Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot, and Never Brought to Mind?
((Blame it on the champagne! Cutting this draft game thread short to get rested up for the games today. Catch y’all later!))
The block is hot, the block is hot! It’s a busy Sunday sports afternoon in downtown Atlanta. Hopefully, the NFC South champion Falcons will make quick work of the New Orleans Saints and sew up a #2 playoff seed. If so, at halftime, fans in the Georgia Dome may consider sauntering down Dominique Wilkins Way to see if the Hawks can keep the San Antonio Spurs (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA, NBATV elsewhere) from extending their win streak to five.
For Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, there’s been no letting up on his mastery over his former heir apparent. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is still angling for a first regular-season win over his ex-boss.
The last time the Hawks defeated San Antonio in Atlanta, in March 2010, Coach Bud was on the Spurs’ bench, and then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson was almost on his way out of town, despite what would be a 53-win season. To counter Manu Ginobili’s 38 points and Tim Duncan’s 29 points plus 13 rebounds, to prevail 119-114 in overtime, Atlanta needed 22 points and 18 boards (!) from Al Horford, and 26 & 9 from Marvin Williams.
San Antonio (27-6, 1.5 games behind Golden State) has since won 11 straight games over the Hawks, piling onto a head-to-head win streak in San Antonio that extends back to the mid-1990s. In addition, here are the resulting scores when Popovich’s Spurs visited what’s purported to be Atlanta’s “home” floor, ever since Budenholzer flew the coop and took the reins here: 105-79 in January 2014, 114-95 in March 2015, 103-78 in December 2015.
A victory today is paramount, for Atlanta (17-16) to complete a 3-game homestand successfully. But short of that, the Hawks have to keep teams, whether it’s the Spurs or the Timberwolves, from leaving them in the dust. Tim Duncan has hung up his jersey for the final time, but Atlanta may catch an additional break if San Antonio’s leading scorer is unable to go.
Hey, Kawhi Leonard? To kick off 2017, how about a greasy pork sandwich, served in a dirty ashtray? Leonard has struggled with a stomach bug and digestion over the past few days, missing his first pair of games this season. Having the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year (2.0 SPG), 2016 MVP runner-up, and San Antonio’s top offensive threat (40.1 3FG%; career-highs of 9.9 FTs/game & 92.2 FT%) taking another couple of days off would theoretically (these are the Hawks we’re talking about here) be beneficial to Atlanta today.
Despite The Claw’s defensive prowess, Leonard is needed on the floor more than ever to keep the Spurs balanced offensively. Staying clear of foul trouble (1.5 personals per game, lowest since his rookie year) is perhaps the reason his shot blocking activity has declined (0.5 BPG, down from 1.0 last season). If he starts today, Atlanta will rely on Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to shoo him off the 3-point line and settle for interior shots (career-low 49.9 2FG%). Dennis Schröder needs to get his wings post touches that force Leonard to defend the ball up high.
Jonathan Simmons stepped up in Aldridge’s absence, the swingman putting up 19 points (most since his season-opener) to help the Spurs come back from a first-half deficit to beat the visiting Trail Blazers on Friday. A former ABL standout and D-League tryout, Simmons is highlight-reel-caliber, but has struggled enough with consistency and focus to keep Coach Pop suppressing his playing time. Kyle Anderson stepped into the starting lineup in Kawhi’s place, leading all starters with 8 boards against Portland.
Leonard’s illness has also forced the issue on power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the five-time All-Star who has been hesitant to take over games. Facing his former team for the second time in 8 days last Friday, despite Kawhi being inactive, LMA took just 3 field goal attempts, finishing with 8 points (the Spurs still beat Portland by 18).
Despite the 2015 free agent prize’s deferential nature, Aldridge did step things up in the prior three games (26.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 64.0 FG%). Aldridge’s team is eager to get him more mid-range looks. Given that they’re shooting fewer and fewer three-pointers each season (26.7 percent of FG attempts from 3-point range, 28th in NBA; NBA-high 41.0 3FG%), the Spurs are using Aldridge and newcomer vets Pau Gasol and David Lee to diversify the offense.
Despite Duncan’s departure, the Spurs also keeping the tempo low (26th in pace) to accommodate their big men. To speed things up, the Hawks have to keep the pressure on Tony Parker (5 assists, no TOs vs. POR on Dec. 30) at both ends, and force someone else on the floor to make quick decisions with the ball. Dwight Howard (13.4 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 78.3 FG% last 8 games) and Paul Millsap have to outrun the Spurs’ bigs and be in position to score when Schröder and the Hawks’ ballhandlers are setting up plays.
Kyle Korver (22 points, 3-for-8 3FGs vs. DET on Friday; 6-for-13 3FGs past two games) will be blanketed by Danny Green, but the more that Schröder and the Hawks’ wings can produce while Korver is away from the ball, the more likely Spurs’ defenders will draw help from Green and grant Kyle the cracks of daylight he’ll need to produce from the perimeter. Matching San Antonio’s diverse attack will keep the Hawks competitive for 48 minutes, something we haven’t seen against the Spurs in awhile.
Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks!