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    “Merry Krampus!”

    Despite getting his lunch snatched away and gobbled up by his mentor for the third straight time, this is hardly a time for Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks to engage in panic-button pushing. They can look to tonight’s visitors, the Miami heat (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports), as one example for how to engage in some quick slump-busting.
    With so many teams huddled together in the Eastern Conference from 1-to-10, all it takes is stringing together a couple wins to not only stay afloat, but thrive. Miami (13-9) had lost three straight games, all by double digits, and was getting blown out at home in the second half by Memphis just last night. But after a dash of fourth-quarter heroics from Dwyane Wade, the heat prevailed, and they now sit in 6th place in the East. That’s just a half-game ahead of 9th-seeded Atlanta (14-11) and a half-game behind division-leading Charlotte.
    Miami seems to have all anyone would need, on paper, to be a bona fide championship contender, certainly many of the things most teams covet. A certified Hall of Fame scorer, a likely Hall of Fame sidekick, an aggressive young rim-protector, a big-money point guard, a trusty glue guy at small forward, a jumping jack off the bench, a rookie who’s already a top-flight on-ball defender… all of that led by a head coach and staff rocking multiple championship rings.
    Yet all of that ought to add up to more than 13-9 by now. Wade and Chris Bosh are as healthy together as they’ve been in some time, but they’re the sole two performers among coach Erik Speolstra’s regular rotation that have tasted championship success in Miami. The duo leads a set of youngsters that struggle to live up to past glories, and a few old-timers who are better at setting an example off the court than on.
    Aside from losses like the 98-92 setback handed to them by the Hawks back on November 3, the heat have generally held serve within the friendly confines of American Airlines Arena (11-4, most home games in the NBA). November featured a seven-game homestand, and that was followed shortly thereafter by a four-game homestand, with another four-game homestand beginning at the end of this week. Despite such a home-friendly start to the season, Miami has generally wilted in their NBA-low seven away games (2-5).
    Miami has also bested the West, last night’s victory extending their record versus the opposing conference to 7-1. Yet they’re only 6-8 against their Eastern rivals, 1-3 in the Dirty South Division. The uneven play has led, much like Atlanta (4-0 in the Southeast Division), to changing positions among the conference’s not-so-elite. Last week, Miami sat in first place, then slid to second, third, and seventh, before moving up to sixth for the moment.
    Miami knows they must play better away from home (last in the NBA with 88.1 road PPG, 30.1 road 3FG%, 7.6 road offensive RPG) and against their fellow East opponents (92.9 PPG vs. East, 29th in NBA; NBA-low 5.9 steals per game vs. East) to stay near the top. The heat visit Brooklyn before embarking on that next extended homestand, and could conceivably make a climb back up the standings by the time their Christmas Day game versus the Pelicans arrive. After crawling out of the hole last night, they hope to get positive momentum rolling by tipping into the ATL and tripping up a Hawks team that can’t seem to find its bearings for terribly long.
    Finishing shots around the rim is hard enough when you’ve got Hassan Whiteside (zero blocks for the first time all season Sunday) to contend with, but it’s near impossible when you are your own worst enemy. During Saturday’s thrashing by San Antonio, the Hawks continued a laughable trend of blowing layups and short-rimming shots, often barely contested, in the paint. Missing nearly a dozen shots within 3 feet of the rim, there’s little wonder why they got down 22 points at halftime versus the crafty Spurs, or down by double digits several times in OKC last Thursday.
    Atlanta ranks 10th in the league with 28.7 restricted-area shot attempts but are only 18th in field goal percentage (57.9%) at that close range. A team more likely to rely on dunks from Whiteside and Gerald Green than prayers off the glass, Miami comes into tonight’s contest ranked 1st in that restricted-area FG% category (66.9%). The Hawks’ ability to finish interior plays could again be a difference-maker in tonight’s contest.
    Having shot just 28.8 percent from 3-point range in the past two games, it’s clear that the long-ball can no longer serve as a band-aid for Atlanta’s persistent errors in shot selection and execution. Similar to the defensive effort provided by the Spurs’ Danny Green on Saturday, rookie Justise Winslow will not grant Kyle Korver (1-for-6 3FGs @ MIA on Nov. 3) much of a break. But lax defensive effort from Wade on the back end of back-to-back nights could mean some openings will be available for returning starter Kent Bazemore (team-high 42.9 3FG%) and Thabo Sefolosha in the corners and beyond the arc.
    As Bazemore put it succinctly, to the AJC, “A lot of guys left a lot of points on the floor” on Saturday. Following a listless 0-for-5 shooting display (plus five turnovers) against the Spurs, Jeff Teague has to be the All-eged-Star that shakes the Hawks out of their offensive doldrums.
    Teague (26 points, 9 assists @ MIA on Nov. 3) has to at least outperform Miami’s Goran Dragic, who started out 1-for-10 on FGs against Memphis yesterday and struggles to achieve a symbiosis alongside an increasingly frustrated Wade. If Atlanta is turning to Dennis Schröder (7 assists and no turnovers, unless we’re counting the giveaways while shooting 2-for-10 on FGs), and not Teague, to be the difference-maker, things will once again get dicey quickly.
    As a big man, widening the floor and opening up the lane is useful only when your guards and forwards know how to take advantage. Another All-eged-Star, Al Horford (last 5 games: 42.6 FG%, 12.0 PPG, 23.1 3FG%, 42.6 FG%), has to abandon his multiple-three-point-shooting experimentation, no matter how enticing it will be to try keeping up with Miami’s Bosh (1-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 3) tonight.
    Horford is shooting 41.1 3FG% above the arc (discounting the corners, where he shoots poorly), but seems all too reticent to leave critical duties in the paint, at both ends, to Paul Millsap or whoever else shares the frontcourt with him. The Hawks are 6-1 when Horford collects just seven defensive rebounds in a game, but those occasions are too infrequent.
    For all his flaws this season, Al is shooting a solid 71.3% in the restricted area. He can make Whiteside (23 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, no fouls vs. ATL on Nov. 3) pay for his help defense by focusing on catching-and-finishing around the rim, rather than from mid-range out.
    This game should be over by the time the clock strikes midnight, but the calendar turn will also usher in a greatly expanded field of available NBA trading prospects. Neither the Hawks nor the heat will be making rash decisions anytime soon, especially with such parity in the conference right now. But if either team fails to gain traction in the near future, the clamoring for a shakeup from their fanbases will be hard for the front-offices to ignore. At least in Miami, as demonstrated most recently with the November trade-off of Mario Chalmers, the head coach doesn’t have to worry about also being the executive pulling the trigger.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “You’re telling me, all I have to do is stand around and smirk for your product line?  Where do I sign?”

    ((Too busy today for a full game preview, so have at it!))
    In Springfield, Massachusetts, on a late summer evening in 2025, Gregg Popovich spans the crowd amid his induction speech. There they are, his NBA coaching tree: Ime Udoka, Quin Snyder, Becky Hammon, Mike Brown, Monty Williams, Brett Brown, Boris Diaw. All successful to varying degrees, thanks to his tutelage, and all grinning as they’re seated side-by-side. Coach Pop, however, reserves his best shade for his most trusty sidekick.

    “I could always count on my colleagues to give it the best they’ve got. As an example, Mike Budenholzer never could beat me in a regular-season game. But, you know what? At least you could tell he gave it his best!”

    The Atlanta Hawks could do something to thwart this event from happening (not the induction, you know what I mean) by putting a screeching halt to the San Antonio Spurs’ ten-game head-to-head win streak this evening at Philips Arena (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest). The last couple of meetings, the Hawks didn’t really seem all that up to the task.
    The Spurs mastery continued back on November 28, as the Hawks were held to just 12 second-quarter points, and just 88 for the game, as San Antonio easily pulled away. The crotchety Popovich expresses his begrudging disdain for the long ball: “I still hate it. I’ll never embrace it. I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing.” But his Spurs tied their own season-high with nine triples against the Hawks while holding Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford to one three-point attempt apiece (all misses), and limiting Jeff Teague (2-for-10 FGs) to 6-for-23 on threes.
    Millsap and Horford were rendered futile again on Thursday, as the Hawks (14-10) were hammered on the boards, 52-38, in Oklahoma City. Atlanta sat out Tiago Splitter, who also missed the first meeting versus his old team due to a hip injury, and his presence must be felt tonight to help minimize the rebounding disadvantage. Still, Budball almost pulled it out on the second night of a back-to-back, pulling within a point in the fourth quarter. But blown opportunities around the rim and at the free throw line proved too costly when Kevin Durant and the Thunder made their final successful run.
    Half-hearted execution and leaving points on the board won’t fly against a disciplined San Antonio team, looking to make amends after faltering to a DeMarre Carroll-less Raptors team in Toronto on Wednesday. It’s the Hawks with a bit of a rest advantage this time, and the Spurs (19-5) fly in from San Antonio after trouncing the Lakers last night.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Al Jefferson swears this stuff will cool your nerves. Bottoms up!”

    51 rebounds?!? Wide-load Jared Sullinger and the Celtics; the league’s per-game rebounding leader Bulls; the Magic in TWO overtimes. None of them managed to collect 50-plus boards in a game against the league-leader in rebounding percentage, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
    But the Atlanta Hawks did just that, along their way to a 106-100 victory less than two weeks ago. Atlanta’s 14 offensive rebounds also tied a season-high among OKC opponents. And, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky Hawks are back tonight in OKC (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Oklahoma), aiming for their third straight win! What to do? What to do?
    As a rule of thumb, if rebounding is your team’s forte, and if it’s the Hawks who have done the best job so far in out-rebounding you, it might be time to consider a different line of work. With his team getting the night off, head coach Billy Donovan and his staff watched last night in horror as Zaza Pachulia’s 17 rebounds were all for naught on behalf of a Dallas team that fell, 98-95, while being held to 36.0% shooting by visiting Atlanta (14-9). 51 opponent rebounds by the Hawks is veritable disaster for the Thunder. 51 opponent rebounds by the Mavs against the Hawks? Meh. Just makes things a lil’ interesting…
    Most teams are striving in vain to out-leap the uber-lanky Kevin Durant, and out-muscle Serge Ibaka. Most teams are trying to get presidential candidates to vow they’ll build a wall around Enes Kanter (1st in NBA with 17.1 O-Reb%; six O-rebs @ ATL Nov. 30) and make Turkey pay for it. Most teams, after allowing 20 offensive rebounds and 100 shot attempts while watching their top perimeter threat go just 1-for-6 on threes on the road, would simply tip their cap and call it a night. But the Atlanta Hawks aren’t like most teams, and Mike Budenholzer isn’t like most coaches.
    Like a girl’s age to R. Kelly, an opponent’s offensive rebounds ain’t nuthin’ but a number to Coach Bud. Last night’s victory raised the Hawks to 8-2 on the season (6-7 otherwise) when their opponents seize MORE than 12 O-Rebs in a game. The last loss for Atlanta under this condition was nearly a month ago. Last season? 23-7. They’re pulling the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ even more often now, and yet they are #Winning more than Charlie Sheen (these days, anyway).
    Budenholzer sees beaucoup offensive rebounding chances for the opposition as a signifier that shots are anything other than “Nothin’ But Net.” And the production bears that out. In those ten games this season when Hawk opponents are going “off” on offensive boards, they haven’t shot above 45% from the field in any of them. In the remainder, opponents shot at least 45% in seven of those 13 games, and Atlanta is 2-5 in those seven games.
    “I thought our defense was good. When you are playing good defense there is probably more opportunities for offensive rebounds,” the coach responded to the AJC during last night’s postgame commentary. “I thought (the Mavs) were taking tough, contested shots. Some were coming up short with tough bounces.... I’d like to be better on the boards but it’s usually a sign you are getting a lot of stops.”
    Hey! I heard that over there, quit that snickering! Yes, he called them “stops.” We oughta help Bud come up with a more apropos term. Yields? Restraints? Impedances? BudStops?
    By any other name, Paul Millsap knows you have to make some “stops” when it counts in the clutch. “I think our defense did great,” Millsap (team-high 9 D-Rebs, 3 steals, 6 free throws, and 20 points vs. Dallas) said last night. “We didn’t do a great job on the offensive rebounding but down the stretch we got some key rebounds and executed on the offensive end.”
    By any other name, Donovan knows all about the Hawks’ ability to produce “stops.” The Thunder (13-8) still got 48 rebounds (13 offensive) during their loss in Atlanta, and they needed all of them, and more, in a game where they shot just 39.8 FG%, including 7-for-19 from downtown.
    When OKC’s leading defensive rebounders in a game are their two pillar scorers, Russell Westbrook and Durant (combined 69 of their 100 points, 15 of their 35 defensive rebounds), that suggests a lot of players – Ibaka, Kanter, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Andre Roberson – aren’t pulling their weight. That has to change tonight, allowing KD (9th in NBA for 2FG%, 5th in 3FG%, 4th in PPG, 32-and-10 at Memphis on Tuesday) and Russ (6th in PPG, 1st in assist percentage) to spend more of their energies on getting buckets, and less on retrieving misses, while testing their rest advantage against Atlanta.
    With Ibaka, the Thunder’s Big Three shot a respectable 28-for-57 in Atlanta last month, a task made all the more arduous with the pestering defense provided by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, but they got no help from their teammates (9-for-36 shooting). Westbrook came alive with 17 points in the final frame (mostly by calling his own number, to the exclusion of Durant) to wipe out a 10-point Hawk lead, setting the stage for the Teague Time layup line to take hold in the last two minutes.
    Without KD, the Thunder again had to turn to Westbrook the last time the Hawks came to Chesapeake Energy Center. Despite shooting just 8-for-24 from the field, Westbrook enjoyed a 17-for-17 shooting day from the charity stripe, and his 15-point fourth-quarter outburst were needed for playoff-hungry OKC to overtake a Hawks team that was missing both Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver.
    In that game last March, it was the Hawks backups, specifically Dennis Schröder and Pero Antić (combined 7-for-11 on threes) that carried the day for the offense and helped Atlanta stay in front until the final six minutes of the game. A repeat of last night’s performances by Schröder and fellow reserves Kent “Big Shot” Bazemore, Tiago Splitter, and Mike Muscala (16-for-28 combined FGs) would help keep the Hawks in even better position to win tonight’s game.
    As Pachulia knows, it often takes an ex-Hawk to try and out-Hawk a Hawk, and the Thunder got that effort out of Anthony Morrow (6-for-10 3FGs) back in March. But Morrow and Waiters were 3-for-19 shooting in Atlanta, and they need to hit under-contested shots to take the pressure off OKC’s big guns.
    Swingman Andre Roberson and center Steven Adams were rendered all but negligible in their efforts to defend against the Hawks last month, with Adams shut down in the opening half and Roberson particularly flustered throughout the game. Donovan hopes the Thunder’s 125-88 trashing of the Grizzlies in Memphis on Tuesday is an encouraging harbinger of things to come. Yet it will be interesting to see if Donovan continues to start the duo of Roberson and Adams tonight, or if he’ll turn elsewhere on the roster for immediate help.
    Westbrook has been dazzling as a distributor (16 assists, 3 TOs @ MEM on Tuesday), but when he is your best pass-first option, by far, something’s amiss. Russell’s 14.4%-assisted two-pointers are a career-low, and his 35.5%-assisted threes are way down from 51.2% during his MVP-nominated effort.
    D.J. Augustin (career-low 17.6 assist percentage) isn’t the best passer, but someone has to help Westbrook play off the ball. Waiters? (gulp.) Today is his birthday, and OKC’s 11-3 when he logs at least two dimes… so go for it, Billy! The campaign to get Cam Payne meaningful minutes is picking up steam after the rookie returned from a strong D-League stint. Donovan has emphasized he’s counting on Payne to dish the ball to justify his playing time.
    Al Horford (9 first-half rebounds and 8-for-15 FGs vs. OKC, 7-for-12 2FGs @ DAL) ran circles around Adams the last time out, and then Collison committed three swift turnovers in the space of four-and-a-half minutes. Second-year player Mitch McGary isn’t quite ready-for-primetime but is back after a quick D-League run down the street. Kanter (one steal, eight blocks in 21 appearances) would likely suffer a similar fate to Adams, but if Donovan can re-orient Enes to the defensive rebounding duties tonight, he may be able to have a greater impact on the outcome.
    As long as you can croon-and-swoon and woo the likes of Heidi Klum on the regular, does it really matter that you don’t have Tyson Beckford’s face? Much like Seal, Budenholzer understands that winning ugly is still winning, especially on the road. We’ll see tonight if his devil-may-care approach works with less than 20 hours of rest in between road games.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night…”

    When next July’s free-agent wooing period kicks off, emojis of planes, trains, yachts, motorbikes, drones, Segways and hoverboards will, once again, fly across social media. Only this time around, it could finally be Zaza Pachulia that finds the doors to his estate Krazy-glued to the jambs and the knobs ripped off.
    America’s Fallback Big Man gets a visit from the team where he discovered his greatest NBA prominence. The Atlanta Hawks arrive at the Metroplex following a four-day break to face Pachulia’s Dallas Mavericks (9:30 PM, ESPN, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest).
    This past summer, Mavs owner Mark Cuban leapt with both feet into the Shark Tank to snag a big free agent fish: namely, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. He managed to earn a big bite, but came out of the ensuing ordeal looking all wet. Jordan had boxed Cuban out while his Clipper teammates boxed Jordan in. L.A. pulled out all the stops to encourage DeAndre to renege on Dallas’ handsome offer, and to disallow Cuban a second chance to make a first impression.
    Along the way, the Mavs’ incumbent center Tyson Chandler was so peeved by Dallas’ sudden negligence that he ran off on a free agent deal with Phoenix. By then, there were slim pickings among the remaining free agent options, and by slim, I mean Javale McGee Slim. Dallas went from perceived title contention, with Jordan manning the middle and a recuperating Wesley Matthews at the wing, to a team with a Texas-sized sinkhole at the 5-spot that will struggle to make the playoffs out West.
    Along Came Zaza. Sounds like a good mid-season replacement sitcom, no?
    Out of nowhere, did your starting center from the prior season kick the bucket just two weeks before Opening Night? Did your All-Star center get shelved for the season after popping a pec? Did your emergent young franchise center, hardly a year removed from signing a lucrative contract-extension deal, flame out of the very idea of playing pro hoops altogether? After losing out on both Chandler and Jordan, are you on the verge of starting your venerable good-soldier Dirk Nowitzki at the five? In case of emergency, break glass, and reach for Zaza Pachulia.
    Mavs GM Donnie Nelson did just that. After getting bridesmaided in the DeAndre Sweepstakes, Dallas traded a second-round pick to Milwaukee in exchange for the 31-year-old (Republic of) Georgian, who has always seen himself as much more than a stopgap plugging up personnel dam breaks.
    These days, Chandler is back to looking brittle in Phoenix, and Jordan’s free-throw clanking and wishy-washy play is but one of many issues on a middling Clipper squad. Sometimes, as Cuban would happily advise, it’s the move you didn’t make that makes the difference. Under the old format for All-Star balloting, it would no longer be surprising to find Pachulia near the top of the Center votes. His play has underscored Dallas’ position firmly in the Western Conference standings, sitting at 13-9 ahead of tonight’s contest.
    Zaza has been all that anyone could ask for; as usual, all that anyone ever seems to ask for, and more. A pivot that averages a double-double (10.7 PPG; 10.0 RPG, 9th in NBA; 12 double-doubles, 3rd in NBA), hits more than half his free throws (77.8 FT%), racks up steals (0.9 SPG) and can pass out of the post (2.0 APG)? Where does one sign up for that?
    As a free agent in 2016, a 32-year-old Pachulia won’t just be chasing options as a third-stringer, like he did when he rejoined Atlanta’s displaced coach Larry Drew in Milwaukee back in 2013. There will be starting spots to fill around the league, and this time the Mavs might be the ones holing themselves up in a house to keep their guy.
    Primarily an offensive rebounder (3.1 O-Rebs per game, 9th in NBA) for much of his career, Z-Pac has been getting it done at both ends, his 6.9 defensive boards per game besting his career-high 5.2 as an emergency starter with the 2011-12 Hawks. It’s become obvious that Zaza has been working on back-to-the-basket post moves. While long-revered in Atlanta, he was humorously notorious for missing chipshots around the rim. His career-best 61.0 FG% around the rim, and 55.1% within ten feet, has been no laughing matter this season.
    Zaza’s presence has taken a ton of pressure off of Nowitzki, Dallas’ 37-year-old leading scorer (17.9 PPG) whose 60.7 TS% is the second-highest mark in his storied, Hall of Fame-bound career; his 5.8 turnover percentage is a career-low. With his longtime coach Rick Carlisle having been granted a five-year extension, newcomer guards Deron Williams (15.2 PPG, career-low 13.7 TO%) and Matthews  (35.9 FG%) getting up to speed, and backup big Dwight Powell (team-high 25.7 D-Reb%, 17th in NBA) blossoming off the bench, Dirk cannot be more satisfied with the way things are shaking out.
    Carlisle is perfecting Mike Budenholzer’s method to madness on defense: by design, the Mavericks rank dead last in offensive rebounding percentage (19.5 O-Reb%; tomorrow’s opponent, OKC, ranks 1st). By leaving all but the most available extra-chances (by Zaza) alone in order to get back in sound defensive position (9.5 second-chance PPG, tied with Spurs for fewest in NBA), Dallas has its best defensive efficiency (100.5 D-Rating, 4th best in the West) in its past four seasons.
    The steals and blocks are bottom-ten in the league, but the Mavs are generally forcing foes into tough, deep, well-contested shots (27.0 opponent 3FG attempts per game, 3rd-most in NBA; 32.3 opponent 3FG%, 5th-lowest in NBA) and securing the boards (77.4 D-Reb%, 8th in NBA) to set the stage for their offense.
    As embodied by Dirk’s style of play, what the Mavs do well offensively is drawing lots of contact (23.2 opponent personals per game, 2nd-most in NBA) without turning the ball over (13.8 per game, 4th-fewest in NBA). D-Will (92.9 FT%, 2nd in NBA) and Dirk (89.0 FT%) are both top-ten free throw shooters. If they can’t get shots on drives to the hoop, they’ll settle for plenty of patented step-back mid-range J’s. On shots from the 10-to-14 foot range, Dallas shoots at a league-high 47.8 FG%.
    The Mavericks haven’t been proficient from the perimeter (32.6 team 3FG%, 24th in NBA) save for Dirk and D-Will, and aside from Matthews’ 10-for-17 3FG display (season-high 36 points) in a win at Washington on Sunday, both he and Chandler Parsons have been rusty in their returns to action. Former Hawk first-rounder and Mavs preseason star John Jenkins has been lightly used off the bench and has shot just 21.4% from deep. But he is getting more playing time in Carlisle’s recent rotations, especially with J.J Barea (ankle) and Devin Harris (ribs) missing time with injuries.
    Until Parsons can get back in the flow, Raymond Felton has taken his place in the Mavs’ starting lineup, shifting Matthews to the 3-spot. Williams and Felton shot a combined 13-for-24 while dishing 12 assists in their triumphant return to New York City proper on Monday.
    Parity prevails in the East! While Dallas’ 13-9 record has them currently in a pleasant 4th place out West, Atlanta’s 13-9 record had them sliding down to the 7th slot in the Eastern Conference without really doing anything. Nobody in the conference has more than a two-game winning streak, and none have currently lost more than three in a row. The Hawks (1.5 games back of first in the East) watched every team that was above them drop a game or two during their sorely-needed four-day break. But with fewer games under their belts, none of those teams managed to drop below Atlanta in the standings.
    Fortunately, playoff positioning for the defending Eastern Conference regular season champs is irrelevant in December. What is crucial for the Hawks is getting back healthier, and returning to their early-season execution on road trips (1-5 after a 4-0 start) and back-to-back nights (3-3 after a 6-0 start). They’ll head to Oklahoma City for a rematch with the Thunder tomorrow.
    Zaza isn’t the only over-30 Euro-hooper who’s been ballin’ outta control lately. Born in the town that invented milk chocolate, Atlanta’s Thabo Sefolosha has been Vevey, Vevey good. It’s arguable that he is enjoying the best season of his near-decade-long career thus far. His per-game scoring (7.6 PPG), steals (1.7 SPG), blocks (0.7 BPG) and rebounding (5.1 RPG) are all career-highs, despite averaging just the fifth-most minutes per game in his ten NBA seasons. His 52.3 FG% blows away his high-water mark of 48.1 FG% from 2012-13. Not too shabby, for a man with a fractured tibia and damaged ligaments just eight months ago.
    On the subject of Euro-ballers, it’s hard to forget the game Dennis Schröder had the last time the Hawks visited American Airlines Center. Filling in for an injured Jeff Teague last December, the brisk Braunschweiger broke out for his then-career-high 22 points by making 9-of-15 from the field (6-for-8 at the rim), tacking on six assists and one highlight-reel steal of his mentor Nowitzki.
    While it will be tempting for Budenholzer to match Dallas’ small-guard lineup with Teague and Schröder, Kyle Korver will find ample open perimeter looks against Felton, while Schröder can have a greater impact versus the Mavs’ depleted backcourt reserves. While most teams have caught on to Schröder’s Schtick, Dallas lacks the defensive playmakers to both impede Dennis’ relentless forays into the paint and keep his teammates covered.
    The Hawks have mastered the art of creating open perimeter shots. They simply haven’t been converting them into points. Based on NBA Player Tracking data, Atlanta has averaged a league-high 15.6 “wide open” three-point attempts (with closest defender six or more feet away) per game, 3.2 more than the Juggernaut State Warriors. But while the Splash Brothers and Company have connected on half of those shots, Atlanta’s 36.4 3FG% ranks just 18th in the league. Leading scorer Paul Millsap (30.8 3FG% down from 35.6% last season; 11.8% in last eight games; 29.0% on “wide open” threes) could be averaging 20+ per game if he would make opponents pay for leaving him so open.
    With a hopefully reinvigorated commitment to defensive rebounding and drawing shooting fouls, Al Horford (16.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 40.0 3FG%, 81.8 FT% last week) earned himself an Eastern Conference Player of the Week nomination. Depth at the frontcourt positions will be restored with the return of Tiago Splitter (hip) to game action. The sooner Splitter can return to being the pick-and-roll defensive savant of days past, the sooner Atlanta (100.6 D-Rating, 9th in East) can move back among the top defensive teams in its conference.
    If Horford’s recent outings come consistently closer to the norm, he’ll help the Hawks surge back toward the top of the Eastern Conference logjam in the standings. If Al regresses to the production of the low-impact player from prior weeks, this summer, he may find himself waiting for his former longtime backup to come out of free agent lockdown, first, before the big-money suitors come for him.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    "Slide over, Shaq! I'll be joining y'all here on Thursday Nights soon!"
    There’ll be plenty of snake-charming going on, as the Atlanta Hawks and their fans give the Black Mamba a nice send-off, Kobe Bryant visiting Philips Arena for the final time (safe to say they won’t meet in the NBA Finals) with the Los Angeles Lakers (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, TWC SportsNet).
    Dendroaspis polylepis is the binomial nomenclature for the Black Mamba at the Atlanta Zoo. From now on, when you pass by Isaiah Rider in the sloth cage to check out the reptile cages, you’ll find the zoo’s Black Mamba now goes by the apt name of “Kobe.” Sorry, Will Bynum, we never named any primates after you.
    Tonight we witness the passing on of the legend who won five NBA titles, was named to 17 All-Star Games, was a holy terror at ski lodges, and had millions of impressionable six-foot-tall middle schoolers everywhere convinced they’ll never need postsecondary education, so long as they can put the rubber ball through the hoop in high volumes. Tonight is also a good time to recognize an endangered species that’s indigenous to the Metro Atlanta area.
    Kobeus fanboius atlantus can be spotted around downtown just once a year, usually when Dendroaspis polylepis is in season at the Highlight Factory. They’re expected to shed their purple-and-gold epidermis for the final time when the Black Mamba slithers off the hardwood. Whither the Atlantan Kobe Fanboy (and his sister species, Kobeus fangirlus atlantus) once there’s no longer a Kobe to cheer beyond all sense of human rationality?
    Part of the Superstarus fanboius family, some of the Atlanta Kobe Fanboys will morph fully into Durant, Westbrook, LeBron, and Curry Fanboys, decked out in whatever gear the objects of their attraction will be donning over the next several seasons. But until guard D’Angelo Russell (10.7 PPG, 40.6 FG%) or forward Julius Randle (11,7 PPG, 43.9 FG%) becomes a thing, and until Byron Scott (Exlakerus cantcoachus) is replaced, we’re not going to see much purple-and-gold flaunting around town for quite some time after today.
    The Atlantan Kobe Fanboy has longed lacked an appetite for members of the Buteo family, particularly the red-tailed Buteo jamaicensis atlantus. And who could blame them, really? For almost two decades, Kobe signified the ruthless champion attitude the Fanboys happily projected onto themselves. Barring a sea change in the nature of the Atlanta Hawks, they’ll likely go the way of the extinct Jordanus fanboius family, last seen booing the Hawks off the floor, never to return, when Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s buzzer-beater dispatched Michael Jordan’s Wizards in 2003.   
    The undulating Hawks (12-9) have not prevailed in back-to-back contests since sometime around All Saints’ Day. While the Lakers have been a shell of their former glories, all it takes is a spell of poor performance by their opponents to find Fanboys chanting their bi-syllabic “Ko-BE!” mating calls while perched on the edge of their seats. That happened last November, when the Mamba struck with an And-1 20-footer over the outstretched arm of Thabo Sefolosha to cap off a 114-109 win and grant the Lake Show just their second victory in 11 games.
    It also happened on Wednesday. Shortly before the Hawks collapsed at home before Kyle Lowry and the no-longer extinct Raptors, Kobe had Kobeus fanboius colombianus districtus reaching for any Kleenex they could find. Bryant poured in 31 points on the Wizards to grant his Lakers just their third victory in 18 games. A winning Black Mamba (Kobeus victorius) is a rare sight at this final stage of his development, but it’s possible whenever Laker opponents put their guards down and let L.A. hang around. The Lakers would be thrilled to cobble together their first two-game winning streak since last February, their first road winning streak since last December, with a victory in another big pro-Kobe town.
    Two nights ago, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer resorted to Bitter Beer Face posturing and curt postgame commentary after Atlanta players missed wide open threes (29.6 team 3FG%) and more importantly, blew gimme shots around the baskets, leaving the door open for Kyle Lowry to blow through it in the closing frame (39-20 Toronto advantage, Lowry with 22 points) of the 96-86 defeat.
    Coach Bud preaches incessantly about good defense fueling the team’s offense. But there’s the other half of the Hawks Cycle that has gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. Good offense can enliven the defense. The Hawks were up by 17 midway through the 3rd period, Bud elected to lean on Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder to carry the water.  12 minutes of bad, stagnant offensive possessions later, Atlanta’s lead was wiped out.
    DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross had found a groove in the third, and Lowry went bananas in the fourth while ex-Hawk Lucas Nogueira enjoyed the greatest game of his natural life. Throughout that time, Bud struggled to find the proper substitutions to make to re-establish the offense and slow the Raptors’ roll. The good news for the Hawks was there are no Kyle Lowry Fanboys in their stands cheering the Dinos on. They won’t have that luxury tonight. Budenholzer must recognize when units aren’t working and sub them out, rather than ride them out, before the momentum vanishes.
    It’s not just Bryant (31.1 FG%, 22.2 3FG%) who needs at least 30 shots to put 30 points on the board. Kobe will be joined on the floor by Russell, for as long as Scott aavoids pulling on the short leash, and fellow starter Randle; at times, by ATLien and former Hawk Lou Williams (35.2 FG%), Nick Young (41.0 FG%, 40.7 3FG%) and Metta World Peace (33.8 FG%) off the bench. Collectively, this is the league’s worst team in effective field goal percentage, meaning offensive rebounds and second-chance points will be at a premium.
    The Lakers don’t excel at much, but they are pretty good and taking advantage when they’re bailed out by personal fouls. They rank in the top ten in free throw attempt rate and free throw percentage.They’ll prefer a slow pace that allows inertial players like Bryant, Roy Hibbert, and Brandon Bass to plod up the floor and guards that push for contact and trips to the free throw line. After explosive fourth quarters from guards like Westrbook and Lowry, Jeff Teague and the Hawks can’t afford to conclude their homestand by allowing Jordan Clarkson or Bryant to go buckwild in the fourth quarter.
    Despite the presence of ex-Pacer Roy Hibbert, the Lakers give up 15.2 second-chance PPG (2nd-most in NBA) and 44.1 PPG in-the-paint (5th-most in NBA). Al Horford and Paul Millsap must crash the glass at both ends and win the energy battle against Hibbert and the Laker bigs. Horford had six first-half rebounds versus Toronto, but just three in the second-half, including two in the final minute once the game was decidedly out of reach. Part of that problem was Lowry turning it on, and part was Bud’s overreliance on Muscala, but Horford could have produced more on the offensive rebounding end, when the outcome hung in the balance.
    One of the busiest teams to this point of the NBA season, the Hawks will finally benefit from some R&R with four days off before the next game. They can either head into it on a positive note, or sulk their way through the weekend about missed opportunities gone awry. Like our friends at the zoo, Atlanta will do well to keep the Black Mamba from getting uncaged, and send the Fanboys home early to ponder their next stage in the evolutionary cycle.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “True to True North!”

    Welcome back to the ATL, DeMarre Carroll! We miss you** so much!
    **Okay, well, here's a qualifier. By “you,” I’m suggesting the Atlanta Hawks and its legions of fans genuinely miss the gritty defensive wizard who shot 49% on field goals while averaging 13-and-5, all for the low-low (and declining) price of $2.4 million “you”.
    The gritty defensive wizard “you” that averages 13-and-5 in four extra minutes, and shoots 40% from the floor, while earning $13.5 million a year (and rising) for tonight’s visitors, the Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South)? Meh, not quite so much. But we’re awfully glad to see you’re alive and doing well!
    The extent to which the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks “miss” the 2014-15 DeMarre Carroll is a pointless exercise best suited for Thursday Night punditry killing the time in between cellphone, Viagra and Xbox ads.
    Now, there’s no need for Masai Ujiri to start cussing us out for stating the obvious. Besides, what the heck else was the Raptors GM supposed to do? In the ensuing summer after his two-time Atlantic Division champions get bounced in the opening round by Paul Pierce – again – he’s going to sell his ravenous fanbase on who, as his big-ticket free agent addition? Luis Scola? Cory Joseph? Bismack Biyombo?
    Who else could he go after that aspires to become Kyle Korver’s Brother from Another Mother while applying lockdown defense on three, if not four, opposing player positions? Nobody on his current roster was going to do those things. Certainly not leading-scorer and subpar-defender DeMar DeRozan (21.2 PPG; 22.2 3FG%).
    Surely not Terrence Ross (33.8 FG%), who gets so much blame heaped upon him that fans have taken to calling him “AlbaTRoss”. Probably not Patrick Patterson (37.5 FG%). And clearly, not James Johnson, last summer’s Junk Yard Dawg-Lite, who has fallen so far out of coach Dwane Casey’s rotation that he spent his Thanksgiving Day tweeting how unthankful he is about his playing time.
    Why go after DeMarre Carroll-Lite when DeMarre Carroll is still out there? As far as Ujiri knew at the time, Paul Millsap was on the verge of taking his talents to the Magic Kingdom. That would either free up Atlanta to re-sign what was supposed to be his big prize, the player Casey would later call a “perfect fit” for the Raptors’ defensively deficient core, or would compel the Hawks to eat into the money the Hawks planned to offer DMC to instead meet Millsap’s demand.
    Bringing Casey with him down to Buckhead, the mission was clear: this was not going to be a negotiation. This was a beg. Don’t let Carroll even think about returning Detroit’s call, or Phoenix’s, or Atlanta’s. This had to be a done deal. They had to make the Birmingham native feel Toronto was going to feel just like home, that his addition would make the monumental difference between first-round exits and NBA Finals contenders.
    By almost all accounts, Toronto fans are pleased as punch about the acquisition. So what if DMC’s shot accuracy is down? It’s not that much worse than the two stars on the team, Kyle Lowry (41.9 FG%) and DeRozan (42.1 FG%). He’s not there for offense, anyway. Neither is Biyombo (27.3 D-Reb%, 10th in NBA), whose rim protection, together with Carroll’s addition and Lowry’s renewed attention to defensive detail (3.8 steals per 100 opponent possessions, 2nd in NBA), has propelled Toronto back among the league’s top-ten defenses (99.5 opponent points per 100 possessions, 9th-best in NBA) after dropping to 23rd in D-Rating last season.
    Just about every Eastern Conference team has gone through some measure of tribulation in this early stage of the season. Atlanta (12-8) has been inconsistent and disappointing lately, but lifted sprits with a big home win over Oklahoma City on Monday. Toronto (11-7) was rolling with consecutive wins over the Clippers, Cleveland and arch-nemesis Washington (the latter, a low-scoring affair, won on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Cory Joseph, off a drive-and-dish by DeRozan) before falling flat at home to Phoenix on Sunday. They’ve had a couple days to collaborate with Carroll on how to gameplan for tonight’s game at the Highlight Factory.
    Carroll had one of his better all-around games versus the Suns (20 points, 8-for-13 FGs, 7 rebounds and 2 steals). But Toronto struggled to shoo Eric Bledsoe (9-for-11 FTs) off the free throw line or stretch forwards Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer (combined 8-for-11 3FGs) off the perimeter.
    While Carroll attends to long-range threat Kyle Korver (43.2 FG%), the guys who fill in Carroll’s spot (as best he can) for the Hawks, Kent Bazemore (41.2 FG%) and starter Thabo Sefolosha (40.7 3FG%), should find open shots from the corner. As Carroll shifts to help Scola with Millsap (career-high 18.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 3.6 APG), the Hawks’ swingmen should have little trouble getting open against either of DeRozan or Ross.
    Al Horford (21 points and 11 rebounds vs. OKC), your mission, should you choose to accept it, is again to attack the interior, as Toronto’s depth is shallow without starting center Jonas Valanciunas (fractured hand, out for five more weeks). Former Hawk developmental project Lucas Nogueira has 34 more minutes of NBA action than you do. Any effort by Horford and point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder to get Biyombo into foul trouble would be advantageous in the long run. Thanks largely to Carroll, Biyombo and an improved Valanciunas, Raptor opponents have only averaged 38.2 PPG in-the-paint.
    With a bevy of scattershot shooters, Toronto will hope Atlanta doesn’t bring their A-game and allow the Raptors to feed off of second chance points. Tiago Splitter remains out of action, so backups Mike Muscala and Mike Scott must continue to join Atlanta’s wings to help secure defensive boards. They’ll find ample shot opportunities on the offensive end as well, especially if the Hawks can push the tempo on the Raptors.
    Teague (51.1 FG%, 44.4 3FG% vs. TOR last season) will face more defensive resistance from Lowry and the Raptors compared to last season, so his decision-making with the ball must be better than it was in stretches against the Thunder (5 assists, 6 turnovers). Teague Time needs to be spread out for the balance of the game, so a barrage of layups won’t be needed to save the day in the closing minutes.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Chill, Harry! This ain’t yo’ cousin!”

    The only Trapping going on tonight will be on defense. But coming off a letdown in San Antonio, will the Atlanta Hawks regroup, and Put On for their city against the high-rising Oklahoma City Thunder (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Oklahoma)?
    Tonight’s homegrown halftime and postgame performer, the no-longer-young Jeezy, should fill a few extra seats in the stands. But by and large, this crowd won’t be here just for Tha Snowman: you know these fans came to see KD and Russell ball. After some floundering while working through some kinks under new coach Billy Donovan and enduring Kevin Durant’s hamstring injury, OKC (11-6) comes into the Highlight Factory at full-strength.
    Lately, they’re rolling Thunder: winners of four straight and the last three by double-digits. In those past three games, Durant has been stepping up, averaging 30.3 PPG while shooting an MVP-runner-up-quality 58.5 percent on his shots. Oklahoma City enjoyed two days of rest after Friday’s 103-87 home win over Detroit, one in which KD hit four of his nine threes and still found time to hit all ten of his free throw attempts and collect 12 defensive rebounds. It’s the kind of elevated, all-around performance the Thunder have come to expect out of the #2 pick from the 2007 draft. As for the #3 pick, well…
    Hopefully, Al Horford won’t think he’s Ballin’ ‘cause he got a block. The Hawks (11-8) need more full court intensity from Donovan’s collegiate star pupil, certainly more than the paltry four rebounds Al amassed over 21 minutes on Saturday while watching the esteemed Tim Duncan pile up 18 rebounds with ease. Like Durant, Horford’s out to Get That Broccoli this summer, but only one of these two future free agents is playing like they want much of it.
    If you lookin’ for Al, will he be on the block? On offense, Horford can continue to draw Steven Adams out of the paint with jumpshots, but he must call for the ball and produce around the rim, particularly when OKC shifts to the defensively non-resistant Enes Kanter. OKC’s opponents take a league-high 32.0 shots per game around the restricted area. Shotblocking help by Ibaka (2.5 BPG, 4th in NBA) and Adams (1.7 BPG) represent the Thunder’s usual last-lines of defense.
    Contracting the Thunder centers toward the hoop and enticing help from Ibaka and Durant will make life around the perimeter simpler for Paul Millsap and the Hawks’ wing shooters. If Al isn’t gonna Church Off on these Courts, he’ll leave the Hawks behind the proverbial 8-ball.
    There’s got to be some Love in this (Basketball) Club for boxing out, particularly tonight when Durant and centers Adams and Kanter (57.5 FG%, 6th in NBA) cherry-pick for caroms off missed shots by Thunder guards.
    Westbrook (27.2 PPG, 4th in NBA; 9.9 APG, 2nd in NBA; 31.5 3FG%) had himself a subpar game versus Detroit: 14 points on 5-for-14 shooting, plus a whopping 11 turnovers before fouling out. But Russell’s 6-3 tall like he ten-feet tall, and after a shot of Mountain Dew Kickstart or two, he will be committed to charging (literally) to the hoop, in hopes of favorable buckets and whistles. When Russell misses shots, he knows the league’s leader in offensive rebounding (30.4%, only team above 30% in the NBA) has his back.
    Among Thunder guards D.J. Augustin (44.7 3FG%, 13th in NBA), Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow, the best defense is a lot of offense. Andre Roberson will keep himself busy all night occupying Kyle Korver. But one of Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore will find open shots, or draw attention from Durant and Ibaka away from Millsap. So long as they, and the ball, keep moving on halfcourt sets, Atlanta’s many catch-and-shooters will find the Thunder tend to Leave You Alone.
    Trap all day, play all night: after vanishing in San Antonio (2-for-10 FGs, 4 TOs), Jeff Teague has got to be a Go Getta. Not only must he impede Westbrook without fouling and quarterback his own halfcourt offense, but he must be the key to the Hawks’ transition scoring game, which rivaled their football cousin’s red zone offense in futility against the Spurs.
    Thunder opponents get nearly ten steals per game (2nd-most in NBA), accounting for OKC’s 17.1 turnovers per game -- only Philly (19.0) commits more. The Hawks remain second in the league with 20.9 PPG off turnovers, and are the only NBA team with a net average of five or more points off TOs (+5.8 PPG). Teague can reignite the Atlanta offense by displaying some Hustlerz Ambition, getting out on the break and converting at the rim. Layups are nice, but fans will Luv It if Jeff finishes a dunk or two.
    Bazemore (11 points, 7 rebounds, one technical foul @ SAS) found himself flailing away at the ball, and the air, displaying constant frustration with referee calls in the second quarter on Saturday, as the wily Spurs mounted their decisive run to put the game on ice early. Baze came off the bench on Saturday night, and that will continue tonight as Sefolosha plies his trade against his old buddy KD.
    Composure was key in San Antonio, and it will remain so tonight. Granted plenty of chances, Durant and Westbrook will get their fortuitous plays, but that is no reason for anyone to Lose their Mind.
    Let’s Get It!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I don’t always drink. But when I do, you can be darn sure it’s something better than Dos Equis!”

    The Professional Basketball Championship Selection Committee chaired by Charles Barkley and consisting all manner of naysayers, have just two questions when it’s time to judge your worthiness for the postseason.
    Who did you play? And, who did you beat?
    To impress, you need to show you’re capable of beating those that impress the committee. The Atlanta Hawks’ 11-7 record doesn’t include gaudy victories, as only the Hornets (9-7), heat (10-5), Celtics (9-7), and the Grizzlies (9-8) have records above .500 on the young season. But vanquish the 13-3 San Antonio Spurs (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest), on their home floor (8-0) on the back end of a back-to-back, and you’ll get some Committee members to contemplate whether you’re worthy of more than mere NIT status.
    Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich knows his protégé, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, has now gone two seasons without a regular season victory over his former employer as a feather in his cap. He also knows that, despite close calls for the Hawks in their last two visits to the AT&T Center, Atlanta hasn’t prevailed in San Antonio since Dikembe Mutombo bested Dominique Wilkins’ Spurs at the Alamodome in Coach Pop’s first season at the helm, in 1997.
    If Popovich had designs on simply letting Coach Bud and the Hawks off the hook, he would not have left Tim Duncan (career-low 27.6 minutes/game, 10.0 PPG, and 8.3 RPG; 2nd in NBA for Defensive Box Plus/Minus) and Manu Ginobili (+20.5 Points per 100 possesions, 3rd in NBA) back home purely for rest, while the Spurs traveled to high-altitude Denver to pan the Nuggets. The team’s two elder statesmen will be refreshed for tonight, as the Spurs face their seventh-straight visitor on the second night of a back-to-back set.
    It wouldn’t be surprising if Pop limits the minutes for some other Spurs tonight. Tony Parker (57.4 FG%, 1st among in NBA guards) could be capably spelled by speedy point guard Patty Mills (3.1 steals per 100 possessions, 9th in NBA). With Duncan back to rejoin free agent prize LaMarcus Aldridge (9.3 RPG, 15th in NBA), backups Boris Diaw (21.8 assists per 100 possessions, 1st among NBA bigs) and David West could each use a breather as well.
    Bud has learned the importance of strategic rest, granting Thabo Sefolosha the night off before the Hawks’ most impressive road victory to date, a 116-101 in Memphis. Sefolosha will need all his batteries recharged tonight as he comes off the bench to wrangle The Claw.
    Amazingly the second-youngest player on the Spurs’ roster, Kawhi Leonard (25 points, 4 steals and 5 blocks @ DEN) is as efficient a two-way player as you’ll find in the league (22.0 PPG; 46.8 3FG%, 6th in NBA; 6.8 TOs per 100 possessions, 7th-lowest in NBA; 4th in Win Shares per-48, 5th in Box Plus-Minus).
    It will be interesting to see if the defensive effort on Kawhi can be a sufficient balance for the offensive advantage Paul Millsap (23 points and 14 rebounds @ MEM) can have going head-to-head with LMA, who is still learning his role on the defensive end of the floor. Do-It-All Paul joins Leonard as one of four NBA players (Steph Curry and Paul George the others) in the top-ten for both Offensive and Defensive Win Shares.
    If Leonard roves off of the Hawks’ small forwards, Kent Bazemore and Sefolosha, to help defend Millsap, it’s up to Al Horford (16.3 assist percentage, 3rd among NBA starting centers) and Atlanta’s point guards to find the wings for open shots. The last time Bazemore, who returned for Friday’s victory after missing five games with an injured ankle, participated on the second night of a back-to-back, he exploded for a career-high 25 points against the woeful Wizards. It’s safe to assume tonight’s opponent will pose a greater offensive challenge.
    How good has San Antonio been defensively? Without Duncan around, they held the Faried-less Nuggets to 80 points, the tenth time a Spurs foe was held below 90 points already. Their defensive rating leads the league, and their relative defensive rating (relative to the rest of the league) momentarily ranks as the best in franchise history. As noted by the Jeff McDonald of the Express-News, the Spurs have won four consecutive games without needing to eclipse 100 points for the first time in five years.
    The Spurs don't plan on a Wild West shootout with Atlanta. Despite sinking three of his six 3-pointers in Denver yesterday, shooting guard Danny Green has been a bit of a mess on offense (33.8 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). But he still has enough defensive chops to put the clamps on Kyle Korver (63.8 eFG%, 3rd in NBA).
    The Grizzlies have the highest opponent ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts (35.1 opponent FTA rate), a factor that Millsap exploted successfully yesterday (11-for-13 FTs). The Spurs (20.5 opponent FTA rate) are right there with the Hawks (22.0) at the opposite end of the spectrum. Atlanta ranks 4th in eFG%, and needs to be meticulous in finding the best available shots, not waiting until the end of the shot clock when the Spurs can best sink their teeth into ballhandlers.
    San Antonio has much to be thankful for when it comes to Atlantans past and present. Besides helping the Spurs acquire just enough lottery balls to acquire Tim Duncan, giving up early on Diaw’s development, former GM and Dookie Danny Ferry committing to the development of Tar Heel Green, and then-Spurs coach Bud needling Spurs management to go after Leonard, Aldridge likely doesn’t return to the Lone Star State without the Hawks prying Tiago Splitter free.
    Splitter surely regrets not being able to play his former championship mates as he continues to give his hip a rest. In his absence, the Hawks will need continued yeoman’s work out of Mike Muscala (season-high 11 points and 6 rebounds, plus 2 blocks @ MEM). It will be tough for Budenholzer to resist the temptation of countering with Edy Tavares if Popovich tries to deploy fellow 7-foot-3 giant Boban Marjanovic, who started in a teasing six minutes in place of Duncan yesterday.
    In terms of games played, the Hawks do NOT hold the longest stretch of futility for an NBA team in the Alamo City. That mark actually belongs to one of the Spurs’ Western Conference opponents: the Golden State Warriors, losers of 32-straight. The Dubs don’t visit until March 19; if they’re still undefeated by then, we could have quite a titanic March Madness battle on our hands. Hopefully, The Committee will have Atlanta as a 2-seed by then. But the Hawks must impress people first.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Puh-leeze! I’ll never be a backup to this tubby guy!”

    Road Warrior Hawks? Or Road Kill?
    After blazing to a 4-0 road start, the Atlanta Hawks have dropped their last four away from home. It gets no easier as they head to a back-to-back post-Thanksgiving set, heading straight to San Antonio tomorrow after a little bear-wrestling with the Memphis Grizzlies  tonight.
    After Golden State and the Spurs and Cavs, parity has been strong throughout the league: only nine teams sit at 3-games-or-more above .500 at this stage of the season. The Grizzlies (9-7) look to trade places on that list with the Hawks (10-7) as these teams have been moving along contrasting trend lines.
    Up until about ten days ago, if you needed to talk to somebody about a scheme that no longer seemed to work, you could belly up to a bar on Beale Street, where Grizzlies fans were singing the blues. The Grit and Grind philosophy of the past near-decade was giving way to getting Grounded and Pounded. Through November 16, Memphis’ 53.3 opponent eFG% was the highest in the league. Only the stuck-in-mud Pelicans and the fizzling Rockets had a worse defensive rating.
    Opposing teams found success running against the Blue Bears, who seemed stuck in hibernation (16.7 opponent fastbreak PPG, 3rd most in NBA). The minus-6.3 PPG differential in the fastbreak department made up the bulk of Memphis’ average 6.4 PPG deficit through the first 12 games. Head coach Dave Joerger hasn’t necessarily fixed that defensive issue (17.3 opponent fastbreak PPG after Nov. 16, 2nd most in NBA) but he is insisting on pushing the ball more on the offensive side (19.3 Memphis fastbreak PPG after Nov. 16, 4th in NBA). They needed better defensive rebounding to spark their transition play.
    Memphis was the 12th-worst team in defensive rebounding percentage prior to November 17, and since that time, they’ve been the league’s best (84.0 D-Reb%). It’s more impressive of a turnaround when you consider the Grizzlies have been playing without both Zach Randolph (sore knee, missed past four games) and Brandan Wright (sore knee, missed last eight games), and first-round rookie Jarell Martin (broken foot) was sidelined for the season before training camp started.
    Joerger has turned to the Greens (Jeff and JaMychal) to fill in at power forward for Randolph and help take some of the pressure off All-Star center Marc Gasol (career-low 6.9 RPG). Z-Bo remains questionable for tonight’s game versus Atlanta, and if the Grizz will be happy if they can get away with continuing to rest his continually achy knee, ahead of a gimme on Sunday versus visiting Philadelphia. Gasol attributes his own funk to a lack of offseason basketball, as he worked out but eschewed participating in international competition for the first time with Team Spain, and believes the rust is finally coming off.
    Memphis started off 3-6, but has since won six of their last seven games. Part of that spark involved a riverboat gamble in taking Mario Chalmers off of tax-saddled Miami’s hands. They figured Chalmers (36.8 FG%, 87.2 FT%) would be a better option for perimeter scoring and defense than Beno Udrih, who was packaged to Miami along with center Jarnell Stokes, and thus a better complement with Mike Conley when the Grizzlies elected to deploy a smaller backcourt. Memphis also received former Hawks draft-and-tradee forward James Ennis, who is being brought along slowly. The turnaround since the trade has averted a further shake-up of either the coaching staff or the roster, at least for the time being.
    Conley has boosted his own scoring, averaging 20.1 PPG in his past six games while shooting 54.9 percent from the field (12.5 PPG and 34.7 FG% in the prior ten) with a superb ratio of 6.2 assists to 1.0 turnovers per game in this recent stretch. He’ll make for a fascinating duel at point guard against Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, whose 6.4 APG ranks 13th in the league and a shade behind Conley.
    With Conley, plus Tony Allen and Matt Barnes doing their Thing 1-Thing 2 impressions on defense for Memphis, ball control and shot selection will be crucial for the Hawks. After a stretch of underwhelming performances by guard Dennis Schröder (21.7 FG%, 2.7 APG, 2.7 TO/G in last three games), head coach Mike Budenholzer may turn to Shelvin Mack first off the bench, if not tonight then certainly tomorrow in San Antonio.
    Countering Allen (3.8 steals per 100 possessions, 3rd in NBA), Thabo Sefolosha (3.4 steals per-100, 6th in NBA) has been superb defensively, but has also found a comfort zone on the other end of the floor, shooting 70.8 FG% in his last three appearances while getting 1.3 SPG and 1.3 BPG. His ability to make Allen and Barnes pay for veering away from him to cover Kyle Korver (61.1 3FG% last four games) could be instrumental in the Hawks bouncing back from their disappointing performance in Minnesota. Sefolosha could also benefit if Kent Bazemore (ankle, questionable for tonight) returns to action soon.
    Either of Bazemore or Sefolosha would be a boost to woeful bench play for Atlanta, which reared its ugly head (5-for-25 FGs, four assists, six turnovers) in Minnesota. On the season, the Hawks’ 28.8 bench PPG is 7th-worst in the league, compounded by a disappointing ratio of 7.9 assists to 6.0 turnovers per game.
    The Hawks won’t discontinue their slide down the standings if they continue to experience uneven play by its reserves, if they continue to fail in producing turnovers and converting them into points, and if they find themselves more dependent on defensive rebounding from Korver (9 @ MIN) than its centers (Al Horford and Mike Muscala combined for 6 @ MIN).
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “It’s the Andrew Wiggins Show! Brought to you by your friends at Toothpaste!”

    Can we at least do better than the Sixers?
    The Minnesota Timberwolves have banded together away from home, their 5-2 road record including a 117-107 win in Atlanta on November 9, an OT victory in Chicago, a double-digit win in Miami, and two losses by a combined margin of seven points. Here at the Target Center, site of tonight’s rematch with the Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports North), they’ve been a mirror image of themselves.
    The Wolves (6-8) were 0-6 in front of their home crowd, coming into Monday’s action. They then found themselves down 13 in the first half, then six points with five minutes to go, against a deliberately winless Philadelphia team that ended their 0-17 spell in this same building last year. Thankfully, Philly said, “Sike!” once again. Two nights after bailing Miami out from a 17-point second-half deficit, they gifted Minnesota 20 points in the final five minutes to let the Wolves off the hook.
    After starting off the season playing well on the road, the Hawks have dropped their last three away games, and know they must put in a better 48-minute collective effort than the Suxers did to avoid stretching the skid to four.
    While it took a minute, Wolves fans were treated to a howling good time at the close of Monday’s comeback victory, thanks to Andrew Wiggins. His 15 fourth-quarter points brought him to within a point of the career-high 33 points he enjoyed at Philips Arena a couple weeks ago. Wiggins’ assertiveness on forays to the rim drew attention away from his teammates, and he made his opponents pay when he dished the ball off a drive to a struggling Kevin Martin for the game-clinching three-pointer.
    Wolves coach Sam Mitchell moved K-Mart II back into the starting lineup, hoping it would spark the former high-scoring wing to get beyond his shooting woes. He made two of his five attempts from downtown in Atlanta, but on the rest of the season is 7-for-31, contributing to a career-low 36.5 FG%.
    Until now, Smitch could turn to stretchy rookie big Nemanja Bjelica (3-for-5 3FGs, 4 assists @ ATL) and Zach LaVine (yes, Lavine: 38.3 3FG%) when he needed sparks of perimeter firepower off the bench. But with Bjelica having missed the past two games with knee soreness and questionable for tonight, Minnesota (last in 3s made and attempted; 27th in 3FG%) needs to lean on Martin more.
    It was a rough outing on Monday for Karl-Anthony Towns (6 points, 2 rebounds with foul trouble) in his first head-to-head with Philly’s Jahlil Okafor (25 points, 12 rebounds). He’ll try to make up for it with a repeat of his performance in Atlanta (17 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks) a couple weeks ago. Behind Wiggins (15-for-22 FGs), KAT and an active bench, the T’wolves were able to overwhelm the Hawks to the tune of a 72-point first half.
    Atlanta (10-6) will need a stronger defensive effort keyed by Al Horford, who had light work on Dikembe Mutombo Night (11 points, 4 rebounds, one finger-waggable block) but faced little resistance from Jared Sullinger (7 points and 5 boards). Mike Muscala blocked a pair of shots but was otherwise ineffective off the bench, so we’ll see if Edy Tavares eats away at the minutes of Roseville’s Finest tonight, while Tiago Splitter continues to rest his hip.
    Jeff Teague (16 points, 9 assists, 3 turnovers) was a fairly steady influence in his return to the starting lineup yesterday, a contrast to an erratic Dennis Schröder (1-for-7 FGs, four assists, 5 TOs vs. BOS). Teague’s defense on a flustered Isaiah Thomas (1-for-6 2FGs) was noteworthy, a good sign heading into his meeting tonight with a different class of lead guard in Ricky Rubio. The Hawks will want to impede Rubio’s penetration, without fouling, and close out on the recipients of his passes, forcing somebody else to make plays. Without Rubio or Bjelica dishing the rock, the rest of the Wolves have an assist-turnover ratio of 0.98.
    Schröder fits many of the characteristics of a player who will get needled by Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett. That’s a good thing if it’s during the flow of the game and Dennis is playing better, since it will take KG’s defensive attention away from the multi-talented Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 9 rebounds last night). Schröder needs to find his open bigs on his dashes to the glass.
    Filling in for Hawks starter Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha had a pretty complete game last night (7-for-8 FGs, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks), and it’s good to have some help off the bench from rookie Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs, career-high six rebounds) in his third consecutive game of 20-plus-minutes. After playing just briefly yesterday, Justin Holiday is likely to get into the act tonight to help relieve Kyle Korver (team-high 33 minutes, 3-for-3 3FGs vs. BOS) and Sefolosha. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was thrilled to be back on the floor last night and may get some burn again as well.
    Two-way production from a deep bench could make a difference for Atlanta in tonight’s game. Mitchell is struggling to find defensive answers between Gorgui Dieng, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Andre Miller, and Damjan Rudez, which is another reason Tayshaun Prince was relegated in favor of Martin.
    In the aftermath of coach Mike Budenholzer’s incidental ref-bump and subsequent fine, it’s no coincidence that Atlanta was whistled for a season-tying 25 personal fouls on Tuesday, sending the Celtics to the line for 26 free throw shots. The Wolves (28.1 FT attempts per game, 4th in NBA; 79.9 FT%, 5th in NBA) will be thankful for some favorable calls, especially the tenacious Garnett, Wiggins and Martin. The Hawks’ ballhandlers and screen-setters must avoid the risk of offensive foul calls that will slow down the game in Minnesota’s favor.
    Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks!