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    Once again, we’ll likely miss Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer roaming the sidelines for this early Sunday tilt against the Utah Jazz (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain Plus), leaving the X’s and O’s to his trusty assistant, Kenny Atkinson. Like Coach Bud, one of former trusty assistants, in particular, can always be counted on for hard-hustling teams, along with downright hilarious stares and glares from the sideline.
    At first glance, Russian-meat-jello afficionado Quin Snyder looks like one of those meanie parents with their children tethered to leashes whenever they’re out in public, just daring anybody to try telling them how to raise their yung’uns. In reality, he’s molding a youthful but spirited team, and building a mindset that they need not settle for less, that “on the verge of being good” isn’t good enough.
    “I think we’ve realized we really haven’t accomplished anything,” remarked Gordon Hayward (16.7 PPG), whose shot has gone wayward (39.8 FG%, 30.3 3FG%) at the outset of this season. Utah’s leading scorer was briefly reflecting upon the second half of last season, when the Jazz went 19-10 after the All-Star break and nearly backed into the eighth and final playoff spot. He asserted than it’s not the players, but the media, who have been “really hyping us up and hyped us up all offseason, and we really didn’t deserve any of that.”
    If Snyder could play one instrument in a jazz orchestra, he’d go for Sad Trombone. “I’m not dampening any enthusiasm,” he said, before assuredly dampening someone’s enthusiasm, “but I am being realistic about who our group is – and that’s what our group needs. We need to be realistic about the level (of NBA competition) that’s out there and, if we want to reach it, it’s a hard road.” This young Jazz team (4-5) isn’t relying on social media and pundit outsiders to give them feedback. Just Snyder, and Snyder alone.
    And my, what a young crew this is. The oldest player on the roster is a Millsap – the third youngest of the Millsap hoop clan, Elijah, who just turned 28 three months ago. But rather than cowering, they’re rallying around their crotchety second-year coach and adopting his precepts for re-building a successful franchise.
    Speaking of hard roads, the Jazz’s four-game road trip, wrapping up today in the ATL, really wasn’t too harrowing. A four-point loss in Cleveland, after giving up a fourth-quarter lead, was followed by a one-point setback, in Wade-less Miami, that was close to the vest throughout despite Utah missing human eraser Rudy Gobert (ankle), who’s second in the league with 3.1 BPG.
    Gobert, who grew up a couple hours north of the site of the recent tragic events in Paris, missed Utah’s 102-93 loss in Orlando and remains questionable to play this evening, as is second-year swingman Rodney Hood (foot). Both players were participants, however, in shootaround this morning. Snyder’s troopers have generally had to mold together away from Salt Lake City. After this evening’s affair, Utah gets two days off before Toronto visits, for what will be just the Jazz’s third home game out of 11 so far.
    He was a Hornet in high school, a Yellow Jacket in college. Now in his sixth professional season, Atlanta native Derrick Favors is really putting the sting to opponents. Averaging nearly a double-double with 15.0 PPG and a career-high 9.1 RPG, Favors is now contributing a Millsapian 2.4 SPG (2nd in NBA for steals per 100 possessions) to go along with 1.7 BPG. Plus, his per-minute turnovers and fouls are as low as ever. It’s hard to ask for much more, but if we were Quin, we’d curry Favors to raise that free throw accuracy up above 66%.
    Favors forms an offensive triumvirate with Hayward and sixth-man Alec Burks (55.0 3FG%, 3rd in NBA), who missed the back end of last season after suffering a shoulder injury. Unless point guard Trey Burke emerges, however, this season will feel like a bit of a wild card for Utah. They’re certainly missing Australian import Dante Exum, who is out this season after tearing his ACL in offseason play for his national team.
    Instead of starting Burke, Snyder has gone with former Hawks second-round pick Raul Neto, who hasn’t done much yet to earn a Stat of the Night (3.4 PPG, 2.0 APG, 27.0 FG%), but seems to have picked up defensive concepts better than Burke (46.4 3FG%, 11th in NBA) to this point. Burke (team-high 16 points @ ORL, 7-for-12 FGs, 4 assists, 1 TO) will come off the bench and do all he can to forget his last meeting versus the Hawks in SLC (2-for-19 FGs, 0-for-11 on small-t treys). Burke did contribute a season-high 11 assists at the Highlight Factory during a close loss to one year ago, when the Hawks held the Jazz to nine fourth-quarter points and seized the lead on a Kyle Korver three in the final minute of play.
    Burks (22 points, 8-for-10 2FGs @ ATL last November) and Hood have filled in the playmaking gap for Utah’s slow-cooking offense. But for the Hawks, the best playmaker on the floor today needs to be Dennis Schröder. Jeff Teague gets to rest his rubbery ankle after spraining it before halftime of Atlanta’s 106-93 loss in Boston on Friday night. Schröder will continue to get some help from point-center Al Horford (8 assists, no TOs @ BOS on Friday). Horf will continue daring centers to step outside the paint, but he must be a more active body at the other end to keep opponents on their heels. Horford has grabbed more than five defensive caroms just once in his last six appearances.
    Favors will do all he can today to slow his old mentor. While it is understandably a small sample size, Paul Millsap’s averages of 20.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and 3.3 APG are career-high marks versus any NBA outfit, and there’s little denying he enjoys showing his old employer all the new tricks he’s picked up since leaving the Wasatch Range behind.
    Anybody who came to the game tonight to see a head-to-head between the windmill-armed centers Gobert and Walter Tavares will likely come away disappointed. But both Tavares and Lamar Patterson are back on the roster after having a productive two-game stint with D-Leaguers in Austin. Less likely is a matchup between ex-Wolverine star guards Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.
    What fans will want to see is a renewed commitment to team defense by the Hawks (8-3) that has slipped in the past week or so. Opponents’ offensive efficiency has exceeded 100.0 points per 100 possessions in Atlanta’s last three contests, and four of their last five games. Their 3.2 steals per 100 possessions versus Boston was by far the lowest of their season, compounded by a 63.8 D-Reb percentage that was the lowest since its opening-night loss to Detroit. Kent Bazemore and Justin Holiday will need to seal off the perimeter, allowing former Jazzmen Korver and Millsap to help secure the defensive boards and ignite the fastbreak for Schröder.
    Things get no easier if Rudy (12.1 O-Reb%, 12th in NBA) is a Go for today’s action. But in addition to Horford, if Tiago Splitter (career-low 5.3 D-Rebs and 0.6 Blocks per-36; one block in last eight games) cannot be more productive as a defender, it will be harder for the Hawks coaching staff to keep Tavares in tutorial mode. Even without Gobert, rookie Trey Lyles and vets Trevor Booker and Jeff Withey loom around the rim.
    Snyder is in as good a position as any NBA head coach to gameplan against the Hawks and help the Jazz stem their three-game slide. How well the Jazz sop up his mad-scientist wisdom will go a long way toward determining how competitive today’s action will be.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “…but, there are TWO I’s in Isaiah!”
    3-4? Who gives a flip about 3-4? It’s a great time to be a Boston Celtics fan. As fans of the Atlanta Hawks, their visitors tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England), if we were to give Celtics fans a nugget of sage advice, it would be this: “Don’t get too smug!”
    The tantalizing inevitability of a playoff appearance coupled with a precious, precocious lottery pick ultimately proved to be a tease for the Hawks in the aftermath of the 2012 Joe Johnson trade to Brooklyn. Nets GM Billy King, however, did not learn a lesson from his mistake, and in the undying quest to “Be Mediocre NOW!” he relieved the Celts of two crumbling pillars from its championship past.
    King gave away an unprotected 1st rounder in 2014 (James Young, eventually, taken 17th), and 2016, and 2018, plus a 2017 right-to-swap. Today, Paul Pierce is two teams removed from Brooklyn, in L.A., while Kevin Garnett has come full circle and is chilling out again in Minnesota. And Jason Terry is looking up “Tattoo Removal” on Google somewhere.
    Meanwhile, as many NBA teams are scratching and clawing with dreams of playing in June, Boston is in it essentially to draft at that time. The Wrath of Danny Ainge begins in earnest with this year’s draft. If The Season Ended Today (sorry for the jinx), Boston would have its own lottery pick, plus Brooklyn’s. And no, they’re not done.
    Thanks to last December’s deal to take ticking timebomb Rajon Rondo off their hands, the first-rounder acquired from Dallas is only protected for slots 1-through-7. If Minnesota continues feeling their oats, their first-rounder, 1-through-12 protected, via last January’s dealing of Jeff Green to Memphis for the disposable Tayshaun Prince (now in Minnesota, coincidentally), will also fall into Ainge’s grubby hands. If you haven’t had occasion to visit Tankathon’s website lately, don’t worry: they’re not hurting for clicks. Celtics, Nuggets, and Sixers fans have plenty of reasons to check it out daily.
    So, is Boston going to return to the postseason after a strong finish to last season (20-11 post-All-Star-break; the first-place Hawks, comparatively, were 17-11)? Who cares? What’s the rush? With Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens going absolutely nowhere (and that’s supposed to be a good thing) and as much as $51 million in salary coming off the books ahead of a free agent bonanza summer, what’s the difference between two, three and four lottery picks?
    So, one night after whupping the Bucks on the road, the Celtics didn’t have a single player capable of going toe-to-toe with rejuvenated star Paul George (26 points, 10 rebounds) in Wednesday night’s 102-91 defeat. So what? You want a supahstar rocking Celtic green, right now? Grab a Sam Adams and cool your jets! There’s a good chance That Man is arriving in another season or two.
    Barring some unfortunate commentary about, like, Manhattan having the best clam chowder bar none, Ainge will be around to see all of these draft picks come to fruition. Soon, the NBA might have to turn its Executive of the Year trophy into a fleece jacket.
    The crew that Stevens fields is not only playing hard for their current NBA employer, but also the next one. That goes especially for stretchy trade-target bigs Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk.  Sully (team-highs of 8.3 RPG and 44.4 3FG%) is in full Show-and-Disprove Mode, after Ainge did not offer the future restricted free agent a contract extension two weeks ago.
    Aside from perhaps swingman Jae Crowder, the starting lineup is wonderfully interchangeable. You can take Avery Bradley (missed Wednesday’s game; lower-leg contusion) out, and put Evan Turner in. Need more defense? Sub out Leading scorer Isaiah Thomas (team-high 20.6 PPG) for Marcus Smart (back after injuring his big toe). Rest Amir Johnson and let David Lee tip off. Or Olynyk. Or Tyler Zeller. Or Jonas Jerebko. Or …
    Crowder and backcourt mates Smart, Thomas, Bradley, James Young and rookies Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter are the closest things Boston has to “mainstays” on the roster, and even they could be had if somebody wants to relinquish another juicy pick or two (put your hand down, Billy, you’re fresh out). But do not be mistaken: the Celtics have no intention of tanking. Ainge is proving to another of his division rivals that you can play Hinkie-ball without resorting to Stinky-ball. And not knowing what cast of characters Stevens will toss out there makes it hard for opposing coaches to effectively gameplan.
    What the Celts have, collectively, are knockout defenders (95.3 opponent points per 100 possessions, 5th-lowest in NBA; 46.7 opponent eFG%, 7th-lowest in NBA) without a seasoned knockdown shooter (28.4 3FG%, 27th in NBA; 7-for-30 3FGs at Milwaukee, 4-for-24 vs. Indy). Their defensive intensity tends to mirror that of the Hawks: defensive rebounding be-damned (opponent O-Reb 27.2% for BOS, 26.5% for ATL) in lieu of pressing and clawing as the ball approaches the paint.
    Only Boston’s opponents (19.6 TOs per 100 possessions) turn over the ball at a rate higher than Atlanta’s (18.2 TOs). Thanks in part to Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha, and Kent Bazemore ranking 3rd, 5th, and 7th among NBA forwards, Atlanta has averaged 10.9 steals (2nd in NBA), bettered only by Boston’s 11.4 SPG (Crowder’s 3.4 SPG 1st in NBA), while Atlanta’s 24.5 PPG off turnovers is rivaled only by Boston’s 23.6 PPG. So if things hold true to form, expect a wild slopfest tonight at TD Garden.
    Atlanta (8-2) has only coughed up the ball 15 times or fewer in nine of its ten contests this season, while forcing 18 or more player turnovers from their foes in seven of those ten games. Wednesday’s come-from-behind victory versus the Pelicans was the first where the Hawks (15) committed more turnovers than their opponents (12). Boston will try to make it two games in a row.
    Jae will Crowd the perimeter, seeking to help Smart frustrate Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder while picking off passes intended for the Hawks’ open shooters. The Hawks will have to avoid stationary perimeter positioning, and thrive off cross-court passes and dribble hand-offs; the less the ball touches the floor versus Boston, the better for Atlanta.
    The Celtics’ guards will also drive persistently, and it’s up to the Hawks’ perimeter defenders to goad them into settling for wild shots, not letting Thomas (88.0 FT%) make hay at the the free throw line. Atlanta’s big men have to box out and keep Sullinger (13.2 O-Rebs per 100 possessions, 9th in NBA) and Lee from cherry-picking around the hoop.
    If you need a Career Night Award winner for this evening, place your bets on Hunter. The former Georgia State star has been gaining Stevens’ trust and is getting close to 20 minutes a night lately as his team searches for somebody capable of hitting jumpers with some measure of consistency.
    The Hawks’ motto so far seems to be: “Playing from in front? Run away, while you can. Playing from behind? Catch us, while you can.” Sloppy at the starts of most games, Atlanta ranks 4th in the Association for fourth-quarter PPG, 3rd in fourth-quarter plus-minus, 4th in fourth-quarter net rating, 3rd in fourth-quarter APG, even 6th in fourth-quarter RPG.
    Atlanta fans can be understandably frustrated that while their team, more often than not, have tended to come out on top, games get way more uncomfortable when the Hawks aren’t applying talons-to-neck from the jump, especially versus inferior and/or banged-up competition. With Kenny Atkinson leading the charge tonight (Mike Budenholzer flew back home this morning, to tend to a family matter), we’ll see if he can spark some of that old reliable Sense of Urgency at tipoff. No matter how tonight’s game goes, Boston is going to be just fine either way.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Where the Miller Lite women at?”
    The New Orleans Pelicans are officially off the schneid, climbing to 1-6 after topping the Mavericks at home last night. They had a chance at their first win there last Friday, wiping out a 17-point fourth quarter lead by the Atlanta Hawks in the space of just six minutes, a run that proved to be quite instructive for the Hawks a few days later.
    The Pels needed a Career Night from their star, Anthony Davis (career-high 43 points, 33 in the second half; 4 of his team’s 9 steals; 3 of his team’s 7 blocks), just to make things interesting at the end. Can they notch their first road victory tonight at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports New Orleans), if the pterodactyl-winged Davis cannot join them?
    Davis’ hip hopped just before halftime in yesterday’s 120-105 victory over Dallas, shortly after contributing 13 points and 5 rebounds in the second quarter alone. It was a 16-point advantage at that point for the Big Easy Birds, who sprinted to a crowd-pleasing 12-0 start and never relinquished the lead, Dallas’ closing flurry too little, too late to evaporate a 28-point lead. Ryan Anderson’s season-highs of 25 points (10-for-16 FGs) and 11 boards, plus recent arrival Ish Smith’s 12 assists, helped New Orleans hold serve the rest of the way.
    X-rays on his hip contusion proved negative, yet Davis is listed as doubtful to appear tonight. For a continually banged-up outfit, it helped to have center Omer Asik back in the saddle against the Mavs. But he, like Jrue Holiday (15 minutes last night) is time-restrained by head coach Alvin Gentry. Asik was only supposed to log five minutes on the front end of the back-to-back, but wound up totaling 15 minutes through the third quarter, after Davis did not return.
    How much more Asik plays tonight, and how limited the playing time is for he and Jrue (also listed as doubtful), will be worth monitoring. Eric Gordon (season-high 22 points, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL last Friday) will try picking up the offensive slack, while Luke Babbitt (13 points, 4-for-4 2FGs vs. ATL) will strive to be tonight’s Career Night beneficiary, by sharing Davis’ spot at power forward with Anderson.
    The Hawks (7-2) catch a bit of a break themselves, as Jeff Teague (24 points, 9 assists, 3 blocks!, 6 TOs vs. Minny) earned no suspension for Bjelica-slapping the opponent during the frustrated stretch where Minnesota finally regained momentum from the Hawks. The Flagrant 2 foul imposed on Teague means he won’t get suspended until he gets three more infraction points during the season.
    While it was to no avail, Dallas’ quartet of Dirk Nowitzki, Charlie Villanueva, Zaza Pachulia, and Dwight Powell, plus forward Justin Anderson and guard Deron Williams (26-for-38 combined FGs in-the-paint) tried to bruise the defensively fragile Pels (110.3 opponent points per-48, worst in NBA; 58.2 opponent FG% in-the-paint) on the interior. Atlanta can try similar tactics, including the improving decision making of Dennis Schröder (16 assists, 4 TOs last three games), into the mix.
    But, unlike Dallas, the Hawks must not fail to get back and set defensively in transition, a continual problem on Monday when the Timberwolves blazed to 72 first-half points and a seemingly insurmountable 34-point lead early in the third quarter. Gentry still wants his Pelicans to run, even if it’s into the ground, against a Hawks team that just played its fifth game in seven days.
    Atlanta may be going through a bit of a metamorphosis with Kyle Korver’s role in the offense. Threezus has been the essential catch-and-shoot king during his Hawks tenure, leading the NBA with 8.5 PPG (and 49.9 FG%) on catch-and-shoot field goal attempts last season; in 2013-14, his 50.6 FG% (8.3 PPG) also was tops. Thus far this season, Kyle’s 5.4 catch-and-shoot PPG (42.9 FG%) ranks him behind Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore (a scintillating 68.0 FG%), and 29 others.
    Instead, Korver seems increasingly reliant on dribble hand-off plays (9-for-14 FGs, 2nd-most attempts in league, behind J.J. Redick) to get openings. Are these new wrinkles in Mike Budenholzer’s offense? Are these plays better-suited for Kyle’s early-season conditioning, or are opponents getting finally hip to the game, and closing out better off screens designed to get him open? It will take more time to see if this is The New Normal, but Kyle’s teammates could stand to do a better job of creating better catch-and-release looks for him.
    Also part of the metamorphosis is Al Horford’s attempt to join Paul Millsap in the three-point-shooting party. While it is admirable to forsake the long-range two-pointers, and his 23.4 3-point shot-volume ratio is only slightly ahead of Jeff Teague’s, Horford’s 31.7 eFG% on spot-up shots ranks only behind Matt Barnes (31.5 eFG%) – and Millsap (27.8 eFG%) among the league’s Top 20 spot-up jumpshooters. Particularly on a team that de-emphasizes offensive rebounding, Millsap and Horford could stand to drive more often from the perimeter and make plays for teammates.
    With drives and cuts to the lane, Al could draw more contact and take advantage of his 88.9 FT%, currently on just 2.0 FT attempts per game. Teague and Millsap are the only Hawks getting to the free throw line with any frequency, but Atlanta’s top eight scorers are shooting a collective 83.5% from the free throw line.
    Pushing the rock at a high pace is good if you know what you’re doing; otherwise, you’re just ballin’ out of control. Last season, only the Warriors exceeded 100.0 possessions per-48 in the league for a full season. This year, New Orleans (103.2 pace) is among 14 teams in that 100-plus club; the Hawks (99.98) are among seven other teams just a shade behind them.
    Remove the Dubs from the equation, and the Top-7 NBA teams in pace have a combined record of 12-30; take out Atlanta’s next opponent, Brad Stevens’ frenetic Celtics, and the cumulative record of the remaining five drops to 9-27. Energetic play must be combined with efficient shot selection, and with sound halfcourt and transition defense. The team that displays these elements best on the floor over four quarters should have a leg up tonight.
    Thank You Veterans! And Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Olivia is OURS, KG! No, you can’t have her back!”
    The scene: Sacramento, California. The Minnesota Timberwolves are kicking off yet another horrific season on the wrong foot. This was after becoming the first NBA team to have lost 60 or more games in its past four seasons. Tom Gugliotta and Sam Mitchell, in particular, are having terrible shooting nights at raucous ARCO Arena. The long face on head coach Bill Blair was evident to assistant Randy Wittman. It’s only Game 1, but enough was enough.
    Trying to keeping the deficit close, Blair (replaced, a few weeks later, by Kevin McHale’s former college teammate and handpicked general manager, Flip Saunders) has the presence of mind to turn to his newest player off the bench: a raw, wiry lottery talent fresh from a Chicago high school named Kevin Garnett, who makes all four of his shots and keeps the T’wolves in contention. On that day, Teen Wolf was officially introduced to the NBA world.
    The date: November 3, 1995. Twelve days later in New Jersey, Karl-Anthony Towns was officially introduced to the entire world. As a newborn.
    Fast forward, to November 9, 2015. Tom Gugliotta is a part-time TV analyst for one of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks. Due to the unfortunate passing of Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell is elevated from assistant coach to head coach, full time. And Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns share the frontcourt in the starting lineup for the Timberwolves (3-2), who are in Philips Arena (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South) looking to improve to 4-0 on the road this season, while stopping the Hawks (7-1) from enjoying an eighth consecutive NBA victory.
    Much like their silver-and-black two-tone wolf-head logo, the contrast between youth and experience on the Minnesota roster is striking. At one end of the spectrum, there’s Garnett, the 39-year-old former league MVP, who has yet, intentionally, to score more than four points in a game. There’s 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince, who starts at small forward and hasn’t scored much more than KG.
    There’s the 32-year-old Kevin Martin, who leads the team in scoring (18.8 PPG) despite getting relegated to the reserves unit by Mitchell in the preseason. He’s likely to play tonight after missing Minnesota’s last contest, a win over the Bulls, on personal leave. The perpetually injured 300-pounder Nikola Pekovic is on the verge of 30 years of age. In case of a point guard emergency, you can always break the glass for Andre Methuselah Miller, two months older than the cagey KG.
    At the other end, you’ve got Towns, the Wolves’ second-straight rookie to be drafted first overall in the NBA Draft. A Teen Wolf himself for just six more days, the center (3.0 BPG, 4th in NBA; 9.6 RPG) is already making a strong impression out of the gate. Six months his senior is Andrew Wiggins, the reigning NBA rookie of the year, who joins Towns as part of the future class of NBA mega-stars.
    The spotlight has waned on Ricky Rubio (9.2 APG, 2nd in NBA, 2.2 SPG), once a hyped teen prospect himself from his Euro exploits. But the Timberwolves’ floor leader is only 25 in his fifth NBA campaign. Rubio joins Gorgui Dieng (a disciple of Team Africa assistant Mike Budenholzer over the summer), former Hawk rookie Adreian Payne, Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine, and Towns’ fellow first-rounder Tyus Jones as members of Minnesota’s 25-and-under youth corps.
    Straddling the fence, there are middle-aged newcomers in the mix. Croatian 29-year-old Damjan Rudez (DAH-moe RAH-desh, just like it looks) returns for his second NBA season after getting thrown to the small-w wolves as a member of the Paul George-less Pacers in 2014-15. Serbian 27-year-old Nemanja Bjelica (NEH-mahn-ya BYELL-ett-sah, phonetically similar to “booyikah booyikah”) finally comes across the pond after winning Euroleague MVP for Turkish power Fenerbahce.
    This team was carefully crafted by Saunders, who guided a gravity-defying Garnett and the T’wolves through eight consecutive playoff-bound seasons from 1997 through 2004 (Minnesota has had none since). Flip returned in 2013 to lead the team, first from the front office as GM, and then back along the sidelines a year later. Pekovic and Rubio are the only holdovers preceding the second regime of Saunders, who handed both players contract extensions in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Saunders built this racecar, but after succumbing to cancer in October, it’s been left to GM Milt Newton and Mitchell to steer it to long-awaited success.
    Outside of maybe Salt Lake City, you’ll find no existing NBA head coach more reverent of what Mike Budenholzer is accomplishing in Atlanta than Mitchell. Sam was a radio commentator for the Hawks Radio Network and an NBATV analyst during Budenholzer’s maiden campaign in 2013-14, and was effusive in praise throughout the downs and ups of that season. An assistant gig in Atlanta never materialized for the Columbus, Georgia native and former Mercer star. But in the summer of 2014, the 2007 NBA Coach of the Year got the call from Saunders to head north and join him (plus ex-Wolves coach and Flip confidant Sidney Lowe, and Flip’s son, assistant coach Ryan Saunders) on the sideline.
    It’s a tall order for anyone tasked with mixing youth and inexperience into an NBA rotation and producing instant success on the floor. Yet Mitchell happily turns to his cadre of codgers to guide and instruct the youngsters in the starting unit, among the reserves, on the bench and in the locker room. None more so than the man who remains the franchise face. "He tells them everyday, at this point in his career, it's about them, not him," Mitchell said, as reported by USA Today. "I wouldn't trade him off this team for nothing in the world."
    "They're just so encouraging for the young guys. They just give so much knowledge," Smitch said of his vets. "It's one thing as coaches, we can say it all the time, but when those guys who are out there have actually done it and won championships, when they say it, it just means a lot more." Wiggins (17.2 PPG, 32.4 2FG%) has struggled with his offense this season, but on Saturday in Garnett’s old stomping grounds of Chicago, Professor Garnett took Wiggins aside in timeouts and, using other players as props, demonstrated how to use pump fakes and spin moves to his advantage.
    The pupil put Garnett’s tutelage to good use. Wiggins, whose dad was a rookie for Chicago in ’84, cut to the paint off a feed from Rubio, and put the Bulls’ Taj Gibson on spin cycle for his 30th and 31st points, a game-tying jam with one minute to go. In the ensuing overtime, Minnesota’s stifling defense – yes, you heard that right (93.1 opponent points per 100 possessions, 3rd in NBA) – shut out the Bulls (35.5 FG% on Saturday) for a stunning 102-93 victory that lifts their spirits ahead of tonight’s contest in Atlanta.
    A bit later that night, Atlanta found themselves down at home, 92-90 to Washington with just over six minutes left to play. Then, the Hawks turned on the heat lamps on John Wall, Bradley Beal, and the latest “At Least You Tried” career-high award winner, Otto Porter. A 24-7 close to the game began with a big three-pointer from the returning Mike Muscala, continued with big plays on both ends by Kent Bazemore (career-high 25 points, two fourth-quarter steals) and Atlanta’s second unit versus the flummoxed Wizard starters, and finished with clutch free throw shooting and point-guard-assisted threes that sent the Philips Arena crowd into a Saturday Night frenzy.
    While Garnett and Prince helping with defense and rebounding for Minnesota, they’re instructing their teammates not to let opponents get away with open shots. Wolves’ opponents are hitting just 39.4 percent of defended shots, second-lowest only to Quin Snyder’s Jazz (37.6 opponent FG%).
    Rather than merely accepting getting beaten off the dribble or off a cut, the Wolves would rather hack (NBA-high 24.4 personal fouls per game) before shots go up, and make opponents take the ball back out. Despite leading the league in foul calls, Minnesota’s opponents have only averaged 24.6 free throw attempts (14th in NBA). The Hawks have done well with the free throw trips they’ve made, hitting 81.5 FT% (4th in NBA) in their games, including 83.1% in fourth quarters. Atlanta won’t want to leave points off the board tonight the way Chicago (70 FT%) did at home on Saturday.
    The Wolves also want to force the action on offense and rely on contact, drawing 25.6 fouls per game (2nd in NBA) and granted a league-high 33.2 free throw attempts. Martin is particularly notorious for driving into contact if a jumper isn’t open. As Minnesota turns up the physical play, and while Garnett is busy telling Muscala his mammy tastes like Mueslix, or something, composure will be critical to Atlanta executing their gameplan.
    After flustering Wall and Beal into 15 combined turnovers, the Hawks will have a tougher time with Rubio, whose 4.6 assist-turnover ratio ranks 3rd among NBA guards logging at least 25 minutes per game. Atlanta defenders will have to work to seal off Timberwolf teammates, compelling Rubio (39.2 FG%, 22.2 3FG%) to call his own number.
    Perhaps in memoriam of Flip, the Wolves still love to shoot from mid-range (29.4 FGAs per game, 2nd in NBA; 30.6 FG%, last in NBA). They don’t take many shots above-the-break (10.4 3FGAs per game, 29th in NBA; 26.9 3FG%, 28th in NBA) while the next three-pointer they make from the right corner (0.6 3FGAs per game, last in NBA) will be their first on the young season.
    Enjoying consecutive home games for the first time this season, Jeff Teague and the Hawks take more efficient shots than Minnesota, but must be focused and precise with their halfcourt execution. If Atlanta outperforms their listless 2-for-16 shooting start versus Washington, they’ll be hard to catch at the back end of the game. Only Golden State has a better net rating than Atlanta in the first quarter (+14.8 points per 100 possessions), and only Detroit and Miami have a superior net rating to the Hawks in the fourth quarter (+14.3 points per 100 possessions).
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    Where Tanking Actually Works!
    First things first: “SERIES!”
    Alright, in all “SERIES!”-ness, it’s time to move on. The Atlanta Hawks have been faring quite well in back-to-backs. After enduring a late onslaught last night from Anthony Davis and the referees, they put their Big Boi pants on and flew away from the Pelicans. Atlanta looks to sweep their third of 18 back-to-backs this season with a Saturday night win at the Highlight Factory, against the Washington Wizards (Note the earlier weekend time -- 7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Mid-Atlantic).
    The Hawks (6-1) were 31-11 on back-to-back games in 2014-15, including a pleasant 19-3 during their romp between Thanksgiving and the All-Star Break. They were 14-7 on the back-end games, and their resilience during tight stretches of the NBA schedule has become a hallmark of reigning Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer and his staff.
    “Release the Korveraken!” Kyle Korver unearthed last night with a torching display from downtown (8-for-8 FGs, 4-for-4 on threes), plus he kept the Pelicans on their toes with interior shots and defensive hustle (7 defensive rebounds, 3 steals). The tag-team with Thabo Sefolosha on back-to-backs has been working wonders so far. Yet Korver suggested he’ll try to coax Coach Bud into keeping him active with his hot hand versus Washington (3-2). Both Kyle and Thabo, along with Mike Muscala are listed as probable ahead of tonight's game. In this four-game regular-season division series, the Hawks and Wizards won’t meet again until a home-and-home in late March.
    Oh, did somebody just say “SERIES”? Paul Pierce is no longer around to save Washington’s bacon every night. The Wizards must have had some intimation that Paula was Going Back to Cali, because they spent much of the offseason trying to strengthen their depth at the wing, behind Bradley Beal (team-high 25.0 PPG, 50.0 3FG%) and Otto Porter (11.4 PPG, 18.8 3FG%). General manager Ernie Grunfeld traded to acquire rookie Kelly Oubre from Atlanta and Jared Dudley from Milwaukee, both using future picks. Then the Wiz signed Gary Neal, and occasional Nets playoff hero Alan Anderson, during free agency.
    It all might eventually work out. But first, they need their new additions to get healthy and put in some meaningful minutes in the rotation. Anderson needed preseason ankle surgery and will be out for a couple more weeks. Dudley, who’s enjoyed a pleasant outing or two at Philips Arena in the past, has appeared in the last four games, but needs patience after summertime surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back.
    As a result, it’s hard to grasp the prospects for success of a team that finished 2014-15 just a couple games shy of the Eastern Conference Finals. One minute, Washington is pressed to squeak by Orlando in their season opener. The next, they’re turning on the jets to dust upstart Milwaukee on the road in the fourth quarter. One minute, they’re staring down San Antonio in the clutch, Beal’s 3-point dagger making the Spurs blink. The next, they’re struggling just to keep up with Boston, who made quick work of the Wizards last night in a 118-98 rout at TD Garden.
    Are the Wizards genuinely primed for a serious run at the NBA Finals in 2016, or simply trying to keep a good store out front, in hopes 2016 free agency will feel like a Homecoming?
    The personnel moves thus far leave the sense that Washington’s doing the latter, laying out gossamers in autumn to catch one very big grasshopper in the summer. They’ve granted themselves flexibility in accommodating Beal’s next big contract, recently reaching mutual agreement not to offer a multi-year extension. Plus, they’ve got a couple deadwood contracts soon to expire. The most obvious evidence for the Wizards’ long game, however, is the fluidity with which they’re staffing their starting forward positions.
    Former Kardashian rental Kris Humphries started for a spell early last season, while Nene was recuperating from injury. Now, from the start, he has essentially swapped places with Nene, who backs up Marcin Gortat and sets up an intriguing battle of the Brazilian Blahs with the Hawks’ Tiago Splitter. Nine months from now, there’s a good chance one of these two will be starting for the hosts in Rio.
    Nene is another casualty of the Budenholzer Effect, wherein teams are scrapping Land of the Lost frontcourts in favor of quickness and stretchiness at the power forward position. This evolved typology gives Hump (3-for-4 3FGs last night at Boston) the leg up over Nene to offset the Millsaps and Georges of the world. Whenever opposing teams are getting over the Hump, Porter can slide over from the 3-spot and give it a go.
    The Tim Hardaway, Jr. Coincidence Tour continues, with Oubre (also a Jr.) paying Atlanta a visit. Since getting draft-night traded by the Hawks to the District in three-way exchange for a future 1st and a pair of 2nds, Oubre got his first significant regular-season floor time (3-for-5 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs, 3 fouls in 14.5 minutes) last night in Orlando.
    While the 19-year-old’s hasn’t made a huge impression on the court, so far, he did make an impression of Marky Mark off of it. His sideline celebratory self-grab (not really Cassellian quality) in response to Beal’s game-winning shot versus the Spurs got caught-on-tape. After his costly Big Beal Dance ($15,000 fine), Oubre’s hoping to pay the Wizards back for his youthful indiscretion, in the form of improving play on the floor.
    Oubre, despite his inexperience, is maybe the best defensive option the Wizards can find off the bench. From Nene to Dudley, to Drew Gooden, to Ramon Sessions, to Neal, to Garrett Temple, to DeJuan Blair: if there’s more than one of these guys on the floor together, and they’re not burying shots, it’s “Bar the Door, Katie!” out there. The Wizards can’t really turn to a second unit to hold serve, so it’s up to Wittman to do some strategic platooning to give his starters decent rest.
    The Hawks (season-high 73.2% of FGs assisted @ NO; 73.0% vs. Nets) put the Pelicans on slow-boil for much of Friday night’s action, dropping New Orleans from 1st to 6th in pace on this early stretch of the season. Replacing the Pellies atop the pace rankings was Boston, who conspired with the speedy John Wall and second-place Washington (105.2 possessions per-48) to run each other ragged yesterday.
    It remains to be seen whether the Wizards will come in tonight looking weary, after a full night running to the perimeter in vain after Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk (combined 40 points, 6-for-9 3FGs). Or if, instead, it’s the pace-and-space Hawks who look spaced out after tackling a second high-paced team in as many nights. Al Horford and Paul Millsap will do their part to keep the Wizards bigs grabbing their own shorts.
    Atlanta’s cause will be furthered tremendously if they can get a repeat offensive performance out of Dennis Schröder. The Menace balanced his uncanny ability to blow by everyone to the hoop with sharp perimeter shooting (3-for-4 2FGs, 3-for-4 3FGs) and wise decisions with the basketball (5 assists, 1 TO). Schröder’s strong play meant Jeff Teague (5-for-16 FGs, 8-for-10 FTs, 7 assists, 3 TOs) didn’t have to do too much on his own, ahead of tonight’s matchup with Wall.
    Both Teague and Schröder have to keep up the defensive pressure, make smart decisions on screens, and disallow Wall (19.2 PPG, 13 assists and 1 TO vs. SAS, 8 TOs @ BOS) and Ramon Sessions piling up points on drives and fastbreaks. Washington’s 22.6 fastbreak points per game rank only behind Golden State’s 24.3. Wall intends to take better care of the rock against a Hawks team whose 22.0 PPG off turnovers ranks second in the East, behind the Boston team that felled the Wizards last night.
    Schröder brought to six the cast of Hawks that reached double figures last night, including all five starters for the second time this season; Mike Scott was one point shy of making it seven. As Bob Rathbun notes, the Hawks had 20 games in 2014-15 where their starters each tallied at least ten points, leading the league.
    Meanwhile, offensive imbalance hasn’t served Marcin Gortat well. His in-game field goal attempts have maxed out at nine through five games, after getting double-digit shots in 38 games last season. Washington would do well to get Gortat (5 assists, season-high 10 points at Boston) more post touches, and not just against Atlanta. Both teams rank last in the league with 9.0 second-chance points per game.
    When the outcome of the game is in distress and the Bat-signal goes up, one team looks almost exclusively to a pair of guards to answer the call. The other, well, looks every bit like a Basketball Club should.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “No, A.D.! We’re not the New Orleans Patriots!”
    The New Orleans Pelicans have had two days off to prepare for tonight’s visitors, the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports New Orleans), who return to the site where their magic carpet ride of 2015, the 19-game wintertime winning streak, came to an abrupt end. By the looks of things, the Pelicans (0-4) could use every minute of rest and preparation they can get.
    You can’t really discuss the Pelicans these days without the M*A*S*H theme playing in the background. Omer Asik (17 rebounds vs. ATL on Feb. 2) can barely move to begin with, but he’s trying to recover from a calf strain and is questionable for tonight. That’s not just backup center’s Kendrick Perkins’ usual face: he’s pained by a strained pectoral muscle and remains out.
    There’s no word on Quincy Pondexter, who suffered a knee injury in the preseason. Nor is there much discussion of backup guard Norris Cole, who re-upped with his qualifying offer after a protracted restricted free agency period only to get sidelined by a preseason high ankle sprain. Forward Luke Babbitt (shoulder) and center Alexis Ajinca (hamstring) have each had their own recent ailments, but out of desperation were slung into the starting lineup on Tuesday versus Orlando, where Babbitt re-aggravated his injury.
    It’s all got to be disconcerting for new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who left reigning champion Golden State as a top assistant and hopped on a wave of positivity in the Big Easy, buoyed by the Pellies’ late-season push in 2014-15 that concluded with an entertaining sweep at the hands of the Warriors. This offseason, Gentry looked to one player to be the centerpiece to build upon for additional success in this NBA season. And that player is not the wind-milling wunderkind Anthony Davis. Nor has that player seen the floor yet.
    A former NBA Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans was supposed to take back off on the muddling path toward NBA stardom under Gentry’s watch. Part of the sense was that his role on the floor had never been well-defined, and Gentry had plans to firm that up for everyone. “He is mostly going to be a point guard,” Gentry advised at Pelicans media day last month. “Obviously, there are going to be situations where he might need to play a couple of other positions, but right now, I see him mainly as a point guard with the potential to really push the ball.”
    Evans (12 assists vs. ATL on Feb. 2) could use his relative length to fluster opposing point guards, and put his Magic Johnson-Lite distributive qualities to better effect for New Orleans than when he played at the wing, traditionally left to just make something, anything, happen as the shot clock winds down.
    ''Getting in the open court, finding guys for easy baskets, I think all of those things are going to be something to raise (Evans’) game to another level,'' Gentry said earlier this summer. ''He will really enjoy that at point guard. I think he will have the opportunity to attack the basket and create things for other guys.” A head coach during several seasons with Steve Nash in Phoenix, and an assistant coach for Chris Paul and Steph Curry his past two NBA stops, Gentry is elevating the Pelicans’ tempo to “Louisiana Fast” (105.1 possessions per 48 minutes, 1st in NBA; 27th in pace last season). Evans, he surmises, was just the guy to make this acceleration successful.
    Well, much like Florida Evans, the news of Tyreke’s arthroscopic surgery on his right knee had everyone around Lake Pontchartrain screaming, “D@mn, D@mn, D@mn!” just one week before the regular season tipoff. Reke’s certain to miss the next 3-6 weeks, and the ripple effects on an already hack-jobbed roster are clear. Evans’ shift to the 1-spot was supposed to allow Gentry to keep former All-Star Jrue Holiday, himself recovering from a stress reaction in his right leg, under a tight restriction of 15 minutes per game: after missing the opener, Justin’s brother has averaged over 23 minutes.
    With Evans out of the picture and Cole on the mend, the Pelicans scrambled to fill the playmaking gap, first bringing in the shot-jacking Nate Robinson, then adding Ish Smith (6.8 APG, 7th in NBA) and replacing Nate with Toney Douglas. Jrue (16.0 PPG, 4.3 APG, 37.0 FG%, 83.3 FT%) has done the best he can on offense during his short spells. But it’s become evident that Evans’ absence is like a pothole that can’t ever stay filled since, as @MaceCase has noted recently, opponents keep driving right over that point guard spot.
    Stephen Curry initiated the Pelican tail-whooping with a 40-point effort in the season opener in Oakland. The next night, Damian Lillard (21 points, 10 assists) and C.J. McCollum (37 points) served up a two-piece with no biscuit. Curry came to Smoothie King three nights later, and had himself a dash of Turbinado (53 points, 9 assists). Having native Louisianan Elfrid Payton (8 points, 10 assists) in town on Tuesday, in a 103-94 loss to the Magic (57-43 deficit at halftime), must have seemed downright merciful.
    The Pelicans’ woes out of the gate aren’t so much a reflection of Gentry’s coaching exploits as they are an indictment of offseason management. Rather than building upon positive vibes to get Davis and Evans some talented help, general manager Dell Demps essentially stood pat over the summer, expecting this playoff roster with shallow talent to “gel” under a new coach, after ousting Monty Williams. ''One of the common themes was that the guys wanted to keep the team together,'' Demps told the Times-Picayune in September. And listen he did, particularly to “the guys” that needed to stick around just to stay in this league.
    Perhaps, this was done to placate Davis, who happily signed a record five-year, $145-million contract extension in July that kicks in next season. But it’s not helping Davis, or anyone else, that the choices to start at small forward are Dante Cunningham and Babbitt, before Pondexter returns. Or, that the shooting guard option behind Eric Gordon (4-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 2) is Alonzo Gee. Or, that somebody thought the veteran to bring into the fold to toughen up the frontline was Perkins.
    None of these personnel moves, or non-moves, are helping out Davis right now. So far, America’s Fantasy Stud is having whatever the inverse of fantasy is this season. Normally a model of efficiency, the reigning All-NBA 1ST Teamer (1st in PER last season) is averaging 20.8 points in his first four games, but needed  26.5 shots per game to get them (38.2 2FG%, 36.4 3FG%, 72.5 FT%). His low turnover percentage of 12.6% is currently double that from last season (6.3 per 100 plays, 3rd-lowest in 2014-15). For both of you Win Shares fans out there, Davis’ early per-minute output (.026 WS per-48) is dwarfed by the .274 that ranked second-best in the league in 2014-15.
    Most distressing are the struggles at the other end of the floor, for a player predicted by many to be this season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year. While his per-game blocks (3.0 BPG, 5th in NBA) are up a tad from his league-leading 2.9 from last season, Gentry’s accelerated pace suggests there are a lot more shots getting past his rangy arms (3.8 per 100 possessions, down from 4.3). Steals per game are roughly halved as well.
    Davis (37.9 opponent FG% within 5 feet) is his team’s most feared rim protector; as it stands, he is also their best chance, among healthy players, at defending the perimeter. As a result, he finds himself getting spread too thin, caught helping his flawed mates well outside the paint while opponents are making Bourbon Street out of cuts to the lane.
    Gentry brought in Darren “Oops, Was That My Phone?” Erman as an assistant to help shore up New Orleans’ defensive troubles, but the limited talent, elevated pace, and the unyielding ability of opponents to key in on Davis has the Big Bird worn down. Two games in a week against the Warriors will leave anybody wearier, but even on three days’ rest, Unibrow turned in a hair-raising 14-point performance on 3-for-12 shooting versus a green Magic squad. Meanwhile, John Reid of the Times-Picayune noted that if the Pelicans give up 56 points in the first half tonight, that will be their best defensive effort so far.
    All the trend lines for New Orleans point toward Jeff Teague (19.2 PPG, 50.7 2FG%) getting his laissez les bon temps rouler on in tonight’s contest. He’ll need help, certainly, from the returning Kyle Korver (64.7 2FG%, 6th in NBA), Kent Bazemore, and Paul Millsap to spread the Pelicans’ defense and unclog the middle. Dennis Schröder (20 points, 4 assists, 4 TOs vs. Nets on Wednesday; 27.5 usage%, 19th in NBA) can dress down the opposing point guard corps to the point that they’ll get beads tossed their way, but he must get his teammates involved (22.4 assist%, down from 36.4% last season) and be less predictable on his forays to the hoop.
    The pride of Grambling High, Millsap (early career-highs of 7.2 defensive RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.5 SPG) should have a busy day trying to rebound while also defending Davis (29 points, 13 rebounds vs. ATL on Feb. 2) inside and Pelicans gunner Ryan Anderson outside. He’ll get help from Atlanta’s roving wings (Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Justin Holiday) trying to deflect dump-ins and disrupt Davis’ kickouts. The more Millsap can keep Davis occupied with Atlanta on offense, the less capably Davis can help his oft-exploited teammates. Al Horford and Tiago Splitter have to keep the easier Big Easy bigs away (Asik, Alexis Ajinca) from the offensive glass.
    Atlanta ranks second in three-point attempts per game, but 17th in accuracy (32.9 3FG%, much worse without Bazemore’s 57.9%). But if they can get the assisted threes to fall, and if Teague can get down the floor in transition despite a stingy Pelican offense (14.1 TOs per 100 possessions, 10th-fewest in NBA), “Teague Time” may arrive earlier and last longer than usual.
    The Battle of the Birds concludes next Wednesday at the Highlight Factory, as the Hawks and Pelicans finish up their head-to-head series a little early. It’s as good a time as any to catch New Orleans, but it’s up to the Hawks to keep the Pelicans’ feathers ruffled.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    How Much Would YOU Pay?
    Run into random Brooklyn Nets fans at Philips Arena, where their winless team is preparing to face the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, YES Network), and you’ll find they’re far more into it for the “BROOOOOOKLYN!” thing than the “Nets” stuff. If you manage to find some true-blue, bona fide “Nets” fans, you’ll know, because they possess a button, or a T-Shirt, that declares, “I WAS THERE FOR 0-18!” By now, it was supposed to be a point of pride, not irony.
    November 2009 was a rough time in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, notably for hoops fans just seven seasons removed from the last NBA Finals campaign at the Izod Center. Two seasons before, franchise face Jason Kidd was shipped to Dallas, in exchange for Devin Harris, fluff, and draft picks that would, one day, materialize as Ryan Anderson and Jordan Crawford.
    The 2009-2010 Nets were working to break their arena lease, vacate their swampy home of the prior 25-plus years, and relocate to sunny Newark. But it was becoming clear to those in the know that the Prudential Center would not be their final destination. A filthy-rich man-of-mystery was arriving from Russia, but not With Love for the Garden State. Meanwhile, the Nets rolled out the likes of Trenton Hassell, Josh Boone, Rafer Alston, Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian into their starting lineups, and the march to 12-70 futility commenced.
    At the hands of the Mavs’ Kidd, the Nets fell at home to 0-18, the worst start out of the blocks of any NBA team’s season in history. The latter-day Sixers genuinely try their darnedest to be this good of a flop. From the owner’s box to the stands and the sidelines, everyone affiliated with the Nets found themselves eagerly on the hunt for a new jersey.
    Speaking of new jerseys, you know, a lot of people like their sports uniforms the way they like their coffee. Change the look to Black, the thought in sports fashion circles go, and you instantly broaden your appeal. It worked, after all, in Los Angeles: you won’t get Nobody With Attitude to rock some yellow and purple hockey jersey, not unless it has LAKERS emblazoned on it.
    So, sure, things worked out swimmingly well for the L.A. Kings, in terms of merchandising and the results on the ice. But as coin collector Bruce McNall would advise, before you reach for the black yarn, it really, really helps to go get yourself a Gretzky first.
    On the hardwood, the NBA’s Nets moved to a grittier locale in New York City, dumped the goody-two-shoes tri-color scheme of New Jersey Americans yore, and projected to be decidedly in-the-black in the stands and on every balance sheet by now. But try as they might, Mikhail Prokhorov and his trusty general manager Billy King could not get themselves a Gretzky. And now that it’s clear the biggest name they could bring to the borough, seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, isn’t even a Messier, things have gotten messier. With an announced crowd of 12,576 for Monday’s tilt with ex-coach Jason Kidd’s Bucks, there were more black seats than fans in black garb.
    Six of those seven mid-season appearances came for Joe in an Atlanta Hawks uniform. Now at age 34, Joe (9.3 PPG, 32.6 FG% through 4 games, team-high 32.8 minutes per game) has to find it a peculiar time. Barring some epic global catastrophe wiping out everyone not riding in a golden Ford F-650 limo truck, Joe is the second-highest-paid player in the National Basketball Association for the final time in his life.
    With the influx of new media-driven revenue to the league, Johnson’s near-$25 million hit to the payroll will soon go from “He’s Making What?” to “Oh, Sure, Sounds About Right!” among the next crop of lucky NBA free agents. He’ll be one of them, too, this summer, as his infamous Deal With the A$G Devil is set to expire. Knock a zero-digit off that annual salary, and he’ll be set to sign his retirement contract somewhere next summer. Maybe with a contender! Or, maybe back with Brooklyn.
    Unlike the baller above him in the Fortune 50000 rankings, Joe doesn’t need “mental-health days” off to gather his bearings. What he could really use is a hot-and-ready understudy waiting among the wings, and with all due respect, Bojan Bogdanovic (18.2 3FG%), Sergey Karasev, Markel Brown (33.3 FG%) and Wayne Ellington (21.4 FG%) aren’t cutting the deli mustard. After a promising offseason, playing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson more than the five minutes the rookie got in Wednesday’s home loss to – there’s that man again – Jason Kidd and the Bucks would help matters a lot.
    It is, indeed, a peculiar time for Joe. The man who rode in to Georgia on a white horse and traded him to Brooklyn, Danny Ferry now chills out in seats above him at Barclays Center, as an informal advisor sitting alongside his former trading partner at Nets games. Despite the losing, this particular King is making himself out to be more un-deposable as ever before, just yesterday bringing in Woodson/Drew-era Hawks assistant Bob Bender to join the scouting department alongside Danny’s pops. King is propping up his old associates (the Ferries, Bender, Randy “Throw Your Hands in the” Ayers, etc.) like soldier trees around the haunted house that has been his management regime.
    Brook Lopez was certainly there for 0-18. He was there for every unnerving minute of it, as a barely-drinking-aged second-year starting center, blessed with lofty expectations of a Drummondian scale back in 2009. BroLo has since survived the rug getting pulled out from under Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo, endured the bailout by Coach You Know Who, and suffered through an early season of dog-housing and public critique by current coach Lionel Hollins. So, naturally, in his long-awaited summer of 2015 unrestricted free agency, he chose to come back.
    Why the heck not? After all, the rubles are good. Where else can you find an NBA locale with a syllable matching your first name, or one with an endless supply of comic book stores to fuel your fetish? Additionally, Brook (18.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 53.1 FG%, team-highs of 18-and-9 in the loss to Milwaukee) gets to stick it to his twin brother, Robin, by being considered the best Lopez hooping anywhere in NYC proper. Sorry, Felipe.
    Now armed with a $20 million-per-year contract of his own, Lopez shares a mindset with Pizza Rat on the NYC Subway: things may seem less-than-ideal around Brooklyn, but at least it’s a stable environment. He also knows that his team, however flawed, isn’t 0-18 bad. After all, they backed into the playoffs for a third straight season in 2014-15, and put a scare into the top-seeded Hawks in the first round.
    With a career-best 21.3 D-Reb% early on, Brook is certainly trying from the jump to avoid being the target of Hollins’ acerbic wit. His usage rate is thus far the lowest since 2010, while his assist percentage is momentarily at its highest level since 2012. Lopez will spend this evening engaging his Atlanta counterparts, Al Horford and Tiago Splitter, with his usual array of mesmerizing post maneuvers, and daring Horford (60.7 FG% vs. Brooklyn last season, highest vs. any opponent with at least 4 games) to outscore him at the other end of the floor with shots anywhere outside the paint.
    Alas, Lopez has only so many lighthearted stories about cats, Clinton, and comics to share with New York’s ravenous postgame media. And things can start to go "Page Six"-sideways in a hurry if the Nets (0-4) don’t pull off a victory this week, either tonight at the Highlight Factory or back home on Friday with the Lakers in town.
    A six-game stretch of road games, one featuring a trip to Golden State on the back end of a back-to-back, is broken up only by a visit from the Hawks in two weeks. Games number 15 and 16 are in Oklahoma City and Cleveland, respectively. Come up short in all these contests, plus Games 17 and 18 versus Detroit and Phoenix, and by Game 19, Brook would be staring at his smirking twin-bro Robin in Madison Square Garden, trying not to break the record no one outside of Philly wants, and having to field questions about “What was it like?” just six years ago.
    Flanked by returnees Thaddeus Young and Jarrett Jack, and joined by Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson, Hollins’ team is constructed to win games with high-volume offense. Yet, so far, the only guys who consistently get to Brooklyn Nine-Nine are Andy Samberg and Terry Crews. Their offensive rating of 93.7 points per 100 possession ranks 28th in the league, making their defensive rating rank of 110.7 (27th in NBA) look a shade better. While they’ve given up triple digits in all four contests to this point, they broke 100 points in the season opener versus Chicago and haven’t met that mark since.
    In the absence of shot accuracy (Brooklyn’s 46.0 eFG%, 21st in NBA), a high-volume offense needs lots of possessions via pace (95.6 possessions per-48, surpassed by Miami last night and now 29th in NBA), aggressive offensive rebounding (20.8 O-Reb%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 20.6, 22nd in NBA), productive shots (17.4% of FGAs from 3-point range, 29th in NBA), and the ability to occasionally force turnovers (5.8 team steals per game, 25th in NBA) and score in transition. The sample sizes are small, certainly, but aside from board-crashing, there’s nothing to indicate these Nets have those elements in their lineups.
    With the disappointing Deron Williams now a distant memory, Hollins is putting a lot of trust in Jack (14.0 PPG, 41.5 FG%, 6.7 APG, 3.0 TOs/game), a momentary playoff hero in last year’s conference quarterfinal versus Atlanta, to lead the charge. But he might be better off shifting away from the former Yellow Jacket, who is nursing a hamstring injury, in favor of third-year guard Shane Larkin.
    The score-first, score-second Jack, a ten-year veteran, has never been much of a facilitator. As evidenced versus once-winless Milwaukee, things go awry when opponents take away Plan A from the Nets offense and the ball is in his hands. But it was the diminutive Larkin who found shots for Bogdanovic and provided the fourth-quarter sparks to give Brooklyn a puncher’s chance.
    Jack, Larkin, and former Hawk Donald Sloan will have their work cut out for them going head-to-head with Jeff Teague (probable despite a sprained finger from Sunday's action) and Dennis Schröder. Teague (19.8 PPG, 49.2 2FG%, 88.9 FT%, 5.8 APG; career-high six rebounds versus the heat) is providing more than enough glimpses of the All-Star form that made Atlanta a bear to reckon with last season. Schröder has been off-target in his last two games (4-for-15 shooting; 4 TOs in 16 minutes at Miami last night), but always has the penetrative drive that throws defenses like the Nets off their game.
    As Dwyane Wade can attest after yesterday’s game, the Hawks’ rangy defense, like life, comes at you fast. Thabo Sefolosha is likely to tag-in for the rehabbing Kyle Korver, and hopes to be the distracting force for Joe tonight that his choice of fashion was yesterday for viewers in Miami. Continued hustle from the likes of newcomers Justin Holiday and Lamar Patterson should create the hurried shots that work in Atlanta’s favor and grant Kent Bazemore (61.5 3FG% in last 3 games) a well-deserved spell.
    Both Atlanta (8.0 3FGs per game, 2nd most in NBA) and Brooklyn (7.8 per game, 3rd in NBA) have been giving up lots of three-pointers above-the-arc. But the opponents of the Hawks (34.5 opponent 3FG%) need 4.4 more shots per game to sink them, compared to foes of the Nets (41.3 opponent 3FG%, 2nd-most in NBA). If Jack and the Nets guards are unable to contain Teague and Schröder, there should be an abundance of good perimeter looks for Hawk teammates when the Brooklyn defense collapses.
    Jack’s fellow Yellow Jacket alum, Young, along with big men Bargnani and Robinson, will get plenty of chances to join Lopez in filling up the right edge of the box score.  But the versatile Paul Millsap (46.3 2FG%, 4-for-9 2FGs and 0-for-3 3FGs at Miami) should have little trouble raising his efficiency numbers against a Nets team whose opponents’ eFG% of 55.0% is the worst in the Association right now. Paul will also want to resurrect that free throw percentage (63.0 FT%, 4-for-8 FTs at Miami) when Brooklyn inevitably tires of giving up easy baskets in the paint and resorts to fouling to keep the clock from running out on them.
    It’s not all bad for the few true-blue Nets fans at Philips Arena tonight. If their team can’t pull it together tonight, or soon, they’ll be among the dwindling chorus of fans who could someday boastfully proclaim, “I WAS THERE!” when the Billy Kingdom finally collapsed.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “I said, Mirror, Mirror, Make the Call… Who’s The Fairest of Them All?!?”
    Udonis Haslem’s red glare! Bottles busting in air! Haslem’s heated and glass-smashing halftime speech gave proof through the night that the Miami heat were still there. Awakened by that bleep-bangled banter, Miami fizzled the Rockets in the second half on Sunday, overturning a 21-point deficit to win by 20 and raise their record to 2-1. Tonight, they’ll host the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, SUN Sports), who seek to extend their winning streak beyond three-in-a-row for this season and six-straight in this head-to-head division series.
    In the post-LeBron era, Miami has been a team that’s struggled to get all cylinders firing at the same time, whether it’s due to health or uneven play. Even with a full, healthy unit, it’s been an uphill climb at the outset of this season. Last week, coach Erik Spoelstra’s club came back from a slow first-quarter start to win their home opener versus Charlotte, and held tight in Cleveland in the first half before LeBron and the Cavs pulled away.
    The heat then found themselves getting blown out at halftime at AmericanAirlines Arena, by a Houston team that featured a wayward James Harden and deliberately sat out Dwight Howard. Then they put together a second half that would make Stephen Curry blush, outscoring the Rockets 65-26. The Miami native Haslem’s blue halftime ire riled up the team many prognosticators have pegged as the team to beat in the Southeast Division, despite the presence of the 3-1 Hawks and whatever’s going on up in Washington.
    That’s not a moon over Miami, that’s the repeater tax penalty. Even considering the rising projected salary cap levels and some expiring contracts for Miami next summer, getting out from under the draconian penalty (for teams exceeding the luxury tax in three of its most recent four seasons) is much harder once a team gets into it. Trade talks regarding multiple heat players, including today's hot-stove talk about Mario Chalmers, reflects that sobering reality around Margaritaville.
    Chief exec Pat Riley has experienced few constraints spending cruise-ship magnate Micky Arison’s money to this point. But if we get into February, and Miami risks spending tens of millions in penalties just to finance a probable first-round exit, a shake-up could be in order on South Beach. The need to look like a contender worthy of repeater tax payments puts the onus on Spoelstra and the heat to bolt out of the gates while they’re healthy. The Hawks get four chances to make those decisions tougher on Miami, with all of this season's matchups occurring before March 1, the final meeting one day after the league's trading deadline.
    Along their way to a glistening 60-22 record atop the East in 2014-15, Atlanta swept the season series with the heat, winning three of those four contests by double-digits. In hindsight, they’d have done well to have gifted one or two of those games to Miami, considering it might have been the Hawks, instead, developing lottery wingman Justise Winslow. The rookie contributed ten points (2-for-2 on threes) and a pair of steals to the proceedings on Sunday, and it may not be long before he breaks into the starting unit ahead of fellow Blue Devil alum Luol Deng.
    The Hawks are faring just fine of late, however, with Kent Bazemore sliding into the starting small forward slot. Bazemore fumigated the Hornets on Sunday afternoon for the second time in as many games. His season-high 20-point outing featured the go-ahead three-pointer with less than 90 seconds to go and two clutch free throws with 14 seconds left for the winning score.
    Kent’s energy on defense (team-high 3 steals and a ridiculous at-rim block), hot shooting (5-for-6 on corner 3s), and his ability to get to the free throw line (team-high 6-for-6 FTs), evident throughout the 94-92 road victory, makes him just the latest to make opponents pay when they key in on Atlanta’s All-Star starters. He’ll see ample floor time with Thabo Sefolosha resting on the first night of back-to-backs. In case of foul trouble, Justin Holiday, Lamar Patterson, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. will be active.
    Miami plodded through last season with the lowest pace of play in the East, and continues that halfcourt style this season (95.85 possessions per-48, 29th in NBA). The heat are at their letter-best when star guard Dwyane Wade (20 points, 8 assists, 2 steals, 1 TO on Sunday) and human windmill Hassan Whiteside (25 points, 15 rebounds, 3steals and 2 blocks vs. Howard-less Houston, all team highs) are able to set their feet on defense and help plug any leaks by their teammates’ assignments. Miami’s defensive rating (98.6 opponent points per 100 possessions, 16th in NBA) has been pedestrian so far, but their offensive rating of 106.6 and effective field goal percentage of 52.8% has been the best in the East.
    Point guards Jeff Teague (team-high 18.3 PPG) and Dennis Schröder should have little trouble beating Goran Dragic (0.7 SPG, 3.7 personal fouls per game) off the dribble. They can make things easier for Al Horford (4.5 3FGAs per game, 27.8 3FG%) to pile up points in the paint and around the elbows by drawing Whiteside and Chris Andersen to their drives.
    Horford joins teammate Paul Millsap and Miami’s Chris Bosh as some of the league’s most gun-shy big men. Working his way back from last season’s year-ending blood-clot procedure, Bosh has parked himself beyond the arc, hitting seven of his 12 above-the-break three-point attempts through his first three games. Millsap, whose triple answer to Marvin Williams with 40 seconds to go put the Hawks in front for good on Sunday, has been more diverse with his offensive arsenal, shooting 72.7% in restricted-area shots while going 5-for-11 above-the-break. Similar to the guards, Millsap should be able to get around Bosh and pick up dimes off penetration in the paint.
    Wade will routinely switch off of Kyle Korver (28.6 3FG%, 0-for-4 3FG at Charlotte on Sunday), leaving the dullshooter to Deng, Winslow and the resuscitating Gerald Green (2.3 3FGs per game, 41.2 3FG%)for the halfcourt chases through screens. Korver’s deadeye shooting will return sooner or later, but in the meantime, he needs to replicate his performance last week in New York by helping secure the defensive rebounds. Miami’s not exactly crashing the offensive glass themselves (16.2 O-Reb%, 2nd-lowest in NBA) but they’ll have their share of chances against Atlanta (69.8 D-Reb%, 3rd-lowest in NBA).
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “I Got Canned Heat in My Heels Tonight, Baby!”
    SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! Rev up your engines for some matinee hoops action! The Atlanta Hawks kick off a crazy week with a second-straight meeting with the Hornets, this time in Charlotte (2:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast). After dropping their season debut at Philips Arena on Tuesday, the Hawks (2-1) have an opportunity to take an early move to the top spot in the Southeast Division, by spoiling the Hornets’ (0-2) home opener at Time Warner Cable Arena.
    As @Jody23 recently noted, the Hawks won’t have the same amount of time, calendar-wise, to hit their stride as they did last season. Game #20 last season tipped off on December 8, while this season’s Hawks will be finished before the calendar turns to December. This week’s slate of games, five in one week, will test the depth of the entire roster.
    After this afternoon’s game, Atlanta plays two more road-home back-to-back pairs: at Miami and versus Brooklyn on Tuesday and Wednesday, then at New Orleans and versus Washington on Friday and Saturday. The good news is, the Hawks have already passed their first road-home test.
    Coach Mike Budenholzer’s plans to rest Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver on alternate days of back-to-back games worked well in victories at New York and versus Charlotte, the latter a 97-94 winning margin on Halloween Eve that was frightfully closer than necessary. Both Korver and Sefolosha are probable to be active for today’s game.
    Key to Atlanta’s success, while rehabbing their veteran wings, was the versatility and improved offensive play of Kent Bazemore, who nailed four of his five three-point attempts while adding 9 rebounds to his 19 points. The inability to sag off Bazemore made it tougher on Charlotte wings Nic Batum (14 points, 11 rebounds, 7 turnovers) and Jeremy Lamb to help Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson with their defensive assignments.
    Jefferson (10 points, 11 rebounds) got his obligatory offensive rebounds (4 of Charlotte’s 13) in the losing effort on Friday night, but Al Horford (18 points, 6 rebounds) and Tiago Splitter provided sound man defense while the Hawks turned Charlotte’s fixation for putbacks into offense of their own in transition. Atlanta outscored the Hornets 21-13 on fast breaks, and 42-32 in the paint, leaving Charlotte to rely on long-range shooting (12-for-30 3FGs; 30+ 3FGAs just three times last season), tough shots and second- and third-chances to get back in the game.
    Horford joined Paul Millsap (18 points, 10 boards, 6-for-7 FTs, 4 assists on Friday) in showing he won’t be shy about expanding his range to the perimeter, hitting two of his five three-point shots. But Horford must also diversify his scoring by drawing fouls in the paint and getting to the free throw line. He took no shots from the charity stripe on Friday, and his three made free throws make up less than six percent of his offense through the first three games. It’s on Atlanta’s guards (combined 0-for-9 3FGs on Friday) to utilize Horford as a roll man and get him productive post touches.
    Backup guard Jeremy Lin’s only made field goals, a pair of three-pointers, came with under five minutes to go as the Hornets made their last stand on Friday. Yet his assertiveness in getting to the free throw line (team-high 6-for-6 FTs, nearly half of Charlotte’s attempts) has started the bubbling clamor from Hornets fans (not just the usual-suspect Lin fans) to call for him to be elevated to the top line alongside Walker. Second-year guard P.J. Hairston has played well defensively but has brought little else to the table in his two games so far as a starter. It’s more likely he’ll be replaced by Lamb, who connected on three triples while defending well in limited minutes.
    With his contract expiring next summer, Marvin Williams is serving notice that 2015-16 isn’t going to be his Swan song. He showed off a Feathery touch from the perimeter (3-for-5 3FGs) and also led the Hornets with 12 rebounds (3 offensive) in a team-high 35 minutes. Coach Steve Clifford will continue to take a Flyer on Marvin at the 4-spot, as youngsters Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky continue to get lost on the floor.
    Mike Muscala (ankle sprain) is questionable to return to the floor today, but it will work out well for Atlanta today if they can get more touches for forward Mike Scott, in the same way they sought out Tiago Spiltter (2-for-7 FGs) in the post on Friday. Scott was 0-for-3 but contributed 3 assists in just 13 minutes on Friday.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Is that… is that HAIR GEL???”
    Back-to-back, jack! The Hawks return from their humbling of the Chucklehead last night in New York to vie for their first home victory of the season. In the first of a home-and-home weekend series, their opponents tonight at the Highlight Factory are the Charlotte Hornets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), the NBA’s ultimate trial-and-error team.
    Really, when it comes to personnel, they’ll try just about anything and anybody. Ask yourself where Sam Vincent is, or where Mike Dunlap is, right now (Sam’s in Bahrain, while Mike’s at Loyola Marymount). His Errness pulling the strings at draft time? Letting a head coach’s son call the shots at the end of the season? Replacing that head coach with a college assistant? Anything is possible. If you ever plan on doing anything that gives the Hornets (0-1) pause, you’d best not do it.
    They tried the whole get-the-worst-record-ever thing in a Dive for Davis, and it netted them Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for all the trouble. Since then, they’ve tried the summertime free-agent splashy thing, in hopes the occasional dash of veteran juice to some organic lottery-player growth will eventually make this franchise, playoff participants just twice in the past 12 years, something like a phenomenon.
    2013’s Big Get was Al Jefferson. While the acquisition paid off with a 7th-seed in the 2014 Playoffs, and an All-NBA Third-Team nod for the Hornets center, his unyielding love for Bojangles imperiled the Man with a Million Moves’ ability to maximize his effectiveness in the post. Jefferson vows he has ditched the fried chicken and is conditioned to run a full court for a full season.
    2014’s Big Get was Lance Stephenson. But Born Ready’s willingness to adopt coach Steve Clifford’s schemes and play team ball was Still Born from the jump, and his jump-shooting was historically bad. Like many of the Hornets’ grand plans, Stephenson was rolled into town on a teal carpet and, mere months later, run out of town on a rail, with a trade to the Clippers. Then there was Noah Vonleh: this lottery pick will pair with Jefferson for years! Until he doesn’t. Good luck in Portland!
    2015’s Big Get is Nicolas Batum, acquired in that trade of Gerald Henderson (another former lotto pick) and Vonleh to the Blazers. Nic Batum is French for “Big Tease,” but his jack-of-all-trades skillset is hoped to be the glue, in between ball-stopping stars Kemba Walker (another former lotto pick) and Jefferson that makes the Hornets’ offense flow. What if Batum doesn’t work out, either? Well, at least they tried: Batum’s contract expires this summer.
    Their less-Big-Get, Jeremy Lin, can form a potent dual-small-guard scoring backcourt to rival Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, when he’s not simply spelling Walker. After stops in New York, Houston, and L.A., Lin (17 bench points at Miami) must enjoy the love of a small-market team that wants him more for what he brings to the floor (scoring, and, yeah, scoring) than the benefits of his presence off of it.
    There’s no evidence that “Tank for The Tank” was a mantra last spring in the Carolinas, but the Hornets used their lotto pick this year on Frank Kaminsky, who’s destined to become a stage dancer at Madonna concerts if this whole NBA thing doesn’t work out.  Last year’s Hornets were the most wayward three-point shooters in the league (31.8 team 3FG%) and they weren’t much better inside the line, either (45.0 team 2FG%, 29th in NBA). So the remake with Batum, Lin, and Kaminsky is intended to bring floor-stretching players on the floor to benefit Jefferson and Walker.
    While the early returns have been promising from long-range (36.1 preseason 3FG%, 6th in NBA), they could only hit six of their 24 three-point attempts in Wednesday’s 104-94 season-opening loss in Miami. Frank the Tank’s purported NBA-readiness was supposed to be the reason Charlotte passed over Justise Winslow, who went next to Miami. While Winslow logged 25 minutes in his debut, Kaminsky managed the fewest of any 2015 lottery selection, the equivalent of a Doug E. Fresh advisory (six minutes) while buried on the depth chart behind Marvin Williams (!) and Cody Zeller (another former lotto pick).
    Clifford was another off-the-radar coaching pickup by the experimental Hornets back in 2013. But the longtime former NBA assistant’s trial period expires this summer as well, and having run off one lottery pick and ducking two others behind Marvin (messed around with 10 points, 10 boards, 0-for-5 3FGs vs. Miami) can’t bode well for the prospects of a contract renewal. Significant growth from Zeller and Frank the Tank over the course of the season will be critical for Charlotte’s near-term and long-term outlook, as will figuring out a consistent defensive approach that was, momentarily, the Hornets’ calling card.
    Let’s not dwell on the Hornets defense for too long, as it’s rightfully a sore spot. The rim-protecting Bismack Biyombo (another former lotto pick) ran off to Toronto in the offseason, just like DeMarre Carroll. If you think you’re missing your shutdown small forward from last year, just imagine how Charlotte’s feeling after Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a torn labrum in a preseason game.
    Now, they’re turning to P.J. Hairston and Walker’s UConn teammate Jeremy Lamb (probable after missing the opener with an ankle injury) to hold serve. Charlotte will slide Batum to the 3-spot when Lin or Troy Daniels (questionable with a hamstring injury) enters for offensive punch, but that leaves the backcourt defense sagging.
    Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer knows tonight's game precedes the season's only 5-game calendar-week, beginning Sunday in Charlotte and featuring three division foes. So it’s as good a time as any for Kyle Korver (ankle rehab) to get some rest. Thabo Sefolosha will tag in for Korver on this second night of a back-to-back for the Hawks (1-1), who dusted the upstart Knicks in primetime last night with Korver (3-for-5 3FGs) and several Hawk players finding their groove. Who’s the leading three-point maker from last year on Atlanta’s active roster tonight? It’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., who may finally get some productive floor time tonight.
    Al Horford (21 points and 9 rebounds vs. New York) has to put Jefferson’s newly-fleet feet to the test. When Jefferson is taking shots in isolation, he’ll need Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore to box out, allowing Horford to outrace Jefferson down the floor. The Hawks began to open things up in New York when Teague (23 points, 5-for-6 second-half FGs vs. New York) moved assertively toward the rim in transition, and when Hawks were individually beating their man down the floor.
    Millsap and Horford should find it easier to strategically crash the glass against a Charlotte team that ranked #1 in defensive rebounding percentage last season, before losing Biyombo and MKG. Acquired in the Stephenson swap, Spencer Hawes is another floor-stretchy big, but defense is far from his forte.
    Kemba (4 assists, no turnovers vs. Miami) has never blossomed into the All-Star many fans have longed for when he came out of college, but one thing he has done is keep the turnovers to a minimum. His 6.6 TOs per 100 possessions last season was the best among all NBA starting point guards, tremendous for a player who puts the ball on the floor as much as he does. His and Al Jefferson’s ability (5.9 turnover %, second-best in NBA in 2014-15) to play to their strengths and execute without giving the ball away gives Charlotte a fighting chance on a nightly basis.
    If tonight’s contest remains close-to-the-vest late in the game, instead of pounding the clock away, will Walker and Jefferson take more risks with the ball and kick the ball out to their new perimeter shooters, daring the Hawks to spread their defense? The Hornets certainly ought to give it a try. They’ve tried just about everything else.
    Let’s Go Hawks!