***ATTENTION, TJ MAXX SHOPPERS...***
Okay… NOW, the schedule gets tough!
The first dozen games in the Atlanta Hawks’ regular season slate provided opportunities to catch teams napping, or trip them up while they were still calibrating with reformulated lineups. That fun ends tonight, as the Hawks kick off an arduous four-game road swing versus LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers (9:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL).
Maybe the outcomes won’t be as dire as they project on paper, though. Tonight’s contest begins the first stretch in a while that Atlanta (3-9) won’t be in the middle of a 3-games-in-4-nights run. For coach Lloyd Pierce’s club, it’s the last of a string of 4-games-in-6-nights that began back on October 27 (1-8 in that span).
Given the run of even-numbered-days rest over the next couple weeks, the outlook for victories would be so much sunnier if there weren’t so many NBA studs to reckon with. After LeBron and Company, there’s KD and the Dubs on Tuesday, the Joker on Thursday, Dipo on Saturday. That’s before returning for a four-game homestand that includes Kawhi, Kemba and the Celtics.
No one’s going to shed a tear for Trae Young (18.4 PPG, 7.8 APG, 4.0 TOs/game) and the Hawks. But maybe chances will arise to use relatively routine rest to their advantage, against favored opponents like L.A.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a heartfelt song by The Platters, but it’s not one LeBron and his newest team, the Lakers (6-6) wish to croon. They tipped off at 7 PM last night in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, the arena layered with smoke from the deadly Camp Fire ravaging northern California. They pulled off the 101-86 victory, the fourth win in their past five games, against the Kings. But the ambient conditions wafting into the stadium proved problematic for many attendees, including the players spending a half-hour going back-and-forth for 94 feet.
“Everyone gets affected by pollution,” James (25 points in 31 minutes yesterday) told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and postgame media before the game. Afterwards, the Lakers’ latest franchise savior noted he was dealing with a slight pregame headache, “and I can’t pinpoint any other reason why it was going on besides the smoke.” Starting center JaVale McGee, who suffers from asthma, cited stomach pains that he estimated, “was from the smoke, for sure.”
Back home ahead of a game less than 24 hours later versus Atlanta, the Lakers have friends and neighbors who are dealing with the uncontained Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire northwest of L.A. Arriving in Sacramento on Friday from SoCal, some Lakers watched fires burning from the plane. If they were awake during the flight home last night, chances were good they observed even more destruction from above.
Smoke like this is always undesirable, but what has been unnecessary has been the figurative smoke emanating from the president of basketball operations' office. Third-year Lakers coach Luke Walton doesn’t want any smoke from his legendary, smoldering boss.
I’m always grateful that Magic Johnson remains among us, but Lakers fans would appreciate it if he added a chill pill to his daily prescriptions. I understand Magic trying to live up to his promise of a grand turnaround and a return to glory by the end of the 2019-20 season. But a 2-5 record, all versus fellow Western Conference opponents, was apparently too slow a start for the Magic Man.
Johnson reportedly gave Walton a grand, vocal chewing out last week, following Los Angeles’ return home from losses at San Antonio and Minnesota. He defended his actions by insisting he was more concerned about the style of play – somebody, promise me he’s not demanding Walton to install the Triangle. Magic insists that, despite his vitriol, Coach Luke’s job status isn’t in peril “this year.”
The Lakers have gotten everything they could want in the post-Kobe campaign. Five years of tanking produced lottery picks in Lonzo Ball (4.4 APG) and Brandon Ingram (15.6 PPG). They took some late-first-round picks from 2017 and hit it out of the park with Kyle Kuzma (18.5 PPG) and Josh Hart.
As he planned, Earvin put on his Magic charms this past summer and wooed LeBron to Hollywood. As James would want, Magic’s staff stocked the roster with go-along-to-get-along vets, in Rajon Rondo (7.0 APG), JaVale McGee (3.0 BPG), Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and, this past week, Tyson Chandler.
But why is Magic insistent on Walton building Rome in a day? Aside from LeBron, this is not an All-Star roster, and it won’t be until the youngsters round out their games and the next big free agent catch arrives next summer. When it comes to support from the top, right now, this team needs more Magic and less Earvin. The Lakers exec is the only one capable of making rash decisions that could disrupt the West Coast Process, detrimentally, and render James not much more than a glorified award-show presenter.
LeBron is accustomed to bulldozing his way to the hoop with the rock and having colleagues ready to play their roles around him. He is not used to standing aside as forwards like Ingram and Kuzma call their own numbers. His 31.4 assist percentage is his lowest since 2006-07. Sharing the ball with an effective passer like Rondo (32.8 assist%) is a factor. But no one should expect Walton, with the pieces he has around LeBron, to drum up an effective motion offensive scheme in October. That’s almost as bad as expecting Pierce to have the Hawks’ offense (102.1 O-Rating, 29th in NBA), in any respect, humming by now.
Atlanta players won the turnover battle versus their opponents four times in 12 games, and they are 3-1 in those situations. They have also shot at least 39.5 percent on threes in those victories, but they haven’t crossed the 30 percent mark in any of their past three games. Those were all losses, including Friday night’s game, where they came out against Detroit (20-40 in the opening quarter, versus the NBA’s second-worst 1st-quarter team) like they were driving a car filled to the brim with buttered popcorn.
James can be counted on to get his stats, and Kuzma is sure to enliven Staples Center with a highlight play or two. But Walton is likely to go deep into his rotation to give his key contributors some rest, entrusting players like Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Ivica Zubac to help carry the day.
The Hawks can be more competitive tonight if they execute plays better on the run, and if the wings and guards get back in transition and defend the Lakers’ passers without fouling. Atlanta ranks second-worst on opponent fastbreak points (17.7) per-48, the Lakers diametrically ranked second in fastbreak scoring (22.7 per-48, 0.1 point behind yesterday’s foe, Sacramento).
But the Lakers and the Warriors (3rd in fastbreak per-48 points), who may be without Steph Curry (groin strain) when they host the Hawks on a back-to-back Tuesday, may be a bit lead-legged and distracted due to the events going on all across California. For any Hawks players who are interested in stealing a road win, they ought to consider the next pair of contests a Golden State opportunity.
Happy Veterans' Day! Hearts out to the wildfire victims and emergency service providers out in Cali. And, Let’s Go Hawks!