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    lethalweapon3
    “We just decided to go ahead get your Barclays Center statue started, Brook!”
     
    You all know the deal. No Excuses Weekend comes to a close!
    After flubbing the final quarter in Chicago, our Atlanta Hawks have little time for solace. They’ve got another tipoff this evening, in Brooklyn against Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC).
    It’s still not Must-Win territory yet, but this is definitely a You-Betta-Win game for the Hawks (39-37), who remain strident of the sense that a decade’s worth of sustained first-round playoff revenue would eclipse any benefits a lower-lottery prospect might bring. Having mailed in their you-betta-win versus these same Nets last Sunday, a 107-92 flop at home, is No Excuse for taking care of business today on the road.
    Atlanta, somehow, still has a two-game cushion on the 7th through 9th seeds, but their final five contests are less of a picnic than for any of the remaining teams clinging to postseason hopes.
    Separated by just a half-game as of this morning, future Hawk foes Boston (Thursday) and Cleveland (Friday and next Sunday) can’t afford to rest anybody if they have designs on the #1 seed. Charlotte and Indiana are on the outside of the playoff party, looking in, if the season ended today. Much like the Bulls, those teams will be of the mindset that sneaking back in serves no purpose if you can’t even beat the Hawks right now.
    Your team’s playoff issues are of no concern to the Nets (17-59), who shifted to full-time spoiler mode somewhere around the turn of the calendar year. They have split their last twelve games, and five of their last eight victories since March 1 have been by double-digits. They’re aiming at their first sweep of wins on back-to-back days since April 1, 2014, when Brook Lopez turned 27 years young.
    At Barclays Center yesterday, Brooklyn’s offense pummeled Orlando along the way to a 121-111 victory. Giving everyone opportunities to impress on the floor, Atkinson is drowning opponents with depth. Besides Lopez’s 30 points on his birthday, three backup Nets scored in double-figures, including forward Trevor Booker’s season high 23 points (11-for-12 FGs). Nine of 11 Net players contributed at least two rebounds, and nine of 11 dished out at least one assist.
    That’s a team effort that will need to be at least matched today by the Hawks, who finally got a modicum of assistance from their bench crew but still shot just 7-for-19 from the field (6-for-12 3FGs) and never got to the free throw line a single time in the 106-104 loss to the Bulls.
    It would have been pleasant to have the option of resting Paul Millsap (knee) a little more, ahead of the arduous close to the season. Alas, the team’s active leader in scoring, steals (assuming Thabo Sefolosha remains out), and free throws per game must be pressed into action right away if he can be cleared.
    Even if Sap is a no-go, it’s No Excuse. Atlanta produced just 16 assists and its players turned over the ball 20 times during last Sunday’s matinee mugging at the hands of the Nets. Yesterday, the Hawks’ 25 assists (13 turnovers) kept them in the running for a road win right up to the buzzer, and they’ll need that enhanced ball control to cool off the Nets today.
    There’s not much more to say, other than… No Excuses!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “Three famous boxers – Jake LaMotta, Rocky Balboa, and Glass Joe.”
     
    No Excuses Week wraps up with No Excuses Weekend!
    Not long after having split consecutive games versus the Gasol Brothers, this weekend’s Creature Double Feature has our Atlanta Hawks taking on the Lopez Twins. It begins this afternoon with Robin and his Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; WGN in Chicago) and concludes with another shot at Brook and the Nets tomorrow afternoon in Brooklyn.
    The Hawks are aiming for a second-straight season-sweep of Fred Hoiberg’s outfit, last time storming back with 41 fourth-quarter points (five starters, plus Tim Hardaway, Jr., in double figures) to zip past Chicago in the closing minutes for a 119-112 victory at the United Center. The Bulls haven’t beaten Atlanta since a meaningless season-ending home win back in April 2015. A win today, though, could mean a whole lot more to a bunch of people on West Madison Street.
    The Bulls simply haven’t had the graces that the Hawks enjoyed during the middle of the regular season. So in March, when Chicago followed up an upset of the lousy-shooting Splash Brothers with a deflating 1-7 stretch, their playoff prospects seemed dead in the Lake Michigan water. Things got even bleaker once second-leading scorer Dwyane Wade was put on ice for the season, after the Chicago native fractured a bone in his elbow a couple weeks ago.
    The team’s third- and sixth-leading scorers (Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, respectively) had previously been traded to OKC, for three Thunder players (Cam Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow) who are hardly giving the team anything of substance. The Wade injury has pressed Hoiberg to make nice with pine-riding guards Rajon Rondo (now starting again) and Michael Carter-Williams. But just when things weren’t looking too hot for Coach Fred or the Garpax management crew, a funny thing happened.
    Rondo (7.1 March APG) has been setting up the Bulls offense as well as ever before. Nikola Mirotic (March: 15.3 PPG, 49.6 FG%, 41.2 3FG%) has gone on an offensive tear. German rookie Paul Zipser has stepped into the starting lineup, and generally figured out how to stay out of the way, unless a clutch bucket or rebound is needed.
    All of that synergy has taken pressure off star Jimmy Butler (last 7 games: 26.4 PPG, 54.3 FG%, 8.6 APG, 2.4 SPG), who hasn’t had to mope as much as Central Division contemporary Paul George in recent days. Since Dwyane waded off the court, only Toronto has posted a higher net efficiency than Chicago (+5.1 net rating since March 15, 7th in NBA) in the East.
    Because of these developments, the Bulls have won four of their last six games and sit on the edge of the postseason in the ninth-seed. Yes, they did lose by ten to Philadelphia at United Center just 8 days ago. But Chicago also beat Utah and three division rivals (vs. Detroit, at Milwaukee, vs. Cleveland), all of whom are jockeying for playoff positions themselves. They also fell short by just two points in overtime at Toronto after failing to cling to a 15-point fourth quarter lead.
    The Bulls (36-39) can move into a statistical tie with Miami and Indiana, and two games behind Atlanta, with a win today. If they do that, they’re as much in the catbird seat as any other low-level playoff contender.
    They have a four-game road swing that begins tomorrow in New Orleans, who no longer holds a lotto pick and isn’t tanking. But after the Pelicans, the slate includes winnable contests in New York, Philly, and Brooklyn, then home games versus Orlando and Brooklyn to close things out. The playoffs are certainly within reach. But it behooves the Bulls to keep confidence high by first solving the Hawks today.
    The Hawks (39-36) can just about seal up a playoff spot with back-to-back wins over the Bulls and Nets. The first order of business for Mike Budenholzer’s crew involves figuring a way to keep Butler (9.0 FTAs per game, 4th in NBA; 86.1 FT%) from piling up points at the free throw line without Thabo Sefolosha or Paul Millsap available to help defend.
    The recently returning Kent Bazemore played with rejuvenated confidence in Wednesday’s 99-92 win at Philadelphia (4-for-5 3FGs, 2 steals and a block), but he and Taurean Prince (benefitting from Sefolosha’s tutelage) will need to share duties to help keep Jimmy Buckets, who averages more made free throws (7.7 per game) than field goals (7.3 per game), contained.
    The second challenge will be making catches and looks tougher for “Threekola” at the perimeter. Philly helped the Hawks’ troublesome perimeter defensive stats by taking 21 more three-point attempts than Atlanta, but only sinking two more of those shots.
    Chicago is taking 6.4 more threes per game than they were before the All-Star Break (Wade’s injury having much to do with that), and making 3.6 more of them. Rookie wing Denzel Valentine (35.3 March FG%, but 37.3 March 3FG%) has a 12-game Threak going while also helping with rebounding and defense.
    The third challenge will be suppressing Dennis Schröder’s errors (last 5 games: 7.0 APG, 6.8 TOs/game), a product of Millsap’s missing touches and shifting rotations as much as it is the Hawks point guard pressing unnecessarily instead of resetting plays.
    Coach Bud remains willing to ride-or-die with Schröder’s turnovers, not the least of which because Dennis has been making defenses pay at the free throw line (53-for-58 on FTs post-Break) when he can draw contact. Schröder (13 4th quarter points @ CHI on Jan. 25) has also shown a propensity for making up for some of those turnovers at the other end lately, his 1.4 SPG since the All-Star Break a marked improvement from the 0.8 SPG in the preceding games.
    The final ordeal will involve Dwight Howard and Ersan Ilyasova holding the fort in the middle and keeping the league’s biggest offensive board-crashers (NBA-high 12.4 O-Rebs per game) off the glass. Lopez (3 total O-Rebs, 6.0 PPG and 5.0 RPG in 3 games vs. ATL) has been mostly neutralized by the Hawks this season so far, and hopes to bring as much fight to today’s game as he typically reserves for mascots and the air around opposing big men.
    He gets less help with Gibson gone, but RoLo hopes to get some help off the bench today from Cristiano Felicio, who missed the past four games with a bruised tailbone, Lauvergne, and Bobby Portis, the second-year big who rebounds with vigor but is still figuring other elements of his game out.
    Atlanta has a tougher schedule ahead after this No Excuses Weekend, but can make things easier on themselves down the road with a strong fullcourt effort today (and tomorrow). Sounder execution will keep them in this game, while a high offensive pace coupled with persistent defensive pressure will help the Hawks enjoy the Running of the Bulls without getting gored.
    Let’s Go Bulls!
     
     
     
    April Fool’s! Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “We talkin’ bout PRACTICE???”
     
    Yes, it could get this bad! The Atlanta Hawks are simply striving to remain above .500, before the calendar turns to April. Yet, tonight, there is one man who could stand in their way… Tiago Splitter?
    The Brazilian Blah has been legitimately moving his limbs in recent days. And the former Hawks apparition-slash-center may very well suit up tonight for the Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Philly).
    Why, just last weekend, T-Split hung 8 points and 8 rebounds on the Bulls. The Windy City Bulls, that is. Called back from his G-League assignment, Splitter appeared for seven minutes (one field goal, three rebounds) in last night’s 106-101 win in Brooklyn, his first semblance of NBA action since January of last year.
    His newest team, the Sixers (28-46) have been swimming upstream without would-be Rookie of the Year candidate Joel Embiid and should-have-been RoY candidate Ben Simmons. Now, center Jahlil Okafor is also bubble-wrapped, dealing with soreness in his perpetually bothersome knee.
    Richaun Holmes has soldiered on admirably (last ten games: 14.0 PPG, 57.3 FG%) for Brett Brown’s lottery-bound club. But even he needs a little help, especially on defense, and recent G-League call-up Shawn Long (last 4 games: 12.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG) is a bit of a reach. So, don’t be surprised to find Tiago living up to his surname, splitting duties while staring Dwight Howard eye-to-eye for awkwardly long stretches tonight.
    Philly returns home from a 2-3 road trip, defeating Chicago last week and then Brooklyn last night, and they’ll head back out after this game to visit Toronto and Cleveland. But Coach Brown has a chance to grant the Philly Phaithful, already looking toward next season, cause for added optimism in the present time.
    Having also won their past two home games, including the Isaiah-less Celtics’ last defeat, the 76ers would have to go 4-1 at the Wells Fargo Center to sew up a winning home record for the first time since 2013. With later games coming against Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indiana, the Hawks will certainly pull for Philly to get this done in the coming weeks, Atlanta being their sole loss on the ledger.
    Many ardent Tankadelphians are nervous about the prospects of missing out on the bonanza of top-flight rookie point guards on the docket this summer, with a few more victories dampening the Sixers’ playoff odds. Yet Brown understands that their Point Guard of the Future was already drafted #1 overall last year.
    Further, Mike Budenholzer’s fellow ex-Spurs acolyte recognizes that puffing up his own record, in easily his best coaching work to date, obviates any notions by Sixer management to eat his contract in the offseason. For Brown, the next 76ers’ win this season exceeds his combined total (28-136) from the prior two Hinkie-fied campaigns.
    Much like Earl Watson with Devin Booker, there’s little wonder why Brown is granting Dario Saric (post-All-Star-Break: 19.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.3 APG) carte blanche when it comes to leading the offense. Beyond scoring and board work (32 points and 10 rebounds @ CHI last week), the 6-foot-10 forward can also be an exceptional post passer, when he puts his mind to it.
    The probable leader in the RoY race, Saric (last 23 games: 19.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG) has struggled mightily this season against the Hawks (8-for-32 FGs and four assists through three games), most recently shooting 1-for-10 from the field in a 110-93 loss at Philips Arena on January 21. He’ll be eager to shed the shackles tonight, especially without Paul Millsap (knee) or Thabo Sefolosha (groin) around to pester him.
    Saric hasn’t been left to carry the team on his own. Since the trade-deadline dealing of Ersan Ilyasova (39.3 3FG% in ATL, but 28.0 3FG% in road games as a Hawk) to Atlanta, Robert Covington has picked up the scoring slack, going just 1-for-6 on threes but still contributing 21 points and 13 rebounds to help cut down the Nets yesterday. Unfortunately, knee soreness will have RoCo sitting out the back end of this back-to-back, and Brown hopes Gerald Henderson (hip) will help pick up the defensive slack in his return to action.
    To heck with overweight and little people’s reality shows; the TLC worth watching is in Philly right now. French rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (4-for-10 3FGs, season-highs of 9 rebounds and 3 assists @ BKN) had arguably his best all-around game to date last night and, much like Atlanta’s Taurean Prince, is beginning to get acclimated with NBA tempos.
    Defensively, the wing duo’s production has helped offset the loss of Embiid, to injury, plus another trade-deadline departure, that of Nerlens Noel, shipped to Dallas for wing Justin Anderson (career-high 44.8 FG% w/ PHI) and a 2017 first-rounder. Starting together, since March 11, Covington (1.9 SPG) and TLC, plus point guard T.J. McConnell (1.6 SPG) have improved the team’s defensive efficiency (100.4 D-Rating over past 18 days) to a level just ahead of Atlanta’s (100.9) and second-best in the East, behind the reconfigured Raptors’ 98.9 opponent points per 100 possessions.
    Atlanta’s bench put up yet another dud (4-for-16 FGs) versus the Suns’ skeleton crew last night, extending their collective woefulness to league-lows of 29.2 FG%, 17.6 3FG%, and minus-35 plus/minus, in the 11 days since Millsap was sidelined. The Suns ultimately bailed out the Hawks on Tuesday, not simply by sitting Devin Booker (and Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and…), but by bricking ten of their 24 free throws in an otherwise competitive 95-91 loss.
    Mike Dunleavy’s inability to play tonight (ankle soreness), and the continued wayward shooting by starters Junior Hardaway (6-for-25 FGs last 2 games) and Ilyasova (14-for-46 FGs last 4 games) aren’t helping matters. But have no fear, Kent Bazemore is here!
    “The spirit is willing…” has rarely been as apt a descriptor as it has been for Baze’s erratic play this season. His atrocious perimeter jumper (27.2 3FG% through December) was beginning to make a significant turnaround (40.0 3FG% first ten games post-Break) before knee problems began to wear him down. Now, fans will get to see whether he can be a net-positive influence on the floor for the Hawks, with his body stronger after the time off to recuperate his ailing knee.
    Coming off the bench tonight, Kent can aid Atlanta if he can finish plays quickly inside, in the halfcourt and on the break, while avoiding costly turnovers. The league’s two sloppiest teams since the All-Star Break have been Dennis Schröder’s Hawks (16.7 TOs per 100 possessions) and the 76ers (16.2 TOs per-100). The lack of reliable shooting around Schröder continues to have him pressing (team-high 27 points, 2-for-8 3FGs, 9 assists, 8 TOs vs. PHX), for better or worse.
    Having Jose Calderon closing the game, in lieu of the off-target Hardaway, seemed to have a calming effect on the Hawks offense yesterday, with Dennis able to play more off-ball. Together with the other starters, Atlanta flipped a 78-71 fourth-quarter deficit into a 92-83 advantage in just over six minutes, two Phoenix steals leading to just a single Suns point during that critical run.
    Bazemore’s return allows Coach Bud to go back on occasion to the dual small-guard lineup, while it’s supported with an array of options at the 3-spot, even without Dunleavy available. Prince (15 points, two swats) was particularly solid at the start and close of the Phoenix game, and deserves more time to sort things out as the regular season draws to a close.
    The Hawks and Sixers are also among the top of the East in steals, an indication that another ugly-fest is in store tonight. Whichever team is superior at converting live-ball errors into points at the other end is likely to be the team in front by the end of the game. In their last meeting on January 21, the host Hawks outscored Philly (led in scoring, coincidentally, by Ilyasova’s 21 points) 20-4 off turnovers, along the way to what became an easy-breezy 110-93 victory.
    Howard can also help his team’s cause by not trying to dribble the ball in transition past halfcourt, and instead finding his playmakers to ignite the fastbreaks. Philadelphia’s 15.9 fastbreak PPG (post-All-Star-Break) allowed are by far the most in the East. Beyond exploiting size advantages along the way to his obligatory double-double, Dwight continued seeking ways to move the ball yesterday, raising the Hawks’ record to a modest 3-0 when he gets his season-high of four assists in any game. If he’s the most effective passing big on the floor tonight, Advantage, Atlanta.
    Last night, a recent trade acquisition, center Jusuf Nurkic, helped his new team put a dent into his old team’s chances for a coveted playoff spot. Let’s not see any facsimile of that storyline today.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “You kiddin’ me???”
     
    “Let’s Not Suck! Let’s Not Suck!”
    No Excuses Week rolls on for our Atlanta Hawks, as Devin Booker and whoever’s left playing for the Phoenix Suns (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) roll into Philips Arena to get just a little more shine at our expense. For Hawks fans, “Let’s Not Suck!” is a more inspirational three-note refrain right now.
    “All terrible roads lead to beautiful destinations.” Such a quote passes as an apt slogan for the Hilton Head Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. But it’s also the inspiration scribbled on the whiteboard by the team’s resident Confucius, Kent Bazemore. Tonight, the Hawks will again try to scrounge for buckets without Paul Millsap (out at least 3 more games), Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha available.
    Indeed, the Hawks’ chances at even saying they’re a .500 team, much less a playoff team worth watching, has been imperiled after falling 107-92 to Kenny Atkinson’s Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon. That was not only the Hawks’ seventh-straight defeat, it was also the seventh time in a row Atlanta (37-36) failed to surpass 100 points. A lack of offensive firepower usually spells doom for most modern-day NBA outfits, and especially this one (5-28 when scoring 100 points or fewer, incl. 1-15 since MLK Day).
    One sliver of a silver lining? Those JuggerNets just whalloped the Suns five days ago, 126-98 in Brooklyn. While Phoenix (22-52) has a better record than the Nets, they come into the Lowlight Factory on an eight-game skid, having dropped ten of their last 11.
    Wrapping up a winless six-game road trip tonight, Phoenix has prevailed in two road games over the past two months. Unlike the Nets, the Suns are chasing the Lakers (21-52) for lottery odds, and have effectively pulled the ripcord on the regular season.
    Suns coach Earl Watson put lead guard Eric Bledsoe and leading rebounder Tyson Chandler on the shelf for the season, joining rookie Dragan Bender (knee surgery). And when Watson tried to hand the tank keys over to Brandon Knight (DNP-CD’d since the All-Star Break), the embittered, untradable guard basically said, “You know what, coach? I got back spasms now, how about that?”
    Backup guards Leandro Barbosa (hamstring) and Ronnie Price (lower-leg contusion) remain iffy as well. So it’s no wonder that Watson is going all-in behind Booker (24.7 PPG, 89.1 FT% in March) and Tyler Ulis (9.0 APG in last seven starts), hoping these up-and-coming guards will cut their teeth wearing out opposing defenses.
    Yes, Booker weed-sprayed TD Garden with 70 points on Friday, making him one of just six NBA ballers ever to accomplish the feat. Yet he did it with 66 shot attempts (field goals and free throws combined) against a defensively laissez-faire Boston backcourt (Avery Bradley was unable to join the proceedings) as both teams kept the pace deliberately high, granting Booker (51 second-half points) plenty of unimpeded possessions. Despite helping Phoenix win the second-half by 13 points, Booker’s Suns still lost by double-digits, 130-120. There’s no way Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder could have performed the same way in a loss and had NBA fans eagerly buying up “HIS70RY” T-shirts.
    The Suns again started slow on Sunday, falling behind host Charlotte 38-18 after the first quarter, 22-3 in the opening five minutes of action. They allowed four Hornets to reach double-figures in scoring by halftime. And with no one bothering to keep Kemba Walker (31 points, 9 assists, 1 TO) in check, not even the single-minded Booker (7-for-17 FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs, minus-32 in 35 minutes) could do enough in the second half to make the final 120-106 outcome interesting.
    Atlanta remains over-reliant on remnant starters Schröder (10-for-24 FGs, 8 assists, 3 TOs vs. BKN) and Dwight Howard (19 points and 16 boards, but 5 TOs vs. BKN), who repeatedly find themselves getting fried trying to save the Hawks’ bacon. Mike Budenholzer’s pace-and-disgrace offense (dead-last 101.0 March O-Rating, 8th in March pace, NBA-high 17.2 March TO%) can’t get off the ground without some reliable bench options.
    Reserves shot just 3-for-19 (0-for-8 3FGs) against Brooklyn, and that won’t get anything done, to say nothing of 3 defensive rebounds among six so-called players. Atlanta didn’t start hemorrhaging points in earnest until Coach Bud inexplicably subbed in Mike Dunleavy, Mike Muscala, and Kris Humphries together late in the first quarter. Mixing in just one or two backups with the Hawks’ current first unit is likely to produce less cringe-worthy results.
    One stretch that worked in the second quarter on Sunday, after the Hawks languished their way to a 43-21 deficit, involved the Hawks going small with Ersan Ilyasova manning the middle for a lineup featuring Schröder and Jose Calderon, and replacement starters Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Taurean Prince at the forward spots. For whatever reason, Coach Bud didn’t field this crew until the Hawks fell behind again by double-digits midway through the third quarter, and even that was a brief spell.
    Ilyasova was a rebounding fiend against the Nyets (18 rebounds, 7 offensive), but a lot of those boards were from caroms created by his own point-blank misses (3-for-14 FGs). The Hawks need his first-shots to hit nylon, preferably on the inside of the net. It’s a similar deal for Hardaway (4-for-10 2FGs, 1-for-6 3FGs vs. BKN), who is capable of shedding himself free from Booker tonight and scoring at-will. He’s needed to do more than simply trying to keep his THJreak alive.
    Not only Schröder, but the entire Hawks backcourt must pressure Ulis and Booker (3.6 APG, 3.7 TOs per game in March) into errors from the outset, or at least forcing unaccustomed players like T.J. Warren (21 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals @ CHA on Sunday), Dunk Contest flop Derrick Jones, Jr. and rookie Marquese Chriss to become playmakers outside the paint. Charlotte converted seven errors into 15 first-quarter points to put the stiff-arm to the Suns early.
    Phoenix can phold early, but only if their guards are unable to get the ball out to shooting swingmen, like Jared Dudley (26.2 March 3FG%, but we need not mention his December 2014 performance at Philips as a Buck) and momentary preseason Hawk Jarell Eddie (41.5 D-League 3FG%). The Suns were a gun-shy 3-for-10 on threes in the first three quarters in Boston, then 3-for-12 on triples in Charlotte.
    Watson is also using the balance of the season to help his team decide whether next season’s backup center will be A-Len or Alan. Both Alex Len and Phoenix native Alan “Big Sauce” Williams will be restricted free agents this summer. Williams uses hard screens to spring teammates free, but often gets overwhelmed inside versus bigs like Howard. When Len is in the game, the Hawks will need Humphries’ help as a pick-and-popper to draw the starting center out from the middle of the floor.
    The Hawks play their first back-to-back contest in 18 days tomorrow, with Philadelphia (last 15 days: wins over Boston and Chicago, 2-point loss at Golden State) lying in wait after a trip to Brooklyn. There is no benefit to the Hawks, or their suffering fans, enduring some wild late-game back-and-forth scramble tonight, certainly not against a similarly-depleted Suns team that is far more interested in making SportsCenter for their mid-game highlights than actual victories.
    Atlanta’s starting five has no choice but to start, and finish, collectively strong. But the Hawks need their vets and rookies to step up in brief stints off the bench if they have any real hope of a satisfactory N.E.W. result.
     
    Let’s Not Suck! Let's Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “AND THREE POINTERS DON’T STOP ‘TIL 8 IN THE MO’NIN!!!”
     
    No Excuses Week begins today! Our Atlanta Hawks have certainly had a rough go of things this month. But now comes a slate of N.E.W. games, beginning with an afternoon affair at home versus the Brooklyn Nets (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC) and concluding in Brooklyn next week, that will help the team sew up their invite to the NBA Playoffs.
    Whoops! Did I say “will”? I should have said, “could”.
    The Grizzlies, the Pistons, the Hornets, the Thunder, the Celtics, the Warriors, the Jazz. Each of these teams have caught at least one L this month from one of the four teams (Brooklyn, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago) Atlanta faces over the course of this upcoming week. Many of these opponents thought they could slide by with second-rate and half-hearted execution, and found themselves sorely mistaken as the final buzzers sounded.
    Aside from a pretend-road win in London, the Nets have not won at the so-called Highlight Factory since March 2013, and the Nets have no plans on making Atlanta their San Antonio. Unable to benefit from a lottery pick by deliberately tanking, Kenny Atkinson’s charges are plucking at any opportunities for wins they can find… but not at the expense of enhanced development for young players.
    Brooklyn (15-57) hasn’t had a break-even or better calendar month since Lionel Hollins’ club went 5-4 in April 2015 to help crush Atlanta’s lottery dreams. Yet after starting out 2017 winning just one of 26 games, they’re 6-8 this month, one of those losses a 110-105 close-shave defeat at Philips back on March 8, and have the Sixers and Pistons to close out the March schedule after today.
    Just weeks ago, the Hawks needed all of Paul Millsap’s 24 points to fend off the Nets, who were led by Sean Kilpatrick’s 27 points in 30 minutes off the bench. Brooklyn controlled much of the proceedings until the middle of the third quarter and got the deficit down to a single point with just 13 seconds left to play. As was the case during Atlanta’s ill-fated road trip this past week, Millsap and fellow starter Kent Bazemore won’t be available this afternoon due to knee rehabs.
    The good news for the Hawks (37-35) is that Kilpatrick is unavailable as well, due to a sore hammy. While the Nets look to the Brook-Lin duo of Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin to start and finish close contests, Atkinson is turning to starters Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (9-for-13 FGs @ WAS on Friday) and Caris LeVert, and backups Justin Hamilton (team-high 20 points, 2-for-3 3FGs @ WAS) and K.J. McDaniels, to try and keep his team competitive in the middle of games.
    Turning the tables on a hot Suns offense on Thursday, McDaniels and Brooklyn’s bench brigade helped “hold” Phoenix’s Devin Booker to 28 points, while outscoring the Suns’ reserves 81-22, in a resounding 126-98 home victory.
    Coach Kenny hopes to overwhelm Atlanta’s thinned bench by subbing in a host of contributors. Thus, it’s essential for the Mike Budenholzer’s starters to dominate, and not simply hold serve, versus Lopez, Lin and the Nets’ defensively-challenged starters.
    Those Hawks starters include Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Ersan Ilyasova, who moved to the top line in place of Bazemore and Millsap. They comprised 26 of Atlanta’s 28 bench points when these two teams last met. The other two points came from Taurean Prince, who also starts today while Thabo Sefolosha deals with his pesky groin strain. Today, the rookie needs to provide major contributions in the form of defensive rebounding, perimeter closeouts, ball movement, and finishes around the rim.
    Dennis Schröder led the way with 31 points (incl. 10-for-10 FTs), but the playmaker must refrain from forcing plays that aren’t there to make. Still, his assertiveness remains perhaps the growing point guard’s best asset.
    Atlanta, surprisingly, is just 5-13 on the season when Schröder’s in-game turnover percentage is BELOW ten percent, including 0-4 this month. The Hawks are also a more representative 7-5 when Dennis exceeds 25.0 TO%. Including this week’s road losses in Milwaukee and Washington, though, the Hawks are 1-5 when his usage rate exceeds 33.3 percent. Part of the uphill challenge is expecting more ball movement from bigs like Dwight Howard and Ilyasova. But if Dennis goes through stretches of trying to do too much on his own offensively, Coach Bud should not hesitate to deploy vet backup Jose Calderon today.
    Being more cognizant of the shot clock and his alternative options will benefit the Hawks whenever Schröder penetrates the paint. Sounder decision-making from his backcourt mate Hardaway in the fourth quarter will help the Hawks as well. It should be noted that Timmy has not had a single game with true shooting percentage below 50.0 percent since February 24, and that Atlanta is a respectable 11-6 (although 0-3 this month) when his assist percentage exceeds 20.0% in a game.
    Beginning right before New Year’s, the Hawks took advantage of the opportunity to put recent failures behind them versus mostly subpar competition. The result was a seven-game winning streak, a stretch of 9-1 basketball, and an All-Star nod for Millsap. More importantly, an understandably underappreciated run from December 7 through the All-Star Break without consecutive losses created a nice cushion in the playoff standings which lasted for two months.
    Demonstrating that they can learn from the critical mistakes in their recent past, without dwelling too much on them, will -- okay! could -- help the Hawks cruise triumphantly through No Excuses Week. As will emphasizing the things they can do well, not getting distracted by the records or accolades of their opponents. Chins up, gentlemen… it’s a N.E.W. day!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “I hear what you’re saying, Coach… but with all due respect, a Frankfurter really is a sandwich!”
     
    Back to the Crab Barrel we go! The Atlanta Hawks’ wretched road swing concludes with a visit to the home of one of the hottest teams in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin).
    Atlanta (37-34) could soon swoop down into a three-way tie (albeit while holding a momentary tiebreaker) for fifth in the LeBronference with another loss tonight, particularly if somebody can slip Nikola Jokic some of Indiana’s fine corn liquor before his Nuggets face the Pacers. Despite the probabilities of losing six in a row, the Hawks won’t gain any sympathy from a Milwaukee team whose upward momentum has been thwarted by Atlanta at every opportunity this season.
    Tough defeats at the hands of Mike Budenholzer’s club in November and December sent the Bucks on three-game skids. They traipsed into Atlanta at 20-18, back on January 15, and stumbled out with a 111-98 loss, initiating a 2-12 stretch that seemed to doom their playoff prospects. Those hopes dimmed even further when the expedited February return of top-gunner Khris Middleton (48.3 3FG% in past 19 games) was cruelly offset by a season-ending injury for forward Jabari Parker.
    Rather than folding, Jason Kidd’s team has rallied, and now sit just a game behind the Hawks for the fifth-seed in the East. While the Hawks flounder, the Bucks (36-35) have surged, on a 10-2 run since March 1. During the winning stretch that began three weeks ago, Milwaukee has joined Miami and Golden State as the only NBA teams in the top-ten of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
    Dennis Schröder (5-for-13 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs, 10 TOs in 104-100 loss @ WAS on Wednesday) would be apt to know that Milwaukee’s 19.3 points per-48 off turnovers during this run rank 3rd in the NBA, just ahead of the Wizards’ 19.0. Conversely, opponents’ 13.7 points per-48 off Milwaukee’s Buck-ups rank 5th-lowest. Ball control and mind control will once again be essential for Schröder, especially whenever Matthew Trollavedova [/selfban] enters the fray.
    The Bucks excitedly return to the BMO Harris Bradley Center after a six-game road swing, suffering losses only at Memphis and Golden State. They’re on pace for their best in-conference finish since George Karl’s 2001 conference finalists, and the most victories since the Brandon Jennings-led Fear the Deer squad (46-36) succumbed to Jamal Crawford’s Hawks in a 2009 seven-game first-round series.
    Kidd is getting his ship righted even while deploying not one, but two rookies in the starting lineup. Greater Atlanta Christian School product Malcolm Brogdon is about the only first-year player capable of challenging Dario Saric for Rookie of the Year honors. He ranks 3rd among the rookie crop with 10.0 PPG, shooting from deep at a 40.6% clip and grabbing a rookie-high 1.1 SPG while keeping turnovers (4.1 APG, 1.5 TOs/game) to a minimum. Meanwhile, Thon Maker supplanted Parker in the frontcourt. While he has struggled lately, Maker provides more length and energy to help the Bucks be disruptive to opposing halfcourt offenses.
    The effective replacement of Parker with Middleton in the lineup is transforming Milwaukee’s offense from one dependent on paint points (NBA-high 48.0% of points in-paint pre-All_Star Break; 43.4% post-Break) to one living-and-thriving by the three-pointer (27.7 3FGA% pre-All-Star-Break; 30.5% of shots post-Break). The Bucks lofted a season-high 35 three-point attempts in their 116-98 win in Sacramento on Wednesday, sinking 45.7 percent of them. Middleton hit three triples, along with bench mates Jason Terry and Mirza Teletovic, while Brogdon and trade acquisition Spencer Hawes each nailed a pair. Many of those makes are due to one teammate drawing a lot of attention.
    The absurdly long straw that stirs Milwaukee’s drink has been Giannis Antetokounmpo (team-highs of 32 points, 13 boards, six dimes @ SAC), who has lived up to every fantasy player’s fantasy. No NBA player in history has ranked among the league’s top-20 in any season for total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks (since at least 1973-74, when the last two categories were first officially tallied). And yet the Greek Freak (21st in total assists) is very close to clearing this bar. Only Kevin Garnett (1999-2000; 2003-04) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (with Milwaukee in 1973-74) has ever been top-25 in those five categories. A strong finish for the Bucks might even earn him some 5th-place MVP votes at season’s end.
    Standing in Alpha-Bits’ way is Atlanta’s Ersan Ilyasova, a teammate during much of Giannis’ first two seasons in the league. Ilyasova will need to keep his distance, figuratively speaking, allowing Antetokounmpo only enough space to either jack isolation three-pointers (11-for-44 3FGs in past two months) or put the ball on the floor and risk drawing charges. Getting a step past Ilyasova, either in the halfcourt or in transition, can easily deflate the Hawks’ defensive efforts.
    The Hawks’ last victory over the Bucks in January came courtesy of the hot hands of starters Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap, plus then-new Hawk and former Buck Junior Dunleavy off the bench (combined 11-for-17 3FGs). Millsap and Dunleavy’s long-range accuracy helped make some guy named Delaney (team-high 9 assists, 2 TOs) the brightest-looking rookie point guard named Malcolm on the floor.
    Unfortunately, although milk allegedly does a body good (not so much milk chocolate, Dwight), Sap and Baze’s knee maladies make them unable to make the trip to America’s Dairyland. Atlanta will need replacement starter Ilyasova (10-for-27 2FGs, 6-for-22 3FGs as a road Hawk), and either of Kris Humphries or Mike Muscala to provide more of an offensive presence than they have done in recent contests. Better execution on their end will keep Schröder and Howard from pressing so much when the ball is in their hands.
    The Hawks’ thinned-out bench shot 9-for-27 from the field in D.C., 9-for-29 in Charlotte, and 12-for-35 back home versus Portland.  Once Moose’s forte (37-for-50 FGs first 11 games; 3-for-8 2FGs post-All-Star Break), Atlanta’s weathered backup big man needs to collect-and-finish around the rim during his short stints, instead of being preoccupied with his wayward outside shot (1-for-9 3FGs post-Break) to help a team desperate for reliable offense (50.2 post-Break eFG%, 25th in NBA; 101.1 post-Break O-Rating, 29th in NBA) anywhere on the floor they can find it.
    Despite committing 7 turnovers, Schröder scored 33 points (8-for-12 2FGs, 4-for-7 3FGs) to help the Hawks top the Bucks, 114-110, in their last visit to Milwaukee on December 9. But it was a then-struggling Tim Hardaway, Jr. who provided the dagger off a nice feed from Howard, securing an Atlanta comeback from 20 points down at halftime.
    The Bucks will blanket Hardaway (THJreak at 23 games; team-high 29 points and two blocks @ WAS) as often as possible from the perimeter. But Timmy also has the athleticism to score on cuts, something both he and Taurean Prince (along with the Hawks’ more-mindful ballhandlers) ought to exploit whenever their Buck defenders get caught flat-hoofed.
    On the season, Milwaukee’s opponents have taken 29.0 restricted-area shots per game (4th-most in NBA), and none of the NBA’s other four least relentless teams in this zone allow a higher conversion rate than the Bucks (60.7 opponent restricted-area FG%).
    During this particular three-point game streak, Hardaway has also helped the Hawks by eliminating his early-season woes from the free throw line (85.5 FT% last 23 games). Only the Kings, Blazers, and Knicks have fouled the Hawks more frequently this season than Milwaukee (25.0 personals per game). Having Milwaukee get excessively physical to prevent quick-finish cuts and lobs can help Atlanta keep the Bucks beyond the arm’s proverbial reach.
    There remains ample time for the Hawks to fret over longer-term objectives, like finishing with a winning record this season. But for the moment, the only thing that matters is eschewing excuses, and picking up a road win to steer some long-lost momentum back in Atlanta’s direction.
    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Miss Me Yet?”
     
     
     
    Our Atlanta Hawks veer into Verizon Center for a final regular-season tilt with the Washington Wizards (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; ESPN everywhere else). They’ll fall behind by 15 early. Then, they’ll pretend to make a comeback, get the deficit down to single digits, then fall behind by 20, abandoning sound shot mechanics, turning the ball over and giving up copious three-point buckets, as the ESPN crew fills the time debating Dwight Howard’s Hall of Fame prospects.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
    What? You’re still here?
    You really need to hear about these Wizards (42-28) seeking to reduce their magic number, to five, for their first NBA division title since 1979? How they need this victory to secure the head-to-head series, in the unlikely event of a tiebreaker? About how they, like Atlanta, have managed to lose four of their last five games? Most recently, shooting 22.9 percent on threes, and dominated on the defensive boards, in a home loss to Al Horford’s Celtics?
    Do you need to know that as easily a time as Hawks opponents have had from the perimeter (36.5 opponent 3FG%, 9th-highest in NBA) this season, foes of the Wizards (36.4 opponent 3FG%) and Cavs (36.5 opponent 3FG%) have had it just as easy? That it will help for Dennis Schröder to be in pass-first mode from the jump, finding ready-and-willing shooters among an Atlanta corps that’s likely to include Junior Dunleavy (ankle) for the first time in a while?
    Must it be stated that we’re likely to see a slopfest pitting the two teams that induce the most turnovers (15.5 opponent TOs per-48) in the East? That the Hawks can only get the upper hand tonight if they can keep John Wall (2.0 SPG and 5.8 fastbreak PPG, tops in East) from gaining a head of steam toward the basket with the ball in transition?
    Need anyone note that the Wizards’ top scorer is not Wall (22.9 PPG), but Bradley Beal (23.1 PPG)? Or, that Otto Porter (5-for-7 3FGs in Washington’s crossroads 112-86 win @ ATL on Jan. 27; 44.5 3FG%, now down to 2nd in NBA, behind KYLE FREAKING KORVER) shoots the triple just as well these days? That sealing off these shooters, plus hired gun Bojan Bogdanovic (42.9 3FG% w/ WAS) off the bench, could render Wall (31.4 3FG%, same as Paul Millsap) a high-volume but benign halfcourt circus shot-taker around the paint?
    Is it that important to know that Washington’s fast-food-incentivized fans have helped keep opponents’ free throws off-kilter (NBA-low 74.8 opponent FT%; 74.0% at home)? That, with Washington as heavy-handed as they are (21.3 personal fouls per-48, 3rd-most in East), every Hawk not surnamed Howard (non-Dwights 3-for-8 FTs @ CHA on Monday) needs to focus when they’re sent to the line, and not leave precious points on the table?
    Is it essential to be aware that the frontcourt tandem of Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat (11 combined O-Rebs @ ATL Jan. 27) are chomping at the bit to give Howard (minus-53 plus/minus in last 3 games) a hard time tonight, especially without Millsap around? That Atlanta (37-33) will have more than a puncher’s chance tonight, so long as Taurean Prince and the bench corps come off the bench with a focus on defensive rebounding and ball movement, to help take some weight off Howard and the starting five?
    Well, fat chance! No way am I wasting my time getting into all that… oh, wait…
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
    “This is what it sounds like… when Ducks fly!”

     
    Two water-treading division rivals, the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets, tip-off tonight at Spectrum Center (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast; 92.9 FM in ATL), and only one burning question remains. Does Purple Shirt Guy have anybody left worth heckling?

    You all remember the Hornets, right? It’s been a minute. Back in mid-November, the Hawks were cruising right along at 9-2 to start the year and, thanks to some Paul Millsap baskets, spread their lead to ten points on the host Hornets, on the verge of putting Charlotte in their rearview mirror in the race for the Southeast Division lead.

    Then Cody Zeller smartly sold a high Dwight Howard elbow, leading to a premature exit for Atlanta’s center. Kent Bazemore and then the whole Hawks team started Bazemoring on offense. And, suddenly, no Hawk defenders could plug the leak around the rim, much to the joy of Hornets star guard Kemba Walker.

    While their fourth-quarter lead in Charlotte wasn’t definitively the high-water-mark of the beleaguered Hawks’ season, it’s clear that whatever mojo Atlanta (37-32; 5-9 last 14 games) had at the point When Elbow Met Cody, it was never fully regained.

    That fact was reflected well during Saturday night’s 113-97 washout against visiting Portland. The Hawks were doing their itsy-bitsy-spider thing in the third quarter, trying to mask the stink of yet another embarrassing first-quarter start, this one 40-18 against the Blazers (props to the fine folks at Dad’s Garage for the improv lulz, btw).

    Unfortunately, center Jusuf Nurkic did his homework, film-studying Howard’s historical histrionics and the tried-and-true antics of referee Marc Davis (side Q: was the ref ever reprimanded for cussing at the hawks’ bench back in January?). Davis T’d up Dwight for essentially air-traffic-controlling in the vicinity of Nurkic’s schnoz during a rebound attempt.

    Howard can rant and fume all he likes, but his team will remain behind the 8-ball until he, Dennis Schröder (2-for-14 FGs, minus-25 plus/minus vs. POR), and coach Mike Budenholzer figure out how to avoid getting picked-apart-and-steamrolled by guards executing pick-and-roll plays. Atlanta’s opponents have a 49.6 eFG% on P&R ballhandler plays (3rd-highest in NBA; good news? Only the Cavs and Raps do worse), as per NBA.com stats. Howard sags as the trailing defensive guard goes over screens, creating a nice little bubble for opposing guards to work with.

    The issue becomes all the more pressing with the Hawks down two starters in the foreseeable future, Bazemore (knee bone bruise) and All-Star Millsap (knee tightness), plus a third starter in Thabo Sefolosha (0-for-6 FGs in 19 minutes) who seems as lost in the sauce as anybody else. The Hawks will have plenty of practice covering P&R tonight against Walker, who leads the NBA with 12.5 possessions per game, his 11.8 PPG second only to Harden on these plays.

    Despite all the losing and injuries and listless play, the silver lining is that it will take a flop of Falconian proportions for the Hawks to find themselves not only behind the 8-ball, but the 8-seed as well. Aside from, arguably, the heat and the Bucks, the entire Eastern Conference has been slipping around in oil, unable to gain traction as the postseason nears.

    It’s not just the bottom half of the East, either. Since the All-Star Break, the Cavs have struggled defensively. The Raps have had a hard time finding their bearings without Lowry; same for the Celts without Thomas. And just when you think the Wizards finally have their stuff together, they drop three of four, including a 98-93 loss on the road to these Hornets last Saturday.

    Zeller (8-for-10 FGs, 4 steals vs. WAS), who has enjoyed a career season, and Marvin Williams, who has very much not, carried the day as the Hornets made things tough for John Wall (5-for-16 FGs) around the rim and held Washington to 5-for-20 3FGs through the first three quarters.

    Hornets coach Steve Clifford can only hope that the return of Nicolas Batum (migraines) to the starting lineup, plus an uptick from Marvin (last 10 games: 14.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 52.6 FG%, 86.7 FT%, 2.7 APG, 0.8 TOs per game) and the addition of hungry G-League talents Briante Weber and Johnny O’Bryant, will help stabilize his rotations for a final playoff push. Still, Clifford surely believes that the sins of the managerial staff are being visited upon the coach.

    Let’s not forget that Charlotte finished with 48 wins last season, just like Atlanta. If not for Purple Shirt Guy’s incessant lip, it stands to reason the Hornets would have joined the Hawks in the East’s second round.

    But then the summer came, and the team allowed free agents Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson to walk. Replacing the guards with Ramon Sessions (out since early February, meniscus tear), Brian Roberts and Marco Belinelli, predictably, hasn’t panned out. Parting ways with Jefferson and then extending and promoting Zeller were logical moves. But no one should have surmised that replacing Jefferson with the even less useful Roy Hibbert, since shipped to Milwaukee with Spencer Hawes for the ghost of Miles Plumlee, was ever going to work.

    Charlotte enjoyed the strong All-Star-caliber start to the season by Walker (career-highs of 22.8 PPG, 40.1 3FG%, 84.9 FT%), and the emergence of Zeller (career-high 10.5 PPG, 57.3 2FG%, 6.6 RPG; season-high 23 points, 9-for-10 FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 18) as one of the East’s most efficient pivot men (+7.3 net rating, best among East starting centers).

    But the lack of reliable depth and the shooting struggles (49.8 eFG%, 24th in NBA) among the wings and forwards have conspired to derail Charlotte’s march toward respectability. Most emblematic of the Hornets’ problems has been second-year forward Frank Kaminsky, who has a nickname that parallels the interests of some Hornets fans plus the game to match it (39.8 FG%, 31.3 3FG%).

    The mirror-image of the Hawks’ season, Charlotte (30-39; 1-3 last 4 games) has outscored their competition by 37 points over the course of the season, but are mired with a losing record, 3.5 games behind the 8-seed Pistons with 15 games remaining. The buzzkill really kicked in when Zeller exited with a thigh injury in late January, causing Charlotte to collapse like an ACC team in the third round. The Hornets went through a full month with just one game (1-13) in the win column (a four-point home win over the Nets).

    As for the Hawks, Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 23 points vs. POR on Saturday) and Junior Hardaway (21-game Threak; 22 points, 8-for-9 FTs vs. POR) have moved up to the top line, in Bazemore and Millsap’s absence. For the Hawks to pull off any victories while Baze and Sap are out, Coach Bud has little choice but to lean on his rookie corps to produce. That includes not only Taurean Prince and Malcolm Delaney, the latter in for defensive purposes when needed ahead of Jose Calderon, but also DeAndre’ Bembry, who returns from his G-League stint in Salt Lake City.

    Fumigating the Hornets today involves not only finding some offensive punch off the bench, but Schröder making wise decisions at both ends versus a Hornets team, led by Walker, that doesn’t willingly turn the ball over (10.9 TO%, 2nd-lowest in NBA) and doesn’t allow unwise trips to the foul line (NBA-low 17.0 personal fouls and 18.8 opponent FTAs per game).

    As was the case for All-Star Wall here over the weekend, Dennis will need to have productive shooters on the floor if he hopes to find any daylight on drives toward the rim. Charlotte allows just 58.7 FG% in the restricted area, third-lowest in the East behind the heat and Hawks (57.4 opponent FG%).

    Kaminsky possesses at least one thing Atlanta doesn’t have. The Hawks haven’t interested NBA fans enough to send out any of those inspirational potatoes that are all the rage these days. Atlanta’s starters and bench players alike have to step up, overcome adversity and prevail soon, preferably beginning tonight, if they ever hope to go from duds to spuds.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “I’ve always wondered, Jake… are you from State Farm, too?”


     
    Those zany Atlanta Hawks are back at it again this evening, this time versus the Portland Trail Blazers (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; CSN Northwest in POR) before whosoever dares to spend their Saturday evening at Philips Arena. Caveat emptor, and whatnot!

    Around this time last week, I headed to a play with no intermissions, and my fellow theatre-goers knew to inquire whether I was passing up on my usual Hawks viewing for Lent, or something.

    “Honestly, I’d rather peel off a toenail or two,” was my response. “The Hawks love to break struggling teams’ falls. And they’re playing another critical game, on the road, against a desperate Memphis team, with Dwight Howard resting. I don’t need to sit around and watch another blowout…” I’d have elaborated further had I not seen eyes glazing across the table.

    “This Saturday night, I’d rather watch something cheerful. So, what are we here to see?” “The Temple Bombing.” Oh. Well, alrighty then… go Temple!

    As it turned out, I missed most of the wrong blowout game versus the Grizzlies. After last Saturday’s game, the Hawks brought back Howard, and proceeded to face a San Antonio team that had seemingly lost LaMarcus Aldridge for an indefinite period, was playing without Tony Parker, and was just getting Kawhi Leonard back up to speed. Of course, Atlanta blew its opportunity to snap its decades-old Texas hex.

    Aldridge, fortunately, returned to action quickly, and was on the floor Wednesday to help the Spurs maintain their newfound lead atop the Western Conference. They hosted a Blazers team that had just been blown out, 100-77, one night before in New Orleans. So, naturally, Portland (30-37) won that game. At the same time, the Hawks, off two-days rest, were allowing Memphis to fly in off a game in Chicago and grind Atlanta into a 103-91 pulp. If the Hawks were a Talking Heads album, they'd be "Stop Making Sense."

    Damian Lillard (29 points, 4-for-9 3FGs @ NOP) had next-to-no help in the Big Easy, ten of his Blazer mates shooting just 15-for-58 from the floor and 11-for-17 from the free throw line. In San Antonio, he scored 36 points (12-for-22 FGs, 9-for-9 FTs) despite the Spurs’ pestering backcourt defense, and got help from fellow guard C.J. McCollum (26 points), mid-season acquisition Jusuf Nurkic (16 points, 9 boards, 4 steals), and even a defensive stop or two from Allen Crabbe off the bench.

    The Blazers will get more of a reinforcement tonight. Evan Turner had been out since breaking a metacarpal in early February, but has the green light to return to action tonight. He missed out on last month’s wild 109-104 overtime victory by the Hawks in Portland, yet another one of those games where Atlanta (37-31) showed up exactly when it was time for everyone to give up on them.

    After getting plop-plop, fizz-fizzed by Marc Gasol and the Griz on Thursday night, Dwight Howard should find his head-to-head with Nurkic (0-for-6 3FGs in his career) to be a bit of a relief. Atlanta’s starting center got his obligatory boards and swats, but was stretched beyond utility (minus-17 plus/minus) by Memphis’ big man. The Hawks are 2-23 on the season (average margin -14.2 PPG) when Howard registers a plus/minus lower than minus-2, and 35-8 otherwise.

    Nurkic’s arrival has helped offset the loss of Ed Davis (shoulder) for the season, and the inability to get Festus Ezeli (knee) on the floor at all. As a Blazer, Jusuf is taking a career-high 13.6 percent of his shot volume from between 16 feet and the three-point line. He’s making 44.4 FG% on those long-twos so far, but his impact with the ball beyond the key won’t be nearly as devastating to the Hawks’ defense as Gasol’s (2-for-5 3FGs, triple-double w/ 10 assists). Nurkic is moving the ball as well, but he’s just as likely to turn the ball over (3.5 TOs/game in 12 games w/ POR) as he is to complete the play (3.6 APG w/ POR).

    One element of the Hawks’ identity that has waned is their ability to force turnovers (13.9 opponent TO%, 3rd-highest in NBA) without fouling (18.1 personals called per game, 5th-fewest in NBA). Atlanta forced an NBA-high average of 17.7 TOs per game during their 9-2 breakout to start the season. But the Hawks have exceeded that average on just five occasions over the past month-and-a-half (14.4 opponent TOs since February 1), and that’s even with charge-magnet Ersan Ilyasova now in the fold.

    A lack of pressure on opposing ballhandlers allows point guards like Mike Conley (12 assists, 1 TO in win @ ATL on Thursday) and Lillard (6-for-21 FGs, 4 assists, 3 TOs in loss vs. ATL on Feb. 13) to dissect Atlanta’s defense at-will. Hawks opponents have produced 24.8 assists per-48 since February 1; only the Lakers, Nuggets, and Rockets have permitted more.

    The attempts by Atlanta swingmen and forwards to force turnovers need to occur before playmakers drive into the paint, entrusting Howard or Paul Millsap to adequately patrol inside, while the corners and 3-point arc are sealed off from teams like Portland (37.0 team 3FG%, 10th in NBA). In addition to McCollum (9-for-24 FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 13), ATLien Al-Farouq Aminu and his fellow forward Maurice Harkless (combined 7-for-16 3FGs and 24 rebounds vs. ATL) will be waiting around the horn with mitts open, awaiting hot dishes once the Hawks’ interior defense collapses around Lillard.

    Forget Golden State. Atlanta’s homecourt fans have been the NBA’s truest Warriors, having endured eight blowout home losses (plus many more attempts to crawl back from double-digit deficits), yet still finding the resolve to somehow return to their Philips Arena seats. The Hawks have won just one of their past four weekend games (Friday/Saturday/Sunday) at the Strobelight Factory, and they owe their fans a complete game to begin rebuilding consumer confidence in their basketball product. If things start going haywire again tonight, I know I’ve got some improv comedy tickets in my back pocket.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “I Mean… they’re no Three 6 Mafia, but…”

     
    Range/Rain Drops!

    Drop Top!

    Did our Hawks finally make the Flops Stop?

    Despite some soul-crushing defeats to some quality opponents, our Atlanta Hawks haven’t managed to lose a game by double digits in a few weeks now. They’ll have a chance to firm up playoff positioning with a pair of home games against hungry Western Conference opponents, beginning tonight with the Memphis Grizzlies (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM). Portland’s wannabe rhyme-spitter Damian Lillard ought to be a bit miffed that he’ll miss out on tonight’s entertainers by just a couple days.

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned (maybe… ha), but I couldn’t fathom ever being interested in hittin’ the club with my parents’ siblings, nevermind taking the stage together as a rap outfit. But Uncle Takeoff is just close enough in age to his nephew, Quavo, and Quavo’s cousin, Offset, that the trio can pull it off. Together, as Migos, tonight’s halftime act has taken the world by storm.

    If you’ve ever scratched your head at the Dab craze, or the inability for people to avoid screaming “Versace!” less than 18 times in succession (or “Hannah Montana!” less than 8), then you have the Y.R.N. (Young Rich… Neighbas!), from the hardscrabble six-lane median-separated streets of Lawrenceville, to thank for your itchy dome.

    It’ll be easy for the Hawks (37-30) to be preoccupied by the cult-scale attention directed tonight toward our Northside superstars, and even more unfocused on the Grizzlies after catching them in hibernation mode just days ago. This won’t be the same opponent that dropped its fifth consecutive game with a 107-90 loss at home to Atlanta on Saturday.

    Since that defeat, Coach David Fizdale rejuggled the starting lineup to include vets Tony Allen and Vince Carter, the latter a necessity once the disappointing Chandler Parsons (partial meniscus tear) was likely lost for the remainder of the season.

    Back in April 2003, Michael Jordan bid farewell to Miami with 25 points, and no player over the age of 40 had scored at least 24 points in an NBA game since. That was until Carter unveiled his impression of Half Man, Half Reggie Miller (8-for-8 FGs, 6-for-6 3FGs) and added three steals as Memphis surprised resurgent Milwaukee 113-93 on Monday. If you know Allen, you know offense ain’t his feng shui, but he wasn’t too bad (6-for-10 FGs), either.

    Memphis (38-30) flew in last night on a red-eye from the Windy City, and hopefully their arms are a bit tired. They grit-and-grinded the Bulls on the interior, holding trade-deadline target Jimmy Butler to just 4-for-16 from the field, and the whole Chicago team to 23-for-63 2FGs, 41 second-half points, and 15 free throw attempts. It’s a far cry from the 50% Memphis allowed from the field, the 61 bench points ceded to the Hawks, and the 26 freebies granted to Atlanta on Saturday without Dwight Howard even joining the fray.

    The Griz began this season surging on the strength of an 8-0 start (2-4 since) on the second nights of back-to-backs just like this one. Back to reppin’ their grit-and-grind Culture, they hope a third-straight victory will prove they’ve got their mojo back just in time for a final frenzied playoff push.

    Allen and Carter hope to make open looks harder to find for wings Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Junior Hardaway, and Taurean Prince, the latter contributing a team-high 17 points in a balanced effort on Saturday. That Atlanta quartet had the nets smokin’ like a cookie in the hot box, sinking 10 of their 18 three-point attempts and taking a lot of pressure off of Dennis Schröder (16 points, 8 assists, 3 steals @ MEM) and Paul Millsap (16 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists) to carry the scoring load.

    Memphis’ sole offensive bright spot on Saturday was forward JaMychal Green, who returned to the starting unit and contributed 20 points and 11 rebounds. Not having to go against the Hawks’ small-ball lineups from the outset today, he and Marc Gasol (27 points, 6 assists @ CHI on Wednesday) will try to ensure any points Millsap and Howard earn come from the charity stripe. Atlanta’s frontcourt duo was 7-for-16 at the free throw line in San Antonio, the Spurs effectively Offsetting their 8-for-18 field goal shooting.

    Despite sound on-ball interior defense, the Grizzlies only managed to force a season-low 5 turnovers from iso-heavy Chicago last night, including just two steals. Mike Conley (27 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists @ CHI on Wednesday) will be out to make amends for his subpar showing (5 steals, but 1-for-7 3FGs) against Schröder and the Hawks on Saturday. Despite 18 turnovers forced by Memphis, they converted those into only 13 points.

    Conversely, the Hawks turned the Grizzlies’ 13 turnovers into 25 points, 13 in the first quarter as they built up a 33-15 advantage, and need to push the pace in transition against the Grizzlies’ hopefully tired legs. Schröder was judicious with the rock in San Antonio (10 assists, 2 TOs, plus 10-for-18 2FGs), but after six turnovers in Memphis over the weekend, he cannot afford for his neck and his wrists to be so sloppy tonight.

    Atlanta benefits from being one of just three Eastern Conference clubs currently at least three games above-.500 at home and on the road this season. But after a spate of underwhelming performances on their home floor, they need to give us Philips Arena faithful something worth looking at during the games -- a little Dab won’t do ya. They’ll perform much better if they acknowledge it won’t be so simple to knock the Grizzlies out like Fight Night.


     
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3