• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    lethalweapon3
     
    “What Ever Happened to Bebe, Jane?”
     
    Hey, Tank Mob! This game is for you. Ahead of today’s homestand-concluding game between your Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet in the GTA), I consulted a Ouija board, read through the tea leaves, shook the magic 8-ball thingy, and all indications that the Hawks end the day with some point total that’s less than Toronto’s is a stone-cold lead-pipe lock cinch, or whatever the degenerates call it in Vegas these days.
    The Raptors haven’t played since Saturday night, and they have previously logged double-digit victories over Charlotte and Phoenix following a three-day layoff. They’ve spent a couple fun-filled evenings in the ATL, including Wednesday night when the Hawks ran roughshod in the second half over a lifeless Utah Jazz team, and have had ample opportunity to scout out the Hawks firsthand. That game prep doesn’t include watching tape of the prior meetings, both washouts at the hands of the Raptors.
    There was the 112-78 singeing of the Hawks on this Philips Arena floor, back on November 25, where Atlanta struggled to find shooters capable of keeping up with a balanced Toronto team. All-Star DeMar DeRozan (2 points, 8 assists) wasn’t even one of the seven Raptors who ended that evening in double figures. But he made of for that the next time the clubs met, scoring 25 points to fend off a game Taurean Prince (30 points, 10 rebounds) as his Serge Ibaka-less Raptors prevailed, 111-98, at Air Canada Centre.
    No one in the Eastern Conference is particularly hot at present, as the Hawks are tied for the East’s longest winning streak, at 1. Blinded somewhat by their opponents’ hi-liter jerseys, the Raptors lost their last game in Minnesota back on Saturday, and have dropped three of their last five contests, and four of their past seven. But with Boston sliding back to the conference fold with four straight defeats, and Cleveland and Washington doing whatever the heck they’ve been up to, this is no time for Toronto (31-14) to start slipping around.
    Victory tonight for the Raptors might not only move them within a half-game of the Celtics, who are back in Staples tonight to deal with the Clippers, but it would all but certainly sew up an All-Star Game appointment for head coach Dwane Casey.
    His players have bought in to his promoted “culture change”, from DeRozan extending his shooting range, to his All-Star sidekick Kyle Lowry ceding minutes to the youngsters coming off the bench, to the team doing away with the stifling iso-heavy offense and spreading the ball. The Raptors’ seven leading scorers are each shooting between 35 and 40 percent on three-pointers, inclusive of center Jonas Valanciunas, who hoists a perimeter shot once every couple games.
    Now, Toronto is on the verge of becoming the favorites in the East altogether. They have the best in-conference record in the East (19-6). They’re above-.500 on the road (14-11), and a home-friendly balance of the regular season schedule awaits their return to Air Canada Centre, where they’re 17-3. Their point-margin average (+7.3) is far and away superior to Boston’s +4.4. And (this one’s for you out there in the Tank Mafia), Toronto’s record versus NBA clubs presently sitting below-.500 is a league-best 18-2. The sole slip-ups: at New York on the day before Thanksgiving, at Dallas on the day after Christmas.
    Suffice to say, this would be a horrible time for the Raptors to kickstart a losing skid with a head-scratching loss at the Highlight Factory. Now, none of the above is to say that Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks (-3.1 Net Rating in January, 20th in NBA, better than Milwaukee and NBA-worst Cleveland) will simply mail it in and weather a third-consecutive blowout loss to these guys. If the final point spread narrows significantly tonight, here’s what is likely to unfold:
    Toronto shows up a little lead-legged after so many days of media interviews and reading their own press clippings, and the Hawks catch them off-guard to start the game. Pace, in and of itself, doesn’t make this Atlanta outfit successful, as they’re just 2-11 (no wins since November 5) in their 13 highest-paced affairs (as per bball-ref). But if a rekindled Prince (17 points, 2-for-4 3FGs, 3 steals vs. UTA) and Kent Bazemore (3-for-5 3FGs, plenty of deflections, 2 steals vs. UTA) are beating the visitors down the floor in transition for open jumpers and easy scores, it could be a long night for the Raps, and the Tankmaniacs. Supporting-cast guys come into the game unfocused, notably OG Anunoby, the rookie forward who drew the ire of Coach Bud (touching off an exchange of bon mots with a defensive Casey) after he padded the final score with a dunk off a steal in December’s game. While a decent defensive player, Anunoby has averaged just 2.3 PPG (23.5 FG%) in his past four starts. He’ll need to center his mind on the basket, the ball and the game action, and not the guys in suits on the sideline. The Raptors get undersold on the Hawks’ season-long rebounding woes, and start getting gashed on the glass. They allowed the eight different Wolves to grab 15 O-Rebs on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jazz entered the game on Monday expecting easy pickings but were unprepared for the dual attack of Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins (combined 7 O-Rebs, 16 boards total) off the bench. Toronto will need Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and our old friend Bebe Nogueira to come in ready to box out and securing the ball on both ends of the court. The Hawks keep the game close through three-and-a-half quarters, and the old Raptor habit of a ball-sticking heroball offense resurfaces. Toronto has been in clutch situations 22 times this season, and their assist rate on possessions in those scenarios plummets to 32.7 percent (29th in NBA), worse than only Victor Oladipo’s Pacers. Throw in a “clutch” 70.3 D-Reb% (28th in NBA, just ahead of Al Horford’s Celtics) and that contributes to an underwhelming minus-5.6 Net Rating at crunch time. Fail to rebound, fail to keep the ball moving, and commit a few unforced errors, and this game could get uncomfortably tight… for some. But, unless several of these things happen, it should be smooth-sailing for those of us in the Tankinati. I suggest using the time between tip-off and the final score not stressing out. Instead, flip the channel, and binge-watching reruns of some of those shows you need to catch up on (if “This Is Us” is one of them, I highly recommend skipping the past Crock-Pot scene.) Or better yet, get down to The Highlight Factory, kill some time gorging on some cricket tacos, and spend the moments before the final buzzer exploring the wonders of the arena’s finest porcelain facilities.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Life moves pretty fast, Shareef…”
     
    Putting the “tank” in “stank” with lousy perimeter shooting and lousier interior defense against the Bulls on Saturday, our Atlanta Hawks have licked their wounds and will try to return to the winning column tonight versus the Utah Jazz (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain in SLC), a team where many budding NBA careers have gone to grow stale. But, perhaps, not for much longer?
    The steam you see rising out west is coming from California, where the O’Neal household is miffed about Shaquille’s son, Shareef, not making the cut for the heralded McDonald’s All-American High School Boys Team last week. “It hurt, a lot, actually,” Reef told ItsOvertime.com, “because that was a childhood dream for me.”
    Various and sundry FOSses (Friends of Shaq) within the NBA universe reached out via the social media stratosphere to express their resentment of the folks beneath the Golden Arches, for snubbing the Arizona commit. Recent retiree Matt Barnes, unsurprisingly, was most vociferous in his e-displeasure, insisting he and his children will stage a boycott of McNuggets, a protest that ought to work out well for his kids in the long run. Do they still use pink foam for that stuff?
    Shareef don’t like it. But he should understand that getting named to that select prep squad is not all it’s cracked up to be. If anything, it’s not a bellwether of future pro stardom. All-NBA talents from Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Jimmy Butler to Paul George, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard are still trying to figure out how their invitations got lost in the mail. And roll back the calendar just nine years ago. Sure, Boogie Cousins made the team, as did Lance Stephenson. But, hey, so did Bud-faves Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
    Neither is such an honor insurance of lasting fandom. If you ask nicely, Reef, I’ll bet you Derrick Favors will let you borrow his MVP trophy from the 2009 Mickie D’s All-American Game (the 2018 game will be right here at Philips Arena, on March 28). The former South Atlanta High and Georgia Tech phenom can assure you, as he has learned, that winning that award, and even becoming a #3-overall draft pick, doesn’t make you all that and a bag of fries.
    Sure, Favors is still starting in the league, so he deserves a break today. But since getting picked third-overall by New Jersey in the summer of 2010, then dealt mere months later to Salt Lake City in the aftermath of the Jerry Sloan-Deron Williams nuke-fest, heightened expectations by Jazzfans of Favors (12.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG) someday blossoming into superstardom have given way to merely being satisfied if he can be anything more than a role player from one night to the next.
    The player Utah drafted in 2009 that eventually did turn into something like a phenomenon, Gordon Hayward, departed for Boston last season, turning the heat lamp more squarely in Favors’ direction. On the floor, he’s aided by Ricky Rubio (team-high 4.8 APG), the once-hyped point guard whose jury is no longer just out, they’ve rendered their verdict and gone home to spend time with their families.
    Unable to stretch his range or move the rock like many of his positional peers, Favors is finding himself subbed at turns by former Hawks star Joe Johnson (41.6 FG%, lowest since 2002-03), by Jonas Jerebko (team-high 43.4 3FG%), and by Joe Ingles (42.7 3FG%, 4.3 APG), each of whom exceed Favors by several years of global hoops mileage. That’s to say nothing of Thabo Sefolosha, who was getting minutes as a small-ball four before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury.
    Since Favors’ arrival, lottery picks and draft-day acquisitions by the Jazz haven’t fared much better. Enes Kanter is despised in SLC more than anywhere on Earth, and that’s saying something. Former All-Rookie 1st-Teamer Trey Burke is just happy to be getting minutes somewhere. Armed with a ten-million dollar salary from the Jazz, Alec Burks is getting yo-yo’d in and out of the G-League. Dante Exum (shoulder) can’t seem to get back on the NBA hardwood, while Trey Lyles waited until he was dealt to rival Denver to start showing out.
    A decade full of dampened dreams are gnawing on Jazzfans’ patience, even though Player Whisperer and head coach Quin Snyder runs the show. One season after being treated to 51 wins (with Hayward) and a Conference Semifinals appearance, fans have grown unnerved as Utah (19-27) subsides. Their frustrations with promising players failing to emerge recently boiled over in a way that could some day harm the team’s chances of keeping their most exciting rookie guard since the days of Dr. Dunkenstein.
    Like the legendary Darrell Griffith, Donovan Mitchell (team-high 19.3 PPG) leapt and bounded his way out of Louisville, eager to prove wrong prognosticators that urged passing on the high-flying shooting guard due to his 6-foot-3 height. While Mitchell was getting acclimated to the pro game, and while center Rudy Gobert (minutes-monitored after a recent return from knee soreness) struggled through injuries, fourth-year guard Rodney Hood (career-high 16.7 PPG; career-low 43.7 2FG%) took the mantle and carried the scoring load for the Jazz at the outset of the season.
    But Hood’s hot start was unsustainable, and when his jumper tailed off (30.0 3FG% this month), his skeptical home fans serenaded him last week with audible boos. That didn’t sit well with Mitchell, the reigning Rookie of the Month (and, it should be noted, a 2015 McDonald’s “snub”, unlike our old friend Diamond Stone) who replaced Hood in Snyder’s starting lineup back in November. “Can’t believe people were booing Rodney tonight,” the rookie tweeted last Monday, following a 15-point loss to Indiana. “…for people to boo him is insane.”
    Further defending Hood (out tonight, due to a sore knee) Mitchell added in all-caps, “WE ARE BETTER THAN THAT!”, his inclusive “WE” referring to those apparently transplanted Eagles fans in the arena stands. Once his rookie deal expires and extensions run out, might Mitchell “Take Note” as to how Utah’s fans sour on young players, like him, once they have seemingly regressed or leveled off? (Former Jazz draft-and-tradee Taurean Prince, consider yourself a lucky man.)
    That subset of Jazzmen includes Favors, still just 26 years of age, who has gone out of his way to re-emphasize his personal joy of playing in the Beehive State over the years. The once-grateful sentiments from the fanbase have worn thin for Favors, in the aftermath of Paul Millsap and Hayward leaving. No longer waiting for him to step up, fans are urging Dennis Lindsey and the Utah brass to help Favors step out, before February 8’s trade deadline arrives.
    While Mitchell adds dashes of excitement, Utah as a team has been slow at the start of the first (minus-10.2 1st quarter Net Rating, 28th in NBA) and second halves (minus-8.3 3rd quarter Net Rating, 26th in NBA), but eventually strives to gain traction (2nd in Net Rating in 2nd quarters; 6th in the 4th quarters). Those rankings are low even with Saturday’s home win, where the Jazz outscored the Clippers 39-29 in the opening frame and held serve in the third along the way to a 125-113 victory.
    To help slow opponents’ rolls, Utah will rely heavily on Gobert and Ekpe Udoh (1.9 steals and 2.9 blocks per-36, DNP-CD vs. LAC) to seal off the rim from drive-heavy players like Dennis Schröder (17.6 drives per game, 2nd in NBA), especially if they can afford to abandon their man while defending in the paint. They also depend a lot on the late-game guile of veterans like Ingles (4 steals vs. LAC), Jerebko and Joe, so as not to overload the trio of Mitchell, Gobert and Rubio in crunch time.
    Schröder will have to weather the storm in the halfcourt by relying on a mid-range game that betrayed him at times versus Chicago. But he and the Hawks can get to the rim, unencumbered by their slower and injury-addled opponents, by initiating a fastbreak and transition offense. The Jazz (27th in pace) have been stout defensively in these categories, but not so much on the road, where their record (5-18) almost mirrors Atlanta’s NBA-low of 4-19.
    Dennis has been effective in finding open teammates (20 assists, 1 TO in past two games), but the Hawks will find themselves behind the 8-ball repeatedly if they don’t hit those shots, especially versus strong defensive-rebounding teams like Chicago (81.1 D-Reb%, 3rd in NBA) and Utah (79.2 D-Reb%, tied-6th in NBA). Favors has been out of rotations at the ends of Jazz games, but he can be integral to another good start by keeping his fellow ’09 All-American Plumlee off the glass from the start, freeing up Gobert to help with blocks on the defensive end.
    Shareef already knows he is likely unable to fill his father’s sizable shoes, but he needs to chart his own unique course into, and through, the pros. To be in a position where he’ll be coveted by the likes of the Jazz and the Hawks in the future, he needs to stray as far away from anything associated with McDonald’s for a while. If he’s unconvinced, he could ask for tapes of Daddy Diesel playing in his thirties.
     
    In closing… It’s Tank Karaoke Time! Kick it, Bud!
     
    “Para drafta Mo Bamba, para drafta Mo Bamba,
    Marvin Bagley, una Luka, Trae, Musa
    Una Luka, Trae, Musa, para mi, para ti
    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Porter, okay?
    Porter, okay! O, DeAndre!”
     
    “Tu no pick Marvin Williams
    Tu no pick Marvin Williams, ‘kay, Travis-san?
    ‘kay Travis-san? Draft mi Ayton!”
     
    “Mo, Mo, Bamba
    Isaac Bonga
    Mo, Mo Bamba… Bam!”
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Now DIFF iff a contfeth I can ffink my FEEFTH intfoo!”
     
    The Atlanta Hawks continue their thrilling homestand by facing off with the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in The Chi) in a 2020 Eastern Conference Finals preview. We might as well go ahead and speak it into existence.
    Once LeBron is bawling outta control with the Clippers, Giannis gives hints he won’t be around America’s Dairyland much longer, Porzingis retires his tired body early, and Kyrie finally starts resembling Uncle Drew, by 2020, it could come down to which of the two teams on the Philips Arena court today add the right pieces and gel the quickest.
    If only Garpax can get out of its own way. No more absurd deals from the two-headed management monster, like the four-year, $32 million one handed out to backup pivot Cristiano Felicio, who is spending the day with Paul Zipser in G-League Wisconsin. No more buyouts of well-worn ex-All-Stars brought in to impart veteran “wisdom.” No more dumping Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for a run at Cameron Payne.
    Just find a way to keep 2018 restricted free agent Zach LaVine from getting Hardawayed out of town, continue to develop talent like lotto rookie Lauri Markkanen, give coach Fred Hoiberg room to instill his offensive schemes, bada boom, bada bing, conference finals, here we come.
    After the seeming success of drafting Lauri Legend (17.7 PPG, 47.2 3FG% and 8.2 RPG in last ten games) last summer, there are fans who would enjoy the Bulls (17-28; 14-8 since bottoming out at 3-20) taking another dip in the lottery tank. But losing skids are on hold in Chi-town until Nikola Mirotic finds himself in a new NBA home.
    Since returning from a preseason-practice face-bashing courtesy of teammate Bobby Portis, Mirotic (team-high 17.7 PPG, 45.7 3FG%. 6.8 RPG) quietly does his bidding, coming in off the bench, getting his buckets and boards, and sitting back down on his hands, the Bulls winning 13 of the 20 games in which he has appeared. He has made it clear he wants to be as far from Portis and his fisticuffs as possible, before the NBA trade deadline arrives, and simply moving Portis won’t satisfy him.
    Chicago also has LaVine back for the first time this season, although Hoiberg and the staff is limiting their future lead scorer’s playing time to 24 minutes (preserving time for the fourth quarter) as he returns from ACL surgery.
    Acquiring LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Markkanen in exchange for former star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton, is shaping up to be a boon going forward for Coach Fred and the Bulls. That’s especially true if LaVine returns this summer, after he and the Bulls failed to hammer out an extension deal last fall. Much like Atlanta with Dennis Schröder, the surge up the standings for Chicago (13.0 opponent TOs/game, last in NBA) in future seasons will coincide with LaVine’s commitment to strengthening his defensive imprint.
    For the Hawks (13-31), January used to be the time of year when Joe Johnson, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap would elevate their play, each making a final push to be considered by the league’s coaches deliberating over their All-Star reserve choices.
    Now, I don’t love L.A. quite like Randy Newman did. But even though the Hawks are momentarily languishing in The Gutter of the Eastern Conference, and nobody from around here will be checking in to give LeBron and Giannis a spell, there are a few Hawks I’d like to see dancing their way into All-Star Weekend festivities in La-La Land.
    They might be wearing different jerseys by the time they arrive, but either of Marco Belinelli (4.7  3FGAs/game, 38.7 3FG%) or Ersan Ilyasova (40.5 3FG%) ought to get consideration for the Somebody’s Bluetooth Headphones Three-Point Shooutout. It would be the third appearance for Belly (2014 champion) and the first for Thrillyasova.
    After dropping a cool buck-fifty (career-high-tying 15 regulation dimes! TEN in the second half! ZERO turnovers! Nice defense, Rondo!) on the Pelicans Thursday, Schröder (career-high 36.3 assist%, 9th in NBA) seems like a perfect candidate to return to the They Make Taco Shells Outta Eggs These Days Skills Challenge. For all that is holy, Menace, don’t blow the layup!
    With 17 monstrous Almost Dunks as whoa-inducing as his 72 made ones (as per bball-ref), rookie John Collins ought to get a call for the Can You Hear Me Now Slam Dunk Contest. He’s also a lock to be on the USA roster for the Caffeinated Livewire Sugarbomb in a Skinny Can Rising Stars Game. Although, with the American side lacking girth, it appears Jean Baptiste could get stuck with an unfortunate matchup, should Joel Embiid elect to do double-duty that weekend on behalf of Team World. Skip the Friday night events, Rihanna.
    With just ten rookie-sophs on each roster, there’s a tight squeeze for a final roster spot on the USA team, and Taurean Prince (12.4 PPG & 5.4 RPG , 8th & 5th among second-year players, respectively) still has a chance to thread the needle.
    To make Taurean Goes to Hollywood a reality, the Hawks swingman must find a way to shed his recent slump (32.9 FG% and 2.4 TOs/game in last 8 games; two total FTAs in his last 5 games) and outshine a collection of Baby Bulls, notably Kris (“Kwithf!”) Dunn (13.7 PPG) and Denzel Valentine (5.4 RPG), who get the benefit of a bigger-market push. Attacking the rim on cuts and drives more frequently, and disallowing missed shots from affecting his energy in transition, will go a long way for Prince to help himself earn a trip to Cali.
    Similar to the Pelicans, done in by a Bazebomb in Wednesday evening’s 94-93 thriller at The Highlight Factory, the Bulls come into Atlanta with limited depth, although Chicago won’t be playing off a 3-in-4 night overtime-filled stretch, not like New Orleans. Dunn’s under concussion protocol and getting his fronts fixed after taking a post-dunk spill during Tuesday’s 119-112 home loss to the Draymond-less Warriors. Payne has been out all season after foot surgery, while LaVine is minutes-limited.
    That leaves the Bulls’ ten-deep, and Hoiberg will lean on a committee that includes ex-Hawks draftee Jerian Grant, ex-Hawk Justin Holiday, Valentine, David Nwaba and LaVine to slow Schröder’s rolls to the hoop. There is minimal rim protection beyond Robin Lopez (0.9 BPG and 4.9 RPG, lowest since 2011-12) for the Bulls (18.8 opponent FGs per game within 5 feet, 6th-most in NBA), something Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Prince should seek to exploit.
    I can see it now: Dennis Schröder takes the dribble hand-off from Jaren Jackson, Jr. and flies to the hoop for the conference semifinals’ series-clinching layup in Game 7. As he returns triumphantly to the floor, Schröder turns to Orlando’s Luka Doncic and whispers, “Sorry, kiddo. It’s just not your time yet!”
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    Saint That a Shame?
     
    Our Atlanta Hawks seek to make it two Ws in a row for the just second time… **gulp**… this season, as they face a resurgent New Orleans… **cough, ahem**… Pelicans team (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports N’Awlins) at The Highlight Factory.
    New Orleans… **giggle, snort**… comes in after a huge overtime win in Boston tonight, looking for… **smirk**… their fourth straight victory for the first… **lol, lmao**… okay, I’m sorry, Hawks fans, bear with me for a minute.
    We interrupt this game thread to ask a very important question.
    AINTS fans! Where y’at?
    Spectacularly blowing a lead with 61 yards of defensive room and only ten seconds left? Who Dat? More like, Who DOES Dat? No, seriously, what happened, y’all?
    New Orleans, Lose-iana: were you not the townsfolk who couldn’t seem to mind their own dadgum business, with all the incessant 28-to-3 jokes? Banners flying over that substandard Mercedes Benz stadium that’s domed so nobody inside can see them, Lame halftime dancers on the field pepping up their fans by forming some midgame score from a Super Bowl their team didn’t even participate in (y’all fans remember making it to a Super Bowl, right? I know, it’s been a minute.)
    Wide receivers rocking pregame tees with the score in black-and-old-gold? As if that score had anything to do with you? All those “28-3 Merry Xmas” signs? Well how now, brown cow? “24-23 0:10 Happy MLK Day!” There’s a five-letter word Antonio Brown has for this, but I’m forgetting, what’s it called?
    There’s no telling which millennium we’ll be in when the Falcons win their first Super Bowl. But when it happens, please, Atlanta, don’t let it blow up our coaches’ heads the way it does Sean Payton’s. Seriously, what is it with this guy? One little Bountygate-fueled Lombardi Trophy, and now his head is all inflated like a Foxboro football. Choke signs at Devonta, really? (I know, you got selective amnesia about that, Seanie.  I would, too!) Postgame chest-chopping Dirk Koetter (WOO!), of all people, like you’re Ric Fricking Flair?
    You’d have thought an inflated-head coach would have learned his lessons, after acting pretend-tough and getting humbled by the Falcons AND the Bucs. But no, not you, Petty Payton!
    As the final seconds ticked on what should have been a stone-cold lock Aints victory, Showoff Sean got caught taking a moment to turn toward the Vikings fans (Minnesota, we owe you guys at least twice now) and gloat, mocking them with their own “Skol!” chant. Then Marcus Williams, perhaps inspired by his coach, does a Ric Flair strut of his own, instead of properly defending a simple out-route to Stefon Diggs. I promise I won’t strip down like D’Angelo and show off my one-pack flab, but I must turn to ask you, Coach: How Does It Feeeeeeel?
    Your Big Easy town has ONE major sports championship. Guess what: we have one too! And Atlanta got its trophy fifteen years before you. But you would never know it from hearing us open our big yaps, would ya? Take a hint, stay in yo lane, and get the Falcon over yourselves!
    Okay, that’s off my chest. Now, where were we… oh yeah, it’s their basketball team that’s coming to town. I wonder how many Saints will be watching the Hawks instead of preparing for the Eagles.
    As if the Philips Arena seats weren’t going to be vacant enough for a midweek January tilt between the Hawks and Pellies. There’s more than one transplant troll who was all set to show up tonight bearing those unbearable 28-3 signs, decked out in black-and-shiny-gold attire, strutting around with a parasol behind Jerome and The Stinger for his soon-to-be NFC Champions.
    Now? Yeah, the frigid, icy weather outside is matching their Aint-fan souls on the inside. Where their etouffee-eating butts would have been, expect a few additional empty chairs on display as these NBA teams take the floor.
    Okay, okay… onto the Pelicans. Don’t let the Aints’ woes distract you from the fact that a 2-11 Hawks team blew a pair of two-touchdown leads, one in each half, along with a four-point lead with under two minutes to play at the Smoothie King Center in November.
    A pair of jumpshots from Kent Bazemore (team-highs of 22 points and 7 assists @ NOP on 11/13) helped Atlanta seize the momentum back before halftime. But Baze’s last-ditch three-point attempt was blocked by Jrue Holiday to seal the 106-105 victory for the Pelicans, a game New Orleans led for barely over three minutes (Atlanta for over forty minutes) of the contest.
    You can forgive the NOPes if they come into tonight’s contest a bit road-weary. They took the Eastern Conference leading Celtics into OT and prevailed last night by a 116-113 score, but had little time to waste in getting, first, to Logan and, then, to an ice-glazed Hartsfield-Jackson, checking into their beds after 3:00 AM last night.
    After toppling New York and Boston, sweeping the 3-game road swing with a win over Atlanta would give the Bayou Birds not only their first four-game win streak of the season, it would also place them four games above .500 for the first time in 2017-18.
    A home-friendly schedule to close out January could keep the momentum going further, as New Orleans (23-20) hopes to catch Russell Westbrook and the OK3 (24-20) for the fifth slot in the Western Conference playoff chase. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry needs to be concerned, though, with making sure his team doesn’t run out of NO3.
    Can surefire MVP candidate Anthony Davis (career-highs of 58.9 2FG%, 34.7 3FG%, 82.1 FT%) crank out at least 40-and-15 for the third consecutive game? That points-rebounds combo is a feat that has been accomplished just 341 times by NBA players since 1963, as per basketball-reference, but on nine occasions already by the 24-year-old Davis (45-and-16 @ BOS yesterday; 48-and-17 @ NYK on Sunday). This includes another pair of consecutive back-to-back games in October 2016.
    From bball-ref, the last player I can see who went for 40-and-15 in consecutive contests was Yung Shaq (November 1994). The only other NBA player to notch 40-and-15 twice this season? Davis’ Twin Tower in the frontcourt, DeMarcus Cousins.
    It’s kind of a pity that Gentry must lean so heavily on Unibrow (36.0 MPG), Cousins (career-high 36.1 MPG), and guard Jrue Holiday (36.9 MPG, most since his 2013 All-Star season). The trio combined for over 128 minutes last night in Beantown. That’s just two days after running the floor for a cumulative 130 minutes at MSG, to also outlast the Knicks in OT.
    They’ve got young legs, to be sure, but you can tell Cousins (25.4 PPG, 2.2 3FGs/game, 12.7 RPG, 5.1 APG) is deliberately pacing himself. Watch your TV screen whenever Boogie (assuming he plays today) makes an outlet pass, turns the ball over, blows a layup, or turns to the refs to plead after a non-whistle. Watch him disappear, completely, from your camera’s view as his teammates scamper down the court, 4-on-5, either in fastbreak offense (NOP: 6th in pace, 10th in fastbreak points, 19th in points per-48 off TOs) or transition defense (NOP opponents: 5th-most fastbreak points per-48, 7th-most points per-48 off TOs). Count the number of times he never even shows up in the picture.
    Yes, Cuz is loafing, especially when he sags on opponents’ pick-and-rolls, but it appears to be by design, with permission implicitly granted by Gentry. Cousins plays such an active role in the halfcourt offense that he prefers to conserve his energies while doing pretty much anything else. He recognizes this is all the effort needed to reach the playoffs for the first time in his 8-year NBA career, and he wants to be in decent condition by the time the dogwoods break out.
    One can imagine Gentry wants to alleviate Holiday (career-highs of 18.5 PPG, 57.6 2FG%) and his pinball-tilting pair of star bigs, if only he had a roster that could go more than two lines deep. Jameer Nelson is out on personal leave, while rookie guard Frank Jackson (broken foot) won’t return for a couple more weeks. Neither will the brutally overpaid Solomon Hill (hamstring), who may make his first appearance this season after the All-Star break, nor will Tony Allen. The Grindfather had a setback in his recovery from a fractured fibula and won’t get on the floor until New Orleans returns home.
    That leaves Gentry to turn to Ian Clark, Darius Miller, Dante Cunningham, Cheick Diallo and Omer Asik to serve cleanup duties for the starters, which include Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore. New Orleans’ Big Three usually needs at least one of these residual Pelicans to go off to have success on a given night. Given the mileage their stars have logged, N’Awlins may need at least two Pellie-pellets to help secure victory tonight.
    Back in November, they’d have blown the home game versus Atlanta without Miller’s 21 points (5-for-8 3FGs) to supplement Moore’s game-high 24 (11-for-18 FGs). Last night, the task fell to Clark, who managed 15 bench points in almost 32 minutes, including the final 18.5 minutes before Holiday could put the game on ice with a pair of weakly-contested mid-range jumpers.
    Christmas is long past, but Atlanta (12-31; 4 straight Ws when holding opponents to double-digits) must Run Run like Rudolph for 48 minutes, and make the Pelicans reel like a merry-go-round. A full team defensive effort will be needed by Dennis Schröder (5-for-14 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs @ NOP; 26 points, 5 D-Rebs, 7 assists in Monday’s win over the Kawhi-less Spurs) and the Hawks (18.8 points per-48 off TOs, 3rd in NBA), putting pressure on Rondo and Cousins to issue wild passes, and on Davis and Holiday to put the ball on the floor and up for grabs.
    The Pelicans were looking pretty good the last time Davis was on this arena floor, a 112-94 blowout win that could have been even wider had Davis not crashed into the stands WWE-style while pursuing a loose ball. Some hoop-wonks at Inpredictable.com have created a new “Win Shares”-style measure called “Win Probability Added” (WPA), and Davis’ 4.99 WPA outpaces the entire NBA field. For kicks and giggles, would you venture a guess as to who leads the Hawks in this probabilistic category?
    Your Bologna-born baller has a first name, and it’s M-A-R-C-O! The former New Orleans Hornet, Marco Belinelli (4-for-6 3FGs and 4 steals @ NOP on 11/13) has a 2.37 WPA which ranks 25th in the league, ahead of such notables as LaMarcus Aldridge, Otto Porter, Nikola Mirotic, and Al Horford. Aside from Harrison Barnes and Dirk, Polo’s WPA is the highest among anybody not playing on a Top-8 team. Just putting his business on Front Street, for all you data-loving NBA GMs lurking for trades out there.
    Even with Davis tilting at shots in the paint the last time these two teams met, the Pelicans had little answer for Atlanta’s big men, including then-starter Dewayne Dedmon (5-for-5 FGs in just 13 minutes @ NOP), John Collins (6-for-10 FGs), or even Tyler Cavanaugh (6-for-7 FGs, incl. 4-for-4 3FGs). Miles Plumlee and the Hawks’ bigs must avoid drawing cheap defensive fouls that let Davis and Cousins pad their boxscore stats while allowing their teammates to catch their collective breath.
    Here’s hoping the True To Atlanta fans who brave the arctic temperatures downtown are treated to an entertaining evening, regardless of the final outcome on the scoreboard. As for any New Orleans fans at the game, if you need to stay warm, there’s a Starbucks in the food court… oh, wait, on second thought, never mind. Coffee is for Closers.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “MIIIIIILES PLUMLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!”
     
    Arriving in the mid-1990s, my first place of residence in Atlanta had no sunlight coming through the front windows.
    The rear windows allowed a picturesque view of the late John Portman’s stylized downtown skyline, almost exactly the one popularized in postcards and on TV shows. But by the time the sun’s light creeped through those windows, after work, it was already setting in the west behind those hulking skyscrapers.
    For the first year of my life in Atlanta, the imposing multi-story structure across the street shadowed my humble, 60-year-old studio apartment, the factory’s broad windows and former entrances solidly boarded. One fading word on that building gave a hint of its past glories: “Scripto”. The world-famous writing pen and butane lighter company was an Atlanta institution, with nearly a thousand workers at this plant for over four decades before moving to the OTP ‘burbs in 1977.
    Not long after the factory and office buildings were shuttered, the daylight was about the best thing anyone could hope for while living in that area. Here was the makeup of the block around this defunct building: a probably-unlicensed taxi company; a five-dollar barber shop; maybe the Northern Hemisphere’s last speakeasy; a tire repair company and storage lot; a pool hall; and a “dance” club, where there was more standing around and posturing than legit dancing.
    Surrounding this block: weathered, poorly-managed apartments; trap houses whose tales would soon make rappers famous; and Fulton County’s drug and alcohol treatment center, a package store within view of its front windows.
    The area around the Scripto building slept during the day, but the streets and their inhabitants came “alive” at night, especially on Friday and Saturday nights in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If, by, “alive,” you could count beat-heavy music bumping from cars, and ladies-of-the-evening, a few of them actual ladies, negotiating with suspiciously slow passers-by through their car windows.
    Bitter, boisterous, bullet-riddled arguments over lost wagers and bargained wages, were de rigeur on weekends under the moonlight. This scene wasn’t all that unfamiliar, I suppose fortunately, to Atlanta’s newest arrival from Philadelphia. Still, my one place of solace lied just two blocks south, at a tomb, surrounded by a reflecting pool, containing the remains of Atlanta’s, and America’s, most prominent civil and human rights advocate, situated between the church he and his father once led, and his birth home.
    This area was not always this way. It would not be for much longer.
    In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Oslo, Norway, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace. The day after flying home from Scandinavia, the Nobel Laureate joined members of his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, marching in the Sweet Auburn streets with striking workers from the nearby Scripto Pen Company plant, demanding equal pay for both its skilled and nonskilled laborers.
    The year of ’64 was a pretty big one in the City Too Busy To Hate. Just days before King marched with the Scripto picketers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the owner of a hotel just across the freeway from the plant. In a landmark case, the Court found that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution allowed Congress to compel private businesses like his to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted earlier that summer. Many downtown businesses, notably Rich’s Department Store, were already taking the hint by then, thanks to student sit-in protests like the one in 1960 at Rich’s, where King was arrested.
    Atlanta’s public schools, like the all-black high school right down the street from Scripto that was celebrating multi-sport star and recent graduate Walt Frazier, were in their third year of wrangling over the federally-mandated demands to desegregate in earnest.
    Atlanta civic leaders, led by mayor Ivan Allen, were also pushing to become a major-league sports town in the early 1960s, but America’s pro sports associations were dealing with the stark realities of newly integrated teams needing to travel, lodge, and eat together.
    To facilitate the relocation of baseball star Hank Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves to The South, the city turned to a pair of local Jewish immigrant brothers turned hotel magnates, who constructed the Americana Motor Hotel downtown. Its opening years were marked by Klan demonstrations, and the resistant racists setting a fire in one hotel owner’s driveway, a scene similar to the cross-burning in King’s lawn a couple years before.
    But Dr. King and civil rights leaders, unintimidated, convened meetings and stayed at the Americana, even before it officially opened in 1962. The hotel deliberately featured no water fountains, since the city’s ordinance still required those amenities to remain segregated.
    By the spring of 1964, construction of Atlanta Stadium was underway, and the hospitality at the Americana would help convince MLB to move the Braves south. It wouldn’t be much longer before a pro basketball team from St. Louis would come east.
    In January of 1964, King was named Time’s Man of the Year. That same month, a collection of NBA All-Stars, including St. Louis Hawks draftees Bill Russell and Wayne Embry, threatened to strike and not participate in the game, if owners continued not to recognize the players’ union and its demands for worker accommodations like pensions. Facing the prospect of national embarrassment as minutes ticked by on their first nationally-televised event, the struggling league’s owners and commissioner relented.
    King may very well have been inspired by the bold 1964 NBA players’ boycott, as by the year’s end, he was touting the need for civil rights to expand its scope beyond public accommodations to issues of collective bargaining with local governments and private industry. In a TV interview discussing the Scripto strike that December, King declared: “We have decided that now is the time to identify our movement very closely with labor,” adding, “There will be many more to follow.”
    The Scripto strike and the national boycott of its products, promoted by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proved successful within a matter of weeks. All employees were granted Christmas bonuses and wage increases, and Scripto’s CEO and other business leaders begrudgingly attended the city’s formal celebration of their newest Nobel Laureate. But the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement, under King, into matters of labor, industry and, soon, war-making, unnerved people across the sociopolitical spectrum.
    An array of “Stay In Yo Lane”-style warnings from Malcolm X to J. Edgar Hoover flooded into King, some cautions more threatening than others. Hoover’s malicious missive to King, masqueraded under the guise of an angry Black citizen, was typed shortly after King was announced as a Nobel Prize winner, yet King returned from Oslo to support the picketers anyway. An AP photographer who followed MLK during that time, and snapped a picture of him with the Scripto strikers, was forewarned by her mother. “Honey, be careful. I’m afraid, someday, someone’s going to try to kill that man.”
    The mother’s concerns proved prescient. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, 50 years ago this April, while in town convening with striking sanitation workers.
    Near coincidentally, just a month later, Atlanta developer Thomas Cousins and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders announced the St. Louis Hawks would come to play in King’s grieving city in the fall of 1968. Until a new arena could be built, the Hawks would hoop it up at a coliseum at Georgia Tech, the Deep South’s first higher-education institution to peacefully integrate without a court order.
    The wild-west-meets-dirty-south nature of the neighborhood I moved to in 1995 would change drastically within a few years, thanks to an oft-tempestuous but eventually productive relationship between divergent King Family members and the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) to expand the King National Historic Site from Auburn Avenue to Freedom Parkway.
    The Scripto factory and surrounding buildings were cleared by the time of the Olympic Games, and the roughneck street became the tranquil parking entryway for the historic site, with its new museum, Gandhi statue, civil rights walk of fame, and Ebenezer church building.
    The King Center eventually became the nation’s most-visited site under NPS management. Signing a bill by Congressman John Lewis, the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, the President formally designated the memorial site an upgraded National Historical Park, the first in the state of Georgia, just days ago.
    What’s in the area now? The Freedom Parkway trail connecting downtown with east-side neighborhoods and the Carter Presidential Library. Gentrified (yet integrated) apartment and condo towers, including one replacing my old building, with fountains, porches, salons, a popular local drip-coffee shop, and far superior downtown vistas. While the surrounding area continues to have its share of struggles, the only drugs publicly sold these days now come from behind a CVS counter.
    Our Hawks are fortunate to play in an American city with such a rich history of advancing, however arduously, the principles of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. As Atlanta’s foremost citizen, Dr. King serves as not just an annual inspiration, but a daily one, that we should not feel shackled to the accomplishments and setbacks of the past, to the shortcomings of our present-day, or to the constraining expectations of others around us.
    A lot of things had to go right, and a lot of tugging in the direction of justice had to happen, before a kid would take the risk of reversing his once-enslaved family’s century-long migration north of the Mason-Dixon line, much less become a supporter and long-winded thread-writer for a local team where fans can, today, come together from all corners of life to cheer. While sleep was often a chore as a new resident, I was fortunate to be able to rest nightly within a stone’s throw of where Dr. King, and later his equally-advocating wife, Coretta, are laid to rest for eternity.
    The depth of our NBA team’s recent, deliberate downturn in on-court success pales, by comparison, to the unjust hills and valleys our citizens around the globe strive to overcome. Hawks fans might not get to enjoy victory today at The Highlight Factory, as Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA, NBATV everywhere else) pay his disciple Mike Budenholzer a visit. The wins for the home team will continue to be few and far between for the foreseeable future.
    But we know things around here were not always this way. And they won’t be, not for much longer.
    Sunnier days, dreamier nights, and grander victories, will eventually come if Hawks players, fans, staff and owners think smartly, endeavor patiently, and celebrate our advance toward the NBA mountaintop, together. How long? Not long!
     
    Happy MLK Day! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “So, did they use, like, actual FILM for highlights, back in your day?”
     
    Nice unprotected lottery pick you’ve got there, Cleveland! It would be a shame if, you know, something unfortunate happened to it...
    Coming off a ((airquotes)) "successful" 1-4 road trip, our Atlanta Hawks are back at The Highlight Factory and can control their destiny just a little bit more, with a full-hearted Competitank effort against those playoff-hungry Brooklyn Nets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK).
    The postseason race in the East is pretty tight, but one thing seems certain: if you’re not finishing this season anywhere near .500, you’re not getting anywhere near the playoffs. Coach Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (15-26) have lost three straight and risk falling seven games behind 8-seed Indiana, particularly if the Pacers take out Clevelan (spelled correctly) tonight.
    Like the Hawks of yesteryear, the Cavs are watching the Nets’ fortunes very carefully. Since the Kyrie-for-IT deal back in August, they have been holding Brooklyn’s first-rounder as LeBron Insurance for this summer. Suddenly, though, it’s as if LeBron awoke one morning and discovered he’s the only Cavalier that can play some semblance of defense, something that’s kind of important if you have designs on toppling Golden State in June.
    Now, the Cavs (29th in D-Rating) are dangling this Nets pick to try acquiring a star-quality talent that can hold his own on the defensive end before the deadline. But the value of the pick, either for a pre-deadline deal, or for finding a college-age talent to groom once LeBron departs, declines each time Brooklyn gets their stuff together, wins a game, and moves up in the standings.
    Kicking off a six-game homestand, the Hawks will have a chance to play gremlin today. The odds go up without leading bench scorer Marco Belinelli. Polo sprained his ankle and will sit this one out.
    There’s no sign that Brooklyn intends to make the Competitank easy for Atlanta (11-30). The Nets have a better record versus the West than they do against Eastern clubs (8-15, incl. 2-1 vs. the Hawks). Atlanta has the East’s worst home mark (7-11), but the Nets haven’t been playoff-stellar away from home (6-13) either.
    Their leading minutes-logger, DeMarre Carroll (sprained knee), might miss his third-straight game, while D’Angelo Russell isn’t expected back until the end of the month. The Nets did have five consecutive games with a competitive finish (2-3 in those games, all within a three-point margin). But that was before the bottom fell out at Barclays Center on Wednesday, a 114-80 pasting at the hands of no-longer-two-way player Dwight Buycks and the Pistons, where only Allen Crabbe (5-for-9 3FGs) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (team-high 7 rebounds, 9-for-10 FTs, 3 steals) seemed interested in showing up.
    “We’ve just got to erase it from our minds,” said Caris LeVert, the backup guard who himself just returned from a groin injury absence, “and compete in Atlanta.” There’s that C-word. Y’all gotta do more than just compete tonight, Brooklyn!
    “The message is we’ve got to go to Atlanta and get this one back,” clarified Coach Kenny to the New York Post. “We have to get this back, get it back in Atlanta, come back and [take advantage of] another opportunity to compete.” That’s a little better.
    Winning the season-series from the Hawks will require Atkinson to continue designing schemes to keep his former pupil, Dennis Schröder, in check. Dennis has averaged a modest 20.0 PPG and 6.0 APG in three games against the Nets, but has shot poorly from the field (39.7 FG%, including 2-for-14 3FGs). Brooklyn will try to counter with the vastly improved Spencer Dinwiddie (6.4 APG, 1.4 TOs/game), but his team needs to go against custom (NBA-low 12.7 opponent TO%) and force turnovers to at least be… sigh… competitive.
    Schröder’s game-high 19 points in the last Hawks-Nets meeting were neutralized by a dominant interior presence in the second half by the Nets, notably rookie Jarrett Allen (5-for-6 FGs, 3 blocks), as the Philips Arena visitors prevailed, 110-90. Atlanta has reinforcements this time around, though, and will look to overwhelm the Nets inside.
    While the Hawks could only counter Tyler Zeller and Allen with Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh, they now have Dewayne Dedmon (9 points and team-high 9 rebounds off-bench @ DEN) back. John Collins, whose first career double-double came in Brooklyn in October, and Mike Muscala (9 points in 15 minutes @ DEN) also missed the December home-and-home series that these teams split.
    Suffice to say, Atkinson has his work cut out for him if he’s going to have his former boss, Mike Budenholzer, tipping his cap to the Nets as the final buzzer sounds tonight. I wish Coach Kenny the very best of luck with this endeavor. Hello there, Dan Gilbert. We see you.
    In closing, Happy Birthday to the Human Highlight Film! Here’s to 58 more years of greatness!
     
    Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Big Trouble…”
     
    Is Wally Pipp Syndrome beginning to befall some of our favorite former Atlanta Hawks?
    While DeMarre Carroll sits with a sprained knee, his Brooklyn Nets seem to be already shopping him, and didn’t skip a beat with substitute Joe Harris as they fell just short in Toronto on Wednesday. Jeff Teague is eager to heal his knee sprain, too, not the least of which because his Minnesota Timberwolves are looking mighty fine lately with Tyus Jones in the starting lineup.
    And then there’s Paul Millsap, the four-time All-Star ex-Hawk, and the headlining 2017 free agent acquisition of the Hawks’ hosts tonight, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude in DEN). The uneven fostering of his frontcourt relationship with the precocious Nikola Jokic was curtailed, just 16 games into the season, by a wrist ligament tear that has him on the sideline until probably the All-Star Break.
    It turns out, Denver’s energies to breach the NBA’s postseason party, for the first time since George Karl’s 57-win post-Melo crew in 2013, weren’t Sapped by the injury to their $31 million Anchorman. And despite a recent downturn, the Nuggets (21-19; 12-12 without Paul) are right where they imagined they’d be with him around, in the thick of the race for a bottom-seed in the Western Conference.
    This, with Jokic sliding over to power forward, and a Plumlee Brother, Mason, plugging in the hole where Millsap resided on the top line, at least as best he can. But another development has made things intriguing in the Rockies for their future with (or, maybe without) Millsap.
    The recently-promoted Tim Connelly and the Nuggets’ brass are probably kicking themselves over the decision to swap 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell to division rival Utah for the G-Leaguable Tyler Lydon. But the throw-in in that deal has been much more than a salve for the burn from what’s shaping up to be a trade steal by the Jazz. Largely buried in Salt Lake since last year’s All-Star Break, third-year forward Trey Lyles is blowing up off the bench for coach Mike Malone.
    Lyles is putting up solid per-36 numbers (19.7 points, 9.0 rebounds) as a reserve, but he’s also unleashed a killer three-point shot, the 6-foot-10 Kentucky product ranks 2nd in the NBA with a scintillating 46.7 3FG%. Along the way to a 124-114 victory in Oakland on Monday, the Warriors got only a glimpse of the 22-year-old’s perimeter exploits (1-for-2 3FGs), but they also got a full sample of his expanding fullcourt skills.
    Lyles carried the Nugget bench with 21 points (8-for-13 2FGs), plus five rebounds, three dimes and three steals. A few days, before, he showed the Jazz (career-high 26 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, two steals) a taste of what they abdicated in pursuit of Mitchell.
    Previously seen as a long-term project, Trey, with his treys, has rendered Denver’s frontcourt depth downright gluttonous. Beyond becoming a surprise Most Improved Player and Sixth Man award candidate simultaneously, Lyles also makes Malone’s decisions to perma-stash veterans like Darrell Arthur and the beleaguered Kenneth Faried fully justifiable. But what will Malone’s lineups look like once Millsap returns to action?
    Lyles’ 2-man pairings on the court with the emerging Gary Harris (+8.2 per 100 possessions, in 373 minutes, as per basketball-reference) are proving to be even more fruitful than Harris’ duos with either of Jokic (+7.8 in 725 minutes) or Sap (+7.1 in 373 minutes). Jokic and Lyles, together, have produced a +9.5 net in the scoring column (225 minutes), roughly equivalent to the +9.6 produced by Sap and The Joker together in the early going (324 minutes) at about eight percent of Millsap’s current price tag.
    “We don’t need him actually,” Jokic joked of Millsap, whose wrist cast was just removed yesterday, at today’s shootaround media session before semi-seriously backtracking. “I’m not kidding, we really need him. He’s a really good player for us.”
    Kidding aside, Denver can’t wait to see what a playoff-tested Millsap could accomplish alongside young up-and-comers like Jokic, Harris (team-high 16.7 PPG), and Lyles’ fellow Wildcat alum Jamal Murray (16.2 PPG in his second NBA season; 91.8 FT%) once the calendar turns to spring. But Sap’s backloaded short-term deal does have a team option for 2019-2020. Even the most optimistic Lyles supporter could not have foreseen that option, and Lyles’ forthcoming fourth-year contract extension by extension, becoming a conundrum so soon.
    Jokic’s innumerable offensive talents (15.9 PPG, team-highs of 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG, 35.8 3FG%) effectively turn Murray and Harris into ball-caddies, bringing the basketball up the court primarily to let their Super Serbian engineer the offensive plays. Thanks largely to Jokic, Denver ranks top-ten in eFG% and TS% while also ranking second with a 26.5 O-Reb%; they make a lot of shots AND clean up their misses.
    For the Hawks (10-30), it’s essential that Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore pressure the initial ballhandlers, and for Baze and the Hawk forwards to front Denver’s perimeter shooters, to try and throw off the timing of the Jokic-led offense. Plumlee Brother #2, Miles, and Dewayne Dedmon will have to come out of the paint on occasion to keep Nikola from plopping jumpers, but the Atlanta swingmen have to support by fronting to keep accomplished cutters like Harris from picking the Hawks’ halfcourt defense apart.
    The Hawks have a shot at keeping up only if they don’t try to engage in a battle of wits with Denver’s halfcourt offense. Atlanta’s defensive efficiency has been subpar no matter the location (108.8 D-Rating at home, 108.1 on road), but it’s in away games like these where the offensive efficiency falls through the floor – 101.3 O-Rating, compared to 107.4 at Philips Arena.
    When the ball sticks, Atlanta (56.1 Assist% on road, 67.9% at home; 51.0% past 4 games) gets stuck, as merely clearing the runway for Schröder’s layup-and-elbow-jumper practice won’t be sufficient to get the job done. Dennis registered just one assist (while 7-for-18 from the field; 4 TOs) in Monday’s 108-107 close-shave loss to the Clippers, and has produced five-or-fewer dimes in every game of this five-game road trip so far, after six-or-more assists in his prior eight starts (Atlanta was a respectable 4-4 in those games).
    I'm off to investigate what Dwight might have done with Cody Zeller and Steve Clifford. In the meantime, here's a word from our sponsor:
     
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    Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Hmm. Hey, Woody… look at the Sugar, falling out of the sky…”
     
    “HAWKS HELP LA END 9-GAME LOSING SKID.” No, that headline isn’t from last night. It’s from back during November’s holiday season. Doc Rivers and his LA Clippers are, much like their NBA tenant mates, eager to give thanks again tonight to the visiting Atlanta Hawks (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Prime Ticket in LA) at Staples Center.
    Doc’s Clippers, then at 5-11, entered that November 22 game shortly after learning they had lost CP3 replacement Patrick Beverley for the season. Rivers has since managed to almost completely right the ship, winning 12 of their next 20 games despite a spate of injuries wiping out nearly the entire starting lineup.
    But after losing their past two games, with Blake Griffin (concussion) likely out again just a few games after coming back from a weeks-long absence, and with another game at Golden State in a couple days, the Clips need Atlanta (10-29) to do them another solid. One Clipper, in particular.
    “Tell Me Whyyyyyy…” The NBA’s leading rebounder, DeAndre Jordan (15.1 RPG) has all the countenance these days of the Maytag Repairman. Just 30 months prior, as an unrestricted free agent, he had his spit-in-handshake agreement with Mark Cuban and Chandler Parsons (!!!) to split from Cali and come home to Texas, making himself the center-piece of Dallas’ resurgence. Soon after word leaked out of Jordan’s verbal agreement, and his having second-thoughts, Chris Paul and Griffin led the charge to Houston, by planes, trains and Maybachs, to save DeAndre from himself.
    Nearly the entire team, Rivers and owner-fan Steve Ballmer included, barricaded themselves inside Jordan’s hometown H-Town estate. To keep Jordan from venturing off into the Lone Star State for the prime of his NBA career, Paul vowed he would commit to repairing his weathered relationship with DeAndre, both on and off the court, in between jovial spades and video games.
    Circling outside like a shark stuck in a tank, Cuban could only watch from afar, the self-made billionaire getting the “New Phone Who Dis?” treatment. By the time even Jordan’s own agents could get a physical hold of him, the ink was already drying on a new, four-year contract to remain in LA with Chris Paul and Friends.
    It’s thirty months later. Guess who’s playing NBA ball in Jordan’s hometown? “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Heartache…”
    After engineering a trade last summer, Paul not only moved on from Jordan on the court, but on TV, too. Now, when people think of State Farm, they think of CP3, James Harden, off-key Trevor Ariza and, maybe, an in-state championship-winning UGA quarterback named Jake.
    Together, Paul and Harden have boosted the Rockets to the second-best record in the West, and it’s Houston, no longer the Clippers, with the best odds of toppling Golden State. Jordan the Hooper, meanwhile, no longer needs to don a blonde wig, pearls and a little black dress, to convey that, when it comes to his team’s title aspirations, “We’ve Been Robbed!”
    “DJ,” Cuban advised during his summer 2015 soft-sell, “if you want to be a brand, you have to separate yourself.” Jordan, who finally reached the All-Star Game last year, took the risk of standing pat in hopes of becoming the Clippers’ bona fide third star, in a town known for making many of them.
    Instead, with Paul in Houston (the point guard visits LA for a game next week), the Rockets’ Clint Capela earning newfound All-Star love while on the receiving end in the New Lob City, goofball Griffin losing favor among casual NBA fans, and the LA locals growing more intrigued by the day in The Lake Show, DeAndre has been left with little choice but to stand out on his own. Some nights, he seems dominant (4th in O-Reb%; 1st in D-Reb%; 2nd in O-Rating). On many others, without Paul around, he looks as forlorn on the court as the Wolverine Crush meme (65.6 FG%, lowest in five seasons; 1.0 BPG, lowest in career as an everyday starter).
    Jordan does have one ace up his sleeve, however, and that’s the player option he has on his deal with the Clippers, for this coming summer’s red-hot free agency period. Nothing would help this particular “Jordan Brand” more than a trade to a contender that makes a legitimate run toward the NBA title, so the Clips are carefully parsing through offers to swing a cap-relieving haul that’s worth their while. DeAndre (career-best 60.6 FT%), for his part, must remain healthy, and he must continue putting up big numbers for a Clippers team that looks more like a M*A*S*H unit (plus Lou Williams) on most nights.
    Despite Jordan going a perfect 6-for-6 shooting from the field along the way to 14 points, 16 boards, and a pair of blocks in LA’s 116-103 win in Atlanta back in November, he didn’t have to be a one-man wrecking crew. Help came in the form of Griffin (26 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists @ ATL on Nov. 22) and Austin Rivers (18 points, 5 assists @ ATL), neither of whom will be available for tonight’s action, the latter dealing with an Achilles strain.
    Danilo Gallinari (glutes) hasn’t been able to stay on the floor, either. Two-way project Jamil Wilson helped to fill the gap from the losses of Griffin and Gallo with nearly a dozen starts, but he was waived this weekend as his 45-day window has nearly closed. Beverley’s backup, Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia), also has to sit this one out, while longtime gunners JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford are now in happier NBA locales.
    Atlanta can expect a heavy dose of Sweet Lou (40.6 3FG%; 20 points, 3-for-6 3FGs, 8 assists, 6 TOs @ ATL), along with Wesley Johnson. The latter has been scattershot all season from deep (30.3 FG%), but more than a fifth of his makes this season came on a single night at Philips Arena (season-high 24 points, 6-for-7 3FGs), courtesy of the Hawks.
    To help generate enough offense to stay in games, Doc Hollywood is leaning on rookies, including second-round guard Jawun Evans, who unfortunately started opposite Steph Curry (45 points, 8-for-16 3FGs vs. LAC) on Saturday, but did produce seven assists to just a single turnover. Rivers also learned he’d better call Tyrone Wallace up from Agua Caliente. The new two-way replacement for Wilson, Wallace entered in garbage time and collaborated with fellow rooks Evans and Sindarius Thornwell plus the future Mr. Olivia Harlan, Sam Dekker, to close the Durant-less Warriors’ blowout gap from 27 to 16.
    Hawks are not part of the ostrich family, but that was hard to discern last night on this floor, as Our Fine Feathered Friends buried their heads in the sand as soon as the Lakers made up their mind to make a run. Magic Johnson surely enjoyed his popcorn as his team, known for its “Showtime!” exploits from a bygone era, whiplashed the Hawks to the tune of a franchise-record 42 fastbreak points.
    That was about all the advantage the Lakers needed versus a Hawks team that lacked a discernible game plan, regarding either its halfcourt offense or coach Mike Budenholzer’s cherished transition defense. Perhaps things were thrown off-kilter a smidgen once Taurean Prince exited with a sprained ring finger. But the Hawks need better organization and communication from its floor generals.
    Absent backcourt defensive pressure from the Clippers, Dennis Schröder (27 points, 10-for-19 2FGs, 5 assists @ LAL) will find more room to navigate and stat-pad on offense, even more so whenever Jordan sits. Yet it’s essential that he (career-low 8.1 D-Reb%), and Kent Bazemore (1 D-Reb in past 69 minutes of play), know who to D-up as soon as the ball leaves their teammates’ often-wayward fingers, particularly if they’re not going to be of much help in the rebounding department.
    The same goes for Atlanta’s backcourt reserves (principally, Malcolm Delaney, Isaiah Taylor, and Marco Belinelli), who displayed woeful defensive positioning in transition as the Atlanta starters’ early lead on Sunday vanished into the LA smog. Rookies John Collins (first of many made NBA 3FGs, vs. LAL) and Tyler Cavanaugh have enough on their plate to get back on defense only to be met by a track meet of opponents running at and around them. DeAndre’ Bembry’s defensive attributes should be missed, but not this much.
    Starters and bench players alike will all have a little more assistance tonight, with the probable return of season-opening starter Dewayne Dedmon (tibia) to the lineup. Dedmon’s absence short-circuited Hawk fans’ long-held desires to see him in a starting frontcourt tandem with Collins, a stint which began against the Clips in November and lasted all of three more days before the sidelining injury.
    One would anticipate Coach Bud and the staff bringing Dedmon along slowly, ensuring he’s back up to speed before returning to that pairing with Collins. But Dewayne’s ability to cut down on opponent scoring in the paint, while also surprising with an occasional perimeter shot (8-for-12 3FGs in his last 7 games), is needed, literally, yesterday. Having Ded, Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala (probable, ankle) healthy together for the first time all season can add new dimensions to Atlanta’s front line.
    As for Jordan, and his crumbling Clippers, what of their postseason prospects, if their regression continues against the Hawks tonight? Might one suggest, “They’re going DOWN!”?
     
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Do You Believe That We Can Win That Fight Tomorrow Night?”
     
    Can Atlanta make it 3-for-3 for the week in SoCal? The Hawks will aim for the Peach State Trifecta when they kick off their Staples Center sleepover in a tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers (9:30 PM Eastern).
    The notion of rebuilding from the ground floor is usually fun, at the outset. As fans, though, you just have to be careful when it comes to understanding what risks you’re signing up for.
    Having moved on from Kobemania in the search for the next great Laker Legend, Lakerfans have swayed from Randlemania to D’Angelomania to Ingramania to Lonzomania. Each year, fans have sold on their own self-made hype, that the next lotto pick is The Next Great One, certainly enough to carry their hallowed franchise to playoff glory for the first time since 2013.
    But now, the Lakers sit at 11-27, on the verge of losing their tenth in a row and 13th in 14 games. And if they don’t play their cards right, their next lottery hopeful may be suiting up in Celtics Green instead.
    Despite raw shooting skills (35.2 FG%, 30.3 3FG%, 48.0 FT%), Lonzo Ball (6.8 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.4 SPG) is nowhere near bust material. In fact, the rookie’s rebounding, passing wizardry, and defensive skills from his point guard position are almost ideally what the Lakers need. But when it comes to the long haul of rebuilding teams, and the instability that can transpire from the floor to the front office along the way, draft scouts may now have to weigh the merits of a prospect’s progenitors.
    As one might say, you can’t choose your draft pick’s parents. “You can see they’re not playing for Luke [Walton, the Lakers’ head coach] no more,” says proud papa LaVar Ball, chilling at a Lithuanian spa, trying to keep Lonzo’s younger siblings from starting another global incident. LaVar treats the second-year full-time NBA coach the way he treated his kids’ coaches from high school and AAU through UCLA, with disdain.
    “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him,” LaVar adds, each critique moving Tito Horford further up the ballot for the Pro Baller Discretionary Dads’ Hall of Fame. “I can see it. No high-fives when they come out of the game. People don’t know why they’re in the game. He’s too young… He ain’t connecting with them no more. You can look at every player. He’s not connecting with not one player.”
    LaVar won’t be happy until he is controlling his kids’ teams, from the sideline, and if they’re still not winning, he won’t be satisfied until he has run his kids’ teammates out of town on a rail, something that may literally happen soon with the younger clan over in Prienai-Birštonas. In cahoots with media that can’t seem to tear the microphones away from him, LaVar’s mouth forces everyone, from Laker management to Lonzo himself, to drop everything and, on a Sunday night between the worst two clubs in the NBA, formally address the dissension that the Big Bawler of the Ball family tries to stir.
    If he’s not overly distracted, Lonzo (who, naturally, disagrees with his father regarding Walton) has the tools to make his head-to-head tonight with the Hawks’ Dennis Schröder (last 2 games: 38.7 FG%, 4.5 APG, 4.5 TO/game) an arduous one for the latter, especially if former UGA star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can switch onto Atlanta's top scorer. For all the Lakers’ offensive faults (NBA-low 32.4 3FG%, 68.9 FT%), thanks largely to Lonzo, they push the pace (NBA-high 103.8 possessions per-48) and they’re the best NBA team aside from Golden State (16.1 per-36) in producing fastbreak points (11.7 per-36).
    The Hawks can counter by pounding the only team with interior defense (NBA-high 10.7 opponent second-chance points per 48) as sketchy as their own (10.6 opp. second-chance points per-48). Los Angeles allows a league-high 37.2 paint points per-48, and that was with Andrew Bogut, who was waived this weekend. Brook Lopez, aside from his 1.5 BPG) and super-rookie Kyle Kuzma (team-high 17.2 PPG) provide next-to-no defensive resistance.
    If Horford-in-Training rookie John Collins (58.8 2FG%, 9th in NBA; 15.0 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA) is unable to drown the Lake Show with a dominant interior offensive performance, might his family harbor grave reservations about the strategic wisdom of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, we’ll never know.
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “NOW, WHEN I SAY FIRE, YOU SAY STOTTS. FIRE!”
     
    After beating the Kings back in mid-November, it took 40 calendar days before the Portland Trail Blazers came away victorious again in their own building. Back at the Moda Center following an up-and-down road trip, the Portland Trail Blazers seek to avenge last weekend’s 104-89 loss in Atlanta against the Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX). Might the next winless streak for the home crowd stretch beyond eight days? I’m not so sure ex-Hawks coach Terry Stotts can last in his current gig with another weeks-long home drought.
    Yes, Damian Lillard (25.2 PPG, 7th in NBA) is back, and although his right calf is a bit gimpy after returning from a hamstring injury to post 25 points (7 TOs) in 33 minutes during Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, Dame DOLLA probably won’t miss a chance at getting a measure of payback versus Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder (favorite candy bar: 2 Musketeers).
    Lillard’s return alleviates sidekick C.J. McCollum (23.2 PPG, 37.5 FG% in five games Lillard missed) from being excessively hounded by defenders while jacking up shots. Dame also allows Shabazz Napier (21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks @ ATL on Dec. 30) to provide some spark to an otherwise offensively lifeless reserve unit (26th in bench O-Rating; 28th in bench eFG%; dead-last 43.9 bench assist%, no other NBA bench below 50 assist%).
    But if the Blazers fail to grab the home W tonight versus league-worst Atlanta (10-27), or against a rested Spurs team on Sunday, then they’d have to endure a tough four-game Western Conference road trip before the suddenly upbeat Phoenix Suns pays Rip City a visit, 11 days from now.
    Since turning a 33-win outfit in Lillard’s rookie season into a 54-28 squad with a legendary first-round playoff upset, Stotts’ Blazers have declined in the win column in every season since, going from 54 to 51 to 44 to an even-steven 41. They’ve never entered a playoff series under Stotts as a favored seed, and the prospects for a top-4-seed, for a well-paid roster that has few tradable components, continues to dwindle.
    Very little of this has been Stotts’ fault, considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s defection to the Spurs, and GM Neil Olshey’s sketchy decisions during the draft (giving up 2017 first-rounders before-and-after John Collins, to take Zach Collins in the lottery) and in free agency (Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner ‘16). But a January tailspin would have Portland (19-18) sinking below .500, and possibly out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, in the unforgiving NBA West.
    While the Blazers are aiming for a must-win, the Hawks come up the Oregon Trail after wrestling away a must-lose from the jaws of victory against the Suns. Despite his team blowing a double-digit lead in the final three minutes on Tuesday, Dennis Schröder (favorite sitcom: Two’s Company) had an opening to dish to an open Taurean Prince (eager to make amends, moments after getting highlighted at the rim by Marquese Chriss) for the game-tying three.
    Schröder (5 TOs @ PHX, most since Nov. 15) may have caught wind of Prince’s boxscore line (2-for-14 FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs) and elected to press his luck with a last-second layup try instead. It was the type of questionable decision-making that could weigh Ay ton for Atlanta a few months from now. Tanks a bunch, Dennis!
    For Portland, it all comes down to these critical fourth quarters, where they make an NBA-low 1.9 threes per game. Their offense petered out during the final frame of their games in Atlanta (20-32 points differential) and Cleveland (23-36), and in their last five losses, the Blazers have averaged a mere 20.6 PPG as a team in those quarters.
    “We gotta put together a full game,” McCollum told The Oregonian yesterday, perhaps recalling his Lillard-less squad’s 17 third-quarter tally last Saturday as well. “The second half will be huge for us; how we start the third quarter, and how we sustain that.”
    It’s usually in that last quarter where the Hawks’ field goal-making comes alive (47.9 FG%, 2nd-best in NBA; 40.9 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA). That is, at least, when they can get shots off without turning over the ball (16.4 TO%, 2nd-worst in NBA) or missing free throws after getting hacked (hey there, Miles Plumlee).
    With top-scorers Lillard and McCollum usually in to close out games, Stotts’ challenge is to find the complementary frontcourt contributors who can get stops and spark transition (27th in PPG off TOs, last in fastbreak PPG), but can at least look like a threat to be involved in plays on the offensive end. We may be in the throes of Winter, but if the Blazers don’t figure out some stable lineups to finish games, Stotts is certain to become Olshey’s Fall Guy before the Spring gets here.
     
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3