“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!