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!