• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    It’s going DOWN in the Mississippi!
    There’s a Ti-tank-ic clash in store for tonight! The least of the East, our Atlanta Hawks, are flying low, and preparing to tangle with the worst of the West, those Memphis Grizzlies (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in both ATL and MEM). As the Highlander famously quipped, “There Can Be Only One… First-Overall Pick”.
    As suggested in a pregame thread a couple weeks ago, the fate that recently befell David Fizdale could very well have been visited upon Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, had incoming exec Travis Schlenk succumbed to his owner’s wishes and fought to keep last year’s corroding core intact. Sub-mediocrity plus miserable, moping vets doesn’t do much to help coaches avoid the pink slip. Instead, Coach Bud rides into town with a three-game losing skid and oodles o’ job security.
    In Coach Fiz’s wake, there’s J.B. Bickerstaff, who finds himself in a strangely familiar position. He slid over to the big chair when Houston, fresh off a 56-win season and a trip to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, panicked after a 4-7 false start (coincidentally, concluded by a 26-point loss in Memphis) and canned Kevin McHale. He managed to get Harden and Howard’s Rockets back to even keel (41-41) despite several injury absences for Dwight, and even stole an opening-round playoff game from Curry-less Golden State.
    On a team that, like the Hawks, wanted to get younger (buh-bye, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter), yet had no intention of regressing, Coach JB has a bigger hole to climb out from, and a much tinier ladder than he had in H-Town. Since the outset of Memphis’ first ten-game slide, the Grizzlies have been off-track without their conductor, point guard Mike Conley. Centerpiece center Marc Gasol (career-high 3.0 TOs/game) prevailed in his battle of wills with Fizdale, but inherits much of the responsibility for quarterbacking successful plays, especially without Conley (Achilles) around.
    GM Chris Wallace and the Grizzlies’ managerial brass did neither the outgoing or the incumbent coach many favors. In the past decade, Memphis has wasted first-round draft picks (Hasheem Thabeet, Xavier Henry, Dominique Jones, Tony Wroten, Jordan Adams, Wade Baldwin… only backup forward Jarrell Martin remains), engineered questionable deals (e.g., drafting-and-trading Kevin Love, essentially, for O.J. Mayo) and made even more questionable free agent decisions (Chandler Parsons, Rade Zagorac).
    The resultant roster entering the season consists of tentpoles Gasol and the injured Conley holding up a sagging cast of veterans desperate to show there’s something left in their tanks (Tyreke Evans, Parsons, Mario Chalmers, Brandan Wright) and youngsters still trying to figure out where to fill up (Ben McLemore, Martin, Andrew Harrison, James Ennis, Deyonta Davis). Still, some are finding ways to make the most of their opportunity.
    The Grizzlie with the second-most NBA starts this season? How about swingman Dillon Brooks, the former Oregon Duck selected in the second-round of this year’s draft, four picks after former teammate and Hawk guard Tyler Dorsey. Brooks is averaging a whopping 28.0 minutes per game. Both Fizdale and Bickerstaff have been pleased with Brooks’ (relative) on-ball defensive effort, and it didn’t hurt his case when he contributed 19 points and four steals in his regular-season debut. He’ll be dressed to impress with Dorsey watching mostly from the sideline.
    Strung along all summer as a restricted free agent before settling for a front-loaded two-year deal prior to training camp, power forward JaMychal Green is also taking initiative. His 15 points (3-for-4 3FGs) and 15 rebounds on Wednesday nearly got Memphis out of its offensive doldrums, during a 93-87 road loss to the Wizards.
    Without Conley around, the Griz need unusual suspects like Brooks, Green and Harrison (20 points, 7 assists @ WAS) to do the heavy lifting on what remains the league’s most stilted, bearish offense (30th in pace, NBA-low -10.7 net rating). Despite the new coach’s vow to open things up, the only teams during Memphis’ last nine games under Bickerstaff, with a worse offensive efficiency are Dwight’s Hornets and… oh, whaddya know… the Pistons!
    Nobody remind the Hawks (6-22; -8.2 net rating last nine games, ahead of only Memphis) about last night’s proceedings against the visitors from Detroit, where Andre Drummond unlocked Wilt The Stilt mode, and the best shooter in The Highlight Factory picked up $10,000 for his trouble.
    “I hope the Philips Arena staff took that lid off the rim,” joked Hawks’ salary-leader Kent Bazemore (2-for-10 FGs vs. DET) after doubling up the bucket total of “Norman from accounting”. The sole Hawk players to find the center of the basket routinely last night, Ersan Ilyasova (10-for-14 FGs) and poster-meister John Collins (7-for-10 FGs in a limited 20 minutes), rarely shared the floor. For now, Collins and Ilyasova (58 minutes together this season) may have to play more in tandem as offensive threats, so opponents like Detroit cannot simply pack the paint and limit Dennis Schröder (2-for-5 2FGs) from making hay inside.
    From Jarrett Jack to Jose Calderon, the defensively stagnant Schröder (next to last in Defensive RPM among active NBA players) must be tired of getting young-fella’d by one elderly court-caddy after another. But he’ll have to deal with infamous SNL punchline Mario Chalmers often tonight, especially if Conley and Evans (sore hip) are no-goes. Dennis and the Hawks have been stymied by a lack of floor leadership in recent days, especially on lost assignments in transition.
    The Pistons got back on their defensive assignments and clamped down on the Hawks in last night’s 105-91 win, allowing Atlanta just five fastbreak points. Another low-possession, shot-clock-draining, halfcourt back-and-forth tonight would suit Gasol (career-low 41.8 FG%) and the Grizzlies just fine.
    It is on Schröder (10 assists, 2 TOs vs. DET) to dictate the tempo of this contest, at both ends of the court, if the Hawks intend to establish an advantage. It is essential for he and his teammates to get inside with the rock, and earn trips to the line versus a Memphis team whose defensive identity has devolved into Grit-and-Grab (22.8 personal fouls and 24.8 opponent FTAs per game, 3rd-most in NBA). The final score on Thursday again belied the scale of the blowout during most of the contest, but Atlanta did not help its cause by missing ten of their 26 free throw shots in front of a friendly home crowd.
    I haven’t kept track, but this feels like the fifth Star Wars Night featuring the Hawks as a visitor. With the Celtics arriving for a run tomorrow, and a trip to Oakland to put up with the Warriors afterwards, these Grizzlies can be expected to drill down tonight, eager to use this game as one more firebreak in what is becoming a disastrous season. Look for Memphis fans, with honeybuns attached to their ears, clamoring from the stands: “Help us, Atlanta Hawks. You’re our only hope!”
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “We’ll be the biggest fans you’ll ever lose, Slim. Sincerely yours…”
    Let’s Get It! Amid these downturns in temperatures and competitive play, who better to serenade Atlanta Hawks fans during The Recession than The Snowman himself?
    While quadragenerian rhyme-spitter Jeezy enthralls his hometown head-nodders during tonight’s clash with the backsliding Detroit Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit), it appears the number of “Stan” stans are dwindling by the minute up in Motown.
    Coach-PBO Stan Van Gundy has stridently stuck by his first Pistons lottery-draftee from 2015, swingman Stanley Johnson, handing him the reins as this season’s starting small forward. Johnson got Put On even after he put up a Bagel-for-13 shooting effort in his season debut. The growing pains seemed fine at first, as Detroit broke out of the gate with a pleasant 10-3 start, including a 111-104 victory at desolate Little Caesars Arena (Johnson missed that game while recovering from hip and back injuries).
    But like Dennis Rodman riding his motorcycle through the left-lane of an intersection, the worm has turned, causing The Master of Panic to pull whatever strings he can behind the curtain, and Johnson (35.3 FG%, same as last season; 28.6 3FG%, career-low 1.3 APG) was among the most obvious targets to yank.
    “He’s got to find his way,” said SVG to the Free Press last week, with his Pistons (14-13) mired amid its current seven-game slump, “and I think he’s very capable of shooting the ball better than he has and that’s what we want to get him doing.”
    Pulling the Stanimal from the first unit did nothing, however, to prevent the Pistons from dropping their seventh-straight contest on Tuesday. Losing by 19 versus the Millsap-and-Jokic-less Nuggets squandered a three-game homestand at the Big Pizza Pizza and was their second straight double-digit defeat.
    Detroit was granted a chance to get the homestand off on the right foot last Friday, as the Curry-less Warriors allowed them back in the game late. But Reggie Jackson (past 4 games: 32.7 FG%, 2.8 APG, 1.8 TOs/game) Schröder-ed away their opportunity with some ill-advised Ballin’ into a flock of Dubs, forgoing a chance to set up a game-winning or game-tying play with 15 seconds remaining.
    Stan benched Stanley… And Then What? Johnson was supplanted by an equally poor-shooting Reggie Bullock (36.8 FG%, 15.0 3FG%), a decisive downgrade on the defensive end. Whatever the case, the pressure is on Van Gundy to firmly establish a team identity going forward. He must figure out some lineups that can make buckets (last 7 games: NBA-low 40.1 FG%) and get stops, or else he’ll need to get with GM Jeff Bower and start making some moves, as a plethora of NBA players become trade-eligible after midnight.
    Dem Boyz got blocks? The Pistons rank dead last in inspected-rejected shots (NBA-low 3.2 team blocks per-48; NBA-low 2.4 in the last seven games), making the Hawks look like Tree and Dikembe out there (3.8 blocks per-48, 26th in NBA). They’ve simultaneously been the biggest victim of swats (NBA-high 6.3 opponent blocks per-48), and much like the Hawks, haven’t been rebounding the ball well on the defensive end. During this seven-game skid, opponents have snatched 10.9 O-Rebs per 48 (3rd-most in NBA).
    Buoyed by improved free throw shooting, Andre Drummond (61.2 FT%, 16 points, 10 O-Rebs, 10 D-Rebs, 7 assists, 6 TOs vs. ATL on Nov. 11) was the focal point for Detroit during their early success. But the heavy dribble-handoff activity that defined the Pistons’ early renaissance (NBA-highs of 13.2 DHO possessions and 11.0 points per game) has devolved into isolation station for Dre and his teammates in recent weeks (NBA-lows of 3.9 Roll Man possessions and 3.6 points per game).
    While Drummond must improve on his defensive imprint, it’s on Jackson and the Pistons’ ballhandlers to keep him involved in plays at the other end. Unfortunately for him, Atlanta’s proficiency in getting carved up along the perimeter may render him an offensive mirage if he cannot create putbacks and second-chances.
    Hawk defenders are following Coach Mike Budenholzer’s instructions to Leave You Alone in the corners (NBA-high 8.7 opponent 3FG attempts/game; 40.0 opponent corner 3FG%) if the odds are expected to work out in Atlanta’s favor. Several Piston playmakers will be tempted to Go Crazy, calling their own number from long-range without really setting up a play.
    Parked outside like they’re sittin’ on vogues, Tobias Harris (team-high 18.2 PPG, 44.3 3FG%) and Avery Bradley (40.5 3FG%) will be licking their respective chops after Witnessing LeBron’s Cavs light up the Hawks with 20-for-38 shooting beyond the arc on Tuesday. Even ex-Hawk forward Anthony Tolliver (broken nose; 36.5 3FG%) will be donning the mask in hopes of a Kyrie effect tonight.
    One benefit to having John Collins back in uniform tonight, even in limited minutes, is his activity around the rim (in tandem with Tyler Cavanaugh and/or Miles Plumlee) allowing the Hawks’ wing defenders to step further out of the defensive paint, hopefully curtailing the bombs-away approach the Pistons’ backcourt and stretch forwards have in store. His presence will also help reduce the success opponents have had converting inside versus Atlanta (53.9 opponent 2FG%, 2nd-highest in NBA; 66.2 opponent restricted-area FG%, 4th-highest in NBA).
    Like the Pistons, the Hawks have stuck with the forced-turnover-or-bust approach to defensive activity, although Atlanta has been more successful in separating man from ball (last ten games: NBA-high 16.8 opponent TOs per-48; DET’s 15.6 ranks 7th). Dennis Schröder and the Hawks’ wings will particularly be in Trap Or Die mode, in hopes of forcing Jackson into ballhandling mistakes.
    Whichever team is less sloppy on offense, and makes their opponent pay in transition, is likely to have the upper hand as tonight’s game heads toward the final buzzer. Before Jeezy warms up for his final postgame act, which team will prove to be the true Go Getta, with Hustlerz’ Ambition?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “You’re just NOW finding out about Bobby Caldwell?”
    Dennis Schröder was about to have one of those quarters. He’s no Reggie Miller, but hey, seven points in 50 seconds! On the back end of a back-to-back, a tiring Knicks team was proving increasingly hapless trying to keep his layups off the glass. Their hard-earned fourth-quarter lead shrunk to a precarious two points. The Garden natives were getting restless.
    And at that moment, Mike Budenholzer recalled Luka Doncic’s 33 points versus Olympiacos. “Dennis! Come sit by me.”
    Such is life these days for Schröder and the Competitanking Atlanta Hawks, who will strive to stay close… but maybe not TOO close!... to the burgundy-hot Cleveland Cavaliers (Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio).
    Dennis, and Taurean Prince, know the deal, though. If Coach Bud is benching you or chewing you out on the sidelines during stoppages of play, it’s only because he cares. He cares enough about you, at least, to know that you’re an integral part of his team’s future, and that how successful he becomes is tethered to how much you improve – as a playmaker, a defender, a floor leader, a team-oriented competitor – over time, and how well you sustain that improved play during games.
    So, don’t expect Schröder (career-highs of 20.4 PPG, 6.4 APG, and 49.3 2FG%) to come home and kick his hookah over getting yanked at critical junctures. Sure, he was 9-for-12 inside the perimeter on Sunday evening. But why was his counterpart, the shoulda-been Hawks backup Jarrett Jack, going 6-for-8 from the field for the Knicks and getting to the line with ease? Struggling as he might be, why is rookie Frank Ntilikina getting the most open three-point look he has seen in his young life?
    Neither Isaiah Taylor nor Malcolm Delaney performed even marginally better as a ballhandler, but that’s beside the point. Budenholzer wants to see his core starters applying tangible defensive pressure, and that wasn’t the case in Gotham. The Hawks induced just 12 team turnovers out of a previously frustrated New York team on Sunday evening, and Atlanta was outscored off turnovers 25-9.
    Dennis knows the deal, that he and Taurean (17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists @ NYK) are getting the treatment Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili once suffered, and endured. If Bud’s not flinching at your errors and oversights, it’s probably because you’re not going to be around here for terribly long or, otherwise, because you’re out there Bazemoring.
    At the other end of the spectrum, one NBA team has been soldiering on without a former league MVP, and doing just fine, since it’s not the only one on their roster. The Cavs (19-8) won 13 in a row before incurring the Wrath of Oladipo last week. Having righted the ship, coach Tyronn Lue’s club is out to establish a whole new streak after outlasting Embiid-less Philadelphia on Saturday.
    Cleveland eked out the 105-98 win over the Sixers without either of Kevin Love (hip) or Tristan Thompson (calf). Both big men are likely to suit up tonight against the Hawks (6-20), playing enough minutes that Mr. Do-It-All, LeBron James (30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists vs. PHI), won’t have to live up to his MVP-worthy name.
    Love had 25 points and 16 boards (6 offensive) in the Cavs’ 121-114 win in Atlanta on November 30, allowing LeBron (24 points, 12 assists @ ATL) and his old running buddy Dwyane Wade (19 points, 3-for-5 3FGs, 4 steals off the bench) to give the Hawks something light. James will spend the evening deciding who he’d prefer to troll defensively, Schröder, or Ersan “Can’t Miss” Ilyasova (10-for-11 3FGs in past two games).
    Another well-intended target of Coach Bud’s short-hook, John Collins (shoulder) is healthy enough to take a pool dive in the snow for 400 bucks, but the Hawks’ brass wants him to get some practice in before returning to full competition. Johnny Bap will be right down the lakeshore from Quicken Loans Arena, in G-League Erie, making it tougher on the Hawks’ Ersan Ilyasova, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh to keep Cleveland out of the paint.
    Atlanta allows an NBA-high 14.2 second-chance points per-48. New York outscored Atlanta 50-44 in paint points during Sunday’s 111-107 win, a gap that was only widening before Schröder near-single-handedly popped the Knicks’ balloon.
    Dennis (27.5 PPG vs. CLE, most vs. any team played at least twice; 7.0 APG) has not had to keep up offensively with the likes of Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas (hip, out for at least another week) or Derrick Rose (bone spurs, out maybe for good), and he doesn’t have Iman Shumpert (knee surgery) around to keep him from wrecking shop via dribble penetration. But with LeBron not having to pack the paint, and with Thompson back, Dennis will find the forest in front of the hoop to be a little thicker, so he’ll have to contribute in ways beyond collecting gotheems, especially on the other end of the floor.
    If Schröder plays his cards right, he’ll scare the bejesus out of the Cavs once more tonight. And at that moment, he’ll get his congratulatory sideline towel. And then, maybe we’ll get to see if Josh Magette can "provide a spark"!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Say, let’s run an iso for Melo… just kidding!”
    My evil plans were dashed last night by Courtney Lee! While the Atlanta Hawks were BazeGazing and getting ready to head for the airport, their hosts tonight, the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC), were in Chicago and just seconds away from having to play overtime with the Bulls.
    Lee would have none of it, fouling and sending Kris Dunn to the free throw line for what would become the Bulls’ tank-busting baskets. The loss in regulation got the Knicks (12-13, 9th in the East, but NBA-worst 1-8 on the road) back in Manhattan earlier than I’d hoped, but they’ll arrive tonight at The World’s Most (In)Famous Arena a little weary, and very surly.
    No one comes into today’s affair saltier than Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek, who was peeved about falling behind to the now 5-20 Bulls by double digits in the opening quarter. “The game was lost way in the beginning,” Coach Horny told the New York Post and postgame media.
    Kristaps Porzingis concurred. “We and I can’t start the game like that and I take full responsibility for the loss.” Hornacek added, “We come out at the start not ready to play and let them get out to a big lead. There’s no excuse for that. We talked about that – to hit them hard at the beginning of the game. Instead, we were floating out there.”
    That wasn’t the case in ATL back on November 24, went New York swam laps around the Hawks with a 39-24 opening frame, led by Lee’s 13 first-quarter points. Yet the Knicks still lost, 116-104, despite the best efforts of former Hawk Tim Hardaway, Jr. (22 points, 10 in the fourth quarter).
    As demonstrated in last night’s shockingly thrilling 117-110 win and in the last victory over the Knicks, the Hawks (6-19) are satisfied allowing two or three players to go off in hopes they can throttle the rest of the opposing cast. While THJ, Kristaps Porzingis and Lee combined for 76 of New York’s 110 points in Atlanta, the other six Knicks combined to shoot 12-for-31 while shooting just one free throw. Junior has missed the past four games while rehabbing a stress-fracture injury in his tibia, and won’t be around to save the Knicks if they fall behind late again tonight.
    The Knicks want to again pounce on the Hawks early, and this time, they’ll make heavy use out of Enes Kanter (NBA-high 16.7 O-Reb%, point+rebound double-doubles in four of his last five games), who missed the last Hawks-Knicks matchup and is hoped to wear down Atlanta, the league’s worst defensive rebounding team (NBA-low 73.8 team D-Reb%).
    The Hawks’ reliance on wings like last night’s late-game heroes, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, to secure opponent’s missed shots leave capable bigs like Nikola Vucevic (4-for-6 3FGs yesterday) and the Porzstar (4-for-8 3FGs @ ATL on Nov. 24), to camp around the top of the key for open jumpers. However, that often tends to neutralize backcourt teammates who are on the floor to take those same shots, especially when those players (Doug McDermott, for example) aren’t rebounding or defending to supplement the big men’s offensive contributions.
    Jarrett Jack was the box score beneficiary of the Knicks’ stars going bombs-away in Atlanta, tying his career-high with 14 assists. He remains slow-of-foot, however, and on the back end of a back-to-back, he’ll have a hard time trying to keep Dennis Schröder (last 5 games: 22.8 PPG, 5.8 APG, 1.4 TOs/game) from compiling video-game numbers up in MSG.
    Schröder had 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting, plus eight dimes and two TOs against the Knicks in Atlanta last month. Lotto-rookie Frank Ntilikina had perhaps his best NBA outing last night in a reserve role (10 points, 2-for-3 3FGs, 7 assists but 4 TOs in 21 minutes), and Knicks fans truly hope Hornacek noticed that.
    Also a bit on the surly side today will be backup bigs Joakim Noah, the 2014 All-NBAer who was DNP-CD’d in his old stomping grounds last night, and Willy Hernangomez, who was DNP-CD’d two days after compiling double-double numbers in just 17 minutes, during an 18-point loss in Indiana. Can the Knicks’ frontcourt players establish enough of a gap, early and often, to keep the more-upbeat yet depleted Hawks at bay?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Get you a head coach that can do This.
    Here comes the Payne! Former Atlanta Hawks first-rounder Adreian Payne will be back in the building, the latest G-League call-up by the visiting Orlando Magic (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) graces us with his presence at Philips Arena.
    Payne’s promotion from Lakeland became a necessity because of a concussion sustained by Aaron Gordon in the third quarter of last night’s 103-89 home loss by the Magic (11-6, 5-10 on road) to the shorthanded Nuggets. As was the case in Wednesday night’s 110-106 OT victory over visiting Atlanta (5-19), Orlando was gashed again by a second-unit. Denver’s Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay dissected a Magic bench crew that shot a collective 4-for-20 from the field, including Wednesday’s late-game hero D.J. Augustin (1-for-6 FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs vs. DEN).
    Augustin (quad contusion) himself is questionable to play tonight, perhaps joining Evan Fournier, who injured his ankle in Wednesday’s extra frame, Jonathan Issac and Terrence Ross on the shelf. Nikola Vucevic (21 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, 1-for-5 3FGs vs. DEN) and Jonathan Simmons (21 points, 9-for-17 FGs vs. DEN) need better support from the rest of the starting cast, especially Elfrid Payton (33.3 FG% last 3 games; 3-for-11 FGs and 4 TOs vs. ATL), and the reserves to pull off a road win.
    On the second night of a back-to-back, look for meaningful minutes out of former Hawk Shelvin Mack (team-high 9.1 assists, 1.9 TOs per-36), who has been used sparingly over the past seven games. Head coach Frank Vogel’s crew is familiar with these next-night road games, winning their first two (at Cleveland and New Orleans) in October before dropping their last three (at Denver, Philly, and Charlotte, all by double digits).
    After leading the NBA in the first few weeks of the season, the Hawks have slipped out of the top-ten in free throw percentage (78.8 team FT%, 11th in NBA), the misses becoming more precious for a team that doesn’t draw a lot of trips (28th in FT rate). Dennis Schröder has to find ways to feed his superior free throw shooting wings, notably Kent Bazemore (team-high 3.5 FTAs per game, 80.7 FT%) and Marco Belinelli (94.2 FT%), in the paint, weakening Orlando’s similarly-depleted front line with foul trouble while improving the likelihood of padding the scoreboard in Atlanta’s favor.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Oh, where have you gone, Patricio Garino?
    Need an eraser to wipe clean that wretched second half by the Atlanta Hawks on Monday? Their hosts tonight, the Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida), may be the last people to ask for help.
    The above snapshot, taken last April by temp-job baller Patricio Garino’s agent in the Magic War Room, was the coup de grace for neophyte GM Rob Hennigan. The worst five-year stretch in Orlando’s short history (132-278) came under Rob Hennigan’s Apple Watch. To be fair, that mark should have come during the expansion years, but for a pair of fortuitous lottery bounces. But despite out Otis Smithing Otis Smith, the Whiteboard Warrior left behind a glimpse into the team’s mindset for the offseason to come.
    Orlando would be on the hunt for “Hybrid” 3/4s, and “Spread Big” 4/5s to buttress head coach Frank Vogel’s roster of up-and-coming yung’uns. With Hennigan gone, the job fell to John Hammond, formerly of the Bucks. Milwaukee never fully turned the corner under Hammond’s Swatch (240-318), either, the nadir coming in 2013-14 with his Bucks having a 15-67 mark and the league’s worst attendance. But Hammond managed to do two things right. No, signing Miles Plumlee to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 was not one of them.
    One season before unceremoniously ditching Larry Drew, Hammond managed to heed his new head coach’s advice just long enough to snatch up Giannis Antetokounmpo, before the Greek Freak leaked down to Atlanta’s draft spot. He also used one of his second-round draft picks in 2016 to pluck the reigning Rookie of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon. For those draft moves, he gets to start fresh in the Magic Kingdom and pick up where Hennigan left off.
    The Hawks have three of the Magic’s “Spread Big” Whiteboard targets, with Travis Schlenk having retained Ersan Ilyasova and Budfave big man Mike Muscala over the summer while also wooing Luke Babbitt to the nest. The only player on the entire Whiteboard that Orlando was able to attract was Central Florida native Marreese Speights. The former Clipper accepted a one-year, $2 million deal as a short-term backup for Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.
    Like Hennigan, Hammond realized that “Hybrids” like Paul Millsap would cost a pretty penny, so he chose to draft and develop one instead. Orlando used their lotto pick on Jonathan Isaac, the Florida State star and IMG Academic. Isaac is raw and skinny but showed some promising flashes before getting shelved in mid-November with a sprained ankle. The rookie may already be his team’s best defender already, Bismack Biyombo included.
    Their biggest free agent acquisition came at the wing, enticing Jonathon Simmons after the swingman was set free by the Spurs. Inserted fully into the starting lineup after a recent knee injury sidelined Terrence Ross, Simmons struggles without the team-oriented Spurs defense around him, but still adds to Orlando’s ambrosia of lengthy players that can get buckets in bunches.
    The Magic were some Cool Story Bros for a while, Vogel’s troops marching out to a 6-2 season start while awaiting the return of starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Alas, shortly after Payton returned, Orlando (10-15) took a nosedive, a nine-game losing streak and a 2-11 stretch sliding them down the Eastern Conference all the way toward the basement where Atlanta (5-18) presently resides.
    Since November 1, only the Clippers have held a worse defensive rating than Orlando (110.7 D-Rating), necessitating Herculean efforts by their offensive stars just to have a shot at victory. Vucevic hung 34-and-12 on the Knicks at MSG this past Sunday, but in a 5-point victory facilitated by the injury absences of Kristaps Porzingis and Junior Hardaway. Here at the Amway Center last week, the Magic needed 40-and-12 out of Gordon (who found out from the Whiteboard that he might get dangled in a deal for Philadelphia’s Dario Saric) to fend off a star-studded but struggling Oklahoma City squad.
    Including Monday’s 104-94 loss in Charlotte, ten of Orlando’s last 13 defeats have come by double-digit margins: by 22 at home to the Bulls, by 19 in Philly, by 40 at home to the Gobert-less Jazz. The nine-game losing streak began with an 18-point loss in Denver, and this week, the Magic get to sandwich a home game with the Nuggets between matchups with the Hawks.
    The Magic’s depth is hampered at the forward and swingman spots by the unavailability of Ross and Isaac. Veteran pickup Arron Afflalo, Speights and the disappointing Mario Hezonja are all getting mere spot minutes under Vogel. For Atlanta, pulling off a second-straight road win will require big games out of struggling starters Kent Bazemore (39.2 FG%, 35.5% last seven games) and Taurean Prince.
    Baze is almost the perfect foil for anyone hoping for a Hawks playoff push. While he remains committed to following Mike Budenholzer’s command and driving to the rim, he isn’t strong enough of a finisher (29.4 paint FG% beyond the restricted area) to draw extra defenders inside. And some of his passes (5 TOs in two of his past three games) leaves one to think he’s seeing Antoine “The Sixth Man” Tyler out on the floor.
    Like Prince (101.6 O-Rating, 12th-lowest among active players w/ 30+ MPG), Kent will serve his team better for now by keeping the ball moving, or finding catch-and-shoot spots against a tepid Orlando perimeter defense (39.9 opponent 3FG% since Nov. 1, 3rd-highest in NBA), without wasting time and possessions by putting the ball on the floor.
    Despite the Hawks being shorthanded up-front, Miles Plumlee and ex-Magician Ersan Ilyasova will have little problem fending off a Magic team that settles for one-and-done basketball (since Nov. 1: NBA-low 8.9 second-chance points per-48). Getting the ball quickly to Atlanta ballhandlers in transition, off defensive rebounds and turnovers, should give the Hawks an abundance of chances to score.
    Only the Hawks (26.3 opponent APG) allow themselves to get wined-and-dimed more frequently than the Magic (24.9 opponent APG, 2nd-most in NBA), so it is incumbent on Payton (career-high 6.8 APG, 39.1 3FG%), ex-Hawk Shelvin Mack (career-high 34.6 assist%), and D.J. Augustin to overwhelm Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder and Isaiah Taylor in properly setting up and finishing offensive plays.
    Fortunately for the Magic, the rest of the Southeast isn’t exactly running away with the division, and Hammond has no interest in panic moves like Hennigan made in 2016 when he shipped Tobias Harris to Detroit for Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. Yet the upcoming slate of games is set up for Orlando to get themselves back in the Eastern Conference playoff pack. If they fail to get it done, will it already become time to head back to the, ummm, drawing board?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Baby, Luke Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Baby, Luke Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back Babbitt’s Back BARBEQUE SAUCE…
    ¡Ay, caramba! The Brooklyn Nets steadfastly refused to play along with the Atlanta Hawks’ competitank antics on Saturday, allowing their spunky visitors to escape Barclays Center with a 114-102 victory. The scene shifts from the BK to the ATL today (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC). With the Nets heading south of the border for a pair of games in Mexico City afterwards, everyone is left to wonder if Brooklyn is heading south in the standings as well.
    Signals had been pointing upwards for Kenny Atkinson’s bunch after stealing two of three on the road last week, at immolating Memphis and water-treading Dallas. Then came Saturday, with Brooklyn (8-14) getting blitzed at home in the paint by a Hawks team missing both Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins (and you, too, Mike Muscala).
    Atlanta (5-17) built up a decisive 54-28 paint-points advantage versus a jumper-satisfied Nets squad, one that did not convert on an attempt in the paint until almost midway through the second quarter. And even that bucket came not from a big, but from Brooklyn’s default starter at the point. Among Net players who showed up to compete with the Hawks, Spencer Dinwiddie (3-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL, team-highs of 15 points, 9 assists, 3 blocks, plus 6 rebounds) often seemed to be on an island unto himself.
    “I thought they dominated us in every area,” Atkinson told the postgame media. “They were the more aggressive team. They were the quicker team . . . They really took it to us. We could not keep them in front of us . . . That was the story of the game: We couldn’t guard them.”
    Former Hawk DeMarre Carroll, who made quite a living off guarding people, got more than a birds’ eye view of the proceedings. “They came out and basically kicked our butt,” JYD stated matter-of-factly. “We didn’t have any energy. We came out lackadaisical and we knew coming off a three-game road trip, this tends to happen. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
    Alternatively, Dennis Schröder (10-for-19 2FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO @ BKN; 36.7 assist%, 6th in NBA) sure seems to understand his role, at least on offense. As Bryan Fonseca of SB Nation’s Nets Daily noted, Dennis had not just one head coach watching him, but two. His German National Team coach from Eurobasket, Chris Fleming, now serves full-time as an Atkinson assistant.
    Schröder also knows he’s being scouted before games by former Hawks video coordinator and current Nets assistant Jordan Ott. When Dennis plays the Nets, he’s dressed to impress (20.5 PPG, 7.0 APG, 1.5 TOs/game), and he was eons better with his shot selection than during the Hawks’ October 22 loss (5-for-22 FGs) in the same building.
    It was back when Atkinson and Ott were in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s stead, when Carroll (career-highs of 14.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG this season) previously reached his zenith as an offensive performer. Shooting career-highs of 56.7 FG% on twos, and 39.5 percent on threes, during the Hawks magic-carpet-ride season of 2014-15, DeMarre showed he had turned a corner by attacking from the wings off the catch, without hesitation as to whether he would shoot, pass, or drive. His offensive play from that season should be instructive for the player who presently starts in his stead for the Hawks at small forward.
    No one is doing HesiHawk quite as habitually these days as Taurean Prince (last 5 games: 33.3 FG%), with one shot-fake and jab-step at a time unsuccessful at drawing defenders to bite. Atlanta’s leader in total minutes is putting the ball on the floor and trying to Tetris his way to the hoop, but without much of a Plan B when those forays are thwarted by the opposition.
    As a result, Prince (5-for-13 FGs, no assists, 2 TOs @ BKN) is too often settling for mid-range shots. Despite shooting a solid 42.5 3FG% in just his second season, his proportion of three-point attempts taken (34.5 percent of FGAs, as per basketball-reference) is down from last season (36.3 percent). It’s a similar deal for the shots he gets around the rim (63.5 FG%, up from 53.4%; 29.4 percent of FGAs, down from 36.1 percent). In the mushy middle is where things get muddled for Prince and the Atlanta offense.
    Compared to his rookie year, Taurean is taking a higher proportion of his shots between 3-to-10 feet (shooting 25.6 FG%), between 10-to-16 feet (32.3 FG%), and the dreaded long 2s from 16 feet out (19.0 FG%). Throw in a turnover percentage (16.4 per 100 plays) that rivals Kommander Kent Bazemore’s (16.3 TO%), and you can see why, despite a stellar perimeter shot percentage, Prince’s offensive efficiencies (-0.4 offensive win share) have been as poor as any current (i.e., Malcolm-Delaney-at-PG excepted) significant contributor on the team.
    It is a big ask to read-and-react in Coach Bud’s motion offense for even veteran players, but Prince (46.5 catch-and-shoot 3FG%) can help his cause, and Atlanta’s, by simply gathering and hoisting the open threes when the ball comes his way. He’s one of seven Hawks (incl. Dedmon, Luke Babbitt, Delaney, Tyler Cavanaugh, Baze, and Marco Belinelli) hitting above a 40-percent clip on catch-and-shoot threes.
    There will be opportunities to blow past the closeout man, but Prince must make those decisions more immediately, as his reactions while reading the defense tend to throw him off more than his defenders. The Hawks (12th in eFG%, 21st in O-Rating) can diversify their offense further by running plays where Taurean (11.2 assist%, 52nd among 80 players w/ 30+ MPG) receives the ball strictly as a swing passer.
    Rebounding by Committee remains the order of the day for Atlanta, and the nimble feet of Ersan Ilyasova (11 rebounds, 8 offensive) will have to come through again tonight if the Hawks intend to pull off the Pasa Doble. In the Battle of Inferior Baller Bros, starter Miles Plumlee (7 rebounds, 3 swats) managed a strategic draw with the Nets’ Tyler Zeller on Saturday. Having Ilyasova and Plumlee back and healthy allowed Luke Babbitt (season-high 20 points, 4-for-6 3FGs @ BKN), still dealing with a nagging back issue, to snipe away in a bench role.
    The Hawks’ wings (including DeAndre’ Bembry) helped the Atlanta frontcourt limit the Nets to just 12 second-chance points, and Atkinson is out to change that tonight. He got nothing from the benched Timofey Mozgov (DNP-CD for two straight games) and next-to-nothing from starter Trevor Booker (0-for-5 FGs vs. ATL, benched mid-3rd quarter) on Saturday.
    Through drives and post-ups, the Nets will try to get the ball inside more and draw trips to the free throw line (26.5 FTAs per game, 4th in NBA), although making these shots have become a bit like the adage about drawing horses to water (73.1 team FT%, 27th in NBA).
    When Brooklyn goes bigger and crashes the offensive glass, the Hawks should counter by pushing in transition, no matter whether the Nets convert their plays into points. It will be up to Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (starting beside DMC at power forward), and Caris LeVert to slow the Hawks’ rolls toward the paint and the three-point corners, if the Mexico-bound Nets want a happy send-off tonight from their fans, and a few others.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ** Introducing: The Hawks’ latest roster addition! **
    ((abridged version, since I had too much fun this morning out on the BeltLine. Let's Go Hawks!))
    With the Atlanta Hawks and the Brooklyn Nets, we’ve got two skeleton crews clashing at the Barclays Center for a Saturday matinee (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK). As a Hawks fan, you’ll be forgiven if your support in the next two contests tilts toward the gentlemen in black-and-white.
    It’s not at all about having reservations with rooting against Kenny Atkinson, the fun-loving former Hawks assistant who’s in his second season running the show in The Big Borough.
    Like his most recent head-coaching boss, Coach Kenny is amidst an ownership change, as Mikhail Prokhorov hands over the controlling-stake papers to a fellow billionaire, Joseph Tsai (no relation to the band that sang, “If I Ever Fell in Love”). The Alibaba co-founder may or may not have his own ideas about how to run an NBA club, and those plans may or may not include Atkinson, or Brooklyn’s Kiwi GM Sean Marks.
    With such uncertainty blowing in the winds, it’s therefore in the Nets’ coach’s best interest to win the few games on his slate that he’s supposed to win, including the upcoming home-and-home series against Atlanta, even while his team is as short-handed as anyone else’s.
    The Nets were still reeling from the loss of Jeremy Lin back on October 22, when the Nets outpaced the visiting Hawks 116-104. Prior to his season-ending knee injury, Lin was an ideal backup guard for new franchise face D’Angelo Russell. Well, within a month, one of Russell’s knees would undergo arthroscopic surgery.
    While the silver lining is that the setbacks gave Spencer Dinwiddie (6.1 APG, 38.8 3FG%) an opportunity to break out of his shell, this was certainly not a storyline Atkinson or the Nets could have anticipated. They’ve also had to deal without two players at the wing spots, as Blazers tradee Allen Crabbe (back) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (ankle) were out this week (Crabbe has returned and will start, and RHJ is also likely to play).
    Based roughly off per-game scoring this season, there’s four of the top five Nets on the shelf. Only one Net, backup forward Caris “Casanova” LeVert, has appeared in all 21 games for Brooklyn. The only active player with more than 15 starts, entering today? Our old friend, Raptors castaway DeMarre Carroll (19 of 21 games, 14.2 PPG, 38.5 3FG%, 6.8 RPG), who just returned this week from a respiratory infection.
    Yet, there is one big reason Hawks fans will cheer on Atkinson and company through this arduous climb back toward relevancy. You saw how daunting a challenge it is to deal with LeBron James during Atlanta’s nice-try loss to the Cavaliers on Friday night. Can you imagine a possibly-returning LeBron and a possibly-upright Isaiah Thomas, being rewarded next June with a(nother) Top-3 draft selection?
    Aside from Prokhy, none of the current brass was around when the Nets decided to collude with their Atlantic Division rivals to acquire City Slickers co-stars Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and Paul Pierce. In what is shaping up to be one of history’s most calamitous deals ever involving some Russian dude, that deal cost Brooklyn the ability to at least miss out on drafting Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and, now, whoever falls to Cleveland in 2018.
    I say Cleveland, and not Boston, since that upcoming pick was the key piece in the huge, mega-blockbuster Jae Crowder deal that preceded this season. Thanks to Marks, Brooklyn is currently pegged to get a first-round pick next summer, thanks to the salary dump of Carroll by Toronto (pending the Raptors making the playoffs). But Brooklyn losing games like the upcoming pair does none of the Nets, nor the Hawks (4-17), any favors.
    Atlanta can still find a way to Bobsura their way to victory versus the Nets, who are just 2-5 at Barclays since beating the Hawks here in mid-October. The Hawks were already the league’s worst defensive rebounding team (73.8 D-Reb%), even before their top two rebounders, Dewayne Dedmon (tibia, out 3-6 weeks) and now John Collins (shoulder, out 2-3 weeks) were sidelined. Miles Plumlee will start by default, but the Hawks’ guards and swingmen will have to dis-incentivize T-n-T (Trevor Booker and Timofey Mozgov) from parking around the offensive blocks.
    Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore helping the bigs on the defensive rebounds and executing on fastbreaks without turnovers will allow the Coach Bud’s club keep pace with Coach Kenny’s. If keeping pace is the best they can do, it’ll be a win-win for everyone involved.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    CAPTION: Hawks fan reacts to Dewayne Dedmon news.
    LeBron James brings his resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers into town to take on your Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), and The King wants answers, y’all.
    “I need some answers,” James tweeted three days ago. “Feels like my man was a fall guy.” LeBron’s “man” was former Hawks and heat assistant and recently-deposed Memphis head coach David Fizdale. The Grizzlies used an eight-game slide and a rift with the hometown-raised NBA star to give Coach Fiz the heave-ho, just 107 games after prying him from the coastal comforts of South Beach. I can only hope LeBron has insurance coverage for the Irony Hammer that fell upon him.
    There was another once head coach, some dude named… David… that not only won 143 NBA games, but also notched a pair of NBA Finals wins during his maiden NBA season. All of that, before “David” was handed his walking papers and shipped back overseas, in large part for the unforgivable, abominable crime of getting blown out at home to the reigning NBA champs in January. Whose mans with that, LeBron? You can find the answers you seek in that mirror over there.
    What’s the commonality? In the NBA, the Goliaths fell the Davids. The Association is not some “prison” a few NFL owners are deluded into thinking they run. It’s as open a society as one will find in professional sports. Yet, it’s also the place where players bickering with staff can abruptly lead to J.B. Bickerstaff. Players run this modern NBA, and star players, the big money-earning, bigger money-making ones, yield unprecedented influence over the rank-and-file, in some cases, all the way along the bench.
    Play a scenario forward, where the Hawks of Summer 2017 re-sign their aging free agent vets, and elect to simply ride out their long-term plans to refashion Dwight Howard into a team-first player. Go ahead and double their current win total (4-16), but assume a handful of those losses are of the 112-78 variety, like the one recently suffered to the Raptors (just like last season’s 128-84 drubbing). Assume Dwight, Atlanta’s homegrown star, begins moping publicly about playing time, touches (much like last season), and personal development.
    Here’s the question. Is Mike Budenholzer still here? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality that there’d be a good chance he’s no longer around reflects the NBA climate in the LeBronze Age. One where, if you have not won your franchise Larry O’Brien trophies within your first couple years on the job, even the mildest player-coach dissension can keep your seat Carolina Reaper-hot.
    Our youthful Hawks are looking for more legitimate answers, now that it appears they’ll probably have to lug through their December schedule without their starting center. The absence of Dewayne Dedmon (tibia stress reaction) for 3-to-6 weeks, plus the continued shelving of Mike Muscala (sprained hoof), will lead to some considerable scrambling along the Atlanta front line.
    John Collins will get to start at center in place of Dedmon, and as usual, restraining himself from unnecessary whistles will be key to getting a full game out of him. He’ll be paired with Luke Babbitt, who returns after missing several games with a lower back injury. Tyler Cavanaugh is likely get an uptick in play, but might Coach Bud pull out a Plum instead? Miles Plumlee (quad) insists he’s as ready to contribute as ever before, although this might not be the ideal contest for him to make his season debut.
    The Hawks will get some reprieve as Cleveland is doing without Tristan Thompson, thanks to a calf strain that’s had him sidelined for most of this month. But the Cavs (14-7) are riding a nine-game winning streak and are 10-1 since the Hawks pulled off the November Surprise, a 117-115 nailbiting win at the Q on the 5th of this month. Measurably better all-around play out of Kevin Love (1-for-6 FGs, 4 rebounds in 18 minutes vs. ATL) appears to be a big part of the turnaround.
    Being Cleveland’s only real starting option at center, Love’s 38-point effort during Tuesday’s home win over Miami reflected an acknowledgement that his team needs “Minnesota Kevin” in the offense, compensating for the departure of Kyrie Irving and the continued unavailability of Isaiah Thomas. Love is shooting career-highs of 52.7 2FG% inside the 3-point arc and 89.3% at the free throw line.
    During their nine-game win streak, Cleveland is committing fouls more selectively and strategically (opponent 69.6 FT%, to the Cavs’ 80.7 FT%). In the November 5 win the Hawks were granted 34 free throws, a tally surpassed only by Houston (36 FTAs) in the Cavs’ last defeat back on November 9.
    Dennis Schröder (28 points @ CLE, 8-for-8 FTs), Collins (7 O-Rebs @ CLE, 6-for-8 FTs), and Kent Bazemore (9 rebounds @ CLE, 4-for-8 FTs) will need to continue creating havoc for their opponents, punishing the defensively deficient members of the Cavs’ rotation and drawing contact in the paint. The Hawks should get some more backcourt support as Isaiah Taylor (14 points in bench-high 26 minutes @ CLE) returns to the lineup from an eye injury.
    As was not the case in last weekend’s blowout loss to the Raps (6-for-27 3FGs), Atlanta shot the ball well (11-for-25 team 3FGs) from the perimeter in their November 5 upset victory over the Cavs, just well enough to make Kyle Korver’s heroics (5-for-11 3FGs) too-little-too-late. Schröder, Babbitt and Taurean Prince combined to hit nine of their 17 attempts, and they could use some more reinforcement off the bench from Marco Belinelli (3rd among NBA never-starters with 12.1 PPG) and Cavanaugh to stay with or ahead of the Cavs for significant stretches.
    The Cavaliers do have their confidence back, but this recent winning run has been fairly weak in terms of strength-of-schedule, and it won’t take much, like a second loss to the Hawks, to send the Cavs back into what would be, for them, a tailspin. No matter what ups or downs this season brings, the Cavs’ Tyronn Lue knows better than to rub his team’s real PF/PG/HC/GM/PBO the wrong way. Otherwise, he won’t be LeBron’s “man” much longer.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “This how they do ‘THE U!’ in Australia.”
    Not quite Dead from Downtown! The Atlanta Hawks brought what Bob Rathbun calls ‘moxie’ into the second half last night to dispatch the Knicks, and they’ll need more of that today to notch just their third home victory this season, versus the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot).
    Up North, fan fatigue is beginning to set in with fifth-year GM Masai Ujiri, seventh-year coach Dwane Casey, and the Jurassic Fifteen. Yes, the Raptors (11-7, 5-6 on the road) are on pace for their third consecutive 50-plus-win season. But the newness of their regular season success has been wearing on the fanbase. Consumer confidence remains weak that this outfit might match the advancement achieved by the 2015-16 unit that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s just November, but there is a lingering sense that we already know how this season’s campaign will conclude.
    Ujiri spent this summer shifting the deck chairs on Toronto’s Titanic. Just a couple years removed from shouting “Buck Frooklyn!” at a public playoff rally, Masai found it necessary to deal with the Frooklynites in order to save some payroll bucks. He sweetened the departure of former Hawk DeMarre Carroll with next year’s first-round pick, plus a second-rounder, in exchange for the immediately disposable Justin Hamilton. Toronto native Cory Joseph was sent off to Indiana for just one eternally stashable 30-year-old Euro-dude.
    After swinging for the fences before the 2017 trading deadline with a deal for Serge Ibaka (11.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who was brought back along with Kyle Lowry on a free agent deal, the Raptors’ biggest summer splash was with former Pacer C.J. Miles (out for today’s game while caring for a newborn).
    Sharing an Atlantic Division where all the hype is directed toward the budding stars on the Celtics, the Sixers, and the Knicks, fans are struggling to find a reason to cling their hopes on players like longtime center Jonas Valanciunas (career-low 20.1 minutes/game), who is only 25 years of age but seems to already be bumping his head on his ceiling.
    Ten players on the Raps’ 15-man roster are 25 years old or younger. But who among them is about to make a star turn? Swingman Norman Powell, starting rookie OG Anunoby, rim-plugger Bebe Noguiera, second-year space-eater Jakob Poeltl, or the injured backup point guard Delon Wright? Who have the Raptors been developing that will be ready this spring to help Toronto stay competitive with the East’s top tier?
    The task of producing answers falls upon Casey, who already has the thankless challenge of managing playing time for his two backcourt All-Stars. DeMar DeRozan (reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week; 24.1 PPG, career-high 4.4 APG) and Lowry remain strong offensive talents that get unfortunately lax on the other end, and they struggle to get it going for their team simultaneously in games.
    After averaging a career-high 22.4 PPG in 2016-17, Lowry failed to crack 20 points in scoring until his 14th game this season. He’s shaken off the barnacles during his last five games (20.6 PPG, 45.2 3FG%, 7.6 APG), but his running mate, DeRozan, is often off when he’s on. Such was the case in last night’s 107-104 road loss to the Pacers, where DeMar managed just 13 points on 6-for-16 shooting with four turnovers in 39 minutes, an inadequate balance for Lowry (24 points, 5-for-9 3FGs, 10 boards, 8 assists).
    Even with DeRozan in tow, Toronto shoots a high proportion of threes (38.0% of shots from 3-point range, 4th-highest in NBA), but isn’t particularly good at either making them (34.6 team 3FG%, 23rd in NBA), or at producing second-chances (20.7 O-Reb%, 23rd in NBA; 10.2 second-chance points per-48, 25th in NBA).
    The Hawks’ ability to turn the tide on Friday came when the Kanter-less Knicks’ jump-shooting cooled off. Keeping New York off the offensive glass and gaining decisive advantages in the turnover department (9 player TOs, fewest all season; one Knicks steal, fewest by a Hawks opponent since 2/25/2015) granted Atlanta 20 additional field goal opportunities, a season-high 99 in total.
    The Hawks need another strong defensive rebounding effort from Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Ersan Ilyasova to alleviate their starting bigs, and they’ll need to stay disciplined enough not to bail out DeRozan (8.0 FTAs per-36, 6th in NBA) and Lowry (91.1 FT%, 10th in NBA) with trips to the free throw line.
    Mike Budenholzer’s club hopes for a similar result on consecutive nights, but may have to pull away earlier in the second half to enhance their chances for their first two-game win streak of the season. The Raps are 11-0 in games where they led or were tied through the first three quarters, but 0-7 otherwise.
    Atlanta (seven players in double figures vs. NYK, not counting Tyler Cavanuagh’s 8 points in 12 minutes) will again rely on a balanced attack but will also turn to Dennis Schröder (26 points, 8 assists vs. NYK), who buried the Raptors in these teams’ previous meeting last March with 13 fourth-quarter points in a 105-99 victory, to salt the game away.
    There’s usually no reason to fret about the prospect of a small losing string, but few executives are as compulsive about their team losing, and growing stale, as Ujiri. A third-straight defeat for the Raptors, who just lost to the Knicks at MSG on Wednesday, might allow us to see just how easily triggered Toronto’s GM can get.
    Let’s Go Hawks!