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    CAPTION: Excited fans line up on Sunday to buy tickets to Atlanta Hawks games


    Never say never! Sure, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t claimed a win in over the visiting Miami heat (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA) in 22 months. Yes, the Hawks are crawling back home on a four-game losing streak, after blowing another fourth-quarter lead, this time a seven-point advantage with seven minutes to go against the worst team in the West. Yes, the chance for another victory anytime soon looks dire.

    But, you know what? People used to say you would never see Chick-fil-A open on a Sunday. And look what happened! All it took was a spark. Sure, in this case, a spark that turned into a blaze that shut down The World’s Busiest Airport for almost a full day, but still! Sometimes, a spark is all it takes to turn “never!” into “well, except that one time…”

    Who could provide the win-kindling spark for the Hawks tonight at the Highlight Factory? Atlanta (6-23, NBA-low 3-10 at home) will need more than another double-double from Dennis Schröder. Dennis displayed his worthiness as an NBA starter back in 2014-15, when he filled in for Jeff Teague on ten occasions and logged five double-doubles, four of them in victorious fashion. He collected ten more point+assist double-doubles as a full-time starter last season, Atlanta going 7-3 in those regular-season contests.

    Yet through 27 starts this season, the mercurial point guard has just a pair of doub-doubs, and his 18 points (season-high-tying 8 FT attempts) and 11 assists at Memphis on Friday were insufficient for the Hawks to avoid succumbing to a Grizzlies team that was sorely missing Mike Conley.

    Friday was only the fourth time this season Dennis (6.7 APG, 5th in the NBA East) led all players (his own team and his opponents) in assists for a game, and it was the first time that happened in back-to-back games. The diminution of knowledgeable veteran talent, by design, has been obvious from the jump. But Atlanta needs more than Schröder making plays to win games, and that means better play is needed from his backup and his fellow starters.

    “Tough game… too many turnovers,” tweeted player-analyst Malcolm Delaney following yesterday’s loss. Ironic joking aside, this was an astute observation. Fans have clamored for the supplanting of Delaney with Isaiah Taylor as Schröder’s primary backup, once the latter returned just weeks ago from an eye injury. But there are signs that Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is looking for other answers, and Taylor has struggled lately to support his own cause.

    Opponents are clogging the paint on Taylor with greater propensity, daring him to either shoot or dish the rock, with mixed results at best. He’s made just two of his last 11 field goals over the past four games, his minutes dwindling from 18 last week in Cleveland to 13 versus Detroit and ten in Bluff City. While he clearly outclasses Delaney as a defender at the point guard position, Taylor’s turnover rate (13.1 per 100 possessions) threatens to eclipse Delaney’s (13.3, although that value has declined now that he plays more off-ball).

    With Taylor handling the basketball, the bench squandered the Hawks’ early gains against the Pistons on Thursday, and there was a similar effect one evening later. At critical junctures against the Grizzlies, in lieu of Taylor, Coach Bud deployed lineups featuring as many as four play-setting swingmen, ranging from the perpetual high-wire act of Kent Bazemore (last 3 games: 14 assists, *only* six TOs) to the outright calamitous, trial-by-fire DeAndre’ Bembry (21.5 TOs per 100 possessions, team-high among non-frontcourt players). Taylor’s decision-making and execution needs to be of a nature that averts Coach Bud’s propensity for excessive lineup tinkering.

    Friday’s defeat also wasted a solid perimeter-shooting effort from Taurean Prince, who was 5-for-8 from three-point territory but was not the decisive factor the Hawks needed inside (1-for-6 2FGs, 3 D-Rebs, 1 assist, 4 TOs in 36 minutes). Prince and Atlanta’s help defenders were the perfect pest for Memphis’ Marc Gasol (8 TOs vs. ATL), but the Hawks lacked a balancing interior presence.

    Budenholzer supported the intrinsically overmatched Miles Plumlee with only a minutes-restricted John Collins (2 FGAs vs. MEM in 24 minutes; 4 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks) off the bench, while Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Babbitt could do but so much to keep random Grizzlie bigs off the glass.

    All of these factors overtax Schröder, who will already have his hands full if he and Miami’s Goran Dragic spend this evening not-stopping one another from getting into the paint. Miami (15-14) has won four of its past five games, but The Dragon hasn’t been at his fire-spitting best on offense recently (last 3 games: 30.3 FG%, 14.3 3FG%, 61.5 FT%). Not having center Hassan Whiteside (bruised knee) around as a threat has been a factor, but Goran has amassed a season-high of just seven assists four times this season.

    Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra could use more effective command of the offense from Dragic (4.4 APG) tonight, as the team’s second-leading dime-dropper, forward James Johnson (4.1 APG), was left behind in South Beach to heal his ankle bursitis, and guard Dion Waiters (3.7 APG, 39.2 FG%) remains as erratic as ever.

    Complicating matters for Coach Spo is that Dragic (elbow) is questionable to play tonight himself, while Waiters is fighting through an illness, potentially leaving Miami with no more than eight healthy suit-able players. Neither Dragic nor Waiters participated in shootaround this morning. Dragic’s absence may lead to a healthy heaping of Tyler Johnson at the point, and hopes that gunner Wayne Ellington (6-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Oct. 23, team-high 42.8 3FG%) can provide more deep-threat magic.

    Miami is thin at small forward behind Josh Richardson, as Justise Winslow (knee strain) is doubtful to appear, while Rodney McGruder (tibia) and Okaro White (foot) are out indefinitely. Jordan Mickey and Kelly Olynyk should provide some energy up front, with Bam Adebayo filling the gaps behind them. Even without Whiteside, thanks to this trio, the heat have posted the second-best D-Rating (96.9 opponent points per 100 possessions) over this 4-1 stretch that includes road wins at Brooklyn, Memphis (by 25 points just one week ago) and Charlotte. But keeping up that defensive intensity will be tough without a catalyst like Johnson available.

    Offensively for the Hawks, there should be very little to keep Schröder and (knock-on-wood) Taylor from connecting above the rim with Collins, or around the 3-point arc with Tyler Cavanaugh (9-for-18 3FGs, 6.2 RPG in his past five appearances). Collins will hopefully be available to provide more significant fullcourt production with added floortime. The latter rookie is the league’s newest one-way player after signing a contract to stick around for a full season. Perhaps, Tyler The Three-ator was DNP-CD’d in Memphis just to ensure he didn’t injure his signing hand, but he should ((looks at Bud)) have a key role in tonight’s outcome, especially if he rebounds well.

    Indeed, Atlanta has made a cottage industry out of blowing games against severely short-handed outfits (don’t catch this bug tonight, Falcons!), and that didn’t begin with this season. But does that mean you should never count on the Hawks to handle their business, particularly in front of an at least lukewarm home crowd starving for a feel-good win? As Agent 007 might suggest, never say never again!

    Let’s Go Hawks!


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