“Beating the Hawks? Hmm. I’d say I’ve got… a Puncher’s Chance!”
The Force sure hasn’t been with the Atlanta Hawks in a minute! It’s Star Wars Night at the Highlight Factory, and fans may chase the Hawks off the court with their light sabers if they flub their fourth straight game in a regular season for the first time since March 2014, particularly at the hands of a Philadelphia 76ers team (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Philly) that can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.
The 76ers (1-25) are over the totally-winless hump after topping the last team the Hawks beat at home, the 4-21 Lakers, back on December 1. But there remain other hexes to fix. While nowhere near the 1992-1993 Sacramento Kings’ record of 43 consecutive road games, Philly has dumped 20 in a row going back to last season. They wouldn’t mind plugging that particular losing string here, versus a Hawks team (14-12) that’s dropped three of their last four at home and suffering through a crisis of confidence.
It’s not as though Philadelphia never puts up a fight (on the court, that is) when they’re on the road. It’s just that they get only so far, before somebody pulls the rip cord. As recently as Monday night, the Sixers were up by five at halftime in Chicago. The night before, they made a spirited run to get back within six points late against the Raptors in Toronto. Before that, they’ve held multiple-basket fourth-quarter leads in Brooklyn, Memphis, Houston, Boston, Minnesota, Miami – and lost them all, several by double digits.
As C-3PO might suggest, the Sixers seem to be made to suffer: it’s their lot in life. They’ve been like a racecar that can’t make the final turn because the pit crew intentionally shorted them on gas. Head coach Brett Brown has been trickling out the fuel for the Sixers, and has even slowed down the pace on offense a bit. But when the only player on the roster born before 1990, Carl Landry, is rehabbing in the D-League, and you’re turning to the likes of T.J. McConnell and Jerami Grant (a year-and-a-half YOUNGER than Knicks rookie Jerian), you’re depending on a lot of inexperienced fellas to seize the day.
I’d imagine if someone on the street yelled to me, “The Sixers suck!”, my inclination would be to respond, “Yeah, well sure. But we’re drinking milk, and we’re getting stronger!” It wouldn’t be to ask anybody to Meet Me in Temecula or Tom’s River or something, like rookie star Jahlil Okafor has been doing since getting drafted this summer. While Okafor’s been a bit punchy (with people and gas pedals), the guy who signs his NBA checks now seems on the verge of throwing in the towel.
Josh Harris signed on to the “Trust the Process” process of his general manager, Sam Hinkie. But after a few years of plucking plum collegiate stars who haven’t panned out (Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid), are sitting it out (Dario Saric), or risk flaming out (Okafor), the Sixers owner appears primed to Trash the Process.
Harris has his eye on new sports endeavors (a new Premier League soccer team, maybe an NFL team in London) and no longer wants the Sixers to be a drag on his other investments. While he insists that he remains patient, Harris doesn’t want to become the Leon Hess of the league, enduring decades of fan disdain in hopes of an add-Hall-of-Famers-and-stir payoff.
Harris brought on longtime NBA exec Jerry Colangelo to “partner” with Hinkie the way George partners with Lennie. He’s also heeding the howls from the league to cut out the Romper Room roster construction, although getting accomplished NBA veterans to serve as band-aids, babysitters, and bodyguards is asking a bit much. “Help me, Elton Brand, you’re our only hope!” has been the call of late, as the brass tries to woo respected Dookies like the retired ex-Hawk (who ought to be an assistant somewhere, soon) and Shane Battier into the fold as nanny-managers. “Karl-Anthony, I AM your father! Or, at least, I’m old enough to be him!”
The sudden changes from above, coupled with the ushering in of Hot Stove trade rumoring, suggests a lot of 76er players know they’re playing for their next (and hopefully, not last) NBA gig. Guys like the returning Tony Wroten and Isaiah Canaan don’t just want to be traded in mid-season and immediately bought out somewhere. If they play their cards right, they might get enough interest to stick with somebody else, maybe even for a little playoff run.
While Brett Brown’s unseasoned troops dress to impress, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks have looked less like Skywalkers and more like sleepwalkers on offense lately. Another listless start, this time at home against Miami, has Hawks fans giving the side-eye to Al Horford and the backsliding backcourt of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. The trio combined to shoot 3-for-16 from long-range and weren’t much better around the rim, either (Teague 1-for-9 2FGs).
Teague and the Hawks’ guards have struggled to make proper reads on pick-and-rolls, and teammates have been caught overhelping, leaving opponents like Chris Bosh (4-for-6 3FGs @ ATL on Monday) open on jumpshots, and other bigs like Hassan Whiteside (5 O-Rebs @ ATL) in excellent position for easy putbacks off their own “Bud Stop” misses.
At least, Jeff is smelling himself. “I think I’ve been the worst of everyone,” Teague said postgame, without much argument from anyone. It’s hard to tell if his starting center has a similar feeling. Horford continues to be a non-factor as a rebounder, leaving it to the likes of Korver (team-high 8 defensive rebounds vs. MIA, twice that of Horford) and Paul Millsap to do the dirty work for him.
Sensing the unnerved reactions of fans, the Hawks, like Darth Vader, may find the lack of faith disturbing. The desperation to Do Something, without understanding just what to do, is reflecting on the coaching staff, and it has bench players like Thabo Sefolosha (4 turnovers in just over 9 minutes vs. MIA) and Dennis Schröder grasping at straws. The overall languidness is wasting efforts like Kent Bazemore’s, whose career-high 28 points against Miami were for naught. Baze and Sap are at least attacking the rim, but absent sound team play, they’re going Solo like Han from night-to-night, hoping for a spark that never arrives.
Philly’s Nerlens Noel (eye abrasion) remains unavailable tonight, leaving Brown to look to Christian Wood (fresh from the D-League), Grant (five blocks @ CHI on Monday) and Richaun Holmes to step up off the bench. It’s on Horford and the Hawks’ frontline to neutralize whatever production Towns (NBA Rookie-high 17.8 PPG and 2.5 offensive RPG; NBA-high 89 points over last six days) and Robert Covington bring to the table, particularly in the paint.
As for Atlanta’s guards and swingmen, the task isn’t terribly complex. Shoo Canaan (35.1 3FG%, 28.9 2FG%, 85.2 FT%) off the three-point line and cut off easy passing lanes, forcing him into tough mid-range jumpers without bailout fouls. The task is similar for recent returnees Wroten and Kendall Marshall. Korver has been a disappointment lately (2-for-12 3FGs, 2-for-8 2FGs past two games) but needs to at least outduel Nik Stauskas (28.8 3FG%) tonight.
Philly will turn the ball over (league-high 18.2 TOs per 100 possessions) in bunches, but unlike in recent games, Atlanta must be able to turn transition opportunities into buckets. The more the Hawks avoid matching the youthful Sixers’ recklessness, the easier it will be to put the game away in the second half. Atlanta still leads the NBA with a +5.1 PPG margin off of turnovers, but with the team shooting as poorly as they have lately, margins like the 17-11 advantage they gained against Miami must be larger.
Anytime a game against the 76ers gets categorized as a must-win, instead of just an oughta-win, things haven’t been going well at all. Despite faltering late, as is their custom, Philly held a lead with three minutes to go during the final victory of the 40-8 Hawks’ magical January carpet ride. Just over a month later, Hollis Thompson went buckwild from long-range (5-for-7 3FGs) and the 14-48 Sixers gave the shorthanded 49-12 Hawks no breaks. Philadelphia prevailed 92-84 in that last meeting, ceasing Atlanta’s six-game win streak and initiating a plateau trend for the rest of the Hawks’ season, one that appears to be extending into this one.
You can count on the Sixers making their big second-half runs, making the game get hairier than Chewbacca. And then they will give the Hawks a chance to win, but that’s as far as they’ll go. With all due respect to Amdiral Ackbar, it’s not a trap. It’s simply up to the other team on the floor to seize whatever opportunities Philadelphia gifts them. If the Hawks fail to live up to this challenge, they should prepare to face the Dark Side.
Let’s Go Hawks!