“I Can Has Rebound?”
Are our Atlanta Hawks playing down to the level of their opponents? Or is this simply their new level? In either case, we’ll get to see the Hawks play at a level not experienced all season tonight – Mile High, or however far up the Denver Nuggets play at the Pepsi Center (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude).
The thin air hasn’t been kind for Our Fine Feathered Friends in the past decade or so. The last time Atlanta pulled off a W in the 303, Lorenzen Wright, Tyronn Lue, and Shelden Williams were all starters. Back in December 2006, Salim Stoudemire dropped 21 off the bench to help Joe Johnson erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and barely outpoint Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony.
Since then, no matter if it was George Karl, Brian Shaw or Melvin Hunt running the sideline, the Nuggets have always held serve at home. The Hawks’ downright laughable display in Phoenix on Saturday night produced little confidence that things will change tonight.
Al Horford grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds (12 defensive) against the remnants of the Suns, but he and the Hawks could only sit back and watch as Tyson Chandler (27 rebounds, 13 offensive, by himself) took their lunch money and bought himself a chimichanga.
Yes, the Hawks (26-19) were without All-Star forward Paul Millsap for personal reasons, and he’ll be back and ready to go tonight. But just because you have a missing link doesn’t mean you have to play like one. Deadspin even took time to comment on the absurd closing minutes as two teams “just kind of (running) around like a bunch of puppies in the snow.”
The wide-open spaces around Atlanta’s hoop have to look tantalizing to Denver’s three-headed monster at center, consisting of rookie Nikola Jokic (61.4 TS%, 10th in NBA; 17 points and 3 blocks on Saturday), Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. In a pinch, Nurkic and his immediate family could back up the Broncos’ O-Line in Super Bowl 50.
Forward Kenneth Faried (53.6 FG%, 5th in NBA; 3.7 O-Rebs per game) has a sore adductor and while it’s unlikely he’ll appear, after seeing Chandler’s exploits, he certainly will do all he can to get in this game. That’s just four of seven Nuggets (26.4 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) averaging at least one offensive board per game.
Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (1.1 O-Rebs per game 19.3 PPG, 7.8 FT attempts per game) is known to do some slashing-and-crashing himself. The 16 freebies he earned in Saturday night’s home win (plus the game-winning fade-away with 24 seconds left, along the way to 30 points) left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson (himself a former Coloradoan) grasping for answers, if not air.
“A guy’s shooting 16. Great player, but a guy’s shooting 16,” RJax bemoaned, while poring over Danilo’s line in the postgame boxscore. “I attack the basket more than most players in the league and I can’t get a free throw. I shot two free throws. We shot 19, he shot 16 by himself. It makes no sense.”
It can make sense if you lack defenders capable of keeping Gallo from forays into the paint without committing cheap fouls. The Hawks have two such players in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but both will be out to make amends after their half-baked play in Phoenix.
Sefolosha (3 steals vs. PHX) certainly can’t be blamed for Archie Goodwin’s game-winning prayer, but he’ll have to do better than the 1-for-9 FG shooting he turned in. Despite a team-high 21 points and his game-tying baskets during the Benny Hill-themed conclusion, Bazemore blew dunks, free throws, and chunks defensively throughout much of the game. His glee over his Carolina Panthers victory last night will hopefully translate into better play at both ends today.
Bazemore lacks the size to wrangle with Gallinari inside, so Mike Budenholzer will look to switch Millsap (4th in NBA for defensive win shares) onto him. That would grant Bazemore and Sefolosha more time to keep human energy-shot Will Barton, Gary Harris and jump-shooters Randy Foye and Mike Miller cool from long-range.
While he’s still 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring, Barton has cooled off significantly (34.4 FG%, 29.5 3FG%, 11.5 PPG in January) after a torrid December run (20.8 PPG) had him in the hunt for Sixth Man of the Year. The defense-oriented Harris (career-high 5 steals vs. DET) is improving across-the-board on the offensive end, but will be tasked tonight with chasing Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. PHX) off the three-point line.
The heady play directed by Nuggets coach Mike Malone has translated into some surprising wins and many more competitive outcomes. It’s been nearly a month since Denver (17-27) last dropped a contest by double digits. They’re hoping to make this eight-game homestand that concludes tonight a winning one. During this stretch, the Nuggets posted wins over a sleepy Golden State and Indiana, plus close-shave losses to Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis.
Malone will rely on more interior offensive play to wear down Horford and Millsap, knowing the duo is getting little help so long as Tiago Splitter continues to look like an accidental tourist on the floor. If Faried remains out, Denver will need big minutes from forward Darrell Arthur (18-and-11 vs. GSW; career-best 41.5 3FG%) to spread Atlanta’s defense thin. They’ll also need someone capable of feeding the big men the ball.
That’s where Emmanuel Mudiay (18 points, 4 assists and 4 TOs vs. DET on Saturday) comes in. The rookie returned for the Nuggets’ homestand after missing a month due to injury, and he continues to find his footing as a shooter (last 8 games: 37.6 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 55.2 FT%) and a passer (5.6 APG, 3.1 TOs per game). But as ballhandlers go, Mudiay (16.0 TO%, highest among starting NBA point guards) is about the only option Malone has available. Jameer Nelson can only coach from the sideline as he heals an injured wrist. That the next leading player in assists per-36 is Mike Miller tells you about all you need to know.
Jeff Teague (10.5 PPG, 37.3 2FG%, 19.6 TO% this month) picked a fine time to let slip The World’s Worst Secret, after his Hawks fell flat once again on the road. “I’m dealing with an ankle injury,” he advised to a pestering C-Viv at the AJC. “That’s okay, I’ll be back,” which are soothing words to hear, if you happen to be rooting for The Terminator.
This was a stretch of games for Atlanta where it would have been in the team’s best interest to rest that ankle, let lead conditioning guy Keke Lyles do some of his magic off-line, and allow Dennis Schröder (19 points, team-high 5 assists off bench vs. PHX; 36.2 Assist%, 9th in NBA) and Shelvin Mack to fully cut their teeth.
If he (and Coach Bud) insists on him starting, he might as well make himself useful. Other high-turnover opponents (Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams) have come out smelling like roses in recent games against Atlanta, and point guard-by-default Goodwin (24 points, 8-for-9 FTs) looked like Steve Francis with drives to the hoop on Saturday.
If Teague (4-for-13 FGs, 3 assists, 5 TOs vs. a shell of a team in PHX) can neither get the separation he needs to zip past subpar opposing guards and finish plays inside, nor stay in front of cat-quick guards like Mudiay, then he needs to be in Budenholzer’s “player development” purgatory until he demonstrates that he can, once again, do these things.
Teague contributed 3 or more steals in 21 games last season, but just four times in 42 appearances this season and in none of his last 11 games. While there’s much attention laid on his shots around the rim (career-low 49.2 FG% on lay-ups), the once-patented floater is just about gone from his arsenal as well (career-low 30.2 FG% between 3-10 feet from rim).
If the starting point guard struggles to produce points, and struggles to guard, there’s simply no point in starting. Even as Millsap’s return to the lineup will boost the scoring, hustle, and rebounding, the Hawks’ success tonight will be sustained for as long as their lead guards can reliably carry them.
Let’s Go Hawks!