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    “I Know Who You’re Working Out With This Summer.”
    Which Atlanta Hawk player declared that Washington’s basketball team is a bunch of “…crybabies. They b*tch and moan all game. They have no class,” then added, “They've got nobody who can stop me. I am going to dominate their guards physically and psychologically”?
    What if, throughout this whole Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Hawks and Wizards, now reaching a pivotal Game 5 in the District (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., TNT), Markieff Morris is merely being a basketball historian, trying to stay in touch with his spirit animal… the late, coulda-been-great, Terry Furlow?
    Not long after wearing high school star Magic Johnson ragged on the blacktops of Lansing, the ex-Spartan Furlow was in his third NBA season in 1979, when he fell out with coach/GM Bill Fitch in Cleveland and was traded to Atlanta in mid-season, for Butch Lee and a future 1st-rounder.
    The newest Hawk arrived just in time to spark a mad dash by coach Hubie Brown’s team into the playoffs. And it was against the defending World Champion Bullets, in the conference semis, that Furlow, a backup guard, took the initiative to become the self-styled Mouth of the South. A sampling:
    “(Elvin) Hayes is a cheap-shot artist. Write that.”
    “(Wes) Unseld is a bully. He has bullied his way through this league all his life.”
    (To top-scoring Bullet guard Kevin Grevey, during a game, as reported by Sports Illustrated): “Hello? You're in trouble now. Every time I get it, I'm looking for you. It's gonna be in your face.”
    “The Bullet guards haven't done a thing, except (Larry) Wright - and he can be handled. We just haven't seen him enough yet. (Tom) Henderson can do only so much, and Grevey is lucky to be playing on this team. All he can do is shoot. He can't assist and rebound. When he's cold, he's no good to anybody.”
    Almost exactly 28 years ago to this day, it was Washington’s calm, cool, collected, and playoff battle-tested team who were getting increasingly unnerved by the “cheap shots and unnecessary on-court celebrations” (quote attributed to an unnamed Bullet player by the Washington Post) by the upstarts with upside from Down South, led by their carnival barker off the bench.
    Furlow not only sold the 1979 series to capacity crowds in both Landover and Atlanta (invited by Abe Pollin, even President Carter made it to the decisive Game 7), he was backing up his incessant yap with his offensive play as well. Terry tag-teamed with Eddie Johnson and Armond Hill to dominate the backcourt matchups versus Grevey and ex-Hawk assist-man Henderson, helping to offset powerful performances by Bullet stars Bobby Dandridge and Hayes and turning that series into a toss-up with the top-seeded reigning champs.
    Washington thought they had the series in hand after besting the Hawks in Atlanta, in Games 3 and 4, to go up 3-1 in the series. But unlike the Capital Centre clocks, which began malfunctioning just as the Bullets began to race away at the outset of Game 5, it was Furlow, an already gray-haired Tom McMillen, and Johnson who proved unstoppable, their 59 combined points pacing the Hawks to a 107-103 victory.
    A resounding Game 6 win by the Hawks in front of an enlivened Omni crowd suddenly had the Bullets, who spent way too much time wrangling with the refs, on the ropes, and Atlanta as close as ever before to chasing championship dreams. “The team that (wins Game 7) is prepared for anything,” suggested Bullets coach (Richard) Motta. “It’s ready to go all the way.”
    Even after escaping with a 100-94 win back home in Game 7, despite 21 points by Furlow in what turned out to be the villain’s final NBA playoff contest, a triumphant Hayes remarked that Atlanta, “would have beaten any other team in the league today, except for us.”
    In 2017, it’s the Hawks that are the calmer, cooler team, its veterans better steeled by playoff series victories than Washington’s. It’s the favored Wizards’ backcourt, led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, that has the superior edge but now finds themselves struggling to offset a frontline beleaguered by Atlanta’s Paul Millsap (team-high 23.5 PPG and 1.3 SPG) and Dwight Howard. And in 2017, it is playoff-virgin Morris who is trying to infuse some Furlow-style swagger into this postseason matchup with the Hawks.
    As a distinction, though, Washington’s 2017 team pales in comparison to the ’79 Bullets, and the current-day Hawks are tied in this series rather than playing games with their season on the line. Also, Markieff, unlike Furlow, is earning DJ Khaled-style congratulations, for playing himself right out of this series.
    Aside from the early-arriving Verizon Center crowd, it will be Wall who will do all he can to reinvigorate Morris and Marcin Gortat from the outset of Game 5. Morris knows he must stay scrappy but steer clear of foul trouble, which plagued him during the games in Atlanta. Gortat (27 boards in past two games, but just eight FGAs), back in front of his home crowd, must demonstrate he can rediscover his offensive gear.
    To steer this series back in the Wizards’ favor, Wall must be more respectful of Dennis Schröder, at least on the court. Schröder has done about everything Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has asked of him in this series, and the best defense Wall (1.3 SPG this series) has put up against him is to try to coax the young point guard into early foul problems himself. Wall has gone under screens repeatedly, and Dennis has been making the Wizards pay for their All-Star’s insouciance.
    To this point in the series, Schröder is benefitting from better-balanced contributions by his teammates than Wall. While Morris (10.5 PPG, 34.8 FG%) is the only Wizard not named Wall or Beal averaging double-figures, Atlanta is now up to five double-figure scorers, a number which could rise to six with more dump-ins directed Howard’s way.  The Hawks can certainly steal this series so long as Schröder is not expected to out-John-Wall John Wall.
    Aside from Wall (10.0 APG), only Brandon Jennings in limited minutes is averaging at least three assists per game for coach Brooks’ club. By comparison, Schröder (6.3 APG) is joined by Millsap (4.3 APG), and Kent Bazemore, and that doesn’t count the mastery exhibited by Jose Calderon in Game 4 with Schröder riding the pine due to early foul issues.
    While Gortat matches Dwight’s 11.8 RPG, the only other players averaging more than five rebounds are all Hawks, including Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova, and Taurean Prince. The latter would be in the lead for the Playoffs Rookie of the Year award if there were such a thing.
    Both the Hawks and Wizards are awaiting big games from players who were integral to many successes the teams had during the regular season. For Otto Porter (27.3 3FG% this series; 4th in NBA for 3FG% during regular season), his jumpshot thawed in Game 4 (5-for-10 3FGs), but he has yet to sort out Prince’s defensive riddles and put together a complete effort. After being elevated to the starting lineup as the playoffs neared, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.8 FG% this series) is only beginning to come around (3-for-5 3FGs and two steals in Game 4). A pair of solid two-way efforts from either player could tilt this series decisively in their team’s favor.
    A Game 5 win on the road in 1979 significantly altered Atlanta’s series-winning and title-contending prospects. In 2017, Coach Bud, 4-0 in Game 5s of playoff series as a Hawks coach, is drawing up the plays in hopes of a similar impact. One difference from the Hawks team that entered Game 1 is that Atlanta enters today’s action with the echoes of rabid fans back home still in their ears. From this point forward, the Hawks, unlike the Wizards, need no rabble-rousing teammates to motivate them to victory.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “John! John! I got the license number of that truck! It said, ‘BE GR8’…”
    The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau would like some assistance, please. Markieff Morris has been having a splendid stay in the A. This, after being directed to some of our town’s finest accommodations by the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap, who has become quite the pain in the A for Morris during this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
    To ensure Keef and his Washington Wizards earn one more free continental breakfast in our fair city, the Bureau needs its Hawks fans to cheer the home team on to victory once again, tonight in Game 4 at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, TNT if you dare).
    If Millsap did any “crying” in Game 3, it was with tears of joy. Sap wasn’t crying out loud, but was instead flying high and proud after not only beasting in the boxscore (29 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks), but pairing with Dwight Howard (25 combined rebounds, five offensive) to bedevil Morris and Marcin Gortat (two of Washington’s six O-Rebs, 5-for-18 combined FGs in 58 combined minutes) on the boards for the first time in the best-of-7 series.
    While Howard continues to etch out his role in the Atlanta offense, this time around it was Gortat who got to enjoy the fourth-quarter proceedings from the bench. That is largely due to Dennis Schröder pacing the Hawks in his stellar home debut as a playoff starter (27 points, 7-for-15 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 9 assists, 3 TOs), and Howard staying home around the rim to limit Gortat’s touches. Washington is likely to set up more post play in Game 4, attempting to soften up Atlanta’s frontcourt tandem.
    You can’t spell “unconventional” without “ATL”, and Atlanta continues to find ways, good or bad, to introduce a different wrinkle to the series. This time, there was ball control, with Hawks players committing just 11 turnovers. That was the lowest number of player turnovers since the series-opener against the Celtics last season.
    There was also suffocating perimeter defense, causing even the easiest of three-point looks to rim out for Washington (7-for-29 3FGs in Game 3). Atlanta had not held a playoff opponent to sub-25% shooting since the series-ender in Boston last year. Even without Thabo Sefolosha on the court for meaningful minutes, the wing trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Taurean Prince, and Kent Bazemore did an imperfect yet adequate job of limiting kickout passes from reaching their intended targets.
    Morris (36.1 series FG%) has fully embraced Paul Pierce’s wannabe-tough-guy role, and has conducted himself exactly as you’d expect for an overbearing 27-year-old in just his third career playoff contest. One can expect Morris (career-high 36.2 3FG% in 2016-17) to continue looking for outside shots to help liven up the Wizards’ offense in Game 4.
    The commitment to sealing Wiz forwards out of plays in the paint and keeping passes to shooters out of reach often came at the expense of highlight-worthy buckets from the sensational John Wall (10-for-12 FGs, 8-for-10 FTs, 7 assists, 3 TOs), who continues to light up the rim in transition. The lack of Hawks’ live-ball turnovers, though, meant many Wizards’ fastbreaks had to begin by collecting the ball out from their own net.
    As was the case for Schröder in D.C., this time it was Wall who had little help from his Wizard mates, most notably Bradley Beal (6-for-20 FGs, 0-for-6 on threes), Otto Porter, and bench man Bojan Bogdanovic (3-for-9 FGs, 0-for-4 on threes). Porter strained his neck while catching a cross-court screen from Hardaway in the second half, but he is healed up in advance of today’s game.
    Saturday’s 116-98 blowout win could have been even more decisive had Atlanta taken care of business at the free throw line. Although the Hawks organization is donating to the Atlanta Community Food Bank for every missed Wizards free throw in this series, it was the Hawks on the floor (19-for-32 FTs in Game 3) who were giving the charity stripe its name.
    Both teams are preferring to forgo three-point attempts, in the Wizards’ case settling for long-twos in their comfort zone (17.2 percent of FGAs two-pointers beyond 15-feet, highest in East) while the Hawks are chipping away inside (39.5 percent of FGAs at-rim, highest in East). But the Hawks could afford to set up shooters more in the corners. Atlanta’s 28.6 3FG% is now ahead of only the Wizards’ 27.8 percent, but that accuracy has risen to a respectable 42.9 3FG% in the corners, best exploited by the Hawks during the series opener (3-for-6 corner 3FGs in Game 1).
    A healthy serving of pin-down screens by Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova (probable, despite a bruised calf) or Howard should not only help continue to spring Schröder free, but also open up options in the corners for Hardaway (1-for-6 3FGs in Game 3) and Prince, both of whom are also dangerous drivers from the baselines, Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. The aforementioned, aside from the rookie Prince (7-for-10 FGs, 2-for-2 3FGs in Game 3), are past due for impactful performances at the offensive end of the floor.
    Atlanta is the capital of Southern Hospitality, and Millsap has represented the City Too Busy To Hate just fine. Still, we would love to have only the finest duvet covers awaiting Morris and the Wizards’ return, specifically by making Friday’s “if-necessary” Game 6 very necessary. Yes, the Wiz might need to find some new luxury lodging options, after Jason Smith reportedly fouled the bellhop during their latest stay. But no matter which 4-star inn they choose, our visitors can count on a full tissue box in every room, plus an array of on-demand flicks available to help Markieff avoid our SportsCenter highlights. Bless his heart.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    #SquadGoals (Premature Offseason Edition)
    This series ain’t a series until somebody wins a game on the road. For the Atlanta Hawks and their fans, they’re hoping there won’t be a series until after Game 5 or Game 7. If so, that means the Hawks took care of business here at The Highlight Factory, beginning today against those oh-so-offended Washington Wizards (5:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC; TNT if you can stomach it).
    The True To Atlanta bill has come due. A regular season flavored with banging hip hop concerts, boisterous “ATL” chants, playground remodels, community outreach events, Tinder Nights, all that stuff were mere appetizers setting up the main course, to be served to us fans by our boys in Torch Red. No one is here to watch the Hawks lay down like they did on way too many occasions this season at Philips Arena. But to be True To ATL and pull off a pair of resounding victories at Philips Arena over the next few days, these Hawks have to show they can be true to one another.
    You’d be hard-pressed to find, in the history of American sports consciousness, a time when an Atlanta team or player was granted the upper hand in a national media-fueled war of words. Whether it’s all this talmbout “MMA”, or the suggestion that the Wizards played the best ball of their natural lives (they hadn’t) yet could only win by single digits, or that our small-ball lineups are clearly superior (it’s not), virtually everything is bulletin board material for the pearl clutchers from the District of Columbia.
    Every unnecessary utterance of self-praise, or of silver linings, by the Hawks has been served up like a T-ball and hit out the park by the Wizards. So, please, don’t nobody remind them of this Instagram post, back when Dennis Schröder was trying to make nice with Dwight Howard, in the aftermath of I-Thought-You-Had-Steph-Gate.
    “We the best DUO in the Pick & Roll !!! Nobody can stop us .. when we both play on the highest level !!!” The best duo, Dennis? O rly? Well, John Wall and his furrowed brow would like to have a word with… whoa, whoa, careful with all that gang signage there, Johnny! You wouldn’t want to re-injure your precious wrist, right?
    This is not merely about the former #1 pick in the league getting his gander up about every perceived slight. Wall has built up his rep over seven seasons as the fastest point guard, the most athletic point guard, the best-passing point guard, and now, the highest-scoring point guard in the East… who hasn’t won jack.
    Despite fits and starts, the four-time All-Star has guided his franchise to its best season in over a generation, and the teams seeded above Washington in the playoffs are looking quite shaky. He’s had to wait for LeBron to sail out of South Beach, and for whatever that was Atlanta was doing in 2015, before his Wizards could lay claim to being the class of the Southeast Division.
    After years of disrespect and disappointment, the path to the NBA Finals and global acclaim is finally Wall’s to blaze. And yet… who is THIS kid, standing in the way of his manifest destiny?
    Established contemporaries like Kemba Walker, Jeff Teague, or Goran Dragic were one thing. But this… this… BOY (pronounced “BWOAHH”, in Raleigh-speak)? This “ute” over here, with the poor-man’s Kwame hairdo? This youngster, three inches smaller, 25 pounds lighter, three years his junior, is Wall’s biggest threat to staking his claim? Oh, no, this shall not stand!
    Fortunately, Schröder has no designs on just going and sitting down somewhere. He remembers last year, when the 4-seed Hawks won its first two opening-round games at home, and things seemed dire for the 5-seed at the time. Then the series shifted to Boston, and by the time Game 4 came to an overtime close, the Celtics had evened the series, and fans and media alike were crafting love ballads for small-wonder Isaiah Thomas. Schröder could benefit from a little of that action, and a pair of upstaging wins could do the trick.
    Nevermind that the next Boston playoff victory didn’t come until last night. From the looks of things, you’d have thought the Celtics won that series. Just like, if you queried the average fan, Paul Pierce’s Wizards “won” that conference semifinal series against the Hawks in 2015. Wall has been selling, “See, the way my wrist was set up…”, to anyone who’ll listen ever since. He’s not just out to win this series, but to redeem his failures during the 2015 matchup as well.
    Schröder (24.0 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.5 TOs/game) knows this, and when Wall starts selling wolf tickets and staredowns just for doing his job, Dennis recognizes it for what it really is: desperation. When these point guards go head-to-head, there is only one Third Round Virgin on the floor.
    Dennis is perfectly fine playing the role of the fly in Wall’s ointment, as Wall’s endless swatting at Schröder serves to distract him from the true tasks at hand. Dennis would like to accomplish more than just getting under the All-Star guard’s skin from game to game, but he needs a lot more help than he has received thus far in this series.
    Hawks fans don’t need to see the “best duo” at the pick-and-roll performing today, they merely need to see a 1-5 combo for the Hawks that is at least functional on the offensive end. Howard (6.5 PPG, 5-for-11 FGs) has had his lunch eaten to this point by former understudy Marcin Gortat (14.0 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 6.0 offensive RPG, 3.5 BPG). It’s part of the reason coach Mike Budenholzer has been leaving his $25 million free agent prize to sit on his hands in the clutch. But even when the Hawks go “small”, they have been mere witnesses to Wall’s paint dimes to Gortat, the true “best duo” that is far more experienced than anything Atlanta can field.
    Howard was on the floor in the third quarter, when Atlanta’s starting unit gained the upper hand for the first time in this series. His presence around the offensive post in the fourth-quarter of Game 2, were he fed the ball, could have prematurely ended the day for Washington’s key healthy bigs. Dwight’s absence on the other end resulted in productive second-chance buckets for the Wizards. Whether Howard struggles for stretches or not, if he’s getting less floor time than Bazemore, the Hawks are not winning playoff games versus the Wizards or anyone else.
    With Tim Hardaway, Jr. at his side, with Kent Bazemore getting floor time beyond anyone’s comfort level, with Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. at his occasional disposal, there is no reason why Dennis (4-for-13 3FGs; 8 teammates a combined 11-for-32 3FGs) should be leading the team in three-pointers made. Inside and out, the ball has been moving better for Atlanta, allowing them to stay within shouting distance of the Wizards in the second halves. But to gain and sustain leads, it is imperative for Schröder’s shooters to produce from the perimeter.
    The Hawks made hay as one of the NBA’s best at forcing turnovers (15.6 opponent TOs per possession, 2nd in NBA regular season, tied with Washington). But whether it has been the starters or the reserves, Atlanta has sat back and allowed the Wizards (10.0 TO%, tied with Milwaukee as best among East playoff teams) to dissect them.
    Meanwhile, the Hawks have stayed true to their sloppy selves (17.0 TO%, by far the worst in the playoffs), even as Schröder has been uncharacteristically careful. Dennis will make his fair share of mistakes, as the first-year starter is apt to do. But he cannot be left hanging out to dry by his teammates while the Wizards spark Wall on fastbreaks.
    For all the praise he has heaped upon Malcolm Delaney this season, Coach Bud needs to show Atlanta why it was worth the trouble to stay true to him. Delaney and Thabo Sefolosha (4 combined minutes to date, all by Sefolosha) need to devour some of the playing time bestowed upon Bazemore, who was atrocious at the close of Game 2.
    Delaney (and perhaps you, reading this) are better on-ball defensive options than Jose Calderon versus Brandon Jennings, the backup point whose late dash helped the Wizards turn the tide early in the final quarter of Game 2’s 109-101 win. Sefolosha is purportedly healthy, and should have a vital role in evening out the turnover margin in this series. He could also do a better job defensively than Hardaway did in containing Bradley Beal, whose 16 fourth-quarter points eclipsed Millsap’s 14 third-quarter points in Game 2.
    Game 3 and Game 4 are prime opportunities for the Hawks to show the NBA world what being True To Atlanta is all about, and for Dennis to show why he is truly a Menace. Meanwhile, John Wall won’t make it easy to be Schröder’s Instagram foil anymore. Ain’t that right, John? High-five, up top… no, John, with your shooting hand…
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I hear you, Melo, but she’s a Honey of an O, tho!”
    Happy 4/19! Sure, 4/20 is right around the corner, but you’re just going to have to forgive Atlanta Hawks fans for jumping the gun, what with our short attention spans and perpetual hunger pangs. Atlanta likes our Hawks, sure. But we crave what truly gets us our high: good, intense, entertaining, compelling pro basketball.
    Especially whenever the NBA Playoffs roll around, we’re on the hunt for that good kush. If the Hawks put out more of that chronically synthetic crap in Game 2 (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, NBATV) like they did through much of Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, then don’t blame us hoop stoners if our eyes begin wandering off in search of Sour Diesel – not the Squawker variety, mind you, the NBA strain.
    To be, well, blunt about it, just watching ex-Hawks awash on other teams right now makes for some pretty good munchies. The Son of Tito hemming and hawing his way through press conferences after an 0-2 start, struggling to avoid becoming the common denominator for the last two #1 seeds that got swept out of the playoffs? Coach Fizdale flipping that spot where his wig should be, over the refs’ oddly-swallowed whistles? Jeff holding serve versus Kyrie, while Kyle mostly spectates alongside Edy and Dahntay from the bench? This is some quality ganja right here.
    DeMarre, with the hopes of a whole nation on his back, tilting at the beast named Giannis? Jamal once again shooting and dribbling madly to try and save his playoff team’s bacon, only this time for Coach Doc against Joe Clutch (and Shelvin, and Boris, and Coach Quin)? Zaza simply doing what he can to stay the heck out of his star teammates’ way? Don’t get greedy with that; puff, puff, pass!
    Our present-day Hawks, down just 0-1, have plenty of time to become Atlanta’s focal point again. But tonight, it is going to take a lot more than the first-half ATLchemy stirred up by Coach Bud ((cough, cough… sorry!)) and his crew in the series opener.
    During Game 1, Dennis Schröder found his second gear on offense, serving up 25 points (3-for-5 3FGs), 9 assists and just 2 turnovers. Alas, he and Paul Millsap (19 points, 5-for-7 2FGs, 9-for-11 FTs) seemed to forget there was another end of the floor, one on which John Wall (playoff career-high 32 points, 14 assists) can thrive. And aside from Kent Bazemore (4 assists, one turnover in 28 bench minutes), hardly any Hawks helped Schröder move the ball, making it easy on Washington defenders to hone in on Atlanta shooters (7-for-25 3FGs).
    Schröder’s starting backcourt mate, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (2-for-11 FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) had the Wizards feeling like they won the trade deal with Kelly Oubre (11 points, 2 steals in 19 bench minutes). Hardaway’s opponent, Bradley Beal, was 2-for-11 on three-pointers alone, and got just three shots at the free throw line. Yet Beal made a difference in Washington’s 114-107 victory by contributing with other competitive facets (7-for-10 2FGs, 3 assists, 3 steals) in ways Hardaway did not.
    Sap (2 paltry rebounds, 1 assist, no steals) continues to seek out a decent Playoff Paul version of himself, when Regular Season Paul would do just fine. He and Dwight Howard (minus-25 plus/minus through the first three quarters) found themselves outclassed on the Verizon Center floor by Markieff Morris (21 points, 7-for-13 2FGs, 4 blocks in his playoff debut) and Marcin Gortat (7-for-11 FGs, 10 rebounds). The Wizard duo’s eight offensive rebounds effectively neutralized any chance the Hawks had to effect the outcome via the glass.
    Atlanta shot just 33.3 percent from the field in a low-scoring opening half, including 3-for-11 on threes. Yet the Hawks clung to a three-point halftime lead, thanks to drawing (according to Millsap) MMA-quality fouls from the Wizards and eventually sinking their free throws. Atlanta finished with 32 makes on their final 36 attempts in Game 1, including 19 in a row in the first half, after missing their first three shots.
    That Hawks lead could have been more impressive had Millsap not gifted Morris with three free throw gifts as the half came to a close, followed by an exchange that only worked to enliven Morris and the Wizards going into the locker room.
    Washington was the only team that seemed to make strategic defensive adjustments in Game 1 during the break. The hacking from Coach Scott Brooks’ squad slowed, allowing the Wizards’ starters to remain on the floor. Experiencing little pressure on the ball from Hawks defenders, Wall (15 points and 4 assists in the third quarter) and Beal (12 fourth-quarter points) began to find their flow.
    The Wizards over-rely on their starting five (inclusive of Otto Porter), whose 1347 floor minutes in the regular season exceeded the next-highest 5-man NBA lineup by 467 minutes. True to form, this unit’s 25.4 minutes in Game 1 is the most by any 5-man lineup so far. Yet their second-half mastery of the Hawks’ top line rendered Atlanta’s 35-15 edge in bench points (11 of those 15 by Oubre alone) meaningless. The Hawks were only able to turn the tide, down double-digits, in the first quarter when Bud and then Brooks (inexplicably) turned to their reserves.
    If there is one person on the Hawks’ end of the floor who is capable of decoding Coach Scotty’s offensive game plans, it’s the guy who was his small forward for six seasons in OKC. Yet Thabo Sefolosha found himself classified as DNP-WTF, even as the Wizards offense (69 second-half points) began freely picking the Hawks apart. Atlanta could coax just 12 turnovers (five off steals) out of Washington, whose players committed at least 18 turnovers in each regular-season matchup with the Hawks.
    Atlanta was 5-11 when they produced five or fewer steals in the regular season, 10-17 when their opponents committed 12 turnovers or less. In Atlanta’s sole victory over Washington this season, the season-opener, the Hawks gathered 13 steals, including five thefts from Sefolosha in 22 bench minutes.
    Rookie Taurean Prince was spirited but perhaps overutilized in his debut as a playoff starter (4-for-7 2FGs, 2-for-4 3FGs, 6 rebounds in 32 minutes). Despite his struggles throughout the back half of this season, Thabo (team-high 1.5 SPG; just behind Millsap with 2.9 deflections per game) will be needed in this series for more than just sideline pep talks.
    The Hawks must make their man defense and motion offense look edible to their feening fanbase in Game 2. True Believers are true believers, but if we have to wait until Game 3 in Atlanta to see sound efforts at both ends from these Hawks fresh from the locker room, we’ll be tempted to draw our NBA toke from somewhere else tonight. Our channel-changing fingers will quiver, and they know why.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    He finally got himself a bobblehead. So happy for Nipsey Russell!
    ((Ongoing computer issues, so here’s a condensed version. Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all enjoying the holidays!))
    Offense Wins Championships! You know the not-so-old adage by now. It’s kind of a shame for our Atlanta Hawks that they come into the NBA Playoffs with the Eastern Conference’s best defensive efficiency at the worst possible time.
    For their trouble, Mike Budenholzer’s interior-defensive-minded crew gets to wrangle in the opening round with the favored Washington Wizards (Game 1: 1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), who have finally embraced the magic of the three-point jumpshot as a team. There’s little surprise that the Wizards’ greatest-ever offensive efficiency coincides with their first division title and most regular-season wins (still not 50? Geez!) since d*ck Motta’s NBA Finalists back in 1979.
    Dwight Howard enters this series with all the look and countenance of Barney the Dinosaur, albeit a lot less tubby. Tall in stature, grinning from ear-to-ear, playful, lots of equally playful friends around him. He loves ATL, ATL loves him, and he bears no earthly idea just how close his game is hurtling toward extinction.
    But why should Dwight care about how the times are a changin’, anyway? Besides, the happy-go-lucky Howard was one of a handful of players who were on the floor in each of the past two seasons to help beat the Golden State Warriors in a conference playoff game. Two seasons ago, he tag-teamed with James Harden and carried a starting unit that featured Josh Smith AND Jason Terry back from 3-1 down to reach a Conference Finals. He was on the floor during one of the last two times LeBron James tried, and failed, to reach the NBA Finals.
    The Hawks are in the playoffs for the tenth consecutive season, but the crushing weight of blowout postseason losses have been a drain over the years for its fans. The common denominator throughout almost all of those years of pummeling playoff exits now dons clover green for the East’s top seed.
    Howard is quite familiar with those beatdowns of the past. Back when NBA fans used to seek out his jerseys, back when he could pose as Superman with barely a snicker uttered from the stands, his Magic was in Atlanta setting the NBA record for the largest margin of victory in a four-game sweep. Orlando’s 101 extra points in the 2010 conference semis eclipsed the 72-point margin LeBron’s Cavs enjoyed versus the Hawks just one season prior.
    Dwight was also front-and-center in 2011, when the Hawks finally pulled it together and toppled the higher-seeded Magic, then the defending conference champs, in front of a rabid Philips Arena crowd. Perhaps it was here where Howard came to discover just how True To Atlanta Hawks fans can be. He would love to feel that same unwavering support now that he wears his NBA hometown across his chest for a playoff run.
    Leading the NBA Playoffs in per-game rebounding, as Dwight has done in two of the last three seasons (NBA-high 13.9 RPG since 2013-14), doesn’t carry the same cachet it once did, when guys named Shaq, Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler were in their championship heydays. But this is Playoff Dwight, and Playoff Dwight is what Atlanta has committed itself to pay for. There will be no more Hawks starting centers biding time until the closing seconds of pivotal games to make impactful rebounds. There’s one man standing in the way of Dwight Howard’s domination of the glass in this series, and that man is Dwight’s former understudy in Orlando.
    Similarly on the right side of 40, Marcin Gortat isn’t likely to stand in Dwight’s way the whole time. He’ll spend a lot of the time out of the paint on offense, setting screens to spring free his backcourt stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, and occasionally popping jumpers (35.8 jumpshot FG%). Gortat will go inside to loft his nifty hook shot (61.2 FG% on hooks), or wherever the opportunity to draw fouls on Howard is greatest.
    Besides avoiding foul trouble, Howard’s challenges in this series include trusting his teammates, including All-Defensive Team candidate Paul Millsap, to cover the rim and avoid the urge to sag on opponents’ screens. He and Schröder will keep the Hawks competitive in this series if they keep the ball from sticking, setting sound picks, involving teammates, and making decisive plays in the flow of the offense, before Wall and the Wizards (8.5 team SPG, 2nd in NBA) can sink their teeth in defensively and spark their own transition plays (17.7 PPG off TOs, most in East). The Hawks can make an even stronger run if the resurgent bench performers, including Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries (on our side, this time around) and Jose Calderon, don’t compound whatever offensive mistakes their starters make with their own.
    While Atlanta fields one of the older and playoff-seasoned rosters in the Eastern Conference, this postseason run for Dwight and the Hawks needs not be a Last Hurrah. The pressure is on Wall, Beal, Gortat and the Wizards, not the Hawks, to demonstrate they’re finally ready to turn the corner by overcoming the franchise that last dispatched them in their last playoff game in 2015. This series will remain intriguing so long as the Hawks treat this Hurrah as if it’s merely the first one.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Just a tad bit early for that, don’cha think, PG?
    It really wasn’t supposed to end this way for Jeff Teague and his Indiana Pacers. Traded to his hometown last June, the former Atlanta Hawks point guard and star of the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinal series was determined to show the league – and his former neophyte backup, Dennis Schröder – that he could team up with All-Star cornerstone Paul George and guide this team to a strong regular season finish, a trip to the postseason, and maybe a whole lot more.
    That scenario may still come to pass. But for any of that story to be told, Jeff and his Pacers must rise to the challenge against his former team, tonight, in a virtual must-win regular season finale (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana, ESPN elsewhere). Having finalized playoff seeding last night, Schröder will join four other Hawks (Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Junior Hardaway) on towel-waving and shot-mimicking duties from the sideline.
    Without this victory, Indiana would need both Miami and Chicago to lose their home games (in the Bulls’ case, against Brooklyn) to secure a Reservation for 15 in the NBA Playoffs. Without this win, Teague risks having to watch Schröder and Utah’s George Hill, the latter part of last summer’s 3-team trade deal, from the comfort of his mother’s basement couch.
    Out of the gate, Jeff certainly struggled in his new role under coach Nate McMillan, but managed to shake out of his doldrums midway through the season, especially as a passer (career-high 7.8 APG, 7th in NBA; 8.6 APG through 5 games this month).
    But predictably, under McMillan’s watch, Indy has failed to exploit perhaps Teague’s greatest asset – quickness – to its advantage (98.2 possessions per-48, 18th in NBA). This, despite the unbridled athleticism and versatility of George (career-best 23.6 PPG, 46.0 FG%, and 89.8 FT%), center Myles Turner’s high-post passing skills, and Thaddeus Young’s newfound ability (38.1 3FG%, despite a nagging wrist injury) to stretch the floor with his jumpshot. McMillan was too often enamored with plodding big men (Kevin Seraphin, Lavoy Allen, Al Jefferson) and ball-stopping, clock-killing guards (Monta Ellis, recently-waived Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks) sharing the floor.
    Collectively, even with George’s firepower, the Pacers have been mediocre in just about every category, save for getting steals (7th in NBA) and blocking shots (8th in NBA), and that’s reflective of their modest 41-40 record. The things Indiana can do fairly well, they don’t do enough. They rank fourth in NBA three-point accuracy, but 27th in three-point shot volume; second in free-throw percentage, but 24th in free throw attempts.
    To be fair, Coach Nate has been playing the hand he was dealt by longtime executive Larry Bird, who has worn out his welcome just about everywhere outside of French Lick. But McMillan and the Pacers are only beginning to sort things out, and it may turn out to be too late for this season.
    With Teague an unrestricted free agent in July, and with George likely to opt out the following summer, there could be a ton of uncertainty in Pacerland going forward, especially if this team fails to reach the postseason and win some games once they get there. Questions abound: Hoosier GM? Hoosier coach? Hoosier point guard? Hoosier superstar?
    With all the pressure, how has George been holding up lately? Just fine. As in, he just wants the league to fine him. Getting no whistles in his game-long jousting with Gerald Henderson, until both players were ejected with minutes to spare during the Pacers’ 120-111 win in Philadelphia on Monday, George just let the refs have it afterwards. “You all know how I feel about the officials,” George seethed, “and tonight, I really have no faith in them… (Crappy) officiating job.” That will cost him a cool 25 thousand smacks.
    The costly consternation still isn’t enough to eclipse the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week’s ability to carry this team on his back offensively. Averaging 33.0 PPG this month, PG-13 helped pace Indiana with 17 first-quarter points in Philly. As noted by SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows, a full third of the seventh-year Pacer’s 35+-point scoring games have come since the All-Star Break alone.
    Now eighth in NBA-career scoring among Pacers, surpassing our dear friend Billy Knight, George is no longer the inefficient volume-shooter from seasons past. The franchise player, and the franchise itself, are each motivated by him piling up the points at the close of the season. Due to the Designated Player Exception rules in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, some All-NBA hardware could sweeten the pot (by $70 million more dollars, as per USA Today) for Indiana to retain him in 2018. That alone could cover a lot of future fines.
    The Hawks are fully aware of George’s scoring prowess, as all his 34 points came during the first three quarters in Atlanta on March 5, helping convert the Hawks’ early 13-point lead into an 11-point deficit midway through the third quarter. But the likelihood of victory improves for Indy when they balance their scoring across the floor. The Pacers are 5-2 on the season when three players score at least 20 points, and 17-5 when six players score in double figures.
    Atlanta got their sole late-November victory on this Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor, holding George to 6-for-22 shooting (2-for-11 3FGs) and four free throws, while containing Teague and everyone aside from Ellis and Young to 10-for-33 FGs. In that game, Howard (9 O-Rebs) created the second-chance opportunities for Atlanta that the Pacers could not, so much will be expected of Turner (12 points and 14 rebounds total in two games vs. ATL; 18 points, 13 boards @ PHI) tonight, while Dwight rests.
    Can Lance help the Pacers dance? Almost out of desperation, the Pacers’ brass returned Lance Stephenson to the team where he built his ear-blowing rep, and he has sparked not only the fanbase, but his team as a ballhandler (3.8 APG off the bench) and even as an end-of-shot-clock gunner (5-for-7 3FGs through 5 games). The Pacers’ 4-1 run since Stephenson’s return (their sole loss 135-130 in Cleveland) has set them up well for today’s finale. Whatever Lance does on behalf of the Pacers tonight, good or bad, will at least be interesting.
    It’s unlikely the Hawks will have to account for Glenn Robinson III sitting in the corner this time around. With Big Daddy Dog proudly looking on, GR3 pulled out a three-point plum off the dish from the more-dangerous C.J. Miles (career-high 41.3 3FG%) at the buzzer, sealing Atlanta’s fate in the 97-96 defeat last month despite George being held scoreless in the fourth quarter. But Robinson’s sore calf will have him watching the final game from the sidelines, along with Jefferson (ankle sprain) and probably Brooks (sore knee).
    Last night’s 103-76 fumigation of the Hornets’ skeleton crew was as re-assuring as home finales go for Atlanta. But for the Pacers, the game tape they’d be wise to review is the short-winged Hawks’ 114-100 stunner in Cleveland last week.
    Even ignoring Hardaway, that game’s top scorer, Atlanta got meaningful contributions from Jose Calderon, Junior Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kris Humphries, upending King James on his court in what was another essential game for the home team. That quartet of Hawks should start tonight. Rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry will each have their chances to keep George contained, with Mike Budenholzer including a rust-shedding appearance or two from Thabo Sefolosha for good measure.
    “We’re ready to come out and do whatever it takes to get this win,” George recently told ESPN Radio (1070 The Fan). “It would be a shame, especially with how we’re playing of late. It seems we’re figuring it out, we know what level we need to play at on a consistent basis and it would be a shame to throw it all away and not get this win.”
    Even with a pared-down roster, and with their opponents playing as full-bore as possible, tonight effectively serves as Elimination Game Practice for the Hawks (43-38). There is no pressure for its participants, other than to play hard, play smart, play well, and stay healthy.
    At worst, a loss tonight might scooch the team’s draft spot up ahead of Portland (Memphis’ pick), while re-confirming the indubitable genius and clairvoyance of Hotlanta, the sole Squawker who predicted 43 wins this season. But if Atlanta’s second- and third-strings can pull off another confidence-building upset, this time before a national audience, it could bode well for a team that, knock on wood, might find itself in a similar circumstance a couple weeks from now. Namely, in the District of Columbia, for Game 5 and/or Game 7.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    (No Meme Photoshopping Required.)
    Spoiler Days? After pulling yet another trick up their sleeve this weekend against the Cavs, there’s not much for the Atlanta Hawks to spoil tonight, aside from lotto positioning with a loss to the visiting Charlotte Hornets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL). Although re-accommodating their division rivals this evening won’t be necessary, the Hawks have a greater opportunity to be a true spoilsport tomorrow, when they arrive in Indiana for the regular season finale.
    Who da real MVP, when it comes to the Hawks? It’s got to be all of you diehard fans, who have endured as topsy-turvy a season as supporters of any perennial playoff outfit should come to expect, and will be duly honored throughout 92.9 The Game’s Takeover Night.
    As just one instance of what you’ve put up with: Kent Bazemore steals a lousy Cavs inbound and goes coast-to-coast on Sunday afternoon, with a chance to expand the Hawks’ long-sought lead to three points in overtime… who among us did not steel our loins in anticipation of a blown open layup? And Baze almost gave us just that! Just as Paul Millsap did from close range with just minutes to go in regulation, and the Hawks down by seven. Sap did go 11-for-11 on free throws, though, he and Tim Hardaway, Jr. making just enough that Kyrie Irving’s closing heave wouldn’t matter.
    Whenever it gets well past time to rationally expect competency out of this bunch, the Hawks’ competitive spirit pops up, right out from the abyss. There were so many second-half and overtime moments on Sunday where Hawks fans could rightfully point and say, “that’s the game, nobody on the Cavs is incompetent enough to screw this up,” and suddenly, here comes LeBron James, asking us all to hold his beer. A bench corps that could barely score against the Nets leads the charge versus the Cavs out of a 26-point hole. Baze, Sap, even Mike Muscala making buckets, plural, in the clutch... was that real life?
    We’ll get to see how real this life is soon enough, as the NBA Playoffs tip off in some deity-forsaken Eastern locale this weekend. No passports will be required, as the Hawks are mathematically incapable of facing the Raptors in the opening round. But Boston, Cleveland or, most likely, Washington will find it hard to know what to expect out of a Hawks squad that hardly seems to know what to expect of itself.
    As per HoopsHype, who have the top two payrolls among Southeast Division teams? Pick up a Kewpie doll on your way out of the fair if you correctly guessed the Orlando Magic and these Hornets. Like the Magic, the Hornets (36-45) are officially in full whiteboard mode, and team owner Michael Jordan will continue to leave the dry-erasing duties to GM Rich Cho, whose contract option was picked up yesterday.
    The Hornets’ brain trust swung-and-missed on several fronts this season, managing to keep Charlotte from building on last season’s first-round exit, despite a career-best offensive effort by All-Star guard Kemba Walker.
    They tried to offset the departures of backcourt mates Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee in free agency with Marco Belinelli, Brian Roberts, and Ramon Sessions. Armed with a new multi-year contract in the offseason, Marvin Williams (42.4 FG%, 35.1 3FG%) made his 2015-16 career year (45.2 FG%, 40.2 3FG%) look exactly like a career year.
    While fellow division foes were signing up Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi over the summer, the Hornets pursued the static Roy Hibbert. While their counterparts were trying to firm up their benches for playoff runs with guys like Bojan Bogdanovic and Ersan Ilyasova, Charlotte compounded their mistake by flipping Hibbert and Spencer Hawes to Milwaukee for the barely-useful Miles Plumlee.
    They’ll have little flexibility with their $103 million roster this summer, with eight of their top-nine salaried players returning under guaranteed contracts, plus center Cody Zeller due for a raise on his extended deal. Further, unlike Wizards fans of yore, Hornets fans haven’t been holding out hope of any hometown hoop heroes signing blockbuster deals this July. Nonetheless, Jordan is leaving it to his GM to finagle a way into contention next year. Cho will have one more season to get it done.
    Under head coach Steve Clifford, the Hornets’ defensive gameplan could be summarized thusly: pack the paint, don’t foul (NBA-lows for opponents’ free throws and personal fouls-drawn), force opponents into a lot of under-contested threes (NBA-high 31.9 opponent 3FGAs per 100 possessions; Atlanta foes’ 30.4 ranks 3rd), pray they miss (37.0 opponent 3FG%, highest in East), get the defensive rebound (79.7 D-Reb%, 2nd in NBA) and give the ball to Kemba.
    At the other end of the Spectrum Center, Charlotte’s offense can be boiled down to the ballhandler, usually Walker off the pick-and-roll (NBA-high 12.2 PPG on these plays), pulling up for jumpers, or forcing contact and drawing trips to the free throw line (NBA-high 81.5 team FT%).
    Further, they don’t willingly turn the ball over (11.5 TOs per game, 3rd lowest in recorded NBA history; 2.02 assist-turnover ratio, 2nd in NBA). If there’s no whistle and no easy path to the rim, they’re instructed to kick the ball out in hopes of a three-pointer from Belinelli or forwards Frank Kaminsky, Marvin, or Nicolas Batum. If they miss, get back on defense (19.7 O-Reb%, 4th-lowest in NBA) and stifle opponents’ hopes for transition scores.
    Roberts and Briante Weber are most likely to continue playing Kemba’s ballhandler role tonight, as Walker’s sore knee gets bubble-wrapped for the season. If Belinelli’s strained finger keeps him on ice as well, Coach Cliff will lean on Jeremy Lamb and Treveon Graham for spot duty. With Kemba and Marco playing, Charlotte won their last road game on the back end of a back-to-back (in Toronto, back on March 29, with 44 fourth-quarter points). But offensively, the sting is not the same with those guards absent from the floor.
    Whether they’re legitimately tanking or not, Charlotte will try to keep the pace grindingly slow, in hopes of keeping the final outcome close. Last night, without Walker, the Hornets raced to an 11-point lead in Milwaukee, and was up five points through three quarters before being “held” to 13 points in the final frame of an 89-79 loss. Atlanta (42-38) has struggled with teams that rebound well and protect the ball, and they’ve been held to double-digit scoring in all three losses to Charlotte this season, most recently 105-90 in Uptown back on March 20.
    With Thabo Sefolosha (groin) upgraded to questionable for tonight, a forthcoming challenge for the Hawks will be to see if their newfound bench production is sustainable and can carry forward into the postseason.
    In particular, Bazemore (40.5 FG% on all shots as a starter; 38.5 3FG% when he’s not) is finding a bit of an offensive groove off the bench, and can spell either Hardaway (last 3 games: 11-for-12 fourth-quarter FGs) or Dennis Schröder in a pinch. Baze has eleven steals in his past three contests, matching his tally from his prior 15 starts.
    Hardaway is among eight of the Hawks’ 20 most-utilized two-man units, and his only net negative in the team-scoring column is when he’s paired with rookie Taurean Prince, further tempting coach Mike Budenholzer to keep Timmy in the starting lineup going forward.
    The two-game Cavs series (11-for-14 FGs) has seemingly re-enlivened Muscala, and Coach Bud will need to know if he can begin relying more on the backup big man when the Hawks have to go with smaller lineups. Millsap’s return formally relocated Ilyasova, one of the few subs who struggled to score against Cleveland (last two games: 1-for-11 3FGs), to the reserves. It helps if Atlanta can establish rotations ideal for not only Ersan’s skillset, but those of backup point guard Jose Calderon.
    It will also be important for the Hawks to glean whatever knowledge they can from the rookies’ production over the next couple of games. Prince has only shined once in his past six starts (36.8 FG%, 1.8 APG), while DeAndre’ Bembry and Malcolm Delaney will be challenged to show what they could contribute defensively, in case they’re needed for short spells during a long playoff series.
    Finally, these dress rehearsals could be a final chance for Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard to flesh out their roles and responsibilities on the floor together. The starting pillars enjoyed Atlanta’s huge comeback against Cleveland’s best players from a towel-waving position on the bench.
    Dwight has been Budballed (17.0 RPG in three games vs. CHA) by Zeller (15.7 PPG vs ATL, most vs. any team this season; 70.0 FG%) and the Hornets, and needs to display a different dimension to his game if he is to be useful against smaller and stretchier lineups. Atlanta is only 4-0 this season, but 3-0 in March, when Howard moves the ball and collects four assists in a game.
    Dennis has averaged 20.7 PPG and 6.5 APG (4.7 TOs per game) while shooting 39.5 percent on threes in his past ten games, which includes 20 points and 6 assists in Charlotte on March 20. His aversion to making poor decisions with the ball may factor into his inability to draw contact and make opponents pay at the free throw line, where he has been deadly (last 10 games: 95.7 FT%) but infrequent of late (four FTAs in past five games). His ability to dictate the pace and the action at both ends of the court may not be as essential today, however, as it could be tomorrow, against Jeff Teague in a potential elimination game for the Pacers.
    It’s hard to call the Hawks’ final two games a case of “fine-tuning” when very little of Atlanta’s play has been consistently “fine,” whether from minute-to-minute or game-to-game. But a hopefully healthy and spirited run could be just the momentum this team needs, no matter which opponent they might draw this weekend. The Hawks fans who repeatedly show up to cheer at Philips Arena, whether or not a major draw is in town, sure deserve a feel-good send-off tonight.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Spoiler Days continue! There’s not much more to say ahead of today’s matinee for the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE, NBATV everywhere else).
    Thanks to back-to-back, but completely different shockers against the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, the Hawks (41-38) are moonwalking into the NBA Playoffs for the tenth-consecutive season, just two seasons fewer than whatever team LeBron James graces with his presence.
    Victory today at the Highlight Factory would make it two regular-season series wins for Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s teams against James’ Cavaliers in the past three seasons. It would also clinch a winning regular season record for the Basketball Club, for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. More importantly, winning serves as a confidence-building exercise for the Hawks, and their long-bemused fanbase, as they make their final push toward the postseason.
    The Rules of Engagement are about the same for the Hawks as they were in Friday night’s fantastical upending of The King and his subjects on his merry Cleveland court. Don’t foul; stay adhered to the three-point shooters; don’t fall for the trap of helping and overpursuing inside; catch the opponent napping in transition; keep the unforced errors down; move the ball and keep moving yourselves.
    Only this time, the actors will be a little different. Less Ryan Kelly and Kris Humphries (the latter probable, despite neck spasms), more Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. It’ll be like the way soap operas do it: “The role of Perimeter Closeout Guy will now be played by Kent Bazemore.”
    One can only hope that the sharp-shooting exhibited by the Junior Mints, inclusive of Mike Dunleavy (20 bench points, outscoring Kyle Korver, 4-for-5 3FGs) and occasional tour de force Tim Hardaway (9-for-14 FGs, 4-for-9 on threes, 5 assists, no TOs vs. CLE), will take pressure off Dennis Schröder in his return to action. Jose Calderon (7 assists, 2 TOs vs. CLE) laid a sound blueprint for Schröder on how to distribute the rock and keep everyone involved. The Cavs struggled to keep up with so many Hawks cutting to the basket, something Schröder can help exploit this afternoon by looking for Bazemore and the Hawks’ athletic wings.
    It will be tough for Coach Bud to stuff the rookie genies back in the bottle. DeAndre’ Bembry accentuated the positive with yeoman’s work defending James on the interior. Also off the bench, Malcolm Delaney (8 assists, no turnovers) was sneaky good. Prince will look to bounce back after his mostly-off night (2-for-9 FGs, 4 TOs) was lost amid the madness on Friday. Keeping the youngsters involved in the offense suggests not becoming overreliant on Schröder and the Hawks’ frontcourt stars playing iso-ball.
    Cavs coach Tyronn Lue remains adamant that everyone aside from Tristan Thompson (thumb sprain) will be available to play, as the top-seed and homecourt advantage for Cleveland (51-28, 0.5 games ahead of Boston) in the Eastern Conference playoffs is still up in the air. That suggests Kyrie Irving is still expected to step up despite persistent problems with his sore, surgically-repaired knee. If Irving can’t go, ballhandling duties will shift toward not only James, but Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert. J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson will be counted on to jack up more shots on Kyrie’s behalf.
    It’s always fun to play the Spoiler role. How ‘bout we keep this thing going for a few more days, or weeks!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Hey there, Atlanta, Milwaukee… I hear you guys are having a little trouble making the playoffs? My heart aches for you. Aches, I say!
    Facing the defending champ Cavaliers in Cleveland, our Atlanta Hawks might be pulling volunteers from the Quicken Loans Arena stands tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBATV elsewhere), to help make up for the many players who won’t be suiting up on the second half of a back-to-back. Usher, can you be True To Atlanta for just one night?
    The leading scorer and rebounder from last night’s bruising battle with Boston, Paul Millsap? Nope, he’ll rest that swollen knee some more. Kent Bazemore? No way, Mister Calderon, because Baze is healing up from a bruised knee. Thabo Sefolosha? Not a snowball’s chance in Cleveland. He’s just trying not to aggravate his troublesome groin while driving his new Brinks truck around town.
    The starting backcourt of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr.? Ixnay on the laypay. Both guards are dealing with foot sprains, while THJ also has a bruised knee to boot.
    Thankfully, No Excuses Week is a thing of the past for the Hawks, because stealing a win tonight will be a tall order with Cleveland’s Big 3 active and likely to play. Beyond the usual suspects, Kyle Korver (NBA-leading 45.2 3FG%, 49.2% with the Cavs) has been recuperating from foot troubles and will grace us with his perimeter presence.
    Coach Tyronn Lue is aware that homecourt advantage for the Eastern Conference playoffs can be secured with consecutive wins over the Hawks, tonight and on Sunday back in Atlanta. T-Lue and the Cavs’ Big 3 understand that this is no time for the Cavs (51-27) to play down to their competition.
    Clevelan Rocks! Clevelan Rocks! Even famous native Rew Carey must have been alarmed by the lack of D exhibited by the Cavs recently. The defending champs were a horrific (for them) 7-10 in the month of March, their defensive rating for the month (113.1) better than only the Lakers in the entire league. Because of that, their net rating of -2.9 for March was not all that distinguishable from the Hawks’ -3.0, and we all know how bad Atlanta has been.
    To keep from going out like a lamb, the Cavs have turned things around to an extent over the past week, best exhibited by their 114-91 curb-stomping of the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday. But they’ve generally been winning games only by piling up ungodly amounts of points. On the season, Cleveland forces very few turnovers (11.5 opponent TO%, 29th in NBA) and seem more focused on getting the ball back to their stars on offense than on keeping opponents’ balls from finding their way into the net (45.7 opponent FG%, a pedestrian 15th in NBA).
    Despite Kyrie’s 43 and LeBron’s 38, the Cavs had to withstand a 42-point barrage from the Hawks just to prevail by five points in Atlanta back on March 3 (they surely will not miss seeing THJ, or a repeat 36-point performance from him, tonight). That same 135-130 outcome was replicated in a double-OT win over the Pacers last Sunday. All of LeBron’s 16 fourth-quarter points were needed to keep Indiana from stealing a victory after falling behind by 14 in the final quarter of regulation.
    Coach Mike Budenholzer’s shuffled lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s likely we will see a lot more of Taurean Prince (career-high 20 points, plus 7 rebounds in 41 minutes vs. BOS) and Jose Calderon, plus former Cav Mike Dunleavy, Jr, at the outset. Rookies DeAndre’ Bembry and Malcolm Delaney are in line to get a sudden boost in floortime as well. Kris Humphries will be needed to shore up the frontline behind Howard and Ersan Ilyasova, and perhaps a cameo appearance from 15th Man Ryan Kelly could even be in the offing.
    This game will remain competitive for Atlanta (40-38) for only so long as as Howard can remain on the floor, without foul trouble, and exploit a Cavaliers team that has struggled to protect the rim, all the more without Tristan Thompson (sprained thumb) around. If Channing Frye struggles to hold down the pivot spot defensively, Lue may have no choice but to turn to a very green Larry Sanders to be a difference-maker tonight.
    The Hawks on the floor can help their center out not only by avoiding unforced errors, and getting back in transition, but by not straying from their man to help the former 3-time Defensive Player of the Year and 5-time All-Defensive Team member police the paint. That includes Ilyasova, who is normally an opponent-turnover sponge on the inside but will have to get out to defend Love, Frye, and occasionally James, keeping Cleveland’s bigs cool from outside.
    What about when James and Irving spring free of their man, and come barreling toward the rim in search of some highlight plays? So what? That’s just two points, if we don’t exacerbate the situation with fouls. The key for the Hawks is to avoid being exposed for open catch-and-shoot three-pointers by pretty much any Cavalier. They could even catch Cleveland when they’re at their most smug by getting the ball down the court for quick transition scores.
    The flashy dunks and dribbles from LeBron and Kyrie Irving are just a mirage for a Cleveland team that ranks second in three-point attempt rate (39.7% of all FGs taken from downtown) and accuracy (38.7 team 3FG%). Their teams’ 8 most-frequent three-point makers hit threes at a minimum 36 percent clip. The Hawks will likely struggle to get a leg up on LeBron and Company through 48 minutes, but that is no reason not to keep a hand up on their Cav-alcade of jumpshooters.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    It’s Time for yet another trip to the Second Round for Isaiah! Right, SLAM???
    Welp, No Excuses Weekend didn’t turn out so hot. Still, because Atlanta Hawks fans live such a charmed existence, our Fine Feathered Friends have plummeted from fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings all the way down to sixth place. And that leads us to Spoiler Days!
    Kicking off against an even more charmed NBA team, the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), the Hawks are presented with prime opportunities to stick flies in the ointments of several teams, and not just the ones they’re playing.
    The Hawks’ next three games are versus two teams fighting for the top spot in the conference. The Celtics flew into town feeling quite ornery after getting blasted last night at home, 114-91, by the Cavaliers, who reclaimed the #1 seed and await Atlanta’s arrival tomorrow. Neither opponent wants to look back on the Hawks (39-38) as the team that kept them from securing homecourt advantage.
    Should we be so fortunate as to enjoy another win at any point this month, the Hawks’ next win would formally put the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons, both losers at home last night, in Atlanta’s rearview mirror. A single Hawks victory would also leave it to any of the next three teams below them in the standings (Chicago, Miami, Indiana, all at 38-40) to not lose three of their final four contests, the heat’s closing schedule (Toronto, Washington twice, Cleveland) looking the most suspect.
    “We are going to make the playoffs,” insists Hawks floor corporal Dennis Schröder, evidently unfamiliar with a past ownership regime’s checkered history when it comes to brash postseason declarations. Yet the adage doesn’t go, “If you want to get the job done, you have to hope others will do it for you.”
    Yes, this team has barely been able to skate by the depleted Suns and 76ers in recent weeks, and they have blessed the last-place Nets with a pair of wins in the past two weeks. But with the downturn in the season, the Hawks now have the look and feel of an eliminated 13-seed. During Spoiler Days, that’s good news.
    Bowing out of the postseason chase hasn’t stopped the Knicks from tripping up the playoff-hungry Pistons, heat, and Bulls in recent days. The Sixers put it to both Chicago and Boston, and even the Magic smashed the whiteboard on the Pistons’ heads just weeks ago, each lottery-bound club making playoff-clinching just a little bit easier for Atlanta.
    Despite at least three key Hawks (the rusty Paul Millsap, Junior Hardaway, and Kent Bazemore) playing through nagging injuries under closely-monitored minutes, Atlanta returns to the Highlight Factory rested and in position to put other teams in a sour mood, for a change. They can work toward clinching a playoff seed, and simultaneously screw with the desired seeds of others. Tonight, they can also plant a seed into the minds of the Celtics, one that suggests they won’t want the course toward the Eastern Conference Finals to have to come back through the ATL.
    To that end, a quick flashback. “After he led the Celtics to the second round, the so-called doubters have been very quiet regarding this 5-9 PG.” No, these aren’t tweets from the future, that was SLAM Magazine’s momentary lede for Isaiah Thomas’ entry into the #SLAMTop50 preseason player rankings, an October 2016 entry scripted by a diehard Celtics fan that should have known better. Fake News!
    But for a certain Squawker’s relentless nagging, that Alternative Fact would have gone unchallenged and uncorrected, if only because it “felt right” to the larger populace (Edited to… “After he led the Celtics to a 48-win season…” Wow, that sure silenced those haters!). Months later, SLAM is hoping to redeem itself by plastering Thomas, a player with a 2-8 postseason record over two of his six NBA seasons, on the new Playoff Preview cover of their rag.
    Seven years prior, the magazine breathlessly pinned their hopes on another high-scoring playoff newcomer. “BREAKOUT: Brandon Jennings Rocks the NBA”. Well, to an extent: the rookie’s Bucks rocked the Hawks in three unwatchable games during a first-round series, before bidding adieu in the pivotal Game 7. Now in 2017, Jennings’ next real chance of winning his first playoff game since that 2010 series needs to occur while hiding behind John Wall.
    Thomas can only hope his cover modeling doesn’t go the way of Jeff Francoeur or the Upton Boys. But that’s part of the reason he wooed Al Horford to Beantown in the first place. His whole idea was, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Poach ‘Em!”
    But with first place in the East on the line at TD Garden, the center endowed with the second-highest salary in the NBA could only muster six shots, seven rebounds, and three dimes over the course of 27 minutes last night. Another first-round exit, this time as a favored seed, could have I.T. pondering just how long he and Al Green should stay together.
    The TNT studio crew will spend ample time yapping about the Celtics’ ascension toward the top of the East, a couple minutes about last night’s loss, maybe a minute dismissing the Hawks for their lackluster efforts, and not a nanosecond about what transpired the last time these two teams faced off.
    Combining a balanced offensive attack with decent perimeter D (the Celts shooting 29.4 3FG%) and a smothering rebounding advantage, the Hawks shot just 6-for-25 on threes in Boston yet still cruised to a 114-98 victory back on February 27. Atlanta pounded Boston 60-34 in the paint, and was 40-for-70 on all shots inside the 3-point-arc, compared to the Men in Green’s 24-for-53.
    Millsap (8 first-quarter rebounds, 10 third-quarter points) and Howard (9 second-quarter points) encountered little resistance collecting double-doubles in that game (much like LeBron and Kevin Love yesterday), and Atlanta managed to coast from midway through the third period on without their starting center. Dwight got the heave-ho from the zebras after collecting two petty technical fouls, one drawn thanks to Al’s fake-tough-guy dramatics, another from trying to collect the rim as a souvenir after an easy dunk.
    Getting next-to-no help from Horf (3-for-9 FGs, incl 0-for-4 on threes, six rebounds, five assists), Thomas (4-for-21 FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 27) needed about half of his 17 misses to fall, just to keep his team in the running. His Hawks adversary, Schröder (9-for-11 2FGs @ BOS on Feb. 27) amassed just two turnovers in nearly 30 minutes while leading the Hawks with 21 points. Thanks to ball control and transition offense, the Hawks’ 25-11 scoring advantage off turnovers was the key difference in that game.
    Avery Bradley (1.3 SPG) hopes to tip the turnover game back in his team’s favor. He had just returned to face the Hawks after missing over a quarter of the season with an Achilles injury, and was minutes-restricted to less than one half of play.
    Serving doubly as the C’s second-leading scorer (16.4 PPG, 39.8 3FG%) and top perimeter defender (Marcus Smart’s flopping shenanigans notwithstanding), there’s little doubt that Bradley is the secret to the Celtics’ sauce. Along with Smart, he’ll be tasked with forcing Schröder and Hardaway (who joined Howard with 5 TOs apiece during Sunday’s 91-82 loss in Brooklyn) into uncomfortable shots and fruitless drives. On offense, Thomas will look to Bradley often to help bounce back from Thursday night’s loss, Bradley having shot just 1-for-8 from the field against the Cavs; Jae Crowder, Horford and Gerald Green to a lesser extent.
    Back in that February 27 game, Atlanta cruised in the final frame thanks to solid wing play, specifically from Bazemore (9 fourth-quarter points) and Taurean Prince (5 fourth-quarter rebounds). Despite falling behind by double digits, Boston was unable to take more than three three-point shots in the fourth, not even making one until 28 seconds remained in the game with the Hawks up by 19.
    Atlanta has only scored 114 points once since beating the Celtics; coincidentally, it was during a 135-130 home loss to Cleveland, back on March 3. Even if the iron remains unkind, the Hawks must again maximize their chances against an opportunistic Celtics club.
    In addition to Schröder and the Hawks’ ballhandlers not forcing plays that aren’t there, and Howard dominating the vacuum around the boards, that means staying tight defensively on any Celtics camping out along the perimeter, goading Thomas (31.0 FG% vs. ATL) into premature heroball jumpers, and guards helping the bigs seal off the paint only after shots go up. The inability for Celtic wings and point guards to help secure rebounds and second-chances puts pressure on Horford to play like the All-Star talent he’s paid to be.
    April 2016: “Horford, as much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player,” says Celtics blowhard legend Tommy Heinsohn. April 2017: Al receives the Red Auerbach Award, bestowed upon the player who “best exemplifies the spirit of what it means to be a Celtic.” Tonight, and perhaps in a couple weeks, the Hawks could find themselves a perfect situation to demonstrate just how true that statement is.
    Let’s Go Hawks!