“No, but seriously, Nick, I’ve been good this year!”
Trying to cram games around the schedule for teams not included in the NBA’s traditional Christmas Day lineup is often a chore, but no lumps of coal await the Atlanta Hawks in their stockings. After burrowing through a quick jaunt to Oklahoma City tonight to face the Thunder (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), our Hawks will sneak in one last run back home, on Christmas Eve Eve versus the Mavericks, then enjoy up to three days of festive rest, their longest break since Black Friday weekend.
The Thunder would love to focus on sleigh-ing Chris Paul, James Harden and the Houston Rockets, their visitors on 12/25. But first, they have Coach Bud’s Hawks, tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena, then a rematch with Quin Snyder’s Jazz in SLC, tomorrow, to put up with before Monday’s primetime game on ABC. Oklahoma City (16-15, 11-4 at home) thumped visiting Utah on Wednesday to finally creep above .500 for the first time since Halloween. But they know a precarious fifth-place in the Western Conference is not where anyone expected them to be at this point in the season.
There is no doubt that “What is wrong with the Thunder?” will be the theme for much of the Christmas Day NBA coverage. But all the predictable concern-stipation from basketball’s media-wonks will get amplified if OKC (8-3 this month) slips up in either of their preceding games.
Around Squawkland, we’ve already rinsed out that whole “What’s wrong?” narrative, beginning with coach Billy Donovan’s need to contemplate seeking another line of work, continuing by gauging Carmelo Anthony’s interest in pursuing a high-scoring sixth-man role, and Russell Westbrook’s interest in relinquishing the ball earlier in the shot clock, and finally ending with consideration of 2018 free agent Paul George perhaps finding a new NBA jersey under his tree, no later than by the trading deadline.
The reigning MVP deserves plenty of leeway to sort this whole thing out on the floor. But only Ben Simmons averages more touches per game (103.1) than Westbrook (96.0; Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder averages 91.3, 3rd-most in NBA). And no one holds the ball longer than Russ, 9.3 minutes per game accounting for more than a fourth of his average time on the court. That stifles the production of on-court threats like Anthony and George, who had grown quite accustomed to isolation play with the ball in their hand and plenty of time on the possession clock.
Despite ranking fourth in the league for isolation possessions himself, Westbrook’s 0.89 points per iso possession (37.6 iso FG%, down from 38.8 FG% last season) is not only well below those of burlier playmakers like LeBron James (1.28) and Harden (1.09), but also Schröder (1.01, 44.4 iso FG%). Melo (6th-most iso possessions in NBA) isn’t faring much better (39.1 iso FG%), leading many to suggest they need to share the floor a lot less. George, 10th in iso possessions as a Pacer last season, has been the odd-man out in OKC (22nd in iso plays) and barely registers a blip (34.4 iso FG%) once he finally gets featured in the offense.
Fortunately for the Thunder’s starting lineup, they have Steven Adams (NBA-high 16.4 O-Reb%) back after missing time with concussion symptoms and handling cleanup duties with aplomb. They also have Andre Roberson to limit run-outs by opponents at the other end. Roberson also works well in the halfcourt with Adams (32.4 defensive roll-man FG%) to stifle foes’ pick-and-roll plays.
But Donovan has yet to find a second-string rotation that keeps opponents in check while his top scorers catch a breather. OKC’s most-utilized 5-Man lineup without any of The Big Three (Raymond Felton, rookie Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and struggling free agent Patrick Patterson) have tallied just 15 minutes on the floor together.
For any scenario that unfolds for their stars and their coach in the future, tonight, the Thunder need to do something that other NBA clubs have had no problem doing in recent weeks, and that’s blow out the Hawks’ discombobulated bench (minus-6.1 points per-100 possessions this month, 7th-worst in NBA).
Atlanta’s reserves have displayed a propensity for blowing early leads of varying sizes. Offensive-oriented scorers have struggled to shoo anyone off the three-point line, or to keep opponents from tipping-in second-chance points. Defensive-minded players like DeAndre’ Bembry get sloppy when they’re – okay, he’s – expected to handle the ball.
Then, bearing many of the same problems, the starters struggle to re-establish the squandered momentum upon their return. The holes dug by the Hawk reserves would be much steeper if not for the energies exerted by new-jack jumping jack John Collins (18 points on 6-for-7 FGs, 9 boards, but 4 TOs vs. IND on Wednesday).
Despite going 1-5 in recent games, Atlanta has held leads well past the mid-point of first quarters, in five of those past six contests, at the time of Dennis’ first substitution (five times by Isaiah Taylor, and once by Malcolm Delaney). By the time he checked back into the game, each time before the mid-point of the next quarter, the Hawks found themselves playing from behind in five of those six games.
The exception occurred in Wednesday’s loss, when the Pacers tied up the game at 36 apiece while Schröder sat, after Indy was down 21-17. The modest average lead of +3.3 PPG was gone, thanks to an average net swing of -6.7 PPG over an average stretch of about seven minutes.
For the Competitank to roll efficiently against, and occasionally over, teams like the Thunder, Atlanta needs its bench crew to limit turnovers, as scoring on the other end tends to be OKC’s specialty (19.4 points per-48, 2nd in NBA behind red-hot Toronto).
Further, Atlanta will need starters (NBA-high 14.4 opp. second-chance points per-48; OKC starters’ 15.4 points per-48 is an NBA-high) and reserves alike to box out and keep bigs like Adams and Dakari Johnson from racking up freebie points on extra-chances. Much like Donovan, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer must find a rotation that sustains leads better. Unlike Coach Billy D, Coach Bud is in under no pressure to figure that out.
Let’s Go Hawks!