• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    “Wow. Says here they’re actually keeping Dimitroff, for some reason…”

    In the Eastern Conference, it only takes a little trending for a couple weeks to change your outlook on the season. Atlanta ended 2015 with a 7-1 run, but bad back-to-back losses to the Knicks has Hawks fans looking askance, even after shaking off the cobwebs with a 126-98 trouncing of lowly Philadelphia this past Thursday. Atlanta (22-15) seeks to avoid heading into a three-day layoff with a bad taste in their mouths by sliming the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, WGN) on 90’s Nickelodeon Day.
    Meanwhile, in the Windy City, head coach Fred Hoiberg has transcended from a perception as a meek college professor-type to become “Hoisenberg” in the space of just two weeks. Hoiberg is pushing an above-average pace not seen since the days of Vinny Del Negro, yet after some turbulence on and off the court, the Bulls are on pace to win more games than they have in any of predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s final three seasons.
    The Bulls’ six-game winning streak has Chicago right where Atlanta was a couple weeks ago: a few games shy of the top-seeded Cavs, with a prime opportunity to break away from the pack in the Eastern Conference. Not so fast, though!
    Within the Bulls’ 22-12 record are 21 home games, the most of anyone in the NBA East. Only OKC and San Antonio have enjoyed more so far. Away from the Bulls’ pen, they’ve been just 6-7 to this point of the season. After four underwhelming road wins, the Bulls went a month without any before setting the Thunder asunder on Christmas Day. To keep the win streak going, Chicago needed all of Jimmy Butler’s team-record 40 second-half points (after just two points in the first half), which eclipsed His Airness’ 26-year-old team record for any half, to pull off a victory in Toronto last Sunday.
    Chicago covets this win in ATL not only to even up their road record, but to keep the positive momentum going ahead of a 4-games-in-5-nights work week that begins Monday. They have elements of their road play that need fixing.
    The Bulls generally force tough shots from all over the floor. 55.4 opponent FG% in the restricted areas (despite the 2nd most shots), and 35.7 opponent FG% at mid-range are the league’s best marks. But in their away games, their 71.3 defensive rebounding percentage is the league’s worst. Opponents average a league-high 14.0 O-Rebs per game when they’re hosting the Bulls.
    Accordingly, Chicago’s defensive rating drops from a stout 96.1 at the United Center (4th in NBA among home teams) to a mediocre 102.8 (15th in NBA; Atlanta is 12th) away from home. Offensive rebounding isn’t Atlanta’s bag (20.7 O-Reb%, 5th-lowest in NBA), but as Al Horford (5 O-Rebs on Thursday) and the Hawks demonstrated against the Sixers, they’re not above it, particularly if they don’t fear teams that will make them pay repeatedly in transition.
    The Bulls are making do without Joakim Noah, who has had issues with his shoulder for weeks and was left back in the Second City ahead of the upcoming 4-in-5 stretch. Pau Gasol won’t be left on an island, however. Rookie Bobby Portis (24.3 minutes/game, 8.0 RPG in his last 6 games) is getting steady minutes in the rotation to alleviate Pau, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. Gasol is going for swats more often than ever before (career-high 2.3 BPG), so he needs his frontcourt teammates to secure the defensive rebounds.
    Part of Chicago defenders forcing tough shots is staying in front of their man, and as a result they limit their risks of gambling for deflections and steals. Their opponent turnover ratio (12.1 per 100 possessions) is an NBA-low, and only Portland and the Knicks average less than Chicago’s 13.9 PPG off turnovers. On the road, they’ve been outscored off turnovers by 4.3 PPG (4th-largest deficit in NBA). The league-leader in points off turnovers, Atlanta, will look to take advantage of this particular incongruity today.
    Jeff Teague basically went through the motions for three-and-a-half quarters in Philly, and tonight the Hawks will need him zeroed-in defensively on the inefficient Derrick Rose (22.9 3FG%, career-low 72.2 FT%, 25.8 assist percentage, and 44.1 TS%). Part of Rose’s ineffectiveness stems from an inability to get into the lane, as he’s taking 32 percent of his shots as mid-rangers from 10 feet out (highest proportion since 2009-10).
    While Rose’s bloom is off, Jimmy Buckets has become the go-to distributor as well (10 assists in each of his past two games; 6.9 APG, 2.4 TOs/game in last 7 games). It will be tougher to keep Butler cool with the former braided Bull Thabo Sefolosha (sore wrist) inactive today. Kent Bazemore will have to stay out of foul trouble.
    Hawks guards and wings have to minimize paint penetration from Butler and Rose, while the forwards must disrupt deep-dishes to Gasol into the post, forcing turnovers and inefficient shots all while avoiding bailout fouls. Doing those things and beating the Bulls’ bigs down the floor in transition will lessen the need for Mike Budenholzer to break out the Thinking Chair in the closing minutes of the game.
    Let’s Go Hawks!

    “Now, check your hand. See? Told ya, it doesn’t come off!”

    “Finally! The Hawks! Have come back! To Slumpbuster City!”
    Oh, but were it so easy! We have no idea whether the Atlanta Hawks have truly reached Rock Bottom, after blowing back-to-back games to the Knicks. But we’ll have a better smell of what the Hawks are cookin’ based on their performance tonight, back on the road against the newish-look Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia).
    Philly’s a .500 ballclub! At least, when you check out just their record since Christmas Day. Disregard all you recall about their record-shattering 0-18 and 1-30 starts. Ignore the 127 points hung on the Sixers during the Hawks’ wire-to-wire victory in Atlanta on December 16. That was when the Hawks needed to bust a three-game slump, turning the frown upside down by sparking a six-game win streak. That was Philadelphia’s Woe-is-Us version, before owner Josh Harris’ additions Mike D’Antoni and Jerry Colangelo were brought on to oversee The Process in the boardroom and along the bench.
    For head coach Brett Brown, the presents began unwrapping on Christmas Eve, when the Sixers “waived” goodbye to Tony “Murder Possessions, He” Wroten (3.6 TOs/game in 18.0 minutes/game), then tossed a couple of nice second-round shekels New Orleans’ way to bring back Ish Smith (who, perhaps coincidentally, wears #5). The former Demon Deacon joined the roster at the back end of last season after riding the pine with OKC, and was instrumental in Philly going 6-11 (including a 92-84 win over the half-resting Hawks here at “The Center” back on March 7) before the bottom dropped out. The 76ers were 12-43 before Smith’s arrival back in March. They’ve already quadrupled their win total in his second go-round.
    Philly could expect Smith to hit the ground running upon his return, and he hasn’t disappointed (14.7 PPG, team-high 8.2 APG and 84.2 FT%). Just as importantly, Ish has rekindled his rapport with forward Nerlens Noel (15.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 72.2 FG% last six games), who up until recently had been simply going through the motions. Noel and Smith will be out hunting for those lobs that Hawks’ opponents have come to enjoy so much of late.
    Carl Landry was clearly insufficient as a veteran counterweight to rookie Jahlil Okafor’s high-wire offcourt antics. Now, with a little nudging of Sam Hinkie by Colangelo, they’ve got a respected former #1-overall pick, Rookie of the Year, and two-time All-Star on the roster. Former Hawk and 76er Elton Brand is someone who not only embraces Philly as his adopted home, but also is old enough to speak the jive common in Okafor and Kendall Marshall’s daddy’s day (Dramatization: “Chill! Nik Stauskas is the bomb-diggity! Brett Brown is all that, AND a bag of chips! Word to your mutha!”) to keep things copacetic. Brand arrives at the expense of Christian Wood, who will likely resurface with the Delaware 87ers of the D-League.
    Giving the Sixers’ ship some sense of a rudder has been enough to pull off three victories in their past six games, including two on the road (in the smoldering NBA towns of Phoenix and Sacramento) and Monday night’s 109-99 home win over Minnesota. The win over the Wolves was highlighted by Smith’s team-high 21 points (9-for-16 FGs) and 11 assists, and Landry’s breakout 8-for-11 FG mid-range shooting display.
    “That’s what we worked on!” The infusions of Smith and Brand have instantly livened up something that was anathema to at least one former Sixer superstar. “This is no 4-and-33 gym,” remarked Brown to CSN Philly after a recent practice. “It ain't even close… You look at the practice we just had and we've come off a few wins. There have been some days you say uh oh, but almost all of the times that we've spent with these guys have been pretty good despite our record. So that's not going to happen on a veteran team that's 4-and-this record. They're young, they forget quick — that's a good thing — and [Brand] looks and sees what I see. It's a highly-spirited, competitive group that are good guys and they do care and I enjoy coaching them. I like it a lot better when we're winning, but I do enjoy coaching this group.”
    Now, the Sixers will continue to lose to quality competition, as evidenced in a 31-point road-trip-concluding loss to the Blake Griffin-less Clippers last Saturday. It’s just that the quality competition has to make the effort to show up from the outset, and that’s something the Hawks (21-15, still a half-game out of first in the Southeast Division, thanks to New York winning again in Miami last night) have failed to do lately, particularly in the opening halves of games.
    A 32-22 first-quarter deficit versus the Knicks back on December 26, followed by a 31-13 second-quarter hole in Indiana, then 41-25 out the gates in Houston, a 33-24 second-quarter setback in NYC, and a 29-20 opening-quarter deficit back home against those same Knicks on Tuesday. All of it speaks to a Hawks team that is so pre-occupied by its numerous offensive doldrums that they’re neglecting defense and fundamentals, often until it’s too late to bother catching up. “We keep having mental lapses as a group,” Al Horford noted postgame on Tuesday, “forgetting assignments, little things in order to win. It’s hard, you have to be able to do these things consistently.”
    By the final quarter, all of Atlanta’s blown free throws, airballed/back-ironed threes, and botched point-blank baskets came home to roost, and the Hawks are too unnerved by all of that (plus the occasionally out-of-left-field referee call) to notice all of the fast-breaking wings and not-boxed-out bigs and easily-open perimeter opponents sharing the floor with them.
    Rookie Kristaps Porzingis and Lance Thomas took turns eating Paul Millsap’s lunch in the opening frame of New York’s 107-101 win in ATL on Tuesday, something Sap’s and Horford’s (game-high 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists in 4th quarter) second-half surge could not overcome. By the time Millsap logged a point, there were just four minutes to go in the opening half. Collectively, Noel, Robert Covington and an emergent Richaun Holmes will seek to sap ‘Sap early to keep Philadelphia phightin’ late. Millsap shot a spiffy 7-for-8 from the field, and 6-for-7 from the line, for a team-high 21 points in his last meeting with the Sixers.
    On Tuesday, the Hawks neither kept Carmelo Anthony out of the paint, nor kept Arron Afflalo from getting any shot he wanted at any range. Both Anthony and Afflalo repeatedly beat Hawks players off the dribble to earn themselves decent looks. Isaiah Canaan (a Korver-esque 11-for-46 FGs in his last five games) enjoyed a season-high 24 points (6-for-8 3FGs) in a losing cause against the Hawks last month, and is well-rested after logging just 25 minutes in his last two games (that’s a hint, Bud). A stronger defensive effort from swingmen Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha is needed to ensure Canaan’s shots are outside of the flow (such that it is) of Philadelphia’s reconfigured offense.
    This time, when the Sixers go big, Atlanta will be able to counter with reserve center Tiago Splitter, who is probable to appear after missing the past four games with calf soreness. For all his imperfections, so far this season, the Hawks are 15-8 when they can get Splitter in the mix, a winning percentage good enough for second in the East right now, an iffy 6-7 otherwise. Edy Tavares has performed ably in Splitter’s stead, but it’s important to get Tiago (4-for-5 FGs vs. PHI on Dec. 16) functioning in the Hawks rotation again.
    DeShawn Stevenson? Anthony Morrow? Anthony Tolliver? As the curtain was set to open on Larry Drew’s 2012-13 campaign, it wasn’t immediately clear who was most suitable to start at the wing for the Hawks, alongside Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. Say, LD, how about the 31-year-old guy who’s started just ten times in his previous 426 NBA games? The Threak eventually made the selection of Korver academic in hindsight. But adding to Korver’s case was his ability to contribute in ways other than jacking threes toward the goal – particularly passing, help defense, and rebounding.
    240 starts and an All-Star nod later, Korver’s long-range sharpshooting (career-low 35.4 3FG%) isn’t what it once was. That should place Korver, who started under a third of his first four-plus seasons as a 76er,  back in Morrow/Tolliver Territory: if shots aren’t falling, what else is he providing that’s a positive on the floor to justify 30-plus minutes? Are you, as a team, drawing that many defensive 3-second violations and technical fouls per night to rely on his designated free throws? On a team that relies so heavily on assisted baskets, is 2.1 APG (2.5 assists per-36, down from 2.9 and 3.1 the prior two seasons) an adequate average for the 2-guard?
    Starter or not, Kyle cannot help the Hawks with persistent binary production. One assist, zero steals or blocks versus the Knicks on Tuesday; one free throw, one steal, one O-board, no blocks two days before. Korver did contribute a season-high 7 assists (despite 4 TOs) versus the 76ers back on December 16. It’s imperative that Korver’s energy is not limited to scurrying across the floor in hopes of a mechanically-rushed jumper. On a team whose offense thrives on strips and steals and transition, one solitary steal over his past seven games (204 NBA minutes) isn’t getting the job done, never mind the 17.4 3FG% in that stretch.
    Budenholzer may be starting to crack, and tweaking the rotation to make better use of developmental wings like Justin Holiday and Tim Hardaway, Jr. While getting Dennis Schröder back into a routine is crucial, the small-ball backcourt with Jeff Teague hasn’t been an ideal substitute. In any case, while shaving down Kyle’s floortime could be beneficial, the solution isn’t to replace him, it’s to make sure that when he is on the floor, he’s focused on everything other than the next jumpshot opportunity.
    Atlanta needs to end their brief 0-for-2016 run tonight, and build positive momentum toward Saturday’s slime-fest with the Bulls. But the Hawks will be sadly mistaken if they think this is the same lackadaisical, laissez-faire Sixer bunch that rolled in-and-out of the Highlight Factory a few weeks ago. With back-to-back games upcoming during this 4-day homestand against the Cavs and Raptors, Philly has the Hawks in their sights, and has no plans to be anybody’s Slumpbuster.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Who He Play For???”

    There’s nowhere to hide, Atlanta Hawks! It’s January. The Bravos aren’t out on the diamond immolating themselves, and the Failcons aren’t on the gridiron getting in their own way. No Dream and no Dawgs playing with annually outsized expectations, no Jackets with already low bars to crawl under. Before winter meetings and spring trainings, the Atlanta sports fan’s attention will be undividedly directed toward the Hawks, who will try to keep the New York Knicks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network) from evening up the season series at the Highlight Factory.
    A major factor in the brilliance of Atlanta’s campaign last January was the timing. Despite ongoing concerns as to whether Dan Quinn would ride into town on a white horse, the Hawks’ ascension to the top of the NBA East became increasingly harder to keep off the front-page headlines. Add in a tradition unlike any other (individual Hawks making runs for non-fan All-Star Game bids) and January becomes a great time to annually build up the Believer base.
    It cuts both ways, though. Stories of the Hawks getting crop-dusted by Arron Afflalo and the Knicks, as was the case in Sunday’s 111-97 defeat up in Manhattan, can no longer be obscured by Matt Ryan’s weekly insistence on remaking himself into Vinny Testaverde. The quality of Atlanta’s nightly performance on the hardwood, flaws and all, will be laid bare, along with the Hawks’ ability to at least remain a solid contender in a much more competitive Eastern Conference. All eyes are on thee; what shall we see?
    To achieve significant levitation toward a permanent spot at the top of the East, Atlanta (21-14) must recommit itself to a primarily defensive identity. At the moment, they look like a team more focused on creating good shots, not so much making them.
    With a spry DeMarre Carroll bringing it as a starter last season, the Hawks established themselves as a team capable of getting stops and, with the help of crisp offensive ball movement, taking (and making) more advantageous shots than their opponents.  Kent Bazemore (4-for-7 3FGs but 2-for-6 2FGs @ NYK on Jan. 3) and Thabo Sefolosha have stepped up their play in DMC’s departure, but perhaps not enough defensively to compensate for a slower-reacting Kyle Korver and a occasionally checked-out performances by Jeff Teague (3-for-12 FGs, 3 assists, 1 steal in 29.5 minutes @ NYK) and Al Horford (3 rebounds in 28.5 minutes @NYK).
    Last season’s record-breaking edition of the Hawks finished 7th in the NBA in defensive rating (100.7 opponent points per 100 possessions). As it stands this season, they’re 7th in the East (101.2 D-Rating), although 11th overall in the league doesn’t look so bad, now that almost the entire West is going full 1980s.
    Many of the Hawks’ conference contemporaries spent their past couple offseasons retooling their defensive strategies and reorienting personnel. Now, Atlanta’s the sole team among the East’s Top-9 allowing triple digits per game. Coincidentally, New York (16-19) is the sole bottom-five team in the East allowing under 100 PPG.
    Poor perimeter defense is among the eye-poppers, and Atlanta’s 36.0 opponent 3FG% above-the-break is 7th worst in the NBA, but the worst in the East, while the 42.4 opponent 3FG% in right corners is the 5th-worst mark in the league. If you’re looking for the number of the truck that ran us over on Sunday, try #4. Afflalo exploited Atlanta’s underwhelming closeout efforts by sinking his first seven threes, all of them above the break, all of them buttressing New York’s double-digit leads even as Carmelo Anthony (4-for-10 FGs, 11 points, fewest shot attempts in complete game since 2012) was largely bottled up.
    The Knicks’ 11-for-26 three-point shooting followed the Rockets sinking 11-of-20 five days before, which produced another hole for the Hawks to try climbing out from. Atlanta, by comparison, has shot 35% or more on treys four times since December 1, compared to 12 occasions back in October/November. Rather than jacking up a franchise-record 41 attempts (as was the case in Houston) just to try keeping up, tightening up the perimeter closeouts (especially after opponents’ second-chance and broken plays) without fouling will produce more desirable results.
    Tack on a league-high 44.1 opponent 2FG% in-the-paint (outside the restricted area) and you can see that Atlanta’s defense is, as Mike Budenholzer is wont to say, “not where it needs to be.” Keyed by Paul Millsap (team-high 4 TOs but 5 steals @ NYK on Sunday), the Hawks’ defensive strategy has been Steal or Bust (9.6 steals per 100 possessions, 2nd in NBA, tops in East). Opponents wise enough not to put the ball on the floor, keep the ball stuck on one side of the floor, or mindlessly hold the ball at waist-level are most likely to recoup the benefits. New York connected on 9 of their 17 attempts in the paint beyond 5 feet on Sunday.
    Millsap and Horford have to bring more to the table than strips against Robin Lopez, whose stat line on Sunday (5 TOs, 4 via Hawk steals, but 7-for-10 FGs and 5 O-Rebs, plus 5 assists) well-encapsulates how one-dimensional Atlanta’s defense can be. Jose Calderon and rookie Jerian Grant (combined 7-for-13 FGs; Grant 7 assists and 1 TO in 18 minutes) should not experience such little resistance getting to the interior and making plays. It’s on Teague, and whomever Budenholzer graces with minutes behind him, to limit penetration.
    We’ll await to find out whether Dennis Schröder continues “developing” from the pine. If Coach Bud is intending to showcase Shelvin Mack (5-for-10 FGs, 5 assists, 3 TOs in 18.5 mins. @ NYK), he won’t want other GMs to know that Hawk opponents have scored 17.9 points per-36 off turnovers with Mack on the floor, the most by any non-76er who has logged 100+ minutes this season.
    While Smooving Schröder, Bud has also sung the praises of rookie Lamar Patterson (last ten games: 50.0 FG%)at every opportunity, particularly as a short-term ballhandler and on-ball defender. With his and Mike Muscala’s contracts becoming fully guaranteed this week, Patterson will get even more opportunity to demonstrate his worth in the coming days. But at whose expense? We’ll have to wait-and-see.
    It’s January, Atlanta Hawks. The whole town is watching! No pressure, though!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Should auld acquaintance be forgot… and NEVER brought to mind?
    2015. Phew! What a year, eh?
    Couched around the greatest postseason push in Atlanta Hawks history, and a record four All-Star Game participants, was the second-most successful calendar year of regular season games ever experienced by the franchise.
    From the rafters, Dikembe Mutombo wags a disallowing finger at those daring notions that Calendar Year 2015 was the greatest Hawks regular-season campaign ever, or that the most successful January-to-December stretch came from players rocking a Pac-Man jersey. Deke, Lenny, Smitty, and Mookie’s Hawks went 59-25 (70.24%) in 1997. In The Year of Many People’s Lord 2015, the Hawks had a chance to match that win total by winning last night’s and tonight’s road games.
    Even failing that, no outcome tonight will stop the gaggle of Hawks including Bud, Bawse, Jeff, and Sap from the 4th-best percentage record in any calendar year of its speckled NBA history (going all the way back to Tri-Cities). Currently at 67.86%, that’s a mark bested only by the 1997 edition, and the teams rolled out by the Czar with Nique, Doc, and Kevin in 1986 (69.62%) and 1987 (68.51%). To separate from the ’87 players and stand alone in second-place among calendar-year win totals, the 57-27 Hawks of 2015 must take out the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) tonight at the Toyota Center.
    Speaking of Toyota… oh, what a feeling. If you’ve felt a tinge of a letdown after the wild success that marked the first half of 2015, try getting sympathy from a Rockets fan. H-Town was in the NBA Final Four last season, too, and even won a game once they got there. They have the Players’ Choice MVP, plus a “real” center who is still supposed to be, even at age 30, among the upper tier at his position. Furthermore, they went out in the summer to acquire a speedy point guard that shores up the position, at least offensively, and conceivably made it where their high-usage superstar shooting guard no longer has to handle the rock so darn much.
    None of that was supposed to add up to their current record of 16-16. Central to the issues in Space City was putrid defensive effort. A team that finished among the top-ten in defensive rating in 2014-15 (100.5, just ahead of Atlanta’s 100.7, 6th in NBA) has dropped down to 23rd so far this year (104.4, just ahead of Philadelphia).
    Rocket opponents are shooting 63.4 FG% in the restricted area (2nd-worst in NBA) and are making hay at the corner-three zones (2.9 corner 3FGs per game, 3rd-most in NBA). A team starting Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley, along with the emerging Clint Capela, shouldn’t have so much trouble getting stops on the regular. Of course, decent team defense takes a five-man effort. And the fifth starter has been a problem.
    Houston’s superstar, James Harden, built up his MVP credentials in 2014-15 with gritty defensive effort. But the Bearded One seems to have reverted back to the downright hairy defense of yesteryear, the lackadaisical stuff that once made him a YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons.
    Harden leads the way with a career-high 28.4 PPG (2nd in NBA), but his usage rate (even with Ty Lawson in tow) has inexplicably risen to a career-high 32.8%. His shooting percentage of 41.7 FG% (career-low 33.5 3FG%) the worst since his thunderous rookie season, and his turnover percentage of 15.3% is a career-high. Meanwhile, his defensive box plus/minus (-0.7) and defensive rating (106.1; net rating of -3.4 in home games) indicators suggest he’s about as ineffective a defender as he has ever been.
    It turns out it might actually take a Rocket scientist to figure out not only how to get Harden re-focused, but to find the proper balance of the Lawson/Beverley platoon. Beverley was in-and-out to start the season with an ankle injury. Lawson started the first 11 games before getting deposed, and has been a Porter Ranch-scale disaster (34.8 FG%, 31.0 3FG%) as a shooter and a defender.
    While one team tonight has an All-Star center who is only accused of pacing himself through the season, the other team has a well-paid center who openly admits to doing exactly that. Howard has been slowed by issues with his knee and back. As he looks forward to VetMinning his way to retirement at age 40, Howard, now in his twelth NBA season, doesn’t mind one bit when the coach rests him for whole quarters, or whole games. Dwight has become, essentially, a offensive board-crasher and help-defender who hopes nobody hacks him and sends him to the line (50.3 FT%, his worst in last three seasons).
    Howard’s partner-in-crime Josh Smith left over the summer for Los Angeles, and filling the hole at the power forward spot has been like trying to spackel a drive-thru window. Donatas Motiejunas just returned, and Terrence Jones (career-low 45.5 FG%) has been underwhelming in his return to action, and Montrezl Harrell, well, just no. So Capela has been granted trial-by-fire at the 4-spot.
    McHale’s navy tried to plug all the leaks, but after just 11 games (4-7), the commander was tossed overboard. J.B. Bickerstaff now steers the wheel, and while the team has crawled back to .500 under his watch, it’s hard to say whether they would have gone 12-9 under Kevin McHale anyway. “Over and over again,” Bickerstaff bickered Mark Jackson-style, after the Rockets fizzled late in New Orleans on Saturday, “we’ve disrespected the game”. Despite a pleasant Christmas Day defensive effort in a home win over the Spurs, J.B. wants to stop the “ugly Rockets” from rearing their heads.  
    Jettisoning Lawson in favor of Jason “JET” Terry and Beverley has generally worked out, as has putting more trust in Thabo Sefolosha’s Swiss bro Capela (14.7 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA). But Bickerstaff has a better chance of righting the ship if he can find steadier contributions of the bench. Houston’s reserves manage just 27.1 defensive rebounds per-48 (28th in NBA) and their turnover ratio (16.6 per 100 possessions) ranks 27th.
    The Hawks (20-13) couldn’t hit the broad side of an Indiana barn last night (41.9 team FG%; Kyle Korver 0-for-8 3FGs), and was as sloppy with the ball as we’ve seen all season long (19.0 TO%, worst since losing in Brooklyn on Nov. 17). And yet they still found themselves, on the road, within a bucket of the lead with just under a minute to play.
    The defensive work to limit Paul George’s effectiveness, and coax him into questionable shots without fouling, allowed Atlanta to stay within reach until the sloppy end. They’ll need a similar effort tonight versus Harden, but they also need to keep a shoot-first guard like Terry from thinking he can be Monta Ellis.
    Whichever Hawks guard doesn’t draw Beverley should find minimal defensive resistance (unless Bickerstaff leans on Corey Brewer, or the barely-used K.J. McDaniels) and should have ample opportunity to make amends tonight. That guard is likely to be Korver, and the struggling shooter must work the corner spots with reckless abandon tonight, in order to shake off his slump.
    Capela and Howard will crash the glass, and create extra-chances. But Atlanta also did well yesterday making outlet passes off the Pacers’ offensive rebounds tough last night and should continue to do so again whenever they fail to snare the defensive rebound. Getting to the paint and making the extra pass without drawing charges and getting rejected will help the Hawks go into 2016 on a high note.
    Have a Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Who on this row has three rings? Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?”

    The last time Paul George of the Indiana Pacers faced the Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, Fox Sports Indiana) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse? It’s been a minute - May of 2014, actually. By that time, the top-seeded Pacers needed all of George’s 30 points and Lance Stephenson’s 19-and-14 to finally hold off a first-round upset by the Al Horford-less Hawks in seven games. Until that performance, George and the Pacers had been booed off the floor by the home crowd, perturbed at their inability to do much of anything against guys like DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antić, Shelvin Mack, and Mike Scott.
    Quite a bit has changed in just the 19 months since that playoff game. George needed almost a full season off to heal a leg he broke in the summertime. And by the time he returned, the Pacers and Hawks traded places. With Horford back in tow, Atlanta ascended to the top of the East in the regular season (sweeping the Pacers along the way), while Indy hung around the eighth-seed until the final week of the 2014-15 season.
    The frontcourt anchors from the Pacers’ 2014-15 season, David West and Roy Hibbert, departed from the Hoosier State as free agents this summer. Instead of searching for replicates, Pacers team president Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel decided to live up to their team name.
    Pushing the pace meant convincing George that he’d thrive more as a stretch-four than a swingman. Bringing super-scoring free agent Monta Ellis (12.7 PPG, lowest since rookie year; 28.4 3FG%)  into the fold, and making C.J. Miles (career-highs of 14.6 PPG, 39.5 3FG%; 55.1 eFG%, 2nd in East ahead of Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore) a more permanent fixture at the 3-spot, made the switch to power forward for George easier to understand.
    By all accounts, George (career-highs of 24.8 PPG and 7.7 RPG; 40.6 3FG%) has played good soldier, which helped the Pacers get off to a strong start. George won the conference Player of the Month award for October-November as Indy won 11 of their last 13 games in November. Team pace has climbed from 94.9 possessions per-48 (20th in NBA) during Indiana’s 2014 title run to 99.4 (8th in NBA).
    This season, both teams have been swapping paint while chasing Cleveland for pole position in the conference. Atlanta (20-12) comes into tonight’s game riding a six-game winning streak and enjoying improved play out of Horford as well as guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. Indiana (17-12) had struggled with three straight defeats until topping the T’wolves in Minnesota on Saturday. Each team needed to find a high gear during the second half to come away victorious in their most recent games.
    The Pacers’ recent struggles from 3-point range continued (9-for-26 3FGs) against Minnesota until a 36-20 fourth-quarter run put the Wolves out of reach. Indiana is among the top 3-point shooters (9.2 3FGs per game, 4th-most in East, up from 6.7 in 2013-14), particularly of the unassisted variety (21.4% of threes, 3rd-highest in NBA). So it would really help their offense if they could shoot better than 35.7% from deep.
    Coincident to the Hawks’ latest win streak is improved perimeter defense. Atlanta’s last four opponents shot just 28.4% on threes, compared to 47.1% in the prior five games. Against the Knicks on Saturday, Atlanta’s headfromrectomy procedure came during the second half, holding New York to just 35 points after allowing 63 in the opening half.
    New York cooled off to just 29.2 3FG% for the game, and ultimately had no answers for the Twin Mid-Risers, Horford and Paul Millsap (combined 17-for-32 FGs, 14 assists, 5 steals, 2 TOs) or the point guard hydra of Teague and Schröder (combined 10-for-21 FGs, 10 assists, 1 TO). The Pacers will be challenged to neutralize at least one of those duos, and to keep bench players like Scott (7-for-8 FGs vs. NYK) from getting their giddyup on at their expense.
    Tonight’s game features the two most opportunistic teams in the NBA, the Pacers’ 19.8 PPG off turnovers bested only by Atlanta’s 20.2. Millsap (1.8 SPG, 4th among NBA PF/Cs) will enjoy enticing George (career-high 3.8 TOs/game) to attempt post moves without getting stripped. Millsap won’t be as thrilled if Indiana can get George operating in space by way of isolation plays.
    When Atlanta’s defensive help arrives outside the paint, George must make the proper passes, but his teammates in turn (particularly Ellis and Rodney Stuckey) need to keep the ball moving instead of settling for quick, contested jumpers. They would all do well to look inside for Hibbert’s replacement at the pivot, Ian Mahinmi (59.4 TS%, 4th in East behind Atlanta’s Kyle Korver).
    George also needs the gold-coiffed George Hill and Ellis (1.8 SPG) to pressure Atlanta’s ballhandlers fullcourt. Teague has turned the ball over no more than twice in ten of his past 12 appearances. Coming off the bench, Schröder has done the same in just one of his past 8 contests. The unofficial turnovers have come by way of missed buckets around the rim and occasionally-questionable shot selection. Minimizing those factors would limit George and Ellis’ ability to score in transition.
    Both teams are a bit thinned in the frontcourt. Atlanta’s Mike Muscala will need to step up again while Tiago Splitter recovers from a calf injury sustained against New York. Rookie center Myles Turner fractured a hand back in November, boosting floor time for Indiana’s Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill. Vogel will be pleased to find capable of plugging the middle against the Hawks, whose 46.8 PPG in-the-paint in December ranks second in the East.
    Unlike 2014, fans won’t resort to jeering George and the Pacers if Atlanta manages to keep their winning streak going tonight. After all, losing at home to the Hawks is no longer a disappointment.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Could’ve done this with my own arm, but okay!”

    It’s the first day after Christmas. Did your true love give to thee -- a Kristaps Porzingis jersey?
    Hands down, Kris P. Kreme is the hottest, freshest thing flying out of the Big Apple’s ovens these days. Children trained by their fathers to thumb-down the selection of the 7-foot-3 Latvian-a-leaping over the past summer are now, in what is purported to be wintertime, begging Santa, the NBA Store, and anyone who’ll listen for his jersey.
    That has a lot to do with the 20-year-old’s highlight-reel talents. It also has an awful lot more to do with the name of the city on the front of the jersey. Porzingis’ New York Knicks are in town to face the Atlanta Hawks (EARLY START: 7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network), and dormant Knicks fans around the ATL could not be more pleased.
    You have to keep this all in context. The Knicks have exactly one 50-plus win season, and one playoff series victory, in the past 16 NBA seasons, including this one. That season had Mike Woodson, of all people, running the show. At this point, as the calendar turns toward 2016, Knick fans around the globe could not possibly care less about title contention. Winning always sounds great. But failing that, they simply want to be entertained.
    Linsanity, Imandemonium, Zingsanity, whatever it’s called these days, just make the darn games interesting. Do fans fret over whether Derek Fisher and this concocted New York (14-16) roster are mediocre, at best? Does Spike Lee care if Chi-Raq or whatever he cranks out breaks even at the box office, or gets three stars from critics, anymore? All that matters, for now, is give Knicks fans a decent reason to watch.
    The Porzstar (23 points, 13 rebounds @ CLE on Dec. 23) is doing all of that, and more. Judging from the reactions of the Gotham populace, one would think he was doing much more than averaging 13.3 PPG while shooting 42.5% from the floor (making roughly a third of his threes). But on a team that’s spent multiple seasons with players merely going through the motions, Porzingis’ 8.2 RPG (2.2 offensive) and 2.0 BPG shows he is putting forward the effort, and has the attitude to kick any mistaken aspersions of cottony Euro-softness to the proverbial curb. He’ll see to it that this ain’t Frederic Weis Redux, or Andrea Bargnani Junior.
    Carmelo Anthony has to feel like it’s Christmas morning each time he steps onto the floor. He’s scoring the fewest points per game (21.8 PPG) since his sophomore campaign in Denver, while shooting a career low 42.1 FG%. But nobody cares. All eyes aren’t on him anymore. There’s no need to be Manhattan’s LeBron. Plus, he doesn’t have to wear himself out at the 4-spot anymore, so long as Porzingis and Robin Lopez (7.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG, and 48.5 FG%, lowest in past four seasons) are hanging around.
    The Knicks’ leading scorer injured his ankle on Monday in the Knicks’ loss to New York, sat out Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, and might rest again as the Knicks embark on a 3-games-in-4-nights swing. But who cares, really? Nobody’s freaking out about the 31-year-old’s salary pushing $25-million over the next two seasons, or questioning if he deserves to be an All-Star starter, or an All-Star at all, or whether he wants to be traded, or the missus’ Twitter-pinions about anything. If he can contribute tonight, tomorrow, or next season, that’s really swell. If not, oh, well! The Bright Lights of the Bigger City now shine on Porzingis, and Melo couldn’t be happier.
    After a lost first season at the helm, Fisher has his future star here with Melo, Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, and Lopez, and all of them are sorting out this whole Triangle thingie together. They are quite content with keeping the pace low (24th in NBA) and finding the best long-range shot they can get near the end of the shot clock, so it’s not much of a surprise that despite Porzingis and Lopez’s talents the Knicks rank last in the league with 33.6 PPG in-the-paint.
    Being out-scored by over 10 PPG in-the-paint won’t help against the Hawks, who oppose the Knicks three times over the next five games and whose 52.4 PPG in-the-paint since starting their five-game win streak on Dec. 16 ranks 3rd in the league. That’s unless Atlanta (19-12) suffers once again from the post-holiday blahs.
    Spirits were merry and bright for the Hawks last year at this same time, riding a five game win streak and a spiffy 21-7 record into a post-Christmas home game against Milwaukee. That was before Jared Dudley put some coal in their stockings, Atlanta disappointing upbeat fans with a 30-point letdown. At that time, though, there was no sense that a 19-game win streak and heightened expectations would follow.
    A year later, Atlanta has to come out tonight playing strong perimeter defense, versus everyone from Melo and Porzingis to Sasha Vujacic and Lance Thomas, and keeping the Knicks from a bunch of extra-chances. The struggle for New York is greater without Kyle O’Quinn, perhaps their top-performing defensive big man, who remains questionable with an ankle injury.
    If you’re Kyle Korver (3-for-5 3FGs @ NYK on Oct. 29), chances are Arron Afflalo and the Knicks’ opposing guards will Forget You are open for jumpers, and you have to take advantage when the ball comes your way. Jeff Teague (team-high 23 points, 9-for-10 FTs @ NYK on Oct. 29) bounced back with a magnificent game against the Pistons (team-high 23 points, 9 assists, 4 steals, 2 TOs) on Wednesday. Teague has to bring the same level of energy, and when on the occasions when they are bottled up in the paint, they have to be mindful of open shooters like Korver and Kent Bazemore, and not force interior shots.
    They’re the flagship NBA team of America’s biggest market, and have not one NBA title in the past 40 years to show for their trouble. At this point, the Knicks’ fans simply don’t worry about winning the next game or the next ring, so long as their team shows some competitive fire from night to night. Does that make them Crazy? Possibly. But who cares?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Bad Boys to the Bone!”
    Well, hello, there. Stan Van Gundy! Did you have yourself a Happy Smoove Buyout Day?
    One day before tonight’s tangle between the Detroit Pistons and the host Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, Fox Sports Detroit), yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Van Gundy inviting Josh Smith into his office to advise: “Look, it’s not you, it’s… okay, screw it, it’s you. We’re cutting you loose!”
    The Pistons sat at 5-23 when their GM/coach elected to apply the CBA’s stretch provision to his most notorious stretch-four. Even 5-23 doesn’t begin to reflect the scale of abject dysfunction that pervaded the roster, symbolized by its highest-salaried player, signed to a head-scratching free agent deal by a GM that no longer worked there.
    This was 5-23 with Smith, with Brandon Jennings, with Greg Monroe, with Andre Drummond. The team was a nightly #NotTop10 laughingstock. Piston fans were Pistoff, and Detroit’s once-proud suburban home attendance had fallen through the Palace floor. Just getting settled into the Motor City, Van Gundy wasn’t about to crash-and-burn in this Edsel. He knew Detroit would have to consult the White House to find a bailout more momentous than placing Josh Smith on waivers.
    Jumpshot Josh bounced from Motown to an eventful stop in H-Town, and now sulks and seethes on the bench in Tinseltown while averaging several career-lows, alongside just the latest head coach with that how-do-I-get-this-dookie-off-my-shoe look etched on his face. Picking up new paychecks at each stop along the way, he stopped by A-Town last March, and bragged to Ryan Cameron that “It’s a new day!” after sinking some lucky threes. Van Gundy could not possibly agree more with you, Josh.
    After waiving Smith, Detroit played .500-ball the rest of the way (27-27) through last season, threatening to break into the playoffs, and might have done even better were it not for Jennings rupturing his Achilles amidst their January turnaround. Since the waiver, the Pistons are a sound 44-39 coming into tonight’s meeting with another one of Smoove’s grateful former employers.
    Detroit didn’t chase Monroe is free agency, and now That Other Moose is handsomely paid on a Central Division rival that can’t seem to find traction. Midway through last season, and again this summer, they rolled the dice and committed to a backup lead guard from Oklahoma City. Today, Reggie Jackson (career-highs 20.4 PPG, 6.4 APG, 35.5 3FG%) waltzes into tonight’s contest as the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. It is Jackson’s second such honor this season, matching Drummond, who won it for each of the first two weeks of the NBA season.
    No longer flanked by Smith and Monroe, Drummond has continues to come into his own. He earned his first weekly honor of the season, in part, by trouncing Budball with 18 points and 19 rebounds in a season-opening 106-94 win over the defending regular-season conference champs in Atlanta.
    19 boards would count as a career day for most NBA players, but Drummond has already met or bested that tally eight times this season. That included 29 boards one week after the Hawks game, versus Indiana, and 21 rebounds in Chicago last Friday in a back-and-forth battle that stretched through four overtimes. Playing 54 minutes, Dre would certainly have grabbed even more boards had he not fouled out with just over a minute left.
    The Windy City win was the first four-OT game in the NBA since Jeff Teague’s Hawks nipped Paul Millsap’s Utah Jazz back in March 2012. But while Chicago had to fly out to New York for a game the next night, Detroit followed up their running of the Bulls with a restful three-day layoff.
    Still, one can hope that when the Pistons flew into Hartsfield-Jackson, their arms were tired. Much like the Hawks’ last opponent, the Pistons arrive in Atlanta one night after squeaking out a win in Miami, storming back from being 18 points down in the second quarter. The AJC's C-Viv notes they arrived early this morning, due to the soupy weather delaying their flight from South Florida. Detroit is 0-for-3 thus far, including a loss to the Lakers, when playing the back end of a back-to-back on the road.
    Stan has kept things steady among the starters. Detroit (17-12) has maintained the same starting-five since the successful season opener in ATL, with Jackson and Drummond joined by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forwards Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova.
    Due largely to a lack of healthy options and backcourt defenders, KCP (30.2 3FG%) is second only to Houston’s James Harden in daily NBA floor time, averaging 38 minutes per game. The former UGA star’s offense is beginning to turn a huge corner as well. Despite going 7-for-14 (4-for-7 3FGs) in Atlanta in October, his field-goal shooting was in the dirty thirties (38.9 FG%) through November.
    But KCP’s jumper is looking extra-crispy lately, particularly when Detroit is desperate for a closer to take pressure off of Jackson. He’s been shooting 43.9 FG% this month, hitting a big triple with under two minutes left in the fourth OT to corral the bickering Bulls, and overcoming a rough shooting night with the final seven Piston points to temper the heat yesterday.
    Jennings has returned to the lineup for the Pistons, and his good-soldier attitude (“best PG in the East right now,” he tweeted two days ago) has defused any questions so far about the Jackson/Jennings dynamic. He will be used not only as a Jackson backup but, more likely, as a secondary shooting guard to relieve Caldwell-Pope (40 minutes yesterday in Miami).
    While he’s unlikely to appear tonight, Jennings is expected to boost the bench, as he gets back up to speed. But he may also get showcased in Van Gundy’s quest to improve Detroit’s shallow backcourt situation. Jennings’ $8.3 million salary concludes his contract this coming summer.
    Detroit has managed without not only Jennings but Jodie Meeks. The former Norcross High standout, Meeks fractured his foot in just the second game of the season and remains out for a couple more months. Factor in the recurring D-League development of youngsters at the bottom of the depth chart (Spencer Dinwiddie, Darrun Hilliard, and Reggie Bullock) and Jackson, KCP and the crafty Steve Blake have had the guard rotation essentially all to themselves.
    Due to the diminished depth, and the boundless energy of Van Gundy’s young upstart starters (you too, Ersan), Detroit’s reserves rank last in the league with a collective 15.6 minutes per game, 23.3 PPG, 37.3 FG%, and 2.0 SPG. But the marksmanship of ex-Hawk Anthony Tolliver, Blake, and rookie Stanley Johnson last night (collective 11-for-17 3FGs @ MIA) helped Detroit’s reserves quickly turn the tables on the heat in the second quarter.
    The Hawks have to push the pace on the Pistons, and Jeff Teague needs to lead the way. The Hawks still go as Jeff goes: 12-0 when he posts a plus-minus of zero of better, 17-2 when it’s minus-3 or better, eight double-digit losses (including to these Pistons) when he’s done worse. Teague (38.5 2FG% in December) has contributed either 20 points or 10 assists just once in the past ten games, and that was ten games ago.
    On offense, especially when his jumpshot isn’t falling (4-for-12 FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs vs. Tim Frazier and Poor-tland), he must work his way around Jackson and draw help defenders into the paint. Atlanta is 9-1 when Teague gets at least six free throw attempts. He’ll find lanes to attack whenever triple threat Kyle Korver (8-for-12 3FGs last two games) draws Caldwell-Pope to the other side of the floor.
    On defense, Teague (1.1 SPG, down from 1.7 in 2014-15) must get back to bringing the same fullcourt terror to opposing guards that he provided consistently last season when the Hawks got on a wintertime roll. In the ten losses where Teague played this season, he totaled just 7 steals. It’s his responsibility to make shoot-first PGs like Jackson work the full floor.
    Jeff must not only spark the Hawks, who thrive off scoring from opponent turnovers, but make opponents pay by converting those opportunities into points. Among the top 25 NBA players in transition possessions, Teague’s 21.0 turnover percentage on those possessions ranks as the second-worst, and his 55.8 eFG% is the fifth-worst.
    While Teague has been merely putting on the veneer of a top-flight point guard, Dennis Schröder (7-for-10 FGs, team-high 18 points in just 17 minutes) took his own veneer and stuffed it in his sock, while socking it to the toothless Trail Blazers on Monday. The gummin’ German has recommitted himself to defend opposing guards better (2.4 SPG in last 5 games, 0.8 before that), and it’s resulted in an uptick in productive floor time (52.0 FG%, 50.0 3FG%, 5.0 APG, 1.6 TOs/game in last 5 games).
    Schröder and the bench corps must exploit the rest-and-preparation advantage over their lead-legged Detroit counterparts. Thabo Sefolosha will join Kent Bazemore in forcing tough perimeter shots, but it will help a ton if Lamar Patterson (one steal in his last 13 appearances) can get a couple stops, or if Justin (no significant minutes since November 21) can make the Holidays happy.
    Tight-but-smart defensive pressure along the perimeter and limiting dribble penetration by Piston guards will lighten the load for Paul Millsap and Michigander Al Horford as they try to keep Drummond and Morris (13 combined O-Rebs, 29 boards @ATL on Oct. 27) from piling up second-chance points, which is naturally the Pistons’ specialty (league-high 15.8 PPG).
    Horford and Millsap (who, like Teague, will play through a tweaked ankle) are among the league’s top-ten in Roll Man possessions, and Al is hoppin’ when he’s not just pick-and-poppin’. Among the top 15 Roll Men, Horford’s 55.9 eFG% is tops, while his 2.9 turnover percentage on those possessions is the best among the Top 30. Atlanta’s ball handlers must recognize this and feed Horford early and often on rolls to the rim.
    Millsap, meanwhile, ranks 2nd among the league’s Top-20 in eFG% on Post-Up possessions, and 31.6% of those Post-Ups ending in free throw chances blows away the field among the NBA’s Top-50 post-uppers. Atlanta’s bigs, including Mike Scott, Tiago Splitter and The Real Moose, must be relentless on interior shots against a Detroit team that allows 45.2 PPG in the paint (most in the East), and their guards must be clever enough to feed the bigs when they’ve got the likes of Ilyasova, Morris, and Tolliver covering them.
    Sharp passing and assertiveness can neutralize Drummond’s cherry-picking ways, compelling him to focus more on his defensive tasks, and making plays on the drivers and cutters rather than the ball itself. With the floor spread out in his favor last night, Chris Bosh didn’t bother to ask his doctor before feeding Drummond a pill or two around the rim, and Horford can certainly follow suit tonight.
    Drummond’s dominance in the offensive rebounding column has just as much to do with the Pistons’ own struggles making halfcourt shots (50.7% true shooting, tied for 2nd-worst in NBA) as anything else. Detroit only shot 37.9% on two-pointers back on Oct. 27, but 12-for-29 (41.4%) on threes (Detroit’s 8-1 when they sink ten or more).
    Last season’s MLK Day game saw Drummond nab 11 of his 18 rebounds (surpassed in the same game by Monroe’s 20) in the first quarter, but Detroit could muster only 12 points (8-for-24 FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) in that frame. Last season, Atlanta’s opponents took the bait and jacked a league-high 25.8 threes per game, but shot just 34.1 percent on them.
    So far this year, Hawks foes aren’t settling quite as much (24.0 3FGAs per game, 16th in NBA), but are getting better looks (36.8 3FG%, 5th-most in NBA). Rather than being mesmerized by Drummond’s prodigious play in the post, improving the perimeter defense would make things easier on the Hawks tonight. Hawks point guards and roving wings can minimize the need for the bigs to vacate the paint (and Drummond) to help.
    A third-straight victory over Atlanta, a fourth consecutive victory overall, a fourth-straight road win to even up their away-game record, and a possible vault up to second in the East. All of that would suffice as quality gifts for the Detroit Pistons as they head into the Christmas Day break. But don’t bother wrapping anything, Atlanta. For Stan Van Gundy, Christmas already came a couple days early.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours, and Happy Holidays!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Hi, Damon? This is Steve Harvey. I am SO sorry, but remember when I announced that you beat out Pimentó for World’s Best Mixtape?”

    Tonight, watch Hawks fans Nae Nae! But more importantly, hopefully you’ll get to watch the Atlanta Hawks Whip the Portland Trail Blazers (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Northwest) at the Highlight Factory. Thanks to Kooninball, we’ve had plenty of rhyme-spitters grace our floor lately. But how many of these ATL-based artists can boast that their government name ends with “Hawk?”
    Richard Lamar Hawk has that going for him: you know him better by his stage name, Silentó. We have no idea whether the soon-to-be-18-year-old, a Soul Train Award winner, is merely the latest summertime one-hit dancing wonder to Bankhead Bounce his way in and out of our hearts. But he’s already accomplished more on wax than 25-year-old Damian Lillard, whose #4BarFridays have fallen on America’s deaf ears, somewhere in between “40 Bars” and K.O.B.E. (that’s a pretty wide spectrum).
    It’s been a good thing for Portland that Lillard keeps his night job. One of just three players in the NBA’s top-ten for both per-game scoring (24.6, 8th in NBA; career-low 41.8 FG%) and assists (6.8 APG), the two-time All-Star Lillard has been a true ironman for the Trail Blazers (11-18) as the team lurches through Year 1 of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era.
    Despite the wise departure of Aldridge to San Antonio, made possible by Atlanta’s acquisition of Tiago Splitter, Lillard found himself a new 20-PPG sidekick to Kid ‘n Play with. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (20.1 PPG, 40.7 3FG%, 1.3 SPG) certainly relates well to Weber State’s Lillard, having been a tad overlooked as a lottery pick coming out of a small-conference school. McCollum came alive in last year’s brief playoff run, averaging 17 PPG (up from his 6.8 regular-season average) and hitting 48% of his threes as the replacement for the injured Wesley Matthews. Today, Toronto is the only other NBA team (sorry, Klay) that boasts of a backcourt with two 20-point scorers.
    Unfortunately, neither guard will grace the hardwood with their play today. Keeping up the latest run of injuries to current and former NBA point guards (Jeff Teague, Elfrid Payton, and Jason Kidd included), Lillard aggravated a nagging plantar fascia last night in the loss to Miami, and his rest tonight will put an end to his 275-game playing streak. Like Lillard, McCollum also arrived in Atlanta a bit banged up, rolling his ankle and banging knees with Miami’s Dwyane Wade late in last night’s game. He’s been ruled out as well due to the ankle sprain.
    The heat tenderized the Blazers along the way to a 116-106 victory, Miami shooting a Blazers-opponent-high 57.3% from the floor (52.2% on threes) as they wiped out a strong offensive run by Portland in the first half. Portland arrives in Atlanta for the fourth game of their five-game road swing without their double-barreled backcourt available, and coach Terry Stotts will pull lots of levers in hopes someone else can step up with productive minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.
    The Blazers have given up triple-digit scoring in each of their past five games and in eight of their last ten, creating deficits that are tough for Dame and C.J. to overcome. Starter Mason Plumlee (2.7 O-Rebs per game) and reserve Ed Davis (2.8 O-Rebs per game) have been eager beavers on the offensive glass, cleaning up many of Lillard’s and McCollum’s misses. The Reggie Miller-eared Allen Crabbe (47.4 FG%) and Gerald Henderson (41.7 3FG%) come off the bench to provide perimeter shooting, athleticism, and not much more. But right now, Stotts needs stops, in addition to shots.
    Second-year power forward Noah Vonleh (3.0 PPG, 41.4 FG%) is highly unpolished on offense. Yet Stotts starts the 20-year-old, ahead of Meyers Leonard and alongside Atlanta native Al-Farouq Aminu (career-high 11.0 PPG, 37.9 3FG%), because defensive effort is a premium on this un-ripened roster. Inexperience in general, never mind playing together, is what puts the Trail Blazers behind the 8-ball, as all of their starters are aged 25 or younger. Lightly-used center Chris Kaman, bugged by an illness, is the only Blazer over the age of 30. The second-oldest player on the team, Henderson, just turned 28 a couple weeks ago.
    With the scoring guard options depleted, who will Stotts turn to? Up goes Frazier! Tim Frazier made a name for himself last season in the D-League, the 6-foot-1 guard out of Penn State being honored as both D-League Rookie of the Year and MVP after averaging 16.1 PPG, 9.5 APG, and 7.1 RPG.
    In his February call-up to Philadelphia, Frazier notched 11 assists in his NBA debut. Late last season with Portland, he dropped a double-double (13 points, 10 assists) on Dallas. Later, he averaged 67 percent on threes in the preseason. The Hawks can expect a lot of energy from Frazier as his next big chance to impress awaits. He’ll be backed up by Notre Dame’s 2015 March Madness hero Pat Connaughton. Whichever of Crabbe or Henderson starts will be buttressed by Mo Harkless and rookie Luis Montero. The struggle is real.
    Atlanta won their 18th straight game against a sulking Lillard and Portland back in January, despite missing DeMarre Carroll (Achilles) and losing his backup, Thabo Sefolosha (calf strain), at the outset of the game. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer turned to Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott (9-for-11 combined FGs) off the bench, and the duo showed off Atlanta’s understated depth at forward. Kaman, if healthy, and Leonard are the only returning Blazer participants from that game available to play tonight.
    With Carroll having gone north of the border, Bazemore (55.3 eFG%, 15th in NBA) now starts for Atlanta, and Scott re-emerged last night with 15 points off the bench (3-for-5 3FGs) plus some heady defensive plays as the Hawks outlasted the Magic in Orlando.
    It was the reserves that once again kept the Hawks in contention last night, until the starters, led by Kyle Korver’s 6-for-8 three-point blitz, could pull through late in the fourth quarter. As a starter, Baze certainly brings boundless energy, but may be getting caught overcompensating, or at least out-of-position, when the Hawks’ backcourt combo of Teague (1.1 SPG, down from 1.7 last season) and Korver breaks down defensively.
    Atlanta’s 5-man starting lineup with Bazemore has averaged a minus-1.3 on the plus-minus scale this season (11.1 mins/game, 1.6 team SPG, 1.2 team BPG; 49.9 eFG%, 51.2 opponent eFG%; 12.3 O-Reb%, 25.8 opponent O-Reb%) , compared to a plus-1.3 (13.0 mins/game, 2.5 team SPG, 2.0 team BPG; 52.6 eFG%, 46.1 opponent eFG%; 26.9 O-Reb%, 29.3 opponent O-Reb%)  when the veteran Sefolosha gets inserted in place of Bazemore. Coach Bud wants to keep Thabo spry for the long haul, so his staff needs to find ways to improve Kent’s positioning on the floor with the top unit.
     Teague (6 TOs @ ORL on Sunday) has struggled the past couple games, and his one logged assist came on Korver’s dagger three-pointer off a baseline dish in the closing minutes of last night’s game. He and Dennis Schröder (1-for-3 FGs, 3 assists, 4 TOs @ ORL) will do well to connect with cutters, and those teammates in turn should focus on finishing in the lane and earning trips to the line against Plumlee (3.4 personal fouls per game, 6th in NBA) and a hack-heavy Trail Blazer front line.
    Only Milwaukee matches Portland with a net +4.1 whistles per game on personal foul calls, and the Blazers allow an NBA-high 26.7 opponent FT attempts per game. Atlanta’s 79.8 FT% currently ranks 4th in the league. But leaving points on the board, as the Hawks did on six out of 20 occasions at the charity stripe on Sunday, could keep even the shorthanded Blazers in contention late. Here’s hoping that Silentó’s sinuous dance moves represent the most thrilling action on the floor by the end of the night.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Oh, come on! That dress is clearly Black and Blue!”

    So, all’s better, right? Right?
    The Atlanta Hawks think, maybe, their offense has turned a corner after scoring a season-high 127 points on the 1-26ers on Wednesday. Their previous season high? That was scored most recently against tonight’s hosts, the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England), who fell 121-97 in Atlanta back on November 24. Of course, the Hawks thought they shook out of their slump for good back then, as well.
    “We had some hard practices,” Jeff Teague said following that victory over the Celtics, almost a mirror image of the commentary that preceded the win over Philly, following three weeks of floundering play. “Great practice,” glowed Paul Millsap this past Tuesday. “Very intense. It was great. Something we needed. Hopefully, it’s the turning point.” One can only imagine the torturous tricks Mike Budenholzer has up his sleeve for the Hawks on their newly-remodeled practice court, if the Hawks (15-12) regress against superior competition like the upstart Celtics and Magic (Sunday night) on the road.
    Many Eastern Conference teams re-tooled their defenses in the offseason, and it shows. Each of the East’s momentary Top-8 are giving up under 99 points per game to opponents. Atlanta (100.0 PPG; 14th in Defensive Rating) and Boston (99.2 PPG; 4th in NBA for Defensive Rating) are each striving to get back to that level.
    Similar to the Hawks, the Celtics (14-12) have struggled to sustain success for terribly long, having prevailed in three straight games just once this season, and that was a month ago. Their defense can be best characterized as uneven, particularly following the departure of Marcus Smart back before Thanksgiving (bruised knee, out until probably January).
    Prior to Smart’s absence, Boston surrendered triple digits in regulation in just four of its first 12 games. Since that time, they’ve given up 100 or more in half of their 14 contests. The Celts went 1-6 in those games, including 119 points ceded in a wild shootout loss in Detroit on Wednesday, one night after holding Cleveland to 89 but scoring just 77. All-Star candidate Isaiah Thomas’ 38 points were insufficient to fend off the Pistons, who sunk half of their 20 three-pointers (neglecting a lucky Andre Drummond half-court heave) and shot 48.7 percent from the floor on the evening.
    Celtics head coach Brad Stevens needs Smart’s replacement in the starting lineup, Avery Bradley (career-high 15.9 PPG and 41.7 3FG%; 25 points @ ATL on Nov 24), to have a stronger defensive presence around the perimeter, lest he turn instead to Evan Turner, who is a far worse shooter (13.5 3FG%) but a similarly-skilled on-ball defender and a superior passer.
    Boston GM “Trader Danny” Ainge is on the hunt for a “go-to scorer,” a “reliable scorer at the end of games, night in and night out.” While such a comment would make Thomas (career-high 21.2 PPG) feel like chopped liver, Ainge clarified his preference is for a scoring complement among the big men, where Jared Sullinger leads Boston’s PF/C’s with just 10.0 PPG. Knowing that Ainge doesn’t want to part with his stockpile of future picks, either David Lee’s expiring $15 million contract, or Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko’s 2016-17 team options, could sweeten the pot for teams willing to take Bradley off their hands.
    Upfront, Sullinger has been among the best defensive rebounders (29.9 D-Reb%, 4th in NBA) in the game. While Johnson has held his own at power forward, the Celtics would like to go more with Tyler Zeller (season-high 12 points @ DET on Wednesday) than the inertial free-agent arrival Lee (career-low 48.9 FG% and 19.6 D-Reb%). But both Zeller and Kelly Olynyk have to make impacts defensively in order to stay on the floor. Olynyk has the inside track in that regard, which may or may not be a good thing.
    To get better defensively, both the Celtics and the Hawks have to thwart dribble penetration by opposing ball handlers. On Wednesday, the issue helped Isaiah Canaan (6-for-8 3FGs) and the Sixers (52.0 team FG%) to slide back into the game from way behind at least twice against Atlanta, and allowed Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (54 combined points) to have field days at the Palace versus Boston. When the Hawks’ defensive positioning (particularly, Teague’s and Dennis Schröder’s) held firm and the Sixers settled for mid-range jumpers, Atlanta was able to widen their mid-game leads.
    “I didn’t know that. Thanks for that uplifting stat,” Stevens dead-panned a reporter who informed the Celtics coach his team ranked last in the league in offensive eFG% on “wide-open” shots. Please, no one remind him that it’s the Hawks who free up their players for the most such shots (no defender within six or more feet of the shooter, 21.4 FG attempts per game) in the NBA. But despite Atlanta’s league-high 15.1 “wide-open” threes per game, they’ve shot just 34.9 3FG% on them, ninth-lowest among the ten most prolific teams in the wide-open threes department.
    Kyle Korver’s seven points (two triples and a technical free throw) against Philly came in the space of just over one third-quarter minute of play, but they were pivotal in stemming the Sixers’ last good second-half run. He’ll again be hounded by Jae Crowder for much of the game, but the Hawks will again go to a team approach to perimeter shooting, swinging the ball around to keep Boston guessing. In the blowout win over the Celtics on November 24, it was Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs) and Mike Scott (2-for-3 3FGs) coming off the bench to help Korver (3-for-3 3FGs) and the Hawks keep the C’s spread out, beneficial for Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 25 points, 4 O-Rebs) inside.
    Stevens might be emboldened to know that Hawks’ opponents have hit 36.7 FG% on threes, 2.9% above their normal averages, the third-highest differential in the league. Thomas is looking forward to getting up shots early and often against Teague (7-for-9 FTs vs. BOS on Nov. 24), who frustrated the losing Isaiah to no end in their last meeting. While Thomas jacks away heroically on behalf of his team, Al Horford and the Hawks’ big men will have quite some time keeping Sullinger away from the offensive boards and limiting Boston’s second-chances.
    In Atlanta’s last visit to Beantown on November 13, the Kenny Atkinson-coached Hawks allowed a season-high 103 field goal attempts, which tied February’s win over Golden State for the most opponent shots in a regulation-ending Hawks game since 1998. Only 17 of the Celts’ 50 first-half shots connected in the opening half, but their combination of dominant rebounding (season-high 86.8 D-Reb%; 17 O-Rebs for Boston, six by Crowder) and keeping their own turnovers low allowed Thomas to eventually come alive and the Celts to pull away.
    Unless your surname is Govan, who wants to be left sleeping with the Fishers? You don’t want to be on the team stuck with Derek Fisher’s Knicks nipping at your nose by the time Christmas Break rolls around. Both the Hawks and Celtics can use a win tonight as a building block for a run back up the conference standings. If Atlanta fails to capitalize this weekend, you can expect the Hawks will endure even more “tough” practices and “intense” video sessions in the very near future.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Beating the Hawks? Hmm. I’d say I’ve got… a Puncher’s Chance!”

    The Force sure hasn’t been with the Atlanta Hawks in a minute! It’s Star Wars Night at the Highlight Factory, and fans may chase the Hawks off the court with their light sabers if they flub their fourth straight game in a regular season for the first time since March 2014, particularly at the hands of a Philadelphia 76ers team (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Philly) that can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.
    The 76ers (1-25) are over the totally-winless hump after topping the last team the Hawks beat at home, the 4-21 Lakers, back on December 1. But there remain other hexes to fix. While nowhere near the 1992-1993 Sacramento Kings’ record of 43 consecutive road games, Philly has dumped 20 in a row going back to last season. They wouldn’t mind plugging that particular losing string here, versus a Hawks team (14-12) that’s dropped three of their last four at home and suffering through a crisis of confidence.
    It’s not as though Philadelphia never puts up a fight (on the court, that is) when they’re on the road. It’s just that they get only so far, before somebody pulls the rip cord. As recently as Monday night, the Sixers were up by five at halftime in Chicago. The night before, they made a spirited run to get back within six points late against the Raptors in Toronto. Before that, they’ve held multiple-basket fourth-quarter leads in Brooklyn, Memphis, Houston, Boston, Minnesota, Miami – and lost them all, several by double digits.
    As C-3PO might suggest, the Sixers seem to be made to suffer: it’s their lot in life. They’ve been like a racecar that can’t make the final turn because the pit crew intentionally shorted them on gas. Head coach Brett Brown has been trickling out the fuel for the Sixers, and has even slowed down the pace on offense a bit. But when the only player on the roster born before 1990, Carl Landry, is rehabbing in the D-League, and you’re turning to the likes of T.J. McConnell and Jerami Grant (a year-and-a-half YOUNGER than Knicks rookie Jerian), you’re depending on a lot of inexperienced fellas to seize the day.
    I’d imagine if someone on the street yelled to me, “The Sixers suck!”, my inclination would be to respond, “Yeah, well sure. But we’re drinking milk, and we’re getting stronger!” It wouldn’t be to ask anybody to Meet Me in Temecula or Tom’s River or something, like rookie star Jahlil Okafor has been doing since getting drafted this summer. While Okafor’s been a bit punchy (with people and gas pedals), the guy who signs his NBA checks now seems on the verge of throwing in the towel.
    Josh Harris signed on to the “Trust the Process” process of his general manager, Sam Hinkie. But after a few years of plucking plum collegiate stars who haven’t panned out (Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid), are sitting it out (Dario Saric), or risk flaming out (Okafor), the Sixers owner appears primed to Trash the Process.
    Harris has his eye on new sports endeavors (a new Premier League soccer team, maybe an NFL team in London) and no longer wants the Sixers to be a drag on his other investments. While he insists that he remains patient, Harris doesn’t want to become the Leon Hess of the league, enduring decades of fan disdain in hopes of an add-Hall-of-Famers-and-stir payoff.
    Harris brought on longtime NBA exec Jerry Colangelo to “partner” with Hinkie the way George partners with Lennie. He’s also heeding the howls from the league to cut out the Romper Room roster construction, although getting accomplished NBA veterans to serve as band-aids, babysitters, and bodyguards is asking a bit much. “Help me, Elton Brand, you’re our only hope!” has been the call of late, as the brass tries to woo respected Dookies like the retired ex-Hawk (who ought to be an assistant somewhere, soon) and Shane Battier into the fold as nanny-managers. “Karl-Anthony, I AM your father! Or, at least, I’m old enough to be him!”
    The sudden changes from above, coupled with the ushering in of Hot Stove trade rumoring, suggests a lot of 76er players know they’re playing for their next (and hopefully, not last) NBA gig. Guys like the returning Tony Wroten and Isaiah Canaan don’t just want to be traded in mid-season and immediately bought out somewhere. If they play their cards right, they might get enough interest to stick with somebody else, maybe even for a little playoff run.
    While Brett Brown’s unseasoned troops dress to impress, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks have looked less like Skywalkers and more like sleepwalkers on offense lately. Another listless start, this time at home against Miami, has Hawks fans giving the side-eye to Al Horford and the backsliding backcourt of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. The trio combined to shoot 3-for-16 from long-range and weren’t much better around the rim, either (Teague  1-for-9 2FGs).
    Teague and the Hawks’ guards have struggled to make proper reads on pick-and-rolls, and teammates have been caught overhelping, leaving opponents like Chris Bosh (4-for-6 3FGs @ ATL on Monday) open on jumpshots, and other bigs like Hassan Whiteside (5 O-Rebs @ ATL) in excellent position for easy putbacks off their own “Bud Stop” misses.
    At least, Jeff is smelling himself. “I think I’ve been the worst of everyone,” Teague said postgame, without much argument from anyone. It’s hard to tell if his starting center has a similar feeling. Horford continues to be a non-factor as a rebounder, leaving it to the likes of Korver (team-high 8 defensive rebounds vs. MIA, twice that of Horford) and Paul Millsap to do the dirty work for him.
    Sensing the unnerved reactions of fans, the Hawks, like Darth Vader, may find the lack of faith disturbing. The desperation to Do Something, without understanding just what to do, is reflecting on the coaching staff, and it has bench players like Thabo Sefolosha (4 turnovers in just over 9 minutes vs. MIA) and Dennis Schröder grasping at straws. The overall languidness is wasting efforts like Kent Bazemore’s, whose career-high 28 points against Miami were for naught. Baze and Sap are at least attacking the rim, but absent sound team play, they’re going Solo like Han from night-to-night, hoping for a spark that never arrives.
    Philly’s Nerlens Noel (eye abrasion) remains unavailable tonight, leaving Brown to look to Christian Wood (fresh from the D-League), Grant (five blocks @ CHI on Monday) and Richaun Holmes to step up off the bench. It’s on Horford and the Hawks’ frontline to neutralize whatever production Towns (NBA Rookie-high 17.8 PPG and 2.5 offensive RPG; NBA-high 89 points over last six days) and Robert Covington bring to the table, particularly in the paint.
    As for Atlanta’s guards and swingmen, the task isn’t terribly complex. Shoo Canaan (35.1 3FG%, 28.9 2FG%, 85.2 FT%) off the three-point line and cut off easy passing lanes, forcing him into tough mid-range jumpers without bailout fouls. The task is similar for recent returnees Wroten and Kendall Marshall. Korver has been a disappointment lately (2-for-12 3FGs, 2-for-8 2FGs past two games) but needs to at least outduel Nik Stauskas (28.8 3FG%) tonight.
    Philly will turn the ball over (league-high 18.2 TOs per 100 possessions) in bunches, but unlike in recent games, Atlanta must be able to turn transition opportunities into buckets. The more the Hawks avoid matching the youthful Sixers’ recklessness, the easier it will be to put the game away in the second half. Atlanta still leads the NBA with a +5.1 PPG margin off of turnovers, but with the team shooting as poorly as they have lately, margins like the 17-11 advantage they gained against Miami must be larger.
    Anytime a game against the 76ers gets categorized as a must-win, instead of just an oughta-win, things haven’t been going well at all. Despite faltering late, as is their custom, Philly held a lead with three minutes to go during the final victory of the 40-8 Hawks’ magical January carpet ride. Just over a month later, Hollis Thompson went buckwild from long-range (5-for-7 3FGs) and the 14-48 Sixers gave the shorthanded 49-12 Hawks no breaks. Philadelphia prevailed 92-84 in that last meeting, ceasing Atlanta’s six-game win streak and initiating a plateau trend for the rest of the Hawks’ season, one that appears to be extending into this one.
    You can count on the Sixers making their big second-half runs, making the game get hairier than Chewbacca. And then they will give the Hawks a chance to win, but that’s as far as they’ll go. With all due respect to Amdiral Ackbar, it’s not a trap. It’s simply up to the other team on the floor to seize whatever opportunities Philadelphia gifts them. If the Hawks fail to live up to this challenge, they should prepare to face the Dark Side.
    Let’s Go Hawks!