• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

     “D*mn, Douglas! Back at it again, with the white Jordans!”

    Don’t nobody cry for the Chicago Bulls! They’ve done pretty well after the All-Star Break even without leading scorer Jimmy Butler, winning three straight home games and averaging 117 PPG (29.3 APG) along the way. They may have to play again tonight without Derrick Rose (hamstring tendinitis). But that should only be a concern for the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Chicago, ESPN), who are out to avoid their first five-game home losing streak since December 2006 by finally defeating a shorthanded squad they’re supposed to beat at The Highlight Factory.
    Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is pushing full-steam-ahead with his revamped Chicago offense. The Bulls have scored at least 25 points in 10 of their last 12 quarters. They rode with Doug McDermott’s 30 points off the bench to topple the Raptors last Friday. Two nights later, it was guard E’Twaun Moore’s turn, matching Rose with 24 points to pull away from the Lakers.
    Rose sat out Wednesday’s game versus the Wizards, and Pau Gasol played a Flu Game Lite. But Moore, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell and McDermott all came through, part of a season-high committee of seven Bulls reaching double-figures. Even our old pal Justin Holiday got in on the action, nailing his first three-point attempt in Bulls Red. They’re all out to gain a measure of revenge after Atlanta’s last victory, a decisive 113-90 win at the United Center sixteen days ago, had Bulls fans booing their team off the floor right before the All-Star Break.
    Chicago (30-26) pulling off yet another victory without Rose (6-2 this season), or Butler, Nikola Mirotic, or Joakim Noah, won’t be a surprise to them. It also won’t surprise fans of the Hawks (31-27), who have been spooked by one skeleton crew after another all season long. That wasn’t really the problem on Monday, as Atlanta succumbed to a performance by new Threak-holder Stephen Curry that the Orlando Magic would describe as “merciful.”
    In all three games of this disappointing homestand, Hawks players committed more than 15 turnovers (6-16 this season), a stark difference from the first 8 games of the season when they started out 7-1 with no more than 15 turnovers in any of them (25-11 on the season). The February 10 victory over the Bulls was just the second time in this calendar year that Hawks players committed 12 or fewer turnovers (last time a Jan. 16 win vs. Brooklyn), compared to 13 occasions between late October and December.
    The Hawks are 2-7 when leading scorer Paul Millsap (4-for-13 FGs, 1 assist, 3 TOs vs. GSW) turns the ball over more than thrice in a game. Sap is pushing to draw fouls and get to the free throw line, but spends too much time dramatizing for foul calls, instead of fighting to retain possessions, when the ball gets stripped from his hands.
    Dennis Schröder (last 2 games: 21.5 PPG, 58.1 FG%, 38.5 3FG%, 8.0 APG, 3.5 TOs/game) put the Hawks on his back in the to help erase a dismal 23-point third-quarter deficit against Golden State, and is pushing to take over that top point guard spot from incumbent Jeff Teague (last 2 games: 10.5 PPG, 35.0 FG%, 25.0 3FG%, 50.0 FT%, 5.5 APG, 5.5 RPG, 3.0 TOs/game). His defensive effort has improved, yet Schro’s ability to make an indelible impression on Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be enhanced by cutting down on turnovers. Thabo Sefolosha has no interest in starting unless he has to, but disappearing act Kent Bazemore (last 4 games: 22.2 FG%, 8.3 3FG%, 1.0 APG, 2.5 TOs/game) is creating very little choice.
    “I love shooting,” Coach Bud exclaimed after somebody yanked the pull string again yesterday. “I don’t think you can have enough shooting on the court… we have to get better offensively and we have to make more shots.” Budenholzer doesn’t expect his players to be on fire all the time. But if you are not shooting the ball well, you had better be doing other things well on the court: rebounding, getting stops, sparking transition, taking care of the ball. The Hawks’ struggles can be traced to starters who aren’t executing the other elements of the Hawks Cycle well when their shots from the floor go cold.
    The good news for Atlanta is that Chicago doesn’t force turnovers. Their 5.9 team SPG and 11.8 opponent TOs/game rank last in the Association, and their top three ball-thieves are Butler, Mirotic, and Rose. The Bulls prefer to pester opponents into tough shots (league-best 43.2 opponent FG%) and, when they’re at a defensive disadvantage, hack the mess out of opponents (19.3 personal fouls per game, 5th in NBA) and send them to the free throw line (22.4 opponent FT attempts per game, 6th in NBA).
    Fortunately for Chicago, opponents have not been making them pay. Their 71.9 opponent FT% is the best BDL since the 1999-2000 Trail Blazers (71.6%) and the 22nd-lowest enjoyed by any NBA team since the league started keeping track in 1970-71. Washington got ten more shots from the charity stripe on Wednesday, but could only hit 73.1% of them, compared to the Bulls’ 81.3 FT%.
    Hosting the best team in the league, Atlanta made just 10 of their 16 free throws, ultimately helping Golden State keep the outcome beyond the Hawks’ clutches. The Hawks’ 73.3 FT% (22nd in NBA; 17.9 attempts/game) in February continues quite a slide, from 78.1% (11th in NBA; 18.9 attempts per game) in January, 78.8% (6th in NBA; 21.2 attempts/game) in December, and 80.6% (3rd in NBA; 21.1 attempts/game) in October/November. They’re getting less, and making less, as the season goes on.
    Critical misses also cost the Hawks regulation victories at home this month against Orlando and Milwaukee. With so much pre-occupation with “shooters” at the three-point line and the area around the rim, it’s free throw shooting that’s in greatest need of re-emphasis.
    Al Horford (23 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals, 1 TO vs. GSW) did just about all anyone could ask to keep the Hawks in contention on Monday. Atlanta will need another full court effort from him and recalibrated efforts by Millsap (4-for-13 FGs vs. GSW) and Mike Scott (0-for-4 FGs, but 9 defensive rebounds in 21 minutes vs. GSW) to keep Gasol, Gibson and Bobby Portis off the offensive glass.
    After the dreaded Few Days Off, Horford should be spry enough to outlast an under-the-weather Gasol. And after surviving the onslaught of the Splash Brothers, the Hawks backcourt should have an easier time keeping Moore, Snell, Aaron Brooks and Mike Dunleavy in front of them. Should.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I’m just keepin’ the COTY trophy warm for you, Steve!”

    BANG! Kyle Korver, from three-point land once more! That makes it a record 127 games in a row! It’s the kind of consistency we may never see out of an NBA player again!
    Stephen Curry has hit a triple in all 52 of his appearances this season, and last went home with an 0-fer back on November 11, 2014 at the hands of those wascally Spurs. It’s highly likely Curry will get to 126-in-a-row tonight at Philips Arena, as his Golden State Warriors continue fine-tuning their record-shattering skills against the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, CSN Bay Area).
    While Steve Kerr’s Warriors haven’t come out of the All-Star Break firing at all cylinders yet, they’re cruising along with a NBA-best 49-5 record, while Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks (31-26) have looked rudderless far too often.
    The seizing of the Threak consecutive-game record is so expected at this point for the league’s reigning MVP, that nary a mention has been uttered of the man who, if only for a couple more days, holds the current one. Korver has had his share of lapses over the course of the season, but has managed to find a better groove from downtown with at least two three-pointers in each of his last six games (48.5 3FG% in that span).
    Facing a Splash Brothers dual threat, plus a dogged perimeter defense led by Andre Iguodala, Korver will need to find that level of consistency tonight, and get a lot more help than was available on Saturday, when Atlanta missed an abysmal, franchise-worst, 32 perimeter shots, leaving the door open all night and daring the Milwaukee Bucks to come charging through. The Bucks finally obliged in the second overtime session, and now the Hawks face losing their fourth-straight at the Dimbulb Factory for the first time since April 2007.
    The Chef has teased his legions of fans from time-to-time, most recently when he hit just one first-quarter three-pointer along the way to a 1-for-9 night versus the Thunder on February 6. But the Hawks need not overbear themselves with somehow shutting down Curry (league-highs 29.7 PPG and 67.4 TS%) from outside and preserving Korver’s place in the NBA annals.
    Jeff Teague (likely to play despite a wrist injury in Saturday’s loss), Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore, at turns, must keep a body in front of the dribbling maestro, both in halfcourt and in transition, and must not expect help defenders to bail them out. @NBASupes aptly spotted many occasions on Saturday, where poorly-contested dribble-drive penetration by Bucks forwards and guards alike caused breakdowns across the interior of the defensive floor, specifically when the Hawks helpers arrived and abandoned their boxout and defensive assignments around the rim.
    Curry is looking to score more often than not on drives from the outside (78.7 points per 100 drives, 4th most in NBA; 8.7 assist%, 32nd in NBA). And hero-ball isn’t the worst circumstance the Hawks can find themselves facing. Golden State is 40-0 when they exceed 25 assists in a game, a less-imposing 9-5 otherwise.
    With the Dubs in transition, Bazemore and Sefolosha also have to remain mindful of Klay Thompson (behind only Curry in threes made this season) and Harrison Barnes darting toward the corners. Golden State is 29-0 this season when they sink 40% of their three-point attempts. Contrasting with the Hawks’ doldrums, six of the Warriors’ eight most prolific three-point bombers are hitting shots above a 40-percent clip this season. Atlanta, by comparison, can boast only of Teague (40.4 3FG%) and Mike Scott (40.6 3FG%).
    Strong off-the-ball defense and forcing the Warriors’ ball-handlers to settle for isolated jumpers (and boxing the heck out) is the way to go. Four of GSW’s five losses (including one in Milwaukee) involved the team shooting below 41 percent from the floor for the contest.
    In a much more titanic visit to the ATL last year, Golden State got off 103 shots (with help from a season-high 19 O-Rebs), but could muster just 36.4 3FG% (non-Splash Bros 4-for-16 3FGs) while the Thabo-less Hawks were en fuego (55.6 3FG%, Korver/Bazemore/Scott/Teague combined 13-for-19 on threes) in a splendid high-paced affair that serves as the high-watermark of the Budcox Regime.
    The Hawks got off on a bad talon against Milwaukee as Teague (2-for-8 FGs, 0-for-2 3FGs, 5 assists) struggled to get the Hawks flowing offensively from the jump, leaving a lot of the heavy-duty lifting to a headstrong but eventually overwhelmed Dennis Schröder (25 points, team-high 8 defensive rebounds, 10 assists, 5 TOs).
    Schröder is eager to help the Hawks’ quasi-bigs fight for boards inside (as @Hawkmoor and others noted, 17 O-Rebs by the Bucks on Saturday helped them keep the lid open), but he cannot abandon his man before shots go up, without communicating that specific teammates need to rotate. Like the guards with Curry, and the wings defending the perimeter, Paul Millsap and Al Horford must play the interior as if they understand help isn’t coming.
    The ability for the Hawks to even stay in the contest tonight will involve a level of shooting proficiency from both Teague and Korver that disallows Curry (2.2 SPG, 4th in NBA) from sagging off to help force turnovers inside. On the first game back from their All-Star Break, Portland’s Damian Lillard (51 points, 9-for-12 3FGs, 6 steals, 7 assists, zero TOs) and C.J. McCollum (21 points, 3-for-4 3FGs, 7 assists) matched the Warriors’ pace and were unrelenting in a 137-105 victory that slowed Golden State’s roll just a bit.
    “Best center in the league!” joked master-of-all-trades Draymond Green (9.6 RPG, 7.3 APG), after he lofted shot-after-shot above DeAndre Jordan to help Golden State hang on to edge the Clippers at Staples on Saturday. As he prepares to face up against another super-versatile power forward in Paul Millsap, Green is likely to log plenty of time at the 5-spot again tonight. Andrew Bogut is missing time with a sore Achilles, while Festus Ezeli remains sidelined following arthroscopic surgery in January.
    The Hawks have to find a way to exploit the Warriors’ shorthanded interior defense. Defensively, Mike Muscala played well in a short stint against the Bucks. A rested Moose needs to show his antlers tonight when going head-to-head against Marreese Speights.
    Horford will continue to play from the high-post and the arc, but he must make quicker reads when the Warriors defense reacts to his threat of a jumpshot. His abilities to find cutters (Millsap, Bazemore, and Scott would be prime targets), set up Teague on dribble-handoffs, roll to the hoop, and find open options along the perimeter, makes him a focal point for keeping the Warriors guessing.
    When Green or Speights comes out of the paint to challenge, Horford has to think fast, and act faster. Same deal for Teague, and Korver, coming off of picks. A lack of instinctive play is among the most glaring elements of Atlanta’s offensive woes this season. Too much reading and insufficient reacting turns Budball into Badball, as opponents are becoming hip to the game when the Hawks decide to kick the ball back out or go cross-court. Against the Warriors’ precision, hesitation and second-guessing equals death.
    It’s clear that there is no outcome tonight that will mollify an understandably skeptical Hawks fanbase, particularly those crowded out by fans in Bandwagon Blue and Gold at the Highlight Factory. But a “Where has this been all season?” reaction would trump any others that fans could offer up by game’s end.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Wade in the Water…”

    Hail, hail, the gang’s all* here! What the heck do we care now?
    *Well, just about the whole gang is back for the Atlanta Hawks is back, ready to kick off the post-All-Star schedule with tonight’s meeting with the Miami heat (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports). And Hawks Nation couldn’t possibly be happy… umm… happier, that is!
    The GM-foreplay session otherwise known as NBA Trading Season finally wrapped up yesterday, and few teams came away pregnant with a title contender due to arrive in June. After the smoke cleared at the deadline, every Hawk that was bantered about for months on end, by media and fans alike, was still standing right here in Georgia Granite Gray.
    The two players that did get sent packing were among the most forgotten. Third-stringer point guard Shelvin Mack reunites with Gordon Hayward and Quin Snyder in Utah in hopes of an expanded role. Meanwhile, the season-long developmental plans for Justin Holiday were kicked to the curb, as he was dealt to Chicago. As part of that 3-way deal, our old friend Kirk Hinrich will give it another go in the 404.
    Yes, Al Horford is still an ATLien. He did indeed have to leave the country, though – off to Mexico for vacation, then a quick globe-trot to Canada as a willing, last-minute All-Star replacement. Hate it or love it, Al’s here for as long as Coach/Exec Mike Budenholzer is around to admire him.
    Horf does absolutely everything the Hawks staff asks him to do, and swears off doing a few things that they ask him not to do. No overpursuing offensive rebounds. No diving and wrestling with minimum-contract opponents for 50/50 balls bouncing below his waist. Let your teammates help you out on the glass. He’s absolutely “integrAl” to everything Budenholzer planned to do since the coach first arrived here from San Antonio.
    Bawse remains a 50% shooter from the floor despite raising his three-point shot volume by nearly 500 percent. He’s still a key component to the Hawks’ improved defensive efficiency despite poor defensive rebounding, and he’s well on pace to send his prior-season tallies in blocked-shots out into the second row.
    If Al chooses to cash in on a multi-year-guaranteed Max-infused deal this summer, Atlanta’s brain trust is confident they have options (well short of a 5-year Max, but nothing approaching the mythical Hometown Discount) that beat whatever 4-year deals are thrown his way from outsiders (including the tax-haven teams) in terms of take-home cash. If Budenholzer is Dr. Frankenstein, Al Horford is the monster he’s counting on, for better or worse, and yesterday’s non-events made that clear.
    When last we saw Hinrich (unavailable tonight) with the Hawks, it was in the 2012 Playoffs, when he returned to the bench as Horford arrived for the final two games of the ill-fated first-round matchup with the Celtics. The prior postseason, Captain Kirk was the starting point guard, capably guiding the Hawks toward an upset of the Magic – until his hamstring gave out with just three minutes left in Game 6, forcing Atlanta to turn the floor-leader keys over in the next round, to a fresh-faced Jeff Teague.
    In that time, Teague has transformed from OMG-is-he-ready to Y’know-he-ain’t-so-bad, to steady playoff-caliber starter, to All-Star on a conference leader, to a shaky-ankled trade target in 2016. As was the case with Horford and perhaps Kyle Korver, Hawks Brass was on the phones waiting for a deal that would knock their socks off. And yet there they stood as the sun set on Thursday, shoes still laced tight.
    Coach Bud still believes there’s more juice worthy of squeezing out of Teague’s orange, and Jeff’s solid, resurgent play in the weeks prior to the All-Star Break (20.0 PPG, 51.1 FG%, 53.8 3FG%, 5.5 APG in February) lends credence to that notion.
    “We really like our group,” Budenholzer crowed yesterday, after somebody apparently yanked the pull string in his back. He intends to rely on the pillars of Horford and Teague, along with All-Star forward Paul Millsap, plus improved shooting from Kyle Korver (51.7 February 3FG%), a bounceback from the struggling Kent Bazemore, and enhanced bench production from Dennis Schröder, Hinrich, Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Scott, Mike Muscala and/or Edy Tavares, to carry the day through a very daunting close to the regular season.
    Going forward, here is what the Hawks (31-24) are up against. After squandering much of a fairly cupcake schedule, Atlanta has the toughest schedule of opponents remaining in the East, a collective 55% opponent winning percentage. No team in the East (including five teams currently at 50%) has a closing slate that even approaches Atlanta’s.
    They’ll face juggernaut Golden State twice in a span of ten days. Then there will be back-to-back nights at Staples versus Kobe and the Clippers, part of a five-game road swing that concludes in second-seeded Toronto. Five of their final seven regular season contests are against the East’s current Top 3: the Cavs, Raps, and Celts. Add a few dashes of playoff-hungry teams (Pistons twice, Wizards thrice, Hornets, Bulls, heat, Jazz, Pacers, Grizzlies, Rockets) to taste, and you’ve got yourself quite a hearty stew.
    There are 15 home games left in this 27-game stretch. But a third of them come during this five-game homestand that begins tonight and concludes the month of February. Including tonight and tomorrow’s game (vs. Milwaukee), ten of their next 19 games will be on back-to-back nights. Are these Hawks up to the task of facing adversity and finishing strong? We’ll find out soon, because if the NBA Trade Deadline showed anything, most of the NBA Southeast has no plans of relenting against the reigning division champs.
    Charlotte (3 GB of ATL, winners of last 3 games) always seems like they’re one-step-forward-two-steps-back, but the Hornets re-tooled after losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist again, acquiring Courtney Lee from Memphis ahead of Al Jefferson’s return to action. Washington (5.5 GB of ATL, division-best 7-4 vs. Southeast teams) reunited smoldering Sun Markieff Morris with Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley, news that seems to have reinvigorated their aging center. Orlando (6.5 GB of ATL) won’t have the Hawks to kick around, but they brought in some veteran talent to couch around Dunk Contestants Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon for a heady stretch run.
    And what about Miami (29-24, 1 GB of ATL, winners of last two games w/ ATL)? Well…
    Maybe the biggest winners of all in yesterday’s limited player movement action were Micky Arison’s pockets. Mastermind Pat Riley saved the heat owner quite a bit of repeater tax dough by getting the team below the luxury tax line, and he did it without moving any of stars Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or even free-agent-to-be Hassan Whiteside.
    Having barely missed the postseason in 2015, the playoffs remain of paramount importance to the heat. Not the least of those reasons is because this summer’s first-rounder (top-10 protected) likely goes to Philadelphia anyway, courtesy of the LeBron 2010 compensation and, subsequently, fleeing LeBron’s commandeered Cavs trade for Kevin Love that sent Thad Young from Philly to Minnesota in 2014.
    Nonetheless, any excitement in South Beach over keeping the Big Two around for the playoff run has been muted. Horford’s cross-continental trek during All-Star weekend came as a result of Bosh discovering another potential blood-clot scare, this time in his strained calf. While there’s still hope, a return to blood thinners for the heat’s leading scorer could put him on the shelf for a few months, at the very least.
    Lightly-used Chris Andersen and Jarnell Stokes became balance-sheet casualties of the trade deadline, leaving Miami with Whiteside, virtual American Airlines Arena statue Udonis Haslem, and Josh McRoberts to back up Luol Deng (likely shifting to the 4-spot, as rookie Justise Winslow takes over at small forward) and Amar’e Stoudemire.
    In recent weeks, Coach Spo had been benching Whiteside for whole games (including during Miami’s 105-87 home win over the listless Hawks on January 31), and even sitting him for whole fourth quarters. Now without Bosh, and with Stoudemire (5-for-7 FGs, 5 O-Rebs vs. ATL on Jan. 31) not having logged a 30-minute game since December 2014, Spoelstra will need his moody big man to step up in a big way going forward.  But Whiteside won’t be available tonight, since a flagrant-2 elbow toward the Spurs’ Boban Marjanovic on February 10 will have him suspended for tonight’s contest.
    The Miami bigs will be desperate to avoid early foul trouble, something the heat is customarily quite good at doing (league-low 17.5 personals per-48). It’s up to the Hawks’ guards and wings to drive and cut to the basket for shots at the rim, while the bigs pick-and-pop early and often. Atlanta can then flip the script in the second half with Millsap and Horford attacking the rack as Miami’s options thin out.
    The Hawks have been pushing the tempo (5th in pace since Jan. 1; Miami ranks 27th) and are capable of wearing down what’s left of Miami’s frontline if they look for good shot opportunities early in the shot clock and move the ball cross-court.
    Wade, like Bosh, had been quite the ironman for Miami all season long, on pace for his most regular-season appearances since 2010-11. But now he’s suffering from soreness in the back of a knee, and is a gametime decision for tonight’s affair (the heat host Washington tomorrow). His sitting out would leave Goran Dragic (12.2 PPG) as the heat’s leading scorer among returning starters, on a team that went into the break ranked 24th in offensive efficiency. Rotator cuff surgery for second-year player Tyler Johnson leaves the heat similarly thin at the guard spots if Wade cannot go.
    For however long Wade (31.6 usage%, 5th in NBA) sits, Dragic at least won’t have to deal with the struggles trying to mesh his own ball-dominant play with Wade’s. Dragic will have free range to Tetris his way into the lane (what he recently called his “attack mode”) in search of layups and the occasional kick-outs to Gerald Green (team-high 4.3 3-point attempts/game, 31.9 3FG%), McRoberts and Deng (36.1 3FG%). For as long as Spoelstra can tolerate it, Green will resort to Go For Yours offense in an attempt to pick up the slack.
    Teague and Schröder have to apply pressure up the court and stay with Dragic and Beno Udrih on drives, leaving it to the wings and forwards to intercept the Miami guards’ passes to the perimeter and kickstart the transition offense. Korver and Bazemore also need to alternate perimeter defense with help-rebounding duties.
    From Kyrie Irving and Jonas Valanciunas, to Al Jefferson and Rudy Gay, to Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight to Tobias Harris and Blake Griffin, you could field a nice little All-Star Game with the array of NBA stars absent on teams that went on to beat the Hawks anyway this season. The Hawks’ offensive execution especially at critical junctures (late games, falling behind by double-digits) has long been, as Budenzolzer says ((pull-string)), “not where it needs to be,” a key part of the blame he laid to explain the underwhelming pre-All-Star start to the season.
    Miami is 11-2 this season in games decided by 5 or fewer points. Even without their two top scorers, top rebounder and shot-blocker, top 3-point shooter, and top assist-man, this isn’t a team Atlanta wants to leave hanging around late in the second half.
    This homestand will go a long way toward establishing whether these Atlanta Hawks are a team that desires homecourt advantage in the playoffs, or even the playoffs in the first place, and whether they’re a squad that’s out to make noise in the playoffs, noise that’s not a whimper, once they get there. The gang’s all here. And they understand that it’s up to them to remind Atlanta’s rabid hoops fans why they should care.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Up, Up… and Away?”

    “Say, pal, how much did you pay for that?” Seriously, can you stand people that ask questions like that? Whether it’s your cars, clothes, shoes, lunch, whatever… there is always That Guy or That Gal who gets obsessed talking not merely about your worldly possessions, but the price tags that came with them. “You paid how much? Sheesh. I saw that on sale around the way for 20% less!”
    Well before tonight’s finale before the All-Star Break against the depleted Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Chicago), our Atlanta Hawks have established themselves as the I Can Get It For You Wholesale team of the NBA. You’re not gonna pay a whole lot for decade’s worth of playoff appearances. Up to four All-Stars… and a division title… without the four-All-Stars price!
    Bigger-market teams like the Knicks, Nets, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, and these Bulls (even, briefly, the Sixers, remember?) have gone All-In in that span on big-money schemes. Yet individually, since 2010, none of the above can boast of more Conference Finals appearances than Atlanta’s solitary one.
    That said, having the best probable early-round exit that money can buy isn’t a huge sell around these parts. Even if ownership has long been satisfied with their “Great Value!” savings, NBA fans around town want more a little more bang for their hard-earned bucks. Certainly, more bang than what the Hawks (30-24) have been producing lately. Is it too much to ask for some sizzle with this Salisbury steak?
    Here were those high-flying Hawks in summer 2015, with revenues at the box office and eyeballs on the tube as high as ever, on the heels of the most regular-season and postseason victories in their franchise’s semi-storied history. With a new owner in tow, and In Bud We Trust at a peak level, the offseason was a big chance to make some splashes and feed the fans’ growing frenzy. What did we get?
    We got yet another team that’s bottom-10 in total salary, quite like 2014-15, quite like 2013-14. When we were spending big, it was largely tied up in one dude. These days, despite an expanding cap, when it comes to spending we’re just a million or so ahead of an Orlando Magic team that, in an alleged surprise, swept the Hawks on back-to-back nights this week. Only the Magic, Bucks, and Suxers are deliberately paying less in the East.
    No, you’re told, there’s no need to splurge on talent to hang around the middle of the playoff rat-pack! But video-projection floors, nightclub-quality DJs, and homegrown-rapper concerts? Oh, we’re all over that!
    The Hawks have the look of somebody that showed up to the biggest cocktail party of the year humble-bragging about the three-piece suit they bought for a steal at K&G, the unbelievable deal they got on their gown at Dress Barn. And they’re quite satisfied with being the most lukewarm sports ticket in town. There’s no more blaming the A$G.
    We’ll have ourselves a national holiday for Justin Bieber before we get steady production out of Justin Holiday. Kent Bazemore has moved up to the top-line to replace DeMarre Carroll, but no worries, people, we brought in Lamar Patterson from Turkey! Why roll the dice on a rookie prospect, when we can bring in Tim Hardaway, Jr. from the Knicks? You all remember Tiago Splitter from the Spurs, don’t you? His salary declines just like Kyle Korver’s, isn’t that nice? And hey, just wait ‘til you all see the work Edy Tavares has put in! He can even dribble now!
    Quality 82-game-ready depth should have been of utmost priority for Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks, who lost one starter to free agency, and had one starter and one key bench player each returning from broken legs. They replaced two backup centers with a guy that hadn’t appeared in 60+ games in the prior two seasons and a not-ready-for-prime-time project. Then, Coach Bud pushes these pace-and-spaced-out Hawks to play at the team’s highest tempo since 1992-93. It’s little wonder, then, why Atlanta’s starters have frayed.
    Kyle Korver’s shooting slumped right out of the gate. Jeff Teague grinned-and-bore-it through a bothersome ankle, leaving him ineffective on both ends of the floor for months. Franchise captain Al Horford has been as “Where’s Waldo?” as ever around the glass and at the free throw line. Even remnant All-Star and Birthday Boy Paul Millsap, as demonstrated in the Magic sweep, has struggled to find the rim in the clutch. Collectively, they’ve sapped the “fun,” and a lot of “da mentals,” from a team built largely on fundamentals.
    For a team that places so much emphasis on rest-and-recovery days, it’s hard to see the results on the floor over the course of 48-minutes, no matter the quality of the opponents. Just as much as rest and recovery, this team needs reserves, at more than just point guard.
    Now, it’s the rest of the league that’s trying to bargain-shop the Hawks. How ‘bout a pastrami-on-rye for Teague? If we throw in a pickle, can we get Horford, too? With a bag of chips, can you give us Dennis Schröder?
    Teague, to his credit, has done little this month to depress his value in the eyes of opposing team’s GMs (20.6 February PPG, 52.8 FG%, 56.5 3FG%, 1.4 SPG) as the trade deadline approaches. And while he doesn’t waste too much time on so-called “social” media, he did enjoy a little Instagram fun at the expense of nosey NBA fans yesterday. A lot of NBA players get very Mopey Smurf at the prospect of being traded out of town, especially when it’s the only NBA town you’ve known. For all his flaws, Jeff remains pragmatic, not overly dramatic, and isn’t allowing all the speculation to weigh him down.
    You paid how much to go 27-24? The Bulls ($19 million over-the-cap) are among the many teams Atlanta has money-trolled in recent seasons. Teague first got the NBA world’s attention when he came out of nowhere to frequently stare down the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, in the 2011 Playoffs. With the Rose Rule kicking in, it was Danny Ferry and the Hawks who swooped in to rescue Korver from NBA irrelevancy. Although largely due to injuries for Chicago’s hometown star, Rose, Teague and Korver all have one All-Star appearance since those 2011 playoffs.
    Rose has been passing the franchise-face mantle onto fellow backcourt mate Jimmy Butler. But with Chicago having dropped three straight and sitting just 1.5 games above the playoff Mendoza Line, the cape is back on Rose (career-low 15.9 PPG; 43.8 2FG%, 24.0 3FG%, 25.6 Assist%) to save their season. Butler is out for at least the next three weeks with a strained knee. Rose himself is expected to play despite nagging soreness in his leg, lest he join Joakim Noah (out for season, separated shoulder), Butler and Nikola Mirotic (appendectomy, hematoma removal) on the IR.
    Butler was trying to play through knee issues for at least a week, yet Bulls first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, Thibodeauian-style, had his All-Star slog through 47 minutes in Utah. After sitting out the Bulls’ next game in Sacramento (Chicago’s sole win in their last six games), Hoiberg trotted Butler back out in Denver, and Jimmy Buckets promptly put up 19 points in 18 minutes before getting wheeled off the floor.
    The Bulls went on to lose that contest with the Nuggets, then collapsed late in Minnesota and early (without Rose) in Charlotte, the ninth-seed that’s now just 1.5 games behind them. While Coach Bud has been reluctant to expose many of his scrubbier players, Hoiberg has been trotting out Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore, Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich, Cameron Bairstow and the recently-returned Mike Dunleavy to try and fill the gaps.
    In a similar vein as the Hawks, the last time the Bulls played ball at their current pace (98.6 possessions per-48, 11th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 99.2), Michael Jordan was still a season away from crying over his first NBA title. Suffice to say, the results in Chi-Town have been less than championship-contention-quality.
    The Bulls have allowed triple-digits in their past six games for the first time since the Vinny Del Negro era was screeching to a halt in 2010. And Chicago remains Bullish when it comes to forcing turnovers (league-lows of 10.7 opponent TO%, 12.0 TOs per game, and 6.0 steals per game; 13.7 points off TOs, 28th in NBA). Throw in an offensive rating that ranks 26th in the league.
    However, somebody please let Coach Bud know that Fred Hoiberg’s job isn’t a charity case. While the Bulls aren’t exactly parsimonious, board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has no interest in paying three coaches’ salaries in 2016-17. There are signs of a rift among the two heads of the GarPax monster that is likely to be resolved this summer, but Hoiberg’s gig is safe. So there’s no need for Bud’s Hawks to gift-wrap a job-saving win tonight at the United Center.
    One pillar that Hoiberg can still lean on is Pau Gasol. The 35-year-old center is averaging a double-double (17.0 PPG, 10.9 RPG) for the second-straight season and holding the fort defensively, earning himself a trip to Kobe’s final All-Star Game in Butler’s stead.
    Thanks to Pau, Taj Gibson and rookie Bobby Portis, Chicago is second in the league with 36.4 defensive rebounds per game and holding opponents to one-and-done basketball (47.2 opponent eFG%, 3rd-lowest in NBA; 56.5 opponent restricted-area FG%, 2nd-lowest in NBA).
    Gasol is poised to join Horford in summertime free agency when he spurns his player option, leaving the Bulls to spend their All-Star Break snooping around for long-term options at the pivot. As for today, he and the Bulls’ frontline will try to wear down a Hawks unit that has scant interior defensive options behind Horford (33 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocks vs. CHI in a 120-105 win on Jan. 9) and Millsap, with Splitter remaining out until at least after the Break.
    Butler won’t be around to patrol the perimeter, so there will be considerable sag in Chicago’s defense of the three-pointer (33.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th in NBA). Moore will take pressure off of Rose by D’ing up whichever of Teague or Korver (52.8 February FG%, 50.0 3FG%, season-high 2.6 APG; 3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Jan. 9) has the hotter hand.
    But Hawks’ frontcourt players Millsap, Horford and Bazemore have to find open shots from outside as well, helping to drown out Chicago’s long-range output from Dunleavy, Gasol (3-for-5 @CHA on Monday) and Doug McDermott. The Hornets tried this tactic on Monday with 36 total shots from Uptown by all nine players against the Bulls, leaving it mostly to the guards to scrap for second chances while the bigs got back on defense. An attacking Rose would make this particular ploy much more difficult tonight.
    While the Bulls have benefitted from opponents shooting a league-low 71.4 FT%, key to Atlanta succumbing to the Magic’s pixie dust on back-to-back days were blown free throws, especially at crucial junctures. Whining about ref calls is a bad look when you’re not taking advantage of what opportunities you’re given. As a team, Atlanta has failed to make 80 percent of their freebies in their past five games, the longest stretch of Hawks BDL since December 2014, the month before the magical carpet-ride that defined this core group’s competitive zenith.
    With the league’s trade-deadline on the horizon, this could be the last opportunity for this cast of characters to show they’re worth people’s time and, perhaps down the road, a little bit more money. Will they perform like they know it? Will Bud and Tony Ressler recognize if they don’t? Or is Discount Contender status still good enough for them all?
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “I Want to Wake Up in a City That Never Sleeps (totally not a trade request, btw)…”

    After getting Fournier’d by Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic in a Super Bowl matinee, it’s already time for the Atlanta Hawks to lace ‘em up again, this time with a meeting at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, Fox Sports Florida) where they’ll serve up a nice dose of payback to their division rivals. Maybe.
    Team President-by-Coup Mike Budenholzer does seem to hold some endearing solidarity with the many contemporaries in his NBA coaching profession. With his own position fairly secure no matter what the Hawks spew on the floor these days, you are left to ponder whether Bud is stealing losses away from hopeless, floundering opponents, as a means to maybe re-instill confidence from their coaches’ higher-ups, however fleeting, and preserve coaches’ paystubs for just a little longer.
    From Jeff Hornacek to Derek Fisher to Lionel Hollins to… probably soon, George Karl and maybe Sam Mitchell and Scott Skiles… is Coach Bud trying to break their falls? Do these courtesy wins serve as parting gifts? Or are his conciliatory Bud Waves more of an insidious, kiss-of-death kind of deal (David Blatt, your thoughts)? Just over a decade ago, it took a loss to the Hawks to guarantee you’d get fired soon. My, how times have changed.
    We’ll get a greater sense of whether we’re onto something as Scott Skiles’ team rolls into Philips Arena with unexpectedly lifted spirits. The Hawks (30-23) especially love to giftwrap victories to bad teams missing key players, and yesterday’s win for the Magic (22-28; 3-15 in 2016) without their leading rebounder, forward Tobias Harris, was no exception. Harris (ankle) remains questionable for tonight, which is probably good news for the Magic against the Hawks.
    Sunday’s contest was more of a Bizarro World Hawks game. Without Harris available to push them around, the Hawks turned into the second coming of Moses Malone, crashing the glass for a season-high 18 offensive rebounds, the most by any Hawks team since Larry Drew was running the show back in December 2012. Of course, when you’re shooting 38.5% from the field (incl. 34.9 2FG%; Atlanta’s 0-9 when shooting below 40%), you have to at least look like you’re trying, lest anyone catch on to your charitable ways.
    Then the Hawks neutralized themselves further, failing to pressure Orlando’s backcourt tandem of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, into mistakes until they decided to make things entertaining, once Thabo Sefolosha’s lucky buzzer-beater concluded the third quarter. Sloppy play, no open shot-making, no transition buckets… but copious offensive rebounds? What’s going on around here?
    Al Horford (5-for-15 FGs, 6 rebounds in 35 minutes) must have been thinking of the hundreds of poor fans in the stands that would love to be anywhere but Amway Center as The Big Game approached, just a couple hours away. There’s no other logical reason why, with only Payton standing before him, he’d flub a layup with 80 seconds left that would have brought the Hawks within a point of the lead.
    The Magic had not held a team below triple digits since losing 96-87 at home to Philly nearly three weeks ago. And yet here was Atlanta, sitting tied at 94 apiece with under a minute to go, still poised to back their way into a victory that would even up their road record.
    Kent Bazemore (23 points, 3-for-5 3FGs) had a horrifyingly bad start on Sunday, thanks largely to the officials, but used his six offensive rebounds to kickstart his game. After Paul Millsap’s dime to Baze tied things up at 94, and after Baze drew the offensive foul on Vucevic at the other end, Horford must have gone all Sarah MacLachlan in his All-Star court mate’s ear. Haven’t these Magic fans suffered enough? For the price of a cup of coffee…
    So, Hawks miss shots, get boards, miss shots, Millsap (5-for-14 FGs in 34 minutes) short-rims a shot within 5 feet of the rim with 2 seconds left. Timeout Magic, Vooch gets the ball back, ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, game, blouses. Magic fans go home happy for once, Bud Wave, end scene, fade to black, Lady Gaga croons the credits.
    Back home at Thrillips, consumer confidence among Hawks fans has ebbed, and those that show up tonight aren’t going to feel quite so cordial toward Skiles’ plight. If Bud’s Fix isn’t in, it will show by way of an effort from the bench that was non-existent yesterday (2-for-17 FGs, not counting Thabo’s lucky shot). It was hard to outplay Orlando’s reserves (4-for-18 FGs, 2 assists), but Atlanta managed to find a way.
    Dennis Schröder (lacerated chin, reportedly) was held out of the entire fourth quarter yesterday, but will be counted on for anything better than the 1-for-7 FGs, one-assist-in-13-minutes output he contributed. Mike Muscala (2 blocked shots since December 12, both in the same game) managed to sit out the final frame as well, and without Tiago Splitter (hip, out until after the Break), Moose’s presence needs to be felt at both ends of the floor. Improved play from this pair will limit the need for excessive floor time today from Jeff Teague (team-high 24 points, 3-for-5 3FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs on Sunday) and Horford.
    This will be the final home game before the Hawks end the All-Star break in Chicago, where the Bulls are struggling defensively, and suffering through injuries to Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler. Wait a minute… is Fred Hoiberg’s job secure? Is that “In the Arms of an Angel” I’m hearing?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Voted “Most Likely to Quit Trying to Look Like Rajon Rondo.”

    We’ve seen plenty of times this season when our Atlanta Hawks have to pick up an easy spare, and roll out a gutterball in the neighboring lane. That’s whether it involves blowing anybody-on-one fast breaks, or playing down to the level of a bad team on a losing skid. So the home-and-home series on back-to-back nights with the struggling Orlando Magic (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida) is the furthest thing from a sure shot.
    Including a loss in ATL on MLK Day, the Magic have gone just 2-15 since January 1, a scale of futility matched only by the Phoenix Suns. Of course, half of the Suns’ wins came courtesy of embarrassingly poor play from the Hawks just a couple weeks ago. Orlando is also just 1-8 in the Dirty South Division. So, naturally, this two-game series is setting up to be a barn-burner.
    Thanks to a great 19-13 start, the MLK Day loss only dropped the Magic to 20-20 as they remained in the thick of the playoff chase, an impressive 4th in the East. But like a Lake Eola jogger, Scott Skiles’ club finds itself going in circles, and they’ve been getting lapped by one Eastern Conference team after another. Half of Orlando’s wins in 2016 came last Sunday at home, thanks to a red-hot Boston Celtics team that shares Atlanta’s 30-22 record.
    Since that victory, the past week included road losses in San Antonio and OKC, and Friday’s home loss to their old coach Doc Rivers’ Clippers. They held fourth-quarter leads, however, against both the Spurs and Thunder before melting late. So the good news is, it isn’t like they’re not competing and forcing the action, primed to trip up opponents that don’t bring their A-game.
    As an additional silver lining, Orlando can’t sink below the plankton of the East (Nets and Sixers) no matter how badly this slump is, and a spirited string of victories puts them right back in postseason play, as they’re just 4.5 games behind the 8th-seed.
    Getting up off the canvas for the Magic won’t be possible until center Nikola Vucevic and point guard Elfrid Payton show they’re willing and able, respectively, to defend at their positions and involve their teammates at the other end. The duo share the a net rating (-18.8 points per 100 possessions) in calendar year 2016, the second-worst in the league (after Hawks’ basketball snatcher Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker in Phoenix). That includes an NBA-worst 90.4 O-Rating, and they’re tied with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas with the second-worst D-Rating (110.5) among 1-5 pairs.
    For the NBA’s reigning record-holder for assists in a single game, Coach Skiles is learning it’s actually easier to do than to say. Payton’s struggled through injuries in the past month, but his passing marks (5.6 APG; 5.4 since January 1) have slipped since his All-Rookie 1st Team season (6.5 APG). He’s also struggled to stay in front of his man, or even produce turnovers with help defense. His 2.2 steal% (incl. 9 steals in 13 games since January 1) is way down from the 2.9% that ranked 5th in the NBA last season.
    Skiles’ first move is to shift Victor Oladipo (37 points, 4 assists, no turnovers @ OKC last Wednesday) to the point, or at least allow him to dominate the ballhandling duties. Oladipo has not been as much of a turnover machine as he was in his rookie season, but both he and Payton are prone to making egregious mistakes in crunch time. Both players could have their hands full today with Atlanta’s Jeff Teague. After a season-long struggle, Teague could be in line to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week (58.3 FG%, 58.3 3FG%, 90.0 FT%, 19.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.3 TOs per game, 1.7 SPG) with a strong effort today.
    Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder, Vooch will get his obligatory double-doubles (10-and-11 @. ATL on MLK Day; 20-and-11 vs. the Hawks on Dec. 20). But despite Skiles’ push to get more active hands out of his center, Vucevic still looks like a crossing guard as opponents drive into the paint and opposing stretch-bigs plop copious jumpers from outside.
    Vucevic is a poster child for America's Budball victims. The Magic grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in last month’s game in Atlanta, yet they only managed 81 points, a season-best for the Hawks defense. Mike Budenholzer’s troops allowed the Pacers to nab 16 more O-Rebs and 5 more D-Rebs on Friday night, but it only served to make things interesting in a 102-96 win. That victory raised Atlanta’s record to 16-8 when they give up at least 12 offensive rebounds, 14-14 otherwise.
    He hears it from fans and a former Hawks coach that accuses him of playing with cement shoes around the defensive glass, and he hears it from the guy with a statue outside Philips Arena that he doesn’t take advantage of drives against slow-footed bigs like Vucevic. Yet Al Horford (62.5 TS%; 5 O-Rebs in his last 7 games) adheres to his head coach’s demands. His 21 heroic points against Indiana on Friday were the most he tallied since Jan. 9.
    Getting Horford lots of open looks and encouraging him to drive to the lane and get to the line will keep Vucevic and the Magic bigs guessing all day what he’ll pull out of his hat. A strong Teague-Horford combo should be enough to have Orlando looking forward to Super Bowl prop bets by game’s end.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Not-So-Stupid Human Tricks! Presented by Oral B.”

    Atlanta Hawks players, lift one hand over your heads, fingers extended! Now, bend at the elbow and drop your hand behind your neck. Got it? Okay, press your palm repeatedly against your back. Did it? Good! Thus ends the praise you’ll get for 86’ing the 76ers on Wednesday night.
    Yes, you made a little socialist NBA history by dispatching the Keystone State Kopz with nary a Hawk getting to 14 points on the day. “Feel the Bern!”, and whatnot. Active hands (13 steals), active hips (40+ D-Rebs for the second-straight game, six Philly O-Rebs), and active heads (28 assists) all made the difference in a 38-point washout.
    There’s no time to dwell on it, though. The team that crop-dusted you this past week, the Indiana Pacers, are on the docket.  Actually, they’re here, at the Highlight Factory (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM, Fox Sports Indiana, ESPN), and rarin’ to go before a national prime-time audience.
    A couple hours north of Philly, the Pacers withstood a second-half rally from Joe Johnson’s Nets before pulling off their third win in four games. Despite the momentary prosperity, and despite having just zipped past the Hawks in their own building, Indiana (26-23) sits precariously in the East’s 7th-seed spot, with Detroit (who they’ll host tomorrow) and Charlotte beginning to make a charge. Thus sets up another prime opportunity for Atlanta (29-22).
    Not only can the Hawks bounce back from the 111-92 defeat at the Fieldhouse last week, featuring a decisive 23-2 closing run by the hosts, but they can further submerge a conference threat that’s now in the throes of yet another identity crisis.
    Danny Granger was Mister Pacer during the post-Malice, Jim O’Brien era, peaking in 2009 with his one All-Star appearance and a Most Improved Player nod. But by the time the Pacers cobbled together a team capable of pushing for the Eastern Conference crown, under Frank Vogel, it was time for Granger to leave center stage. This Paul George kid seemed to have the talent to be the franchise face, so why wait?
    Those sentiments proved accurate when, by 2013, it was George winning the MIP as the oft-injured Granger took a backseat. By 2014, George led the charge to the top of the East standings with 56 wins and a trip to the conference finals. Paul George had indeed become Mister Pacer.
    Now one unfortunate offseason injury and one-and-a-half seasons later, the Pacers are possibly at another crossroads. George’s bounceback in November certainly justified the All-Star love he received from voters. But despite a career-high 23.1 PPG it’s clear that, at least offensively, George is struggling.
    The increased shot volume from deep (7.2 3FGAs per game) isn’t enough to explain PG13’s overall struggles with his jumper (career-low 40.8 FG%, 37.2% on 2-point jumpshots). A much more prolific scorer throughout his career, Danny Granger was shooting 41.6% from the floor in 2012 when it was becoming clear the high-usage should be transferred to someone else. George’s usage percentage has risen to a career-high 30.3%, even with more offensive-minded talents like Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, and a solid 3-and-D point guard in George Hill, at his side.
    Tack on a turnover ratio (13.0 per 100 possessions) that’s sixth-highest among players with 30+ minutes per game (13.5 per 100 since December 1, highest in NBA), and you can see that for some Pacer fans, the honeymoon is just about over. And they may have a future franchise-face waiting in the wings.
    The Pacers just missed the playoffs on the last game of the season, but their reward was lotto-rookie Myles Turner (16.6 PPG, 54.2 FG%, 2.9 BPG in last 9 games; 20 points on 9-for-17 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 28) has lately been deemed the most fortunate thing to happen in Naptown sports since Andrew Luck showed up on the scene. The immense potential shows in the big man’s sweet mid-range jumper and his ability to be active on the glass.
    That was on display in his third-ever start against the Fightin’ T-Lues on Monday. Turner snatched six offensive rebounds against the Cavs, and one of his four blocks pinned what would have otherwise been another highlight-reel dunk by Cleveland’s GM, LeBron James, a fourth-quarter play that re-energized the Fieldhouse and helped hold Cleveland at bay until overtime.
    Alas, Turner’s still a 19-year-old rookie who’s prone to making 19-year-old rookie mistakes. He missed an assignment for a high screen designed to free up Monta Ellis for a game-winning shot that could have avoided the eventual loss to Cleveland in overtime. Ellis and teammates promptly hounded the rookie, who was quick to offer a mea culpa. After all, two days before, Turner’s poorly executed screen left Ellis in No-Man’s Land at the end of the clock, resulting in overtime versus the Nuggets.
    If you’re wondering why the Pacers played like their hair was on fire versus Atlanta last week, the home loss to the Cavs dropped Indy to 3-7 in games decided by a single possession, the most losses in the league according to Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz. While Turner was accepting blame, the team’s resident All-Star (3-for-15 FGs, 8 assists but 5 TOs) seemed a bit too eager to engage in some redirection. “Just some LeBron fans out there,” George excusplained following the game, followed later by, “Obviously, the calls weren’t going my way tonight. It happens.”
    George has rarely been an efficient shooter or a consistent decision-maker with the ball in his hands, but the prospect of Indiana falling out of the playoff picture has some fans eager to flip the script earlier than what anyone planned. Vogel isn’t about to go that far. But having won his conceptual tug-of-war with GM Larry Bird, the Pacers coach is out to prove, with Turner, that only shooting stars break the mold.
    “We don’t use the team ‘smashmouth’ around here anymore,” Vogel cheered to reporters back before Thanksgiving, when the new-look Pacers were firing from all cylinders while playing small-ball with George at the PF spot. But the tune has changed. Hey now, Paul George, you’re an All-Star, but we’re moving you back to the 3 for good. Hibbert and West, Redux? “That’s what we’re evolving back into,” Vogel told reporters after the Cavs game, “a dominant defensive unit that plays great big, plays smashmouth basketball, dominates with defense and rebounding.”
    The bigs, starters Turner and Ian Mahinmi (out with a sore back, replaced by Jordan Hill), are down for that, and George (career-high 2.0 SPG) doesn’t mind a little less pounding in the paint. What will make Vogel’s design work, however, is a defensively active Ellis. He obliged with fourth-quarter steals of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha last week, as the Hawks came unglued. Including that victory, Indiana is 6-1 when Ellis (25 points, 5-for-7 3FGs) leads the way in scoring. But a balanced effort, plus a diversion of the offense away from George, should help the Pacers turn things around quickly.
    While the primetime national TV spotlight will be on George, there’s another All-Star Paul on the floor likely to draw some attention. Not long after the announcement that he’s headed to his third-straight All-Star Game, Paul Millsap tweaked his ankle at the Fieldhouse, exiting the contest 13 minutes in, and has been gingerly sleepwalking his way through the schedule ever since.
    In his past three games, the Atlanta anchorman has scored just 11.7 PPG on 34.4% shooting from the floor, primarily camping out on the defensive end for blocks and defensive boards. The Hawks will need an active two-way Sap versus Turner and George. It will help Al Horford to exploit his matchup with Jordan Hill.
    Jeff Teague shook out of his slumber in his hometown with nine first-quarter points, and carried the Hawks offensively (20 points). But he and Kyle Korver (1-for-7 3FGs last Thursday, 1-for-15 vs. IND this season) were mostly bystanders at Teague Time, when the Pacers made their winning fourth-quarter run. Bazemore has also fallen out of an offensive groove (35.3 FG%, 14.3 3FG%, 62.5 FT%), before the game against Philadelphia, and hopefully that game helped to shake him out of it. Both teams have been solid defenses that turn turnovers into points, and Bazemore can help the Hawks get an edge in that department tonight.
    Millsap’s return against the Pacers means that Mike Budenholzer won’t have to rely on a three-wing lineup (Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha, alongside Teague and Horford) to save the day against Indiana’s bigger lineup. But Korver, Bazemore, and the Hawks backcourt must find openings along the perimeter, and convert, to encourage the Pacers to unpack the paint. This time, when the fourth-quarter rolls around, can the Hawks keep their enemies closer?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Is it just me, or does it seem like every time it’s the Atlanta Hawks’ turn to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, as is the case tonight at The (don’t call it the Wells Fargo) Center (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Philly), the Sixers are on some sort of lukewarm streak?
    Just a few weeks ago, Atlanta was in Philly in need of a slumpbuster, having previously lost three of four games. Meanwhile, the 76ers were on an Amoroso’s-style soft roll, prevailing in half of their prior six games after starting the season with a woeful 1-28 record.
    This time, the Sixers enter tonight’s game winners of three of their last seven. The last of those losses was on Saturday, to mighty Golden State in the closing seconds of regulation. Two other losses involved opponents forced to find ways to outlast them in overtime. In the ten games since the Hawks held off Philadelphia by a 126-98 score, behind 22 points from Kent Bazemore, the 76ers have only suffered one loss by 20 points, compared to 10 times in the 37 games before that.
    The Competi-tank is rolling, full-spead ahead. And it’s quite clear who’s driving it on the floor.
    For two months, Sixers management endured a mixture of laughter, concern, and harsh critique from the media, fellow owners, and even some fans no longer willing to simply Trust The Process. Owner Josh Harris brought in Jerry Colangelo as an emergency manager of sorts, and Mike D’Antoni to help with head coach Brett Brown’s high-tempo offensive schemes.
    The Sixers promptly re-acquired point guard Ish Smith, who has been claimed by 10 different teams since starting his career as an undrafted free agent in 2010, and plugged him into the starting lineup right away. Literally, right away. “To me, it’s still amazing that when he showed up in Phoenix (after the trade) an hour before game time,” recalled Colangelo, to CSN Philly, “that he put a uniform on and stepped out on the floor and led to team to a win, a badly needed win.”
    Smith (15.9 PPG, 8.1 APG, 2.9 TOs/game w/ PHI) has proven quite adept at making the 76er offense look functional for significant stretches. He jacks up a ton of shots (8-for-28 FGs and 0-for-6 3FGs, but 16 assists in a double-OT loss @NYK two weeks ago) when Plan A isn’t going as planned on Philly’s  possessions. But he generally keeps his team in contention when he’s avoiding turnovers. In six Sixer victories, Smith averaged 2.0 TOs/game, compared to 3.4 in losses.
    Ish strode into Philly reinvigorating Nerlens Noel (52.4 FG%, 10th in NBA) with lob plays, and bouncing passes into leading-scorer Jahlil Okafor. But against rim-contracted defenses he’s begun diversifying by finding open shooters around the perimeter.
    Swingman Hollis Thompson is shooting 56.5 3FG% over his last six games. Nik “Sauce Castillo” Stauskas has been living up to his closed-captioned name with 46.2 3FG% in his last ten appearances. Last season’s surprise Robert Covington had a shaky start out of the blocks but has shaken off his gun-shyness and hitting 3.6 threes per contest (42.0 3FG%, 15.5 PPG) in his past 8 games.
    “What’s in vogue now is, don’t leave three-point shooters, remarked the reliably forthcoming Brown to CSN Philly recently. “Play the pick-and-roll two-on-two, and make those guys (Ish and Noel) score… but don’t leave Covington, Hollis and (Isaiah) Canaan… So, when (Smith)’s dancing and he’s playing in a static halfcourt pick-and-roll, he’s forced to save the day a lot because there’s nobody open… So, you go back to speed. When he gets the ball in the first three-to-five seconds of the shot clock, that’s where his real change is.”
    “It’s hard to find a static set defense where I’m not going to leave Covington or Stauskas or whatever. Now all of a sudden the gym’s broken. I think in that environment, he’s gotten to the paint and found people.”
    As a result of more sensible high-paced play, the Sixers’ January shooting efficiency (51.3 eFG%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 50.7 eFG%) ranked 4th-best in the Eastern Conference, although their free throw shooting (62.2 January FT%, last in NBA) has been less-than-desirable. Smith (43.9% of FGs assisted in NOP/PHI, 5th in NBA) and his understudy, T.J. McConnell (37.5% of FGs assisted, 7th in NBA) are leading the charge.
    Ish (6-for-10 FGs, 7 assists, 4 TOs vs. ATL on Jan. 7)and the Sixers have enjoyed three days of rest, allowing plenty of time to witness the Hawks hovering around their nadir against Miami on Sunday, then cobbling together some of their best basketball in a while versus Dallas one evening later. The difference lied in the assertiveness and effectiveness of Atlanta’s starting backcourt.
    Smith’s collegiate teammate Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver were a combined 3-for-17 (0-for-7 3FGs) from the floor in Miami, then made more effective use of screens to shoot 17-for-23 (11-for-13 3FGs) back home against the Mavs.
    Following a month of offensive reticence even against lesser competition, Teague’s season-high 32 points and 8 assists (2 TOs) were a sight for sore eyes. As one might expect, the Hawks are a solid 19-2 when Teague finishes games with a non-negative plus-minus, 23-6 when Korver does the same. As Philly's Noel and Jerami Grant (1.5 BPG each) clog the lanes, the Hawks guards will again need to make good on perimeter shots early, in order to soften the middle.
    The 76ers will have to find ways to disrupt Atlanta’s ball movement, as the Hawks compiled 36 assists (second-most this season) in Philadelphia last month, with seven separate Hawks producing at least three assists. Noel, McConnell, and Covington are all among the league’s top-20 in steals per 100 opponent possessions.
    Hawks fans would love to take the prior month of basketball and shove it into Davy Jones’ Locker. However, there was one element of the January games worth redeeming. Say hello (and, hopefully, not goodbye) to the most NBA’s efficient defensive team since January 1 (99.2 opponent points per 100 possessions).
    While the easy-bake schedule had a lot to do with it, so far in Calendar Year 2016, the Hawks have held the opposition (per 100 possessions) to 40.1 points-in-the-paint (3rd-lowest in NBA, down from 41.9), 12.5 second-chance points (13th-lowest, down from 13.1), and 11.1 fast break points (7th-lowest, down from 12.5). Opponents shot 49.8 eFG% (14th-highest in NBA) before January 1, and just 46.6 eFG% (lowest in NBA) afterwards.
    While it often means foes need two, three, or four bites at the apple before a shot goes down, the Hawks’ have held opponents to an NBA-low 54.5 FG% around the restricted area and 37.0% (5th-lowest) on other shots in-the-paint. Tack onto that 30.1 opponent 3FG% (2nd-lowest, behind the Warriors’ 28.0%) on shots above- the-break.
    Atlanta held Dallas, who lost Deron Williams early and was on the back end of a back-to-back, below 37-percent shooting for the second time this season along the way to a 112-97 victory on Monday. They’ll need another stout effort from the wings to limit the Sixers’ catch-and-shoot options for Smith and McConnell.
    One January bugaboo involved opponent’s points off turnovers (17.5 per-100, 9th-most, up from 16.2 through Dec. 31). Atlanta was outscored in points off TOs since January 1 (16.6 per game, -1.0) after leading the league in this category (20.3 per game, +4.4) through the end of 2015. While the differentials seem incremental, the loss of focus to thwart offenses before shots go up leaves Atlanta susceptible to the Jamal Crawfords, Monta Ellises and Archie Goodwins of the world at critical junctures.
    Also, referees have been less-than-kind to Atlanta in the New Year. Opponents had a free throw attempt rate of 24.7 (per 100 FGAs, 4th-lowest in NBA) through December, a value that rose to 29.9 (7th-most in NBA) in the games that followed, contributing to 4.8 additional free throw attempts per game. And hack-a-ball isn’t the sole explanatory factor. For Dallas, their blowout loss on Monday was ameliorated by the doubling of the Mavs’ free throw attempts (38 to 19), with whistles blowing just about every time a Hawk swiped at the ball (season-low 2 steals).
    Sounder shot decision-making and superb team rebounding (season-high 45 D-Rebs vs. DAL) made the free throw disparity a non-factor for Atlanta on Monday. Eleven Hawks crashed the defensive glass, and particularly players whose shots weren’t falling at the other end of the floor. Bazemore (9.3 defensive RPG in last 3 games) and Paul Millsap were a combined 5-for-20 from the floor, including 0-for-10 on threes, but compiled 19 defensive boards between them.
    Last month, the Sixers’ brass also brought back maybe their best possible cheerleader-slash-babysitter. Elton Brand spends half his time dropping professional knowledge on the rookie Dookie, Okafor, as well as the many yung’uns on the roster, and the other half sniping away at Philly’s detractors.
    For obvious reasons (Fab Five vs. Duke), Elton’s already not a huge fan of Jalen Rose. So when the Disney Sports commentator suggested over the weekend that the Sixers “don’t deserve to be mentioned on ABC,” Rose found himself getting Brand-ed on Twitter. “Disrespect the team now,” tweeted Brand. “Get it out while you can, (Jalen). These boys will be on top for a long time soon enough.” Rose could only issue a passive-aggressive parting shot in response. “You know it’s love, EB! #keepgettindemchecks”
    It remains to be seen if the former Hawk’s tutelage will help the defensively-challenged Okafor (21 points, 9-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 7) deal with Al Horford (15-for-25 FGs vs. PHI this season). Al has done light work in his past five games (14.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG) but has shot the ball quite well in that stretch (55.0 2FG%, 53.3 3FG%), going Plinko on his last five threebies.
    Al also got his hands on five offensive rebounds in his last trip to Philly, resulting in six of his 18 points. Horford and Tiago Spltter’s board-crashing helped Atlanta offset Philadelphia’s 14 O-Rebs (six by Noel). Splitter remains home to rest a bothersome hip. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was pleased with Mike Muscala’s readiness and performance against the Mavs and will likely bring him off the bench early once again, backed by Edy Tavares.
    Dennis Schröder (4-for-6 FGs, 5-for-7 FTs) got to the free throw line often against Dallas, highlighting a bench group (16-for-29 FGs) that took plenty of pressure off of Atlanta’s starters. The Hawks can enjoy a similar result tonight if the reserves (22-for-42 FGs vs. PHI on Jan. 7) help secure rebounds inside, control the ball, and make smart shots when they get open.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Let’s kick off Black History Month in style!”

    You really can’t expect much more than you’ve gotten out of Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks. They come into Atlanta tonight (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest) aiming for their fourth win in five games, the sole exception being a blowout loss to a red-hot Golden State. They’ll also look to snap a four-game losing streak against the Hawks head-to-head.
    Amid a stretch of five games in seven days before the All-Star break, Carlisle is running a master-class in conserving player energies. Future Hassel-HOFer Dirk Nowitzki sat out from yesterday’s home game vs. Phoenix, in advance of tonight’s contest. While his 44.8 FG% is the second-lowest of his storied career, Dallas (28-22) is a stout 12-3 when Dirk (5-for-12 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) contributes at least 20 points in a game.
    Former Hawk and almost-All-Star Zaza Pachulia (career-best 10.8 RPG) rested a sore leg for three games last week, then returned and picked up right where he left off (12.5 PPG, 13.5 RPG in wins versus Brooklyn and Phoenix to wrap up a homestand). He and Dirk are adequately running a Statler and Waldorf frontcourt, delivering plenty of silly media soundbytes while betting which player can log the most dunks by season’s end (Z-Pac’s up 9-4, for those keeping score at home).
    The one player who was a wild card at the start of the year due to the prior season’s injury, free agent acquisition Wesley Matthews, leads the team in minutes played. Wes is mired in a shooting slump (37.6 FG%, 28.4 3FG% in last 15 games) but insists he’ll play his way out of it. “Look, he’s fine,” Carlisled remarked after yesterday’s game. “I’m not going to fistfight him tomorrow to try to get him to sit out.”
    The Mavs have a well-seasoned roster whose top 8 players in minutes-per-game are aged 27 and up, and six of them (excepting Matthews and swingman Chandler Parsons) are at least 30. One of them, former Hawk Devin Harris, has missed the past several games and was left back in Big D to heal his sprained toe.
    Mark Cuban is more interested in fielding a League of Legends team than pulling any moves as the trade deadline approaches. “Nothing is really tempting to us,” Cuban told Mavs.com recently. Injecting youth for the sake of youth ahead of the playoffs only threatens Dallas’ team chemistry.
    Collectively, Dallas doesn’t turn the ball over (12.3 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), as only DFW-raised Deron Williams exceeds two TOs per game. They set up lots of three-point shots (28.0 3FGAs per game, 4th in NBA) and tend to make their free throws (10th in NBA for FT%).
    The one bad free throw shooter among their top scorers in Parsons (61.6 FT%), who is bouncing back in other aspects of his offensive game (January: 16.1 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 43.8 3FG%). Much like Atlanta, they shy away from crashing the offensive glass (20.4 O-Reb%, 29th in NBA), save for easy opportunities for Pachulia or JaVale McGee.
    Unlike Atlanta, the Mavs do clean up on the defensive end with a focus on rebounding (34.2 D-Rebs per game, 3rd in NBA) over blocks (28th in NBA) and steals (25th in NBA). Altogether, they’re smack in the middle of the league (15th in NBA) in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Yet they’re over-achieving at 10th in the overall NBA standings. That’s because they have veteran leadership that actually leads, a no-nonsense coach armed with a contract extension that still won’t accept mediocrity, and a vocal owner that’s willing to pull strings and take risks at the first sign of slippage.
    Dallas will try to make more hay out of the turnovers they produce against Atlanta. In their last meeting in mid-December, the Mavs committed just 9 turnovers to the visiting Hawks’ 15, yet were outscored off turnovers by a 17-16 margin as the Hawks wrested back the lead in the final three minutes to prevail, 98-95.
    Bench players like J.J. Barea (0-for-6 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) and Dwight Powell did light work in yesterday’s game, Jeff Hornacek’s swan song in Dallas, and will be expected by Carlisle to help Dallas push the pace. Raymond Felton filled into the starting lineup in place of Nowitzki and recorded six assists (zero TOs) as the Mavs went small against the Suns.
    As for the Atlanta Hawks (27-22), losers in their last three games, and in five of their last six? When they decide to give their fans something worth writing about, we’ll mention it.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Phew! Got LeBron out of here just in time!”

    The race to be the Best of the Rest is still on! For all their losing ways of late, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to regain their clutch on the third-seed in the Eastern Conference, with another road win in Miami against the heat (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports). With another road loss, what would be their third in their last four away games, they could drop as far as sixth.
    The Hawks can’t say their Southeast Division foes haven’t given them ample opportunity to pull away. Charlotte floundered but is surviving through the absences of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson, while the Wizards have struggled to keep Bradley Beal on the floor.
    Orlando has stayed relatively intact but have missed Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo for spells recently. Only the Magicians have failed to regain their footing in the division, and even with amid an 8-game losing skid, they’re still just 5.5 games behind Atlanta (27-21).
    Erik Spoelstra’s club went through a 2-8 stretch in mid-January, with wins coming only at Phoenix and at Denver, grinning and bearing their way through the schedule despite injuries hampering Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and Hassan Whiteside (strained oblique, missed last four games and out again today).
    In addition to dealing with injuries, home games like today’s have become a rarity for Miami. After a home-friendly start to the year, this will be just the second game at AmericanAirlines Arena since January 6. The heat return home with their spirits lifted after three straight road wins in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee. But even after today’s game, the heat hit the road again for three games (at Houston, Dallas and Charlotte), before returning to host the Clippers and Spurs.
    Part of Miami’s turnaround of late has to do with boosting the pace and making smart offensive plays. Looking as healthy as he has in awhile, Wade has led the charge in his past four games (25.3 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.0 TOs/game, 51.3 FG%). The heat are not great 3-point shooters (32.9 team 3FG%, 27th in NBA), and Wade isn’t wasting much time with those (8 3FG attempts since Miami won in Atlanta on Dec. 14, no 3FGs made since Dec. 16).
    What he is doing is penetrating lanes, getting to the free throw line (10-for-13 FTs @MIL last Friday), dishing the ball to teammates in advantageous positions (15 total assists in last two games). He’s also finding his comfort zone on long-distance two-pointers, particularly on the left side of the rim. But it’s not all on offense where the 34-year-old star is making his mark.
    “He can’t do it the whole game,” Chris Bosh remarked to the Palm Beach Post, “but late in the game he can guard their best guy. Period. And that guy’s probably not gonna get open. If he really wants to, he ‘s gonna lock him up.” The heat have only won by four or five points in their past three games, and Wade has been prominent in sealing the deal.
    Wade stripped Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim on Friday with under 30 seconds to go, keeping the big Buck from tying the game. If Miami is turning to Wade to help out in the paint, particularly since Whiteside and Chris Andersen (knee soreness) cannot go, Atlanta’s perimeter shooters have to be primed and ready to catch-and-shoot quickly. The Hawks were not aided on Friday by either Kyle Korver or Mike Scott (combined 2-for-13 3FGs).
    Ultimately, if you’re going to get a jump on Miami with offense, you’d better do it early. Even with the recent absence of Whiteside, the heat has the league’s best fourth-quarter defensive rating (97.7 opponent points per 100 possessions) and hold teams to just 41.7 FG% in the closing frame. Thanks to this, according to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, their fourth-quarter +1.1 is their only net positive point differential in quarters of games.
    Despite a +1.7 fourth-quarter differential that ranks 4th in the league, the past two games (17-21 vs. LAC, 17-29 vs. IND) haven’t helped Atlanta’s standing. After playing from behind for much of the contest, the Hawks clawed their way to a 90-88 lead in Indy on Friday night, only to pull the rip cord and watch the Pacers go on a blistering 23-2 run to close the game out.
    Despite playing through nagging injuries from time to time, the Hawks have held together physically, if not psychologically, through much of the season. All-Star forward Paul Millsap sprained an ankle midway through the loss in Indiana, but is expected to be good-to-go at tip-off time today.
    Still, all of the signs of pending collapse are there for Atlanta, after a disappointing January (6-8) that concludes this evening. Having played the East’s second-easiest strength of schedule so far (48% winning percentage of played opponents, as per PlayoffStatus.com, they now face the East’s most daunting schedule going forward (54% winning percentage of remaining opponents).
    Particularly without Millsap, the Hawks could find no means of stopping Indiana’s offense. Al Horford was out-Horforded by rookie first-time starter Myles Turner in Indiana, and needs to put up a stronger two-way effort against his fellow floor-spreading big Bosh (22.0 PPG, 52.8 FG% in last six games) today. Both Millsap and Horford need to keep starting center Amar’e Stoudemire occupied in the paint.
    With the aid of Deng and rookie reserve Justise Winslow, Miami clamped down on the Hawks’ starting guards (Jeff Teague and Korver 4-for-24 FGs) in last month’s 100-88 win. Kent Bazemore was left open and carried the team offensively (28 points, 11-for-18 FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs), but he cannot get it done himself.
    Thabo Sefolosha’s offense (4-for-5 FTs, 13 points) awoke after a month-long slumber, but Atlanta’s reserves universally struggled on the floor defensively on Friday. The bench has to keep Gerald Green (20 points on 9-for-14 FGs in Miami’s 100-88 win in Atlanta on Dec. 14) from getting the green-light shots he wants, particularly in transition. Tyler Johnson is questionable with a strained shoulder, adding to the need for the Hawks’ bench to build a sizable advantage.
    Dragic returned against Milwaukee (12 points, 8 assists) after missing eight games with a calf injury, and it’s hoped he’ll continue elevating the pace of play (29th in NBA) for Miami. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder need to be the one-two punch for Atlanta that pushes the tempo and puts Dragic (and Wade) to work on defense, early and often.
    The Hawks will be visited by Miami on February 19, and by that time the trading deadline will have expired. Despite the recent upturn in play for the heat, another slide will likely compel team president Pat Riley to make critical trade offers that get the team below the punitive luxury tax apron. Today is the last opportunity Atlanta will have to kick those executive phone calls into high drive. Another losing skid for either team would drop them from the Best of the Rest and leave them competing among the Least o the East.
    Let’s Go Hawks!