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!