If you’re an Atlanta Hawks fan who cannot be in attendance for tonight’s festivities at Philips Arena honoring the finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo, and you have the added misfortune of viewing the broadcast of tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM) on cable, and you have no control of the mute button and the channel changer, bless you.
You, like Ernie “The Elevator” Johnson, will endure the indignity of dismissive attitude from at least one “host” who can be counted on to impart upon you why everyone should go watch some other station’s commercials in prime time. “Nobody wants to watch these teams play,” will be the anal-yst mantra. “What time do the Warriors come on?”
This game is merely an unappealing appetizer for the main dish, as a withered former MVP tries, likely in vain, to stop the current one from remaining undefeated and making NBA history. By the looks of these particular television “hosts”, they’re usually satisfied with any dish that crosses their noses. But no, not the Hawks and Celtics, not on what’s purported to be a “special TNT Tuesday” (“special” in the sense we’ll all be kinda busy come Thursday).
Besides, the Eastern Conference Finals has already been wrapped up in a bow. Just like this time last year, don’cha know? “The only teams in the East that will matter in the spring are Cleveland… Chicago…” will be the utterance, just before the mental version of brain freeze from a slushy kicks in, and some perpetual underacheiver like Washington or Detroit gets some love on the broadcast before the Hawks and Celtics tip-off.
Losers in five of their last seven games, and coming off a costly, white-flag-waving loss against the shorthanded Cavs in Cleveland, the Hawks (9-6) have brought this shade upon themselves lately. “They sure could use a Dikembe Mutombo right now,” you will certainly hear, referencing the iconic, shot-stuffing, Hall of Fame-inducted center. Deke anchored a couple of the greatest defensive teams of the 1990s in Atlanta while also serving willingly as an ambassador on many fronts, on behalf of a league hungry to expand its global imprint.
As grand a presence as he was on and off the court, Mutombo never led the way to a division title or a Conference Finals for Atlanta. The All-Star who fills his shoes today at the 5-spot for the Hawks has done those things, and it stands to reason he’ll someday find his #15 hanging near #55. But before he can inspire the world with great deeds, Al Horford still has a ton of work to do on the hardwood.
The team’s relative per-possession defensive rating (relative, that is, to the league average) is as low as it has been since Horford’s second season. While his blocked shots (1.7 BPG) are at career-highs, Al’s defensive rebounding (4.9 per game) is lower than in any of his healthy seasons. Opponents’ 11.9 offensive RPG are the most since 2006; coupled with the Hawks’ preference to concede offensive boards themselves, their opponents’ 45.9 total RPG are the most since 1983.
Compounding matters for Horford and the Hawks, the key player brought in to at least compensate for an anticipated drop in rebounding efficiency following DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antić’s departures, Tiago Splitter, is already hobbling with a bum hip and sits out tonight. Coach Mike Budenholzer will have to make the call whether to Release the Edy Kraken. The alternative is to ramp up the floor time for Mike Muscala, who is himself being brought back slowly after a season-opening ankle injury and had been joining Mike Scott in relieving an overtaxed Paul Millsap (career-high 34.3 MPG).
“That Jared Sullinger. He is… a really, really good player.” That’s the kind of in-depth assessment you can expect tonight from those who form kinships with NBA players that struggle with conditioning coming into every season. After a John Lucas intervention in the offseason, Sully endured a preseason doghousing by Celtics coach Brad Stevens and the lack of a contract extension offer (unwanted anyway) by GM Danny Ainge.
But at a critical juncture, as the season tipped off, Jared fully embraced what Stevens was doing, with him and his similarly-skilled teammates, accepting his bench role rather than moping. In turn, Stevens was impressed not only with Sullinger’s upbeat attitude but the effort he was putting in on the defensive end. Just four games into the season, it’s Sullinger (13.4 O-Reb%, 8th in NBA; 36.7 3FG%) and Amir Johnson, not Tyler Zeller and David Lee, starting games for the C’s. On this deep squad, Sullinger ranks sixth in minutes, but leads the way in defensive rebounds and is one of seven Celtics with at least one steal per game.
The Celtics (7-6) are adjusting without defensive maven Marcus Smart available off the bench; his injured lower leg requires rehab that will sideline him for at least a couple weeks. Terry Rozier is not quite ready for prime time, and with Avery Bradley (43.1 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs at Brooklyn on Sunday) playing through knee soreness, Boston will play a lot more of reserve guard Evan Turner tonight. Highlighting Boston’s similar struggles with defensive rebounding as a team, Turner ranks second on the team in that per-game category, behind Sullinger.
Stevens is pushing his more inexperienced backcourt players to make more impactful contributions, particularly in Smart’s absence. “They’ve got to make plays that can help us separate and win,” Stevens told the media on Sunday. “Fair or unfair at that age, that’s the position that we’re in with our backcourt right now, and that’s great for them.” That includes not only Rozier and James Young, but R.J. Hunter, who returns to Atlanta after a stellar collegiate career playing for his father at Georgia State. R.J.’s three-pointer that toppled not only his father off a stool, but 3-seeded Baylor in the NCAA tournament, still resonates around town as the top sports story of 2015, Hawks included.
While still a Panther, Hunter was a lunch guest of Kyle Korver (63.4 TS%, 5th in NBA), who proceeded to mentor the young gun about playing in the pros and offered himself up as a tutor, demonstrating his uniquely-honed and elaborate shot mechanics. "He taught me his process. But I lost focus," Hunter recently shared with the Springfield Republican. "It was like step 30, and I was like, 'Bruh, have you shot the ball yet?' It's just crazy."
"But to have that focus, that's why he shoots the way he shoots. Everything is so meticulous and step-by-step with him. And I think that's why he shoots 50 percent, because every time he misses he knows why, because it's such a step-by-step (process). Every time I talk to him I just try to ask him how he gets so consistent. And I think he just has it down to a T."
The Celtics’ defense lapsed during a 111-101 loss in Brooklyn on Sunday. Hunter, however, contributed two steals in the space of under eight minutes, and while he never took a shot, he was part of the crew that whittled down the Nets’ 17-point lead to a manageable seven in the third quarter.
In comparison to Boston’s stingy septet (11.5 SPG, 1st in NBA), the Hawks (9.7 SPG, 3rd in NBA) have four players averaging at least one theft. But they tallied only three steals in Boston, the Celtics committing a season-low ten player TOs (one in the second half) as they pulled away for the 106-93 victory on November 13.
For the Hawks, one of that quartet of players, Kent Bazemore, remains out rehabbing his ankle, while the ankle of Jeff Teague (1-for-9 2FGs on Saturday) was thrown prematurely into the fray during the 109-97 loss in Cleveland after Dennis Schröder got into early foul trouble. Atlanta’s backcourt rotation must pressure Boston’s lead guards at the perimeter. The wings must do a better job of cutting off the passing lanes, and the bigs must focus on patrolling the paint and boxing out, ready to out-gallop their man in transition.
Very little of this will matter to the insightful studio hosts down the street on Techwood Drive. Tonight is all about the re-coronation of the Warriors. “They’ll have a chance to win 19 straight games, and go undefeated in a calendar month!” you will hear of the Golden State Juggernauts. “Now that’s impressive. Something like that has probably never happened before!” Hopefully, Ernie will wag a finger at such a notion.
Let’s Go Hawks!