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  1. It’s only crazy until you Do It. As far as I can tell, Rudy Wanderone never even spent a minute in the Gopher State. He was an immigrant New Yorker. During the Great Depression, Rudy did what many a young Manhattanite aspired to do during the Roaring Twenties. He became a pool shark. And a darned good one, too. Taking his trick-shot skills on the road, Rudy got well into his adulthood, relocating to D.C. and later Illinois and Virginia, craftily separating marks from their money at the billiards tables. Gaining a low-key notoriety among those in the know, the burly Wanderone was just fine adopting the sobriquets he was given along the way: “New York Fats,” “Broadway Fats,” “Chicago Fats”. Then came The Hustler. The 1961 adapted film starred Paul Newman opposite the stocky Jackie Gleason, in a pool-styled predecessor to the Rocky-Apollo Creed skit. The antagonist that Gleason played from both the book and the flick, depicted as the hands-down best pool player in America, went by the name “Minnesota Fats.” Believing with all his heart, that the character was based on him, Rudy Wanderone didn’t ask for permission. He adopted that fictional moniker for himself, just in time for book deals and a viewership eager to be entertained as the Golden Age of Television reached its sunset. Turns out, that was a wise, profitable move. Over a half-century later, ask around about the greatest men’s billiards player of all time, and you’d find most folks would be pressed to recall the exceptional, but dry, Willie Mosconi. If you needed to win on “Super Password” with the secret word, “Fats”, start with “Minnesota…” and your gameshow partner isn’t likely to guess “Timberwolves?” Minnesota Fats became America’s Pool Player, even though he never actually won a formal billiards championship. He remains known as such decades after his passing; many people thought that was his birth name. Using his wit and guile to belie a boastful, competitive spirit, he successfully promoted not only his own persona but the game he loved, lifting it out of smoky gambling halls and into the living rooms of the mainstream. It’s time for somebody else to be globally renowned by the first-name Minnesota. Kevin Love was well on his way to becoming the second-greatest Timberwolf named Kevin of all time. That was, until Akron native LeBron James got homesick, looked around Cleveland, and suspected a future that included Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett was likely to be a murky one... after all, I mean, what does everyone think LeBron is, a babysitter? James donned his Super Secret GM hat for his second go-round with the Cavs, and he grabbed a three-time All-Star from the T’wolves via trade, to help Tristan Thompson chase his and Kyrie Irving’s misses. By that time, Love was the preeminent rebounding forward in the game, at the ripe age of 25. He was also just beginning to display a pleasant perimeter stroke and a smooth passing touch he spent many years honing. In his final season with the Wolves, Love earned All-NBA Second Team, averaging well over 25 PPG, over 12 RPG, and a career-best 4.4 APG. The rub was just that his Minnesota team, much like the one that surrounded Kyrie, was wretched, his Wolves topping out at 40-42 and nine games out of the playoffs in the West. Joining LeBron in Ohio was supposed to fix all ills. It certainly did fix the “not making playoffs” issue. But it created new ones for Love. Kevin got his ring in 2016. But shortly after arriving in Cleveland, it did seem like “Kevin” had become his middle name – and “Blame” his first. Clevelanders tentative to heap criticism on The King, who was kind enough to bestow his presence upon a perpetual lottery team after winning titles in Miami, or face-of-the-future Irving, found convenience in turning a lot of their scorn onto Love, who was decidedly (perhaps, too comfortably) the third banana. Some teammates weren’t all that far behind the fans. Moments which directed a high degree of the unforgiving spotlight towards him, like the Kyrie-free contest against Luke Babbitt and the lowly Atlanta Hawks in November of last year, brought about panic attacks for Love at the worst possible times. Dealing with them, undiagnosed and untreated, brought forth internal team dissension that was no longer possible to obscure. A disappointing loss? Blame Kevin Love. “When,” fans would ask each other, loudly enough for him to hear, “are we finally going to see Minnesota Kevin?” Congrats, Cavs Nation, you are getting your chance. Like another guy once regaled as The King, LeBron Has Left The Building, probably for good this time around. Kyrie read the tea leaves a season early, and skidded across the flat earth all the way to Beantown. That essentially leaves Kevin Love as the face of the Cavaliers for today’s home opener at Quicken Loans Arena. That could be a good thing for the Hawks’ opponent this evening (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), if one chooses to look at it that way. Love returns with greater peace of mind, now getting treatment for his illness, and with a new, four-year, $120 million contract in his pocket. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the Cavs are going to need their 30-year-old star to play like “Minnesota Kevin” if they are going to return to the playoffs. Post moves to attack the rim, boxing out for defensive boards and making Wes Unseld-style outlet passes to ignite breaks, drawing extra defenders and kicking the ball out to open shooters. Most importantly for Minnesota Kevin, not hesitating in deference to superstars who no longer roam The Land. LeBron’s Leftovers on coach Tyronn Lue’s squad would be smart, though, to ignore what any Kartrashian spouse has to say, particularly about their team still being the defending conference champions until further notice. Sears was a prominent department store for quite some time, too. But nobody’s deluded into thinking they’ll be around for much longer. The immediate challenge for Love is that he gets to play in The Land of Fatally Flawed Toys. Fellows like J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, George Hill and local native Larry Nance (questionable, ankle) were never going to be headed to Cleveland without LeBron’s explicit blessings during the annual runs to The Finals. Heck, Thompson would probably have been long gone, too. Now they all remain, defensive deficiencies and all (26th in D-Rating through two games, worse than Atlanta’s 24th), left to the whims of T-Lue and Larry Drew to make work as the reformulated Pips, behind Love’s Gladys. With James gone, and Nance (questionable, sprained ankle) and Dekker (head injury @ MIN) dealing with early injuries, 2015 second-rounder Cedi Osman evolves from a Cool Story Bro to an actual starter on this roster, one which struggled to stop pretty much any Raptor (what a difference a few months make, eh?) during their 116-104 opening loss in Toronto – four team steals, zero blocks. Lottery rookie guard Colin Sexton, plus big men Ante Zizic and Sam Dekker, essentially spackle the final holes among the reserves. In Friday’s consternation-filled home tipoff for the T’Wolves, Love offered fans for both teams a glimpse of the Minnesota Kevin of yore – 25 points, 19 boards (17 defensive), 7 dimes. While he continues to feast from drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe (10-for-10 FTs @ MIN), he suffers in a vein similar to Hawks rookie Trae Young. Opposing defenders don’t respect Love’s floormates, bringing double-teams his way all over the court. That leaves Love a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter (6-for-19 FGs) who needs complete games from Osman (career-high 22 points, 8 assists @ MIN), Thompson (7-for-9 FGs, 4 O-Rebs @ MIN), and others off the bench, for his team to stay in the running most nights. With Love (16 third-quarter points) leading the charge, Cleveland (0-2) dropped 41 points on the Wolves in the third quarter, yet still fell by a 131-123 score. His team-high 21 points two nights before (5-for-18 FGs, 10-for-14 FTs @ TOR), and Osman’s 17 points and 10 rebounds, proved futile against the Raptors. The Cavs (five team steals, three blocks @ MIN) need to manufacture stops, and it’s not likely that they’re missing the defensive inputs of Smith (sore elbow) and Nance any more than Atlanta has tried to impede foes without ankle-hobbled frontcourt starters John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, among others. For all their woes on defense, especially around the perimeter (42.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th-highest in NBA), the Hawks’ offense under new coach Lloyd Pierce is showing signs of life (54.3 eFG%, 10th in NBA). That is, when they’re not committing copious unforced errors (league-low 1.07 assist/TO ratio; 19.6 TO% and 26.0 opponent PPG off TOs, 29th in NBA). Whether the Cavaliers will take an active role in forcing errors out of Atlanta (0-2) remains to be seen. Minnesota Kevin leading the way to victory today, and more often in the months to come, might prove beneficial for both the Cavs and the shorthanded Hawks (2019 top-10-protected pick, from the 2017 Korver trade) in the long run. But if Hill and Sexton fail to get help prying the ball out of Young’s deft hands, will it be the Cavs that find themselves getting… snookered? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. CAPTION: Hawks fan reacts to Dewayne Dedmon news. LeBron James brings his resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers into town to take on your Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), and The King wants answers, y’all. “I need some answers,” James tweeted three days ago. “Feels like my man was a fall guy.” LeBron’s “man” was former Hawks and heat assistant and recently-deposed Memphis head coach David Fizdale. The Grizzlies used an eight-game slide and a rift with the hometown-raised NBA star to give Coach Fiz the heave-ho, just 107 games after prying him from the coastal comforts of South Beach. I can only hope LeBron has insurance coverage for the Irony Hammer that fell upon him. There was once another head coach, some dude named… David… that not only won 143 NBA games, but also notched a pair of NBA Finals wins during his maiden NBA season. All of that, before “David” was handed his walking papers and shipped back overseas, in large part for the unforgivable, abominable crime of getting blown out at home to the reigning NBA champs in January. Whose mans with that, LeBron? You can find the answers you seek in that mirror over there. What’s the commonality? In the NBA, the Goliaths fell the Davids. The Association is not some “prison” a few NFL owners are deluded into thinking they run. It’s as open a society as one will find in professional sports. Yet, it’s also the place where players bickering with staff can abruptly lead to J.B. Bickerstaff. Players run this modern NBA, and star players, the big money-earning, bigger money-making ones, wield unprecedented influence over the rank-and-file, in some cases, all the way along the bench. Play a scenario forward, where the Hawks of Summer 2017 re-sign their aging free agent vets, and elect to simply ride out their long-term plans to refashion Dwight Howard into a team-first player. Go ahead and double their current win total (4-16), but assume a handful of those losses are of the 112-78 variety, like the one recently suffered to the Raptors (just like last season’s 128-84 drubbing). Assume Dwight, Atlanta’s homegrown star, begins moping publicly about playing time, touches (much like last season), and personal development. Here’s the question. Is Mike Budenholzer still here? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality that there’d be a good chance he’s no longer around reflects the NBA climate in the LeBronze Age. One where, if you have not won your franchise Larry O’Brien trophies within your first couple years on the job, even the mildest player-coach dissension can keep your seat Carolina Reaper-hot. Our youthful Hawks are looking for more legitimate answers, now that it appears they’ll probably have to lug through their December schedule without their starting center. The absence of Dewayne Dedmon (tibia stress reaction) for 3-to-6 weeks, plus the continued shelving of Mike Muscala (sprained hoof), will lead to some considerable scrambling along the Atlanta front line. John Collins will get to start at center in place of Dedmon, and as usual, restraining himself from unnecessary whistles will be key to getting a full game out of him. He’ll be paired with Luke Babbitt, who returns after missing several games with a lower back injury. Tyler Cavanaugh is likely get an uptick in play, but might Coach Bud pull out a Plum instead? Miles Plumlee (quad) insists he’s as ready to contribute as ever before, although this might not be the ideal contest for him to make his season debut. The Hawks will get some reprieve as Cleveland is doing without Tristan Thompson, thanks to a calf strain that’s had him sidelined for most of this month. But the Cavs (14-7) are riding a nine-game winning streak (longest since some coach named "David" was there, in 2014-15) and are 10-1 since the Hawks pulled off the November Surprise, a 117-115 nailbiting win at the Q on the 5th of this month. Measurably better all-around play out of Kevin Love (1-for-6 FGs, 4 rebounds in 18 minutes vs. ATL) appears to be a big part of the turnaround. Being Cleveland’s only real starting option at center, Love’s 38-point effort during Tuesday’s home win over Miami reflected an acknowledgement that his team needs “Minnesota Kevin” in the offense, compensating for the departure of Kyrie Irving and the continued unavailability of Isaiah Thomas. Love is shooting career-highs of 52.7 2FG% inside the 3-point arc and 89.3% at the free throw line. During their nine-game win streak, Cleveland is committing fouls more selectively and strategically (opponent 69.6 FT%, to the Cavs’ 80.7 FT%). In the November 5 win the Hawks were granted 34 free throws, a tally surpassed only by Houston (36 FTAs) in the Cavs’ last defeat back on November 9. Dennis Schröder (28 points @ CLE, 8-for-8 FTs), Collins (7 O-Rebs @ CLE, 6-for-8 FTs), and Kent Bazemore (9 rebounds @ CLE, 4-for-8 FTs) will need to continue creating havoc for their opponents, punishing the defensively deficient members of the Cavs’ rotation and drawing contact in the paint. The Hawks should get some more backcourt support as Isaiah Taylor (14 points in bench-high 26 minutes @ CLE) returns to the lineup from an eye injury. As was not the case in last weekend’s blowout loss to the Raps (6-for-27 3FGs), Atlanta shot the ball well (11-for-25 team 3FGs) from the perimeter in their November 5 upset victory over the Cavs, just well enough to make Kyle Korver’s heroics (5-for-11 3FGs) too-little-too-late. Schröder, Babbitt and Taurean Prince combined to hit nine of their 17 attempts, and they could use some more reinforcement off the bench from Marco Belinelli (3rd among NBA never-starters with 12.1 PPG) and Cavanaugh to stay with or ahead of the Cavs for significant stretches. The Cavaliers do have their confidence back, but this recent winning run has been fairly weak in terms of strength-of-schedule, and it won’t take much, like a second loss to the Hawks, to send the Cavs back into what would be, for them, a tailspin. No matter what ups or downs this season brings, the Cavs’ Tyronn Lue knows better than to rub his team’s real PF/PG/HC/GM/PBO the wrong way. Otherwise, he won’t be LeBron’s “man” much longer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  3. “Listen, Woody. If you want, I can just take over the clipboard, and you can go out there…” The Tyronn Lue Job Preservation Project continues this afternoon in Cleveland, where his Cavaliers prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio). Yes, this is a downtrodden opponent for the Cavaliers, checking in at 1-8 and counting. And yes, if they survive games this week versus Milwaukee and at Houston, the Cavs (4-5, 2-3 at home) will have a chance to fully right their ship with road games at Dallas and New York. But a question is hovering over T-Lue as his team strives to climb out from a below-.500 record. Can Cleveland consistently beat decent teams without their star player, now in his 15th season, posting statlines of 57-11-7-3-2 in 42 minutes? LeBron James is certainly more than a mere star, and his mastery of the Washington Wizards in a 130-122 road victory last Friday serves as adequate evidence he could be bulldozing fools well into his 50s. While playing and defending upwards of five positions on the floor out of necessity, his blazing 61.0 FG% and 82.6 FT% would blow away his career highs. Further, his 29.1 PPG would be his highest since the fateful 2009-10 season, where he subsequently donned the picnic table cover and declared he would be playing Buddyball down in South Beach. Buddyball is essentially what James does, otherwise his old Miami dance partner Dwayne Wade would be anywhere other than in The Buckeye State right now. James doesn’t suffer alongside the Malcolm Delaneys and Mike Muscalas of the NBA universe, preferring instead to roll with a cavalcade of washed ex-stars and past-their-prime All-Stars (J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Wade, and the minutes-restricted Derrick Rose), heady vets (Jose Calderon, Channing Frye, Jeff Green) and energetic role players (Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert). That chemistry puts a perpetual hit on owner Dan Gilbert’s salary cap situation, but that’s the price one pays for placating a King. Gilbert knows he can seat your fifth-grade homeroom teacher in the general manager’s chair, since everyone knows it is LeBron and his off-court team of whisperers who dictate the product on the floor and the presence along the sideline. No matter what gets said about his teams coasting through regular seasons, a LeBron-headlined team has finished first-or-second in the NBA East in each of the past nine seasons. If the up-and-down struggles continue for the three-time defending LeBronference champs, momentarily 10th in the East, James will zone in not on the papier-mâché GM, or his crumbling cast of co-stars, but on the guy who benefitted the last time he zoned in on a head coach in mid-season. David Griffin fell into a situation where LeBron added himself, and Kevin Love (41.4 FG%), to one previously led by Kyrie Irving. His Cavs went 53-29 in his first season as an NBA head coach, reaching the NBA Finals, and was 30-11 midway through his second season when James decided that wasn’t excellent enough. Following a shocking deposition, it was instead Griffin’s lead assistant, Lue, who has been in the coaches’ throne through the past two NBA Finals. Now, Lue Hefner must soon fix a defense that has been the worst in the league (111.9 D-rating), the Cavalier opponents sinking a league-high 13.7 threes per game at a league-high 42.1 3FG% clip. He’ll have to figure out a scheme with seven players on Cleveland’s roster, including James, past the age of 30, and two others (Love and Rose) not known for their defensive exploits and hitting age 30 next season. Isaiah Thomas would be unlikely to be of much help on that end, even once he returns in January after repairing a tear in his hip. Thomas’ absence leaves Crowder as the sole Cav currently on the floor in the wake of the Irving trade. The player most likely to help raise Cleveland’s opponent turnover rate above 12.0 percent (28th in NBA), Shumpert, has been out for over a week with a sore knee. The player best suited to help James and/or Love secure the defensive boards, Thompson, will be out for several weeks due to a calf strain. Suffice to say, Lue resolving the Cavs’ defensive woes with the current roster components won’t be easy, even against a Hawks squad that is itself shorthanded and struggles to shoot straight (43.1 team FG%, 26th in NBA). Rose (8-for-16 FGs @ WAS on Friday) and Korver (47.7 3FG%) and James filling up buckets is not a problem. The fact that they absolutely must do so on a nightly basis just to keep the Cavs in front is the problem. If the losses and opponent points continue piling up, Lue should not be surprised to find former Hawks coach Larry Drew, who himself understands what a Game of Thrones the pro coaching business is, sliding over into his chair someday soon. Hawks fans who wanted to see how their team might fare competitively without Delaney and/or Muscala on the floor are about to get their chance. Muskie was left behind for the trip to Cleveland to heal a bum ankle. Delaney’s ankle isn’t much better, but while he is with The Basketball Club, his chances of appearing today are unlikely. Moose and/or Malcolm have been part of Atlanta’s eight worst two-man lineups in terms of net points per 100 possessions (min. 80 minutes played), each of those tandems allowing anywhere from 13 to 24 additional points in their opponents’ favor. Their collective absence should amount to a “win” for the Hawks today from an efficiency perspective alone. On the downside, missing Muscala along with Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee will mean Hawks fans will get to endure a lot more of rookie John Collins at the 5-spot, behind Dewayne Dedmon. Or, maybe just a little more of him, if his penchant for hacking-as-defense returns against the bruising James and Love (88.9 FT% so far, also a career-high). Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer played Collins more at power forward during the Hawks’ 119-104 home loss on Friday night to the Rockets, and he posted one of his better all-around games (8 points, 12 boards, two steals, four blocks) in 28 minutes of action off the bench. He and Dedmon will need Luke Babbitt, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince to help keep the Cavs, even without Thompson around, from building up a big rebounding edge. Fellow rookie Tyler Dorsey (2-for-4 3FGs) and Isaiah Taylor (5-for-9 FGs, five assists in 24 minutes) also found time to shine, particularly late in the game during Atlanta’s blowout loss on Friday, so the young guards should be able to see more playing time in the first half of action today. Atlanta can keep themselves competitive in this game if they avoid getting bowled over by LeBron’s myriad highlight plays, and if execute the offense without getting scatterBazed everytime they have to dribble-drive or spot-up from three-point land. A team led by Delaney, Ilyasova, Calderon, Muscala, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Dunleavy strolled into Quicken Loans Arena last April and stopped the Cavs from clinching the top seed in the LeBronference. So anything can happen today, particularly if Dennis Schröder can contribute a better two-way effort against Rose than he provided at home on Friday. No matter the outcome, strong offensive play by the Hawks could have LeBron redirecting his glower from his opponents to his teammates, and his head coach. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “I SAID, THE KING’S IN THE BUILDING... TELL ME, HOW YOU FEELIN’?” Spoiler Days continue! There’s not much more to say ahead of today’s matinee for the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE, NBATV everywhere else). Thanks to back-to-back, but completely different shockers against the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, the Hawks (41-38) are moonwalking into the NBA Playoffs for the tenth-consecutive season, just two seasons fewer than whatever team LeBron James graces with his presence. Victory today at the Highlight Factory would make it two regular-season series wins for Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s teams against James’ Cavaliers in the past three seasons. It would also clinch a winning regular season record for the Basketball Club, for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. More importantly, winning serves as a confidence-building exercise for the Hawks, and their long-bemused fanbase, as they make their final push toward the postseason. The Rules of Engagement are about the same for the Hawks as they were in Friday night’s fantastical upending of The King and his subjects on his merry Cleveland court. Don’t foul; stay adhered to the three-point shooters; don’t fall for the trap of helping and overpursuing inside; catch the opponent napping in transition; keep the unforced errors down; move the ball and keep moving yourselves. Only this time, the actors will be a little different. Less Ryan Kelly and Kris Humphries (the latter probable, despite neck spasms), more Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. It’ll be like the way soap operas do it: “The role of Perimeter Closeout Guy will now be played by Kent Bazemore.” One can only hope that the sharp-shooting exhibited by the Junior Mints, inclusive of Mike Dunleavy (20 bench points, outscoring Kyle Korver, 4-for-5 3FGs) and occasional tour de force Tim Hardaway (9-for-14 FGs, 4-for-9 on threes, 5 assists, no TOs vs. CLE), will take pressure off Dennis Schröder in his return to action. Jose Calderon (7 assists, 2 TOs vs. CLE) laid a sound blueprint for Schröder on how to distribute the rock and keep everyone involved. The Cavs struggled to keep up with so many Hawks cutting to the basket, something Schröder can help exploit this afternoon by looking for Bazemore and the Hawks’ athletic wings. It will be tough for Coach Bud to stuff the rookie genies back in the bottle. DeAndre’ Bembry accentuated the positive with yeoman’s work defending James on the interior. Also off the bench, Malcolm Delaney (8 assists, no turnovers) was sneaky good. Prince will look to bounce back after his mostly-off night (2-for-9 FGs, 4 TOs) was lost amid the madness on Friday. Keeping the youngsters involved in the offense suggests not becoming overreliant on Schröder and the Hawks’ frontcourt stars playing iso-ball. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue remains adamant that everyone aside from Tristan Thompson (thumb sprain) will be available to play, as the top-seed and homecourt advantage for Cleveland (51-28, 0.5 games ahead of Boston) in the Eastern Conference playoffs is still up in the air. That suggests Kyrie Irving is still expected to step up despite persistent problems with his sore, surgically-repaired knee. If Irving can’t go, ballhandling duties will shift toward not only James, but Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert. J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson will be counted on to jack up more shots on Kyrie’s behalf. It’s always fun to play the Spoiler role. How ‘bout we keep this thing going for a few more days, or weeks! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. Hey there, Atlanta, Milwaukee… I hear you guys are having a little trouble making the playoffs? My heart aches for you. Aches, I say! Facing the defending champ Cavaliers in Cleveland, our Atlanta Hawks might be pulling volunteers from the Quicken Loans Arena stands tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE, NBATV elsewhere), to help make up for the many players who won’t be suiting up on the second half of a back-to-back. Usher, can you be True To Atlanta for just one night? The leading scorer and rebounder from last night’s bruising battle with Boston, Paul Millsap? Nope, he’ll rest that swollen knee some more. Kent Bazemore? No way, Mister Calderon, because Baze is healing up from a bruised knee. Thabo Sefolosha? Not a snowball’s chance in Cleveland. He’s just trying not to aggravate his troublesome groin while driving his new Brinks truck around town. The starting backcourt of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr.? Ixnay on the laypay. Both guards are dealing with foot sprains, while THJ also has a bruised knee to boot. Thankfully, No Excuses Week is a thing of the past for the Hawks, because stealing a win tonight will be a tall order with Cleveland’s Big 3 active and likely to play. Beyond the usual suspects, Kyle Korver (NBA-leading 45.2 3FG%, 49.2% with the Cavs) has been recuperating from foot troubles and will grace us with his perimeter presence. Coach Tyronn Lue is aware that homecourt advantage for the Eastern Conference playoffs can be secured with consecutive wins over the Hawks, tonight and on Sunday back in Atlanta. T-Lue and the Cavs’ Big 3 understand that this is no time for the Cavs (51-27) to play down to their competition. Clevelan Rocks! Clevelan Rocks! Even famous native Rew Carey must have been alarmed by the lack of D exhibited by the Cavs recently. The defending champs were a horrific (for them) 7-10 in the month of March, their defensive rating for the month (113.1) better than only the Lakers in the entire league. Because of that, their net rating of -2.9 for March was not all that distinguishable from the Hawks’ -3.0, and we all know how bad Atlanta has been. To keep from going out like a lamb, the Cavs have turned things around to an extent over the past week, best exhibited by their 114-91 curb-stomping of the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday. But they’ve generally been winning games only by piling up ungodly amounts of points. On the season, Cleveland forces very few turnovers (11.5 opponent TO%, 29th in NBA) and seem more focused on getting the ball back to their stars on offense than on keeping opponents’ balls from finding their way into the net (45.7 opponent FG%, a pedestrian 15th in NBA). Despite Kyrie’s 43 and LeBron’s 38, the Cavs had to withstand a 42-point barrage from the Hawks just to prevail by five points in Atlanta back on March 3 (they surely will not miss seeing THJ, or a repeat 36-point performance from him, tonight). That same 135-130 outcome was replicated in a double-OT win over the Pacers last Sunday. All of LeBron’s 16 fourth-quarter points were needed to keep Indiana from stealing a victory after falling behind by 14 in the final quarter of regulation. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s shuffled lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s likely we will see a lot more of Taurean Prince (career-high 20 points, plus 7 rebounds in 41 minutes vs. BOS) and Jose Calderon, plus former Cav Mike Dunleavy, Jr, at the outset. Rookies DeAndre’ Bembry and Malcolm Delaney are in line to get a sudden boost in floortime as well. Kris Humphries will be needed to shore up the frontline behind Howard and Ersan Ilyasova, and perhaps a cameo appearance from 15th Man Ryan Kelly could even be in the offing. This game will remain competitive for Atlanta (40-38) for only so long as as Howard can remain on the floor, without foul trouble, and exploit a Cavaliers team that has struggled to protect the rim, all the more without Tristan Thompson (sprained thumb) around. If Channing Frye struggles to hold down the pivot spot defensively, Lue may have no choice but to turn to a very green Larry Sanders to be a difference-maker tonight. The Hawks on the floor can help their center out not only by avoiding unforced errors, and getting back in transition, but by not straying from their man to help the former 3-time Defensive Player of the Year and 5-time All-Defensive Team member police the paint. That includes Ilyasova, who is normally an opponent-turnover sponge on the inside but will have to get out to defend Love, Frye, and occasionally James, keeping Cleveland’s bigs cool from outside. What about when James and Irving spring free of their man, and come barreling toward the rim in search of some highlight plays? So what? That’s just two points, if we don’t exacerbate the situation with fouls. The key for the Hawks is to avoid being exposed for open catch-and-shoot three-pointers by pretty much any Cavalier. They could even catch Cleveland when they’re at their most smug by getting the ball down the court for quick transition scores. The flashy dunks and dribbles from LeBron and Kyrie Irving are just a mirage for a Cleveland team that ranks second in three-point attempt rate (39.7% of all FGs taken from downtown) and accuracy (38.7 team 3FG%). Their teams’ 8 most-frequent three-point makers hit threes at a minimum 36 percent clip. The Hawks will likely struggle to get a leg up on LeBron and Company through 48 minutes, but that is no reason not to keep a hand up on their Cav-alcade of jumpshooters. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  6. “It’s so nice to get in a few practice swings before each shot now!” After once more prying victory from the jaws of defeat on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks’ six-game homestand continues in what could potentially be a victory C.I.G.A.R. (Champs, Indy, G-State, Atkinson’s crew, Raps); their first toke comes courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; ESPN). There are ample reasons why it behooves Atlanta to begin playing their best stretch of fullcourt, 48-minute hoops this season. It’s official: the Hawks are mathematically eliminated from clinching last place in the East. Putting the next group of conference bottom-dwellers out-of-reach, though, will take considerably more work. But with a decent homestand performance, sewing up a tenth-consecutive playoff spot could go from a duty to a formality very quickly. Lakers, Nyets, Nyets again, Knicks (by 1). That is the full set of road victories by the Toronto Raptors (out of 13 games). The first three wins came with a healthy Kyle Lowry, the All-Star point guard who is out for at least four more weeks with wrist surgery. After amassing a whopping total of three assists in the first three quarters of Wednesday’s home loss to Washington, the Raps embark on a five-game road swing tonight in D.C. Their trek continues next week in ATL. If the Hawks take care of business during this homestand, Watch for Falling Raptors! The division-leading Wizards have won 20 of their last 22 at home, which is great for them, because after this weekend’s games, there are just six Verizon Center contests remaining. 11-15 in away games, Washington must keep their recent winning ways going on the road, including two long West Coast swings. If Atlanta steps up their own play against their daunting March slate of opponents, by the time the two teams meet again in a few weeks, they could be trading places. One of Atlanta’s signature wins this season came way back in November at the Q. Along the way to a 110-106 victory, Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Paul Millsap (74 combined points on 55.6 FG%, 9-for-16 3FGs) virtually matched Cleveland’s Big 3 (76 total points on 42.6 FG%, 3-for-16 FGs) bucket-for-bucket. Long accustomed to having his way with the Hawks, Tristan Thompson (no shots, 2 rebounds in 25 minutes; 3.7 O-Rebs per game, 4th in NBA) was stymied by Dwight Howard (17 rebounds, 3 blocks in 27 minutes) at every turn. At the same time, Thabo Sefolosha, Taurean Prince and Tim Hardaway, Jr. did a sound job of giving J.R. Smith (2-for-13 FGs) mostly heroball looks from the perimeter. Atlanta has done some fine-tuning to their lineup since that game. In anticipation of another championship-quality stretch run, Cleveland is adjusting to a major makeover among its supporting cast. Not making that November trip to Cleveland was Kyle Korver, who remained in the ATL to celebrate the arrival of a third K-baby for the Korver clan. Smith’s thumb surgery in December ushered in what Cavs assistant Larry Drew once frequently described as a “sense of urgency,” hastened further by a 2-6 stretch in January, and Kevin Love’s arthroscopic knee surgery last month. LeBron James banged his shoe on the table demanding more “playmakers”, however ambiguously and ironically, on what was already the NBA’s highest-salaried team. The first “playmaker” to arrive in Believeland was Korver. Kyle was sincerely disenchanted with having to leave the NBA home where his career had late-bloomed, but came to understand how easily he would get open shots as a Cavalier, without having to run half-marathons across the court every night. After just one contribution of 20-or-more points through December (and once, back in November, of the prior season; two since January of the season before that) with the Hawks, the “Kahlvalier” logged four 20-plus-scoring affairs in February, burying 58.9 percent of his threes that month. Ponce de Leon couldn’t possibly find as many Fountains of Youth as the reinvigorated Korver (21-game Threak) has during his noteworthy career. His essential challenge going forward is to simply keep his shooting arm from falling off. Still, more griping from The King begat Miami’s scuttled Derrick Williams (55.8 FG% through 8 games with CLE). Even he wasn’t D-Will enough for LeBron, so the Cavs pulled Dallas’ discarded point guard Deron Williams into the fold, soon to be followed by ex-Maverick teammate Andrew Bogut. The center won’t dress for tonight’s game, though, as he works to pass his physical. Both D-Wills were pressed into duty immediately, including James tossing a potential game-winning three pointer cross-court to Derrick with seconds to spare on Wednesday. Williams’ miss cemented Boston’s 103-99 victory, a Cavs loss made possible by an off-night from Korver (1-for-7 FGs) and most of Cleveland’s supporting cast. When it comes to LeBron’s “playmakers,” the Cavs’ centripetal, and not gravitational, presence has remained Kyrie Irving, whose offensive game has been out… oh, my mistake… “off” of this world lately. “World B. Flat” still struggles on the defensive end, but has cut down on his ballhandling turnovers (career-low 11.0 TO% on the season) while averaging 7.1 APG to accompany his 25.4 PPG (93.3 FT%) in February. Cleveland’s ticket to the 2016 conference finals was punched on this floor last May, thanks in large part to the injured Love and his replacement starter Channing Frye. There is no mystery (to Hawks fans, at least) as to the Cavs’ modus operandi tonight. After coach Tyronn Lue finds some Pepto-Bismol (he missed this morning’s shootaround while a bit under the weather), he will want his team to force the ball inside on drives and post-ups by James (Eastern Conference Player of the Month, for the 34th time in the past 74 possible months; 12.0 RPG and 10.3 APG since the All-Star Break) and Irving, dare Howard into shying away from his man, and test Atlanta’s ability to eschew paint help and keep defenders at home on the Cavs’ willing shooters. Each of Cleveland’s six most-frequent shooters, among the active players alone, shoot at least 37.5 3FG%. Athletic wings staying in front of both Irving and James will be key for Atlanta (103.2 D-Rating; 5th in NBA, 1st in East) in thwarting the stars’ ability to supplement the Cavs offense (110.9 O-Rating; 3rd in NBA, 1st in East) with runout scores in transition. Despite the Hawks victory, Cleveland’s 25 points off 19 Atlanta turnovers remains a season-high for that club, Atlanta being outscored 15-2 on the fastbreak. The Hawks must again learn to live with LeBron’s and Kyrie’s highlight-reel halfcourt forays, and box out to secure rebounds off missed interior shots. The pair was 20-for-40 from the field in Wednesday’s loss to Boston, while their teammates were a collective 17-for-51. Cleveland’s non-Big-3, which included Korver-trade acquisition Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (inactive tonight), went 11-for-38 from the floor and were granted just two free throw attempts by the Hawks in the November game. It’s a big night for fans of the 70s, as the late, great Pete Maravich will have his jersey number ascending to the arena rafters tonight. Twice an All-Star while with the Hawks, the Pistol’s 24.3 PPG over four uber-hyped NBA seasons still ranks second only to Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta-era history, and his 5.6 APG ranks fourth. His trade to New Orleans might have panned out for the Hawks, if only the shaky ownership at the time wasn’t outbid by the ABA for #1 NBA pick David Thompson, and if the latter, like the former, didn’t succumb to the ravages of drug addiction. He’s no Pistol on the court, but Schröder (Hawks franchise-leading 33.9 assist percentage; 26.7 usage%, 3rd in team history) isn’t exactly a Peashooter, either. Dennis could have a banner-worthy Hawk career himself, if he brings the two-way intensity to the table that was evident during Atlanta’s victory over Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics, and in the opening half against reigning Rookie of the Month Yogi Ferrell’s Mavericks. Atlanta’s 56.3 FG% versus Dallas represented a season-best, a value that could have stayed in the 70s, too, but for a sloppy second half by the Hawks. The listlessness that defined the second-half versus Dallas by not only Schröder (five of his seven TOs) but the whole team would do Atlanta no favors against a hungry Cavs squad in front of a primetime Friday Night audience. Millsap has had several half-baked first-halves (30.0 1st half FG% in last six games; 51.5 2nd half FG%) recently. For both he and sixth-man Hardaway (last six games: 34.4 1st half FG%, team-high 8.5 2nd half PPG on 47.5 FG%), coming out of the gate at least lukewarm from the field will draw defensive attention away from their teammates and enhance the Hawks’ offensive floor balance. Tristan Thompson would have to vacate the middle to help Frye and Derrick Williams, while Iman Shumpert would have to stray away from Schröder more often. James’ focus on the Hawks’ big men may especially help Bazemore (25 points, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. CLE on Nov. 8; 40.5 3FG% last 20 games) enjoy another solid outing against the Cavs. Recent acquisition Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 18 points, 6-for-7 FGs, at least four forced DAL TOs on Wednesday) has the potential to provide at least as positive a boost for the Hawks in the postseason as Frye provided for the Cavs in 2016. Hawks fans found themselves shorted on several recent “High Voltage” Fridays (121-85 loss to the Pistons in December, 112-86 loss to the Wizards in January, 108-90 loss to the heat last week). The Hawks must bring the energy from the outset tonight against the class of the LeBronference. Otherwise, fans may clamor to permanently retire the throwback jerseys, right along with Pistol Pete's. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “A Tribe Called Champs!” It was the week of Atlanta’s discontent, May 2nd through 9th of this year. And TV viewers were subjected not only to another tidy four-game sweep of the Hawks at the hands of tonight’s opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio, NBATV, 92.9 FM in ATL), but also the incessant ESPN ads promoting an upcoming “30 for 30” special. “Believeland” was the title, showcasing the Beleaguered Land of sports off the shores of the occasionally flammable Lake Erie in Northeast Ohio. Viewers were subjected to the abject failures and disastrous annual denouements of Cleveland’s pro athletes over the past five decades. The intention was to tug at your heartstrings, to get you to empathize with a town pulling for its lovable loser teams, one of whom might, one day, finally kick Lucy’s football through the uprights. Hawks fans didn’t know for sure at the time, but their team helped usher that day into being, just over a month after their postseason came to a screeching halt. Not only did the Cavaliers goad Golden State into shaking off a hex that harrowed Cleveland since 1964, but their baseball brethren nearly followed suit, coming within one victory of their first World Series title since 1948. A lot has changed in once-sad-sack Cleveland since the last time the Hawks visited The Q. Heck, but for a 2011 draft-day blockbuster trade involving Julio Jones, who knows what the Browns might have accomplished by now? It began against Detroit in the opening round, but it was against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semis that the Cavs finally found, and fully embraced, their true identity under coach Tyronn Lue: a three-point shooting team that feasts off of home-metro favorite LeBron James as the Association’s ultimate decoy. LeBron (7.8 APG vs. ATL in playoffs) drives: kick, swing, swish. James posts up: dish, spot-up, splash. Time out, Hawks! Go to break. “What if I told you…” Well before Kyrie Irving drained a series-clincher in Steph Curry’s deadeye, he was 12-for-18 in the Hawks series from deep. Kevin Love (19-for-40 3FGs), suddenly, seemed relevant. J.R. Smith was doing a full Petey Pablo, taking his shirt off and spinning it ‘round like a helicopter, before nailing 14 of his 28 attempts, many with a desperate Hawk hand perched in his face. The ghosts of Channing Frye (11-for-19 3FGs) and Richard Jefferson (5-for-6 3FGs) were summoned. Even Iman Shumpert (5-for-6 3FGs) got into the act. In the rare event of a Cav miss? No worries, since either one of Love or Tristan Thompson was there to grant their team extra chances to pelt the Hawks from afar. They were largely unimpeded by Al Horford, whose 11.8 D-Reb% for the series sat below that of Kent Bazemore (15.6%) Kyle Korver (11.8%) and even the lightly-used Kirk Hinrich. No NBA team had ever sunk 15 three-pointers in four consecutive games… playoffs or otherwise. An NBA-record 25 triples in Game 2 was just part of a record 77 made threes for a four-game series sweep. That volume blew away the 4-game record (57 threes) the Cavs established in the prior series versus Detroit. Cleveland has carried this identity into a new season that has them starting out at a perfect 6-0. Taking 40.1 percent of shot attempts beyond the 3-point arc, second only to Atlanta’s prior opponent (Houston’s 43.0% of FGAs), while hitting 38.5 3FG% (3rd in NBA), the Cavs’ offensive ideology is, thusly: if you must insist on driving inside to score (NBA-low 32.9% of points from shots in the paint), you had better come away with either points or drawn fouls. Well, the Hawks (4-2) would like to believe it’s a new day in Believeland. Not the least of which because they’ve held opponents to a mediocre 33.8 3FG% (14th-lowest in NBA) thus far, and because they’ve got a rebounding stopgap in center Dwight Howard (27.6 D-Reb%, 14th in NBA among players w/ 20+ minutes per game) elevating Atlanta’s team D-Reb% from 25th in 2015-16 to 10th thus far this season. Unlike Horford, Howard has been keeping opposing bigs honest around the other rim as well (NBA-high 18.9 O-Reb%, among players w/ 20+ minutes per game). While the Cavs have allowed 17.7 second-chance PPG (2nd-most in NBA), the Hawks have dwindled their number down to 10.3 per game (5th-fewest in NBA). The Hawks will need to avoid falling for the fakeouts presented by James (Eastern Conference Player of the Week for two straight weeks) and Irving on drives. LeBron, in particular, has taken 8.8 drives per game this season, NBA-high among non-guards, but has converted just 40.0 FG% on drives where he shoots, resulting in just 4.0 PPG. James dished out passes on 41.5% of those drives, third-most among the 14 players (including Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder, 29.0% pass rate on 11.5 drives per game) who has driven toward the hoop more frequently. Teamed with a more surehanded rebounder in the middle, Paul Millsap (2.3 SPG, 6th in NBA), Thabo Sefolosha (starting in place of Kyle Korver, who’s on paternity leave; 2.8 SPG, 2nd in NBA), and Kent Bazemore (2.0 SPG, 15th in NBA) can help roam the perimeter more aggressively. The active defense of rookie Taurean Prince, who moves up the depth chart in Korver’s absence, need not be slept on, either. The challenge for the Hawks is not just contesting Cleveland’s three-point bombers, but picking off and disrupting the Cavs’ inside-out and cross-court passes before the ball arrives in opposing shooters’ hands. The Hawks’ 19.2 deflections per game ranks 2nd in the league thus far. Even with all the steals and deflections, Atlanta has smartly committed just 18.2 personal fouls per game (4th-fewest in NBA). Thanks to the Hawks’ crafty forwards, Atlanta opponents have turned the ball over on an NBA-high 18.9 percent of possessions, leading to a league-high 23.7 PPG off their turnovers. If LeBron is trying to make highlight-reel plays running the full court, let them come while he’s transitioning to defense, and not the fastbreak (Cleveland’s 17.7 fastbreak PPG rank 5th in NBA). Atlanta made wise decisions on the offensive end on Saturday night against Houston (season-best 52.9 FG%; 29 assists), not engaging in a tit-for-tat perimeter shootout with the Rockets (12-for-36 3FGs vs. ATL). While much better defense can be expected from the opposition tonight, similar principles apply. James and Irving will have their high-volume touches and highlight-worthy plays, but it will be Atlanta’s job to keep the supporting cast from burying them in an avalanche of made perimeter shots. If the Hawks can do this well tonight, they’ll find some more Believers of their own in the house tomorrow night, against Chicago. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. “Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!” Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting. Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt. To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time. Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away. So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue. It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized. To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster. Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order. While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core? Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade? The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners. Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “DROPPIN’ THREES! DROPPIN’ THREES!” “Everyone has a plan… until they get punched in the mouth!” Even the originator of this famous boxing quote knows, firsthand, how a well-crafted pugilistic plan to stick-and-move and rope-a-dope becomes, “Chew his dang ear off!” once things clearly aren’t going his way. Turning any of the Cleveland Cavaliers into Van Gogh isn’t in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Eastern Conference semifinals scene shifts to the Highlight Factory for Game 3 (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). But to avoid getting exposed once again, this time at home, the Hawks have to come up with a multifaceted approach that goes well beyond Plan A. “We came in with a gameplan we thought was really good,” said a hopelessly flummoxed Al Horford, “and it got discarded really quick.” Plan A had the Hawks jumping out to a 7-2 lead and feeling pretty good about themselves at the outset of Game 2. But Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers have this thing called an adjustment, you see. The first of an NBA-record 18 first-half triples rained down on Horford’s Hawks, and they found themselves with no logistical answers. Kyle Korver continued to be stifled and the Hawks were a dithering 2-for-11 on threes in the first half, while the Cavs were a blistering 18-for-27. When it was well past time for a Plan B, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer unveiled… what’s this? A zone defense??? Where’s my Nick Young meme when I need it? Things aren’t turning out much different for the Hawks in this series than it was for the Boston Celtics in the opening round. There was a nip-and-tuck affair late in Game 1, and a virtual pillaging by the home team from the start of Game 2. Atlanta built its confidence knowing it could take the things that Boston does best, and do them even better. Cleveland’s players have the same confidence regarding the Hawks. They have more players capable of penetrating and kicking out, players who don’t need 17 screens in a possession just to get separation and an accurate shot off along the perimeter. These Cavs know, if they can drown the regular season’s best perimeter defensive team in a barrage of triples, they can break the Hawks’ beaks early. While Korver struggles to make himself relevant (first three-point attempt a desperate heave with his team already down by 27), and his teammates make his decoy plays look like dead ducks, the Cavs are nailing shots with hands in their face, shedding defenders off one dribble, and catching-and-sinking ricochets off Mike Muscala’s forehead. The Hawks can also recall how cocksure they were heading out on the road to Game 3, after going up 2-zip on Boston, and how that turned out for them within just a few days. Among Cavs assistant Larry Drew’s favorite utterances was the word “Respond,” and the Cavs show they know how to do that from one possession to the next. The Hawks have to find the trait that allows them to respond in kind, not simply waiting in vain hope that The Law of Averages will eventually turn in their favor. The 38-point lead the Cavaliers established in the first half could have been worse if the Cavs had better looks inside; they were just 6-for-21 on 2FGs (4-for-18 in-the-paint) in the half. Kevin Love’s six offensive rebounds and 3-for-4 shooting from deep made up for another woeful interior performance (0-for-8 2FGs) in Game 2. But the extra foot-in-the-box by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, the extra defender sticking out to show when LeBron James and Cleveland’s point guards came charging across the paint, left them consistently a step short when the Cavs effortlessly kicked the ball out. Paul Millsap and Horford have to defend the paint, get strips, pull chairs, and rebound with the understanding that help isn’t coming. They also have to demand the ball on offense and finish in the paint consistently, first, before trying any high-wire-act shots along the perimeter. Eight Cavalier turnovers (three Hawks steals) does not make for a winning recipe for Atlanta in any game, much less versus the defending Eastern Conference title holders. Teague, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha must be aggressive with ballhandlers, rather than sitting back and allowing Cleveland to flawlessly execute their set plays. Budenholzer finally graced Atlanta with Kris Humphries’ presence with Cleveland up 35 midway through the third quarter, Mike Muscala entering the fray with the Hawks down 18 not long into the start of the second quarter. The Hawks cannot afford to waste time and wait until they’re falling behind by double digits before relieving Horford. Same deal with Jeff Teague and Korver -- don’t give up on Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway prematurely -- and if Mike Scott subs in, it needs to be for Millsap, not Horford. In the building that’s home to live mascots going rogue, dancers that pass out, shot clocks and timekeepers that may or may not be functional, and spectacularly failing trampoline dunkers, the Hawks are convinced a dash of home cooking will be a huge inspiration to come out victorious. Because sight lines, or something. But if Hawks fans wanted to see yet another postseason can of azz-whooping opened upon their favorite team, they’d hop in the time machine, and just watch Woodsonian-era basketball. Hawks fans are not here to endure another drubbing thanks to way-too-rigid game planning. Without major shifts in competitiveness and coaching strategy to stem Cleveland’s runs out of the gate, Hawks fans may not be here for Game 4, either. Let’s (Freaking) GO Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “That’s enough of Schröder for me! I fold!” Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes. Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak. Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously. The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did. We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry. Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture. The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier. J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%. Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him. To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest. If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds). Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty. The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls. Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “Et tu, Lué?” “Now, if you want to CROWN them, then CROWN their {BLEEP!}” It’s hard to believe we are nearly ten years removed from a watershed moment in pro sports history. It was October 16, 2006, and Dennis Green, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks’ red-bird football cousins over in Arizona, was about to go ballistic. Green had a front-and-center view as his disappointing team, in its first Monday Night Football home game in recent memory, made one Cardinal error after another, blowing a multiple-touchdown lead to an undefeated Chicago team that had previously been bulldozing the NFL. Coming into that game, the Bears’ 5-0 start had many pigskin prognosticators suggesting a new Super Bowl Shuffle was right around the corner. Denny Green wasn’t down with the perception that a coronation was in order. “The Bears are what we thought they were,” the dumbfounded coach responded to a seemingly innocuous question, lurching into a frank discussion that was a lot like watching milk reach a boil in the microwave. Green smacks the microphone, and the dais seems to jump from the impact. You can bet the reporters jumped, too. “…they are who we THOUGHT they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!” This was a stunning development, not just for the fiery angst but the mouth from which it bellowed. Denny Green was like a real-life “227” Dad! Not a pushover by any means, but a pleasant, easygoing, mild-mannered fellow, pragmatic to a fault. Everyone expected disappointment, and frustration, from Green after the game, but no one in the media saw this reaction coming. Atlanta sports fans, however, may trace Green’s latent path to Vesuvius all the way back to January 1999. Back then, his 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were all set for a coronation, after racking up the most points ever scored in NFL history. The Vikes had long been an NFL bridesmaid, but seemed on-track to finally win their first-ever Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want to play along, though, capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes to seize their place as the NFC’s Super Bowl participant. Over seven years later, Green foresaw a small chance at redemption, tripping up a former division rival that was just beginning to enjoy its own scent. And he watched his team pounce, and then literally fumble the opportunity away. The Bears eventually did make it to the Super Bowl by season’s end, but they didn’t win it all. Green and many of his key players weren’t around two seasons later, when the Cardinals found their way to the big show, too. Fans of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers see that the coast is pretty clear for another trip to the NBA Finals, a journey that resumes tonight with their second-round Eastern Conference playoff round with the Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT, post-game on Fox Sports Southeast). They also perceive this playoff run as their best hope at ending a 52-year championship drought. There are four Eastern Conference teams left standing after the opening playoff round. Three of them are top-ten in the league in team salaries. One is the Hawks, once again a bottom-ten payroll team. What does an extra $35 million buy you? Cleveland certainly hopes it's a coronation. After nine seasons of postseason hoops, everyone seems certain the Hawks are what they’ve always thought they were. Atlanta has a chance to radically alter NBA observers’ perceptions, via this series. But that only happens if they can be a team that redefines what the Cavaliers think they are. The Hawks’ first-round series with the Boston Celtics concluded in fairly satisfying fashion. Relying on their recalibrated defense, Atlanta held the Celtics to a playoff-low 38.4 FG% and 27.5 3FG%. But just about everything is different with this next round’s opponent. Instead of a 5-foot-9, 185-pound score-first, playoff-under-experienced, first-time All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, the offensive tour de force Atlanta faces is LeBron James, an unselfish 6-foot-8, 250-pound, a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ who desperately wants to bring an NBA title to his home state. While Thomas turned to the likes of Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, James has fellow All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving (Playoffs-high 27.5 PPG) and Kevin Love at his disposal. Rather than a team that struggles to get hot from distance, Cleveland hit 36.3% of its three-point attempts during the regular season (7th in NBA), and 41.3% in the opening round (2nd in Playoffs). Instead of an opponent that thrived on high-tempo affairs, the Hawks face a Cavs team that enjoys slowing things down to a grind (28th in pace). While the Celtics relied on Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger to counter Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Cavaliers can turn to Love, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov. Boston ranked 26th in D-Reb% while Cleveland ranked 5th, not to mention ranking 9th in O-Reb%. Boston was just testing the bounds of their confidence. The Cavs exude it, facing a team they dusted in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as they chase after their 2016 destiny. For all the attention paid to James as a bruising scorer, he is most dangerous for Cleveland as a passer and an active help defender. In the Cavs’ 20 losses during the regular season, he scored slightly more points (25.4 PPG), and rebounded more (7.9 RPG), but took a higher volume of tougher shots (48.5 FG%, 27.5 3FG%), and made significantly fewer assists (5.0 APG), than he did in 56 victories (25.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 53.5 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). LeBron giving up the ball when he’s under pressure is not, in and of itself, good news for Atlanta. In addition to his heroball-quality 30.3 PPG (just 43.8 FG%) and 11.0 RPG, in the 2015 ECFs, LeBron picked apart the Hawks with 9.3 APG in their four-game sweep. This season, Cleveland was 40-5 (23-1 at home) when James contributed more than 5 assists. He also barely registers a blip in steals during defeats (0.95 SPG) compared to 1.52 SPG during wins (Cavs 30-3 when LBJ gets at least 2 steals). The more James resembles volume-shooting DeMar DeRozan, the better for Atlanta’s prospects. Restraining James from collecting the ball and finishing plays around the restricted area (without excessive fouling) will go a long way, and different defensive looks from a combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford will help in that regard. But the Hawks can truly help their cause by ensuring that their supporting cast denies James easy dimes to open shooters and bigs hovering around the hoop. LeBron’s occasional dunks may feel like knockout punches, but they’re mere body blows relative to his constant threat to find open shooters. J.R. Smith (40.0 3FG%) will spot-up at will, so deflecting kickouts in his direction will be beneficial, as is the case for Kyrie Irving (32.2 3FG%) at the ends of the shot clock. The Hawks must also limit open catch-and-shoot opportunities for Matthew Dellavedova (41.0 3FG%), Channing Frye (37.7 3FG%), James Jones (39.4 3FG%), and Richard Jefferson (38.2 3FG%). Millsap, Horford, and Mike Scott (68.1 eFG%, 3rd in Playoffs) need to pile up points in transition against Thompson, Love, and veteran perimeter marksman Frye, none of whom are defensive stalwarts. The same could be said of Irving and J.R. Smith, signaling the need for Jeff Teague (35.5 Assist%, 2nd among current Playoffs participants), Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway to remain aggressive in getting to the paint and forcing Cleveland, a team that prefers to force undesirable shots and secure the defensive rebound, to make stops. After dusting off Detroit in Round 1, Irving’s confidence has never been higher, but Teague, who had time to rest a bum ankle sustained in Game 6 against Boston, has the kind of two-way game that can create a deflating effect when it’s on-point. Schröder will be pushed, prodded, and trolled by the usual suspects, but is figuring out that his best clapbacks don’t require words at all. Horford’s mid-range game was poor in the first round, but the more the Hawks attack the interior, the better his chances to thaw out his jumper and make him a legitimate multi-faceted offensive threat. The more defensive breakdowns the Hawks can exploit, the more James’ attention can be directed away from the offensive end. Horford has suffered through his share of playoff-series drubbings, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2010. But he was also instrumental the very next season, when he led his team in rebounds and assists as the Hawks knocked off the favored Magic in six games. In 2008, Doc Rivers went from being an NBA head coach on shaky ground to one with an NBA championship ring. But Doc needed one of his old teams to lay down on the road for him to shake free of the skeptics. Now, another former Hawks point guard is pulling for a similar fate. Tyronn Lue needs to reach The Finals, at least, to sustain LeBron’s confidence and justify the seat he shifted into at the expense of David Blatt. Lue was supposed to strategically make the Cavs perform at a higher pace, but that accelerated play has yet to come to fruition. While the Hawks/Celtics series was the highest-paced series in the East’s first round (just a shade behind Houston/Golden State), the Cavs/Pistons series was the slowest. To push the pace on the Cavs, the Hawks cannot pass up good shots in hopes of a great shot later in the shot clock. Atlanta has to avoid the urge to force halfcourt shots that aren’t there, but when there is a good look, the Hawks must take them without hesitation (Al, we’re looking at you). Atlanta must also ensure there’s proper coverage for James in defensive transition, regardless of whether or not the shots fall. A sound offensive effort from Korver and Kent Bazemore (3.2 TO%, 2nd-lowest in Playoffs), who will get chased constantly by Matthew Dellav-he’lldiveonya and Iman Shumpert, would be nice. But poor shooting stretches can be overcome if the defense on Cleveland’s fastbreaks and perimeter shots remains stellar. Yes, James is the effective coach/GM/POBO for the Cavs. But Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has three playoff series wins under his belt, plus a wealth of tactical knowledge relative to Lue, who can at least turn to Larry Drew when the Cavs need a decent offensive play coming out of timeouts. At some point in this series, the coaching advantage along Atlanta’s sideline needs to be resoundingly clear and reflective of the competitive play on the court. The Hawks effectively chose this conference semifinal matchup at the conclusion to the regular season; if they intended to get thumped once again by the Cavs, there was no reason for wasting energy and crawling into another conference finals just to do that. Surely, though, Atlanta had loftier plans in mind. If, instead, they aim to shock the NBA world, an effort which requires at least one victory here in Cleveland at The Q, they might as well do it early and build their own confidence going forward. The Hawks know these Cavaliers as well as anyone left in the Eastern Conference does. But anytime the Cavaliers stumble during this playoff series, how often will these Hawks let them off the hook? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “What’s our play been looking like, lately? Depends.” Does momentum matter? The Atlanta Hawks have been playing like it does, indeed, winners of their past three and closing strong in the face of a daunting second-half schedule. Their hosts tonight and the last team to beat them, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio), could sorely borrow some of that momentum. There are just two regular season games remaining, and defending Eastern Conference champ Cleveland (56-24) still hasn’t clinched the top seed. The team breathing down their necks, Toronto (54-26), has only white-flag-waving Philadelphia and Brooklyn left on their slate, and the Raptors hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Cavs likely have to clinch the #1 seed either tonight, or on Wednesday against Detroit, their possible opening-round opponents. Cleveland has swung-and-missed in their last two attempts to lock that #1-seed down. Head coach Tyronn Lue rested LeBron James on Wednesday in playoff-hungry Indiana, and the tandem of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love could do little to hold back Paul George and company. In what may ring familiar to Hawks fans, the Pacers (another possible Cavs first-round opponent) rang up 70 first-half points (61.9 FG%, 53.8 3FG%) on The James-less Gang. By night’s end, Indiana outscored the Cavs 46-32 in the paint and got 50 of their whopping 123 points from their bench players. After a couple days rest, LeBron was back. This time, they were presented a chance to eliminate another Central Division rival, a Chicago Bulls team that has been largely left for dead. Instead, what should have been an improved bench unit was quadrupled in scoring by Chicago’s reserves (44-11) in a 105-102 primetime loss. Despite James’ 33 points (13-for-17 FGs, 4-for-5 3FGs) and the perimeter shooting of Love and J.R. Smith (combined 11-for-23 3FGs), the Cavs stumbled in the final quarter, three critical turnovers from Irving amid a 15-4 run helping the Bulls turn the tables and momentarily salvage their season. “I was just really (kinda rhymes with “pretty,” but kinda means the opposite) with the basketball,” Irving acknowledged to the Plain Dealer after the game. “I’ve just got to do a better job of leading that second unit, especially with LeBron and Kevin on the bench.” Irving understands that, for Cleveland, jacking up long-distance shots (29.8 team 3FG attempts per game, 3rd in NBA) will prove futile on many nights if there aren’t enough accompanying defensive stops. While Golden State at least has an NBA record worth chasing, it has to be unnerving that the East’s leaders aren’t yet able to rest their stars ahead of the postseason. While last year’s top-seed, Atlanta, wrapped things up well before April Fool’s Day despite some late-season struggles, the Cavaliers may have to do it this year while scrambling to finish their 1040s. To get it done tonight, or Wednesday, it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by Cleveland’s first unit, as their reserve options were thinned even more today. The Cavs will have to catch The Big Mo without the little Mo around to help. Maurice Williams is taking a trip to Dr. James Andrews’ Pensacola office, to see what can be done about his lingering knee issue before the playoffs begin. Also sitting out the final two games is starting two-guard Iman Shumpert, who had his knee drained and will rest to alleviate inflammation and soreness. Discounting little-used center Sasha Kaun and swingman Jordan McRae (both soon headed to a D-League Playoff assignment), that should leave the Cavs 10-deep going into tonight’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. Tristan Thompson (five O-Rebs, 1-for-6 FTs @ ATL on Apr. 1) replaced Shumpert in the lineup against Chicago, leaving Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, James Jones, Channing Frye and Timofey Mozgov to go against the Hawks. Lue intends to start Thompson primarily at the five going forward, creating mostly big matchups that keep James on the hunt for mismatches at the wing. On paper, the Cavs’ backcourt struggles should translate into more good news for Dennis Schröder, who reinvigorated his offense during a thrilling 118-107 win at the Highlight Factory on Saturday night. Schröder and the Atlanta bench (incl. Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Scott) contributed just 16 cumulative points on 5-for-19 shooting, plus one steal, 3 assists and 8 turnovers during Cleveland’s visit to Philips Arena on April 1, and they must make amends tonight. Jeff Teague will be counted upon to bring the same intensity to his matchup tonight that he brought to the table against Irving (5-for-23 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 1), Kyle Lowry (6-for-15 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 7), and Isaiah Thomas (6-for-19 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 9). Teague’s last six games include averages of 23.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, and just 2.2 TOs/game, while shooting 50.0 FG% (47.8 3FG%) and sinking 28 of 30 free throws. The Hawks’ defense will want to keep Irving off the free throw line, after Kyrie made 8 of 10 freebies (including the decisive five points in the final 20 seconds of overtime) in Atlanta to pad his scoring tally. But Teague and Schröder will also want to force enough contact on drives inside to put pressure on Lue’s frontcourt rotations. Atlanta’s point guards keeping Delly and Kyrie occupied on defense all night would be a big help to the Hawks’ frontline, especially Eastern Conference Player of the Week Paul Millsap (last 3 games: 19.0 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 BPG, 48.8 FG%, 46.2 3FG%), who was at once a human dynamo and a human piñata against Boston on Saturday. Sap’s performance against the Cavs on April 1 (29 points, 12 rebounds, in a 110-108 OT loss) suggests he may finally be shedding the hex that Cavalier defenders Tristan Thompson and James have had on him. Shumpert’s absence should also create more daylight for Kyle Korver, who was mostly absent from the scoreboard on Saturday but drew enough attention in the second half to keep the Hawks offense flowing. Korver hit 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the second half on April 1, helping the Hawks salt away a 14-point halftime deficit. Defensive rebounding parity should remain of paramount importance for Al Horford, Millsap, and Humphries, as Love, Thompson and James seek to attack the glass after every missed shot. Sefolosha struggled off the bench trying to help contain James (29 points, 1-for-5 3FGs) and close out along the perimeter in their last meeting. Tonight, Sefolosha can help Kent Bazemore (11 D-Rebs and 6 assists vs. CLE on Apr. 1) share box-out duties with the Hawks’ big men. With their boundless activity, both players can also help keep James from piling up fouls and points in transition. Love and Channing Frye will try returning the favor against Atlanta’s floor-spreading offense by taking lots of three-pointers, so the Hawks’ wing players must assist Millsap in securing boards tonight. To put a cherry atop the sundae that is Atlanta’s most successful two-season stretch of basketball (108 wins) in franchise history, a win tonight will secure homecourt advantage for the Hawks (48-32) in the first round. There’s no need to wait for Wednesday in Washington to get that done. The Hawks’ ability to nab a victory in the final meeting between these two teams would also leave the clinch-starved folks at The Q rightfully restless about what lies ahead. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. LD gets to stick it to Milwaukee, eh? For anybody who recalls, was David Blatt the guy LD visited when Ferry sent him over to Israel in the 2012 offseason? (EDIT: Eureka. Ah, the MC reporting years... http://blogs.ajc.com/hawks/2012/09/12/atlanta-hawks-larry-drew-reportedly-meeting-with-euro-coach-david-blatt/?cxntfid=blogs_hawks) ~lw3
  14. Jason Lloyd, Akron Beacon-Journal (via Twitter @JasonLloydABJ): John Schuhmann, NBA.com (via Twitter: @johnschuhmann): ~lw3