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    “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!
    “Stick and Move! Stick and Move!”

    To the fans who planned on trolling Josh Smith tonight, as the L.A. Clippers face the Atlanta Hawks at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, PRIME), I am sorry to break it to both of you.  The New Day has been deferred until mid-March, as Smoove was rocketed back to Houston. But have no fear, Paul Pierce is here! He’s already called Series, I’m sure! And he will be far busier for the Clips than he ever anticipated.
    This just in: Funny thing… it turns out, the Pimp Hand isn’t all that strong. Blake Griffin had to learn this the hard way a few days ago, when he two-pieced a co-worker at a Toronto restaurant. While an equipment staffer is being soothed back home with Microsoft Money to pay for his swollen face and make the whole ordeal go away, Griffin is the one who needs to wear a mask around Tinseltown. That’s because he decided Keeping It Real was more important than maintaining the structural integrity of his shooting hand, imperiling the Clippers’ postseason seeding prospects.
    Griffin was already aware, over the weekend, that he would be unavailable for this week’s contests in Indiana and Atlanta. This, after plans to return two weeks after tearing his quad in a Christmas game were already delayed, may have served as underlying frustration. But now, his pugilistic exploits on his fellow employee and reported pal will cost him a return trip to Toronto in a couple weeks, 4-to-6 more weeks on the pine to mend, plus whatever post-appeal punishments get handed down by the team and the Association.
    Odds are, with the money available to paper over the issue, Griff will never face charges for his battery. But barring a major kiss-and-make-up event, this flare-up will hover over team morale for awhile. The Clippers (29-16) ran through nine straight less-than-imposing opponents, and despite losing half of their past six, the prevailing sentiment was, “Imagine how good we can be, once Blake gets back!”
    Now, the prospect of playing 15, 20, or even more games Griffin-free, plus whatever added time it takes for him to get re-acclimated with shooting, dribbling, passing and defense on the floor, has L.A. wondering just how sustainable this latest run at the Conference Finals is, really. Is the toast of Rodeo Drive about to hit Skid Row?
    Clippers GM/coach Doc Rivers had already tired of his fellow former Hawk, sending Josh Smith plus cash back to H-Town in exchange for some fava beans. It was supposed to be addition-by-subtraction, the supposition being that Griffin was on the verge of returning, and Rivers had already demonstrated the Clips had a puncher’s chance (sorry) to win any game, even while Smoove and Lance Stephenson were busy slapboxing each other on the sideline.
    Instead, it’s up to the 38-year-old Pierce (8.2 PPG, 37.3 FG%, 35.9 3FG% since starting in place of Griffin), Atlanta’s favorite postseason foil, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (19 points w/ PHI vs. short-handed ATL last March) to hold the fort at the forward spots for an indeterminable period. Backup center Cole Aldrich (career-high 5.9 PPG) has earned enough trust for Rivers to part ways with Smith, and will see more minutes alongside Jordan when the Clips want to risk going big with their lineup. For this trio, their job is basically to defend as best they can, and not turn the ball over as they defer to the Clippers’ remaining stars.
    All-Star Chris Paul (NBA-high 51.0 Assist%; 9.6 APG), league-best perimeter shooter J.J. Redick (48.9 3FG%), and Paul’s Hooper-wife DeAndre Jordan (NBA-high 71.4 FG%; 13.5 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 19 rebounds vs. IND last night) will all continue to elevate their shot volumes in Griffin’s absence. Meanwhile, Rivers will rotate bench guys like Wesley Johnson (5-for-6 3FGs vs. IND last night), former Hawk and current trade-bait Jamal Crawford (NBA-high 92.0 FT%), Stephenson, Doc’s son Austin, and Pablo Prigioni, in hopes he’ll find someone with a hot hand.
    The strategies have borne fruit so far, as the Clippers conclude what is already their third five-game road-trip on the season. L.A. has come away victorious in their last three games on the second night of a back-to-back set, after losing their first four this season.
    In the battle of Demon Deacon alums, Jeff Teague will be challenged to stay in front of Paul, but he and his teammates must recognize that Paul is much more dangerous as a passer than as an interior halfcourt shooter (47.8 2FG%, his lowest since 2006-07). The Clippers don’t turn the ball over much (13.0 TOs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA), so forcing L.A. into suboptimal shots and rebounding will be critical. Despite the decoy Jordan presents, 35% of the Clips’ points coming in the paint is a league-low, so the more mid-range shots (and fewer threes and free throws) induced by the Hawks, the better.
    Atlanta must keep Jordan out of lob territory, seal off passing lanes allowing Paul to kick out to perimeter shooters, and contest Paul’s three-point shots (4-for-8 3FGs vs. IND) late in the shot clock without bailout fouls. It’s essential for Hawk defenders to minimize catch-and-shoot opportunities for Jordan (62.7 TS%, 4th in NBA despite 41.4 FT%) and Redick (64.8 TS%, 2nd in NBA behind Curry).
    On offense, Al Horford (49.6 2FG% from 16 feet out; 8-for-12 FGs, 2 rebounds vs. DEN on Monday) should be able to play pick-your-poison with Jordan (2.2 BPG, 3rd in NBA). Either come out of the paint to contest Horford’s jumpers, or camp out and allow Paul Millsap to wear down Pierce or Mbah a Moute on the low block. Millsap’s mismatches can also open up shots for the Hawks on the weakside and in the near corner.
    Led by Paul (2.0 SPG), the Clippers managed to exert enough energy last night to hold Indiana scoreless for about eight minutes in the second half, then fended off a late rally from Paul George and the Pacers to escape with a 91-89 win. They would certainly appreciate a low-pace game tonight. The Clippers will foul (31.0 opponent FTA rate, 3rd in NBA) when they need to slow the game down, so Millsap (86.0 FT% last 11 games) and the Hawks must convert when they’re granted trips to the free throw line.
    Three is the magic number not only for Redick but Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who has sunk at least three triples in his last three games for the first time since Black Friday. Kyle has also assisted on three-or-more baskets in his last four contests. His four assists in Monday’s win over the Nuggets raises the Hawks’ record to 8-1 this season (20-2 last season) when he logs at least four dimes. Korver needs to keep his body and the ball in motion, to keep Redick and the Clippers’ perimeter defenders guessing.
    The Hawks’ fastbreak opportunities will come not off of turnovers but from defensive rebounds and catching L.A. flat-footed on quick inbounds after they score baskets. Even as trade winds begin to swirl, Atlanta has the energy and the focus advantage coming into tonight’s action, so it’s on them to find different ways of beating the Clippers to the punch (sorry).
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I Can Has Rebound?”

    Are our Atlanta Hawks playing down to the level of their opponents? Or is this simply their new level? In either case, we’ll get to see the Hawks play at a level not experienced all season tonight – Mile High, or however far up the Denver Nuggets play at the Pepsi Center (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude).
    The thin air hasn’t been kind for Our Fine Feathered Friends in the past decade or so. The last time Atlanta pulled off a W in the 303, Lorenzen Wright, Tyronn Lue, and Shelden Williams were all starters. Back in December 2006, Salim Stoudemire dropped 21 off the bench to help Joe Johnson erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and barely outpoint Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony.
    Since then, no matter if it was George Karl, Brian Shaw or Melvin Hunt running the sideline, the Nuggets have always held serve at home. The Hawks’ downright laughable display in Phoenix on Saturday night produced little confidence that things will change tonight.
    Al Horford grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds (12 defensive) against the remnants of the Suns, but he and the Hawks could only sit back and watch as Tyson Chandler (27 rebounds, 13 offensive, by himself) took their lunch money and bought himself a chimichanga.
    Yes, the Hawks (26-19) were without All-Star forward Paul Millsap for personal reasons, and he’ll be back and ready to go tonight. But just because you have a missing link doesn’t mean you have to play like one. Deadspin even took time to comment on the absurd closing minutes as two teams “just kind of (running) around like a bunch of puppies in the snow.”
    The wide-open spaces around Atlanta’s hoop have to look tantalizing to Denver’s three-headed monster at center, consisting of rookie Nikola Jokic (61.4 TS%, 10th in NBA; 17 points and 3 blocks on Saturday), Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. In a pinch, Nurkic and his immediate family could back up the Broncos’ O-Line in Super Bowl 50.
    Forward Kenneth Faried (53.6 FG%, 5th in NBA; 3.7 O-Rebs per game) has a sore adductor and while it’s unlikely he’ll appear, after seeing Chandler’s exploits, he certainly will do all he can to get in this game. That’s just four of seven Nuggets (26.4 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) averaging at least one offensive board per game.
    Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (1.1 O-Rebs per game 19.3 PPG, 7.8 FT attempts per game) is known to do some slashing-and-crashing himself. The 16 freebies he earned in Saturday night’s home win (plus the game-winning fade-away with 24 seconds left, along the way to 30 points) left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson (himself a former Coloradoan) grasping for answers, if not air.
    “A guy’s shooting 16. Great player, but a guy’s shooting 16,” RJax bemoaned, while poring over Danilo’s line in the postgame boxscore. “I attack the basket more than most players in the league and I can’t get a free throw. I shot two free throws. We shot 19, he shot 16 by himself. It makes no sense.”
    It can make sense if you lack defenders capable of keeping Gallo from forays into the paint without committing cheap fouls. The Hawks have two such players in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but both will be out to make amends after their half-baked play in Phoenix.
    Sefolosha (3 steals vs. PHX) certainly can’t be blamed for Archie Goodwin’s game-winning prayer, but he’ll have to do better than the 1-for-9 FG shooting he turned in. Despite a team-high 21 points and his game-tying baskets during the Benny Hill-themed conclusion, Bazemore blew dunks, free throws, and chunks defensively throughout much of the game. His glee over his Carolina Panthers victory last night will hopefully translate into better play at both ends today.
    Bazemore lacks the size to wrangle with Gallinari inside, so Mike Budenholzer will look to switch Millsap (4th in NBA for defensive win shares) onto him. That would grant Bazemore and Sefolosha more time to keep human energy-shot Will Barton, Gary Harris and jump-shooters Randy Foye and Mike Miller cool from long-range.
    While he’s still 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring, Barton has cooled off significantly (34.4 FG%, 29.5 3FG%, 11.5 PPG in January) after a torrid December run (20.8 PPG) had him in the hunt for Sixth Man of the Year. The defense-oriented Harris (career-high 5 steals vs. DET) is improving across-the-board on the offensive end, but will be tasked tonight with chasing Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. PHX) off the three-point line.
    The heady play directed by Nuggets coach Mike Malone has translated into some surprising wins and many more competitive outcomes. It’s been nearly a month since Denver (17-27) last dropped a contest by double digits. They’re hoping to make this eight-game homestand that concludes tonight a winning one. During this stretch, the Nuggets posted wins over a sleepy Golden State and Indiana, plus close-shave losses to Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis.
    Malone will rely on more interior offensive play to wear down Horford and Millsap, knowing the duo is getting little help so long as Tiago Splitter continues to look like an accidental tourist on the floor. If Faried remains out, Denver will need big minutes from forward Darrell Arthur (18-and-11 vs. GSW; career-best 41.5 3FG%) to spread Atlanta’s defense thin. They’ll also need someone capable of feeding the big men the ball.
    That’s where Emmanuel Mudiay (18 points, 4 assists and 4 TOs vs. DET on Saturday) comes in. The rookie returned for the Nuggets’ homestand after missing a month due to injury, and he continues to find his footing as a shooter (last 8 games: 37.6 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 55.2 FT%) and a passer (5.6 APG, 3.1 TOs per game). But as ballhandlers go, Mudiay (16.0 TO%, highest among starting NBA point guards) is about the only option Malone has available. Jameer Nelson can only coach from the sideline as he heals an injured wrist. That the next leading player in assists per-36 is Mike Miller tells you about all you need to know.
    Jeff Teague (10.5 PPG, 37.3 2FG%, 19.6 TO% this month) picked a fine time to let slip The World’s Worst Secret, after his Hawks fell flat once again on the road. “I’m dealing with an ankle injury,” he advised to a pestering C-Viv at the AJC. “That’s okay, I’ll be back,” which are soothing words to hear, if you happen to be rooting for The Terminator.
    This was a stretch of games for Atlanta where it would have been in the team’s best interest to rest that ankle, let lead conditioning guy Keke Lyles do some of his magic off-line, and allow Dennis Schröder (19 points, team-high 5 assists off bench vs. PHX; 36.2 Assist%, 9th in NBA) and Shelvin Mack to fully cut their teeth.
    If he (and Coach Bud) insists on him starting, he might as well make himself useful. Other high-turnover opponents (Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams) have come out smelling like roses in recent games against Atlanta, and point guard-by-default Goodwin (24 points, 8-for-9 FTs) looked like Steve Francis with drives to the hoop on Saturday.
    If Teague (4-for-13 FGs, 3 assists, 5 TOs vs. a shell of a team in PHX) can neither get the separation he needs to zip past subpar opposing guards and finish plays inside, nor stay in front of cat-quick guards like Mudiay, then he needs to be in Budenholzer’s “player development” purgatory until he demonstrates that he can, once again, do these things.
    Teague contributed 3 or more steals in 21 games last season, but just four times in 42 appearances this season and in none of his last 11 games. While there’s much attention laid on his shots around the rim (career-low 49.2 FG% on lay-ups), the once-patented floater is just about gone from his arsenal as well (career-low 30.2 FG% between 3-10 feet from rim).
    If the starting point guard struggles to produce points, and struggles to guard, there’s simply no point in starting. Even as Millsap’s return to the lineup will boost the scoring, hustle, and rebounding, the Hawks’ success tonight will be sustained for as long as their lead guards can reliably carry them.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “My! Three Suns!”

    Get Off My Well-Manicured Lawn! As tonight’s battle looms between the Atlanta Hawks and whatever passes as the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona) these days, the building frustration over the flameout of the Suns (13-31) has owner Robert Sarver ornery, about… you guessed it… millennials. Kids these days.
    “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks,” Sarver railed recently, “and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it. I'm not sure if it's the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I'm not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it's like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations.” This confirms that one of the Suns’ towel boys also runs their Twitter page.
    Sarver may be having a tough time dealing with one of the elder millennials, in particular, on his executive team. GM Ryan McDonough may have waited too long to deal Keef after that “setback with his brother” (the more recent setback, anyway), and now has a caustic mess on his hands. The Suns swung for the fences this summer by signing 35-year-old Tyson Chandler to $13 million this year, plus $39 million more for the next three seasons. They wound up with a bloop single, when the move to acquire Chandler was insufficient to pry LaMarcus Aldridge from San Antonio’s grasp.
    After getting shaded by Goran Dragic last season, McDonough rewarded Brandon Knight for his half-season of loyalty with a 5-year, $70 million extension this summer. Struggling to keep Phoenix afloat on most nights without Eric Bledsoe (out for season after knee surgery) sharing the backcourt, Knight went to L.A. yesterday to check out an aggravated abductor strain, and is questionable to play tonight after missing Thursday’s blowout loss to Aldridge’s Spurs.
    As Dragic, miffed about being crowded out of the backcourt by mates Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, was getting dealt last February, McDonough also helped out his old buddies (GMs: stop doing this!) by sending Thomas to the Celtics. None of Dragic, Knight, or Bledsoe will be an All-Star this season, but it turns out Thomas has a very good shot. The Suns will get the Cavs’ first-rounder this summer for their trouble, but there’s reason to believe neither of McDonough or head coach Jeff Hornacek will be around town to find out what happens with it.
    Horny’s been dead-coach-walking for some time now, but he can at least point to the rash of injuries the Suns have been dealing with, plus the Mole-keiff Morris situation, as reasons for the disappointments this season. He could blame his boss directly, but that’s just something millennials would do before deleting their Instagram posts. Anyway, as of the moment, he’s still there.
    Two of Hornacek’s top assistants weren’t so lucky. Sarver canned Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting after falling at home to the Suxers, just ahead of a game versus Cleveland, something David Blatt probably found to be a tad rash at the time. With the continued lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive end, Phoenix’s slide has continued (one win in its last 16 games), and now the injuries have reached the point where Hornacek might have to sign a 10-day himself.
    Blaming tired legs for Shaqting-a-Fool on a dunk try versus the Pacers on Tuesday, Morris strained his shoulder in the process. Knight and Jon Leuer (back spasms) are officially out tonight, while Morris, Mirza Teletovic (ankle), and P.J. Tucker (bruised chest), are all wild cards to suit up in orange-and-purple against Atlanta tonight. Ronnie Price (toe) recently joined Bledsoe among the guards that were shelved post-surgery.
    Hornacek was left with just nine players (two of them 10-day contracts, forward Cory Jefferson and guard Lorenzo Brown) at his disposal on Thursday against the Spurs. In turn, San Antonio disposed of Phoenix in the fourth quarter despite some spirited play from guys like center Alex Len. Chandler (5.4 PPG, 20 blocks in 35 games) has been not much more than a well-paid nanny for Len to this point, but did give Phoenix its money’s worth with 20 rebounds against the Spurs, while Len surprised with a couple monster yams on Spurs monster-rookie Boban Marjanovic.
    If there’s one millennial Sarver won’t shake his fist at, it’s the youngest player in the league. Against Indiana, Devin Booker (17.7 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 34.9 3FG% this month) became the third-youngest NBA player to drop 30 or more points in a game, bested only by Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He followed that up by pouring in 24 points and five assists against a tough Spurs defense. This wasn’t supposed to be Devin Booker’s Team already, but the Suns have been left with little choice.
    Without Knight, the Suns will again be limited at point guard, leaving Hornacek to turn to Dennis Schröder’s troll-victim Archie Goodwin. There is no reason for Jeff Teague and Schröder to struggle on either end against Goodwin, Sonny Weems or whomever the Suns throw out there to handle the rock.
    Even Knight (3.5 TOs/game, 7th in NBA), often guilty of doing way too much in crunch time, would have created lots of points-off-turnovers for the Hawks. Despite having two top-ten TO-committers on the floor together in Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, it was Atlanta who coughed up the ball six times in the final quarter on Thursday, as they failed to mount a comeback against a similarly-fatigued Sacramento team.
    Phoenix will try to use Mirza (42.5 3FG%, 12th in NBA), their healthiest leading scorer in T.J. Warren (11.1 PPG, 41.5 3FG%), and/or Booker to spread out Atlanta’s defense and then use Len and Chandler to crash the boards for putbacks and extra-chance points. But the Hawks (26-18) have the health, depth, and energy to outpace the Suns and use defensive pressure to keep plenty of Suns shots from getting up in the air in the first place.
    The Hawks have no excuse for finishing their evening below 110 points, especially coming off the paltry offensive display in Sactown two nights ago. Phoenix started the much giving up 142 points to the Kings and has allowed a league-high 112.0 PPG (40.1 opponent 3FG%, NBA-highs of 48.8 opponent FG% and 29.4 opponent FT attempts) in January. Atlanta is 21-2 when scoring in triple digits in regulation, including 11-0 when exceeding 110 points, 16-1 when surpassing 105.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “((COUGH)) Sorry! Just wolfed down too much Hot Chicken!”

    You’ll forgive the dinnertime product placement but, until very recently, you ever heard of Nashville Hot Chicken? Certainly, not this new-wave carpetbagger.  Yours truly had achieved a fairly comfy existence for a decade or four, including a trip or two to honky-tonk tourist-trap Lower Broad, without ever hearing of this culinary contraption. Suddenly, Fast Food, Inc. is foisting this entrée onto consumers at every commercial-break opportunity. It’s a wonder that Dirty Grandpa isn’t gnawing on some NHC. But, is it real? Is it finger lickin’ good? And will it last long enough for me to care?
    One other smoky-hot thing you may not have been introduced to heretofore? The Sacramento (Hot) Kings, coming off a Staples Sweep of the Clippers and Lakers. The Kings are poised to win on back-to-back nights for the first time since this season, if they can defeat the Atlanta Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), who just outlasted Portland last night.
    In so doing, Sacramento (18-25) will have won four in a row for the first time all season and, more significantly, would gain a foothold on the eighth-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. But are these Hot Kings real? Are they genuinely good now? Will the good vibes last long enough for anyone outside of Sactown to care?
    East Point’s Finest, former Olympian and Hawk All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s decent but brief NBA career was winding down when he finally got to taste the playoffs in 2006 (ending an NBA record drought) with Rick Adelman’s Kings. Led on the floor by Mike Bibby and an exiled Ron Artest, the Kings fell in the opening round to Nazr Mohammed’s and Mike Budenholzer’s San Antonio Spurs in six games.
    The Kings enjoyed brief stays in the postseason just twice in their first 13 seasons in the California capital, before Adelman’s arrival. But by 2006, an eighth-straight playoff appearance was ho-hum, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. In came former Lon Kruger and Mike Fratello assistant Eric Musselman, who could tell Coach Bud a thing or two about starting one’s head coaching career off on the wrong pedal foot. Out went Adelman, and with him went the last vestige of Sacramento’s playoff history. At least Reef hung around town for a little while longer.
    In the decade since, Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, and Ty Corbin have all been run through Sactown’s coaching grist mill. The franchise itself was oh-so-close to getting snatched out of town until two madmen (Mayor Kevin Johnson and team purchaser Vivek Ranadivé) collaborated to save the franchise from the clutches of the Pacific Northwest and also build a new palace that the team moves into next season. How nice would it be, though, to exit the dusty Sleep Train Arena with a couple playoff games?
    Don’t worry if you’re thinking that heads are getting too big here. Similar to the Pelicans of yesteryear, dreams of future championship contention can wait. Ranadivé has his fingers and toes crossed that by the time tax day comes around, his meddling maneuvers (including the reintroduction of George Karl to the sideline) and his team’s undying faith in the surly set of point guard Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, will bear fruit in the form of a first-round playoff series. And not just any series, mind you: one that brings Norcal’s spiciest hoop star, Steph Curry, and his Golden State Warriors back into town.
    By design, Sacramento’s offense has been Nashville hot (100+ points in 10 of their last 11 games) and the defense, like the aforementioned chicken, seems deeply coated in lard (100+ opponent points in 10 of their last 11 games). The one exception among the Kings’ opponents occurred last night, as Sacramento “held” the Lakers to 97 points. Coach Karl’s high-paced squad will graciously give up three-point shots (NBA-high 29.2 opponent 3FGAs per game). But if you’re hopelessly incapable of making them (LAL 4-for-25 3FGs yesterday), that’s not their fault.
    Despite having the touted “best big man in the game” in Cousins (4th in NBA in scoring and RPG, 1st in Usage%, 36-and-16 last night at Staples), the Kings are still spread a bit thin upfront. Lotto rookie Cousins’ and Rondo’s Wildcat cousin Willie Cauley-Stein starts by default, since he can dunk and swipe at everything resembling a basketball. Meanwhile, it might take a week before anyone realizes Kosta Koufos (10th in NBA in O-Reb%) swapped unis with Tiago Splitter. Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay have timeshared at the starting 4-spot (shifting Cousins back to center) and, well, just no.
    Karl, Vivek and the Kings’ competitive philosophy seems to be, “Hurry Up and Shoot, So We Can Hurry Up and Score.” A league-high 16.3% of Kings buckets (incl. 11.8% of their 2FGs) come with 18-22 seconds still left on the shot clock. It’s Reno Bighorns Basketball, writ large. Unfortunately for the Kings, the “Shoot” and “Score” roles get interchanged on many nights. Even yesterday, the Kings could not muster more than 6-for-20 from outside, even as guys like Kobe and Lou Williams presented as little resistance as possible.
    Defensively, the bigs will cluster around the paint, working like a co-op, striving to keep lanes clogged for 2.9 seconds at a time, and leaving it to Rondo (1.8 SPG) to provide a modicum of pressure to the opposing ball handler. While opponents are encouraged to swing the ball around and snipe away from the perimeter, Sacramento is susceptible to waving the white flag when said ball handler (0.86 opponent points per possession, just below Brooklyn and Portland; 48.0 eFG%, 3rd-highest in NBA) gets past Rondo (or Darren Collison) off a pick.
    The frenetic but limited frontcourt situation results in Sacramento allowing the fewest shots around the rim (34.5 opponent restricted-area FGAs) but a league-high 63.7% of those shots going in. Cousins (1.3 SPG, 2nd among NBA centers; 1.3 BPG) plugs just enough leaks to keep the Kings from giving up more than their league-high 107.9 opponent PPG. Perhaps, in a season like this, that’s all they’ll need.
    With last night’s win over the “Lackers,” DMC is back above-.500 (17-16) with the Kings in games played on the season. DMC was 9-6 last season, too, before he got injured at Vivek got crazy with Malone, but that’s neither nor there at this point.
    To stay winning, of course, Cousins has to maintain his on-court composure, such that it is, and not cost his team and himself by throwing ‘bows at sleeping almost-giants like Al Horford. Doing that back on November 18 marred his own 24-point (13 in the 1st quarter), 12-rebound performance at Philips Arena, and enlivened both Horford (mostly in the first half) and Paul Millsap (23 points, 16 boards) enough to halt, similar to tonight, the Kings’ incoming 3-game winning streak.
    The wet-nap that Dennis Schröder’s play reliably brought to clean up Atlanta’s messy starts lately finally dried up in Portland last night. His defense on Blazer guards was superior to Jeff Teague’s in the first half, but by the second half he proved a menace merely to courtside photographers, as he struggled to find the cup (3-for-13 FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs).
    Teague Time (6 second-half dimes) arrived just in time to help Atlanta pull away, but Schröder’s limited floor time (under 20 minutes in the past four games) will be useful on the second night of a back-to-back against Rondo (11 points, 17 assists @ LAL yesterday; 12 points, 12 boards, 10 assists, 7 TOs @ ATL on Nov. 18) and Collison.
    In place of an injured Teague, Schröder contributed 22 points and 6 assists (1 TO) in Atlanta’s 103-97 win back in November. Millsap referred to his team’s reserves (9-for-26 FGs, incl. Schröder; 1-for-7 3FGs) as “elite” in the postgame commentary, and we’ll need to see more production from them tonight to know Sap wasn’t merely speaking with tongue-in-cheek. The defensive rebounding (14.3 bench D-Rebs per game, 5th in NBA) and steals (NBA-high 4.3 bench SPG) this month suggest notions of the reserves’ potential impact is more than a non-starter.
    The Hawks prevailed in that November meeting without not only Teague, but Kent Bazemore (3-for-6 3FGs @ POR, matching Millsap’s 23 points), as both starters rested ankle sprains. Baze and Thabo Sefolosha will be instrumental in thwarting the Kings’ fast breaks, disrupting outlet passes from Cousins and the guards to finishers like Gay and Ben McLemore, and to sharpshooters like Omri Casspi (7th in NBA for 2FG%, 4th for 3FG%) and Marco Belinelli. Forcing Sacramento to resort to Plans B and C later in the shot clock will slow the tempo and work to Atlanta’s advantage.
    The Kings need to take better advantage of opponents boarding the Sleep Train on the back end of back-to-backs. They’re 1-5 in those scenarios thus far, including losses to their last two opponents (New Orleans and Golden State) before embarking on their successful three-game road trip.
    Meanwhile, the Hawks (26-17) have won here in their last seven trips going back to 2009, have won 15 straight in this head-to-head series, and are 7-3 (incl. their last 3 tries) on the back half of back-to-back sets this season. Extend those streaks with sound play at both ends tonight, inch a little further up in the East standings, and who knows? Maybe we even can market the thing. “Atlanta Hot Wings”… sounds tasty to me!
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Miss Me Yet? Yes? No? Maybe So?”

    Welcome to Snub City! The Atlanta Hawks have headed West, and are out to get back above-.500 on the road. Unfortunately, as was the case last season, they could not have possibly picked a worse time to run into Damian Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, ESPN, KGW-TV in PDX).
    Around this time last January, Baby Hooper showed off his Bitter Beer Face to the world when he was unable, at the time, to grab a spot on the Western Conference All-Star roster. Coincidentally, Lillard was in the ATL, planning to make an example out of a high-flying Hawks squad, thereby showing the NBA voters, the coaches “who feel I wasn’t good enough,” just what they’d be missing in mid-February.
    “A wise man once told me,” D-Lill mused on Instagram, “it ain’t always gone be peaches and cream but somebody has to pay for the reason it’s not.” Confucius, no doubt! Well, forty minutes of 6-for-20 shooting and six turnovers later, Atlanta had their 18th-consecutive victory under their belts, and even those voters in Lillard’s camp were having second thoughts.
    Now, it’s time to cue the synthesized violins once again. Lillard was perhaps the most notable snub as USA Basketball announced, on Monday, the 30 finalists for the U.S. National Men’s Basketball Team that will be going for the literal gold this summer.
    Dame was previously one of the final cuts for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup team in 2014 (his current teammate, starting center Mason Plumlee, made the cut, and returned for a 2015 mini-camp, but didn’t even get a call for 2016). Lillard’s embitterment toward the 2014 experience probably didn’t help his cause. “If I’m going to invest myself in something, I want to have a real opportunity in that,” Lillard told the Oregonian. “I felt the decision was already made before the decision was made. Whether I played good or bad, it didn’t matter.”
    As it stands, Lillard (24.4 PPG) is the highest-scoring NBA player, and second-best assist-maker among active Americans (behind tomorrow night’s opponent, Rajon Rondo), that will have to buy a ticket if he wants a shot at a trip to Brazil. Any designs on the part-time rhyme-spitter cutting videos with Snoop Dogg in Escadaria Selarón may have to get scrapped.
    Well, guess who trips into Rip City just as this news drops? Lillard is quite certain to play Blame it On Atlanta, now that he’s certainly not headed to Rio. “Ignore the dream killers and doubters,” he tweeted yesterday, “or just use them to fuel your [emojis of fire, or something]” (Mike Scott can probably translate for me). Tack on the likelihood that he’ll again be on the outside looking in when the All-Star votes roll in, and you can bet he’s already hit the studio to drop some bars on all this for his next mixtape. Help a brutha out: you got anything that rhymes with Colangelo?
    While Lillard goes for 50 (shots, if not points) tonight, it will be up to Jeff Teague to keep him in check, while ensuring the Hawks remain balanced offensively and control the pace of the game. Lillard generally stays out of the corners, and if a shot above-the break (7.6 FGAs per game, 2nd in NBA) isn’t available, he’ll tend to take a step or two inside for a mid-range J off a screen. Or he’ll try to slip past defenders on isolation drives to the hoop (6.1 restricted-area FGAs, 3rd among NBA guards).
    The good news is that Lillard shoots blanks going for points at point-blank (47.3 restricted-area FG%, lowest among NBA guards with 4+ shots per game) even more than Teague (49.5 restricted-area FG%, 6th-lowest) or Schröder (49.1 FG%, 5th-lowest). But it’s incumbent on the Hawks guards to avoid bailing Lillard out with fouls and limiting kickouts to McCollum (the Most Improved Player award candidate who, like Lillard, isn’t exactly shy around a microphone) and Crabbe (46.9 January 3FG%). It’s also on the Hawks’ frontcourt mates to box out for what should be a plethora of defensive rebounding chances.
    Here’s my crack at deciphering the nuanced offense of the Portland Trail Blazers (19-25), which I’ll call Stotts’ Steps:
    1) Do you have the ball? If Yes, Go to Step 2. If No, Get Ready for That Rebound!
    2) Are you Damian Lillard? If Yes, Go to Step 3. If No, Jump to Step 5.
    3) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Dribble Around a Screen or something, and Go to Step 4.
    4) Now do you see a shot you like? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to C.J. McCollum.
    5) Are you C.J. McCollum? If Yes, Go to Step 6. If No, Jump to Step 7.
    6) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to Allen Crabbe.
    7) Are you Allen Crabbe?  If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Go to Step 8.
    8) Are you Al-Farouq Aminu? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Stop Wasting Time Reading This, Pass the Ball, then Go Back to Step 1!
    Stotts’ Go-Back-to-Step 1 Guys include Ed Davis (2.9 O-Rebs per game) and Plumlee (2.7 O-Rebs per game), and Harkless (collects a team-high 47.9% of O-Reb his chances). Thanks to this cleanup crew, the Blazers produce 15.0 second-chance PPG (2nd in NBA). Neither of Davis, Harkless or even Leonard are starters, however. The Noah Vonleh Experiment continues in earnest, and while it hasn’t reaped dividends yet (3.3 PPG, 3rd-lowest among NBA starters; 39.5 FG%, same scoring and shot percentage as last season in Charlotte’s doghouse), the second-year starting power forward did follow Stotts’ Step 1, and nabbed nine boards in just 17 minutes in D.C. on Monday.
    Terry Stotts’ elaborate gameplan took a hit when both Lillard (plantar fasciitis) and McCollum (sprained ankles, 20.5 PPG) were unable to participate in Atlanta back on December 21. In their place, second-year guard Tim Frazier gave it his all for 47 minutes, after totaling 48 minutes in the prior 28 games. He and the balance of Blazers kept Jeff Teague cool, but had no answer for Dennis Schröder, whose performance off the bench (18 points in 17 minutes, 3-for-4 3FGs) could hardly be defined as toothless.
    Portland’s whole team (including sporadically-used center Chris Kaman) is healthy now, allowing Stotts’ Steps to go into full execution. Key to the flow chart working is that at least one of Lillard (14th in FG made; 5th in FG missed) or McCollum (5th in FG made; 4th in FG missed) must get hot for the Blazers to have half a chance. When that fails, you get duds like Saturday (Lillard and McCollum 10-for-36 FGs) when Portland got blown out, 114-89, by the Suxers in Philly.
    When both members of the Blazers’ Dynamic Duo are on, like on Monday (16-for-32 FGs, McCollum 6-for-10 3FGs), all Portland needs is a little extra push (Plumlee a double-double plus 7 assists; Meyers Leonard 4-for-7 3FGs) to run teams like the Wizards off the floor. The Blazers are 17-6 when shooting an eFG% above 50.0%, 2-19 otherwise.
    Despite the momentary loss of McCollum and Lillard, Portland sat right that 50.0% Mendoza line in Atlanta last month, and only lost by a single-digit deficit, 106-97, after scrambling from behind with a full-bore 39-29 fourth quarter. The Hawks’ commitment to Budball (2 O-Rebs) allowed Portland to reach a season-high 94.7 D-Reb%. But Portland’s weakened depth allowed Mike Budenholzer to limit floortime for Paul Millsap and Al Horford (24.5 minutes apiece, Sap’s lowest of the season) and exploit the reserve quartet of Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Scott, and Tiago Splitter (20-for-29 FGs).
    While this particular road trip has some cushy opponents on the schedule, the Hawks have already proven (in Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New York, Minnesota) they can play down to their competition as well as anyone else, especially away from the nest.  Atlanta has dropped 10 of its last 16 away games after winning its first four on the road this season.
    All four of the upcoming opponents are among the ten least-efficient defenses, and are among the least successful in forcing misses on threes above-the-break. Yet this stretch over the next six days will be a great opportunity for the Hawks to whet their defensive chops, taking on many individuals who believe their best defense comes by way of a smoking-hot offense.
    Among the next four opponents, Portland is ninth in scoring efficiency, two teams (Sacramento and Denver) are top-ten in the percentage of field goals assisted, two teams (Denver and Portland) are in the top-ten for O-Reb%, two teams (Sacramento and Portland) are top-ten for eFG%, and the Kings and Suns, bless their hearts, push the pace about as much as Golden State, with varying results.
    This trip poses a fine challenge for Atlanta (25-17) to drag their opponents’ scoring average on the season (100.1 PPG) back below triple digits. Only Atlanta (100.6 D-Rating, 10th in NBA but 7th in East) and the Chicago Hoibergs (100.7 opponent PPG) are ceding a per-game average of 100 or more among the East’s current Top 7 teams. The Blazers, like Phoenix and Sacramento, are among the ten most frequent turnover-per-possession committers. Atlanta will get a bigger leg up than they did at home against Brooklyn and Orlando if they convert consistently off turnovers from the outset.
    Might we have a new Threezus on our hands? Hitting 55.5% of his threes this month (5th in NBA, min. 2 attempts per game) has Teague over the 40-percent threshold, which would blow away last year’s season-finish of 34.3 3FG% and his small-sample second-season career-high of 37.5%. Defense, passing, and finishing in the paint (career-low 42.3 2FG%) haven’t been up to snuff for Agent Zero, but it’s hard to quibble with the noticeable improvement in his perimeter shooting.
    As of now, there are nine NBA players in the 40/40/80 club (min. 2 3FG attempts per game) averaging at least 10 PPG (Steph, KD, Klay, Kawhi, Khris, Redick, Neal), and two rock the Torch Red: Teague (41.9 FG%/40.7 3FG%/84.5 FT%) and Kent Bazemore (46.5 FG%/41.9 3FG%/85.7 FT%). Coincidentally, over in the 50/40/80 club, regardless of scoring (min. 2 3FG attempts per game), there are just four guys presently on that Mount Rushmore: Steph, KD, Kawhi… and oh, hello there, Mike Scott (50.5 FG%/40.5 3FG%/80.0 FT%). We see you, Ben Sullivan!
    Portland’s foes shoot a league-high 43.8 FG% on in-the-paint shots outside the restricted area, but their 39.9 PPG is the league’s third-lowest. The ability for Millsap (9 first-quarter points vs. ORL on Monday) to draw defensive help for Vonleh should open up decent options all over the floor. Properly reading the Blazer defense should create plenty of hockey assists for the Hawks.
    But the key will be on defense, where Atlanta’s guards and wings must deny penetration and easy passing lanes for Lillard and McCollum, while the bigs must seal off the paint and minimize extra chances for the Blazers. Getting this road trip off on the good foot entails thwarting Portland at every Stotts’ Step along the way.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
     “…one day, on the red hills of Georgia…”

    It’s “A Day On, Not a Day Off” for millions completing service projects around the country and, particularly, in the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many volunteers will then choose to sit back and relax at Philips Arena, getting serenaded by Regina Belle-Battle, and hoping their Atlanta Hawks won’t take a day off against the Orlando Magic (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida, NBATV).
    If They Could, Orlando fans would Make It Like It Was back in December, when the Magicians went 10-5 (after starting out with what was already an impressive 9-8 record) and earned Scott Skiles an Eastern Conference Coach of the Month nod. Going 13-5 between Thanksgiving Eve and New Years’ Eve, the best mark in the East during that span, had the O-Town faithful feeling they’d entered A Whole New World, at least one different than the seasons after the Stan Van Gundy era came to a close.
    That was before a 1-6 skid this month, interrupted only by a road win versus Atlanta’s last vanquished foes, the Brooklyn Nets. On the whole, the 20-15 start has the Magic all set to eclipse their 25-57 record from last season, the high-water mark of the prior three seasons. But fans who recall the abbreviated success of James Borrego last season know that things can de-escalate quickly.
    Over the past six calendar years, Orlando has overcome the Hawks just once in 11 road trips to the ATL. Without a road win over a team with a current winning record, the Magic would love a victory against their division-champ rivals to start turning things back around. But they would have to do it while dealing with a lot of moving parts in the backcourt.
    The Magic offense has gone “poof!” ever since point guard Elfrid Payton (5.8 APG, 8th in the East), hobbling since mid-December, was shelved a couple weeks ago to heal an ankle bone bruise. Victor Oladipo slid into Payton’s spot and has shot the ball well lately (70.1 TS% last five games). But ball movement has not quite been to Skiles’ liking, as if there’s anything that Skiles likes.
    Only the Nets (94.7 points per 100 possessions) have a lower offensive efficiency in January than Orlando (95.2 O-Rating in January; 104.9 O-Rating in December, 1st in East; 19.3 January O-Reb%, last in NBA). Just as concerning for the Magic has been the lack of transition-scoring opportunities since Payton starting having issues with his ankle. Steals per game have gone down from 9.3 in December to 5.7 this month, while opponent turnovers declined from 15.3 last month to 11.3 in January.
    Payton returned and played briefly in the Magic’s loss in London versus Toronto, but Oladipo sprained a knee taking a charge during that game and is now out indefinitely. It was Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics that allowed the Magic to nearly pull a big win out of their hat against the Raptors in London last Thursday, before falling short in overtime.
    Sidelined since November, guard C.J. Watson had a setback in his plans to return from a sore calf and is also out indefinitely. Shabazz Napier has been under the weather as well, prompting Orlando to nab D-League star Keith Appling over the weekend.
    Despite the intercontinental flights, Payton’s ankle should be well-rested following a four-day layoff that allowed the Magic to scout two Hawks games. Elf’s return allows Skiles to field his December starting lineup again, but expect to see a lot of rookie Mario Hezonja backing up both Payton and Evan “Never Google” Fournier.
    In Orlando back on December 20, the Magic shot just 4-for-12 from deep against the Hawks and proved to be no match for the Alabaster Blaster. In perhaps his last successful long-range shooting display, Kyle Korver went off in the second half and finished with 6-for-8 three-point shooting for a team-high 19 points, including the game-winner with 44 seconds left, as Atlanta seized back the lead to edge the Magic in a 103-100 victory.
    Korver was joined off the bench by Mike Scott (3-for-5 3FGs, 15 points vs. ORL Dec. 20), who can be can’t-miss so long as he isn’t, like, dunking or anything. Orlando will try to counter with Fournier, Hezonja, and a suddenly-struggling Channing Frye (42.2 3FG%, 7th in East; 15.4 January 3FG%). But Skiles must also encourage his array of supporting-cast bigs (including Aaron Gordon, habitual Hawk Killer Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson) to get out on the perimeter defensively and keep Atlanta from figuring out which Hawks have a hot hand.
    Aside from Oladipo, the Magic shot just 4-for-16 on threes in London on Thursday, and despite out-shooting Atlanta over the course of the season, their January swoon of 31.1 team 3FG% ranks just 25th in the league. The last time Skiles’ team needed a sharp-shooting mid-season boost, his Bucks shipped a hardly-used Tobias Harris to Orlando in exchange for a half-year rental of J.J. Redick (you, too, Gustavo Ayón and Ish Smith). It’s safe to assume Skiles won’t let Harris get away so easily again.
    Now the highest-paid Magician on the payroll, Harris has been a delight for those trying to forget the last guy who wore #12 in the Magic Kingdom. His scoring is down to 13.6 PPG from 17.1 PPG last year, but that’s in part because Skiles implores Harris to de-emphasize scoring and model the versatility of stretch-forwards like Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh. Tobias’ interior shooting is at a career-best 51.9 2FG%, while he is also posting career marks with 7.2 RPG and 2.1 APG.
    Fan voting for the All-Star Game in Toronto concludes at the stroke of midnight tonight, ushering in the coaches’ voting phase. Coaches, like the fans, vote in two guards and three frontcourt players, but they also elect two wild cards from each conference. Isaiah Thomas has argued his case since the season started, and John Wall has been carrying the Wizards through adversity all year. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving are locks whether they start alongside Dwyane Wade or not, and you can’t leave Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out in the cold.
    Thus, the coaches will be inclined to grant both wild card spots to guards, leaving guys like Atlanta’s Millsap (2nd in East in PER, 3rd in per-48 Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus, 4th in VORP) and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (4th in East in FG%, 9th in PER) in a squeeze play for three precious frontcourt slots.
    Despite the surge by Carmelo Anthony to the third starting spot in the East, Andre Drummond is too tough a case to snub. There’s plenty of love for his fellow yung’uns Kristaps Porzingis and Hassan Whiteside, while Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh get their Lifetime Achievement sentiments. LeBron James has a lot of pull to get His Guys in, so it will be hard to keep Kevin Love out, especially since then-first-place Atlanta got four All-Stars last year. Then, there’s the dismissive You Had Your Turns Already attitude toward mid-market semi-stars.
    That means for guys like Sap (career-highs of 18.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 BPG) and Vooch (career-best 2.8 APG; 20 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 20), the only way to keep NBA coaches’ rapt attention during the voting period is to play well in a winning effort. The Hawks’ powerful forward is the team’s only entry deserving consideration, but Do it All Paul will fall quickly into injury-replacement territory if Atlanta keeps dropping games to the Knicks, Hornets, Bucks, and Magic of the world.
    We’re at the midway mark of the season. If, back before Halloween, someone were to tell you the Hawks would not be firing on all cylinders, struggled hitting threes and keeping opponents below triple-digits, had several returning All-Stars either regressing or playing inconsistently, and had not yet worked any newcomers into prominent roles in the rotation while on pace for “just” 48 wins… yet still would be sitting on top of the Southeast Division (ahead of perpetually-hyped Miami and Washington) and 1.5 games out of second in the East, you would begrudgingly take that scenario, especially given a roster that has reached the midway point relatively healthy.
    Now the fun begins. Can Al Horford (one rebound, offensive, in 23 minutes vs. BKN on Saturday) string together a couple productive weeks of basketball in a row, or at least a couple games? Can Jeff Teague (7 assists, 1 TO vs. BKN; 37.3 2FG% in January) and Korver (1-for-6 FGs vs. BKN) slip out of their respective cocoons, especially defensively in Teague’s case?
    If not, will Coach Bud turn even more toward bench options like Dennis Schröder (15-and-10 plus 1 TO vs. BKN, first double-double of the season), Tiago Splitter and, dare we say it, Tim Hardaway, Jr.? And would that necessarily be a bad thing? As the February trade deadline approaches, does GM Bud have any tricks up his sleeves? Might continually underwhelming play shake him out of “We Like Our Group” mode?
    Winning 60 or even 50 games isn’t as important as building positive momentum toward the springtime. But an impressive home win over a team like the Magic, ahead of a modest four-games-in-six-nights West Coast swing, would signal to Hawks fans that there is, indeed, something good on the other side of that mountaintop.
    Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Relax! I’m just demonstrating to Jeff and Dennis how to stay in front of people!”

    Boo, Brooklyn! Boo this team! Boo!
    Oh, only now do the Brooklyn Nets want to fall completely flat on their collective face. Now that the Atlanta Hawks have squeezed as much of the vapor as they could out of not one, but two first-round swap deals for Josephat Johnson, only now do the Nyets want to try Gunnin’ for That #1 Draft Slot. And to think, they’re not even doing this for themselves! They’re doing this for the benefit of a division rival!
    The kahma gahds are really making us Hawks fans pay for Tree Bites Man back in 1983. That was one costly nibble, Tree. Danny Ainge, you lucky, plucky ducky you! If we could give you The Finger, Danny, it would be your own.
    Well, guess what, Danny? You’re not going to get off so easy. Especially given the way our Atlanta Hawks have been playing lately. Tonight’s game at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, YES Network) is not going to be another automatic L that you winking, pipe-smoking, Sansabelt knickers-rocking leprechauns up in Beantown can stick in your little three-leaf clovered, ensemble-matching derbies. Nosiree!
    We see exactly what you’re up to, Danny Boy. Your former team from your home state magically got right back in the game last night in Brooklyn. The Portland Trail Blazers were down six in the fourth quarter and, one thing leads to another, ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, they’re up five. Tony Brown’s Journal probably doesn’t have “foul Damian Lillard” as a discussion topic, and yet that’s what the Nets did anyway… while Lillard (33 points, 10 assists, ZERO turnovers) was in the midst of shooting a three-pointer. Mmmm hmmmm. The jig: it’s not down!
    Down to 11-29 on the season they go. In the one year where 2-through-12 means a playoff spot is up for grabs in the East, this is the season the Nets chose to be a solid 14. Well, down here in Hotlanta, we’re not going to just take this lying down, Danny! We don’t care if it’s the Nets, or the Bucks, or the Knicks, or the Hornets. We’re going to do what we’ve done the past few games, and play right to our opponent’s strengths, and put ourselves in position for a disappointing loss against yet another team who’s just waiting to be defeated. We’ll see who laughs last tonight, Danny!
    “OMG, they called Kenny! You bastards!” Okay, not quite yet. But you just know another Danny is hanging around Brooklyn to make his grand NBA comeback, taking over for the recently-deposed Dookie buddy that stuck his neck out, while this Danny was in ATL suffering from the lingering effects of foot-in-mouth disease. Once that Danny takes over, and once the Nets are decidedly out of postseason play and coach Brown gets his Thanks for Coaching parting gifts, rest assured that he won’t be blaming Long Islander Kenny Atkinson for the Hawks’ floundering, listless play of late.
    Maybe Mike Budenholzer is trying to poison the well, so Kenny won’t go all Quin Snyder on him.  Head-scratching rotations, failure to exploit opponent weaknesses, overplaying guys with five fouls at crucial junctures suddenly seems to be en vogue. With all the consternation directed at Coach Bud from the refs’ union for piggybacking people, why are we allowing various and sundry Bucks to hang around the rim, stripping and clawing at them like they’re an unwitting millionaire wanderer in The Bluff, in front of Marc Davis of all people, and then acting appalled when our starting forwards (including poor Paul Millsap, the one Hawk who hasn’t gotten The Memo) are riding the pine, and the free-throw-attempt deficit is 37 to 6? That could not possibly have been the game plan for Milwaukee. Unless…
    Mike Scott going for style points on point-blank dunk attempts? Paul and Kent Bazemore racking up fouls against the Bucks’ bigs while Tiago Splitter is on some kind of preservation plan? Jeff Teague driving right into three Bucks on a clearout and aiming his shot right at their antlers as the clock expires? Kyle Korver forgoing mildly-contested threes for swatted-to-Kenosha long-twos when the Hawks (23-17) are down by multiple scores in overtime? No way is that the intelligent design on Bud’s whiteboard. Surely, there’s something sneakier going on. Sorry, Kenny, but you ain’t getting out of here so easily.
    We’ll reconfirm our suspicions today when Brook Lopez is allowed to freely camp around the high post like it’s a national wildlife refuge or something. When Joe Johnson gets to suck what little energy is left out of the building, dribbling the ball through the Georgia maple for 95 percent of the shot clock. When Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin (filling in for out-for-the-season Jarrett Jack) look like the most competent lead guards on the floor. When Thad Young and Thomas Robinson (9 O-Rebs between them last night) will have NBA fans running to Twitter to hashtag them for All-Star votes. When Andrea Bargnani finishes with a positive plus-minus for the first time since the Nets were in New Jersey. Coach Bud is onto both of you, Danny A and Danny F. And he’s not having it.
    Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… The Jig!
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Oh, Dear! We Fear that You Ain’t Here!”

    It’s time for the We Miss Zaza Bowl! The Atlanta Hawks prepare to face the Milwaukee Bucks tonight at the BMO Harris Bradley MECCA Whatchamacallit (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Wisconsin), and two clubs that bring the “Con” to “Consistency” sure could use Georgia’s Favorite Georgian in their lineups, albeit for vastly different reasons.
    First, a flashback. The year was 1996, and while Atlanta was undergoing an Olympic-sized hangover, down in San Antonio, the Macarena was still the rage, Dave Cowens was departing the Spurs to run the Hornets, and Mike Budenholzer was ready for his big promotion. Two years into his stint as Video Coordinator Bud, his ascension to assistant coach under Gregg Popovich opened up a spot on the Spurs’ staff. Enter Joe Prunty, a high school coach from San Diego, who joined the Spurs as an assistant video coordinator.
    Four years later, Prunty found himself a seat behind Coach Bud and Coach Pop as an assistant, helping out with mundane tasks like rebounding for Avery Johnson during pregame warmups. He would go on to serve as an assistant (and Summer League coach) for the staffs of five more teams over a span of 16 NBA seasons. Right after Bud and Joe helped Popovich guide the Spurs to the 2005 NBA Championship, Prunty hopped alongside Coach Avery as a lead assistant in Dallas, as the Mavs sailed to the 2006 Finals.
    Now double-dipping as the head coach for Great Britain’s men’s hoops team, Prunty has become best known as the premier acolyte for Jason Kidd, who Prunty coached during his final season in Dallas in 2008. With the Nets in 2013, Coach Kidd was suspended for the opening games due to a DWI. Kidd put Prunty (and not the spurned, embittered, team-handpicked assistant Lawrence Frank) in charge. The Nets split both games under Prunty, defeating the defending champion Miami Heat. When Kidd bailed the borough in favor of Milwaukee and his new owner-palsy-walsy Marc Lasry, Prunty followed him there, without hesitation.
    I like to imagine Kidd’s infamous 2010 sideline run-in with then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson as the catalyst that got his hip hopping. Kidd has been out indefinitely after undergoing hip surgery on December 21, and there’s no surprise he would turn to his trusty confidant to hold the proverbial fort.
    Coming up from the same Spurs-ian roots, both of tonight’s sideline sergeants are cerebral, analytical, meticulous, and methodical. The difference lies in the talent they each have to work with.
    The Bucks went from worst to not-too-shabby in 2014-15 on the strength of some hungry and healthier veterans, like Pachulia and Jared Dudley, inspiring some up-and-coming talents like Wheel of Fortune nightmare Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. After playing .500-ball and surprisingly reaching the playoffs, Milwaukee could have tried to keep the band together for another run up the standings in 2016. But lotto-forward Jabari Parker was on his way back from injury, and there had to be some way to intermingle his minutes with those of Alpha-Bits, John “Run the Jewels” Henson, and coveted free agent Greg Monroe.
    Thus, out went Dudley and Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova, via trades. And with them, out went whatever veteran stability the team had to offer. The senior Bucks now consist of guards Jerryd Bayless (out with an ankle sprain) and O.J. “Boo-Ray” Mayo (questionable with a sore hamstring), and “senior” doesn’t necessarily translate into “most mature.”
    Also, while the outgoing vets were no defensive masters, by replacing them with Monroe (12th in NBA for FG%, top-15 in O-Rebs and D-Rebs) and nightclub-going stabee Chris Copeland, the Bucks essentially said Buh-Bye to team defense.  Milwaukee has dropped from 1st in the league for steals (in 2014-15) to 13th, from 24th to dead-last in defensive rebounding percentage, and from 4th to dead-last in defensive rating.
    Dudley and Pachulia aren’t even mad, though. Pachulia has become a fan-favorite down in Big D for essentially what he’s been doing all along, under tinier spotlights. Once a struggling shooter, Dudley was exiled to America’s Dairyland last season and made the most of it. Now the good DC sniper (47.0 3FG% with the Wizards) is grateful that the Bucks decided to commit to the youth movement and move on.
    “The thing about the Bucks, you can tell about how first-class an organization they've become, putting me and Z in great situations,” Dudley told reporters recently after shootaround, prior to his Wizards slipping past the Bucks on Wednesday. “They didn't have to send me (to Washington). They basically got nothing out of it.” True, true. (Apologies to all you future second-round talents out there).

    “Showing veteran players, if you go to Milwaukee, if you help out, they'll look out for you. They put Za in a great position (in Dallas). Me and Za can only thank them. We had a great time. Worst record to the playoffs, so it was a great year last year.”
    This year, Milwaukee (16-25) is left with a young, vigorous bunch that’s eager to make big plays and win but not quite sure how, one that goes to the rack with reckless abandon (league-high 36.0 shots per game within 5 feet of the rim, and 46.1 shots per game in the paint) but isn’t quite sure why, or what to do once they get there. They’re guided by a third-year headmaster who is still figuring things out himself in J-Kidd. His mobility issues now leave him to turn to a top aide, in Prunty, who has a superb pedigree but didn’t spend his offseason planning to be the guy drawing up plays.
    What you get is a team that hasn’t strung together more than two straight victories since November 7. You get a team that, on one night, produces a season-low 5 turnovers to topple the Chicago Bulls at home, then hits the road and coughs up a season-high 27 goofs in a loss to Washington.
    The Hawks can certainly relate, even though they really shouldn’t. They scorch the nets for 52.1% shooting and 33 assists against the Bulls at home, then hit the road and lay an egg with a near-season-low 37.0 FG% in a laugher up in Charlotte two nights later. They’ll stem one opponent’s six-game winning streak, then end another’s seven-game losing skid. From quarter-to-quarter, half-to-half, game-to-game, week-to-week, it’s tough to tell what’s gonna fall out of the Hawks’ box of chocolates.
    But unlike Milwaukee, these aren’t a bunch of wunderkinds merely finding their way. These are the defending Eastern Conference regular season leaders, only slightly re-tooled from last year. They have only cobbled together winning streaks of more than two games twice, as we near the halfway mark of the season. It’s up to the reigning NBA Coach of the Year to remind these guys why they should still care. But it’s not all on him.
    Bread-and-butter. PB-and-J. Rice Krispies-and-Milk. Teague-and-Horford, pick-and-roll. That was an essential, nutritious part of what made the Hawks offense snap, crackle, and pop over the prior two seasons of Budball. As a roll man on P&Rs, Horford still holds up his end of the bargain. Of the 17 NBA big men this season with 100 or more roll-man plays, Al ranks 2nd (only behind Marcin Gortat) with 1.14 points per possession and 57.7 eFG%, with the third-lowest turnover percentage (behind Blake and Dirk), while his team’s scoring percentage of 54.7% on those plays ranks third overall (behind Gortat and Jason Smith). But it takes two to make a thing go right, and therein lies a problem.
    Both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder are among 31 NBA guards with 200 or more possessions as P&R ball handlers. Of that set, Teague and Schröder rank, respectively, 21st and 29th in points per possession, 27th and 30th in eFG%, 13th and 14th in turnover frequency, and 21st and 26th in team scoring percentage. While so much attention has been placed on Kyle Korver’s long-range shooting decline, the short-circuiting of the P&R pillar of Atlanta’s offensive attack is perhaps more worrisome to Budenholzer.
    Coach Bud definitely recalls the days of Popovich chopping like a white-bearded kung fu master on Tony Parker, ruthlessly funneling his incessant, blazing ire into this French rapper-wannabe, steeling the pupil’s resolve with the dark arts of The Spurs Way until Parker finally “got it,” and became a Finals MVP with two rings already on his fingers.
    Now, like last night against the Cavs, Pop can occasionally lay back, holler at Parker with the occasional “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!” and even let him design plays out of timeouts.  That’s because Parker (2nd only to Steph Curry in P&R ball-handler eFG% and points per possession) bothered to listen. Now, he chases championships instead of teammates’ wives. To reach the next step, or any step at all, Bud needs Teague’s ears to be functional as his eyeballs.
    When Teague put on his headband last season, he hit the floor looking like a motivated Karate Kid, soaking up all of his coaching staff’s directions to devastating effect as he began executing and defending screen plays with exquisite precision. These days, Jeff (30.5 assist%, lowest since 2011-12; 53.5 TS%, lowest since 2010-11; career-low 42.4 2FG%) comes across as more of a bloated Steven Seagal, perhaps too drunk off of his sudden success to heed the direction of any more Mister Miyagis.
    That was on display early on in Charlotte, on Wednesday. Teague failed to direct the offense, and reverted to old bad habits on defense against his division rival, Kemba Walker. The once-reeling Hornets could not believe their fortune, as Atlanta (23-16) essentially played to Charlotte’s strengths on both ends of the floor, passing up good shots for downright silly ones and finding itself down 17-2 from the jump. Bud lights into Teague at the first timeout, but Jeff is too busy admiring the intricacies of Charlotte’s arena rafters.
    Schröder was brought into the game to replace Teague and help right the ship, but by the second quarter with Schröder and Teague sharing the floor together, the bottom fell out. The Hawks need floor generals and not soldier trees.
    Atlanta has, arguably, the most efficient stretch-four-point-five in the game at its disposal, but that is of little use if Horford is not demanding the ball, and if his point guards aren’t running plays to set him up. Following up from a solid week of production and a few days of rest, Wednesday (2 points, 2 boards, no steals, 1 block, 4 fouls, 27 minutes) was Horford’s fourth double-single on the season. Those inexcusable outputs from the Hawks’ reti-center will come with greater frequency, as long as he and Teague decline to take command from the outset of games.
    When the height of your cutthroat competitiveness comes not from throwing down against the likes of Cody Zeller, but at tens of thousands of feet in the air as you’re throwing down Draw Fours on Thabo Sefolosha, it shows on the floor. It shows up in the stands, and in the waning moods of an already-fickle and understandably skeptical NBA fanbase.
    As Exhibit A, here lies Horford, as much of a collegiate champion as Tim Tebow, a perennial Rated-PER Superstar, having helped lift his longtime NBA franchise to unforeseen heights before national audiences just eight months ago. And yet, he doesn’t draw a blip in the All-Star voting, locally or nationally. But guess who does? Al’s old backup, who has been balling in Dallas all of three full months and, just by showing consistent (there’s that word again) hustle and heart on the floor, piling up double-doubles along the way, is about to surpass Tim Duncan – Tim Duncan! – for All-Star hashtags.
    As Coach Bud knows, with and without NBA titles, Duncan is used to getting ripped into by his head coach, in front of teammates, just like Parker, and then responding with inspirational play on the floor. If your senior-most leaders are only giving off Alfred E. Neuman-style attitudes against teams like Milwaukee and Charlotte, it will be obvious there’s none of Larry Drew’s patented Sense of Urgency to be found. NBA fans believe in what Pachulia, and Duncan, can and will do on a nightly basis. Horford? Teague? “We don’t believe you! You need more people!”
    At least Milwaukee has had two chances to hang on to Z-Pac. Now they give up the most second-chance points per 100 possessions, and the fourth-most per-possession points off turnovers. Unlike not-so-turnover-prone Charlotte, that can work right into Atlanta’s wheelhouse, if they choose to take advantage. It will help if Bud gets Thabo Sefolosha (wrist, DNP vs. Charlotte) back on the floor to be disruptive and productive in transition. Thabo’s 2.7 steals per 100 plays ranks 6th among non-point-guards, just behind Millsap (2.8 steal percentage). It will also help if Horford bothers to re-join Paul Millsap (1 or more O-rebs in 37 of 39 games) on the offensive glass and grant Atlanta extra chances when shots aren’t falling.
    Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore can keep a body in front of Alpha-Bits (the NBA leader in personal fouls), as the Bucks strive to get their lanky Euro-stepper the ball in open space. Just as Horford should find little trouble crashing the boards at both ends against Monroe and the Bucks’ frontline, and pick-and-rolling and pick-and-popping Milwaukee apart, Teague should have little problem forcing MCW into costly mistakes.
    Carter-Williams’ defensive rating (107.2, worst among East guards with 30+ MPG) has reverted to where it was during his Rookie of the Year season in white-flag-waving Philadelphia. Meanwhile, mong 43 NBA guards logging 30+ minutes, his 13.7 turnovers per 100 possessions ranks just behind Rajon Rondo’s 14.3. At some point, if you’re a starting point guard, and the tutelage of Kidd isn’t rubbing off on you, you’ll be in deep trouble. With Greivis Vasquez out of action, and Bayless and Mayo hampered with injuries, Prunty has few playmaking options to turn to.
    Just like in Charlotte, and New York, the pins are all set up for Horford, Teague and the Hawks to deliver strikes. Will they show up ready to knock ‘em down? Or will they again leave it to somebody coming off the bench to pick up the spares? Until this particular pair stops putting the “Con” in “Consistency,” there will be no telling what to expect.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “It’s time that we have That Talk, lil’ Hooper!”

    Familiar with a kid that confidently pedals down the street as he’s learning to ride a bike, only to wobble and crash once he looks over their shoulder to discover there’s no parent guiding them from the rear? That’s been the season to date for the Charlotte Hornets, who host the Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports South in CLT) at the Cable Box while trying to avoid extending their losing streak to 8 games.
    With Panthers Mania (and Clemson Clamoring) going on, there hasn’t been much buzz for the Hornets in the Carolinas these days, anyway. But for a minute there, things were looking up for the Purple and Teal.
    After getting edged by the Hawks on back-to-back games to fall to 0-3, a mini-roll had Charlotte rising to 10-7 by the end of November. Kemba Walker was red-hot that month (48.3 FG%, 42.4 3FG%, 5.0 APG, 2.1 TO/game). Walker had two catalysts in Nicolas Batum (Nov.: 43.0 3FG%, 17.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 4.7 APG) and Marvin Williams (Nov.: 42.6 3FG%, 6.5 RPG) working the forward spots and providing solid wing defense in the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Plus, he had a nice change-up to his fastball, with Jeremy Lin coming off the bench.
    Surging into the upper echelon of the wild-and-woolly Eastern Conference, there was the sense that Kemba was finally turning the corner, and carrying the Hornets with him. Then, Al Jefferson had to go and screw up all the mojo.
    The Hornets’ gravitational force at the pivot strained his calf early in a game on November 29, and was sitting it out when he got popped for violating the NBA’s don’t-get-caught-smoking-weed-three-times rule, resulting in a five-game suspension once he healed. Al Jefe was brought back slowly off the bench for a couple games after Christmas. But then, Charlotte received another lump of coal when he announced he’d need arthroscopic surgery and another six weeks off after tearing the meniscus in his right knee.
    Jefferson has never been accused of being a defensive stalwart (58.3 opponent at-rim FG% when he’s defending, highest this season among players with opponents taking 5+ at-rim shots). But his space-clogging, his time-eating, and his ability to tenderize opposing bigs at the other end of the floor tended to give the Hornets a leg up over the course of 48 minutes. Now, what is Plan B? More than two weeks later, they’re still sorting it out.
    In past seasons, the Hornets could turn to the oven-mitted prospect Bismack Biyombo to patrol the rim, but the Hornets’ brass did not want to risk going over the cap to grant him a qualifying offer over the summer, and now he’s charming fans and teammates up in Toronto. These days, the Hornets have to turn to a Cody Zeller, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Frank Kaminsky up front, a frontcourt platoon that brings all the pizzazz of Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread.
    After being told he’d likely miss the entire regular season, MKG has been cleared to return to practice. His return to the gameday floor can’t arrive soon enough, though, as both Batum and Marvin regressed defensively after starting off so well. “Moar offense!” was the selected defensive approach by the Hornets to compensate, leading to a brief 4-game win streak in December buoyed by Batum, Walker and the Jeremies (Lin and Lamb). Then the bottom dropped out, especially after Kemba cooled and Batum started missing games with a sprained toe.
    The Hornets (17-20) have lost to some hot teams during this 7-game skid, but during their recent West Coast swing they also stopped the 9-game-slide of the throwing-in-the-towel Suns (Phoenix’s only win without Eric Bledsoe) and made the Kenneth Faried-less Nuggets look competent. They’re like Wile E. Coyote running full speed after the Road Runner, before forlornly noticing they’ve run right off a cliff.
    Did somebody say Cliff? “We don’t think about defense to start the game. We think about scoring.” That’s not Steve Clifford’s game plan, that’s just the Hornets’ coach’s observation about what has been going wrong. Referring to the sieve around the perimeter, Clifford noted to the Charlotte Observer after his team flamed out in Phoenix, “A lot of it is just one-on-one. You don’t have to make a stop, but you have to make it hard (to score) so we can help.”
    During this slide only the Suns have posted a worse defensive efficiency than these helpless Hornets (112.1 opponent points per 100 possessions, 29th in NBA since Dec. 30), while their own wayward shooting has proven inadequate as cover (45.1 eFG%, 26th in NBA since Dec. 30).
    What’s wild is the Bug Bigs are doing their job on the interior (since Dec. 30: league-low 29.4 opponent points in the paint; 46.2 opponent FG% in-the-paint, lowest in NBA). Yet opponents have taken a league-high 22.9 threes above-the-break, with good reason (league-high 46.9 opponent 3FG% above-the-break since Dec. 30; Cleveland’s 39.6% is second-worst). Five of Charlotte’s last seven foes sunk at least 44% of their three-point attempts, a mark that the Hornets themselves surpassed just once in their last 20 contests.
    Having received a multi-year contract from Michael Jordan (perhaps a tad too hastily) just last month, Clifford’s job seems safe despite the downturn. But while he’s got his finger on the pulse of the problems, he can’t seem to find the elixir to cure them.
    P.J. Hairston’s puts up his best fights with teenagers at the Y, but Clifford has little choice but to rely on him (34 starts, 121.2 D-Rating), Walker, and the Jeremies to figure out how to stop getting burned on opponents’ screens and dribble hand-off plays. Hairston provides height but perhaps not the know-how at this point, so Clifford may start turning more to third-year guard Troy Daniels (48.1 3FG%) for better two-way production at the 2-spot.
    All is not lost yet for the Hornets, who remain just 3 games below .500, are 13-7 at home, and sit just 2.5 games behind the 8th-seed in the East. They have eight at-or-below-.500 opponents on the docket before the end of the month, and a victory at home tonight can springboard a quick turnaround back toward the middle of the East’s postseason pack.
    Al-ite has gone from Al-Lite to Al-ive! Key to the Hawks’ bounceback in the past two games has been the mastery of Al Horford (25.5 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 4.5 O-Rebs per game, 9.5 RPG vs. PHI and CHI), a sight for many Hawk fans’ sore eyes. Atlanta’s ballhandlers are finally figuring out you have to feed a cold and have been looking him on the low block. Atlanta (23-15) is a stout 14-1 this season (including 2-0 against Charlotte) when Sorta Big Al gets at least 12 shots up and hits at least half of them.
    Meanwhile, Horford is realizing he enjoys a speed-and/or-smarts-advantage against most opposing centers. In accordance with the Hawks’ perimeter shooting woes, Horford has been crashing the offensive boards lately (21 O-Rebs in last six games; 20 in prior 15 games) and still getting back in position to make defensive plays (4 steals, 7 blocks in last two games).
    Horf contributed a season-high 10 defensive rebounds on Nov. 1 in his last trip to Charlotte, plus 3 blocks. The Hawks are 9-2 this season when Horford secures 7 or more defensive rebounds, and 6-1 when he returns at least three opponent shots to sender. An active Horford on both ends takes so much pressure off of Paul Millsap (20.0 PPG, 3.5 O-Rebs/game, 3.8 APG, 2.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 48.8 FG% last 8 games), producing a tandem that leaves opposing bigs unsure whether they’re coming or going.
    While Zeller will start and attack the rim as often as possible, Clifford will try countering more with Kaminsky and Hawes, who can similarly stretch the floor when they’re shooting well outside the paint. Tiago Splitter continues to struggle with finishing around the rim (2-for-10 FGs last 2 games) in his return from injury, but Atlanta needs him to improve as a defender and continue drawing extra points from the free throw line (83.9 FT%).
    The Bazemore clan is likely to be front-and-center once again at Time Warner Cable Arena, and Batum and Marvin will be tasked with keeping Kent Bazemore from producing even more heroics in front of his fellow Carolinians. Baze’s fourth-quarter baskets (among his team-high 19 points) stemmed the visiting Hornets’ rally from 14 points down back on October 30. Two nights later in Charlotte, his triple and free throws in the closing minutes (among his team-high 20 points) secured a fourth-quarter Hawks comeback. Defensively, Bazemore and the returning Thabo Sefolosha (wrist) will have to keep Marvin (8-for-13 3FGs vs. ATL) and Batum from offsetting Atlanta’s perimeter production.
    Jeff Teague (5-for-9 FGs vs. CHI on Saturday; 45.5 3FG% on the road) and Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Saturday) are each dealing with nagging ankles, but they and Dennis Schröder (combined 2-for-17 3FGs vs. CHA) have to find and make open three-point shots in order to get the Hornets unglued early.
    Walker goes from Texas Ranger to Carolina Gunner whenever he finds his team playing from behind, so the Hawks’ perimeter defenders must deny Batum the ball early in the clock while pressuring Walker into premature hero-ball decisions. While Kemba and Lin keep their ballhandling turnovers down, their questionable forced-shot volumes will create ample transition opportunities for Atlanta. Exploit Charlotte's shortcomings early and often, and it won't take long for the Hornets to wonder where the training wheels went.
    Let’s Go Hawks!