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    lethalweapon3
    “How ‘Bout Them Apples?”

     
    The shorthanded San Antonio Spurs have a very real chance to seize the top spot in the West with a win tonight over the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL). The Hawks, despite entering Decade #3 of losing in the Alamo City, are aiming for another top-four seed finish in the East. They have a very real opportunity to win here for the first time since Steve Smith’s Hawks blew out Dominique Wilkins’ momentarily-bad Spurs way back on February 15, 1997.

    The Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard (questionable, concussion symptoms) has a very real chance at being handed the Maurice Podoloff Trophy soon. The Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, who politicked to get Kawhi in black-and-silver, has a chance to win the very not-real-at-all “Del Harris Trophy.”

    Coach Del was one pretty funky homo sapien during the 1981 Playoffs, where he navigated Moses Malone and the Rockets all the way to the NBA Finals after finishing the season with just a 40-42 record, the first team with a losing record to reach The Finals since 1959. The Rockets even made Larry Bird sweat it out a couple games before he could earn his first NBA ring. The following season, Harris pulled off his next trick.

    With Rudy Tomjanovich retiring, Calvin Murphy shifting to the bench, and Mike Dunleavy, Sr. adjusting to life with a namesake toddler and a three-point line, Houston struggled mightily out of the gate. The reigning conference champs started the 1981-82 season at 16-21, with about half of those losses by double-digit margins.

    But Moses and seasoned newcomer Elvin Hayes worked out their frontcourt kinks, leading to a big turnaround. A close loss to Mike Woodson and Larry Drew in Kansas City ended the regular season for a Rockets team that allowed three more points than it scored. Still, Houston checked in at 46-36 -- at that time, the most victories ever for an NBA team that was outscored over the course of 82 games -- then took Seattle the full three games in the opening playoff round. To this day, only one other NBA team has ever won more games while being outscored in a season. That team, also, was coached by Del Harris.

    Harris (presently helping Spud Webb run Dallas’ D-League outfit in Texas) took over the helm at The Forum in Inglewood in 1994, shortly after the failed Magic Johnson Coaching Experiment. Del inherited a Lakers lottery team with James Worthy retiring, Nick Van Exel coming off his rookie year and Eddie Jones entering his own, and he kept ex-Lakers Drew and Michael Cooper on board as his assistants.

    The 1994-95 Lakers continued taking their lumps in losses, but played strongly enough throughout the year to close at 48-34, despite being outscored by 18 points. Their win tally might have gone into the 50’s had Jones and top scorer Cedric Ceballos not missed time with mid-season injuries, or had they not lost eight of their last ten games.

    The turnaround was good enough for Harris to earn Coach of the Year, and his Lakers continued to impress in the postseason. They upset a 57-win Sonics team in the first round before falling in six games in the conference semis to the Spurs, a team featuring three D.R.’s (David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Doc Rivers) and a VCR coordinated, with aplomb, by a young Mike Budenholzer.

    After winning their last three games, Coach Bud’s Hawks (37-29) are on pace to win 46 games, despite being outscored by 28 points to this stage of the season. LeBron James’ 2007-08 Cleveland Cavs (45-37) were the last NBA team outscored over the course of a season to win 45 games, and no team not coached by Del Harris (contrary to rumor, not the love child of Lin Dunn and Frank Drebin) has ever won more.

    Should Atlanta manage to go 9-7 to close out the regular season without outscoring their foes by at least 1.75 PPG, they’ll tie the ’82 Rockets as the 2nd-winningest outscored NBA team of all time, and the 4th-most successful outscored team ever (in terms of winning percentage, behind the ’54 Knicks, those ’95 Lakers, and the ’51 Celtics, as per Basketball-Reference).

    It speaks to the nature of the Hawks’ season-long play that the above scenario is very plausible. Atlanta could unqualify themselves from this “honor”, however, if they play out the season with the tenacity exhibited during Saturday night’s resounding 107-90 victory in Memphis.

    This team willingly gives up lightly-contested threes to minimize easy halfcourt twos and clock-stopping free throws, but it’s on the opponents to make those three-pointers when they get them. Atlanta’s last three opponents, Brooklyn, Toronto, and Memphis (combined 19-for-88 3FGs) couldn’t cut the mustard. Tonight, do the Spurs have enough sauce?

    When a fuller-strength Spurs team visited Atlanta on New Year’s Day, they finished 9-for-27 from downtown, 6-for-19 in regulation (Leonard 1-for-6 on threes, in an uncharacteristic 3-for-12 shooting day; 13 points mostly on 6-for-7 FTs). They finished one make short of what was needed to top the Hawks, who prevailed 114-112 in OT thanks to crazy second-half scoring (27 of his then-season-high 32 points) and a clutch offensive rebound from Paul Millsap, plus a red-hot Tim Hardaway, Jr. (then-season-high 29 points, 9 in OT; 6-for-7 3FGs) and Kyle Korver off the bench.

    While it remains to be seen whether Leonard will be activated for tonight’s game, some of the Hawks’ starters are catching a break either way. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge is out for an indefinite period, following an unfortunate recent reoccurrence of heart arrhythmia. The crafty Tony Parker (10-for-18 FGs, 7 assists and 1 TO @ ATL on Jan. 1) gave Dennis Schröder fits when the teams last met. Struggling with back stiffness, Parker sits out tonight, as will his lengthy understudy, rookie Dejounte Murray (sore groin).

    Considering that 3-and-D specialist Danny Green (39.1 3FG%) and wily vets like Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, David Lee and David West will all suit up tonight, MVP candidates like Kawhi (NBA-high 0.278 WS/48; career-highs of 26.2 PPG, 3.4 APG, 89.7 FT%) have had a lot less to work with when trying to win games this season.

    If Leonard can play, he’ll once again be a handful for the Hawks’ defensive swingmen. But if he is a late scratch, the Spurs’ leading scorers coming into tonight consist of sixth-men: Gasol (12.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG, recently moved to the bench), sniper guard Patty Mills (42.1 3FG%), and Ginobili. The trio would also be San Antonio’s leading remnant assist-men.

    Of course, the Hawks are notorious for playing down to the availability of their competition. They must avoid breakout games by the likes of Jonathan Simmons, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, and surefire Scrabble play Nicolas Laprovittola.  Led by Schröder, Atlanta certainly must put the screws to Mills, the guard from Down Under who has helped the Spurs go 30-1 this season when he goes Up Over nine points in a game. He will try to get that many in the first quarter alone.

    Versus a visiting Warriors team that fielded only Zaza Pachulia among its routine starters, Mills contributed a team-high 21 points in a 107-85 rout on Saturday. He got help in the passing game from forward Kyle Anderson and Manu, the three combining for 16 assists and just 3 turnovers.

    Mills’ starting Dubs counterpart, Patrick McCaw, was flustered by San Antonio’s defense into an 0-for-12 outing from the field. But the Spurs had few answers for guard Ian Clark off the bench (36 points, 15-for-21 FGs), a development that could portend another green-lit performance by the Hawks’ Hardaway tonight. Playing just 21 minutes in Memphis, Timmy’s 8 points on Saturday concluded a solid 20-game streak of double-digit scoring.

    Although Dennis struggled defensively against Parker in January, he did drop ten dimes on the Spurs, the final three of them for crucial Hardaway triples that forced overtime and put the Hawks in front during the extra period. Despite dogged defense from Mike Conley and Tony Allen on Saturday, Schröder generated 8 assists, and his Hawks are 9-3 this season when he produces more than 8 of them.

    The more Mills needs help from Green and/or Leonard in impeding Schröder’s path to the hoop tonight, the better looks Hardaway and Kent Bazemore (15 points, 6-for-10 FGs @ MEM) will receive. If Mills has a rough outing against Dennis (3 steals @ MEM), the only alternative Gregg Popovich has at the point guard position would be rookie shooter Forbes (season-high 8 points in 25 minutes vs. GSW on Saturday), who has made just four assists in 23 games all season. More likely, Coach Pop would rely on Ginobili and Anderson to set up the halfcourt offense.

    Besides the challenge of countering Millsap without Aldridge around, Popovich will also need a strong effort from the improving Dewayne Dedmon (8.2 RPG and 71.8 FG% since taking over as a starter in January) to keep a fresh-legged Dwight Howard (DNP @ MEM; double-double in 8 of last 10 games) out of the restricted area.

    Pau is not excited about the notion of the Hawks pulling off a double-play on the road against the Gasol Brothers. When he’s in the game, Pau and Lee will try to play Atlanta’s bigs physically around the rim, in hopes of drawing fouls and opening up shooters outside the paint. If that fails, Pau will try to draw them outside (50.0 3FG%) and open up the floor for cutters. With or without Leonard available, it will require smart defensive wing play by Thabo Sefolosha, Bazemore and Taurean Prince, reading-and-reacting against San Antonio’s playmakers, for the Hawks to keep the Spurs offense sputtering.

    Whether tonight’s game ends with a close win or a blowout loss, the prospects for Atlanta keeping this season’s win-despite-losing string going is very real. Coach Bud may someday become our Coach Pop. In the meantime, he does just fine as our Coach Del.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Cry Me a (Mississippi) River…”

     
    May I present to you The Worst NBA Free Agent Contract from the Summer of 2016? Before you start typing B-a-z… know that there’s at least one guy whose deal is way worse, and he doesn’t suit up for your Atlanta Hawks. Courtesy of tonight’s opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL and MEM, 92.9 FM in ATL), I present to you the max contract of one Mr. Chandler Parsons!

    Yes, Kent Bazemore shoots only 34.3 percent from the three-point line, a value not helped by going 1-for-4 in last night’s win over the Raptors in Atlanta. But imagine if he shot worse than that (34.0 FG%, 26.4 3FG%) from the whole entire floor!

    Yes, Baze is an overeager defender (1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG) that gets burned by talented stars (minus-42 during three homestand losses) on occasion. Yet, imagine if he was never associated with the notion of defense (0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG) at all!

    Yes, Kent claims he has been recuperating from knee soreness since the offseason. Still, imagine if your starting swingman’s career, through three NBA towns, has been defined by his inability to bounce back from injuries. Imagine if he hadn’t played more than eight consecutive games this season, missing 32 of your 65 games, contributing over 20 minutes in barely half of those 33 games, and 25 minutes in just one (contributing two points in that one game, at Brooklyn).

    Yes, Bazemore was handed a four-year, $70 million deal last July (year #4 a player-option gimme), and the early returns have not been promising. But imagine if Bazemore was playing worse than he is currently, and was owed $72.3 million in the NEXT three seasons alone! Guaranteed dough, with no options either way. To say nothing of the $22.1 million he would be raking in this year, the 15th-highest salary in the league.

    Imagine, further, if one of his teammates is the NBA’s second highest-paid player, after signing the biggest contract in league history last summer, and if another teammate makes just a shade less than him. And imagine if a four-game losing streak dropped their team down to 7th place in their conference. Imagine if that third loss was at home, against Brooklyn, by 13 points. Such is the life for Mister Parsons these days. What do you have to say for yourself?

    “I suck right now. There’s no sugarcoating it,” he told postgame media after making one basket in 20 minutes of last Saturday’s 123-108 loss to the Rockets, who have been doing quite fine without either of Parsons or Dwight Howard in their rotation.

    A longtime DM target of over-excited Twitter followers, the part-time fashion model and full-time “Ho Hound” (as deemed by ATL reality star Todd Chrisley, whose daughter is dating Parsons, after he dumped his former Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend over the winter) has elected to shut down all his social media platforms. This, after posts about his All-Star Break trip to Cancun drew Grizzlies fans’ ire, and his play since then (10-for-35 FGs post-Break) showed the time off didn’t help much.

    But the hard reality for Memphis (36-29, 14-15 since January 1), and first-year coach David Fizdale, is they have little choice but to trot Parsons out there. With persistent soreness in his own knee, Chandler sat out of Thursday’s home game against the Clippers. The resulting 114-98 deficit proved to fans that the Addition By Subtraction rule doesn’t apply here.

    Without Parsons, Fizdale’s alternate options at the wing include James Ennis, Andrew Harrison, or long-in-the-tooth Vince Carter and Tony Allen. Parsons serves the team not only as a 6-foot-10 swingman but also as a small-ball four. Just as Bazemore can miss shots and try-to-defend at three positions, Parsons can miss shots and not-defend at three spots on the floor. Versatility has its price.

    “I’m just going to continue to work, continue to grind,” said Parsons. Oh, yeah, about the “grind” thing. With several championship rings on his fingers from his Miami assistant coaching days, Fizdale is taking great pains to indicate that the “Grit and Grind” philosophy isn’t going away, but that for Memphis to ascend to higher heights, the status quo regarding past coaches’ rotations needs to be directed to The Round File. He’s bending over not backward, but forward, to assert his point.

    “That’s the problem, the whole image of this group is that if we’re underdogs and don’t win it, that’s okay. No!” contended Coach Fiz. “I won’t settle for that. I’ll continue to shuffle (lineups) until I find something that works best, that gives us the best chance to hold the trophy. And if people don’t like it, they can kiss my (synonym for donkey).”

    Nobody’s out to apply pucks to the posterior of Fizdale, but they will apply a foot or two if his team cannot shake their current slide. It does suck that the team with the NBA’s sixth-highest salary base is struggling this late in the season, but one similarity they share with the Hawks (also 36-29) is they are leaning on their longstanding veterans to help pull them out of their rut.

    “The teams that don’t have a culture, they will break in moments like this,” said Coach Fiz. “The teams that do, they weather this stuff, and they’re better on the back side for it. I’m expecting this team to be better on the back side for this.” Fizdale seems laser-focused on backsides.

    Memphis needs a quick turnaround to avoid being stuck in the 7-seed position, first-round fodder for either Kawhi’s Spurs or the returning KD’s Warriors. Opening the playoffs as a 6-seed in Harden’s Houston doesn’t sound too hot either, even for a Memphis team that built its NBA identity as The First-Round Underdog That Could. A win tonight would go a long way toward a more desirable 4/5 matchup with the similarly gritty but under-experienced Utah Jazz, who are currently 5 games up on Memphis with 17 left to play.

    Our Hawks finally caught a break from the constant three-point bombardment last night, with Toronto clanking 21 of 25 attempts. Might Atlanta be charmed enough to make it two games in a row? The Grizzlies went 7-for-20 on three-pointers in the loss to the Clips, 3-for-15 if you removed bench guard Troy Daniels (13 points in 16 minutes) from the equation.

    Money Mike Conley (team-highs of 40.8 3FG%, 1.3 SPG and 6.2 APG) is doing all he can to hold up his end of last summer’s free agent non-bargain. But the depth challenges have been troublesome, at his positions and others across the lineup.

    Behind him on the depth chart is rookie Wade Baldwin IV, who gets only 12.9 minutes per game more than Wade Baldwin III. After Conley and center Marc Gasol (career-highs of 20.4 PPG and 4.4 APG), Memphis’ next leading assist man is Andrew Harrison (2.8 APG), a 2015 second-rounder getting his first taste of NBA action this season. Last month’s vet addition was roasted on Thursday by a fan who missed a car-winning halfcourt shot. “Still had as many points on one less shot than Toney Douglas (2.7 APG, 16.7 3FG% in 21 games) tho”, the fan tweeted.

    To help Fizdale get the Grizzlies offense (18th in O-Rating) off the ground, Gasol is taking the 2014 Paul Millsap approach to shooting three-pointers out of the blue. A longtime solid long-range two-point shooter, Gasol shot just 12-for-66 in his first eight NBA season, but has lofted 228 shots from deep this season, and is hitting them fairly well (38.6 3FG%; 39.3% since the All-Star Break).

    Gasol will try to lure Howard out of the paint to contest, but is more likely to have Paul Millsap switching to cover him and make not only his shots, but his pinpoint passes, tougher to execute. Millsap’s fullcourt activity will be crucial for the Hawks to pull off wins on back-to-back nights for the first time since mid-January.

    Zach Randolph (team-high 8.3 RPG) was benched at the outset of the season to allow JaMychal Green (7.3 RPG, second-most on team; a Randolphian 20-and-10 @ HOU last week) a chance to step up. Now both Green and Z-Bo share the pine; the booty-offering Fizdale has turned in recent days to Brandan Wright, the butt of many local jokes after appearing in just 23 games over the past two seasons.

    Millsap played 36 minutes (7-for-13 FGs) in the win over Toronto yesterday. But with Conley blanketing Dennis Schröder (last 7 games: 21.9 PPG, 5.4 APG, 50.9 FG%, 96.4 FT%), Allen and Carter trying to keep up with Junior Hardaway (3-for-5 3FGs and six assists vs. TOR; 20 straight games of double-figure scores), and Gasol desperate to keep Howard (8 straight games of double-figure rebounds) away from the rim, Sap’s offense against Memphis’ unsteady rotation of power forwards could give Atlanta a needed edge.

    Memphis desperately needs a win tonight at the Fed Ex Forum, and on Monday versus red-hot Milwaukee, to salvage their own homestand. Atlanta knows all about that kind of pressure. Which team can control the tempo to their liking and “grind” out the win? The postgame Baze Gazes are indeed very costly, but require not nearly as pretty a penny as a Parsons Pose.

     
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Get Out.”

     
    Back to the Crab Barrel? It’s about to get a bit uncomfortable for the loser of tonight’s game, here at Philips Arena, between the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 in TOR). Several playoff-hungry squads (6-through-11 seeds, separated by five games in the East) are waiting for either team to fall in their direction, in hopes they might sink their claws into them.

    The Hawks survived what amounted to NCAA-First-Round-in-Dayton-quality action on Wednesday. In what exemplified more March Sadness than Madness, the Brooklyn Nets made just one more critical goof to allow Atlanta (35-29) to advance. Toronto (38-26) fended off the Nets at home themselves, back on January 17, but have gone just 10-13 since, a slide that led to some sharp maneuvering by GM Masai Ujiri to plug holes ahead of their upcoming playoff dash.

    At the trading deadline, Ujiri flipped Terrence Ross to Orlando in exchange for the Magic’s free-agent error, Serge Ibaka (career-high 16.4 PPG and 45.5 3FG%, plus 1.9 BPG in 7 games w/ TOR). He also converted the gravity-bound Jared Sullinger and a pair of second-rounders into former Suns forward P.J. Tucker (45.7 FG% in 7 games w/ TOR).

    It’s hoped that the pair of acquisitions, in combination with former Hawks DeMarre Carroll (questionable for tonight, sprained ankle) and Lucas Nogueira, will boost the Raptors’ subpar defensive units, taking pressure off super-scoring All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan (27.4 PPG; 12.5 PPG and 10-for-28 FGs last two games) and Kyle Lowry.

    When last these two teams met up, on December 16, the Hawks managed to turn a 128-84 loss into an embarrassment… for the other team. Barely two weeks after getting drubbed in Toronto, Atlanta returned to the same floor and caught the Raps off-guard, seizing the first half 69-52 before hanging on to prevail, 125-121.

    What was a key difference? While his Hawks teammates continued to shoot poorly from outside, Kyle Korver swished six of his ten three-pointers. In Korver’s departure, Atlanta (4-for-20 3FGs vs. BKN on Wednesday) will need to find a sharper shooter, be it Junior Hardaway or Ersan Ilyasova, to help keep pace tonight.

    At the time of that loss to Atlanta, the Raptors were putting up offensive efficiency values of historic proportions, exceeding 110 points in 27 of their first 41 contests. They have leveled off since then (110+ points in four of last 23 games; 104.7 O-Rating since January 17, 22nd in NBA), and were truly laid low when Lowry exited to repair an aggravatingly painful wrist on his shooting hand.

    Toronto was already a low-volume passing team before Lowry’s post-All-Star-Game surgery (15.0 assist% pre-Jan. 17, 29th in NBA), but their ballhandlers have been going it alone all the more (NBA-low 13.6 assist% since Jan. 17) without his direction on the floor. The Raptors began this month totaling just 11 assists in a home loss to the Wizards, two nights after their 12 assists barely helped them squeak past the Knicks in MSG.

    Better ballhandling by scoring-minded Cory Joseph, and a team-approach to better ball movement has helped of late. But by pressing a tighter defense and a slower tempo, as regulated by coach Dwane Casey, the Raps are more likely to pull out games with double-digit, instead of triple-digit, tallies.

    Their 94-87 win in New Orleans on Wednesday was greatly enhanced once the malleable Pelican Anthony Davis left the game with a first-half wrist injury. Toronto’s comeback from a ten-point deficit against the Pellies added to their NBA-high 17 double-digit comeback wins this season.

    Lowry is certain to return in time for the postseason, but the Raptors certainly planned on opening the first round at the Air Canada Centre. They are desperate to avoid giving away homecourt advantage, especially versus teams like the frenetic Hawks, who are just as likely to pull off fluky wins versus good teams as they are getting blown out by mediocre ones. In the event of a two-team tie at season’s end, tonight’s winner clinches the head-to-head tiebreaker.

    Their perimeter defensive woes remain well-documented, but Atlanta, with the help of Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, continues to make things tough on opponents around the rim (57.8 opponent restricted-area FG%, 4th-best in NBA; 38.2 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA).

    The Hawks' wing defenders will want to compel Raptor ballhandlers, like DeRozan, Joseph, Ibaka and Carroll, to pick up their dribbles outside the paint and settle for long-range two-point shots. They can further neutralize Toronto (80.0 team FT%, 6th in NBA) by keeping them from amassing points off free throws. Toronto will strive to play Atlanta’s bigs with heightened physicality, in hopes of inducing early foul trouble and softening the Hawks’ interior.

    A shrewder Dennis Schröder (31 points, vs. BKN on Wednesday, 20 consecutive FT makes) should be able to continue carrying the Hawks offense tonight, but his overall effectiveness will depend on how well he sets up his teammates for scores.

    Schröder must resume connecting with Howard (10-for-13 FGs, 15 rebounds @ TOR on Dec. 16) until Jonas Valanciunas or Lucas Nogueira can figure out a way to stop him. If Dennis strays off-script, coach Mike Budenholzer should again turn first to former Raptor Jose Calderon, who is growing more acclimated with the Hawks’ gameplans.

    The six-game homestand comes to a close for Atlanta tonight, but Hawks fans have been left with a bad taste in their mouths, following long stretches of poor-quality play. Ahead of a tough two-game road trip that begins tomorrow, the Hawks need to present their best basketball in weeks tonight, if they wish to keep departing Hawks fans from feeling even more crabby about their team’s playoff prospects.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “BROOK!” “LIN!”

     
    “Trust Fall!” To the Atlanta Hawks, BBIQ is what happens when a cook roasts himself on a Weber grill. Until that changes, head coach Mike Budenholzer simply must hope the dregs of the league will break his team’s backward tumbles. The question is, how willing are Kenny Atkinson’s Brooklyn Nets (7:30 PM, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; YES Network in NYC) to catch them?

    Hawks notwithstanding, only the Lakers have played as poorly as Brooklyn (NBA-worst 11-51) in recent weeks. Back on January 10, Atlanta feasted on Brooklyn’s limited lineup for a 117-97 wire-to-wire win that, perhaps artificially, extended their winning streak to seven games while inflating their record to 22-16. Not two months later, the Hawks (34-29) sorely need the Nets’ help, again, just to bring their record since that game back up to the .500-level.

    The top rebounding big man for the Nets from the last time Brooklyn faced Atlanta, Luis Scola, was cut loose just over a week ago. The player that effectively replaced Scola, K.J. McDaniels, has been on the floor for just 26 minutes over four games. The top three-point Net threat in that game, Bojan Bogdanovic, now suits up for Washington, while the sole remaining player acquired for him, Andrew Nicholson, has played just four more minutes than Andrew Bogut did in Cleveland. All that said, these Hawks can take no comfort.

    After getting trounced early by Cleveland and late by Golden State, and after flubbing the close of a game versus Indiana just days after nearly blowing a late lead to Dallas, the Hawks’ homestand isn’t going swimmingly well. The upcoming slate after tonight’s game is no picnic, either. Toronto comes to town to close out the home stretch on Friday. Then, Atlanta faces an angry Grizzlies team twice in the space of six days, with a visit to Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio in between.

    Why are those Grizzlies angry? Because they allowed these Nets to walk into the Grindhouse and hang 122 regulation points on them, just two nights ago. Randy Foye (4-for-4 3FGs) couldn’t miss, especially while Tony Allen watched from the bench, while the combination of Jeremy Lin and Sean Kilpatrick (combined 21-for-23 FTs and 4-for-8 3FGs) couldn’t be stopped at the ends of either half.

    Bear in mind that no amount of “tanking” helps the Nets. Rather, losing improves their division-rival Celtics’ chances to secure the top pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. If opponents want to hand them some Ws, they’ll gladly take them. Brooklyn has won just three games since the day after Christmas, but all of those victories were on the road, two of them in their last four games.

    Playing his first steady basketball since getting re-injured in December, Lin (last two games: 18.0 PPG, 7-for-14 3FGs) is out to demonstrate why he deserved a three-year guaranteed contract. The Nets elected not to bite on any offers, and kept center Brook Lopez (career-high 1.7 3FGs per game) in-house through the trade deadline. Now the franchise’s second-ever 10,000-point scorer intends to show why it was worth their while to keep him around a bit longer.

    Their supporting cast includes an unending amount of young talent seeking to make their mark on the league, including sixth-man Kilpatrick (last two games: 21.5 PPG, 7-for-8 3FGs, 4.0 APG, no turnovers), starting forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (last two games: 11-for-17 2FGs) and Caris LeVert (5-for-6 FGs @ MEM on Monday; six assists @ POR on Saturday), and backup point guard Isaiah Whitehead (5-for-8 FGs @ MEM on Monday).

    Lin and Foye included, none of these Brooklyn guys are on the level of, say, STEPHEN MOTHER FREAKING CURRY, but it does help to keep an eye on them and contest them when they’re setting up for shots along the perimeter.

    Atkinson returns to Atlanta sorely missed for the even-keeled demeanor that offset his former boss’ scowling taskmaster style. Coach Kenny’s current players are willing to run (NBA-high 103.7 possessions per-48) for him, taking their lumps along the way while flattening their learning curves.

    As a team that allows opponents, on the season, to shoot 37.5 3FG% (5th-highest in NBA), while shooting 34.2% themselves (5th-worst in NBA) and turning the ball over 16.9 times per game (2nd-most in NBA), the Nets have been what the Hawks see in the mirror, when they are at their lackadaisical, dysfunctional worst.

    Much attention will be placed on the comedy duo of Dennis Schröder (19 points and 10 assists, 1 TO @ BRK on Jan. 10) and Dwight Howard (14 points and 16 boards @ BRK), to see if the pair can get through a full game on the court without getting sidetracked while debating the merits of, say, Ciara’s family portrait choices.

    But there is no point in having an Anchorman late if the Hawks’ offense gets unmoored early. At least until the Nets sub in Trevor Booker (last six games: 8.8 RPG off-the-bench), All-Star power forward Paul Millsap (32.1 1st quarter FG% and 39.6 1st half FG%, post-All-Star Break) needs to demand the ball and establish himself in the post from the outset.

    Atlanta only made 30.4 percent of their perimeter shots in Brooklyn, but benefited from second-chances (19-6 on those points) brought about by Millsap and Howard’s domination of the glass. With solid rebounding and few live-ball gaffes aside from Malcolm Delaney’s three stolen balls, the Hawks kept the Nets trailing by double-digits from the mid-point of the second quarter in the January game.

    In every game going forward, Brooklyn will push the tempo on their challengers, producing lots of opportunities for their youngsters to keep games close and their vets to close games late. As was the case in Memphis, they will dare their unsuspecting opponents to bring anything less than their A-game to the table. Will Coach Bud and the Hawks stand up for themselves tonight? Or will they rely on their old friend Coach Kenny to keep them from crashing to the floor?

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Dray, did I ever mention that you did an awesome job in ‘Shrek’?”

     
    Happy Early Father’s Day! Almost every day is Father’s Day at Philips Arena, as opposing players are granted ample opportunities by the Atlanta Hawks to make their NBA-playing papas proud.

    After leaving former Hawk Glenn Robinson, Jr. beaming with pride yesterday, it’s likely that Mychal Thompson and Dell Curry will enjoy watching their kids’ Golden State Warriors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Bay Area in SFO) become just the latest team to son the Hawks during Atlanta’s ill-fated homestand.

    Dell’s got the night off, with the Hornets game on TNT, while Mychal’s Lakers are on the road before playing in Dallas tomorrow. So maybe both should be in the building as the Splash Brothers aim to keep the nets wet at The Other Team’s Highlight Factory. Heck, it’s a good thing the son of another ex-Hawk, Wes Matthews, wasn’t around to put the lid on Atlanta (34-28) last Wednesday, after the Hawks coughed up another late-game lead.

    Perhaps the spawn of former Warrior Tim Hardaway, Sr. might have a say about things before all is said and done tonight. But it’s going to take a lot more than a hopefully hot hand to make a positive difference, especially against the NBA’s best offense.

    Junior Hardaway (60 points and four assists in last two losses) has done all he could offensively during this homestand to help drag his Hawks out of unnecessary holes. Perhaps too much at times, given his propensity for over-dribbling and taking desperation shots. The need to turn to Hardaway and Paul Millsap (50 points and 19 rebounds in last two games) for clutch scoring, unfortunately, has come at the expense of sound ball movement, or much legitimate movement at all. Their fourth-quarter offense has been less of a silver, and more of an aluminum lining, given how frequently the Hawks get roasted from outside.

    Flat-footed transition defenders, including Hardaway, left a backpedaling Dennis Schröder out to dry as the game hung in the balance. Atlanta defenders, who need to avoid giving up three-point daggers, instead strive to compensate for their bigs by converging around the paint, going for strips in anticipation of two-point shots, and getting caught Torch Red-handed.

    Atlanta foes get just 22.3 percent of their shots on layup/dunk attempts (3rd-lowest in NBA), but the Hawks must allow their quality interior defenders (Millsap and Dwight Howard, specifically) to earn their stripes without unnecessary help. Thanks (but no thanks) to swingmen distracted by stars in the paint, players like Robinson have made highlight reels out of the Hawks’ under-defended corners (40.9 opponent corner FG%, 6th-most in NBA; only team with winning record allowing over 40 percent).

    Schröder (7 assists, 1 TO vs. IND on Sunday) also got little help from his teammates on the offensive end, especially early (14 team assists through three quarters vs. IND). Once renowned for their motion offense, the Hawks (1.54 assist/TO ratio, 21st in NBA) have failed to produce more assists than their opponents in each of their last nine defeats.

    Tonight, they face a Warriors team that leads the league in assist-turnover ratio (2.1, only NBA team above 2.0), assist percentage (70.7% of baskets made, only team above 65) and assist ratio (21.4 assists per 100 possessions, only team above 20).
    The Dubs have hardly skipped a beat in these areas even after losing Kevin Durant last week, likely for much of the balance of the regular season. Kent Bazemore, a two-way dud (1-for-7 FGs, -17 plus/minus in 19 minutes) against the Pacers, along with Thabo Sefolosha and Hardaway, must be more mindful of the drive-and-kick threats than the Globetrotter dribble shots by Curry, whose recently-wayward jumper is only beginning to thaw.

    Beginning two weekends ago versus Brooklyn, and continuing through halftime of the Warriors’ visit to Madison Square Garden yesterday, Steph had gone just 33-for-102 from the field, 10-for-47 on threes. His opponents found it much easier to lay off Patrick McCaw and Matt Barnes, instead of Durant, to cover the Warriors’ greater threats.

    Curry finally shed the post-All-Star rust in the second-half (7-for-11 FGs, incl. three third-quarter triples) against Derrick Rose and the Knicks, to keep Golden State (51-11) from dropping three straight for the first time since Bazemore’s squad went on a brief losing streak in November 2013. Even without KD on the floor, Curry still has Thompson (29 points, 9-for-9 FTs, 4-for-9 3FGs vs. NYK), Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green at his disposal, to say little of Thompson (team-high 40.8 3FG%).

    Even when they get beaten off the dribble, Atlanta defenders must avoid over-pursuing Warrior ballhandlers and dare them to finish their circus shots inside. On-ball defenders like Schröder and Bazemore must go over screens religiously. Golden State’s offense can remain dry if they are deprived of open three-point attempts and cheap trips to the free throw line. Due to ankle synovitis, Atlanta doesn’t have the son of Mike Dunleavy, Sr. to help keep up in a shootout.

    Durant (25 points, 14 D-Rebs) was the sole Warrior capable of keeping Howard and Millsap (nine combined O-Rebs) off the offensive glass during the Dubs’ 105-100 win over visiting Atlanta on November 28. Continuous fullcourt pressure from the Hawks’ starting big men should prove taxing for former Hawk Zaza Pachulia, Green (team-high 40 minutes vs. NYK yesterday, 37.9 MPG in last four games), and David West, as well as the son of ex-WNBA player Pamela McGee.

    JaVale will particularly seek to step up his game in Shaq’s place of residence. It is Dwight’s responsibility to ensure that he (65.0 FG% during ATL homestand, but just 6.7 FGAs per game) is the Hall-of-Fame-caliber center worthy of McGee’s undivided attention.

    It will take a properly-disciplined Hawks defense (paging Coach Bud) to stay competitive with Golden State for four quarters and keep the game-clinching moments from becoming another family affair. Failing that, every perimeter defensive lapse is likely to cause Hawks fans to elicit nearly-incestuous cries of, “Oh, brother!”

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “You can call me ‘Kool Moe D!’ Ha! Get it? How Ya Like Me Now?”


     
    It’s a tale of two Pauls, and a tale of two Point Guards, as the Indiana Pacers swing into Philips Arena for a matinee during the Atlanta Hawks’ six-game homestand (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Fox Sports Indiana).

    “I’m focusing on me.” That’s what star swingman Paul George insisted, twice, during a media scrum in the aftermath of the NBA trade deadline. George still wanted to carry the flagship of the Pacers, two-time Eastern Conference Finalists best remembered for rivaling a South Beach juggernaut that no longer exists. But now, he’s not so sure.

    Pacers president Larry Bird made no moves, during the run-up to the trade deadline, to improve the competitiveness of the Pacers (31-30), currently three games behind 5-seed Atlanta (34-27), but also three games in front of teams that would watch the playoffs from home in the season concluded yesterday. Bird also didn’t seek out a deal to relinquish George to a presently more competitive team. If Larry Legend did try, George never got so much as a hint about it.

    “I didn’t know what was about to happen,” said PG-13 to the Indianapolis Star and others. “It was kind of a dark moment. That was the frustrating part… I thought I should have been in the loop more.” As a rule of thumb, you never want your sole All-Star to come out of the All-Star Break feeling frustrated, with neither he nor his head coach able to know what, if anything, is going on behind the curtain.

    George (43.7 FG%, highest since his first season as a steady starter in 2011-12; NBA-high 91.9 FT%) can walk in the summer of 2018, and at that time, the SoCal native may choose to reenact that old Converse commercial, setting up Bird and Magic Johnson for a showdown for his services.

    While one Paul is glum, another is pretty glib.

    Paul Millsap’s sole frustrations come occasionally on the floor, such as when his Hawks fell behind by 25 to the Cavaliers on Friday, finding themselves buried again under an avalanche of three-point makes (in this case, an NBA record-setting load of 25) and having to shovel themselves out. Do-it-all Paul’s 27 points, most in over a month, combined with Junior Hardaway’s late-game heroics, helped keep a tragedy from turning into a travesty, Atlanta coming up short by just five points at the final horn.

    Those on-court annoyances don’t extend to Millsap’s relationship with his coach-slash-executive. He and Mike Budenholzer each understand the modern-day NBA business, and mutually resolved any misgivings when the Hawks were shopping him early in the season, with the Hawks making it clear that Sap was off-limits to all comers well before the trade deadline approached.

    Millsap’s “not going anywhere,” at least not until this summer, and both parties are fine with that notion. For now, the All-Star forward is focused on a repeat of Atlanta’s 96-85 win in Indy back on November 23, when his double-double plus five dimes and four steals helped momentarily break the Hawks’ fall down the standings. With Coach Bud suspended for a game for keeping it too real with the refs, Millsap might even help design a play or two for interim coach Darvin Ham.

    After getting shelled by the LeBronnaires on Friday night, the Hawks can only hope the iron will be as unkind to the Pacers as it was back when the teams met in November (7-for-27 3FGs, led by George’s 2-for-11 from outside). The Hawks will also hope the head-to-head between former teammate point guards will be more than just a push.

    Many will compare the current stat lines of Dennis Schröder and Jeff Teague (career-high 8.1 APG this season), who returns to the Highlight Factory today. Instead, I prefer to look at the production of two 23-year-old apprentices, handed the keys to a playoff team that traded away their seasoned veteran floor general.

    The 2011-12 Teague averaged just 13.7 points and 5.3 assists per-36, compared to Schröder’s current 20.3 and 7.3 respectively. But on a team with guys named Joe, Josh, and Al, Teague (19.1 usage%, 7th on that Hawks team) was not relied upon to commandeer the offense as much as Dennis (team-high 24.7 usage%) is today. Jeff (15.1 TO%) also had an NBA-experienced, steady-handed Kirk Hinrich by his side for the home stretch, while Schröder has been relieved, if you will, by Euroleague standout Malcolm Delaney.

    As such, it would take another season (2012-13) before Teague’s turnover percentage would rise to a career-worst 17.6 TO%. Dennis’ is a career-low 16.0 TO%, but Coach Bud’s demanded pace plus the lack of a reliable offensive backup makes Schröder’s game-to-game goofs (5 TOs vs. the Cavs, 7 TOs vs. the Mavs) look much more egregious. Despite his notorious defensive challenges, the waiver-claimed Jose Calderon will eventually serve as an upgrade backing up Schröder at the position.

    Both 2017 Schröder and 2012 Teague were maligned for their own defensive shortcomings, especially on pick-and-roll coverage, Schröder most recently as his inability to thwart dribble penetration from dribble-master Kyrie Irving (with little help coming from Atlanta’s sagging big men) helped the Cavs pick the Hawks apart through three quarters. With Atlanta down by 19 points, Schröder sat from the 6:33 mark until the Hawks’ last-gasp effort to narrow the lead concluded with 28 seconds to spare.

    At least 2012 Teague would pressure for the occasional steal (1.6 per game) and try to recover, whereas 2017 Schröder seems allergic to thefts (0.8 SPG; 3 steals in his last 7 games). Jeff also built a reputation for blowing layups around the rim, but his field goal accuracy within three feet of the basket (61.3 FG% in 2011-12, 58.9% career, career-low 53.6% this season) is only recently getting worse than that of Mr. Got Heem (Schröder 56.0 FG% this season, 54.6% career). Teague has improved mightily after a rough start to the season, but even George knows that the Indianapolis product could turn out to be a one-season rental. To what end, only Larry Bird seems to know.

    Both point guards struggled from the field (Schröder 3-for-11 FGs; Teague 5-for-15 FGs) in their first face-off, but Jeff’s superior ball control (8 assists, 2 TOs) and commitment to defense (five steals, two swats) helped keep Nate McMillan’s club in the ballpark until the end of the third quarter.
    At that point, defense by Delaney, Taurean Prince and Millsap helped blow the game open.  Hardaway (0-for-6 FGs vs. IND on Nov. 23) only had three fewer field goals than the whole Pacers bench (combined 3-for-13 FGs and one assist vs. ATL). As George knows, at least Atlanta took the effort to steel up their reserve options in hopes of a heady postseason run.

    Whichever starting Paul is more focused on today’s game than on their personal future will shine brightest at day’s end. More importantly, whichever starting point guard forces the other team into mistakes more frequently will control the outcome today. Schröder catches plenty of grief from Coach Bud all the time, but he certainly won’t want to suffer the Curse of Ham today,

    Let’s Go Atlanta United! And Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “It’s so nice to get in a few practice swings before each shot now!”

     

    After once more prying victory from the jaws of defeat on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks’ six-game homestand continues in what could potentially be a victory C.I.G.A.R. (Champs, Indy, G-State, Atkinson’s crew, Raps); their first toke comes courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; ESPN). There are ample reasons why it behooves Atlanta to begin playing their best stretch of fullcourt, 48-minute hoops this season.

    It’s official: the Hawks are mathematically eliminated from clinching last place in the East. Putting the next group of conference bottom-dwellers out-of-reach, though, will take considerably more work. But with a decent homestand performance, sewing up a tenth-consecutive playoff spot could go from a duty to a formality very quickly.

    Lakers, Nyets, Nyets again, Knicks (by 1). That is the full set of road victories by the Toronto Raptors (out of 13 games). The first three wins came with a healthy Kyle Lowry, the All-Star point guard who is out for at least four more weeks with wrist surgery. After amassing a whopping total of three assists in the first three quarters of Wednesday’s home loss to Washington, the Raps embark on a five-game road swing tonight in D.C.  Their trek continues next week in ATL. If the Hawks take care of business during this homestand, Watch for Falling Raptors!

    The division-leading Wizards have won 20 of their last 22 at home, which is great for them, because after this weekend’s games, there are just six Verizon Center contests remaining. 11-15 in away games, Washington must keep their recent winning ways going on the road, including two long West Coast swings. If Atlanta steps up their own play against their daunting March slate of opponents, by the time the two teams meet again in a few weeks, they could be trading places.

    One of Atlanta’s signature wins this season came way back in November at the Q. Along the way to a 110-106 victory, Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Paul Millsap (74 combined points on 55.6 FG%, 9-for-16 3FGs) virtually matched Cleveland’s Big 3 (76 total points on 42.6 FG%, 3-for-16 FGs) bucket-for-bucket.

    Long accustomed to having his way with the Hawks, Tristan Thompson (no shots, 2 rebounds in 25 minutes; 3.7 O-Rebs per game, 4th in NBA) was stymied by Dwight Howard (17 rebounds, 3 blocks in 27 minutes) at every turn. At the same time, Thabo Sefolosha, Taurean Prince and Tim Hardaway, Jr. did a sound job of giving J.R. Smith (2-for-13 FGs) mostly heroball looks from the perimeter.

    Atlanta has done some fine-tuning to their lineup since that game. In anticipation of another championship-quality stretch run, Cleveland is adjusting to a major makeover among its supporting cast.

    Not making that November trip to Cleveland was Kyle Korver, who remained in the ATL to celebrate the arrival of a third K-baby for the Korver clan. Smith’s thumb surgery in December ushered in what Cavs assistant Larry Drew once frequently described as a “sense of urgency,” hastened further by a 2-6 stretch in January, and Kevin Love’s arthroscopic knee surgery last month. LeBron James banged his shoe on the table demanding more “playmakers”, however ambiguously and ironically, on what was already the NBA’s highest-salaried team. The first “playmaker” to arrive in Believeland was Korver.

    Kyle was sincerely disenchanted with having to leave the NBA home where his career had late-bloomed, but came to understand how easily he would get open shots as a Cavalier, without having to run half-marathons across the court every night.

    After just one contribution of 20-or-more points through December (and once, back in November, of the prior season; two since January of the season before that) with the Hawks, the “Kahlvalier” logged four 20-plus-scoring affairs in February, burying 58.9 percent of his threes that month. Ponce de Leon couldn’t possibly find as many Fountains of Youth as the reinvigorated Korver (21-game Threak) has during his noteworthy career. His essential challenge going forward is to simply keep his shooting arm from falling off.

    Still, more griping from The King begat Miami’s scuttled Derrick Williams (55.8 FG% through 8 games with CLE). Even he wasn’t D-Will enough for LeBron, so the Cavs pulled Dallas’ discarded point guard Deron Williams into the fold, soon to be followed by ex-Maverick teammate Andrew Bogut. The center won’t dress for tonight’s game, though, as he works to pass his physical.

    Both D-Wills were pressed into duty immediately, including James tossing a potential game-winning three pointer cross-court to Derrick with seconds to spare on Wednesday. Williams’ miss cemented Boston’s 103-99 victory, a Cavs loss made possible by an off-night from Korver (1-for-7 FGs) and most of Cleveland’s supporting cast.

    When it comes to LeBron’s “playmakers,” the Cavs’ centripetal, and not gravitational, presence has remained Kyrie Irving, whose offensive game has been out… oh, my mistake… “off” of this world lately. “World B. Flat” still struggles on the defensive end, but has cut down on his ballhandling turnovers (career-low 11.0 TO% on the season) while averaging 7.1 APG to accompany his 25.4 PPG (93.3 FT%) in February.

    Cleveland’s ticket to the 2016 conference finals was punched on this floor last May, thanks in large part to the injured Love and his replacement starter Channing Frye. There is no mystery (to Hawks fans, at least) as to the Cavs’ modus operandi tonight.

    After coach Tyronn Lue finds some Pepto-Bismol (he missed this morning’s shootaround while a bit under the weather), he will want his team to force the ball inside on drives and post-ups by James (Eastern Conference Player of the Month, for the 34th time in the past 74 possible months; 12.0 RPG and 10.3 APG since the All-Star Break) and Irving, dare Howard into shying away from his man, and test Atlanta’s ability to eschew paint help and keep defenders at home on the Cavs’ willing shooters. Each of Cleveland’s six most-frequent shooters, among the active players alone, shoot at least 37.5 3FG%.

    Athletic wings staying in front of both Irving and James will be key for Atlanta (103.2 D-Rating; 5th in NBA, 1st in East) in thwarting the stars’ ability to supplement the Cavs offense (110.9 O-Rating; 3rd in NBA, 1st in East) with runout scores in transition. Despite the Hawks victory, Cleveland’s 25 points off 19 Atlanta turnovers remains a season-high for that club, Atlanta being outscored 15-2 on the fastbreak.

    The Hawks must again learn to live with LeBron’s and Kyrie’s highlight-reel halfcourt forays, and box out to secure rebounds off missed interior shots. The pair was 20-for-40 from the field in Wednesday’s loss to Boston, while their teammates were a collective 17-for-51. Cleveland’s non-Big-3, which included Korver-trade acquisition Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (inactive tonight), went 11-for-38 from the floor and were granted just two free throw attempts by the Hawks in the November game.

    It’s a big night for fans of the 70s, as the late, great Pete Maravich will have his jersey number ascending to the arena rafters tonight. Twice an All-Star while with the Hawks, the Pistol’s 24.3 PPG over four uber-hyped NBA seasons still ranks second only to Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta-era history, and his 5.6 APG ranks fourth. His trade to New Orleans might have panned out for the Hawks, if only the shaky ownership at the time wasn’t outbid by the ABA for #1 NBA pick David Thompson, and if the latter, like the former, didn’t succumb to the ravages of drug addiction.

    He’s no Pistol on the court, but Schröder (Hawks franchise-leading 33.9 assist percentage; 26.7 usage%, 3rd in team history) isn’t exactly a Peashooter, either. Dennis could have a banner-worthy Hawk career himself, if he brings the two-way intensity to the table that was evident during Atlanta’s victory over Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics, and in the opening half against reigning Rookie of the Month Yogi Ferrell’s Mavericks.

    Atlanta’s 56.3 FG% versus Dallas represented a season-best, a value that could have stayed in the 70s, too, but for a sloppy second half by the Hawks. The listlessness that defined the second-half versus Dallas by not only Schröder (five of his seven TOs) but the whole team would do Atlanta no favors against a hungry Cavs squad in front of a primetime Friday Night audience.

    Millsap has had several half-baked first-halves (30.0 1st half FG% in last six games; 51.5 2nd half FG%) recently. For both he and sixth-man Hardaway (last six games: 34.4 1st half FG%, team-high 8.5 2nd half PPG on 47.5 FG%), coming out of the gate at least lukewarm from the field will draw defensive attention away from their teammates and enhance the Hawks’ offensive floor balance.

    Tristan Thompson would have to vacate the middle to help Frye and Derrick Williams, while Iman Shumpert would have to stray away from Schröder more often. James’ focus on the Hawks’ big men may especially help Bazemore (25 points, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. CLE on Nov. 8; 40.5 3FG% last 20 games) enjoy another solid outing against the Cavs. Recent acquisition Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 18 points, 6-for-7 FGs, at least four forced DAL TOs on Wednesday) has the potential to provide at least as positive a boost for the Hawks in the postseason as Frye provided for the Cavs in 2016.

    Hawks fans found themselves shorted on several recent “High Voltage” Fridays (121-85 loss to the Pistons in December, 112-86 loss to the Wizards in January, 108-90 loss to the heat last week). The Hawks must bring the energy from the outset tonight against the class of the LeBronference. Otherwise, fans may clamor to permanently retire the throwback jerseys, right along with Pistol Pete's.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “Vobble, Baby! Vobble, Baby! Vobble, Baby! Vobble…”

     
    Beez in the Trap! It won’t take any more Nicki Minaj slander to for Atlanta Hawks fans to understand that tonight’s meeting with the Dallas Mavericks at Philips Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW) is the quintessential “trap game”.

    When our Hawks last left American Airlines Center on January 7, they played at a tempo more amenable to the Mavericks’ style of play, but still stifled their perimeter offense (25.0 3FG%) along the way to a smooth 97-82 win. So, coming off a big win in Boston on Monday, it’s likely Atlanta thinks it has (again) turned the corner, and can now just stroll down the street, unencumbered by a Dallas squad missing swingman shooter Wesley Matthews (hip). Well, not so fast, my fine feathered friends!

    Dallas fell to 11-26 with that loss to the Hawks. But within a week, the Mavs would embark on a 13-8 run that elevated them completely out of the Western Conference basement. Now just 2.5 games out of that 8-seed in the West, Rick Carlisle’s club is perfectly happy competing and letting the chips fall where they may.

    Up until that point, the Mavs seemed a bit lost in terms of direction. Slow and aging starters around a free agent pickup in forward Harrison Barnes (career-high 20.1 PPG) who is still getting a feel for the ropes, supported by a relatively clueless supporting cast off the bench, was the recipe for a rudderless campaign. Then, point guard Yogi Ferrell came along, and pairing him with That Other Curry, Seth (last 3 games: 24.3 PPG, 61.1 3FG%, 4.0 APG; 29 points on 5-for-7 3FGs in win vs. MIA on Monday), allowed the Mavs’ offensive uptick to commence in earnest.

    One trivial note: despite having a middle name of Duane, and growing up in Indiana, Yogi is completely unrelated to former Hawks player, sportscaster and ex-Pacer Duane Ferrell. Kevin Duane Ferrell, Jr. is doing more than just distinguishing himself from his father by using a cartoonish first name. Yogi has stood out enough over just 13 games (4.8 APG, 1.8 TOs/game, 41.0 3FG%), that the Mavs’ brass had no qualms about cutting ties with Metroplex native Deron Williams, who now gets to be that coveted playmaker LeBron has been whining about.

    Keeping the youth movement in a positive direction, the team also moved their intractable center Andrew Bogut, and the disappointing second-year pro Justin Anderson, in a deal with Philadelphia for the formerly sandbagged Nerlens Noel. Noel’s exploits with compiling steals and blocks in games had disappeared, once the 76ers turned the pivot over to Joel Embiid. Now, the Mavs hope to make prominent use out of what Donnie Nelson calls the “Tyson Chandler Starter Kit.”

    These moves serve Dallas well in keeping the Dirk Nowitzki Farewell Tour extended for another season or two. Noel will eventually allow Dirk (13.6 PPG, lowest since rookie season in 1998-99; 38.6 3FG%; career-high 25.9 D-Reb%) to shift away from center and back to a stretchy power forward, while moving Barnes into the small forward spot that he played frequently at Golden State.

    Carlisle’s Commandment is to press, press, press opponents from halfcourt to the three-point line, shooing them off from taking contested shots and forcing them into mistakes once they put the ball on the floor. Opponents shoot 38.5 3FG% against Dallas (2nd-highest in NBA), but open looks are surprisingly few and far between (24.5 opponent 3FGAs/game, 4th-fewest in NBA).

    The Mavs’ 15.3 opponent TO% is the best in the league, but their 7.8 steals-per-48 is just average (15th in NBA). Instead, they’ll force all the other kinds of mistakes out of their foes: traveling, double-dribbles, offensive fouls, 3-second violations, and the like. The slow tempo accommodates Nowitzki, while the dogged defensive efforts around him keep him from having to do too much at the rim.

    The defense has been just sound enough to allow the Mavs time to find their individual comfort zones on the offensive end. To keep the perimeter defense sound, Matthews’ absence pushes Dorian Finney-Smith back to the starting unit. Noel was supposed to start, but a bout of Schröder’s Disease had him late for the team plane, thus keeping him a reserve for now.

    Dallas leaves the offensive rebounding chances alone (18.3 O-Reb%, last in NBA), likely suggesting that a rested Dwight Howard (17 points and 12 rebounds in less than three quarters @ BOS on Monday; 38 double-doubles, most by any NBA player age 30+) and Paul Millsap (10 D-Rebs plus 2 steals @ BOS) should have a field day around the rim, with only Noel likely to try changing that outcome.

    No longer a team with a running identity (11.7 fastbreak points per-48, 21st in NBA) Atlanta needs to push the pace when they can. But when setting up in halfcourt, the key for Dennis Schröder and company is to emphasize motion (more cuts, less drives) while keeping the ball off the floor as much as rationally possible. On the defensive end, let’s pressure Dallas’ relatively new guards and make it clear that it’s the Mavs, not the Hawks, who are stuck in the trap game.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “You’ve got a ways to go to become as famous as me, kid!”


     
    In July 1776, George Washington dispatched a messenger to travel from Philadelphia to Boston, and along the way, the messenger parked his horse at a tavern in Worcester. There, the messenger met a young lad who impressed him with his oratory skills and experience in the newspaper publishing biz.

    It didn’t take much prodding before the messenger allowed the gentleman to gather the local tavern patrons around. And on that day, the newly-scripted Declaration of Independence was read aloud, for the first time anywhere in New England, in enthralling fashion, by one Isaiah Thomas.

    That “I.T.” was a mere 26 years of age, and by the time he reached his powder-wigged eighties, Thomas would have established a publishing empire, everything from almanacs to journals to Bibles. Before even this, he reported the first accounts of Revolutionary War battles at Lexington and Concord. He wrote the first extensive book on the history of American publishing. And he founded the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), the oldest historical society focused on national history in the United States.

    That society hangs an 1818 portrait of Isaiah prominently in its Worcester library, and a detailed plaque of his achievements lie with him in a nearby cemetery. These days, an AAS-hired actor dressed as Isaiah Thomas goes around Worcester schools to teach history to fifth-graders.

    You can see why this Isaiah Thomas is the Most Famous Isaiah Thomas in Massachusetts, and why a modern-day Isaiah, he of the Atlanta Hawks’ opposing hosts tonight, the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; You Don’t Wanna Know in BOS), has a lot of work cut out if he ever intends to take over that mantle.

    Without glancing at Wikipedia, the most famous Dennis Schröder in world history probably resides in Georgia. But to keep “famous” from turning into “infamous” (like another Isaiah who once played around these parts), Dennis has a lot of maturing to do.

    Yes, it is March 2017, and we are still out here talking about people’s moms. Schröder was pressed by the Boston media to deny Isaiah Thomas’ denial, from over a month ago, that Mutter Schro had some disparaging references directed at her through her progeny. This ain’t exactly the Lincoln-Douglas Debates here.

    Dennis (from Jan. 13 to today: 43.1 FG%, 28.8 3FG%, 6.4 APG, 3.0 TOs/game) remains the Hawks’ future. But he is incapable of excelling in the present while dwelling on the past. The same cannot be said of Thomas (29.7 PPG, 2nd in NBA; 91.1 FT%, 3rd in NBA; career-high 38.5 3FG% and 52.4 3FG%), the All-Star guard who practically bathes in his own history.
    Did you know Isaiah was the last player selected when he was drafted in 2011? Did you know how he was disregarded by the brilliant minds in Sacramento? Do you know how hard he has to work every day just to make a name for himself in this league, given his diminutive size? Why, of course you knew. He probably just reminded you himself.

    Dennis couldn’t resist digging up the Five Fingers to the Face question asked by Thomas way back during Game 3 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals, as an example of how “not professional” Thomas can be as a player. He tried to drag Thabo Sefolosha into the discussion as a witness to Thomas’ unbearable atrocities. Sefolosha, to his credit, backed Schröder but claimed Veteran’s Amnesia about the January beef.

    Guess who’s going to win the war of words in the public eye? Hint: it’s not the homie who shot 2-for-11 and registered three assists in 22 minutes at home on national television against a vaunted foe. Not the dude who got benched in that whole fourth quarter (and the end of the third), leaving Kent Bazemore and Malcolm Delaney exposed for Thomas’ late-game and last-second heroics to escape Philips Arena with a 103-101 Celtics victory.

    It won’t be the feller whose team has gone 10-10, riding a three-game blowout losing streak, since the two teams last tipped off, his opponent tonight having gone 14-6 in that same span. And it sure won’t be the guy who makes First to Leave, Last to Arrive his mantra, making his lack of punctuality the one current topic about the Hawks that’s remotely interesting to the general public.

    Schröder’s recent benchings don’t quite beckon the antacids Hawks fans popped over that other hoopster named Isaiah, a future-star hopeful who smoked his way through 60 games before getting waived back at the turn of the millennium, ostensibly for arriving late to games. But these lapses are concerning enough to raise alarm bells about the focus and direction of the whole Basketball Club.

    Mike Budenholzer remains resolute that his team only needs the likes of Malcolm Delaney, plus some patchwork from Bazemore, Junior Hardaway, recently-released Lamar Patterson and/or rookie DeAndre’ Bembry, to back up Schröder (8 assists and 1 TO, but 4-for-17 FGs off the bench vs. ORL on Saturday) whenever his lead guard doesn’t have his head where it needs to be. The dearth of movement on offense and the lack of enhanced perimeter closeouts on defense (12.8 opponent 3FGs per game in February, 2nd-most in NBA) belie Coach Bud’s assertions.

    On this team, barring some surprise roster addition, the best alternative to a poor Dennis Schröder is a laser-focused Dennis Schröder. Beyond the player himself, it is on this coaching staff to get his head screwed on straight, and keep it there, if the Hawks seriously intend to become what they claim they could be by season’s end.

    Al Horford (6 assists, 1 TO @ ATL on Jan. 13) isn’t around Atlanta to direct traffic anymore. The “center” is scoring and rebounding less (14.2 PPG, 6.6 APG) in his first season in Beantown than he did in any full season since 2008-09 with the Hawks. But with the knowledge that Jeff Teague was on the outs, and given his familiarity with Schröder’s resolve after several seasons together, he is probably thrilled about the decision he made to hop onto Thomas’ bandwagon this past summer.

    Because of his ability to set up his teammates efficiently (career-high 4.9 APG, NBA-high among centers; 1.7 TOs/game), you get zero complaints from Chowderheads about the Son of Tito and his accompanying $26.5 million price tag.

    Horford’s Atlanta counterpart, Dwight Howard (6.7 assist%, lowest since playing with Kobe in 2012-13) has struggled with the concept of moving the ball unless it’s an outlet pass. The essence of Budball is neutered not only when the guards are more focused on gazes, shimmies, and Yo Momma slights, but also when the center is almost exclusively receiving the ball in the paint for lob attempts and hurried shots before the hacks arrive.

    Dwight (3 assists in past 7 games) is averaging 40.5 passes per game, as per SportVu data, which ranks 11th in the league among centers. But of the 12 pivots averaging over 40 passes dished out, only the recently injured Joakim Noah (23.4) receives fewer passes from teammates than Howard (25.4 per game), Utah’s Rudy Gobert (29.9) the only other member of that group receiving the rock less than 30 times.

    The inactivity in feeding the post, by Schröder and his motley crew of fellow ballhandlers, and setting up for kickouts, engenders a predictable, stifling, dull offensive approach for Atlanta (February: 100.3 O-Rating, 28th in NBA; 1.35 assist/TO, 24th in NBA) that opponents love to exploit. If your center is fully engaged in a vibrant offense, he doesn’t become single-minded on the floor, unlikely to commit four fouls in the first half of play.

    The Celtics have played well enough for GM Danny Ainge to sit on his plum stash of future draft picks through the trade deadline, allowing coach Brad Stevens to continue to build on the team chemistry with the current roster. Coach Bud’s Hawks, conversely, have been shuffling in a cavalcade of rookies and recent arrivals into his rotations, while even core players (Schröder, Millsap and Howard, specifically) are still working through the kinks among themselves.

    There will be little time for Atlanta to sort things out. After facing Thomas, and hosting Dallas on Wednesday, the upcoming homestand proceeds with names like Kyrie, Teague, Curry, and Lowry swinging by Philips Arena, in short order.

    Dennis hopes to become a heralded All-star name, like the aforementioned, at some point down the road. But to get there anytime soon, his team needs victories, versus good and bad teams alike. To get them, The Menace needs to take control of his actions and mindset, on and off the court. When you show up late to buses and practices, you give away any right to expound upon who is and isn’t a “professional” in your line of work.

    There is no more time to get roiled about opponent’s misdeeds and ill words. For Dennis and the Hawks, it is past time to show up (on time!) and show out, beginning tonight at TD Garden. It would be a shame if, decades from now, some techno-pop DJ wizard from Wurzburg turns Atlanta’s point guard into “That other Dennis Schröder.”

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3

    lethalweapon3
    “No, seriously, this is the farthest I could get distance myself from Rob.”

     
    ((Would-be gamethread, it was gonna be Schröder'd anyway because I was stuck at the movies. ~lw3))
    “We tried. What we tried wasn’t working. So now, we’re just going through the motions until it’s over.”

    The above could apply to the Atlanta Hawks’ occasional approach to playing games, to swinging deals and making roster moves through the trade deadline, or to competing in the Eastern Conference. It could just as easily apply to the Orlando Magic’s approach to this whole season.

    21-win Magic in the air! There were no designs on having the fourth-worst record in the NBA when the season got started for the Magic. Now, with Dwight Howard and his Atlanta Hawks back in town (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), it’s hard for Orlando to lay out a blueprint to fans for what comes next.

    Tank mode? That’s what the prior four seasons were for. Out of five lottery picks (three among the top-five), only Dunk Contest flop Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja remain standing down in the Tragic Kingdom. Two plum talents were shipped to OKC for Serge Ibaka, who in turn was shipped this month to Toronto in exchange for Terrence Ross and a late first-rounder.

    The fifth lotto draftee, Dario Saric, was shipped (back) to Philadelphia along with a 2017 swap option back on Draft Night 2014 for Elfrid Payton. Saric’s career-night came at Payton and the Magic’s expense just a couple weeks ago, the rookie registering a career-high 24 points plus eight boards to help the Sixers eke out a 112-111 comeback win. And with Ersan Ilyasova out of the way, Saric will be given even more time to shine in Philly.

    Even the second-rounder Orlando threw into the Saric deal (which became the Knicks’ rookie center Willy Hernangomez) is showing more upside than Payton. Now in his third season, Elf’s scoring is naturally up, but his assist-making (career-low 5.6 APG) and perimeter shooting (26.6 3FG%) has managed to be almost as bad than it was in prior seasons.

    Forced out to the wing while Ibaka was here, Gordon (28.9 3FG%) has been only marginally better, even though perimeter shooting has never been his forte. His free throw shooting has unacceptably plummeted (career-low 64.7 FT%), making it harder to justify him as a banger or a slasher in the paint. But he’ll be shoe-horned back into the starting 4-spot with Ibaka gone, as the Magic try to make use out of Ross (4-for-17 FGs in his Magic debut on Thursday) and Evan Fournier at the wing positions.

    So where does Orlando (21-38) go from here? Tanking for tanking’s sake won’t helped the Magic due to the risk of continued blown decision-making from the front office. And it won’t help the beleaguered Frank Vogel, who instantly becomes a lame duck coach the minute Orlando’s top brass finally elects to do away with GM Rob Hennigan (team president Alex Martins vows not to shake up things until at least after the season ends).

    Vogel’s best bet is to allow the young core of Gordon, Payton, Nikola Vucevic (team-high 25 points but 8-for-20 FGs vs. POR on Thursday) and Hezonja (4-for-5 FGs vs. POR) to sink-or-swim together, with the occasional spark from Ross, and hope there is enough defensive support to pull off a few wins and give Magic fans a sliver of hope going into next season.

    That murky future doesn’t really include any of Fournier, Bismack Biyombo, D.J. Augustin, C.J. Watson, or Jeff Green, yet only Green’s contract comes off the books this summer. Counter-intuitive to the urge to go young, Vogel also needs to keep his vets productive enough to maximize their off-season trade values and further relieve what is, presently, the ninth-biggest salary load in the NBA.

    The maddening schism between playing-to-win and losing with a young core played out for Orlando in Thursday’s home loss to the Blazers. Orlando built up a 14-point lead early in the second half, only to have it evaporate due to a 35-17 disadvantage in the fourth quarter. Payton and Augustin could do little to keep the Blazers’ Damian Lillard (17 4th-quarter points) in check.

    The Magic guards should have continued trouble tonight dealing with Dennis Schröder, who found himself getting additional rest after being suspended mere hours before last night’s abomination against the heat. The Menace’s offensive efficiency against Orlando is the second-highest (min. 2 games played) versus any Eastern Conference foe this season, averaging a season-best 10.0 APG (3.0 TOs/game) to go along with 18.0 PPG in three meetings with the Magic. His five steals are also the most against any NBA club thus far.

    Thanks largely to Schröder, Atlanta exhibited some rare mastery of a lower-ranked team during their last matchup at Philips Arena earlier this month, a 113-86 Hawks victory. Howard and Paul Millsap flustered Orlando’s front line, a reversal of fortune from the December game at Philips when the Magic seemed to get any shot they desired. In the February game, Atlanta outrebounded Orlando, 48-33, including a 10-7 offensive rebounding edge despite the Magic missing 14 more field goals in the game.

    Keeping the Magic cool from outside will be crucial to putting them away decisively again. Orlando was a blistering 15-for-34 on threes in their December victory against the Hawks, but just 16-for-55 in their last two contests with Atlanta combined. Properly contesting Ross and Fournier without fouling will go a long way to avoiding a repeat of Friday night, where the Hawks (32-25) held Miami to 23-for-62 shooting on two-pointers, and 13 free throw attempts, but was still run out of their own building in a 108-90 loss.

    Orlando’s next most frequent perimeter shooter, Jodie Meeks (40.4 3FG%) remains sidelined with a sprained thumb, and no one else aside from Augustin (36.4 3FG%) or Damjan Rudez (35.2 3FG%) makes more than 34 percent of their shots, contested or otherwise. The Magic are 6-31 (one win since January 1) when shooting below 35 percent on threes.

    Orlando ranks 23rd in O-Reb%, and that is inclusive of Ibaka’s contributions. His replacement, Ross scores in bunches, but is usually a binary-code contributor in other categories. Continuing to box out Vooch, Biyombo, and Gordon (5 O-Rebs vs. POR on Thursday) ought to minimize the Magic’s extra-chance opportunities.

    So, of course, Hawks fans should expect the opposite of what Mike Budenholzer’s team needs to do to stay competitive and defeat the teams they need to beat. Coach Bud always projects the persona of being smarter than the average bear, but he has few answers when his team starts playing like Boo-Boo.

    The work it takes to keep Coach Bud’s team middle-of-the-pack is enviable to clubs like Orlando, but smoke-and-mirrors is never fun when his own team is choking from the smoke. We’ll simply have to wait and see if Schröder’s return is enough for Atlanta to put off their inevitable 16th double-digit defeat of the season for another day.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3