• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    Sorry, Orlando. Y’all had y’all’s turns already.
    TANK WARS! It’s the final head-to-head Tank Battle for our Atlanta Hawks. They won’t have another chance to tack onto another Tankompetitor’s win tally after today’s game against the Orlando Magic (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida).
    I’m on travel today, but you all know the relevant particulars, ahead of this game. We already know the Prime Objective. Hopefully, our Competitanking Hawks do, too! This one's not for all the marbles, but it is for a LOT of ping pong balls!
    Happy Easter! And Let’s Go Magic!
    April Fools! Let’s Go Hawks!
    Hawks opponent trying to keep up with Isaiah Taylor.
    Oh, Benjamin. Benjamin. You know not what you have done. Not yet. But, thank you.
    This week has been seminal in progress for our Atlanta Hawks, who return from a way-too-eventful road trip to host Ben Simmons and the rolling Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia). Like another Bennie Boy from Philly, Simmons has discovered the key to draw lightning in a bottle (or jar, if you prefer), producing an electricity that us Tank-era Hawks fans heretofore didn’t know existed.
    With noted exception to our esteemed Squawkfriend Spud2Nique, and many of you other folks out there, I already have a low tolerance for the Game Stop Boys in our midst. Workdays aside, I am fortunate to live a mostly peaceful existence, up until from roughly 11 PM  to 3 AM at night. That’s when my neighbor hops on the PlayStation and my walls are suddenly vibrating, as he gleefully blows something/body up to the enhanced effect of his Dolby Surround Sound system. I think his new wife is totally down with it, too. Man, what a trooper.
    We’re cool and all, as they’re otherwise responsible peeps. Besides, I get their dinnertime walls rattling, in turn, each time I bellow, “IN DEE FACE!”, anytime John Collins throws one down on fools’ noggins. Or, “AND ONE!”, for every successful Dewayne Dedmon post-up, whether he’s fouled or not. Or, “GOT HEEEEM!”, whenever Dennis Schröder (doubtful, ankle) breaks the appropriate sections of somebody’s legs as he drives for the hoop-and-scoop. For all the popcorn ceiling the neighbors have shaken into my hair, it all evens out.
    Still, it would be swell for the folks next door to occasionally go to, like, sleep, the way normal homo sapiens with 8-to-6s tend to do. I also grow especially irascible with the button-pushing Ninjas, online, who ought to be Rated I for Immature. This week, Master Simmons hit the irritation sweet spot on both counts. For that, he gets promoted to the next level.
    Don’t worry about staying up late, Simmons assured Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns. As Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning, Ben’s appeal was that Towns’ Wolves were “only playing the Hawks” later that day.
    Bear in mind, barely 24 hours prior, the Wolves were “only” playing the Grizzlies at the Target Center, yet Minnesota could “only” watch as Memphis ended their umpteen-game losing streak. Keeping up with current events is hard when you’re on the X-Box all day. Consider, also, the Sixers (44-30) had just waxed the Wolves in Philly (Simmons with a 15-12-13 triple double, his 10th on the season, 3rd in NBA) two days before that. Why are you two boys even…? You’re absolutely right, @hawkman. Dang Millennials.
    Then, as Towns was getting his LiAngelo on (56 points, 16 rebounds) courtesy of our lively Atlanta Hawks youth team on Wednesday night, Simmons was all too happy to chime in. “Told ya,” he Insta’d KAT. What are you, 12, Bennie?
    Were it at all possible, Towns would remind Simmons that his Wolves needed every bit of his franchise-record 56 to outlast “only” a Hawks team that, with all respect due to the visitors on the floor, wasn’t trying all THAT hard, and for good reason. Karl-Ant goes 2-for-8 from deep instead of 6-for-8, and that game is in overtime, and my hairline gets that much closer to resembling Thibs’.
    Sure, KAT, like fellow Minnesota legend MTM, can turn the world on with his smile. But if he drops “only” 40 on “only” the Hawks, and the Wolves lose to two lottery squads in the space of three nights, with possibly the first NBA Playoffs in 14 years hanging in the balance? No, Minnesota, you’re NOT gonna make it after all. Towns could try explaining all this to his play-buddy Simmons. Alas, he’s limited to 280 characters, so…
    Simmons’ antics don’t really amount to poking a bear or enraging a bull. Trolling the Hawks is the NBA equivalent of cow-tipping of the highest juvenile order. What Simmons has yet to discover is, you keep messing around with Atlanta, and you eventually find yourself squaring up with a heifer of the “Kung Pow!” variety. Simmons only needs enough sense to ask around the NBA universe a bit.
    All our heroes need a foil. For all his unenumerable powers, try to imagine Superman zipping around the globe getting cats unstuck from trees, freezing back our ice caps, and helping little old ladies cross streets. Bo-ring! To give a raison d’etre to our daily existence, we all need a Thanos, a Killmonger, a Lex Luthor, a Paul Pierce in our lives.
    I really admired Poor Paulie, back in the day. Scored lots of buckets, got over the whole nightclub stabbings thing, lugged a once-proud Celtics team as far as he could carry them during Red Auerbach’s final years. He was one of them Bros for which Cool Stories are made, soon to head toward the sunset in JoeJohnsonland as a 30-year-old borderline Hall of Famer requesting a trade to a serious contender.
    Then, lightning struck.
    Danny Ainge gets to work. Here comes Ray Allen. Here comes Kevin Garnett. Here wakes up Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo. And, along the path to Celtics Title #17, all of a sudden, here comes Ratface Paul Pierce. The guy who hadn’t won a playoff series in five years becomes a self-fashioned nemesis, an otherwise mature 30-year-old on our floor talking trash, picking shoving matches, placing unwise wagers with our young Atlanta Hawks.
    Finally getting back to the postseason for the first time in ages was the ice cream. But whooping Celtic tail, three times at The Highlight Factory, was the hot fudge, the forlorn looks on Pierce’s face each time the whipped cream. Y’now what? The cherry could wait.
    With no rational, underlying justification, Pierce put a target on the Hawks’ backs. And through all the Tebowing on our logo, through all the I-Called-Gaming, all the tricks that joker pulled out of his bag, we laid our target squarely on him. Armed with just Josh Childress at small forward, Atlanta became his toughest non-LeBron adversary along the way to his first NBA ring, in 2008. And The Truth is, he never got himself another one. Our heroes, the 2015 Hawks (and their trusty game clock sidekick) made sure of that.
    The year in which our Hawks return to the postseason while likely begin with the digits “202”. But whatever the final digit becomes, Bennie Boy will be our fans’ new Public Enemy #1. The one rule Atlanta sports adversaries learn the hard way: don’t come for us, unless we’ve sent for you.
    You all remember Brandon Jennings, don’t you? Simmons was a mere middle-schooler back when “Feer the Deer” was en vogue, when a 20-year-old Jennings was assured that he was Kind of a Big Deal. He, not James Harden, was All-Rookie 1st Team in 2010. The Hawks, who had already peaked in many minds, were supposed to be a mere speed bump on the way to future glories for Jennings, who accused Atlanta players of coming into Milwaukee “a little bit cocky” for Game 3, and who was eager to make an example of the Hawks just because he felt snubbed for Rookie of the Year.
    Even having lost an ugly series with Atlanta without Andrew Bogut, the first-overall pick the Hawks missed out on in the 2005 Lottery, and leading scorer Michael Redd, Milwaukee’s future seemed bright with Jennings carrying the banner.
    Birrrrrrr… what happened to that boy? After all the youthful bristling wore away, these days, the only Fear Jennings engenders involves what happens tomorrow, after his ten-day contract period ends. Does Simmons need a more modern example? How about our latest hip-hopped star, Isaiah Thomas? “Oh! Woe is me! I was passed over! I was picked last!” Who do you think you are, Alpha Kaba?
    “I’m gonna make an example out of the Hawks in the playoffs. Back up the Brinks truck for me, Danny Ainge!” How’s that all working out for you, I.T.? Which NBA town are you in this week? And is that an armored vehicle or a bus that you’ve been thrown under?
    All that bluster and gang-banging braggadocio in 2017 from the comedy team of John Wall and Bradley Beal, like anyone that has lived in Atlanta for five minutes has reason to be intimidated by dudes from Raleigh and St. Louis. As far as D.C. cats go, Tyrone Hankerson, Jr. gives Dennis Schröder more pause than these two nitwits. Say, will 2019 be the year they finally get to 50+ wins and a conference final? ‘Cause it sure ain’t happening this season. Say, is there a gang sign for overrated?
    Simmons could be staying up a full fortnight, playing a game of Fortnite, and should still be able to carry his team past the Hawks at the Highlight Factory. That’s with or without the guy Simmons should be leaving all this social media ragging to, anyway.
    The Center of the Future, Joel Embiid got whacked upside the noggin by the Backup Point Guard of the Future, Markelle Fultz (there was no hitch in his accidental headshot, so that’s progress). With an orbital fracture and a concussion, Embiid is not only staying home for the Sixers’ two-game road swing that ends on Sunday up in Kembaville, but his return in time for the long-awaited playoffs is now in doubt.
    But, hey, at least our Hawks helped handicapped today’s outcome, by waiving Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli so the pair could land in Philly’s lap right on time for this refreshing playoff push, one that wasn’t completely a slam dunk just two months ago.
    Philadelphia was just 24-24 after losing “only” in Brooklyn on January 31. Then came the ex-Hawks. Now the 76ers have won 20 of their past 26, and they can today win their ninth in a row to conclude their March record at a solid 13-3. Coach Brett Brown, I am sure, is mighty grateful to his former colleague, the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, and our management staff. Can you put down the controllers for a moment and say, “Thank you, Atlanta,” Ben Simmons? I’m sure you can.
    Get all the chuckles in while you can, Bennie Boy. For all their momentary, newfound success on the court, this here was a Process that was **this close** to getting CTRL+ATL+DEL’d. That’s because, for every Embiid, there was a Michael Carter-Williams. For every Dario Saric and Fultz, there was a Furkan Korkmaz, and a Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. For every Simmons, there was a Jahlil Okafor, a Nerlens Noel. And none of the so-called success-stories of the moment were of the instantaneous variety.
    Sam Hinkie, himself, was the Sixers’ third GM in three years by the time he came on the scene in 2013. Once he was pushed into writing his own walking papers, with the team starting out 1-21 in 2015-16, with Okafor and Noel shrinking into nothingness, it was so tempting for Bryan Colangelo to blow the whole thing up. Who knows what kind of Cheez Wizzy mess Simmons could have walked into, had he himself been able to play in his draft year, without upstarts like Embiid or Saric around to carve a path first.
    Fortunately for Simmons, the team stuck with its high-potential youngsters, and built around them with vets like J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson, Belinelli, and Ilyasova. They also developed a defensive stalwart, in Robert Covington, so they wouldn’t be giving up more than they dish out. So now, and only now, Simmons got jokes. He thinks his first name is Russell now.
    I, for one, have been pleased as punch over the on-court production of Collins, the first player currently behind Simmons in Player Efficiency Ranking, and the next player behind Simmons and Donovan Mitchell in Grizzlies guru John Hollinger’s other ESPN-era stats, of Value Added and Estimated Wins Added. That includes being the top rookie in Rebounding Rate (shhh… Erie Bayhawk playoff participant Tyler Cavanaugh ranks 6th, ahead of Mr. Simmons. That oughta look good in 2K19).
    Johnny Bap’s an upstanding kid. And dude put up with Demon Deacons in the ACC, so who better to muddle through with during a losing season? I know the cheery EXPRESS Men’s model will take all the ribbing and e-snickering in stride, just as he will the favored-team-media snub that’s coming, a few weeks from now, at All-Rookie award time. But he’s taking notes. And when it’s time to make his statement, it won’t be a Snapchat Streak or whatever the cool kids use by then.
    Once Collins’ Hawks take their turn rebuilding their roster, over the course of this and the next offseason, it won’t be about what’s getting played, but who. Simmons will be looking up, soon, only to find it’s not only the Hawks’ G-League and E-League teams whooping the Sixers’ tailfeathers, but the NBA-league one, too.
    For now, though, if he sincerely wants the Rookie of the Year award all to his lonesome, he had better do what Mitchell could not, and that’s carry his team to victory against the Hawks. Go ahead and use whatever sliders you need, Bennie.
    It won’t be on April 11, the season finale when the Sixers return to The Highlight Factory, hopefully with playoff seeding all wrapped up. It probably won’t even be next year. But, Ben Simmons, You Gon’ Learn.
    Happy Passover! Happy Easter! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “You kidding me?”
    My dear Minnesota Timberwolves,
    It is me, the Atlanta Hawks. Before tonight’s scrimmage commences between you and I (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP), I’m stopping by the Target Center to address you, heart to heart. I’m afraid, my longtime confidant, we need to have That Talk.
    What… ARE we, right now?
    No, seriously, I thought we had a mutual understanding. A simpatico. A powerful bond, one transcendent of any other NBA teams’ comprehension. I was growing weary of mostly fruitless playoff appearances. You thirsted to grab a quince from the Garden of Postseason, perhaps at some point before the Martians get here. We not only found each other, we co-exist, to chart one another’s destinies. We belonged together. Or, so I thought, until recently.
    I mean, just imagine, me, with my multiple lottery selections this summer, expertly drafted by Travis Schlenk. And you, with your… whatever that is you’re doing… with your prodigious talent tipping off against mine, plus all the great free agents we’re bound to draw, in the 2020 NBA Finals, the first ever for our lovely NBA cities. That was the dream. That was OUR dream, don’t you remember?
    By 2020, we’re not supposed to be sitting around watching your promising lottery-protected pick deteriorate into a pair of piddling future second-rounders. By 2020, you’re not supposed to be still mired in the swamp of Secaucus in the springtime, promising your fans, “This time, I’ll be sweeter!”
    This “thing” is just not working out, this… “relationship,” if that’s what you want to call it… between you and me. I get it, you thought Adreian Payne could someday become your Taj Gibson, so you wouldn’t have to go out and get him yourself. Heh, at one point, I held some high hopes for Major Payne, too. We have each moved on from him. But you, my dearest Timbo, have not yet held up your end of the bargain. You, my precious Minny, are threatening to not be there for me, right when I need you most.
    Ugh! I can’t even bring myself to friend-zone you right now. I honestly believe we need to start seeing other people.
    Other people, that is, pulling the strings in your player personnel department. As evidenced by Monday’s disheartening 101-93 loss here at the hands of the “bear”-bones Grizzlies, your coach’s cooking hasn’t been all that great. So, why, pray tell, are you so enthralled with letting Tom Thibodeau buy the groceries, too?
    You are endowed with my former All-Star point guard, Jeff Teague. You not only have an All-Star center in Karl-Anthony Towns, you let Thibodeau reunite with All-Star Jimmy Butler, and nearly got sixty games out of him. That is, before Coach Thibs ran Butler, as he is wont to do, into the frozen tundra. Why are you not at 45 wins already? Why, as the calendar turns to April, do you need my help to get there?
    That Jimmy Buckets (torn meniscus, return unknown; NBA-high 37.1 MPG) has become Jimmy Buckled once again was predictable. What is unacceptable is that, by now, the Great Value Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins (20.0 PPG and 5.2 RPG this month, but 44.6 FG%), and Towns (53.3 FG% this month, down from 58.1% last month) haven’t grown defensively under the auspices your handpicked, supposedly defensive-minded coach/GM.
    Further, that the starters’ over-exertion to compensate defensively is eating away at their collective offensive capacity. (108.5 PPG this month, lowest since November) What’s intolerable is going just 8-9 since replacing Butler in the starting unit with Nemanja Bjelica, 4-7 in your past 11 games. That’s just not working for me, not at all. When will MY needs be important to you?
    Frankly, the withered Rose you bought wasn’t what I needed. Never mind that it arrived weeks after Valentine’s Day. Derrick Rose (questionable, sprained ankle) isn’t even what you needed. You already had a scoring guard that’s a defensive sieve, in the eminently durable Jamal Crawford.
    Unlike Payne, you knew what you were getting when you started courting J-Craw last summer. If you weren’t sure, you could certainly have consulted me. Yet now, thanks to your strident insistence on redundancy, your fanbase is turning on poor Jamal, who came in from the warmth of L.A. to grace you with his presence. You don’t deserve him, tbh.
    Were you aware that, besides Crawford, there is a whole other set of reserve Thibobullves at the end of the bench, sitting on their hands, eager to contribute? How can I trust your commitment to our “relationship” if you can’t even bring yourself to activate Justin Patton, a Riverdale native that’s just a few months senior of my John Collins. You recall, Patton, a center that you selected three picks ahead of mine last summer? How soon we forget.
    You’re telling me Patton couldn’t be relieving KAT (36.4 MPG last six games, the Wolves 2-4 in that span) by now? That he couldn’t be putting in more productive minutes than Gorgui Dieng (14.0 MPG last ten games) and Cole Aldrich (team-low 2.4 MPG, questionable due to illness) with a little more emphasis toward developing the youngsters?
    Speaking of youngsters, with your team near the cellar in assist percentage, why is Tyus Jones (career-high 53.1 eFG%), your promising first-rounder from 2015, wasting away on the pine, and expected not to move the ball on the rare occasions he is in the game? Do you really need Jeff to put in 42 minutes just to (try to) outlast the Grizzlies? Were I not already volt green, you could color me unconvinced.
    If you were sincere about your intentions, you would not be crawling into April with a defensive efficiency (108.9 D-Rating, 7th-worst in NBA) that manages to be worse than mine (108.5 D-Rating, 8th-worst). And my intentions have been clear from the outset, engaging in a tryst with The Process That Dare Not Speak Its Name (okay, fine, Tanking. It’s Tanking, don’t act like you’re unfamiliar with that) to the extent the law allows. Why is your defense still palling around with mine?
    Try as I might here in Atlanta (21-53), I cannot accommodate you with my long-held playoff spot. You, Minnesota (42-33, 1.5 games ahead of 9-seed L.A.), must earn your own reservation, in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference (15-23 in-conference, decidedly worse than the 19-19 Clippers). And you could be doing so much more to keep our waning “relationship” a healthy one.
    I understand, you thought you were helping me when you lost to the Suns (twice), the Nets, the Magic, the Bulls, and now the Grizzlies (twice). But I have overrated squads like the Wizards and heat to do that for me. See? There you go again, being redundant.
    You had one job, split into two tasks. Clinch. Then lose. Win those games (11 losses to sub-.500 clubs; 17 wins, fewest among playoff-eligible teams) and you would have already shaken your playoff hex by now. But here we are.
    Look, I am trying not to be difficult. I’ve got my pugilist point guard Dennis Schröder on the shelf, getting his sprained ankle in shape for a bracelet he might have to wear down the road. He won’t be out there tonight trying to get comeuppance against his former mentor. Remember my 105-100 “victory” in Atlanta back in January, when Teague shot an inauspicious 1-for-12 from the field? Dennis has been-there, done-that plenty of times already.
    I’m giving you one more shot to redeem yourself, Minnesota. No Schröder, no Kent Bazemore in the backcourt. You don’t even have to put up with Malcolm Delaney, or DeAndre’ Bembry, or Jaylen Morris. Can you conceivably handle Isaiah Taylor instead? Please, try not to turn Damion Lee and Tyler Dorsey into Tim Hardaway or Wayne Selden tonight.
    Dewayne Dedmon isn’t taking any days off. But he should be at least a breath of fresh air for Towns, after your center got pushed around at turns by Joel Embiid and Marc Gasol (4-for-7 3FGs, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks on Monday) in recent days.
    There’s no point in wearing your starters down just to beat me tonight. I’ve let go of the rope. Former Yellow Jacket Marcus Georges-Hunt is over there on Thibodeau’s bench for a reason. You don’t need any fancy scouting report for me. I’m serving up fellow Minnesotan Mike Muscala on a platter for 25+ minutes, some of it alongside Tyler Cavanaugh. If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.
    I don’t intend to keep you up all night, tossing and turning, as you’ve got real work ahead of you. If all goes as it should, very soon, you’ll go your way, and I’ll go mine. There’s no need for you and I to be back here next year, with you regurgitating your tired, empty promises. Officially, we should be through with one another, as of moonrise today.
    I bid adieu, and I wish you well in your future endeavors with other NBA partners. But just so we’re perfectly clear: if I’m not walking out of Target Center today with a loss, it’s not me, my darling Minnesota. It’s you.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “But, it was just charades! I yelled… LOW CUT SOCKS!... not, HOLTKAMP SUCKS!”
    Here’s hoping for a thoroughly uneventful game for the Atlanta Hawks, for a change! Their West Coast swing continues with a visit to the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in H-Town), who are out to secure their first-ever (???) 60-win season tonight. The main question is, how easy can the Hawks make this for the Rockets?
    Houston (59-14) won handily last night at the Toyota Center, a 114-91 victory over the playoff-probable Pelicans that was only contentious as far as the barbs and fouling on the court. Conference Finals Virgin Chris Paul (sore hamstring) was rested for the past two games, and coach Mike D’Antoni would like to DNP a few more key components. But James Harden isn’t inclined to go along with that plan.
    Harden (NBA-high 30.9 PPG, 36.2 Usage%, 30.1 PER and .293 WS/48) remains in front of the pack contending for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But when the Beard peeks over his shoulder, he sees a hairy situation: MVP candidates Cavs’ LeBron James, the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, and the Pels’ Anthony Davis are gaining on him as the regular season nears its end. Even with his Rockets a virtual lock for the Western Conference’s #1 seed entering the playoffs, Harden has no desire to shift to cruise-control.
    It’s up to D’Antoni to make sure Harden starts, and gets to lead on the floor when it’s time to salt games away. But the reigning Coach of the Year will also strategically massage his marquee player’s minutes. Impressively, Harden is likely to earn his MVP award with a downtick in per-game playing time for the second straight season (35.6 MPG, down from an NBA-high 38.1 in 2015-16).
    Hawks fans would have hoped for a different season where Houston would pass along their first-round draft pick. But the Rockets, unlike the Warriors, have stayed fairly healthy, and GM Daryl Morey concocted a squad deep enough with veteran role players (now including future Hawks jersey retiree Joe Johnson) that its winning collection of stars and starters don’t have to over-exert themselves, or play too far outside of their comfort zones.
    Just as Paul (7.9 APG, lowest since his rookie season) has effectively reduced the necessity for Harden (8.6 APG, down from an NBA-high 11.2 last season) to distribute the ball as much as last year, Clint Capela (18 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 steals vs. NOP) obviates the need for Harden (5.3 RPG, lowest since 2013-14) to dominate on the glass. Unlike some former MVPs, you won’t catch Harden (27 points, 8 assists, 9 TOs vs. NOP) wrestling around in the paint with the JaVale McGees and Mike Muscalas of the world when it’s time to vie for a tough rebound.
    Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (4-for-9 3FGs vs. NOP, 4 assists, 4 TOs) serves as the sole traditional point guard in the rotation with Paul out, and he’ll need help from his Harden (1.8 SPG, 6th in NBA) and his defensive swingmen to get a bead on a rested Dennis Schröder (16 points, 7 assists, 4 TOs @ GSW on Friday; questionable with an ankle sprain).
    With Trevor Ariza, Joe and P.J. Tucker trying to slow Schröder’s rolls, catch-and-shoot opportunities will abound for Taurean Prince (team-high 20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 2 steals, 2 blocks @ GSW), Tyler Dorsey (3-for-7 3FGs @ GSW), Damion Lee and Andrew White. If Dennis is a scratch, that primary dish-and-swish facilitator role would fall to Isaiah Taylor, who moved the ball well against G-State (6 assists, 2 TOs in 19.5 minutes on Friday).
    Keeping the Hawks (21-52) within shouting distance late won’t be the threes, but the free throws, a factor that has worked well in the Rockets’ favor this year (75.0 opponent FT%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Atlanta clanked an inordinate 11 freebies on 20 attempts in Oakland on Friday, as much a factor in the Hawks’ inability to continue putting the second-half scare to the Warriors (and Others) as anything else. Mike Budenholzer is fine coaching a beatable team that doesn’t beat themselves, so expect better focus by his Hawks from the charity stripe tonight.
    For Houston, it’s just a matter of getting the win total into the 60s, and zeroing in on sewing up the 1-seed, as quickly as possible. For Atlanta, it’ll just be nice to not be the backdrop to a lead story on SportsCenter for a little while.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I Can’t Feel My Feet When I’m With You…”
    Under cover of night, the Atlanta Hawks made their daring Escape From Sacramento in time for tonight’s rematch with the world-champion Golden State Warriors (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Bay Area in SFO). Assuming the fans can make it into the arena this time, the burning question is: who’s suiting up?
    Whoever becomes our draft lottery prize this summer, get you a star who, when he announces his switch to low-cut sneakers, it makes the national news. “Stephen Curry to play in Under Armour low-tops for the first time,” ESPN breathlessly reported yesterday evening ahead of today’s game at Oracle Arena. The Babyfaced Assassin expects to return to action while still dealing with tenderness in his sprained, “definitely not 100 percent”, right ankle. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
    “It is kind of ironic that I made the switch this season considering my ankle issues,” noted Curry, who missed the past six games while enjoying (just saying! I’ve learned my lesson!) his 30th birthday, “but this shoe is stable and engineered to maximize my performance. I will still wear my ankle braces, but I have total comfort and security in my new shoe.” We shall see.
    Back when the young guard outta Davidson was scurrying around Oakland with fishtail legs, the Warriors turned to Keke Lyles to straighten him out. For the past several seasons, Lyles has been dutifully occupied with the trunks of Atlanta players, as the Hawks’ executive director of player performance.
    So, these days, Lyles gets to oversee players like the brutally durable Dennis Schröder (career-high 22.6 points per-36, career-low 3.1 TOs per-36), who needs to be a “healthy scratch” in order to miss tip-offs. Kent Bazemore might disagree, Steph (21 of 71 games missed this season), but the solution to your aggravations might not be the kicks.
    The Dubs’ Death (Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green) and Dying from Laughter (JaVale McGee) Lineup started coming apart at the seams almost as soon as Curry (an uncanny 59.2 2FG%, to go with his 42.4 3FG%) was put on the shelf.
    Klay fractured a thumb a few days later, and Splash Bro 2 remains out for another week or so. Days after that, KD cracked a rib, and he sits as well. Perhaps getting his Three Amigos move on a little too aggressively, Draymond became the next to hit the IR with a pelvic contusion.
    It has reached the point where Coach Steve Kerr will be thrilled just to get Omri Casspi (sprained ankle) back on the floor. The Dubs (53-18) have gone 2-4 since losing Curry, mustering just 75 points on Monday in a 14-point loss to a San Antonio team that has one huge, lingering injury issue of its own.
    Former Hawks preseason notable Quin Cook got his Isaiah Taylor on against the Spurs (20 points, 5 assists). But it’s clear from starting Cook and Nick Young together that there’s still not enough offensive firepower to compete against decent teams, on most nights, without Golden State’s Monstars available. Cook (hand contusion), Zaza Pachulia and isoBaze thief Andre Iguodala (shoulder contusions) and Patrick McCaw (wrist fracture) were all questionable going into Monday’s game, but all played, each one aside from McCaw in the starting lineup.
    Starting at center today will not be our old friend Zaza, nor will it be McGee. It will be Jordan Bell, the 6-foot-9 rim-protecting second-rounder who has Chicago Bulls brass kicking themselves. Bell (.184 WS/48, 4.4 Box Plus/Minus, 1.1 VORP, 18.2 PER) is arguably the sole 2017 draftee neck-and-neck with Atlanta first-rounder John Collins (.155 WS/48, 1.4 BPM, 1.3 VORP, 19.1 PER; questionable for tonight with his sprained ankle) in terms of efficiency metrics. Bell’s first start since mid-January is not merely a reward from Kerr for enduring what Bell described to pregame reporters today as a, “roller coaster, up and down” season.
    The Warriors had three days off entering tonight’s game, the opener of a four-game homestand, but Kerr wants the regular season minutes for his vet backup big men (Pachulia, McGee, David West) carefully metered out. They get to close out their schedule with a bunch of playoff-hungry outfits (Utah twice, OKC, New Orleans, Indiana, Milwaukee). Kerr wants his team trending up, as healthy players return and as they approach Game #82.
    So, don’t expect Kerr’s playoff-prepping bigs to be out here wrangling excessively in the paint with the likes of Dewayne Dedmon (a smooth 13-and-10 last night), Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh. That task will fall heavily upon Bell and Looney tonight.
    While the Dubs have some gimmes on the docket like the pesky Hawks, two games against division-rival Phoenix will be on back ends of back-to-backs. The last loss before the Spurs game was a Tank-buster last Friday night, here at Oracle, at the “expense” of the Kings.
    Sacramento overwhelmed the remnant Warriors with the buddy-movie team of Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere (combined 8-for-14 3FGs off the bench). That was essentially the same team that the Hawks, without Schröder, successfully held serve with for two-and-a-half quarters last night, before the Kings finally pulled away.
    Golden State has a chance to further sew up the #2 seed (and avoid a premature playoff meeting with the Rockets) with a win today. In that regard, they can't afford to mess around with Atlanta (21-51), especially given their inherent homecourt and rest advantages.
    Final issue: Will Steph get invited to Damion Lee’s bachelor party? That’s always uncomfortable, towing the future bro-in-law all around Vegas with the Day-Ones, just to keep the future missus in good graces. I know this well, I’ve seen it in the movies.
    Things could get even more Hawkward if Curry returns to hang a 40-burger on Atlanta and its newest starter, who just signed his second 10-day deal this afternoon. Still, I figure Lee will find a way to accommodate Curry on his party bus. But given the tenuous state of Steph’s ankles, Damion, make sure that thing comes equipped with a lift.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Ahead of tonight’s TankWars tilt between the visiting Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California in SAC), let’s take a moment to give it up for Vince Carter. He’s the half-man, half-amazing player-vaulter-turned-Blake-Griffin-troller who is willingly wrapping up season #20… 20!... in Northern California. And, no, he’s not sipping merlot and just taking it all in on the bench with the Warriors.
    With deference to Schoolhouse Rock, and De La Soul, 30 is the Magic Number. Or, at least, it once was. I still recall the glee with which I reported in a 2014 game thread about LeBron James’ 30th birthday party, which was here in Midtown Atlanta a night before he would get DNP’d for a game at Philips Arena. The Chosen One was about to become The Olden One, and I proclaimed James’ forthcoming entry into his fourth decade of life as great news for the rest of the wannabe contenders for his annual Eastern Conference crown. Welp.
    It used to be common understanding that the NBA veteran body breaks down precipitously after crossing the Rubicon into The Big Three-O. Go look at those videos of venerable fellas like Tree Rollins looking like downright geriatric giants in the 90s.  Tom McMillen looked every bit like a senior Congressman from Maryland, even before he got traded by the Hawks to the Bullets in the mid-80s. Carter is now the same age McMillan was, when the latter concluded his time serving… the U.S. House of Representatives!
    Witness even our prime NBA example of Fighting Father Time: Kevin Willis, clinging to dear life in the early 2000s as he tried to keep the folks over at Fernbank from turning him into an exhibit. Back then, even a young Vince Carter had to be looking askance at the graying Dell Curry on the Toronto bench like, “…Dude? Don’t you have some tweens back home to attend to?”
    Well, in this day and age, NBA medical staffs, and dietary and training methods, are way more advanced and personalized. The players are far more cognizant of their abilities to continue making bank if they keep themselves in tip-top athletic condition. No more butter-fried tilapia sandwiches at lunchtime, no more Tractor Traylors and Big Babies, not if you’re going to keep up at the pace these modern-day coaches demand. Players might, indeed, have spent a recent night racing Michael Vick in the parking lot after an eventful evening at Onyx. But you, the average fan, wouldn’t be able to tell either way.
    LeBron, at age 33, is still out here like, “Ladies, look at your man. Now, look at me.” He’s logging an NBA-high 37.2 minutes per game, a shade below his 37.8 MPG from last season. Not that he should have to, but he can, and he is. Oh, and he is still slaying fools, and winning, dropping 35-and-17 on the Raptors last night to lug his Cavs to victory just last night. As for Carter, whose All-Star invites stopped coming at age 30 but still is punching in the clock 11 seasons later, he ushers in an era where we wonder if 40 is even over so much as a mound, to say nothing of a hill any more.
    You know those 90s mixtapes where a young hooper pulls off such a spectacularly audacious play that he sprints out the gym, intending never to be seen on video again? That would have been me down in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, had I gone off a steal and Fosbury Flopped over some 7-foot-3 dude, nearly off-vert, for a jaw-dropping one-handed jam. “Yep. Looks like my work is done here! Meep meep!”
    I’d have Usain Bolted out that arena, and the next you’d hear of me, I’d be retired in the Outback feeding kiwis to koalas. At best, I’d be turning my signature silhouettes into annual big-money sneaker releases – when do those Lethal 14s come out? But, nope, not Vinsanity!
    The guy who, even before that career-defining play, had already terminated the usefulness of any future Dunk Contests, anywhere, instead decided to grace us with his eminence for four-and-a-half more seasons with the Raptors. Then four-and-a-half more in New Jersey. Then a year-and-a-half near his hometown in Orlando, and then a brief run in Phoenix (oh, he’s 34 by then). Then, three seasons in Dallas. Three more in Memphis.
    And now, in Sacramento, rather than ring-chasing, Carter’s dutifully schooling the Kings on how to give one’s best effort regardless of the scoreboard, or the standings, or one’s accomplishments of yore. Vince heads into this summer as a 41-year-old free agent, and yes, he WILL get offers, significantly more than a VetMin. Out here trying to guard Griffin on occasion in the post, and complaining only to the refs about it, Vince (18.9 MPG in last five games; 48.0 2FG%, highest since 2007-08) is showing us that 40 is The New 30. LeBron might show us that 50 is The New 30, when all is said and done.
    Carter wasn’t on the floor back on November 15, when the Hawks raised their record to a dangerous 3-12 with a resounding 126-80 win over the Kings at Philips Arena. Atlanta pummeled a starting lineup that featured another O.G. in Zach Randolph, plus George Hill, rookie gunner Bogdan Bogdanovic, Garrett Temple, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Z-Bo and Stick Willie remain among the starters, but Randolph (stomach bug) will not play. Second-year pro Skal Labissiere is most likely to join a green first line loaded with yung’uns for Coach Dave Joerger, inclusive of rookie De-Aaron Fox and sophomore Buddy Hield.
    At this level of hoops, team shooting splits of 40.4/27.3/73.7 are usually an automatic addition to the L column. Yet two nights ago in SLC, wunderkind Dennis Schröder (13-for-21 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs) picked-and-rolled apart the vaunted defense of the Utah Jazz.
    Dennis plopping a career-best 41 points (most by any road Hawk since Shareef back in December 2003) on the hapless Ricky Rubio and Friends was just enough to lift the Hawks – without Kent Bazemore, with Taurean Prince shooting 3-for-13 from the field, with Mike Muscala in place of the injured John Collins, with the soon-expiring 10-day pickup Damion Lee in the starting lineup, with random cats named Dorsey, Taylor, White, Plumlee, and Cavanaugh coming off the bench – to a 99-94 victory over a team trying to win their tenth-straight NBA game. At least, we think the Jazz were trying to win. It’s kinda late to start tanking now.
    Tonight’s pressing question for Joerger’s staff is, who is their Schroderstopper? Fox, the rookie whose DRPM (-2.87) is about as awful as Dennis’ (-2.80)? I don’t think so. Hill? Utah would’ve loved him the other night, but he’s in Cleveland now. Trade recipient Iman Shumpert (knee rehab) was shelved virtually upon arrival. Garrett Temple? Good choice, but he’s out with an ankle injury. Frank Mason? M’kay, good luck with that.
    It takes two to make a thing go right, so for the Kings, they need a screen-busting gameplan not only for Schröder (21 points, 11 in the third-quarter vs. SAC on Nov. 15) and his backup (Taylor, who had 11 fourth-quarter points vs. SAC), but their offensive partner in the post. Dewayne Dedmon (15-and-15 plus 4 assists @ UTA on Tuesday) enjoyed 11 points, plus eight of his game-high 14 rebounds, in the second-quarter as his Hawks blew that November game open.
    Ded-head also dropped five dimes, nearly matching Prince’s eight (seven in the final frame) as Atlanta shot 16-for-32 from downtown, plus an absurd 34-for-47 on the cushy interior of the Kings (NBA-worst 54.7 opponent eFG%). If Cauley-Stein (1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG, one of 10 active NBA players averaging at least on of each) isn’t locked in defensively, it could prove to be a long night for hoop fans inside the sold-out Golden 1 Center (80-game sellout streak. No Onyxes in Sactown?) and, perhaps, Beyond.
    The Kings will strive to fight fire (NBA-worst 38.6 opponent 3FG%) with fire (38.1 3FG%, 2nd-best in NBA). They’ll lean on Hield and Bogdanovic, if he’s available (probable, sore hammy), plus rookies Justin Jackson and Mason off the bench, to get open for Fox. Failing that, hey, there’s always that guy Vince Carter on the bench. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll get to show us all what tricks he still has up his sleeve. Do they even have lawns to get off of, down in Daytona Beach? If I lived there, I’d be so retired by now.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “We love to fly…”
    “…and it shows!”
    Commonalities between Dominique Wilkins and Taurean Prince? Both were drafted by the Utah Jazz and later traded to the Atlanta Hawks, who happen play the Jazz in Salt Lake City tonight (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain in SLC), before their rookie seasons. Both wear, or wore, a ‘1’ and a ‘2’ on their Atlanta jerseys. And both are coming into their own during their Age-23 seasons with the Hawks, although not for much longer.
    Taurean crosses into Age 24 a couple days from now, and the Aries suddenly finds himself ramming his way upwards in his young NBA career. Prince elevated his March-long scoring average to 21.5 PPG (46.6 3FG%) by matching his career high, from earlier this month, of 38 points (9-for-13 2FGs, 8-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ entertaining 122-117 loss in Milwaukee on Sunday.
    Over the course of Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s tenure, I’ve had to learn not to freak out and give up too prematurely on the Budwings, who are constantly under development behind the scenes, fine-tuning their unique, individual skills to suit their team’s long-term objectives, and taking plenty of lumps along the way.
    From Kyle to DeMarre to Thabo to Baze to Timmy, the narrative now applies to Taurean, who has morphed from near-replacement-level talent in January (9.1 PPG, 34.8 FG%, minus-9.6 net rating) to a more reliable offensive cog (63.4 March TS%, 15th among NBA players getting 30+ MPG) during his team’s meticulously planned swoon. With each game in just his second season, Prince is transforming Hawks’ fan opinions from, “If he doesn’t figure out his defensive shortcomings, he’s useless,” to “If he ever figures out his defensive shortcomings, watch out!”
    It’s on the road where the Hawks turn to Prince (15.2 road PPG and 45.3 road FG%; 12.0 and 39.3 FG% at Philips) to attack inside, and score or get fouled trying. He has been picking his perimeter shots more judiciously away from home (4.93 road 3FGAs per game, 5.76 at home), although the Bucks game was an outlier narrowing that differential (4-for-13 3FGs on Sunday).
    Atlanta will turn to Taurean even more this evening, as rookie John Collins (Zaza’d in Milwaukee by the Greek Freak, out with an ankle sprain) sits at least this one out. Interior scoring for Prince, Dennis Schröder and the Hawks will be a much harder bargain, certainly, with the stifling Rudy Gobert (NBA-highs of 26.2 Net Rating and 72.1 TS% for 30+ MPG players; 25 double-doubles) holding down the fort for the torrid Jazz (40-30), who aim to stretch their undefeated month to 10-0 tonight.
    Remember when undefeated calendar months were kind of a big deal? Getting to 15-0 will require Utah to win not only tonight but also at San Antonio, at G-State, and back home versus Boston. That’s a slate that’s not nearly as daunting as it once looked, given their upcoming opponents’ injury issues. And this is a team that went 11-0 right before the All-Star Break, a stretch that began not long after losing Thabo Sefolosha for the season. Utah was 14th in team D-Rating before Thabo was shelved; they’re #1 (97.7 D-Rating) since. Go, Coach Thabo!
    The 4-Man combo of Gobert, Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles represent the top four NBA players in Net Rating this month. Former Bud acolyte Quin Snyder is rolling into this matchup without starting power forward Derrick Favors (sore knee), who is having a bit of a renaissance year himself (career-high 58.3 2FG%).
    The arrival of Rookie of the Year finalist Mitchell (10-for-13 2FGs in Saturday’s close-shave 103-97 win vs. SAC) effectively alleviated Favors from having to step up offensively in the aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s departure, and he has responded with efficient scoring in exchange for a lightened workload. Villa Rican and former Cavalier forward Jae Crowder will be likely to fill in on Favors’ behalf. With Jae closing games in place of Favors, Utah’s 5-man unit has produced a league-best 76.4 D-Rating and 41.8 Net Rating, according to stats reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.
    Utah has gone a sterling 22-4 since Rudy returned from injury, back on January 19. However, that first 11-game winning run was preceded by a sour note by the Jazz. Namely, a 104-90 loss in Atlanta back on January 22, where the cited quartet of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles and Gobert combined to score just 29 points while committing 15 player turnovers.
    The low-paced game remained a tight affair until Schröder and Prince (combined 37 points, 11-for-23 2FGs, 9-for-9 FTs) helped the Hawks break it open in the third quarter. Prince was particularly pernicious scoring off Jazz turnovers, particularly his steals (three) off a sloppy Mitchell and Rubio. The second steal-and-layup gave the Hawks a lead they would not again relinquish, and his dime to Mike Muscala (a probable starter today, in place of Collins; double-digit scoring in 3 of past 5 games) following his final theft opened up a 23-point lead that made Utah’s fourth-quarter scramble purely academic.
    This time around, Coach Quin will rely upon Rubio to make better decisions with the ball for the possession-hogging Jazz. Backup ballhandler and former Hawks draft-and-tradee Raul Neto is out indefinitely with a wrist fracture. Son-of-a-legend David Stockton is around on a ten-day to help fill the gap. But the Jazz will use the remaining games as a critical opportunity to rework 2014 lotto pick Dante Exum (10 points in 14 minutes vs. PHX, during his season-debut last Thursday) back into the rotation before the playoffs start.
    Defensive efficiency (115.4 March D-Rating, 29th in NBA) has remained a problem for the Hawks (20-50, seven straight road losses) throughout their latest six-game slide. But when they’re active forcing their foes into mistakes, not just the live-ball variety, Atlanta can have the look of a near-.500 team (6-8 when opponents’ turnover percentage > 17.0%, as per bball-ref).
    When Taurean makes the right defensive reads and doesn’t get caught out of position blindly fishing for steals (15 in Atlanta’s 20 wins; 54 in their 50 defeats), the final quarters of games can get downright scary these days… for a variety of reasons. Prince may struggle tonight, with the halfcourt lanes closed and one less scoring threat on the floor. But as he figures things out over time, look for Taurean’s gameday film to continue including more Highlight, and less Human.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Heading down to 8th in the East? I Dont wanna be here!”
    So, I wonder… how was Malcolm Brogdon’s evening? He watch anything fun last night?
    The injured Atlanta native has several ACC teammates on the Milwaukee Bucks, who host the road-tripping Atlanta Hawks this afternoon (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin). So, the former UVA star doesn’t need to hear any yapping from anybody, least of all the newest birthday boy, the now-23-year-old Dookie Jabari Parker. And he’ll be glad he’s not crossing paths with another Malcolm.
    “I wouldn’t want any other 1 seed in history to lose to a 16…. UVA”, tweeted the injured Hokie-turned-Hawk Malcolm Delaney after last night’s earth-shaking upset by something called UMBC, his e-comment concluded with enough crying-LOL emojis to populate an improv show at a chopped-onion factory.
    Aside from Parker’s birthday this past Thursday, there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately around Milwaukee. The Bucks thought the worst was over when they replaced Jason Kidd with coach Joe Prunty, following a tepid 23-22 start, and subsequently won nine of their next 11 games.
    It was during that run, though, that the 2017 Rookie of the Year, Brogdon, tore a quad muscle. Matthew Dellavedova, whose lovechild with Christian Laettner, Grayson Allen, becomes draft-eligible in a few weeks, also sprained an ankle and is out indefinitely. Milwaukee continued to roll despite the setbacks, including a 97-92 win over the Hawks at the BMOHBC back on February 13. But the wheels began slipping off in the next game, allowing 134 points at home to the Nuggets right before the All-Star Break.
    They seemingly righted their ship in the first game after the Break, in a 4-point road win at Toronto. But what followed was a 3-7 stretch that included Wednesday’s 126-117 loss down in Orlando. The backwards trending coupled with game-to-game inconsistencies was the problem that supposedly helped sway the mid-season coaching change.
    Now, a loss to the road-weary Hawks (5-27 in away games, tied w/ MEM for the league-worst) today would drop Prunty’s record this season to 13-11. With the Spurs, Clippers, Cavaliers (the ones with LeBron, Mr. Brogdon), and the Warriors coming up to close out the month, he needs momentum to remind people why the promotion was worth the trouble. Fortunately, for Joe, he’s got his former fellow Spurs staffer, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer, down the sideline to lend a helping hand.
    Theoretically, even with the current backcourt-depleting injuries, a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG), Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and sixth-man Jabari Parker all healthy, shouldn’t be scratching and clawing to get away from the 8-spot in the Eastern Conference, where Miami currently resides due to Milwaukee (36-32) holding a percentage-point lead.
    They are still a mere 3.0 games behind Cleveland for a first-round homecourt seeding. But their 14-24 record versus teams above .500 isn’t becoming of a club that wants to make noise once they get into the tourney.
    The Bucks (post-Break 1.41 assist/TO ratio, 27th in NBA; Atlanta’s 1.30 ranks 30th) have been a team loaded with playtakers, but not enough playmakers, even less so without Delly (team-high 27.7 assist%, as per bball-ref) Brogdon available. They’ve called up the older-but-wiser former Buck star Brandon Jennings from the G-League, and the 28-year-old helped in his season debut with 12 dimes plus 16 points in just over 23 minutes to make light work of the Grizzlies on Monday night.
    But Prunty reverted to older-but-just-as-wise-as-before Jason Terry as the prime bench option in Orlando. The Buck offense stilted, and the Buck defense wilted, as Magic default starter D.J. Augustin had himself a day (32 points, 6-for-9 3FGs) at Milwaukee’s expense. The Bucks’ tank-busting loss came against an Orlando team that was playing on the back side of a back-to-back following a return from a winless West Coast road trip.
    Antetokounmpo remains a worthy world-class attraction on the floor, but on many nights the people most attracted to his exploits are his deer-in-headlights teammates. The athletic forward is by no means selfish, averaging a team-high 4.8 APG even while being freed of point guard duties with Bledsoe’s arrival and Kidd’s departure. But Giannis is not a perimeter shooter (30.1 3FG%), and his floormates tend to get caught ball-watching, without a plan in mind for the occasions he kicks the ball out to them to finish plays.
    Although they’ve shown signs of coming around, Middleton (35.1 3FG%) and Bledsoe (33.9 3FG%) have been regressing from deep. Prunty is inclined to press Tony Snell (41.3 3FG%) and Parker (42.9 3FG%) into more action to compensate. But then, the team defense takes a hit (75.0 post-Break D-Reb%, 27th in NBA; 54.6 opponent eFG%, 24th in NBA), particularly without E-Bled getting stops (2.1 SPG, 2nd in NBA). It’s been more 3-or-D than 3-and-D for the Bucks.
    Giannis could use some bigs that could spread the floor, yet Thon Maker (30.1 3FG%) hasn’t proven up to the task, while John Henson doesn’t even bother. You would think the duo would help dominate the paint instead, but Milwaukee is bottom ten in the league for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%.
    Milwaukee, whose 10 player TOs (just seven steals by Atlanta) were stingy enough to hold off the Hawks last month, must continue playing keep-away today against a Hawks team (15.6 opponent TOs per game, still 2nd in NBA) that’s not as aggressive with getting stops on defense as they were with Ersan Ilyasova and, lately, Kent Bazemore around.
    Atlanta opponents are committing just 11.9 TOs per 48 minutes this month, a value surpassing only Brooklyn’s 11.4. Instead of handing the ball back to Atlanta, these foes are lofting 32.3 three-point attempts per game (3rd-most in NBA) while connecting on 42.5 percent of them (2nd-most in NBA). Hawks leading-scorer Dennis Schröder (28.9 3FG%) and Baze’s replacement starter, rookie Tyler Dorsey (32.6 3FG%), continue to attack on drives to the rim, but neither has been proficient enough from long-range to keep up with their opponents on defense.
    Who wants to see a double-digit bottom-seed topple a middle-range-seed today? Fans of the Bucks, and Some Fans of the Hawks, are just fine waiting for that to transpire tomorrow. We’ll see you in the ATL soon, Retrievers!
    Happy St. Pat’s! Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Next stop… NBA championship glory!”
    No, Dwight Howard, you’re no Coach Killer! Not anymore, anyway. These days, think of yourself as more of a PBO/GM Manslaughterer.
    Howard arrived in Charlotte hoping to resurrect his formidable but fun-loving reputation, once more, under the auspices of his trusted coach from olden, more golden days of yore. Now Howard arrives for the final time this season at the Highlight Factory, with the GM who acquired him summarily dispatched, while suddenly lame-duck coach Steve Clifford is nearly on the outs, too. Perhaps coach (and former PBO) Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks can lob Coach Cliff, Dwight, and the Hornets yet another lifeline tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas).
    This time next week, Philips Arena will be populated to the rafters with countless fans of Final Four hopefuls, and more than a few discerning NBA scouts as well. While March Madness is thrilling for most of us, prognosticating by the seats of our pants and pulling for schools we’ve never heard of before, it must be an increasingly bittersweet feeling for the Carolina Ranger.
    Seven years removed from a blistering run to the NCAA Championship, Kemba Walker is finally getting All-Star accolades, but seems to be losing his way as the luster from his One Shining Moment wears thin.
    Hornet/Bobcat fans have learned, as well as anyone, that Tank-and-Stir isn’t a surefire way to NBA title contention. Kemba entered the league with all the well-deserved media hype, and with a college championship ring in hand, took Charlotte by storm, one Dougie dance at a time.
    The Bobcats didn’t wind up with the worst lottery odds, or the number-one pick, but when Walker landed in their laps, they sure felt like a 49er finally striking gold. Their new Savior was a good soldier, as fans endured the worst NBA campaign (7-59) in recorded history, plus a franchise remake on and off the court, with Kemba at center stage amid it all.
    There were supposed to be more than five first-round home playoff games in the Queen City by now. Kemba was supposed to be the effervescent talent that puts Charlotte routinely on center stage on TNT Thursday nights, the lead guard with a dizzying handle and a unique five-letter name beginning with K who draws other superstars to his once-struggling NBA locale for annual shots at NBA Finals.
    But now, in 2018, Walker looks around him and is certainly scratching his head. That 7-59 tanktastic campaign begat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 2012 second-overall pick and fellow NCAA champion, a defensive savant who can never stay healthy enough to resolve his flaws at the other end of the floor. There’s Cody Zeller, the fourth-overall pick from 2013. The golden boy arrived in the Tar Heel State with similar post-March Madness promise. Yet Zeller has settled in as a solid reserve, behind Dwight, with his own sketchy injury history (unlikely to play tonight due to a knee injury).
    There’s Frank Kaminsky, 2015’s Naismith and Wooden Award winner and NCAA finalist, who has had a career arc that’s roughly the inverse of MKG’s. The season before he got there, Noah Vonleh was the belle of the ball at ninth-overall. He became a near-instant washout. But flipping him to Portland allowed the Hornets to gamble with Nicolas Batum, who stuck around for his big NBA payday but has yet to consistently display the sharp-shooting 3-and-D promise he once flashed as a Blazer (34.1 3FG% w/ CHA in 3 seasons).
    As Kaminsky was up late this morning, watching Drake and Ninja play Fortnite on Twitch, Walker (22.7 PPG and 43.1 FG%, down slightly from 23.2 and 44.4% last season) must be up wondering why his whole team, that started from the bottom, is still here (in the lottery). He serves as an example of the perils which await lotto-bound teams that forget their work isn't done, once their long-sought Savior arrives via the draft.
    Kemba knows he isn’t even the first UConn talent that a Charlotte NBA club failed to properly build around. Second-overall pick Emeka Okafor arrived in 2002, and he was subsequently supplemented with top-ten lottery picks Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright, and D.J. Augustin before giving up on him. A consistent thread from the prior era, continuing into the current one collected by recently-deposed GM Rich Cho, is most of the Horcats’ choices being swayed by big moments on big college teams on the biggest stage.
    As all the Dougying around Uptown has given way to Dabbing and, now, just plain Doubting. And as Walker continues looking around, he sees remnants of other teams’ former lottery dreams washing ashore at Lake Norman. Orlando’s 2004 1st-overall pick, Atlanta’s 2005 2nd-overall pick, and Philly’s 11th pick from 2013 and 2014 Rookie of the Year, all collecting checks and biding their time around Kemba, as he prepares for another playoff-less springtime with Charlotte (29-39, 7.0 games behind 8-seed Miami, who swept the Hornets 0-4), his third in the past four NBA seasons.
    The latter of that trio of once-heralded talents, former Syracuse star Michael Carter-Williams, was supposed to be the kind of steadying backup presence Charlotte gave up on when they traded off first-rounder Shabazz Napier in 2014 for P.J. Hairston. But while Napier is enjoying a career-best season as Damian Lillard’s caddie, MCW lurched his way toward what is, somehow, his worst season ever (career-lows of 36.2 eFG%, 19.5 assist%) before getting shut down two weeks ago for shoulder surgery.
    Hornets fans hope Carter-Williams’ injury is finally enough of a factor to allow Clifford to begin assigning 2017’s lottery hopeful, Kentucky Wildcat Malik Monk, significant playing time either behind or alongside Walker. Monk has gone from mere spot duty to about 15-20 minutes per game in the past month. But as playoff hopes dim for Charlotte (Tragic Number: 8), losers of six of their past seven games, one should expect a lot more than that.
    How transformable is this outfit? The next Hornets GM is about to find out. Aside from MCW, but including Knicks refugee center Willy Hernangomez, plus swingmen Jeremy Lamb (questionable for today, back spasms) and Dwayne Bacon, 11 of Charlotte’s 14 highest-salaried players are under fully guaranteed contracts for 2018-19. That’s a luxury-tax-teasing $117.9 million in team salary, including Kemba’s $12.0 million expiring, but not even counting the rookie-scale deal for 2018’s lottery fantasy. If players can’t be moved in the offseason, the Hornets’ next beekeeper will probably be inclined to make a shift along the sideline. But that’s where Coach Bud can assist Dwight with Coach Cliff’s cause tonight.
    The Hornets’ record would be all the more deflating without three decisive wins over the Hawks (20-48), by a decisive average score of 117.7 to 103.7. Atlanta has been outrebounded 47.3-35.3 during this season’s series as Howard has feasted (62.5 FG%, season-high 18 made FTs on 27 attempts, 19.3 PPG, 14.0 RPG), playing as close to his desired, centripetal style of play as Clifford will allow.
    When last these teams met here, on January 31, Howard’s 20-and-12 plus the All-Star-bound Walker’s 38 points (6 assists, 1 TO) was more than enough to outlast a Hawks team led in scoring by the now-departed Marco Belinelli (22 points) and the now-shelved Kent Bazemore (25 points). Baze’s and Belly’s teammates combined to shoot 5-for-20 from three-point land, including Dennis Schröder, who could dish it out (9 assists, 1 TO) but couldn’t take it (0-for-5 3FGs) in a 123-110 defeat.
    John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon made their marks coming off the bench back then. Now in the starting lineup, Dedmon (37.8 3FG%, 2-for-4 past two games) should be able to freely let it fly, particularly with Howard entrenched in the paint to play traffic controller against Schröder, Isaiah Taylor and the Hawks’ depleted backcourt. Miles Plumlee soaking up minutes (and fouls) off the bench should alleviate Mike Muscala (41.1 3FG%, 9-for-13 past three games) from the indignity of wasting energy guarding Howard around the rim.
    The small guards should find paths to the hoop with Batum and MKG now obligated to take turns trying to hold down Taurean Prince, who has been finding his offensive stride (10-for-21 3FGs, 13-for-14 FTs last two games) during Atlanta’s brief three-game homestand. His Princely sum of 25 points, in Tuesday’s late-game loss to OKC, followed up his career-high of 38 against the Bulls.
    Including his game-saving exploits in a win earlier this month against the Suns, Atlanta’s just 2-14 this season when Prince scores 18 or more points. But when he and his floormates are engaged defensively (Atlanta’s 7-0 when he finishes with a plus-minus above +10), Taurean is learning that his collectives can compete well, on most nights, against mediocre competition like the Hornets.
    For Charlotte, who will want to put this game away early once again, they need more than a wavering effort from Walker, who has laid some eggs in crucial games this month. Four days after dropping 31 in Philly, Kemba returned home and managed just five points on 1-for-9 shooting in a loss to the Sixers, his playoff-contending rivals. Last weekend, Walker sunk just four of 14 shots against the woeful Suns at Spectrum Center. He was in for the entire fourth quarter as Phoenix scored 43 points in the frame, narrowing a 22-point Hornet lead to just three during the final minute of play.
    In past seasons, we’ve hinted here that Budenholzer, a former NBA Coach of the Year with his stature secure here in Atlanta, would lay off the gas pedal against teams whose coaches’ futures might be imperiled. As demonstrated in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, the difference this season is that, with the Hawks now able to focus fully on player development, a collegial Coach Bud easing off the strategic throttle can be of long-term benefit to more than just the opposing team. Don’t forget to send Bud a thank you card this summer, Dwight!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    I'm Sorry, Baze. But, like Triple H says, it’s What’s Best for Business!
    Okay, Minnesota, listen here. Let us help you, help us, help you.
    Our Atlanta Hawks are not making the NBA playoffs for the first time since “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Buy U A Drank” were bangin’ on the airwaves. But that’s nowhere near a BFD as your Timberwolves being on the fringe of being a playoff participant for the first time since Usher, Lil Jon and Luda were screaming “Yeah!”. Snoop wasn’t even Dropping It Like It’s Hot yet. Heck, your boy Prince and the New Power Generation had just released Musicology, and still had FIVE top-10 albums yet to work on.
    So most folks think you, Minnesota, are pulling for the Hawks (what’s left of them, anyway) to do their letter-best to trip up the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma). Beating your Northwest Division rival and low-seed competitor, one night after they nearly blew it at home against Sacramento, would seem to make it easier for you to make the Western Conference cut.
    But we know better. That’s because we know our Hawks aren’t the only club whose receipt of a Top-14-protected pick hangs in the balance over the coming weeks.
    Everyone knows we have your first-rounder, postseason-pending, from abandoning ship on The Adreian Payne Project back in 2015. But few realize you’ve been holding onto OKC’s pick, pried free from Utah (2015’s Enes Kanter trade), ever since giving up on The Ricky Rubio Experiment.
    Both picks melt into a pair of future second rounders if they’re not used in this or the next two seasons. That’s not so much a BFD in your case, as your starting lineup is a virtual First Round Pick Museum already. But there’s no telling if you’ll get a better deal out of OKC’s pick in the coming seasons, so long as Russell Westbrook (25.2 PPG, 10.1 APG) and Friends stick around the plains.
    Further, your own pick could be very valuable for us here in the ATL, as it’s standing probably won’t get much better in future years. Besides, all Hades will break loose if we’re all still sitting here two years from now with your conditional pick somehow still in play.
    So, Minnesota, here’s what we can do for each other.
    Until you clinch, T’wolves, you continue to take advantage of the breaks you’ve been given. Much like when you outlasted Golden State without Curry this past weekend, you can prevail in D.C. tonight without John Wall around. The Spurs may not have Kawhi back at 100% on Saturday against your well-rested squad. Sure, you’ve got a tough opponent schedule ahead of you. But there’s no need to wait two weeks from now, when our Hawks pay a visit to the Target Center, for you to notch your next victory.
    Meanwhile, here in Atlanta (20-47), we’ll do our part to make sure your division rival, the Thunder (40-29, just 2.0 games in front of 9-seed Denver and **rubs eyes** 10-seed San Antonio), don’t get to add a lottery pick to their currently star-studded stable. Otherwise, OKC’s ability to add a young star prospect on a rookie-scale deal might be enough to entice Paul George (career-high 41.0 3FG% and 2.0 APG) and Carmelo Anthony (35 points behind Reggie Miller for 19th all-time; 7-for-14 FGs vs. SAC on Monday, 1st time above 50 FG% in 20 games) to play this thing out in the Sooner State.
    Tonight, we vow not to sit around and just let Westbrook (7-for-34 3FGs post-All-Star Break) ply his wares from the perimeter, since that seems to work against the Thunder’s better interests on most nights. Trying to out-shoot the Hawks from downtown hasn’t been that hard of a task, as the Thunder (52.0 3FG%) demonstrated the last time these teams faced off, and as the Bulls (45.9 3FG%; 77 combined 3FGAs) were all too happy to do over the weekend here at Philips Arena.
    But Russ jacking threes (5.5 3FGAs in OKC losses, 3.4 in wins) takes him off the free throw line (6.7 FTAs in losses, an even-more Russ-diculous 7.2 in wins). He hasn’t been MVP-caliber at the charity stripe this season (career-low 73.4 FT%, down from career-high 84.5 FT%), which might be part of the reason he’s settling for shots outside the paint so frequently.
    Because many of those jumpshots come in isolation (4.4 iso FGAs per game, 4th in NBA; 0.85 points per possession, lowest among top 9 NBA iso-shooters), the copious treys tend to stifle the ball movement by Russ, individually (102.2 O-Rating and -10.1 Net Rating in losses, 115.1 & +16.8 in wins), and the Thunder as a team.
    Hawks point guards Dennis Schröder (probable, sprained elbow) and Isaiah Taylor (probable, sprained ankle) will stay up on Westbrook and go over screens, compelling the Thunder guard to do what he does best, drive to the rim (NBA-high 18.9 drives per game; Dennis’ 16.2 ranks 4th in NBA), and set up his teammates for less-contested scoring chances (14.3 assist% off drives, second only to Chris Paul among players with 10+ drives/game; Dennis’ 9.1% ranks 27th) when the Atlanta defense contracts.
    The three leading scorers for the Hawks when last these teams met, on December 22, aren’t available. Marco Belinelli (27 points) and Ersan Ilyasova (22 points) are currently in the pregame line at either Pat’s or Geno’s, while Malcolm Delaney (20 points) remains out with a sprained ankle. With Atlanta Competitanking their way out of a 16-point second-half hole, it took a lucky triple from Westbrook with two seconds left to avoid overtime at The Peake and escape with a 120-117 win. You’re welcome, Minnesota.
    Oh, and the Hawks’ top assist-man from that game, Kent Bazemore, has exited stage left due to a bruised knee bone. That doesn’t mean Hawks’ whiteboard wizard Mike Budenholzer will make things simpler for OKC to overwhelm tonight. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t mean Thunder coach Billy Donovan will make it easy for ATL to underwhelm.
    We know how it works around here by now. Steven Adams (NBA-high 4.9 screen APG; questionable, bruised hip) comes down with a bout of australopithecus afarensis or somesuch. Westbrook slips and slides like he did last night, PG13 tweaks an ankle. Next thing you know, our poor Hawks have to pretend-contend with the likes of grizzled vets like Raymond Felton, Nick “yep, still here” Collison, and replacement starter Corey Brewer (15.0 PPG, 53.8 FG% in last 3 games/1st 3 starts w/ OKC).
    It would help the Thunder if Andre Roberson (out for season, torn patella) was available. But for as long as George is in the game, he’ll be tasked with keeping Taurean Prince (career-high 38 points, 7-for-13 3FGs, 9-for-10 FTs) from smelling himself once again, trying to force errors by getting him to put the ball on the floor and not in the air.
    Only the Thunder (NBA-high 15.9 opponent TOs, 16.8 deflections & 9.4 loose-ball recoveries) get foes to make more mistakes than our pesky Hawks (15.8 opponent TOs). The good news for you, Minnesota, is that while Atlanta gives up (17.7 opponent PPG off TOs) nearly as much as they get (NBA-high 18.4 PPG off TOs, tied w/ OKC) from turnovers, the Thunder are masters of turnover transition (NBA-low 14.2 PPG off TOs). The less George contributes, the less this factor matters. So we’ll try to keep him out of foul trouble (team-high 2.9 PFs/game, tied w/ Adams).
    Shorthanded as the Hawks may be, they’ll have their full frontcourt complement in tow, including Tyler Cavanaugh (probable, ankle sprain) and Money Mike Muscala (career-high 19 points vs. CHI; 8-for-11 3FGs in last two games) to back up Dewayne Dedmon and probable All-Rookie snub John Collins (15-for23 2FGs in last three games). Hopefully for OKC, Collison, Patrick Patterson and rookie Dakari Johnson will be needed only to relieve Adams (16 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 22), not supplant him.
    For all the attention on you, Minnesota, Oklahoma City’s schedule is looking quite arduous as well. Houston, Toronto, Golden State and Boston are all on OKC’s docket among 11 consecutive games versus above-.500 clubs, a stretch that commences when the Thunder return home to deal with your fellow playoff-contending LA Clippers. They won’t get another gimme until their April 11 season finale, at home, versus the Grizzlies.
    The importance of making relatively easy wins relatively easy should not be lost on OKC. So, don’t worry about what we’re doing over here, Timberwolves. You take care of business on your end, and just help us help you achieve our mutual objectives.
    On that note: hey, Tom Thibodeau, this is no time to be out here tinkering with newcomers in your backcourt rotation. That task is for lottery-bound teams like our Hawks, not yours. You’re free to give D-Rose his obligatory 40 minutes per night… but only AFTER you clinch. Capisce?
    Let’s Go Hawks!