• Hawks at Bucks

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    lethalweapon3

     

    “Oh, Dear! We Fear that You Ain’t Here!”

     

    It’s time for the We Miss Zaza Bowl! The Atlanta Hawks prepare to face the Milwaukee Bucks tonight at the BMO Harris Bradley MECCA Whatchamacallit (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Wisconsin), and two clubs that bring the “Con” to “Consistency” sure could use Georgia’s Favorite Georgian in their lineups, albeit for vastly different reasons.

    First, a flashback. The year was 1996, and while Atlanta was undergoing an Olympic-sized hangover, down in San Antonio, the Macarena was still the rage, Dave Cowens was departing the Spurs to run the Hornets, and Mike Budenholzer was ready for his big promotion. Two years into his stint as Video Coordinator Bud, his ascension to assistant coach under Gregg Popovich opened up a spot on the Spurs’ staff. Enter Joe Prunty, a high school coach from San Diego, who joined the Spurs as an assistant video coordinator.

    Four years later, Prunty found himself a seat behind Coach Bud and Coach Pop as an assistant, helping out with mundane tasks like rebounding for Avery Johnson during pregame warmups. He would go on to serve as an assistant (and Summer League coach) for the staffs of five more teams over a span of 16 NBA seasons. Right after Bud and Joe helped Popovich guide the Spurs to the 2005 NBA Championship, Prunty hopped alongside Coach Avery as a lead assistant in Dallas, as the Mavs sailed to the 2006 Finals.

    Now double-dipping as the head coach for Great Britain’s men’s hoops team, Prunty has become best known as the premier acolyte for Jason Kidd, who Prunty coached during his final season in Dallas in 2008. With the Nets in 2013, Coach Kidd was suspended for the opening games due to a DWI. Kidd put Prunty (and not the spurned, embittered, team-handpicked assistant Lawrence Frank) in charge. The Nets split both games under Prunty, defeating the defending champion Miami Heat. When Kidd bailed the borough in favor of Milwaukee and his new owner-palsy-walsy Marc Lasry, Prunty followed him there, without hesitation.

    I like to imagine Kidd’s infamous 2010 sideline run-in with then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson as the catalyst that got his hip hopping. Kidd has been out indefinitely after undergoing hip surgery on December 21, and there’s no surprise he would turn to his trusty confidant to hold the proverbial fort.

    Coming up from the same Spurs-ian roots, both of tonight’s sideline sergeants are cerebral, analytical, meticulous, and methodical. The difference lies in the talent they each have to work with.

    The Bucks went from worst to not-too-shabby in 2014-15 on the strength of some hungry and healthier veterans, like Pachulia and Jared Dudley, inspiring some up-and-coming talents like Wheel of Fortune nightmare Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. After playing .500-ball and surprisingly reaching the playoffs, Milwaukee could have tried to keep the band together for another run up the standings in 2016. But lotto-forward Jabari Parker was on his way back from injury, and there had to be some way to intermingle his minutes with those of Alpha-Bits, John “Run the Jewels” Henson, and coveted free agent Greg Monroe.

    Thus, out went Dudley and Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova, via trades. And with them, out went whatever veteran stability the team had to offer. The senior Bucks now consist of guards Jerryd Bayless (out with an ankle sprain) and O.J. “Boo-Ray” Mayo (questionable with a sore hamstring), and “senior” doesn’t necessarily translate into “most mature.”

    Also, while the outgoing vets were no defensive masters, by replacing them with Monroe (12th in NBA for FG%, top-15 in O-Rebs and D-Rebs) and nightclub-going stabee Chris Copeland, the Bucks essentially said Buh-Bye to team defense.  Milwaukee has dropped from 1st in the league for steals (in 2014-15) to 13th, from 24th to dead-last in defensive rebounding percentage, and from 4th to dead-last in defensive rating.

    Dudley and Pachulia aren’t even mad, though. Pachulia has become a fan-favorite down in Big D for essentially what he’s been doing all along, under tinier spotlights. Once a struggling shooter, Dudley was exiled to America’s Dairyland last season and made the most of it. Now the good DC sniper (47.0 3FG% with the Wizards) is grateful that the Bucks decided to commit to the youth movement and move on.

    “The thing about the Bucks, you can tell about how first-class an organization they've become, putting me and Z in great situations,” Dudley told reporters recently after shootaround, prior to his Wizards slipping past the Bucks on Wednesday. “They didn't have to send me (to Washington). They basically got nothing out of it.” True, true. (Apologies to all you future second-round talents out there).

    “Showing veteran players, if you go to Milwaukee, if you help out, they'll look out for you. They put Za in a great position (in Dallas). Me and Za can only thank them. We had a great time. Worst record to the playoffs, so it was a great year last year.”

    This year, Milwaukee (16-25) is left with a young, vigorous bunch that’s eager to make big plays and win but not quite sure how, one that goes to the rack with reckless abandon (league-high 36.0 shots per game within 5 feet of the rim, and 46.1 shots per game in the paint) but isn’t quite sure why, or what to do once they get there. They’re guided by a third-year headmaster who is still figuring things out himself in J-Kidd. His mobility issues now leave him to turn to a top aide, in Prunty, who has a superb pedigree but didn’t spend his offseason planning to be the guy drawing up plays.

    What you get is a team that hasn’t strung together more than two straight victories since November 7. You get a team that, on one night, produces a season-low 5 turnovers to topple the Chicago Bulls at home, then hits the road and coughs up a season-high 27 goofs in a loss to Washington.

    The Hawks can certainly relate, even though they really shouldn’t. They scorch the nets for 52.1% shooting and 33 assists against the Bulls at home, then hit the road and lay an egg with a near-season-low 37.0 FG% in a laugher up in Charlotte two nights later. They’ll stem one opponent’s six-game winning streak, then end another’s seven-game losing skid. From quarter-to-quarter, half-to-half, game-to-game, week-to-week, it’s tough to tell what’s gonna fall out of the Hawks’ box of chocolates.

    But unlike Milwaukee, these aren’t a bunch of wunderkinds merely finding their way. These are the defending Eastern Conference regular season leaders, only slightly re-tooled from last year. They have only cobbled together winning streaks of more than two games twice, as we near the halfway mark of the season. It’s up to the reigning NBA Coach of the Year to remind these guys why they should still care. But it’s not all on him.

    Bread-and-butter. PB-and-J. Rice Krispies-and-Milk. Teague-and-Horford, pick-and-roll. That was an essential, nutritious part of what made the Hawks offense snap, crackle, and pop over the prior two seasons of Budball. As a roll man on P&Rs, Horford still holds up his end of the bargain. Of the 17 NBA big men this season with 100 or more roll-man plays, Al ranks 2nd (only behind Marcin Gortat) with 1.14 points per possession and 57.7 eFG%, with the third-lowest turnover percentage (behind Blake and Dirk), while his team’s scoring percentage of 54.7% on those plays ranks third overall (behind Gortat and Jason Smith). But it takes two to make a thing go right, and therein lies a problem.

    Both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder are among 31 NBA guards with 200 or more possessions as P&R ball handlers. Of that set, Teague and Schröder rank, respectively, 21st and 29th in points per possession, 27th and 30th in eFG%, 13th and 14th in turnover frequency, and 21st and 26th in team scoring percentage. While so much attention has been placed on Kyle Korver’s long-range shooting decline, the short-circuiting of the P&R pillar of Atlanta’s offensive attack is perhaps more worrisome to Budenholzer.

    Coach Bud definitely recalls the days of Popovich chopping like a white-bearded kung fu master on Tony Parker, ruthlessly funneling his incessant, blazing ire into this French rapper-wannabe, steeling the pupil’s resolve with the dark arts of The Spurs Way until Parker finally “got it,” and became a Finals MVP with two rings already on his fingers.

    Now, like last night against the Cavs, Pop can occasionally lay back, holler at Parker with the occasional “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!” and even let him design plays out of timeouts.  That’s because Parker (2nd only to Steph Curry in P&R ball-handler eFG% and points per possession) bothered to listen. Now, he chases championships instead of teammates’ wives. To reach the next step, or any step at all, Bud needs Teague’s ears to be functional as his eyeballs.

    When Teague put on his headband last season, he hit the floor looking like a motivated Karate Kid, soaking up all of his coaching staff’s directions to devastating effect as he began executing and defending screen plays with exquisite precision. These days, Jeff (30.5 assist%, lowest since 2011-12; 53.5 TS%, lowest since 2010-11; career-low 42.4 2FG%) comes across as more of a bloated Steven Seagal, perhaps too drunk off of his sudden success to heed the direction of any more Mister Miyagis.

    That was on display early on in Charlotte, on Wednesday. Teague failed to direct the offense, and reverted to old bad habits on defense against his division rival, Kemba Walker. The once-reeling Hornets could not believe their fortune, as Atlanta (23-16) essentially played to Charlotte’s strengths on both ends of the floor, passing up good shots for downright silly ones and finding itself down 17-2 from the jump. Bud lights into Teague at the first timeout, but Jeff is too busy admiring the intricacies of Charlotte’s arena rafters.

    Schröder was brought into the game to replace Teague and help right the ship, but by the second quarter with Schröder and Teague sharing the floor together, the bottom fell out. The Hawks need floor generals and not soldier trees.

    Atlanta has, arguably, the most efficient stretch-four-point-five in the game at its disposal, but that is of little use if Horford is not demanding the ball, and if his point guards aren’t running plays to set him up. Following up from a solid week of production and a few days of rest, Wednesday (2 points, 2 boards, no steals, 1 block, 4 fouls, 27 minutes) was Horford’s fourth double-single on the season. Those inexcusable outputs from the Hawks’ reti-center will come with greater frequency, as long as he and Teague decline to take command from the outset of games.

    When the height of your cutthroat competitiveness comes not from throwing down against the likes of Cody Zeller, but at tens of thousands of feet in the air as you’re throwing down Draw Fours on Thabo Sefolosha, it shows on the floor. It shows up in the stands, and in the waning moods of an already-fickle and understandably skeptical NBA fanbase.

    As Exhibit A, here lies Horford, as much of a collegiate champion as Tim Tebow, a perennial Rated-PER Superstar, having helped lift his longtime NBA franchise to unforeseen heights before national audiences just eight months ago. And yet, he doesn’t draw a blip in the All-Star voting, locally or nationally. But guess who does? Al’s old backup, who has been balling in Dallas all of three full months and, just by showing consistent (there’s that word again) hustle and heart on the floor, piling up double-doubles along the way, is about to surpass Tim Duncan – Tim Duncan! – for All-Star hashtags.

    As Coach Bud knows, with and without NBA titles, Duncan is used to getting ripped into by his head coach, in front of teammates, just like Parker, and then responding with inspirational play on the floor. If your senior-most leaders are only giving off Alfred E. Neuman-style attitudes against teams like Milwaukee and Charlotte, it will be obvious there’s none of Larry Drew’s patented Sense of Urgency to be found. NBA fans believe in what Pachulia, and Duncan, can and will do on a nightly basis. Horford? Teague? “We don’t believe you! You need more people!”

    At least Milwaukee has had two chances to hang on to Z-Pac. Now they give up the most second-chance points per 100 possessions, and the fourth-most per-possession points off turnovers. Unlike not-so-turnover-prone Charlotte, that can work right into Atlanta’s wheelhouse, if they choose to take advantage. It will help if Bud gets Thabo Sefolosha (wrist, DNP vs. Charlotte) back on the floor to be disruptive and productive in transition. Thabo’s 2.7 steals per 100 plays ranks 6th among non-point-guards, just behind Millsap (2.8 steal percentage). It will also help if Horford bothers to re-join Paul Millsap (1 or more O-rebs in 37 of 39 games) on the offensive glass and grant Atlanta extra chances when shots aren’t falling.

    Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore can keep a body in front of Alpha-Bits (the NBA leader in personal fouls), as the Bucks strive to get their lanky Euro-stepper the ball in open space. Just as Horford should find little trouble crashing the boards at both ends against Monroe and the Bucks’ frontline, and pick-and-rolling and pick-and-popping Milwaukee apart, Teague should have little problem forcing MCW into costly mistakes.

     

    Carter-Williams’ defensive rating (107.2, worst among East guards with 30+ MPG) has reverted to where it was during his Rookie of the Year season in white-flag-waving Philadelphia. Meanwhile, mong 43 NBA guards logging 30+ minutes, his 13.7 turnovers per 100 possessions ranks just behind Rajon Rondo’s 14.3. At some point, if you’re a starting point guard, and the tutelage of Kidd isn’t rubbing off on you, you’ll be in deep trouble. With Greivis Vasquez out of action, and Bayless and Mayo hampered with injuries, Prunty has few playmaking options to turn to.

     

    Just like in Charlotte, and New York, the pins are all set up for Horford, Teague and the Hawks to deliver strikes. Will they show up ready to knock ‘em down? Or will they again leave it to somebody coming off the bench to pick up the spares? Until this particular pair stops putting the “Con” in “Consistency,” there will be no telling what to expect.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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