• Hawks at Kings

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    “((COUGH)) Sorry! Just wolfed down too much Hot Chicken!”


    You’ll forgive the dinnertime product placement but, until very recently, you ever heard of Nashville Hot Chicken? Certainly, not this new-wave carpetbagger.  Yours truly had achieved a fairly comfy existence for a decade or four, including a trip or two to honky-tonk tourist-trap Lower Broad, without ever hearing of this culinary contraption. Suddenly, Fast Food, Inc. is foisting this entrée onto consumers at every commercial-break opportunity. It’s a wonder that Dirty Grandpa isn’t gnawing on some NHC. But, is it real? Is it finger lickin’ good? And will it last long enough for me to care?

    One other smoky-hot thing you may not have been introduced to heretofore? The Sacramento (Hot) Kings, coming off a Staples Sweep of the Clippers and Lakers. The Kings are poised to win on back-to-back nights for the first time since this season, if they can defeat the Atlanta Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), who just outlasted Portland last night.

    In so doing, Sacramento (18-25) will have won four in a row for the first time all season and, more significantly, would gain a foothold on the eighth-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. But are these Hot Kings real? Are they genuinely good now? Will the good vibes last long enough for anyone outside of Sactown to care?

    East Point’s Finest, former Olympian and Hawk All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s decent but brief NBA career was winding down when he finally got to taste the playoffs in 2006 (ending an NBA record drought) with Rick Adelman’s Kings. Led on the floor by Mike Bibby and an exiled Ron Artest, the Kings fell in the opening round to Nazr Mohammed’s and Mike Budenholzer’s San Antonio Spurs in six games.

    The Kings enjoyed brief stays in the postseason just twice in their first 13 seasons in the California capital, before Adelman’s arrival. But by 2006, an eighth-straight playoff appearance was ho-hum, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. In came former Lon Kruger and Mike Fratello assistant Eric Musselman, who could tell Coach Bud a thing or two about starting one’s head coaching career off on the wrong pedal foot. Out went Adelman, and with him went the last vestige of Sacramento’s playoff history. At least Reef hung around town for a little while longer.

    In the decade since, Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, and Ty Corbin have all been run through Sactown’s coaching grist mill. The franchise itself was oh-so-close to getting snatched out of town until two madmen (Mayor Kevin Johnson and team purchaser Vivek Ranadivé) collaborated to save the franchise from the clutches of the Pacific Northwest and also build a new palace that the team moves into next season. How nice would it be, though, to exit the dusty Sleep Train Arena with a couple playoff games?

    Don’t worry if you’re thinking that heads are getting too big here. Similar to the Pelicans of yesteryear, dreams of future championship contention can wait. Ranadivé has his fingers and toes crossed that by the time tax day comes around, his meddling maneuvers (including the reintroduction of George Karl to the sideline) and his team’s undying faith in the surly set of point guard Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, will bear fruit in the form of a first-round playoff series. And not just any series, mind you: one that brings Norcal’s spiciest hoop star, Steph Curry, and his Golden State Warriors back into town.

    By design, Sacramento’s offense has been Nashville hot (100+ points in 10 of their last 11 games) and the defense, like the aforementioned chicken, seems deeply coated in lard (100+ opponent points in 10 of their last 11 games). The one exception among the Kings’ opponents occurred last night, as Sacramento “held” the Lakers to 97 points. Coach Karl’s high-paced squad will graciously give up three-point shots (NBA-high 29.2 opponent 3FGAs per game). But if you’re hopelessly incapable of making them (LAL 4-for-25 3FGs yesterday), that’s not their fault.

    Despite having the touted “best big man in the game” in Cousins (4th in NBA in scoring and RPG, 1st in Usage%, 36-and-16 last night at Staples), the Kings are still spread a bit thin upfront. Lotto rookie Cousins’ and Rondo’s Wildcat cousin Willie Cauley-Stein starts by default, since he can dunk and swipe at everything resembling a basketball. Meanwhile, it might take a week before anyone realizes Kosta Koufos (10th in NBA in O-Reb%) swapped unis with Tiago Splitter. Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay have timeshared at the starting 4-spot (shifting Cousins back to center) and, well, just no.

    Karl, Vivek and the Kings’ competitive philosophy seems to be, “Hurry Up and Shoot, So We Can Hurry Up and Score.” A league-high 16.3% of Kings buckets (incl. 11.8% of their 2FGs) come with 18-22 seconds still left on the shot clock. It’s Reno Bighorns Basketball, writ large. Unfortunately for the Kings, the “Shoot” and “Score” roles get interchanged on many nights. Even yesterday, the Kings could not muster more than 6-for-20 from outside, even as guys like Kobe and Lou Williams presented as little resistance as possible.

    Defensively, the bigs will cluster around the paint, working like a co-op, striving to keep lanes clogged for 2.9 seconds at a time, and leaving it to Rondo (1.8 SPG) to provide a modicum of pressure to the opposing ball handler. While opponents are encouraged to swing the ball around and snipe away from the perimeter, Sacramento is susceptible to waving the white flag when said ball handler (0.86 opponent points per possession, just below Brooklyn and Portland; 48.0 eFG%, 3rd-highest in NBA) gets past Rondo (or Darren Collison) off a pick.

    The frenetic but limited frontcourt situation results in Sacramento allowing the fewest shots around the rim (34.5 opponent restricted-area FGAs) but a league-high 63.7% of those shots going in. Cousins (1.3 SPG, 2nd among NBA centers; 1.3 BPG) plugs just enough leaks to keep the Kings from giving up more than their league-high 107.9 opponent PPG. Perhaps, in a season like this, that’s all they’ll need.

    With last night’s win over the “Lackers,” DMC is back above-.500 (17-16) with the Kings in games played on the season. DMC was 9-6 last season, too, before he got injured at Vivek got crazy with Malone, but that’s neither nor there at this point.


    To stay winning, of course, Cousins has to maintain his on-court composure, such that it is, and not cost his team and himself by throwing ‘bows at sleeping almost-giants like Al Horford. Doing that back on November 18 marred his own 24-point (13 in the 1st quarter), 12-rebound performance at Philips Arena, and enlivened both Horford (mostly in the first half) and Paul Millsap (23 points, 16 boards) enough to halt, similar to tonight, the Kings’ incoming 3-game winning streak.

    The wet-nap that Dennis Schröder’s play reliably brought to clean up Atlanta’s messy starts lately finally dried up in Portland last night. His defense on Blazer guards was superior to Jeff Teague’s in the first half, but by the second half he proved a menace merely to courtside photographers, as he struggled to find the cup (3-for-13 FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs).

    Teague Time (6 second-half dimes) arrived just in time to help Atlanta pull away, but Schröder’s limited floor time (under 20 minutes in the past four games) will be useful on the second night of a back-to-back against Rondo (11 points, 17 assists @ LAL yesterday; 12 points, 12 boards, 10 assists, 7 TOs @ ATL on Nov. 18) and Collison.

    In place of an injured Teague, Schröder contributed 22 points and 6 assists (1 TO) in Atlanta’s 103-97 win back in November. Millsap referred to his team’s reserves (9-for-26 FGs, incl. Schröder; 1-for-7 3FGs) as “elite” in the postgame commentary, and we’ll need to see more production from them tonight to know Sap wasn’t merely speaking with tongue-in-cheek. The defensive rebounding (14.3 bench D-Rebs per game, 5th in NBA) and steals (NBA-high 4.3 bench SPG) this month suggest notions of the reserves’ potential impact is more than a non-starter.

    The Hawks prevailed in that November meeting without not only Teague, but Kent Bazemore (3-for-6 3FGs @ POR, matching Millsap’s 23 points), as both starters rested ankle sprains. Baze and Thabo Sefolosha will be instrumental in thwarting the Kings’ fast breaks, disrupting outlet passes from Cousins and the guards to finishers like Gay and Ben McLemore, and to sharpshooters like Omri Casspi (7th in NBA for 2FG%, 4th for 3FG%) and Marco Belinelli. Forcing Sacramento to resort to Plans B and C later in the shot clock will slow the tempo and work to Atlanta’s advantage.

    The Kings need to take better advantage of opponents boarding the Sleep Train on the back end of back-to-backs. They’re 1-5 in those scenarios thus far, including losses to their last two opponents (New Orleans and Golden State) before embarking on their successful three-game road trip.

    Meanwhile, the Hawks (26-17) have won here in their last seven trips going back to 2009, have won 15 straight in this head-to-head series, and are 7-3 (incl. their last 3 tries) on the back half of back-to-back sets this season. Extend those streaks with sound play at both ends tonight, inch a little further up in the East standings, and who knows? Maybe we even can market the thing. “Atlanta Hot Wings”… sounds tasty to me!

    Let’s Go Hawks!


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