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    Hawks at Magic

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    lethalweapon3

    Stupid Head Coach Tricks!

    How much have the Atlanta Hawks learned? Beginning with tonight’s affair in Orlando against the Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), the forthcoming 4-game road trip should be quite revelatory.

    The Hawks pulled off the trifecta in its homestand this past week, culminated by a stunning overtime victory over the daunting San Antonio Spurs. Prior to that run, though, confidence seemed to be at a new low, the Hawks sandwiching a narrow escape in Denver with two offensively poor defeats at the hands of the Timberwolves.

    Atlanta is giving out hints that it’s ready to pull ahead of the middling pack in the LeBronference. To do that, they need to begin stringing together convincing road victories, not just last-minute scrambles and mad dashes in the fourth quarters. They must especially perform consistently well against sub-.500 teams. The road trip ahead is full of exactly those kinds of teams.

    After Orlando (16-20), the scene shifts tomorrow to New Orleans (14-22), and both opponents have already flummoxed the Hawks in Atlanta. After that, bottom dwelling teams in Dallas (11-24) and Brooklyn (8-25) await the Hawks’ arrival in the coming days. The Hawks will get a chance to boost two elements that will factor into the East playoff race: their records on the road (currently 8-9, worse than Orlando’s 9-9), and versus the West (currently 5-9, same as Brooklyn’s).

    The Magic know all about the up-and-down basketball Atlanta patterned in December. A seemingly corner-turning victory in San Antonio on November 29 was followed by a loss in shorthanded Memphis two days later. That was followed by an encouraging three-game road winning streak, and then, a three-game losing streak. Then, a big 131-120 win in Atlanta was followed by a home loss to the Clippers the next day. Then a win, a loss, a win, a loss, a two-game win streak, a two-game losing streak.

    That means Orlando’s road win on Monday against the Porzingless Knicks could serve as a harbinger, either as a loss tonight versus the Hawks, or the extension of another win streak that artificially inflates hopes around the Magic Kingdom.

    The Magic pulled out the victory in New York without the continued services of Evan Fournier (17.8 PPG). Orlando’s leading scorer has been out for the past five games with a bruised heel. Whether Fournier (likely to play) starts or not, the Magic hope for a repeat performance from replacement starter Jodie Meeks, who eclipsed the season-high 20 points (4-for-6 3FGs) he contributed back home in the ATL last month with 23 points on a Hardaway-esque 6-for-7 3FGs on Monday.

    Meeks’ sharpshooting allowed backcourt mate Elfrid Payton (career-high 14 assists @ NYK, tying his output @ ATL) to penetrate and pepper the court. Against the Knicks, half of those 14 assisted baskets were within five feet of the rim, and many more involved dishes to open shooters from 16 feet out.

    Were it not for Magic coach Frank Vogel’s concerns about team defense, the effort against the Knicks was good enough to maybe earn Payton and Nikola Vucevic (13 rebounds, 5 O-Rebs @ NYK) their starting gigs back. It’s not clear that the move is working, anyway, as Magic starters’ D-Rating dropped from 102.0 (10th in NBA) to 109.3 (24th in NBA) since Elf and Vooch were relegated to bench status. While they are reserves, the duo is still averaging more minutes than replacements Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin, and Vogel seems hesitant to change that.

    Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings were of little use defensively against Payton and Augustin, but Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder ought to be more up to the task. Schröder (19 points, season-high 13 assists @ ORL on Dec. 13) has certainly begun to blossom as an offensive player, but his defensive imprint still leaves much to be desired.

    Dennis (1.2 loose-ball recoveries per game, 7th in NBA) has registered just 3 steals just once this season, back on November 25 in Utah, and registered no swipes in four of his past eight contests. After helping secure multiple defensive rebounds in nine of his first 11 appearances, Schröder has mostly deferred to the forwards and centers in three of the past ten games. Schröder (last ten games: 20.2 PPG, 49.4 FG%, 7.1 APG, 3.0 TO/G) will continue to excel for the Hawks (14-5 when his D-Rating, bball-ref formula, is 113 or less, incl. 5 wins in a row) when he makes his presence felt at both ends of the floor.

    Without the ability to get stops, Atlanta and Orlando (9 player TOs, season-high 58.6 team FG% @ ATL in December) may again engage in the freewheeling, AND1-mixtape style of ball that is to neither Vogel’s nor Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer’s liking. The Hawks could not force the Spurs into a lot of mistakes, but along the way to victory on Sunday, Atlanta did not commit many of their own (11 player TOs vs. SAS).

    In addition to Schröder, expect a more active and assertive on-ball defensive effort out of Paul Millsap (32 points, 13 rebounds vs. SAS), whose streak of games with at least one steal ended on Sunday at 13. Millsap and Howard tightening things up around the rim, plus active hands from Thabo Sefolosha and the Hawks’ guards and wings beyond the paint, should be enough to cool the Magic down.

    Much of Atlanta’s defensive lapse versus Orlando in the prior game was attributable to the bench brigade. The Magic made 13 of 15 shots within 5 feet of the rim in the first half, many of those beginning with Mike Muscala trying to hold the fort in place of Dwight Howard, and ending with Elfrid Payton, Jeff Green, and Meeks feasting.

    Moose’s minutes are down, but his on-floor impact has improved of late (+27 combined plus/minus in last two contests), Coach Bud adding a dash of Kris Humphries to help lessen the load. Buoyed further on offense by Tim Hardaway, Jr., if the bench can stop hemorrhaging opponent points, we’re likely to see a fine start to Atlanta’s road trip.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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