“No worries, Pop. That Collins kid will be back down in a second or two.”
Vader and Skywalker clash once more! Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, looks to resume his homecourt mastery over the visiting Atlanta Hawks (8:30 PM Eastern. Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA), in the process reminding his self-described former “co-coach” that the student has not yet become the teacher.
To which every team in The Association can surely attest by now, double-digit leads are nothingburgers these days, specifically those leads in the teens and twenties. In Atlanta, the Celtics eroded a 16-point first-quarter deficit and eventually found itself cruising to a 110-99 victory with whirling dervish Kyrie Irving at the wheel on Saturday.
The day before that, OKC was up 23 points at the AT&T Center early in the second quarter before the Spurs stormed back, taking over on a Manu Ginobili three-pointer at the start of the fourth quarter and hanging on for the 104-101 win. The key to the turnaround, as only Popovich can describe it, was “an attitude change, from ‘poor me,’ to ‘screw you’!”
While the Hawks-Spurs series has long been one-sided, particularly here in San Antonio (last Hawks win here in February 1997, 0-19 since), Atlanta has been like a bad penny, hard to shake loose. Four of the past five matchups with the Hawks here in Alamo City resulted in just single-digit winning margins for the Spurs, three of them within five points.
A 15-point third-quarter lead by the home team last March was nearly erased, when super-sub Junior Hardaway heated up and a bucket by San An native Taurean Prince shrunk the Spurs’ lead to 86-85 with eight minutes to spare. Even going into the final minute up by 11, San Antonio had to endure threes by Hardaway and Prince and rely on 5-for-5 free throw shooting from Kawhi Leonard to keep the pesky Hawks at arm’s length.
Leonard remains a no-go, he and guard Tony Parker missing the start of this season with quad injuries. Even with The KLaw on the floor, without the pesky Parker (DNP) around in March’s 107-99 Spurs win, Hawks guard Dennis Schröder (22 points 10-for-18 FGs, 10 assists, 2 TOs) proved to be a tough cover. With the help of Danny Green (4 steals vs. OKC on Friday, also 5-for-13 3FGs), Coach Pop will design a defensive scheme in hopes of similar fortunes as they had on Friday with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook (5-for-22 FGs, 9 assists and 2 TOs).
While it never rose to the scale of “I Dont wanna be here,” LaMarcus Aldridge held an airing of grievances with Popovich prior to the start of training camp. Roundly criticized for his performance in the Spurs’ first postseason without Tim Duncan around, Aldridge felt that a higher volume of early post touches was the cure for his woes.
“It was an afterthought [to feed Aldridge the ball early]. But it was both [probably his fault and the team’s] because I didn’t feel like I would get it,” Aldridge divulged to ESPN last month. “So, I probably didn’t run the floor as hard, or I didn’t seal as good. Then, they didn’t look for me. Then, when we [he and the ballhandler] both thought about it, it was too late.”
Fortunately for LMA, he’s not in Phoenix but working for a stable franchise with a championship pedigree and a head coach that values input from his senior players. Popovich listened, and LaMarcus agreed to run the full floor. The early returns are promising, as Aldridge has posted a career-high in scoring efficiency (24.4 points per-36) at age 32, with upticks from last season in field goal shooting, three-point attempts, rebounding and assists. But how well the good vibes hold up remains to be seen, at least until usage-leader Leonard and Parker return to the fold.
Running the floor is essential for Aldridge (8.4 RPG) and frontcourt mate Pau Gasol (8.2 RPG, team-high 3.8 APG) tonight, as it appears the Hawks (3-13) will have as full a complement of bigs at their disposal as they have had all season. Dewayne Dedmon made things difficult from the jump for Al Horford in Saturday’s return to his old stomping grounds, and there’s no telling how close the final outcome could have been had Coach Bud stuck with John Collins (18 points; 7 rebounds, 3 offensive vs. BOS) a little longer in the final frame against the Celtics. Sixth-man forward Rudy Gay (11.8 PPG) ranks second on the balanced Spurs in scoring, but has yet to fully imbibe his new team’s well-regarded defensive Kool-Aid.
Mike Muscala (ankle) and Miles Plumlee (quad) may not get activated, but will be available to play, in Milester P’s case for the first time all season. Coach Bud has stated a preference to go just four-deep at the PF/C spots, and for Luke Babbitt (probable, back) to play more at the 4-spot. So, with former starter Ersan Ilyasova (DNP vs. BOS Saturday) getting back up to speed there may be limited room at the inn, which is a great problem to have.
From the field, opponents have been outshooting the Spurs (45.9 to 45.1 FG%) on the season, and perhaps the key saving grace for Kawhi-less San Antonio (10-6) has been the iron being unkind to their foes at the charity stripe (NBA-low 70.8 opponent FT%). Atlanta has shot well away from home (78.9 road FT%, 10th in NBA) and must continue to take advantage on the rare occasions the Spurs (17.1 personal fouls/game, 2nd-fewest in NBA) send the Hawks to the line.
Shots failed to fall for former Spur Marco Belinelli (2-for-6 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs) on Saturday, and the bench bomber should not hesitate to turn that around tonight. Literally, with the need to push the tempo on the Spurs (NBA-low 97.3 pace) and speed up possessions, shots by the Killer B’s (Belly, Kent Bazemore and Babbitt) have to be more of the catch-and-shoot, rather than the pump-faking, jab-stepping or spot-up, variety.
Atlanta’s catch-and-shoot percentage of 41.6 3FG% ranks behind only Golden State’s 42.3 3FG%. On spot-ups, they’re also shooting NBA-highs of 43.7 FG% and 58.1 eFG%, but this can work against them versus a Spurs defense that prefers opposing shooters to be static in the halfcourt. San Antonio wants to shoo the Hawks shooters off the perimeter and put the ball on the floor, in hopes of producing turnovers and wayward shots.
Poor me, or screw you? Will a Hawks team, one that isn’t yet playing like it knows either its record or its franchise’s decades-long futility in Alamo City, put the screws to an experienced yet incomplete Spurs squad? And can they do it long enough for Coach Bud to finally feel the proverbial force versus his longtime mentor?
Let’s Go (not you Sea) Hawks!