“Aww, c’mon Bud… I’m tryna tell you… they don’t serve Fellini’s Pizza out here!”
Okay, Minnesota, you’ve had your fun. Now, cut it out. You and Houston, both.
Sorry, Tankamaniacs, but it is Must-Win time for our Atlanta Hawks! There are only a handful of games where the Hawks genuinely can help their fans’ long-term cause by winning, and tonight’s tilt with the Timberwolves is one of them (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP).
You’ll remember that last season, the kings of The Process, Philadelphia, fell eight games short of securing the number-one draft lottery odds. The Sixers ended the season with lotto slot #4, slipped to #5 once the ping-pong balls bounced, then used a pick swap with Sacramento to sneak up to #3. But that still wasn’t #1. How did they wind up with the exclusive rights to select the youngster with the bulky shoulder and the free throw yips? They still had assets in their bag to sweeten any possible deal to move up.
While it is a tall order, the Hawks might improve the quality of their draft assets with victories in their three games remaining versus the T’Wolves and Rockets. Atlanta holds Minnesota’s first-round pick thanks to the nifty 2015 move to deal 2014’s #15 pick Adreian Payne, whose attempt at directing a sequel to Love and Basketball in his dorm room apparently didn’t go over very well, before that first-round banana could change color from green to brown.
That Wolves pick is lottery-protected, but 45 wins is all that should be needed to sew up a playoff spot out West, and there is little reason for this game to be among the baker’s dozen of requisite Ws for postseason-starved Minnesota (32-20).
From Memphis to Sacramento, NBA teams are sending all the signals they reasonably can to make it clear they’re fighting for the bottom-dwelling lottery spot. Even after losing three in a row, Atlanta remains the hottest team over the past ten games among the NBA’s bottom-five. But even if the Hawks fail upwards a little, they have assets that no other bottom dweller, save for Phoenix and Philly, has at their disposal to creep up a spot, or three. Many of the lottery teams will need to pull out multiple rookie plums out of this draft pie, not just one good prospect, to begin turning things around, and they will be keeping Travis Schlenk’s cellie buzzing. “U up?”
Schlenk and Company can package one, or both, of those low-first-rounders owed by Minnesota and Houston, and even a high second-round pick. In case LeBron World falls to tatters, Atlanta’s got a top-10-protected potential lottery pick from Cleveland in 2019 as well. They could even use some permutation of those three lower picks to ascend to the middle tier of this draft. It’s apparent, sadly, that the Rockets’ first-rounder will hover around the high-twenties through the end of the season. So, it would be nice if the Wolves’ low-first (presently at #25) could somehow slide up into mid-1st territory.
No awareness of that strategery makes it easier for the Hawks (14-35) to pull off a fifth-consecutive win over a Western Conference opponent tonight, although one can forgive Minnesota if they’re a bit preoccupied, with playing in Toronto tomorrow and navigating whatever travel issues await once they return home for Super Bowl Weekend.
Coach Tom Thibodeau’s club is 3-5 on the front end of back-to-back series, most recently losing last Wednesday in Portland the day before traveling to Golden State. They’ve only swept one of their seven back-to-backs, a homestand against Dallas and Charlotte back in early November. Even if the Hawks rev up the Competititank and fall short tonight, they can at least tenderize these Wolves on behalf of the Raptors.
Thibs’ reputation of riding his star players for heavy minutes precedes him. True to form, Jimmy Butler (team-high 21.7 PPG, career-high 50.4 2FG%) places 5th in per-game minutes among active players, while Andrew Wiggins (career-low 50.8 TS%) is 10th, and Butler’s fellow All-Star, Karl-Anthony Towns (career-highs of 9.2 D-Rebs/game, 40.0 3FG%, 83.8 FT%), ranks 14th. 32-year-old Taj Gibson (career-high 33.7 MPG), a Thibs acolyte, is essential for keeping the Wolves’ sketchy team defense (24th in D-Rating) from falling through the floor.
Also logging career-high floor-time under Thibodeau: former Hawk floor leader Jeff Teague (33.4 MPG), who turns 30 this June. As was the case with Dennis Schröder during Jeff’s latter years in Atlanta, Teague at least has a precocious up-and-comer backing him up in 21-year-old Minnesota native Tyus Jones (6-for-8 FGs, 5 assists, no TOs in Saturday’s home win vs. BKN).
Jones has held the fort capably as a starter, with Minnesota going 6-4 during Teague’s injury absences. The elder guard is under contract through at least next season, but Jones’ vastly improved defensive production (2nd in Defensive RPM, 5th in total RPM among NBA PGs, as per ESPN) has many wondering how soon the heir will become apparent.
Versus Atlanta, Thibs will be as inclined as ever to go deep into his rotation and rely on his bench corps in the middle frames. Minnesota will turn to Jones, Gorgui Dieng, future MMA star Nemanja Bjelica, and the irrepressible former Hawk Sixth Man of the Year Award winner, Jamal Crawford, the 37-year-old who would actually like to be on the floor a lot more often (18.9 MPG, lowest since his 2000-01 rookie season). Former North Clayton High and Georgia Tech star Marcus Georges-Hunt has also been seeing more than mere mop-up duty lately.
Coach Bud will likely showcase more of North Star State native Mike Muscala (career-high 6.3 PPG, 44.1 3FG%, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 FTs/game, and 0.6 SPG all you GMs out there!) Hawks fans can expect to see more of guard Tyler Dorsey, who acquitted himself as well as anybody (team-high 14 points, incl. 6-for-7 FTs, plus 4 assists) on Saturday against the Wizards, not only tonight but especially after the trade-deadline smoke clears.
For the Hawks’ starters and reserves, the key task is simpler said than done: under no circumstances do you foul Crawford (team-high 89.9 FT%; 18.7 PPG last 3 games). Jamal okey-doked a Blazers defender last week to extend his personal record to 52 four-point plays in his career. Keeping Crawford, Butler and the Wolves (NBA-high 19.7 FTs/game) away from the charity stripe can short-circuit their offense and keep the Hawks in the running, even during Atlanta’s more scattershot-shooting phases (27.9 3FG% in Saturday’s blowout loss to wide-open Washington; under 35 3FG% in four of last six games).
Facing his former mentor after two consecutive clunkers, Dennis Schröder (30.8 FG% last 2 games) should be able to collect some more gotheeeems and lob-dimes versus a Minnesota squad that can be porous around the rim (NBA-worst 67.0 opponent restricted-area FG%). That should be the case if Dennis smartly uses screens and DHO’s to grant himself space from Teague and/or Butler, and if the action from bigs like John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon and Moose is strong enough to draw Towns (1.5 BPG) further away from the hoop.
If Atlanta can continue to even up the points in the paint (only a 36-38 deficit versus the Wizards) tonight, and if the Hawks do a better job of closing out on shooters without fouling, they can give the Timberwolves a run for their draft slot. I mean, money.
Let’s Go Hawks!