I'm Sorry, Baze. But, like Triple H says, it’s What’s Best for Business!
Okay, Minnesota, listen here. Let us help you, help us, help you.
Our Atlanta Hawks are not making the NBA playoffs for the first time since “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Buy U A Drank” were bangin’ on the airwaves. But that’s nowhere near a BFD as your Timberwolves being on the fringe of being a playoff participant for the first time since Usher, Lil Jon and Luda were screaming “Yeah!”. Snoop wasn’t even Dropping It Like It’s Hot yet. Heck, your boy Prince and the New Power Generation had just released Musicology, and still had FIVE top-10 albums yet to work on.
So most folks think you, Minnesota, are pulling for the Hawks (what’s left of them, anyway) to do their letter-best to trip up the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma). Beating your Northwest Division rival and low-seed competitor, one night after they nearly blew it at home against Sacramento, would seem to make it easier for you to make the Western Conference cut.
But we know better. That’s because we know our Hawks aren’t the only club whose receipt of a Top-14-protected pick hangs in the balance over the coming weeks.
Everyone knows we have your first-rounder, postseason-pending, from abandoning ship on The Adreian Payne Project back in 2015. But few realize you’ve been holding onto OKC’s pick, pried free from Utah (2015’s Enes Kanter trade), ever since giving up on The Ricky Rubio Experiment.
Both picks melt into a pair of future second rounders if they’re not used in this or the next two seasons. That’s not so much a BFD in your case, as your starting lineup is a virtual First Round Pick Museum already. But there’s no telling if you’ll get a better deal out of OKC’s pick in the coming seasons, so long as Russell Westbrook (25.2 PPG, 10.1 APG) and Friends stick around the plains.
Further, your own pick could be very valuable for us here in the ATL, as it’s standing probably won’t get much better in future years. Besides, all Hades will break loose if we’re all still sitting here two years from now with your conditional pick somehow still in play.
So, Minnesota, here’s what we can do for each other.
Until you clinch, T’wolves, you continue to take advantage of the breaks you’ve been given. Much like when you outlasted Golden State without Curry this past weekend, you can prevail in D.C. tonight without John Wall around. The Spurs may not have Kawhi back at 100% on Saturday against your well-rested squad. Sure, you’ve got a tough opponent schedule ahead of you. But there’s no need to wait two weeks from now, when our Hawks pay a visit to the Target Center, for you to notch your next victory.
Meanwhile, here in Atlanta (20-47), we’ll do our part to make sure your division rival, the Thunder (40-29, just 2.0 games in front of 9-seed Denver and **rubs eyes** 10-seed San Antonio), don’t get to add a lottery pick to their currently star-studded stable. Otherwise, OKC’s ability to add a young star prospect on a rookie-scale deal might be enough to entice Paul George (career-high 41.0 3FG% and 2.0 APG) and Carmelo Anthony (35 points behind Reggie Miller for 19th all-time; 7-for-14 FGs vs. SAC on Monday, 1st time above 50 FG% in 20 games) to play this thing out in the Sooner State.
Tonight, we vow not to sit around and just let Westbrook (7-for-34 3FGs post-All-Star Break) ply his wares from the perimeter, since that seems to work against the Thunder’s better interests on most nights. Trying to out-shoot the Hawks from downtown hasn’t been that hard of a task, as the Thunder (52.0 3FG%) demonstrated the last time these teams faced off, and as the Bulls (45.9 3FG%; 77 combined 3FGAs) were all too happy to do over the weekend here at Philips Arena.
But Russ jacking threes (5.5 3FGAs in OKC losses, 3.4 in wins) takes him off the free throw line (6.7 FTAs in losses, an even-more Russ-diculous 7.2 in wins). He hasn’t been MVP-caliber at the charity stripe this season (career-low 73.4 FT%, down from career-high 84.5 FT%), which might be part of the reason he’s settling for shots outside the paint so frequently.
Because many of those jumpshots come in isolation (4.4 iso FGAs per game, 4th in NBA; 0.85 points per possession, lowest among top 9 NBA iso-shooters), the copious treys tend to stifle the ball movement by Russ, individually (102.2 O-Rating and -10.1 Net Rating in losses, 115.1 & +16.8 in wins), and the Thunder as a team.
Hawks point guards Dennis Schröder (probable, sprained elbow) and Isaiah Taylor (probable, sprained ankle) will stay up on Westbrook and go over screens, compelling the Thunder guard to do what he does best, drive to the rim (NBA-high 18.9 drives per game; Dennis’ 16.2 ranks 4th in NBA), and set up his teammates for less-contested scoring chances (14.3 assist% off drives, second only to Chris Paul among players with 10+ drives/game; Dennis’ 9.1% ranks 27th) when the Atlanta defense contracts.
The three leading scorers for the Hawks when last these teams met, on December 22, aren’t available. Marco Belinelli (27 points) and Ersan Ilyasova (22 points) are currently in the pregame line at either Pat’s or Geno’s, while Malcolm Delaney (20 points) remains out with a sprained ankle. With Atlanta Competitanking their way out of a 16-point second-half hole, it took a lucky triple from Westbrook with two seconds left to avoid overtime at The Peake and escape with a 120-117 win. You’re welcome, Minnesota.
Oh, and the Hawks’ top assist-man from that game, Kent Bazemore, has exited stage left due to a bruised knee bone. That doesn’t mean Hawks’ whiteboard wizard Mike Budenholzer will make things simpler for OKC to overwhelm tonight. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t mean Thunder coach Billy Donovan will make it easy for ATL to underwhelm.
We know how it works around here by now. Steven Adams (NBA-high 4.9 screen APG; questionable, bruised hip) comes down with a bout of australopithecus afarensis or somesuch. Westbrook slips and slides like he did last night, PG13 tweaks an ankle. Next thing you know, our poor Hawks have to pretend-contend with the likes of grizzled vets like Raymond Felton, Nick “yep, still here” Collison, and replacement starter Corey Brewer (15.0 PPG, 53.8 FG% in last 3 games/1st 3 starts w/ OKC).
It would help the Thunder if Andre Roberson (out for season, torn patella) was available. But for as long as George is in the game, he’ll be tasked with keeping Taurean Prince (career-high 38 points, 7-for-13 3FGs, 9-for-10 FTs) from smelling himself once again, trying to force errors by getting him to put the ball on the floor and not in the air.
Only the Thunder (NBA-high 15.9 opponent TOs, 16.8 deflections & 9.4 loose-ball recoveries) get foes to make more mistakes than our pesky Hawks (15.8 opponent TOs). The good news for you, Minnesota, is that while Atlanta gives up (17.7 opponent PPG off TOs) nearly as much as they get (NBA-high 18.4 PPG off TOs, tied w/ OKC) from turnovers, the Thunder are masters of turnover transition (NBA-low 14.2 PPG off TOs). The less George contributes, the less this factor matters. So we’ll try to keep him out of foul trouble (team-high 2.9 PFs/game, tied w/ Adams).
Shorthanded as the Hawks may be, they’ll have their full frontcourt complement in tow, including Tyler Cavanaugh (probable, ankle sprain) and Money Mike Muscala (career-high 19 points vs. CHI; 8-for-11 3FGs in last two games) to back up Dewayne Dedmon and probable All-Rookie snub John Collins (15-for23 2FGs in last three games). Hopefully for OKC, Collison, Patrick Patterson and rookie Dakari Johnson will be needed only to relieve Adams (16 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 22), not supplant him.
For all the attention on you, Minnesota, Oklahoma City’s schedule is looking quite arduous as well. Houston, Toronto, Golden State and Boston are all on OKC’s docket among 11 consecutive games versus above-.500 clubs, a stretch that commences when the Thunder return home to deal with your fellow playoff-contending LA Clippers. They won’t get another gimme until their April 11 season finale, at home, versus the Grizzlies.
The importance of making relatively easy wins relatively easy should not be lost on OKC. So, don’t worry about what we’re doing over here, Timberwolves. You take care of business on your end, and just help us help you achieve our mutual objectives.
On that note: hey, Tom Thibodeau, this is no time to be out here tinkering with newcomers in your backcourt rotation. That task is for lottery-bound teams like our Hawks, not yours. You’re free to give D-Rose his obligatory 40 minutes per night… but only AFTER you clinch. Capisce?
Let’s Go Hawks!