“But, it was just charades! I yelled… LOW CUT SOCKS!... not, HOLTKAMP SUCKS!”
Here’s hoping for a thoroughly uneventful game for the Atlanta Hawks, for a change! Their West Coast swing continues with a visit to the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in H-Town), who are out to secure their first-ever (???) 60-win season tonight. The main question is, how easy can the Hawks make this for the Rockets?
Houston (59-14) won handily last night at the Toyota Center, a 114-91 victory over the playoff-probable Pelicans that was only contentious as far as the barbs and fouling on the court. Conference Finals Virgin Chris Paul (sore hamstring) was rested for the past two games, and coach Mike D’Antoni would like to DNP a few more key components. But James Harden isn’t inclined to go along with that plan.
Harden (NBA-high 30.9 PPG, 36.2 Usage%, 30.1 PER and .293 WS/48) remains in front of the pack contending for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But when the Beard peeks over his shoulder, he sees a hairy situation: MVP candidates Cavs’ LeBron James, the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, and the Pels’ Anthony Davis are gaining on him as the regular season nears its end. Even with his Rockets a virtual lock for the Western Conference’s #1 seed entering the playoffs, Harden has no desire to shift to cruise-control.
It’s up to D’Antoni to make sure Harden starts, and gets to lead on the floor when it’s time to salt games away. But the reigning Coach of the Year will also strategically massage his marquee player’s minutes. Impressively, Harden is likely to earn his MVP award with a downtick in per-game playing time for the second straight season (35.6 MPG, down from an NBA-high 38.1 in 2015-16).
Hawks fans would have hoped for a different season where Houston would pass along their first-round draft pick. But the Rockets, unlike the Warriors, have stayed fairly healthy, and GM Daryl Morey concocted a squad deep enough with veteran role players (now including future Hawks jersey retiree Joe Johnson) that its winning collection of stars and starters don’t have to over-exert themselves, or play too far outside of their comfort zones.
Just as Paul (7.9 APG, lowest since his rookie season) has effectively reduced the necessity for Harden (8.6 APG, down from an NBA-high 11.2 last season) to distribute the ball as much as last year, Clint Capela (18 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 steals vs. NOP) obviates the need for Harden (5.3 RPG, lowest since 2013-14) to dominate on the glass. Unlike some former MVPs, you won’t catch Harden (27 points, 8 assists, 9 TOs vs. NOP) wrestling around in the paint with the JaVale McGees and Mike Muscalas of the world when it’s time to vie for a tough rebound.
Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (4-for-9 3FGs vs. NOP, 4 assists, 4 TOs) serves as the sole traditional point guard in the rotation with Paul out, and he’ll need help from his Harden (1.8 SPG, 6th in NBA) and his defensive swingmen to get a bead on a rested Dennis Schröder (16 points, 7 assists, 4 TOs @ GSW on Friday; questionable with an ankle sprain).
With Trevor Ariza, Joe and P.J. Tucker trying to slow Schröder’s rolls, catch-and-shoot opportunities will abound for Taurean Prince (team-high 20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 2 steals, 2 blocks @ GSW), Tyler Dorsey (3-for-7 3FGs @ GSW), Damion Lee and Andrew White. If Dennis is a scratch, that primary dish-and-swish facilitator role would fall to Isaiah Taylor, who moved the ball well against G-State (6 assists, 2 TOs in 19.5 minutes on Friday).
Keeping the Hawks (21-52) within shouting distance late won’t be the threes, but the free throws, a factor that has worked well in the Rockets’ favor this year (75.0 opponent FT%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Atlanta clanked an inordinate 11 freebies on 20 attempts in Oakland on Friday, as much a factor in the Hawks’ inability to continue putting the second-half scare to the Warriors (and Others) as anything else. Mike Budenholzer is fine coaching a beatable team that doesn’t beat themselves, so expect better focus by his Hawks from the charity stripe tonight.
For Houston, it’s just a matter of getting the win total into the 60s, and zeroing in on sewing up the 1-seed, as quickly as possible. For Atlanta, it’ll just be nice to not be the backdrop to a lead story on SportsCenter for a little while.
Let’s Go Hawks!