• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    lethalweapon3
     
    “MMM… POLLO A LA PARRILLA! POLLO A LA BARBACOA!!”
     
    Ahead of tonight’s TankWars tilt between the visiting Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California in SAC), let’s take a moment to give it up for Vince Carter. He’s the half-man, half-amazing player-vaulter-turned-Blake-Griffin-troller who is willingly wrapping up season #20… 20!... in Northern California. And, no, he’s not sipping merlot and just taking it all in on the bench with the Warriors.
    With deference to Schoolhouse Rock, and De La Soul, 30 is the Magic Number. Or, at least, it once was. I still recall the glee with which I reported in a 2014 game thread about LeBron James’ 30th birthday party, which was here in Midtown Atlanta a night before he would get DNP’d for a game at Philips Arena. The Chosen One was about to become The Olden One, and I proclaimed James’ forthcoming entry into his fourth decade of life as great news for the rest of the wannabe contenders for his annual Eastern Conference crown. Welp.
    It used to be common understanding that the NBA veteran body breaks down precipitously after crossing the Rubicon into The Big Three-O. Go look at those videos of venerable fellas like Tree Rollins looking like downright geriatric giants in the 90s.  Tom McMillen looked every bit like a senior Congressman from Maryland, even before he got traded by the Hawks to the Bullets in the mid-80s. Carter is now the same age McMillan was, when the latter concluded his time serving… the U.S. House of Representatives!
    Witness even our prime NBA example of Fighting Father Time: Kevin Willis, clinging to dear life in the early 2000s as he tried to keep the folks over at Fernbank from turning him into an exhibit. Back then, even a young Vince Carter had to be looking askance at the graying Dell Curry on the Toronto bench like, “…Dude? Don’t you have some tweens back home to attend to?”
    Well, in this day and age, NBA medical staffs, and dietary and training methods, are way more advanced and personalized. The players are far more cognizant of their abilities to continue making bank if they keep themselves in tip-top athletic condition. No more butter-fried tilapia sandwiches at lunchtime, no more Tractor Traylors and Big Babies, not if you’re going to keep up at the pace these modern-day coaches demand. Players might, indeed, have spent a recent night racing Michael Vick in the parking lot after an eventful evening at Onyx. But you, the average fan, wouldn’t be able to tell either way.
    LeBron, at age 33, is still out here like, “Ladies, look at your man. Now, look at me.” He’s logging an NBA-high 37.2 minutes per game, a shade below his 37.8 MPG from last season. Not that he should have to, but he can, and he is. Oh, and he is still slaying fools, and winning, dropping 35-and-17 on the Raptors last night to lug his Cavs to victory just last night. As for Carter, whose All-Star invites stopped coming at age 30 but still is punching in the clock 11 seasons later, he ushers in an era where we wonder if 40 is even over so much as a mound, to say nothing of a hill any more.
    You know those 90s mixtapes where a young hooper pulls off such a spectacularly audacious play that he sprints out the gym, intending never to be seen on video again? That would have been me down in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, had I gone off a steal and Fosbury Flopped over some 7-foot-3 dude, nearly off-vert, for a jaw-dropping one-handed jam. “Yep. Looks like my work is done here! Meep meep!”
    I’d have Usain Bolted out that arena, and the next you’d hear of me, I’d be retired in the Outback feeding kiwis to koalas. At best, I’d be turning my signature silhouettes into annual big-money sneaker releases – when do those Lethal 14s come out? But, nope, not Vinsanity!
    The guy who, even before that career-defining play, had already terminated the usefulness of any future Dunk Contests, anywhere, instead decided to grace us with his eminence for four-and-a-half more seasons with the Raptors. Then four-and-a-half more in New Jersey. Then a year-and-a-half near his hometown in Orlando, and then a brief run in Phoenix (oh, he’s 34 by then). Then, three seasons in Dallas. Three more in Memphis.
    And now, in Sacramento, rather than ring-chasing, Carter’s dutifully schooling the Kings on how to give one’s best effort regardless of the scoreboard, or the standings, or one’s accomplishments of yore. Vince heads into this summer as a 41-year-old free agent, and yes, he WILL get offers, significantly more than a VetMin. Out here trying to guard Griffin on occasion in the post, and complaining only to the refs about it, Vince (18.9 MPG in last five games; 48.0 2FG%, highest since 2007-08) is showing us that 40 is The New 30. LeBron might show us that 50 is The New 30, when all is said and done.
    Carter wasn’t on the floor back on November 15, when the Hawks raised their record to a dangerous 3-12 with a resounding 126-80 win over the Kings at Philips Arena. Atlanta pummeled a starting lineup that featured another O.G. in Zach Randolph, plus George Hill, rookie gunner Bogdan Bogdanovic, Garrett Temple, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Z-Bo and Stick Willie remain among the starters, but Randolph (stomach bug) will not play. Second-year pro Skal Labissiere is most likely to join a green first line loaded with yung’uns for Coach Dave Joerger, inclusive of rookie De-Aaron Fox and sophomore Buddy Hield.
    At this level of hoops, team shooting splits of 40.4/27.3/73.7 are usually an automatic addition to the L column. Yet two nights ago in SLC, wunderkind Dennis Schröder (13-for-21 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs) picked-and-rolled apart the vaunted defense of the Utah Jazz.
    Dennis plopping a career-best 41 points (most by any road Hawk since Shareef back in December 2003) on the hapless Ricky Rubio and Friends was just enough to lift the Hawks – without Kent Bazemore, with Taurean Prince shooting 3-for-13 from the field, with Mike Muscala in place of the injured John Collins, with the soon-expiring 10-day pickup Damion Lee in the starting lineup, with random cats named Dorsey, Taylor, White, Plumlee, and Cavanaugh coming off the bench – to a 99-94 victory over a team trying to win their tenth-straight NBA game. At least, we think the Jazz were trying to win. It’s kinda late to start tanking now.
    Tonight’s pressing question for Joerger’s staff is, who is their Schroderstopper? Fox, the rookie whose DRPM (-2.87) is about as awful as Dennis’ (-2.80)? I don’t think so. Hill? Utah would’ve loved him the other night, but he’s in Cleveland now. Trade recipient Iman Shumpert (knee rehab) was shelved virtually upon arrival. Garrett Temple? Good choice, but he’s out with an ankle injury. Frank Mason? M’kay, good luck with that.
    It takes two to make a thing go right, so for the Kings, they need a screen-busting gameplan not only for Schröder (21 points, 11 in the third-quarter vs. SAC on Nov. 15) and his backup (Taylor, who had 11 fourth-quarter points vs. SAC), but their offensive partner in the post. Dewayne Dedmon (15-and-15 plus 4 assists @ UTA on Tuesday) enjoyed 11 points, plus eight of his game-high 14 rebounds, in the second-quarter as his Hawks blew that November game open.
    Ded-head also dropped five dimes, nearly matching Prince’s eight (seven in the final frame) as Atlanta shot 16-for-32 from downtown, plus an absurd 34-for-47 on the cushy interior of the Kings (NBA-worst 54.7 opponent eFG%). If Cauley-Stein (1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG, one of 10 active NBA players averaging at least on of each) isn’t locked in defensively, it could prove to be a long night for hoop fans inside the sold-out Golden 1 Center (80-game sellout streak. No Onyxes in Sactown?) and, perhaps, Beyond.
    The Kings will strive to fight fire (NBA-worst 38.6 opponent 3FG%) with fire (38.1 3FG%, 2nd-best in NBA). They’ll lean on Hield and Bogdanovic, if he’s available (probable, sore hammy), plus rookies Justin Jackson and Mason off the bench, to get open for Fox. Failing that, hey, there’s always that guy Vince Carter on the bench. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll get to show us all what tricks he still has up his sleeve. Do they even have lawns to get off of, down in Daytona Beach? If I lived there, I’d be so retired by now.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “We love to fly…”
    “…and it shows!”
     
    Commonalities between Dominique Wilkins and Taurean Prince? Both were drafted by the Utah Jazz and later traded to the Atlanta Hawks, who happen play the Jazz in Salt Lake City tonight (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain in SLC), before their rookie seasons. Both wear, or wore, a ‘1’ and a ‘2’ on their Atlanta jerseys. And both are coming into their own during their Age-23 seasons with the Hawks, although not for much longer.
    Taurean crosses into Age 24 a couple days from now, and the Aries suddenly finds himself ramming his way upwards in his young NBA career. Prince elevated his March-long scoring average to 21.5 PPG (46.6 3FG%) by matching his career high, from earlier this month, of 38 points (9-for-13 2FGs, 8-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ entertaining 122-117 loss in Milwaukee on Sunday.
    Over the course of Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s tenure, I’ve had to learn not to freak out and give up too prematurely on the Budwings, who are constantly under development behind the scenes, fine-tuning their unique, individual skills to suit their team’s long-term objectives, and taking plenty of lumps along the way.
    From Kyle to DeMarre to Thabo to Baze to Timmy, the narrative now applies to Taurean, who has morphed from near-replacement-level talent in January (9.1 PPG, 34.8 FG%, minus-9.6 net rating) to a more reliable offensive cog (63.4 March TS%, 15th among NBA players getting 30+ MPG) during his team’s meticulously planned swoon. With each game in just his second season, Prince is transforming Hawks’ fan opinions from, “If he doesn’t figure out his defensive shortcomings, he’s useless,” to “If he ever figures out his defensive shortcomings, watch out!”
    It’s on the road where the Hawks turn to Prince (15.2 road PPG and 45.3 road FG%; 12.0 and 39.3 FG% at Philips) to attack inside, and score or get fouled trying. He has been picking his perimeter shots more judiciously away from home (4.93 road 3FGAs per game, 5.76 at home), although the Bucks game was an outlier narrowing that differential (4-for-13 3FGs on Sunday).
    Atlanta will turn to Taurean even more this evening, as rookie John Collins (Zaza’d in Milwaukee by the Greek Freak, out with an ankle sprain) sits at least this one out. Interior scoring for Prince, Dennis Schröder and the Hawks will be a much harder bargain, certainly, with the stifling Rudy Gobert (NBA-highs of 26.2 Net Rating and 72.1 TS% for 30+ MPG players; 25 double-doubles) holding down the fort for the torrid Jazz (40-30), who aim to stretch their undefeated month to 10-0 tonight.
    Remember when undefeated calendar months were kind of a big deal? Getting to 15-0 will require Utah to win not only tonight but also at San Antonio, at G-State, and back home versus Boston. That’s a slate that’s not nearly as daunting as it once looked, given their upcoming opponents’ injury issues. And this is a team that went 11-0 right before the All-Star Break, a stretch that began not long after losing Thabo Sefolosha for the season. Utah was 14th in team D-Rating before Thabo was shelved; they’re #1 (97.7 D-Rating) since. Go, Coach Thabo!
    The 4-Man combo of Gobert, Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles represent the top four NBA players in Net Rating this month. Former Bud acolyte Quin Snyder is rolling into this matchup without starting power forward Derrick Favors (sore knee), who is having a bit of a renaissance year himself (career-high 58.3 2FG%).
    The arrival of Rookie of the Year finalist Mitchell (10-for-13 2FGs in Saturday’s close-shave 103-97 win vs. SAC) effectively alleviated Favors from having to step up offensively in the aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s departure, and he has responded with efficient scoring in exchange for a lightened workload. Villa Rican and former Cavalier forward Jae Crowder will be likely to fill in on Favors’ behalf. With Jae closing games in place of Favors, Utah’s 5-man unit has produced a league-best 76.4 D-Rating and 41.8 Net Rating, according to stats reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.
    Utah has gone a sterling 22-4 since Rudy returned from injury, back on January 19. However, that first 11-game winning run was preceded by a sour note by the Jazz. Namely, a 104-90 loss in Atlanta back on January 22, where the cited quartet of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles and Gobert combined to score just 29 points while committing 15 player turnovers.
    The low-paced game remained a tight affair until Schröder and Prince (combined 37 points, 11-for-23 2FGs, 9-for-9 FTs) helped the Hawks break it open in the third quarter. Prince was particularly pernicious scoring off Jazz turnovers, particularly his steals (three) off a sloppy Mitchell and Rubio. The second steal-and-layup gave the Hawks a lead they would not again relinquish, and his dime to Mike Muscala (a probable starter today, in place of Collins; double-digit scoring in 3 of past 5 games) following his final theft opened up a 23-point lead that made Utah’s fourth-quarter scramble purely academic.
    This time around, Coach Quin will rely upon Rubio to make better decisions with the ball for the possession-hogging Jazz. Backup ballhandler and former Hawks draft-and-tradee Raul Neto is out indefinitely with a wrist fracture. Son-of-a-legend David Stockton is around on a ten-day to help fill the gap. But the Jazz will use the remaining games as a critical opportunity to rework 2014 lotto pick Dante Exum (10 points in 14 minutes vs. PHX, during his season-debut last Thursday) back into the rotation before the playoffs start.
    Defensive efficiency (115.4 March D-Rating, 29th in NBA) has remained a problem for the Hawks (20-50, seven straight road losses) throughout their latest six-game slide. But when they’re active forcing their foes into mistakes, not just the live-ball variety, Atlanta can have the look of a near-.500 team (6-8 when opponents’ turnover percentage > 17.0%, as per bball-ref).
    When Taurean makes the right defensive reads and doesn’t get caught out of position blindly fishing for steals (15 in Atlanta’s 20 wins; 54 in their 50 defeats), the final quarters of games can get downright scary these days… for a variety of reasons. Prince may struggle tonight, with the halfcourt lanes closed and one less scoring threat on the floor. But as he figures things out over time, look for Taurean’s gameday film to continue including more Highlight, and less Human.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Heading down to 8th in the East? I Dont wanna be here!”
     
    So, I wonder… how was Malcolm Brogdon’s evening? He watch anything fun last night?
    The injured Atlanta native has several ACC teammates on the Milwaukee Bucks, who host the road-tripping Atlanta Hawks this afternoon (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin). So, the former UVA star doesn’t need to hear any yapping from anybody, least of all the newest birthday boy, the now-23-year-old Dookie Jabari Parker. And he’ll be glad he’s not crossing paths with another Malcolm.
    “I wouldn’t want any other 1 seed in history to lose to a 16…. UVA”, tweeted the injured Hokie-turned-Hawk Malcolm Delaney after last night’s earth-shaking upset by something called UMBC, his e-comment concluded with enough crying-LOL emojis to populate an improv show at a chopped-onion factory.
    Aside from Parker’s birthday this past Thursday, there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately around Milwaukee. The Bucks thought the worst was over when they replaced Jason Kidd with coach Joe Prunty, following a tepid 23-22 start, and subsequently won nine of their next 11 games.
    It was during that run, though, that the 2017 Rookie of the Year, Brogdon, tore a quad muscle. Matthew Dellavedova, whose lovechild with Christian Laettner, Grayson Allen, becomes draft-eligible in a few weeks, also sprained an ankle and is out indefinitely. Milwaukee continued to roll despite the setbacks, including a 97-92 win over the Hawks at the BMOHBC back on February 13. But the wheels began slipping off in the next game, allowing 134 points at home to the Nuggets right before the All-Star Break.
    They seemingly righted their ship in the first game after the Break, in a 4-point road win at Toronto. But what followed was a 3-7 stretch that included Wednesday’s 126-117 loss down in Orlando. The backwards trending coupled with game-to-game inconsistencies was the problem that supposedly helped sway the mid-season coaching change.
    Now, a loss to the road-weary Hawks (5-27 in away games, tied w/ MEM for the league-worst) today would drop Prunty’s record this season to 13-11. With the Spurs, Clippers, Cavaliers (the ones with LeBron, Mr. Brogdon), and the Warriors coming up to close out the month, he needs momentum to remind people why the promotion was worth the trouble. Fortunately, for Joe, he’s got his former fellow Spurs staffer, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer, down the sideline to lend a helping hand.
    Theoretically, even with the current backcourt-depleting injuries, a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG), Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and sixth-man Jabari Parker all healthy, shouldn’t be scratching and clawing to get away from the 8-spot in the Eastern Conference, where Miami currently resides due to Milwaukee (36-32) holding a percentage-point lead.
    They are still a mere 3.0 games behind Cleveland for a first-round homecourt seeding. But their 14-24 record versus teams above .500 isn’t becoming of a club that wants to make noise once they get into the tourney.
    The Bucks (post-Break 1.41 assist/TO ratio, 27th in NBA; Atlanta’s 1.30 ranks 30th) have been a team loaded with playtakers, but not enough playmakers, even less so without Delly (team-high 27.7 assist%, as per bball-ref) Brogdon available. They’ve called up the older-but-wiser former Buck star Brandon Jennings from the G-League, and the 28-year-old helped in his season debut with 12 dimes plus 16 points in just over 23 minutes to make light work of the Grizzlies on Monday night.
    But Prunty reverted to older-but-just-as-wise-as-before Jason Terry as the prime bench option in Orlando. The Buck offense stilted, and the Buck defense wilted, as Magic default starter D.J. Augustin had himself a day (32 points, 6-for-9 3FGs) at Milwaukee’s expense. The Bucks’ tank-busting loss came against an Orlando team that was playing on the back side of a back-to-back following a return from a winless West Coast road trip.
    Antetokounmpo remains a worthy world-class attraction on the floor, but on many nights the people most attracted to his exploits are his deer-in-headlights teammates. The athletic forward is by no means selfish, averaging a team-high 4.8 APG even while being freed of point guard duties with Bledsoe’s arrival and Kidd’s departure. But Giannis is not a perimeter shooter (30.1 3FG%), and his floormates tend to get caught ball-watching, without a plan in mind for the occasions he kicks the ball out to them to finish plays.
    Although they’ve shown signs of coming around, Middleton (35.1 3FG%) and Bledsoe (33.9 3FG%) have been regressing from deep. Prunty is inclined to press Tony Snell (41.3 3FG%) and Parker (42.9 3FG%) into more action to compensate. But then, the team defense takes a hit (75.0 post-Break D-Reb%, 27th in NBA; 54.6 opponent eFG%, 24th in NBA), particularly without E-Bled getting stops (2.1 SPG, 2nd in NBA). It’s been more 3-or-D than 3-and-D for the Bucks.
    Giannis could use some bigs that could spread the floor, yet Thon Maker (30.1 3FG%) hasn’t proven up to the task, while John Henson doesn’t even bother. You would think the duo would help dominate the paint instead, but Milwaukee is bottom ten in the league for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%.
    Milwaukee, whose 10 player TOs (just seven steals by Atlanta) were stingy enough to hold off the Hawks last month, must continue playing keep-away today against a Hawks team (15.6 opponent TOs per game, still 2nd in NBA) that’s not as aggressive with getting stops on defense as they were with Ersan Ilyasova and, lately, Kent Bazemore around.
    Atlanta opponents are committing just 11.9 TOs per 48 minutes this month, a value surpassing only Brooklyn’s 11.4. Instead of handing the ball back to Atlanta, these foes are lofting 32.3 three-point attempts per game (3rd-most in NBA) while connecting on 42.5 percent of them (2nd-most in NBA). Hawks leading-scorer Dennis Schröder (28.9 3FG%) and Baze’s replacement starter, rookie Tyler Dorsey (32.6 3FG%), continue to attack on drives to the rim, but neither has been proficient enough from long-range to keep up with their opponents on defense.
    Who wants to see a double-digit bottom-seed topple a middle-range-seed today? Fans of the Bucks, and Some Fans of the Hawks, are just fine waiting for that to transpire tomorrow. We’ll see you in the ATL soon, Retrievers!
     
    Happy St. Pat’s! Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Next stop… NBA championship glory!”
     
    No, Dwight Howard, you’re no Coach Killer! Not anymore, anyway. These days, think of yourself as more of a PBO/GM Manslaughterer.
    Howard arrived in Charlotte hoping to resurrect his formidable but fun-loving reputation, once more, under the auspices of his trusted coach from olden, more golden days of yore. Now Howard arrives for the final time this season at the Highlight Factory, with the GM who acquired him summarily dispatched, while suddenly lame-duck coach Steve Clifford is nearly on the outs, too. Perhaps coach (and former PBO) Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks can lob Coach Cliff, Dwight, and the Hornets yet another lifeline tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas).
    This time next week, Philips Arena will be populated to the rafters with countless fans of Final Four hopefuls, and more than a few discerning NBA scouts as well. While March Madness is thrilling for most of us, prognosticating by the seats of our pants and pulling for schools we’ve never heard of before, it must be an increasingly bittersweet feeling for the Carolina Ranger.
    Seven years removed from a blistering run to the NCAA Championship, Kemba Walker is finally getting All-Star accolades, but seems to be losing his way as the luster from his One Shining Moment wears thin.
    Hornet/Bobcat fans have learned, as well as anyone, that Tank-and-Stir isn’t a surefire way to NBA title contention. Kemba entered the league with all the well-deserved media hype, and with a college championship ring in hand, took Charlotte by storm, one Dougie dance at a time.
    The Bobcats didn’t wind up with the worst lottery odds, or the number-one pick, but when Walker landed in their laps, they sure felt like a 49er finally striking gold. Their new Savior was a good soldier, as fans endured the worst NBA campaign (7-59) in recorded history, plus a franchise remake on and off the court, with Kemba at center stage amid it all.
    There were supposed to be more than five first-round home playoff games in the Queen City by now. Kemba was supposed to be the effervescent talent that puts Charlotte routinely on center stage on TNT Thursday nights, the lead guard with a dizzying handle and a unique five-letter name beginning with K who draws other superstars to his once-struggling NBA locale for annual shots at NBA Finals.
    But now, in 2018, Walker looks around him and is certainly scratching his head. That 7-59 tanktastic campaign begat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 2012 second-overall pick and fellow NCAA champion, a defensive savant who can never stay healthy enough to resolve his flaws at the other end of the floor. There’s Cody Zeller, the fourth-overall pick from 2013. The golden boy arrived in the Tar Heel State with similar post-March Madness promise. Yet Zeller has settled in as a solid reserve, behind Dwight, with his own sketchy injury history (unlikely to play tonight due to a knee injury).
    There’s Frank Kaminsky, 2015’s Naismith and Wooden Award winner and NCAA finalist, who has had a career arc that’s roughly the inverse of MKG’s. The season before he got there, Noah Vonleh was the belle of the ball at ninth-overall. He became a near-instant washout. But flipping him to Portland allowed the Hornets to gamble with Nicolas Batum, who stuck around for his big NBA payday but has yet to consistently display the sharp-shooting 3-and-D promise he once flashed as a Blazer (34.1 3FG% w/ CHA in 3 seasons).
    As Kaminsky was up late this morning, watching Drake and Ninja play Fortnite on Twitch, Walker (22.7 PPG and 43.1 FG%, down slightly from 23.2 and 44.4% last season) must be up wondering why his whole team, that started from the bottom, is still here (in the lottery). He serves as an example of the perils which await lotto-bound teams that forget their work isn't done, once their long-sought Savior arrives via the draft.
    Kemba knows he isn’t even the first UConn talent that a Charlotte NBA club failed to properly build around. Second-overall pick Emeka Okafor arrived in 2002, and he was subsequently supplemented with top-ten lottery picks Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright, and D.J. Augustin before giving up on him. A consistent thread from the prior era, continuing into the current one collected by recently-deposed GM Rich Cho, is most of the Horcats’ choices being swayed by big moments on big college teams on the biggest stage.
    As all the Dougying around Uptown has given way to Dabbing and, now, just plain Doubting. And as Walker continues looking around, he sees remnants of other teams’ former lottery dreams washing ashore at Lake Norman. Orlando’s 2004 1st-overall pick, Atlanta’s 2005 2nd-overall pick, and Philly’s 11th pick from 2013 and 2014 Rookie of the Year, all collecting checks and biding their time around Kemba, as he prepares for another playoff-less springtime with Charlotte (29-39, 7.0 games behind 8-seed Miami, who swept the Hornets 0-4), his third in the past four NBA seasons.
    The latter of that trio of once-heralded talents, former Syracuse star Michael Carter-Williams, was supposed to be the kind of steadying backup presence Charlotte gave up on when they traded off first-rounder Shabazz Napier in 2014 for P.J. Hairston. But while Napier is enjoying a career-best season as Damian Lillard’s caddie, MCW lurched his way toward what is, somehow, his worst season ever (career-lows of 36.2 eFG%, 19.5 assist%) before getting shut down two weeks ago for shoulder surgery.
    Hornets fans hope Carter-Williams’ injury is finally enough of a factor to allow Clifford to begin assigning 2017’s lottery hopeful, Kentucky Wildcat Malik Monk, significant playing time either behind or alongside Walker. Monk has gone from mere spot duty to about 15-20 minutes per game in the past month. But as playoff hopes dim for Charlotte (Tragic Number: 8), losers of six of their past seven games, one should expect a lot more than that.
    How transformable is this outfit? The next Hornets GM is about to find out. Aside from MCW, but including Knicks refugee center Willy Hernangomez, plus swingmen Jeremy Lamb (questionable for today, back spasms) and Dwayne Bacon, 11 of Charlotte’s 14 highest-salaried players are under fully guaranteed contracts for 2018-19. That’s a luxury-tax-teasing $117.9 million in team salary, including Kemba’s $12.0 million expiring, but not even counting the rookie-scale deal for 2018’s lottery fantasy. If players can’t be moved in the offseason, the Hornets’ next beekeeper will probably be inclined to make a shift along the sideline. But that’s where Coach Bud can assist Dwight with Coach Cliff’s cause tonight.
    The Hornets’ record would be all the more deflating without three decisive wins over the Hawks (20-48), by a decisive average score of 117.7 to 103.7. Atlanta has been outrebounded 47.3-35.3 during this season’s series as Howard has feasted (62.5 FG%, season-high 18 made FTs on 27 attempts, 19.3 PPG, 14.0 RPG), playing as close to his desired, centripetal style of play as Clifford will allow.
    When last these teams met here, on January 31, Howard’s 20-and-12 plus the All-Star-bound Walker’s 38 points (6 assists, 1 TO) was more than enough to outlast a Hawks team led in scoring by the now-departed Marco Belinelli (22 points) and the now-shelved Kent Bazemore (25 points). Baze’s and Belly’s teammates combined to shoot 5-for-20 from three-point land, including Dennis Schröder, who could dish it out (9 assists, 1 TO) but couldn’t take it (0-for-5 3FGs) in a 123-110 defeat.
    John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon made their marks coming off the bench back then. Now in the starting lineup, Dedmon (37.8 3FG%, 2-for-4 past two games) should be able to freely let it fly, particularly with Howard entrenched in the paint to play traffic controller against Schröder, Isaiah Taylor and the Hawks’ depleted backcourt. Miles Plumlee soaking up minutes (and fouls) off the bench should alleviate Mike Muscala (41.1 3FG%, 9-for-13 past three games) from the indignity of wasting energy guarding Howard around the rim.
    The small guards should find paths to the hoop with Batum and MKG now obligated to take turns trying to hold down Taurean Prince, who has been finding his offensive stride (10-for-21 3FGs, 13-for-14 FTs last two games) during Atlanta’s brief three-game homestand. His Princely sum of 25 points, in Tuesday’s late-game loss to OKC, followed up his career-high of 38 against the Bulls.
    Including his game-saving exploits in a win earlier this month against the Suns, Atlanta’s just 2-14 this season when Prince scores 18 or more points. But when he and his floormates are engaged defensively (Atlanta’s 7-0 when he finishes with a plus-minus above +10), Taurean is learning that his collectives can compete well, on most nights, against mediocre competition like the Hornets.
    For Charlotte, who will want to put this game away early once again, they need more than a wavering effort from Walker, who has laid some eggs in crucial games this month. Four days after dropping 31 in Philly, Kemba returned home and managed just five points on 1-for-9 shooting in a loss to the Sixers, his playoff-contending rivals. Last weekend, Walker sunk just four of 14 shots against the woeful Suns at Spectrum Center. He was in for the entire fourth quarter as Phoenix scored 43 points in the frame, narrowing a 22-point Hornet lead to just three during the final minute of play.
    In past seasons, we’ve hinted here that Budenholzer, a former NBA Coach of the Year with his stature secure here in Atlanta, would lay off the gas pedal against teams whose coaches’ futures might be imperiled. As demonstrated in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, the difference this season is that, with the Hawks now able to focus fully on player development, a collegial Coach Bud easing off the strategic throttle can be of long-term benefit to more than just the opposing team. Don’t forget to send Bud a thank you card this summer, Dwight!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    I'm Sorry, Baze. But, like Triple H says, it’s What’s Best for Business!
     
    Okay, Minnesota, listen here. Let us help you, help us, help you.
    Our Atlanta Hawks are not making the NBA playoffs for the first time since “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Buy U A Drank” were bangin’ on the airwaves. But that’s nowhere near a BFD as your Timberwolves being on the fringe of being a playoff participant for the first time since Usher, Lil Jon and Luda were screaming “Yeah!”. Snoop wasn’t even Dropping It Like It’s Hot yet. Heck, your boy Prince and the New Power Generation had just released Musicology, and still had FIVE top-10 albums yet to work on.
    So most folks think you, Minnesota, are pulling for the Hawks (what’s left of them, anyway) to do their letter-best to trip up the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma). Beating your Northwest Division rival and low-seed competitor, one night after they nearly blew it at home against Sacramento, would seem to make it easier for you to make the Western Conference cut.
    But we know better. That’s because we know our Hawks aren’t the only club whose receipt of a Top-14-protected pick hangs in the balance over the coming weeks.
    Everyone knows we have your first-rounder, postseason-pending, from abandoning ship on The Adreian Payne Project back in 2015. But few realize you’ve been holding onto OKC’s pick, pried free from Utah (2015’s Enes Kanter trade), ever since giving up on The Ricky Rubio Experiment.
    Both picks melt into a pair of future second rounders if they’re not used in this or the next two seasons. That’s not so much a BFD in your case, as your starting lineup is a virtual First Round Pick Museum already. But there’s no telling if you’ll get a better deal out of OKC’s pick in the coming seasons, so long as Russell Westbrook (25.2 PPG, 10.1 APG) and Friends stick around the plains.
    Further, your own pick could be very valuable for us here in the ATL, as it’s standing probably won’t get much better in future years. Besides, all Hades will break loose if we’re all still sitting here two years from now with your conditional pick somehow still in play.
    So, Minnesota, here’s what we can do for each other.
    Until you clinch, T’wolves, you continue to take advantage of the breaks you’ve been given. Much like when you outlasted Golden State without Curry this past weekend, you can prevail in D.C. tonight without John Wall around. The Spurs may not have Kawhi back at 100% on Saturday against your well-rested squad. Sure, you’ve got a tough opponent schedule ahead of you. But there’s no need to wait two weeks from now, when our Hawks pay a visit to the Target Center, for you to notch your next victory.
    Meanwhile, here in Atlanta (20-47), we’ll do our part to make sure your division rival, the Thunder (40-29, just 2.0 games in front of 9-seed Denver and **rubs eyes** 10-seed San Antonio), don’t get to add a lottery pick to their currently star-studded stable. Otherwise, OKC’s ability to add a young star prospect on a rookie-scale deal might be enough to entice Paul George (career-high 41.0 3FG% and 2.0 APG) and Carmelo Anthony (35 points behind Reggie Miller for 19th all-time; 7-for-14 FGs vs. SAC on Monday, 1st time above 50 FG% in 20 games) to play this thing out in the Sooner State.
    Tonight, we vow not to sit around and just let Westbrook (7-for-34 3FGs post-All-Star Break) ply his wares from the perimeter, since that seems to work against the Thunder’s better interests on most nights. Trying to out-shoot the Hawks from downtown hasn’t been that hard of a task, as the Thunder (52.0 3FG%) demonstrated the last time these teams faced off, and as the Bulls (45.9 3FG%; 77 combined 3FGAs) were all too happy to do over the weekend here at Philips Arena.
    But Russ jacking threes (5.5 3FGAs in OKC losses, 3.4 in wins) takes him off the free throw line (6.7 FTAs in losses, an even-more Russ-diculous 7.2 in wins). He hasn’t been MVP-caliber at the charity stripe this season (career-low 73.4 FT%, down from career-high 84.5 FT%), which might be part of the reason he’s settling for shots outside the paint so frequently.
    Because many of those jumpshots come in isolation (4.4 iso FGAs per game, 4th in NBA; 0.85 points per possession, lowest among top 9 NBA iso-shooters), the copious treys tend to stifle the ball movement by Russ, individually (102.2 O-Rating and -10.1 Net Rating in losses, 115.1 & +16.8 in wins), and the Thunder as a team.
    Hawks point guards Dennis Schröder (probable, sprained elbow) and Isaiah Taylor (probable, sprained ankle) will stay up on Westbrook and go over screens, compelling the Thunder guard to do what he does best, drive to the rim (NBA-high 18.9 drives per game; Dennis’ 16.2 ranks 4th in NBA), and set up his teammates for less-contested scoring chances (14.3 assist% off drives, second only to Chris Paul among players with 10+ drives/game; Dennis’ 9.1% ranks 27th) when the Atlanta defense contracts.
    The three leading scorers for the Hawks when last these teams met, on December 22, aren’t available. Marco Belinelli (27 points) and Ersan Ilyasova (22 points) are currently in the pregame line at either Pat’s or Geno’s, while Malcolm Delaney (20 points) remains out with a sprained ankle. With Atlanta Competitanking their way out of a 16-point second-half hole, it took a lucky triple from Westbrook with two seconds left to avoid overtime at The Peake and escape with a 120-117 win. You’re welcome, Minnesota.
    Oh, and the Hawks’ top assist-man from that game, Kent Bazemore, has exited stage left due to a bruised knee bone. That doesn’t mean Hawks’ whiteboard wizard Mike Budenholzer will make things simpler for OKC to overwhelm tonight. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t mean Thunder coach Billy Donovan will make it easy for ATL to underwhelm.
    We know how it works around here by now. Steven Adams (NBA-high 4.9 screen APG; questionable, bruised hip) comes down with a bout of australopithecus afarensis or somesuch. Westbrook slips and slides like he did last night, PG13 tweaks an ankle. Next thing you know, our poor Hawks have to pretend-contend with the likes of grizzled vets like Raymond Felton, Nick “yep, still here” Collison, and replacement starter Corey Brewer (15.0 PPG, 53.8 FG% in last 3 games/1st 3 starts w/ OKC).
    It would help the Thunder if Andre Roberson (out for season, torn patella) was available. But for as long as George is in the game, he’ll be tasked with keeping Taurean Prince (career-high 38 points, 7-for-13 3FGs, 9-for-10 FTs) from smelling himself once again, trying to force errors by getting him to put the ball on the floor and not in the air.
    Only the Thunder (NBA-high 15.9 opponent TOs, 16.8 deflections & 9.4 loose-ball recoveries) get foes to make more mistakes than our pesky Hawks (15.8 opponent TOs). The good news for you, Minnesota, is that while Atlanta gives up (17.7 opponent PPG off TOs) nearly as much as they get (NBA-high 18.4 PPG off TOs, tied w/ OKC) from turnovers, the Thunder are masters of turnover transition (NBA-low 14.2 PPG off TOs). The less George contributes, the less this factor matters. So we’ll try to keep him out of foul trouble (team-high 2.9 PFs/game, tied w/ Adams).
    Shorthanded as the Hawks may be, they’ll have their full frontcourt complement in tow, including Tyler Cavanaugh (probable, ankle sprain) and Money Mike Muscala (career-high 19 points vs. CHI; 8-for-11 3FGs in last two games) to back up Dewayne Dedmon and probable All-Rookie snub John Collins (15-for23 2FGs in last three games). Hopefully for OKC, Collison, Patrick Patterson and rookie Dakari Johnson will be needed only to relieve Adams (16 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 22), not supplant him.
    For all the attention on you, Minnesota, Oklahoma City’s schedule is looking quite arduous as well. Houston, Toronto, Golden State and Boston are all on OKC’s docket among 11 consecutive games versus above-.500 clubs, a stretch that commences when the Thunder return home to deal with your fellow playoff-contending LA Clippers. They won’t get another gimme until their April 11 season finale, at home, versus the Grizzlies.
    The importance of making relatively easy wins relatively easy should not be lost on OKC. So, don’t worry about what we’re doing over here, Timberwolves. You take care of business on your end, and just help us help you achieve our mutual objectives.
    On that note: hey, Tom Thibodeau, this is no time to be out here tinkering with newcomers in your backcourt rotation. That task is for lottery-bound teams like our Hawks, not yours. You’re free to give D-Rose his obligatory 40 minutes per night… but only AFTER you clinch. Capisce?
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    Don’t choke, Robin! At least, not today!
     
    Kinda busy downtown today, eh? I’m way too immersed in March Madness (Go Georgia State!) and Atlanta United’s home debut to get too deep into this afternoon’s other contest, the Tank War between our Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in CHI). So, let’s stick to tidbits!
    No more Holidays for Justin! The Commish isn’t big-letter Stern anymore but he issued a small-letter stern warning to Chicago for ostensibly “resting” otherwise healthy guys like Justin Holiday (DNP’d for 4 consecutive games) and Robin Lopez for days on end. So expect to see the former Hawk in the starting lineup. Despite elevated usage the 28-year-old swingman may never see again in his NBA career, Holiday has been a wayward shooter all season long (37.9 FG%). But he did feast on Memphis cooking (5-for-5 FGs) in a Tank War win over the Grizzlies earlier this week. The Bulls (22-43) have won their last three versus the Hawks, including both games so far this season. They won handily in their last visit to Atlanta, a 113-97 edge led by Lopez’s 20 points (9-for-13 FGs). In just his first week of NBA action this season, Zach LaVine struggled from the floor but still managed to grab a team-high nine defensive rebounds. In that January game, Holiday, Jerian Grant, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis shot a combined 12-for-19 on threes, freeing up Lopez and rookie star Lauri Markkanen to do their damage on the interior (17-for-29 2FGs). Contributions off the bench from the soon-departing Nikola Mirotic weren’t really needed. Chicago’s starters combined for just 5 TOs between them, usually a recipe for disaster for the Hawks (20-46). Coach Fred Hoiberg’s crew enjoyed a season-high 62 rebounds (incl. 18 O-Rebs) against the Hawks in Chicago way back on October 26, yet still found themselves clinging to a 91-86 victory, thanks to Marco Belinelli finding a fourth-quarter hot-hand. Dewayne Dedmon (10.5 RPG vs. CHI this season) and John Collins together in the starting lineup should make it tougher for Lopez (18.0 PPG vs. ATL this season) and Lauri (16.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG vs. ATL) to get easy buckets and putbacks today. The Bulls’ only legit injury was to glue-guy Paul Zipser (foot), who is listed as doubtful for this contest. The Bulls have been lousy on the road (7-25), but most of those beatdowns have been out West (1-12). On that note, their next Tank War comes later this week in Memphis. Go Bulls Go! We can expect to see plenty more of rookie second-rounder Tyler Dorsey, among the few bright spots for the Hawks during Friday night’s 112-87 loss in Indiana (3-for-8 3FGs). There’s no need to pull a Bulls and DNP leaders like Kent Bazemore, or Dennis Schröder (18.0 PPG and 2.0 SPG vs. CHI this season) all week long, when Coach Bud can simply ramp up the minutes and flatten the learning curve for Dorsey and Isaiah Taylor.  
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “INDY FACE!”
     
    Taking care of business versus the Atlanta Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, for the second time in fifteen calendar days, should be of utmost importance to the Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana). Hopefully, it won’t be necessary for the visitors to impress the value of this game upon the hosts.
    The Pacers (37-28) are nearly at the high-water mark of where I could’ve expected the Hawks (20-45) to reside, under an absolute best-case scenario in this transitional NBA season. They’ve enjoyed a star turn from a young guard taking his lumps as he learns to lead a team on the fly (Victor Oladipo; Dennis Schröder), and continued, if unsteady, improvement from its longest-tenured contributor (Myles Turner; Kent Bazemore). Plus there has been better shooting (Bojan Bogdanovic; Marco Belinelli), veteran savvy (Thaddeus Young; Ersan Ilyasova) and emerging players that served as luxuries off the bench (Domantas Sabonis; John Collins).
    Mix in some experienced coaching talent (Nate McMillan; Bud) and the Pacers have almost maxed out their conceivable success in the aftermath of their All-Star’s pre-season departure (Paul George; Paul Millsap). That should be cause for celebration in Hoosierville, especially for a team that eschewed the notion of tanking and has won seven of its past ten games, situating themselves within a mere 1.5 games of 3-seed Cleveland. Yet Indiana knows their last three defeats were the kind that should not have been left on the table.
    They would be in that third-seed spot right now, but for losses to three teams that are outside-looking-in at the moment in the playoff picture. Two were bad road losses in consecutive contests, at Dallas and Atlanta, the latter a 107-102 loss on February 28. Their most recent setback was here at the Fieldhouse in a 104-84 defeat at the hands of Utah, the Pacers’ biggest home loss since mid-November.
    To the Pacers and their fans, the reward for this fantastic voyage ought to be a first-round series that starts in their homecourt, not on the road in Toronto, Boston, or Cleveland. Continued step-backs versus non-playoff competition like Atlanta won’t put the cherry on their season-long sundae.
    Four of Oladipo’s seven-worst games shooting from the field (based on TS%) have come in the seven Pacer games since his return from the All-Star Game. The two worst of his season were in his past two contests, at home versus Utah and division-rival Milwaukee, the latter a 92-89 grindfest where the Pacers simply had to hang on to fend off a late Greek Freak onslaught and obscure Oladipo’s career-high ten turnovers.
    His other two worst off-shooting nights were against these Hawks, including Atlanta’s last visit here on February 23. Victor combined to shoot 14-for-41 FGs against Atlanta in the past two games, including 9-for-25 (1-for-9 3FGs) on the Wednesday before last.
    On occasions like on the 23rd, when he got some help from teammates like Young (9-for-16 FGs, 5 steals), fill-in starter Cory Joseph (7-for-12 2FGs, 4 steals), plus Sabonis (8-for-11 2FGs, 5 O-Rebs), and the trippy Lance Stephenson (5-for-7 2FGs, 8 assists) off the bench, the Pacers can cruise versus lesser competition.
    But then there are Off-adipo nights like the 28th, when Indy compounds bad, unbalanced shooting with sloppiness (season-high 24 player TOs; only other time committing more than 16 since December was 17 vs. ATL on  Feb. 23) and a failure to box out (six O-Rebs by Mike Muscala on 2/28, matching ATL’s total on 2/23 by himself). When that happens, the Pacers can find themselves losing to anyone, even a Hawks team that is now, officially (as per Elias Sports Bureau) the most inexperienced in the NBA (estimated 1.6 average years of service as of  Feb. 27).
    McMillan will likely have some experienced help on hand ahead of tonight’s matchup. Usual starting guard Darren Collison (5.3 APG, 1.3 TOs/game) had arthroscopic knee surgery before the All-Star Break, but plans to contribute off the bench tonight. To help with rebounding and frontcourt depth, the team recently acquired former 76er Trevor Booker, who debuted for the Pacers against Milwaukee.
    The fine folks at Bleacher Report took a beating from discerning fans this week. They attempted to call out the Hawks resting Bazemore, for the first time all season, back on March 4th as symbolic of “a massive tank problem” getting out of control throughout the league. This was a mistake almost as egregious as ESPN omitting the once under-utilized Collins (team-high 14 points @ TOR, tying Baze; 57.8 FG%, 5th-highest among qualifying rookies in NBA history) from their 25-under-25 list this week.
    Hawks fan-writers Bo Churney and K.L. Chouinard were foremost in taking the B/R writers to task for their lazy observation. “(Baze) resting, the same Bazemore who had otherwise only missed a single game this year,” chastised Churney to B/R, “caused you to make a video about the NBA’s tanking ‘problem.’” Churney noted astutely, “The Hawks still won that game. This is either a you problem or blatantly misleading journalism.”
    Most observant NBA fans concur that Atlanta has been about as forthright and above-board as anybody in the lottery game about their approach to this season. Here, there are no teammates harming their own cause by punching each other in the nose; no premature, fly-off-the-handle coach firings; no coaches sitting otherwise healthy talents for weeks on end; no coaches feuding with ten-year vets and sending them home to stew while still collecting a paycheck.
    Belinelli was still hooping dutifully for this team when Memphis sand-bagged Tyreke Evans. Ilyasova was still hoping to stick around, at least until after a Payne-ful trade deal with a contender proved impossible to swing. On and off the court, this hasn’t been the atmosphere of blatant white-flagging that we’ve seen in other NBA locales. “Some teams may be dragging their feet,” Chouinard sub-tweeted regarding the B/R hit-piece video, “but pacing (Baze) for 79 games instead of 81 isn’t it. Look elsewhere.”
    If the Hawks’ meager efforts result in a top-tier draft pick, that’s swell. But their insistence on getting younger, giving otherwise wholly inexperienced players a chance to show how they might become NBA regulars with real minutes and strategic development, has been straight-forward from the moment Tyler Cavanaugh started getting steady floor time back in November, if not before.
    Everyone from the Suns to the Warriors can vouch for the fact that Coach Bud’s Hawks are not mailing games in, certainly not from tipoff. They have entered the fourth quarter of their past four games no more than six points behind their competitors, including Tuesday night, where they held a hotly-contested one-point lead at Air Canada Centre before finally letting go of the rope for the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors.
    While oft-critiqued as a sign of tanking in broad daylight, Budenholzer’s decision whether to ride with his leading scorer, Schröder, in the close of contests hasn’t decisively affected the outcomes either way, especially when one considers that the point guard’s defensive deficiencies aren’t always on the court, either.
    The Hawks have been ceding more points since the All-Star Break (112.2 opponent PPG, up from 107.8 pre-Break). But that has been mostly a function of a hike in turnovers (18.3 post, 14.8 pre) and a propensity for fouling rather than properly contesting, especially in away games (33 opponent FTAs @ TOR; 0-14 on road when allowing 25+ FTAs).
    Despite a great season thus far, the Pacers’ fans (and, Some Others) hope this team has learned from the last Hawks game that resting on their laurels is premature, at best. If Indiana sits back and fails to attack Atlanta’s less-experienced playmakers, move the ball, and secure defensive rebounds, they will again find themselves like many of Atlanta’s opponents, looking up at the second-half scoreboard and wondering: “Who are these guys? And why are we still in a dogfight with them?”
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Sure, Taurean! I can hug DeMar, while you take another game-winning shot!”
    **God’s Plan Starts Playing**
     
    Happy birthday to you, Malcolm Miller! How about this… you get to be an NBA starter, with the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors, on the very day you turn 25! Don’t worry, though. Your birthday matchup is just against the lowly Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet One in TOR). The only way to mess this up is to show up on the floor in your birthday suit!
    A lot of things had to happen to allow this 6-foot-7 product out of Holy Cross to hear his name announced during introductions at the Air Canada Centre. All-Rookie candidate OG Anunoby has been on the shelf this past week with a sprained ankle. Norman Powell has struggled mightily and is undersized for the position anyway, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey doesn’t want to overtax veteran swingman C.J. Miles just yet.
    So, filling in the space that once was prescribed in past seasons for DeMarre Carroll now goes to Miller, a two-way player who spent last season in Germany, the prior year in the D-League, and missed Summer League and preseason due to ankle surgery. In his first start on Sunday against Charlotte, Miller managed a rebound in 13 minutes while generally staying out of the way of Toronto’s efficient offensive lineup (110.9 O-Rating, 4th in NBA; 112.6 since the All-Star Break).
    Casey can afford to leapfrog Miller up the depth chart not only because he has an All-Star backcourt featuring DeMar DeRozan, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (20.8 PPG, 59.5 2FG% since Feb. 26), and Kyle Lowry, but also since he doesn’t want to tinker with, probably, the best bench unit going right now in the Association.
    As per basketball-reference, the 5-man lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl has been outscoring foes by 25.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s Casey most-utilized lineup not including the usual Jurassic 5 starters, and it has been dazzlingly effective.
    That’s even without Powell, who has been atrocious (39.6 FG%) since returning from an early-season hip pointer. The third-year guard parlayed a decent shooting effort and some momentous plays during last year’s playoffs into a four-year, $42 million extension deal that comes due next season.
    Barring some wild trades, literally every Raptor returns in 2018-19, and Toronto’s Coach of the Year finalist is at wit’s end trying to find a rotation spot that makes Powell playable, even versus downtrodden teams like the Hawks. “I feel for (Powell) because it’s nothing he’s done wrong,” Casey told Sportsnet radio last week. “It’s just the guys in front of him have played so well and executed… at some point, we’re going to need Norm in that rotation somewhere. It’s nothing he and (ex-Hawk Bebe Nogueira) have done wrong.”
    The Hawks have already been molly-whopped on three occasions by the Raps, losing by average final scores of 110.3-89.6. Yet it’s not the double-barreled blast of Lowry and DeRozan that has made the difference, nor the frontcourt tandem of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, when these teams have faced off.
    In each contest, Atlanta has found itself submerged by at least one of those Toronto subs: Poeltl and Siakam in November’s 34-point home defeat, by Wright and Poeltl in a 13-point road loss the following month, and by VanVleet filling out the box score line (19 points, 4-for-6 3FGs, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks) in under 19 minutes when last these teams met in January, another decisive 15-point win for the visitors at the Highlight Factory. The Raptors have mixed in sound perimeter defense on Atlanta’s most obvious threats, with steady ball control on their own end, to keep the Hawks comfortably at arm’s length.
    Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had just begun dabbling with John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon in the starting unit with Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince and Dennis Schröder back on November 25. And together they did well, for about a quarter. Then the mostly unheralded Raptor reserves, plus Powell, stepped in and wrested the momentum away for good in Toronto’s resounding 112-78 win.
    But Atlanta’s starting-five have been drinking milk and getting stronger. Either that, or they have a steady, healthy first unit growing better accustomed to one another under the tutelage of Hawks U.  As per nba.com stats, among 23 Five-Man Lineups playing at least 50 minutes together since the All-Star Break, the starting quintet for Atlanta’s 13.0 Net Rating (and 62.0 TS%) ranks 6th-best in the league. Only Philly’s Death Lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric and Embiid have fared better in the East.
    The Hawks (20-44) can hear all the Tangst from their fanbase, the “Let’s Blow, Hawks!” chants all the way back home, south of the border. And, yes, the notion they might earn their first two-game win streak in a month is fairly far-fetched. But they play tonight in search of a more competitive outcome versus top-notch competition like Toronto (45-17, NBA-best 26-5 at home), particularly on the road, where their own 5-25 record is tied with the Grizzlies as the league’s worst.
    Achieving a closer outcome will require continuing what has worked thus far among the starters, keeping careless turnovers to a minimum and committing to score at least free throws off the rare live-ball turnovers Toronto (14.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs, 4th-fewest in NBA) coughs up. Then, it will be up to T-N-T (Tyler and Taylor) and the M&M Boys (Moose, Miles, Morris and maybe Magette, in place of the ankle-hobbled Malcolm) to keep whatever leads or small deficits the starters managed to gain from spiraling totally out of control. Atlanta’s bench brigade (with Delaney) shot a balanced 18-for-36 from the field versus the setting Suns this past weekend, but they’ll have to be better defensively and in transition to keep up with the Raptor reserves.
    Toronto allows just 24.9 three-point attempts per game, a league-low despite playing at a modest overall pace. But the Raps also will be leaning on the birthday-boy to help hold things down in transition with Anunoby sidelined (note to Bud: no need to start any international incidents this time, okay?). So Baze (DNP-TANK vs. PHX) and Sunday’s “hero”, Prince, will want to scamper down to the corner 3-point spots and help open the floor up for Dennis and the bigs.
    Taurean’s 22 points (6-for-8 3FGs) led the charge in the Hawks’ oddly captivating 113-112 win over hand-down-man-down Phoenix on Sunday. And Prince tried his best to rename this town Taureanto during his last trip here, going off for 30 points (19 in the second half; 5-for-6 3FGs), plus 10 boards and no turnovers, to help make the final score closer than it really was. For Miller and the Raptors’ swingmen, will they find blowing Prince off his perimeter spots, and out of the paint, is as easy as putting out a candle on a cake? Make your wish, Mr. Miller.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    Me watching Iguodala guard Baze in the clutch.
     
    TankWars, baby! While the Atlanta Hawks and the Phoenix Suns tempt fate in this Sunday matinee at The Highlight Factory (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), a question rages… who gets your vote for the Tank LVP?
    To qualify for the prestigious Least Valuable Player on a Tanking Team Award, your pick has to have 40 Ls under their belt or, alternatively, played in at least 45 games and have at least twice as many losses and wins. Oh, and they have to kinda be ballin’ outta control.
    The Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki would be right near the top, but with all their experience in the league, they get the Honorable Mention treatment LeBron gets at MVP time. Among NBAtank youngsters with 40 losses, Atlanta’s John Collins has the best Player Impact Estimate score (12.3 PIE), with his teammate Dennis Schröder (11.6 PIE) right on his tail.
    But the Tank LVP, for my Bitcoin, is Phoenix’s Devin Booker. A 16-33 record on the floor is pretty bad, but his Suns (19-45) are a much-worse 3-12 without him around. Armed with high usage (5th in NBA) for obvious reasons, Book (25.2 PPG, 9th in NBA; career-high 4.8 APG, 38.2 3FG% and 88.6 FT%) does all he can to keep the league’s most off-kilter shooting team (NBA-low 49.4 team eFG%) relevant offensively. The problem for me (well, for Some Suns Fans, really) is that Booker is threatening to disqualify himself for this honor.
    Today, Booker should have little problem grabbing a fifth consecutive 30-burger, his next one tying the great d*ck Van Arsdale (41) for the most in Suns franchise history, and ex-Sun greats Charles Barkley and Charlie Scott for the most consecutive games. This past Friday, as his Suns Competitanked to their heart’s content in a 124-116 home loss to OKC, Devin The Dude crossed the 4,000-point scoring mark. It should be noted, this is the first season he could buy a Lime-A-Rita to celebrate such a feat, without a fake ID. Only Bron and Kevin Durant were wetter behind the ears when they passed 40K.
    Collins (6-for-7 FGs vs. GSW on Friday), Schröder (27 points, 9 dimes vs. GSW) and the Hawks have a chance to further spoil Booker’s shot at Tank LVP today. Collins and Dewayne Dedmon would have to do their best not to exploit a depleted Suns line that has been without would-be incumbent starter Alan Williams (meniscus tear) all season long, and without Tyson Chandler (neck spasms) since the All-Star Break.
    Top-ten lottery plums Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss remain standing in the frontcourt, as does swingman Josh Jackson (19 points, 7-for-10 2FGs vs. OKC). But the likelihood they’ll someday become lottery prunes on Phoenix’s watch is what can happen when teams get hopelessly mired in Tankopolis.
    Booker can focus more on attacking and shooting, now that he has a steadier option sharing the backcourt with him. The Suns used a 2018 second-rounder to swing a Trade Deadline deal for Elfrid Payton, and while he hasn’t changed his hair, you can’t say, “But She’s Got a New Hat!”.
    Payton’s giving it his best Lonzo Ball impression, averaging 17.1 PPG, 7.5 APG and an eye-opening 7.8 RPG as a Sun, despite lackluster shooting from the floor (28.6 3FG%). Elf notched a triple double in just his third game with the Phoenicians, surpassing Connie Hawkins as the fastest Sun to accomplish that. Against OKC, his fourth double-doub in just eight Suns games consisted of 18 points and 10 boards.
    Payton, Booker and sixth-men Troy Daniels and Tyler Ulis, don’t really have the defensive chops to hold other teams back, not even Atlanta, who maintains an NBA-worst 93.7 O-Rating since the All-Star Break. Tank MIP candidate T.J. Warren (career-high 19.5 PPG), who returned Friday from a tailbone injury earlier in the week, will do his best to try to keep Kent Bazemore (career-high 29 points versus the Warriors) from smelling himself once again. But he’ll be splitting time between trying to patch up the Suns’ interior woes (47.5 opponent paint PPG, 4th-most in NBA) and keeping Baze at bay.
    Schröder and Bazemore each had 20 points apiece in Phoenix back on January 2. But it took a flame-throwing Booker (12 points, an assist, and a steal in the final 150 seconds of play), some sketchy decisions from Schro and Baze, and the first of many bad-hair-days this calendar year from Taurean Prince (would’ve been 3-for-14 FGs vs. PHX, but for a game-saving dunk block by Chriss; 0-for-5 2FGs and 5 TOs vs. GSW) to convert a 99-89 Hawks advantage with 2:53 left into an improbable 104-103 “win” for the Suns.
    Atlanta built up that late lead with the help of Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 21 points) and Marco Belinelli (16 points), both of whom are in the City of Brotherly Shove now. The Hawks will try to make up for that displaced offense with Collins, now a starter in place of Ersan, and bench guys, like Isaiah Taylor and Malcolm Delaney, who were all virtual no-shows against the Suns. The Hawks might have pulled off the “win” against the Warriors on Friday if they had measurable support from their reserves (six players, combined 5-for-15 FGs, 9 rebounds and a steal vs. GSW).
    Warriors, Celtics, Kings, Suns. Phoenix is one of four NBA teams, and only two Tank Squads, with a better record away from home (10-21 on the road, 9-24 at Talking Stick). Today, Some Fans will hope the Suns will eventually find a comfort zone at the Highlight Factory. With the outcome to this afternoon’s game hanging in the balance, and with Booker at the line shooting crucial free throws, he shouldn’t be surprised to hear Hawk-fan echoes bouncing off the cavernous Philips Arena walls. LVP! LVP! LVP!
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Is Joe a schlub? Maybe. But he’s OUR schlub, fans, c’mon!”
     
    “BOOOO! SELL THE TEAM, YOU MORON! YOU SUCK!”
    Barely two seasons into his tenure, things weren’t going terribly well for the owner of the reigning world champion Golden State Warriors, who pay our Atlanta Hawks a visit tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Bay Area in SFO). Only six years ago this month, Joe Lacob approved the trade-away of the Warrior fans’ heart-and-soul.
    A second-round pick who would become the NBA’s Most Improved Player two seasons in, Monta Ellis was the long-term investment that, by his seventh season, seemed to be paying off, the occasional moped incident aside. Fans unilaterally understood, if ever their team could arrive at the elusive Shangri-La known as the NBA Finals, or even just the playoffs, it was essential to build the roster around a high-scoring, playmaking guard like Ellis. Alas, Dubs, Inc. didn’t seem to share that sentiment. Not exactly, anyway.
    At the trade deadline in March 2012, Monta, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, was sent packing to Milwaukee, in exchange for the talented and occasionally upright center Andrew Bogut. The trade didn’t necessarily spoil a possible playoff run, what would have been just the second in the franchise’s prior 16 seasons. The last one, in 2007, was a magical carpet ride guided by Baron Davis, and Ellis was looking the part of an heir apparent once Davis bolted for L.A after the following season. The momentary success from the 2007 We Believe season never sustained itself.
    The playoff appearance before that one was in 1994, back when the fellow being honored at halftime on this cool March evening, Chris Mullin, led the charge. This night was supposed to be about Mully. And it was, right up until Lacob tried to partake in the good vibes, after Mullin thanked the crowd, to reveal the jersey banner. By then, We Believe had become We Berate.
    “Now that we got that over with…” Lacob snidely remarked, after allowing the din of disdain to die down once he grabbed the mic. “Today is about history… and respect.” Bump that! What kind of history had Lacob (and his even more-reviled predecessor, Chris Cohan) built up with to earn respect from the long-suffering ticketholder mob? Where’s the respect for Monta? BOO! Keeping his speech in line with pro-wrestling heel protocol, Lacob interrupted himself and put the mic down, in fading hope that the crowd might encourage each other to simmer down. Not happening.
    The Guest of Honor stepped forward to try and save Lacob’s forlorn face. “Sometimes, change is inevitable,” Mullin remarked, speaking somewhat directly to the elephant in the room. “It’s gonna work out just fine.” When the good-cop approach didn’t work, the one guy in the arena with a Warriors championship ring took matters into his hands.
    “Show a little bit of class!”, derided Rick Barry, incidentally one of the least classiest greats in the history of the league. Yeah, Rick, we’ve been down this stay-classy road already, take your pleas down to San Diego. “This is crazy! Seriously! C’mon, you’re doing yourself a disservice!” No, Rick, trading away a 25-point scorer that you’ve developed over seven years for a potentially washed bag of bones? THAT is a disservice. BOO! HISS! HISS!
    It was amazing the Warriors’ brass ever got through the ceremony. But you could see how their dedicated fanbase was past its boiling point. They had been sold bills of goods on draftees Chris Washburn, Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway, Chris Webber, Joe “Yes, we tanked for him” Smith, Adonal Foyle, Antawn “Shoulda Just Kept Vince” Jamison, Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu, Patrick O’Bryant, Ekpe Udoh, all of them top-ten NBA picks spanning 25 years. Each, including Mullin, was the lottery pick that was supposed to help the team turn the corner toward NBA greatness. They’ve endured the handing of the franchise keys to C-Webb, to Run TMC, to Spree, to Tawn, to J-Rich, to B-Diddy.
    It’s now 2012: Old Man Kobe and the Lakers are running laps around these division “rivals”. The once-equally downtrodden Mavericks just won a title, and even the Clippers – the Clippers! – are finally starting to get their act together. The latest Warriors Savior is gone, and everyone is still tapping their toes, pointing at their watches.
    One guy who couldn’t make it to these proceedings? Wardell Stephen Curry II. The third-year guard had just suffered yet another ankle injury days before, this one season-ending. Say, couldn't we have just traded one bag-of-bones (Curry) for another (Bogut) and kept Monta around?
    Guess who was in the building that day? Klay Alexander Thompson. The rookie hadn’t started more than a game yet. Nice fella, he just can’t carry a team anywhere. Lose just a couple more games at the end of last season, and we coulda had Jimmer instead! Darn that Curry kid, out here spoiling things.
    All this losing, all this pseudo-tanking, all this cycling through middling talent. When, pray tell, are we going to draft ourselves a real, bonified Savior? This was Warrior fan thinking in 2012, when the notion of Splash Brothers was still in the nascent stages.
    What if Lacob could have told the crowd: “Listen, I know you’re unhappy. But that broke-down guard we drafted a few years ago? He’s gonna win back-to-back MVP awards, and soon! Your Savior is still here on the roster, folks. He’s gonna join forces with our mid-tier lotto rookie, from this past year, to form a backcourt tour-de-force the world has never seen before! Your next NBA Finals MVP? I got a guy named Schlenk upstairs who will be bringing him over in a couple years.”
    “That center you’re all bitter-beer-faced about right now? What if I told you him getting injured is the ONLY reason you fall one win short of a three-peat? In a season where we win over 70 games! 70! We'll be half-a$$ing it and still be 48-14 six years from now!"
    "This very summer, people, we’re drafting one of the greatest defensive non-centers of all time… in the second round! Not only that, how about this: that player will help us woo a future league MVP to become our MVP of our NEXT victorious NBA Finals… you know, the one after the LAST Finals MVP, who will still be here?”
    “Show of hands, who wants to sign up for all that? Okay? Then, all of you, shut your pieholes, give it a minute, and thank me later! Go f’n Warriors!” Mic drop. Banner raise.
    There will be no scintillating analysis of tonight’s Hawks-Warriors matchup. Not on this glorious March afternoon. But I do want Hawks fans, particularly the skeptics about management, ownership, and The Way Forward, to look at the Dubs not through the prism we see them in today, but the looking-glass Dubs fans peered through, unapprovingly, just six years ago.
    A rebuild of our beloved Hawks (19-43) remains the right move. But we should all understand by now, tear-downs and rebuilds can be tenuous, cyclical, frustrating, and downright exhausting. They usually don’t pay off quite the way you anticipate, if they do at all. Just ask a Warriors fan. Not one of these new-jack johnny-come-latelys flaunting jerseys in Philips Arena today, no. Talk to the older-school supporters, the ones who foresaw Monta Ellis’ abrupt departure as a harbinger of yet another decade full of terrible things to come.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3