“Need a new mascot, Hawaiian Punch? I’ve got just the guy…”
The Atlanta Hawks got a chance to scout both the Clippers and the Indiana Pacers, as both upcoming opponents played on Tuesday. That didn’t seem to help the Hawks avoid a muckfest and a loss to the Clippers last night. Ahead of tonight’s matchup with the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Indiana), the Pacers themselves got a day off to rest and scout the opposition. Will that reflect in their play before an increasingly nervous home crowd?
In the Eastern Conference, after Cleveland and Toronto, who’s the Best of the Rest? Much like the Clippers, the Pacers compressed the Hawks offense in Atlanta, riding Monta Ellis’ 26 points to a 93-87 win in December 28, ending a four-game losing streak. Indiana then eked past the Hawks in the standings in mid-January to peak at 22-16, the choice was becoming quite obvious.
Well, that was before Indiana (23-22) dropped six of their last seven, the one break being a three-point victory in Phoenix. Now they sit in the East’s 8th-seed spot, with four teams closer to catching them than they are of catching Atlanta (27-20).
All-star starter and franchise face Paul George (31 points, 11 rebounds in 38 minutes vs. LAC on Tuesday) doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge a little fatigue in his comeback season from a broken leg. To the Indianapolis Star, George recently attributed his inconsistent play of late to, “just being overly confident that I can go out and still do the things I was doing (earlier in the season),” when PG was November’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
The notions that the perennial MVP candidate is “all the way back” from his injury have ebbed. “It’s not the case. It’s hard and it’s weighing on me right now, it’s weighing on my body, it’s weighing on my mental (approach). It just sucks knowing where you were at.”
Since breaking out of the gate in November (27.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 45.9 FG%, 45.5 3FG%), George’s offensive production has slid (22.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 38.9 FG%, 34.4 3FG%, 3.7 TOs/game). Tuesday’s game was just the second time in the last 25 games he made 10 or more field goals (compared to nine times in his first 20 games). After pouring on 34 points in Sacramento and 31 against the Clippers in losing causes, George (career-low 41.5 FG%) is crying out for some consistent help.
The next four leading scorers for Indiana, guards Monta Ellis (43.5 FG%, 27.9 3FG%), George “Blondie” Hill (44.1 FG%, 44.8 2FG%), Rodney Stuckey (41.0 FG%, 20.8 3FG%) and swingman C.J. Miles (39.2 FG%) haven’t fared all that much better. So head coach Frank Vogel is turning more and more to a rookie big that’s been turning plenty of heads lately.
Pacers (former) reserve Myles Turner was unleashed in Denver a couple weeks ago, and turned in an 11-for-13 FG shooting display for 25 points that featured a very comfortable mid-range game. Five days later, thanks to his 31 points (12-for-17 FGs, 7-for-9 FTs) and 8 rebounds, Indiana was one of the rare teams that escaped the wrath of Golden State reasonably unscathed, a 12-point loss at Oracle. Turner had little problem getting shots off against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers, scoring 16 off the bench (7-for-11 FGs for 16 points in just 18 minutes). Turner’s teammates shot just 38.9% from the field in Tuesday’s loss.
“Definitely want to look at that,” Vogel told reporters recently, about the possibilities of pairing Turner and Ian Mahinmi together (they tried this last week in Phoenix, briefly, before Mahinmi re-sprained an ankle). “I like the idea of those guys playing together.” Especially since it may be a good reason to suspend the grand Larry Bird Experiment and pull George further away from the basket as a small forward.
Bird is pretty much left to shrug his shoulders on Vogel’s plan to go back to playing big. “We talk about it daily,” Larry Legend told Pacers.com. “I think he feels comfortable going with two bigs. I wanted to score 103 points a game.” The Pacers sit at 102.3 PPG (2nd in the East), with George’s occasional struggles, so not much to fuss about there.
Ideally, Bird wanted George to spend the lion’s share of time at the 4-spot so he wouldn’t be chasing guards around the perimeter, but the wear-and-tear of defending in the paint is showing, too. “If (Vogel) feels that’s what he thinks will get us the most wins, that’s what we should do.” With the green-light to revert to the days of Hibbert and West, all Vogel needs are some wins at his sails. Vogel announced late today that Turner will begin his starter duties tonight at power forward, ahead of Lavoy Allen.
“I know my bro Myles Turner should (have) made that Rising Star list. Keep Ya head up bro(.) We will show who are the best rookies this year!!” This nugget of pseudo-fraternal love was tweeted by Joe Young, the backup guard to Hill that is beginning to work his way into the rotation as well.
Young’s time to shine came courtesy of the injury to Stuckey (sprained foot/bone bruise) and paternity leave for Hill. Against the Nuggets, the second-rounder scored 15 points (7-for-11 2FGs) and added 7 assists with just a single turnover. Versus the Warriors, the former Oregon star made half of his 12 shots along the way to 16 points, plus 8 assists in a season-high 28 minutes.
Young isn’t restless, but he is hungry to improve his shooting and defense to increase his floor time. He’ll also need to control the ball better, and his four turnovers against L.A. on Tuesday in ten minutes won’t help his cause.
George is not the only Paul to openly express some fatigue in recent days. “Tired!” was the first utterance from Paul Millsap, responding to Olivia Harlan in his halftime interview amid last night’s game. Horford was similarly caught grabbing his own shorts as the half was winding to a close.
This was despite the Clips being the team that flew in to complete their road trip with a back-to-back, and despite the team forgoing shootaround for a pregame walkthrough. It was Horford who was flung to the floor like a rag doll in the Clippers’ game-winning play, an Easy-Bake dish from Chris Paul to Jordan for an open jam. With the game again on the line, it was Millsap who blew two shots from close-range that could have at least produced overtime.
Millsap has just heard that he’ll be headed to the All-Star Game for a third-straight time, and his honor should not be tainted by last night’s performance. It should be noted that while Millsap and the Hawks are rightfully derided for their “clutchiness” of late, it is currently the All-Star starter George’s Pacers with the most losses (7) by one-possession in the Association.
Still days removed from their West Coast road trip, will the Hawks continue to look, and sound, as though they’re suffering through jet lag? Atlanta players committed a season-worst 22 turnovers (9 by Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder; 8 by Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha) against Los Angeles. Both the Pacers (20.1 points per-48, 1st in NBA) and Hawks (19.7 points per-48, 2nd in NBA) feast on opponents’ turnovers. So when the Hawks coughed up 20 turns (6 by Teague) against in their last trip to Indiana on December 28, the outcome wasn’t all that hard to predict.
Just like the Pacers’ ten missed free throws came back to haunt them in a 91-89 defeat at the hands of the Clippers on Tuesday, the Hawks met a similar fate one night later. They resorted to hacking Jordan (7-for-12 FTs) and coming away looking hypocritical (7-for-14 team FTs) in the 85-83 setback that wasted an otherwise solid defensive effort against a shorthanded and road-weary but still star-studded team.
Finally a starter, Turner will provide a great match-up for Millsap (team-high 24 points vs. IND on Dec. 28) and Horford (5-for-8 2FGs, 1-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC). A superior rim protector to Mahinmi, Turner is also willing to come out to defend Horford’s jumpers, or those of anyone in his vicinity. But the limited defense at the wing for Indiana (28.7 opponent restricted-area FG attempts per game, 4th-most in East) is leaving them exposed to cutters when he vacates the paint.
“We can talk all these stats defensively,” Bird lamented in a Pacers.com midseason interview, “but how many times did we get beat backdoor the other night in key situations?” As Pacer defenders scramble to cover leaks into the paint, there are often open shots available in the corners (7.1 opponent corner 3FGAs per game, 4th-most in East). Unlike last night, this is an ideal setup for Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott to feast and take some pressure off of Millsap and Horford. Perhaps, one other Hawk as well.
Despite all the turnovers and 41.9% shooting against the Pacers in December, the Hawks stayed in contention late, thanks to 14 points (6-for-8 FGs) and 7 rebounds off the bench by Thabo Sefolosha. Besides his scoring, seal-tight defense in tandem with Paul Millsap on George (3-for-14 FGs, 9 points) helped hold the Pacers to just three points in the closing three minutes of action.
If anyone, Sefolosha can certainly sympathize with George’s challenges of recovering from a broken leg during a full season of basketball. Those 14 points on December 28 were the most Thabo has contributed in any ballgame since (last 14 games: 5.3 PPG, 5.3 3FG% - not a typo, 39.7 FG%). While his defense remains valuable (at least one steal in each of his last seven games), the Hawks must find a way to get Sefolosha going offensively, lest his teammates struggle as defenses play them 5-on-4.
Vogel did not have to gameplan much for a very cold Kyle Korver (0-for-8 3FGs) in his last meeting with Atlanta. In his last three games, though, Korver has shown a greater comfort level with shot/pass decision-making, and it shows in his improved accuracy from deep (66.7 3FG%). Ellis will scratch-and-claw at the ball as a help defender but does little to get through screens, like the one that helped Korver get free and granting the Hawks their final lead late in last night’s game.
The need to help Ellis may spring Hill free from his occupation of Teague and/or Schröder, or George from the Hawks’ forwards. All of these players should be prepared to receive the ball and get to the rim quickly. An emphasis on smart passing and player movement over excessive dribbling will keep the ball out of George (2.0 SPG) and the Pacers’ greedy clutches and bring Atlanta’s turnovers back down to sane levels.
“I am looking at 9-and-0!” If you’ve heard this a lot in the past couple of months on Atlanta sports radio (92.9 FM), that’s because the drive-time hosts were looking ahead at the football Falcons’ schedule and predicting great things. We know how that turned out. It was similarly simplistic to look ahead to a soft January schedule for the Hawks and know that, at the very worst, barring health issues, they’d extend their winning months of basketball (discounting Octobers) to ten.
Now sitting at 6-7 for the month, the Hawks are out to close out a disappointing January right at .500. Both teams want to climb out of the Eastern Conference’s crab barrel soon, and a win tonight for either squad would go a long way in the fight to become the Best of the Rest.
Let’s Go Hawks!