“Soulless Boy, Kill’em!”
“I wanna kill them.” That’s the desire Dwight Howard professed during shootaround to the local rag about his most recent ex-team, the Atlanta Hawks, who pay him and his Charlotte Hornets (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas) a visit tonight. Well, that’s not very hospitable, D12!
Unlike the Hawks’ last opponent, Howard (20 points and 15 rebounds in a 109-91 win vs. ATL back on Oct. 20) and the Hornets have been struggling to establish a killer instinct. There’s no better time to start figuring out how, than when you’re sitting five games below the playoff line and facing the prospect, tonight, of finishing closer in the standings to a team with the NBA’s worst record than to the 8-seed.
We’re all fortunate nothing literally happened to Steve Clifford to add to his starting center’s “coach killer” persona. Clifford’s a tough guy, as noted by Woj at ESPN: he returned to coach the Bugs against the Hawks in November 2013 just a few days after getting stents inserted. But a lingering sleep deprivation problem, one that long preceded Dwight’s arrival in the Piedmont, produced aggravating headaches that eventually made it impossible for Coach Cliff to function, never mind roam the sidelines in a high-pressure vocation.
But Coach Cliff has those headaches beat, or so he tells us. His team has been doing its best to re-induce that malady, both from him and the folks who populate Spectrum Center. Only the Nets and the Hawks have as many home losses among Eastern Conference clubs so far. And my land, some of these losses. Last Saturday night’s wresting of defeat from the jaws of victory, versus division rival Miami in front of the home crowd, had even Yours Truly’s milkshake-sucking vein popping out between my eyebrows.
“That’s how you become a team that wins two and loses one, like we have been,” said Clifford to the Charlotte Observer and the postgame media of his Hornets (19-27), who have won six of their past ten games, but haven’t won three-straight since back before Thanksgiving. “Just a total lack of concentration, intensity, technique, and understanding who the hell you’re playing against. It’s terrible. Terrible.”
The blow-by-blow of that loss, where Charlotte blew a 10-point lead in a manner of ten minutes, low-lighted by a five-point lead evaporating in the space of four seconds during the final minute, is too excruciating to recollect here. Yet the Hornets could have salvaged the game in overtime, had Dwight not made it his mission to “kill” Miami’s Kelly Olynyk with a senseless foul with just 0.2 seconds remaining.
Even with Clifford chewing his team out, the Hornets went out and walked the tightrope just two nights later, sad-sack Sacramento narrowing a 20-point Charlotte lead to just three with 85 seconds left. The Kings got cute with Hack-A-Howard, and Dwight (53.4 FT%; 53.3 FT% last season w/ ATL) made them pay by sinking both freebies. Moments later, his offensive rebound off a way-too-familiar missed jumper from Nicolas Batum (40.8 FG%; 28.8 3FG%), and a defensive goaltend on his putback, saved Hornets fans from wanting to tear the arena down with their teeth.
Those nervous fans caught a break Wednesday as the Hornets (minus-5.6 fourth-quarter Net Rating, 26th in NBA; NBA-low 44.7 fourth-quarter eFG%) played from behind for most of the game against the Pelicans. But chances at victory were dashed shortly thereafter, by Dwight barreling into Anthony Davis for an offensive foul, then by a pair of bad passes from Kemba Walker, who senses that his time as the face of basketball in the Queen City is fleeting, despite assurances from His Airness to the contrary.
Now the Hornets (6-13 on the road) simply want to wrap-up their homestand at 3-2, before embarking on a stretch of seven away-games in their next eight, including next Wednesday at the Highlight Factory.
A key reason they’re even in some of these contests to begin with? Marvin Williams is no more an ugly duckling from the perimeter. The feathery touch on the stretch-four’s jumper has been on display the whole season, the Hawks’ former corner-shot lamppost shooting a career-best 44.4 3FG% (4th in NBA, two spots in front of ex-Hawk Al Horford).
Without Marvin’s consistent shot on a squad shooting just 44.2 percent from the field (28th in NBA), defenders would be easily clamping down on Kemba (41.9 FG%, lowest among top-20 NBA shooters) and Dwight (3.0 TOs/game) and getting stops. Walker generally takes care of the ball, but the Hawks (NBA-high 18.7 points per-48 off TOs) will look for Dwight to get sloppy with careless dribbles and excessive physicality away from the play. The Hawks will deploy his trade counterpart, Miles Plumlee, and charge-sponge Ersan Ilyasova to help throw Howard (6 TOs, 5 personals vs. ATL in October) off his game.
Charlotte allows the third-fewest points-per-48 off turnovers, in part due to Kemba’s ballhandling, but also because they have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum to get back. Carolinian Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (just 13 minutes in the blowout loss vs. TOR on Wednesday, no assists) can get out on the break, but they should be prepared to find Dennis Schröder (25 points, 11-for-19 2FGs @ CHA in October) and other shooters on the floor as passing options to finish offensive plays with buckets and trips to the line.
Lost in Atlanta’s blowout loss to the Raptors on Wednesday was the effort of Rising Star John Collins, who grabbed 16 rebounds and rejected four shots over 26 minutes, generally ignoring the scoreboard as the Hawks cut Toronto’s lead in half to close the contest. He’ll try to show he’s grown by leaps and bounds since last October, when he fouled out of his second game in just over 15 minutes of play.
Hawks fans are free to ignore Dwight’s murderous mindset coming into this evening’s affairs. The Hornets aren’t so much obsessed with slaying opponents, these days, as they are merely surviving fourth quarters without humiliating themselves.
Let’s Go Hawks!