in every single year… but for one.

    Apparently, memories of 1958 still stick in the Hall of Famer’s craw. If the NBA Finals were Wrestlemania, and Heinsohn the Undertaker, the ’58 Hawks would be his Brock Lesnar. As a soother for this seether, however, it’s the Celtics who have handed the Hawks their Last Rides for the better part of six decades since -- nine times in nine playoff meetings, seven times since the franchise packed up and relocated to Atlanta in 1968.

    Nearly 58 years have come and gone, and while the Hawks’ sharply-dressed Hall of Fame color analyst has a statue of his likeness outside Philips Arena, Tommy has grown too old and tubby to even serve as a stand-in for his team’s logo. Which is his right. But the crotchety color commentator has only half of the fat-and-happy persona down pat. What’s making his ample belly ache these days? The era that had the Hawks on the business end of the Celtics’ leash appears to finally be reaching its sunset. Tommy doesn’t seem to like that. And now, with his salad days a distant memory, he’s directing his venom at one man, in particular.

    “… (Al) Horford, as much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player,” hissed Heinsohn, after the Celtics’ 102-101 too-little-too-late road loss in Game 1 on Saturday night. “Get a man on him, and he has trouble scoring.” We’ll never know if Tommy had to provide the front money for Paula Pierce, when the rookie Horford earned his ten stacks by plopping a jumper above a prone Pierce, sealing Game 3 in 2008 and quashing designs on a series sweep and a perfect path to another clover-leaved coronation. In any case, Tommy comes off like a man with an axe to grind, and that’s never a good look from an 81-year-old man who’s losing teeth to grind. Never mind a fellow as accomplished as Heinsohn.

    Horford, to his credit, has just enough panache to get that dirt off his shoulders. “That’s his opinion, you gotta respect it,” Al responded when pressed by the media for a schoolyard response. “I’ve been in this league a long time,” added Horford, whose NBA playing career has now lasted as long as Heinsohn’s. “I know I have to focus on my team and this is the playoffs, we’re in a great position and we have a great opportunity.”

    Indeed, Al will keep his focus on the tasks ahead, preferring to catch lobs from his guards rather than quibbling over grumpy old men lobbing shade from the TV booth. Besides, while even Al recognizes he’s still quite a ways from Springfield, Tommy’s broadside says less about the star-quality of Atlanta’s four-time All-Star than it does the cast of characters whose arduous job it is to stay “on him.”

    But if Oscar the Grouch just inferred you need to get on his level, you’re probably crossing Sesame Street off your summertime destination list. That notion was not lost on Heinsohn’s broadcasting colleague, who was quick to clean up Tommy’s verbal vomit regarding the upcoming unrestricted free agent, on behalf of Boston GM Danny Ainge.  “I’ll tell you what,” said Celtics’ TV studio host Kyle Draper, “if (Horford) put on Green next season, Tommy wants his jersey retired, hanging from the rafters.” They may all have to settle for Al’s Volt Green banner instead.

    It’s not as though Tommy’s completely off-base, as he’s merely seeking to motivate his team from afar. Boston remains very much in this series, as demonstrated in the second half Saturday, when head coach Brad Stevens’ club charged back valiantly from 19 points down to hold a momentary second-half lead. But Stevens knows what “getting a man on Horford” usually entails, and the results for the Celtics are less than ideal.

    Way too often, that means abdicating the paint when Horford (team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive, in Game 1) is not posted there, and Atlanta’s 52-36 points-in-paint advantage made all the difference in the series opener. It risks exposing the rim to the likes of a cutting Kent Bazemore (6-for-7 FGs at-rim, 8-for-10 FTs, playoff-career-high 23 points and 8 boards).

    “Getting a man on” Horford also means keeping up with the center in transition, impeding his rolls toward the hoop, and picking off those dishes from his point guards. And if your “man on him” options are Jared Sullinger (4-for-14 FGs, 4 D-Rebs in 20 minutes of Game 1), birthday-boy Kelly Olynyk (questionable to play, with a sore shoulder) and Tyler Zeller (DNP Game 1), without defensive help, you’re behind the proverbial 8-ball more times than not.

    What’s scary for Boston is that there were stretches where Jeff Teague (12 assists, most in any NBA Game 1 this weekend, 7 to Horford) and Dennis Schröder weren’t even looking Horford’s way. Even less so Paul Millsap (6-for-11 FGs in 36 minutes, 7 of his 14 points in the first 6 minutes of Game 1), as the desperation to get Kyle Korver (a Durant-envious 0-for-7 3FGs, but 9 rebounds) going from long-range, and Schröder (0-for-6 FGs) going from anywhere, allowed the Celts to get the Hawks’ claws off their necks.

    For much of the national TV audience, this was their first time becoming familiar with a Hawks team that needs Korver’s triples to sustain leads or reduce deficits, but not necessarily to win games. Atlanta finished 5-5 this season when Kold Korver went 0-for-anything, 16-10 when he sunk just one three-point shot.  Usually, it’s because he’s helping in other ways beyond just stretching the floor.

    Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha combined for 22 of Atlanta’s 40 defensive rebounds in Game 1, alleviating Atlanta of the need for Horford and Millsap to seal off all comers around the rim. Eight of Boston’s top nine participants came away with at least one O-Reb, yet that was mostly the product of plenty of long rebounding chances from the Celts’ missed threes. The Celtics made more than twice as many three-pointers (11-for-35 3FGs) as Atlanta (5-for-27 3FGs), but missed a couple more than the off-target Hawks did.

    Keeping the Hawks down from downtown becomes much more of an uphill battle without Boston’s premier perimeter defender available. Avery Bradley (out with a strained hamstring) not only served that role, but was also the Celts’ most accurate three-point shooter in the backcourt, his 36.1 3FG% a shade ahead of top-scorer Isaiah Thomas’ 35.9%. Stevens will green-light Olynyk (40.5 3FG%), if available, and Jonas Jerebko (39.8 3FG%) to help keep Boston relevant from deep.

    Stevens will also deploy his rookies, Georgia State alum R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier, as an offense/defense rotation off the bench. Hunter is thrilled about the prospect of making an impact in his first NBA playoff series. “I don’t have any fear of anyone in the league right now,” said Hunter, a beneficiary of lunchtime collegiate tutorials from Korver and visits from his fellow high school alum, Teague, while at GSU.

    “I think right now, especially with the Hawks, how they cram into the paint, I can definitely be that spacer.” Hunter contributed his momentary career-high 12 points in a rookie-high 20 minutes during a November 24 loss in Atlanta, and is 6-for-8 on threes in four games against the Hawks.

    Defensively, the top Sixth Man of the Year vote-getter in the East, Evan Turner, and flop-meister Marcus Smart will be relied upon to reach a bit deeper into their bags of tricks. Turner (4-for-13 FGs in Game 1) knows from past experience that he’d best leave the defensive assignment of Teague to Smart. He’ll try to do a better job of fronting Bazemore (probable, knee stiffness), Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (fully-healed groin strain), while getting help from Jae Crowder (limited laterally while recovering from an ankle sprain during the regular season).

    “Guys like (Bazemore), we gotta try to limit them,” said Thomas. “We can’t have guys like that having big games. That hurts us if we have guys like Teague and those guys going off and then a guy like Bazemore is going off as well.”

    When called upon, Mike Scott has to play every NBA game as though it’s his last, as he knows it might well be. Scott, who certainly qualifies as one of Thomas’ “guys like that,” was the only difference-maker for the Hawks off the bench (14 points and 5 boards in 18 minutes, 2-for-4 3FGs). Head coach Mike Budenholzer believes his Hawks can only compete at their optimal best when there’s a strong, balanced bench effort supporting the starters.

    Schröder finished third in 6MOY voting among the East’s bench men, and fifth among NBA guards. But Budenholzer needs his top reserve to focus on on-ball defense first (especially when matched up against Thomas or Turner), setting up teammates second, and hero-ball forays to the hoop last.

    After struggling for much of the past couple weeks (last 7 games: 30.0 FG%, 1.4 D-Rebs per game in 10.3 minutes/game), Kris Humphries (DNP in Game 1 and in the Wizards-Hawks series last year) may be getting preserved for crunch-time situations when a veteran presence is needed in the paint. Or, he may have been brought in with the intention all along to boost the confidence of Mike Muscala, who appeared briefly in Game 1. Either way, both bigs have to be ready to produce, as the Celtics throw out everything they have trying to get Millsap (1 steal, 3 blocks, 1 personal fouls) and Horford in foul trouble.
    Horford was called for his third and final foul of the game with under two minutes to go, an event Stevens hopes will arrive earlier tonight (Tony Brothers, please help!). Atlanta could not capitalize on Boston’s tempo-thwarting hack-fest early in the third-quarter of Game 1. But by the time the dust settled, the Hawks had 11 more free throw points than the Celtics, despite missing 5 more attempts than Boston. Boston disallowed any field goals in the final two minutes, but Horford, Bazemore, and Teague making 8 of their final 10 freebies helped make the outcome academic.

    Any time your color analyst leaves viewers yearning for the likes of Dominique Wilkins, you’ve got issues. Those Hawks fans stuck settling for the CSN New England broadcast of Game 2 wouldn’t mind a steadier and better-balanced effort from Atlanta, one that leaves Tommy Heinsohn tearing out whatever hair he can still reach.

     
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “So glad my Dad’s buddy’s favorite player wasn’t Etan Thomas!”

     

    First things first. As Chris Hardwick says near the end of every @midnight show, “Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe…”

    What you’ve accomplished, or didn’t, since Halloween doesn’t matter. Who you defeated, or didn’t, or couldn’t, doesn’t mean a thing. Nor does whatever it is you achieved last year.

    You’re the Atlanta Hawks. All that matters is, you worked to earn first-round homecourt in the NBA Playoffs, and now you’ve got it. Game 1 is here. Your Hawkamaniacs are right here in The Highlight Factory, rocking the Volt Green and ready to shout their lungs out. And you’ve got the Boston Celtics (7:00, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Go app, ESPN if thou must) in your house. Whatcha gonna do, brudders?

    Now, if I may, full disclosure.

    As a result of countless movie-night duties from my drunken fratboy era, I devolved into becoming quite the kickfighting flick aficionado. I’m not even talking about quality Shaw Brothers stuff, with the white-bearded kung fu masters and dudes yapping in hilariously delayed overdubs while flipping around in yellow jumpsuits. I’m talking Psycho Burmese Ninja Kickboxer 12 here. I’m told there’s therapy for this sort of thing.

    This is all Ralph Macchio’s fault, you see. It all started innocently enough, mimicking the Rocky formula to wax-on wax-off success as The Karate Kid. But then, Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, messed around and franchised it. Soon, along came the Muscles from Brussels, knocking ‘em out the box while doing splits everywhere. Suddenly, everyone who can scratch their ear with their pinky toe fashioned themselves as America’s Next Action Film Star.

    After three, or three hundred, of these films, you grow inured to the copy-paste formula of this fluff. Take some Euro-American black-belt in reality who’s not wild about the prospect of one day waking up as a 50-year-old point fighter, and dress him up as some jamoke who’s down on his luck.

    Have him run into a past-his-prime Mister Miyagi guy who’s got no more protégés since his dojo’s been trashed by some bad gang, the same head-busters who’ve been bullying the sad sap hero around the neighborhood. Enter the dimepiece, a Pearl Pureheart who empathizes with the hero’s plight but manages to get abducted by the baddies. To save the damsel-in-distress and win her heart, the hero and his meek yet vengeful master team up, the hero willingly enduring one arduous exercise after the next to “toughen up” while taking random Fortune Cookie advice to heart.

    The underdog hero gets the job done, eventually, but not until he backflips his way through the adversity of dozens of competitors interlocked in some sort of super-double-secret, inter-disciplinary, multi-national brawl. A tournament, held in an underground lair that somehow pays its electric and sewer bills but nobody sane knows about, owned by a megalomaniac with hundreds of bloodthirsty fans as his gambling buddies. Conceptually, this was what passed for MMA in the days before MMA.

    From one flick to the next, in the middle of the movies, you begin to notice the very same guys getting their heads beat in. These are happily paid stuntfighters, experts at turning an absorbed kick into a triple salchow before going splat on the mat. Their sole raison d’être is to make The Big Hero, and The Big Villain, look unstoppably good. And their characters are hopelessly done in by predictable fatal flaws. Who told the Scottish dude to show up in a kilt? Sumo-dude, TKD-kicker-dude, seriously, diversify your skillsets, please!

    There’s often the friendly drunken sidekick who thinks he’s just as good without working half as hard, whose snapped neck becomes just one more thing the hero has to get vengeance for. There’s usually the street-toughened ex-ex-ex-con, who never seems to figure out winding up punches from behind his head has disastrous consequences. There’s always the capoeira master who flips all around the cage but, sadly, thinks leaping into the spine-crushing arms of his behemoth foe is a splendid idea.

    The stuntfighters are all incredibly talented, hard-workers at their crafts, unquestionably athletic, occasionally entertaining, and ultimately grist for the mill. They’re fast-forwardable opponents serving as filler for the middle of any random 90-minute flick, mere agents for the attempt to keep viewers tuned in for the real showdown that awaits them before the credits roll. There’s no need to care about the stuntfighters' story arcs, because they won’t be upright much longer. I identify our latter-day Hawks with these guys.

    We’re heading into our ninth consecutive year of watching the Hawks enter the NBA’s Kumite, and, yes, “Two Teams Enter, That Other Team Leaves” is the likely eventual result. But, at least for once, I’d enjoy it if these Hawks were unafraid to diverge from the script a little.  Atlanta has faced 13 opponents over eight seasons, each one taking at least two games from the Hawks during their 7-game series. The core of the team has done this postseason thingie for a few years together now, suffering through plenty of beatdowns, and putting up with a lot of junk along the way. I’d like to see Atlanta discover its Johnny Badass gene.
    I’ve got no expectations of being the Big Hero everybody pulls for. But the best butt-whooping flicks always has that moment where it’s looking like things might not shake out for the scripted hero, who’s forced to do something... well, heroic… to save the day. That’s because of a Big Villain that earned his world-beater status. It sure would be fun to see our Hawks become Bolo Yeung, or Sho’Nuff, or Goro, or the dude who fights in a kimono that breaks out the bear claw where his hand used to be. No, they won’t be The Last Dragon standing. But by now, why can’t our Hawks be Cobra Kai? Sweep The Freaking Leg, Jeffy!

    Swagger, without the necessary skills, leaves you like the 2008 Hawks, going bravely and literally head-to-head with opponents, even when everyone sees you are not on their level. Skills, without accompanying swag, leave you like the 2009 and 2010 Hawks, or like last year’s edition, a mightily-crafted sandcastle just waiting to be kicked into nothingness by some basketball bullies. It’s merely a matter of pulling the two components together.

    These Hawks clearly have the skills. They’ve bringing probably the second-best defense in franchise history (oh, those ill-fated 1999 Hawks) to the table, plus an offense that, while off-kilter from time to time, has but one NBA Champion peer when it comes to sharing the basketball and creating assist-worthy shots.

    In fits and starts, the swagger is coming along as well. Few young players have the brazen, unshakeable confidence of Atlanta’s top sixth man, arguably one of the best bench threats the NBA East has to offer. Mix his fastball in with the sliders and knuckleballs expertly lobbed by battle-tested vets Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap, and you’ve got a rotation that could even help the Bravos win a series or two. The point guard Dennis understudies, Teague is quick to remind everybody who is too small or too slow to stop him for getting to the hoop.

    The most effective Villains don’t allow middling, inferior opponents any oxygen, no daylight to shine. That has long been Atlanta’s issue no matter where they’ve been seeded. From Delonte West and Rashard Lewis, to Brandon Jennings and John Salmons, to Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavannoya, they all used the Hawks in their quest to emerge as America’s Next Big Clutch Playoff Performer.

    Their presence in Hawks series have that uncanny way of making you want to add the warning, “THESE OPPONENTS ARE CRAPPIER THAN THEY APPEAR”, at the bottom of your screens. Players who either are looking for a fat new contract, or justifying one they recently got, have long used the Playoff Hawks as the palette for their Rembrandts. The Celtics are loaded with these kinds of guys.

    NBA All-Homonym First-Teamer Isaiah Thomas (career-high 22.2 PPG) is poised for a big household-name breakout. The Little Engine that Could became a Bullet Train in just his fifth NBA season.  The 2011 second-rounder reestablished himself as a starting-quality guard in November, and has rewarded the Celtics with All-Star virtuoso performances ever since.

    His starting backcourt mate, Avery Bradley (career-best 15.2 PPG, 1.5 SPG), is hoping to cement his place as the league’s preeminent perimeter defender. So is Bradley’s teammate, Marcus Smart. Until the rest of his game picks up (25.3 3FG%, passing Toine 2000 and Smoove 2014 for worst 3FG% with at least 200 attempts), Smart will settle for making a name for himself as the league’s youngest team enforcer and crap-stirrer.

    Center Jared Sullinger (career-high 8.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG) seeks to shed not just a pound or two, but his sullied reputation as a player whose conditioning issues might weigh him down from ever achieving NBA greatness. Considering some Boston-area sportsmen, he’s thrilled that NBA uniforms don’t come equipped with belts. Kelly Olynyk wants to be known as anything other than the Poor Man’s Fabio that kimura’d Kevin Love right out of the 2015 playoffs.

    Tyler Zeller hopes to join Sullinger in restricted free agency, and stout playoff performances off the bench may lead to some nice summertime offers. It’s a similar deal for Evan Turner, who continues trying to show his 2014 comments about his former teammate Korver’s defensive skills weren’t hypocritical.

    No one is questioning Amir Johnson’s two-year, $24 million deal, and he wants to keep it that way (68.2 FG%, 8.2 RPG since March 15) after a strong end-of-season push. Villa Rican forward Jae Crowder (career-best 14.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG) got his five-year, $35 million contract last summer, too, and wants to foster the indispensable glue-guy love DeMarre Carroll created last year during the Hawks’ campaign.

    All of these aspirations have been well-managed by their young mad-scientist head coach Brad Stevens, who The Vertical just yesterday touted, “might be the NBA’s next great coach.” Stevens joins reigning Coach of the Year (for another couple days) Mike Budenholzer in setting up players for career-years without an overreliance on individual players dominating the ball.

    There are so many hopes for a rise to prominence, a return to glory, up in Beantown. And yet, Stevens’ crew is still looking for their first playoff game victory today. That’s because they ran right into The Big Villain in 2015, LeBron’s Cavs outpacing the Celtics 4-0 in the opening-round series, despite losing Love, before going on to steamroll the Hawks along the path to The Finals.

    The Hawks have the tools to close the door on Boston’s aspirations, and to keep the door sealed shut. They can do many of the things the Celtics do very well (perimeter defense, transition scoring, passing offense, efficient point guard play, floor-stretching frontcourt play) and can often do it better. Integral to the Hawks getting their Tong Po on in this series is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shot-blocker, and ball-stealer.

    This will be the third-straight postseason in Atlanta for do-it-all Paul Millsap, and it is past time to see Playoff Paul (40.4 FG% last 2 playoff years; 15.2 PPG and 8.7 RPG in 2015) at least resembling Regular Season Paul (51.2 2FG%, 17.1 PPG, career-high 9.0 RPG), a three-time All-Star. Millsap and Al Horford need to dominate their matchups in the post and around the perimeter, relying on help rebounding from the wing players to capitalize upon their unique help-defender skills.

    The more effective Millsap, Horford and ex-Celtic Kris Humphries are on the interior, and the more efficient Korver, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (game-time decision, participated in shootaround today despite his strained groin) and Kent Bazemore are with perimeter jumpers, the less confident Thomas and Smart will be containing Teague and Schröder in space.

    The pace that both coaches preach will make games in this series wild-and-wooly for long stretches, as was often the case during the regular season. The Celtics’ regular season ended well, but only after a 62-36 first-half deficit versus Miami, a decisive 39-13 second-quarter hole at home against Charlotte, and a 51-36 second half deficit in this same building that muted a 71-point first-half effort by the C’s. Boston goes on big runs, but they give up as many as they get.

    Point guard stewardship can make the difference for Atlanta, who must build more sustainable runs to keep Boston out of reach at the ends of games. Schröder, in particular, must cut down on turnovers and hurried shots while disallowing Smart from getting under his skin.

    Armed with a healthy Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta must stem Boston’s desire for runouts off turnovers and bailout shots by Thomas. Long-rebound chances will abound from a Celtics team that shot the third-worst percentage on three-pointers (33.5 3FG%, 28th in NBA), so limiting Johnson, Smart and Sullinger from producing second-chances will go a long way toward cutting off the air for the Celtics (25.1 O-Reb%, 2nd-highest in East).

    Booted in the past two postseasons by the #1 seed, the Hawks have sufficient know-how to understand what they need to do to win playoff games, along with knowing what not to do, as well as just about anyone in the Eastern Conference field, certainly enough to leave these less-experienced Celtics green with envy.

    The NBA world is ready to fast-forward straight through these NBA Playoffs in anticipation of Golden State versus Cleveland at the end. The Big Hero, against The Big Villain: a tale as old as time. Watching their ninth sequel, rather than enduring another bloody ending, it would be a lot of fun for Atlanta fans if their Hawks can figure out a way to flip the script.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “OMG… Playing time!"
     
     
    One more dress rehearsal to go before the playoffs! Our Atlanta Hawks get one more crack at the Washington Wizards in Our Nation’s Capital (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Mid-Atlantic) before sending them packing for an early summer. But any notions that the Wiz that do show up are merely going to lay down and die and have nothing left to play for are, at best, premature.
    Randy Wittman could probably be seen checking out the card stock options at FedEx Kinko’s in the middle of the night. The coach is in his fifth and likely final season at the helm in D.C., and he’ll be hoping not only to avoid his 200th loss as Wizards coach (alongside 177 wins), he’ll want to go out at least saying he lugged this team (40-41) to a .500-or-better record for the third-consecutive season.
    For Wittman, the writing in on his star point guard: John Wall, who isn’t likely to be giving him a warm sendoff anytime soon. Wall reportedly clashed with, and cussed at, Wittman and his teammates prior to the team’s postseason-eliminating loss last week in Detroit. While the report was from Peter Vecsey, thereby grain-of-salt rules applying, and the Washington Post got a denial of the report directly from Wall (“I’ve never cussed my teammates out.”), there was some admission-by-omission going on as it pertains to the coaching staff.
    Wall will sit out for a fifth straight game tonight with knee soreness. Bradley Beal sat out the Wizards’ last win on Monday in Brooklyn with a pelvis injury, and the future max-contract target is doubtful to appear on the Verizon Center floor as well. The team went ahead and saved them both (and perhaps Wittman) the trouble, by shifting exit interviews for the season to tonight, postgame, rather than tomorrow. Ted Leonsis, what’s the hurry?
    The absence of the Wizards’s top two scorers for the season denouement means it’ll be peanut-butter-jelly-time for a host of underutilized young players and upcoming free agents, all hopeful to give NBA employers reasons to suit them up next fall.
    Marcus Thornton (23 points in 23 mins., 5-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 23), we know what you’re up to. Cut it out! Alan Anderson (questionable with an ankle issue), you already had your fun last year against us with the Nyets. Nene, Jared Dudley, J.J. Hickson, and Drew Gooden? Stop clowning. Ramon Sessions (21 points, 12 assists in place of Wall vs. BRK on Monday), momentary Hawk Jarell Eddie, and Garrett Temple? Don’t y’all even start!
    By way of Mr. McMillen Going to Washington, Wittman came to Atlanta as a fresh-faced Hoosier back in 1983, barely a week after being drafted by the Bullets in the draft, and provided five solid seasons as a two-guard during the Hawks’ rise back to relevancy. For that reason, Atlanta is likely to be among the first places he’ll look to for a bounce-back gig, whether it’s in media or the front office. He’s not the only person subject to a draft-time deal between these two clubs.
    It’s not you, Kelly Oubre, Jr., it’s us. In our effort to get a more seasoned wing prospect, we sent you to D.C. and passed up on a fellow rookie, Jerian Grant as well. Game 82 is always that time for a Jared Cunningham or two to go off. But Tim Hardaway (15.0 PPG, 57.9 FG%, 46.2 3FG% during March back-to-backs vs. WAS) is the Junior we need playing eye-popping minutes from tonight, not you. After getting doghoused for much of the year by Wittman, and going 6-for-10 shooting against the Nets, we know there’s a breakout game left in you, Kelly. Would you mind saving that for Summer League? kthx…
    Markieff Morris (16.9 points per-36, same as in Phoenix; 46.7 FG%, 31.6 3FG% in WAS) fell short in his bid to Prove People Wrong. But before he kicks back to watch his twin balling out in the playoffs for Detroit, Keef (rested against the Nets on Monday) plans to showcase himself as an incumbent starter for next season, at least providing a reminder as to why it was worth the risk of passing up a first-rounder this summer.
    Center Marcin Gortat and Oubre will join Morris, Beal and Wall as the likely returnees laying out the welcome mat for an inspired new head coach… and at least one, still-hopefully-motivated, new free agent. Kevin Durant, all of this could be yours!
    The Hawks will spend much of the night playing Whack-a-Mole with whatever lineups Wittman casually throws out on the court during his probable going-away party. While the Wizards individually strive to Get Mine on every possession, Atlanta (48-33) needs to remain true to their fundamentals.
    Forcing turnovers and converting on transition opportunities, open three-point jumpers (3-for-22 3FGs by the non-Bazemores), and free throws (8-for-15 FTs) were elements sorely missing during their rout at the hands of the Cavs’ Big Three on Monday.
    In Cleveland, Kent Bazemore looked like the prank victim that runs out on the floor unaware that his teammates were hiding back in the tunnel. The less wear-and-tear he has to put on his sore knee, the better equipped he’ll be for Game 1 of the playoffs, so major production out of Hardaway, Mike Scott, along with Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha in short stints, will be critical tonight.
    A second consecutive “division” title for the franchise, for the first time since 1961, is not outside the realm of possibility, and the Hawks could fall prey to scoreboard-watching as the game goes on. But these Hawks have to show maturity, focusing on the task at hand, rather than the tasks that await.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “What’s our play been looking like, lately? Depends.”


     
    Does momentum matter? The Atlanta Hawks have been playing like it does, indeed, winners of their past three and closing strong in the face of a daunting second-half schedule. Their hosts tonight and the last team to beat them, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio), could sorely borrow some of that momentum.
    There are just two regular season games remaining, and defending Eastern Conference champ Cleveland (56-24) still hasn’t clinched the top seed. The team breathing down their necks, Toronto (54-26), has only white-flag-waving Philadelphia and Brooklyn left on their slate, and the Raptors hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Cavs likely have to clinch the #1 seed either tonight, or on Wednesday against Detroit, their possible opening-round opponents.
    Cleveland has swung-and-missed in their last two attempts to lock that #1-seed down. Head coach Tyronn Lue rested LeBron James on Wednesday in playoff-hungry Indiana, and the tandem of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love could do little to hold back Paul George and company. In what may ring familiar to Hawks fans, the Pacers (another possible Cavs first-round opponent) rang up 70 first-half points (61.9 FG%, 53.8 3FG%) on The James-less Gang. By night’s end, Indiana outscored the Cavs 46-32 in the paint and got 50 of their whopping 123 points from their bench players.
    After a couple days rest, LeBron was back. This time, they were presented a chance to eliminate another Central Division rival, a Chicago Bulls team that has been largely left for dead. Instead, what should have been an improved bench unit was quadrupled in scoring by Chicago’s reserves (44-11) in a 105-102 primetime loss. Despite James’ 33 points (13-for-17 FGs, 4-for-5 3FGs) and the perimeter shooting of Love and J.R. Smith (combined 11-for-23 3FGs), the Cavs stumbled in the final quarter, three critical turnovers from Irving amid a 15-4 run helping the Bulls turn the tables and momentarily salvage their season.
    “I was just really (kinda rhymes with “pretty,” but kinda means the opposite) with the basketball,” Irving acknowledged to the Plain Dealer after the game. “I’ve just got to do a better job of leading that second unit, especially with LeBron and Kevin on the bench.” Irving understands that, for Cleveland, jacking up long-distance shots (29.8 team 3FG attempts per game, 3rd in NBA) will prove futile on many nights if there aren’t enough accompanying defensive stops.
    While Golden State at least has an NBA record worth chasing, it has to be unnerving that the East’s leaders aren’t yet able to rest their stars ahead of the postseason. While last year’s top-seed, Atlanta, wrapped things up well before April Fool’s Day despite some late-season struggles, the Cavaliers may have to do it this year while scrambling to finish their 1040s. To get it done tonight, or Wednesday, it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by Cleveland’s first unit, as their reserve options were thinned even more today.
    The Cavs will have to catch The Big Mo without the little Mo around to help. Maurice Williams is taking a trip to Dr. James Andrews’ Pensacola office, to see what can be done about his lingering knee issue before the playoffs begin. Also sitting out the final two games is starting two-guard Iman Shumpert, who had his knee drained and will rest to alleviate inflammation and soreness.
    Discounting little-used center Sasha Kaun and swingman Jordan McRae (both soon headed to a D-League Playoff assignment), that should leave the Cavs 10-deep going into tonight’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. Tristan Thompson (five O-Rebs, 1-for-6 FTs @ ATL on Apr. 1) replaced Shumpert in the lineup against Chicago, leaving Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, James Jones, Channing Frye and Timofey Mozgov to go against the Hawks. Lue intends to start Thompson primarily at the five going forward, creating mostly big matchups that keep James on the hunt for mismatches at the wing.
    On paper, the Cavs’ backcourt struggles should translate into more good news for Dennis Schröder, who reinvigorated his offense during a thrilling 118-107 win at the Highlight Factory on Saturday night. Schröder and the Atlanta bench (incl. Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Scott) contributed just 16 cumulative points on 5-for-19 shooting, plus one steal, 3 assists and 8 turnovers during Cleveland’s visit to Philips Arena on April 1, and they must make amends tonight.
    Jeff Teague will be counted upon to bring the same intensity to his matchup tonight that he brought to the table against Irving (5-for-23 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 1), Kyle Lowry (6-for-15 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 7), and Isaiah Thomas (6-for-19 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 9). Teague’s last six games include averages of 23.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, and just 2.2 TOs/game, while shooting 50.0 FG% (47.8 3FG%) and sinking 28 of 30 free throws.
    The Hawks’ defense will want to keep Irving off the free throw line, after Kyrie made 8 of 10 freebies (including the decisive five points in the final 20 seconds of overtime) in Atlanta to pad his scoring tally. But Teague and Schröder will also want to force enough contact on drives inside to put pressure on Lue’s frontcourt rotations.
    Atlanta’s point guards keeping Delly and Kyrie occupied on defense all night would be a big help to the Hawks’ frontline, especially Eastern Conference Player of the Week Paul Millsap (last 3 games: 19.0 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 BPG, 48.8 FG%, 46.2 3FG%), who was at once a human dynamo and a human piñata against Boston on Saturday. Sap’s performance against the Cavs on April 1 (29 points, 12 rebounds, in a 110-108 OT loss) suggests he may finally be shedding the hex that Cavalier defenders Tristan Thompson and James have had on him.
    Shumpert’s absence should also create more daylight for Kyle Korver, who was mostly absent from the scoreboard on Saturday but drew enough attention in the second half to keep the Hawks offense flowing. Korver hit 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the second half on April 1, helping the Hawks salt away a 14-point halftime deficit.
    Defensive rebounding parity should remain of paramount importance for Al Horford, Millsap, and Humphries, as Love, Thompson and James seek to attack the glass after every missed shot. Sefolosha struggled off the bench trying to help contain James (29 points, 1-for-5 3FGs) and close out along the perimeter in their last meeting.
    Tonight, Sefolosha can help Kent Bazemore (11 D-Rebs and 6 assists vs. CLE on Apr. 1) share box-out duties with the Hawks’ big men. With their boundless activity, both players can also help keep James from piling up fouls and points in transition. Love and Channing Frye will try returning the favor against Atlanta’s floor-spreading offense by taking lots of three-pointers, so the Hawks’ wing players must assist Millsap in securing boards tonight.
    To put a cherry atop the sundae that is Atlanta’s most successful two-season stretch of basketball (108 wins) in franchise history, a win tonight will secure homecourt advantage for the Hawks (48-32) in the first round. There’s no need to wait for Wednesday in Washington to get that done. The Hawks’ ability to nab a victory in the final meeting between these two teams would also leave the clinch-starved folks at The Q rightfully restless about what lies ahead.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “You don’t need your ankles to punch, do ya?”


     
    The Atlanta Hawks have a great chance to firm up first-round homecourt advantage with a win in their regular season home finale versus the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South). But first, may I look ahead for a moment, and indulge you in my annual airing of playoff-time grievances? Lemme go find my red Sam I Am hat…
    I have no appetite for a first-round affair with (other) teams that won’t bring eyeballs to the screen or booties to the seats. None. Yes, Charlotte Hornets, I am looking at youz guyz. An opening round affair between the Hawks and the Hornets is something only The Hoopers’ All-Star family begrudgingly talks about. When multiple games are on, we’ll be the ones relegated to truTV or Destination America or something. “Up next, it’s the Hawks and the Hornets going at it in Game 4… right after the Swamp Loggers marathon!”
    Nobody needs to see another Ex-Hawk Seeks Revenge series in the first round. Yes, Marvin, go spread your wings and fly against somebody else. Then, maybe if we take care of our business, we can meet up in the conference finals.  Joe, again? I’ll go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 if I wanna see a sequel so badly. When’s Ride Along 17 due to come out, anyway?
    To get and keep the basketball world’s attention, the Hawks have to slay a sacred cow. And there’s no more blessed bovine in the first-round to turn into roast beef than the ones donning Celtic green.
    Eleven times, the Hawks and Celtics have met up for a postseason series. Ten times, the Hawks’ season ended there. That includes nine times, since our franchise’s title year of 1958, that Boston sent either St. Louis or Atlanta packing for the summer. But for Bill Russell spraining his ankle in Game 3 and Bob Pettit going bananas in Game 6 of the ’58 Finals, this might still be a clean sweep. There’s no better time than the present to break a longstanding Hawks Hex.
    There are no Larry Legends, Hondo Havliceks, or Ratface Pierces in the way this time around, so Boston would need to look to some new heroes to keep the Hawks caged. Isaiah Thomas sure fits the part. He is making his final charge for an All-NBA lower-team nod (Atlanta’s Paul Millsap has a decent shot, too), and he’s making his closing statement with guns-a-blazing.
    Only Larry and Havlicek have ever turned in a Celtics season with 1600 points and 500 assists, and seven more dimes tonight ascends IT into that lofty realm. When it comes to averaging at least 22.0 PPG and 6.0 APG while committing less than 3.0 TOs per game, this season, Thomas sits in a class by himself. Not too shabby for a guy who was Mister Irrelevant in the 2011 NBA Draft.
    To get the end-of-season accolades Thomas craves, it helps a ton if his team is playing Games 1 and 2 of the opening round at home. And that makes tonight’s tussle with Jeff Teague and company very important. The Hawks and the Celtics (both 47-32) now control their destinies for securing the 3-seed and 4-seed (Thank you, Orlando! Keep that up, please!), but that could change again for whoever comes up on the short end of the stick tonight, with Charlotte and Miami nipping at their heels.
    Thomas could barely miss last night (7-for-9 FGs, 5-for-5 FTs) against the Bucks at The Gahden, but Tyler Zeller was the big exceller (26 points, 4 blocks) for the Celts, as coach Brad Stevens unleashed his bench on Milwaukee. Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (16 points, 5-for-5 FGs) pounded the Bucks’ bewildered interior as Thomas was able to turn distributive duties over to reserves Evan Turner and Marcus Smart (9 assists apiece). All six of Boston’s steals on the evening were produced by bench players.
    Starting forward and glue-guy Jae Crowder is returning to form after rehabbing from an ankle injury last month. And Turner is getting accustomed to goggles after a gnarly eye injury (“I thought that bad boy came out!”, he said) that he suffered on Sunday against the Lakers. It will help Atlanta’s cause if Kent Bazemore (stiff knee, gametime decision) can help Teague and Thabo Sefolosha chase Thomas off the ball.
    Having defensive savants Smart (0-for-2 FGs but +24 in 27 minutes last night vs. MIL) and Avery Bradley available helps Boston keep opposing guards like Kyle Korver and Junior Hardaway (7-for-13 3FGs vs. TOR on Thursday) cool from outside. That wasn’t a problem for the Hawks in their last game versus the Celtics, way back on December 18. Atlanta shot just 4-for-20 on threes but still used a 38-28 fourth quarter to prevail, 109-101. The game was apt as a microcosm of the season for Atlanta (51.6 eFG%, second-best in East; 103.1 O-Rating, 17th in NBA), where they’ve still pulled out victories down the stretch even when their perimeter-shooting as a team has been underwhelming.
    Thomas was able to feast from the free throw line (14-for-15 FTs) in that game, and finished with 29 points. But the Celtics were unable to do what they do best, forcing turnovers, from the Hawks (23 assists, 12 player TOs). They were also incapable of holding back either Millsap (20 points, 6-for-10 2FGs, 8-for-10 FTs) or Al Horford (21 points, 10-for-17 2FGs, 10 rebounds, 3 swats) inside, the dynamic duo combining to make 10 of 13 shot attempts in the restricted area alone.
    Unlike the Hawks, who went after former Celtic Kris Humphries, Boston made no moves to bolster the quality of their interior play since the two teams last met (unless you count their waiving of David Lee). Atlanta’s frontcourt trio plus The Mikes (Scott, 11 points and 7 boards in 14 minutes vs. TOR, and Muscala) must put the Celtics bigs (namely, Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger, both rested after logging under 20 minutes last night vs. MIL, plus Olynyk and Zeller) to work defensively.
    That will make life easier for Teague (last 5 games: 23.0 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 44.4 3FG%), Dennis Schröder, and the wings as they try to make productive plays from outside the paint. Look for Millsap (last 8 games: 11.8 RPG, 2.9 offensive) to make boxing out miserable for a Celtics squad that allows 14.3 second-chance PPG (4th-most in NBA; Atlanta’s 13.1 opponent PPG ranks 14th-most).
    Shut out of the scoring column during the Hawks’ big win against Toronto, Schröder has been lounging in more ways than one lately (last 4 games: 6.0 PPG, 20.0 FG%, 11.1 3FG%, 2.3 APG, 3.8 TO/game). But it was his spark off the bench (team-high 22 points, two of the Hawks’ four 3FGs, 5 assists and no TOs, 4 steals), not the struggling Teague’s play, that allowed the Hawks to storm ahead in the fourth quarter in Boston back in December.
    Getting Schröder off the schneid is imperative for enhancing the Hawks’ postseason prospects, and it’s going to take much more than un-blonding the ‘DS’ in his hair. Dennis does have to cease the reversion to driving full-bore into defensive fly traps and jump-passing the ball into the waiting arms of the enemy. But his teammates have to use more motion to get open for outlet passes, drawing defenders out of driving lanes. Static positioning whenever Schröder is pounding the ball makes his next moves more predictable for his opponents.
    Despite Atlanta’s careful play in the December 18 contest, this should be another wild, high-paced game, featuring two teams that thrive on turnover-transition offense. The Celtics’ pace (101.2 possessions per-48) ranks 1st in the East, while Atlanta’s ranks 4th (99.2) and second among playoff teams. Boston’s net of +3.9 PPG off TOs this season leads the NBA, and the Hawks’ +2.7 isn’t far behind. Whichever team provides superior transition defense off of their opponent’s stops will hold the edge for the balance of the contest.
    The last two times the Hawks faced Boston, the Celtics were within a game of Atlanta in the standings. Now they’re statistically tied, and prevailing for the third-straight time in the series would provide just the separation Atlanta needs for the closing run.
    A Hawks W would establish a decisive head-to-head advantage in case of a two-way tiebreaker, and it would bring the Hawks’ in-conference record (currently 28-21, worst among the East’s Top 6) within a game of Boston, who goes home from here to face Charlotte and Miami next week. With a Hawks win tonight in their home finale, I might just get the first-round matchup I’m pulling for. Buzz off, Hornets!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “WE WILL… WE WILL… ROCK YOU!”

     
    As a young Phillies fan, my first real baseball season of conscience was in 1983. Despite a mid-season coaching change, Philadelphia got their bleep together, won 90 games, and claimed the National League East pennant. One problem though. Dale Murphy’s Bravos fell short of a repeat division crown out West, probably thanks to the Dodgers winning 11 of 12 games during the regular season against the Phillies. 11 to 1! How in the world would Philly have a chance in the NLCS, after being dominated by L.A. all year long?
    Well, a homer from Sarge Matthews here, a few Ks from Steve Carlton there, bada-boom, bada-bing, and the Phils found themselves back in the Fall Classic. In a head-to-head series, bada-boom, bada-bing is all it takes sometimes to turn the tables.
    I’m reminded of those Phightin’ Phils as the sun sets on the Atlanta Hawks’ regular season. Winning three straight last season against Cleveland, while shooting a scintillating 55 percent from the field, had no bearing whatsoever on the confidence the Cavaliers exuded rolling into Atlanta for the conference finals.
    By the same token, the Hawks need not be cowed by tonight’s visitors to the Highlight Factory, the Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, TSN), even though Dwane Casey’s club has bested Mike Budenholzer’s in eight of their last ten meetings, including four straight.
    Whether or not the Raps extend that streak to five shouldn’t matter one bit to the Hawks if these teams are fortunate enough to meet in a later round, which would be a first for Toronto since 2001. Confidence-building is fine and all, but there is much more to play for at this stage of the season, for both teams.
    After sitting LeBron and falling in Indiana last night, Cleveland still isn’t done sewing up pole position in the East. The Raptors (52-25) can move within 2.5 games behind the Cavs with four games left to play if they prevail tonight. After hosting those Pacers tomorrow, their final three come against the Knicks, Sixers, and Nets. So a sweep of likely playoff foes on back-to-back nights would put a lot of pressure on LeBron and Company to pull through. One slip, and any dreams of hosting Game 1 of the ECFs would be kaput.
    GM Masai Ujiri has no plans to type up War and Peace-style farewell manifestos anytime soon. But a third consecutive first-round postseason loss could imperil his status going forward, along with that of Casey. Toronto has been known to can people (looking at you, Butch Carter and Sam Mitchell) for far less significant shortcomings. Unlike the Raps’ previous GM, Ujiri doesn’t have a daddy to hook up a new cushy NBA gig for him.  He and Casey recognize that drawing an 8-seed that probably just backed their way into the postseason could lessen the likelihood of disaster striking.
    As for the Hawks (46-32), they have no looming issues to worry about in the front office, only on the floor and in the standings. Atlanta doesn’t control it’s own destiny for the third and fourth-seeds, as it has to wrest it from Boston (their opponents on Saturday) and Miami. They got no help, Magic Number-wise, last night from their conference colleagues. So when it comes to first-round homecourt advantage, if you need a job to get done, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
    After allowing Phoenix to wear itself ragged for a full quarter on Tuesday night, the Hawks turned on the defensive jets and cooled off the Suns for a 103-90 victory. A 59-34 second half all but erased memories of the opening quarter, when Devin Booker, Ronnie Price, Archie Goodwin, Mirza Teletovic, and The Gorilla where plopping threes from all over the floor.
    It’s in those opening quarters where the Hawks look like a team that’s feeling out their opponents, and come away looking like they just bearhugged a cactus. Atlanta’s +11.1 net rating in fourth quarters leads the NBA (by comparison, Toronto’s +6.6 ranks third), and their +5.7 in third quarters leads the East. But that per-possession advantage dwindles to a modest +2.0 in second quarters and +1.0 in first quarters (both ratings 11th in NBA) this season.
    The Hawks have played close-to-the-vest from the jump against Toronto this season, but they haven’t scored more than 21 first-quarter points in their three meetings, and have been outscored 61-48 in second quarters in their last two meetings. A strong first-half start will be crucial to keeping the Raptors at bay by the close of the contest.
    Toronto knows how to get it done. On Tuesday night, they held the visiting Hornets to 16 points in the first frame, widened their lead to 14 by halftime, to 19 in the third-quarter, and never relented even against a fourth-quarter rally from Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker to salt the Raptor lead down to single digits. It was a similar deal last week when Atlanta came to Air Canada Centre. Toronto held the Hawks to 20 points in the first quarter, expanded the lead to 13 by halftime, and pulled ahead by 24 at the outset of the fourth before the Hawks’ bench corps arrived to make the final outcome look respectable.
    To get the ball rolling offensively, Atlanta needs to spread the Raptor defense out by sending shooters to the corners. Toronto foes shoot an NBA-high 44.9 3FG% from the left corner, 39.4% from the right. Drawing the Raptors’ defensive bigs out of the paint can open up cuts from the perimeter and weakside.
    The Hawks starters must produce when Jeff Teague serves up the ball, most especially Paul Millsap, who had a whale of a game during the comeback against Phoenix (17 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks) but has been next to invisible offensively against all season (season-low 84 O-Rating vs. TOR; 11.0 PPG, 9-for-23 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs). With Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola piling up points for the Raptors, Sap has to be much more than a rebounding presence tonight.
    Phoenix isn’t a strong 3-point shooting unit, but Toronto is (36.9 3FG%, 4th in NBA). Kent Bazemore (17 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals vs. PHX) ceded open shots at the outset to Phoenix, to help with the interior rebounding and defense, but adjusted accordingly as the Hawks turned things around. Tonight, his role needs to be more pronounced around the perimeter, helping to thwart dribble penetration from DeMar DeRozan but also helping Kyle Korver keep hands in the face of Terrence Ross and Norman Powell. And there's no telling what our good friend DeMarre Carroll (inactive since Jan. 3; 37.8 3FG%), finally activated for tonight's action, will bring to the table.
    Millsap must also close out properly on Scola (40.9 3FG%) and Patterson, making boxing out duty for Al Horford and Kris Humphries imperative against a much-improved Jonas Valanciunas (13.7 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) and Bismack Biyombo.
    Toronto may have more TO’s in their name than they allow in a game. The Hawks thrive on transition points off turnovers, but the Raptors have averaged just 12 TOs in their three contests against Atlanta. The Hawks are a mediocre 10-10 when they compel 12 or fewer turnovers, including the 12 committed by Cleveland in their 110-108 OT win at Philips last Friday.
    Eight of those ten Hawks victories had opponents shooting below 40 percent from the field. Toronto, by contrast, shot 45.6 percent, including 11-for-23 on threes in the March 30 game. The Dinos also earned more than double Atlanta’s free throws (28 to 13) in their last meeting.
    The story is always the same defensively. Man defenders have to turn Lowry and DeRozan into volume jumpshooters, and position themselves to force them into either taking inefficient shots, drawing charges or giving up the ball, without committing ticky-tack fouls.
    Despite a poor shooting night in Toronto on March 30 (4-fpr-19 FGs), Lowry scored 7 of his 17 points at the stripe. It was a similar deal for Lowry back on March 10 (6-for-14 FGs, 6-for-8 FTs) during Toronto’s 104-96 win. And during the Raps’ last visit to ATL, Lowry got to the line 12 times, 11 of his makes contributing to a successful 31-point night.
    No matter the recent history between these teams, the Hawks know what it takes to top Toronto on any given night. And they understand how valuable a victory could be as they move toward the end of the season. There’s nothing to it, but to do it.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3