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!