“…one day, on the red hills of Georgia…”
It’s “A Day On, Not a Day Off” for millions completing service projects around the country and, particularly, in the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many volunteers will then choose to sit back and relax at Philips Arena, getting serenaded by Regina Belle-Battle, and hoping their Atlanta Hawks won’t take a day off against the Orlando Magic (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida, NBATV).
If They Could, Orlando fans would Make It Like It Was back in December, when the Magicians went 10-5 (after starting out with what was already an impressive 9-8 record) and earned Scott Skiles an Eastern Conference Coach of the Month nod. Going 13-5 between Thanksgiving Eve and New Years’ Eve, the best mark in the East during that span, had the O-Town faithful feeling they’d entered A Whole New World, at least one different than the seasons after the Stan Van Gundy era came to a close.
That was before a 1-6 skid this month, interrupted only by a road win versus Atlanta’s last vanquished foes, the Brooklyn Nets. On the whole, the 20-15 start has the Magic all set to eclipse their 25-57 record from last season, the high-water mark of the prior three seasons. But fans who recall the abbreviated success of James Borrego last season know that things can de-escalate quickly.
Over the past six calendar years, Orlando has overcome the Hawks just once in 11 road trips to the ATL. Without a road win over a team with a current winning record, the Magic would love a victory against their division-champ rivals to start turning things back around. But they would have to do it while dealing with a lot of moving parts in the backcourt.
The Magic offense has gone “poof!” ever since point guard Elfrid Payton (5.8 APG, 8th in the East), hobbling since mid-December, was shelved a couple weeks ago to heal an ankle bone bruise. Victor Oladipo slid into Payton’s spot and has shot the ball well lately (70.1 TS% last five games). But ball movement has not quite been to Skiles’ liking, as if there’s anything that Skiles likes.
Only the Nets (94.7 points per 100 possessions) have a lower offensive efficiency in January than Orlando (95.2 O-Rating in January; 104.9 O-Rating in December, 1st in East; 19.3 January O-Reb%, last in NBA). Just as concerning for the Magic has been the lack of transition-scoring opportunities since Payton starting having issues with his ankle. Steals per game have gone down from 9.3 in December to 5.7 this month, while opponent turnovers declined from 15.3 last month to 11.3 in January.
Payton returned and played briefly in the Magic’s loss in London versus Toronto, but Oladipo sprained a knee taking a charge during that game and is now out indefinitely. It was Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics that allowed the Magic to nearly pull a big win out of their hat against the Raptors in London last Thursday, before falling short in overtime.
Sidelined since November, guard C.J. Watson had a setback in his plans to return from a sore calf and is also out indefinitely. Shabazz Napier has been under the weather as well, prompting Orlando to nab D-League star Keith Appling over the weekend.
Despite the intercontinental flights, Payton’s ankle should be well-rested following a four-day layoff that allowed the Magic to scout two Hawks games. Elf’s return allows Skiles to field his December starting lineup again, but expect to see a lot of rookie Mario Hezonja backing up both Payton and Evan “Never Google” Fournier.
In Orlando back on December 20, the Magic shot just 4-for-12 from deep against the Hawks and proved to be no match for the Alabaster Blaster. In perhaps his last successful long-range shooting display, Kyle Korver went off in the second half and finished with 6-for-8 three-point shooting for a team-high 19 points, including the game-winner with 44 seconds left, as Atlanta seized back the lead to edge the Magic in a 103-100 victory.
Korver was joined off the bench by Mike Scott (3-for-5 3FGs, 15 points vs. ORL Dec. 20), who can be can’t-miss so long as he isn’t, like, dunking or anything. Orlando will try to counter with Fournier, Hezonja, and a suddenly-struggling Channing Frye (42.2 3FG%, 7th in East; 15.4 January 3FG%). But Skiles must also encourage his array of supporting-cast bigs (including Aaron Gordon, habitual Hawk Killer Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson) to get out on the perimeter defensively and keep Atlanta from figuring out which Hawks have a hot hand.
Aside from Oladipo, the Magic shot just 4-for-16 on threes in London on Thursday, and despite out-shooting Atlanta over the course of the season, their January swoon of 31.1 team 3FG% ranks just 25th in the league. The last time Skiles’ team needed a sharp-shooting mid-season boost, his Bucks shipped a hardly-used Tobias Harris to Orlando in exchange for a half-year rental of J.J. Redick (you, too, Gustavo Ayón and Ish Smith). It’s safe to assume Skiles won’t let Harris get away so easily again.
Now the highest-paid Magician on the payroll, Harris has been a delight for those trying to forget the last guy who wore #12 in the Magic Kingdom. His scoring is down to 13.6 PPG from 17.1 PPG last year, but that’s in part because Skiles implores Harris to de-emphasize scoring and model the versatility of stretch-forwards like Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh. Tobias’ interior shooting is at a career-best 51.9 2FG%, while he is also posting career marks with 7.2 RPG and 2.1 APG.
Fan voting for the All-Star Game in Toronto concludes at the stroke of midnight tonight, ushering in the coaches’ voting phase. Coaches, like the fans, vote in two guards and three frontcourt players, but they also elect two wild cards from each conference. Isaiah Thomas has argued his case since the season started, and John Wall has been carrying the Wizards through adversity all year. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving are locks whether they start alongside Dwyane Wade or not, and you can’t leave Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out in the cold.
Thus, the coaches will be inclined to grant both wild card spots to guards, leaving guys like Atlanta’s Millsap (2nd in East in PER, 3rd in per-48 Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus, 4th in VORP) and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (4th in East in FG%, 9th in PER) in a squeeze play for three precious frontcourt slots.
Despite the surge by Carmelo Anthony to the third starting spot in the East, Andre Drummond is too tough a case to snub. There’s plenty of love for his fellow yung’uns Kristaps Porzingis and Hassan Whiteside, while Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh get their Lifetime Achievement sentiments. LeBron James has a lot of pull to get His Guys in, so it will be hard to keep Kevin Love out, especially since then-first-place Atlanta got four All-Stars last year. Then, there’s the dismissive You Had Your Turns Already attitude toward mid-market semi-stars.
That means for guys like Sap (career-highs of 18.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 BPG) and Vooch (career-best 2.8 APG; 20 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 20), the only way to keep NBA coaches’ rapt attention during the voting period is to play well in a winning effort. The Hawks’ powerful forward is the team’s only entry deserving consideration, but Do it All Paul will fall quickly into injury-replacement territory if Atlanta keeps dropping games to the Knicks, Hornets, Bucks, and Magic of the world.
We’re at the midway mark of the season. If, back before Halloween, someone were to tell you the Hawks would not be firing on all cylinders, struggled hitting threes and keeping opponents below triple-digits, had several returning All-Stars either regressing or playing inconsistently, and had not yet worked any newcomers into prominent roles in the rotation while on pace for “just” 48 wins… yet still would be sitting on top of the Southeast Division (ahead of perpetually-hyped Miami and Washington) and 1.5 games out of second in the East, you would begrudgingly take that scenario, especially given a roster that has reached the midway point relatively healthy.
Now the fun begins. Can Al Horford (one rebound, offensive, in 23 minutes vs. BKN on Saturday) string together a couple productive weeks of basketball in a row, or at least a couple games? Can Jeff Teague (7 assists, 1 TO vs. BKN; 37.3 2FG% in January) and Korver (1-for-6 FGs vs. BKN) slip out of their respective cocoons, especially defensively in Teague’s case?
If not, will Coach Bud turn even more toward bench options like Dennis Schröder (15-and-10 plus 1 TO vs. BKN, first double-double of the season), Tiago Splitter and, dare we say it, Tim Hardaway, Jr.? And would that necessarily be a bad thing? As the February trade deadline approaches, does GM Bud have any tricks up his sleeves? Might continually underwhelming play shake him out of “We Like Our Group” mode?
Winning 60 or even 50 games isn’t as important as building positive momentum toward the springtime. But an impressive home win over a team like the Magic, ahead of a modest four-games-in-six-nights West Coast swing, would signal to Hawks fans that there is, indeed, something good on the other side of that mountaintop.
Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks!