“Is THIS Your King???”
Soon, legions of amped-up fans will fill into their seats, building up a decisive advantage for Atlanta’s home team. Of course, we’re not talking about our dear Atlanta Hawks, although they will benefit tonight from a few less opponent-cheering fanboys in the Philips Arena seats, what with the Indiana Pacers in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana in Hoosierville). No, that will instead be the scene around the corner in a couple weeks from now, as Atlanta Unites in lockstep around its Soccer Club.
The fever pitch out on the pitch will take time to replicate on the Highlight Factory hardwood. But Travis Schlenk and company exude confidence that an offseason or two of fine-tuning is all it will take to turn Atlanta Hawks BC into a similar sensation as Atlanta United FC. In the meantime, noted futbol savant Dennis Schröder remains at center stage, trying to figure out if his best shot-making teammates headed to The Benz early.
Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Babbitt. Three veterans that sunk more than one three-pointer per night, each at a 37-percent-or-better clip, each while donning the chartreuse-and-red. All three are in new NBA locales as of this evening. In that trio’s place, we’ve got no-frills second-rounders and G-League-caliber talents (Andrew White, Tyler Dorsey, Isaiah Taylor, the status-questionable Malcolm Delaney, the rehabbing Tyler Cavanaugh, etc.) figuring things out on the fly.
This, all while big men Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins try their hands at long-distance sharpshooting for the first time in their natural lives, and while Taurean Prince (24 points, 4-for-11 3FGs vs. LAL during Monday’s loss; 16.3 3FG% in last six games) and Kent Bazemore (last 2 games: 0-for-5 3FGs, shoulda-been 8-for-11 on 2FGs but for Miles Plumlee) chuck-and-duck to their hearts’ content.
For a player who thrives almost exclusively on the offensive end of the floor, there is little wonder why Schröder, whose 24 years of age now serves as the median on the team, exits February averaging a mere 4.0 APG, down from a monthly peak of 7.0 per game back in December and inclusive of a whopping four total assists in his first two appearances since the All-Star Break.
While flawed himself, Schröder’s own shooting percentages are on an uptick (February: 43.7 FG%, 29.4 3FG%) compared to the nadir from the previous month (January: 40.2 FG%, 24.2 3FG%). They’ll have to continue improving for Atlanta (18-43, last in the East, 0.5 games behind Orlando) to stay in contention for occasional victories. That’s true even here at Philips, where Dennis is markedly more comfortable calling his own number (Home games: 46.5 FG%, 31.3 3FG%).
What Hawks fans could once boast of as the NBA’s “Best Bad Team” (not the same as, “The Best Team at Being Bad”), using statistical metrics or even just eye tests, is no more. Certainly, not with the departure of three veteran shooters from the roster, supplanted by youngsters with replacement-level skillsets. But that doesn’t mean they no longer have a shot against playoff-caliber competition. The Pacers, who just soundly defeated the Hawks in Indiana just last Friday, know this about as well as anyone.
Some Fans will be heartened to know that the Mavericks are 19-42, and not a league-worst 17-44, thanks to a pair of victories over the Pacers, most recently Monday’s 109-103 win in Dallas on Monday. To this point in the season, coach Nate McMillan’s crew has fattened up its win tally with an NBA-high 30 games versus teams with records presently below the .500 mark. Yet 9 of those contests have ended in defeat, including the Hornets, Lakers, Bulls, Knicks, and their playoff-hungry division rival Pistons (three times).
The only subpar team on the docket for Indy (34-26, still just 2.0 games behind 3-seed Cleveland) in their next ten games are these Hawks, who return to the Fieldhouse for another rematch on March 9. The Pacers know they must take care of business before the competition ramps up, especially on the road, as demonstrating a knack for pulling out away-games matters at playoff time.
But as was the case against the Mavs this week, when the Pacers are sluggish at contesting shots (53.8 opponent FG% in road games, tied-9th-highest in NBA; Dallas’ Doug McDermott and J.J. Barea combined 7-for-9 3FGs on Monday) and forcing turnovers (just 10 Maverick player TOs on Monday, matched by Prince and Schröder alone last Friday), when the starters find themselves over-reliant on Victor Oladipo scoring in the clutch (40.4% usage, 8th among active players; 26.3 clutch assist%, 7th among those top-8 players), and when their reserves fail to help rebound the ball (seven bench boards on Monday, matched by the Mavs’ Salah Mejri alone), they could find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard versus Betty White and Liz Taylor, never mind Andrew and Isaiah.
Oladipo led the Pacers with 13 of their 38 fourth-quarter points, but they failed to get stops when it mattered and came up short, granting their otherwise distracted opponents 41 points in that final frame and thus spoiling a promising outing from Myles Turner (24 points on 10-for-14 FGs, 3 blocks and 11 rebounds) after his lackluster start against Atlanta last weekend.
“We didn’t have enough energy and enough fight to get out too fast,” said Cory Joseph, still filling in for Darren Collison as a starting guard, to Monday’s postgame media, “and they (Mavs’ shooters) were knocking them down.” Pivoting to his team’s next game, Joseph had no problems seeing a nexus. “(Atlanta) doesn’t have a great record,” he noted, “but they’ve got a good team that plays together, plays hard. They’re a young team, so we’ve got to bring a lot of energy.”
If the Pacers play to their strengths, as they are capable, they will have little trouble keeping Schröder and the Hawks at bay. Alternatively, if their gameplan relies on Plumlee scoring some own goals on their behalf, they could find themselves in late-game trouble yet again. As Atlanta United fans are aware, you don’t want to let an important outcome, in a game versus an inferior opponent, come down to penalty kicks.
Let’s Go Hawks!