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    “Big Trouble…”
    Is Wally Pipp Syndrome beginning to befall some of our favorite former Atlanta Hawks?
    While DeMarre Carroll sits with a sprained knee, his Brooklyn Nets seem to be already shopping him, and didn’t skip a beat with substitute Joe Harris as they fell just short in Toronto on Wednesday. Jeff Teague is eager to heal his knee sprain, too, not the least of which because his Minnesota Timberwolves are looking mighty fine lately with Tyus Jones in the starting lineup.
    And then there’s Paul Millsap, the four-time All-Star ex-Hawk, and the headlining 2017 free agent acquisition of the Hawks’ hosts tonight, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude in DEN). The uneven fostering of his frontcourt relationship with the precocious Nikola Jokic was curtailed, just 16 games into the season, by a wrist ligament tear that has him on the sideline until probably the All-Star Break.
    It turns out, Denver’s energies to breach the NBA’s postseason party, for the first time since George Karl’s 57-win post-Melo crew in 2013, weren’t Sapped by the injury to their $31 million Anchorman. And despite a recent downturn, the Nuggets (21-19; 12-12 without Paul) are right where they imagined they’d be with him around, in the thick of the race for a bottom-seed in the Western Conference.
    This, with Jokic sliding over to power forward, and a Plumlee Brother, Mason, plugging in the hole where Millsap resided on the top line, at least as best he can. But another development has made things intriguing in the Rockies for their future with (or, maybe without) Millsap.
    The recently-promoted Tim Connelly and the Nuggets’ brass are probably kicking themselves over the decision to swap 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell to division rival Utah for the G-Leaguable Tyler Lydon. But the throw-in in that deal has been much more than a salve for the burn from what’s shaping up to be a trade steal by the Jazz. Largely buried in Salt Lake since last year’s All-Star Break, third-year forward Trey Lyles is blowing up off the bench for coach Mike Malone.
    Lyles is putting up solid per-36 numbers (19.7 points, 9.0 rebounds) as a reserve, but he’s also unleashed a killer three-point shot, the 6-foot-10 Kentucky product ranks 2nd in the NBA with a scintillating 46.7 3FG%. Along the way to a 124-114 victory in Oakland on Monday, the Warriors got only a glimpse of the 22-year-old’s perimeter exploits (1-for-2 3FGs), but they also got a full sample of his expanding fullcourt skills.
    Lyles carried the Nugget bench with 21 points (8-for-13 2FGs), plus five rebounds, three dimes and three steals. A few days, before, he showed the Jazz (career-high 26 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, two steals) a taste of what they abdicated in pursuit of Mitchell.
    Previously seen as a long-term project, Trey, with his treys, has rendered Denver’s frontcourt depth downright gluttonous. Beyond becoming a surprise Most Improved Player and Sixth Man award candidate simultaneously, Lyles also makes Malone’s decisions to perma-stash veterans like Darrell Arthur and the beleaguered Kenneth Faried fully justifiable. But what will Malone’s lineups look like once Millsap returns to action?
    Lyles’ 2-man pairings on the court with the emerging Gary Harris (+8.2 per 100 possessions, in 373 minutes, as per basketball-reference) are proving to be even more fruitful than Harris’ duos with either of Jokic (+7.8 in 725 minutes) or Sap (+7.1 in 373 minutes). Jokic and Lyles, together, have produced a +9.5 net in the scoring column (225 minutes), roughly equivalent to the +9.6 produced by Sap and The Joker together in the early going (324 minutes) at about eight percent of Millsap’s current price tag.
    “We don’t need him actually,” Jokic joked of Millsap, whose wrist cast was just removed yesterday, at today’s shootaround media session before semi-seriously backtracking. “I’m not kidding, we really need him. He’s a really good player for us.”
    Kidding aside, Denver can’t wait to see what a playoff-tested Millsap could accomplish alongside young up-and-comers like Jokic, Harris (team-high 16.7 PPG), and Lyles’ fellow Wildcat alum Jamal Murray (16.2 PPG in his second NBA season; 91.8 FT%) once the calendar turns to spring. But Sap’s backloaded short-term deal does have a team option for 2019-2020. Even the most optimistic Lyles supporter could not have foreseen that option, and Lyles’ forthcoming fourth-year contract extension by extension, becoming a conundrum so soon.
    Jokic’s innumerable offensive talents (15.9 PPG, team-highs of 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG, 35.8 3FG%) effectively turn Murray and Harris into ball-caddies, bringing the basketball up the court primarily to let their Super Serbian engineer the offensive plays. Thanks largely to Jokic, Denver ranks top-ten in eFG% and TS% while also ranking second with a 26.5 O-Reb%; they make a lot of shots AND clean up their misses.
    For the Hawks (10-30), it’s essential that Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore pressure the initial ballhandlers, and for Baze and the Hawk forwards to front Denver’s perimeter shooters, to try and throw off the timing of the Jokic-led offense. Plumlee Brother #2, Miles, and Dewayne Dedmon will have to come out of the paint on occasion to keep Nikola from plopping jumpers, but the Atlanta swingmen have to support by fronting to keep accomplished cutters like Harris from picking the Hawks’ halfcourt defense apart.
    The Hawks have a shot at keeping up only if they don’t try to engage in a battle of wits with Denver’s halfcourt offense. Atlanta’s defensive efficiency has been subpar no matter the location (108.8 D-Rating at home, 108.1 on road), but it’s in away games like these where the offensive efficiency falls through the floor – 101.3 O-Rating, compared to 107.4 at Philips Arena.
    When the ball sticks, Atlanta (56.1 Assist% on road, 67.9% at home; 51.0% past 4 games) gets stuck, as merely clearing the runway for Schröder’s layup-and-elbow-jumper practice won’t be sufficient to get the job done. Dennis registered just one assist (while 7-for-18 from the field; 4 TOs) in Monday’s 108-107 close-shave loss to the Clippers, and has produced five-or-fewer dimes in every game of this five-game road trip so far, after six-or-more assists in his prior eight starts (Atlanta was a respectable 4-4 in those games).
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    Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Hmm. Hey, Woody… look at the Sugar, falling out of the sky…”
    “HAWKS HELP LA END 9-GAME LOSING SKID.” No, that headline isn’t from last night. It’s from back during November’s holiday season. Doc Rivers and his LA Clippers are, much like their NBA tenant mates, eager to give thanks again tonight to the visiting Atlanta Hawks (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Prime Ticket in LA) at Staples Center.
    Doc’s Clippers, then at 5-11, entered that November 22 game shortly after learning they had lost CP3 replacement Patrick Beverley for the season. Rivers has since managed to almost completely right the ship, winning 12 of their next 20 games despite a spate of injuries wiping out nearly the entire starting lineup.
    But after losing their past two games, with Blake Griffin (concussion) likely out again just a few games after coming back from a weeks-long absence, and with another game at Golden State in a couple days, the Clips need Atlanta (10-29) to do them another solid. One Clipper, in particular.
    “Tell Me Whyyyyyy…” The NBA’s leading rebounder, DeAndre Jordan (15.1 RPG) has all the countenance these days of the Maytag Repairman. Just 30 months prior, as an unrestricted free agent, he had his spit-in-handshake agreement with Mark Cuban and Chandler Parsons (!!!) to split from Cali and come home to Texas, making himself the center-piece of Dallas’ resurgence. Soon after word leaked out of Jordan’s verbal agreement, and his having second-thoughts, Chris Paul and Griffin led the charge to Houston, by planes, trains and Maybachs, to save DeAndre from himself.
    Nearly the entire team, Rivers and owner-fan Steve Ballmer included, barricaded themselves inside Jordan’s hometown H-Town estate. To keep Jordan from venturing off into the Lone Star State for the prime of his NBA career, Paul vowed he would commit to repairing his weathered relationship with DeAndre, both on and off the court, in between jovial spades and video games.
    Circling outside like a shark stuck in a tank, Cuban could only watch from afar, the self-made billionaire getting the “New Phone Who Dis?” treatment. By the time even Jordan’s own agents could get a physical hold of him, the ink was already drying on a new, four-year contract to remain in LA with Chris Paul and Friends.
    It’s thirty months later. Guess who’s playing NBA ball in Jordan’s hometown? “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Heartache…”
    After engineering a trade last summer, Paul not only moved on from Jordan on the court, but on TV, too. Now, when people think of State Farm, they think of CP3, James Harden, off-key Trevor Ariza and, maybe, an in-state championship-winning UGA quarterback named Jake.
    Together, Paul and Harden have boosted the Rockets to the second-best record in the West, and it’s Houston, no longer the Clippers, with the best odds of toppling Golden State. Jordan the Hooper, meanwhile, no longer needs to don a blonde wig, pearls and a little black dress, to convey that, when it comes to his team’s title aspirations, “We’ve Been Robbed!”
    “DJ,” Cuban advised during his summer 2015 soft-sell, “if you want to be a brand, you have to separate yourself.” Jordan, who finally reached the All-Star Game last year, took the risk of standing pat in hopes of becoming the Clippers’ bona fide third star, in a town known for making many of them.
    Instead, with Paul in Houston (the point guard visits LA for a game next week), the Rockets’ Clint Capela earning newfound All-Star love while on the receiving end in the New Lob City, goofball Griffin losing favor among casual NBA fans, and the LA locals growing more intrigued by the day in The Lake Show, DeAndre has been left with little choice but to stand out on his own. Some nights, he seems dominant (4th in O-Reb%; 1st in D-Reb%; 2nd in O-Rating). On many others, without Paul around, he looks as forlorn on the court as the Wolverine Crush meme (65.6 FG%, lowest in five seasons; 1.0 BPG, lowest in career as an everyday starter).
    Jordan does have one ace up his sleeve, however, and that’s the player option he has on his deal with the Clippers, for this coming summer’s red-hot free agency period. Nothing would help this particular “Jordan Brand” more than a trade to a contender that makes a legitimate run toward the NBA title, so the Clips are carefully parsing through offers to swing a cap-relieving haul that’s worth their while. DeAndre (career-best 60.6 FT%), for his part, must remain healthy, and he must continue putting up big numbers for a Clippers team that looks more like a M*A*S*H unit (plus Lou Williams) on most nights.
    Despite Jordan going a perfect 6-for-6 shooting from the field along the way to 14 points, 16 boards, and a pair of blocks in LA’s 116-103 win in Atlanta back in November, he didn’t have to be a one-man wrecking crew. Help came in the form of Griffin (26 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists @ ATL on Nov. 22) and Austin Rivers (18 points, 5 assists @ ATL), neither of whom will be available for tonight’s action, the latter dealing with an Achilles strain.
    Danilo Gallinari (glutes) hasn’t been able to stay on the floor, either. Two-way project Jamil Wilson helped to fill the gap from the losses of Griffin and Gallo with nearly a dozen starts, but he was waived this weekend as his 45-day window has nearly closed. Beverley’s backup, Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia), also has to sit this one out, while longtime gunners JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford are now in happier NBA locales.
    Atlanta can expect a heavy dose of Sweet Lou (40.6 3FG%; 20 points, 3-for-6 3FGs, 8 assists, 6 TOs @ ATL), along with Wesley Johnson. The latter has been scattershot all season from deep (30.3 FG%), but more than a fifth of his makes this season came on a single night at Philips Arena (season-high 24 points, 6-for-7 3FGs), courtesy of the Hawks.
    To help generate enough offense to stay in games, Doc Hollywood is leaning on rookies, including second-round guard Jawun Evans, who unfortunately started opposite Steph Curry (45 points, 8-for-16 3FGs vs. LAC) on Saturday, but did produce seven assists to just a single turnover. Rivers also learned he’d better call Tyrone Wallace up from Agua Caliente. The new two-way replacement for Wilson, Wallace entered in garbage time and collaborated with fellow rooks Evans and Sindarius Thornwell plus the future Mr. Olivia Harlan, Sam Dekker, to close the Durant-less Warriors’ blowout gap from 27 to 16.
    Hawks are not part of the ostrich family, but that was hard to discern last night on this floor, as Our Fine Feathered Friends buried their heads in the sand as soon as the Lakers made up their mind to make a run. Magic Johnson surely enjoyed his popcorn as his team, known for its “Showtime!” exploits from a bygone era, whiplashed the Hawks to the tune of a franchise-record 42 fastbreak points.
    That was about all the advantage the Lakers needed versus a Hawks team that lacked a discernible game plan, regarding either its halfcourt offense or coach Mike Budenholzer’s cherished transition defense. Perhaps things were thrown off-kilter a smidgen once Taurean Prince exited with a sprained ring finger. But the Hawks need better organization and communication from its floor generals.
    Absent backcourt defensive pressure from the Clippers, Dennis Schröder (27 points, 10-for-19 2FGs, 5 assists @ LAL) will find more room to navigate and stat-pad on offense, even more so whenever Jordan sits. Yet it’s essential that he (career-low 8.1 D-Reb%), and Kent Bazemore (1 D-Reb in past 69 minutes of play), know who to D-up as soon as the ball leaves their teammates’ often-wayward fingers, particularly if they’re not going to be of much help in the rebounding department.
    The same goes for Atlanta’s backcourt reserves (principally, Malcolm Delaney, Isaiah Taylor, and Marco Belinelli), who displayed woeful defensive positioning in transition as the Atlanta starters’ early lead on Sunday vanished into the LA smog. Rookies John Collins (first of many made NBA 3FGs, vs. LAL) and Tyler Cavanaugh have enough on their plate to get back on defense only to be met by a track meet of opponents running at and around them. DeAndre’ Bembry’s defensive attributes should be missed, but not this much.
    Starters and bench players alike will all have a little more assistance tonight, with the probable return of season-opening starter Dewayne Dedmon (tibia) to the lineup. Dedmon’s absence short-circuited Hawk fans’ long-held desires to see him in a starting frontcourt tandem with Collins, a stint which began against the Clips in November and lasted all of three more days before the sidelining injury.
    One would anticipate Coach Bud and the staff bringing Dedmon along slowly, ensuring he’s back up to speed before returning to that pairing with Collins. But Dewayne’s ability to cut down on opponent scoring in the paint, while also surprising with an occasional perimeter shot (8-for-12 3FGs in his last 7 games), is needed, literally, yesterday. Having Ded, Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala (probable, ankle) healthy together for the first time all season can add new dimensions to Atlanta’s front line.
    As for Jordan, and his crumbling Clippers, what of their postseason prospects, if their regression continues against the Hawks tonight? Might one suggest, “They’re going DOWN!”?
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Do You Believe That We Can Win That Fight Tomorrow Night?”
    Can Atlanta make it 3-for-3 for the week in SoCal? The Hawks will aim for the Peach State Trifecta when they kick off their Staples Center sleepover in a tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers (9:30 PM Eastern).
    The notion of rebuilding from the ground floor is usually fun, at the outset. As fans, though, you just have to be careful when it comes to understanding what risks you’re signing up for.
    Having moved on from Kobemania in the search for the next great Laker Legend, Lakerfans have swayed from Randlemania to D’Angelomania to Ingramania to Lonzomania. Each year, fans have sold on their own self-made hype, that the next lotto pick is The Next Great One, certainly enough to carry their hallowed franchise to playoff glory for the first time since 2013.
    But now, the Lakers sit at 11-27, on the verge of losing their tenth in a row and 13th in 14 games. And if they don’t play their cards right, their next lottery hopeful may be suiting up in Celtics Green instead.
    Despite raw shooting skills (35.2 FG%, 30.3 3FG%, 48.0 FT%), Lonzo Ball (6.8 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.4 SPG) is nowhere near bust material. In fact, the rookie’s rebounding, passing wizardry, and defensive skills from his point guard position are almost ideally what the Lakers need. But when it comes to the long haul of rebuilding teams, and the instability that can transpire from the floor to the front office along the way, draft scouts may now have to weigh the merits of a prospect’s progenitors.
    As one might say, you can’t choose your draft pick’s parents. “You can see they’re not playing for Luke [Walton, the Lakers’ head coach] no more,” says proud papa LaVar Ball, chilling at a Lithuanian spa, trying to keep Lonzo’s younger siblings from starting another global incident. LaVar treats the second-year full-time NBA coach the way he treated his kids’ coaches from high school and AAU through UCLA, with disdain.
    “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him,” LaVar adds, each critique moving Tito Horford further up the ballot for the Pro Baller Discretionary Dads’ Hall of Fame. “I can see it. No high-fives when they come out of the game. People don’t know why they’re in the game. He’s too young… He ain’t connecting with them no more. You can look at every player. He’s not connecting with not one player.”
    LaVar won’t be happy until he is controlling his kids’ teams, from the sideline, and if they’re still not winning, he won’t be satisfied until he has run his kids’ teammates out of town on a rail, something that may literally happen soon with the younger clan over in Prienai-Birštonas. In cahoots with media that can’t seem to tear the microphones away from him, LaVar’s mouth forces everyone, from Laker management to Lonzo himself, to drop everything and, on a Sunday night between the worst two clubs in the NBA, formally address the dissension that the Big Bawler of the Ball family tries to stir.
    If he’s not overly distracted, Lonzo (who, naturally, disagrees with his father regarding Walton) has the tools to make his head-to-head tonight with the Hawks’ Dennis Schröder (last 2 games: 38.7 FG%, 4.5 APG, 4.5 TO/game) an arduous one for the latter, especially if former UGA star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can switch onto Atlanta's top scorer. For all the Lakers’ offensive faults (NBA-low 32.4 3FG%, 68.9 FT%), thanks largely to Lonzo, they push the pace (NBA-high 103.8 possessions per-48) and they’re the best NBA team aside from Golden State (16.1 per-36) in producing fastbreak points (11.7 per-36).
    The Hawks can counter by pounding the only team with interior defense (NBA-high 10.7 opponent second-chance points per 48) as sketchy as their own (10.6 opp. second-chance points per-48). Los Angeles allows a league-high 37.2 paint points per-48, and that was with Andrew Bogut, who was waived this weekend. Brook Lopez, aside from his 1.5 BPG) and super-rookie Kyle Kuzma (team-high 17.2 PPG) provide next-to-no defensive resistance.
    If Horford-in-Training rookie John Collins (58.8 2FG%, 9th in NBA; 15.0 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA) is unable to drown the Lake Show with a dominant interior offensive performance, might his family harbor grave reservations about the strategic wisdom of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, we’ll never know.
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    After beating the Kings back in mid-November, it took 40 calendar days before the Portland Trail Blazers came away victorious again in their own building. Back at the Moda Center following an up-and-down road trip, the Portland Trail Blazers seek to avenge last weekend’s 104-89 loss in Atlanta against the Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX). Might the next winless streak for the home crowd stretch beyond eight days? I’m not so sure ex-Hawks coach Terry Stotts can last in his current gig with another weeks-long home drought.
    Yes, Damian Lillard (25.2 PPG, 7th in NBA) is back, and although his right calf is a bit gimpy after returning from a hamstring injury to post 25 points (7 TOs) in 33 minutes during Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, Dame DOLLA probably won’t miss a chance at getting a measure of payback versus Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder (favorite candy bar: 2 Musketeers).
    Lillard’s return alleviates sidekick C.J. McCollum (23.2 PPG, 37.5 FG% in five games Lillard missed) from being excessively hounded by defenders while jacking up shots. Dame also allows Shabazz Napier (21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks @ ATL on Dec. 30) to provide some spark to an otherwise offensively lifeless reserve unit (26th in bench O-Rating; 28th in bench eFG%; dead-last 43.9 bench assist%, no other NBA bench below 50 assist%).
    But if the Blazers fail to grab the home W tonight versus league-worst Atlanta (10-27), or against a rested Spurs team on Sunday, then they’d have to endure a tough four-game Western Conference road trip before the suddenly upbeat Phoenix Suns pays Rip City a visit, 11 days from now.
    Since turning a 33-win outfit in Lillard’s rookie season into a 54-28 squad with a legendary first-round playoff upset, Stotts’ Blazers have declined in the win column in every season since, going from 54 to 51 to 44 to an even-steven 41. They’ve never entered a playoff series under Stotts as a favored seed, and the prospects for a top-4-seed, for a well-paid roster that has few tradable components, continues to dwindle.
    Very little of this has been Stotts’ fault, considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s defection to the Spurs, and GM Neil Olshey’s sketchy decisions during the draft (giving up 2017 first-rounders before-and-after John Collins, to take Zach Collins in the lottery) and in free agency (Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner ‘16). But a January tailspin would have Portland (19-18) sinking below .500, and possibly out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, in the unforgiving NBA West.
    While the Blazers are aiming for a must-win, the Hawks come up the Oregon Trail after wrestling away a must-lose from the jaws of victory against the Suns. Despite his team blowing a double-digit lead in the final three minutes on Tuesday, Dennis Schröder (favorite sitcom: Two’s Company) had an opening to dish to an open Taurean Prince (eager to make amends, moments after getting highlighted at the rim by Marquese Chriss) for the game-tying three.
    Schröder (5 TOs @ PHX, most since Nov. 15) may have caught wind of Prince’s boxscore line (2-for-14 FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs) and elected to press his luck with a last-second layup try instead. It was the type of questionable decision-making that could weigh Ay ton for Atlanta a few months from now. Tanks a bunch, Dennis!
    For Portland, it all comes down to these critical fourth quarters, where they make an NBA-low 1.9 threes per game. Their offense petered out during the final frame of their games in Atlanta (20-32 points differential) and Cleveland (23-36), and in their last five losses, the Blazers have averaged a mere 20.6 PPG as a team in those quarters.
    “We gotta put together a full game,” McCollum told The Oregonian yesterday, perhaps recalling his Lillard-less squad’s 17 third-quarter tally last Saturday as well. “The second half will be huge for us; how we start the third quarter, and how we sustain that.”
    It’s usually in that last quarter where the Hawks’ field goal-making comes alive (47.9 FG%, 2nd-best in NBA; 40.9 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA). That is, at least, when they can get shots off without turning over the ball (16.4 TO%, 2nd-worst in NBA) or missing free throws after getting hacked (hey there, Miles Plumlee).
    With top-scorers Lillard and McCollum usually in to close out games, Stotts’ challenge is to find the complementary frontcourt contributors who can get stops and spark transition (27th in PPG off TOs, last in fastbreak PPG), but can at least look like a threat to be involved in plays on the offensive end. We may be in the throes of Winter, but if the Blazers don’t figure out some stable lineups to finish games, Stotts is certain to become Olshey’s Fall Guy before the Spring gets here.
    Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I don’t wanna be here, either, Coach Ty… but I can’t recall my Twitter password!”
    “With his emergence and importance to not only what we’re doing in the short term, but hopefully in the next decade-plus, I think it’s important to make him a partner in the process.”
    Relax, Atlanta Hawks fans, that wasn’t Travis Schlenk speaking of Dennis Schröder. That was the GM of Dennis’ opponent tonight, the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), speaking about the inclusion of 21-year-old star guard Devin Booker in his team’s player-personnel affairs.
    The GM is only 16 years Booker’s senior, but Ryan McDonough wasn’t born yesterday, as he understands the sports market in which he works. While the Hawks have jostled with the Barves, Dawgs, and Falcons for Atlantans’ attention since moving to Georgia back in 1968, the Suns had The Grand Canyon State all to themselves for the first two decades of their existence. That was quite awhile before Cardinals flew, Diamondbacks slithered, and Coyotes sauntered their way into the Valley.
    Phoenix is, and remains, Suns Town. Its sports fans look upon Their Team with a more critical eye than any others. Fifty years in, generations of fans are looking to a guy who was years away from being conceived when Gar Heard made The Shot to return their favorite franchise to even modest glory.
    Now in his fifth year of swings and mostly misses, the recently contract-extended McDonough (whose brother, Terry, works just down the pike as the recently-extended VP of player personnel for the Cards) needs to put a fresh face that isn’t his own behind the wheeling-and-dealings. So why not use one of the few hits the former Celtics scouting director has had since he arrived on the scene in 2013?
    Since plucking Amar’e Stoudemire out of high school in 2002, the Suns have selected 10 lottery players over the past 15 NBA Drafts, including at least one from each of the last seven drafts, three of them top-five in their respective draft years. Illustrating how boom-or-bust these picks can get, the lotto pick from 2012, Kendall Marshall, just retired from hoops altogether in November.
    Of those ten players, five remain on the roster, six if you count draft-day trade acquisition Marquese Chriss. Of that subset, only Booker (career-highs of 24.9 PPG, 38.4 3FG%, 47.7 2FG%, 87.0 FT%, 4.5 RPG, 4.2 APG) stands out as a surefire star, while T.J. Warren remains as-advertised for a hustle player without a hint of long-distance range (19.4 PPG, 16.9 3FG%). The rest (Alex Len, Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson), plus second-year second-rounder and starting point guard Tyler Ulis, display varying levels of waning potential on a nightly basis.
    McDonough was granted his contract extension by Suns owner Robert Sarver in mid-July, and seems to have avoided making any significant additions to a roster, coached by Earl Watson, that checked in 2016-17 at 24-58, a mere one-game improvement over the prior season. Watson couldn’t last beyond the first three games of this season, a start marked by a pair of ignominious blowout losses and the defection of its former leading playmaker, hair salon expert Eric Bledsoe.
    Bledsoe’s “I Dont wanna be here” tweet finally spurred McDonough to make a move, exchanging EBled for a protected 1st rounder in 2018 from Milwaukee along with Greg Monroe, essentially bubble-wrapped for a future trade deal. Athletic third-stringer project Derrick Jones was bounced to allow two-way G-Leaguer Mike James to become a historical footnote, the latter waived just weeks after signing a full NBA contract in favor of guard Isaiah Canaan (5.0 APG, 40.0 3FG%, 96.7 FT% off-bench in last 8 games).
    At least until the NBA trade winds begin to blow, the Suns have set on Ulis, Booker, Canaan and Troy Daniels (42.5 3FG%) in the backcourt, Warren at the wing in front of a very green Jackson, and a frontcourt rotation of Tyson Chandler, Len, Monroe and Jared Dudley (questionable for today, illness) in front of the very green Chriss (starting today) and Bender. Under the direction of replacement coach Jay Triano, the senior bigs are waffling between major minutes on one night and DNP-CDs in the ensuing games, ostensibly to keep them “fresh”, for something.
    If Booker’s value holds any weight, then Triano will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. “He’s giving a lot of players a lot of opportunities,” Booker told the local media, “but he’s also holding people accountable at the same time, which is what we need.”
    Triano is instilling an offense that forces players, from Booker to the centers, to share the ball and keep it from excessively dribbling it on the ground, where their turnover problems (15.8 TOs/game, 2nd-most in NBA) tend to take hold. Only the Hawks’ prior (and next) opponent, Portland (1.26), has a lower assist-turnover ratio (1.29) than the Suns, an issue Triano wants to fix foremost.
    Len was strung along all summer as a restricted free agent without a contract, but is now enjoying a career season when he does get off the bench (11.0 RPG when granted 20+ minutes). He added, “I definitely love Jay and love playing for him.”
    If the Suns (no playoffs since GM Steve Kerr, coach Alvin Gentry and player Grant Hill’s 2010 Western Conference Finalists) truly want to demonstrate that newfound sense of love and stability to their lotto-weary fanbase, they need to start stringing some wins together here at TSR Arena, and soon.
    Phoenix (14-24) has the NBA’s worst home record, at 6-14. They’ve notched just two wins since beating then-downtrodden Chicago way back on November 19, and both victories came against still-downtrodden Memphis, one of those wins off a sneakily-designed buzzer-beating alley-oop play.
    While they’re only two games from the Western Conference basement, the Suns are only five games behind the 8-seed and have a rational 9-13 mark in-conference, 9-10 since that disastrous start. Getting back in the playoff hunt requires beating teams at home, especially teams like the Hawks (10-26, league-worst 3-15 on the road).
    With half the country currently shivering in sub-zero wind chills, Arizona native Mike Budenholzer’s troopers couldn’t have picked a better NBA locale to kick off their five-game, four-arena road trek. His Hawks have shown signs of warming up themselves, notching three home wins over their past four games, and now want to see how good their improving show can be when they take it on the road. Atlanta is 0-6 away from Philips Arena since beating Brooklyn back on December 2, although those first five road defeats were by single digits.
    Budenholzer (199 Hawks wins, t-5th w/ Hubie Brown) would love to rotate his frontcourt more, a la Phoenix, but those schemes were precluded by early injuries to Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala, and to current starters Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee before that. The good news for Coach Bud is his frontline is beginning to firm up.
    Having labored through a mostly-bad nine-game stretch at the season’s outset, before getting shelved to heal a bum ankle, Muscala is back after a quick jaunt through the lake-effect snow up in Erie, and he’s probable to be available for tonight’s game. Meanwhile, Dedmon is a good bet to return to the floor by the time Atlanta’s road trip concludes on January 10.
    Moose won’t be thrown to the wolves, or the Suns, quite like ex-Sun Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh were in their season debuts. Rather, he’ll be used sparingly until he can find a rotation (likely, ones paired with centrifugal forces John Collins and Plumlee) where he regains a comfort level spreading the floor and hustling for rebounds and loose-balls.
    Frontcourt passing was the name of the game in Atlanta’s 104-89 victory over the visiting Trail Blazers on Saturday night. Schröder’s brilliance re-emerged, particularly as a scorer late in the contest (22 points, 8 assists, 1 TO) as Atlanta pulled ahead and away. But Dennis’ pinpoint passing was matched with 13 dimes by a combination of Taurean Prince (12 points, team-high 10 rebounds, 5 assists), Ilyasova, John Collins, and Plumlee. Collins’ three dimes in the space of four early fourth-quarter minutes helped to break the game open for the home team. Collins led a Hawks bench crew that out-assisted Portland’s 10-1.
    Superior passing, deadeye shooting, and an 18-10 points-off-turnovers edge helped the Hawks minimize a 46-28 disadvantage versus the Blazers in the paint. Still, that last part sounds fine to Chandler, who has enjoyed 23-rebound and (a Suns-franchise record) 27-rebound outings versus the Hawks during the past four seasons. As has been custom on back-to-backs, Triano will likely choose to let Chandler go full-bore tonight, then rest him in tomorrow’s contest in Denver.
    Muscala’s addition won’t firm up Atlanta’s interior defense (63.8 opponent FG% within 5 feet, 4th-highest in NBA) or keep opponents from getting extra helpings (NBA-high 14.5 opponent second-chance PPG, 15.2 on the road). But the more frequently he can manage to make smart, decisive decisions when the ball comes his way, the sooner he will discover it wasn’t the Man-Bun holding him back.
    Schröder (29.0 PPG vs. PHX last season) was noticeably active on the defensive end on Saturday, and more of the same from he and Kent Bazemore will help keep Booker (6.0 FTAs per game), Canaan and Ulis from creating havoc and foul problems in the paint. Coercing Phoenix’s scorers out to the margins works out well for most of their opponents. The Suns join the Lakers, an upcoming Hawks opponent, as the only clubs shooting below 35 percent on three-point shots above-the-break and below 40 percent in each of the corners.
    Add a poor perimeter shooting night (PHX is 2-20 when shooting below 35 3FG%) to the Suns’ sloppy transition defense (13.7 opponent fastbreak points per-48, 4th-most in NBA), anemic interior defense (48.4 opponent paint points per-48, tied-2nd-most in NBA), and problems with turnovers (18.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs, 4th-most in NBA), and you have the makings for a messy yet entertaining, high-paced competition between two struggling squads that checked out of 2017 with a 6-9 December record.
    #SarverOut electronic billboards currently dot the Arizona sky. While Philips Arena’s two-year renovation process is already underway in Atlanta, Sarver’s $450 million renovation proposal for his older TSR Arena isn’t going so well. Fans and politicos alike are peeved, and a deliberate tank job won’t satisfy anyone around town. For all the Processed meat chewed up and spat out over the past seven years, Phoenicians want to see a lot more steak than just Booker on the floor.
    With everyone peeved about the stagnating state of his franchise, Sarver is sure to pass the heat onto his managerial staff if the home losses continue piling up, especially to teams like Atlanta. As one recent Oakland Raiders coach would warn McDonough, multi-year contract extensions don’t mean quite as much as they once did.
    Go Dawgs! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Say, Jeff Teague’s no longer around these parts, right? Phew!”
    I never promised you a Portland Trail Blazers win at the Rose Garden. Yet here they are, entering tonight’s game with the Atlanta Hawks at The Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest) having just won its first game in its home arena since November 18.
    The Blazers are feeling quite relieved, having previously gone 0-6 in that 42-game span, beating a 76ers team that had last month handed Portland its worst loss of the season, a 101-81 thrashing in Philly. At least that game featured Damian Lillard, who missed Thursday night’s rematch and may sit out today’s game while healing a strained hammy. Hopes were wilting once again on Thursday in the City of Roses, when the Sixers widened their lead to 18 points late in the third quarter.
    But as Lillard sat, Shabazz Napier rose. To that point of the game, Lillard’s replacement in the starting lineup had a solitary point on the scoreboard. He finished the game with a season-high 23 points, helping out C.J. McCollum (34 points vs. PHI) and Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 12 rebounds vs. PHI), who finally found a way to make baskets in the vicinity of the rim. A 19-0 fourth-quarter surge helped coach Terry Stotts’ club avoid a seventh-straight home defeat and, at least for now, remain at arm’s reach from the lottery-bound teams in the Western Conference.
    The reason Portland (18-16) has remained above water is their solid record away from home (10-6), with wins notched specifically against Eastern clubs – Indiana, Brooklyn, Washington, the Knicks. This month alone, they’ve won three games in a span of just four days in Miami, Orlando, and Charlotte, and they come into Atlanta aiming for a Southeast Division road sweep, with or without Big Game Dame (25.2 PPG, career-low 41.8 FG%, career-high 92.8 FT% and 5.0 RPG).
    The Blazers do have a one-day rest advantage, as the Hawks flew in last night from Toronto after getting stiff-armed by our old friend Bebe Nogueira and the Raptors. Atlanta (9-26) doesn’t win when they’re not fending opponents off the glass, as yesterday’s loss extended their winless streak to 0-9 when opponents nab 50 or more rebounds. They also don’t stay in games when they get sloppy with execution, and the Kent Bazemore we all know and loathe returned yesterday with five first-half turnovers, coincidental with the game getting squirrely for the visitors.
    The lack of care with possessions wasted a banner evening from second-year forward Taurean Prince. No one will mind if his career-high 30 points (5-for-6 3FGs) and 10 rebounds becomes closer to a norm for Taurean the DeLorean. But if we’re ever able to return to something resembling Budball, Prince (2.5 APG) and the Hawks’ frontcourt must be more routinely involved in the passing game.
    With small forwards included, the frontcourt contributed just two of Atlanta’s 21 assists on Basketball Night in Canada. In Tuesday’s big home win over Washington, Miles “Hands of Stone” Plumlee collected three dimes on his own. Prince’s season-high of eight assists came in the biggest-margin victory of the season, the 46-point crowning of the Kings last month.
    The Hawks need all hands on deck to keep opponents from feasting on the offensive glass, as everyone from centers Jonas Valanciunas (6 O-Rebs vs. ATL), Bebe (3 O-Rebs in 7 minutes), Jakob Poeltl (3 O-Rebs) and even rangy guard Delon Wright (3 O-Rebs) were having their way on Thursday. After getting schooled early by Joel Embiid and then busting heads with J.J. Redick, Portland’s Nurkic (5 O-Rebs vs. PHI) re-awakened his Bosnian Beast act in time for the Blazers’ late run. He and the crafty Ed Davis intend to be particularly active around the rim today.
    Perimeter defenders, particularly in the corners, must get in proper position in the paint after shots go up, given the likelihood of long caroms. The Hawks can stay in games, and even lead them, when they’re at least staying even on 50/50 balls. Perhaps inspired by the ghost of LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland bigs like Nurkic, Noah Vonleh (probable, disloc’d finger), and Meyers Leonard (questionable, ankle sprain) have grown particularly fond of settling for long-range two-pointers, so it’s essential for the Hawks to collect those probable misses and spark swifter transitions downcourt.
    After getting boatraced downcourt repeatedly in the first half in T-Dot, the Hawks should rather enjoy a game against a Blazers team that doesn’t push the tempo very often (NBA-low 5.5 fastbreak PPG) and would much prefer a halfcourt battle-of-wills. If Dennis Schröder (6-for-20 FGs @ TOR; 8.3 APG and 1.3 SPG last 7 games) is on his A-game at both ends, controlling the tempo and contributing to getting stops, Atlanta can enter 2018 smelling more like a nice bowl of roses, and less like what it often takes to grow them.
    Happy New Year! Go Dawgs! And Let’s Go Hawks!
    “e before r… except up in Canada?”
    The Toronto Raptors welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the Air Canada Center… oh wait, Centre (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 Up Yondre), hoping to get back on the good foot against the NBA’s “worst” team and avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season to conclude 2017. As the Wizards learned the hard way, how successful the Raptors are today will hinge on how much value they ascribe to recent matchups, and to the word “worst.”
    2016 ought to be instructive for coach Dwane Casey’s crew, heading into this contest. In December of last year, the Hawks followed up getting drubbed by 36 points in Atlanta, one evening later in Toronto, by getting pasted into maple butter (buttre?), a 128-84 blowout featuring a 42-14 fourth-quarter (quartre?) by the home team. But what happened the next time these two teams met, just two weeks later (latre)?
    The Hawks caught the overconfident Raps napping and blitzed to a 69-point opening half. Dwight looked like what Dwight would look like all the time, if he made free throws. Kyle Korver had a last hurrah. Malcolm Delaney looked functional. And late charges by DeMar DeRozan (DrEozan?) and Kyle Lowry proved to be too little, too late in a 125-121 win that propelled host Atlanta back to .500 basketball.
    So, Casey would be wise to take any tapes of last month’s resounding 112-78 win at Philips Arena and toss them in The Round File. The reigning Eastern Conference Player (Playre?) of the Week, DeRozan (2 points on five FGAs, but 8 assists) registered not much of a blip on the far side of the scoreboard in that game, and he and Lowry (4-for-7 3FGs, 13 rebounds, 6 assists) didn’t have to.
    Toronto’s dynamic duo turned into role players, as Toronto’s reserves (Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Jokob Poeltl, Fred Van Vleet) tuned up Atlanta’s beleaguered bench (combined 12-for-37 FGs, 3-for-17 3FGs) well into the second quarter. The Hawks’ similarly scatter-shot starters (startres?) (14-for-38 FGs), particularly Dennis Schröder (Schrodre?) (4-for-11 FGs, 1 assist, 4 TOs) and Dewayne Dedmon (3-for-11 FGs, 2 rebounds), were no match from that point afterwards. But it’s all a thing of the past. Or, at least for the Raptors, it should be.
    After getting dispatched by LeBron and Friends for the second-straight postseason, this time a 4-0 sweep, Casey and team exec Masai Ujiri acknowledged that cultural changes were in order (ordre?). That didn’t mean parting ways with star players, as the 31-year-old Lowry was retained with a three-year, $100 million deal. But it did mean scaling down on the stilted iso-play that defined the Toronto offense (offence?) for years.
    The Raptors are tenth in the league in pace, just ahead of Atlanta, after six seasons of ranking bottom-ten under Casey’s watch. They’ve turned to isolation on just 5.8 percent of plays (25th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 5.9%), after ranking top-ten in that proportion in each of the prior two seasons.
    As a continued hallmark from prior seasons under Casey, the bench’s +6.7 net rating presently ranks 3rd best in the league, behind the Warriors and Rockets, despite shooting just 31.3 3FG% as a unit (29th in NBA). “We can’t do it ourselves,” Lowry said to Yahoo! Sports. “We’re not superheroes. We’re not 6-foot-9, 270, if you know what I mean. [Yes, Kyle, we do.] We don’t shoot the ball extremely well like KD and Steph. We know we need a full team. That shows myself, DeMar, we care more about winning than our individual stats.”
    “What we incorporated was ball movement, man movement, equal opportunity,” Casey added. “We changed our philosophical approach. Is DeMar going to change his game totally? No. But he and Kyle bought in, which changes how we want to play.”
    DeRozan has committed to abdicating the dreaded long-range two-pointer (career-low 18.2 percent of FGAs between 16 feet and the three-point line), either stepping in for mid-rangers or going behind the line (career-high 16.1 percent of FGAs for 3). His shot efficiency has buoyed to a career-best 57.4 TS% while his passing has also improved (career-high 4.8 APG), emboldening his case to be a leading recipient of All-Star starter votes.
    Toronto bid farewell to DeMarre Carroll and replaced him on the top line with rookie OG Anunoby. And yet, the Raps have proven even more effective at shooing foes off the three-point line (9.1 opponent 3FGs per-48, 2nd-lowest in NBA; 34.9 opponent 3FG%, 5th-best), drawing would-be shooters to put the ball on the floor and forcing errors (16.0 opponent TOs per-48, 3rd in NBA behind the Hawks’ 16.4). That’s key when facing a Hawks team that doesn’t rely so much on catch-and-shoot 3FGAs (22.1, 14th in NBA) as they used to, but is deadly accurate when granted the opportunity (39.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG%, 2nd in NBA behind Golden State).
    The leading scorers in the East, Toronto (23-10, NBA-best 12-1 at home) joins backsliding Houston (yay, draft pick!) and Golden State as the only teams ranking among the top ten in O-Rating, D-Rating, and pace. And, they’re hanging right with Cleveland in the standings, tied for 2nd in the East. Which is why their most recent post-Christmas road losses, at Dallas (danke schoen!) and at OKC on back-to-back nights, have been most disconcerting.
    One day after sliding up to the best record in the East, Toronto flopped in Dallas, shooting just 33.7 FG% as a team. The ball got stuck in DeRozan’s hands too often, and as was the case in Atlanta, DeMar ended the games at Dallas (7 points, 3-for-16 FGs) and OKC (15 points on 7-for-7 FTs, 4-for-16 FGs, 2 assists) with fewer points than shots taken. He and Lowry have received little help from the supporting cast in fourth quarters (16 @ DAL, 19 @ OKC), where the team’s 24.8 PPG and 42.6 FG% rank just 25th in the league (FWIW, Atlanta’s 26.8 4th-quarter PPG ranks 3rd, while their 48.4 final-frame FG% ranks 2nd).
    As for Mike Budenholzer’s (Budenholzre’s?) crew, the Hawks come into tonight’s action seeking to extend their conference-high two-game winning streak. As was the case in the payback match versus the Wizards, a 113-99 victory that was perhaps the most encouraging win of the season, Atlanta (9-26; 5-8 this month) promises to be much more competitive over the course of 48 minutes against the Raptors tonight.
    Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh have served as adequate stopgaps in the absence of Dedmon (tibia), who should be returning soon. Ersan (Resan?) Ilyasova (last 3 games: 21.0 PPG, 63.6 FG%, 60.0 3FG%, 85.7 FT%) has gotten healthy and is playing well, alleviating both rookie John Collins and the overtaxed Luke Babbitt (DNP since Dec. 20). A fourth-straight 20+-point scoring effort tonight would be Ersan’s first such stretch since March-April of 2013.
    With Collins coming off the bench along with Marco Belinelli, the Hawks found enough offensive punch on Wednesday to give Schröder and the starting five a needed lift, for a change. Dennis has also benefitted from better (bettre?) balance among the team’s secondary passers, most notably the properly-spelled Kent Bazemore (5.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in last 11 games), Delaney (4.3 APG, 1.0 TO/game in last 3 games), and Isaiah Taylor (14 assists, 1 turnover total in last 4 games), increasing Coach Bud’s comfort level with his preferred small-ball lineups.
    Improving ball control and superior offensive rebounding produced 13 extra shot attempts on Wednesday, helping the Hawks keep an inexplicably listless Wizards team at bay. Atlanta’s per-game assist/player turnover ratios have improved each month: 20.9/14.3 in October (Octobre?), 24.4/16.4 in, well, the next month, and 25.7/13.8 so far this month. Their 16 O-Rebs against the Wiz were a season-high, helping raise the Hawks’ record to 3-0 when they amass 50 or more total rebounds in a game (0-8 when the opponent grabs at least 50 boards).
    Tuesday’s loss to the Mavs was the first for the Raptors in 17 games (16-1) versus teams below-.500. On the downside, they’re an unimpressive 7-9 versus the winning and break-even clubs. A loss to the Hawks tonight won’t sound alarm bells the way they did in D.C., where the Wizards’ loss in Atlanta dropped their record versus sub-.500 squads fell to 9-10.
    But with the schedule toughening up for Toronto between now and the next meeting with the Hawks in ATL on January 24, the Raptors want to ring in the new year with spirits high, not worrying about what perils (preils?) await them not only in January, but in April and May. Here’s hoping for a Thillre!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Need directions to your hotel? Follow me!”
    Back at it! We’ll get to see how a weekend full of eggnog and hot toddy will affect our Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club, as they suit up to face a Washington Wizards team (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic) that’s hoping they’re finally hitting their stride.
    Essentially the same lineup – minus ex-Hawk Mike Scott – that ousted Atlanta from the 2017 playoffs and set the Hawks’ CTRL+ALT+DEL in motion, the Wizards are clearly the head of the class in the Southeast Division… or, at least, they should be. With the Hawks, Magic, and Hornets slipping around in oil, and the heat dealing with injuries to Hassan Whiteside and other starters, this division is dressed up for Washington to seize. But for some reason, coach Scott Brooks’ charges cannot seem to sustain a winning run.
    When last these two teams met, in D.C. back on November 11, the Wizards had merely a 6-5 record, even after kicking off 2017-18 with three straight wins. The lowly Hawks helped the Wiz kickstart a four-game streak with a 111-94 defeat at Capital One Center, thanks to a 37-point fourth quarter for the home squad. But here we are, over a month-and-a-half later, and the Wizards (19-15, 9-8 vs. East) have no more win streaks of three-or-more games to show for themselves.
    Yes, they come into Philips Arena feeling sky-high after a 111-103 marquee victory in Boston over the Celtics on Christmas Day. But just last week, they topped New Orleans at home, got two full days off, then traveled to Brooklyn and got spanked, 119-84, the second loss to the Nets this month. They began the month decisively beating once-hot Detroit (without John Wall), got two full days off, and then found themselves getting tuned up by the Jazz, 116-69 in SLC, the second-worst beatdown (worst since a loss to Kareem and Oscar’s Bucks in 1970-71) in franchise history.
    Prior to that, the Wiz suffered losses at the hands of the Lakers, Suns, and Mavericks, none on the back end of a back-to-back, the latter two at home. Sure, they’ve had their share of short-term injuries, most significantly 11 games missed by Wall. But their experienced “Death Lineup” of starters Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat are a tepid 8-5 on the season.
    With that record, there’s little wonder why overachieving Miami (18-16) is nipping at their heels. Division banners barely amount to a hill of beans these days, too, and defending Southeast champs find themselves mired in a middling tier of seven Eastern Conference playoff contenders, two of whom could be left standing once the musical chairs of the regular season stop in mid-April.
    If they’re going to catch up with conference stalwarts Boston (ahead by 6.5 games) or Toronto and Cleveland (ahead by 5 games), now is the time for Washington to build some consistency and string victories together. After Atlanta, nine of the Wizards’ next ten games are back home.
    When they’re at their best, the Wizards present a stifling perimeter defense (NBA-best 34.1 opponent 3FG%), shut down dribble penetration scorers (Dennis Schröder 2-for-16 FGs @ WAS on Nov. 11) and force an advantageous number of turnovers (season-high 14 steals vs. ATL on Nov. 11; two steals by BOS on Dec. 25). They turn live-ball rebounds and steals into downcourt opportunities for the speedy Wall (20.3 points and 9.6 assists and 1.2 steals per-36, down from 22.9, 10.5, and 2.0 respectively).
    Where it gets problematic for the Wiz is when they do few of those things, or when Gortat and a healthy Ian Mahinmi cannot produce enough second-chances whenever Wall, Beal, Porter, or Morris are having off shooting nights. The 20.1 PPG Washington produces off turnovers in victories (4th in NBA) drops to 14.9 (a pedestrian 17th in NBA) in defeats. They’re 8th in O-Reb% when they win, but just 25th when they’re catching Ls.
    As far as ex-Hawks go, you must give it up for Scott. His contributions were marginalized in his final season under coach Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, burdened by the crushing weight of uncertain legal proceedings. Much like Coach Bud, though, Money Mike beat the rap, and his new team now needs his help to beat the Raps, the Celts, the Cavs and the like.
    The Virginia native’s contributions in D.C. (career-highs of 9.7 PPG, 57.9 FG%, 42.3 3FG%), best since at least a 2013-14 campaign that gave him postseason renown, have not only made a longtime dormant Wizard reserve unit (also featuring momentary Hawks draftee Kelly Oubre, and ATLien Jodie Meeks) reasonably functional, they have helped the Wizards to hold things down until starting forwards like the rap-beating Markieff Morris (46.2 3FG% in last 12 games) and Otto Porter (45.8 3FG%, 5th in NBA) found their sea legs.
    How do we know the Hawks (2-3 in last five games, all within 10-point margin) are well along the way to becoming one of the “Best Worst” Teams in NBA History? Atlanta (8-25) doesn’t prevail very often, but when teams lose, their net rating (minus-9.9 points per 100 possessions) is among the league’s ten best. Further, on the rare occasions the Hawks have won (usually, due to better team rebounding and ball-control), their plus-12.7 net rating as a winner is currently 8th-best in the NBA, tied with a Wizards team that desperately wants to fashion themselves as a Finals contender.
    Tonight, the Hawks should be able to pull together a more complete, 48-minute effort, compared to last month’s second-half collapse in The District, thanks to the return of Ersan Ilyasova (21 points, 7-for-9 FGs vs. DAL last Saturday, career-high 58.5 TS%) in the starting lineup. An improving array of perimeter shooters, plus potentially steadier backup point guard play for Atlanta, ought to make it tougher for Brooks’ Bruthas to simply suit up and tie down Schröder (career-high-tying 33 points, 13-for-22 FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs in the win over the Mavs) as the essential part of a winning gameplan.
    With a healthy roster and a favorable schedule on the docket, it’s time for Washington to strike. But is the Wizards’ iron truly hot? Or will yet another sub-.500 squad take the starch out of them?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Never fear… BazeClaus is here!”
    ((On holiday travel, so this prematurely-scribbled version will have to do! Cheers! ~lw3))
    Are our Atlanta Hawks in a gifting mood? If so, then this evening, they’ll be happy to spread good tidings and cheer to their visitors, the Dallas Mavericks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL).
    The Hawks (7-25) wrapped up a home win just last week for Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies, a gift that keeps on giving for both teams on Atlanta’s floor tonight. Thanks largely to the Hawks, this is the second-straight weekend where the worst NBA teams from each conference tip off against one another.
    Having dropped their season opener to the visiting Hawks, 117-111 back in October, Dallas (9-24) will do all it can to even up the season series, and give the legendary Dirk Nowitzki a win in (maybe? at long last?) his final visit to Philips Arena. Victory for the Mavs, who flew in from last night’s game in Miami, will require Dennis Smith, Jr. to be the superior Dennis on the hardwood.
    Much like Atlanta’s John Collins, Smith (14.4 PPG and 4.1 APG, 5th and 3rd among rookies, respectively) has been a surefire source for crowd-energizing highlight plays. But as one might expect, other aspects of his game, like shooting (39.8 FG%, 30.7 3FG%, 67.3 FT%), ball security, and defense have yet to round out.
    Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is in no hurry with his rookie point guard, especially when he can rely on sound offensive play by J.J. Barea (48.5 2FG%, team-high 5.5 APG off-bench), Devin Harris (83.1 FT%, 12.6 TO%), and even scoring-minded Yogi Ferrell in relief. Smith’s playing time would have eroded even further were shooter Seth Curry (tibia stress fracture, out all season, until at least January) available to sop up backcourt minutes.
    For Carlisle, the mandate from the Shark Tank is straightforward. Circulate and showcase as many veterans not named Dirk in his lineups, in hopes of enticing draft-pick offers suitable to accelerate the post-Nowitzki rebuild. That includes vets like Wesley Matthews (39.1 3FG%), who’s guaranteed for $18 million next season, and more palatable expiring contract holders like Harris and the hot-dogging Nerlens Noel (inactive since Nov. 22).
    Improved maneuverability ought to help Dallas (no second-round trips since winning the NBA Finals in 2011) in the long run, and maybe help them catch up with Phoenix (six picks in the upcoming 2018 draft rounds, to Dallas’ two) and Atlanta in the Tankathon Power Rankings. Leading-scorer Harrison Barnes (44.1 FG%, lowest since 2013-14; up to $49 million over the next two seasons), whose iso-play seems to suck the life out of their offense, seems to be the only real immovable object on the roster.
    The Hawks ought to find, in the Mavs (NBA-low 17.3 team O-Reb%), a reprieve from getting gashed on the defensive glass. Among current starters, only Barnes (1.2 O-Rebs per game) and Dirk’s fellow Wurzburger, German rookie Maxi “Priest” Kleber (1.1) even want to get close to the offensive rim. Despite being granted 19 minutes (16 points, 11 boards) in the season-opener, Noel now seems to have a jump on his teammates in getting to the cookies and milk at the media table.
    Now halfway toward the Tragic Number in the Eastern Conference’s playoff chase, it won’t be easy for Atlanta to give this game away. Coach Bud will have to invoke the spirit of the Georgia Lottery’s Scrooge toward his colleague at the other end of the floor. “Coach Rick, this L, I want you to have it… NO! I’ve failed myself!”
    Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus, and Happy Holidays to you and yours. And, Let’s Go Hawks!
    “No, but seriously, Nick, I’ve been good this year!”
    Trying to cram games around the schedule for teams not included in the NBA’s traditional Christmas Day lineup is often a chore, but no lumps of coal await the Atlanta Hawks in their stockings. After burrowing through a quick jaunt to Oklahoma City tonight to face the Thunder (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), our Hawks will sneak in one last run back home, on Christmas Eve Eve versus the Mavericks, then enjoy up to three days of festive rest, their longest break since Black Friday weekend.
    The Thunder would love to focus on sleigh-ing Chris Paul, James Harden and the Houston Rockets, their visitors on 12/25. But first, they have Coach Bud’s Hawks, tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena, then a rematch with Quin Snyder’s Jazz in SLC, tomorrow, to put up with before Monday’s primetime game on ABC. Oklahoma City (16-15, 11-4 at home) thumped visiting Utah on Wednesday to finally creep above .500 for the first time since Halloween. But they know a precarious fifth-place in the Western Conference is not where anyone expected them to be at this point in the season.
    There is no doubt that “What is wrong with the Thunder?” will be the theme for much of the Christmas Day NBA coverage. But all the predictable concern-stipation from basketball’s media-wonks will get amplified if OKC (8-3 this month) slips up in either of their preceding games.
    Around Squawkland, we’ve already rinsed out that whole “What’s wrong?” narrative, beginning with coach Billy Donovan’s need to contemplate seeking another line of work, continuing by gauging Carmelo Anthony’s interest in pursuing a high-scoring sixth-man role, and Russell Westbrook’s interest in relinquishing the ball earlier in the shot clock, and finally ending with consideration of 2018 free agent Paul George perhaps finding a new NBA jersey under his tree, no later than by the trading deadline.
    The reigning MVP deserves plenty of leeway to sort this whole thing out on the floor. But only Ben Simmons averages more touches per game (103.1) than Westbrook (96.0; Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder averages 91.3, 3rd-most in NBA). And no one holds the ball longer than Russ, 9.3 minutes per game accounting for more than a fourth of his average time on the court. That stifles the production of on-court threats like Anthony and George, who had grown quite accustomed to isolation play with the ball in their hand and plenty of time on the possession clock.
    Despite ranking fourth in the league for isolation possessions himself, Westbrook’s 0.89 points per iso possession (37.6 iso FG%, down from 38.8 FG% last season) is not only well below those of burlier playmakers like LeBron James (1.28) and Harden (1.09), but also Schröder (1.01, 44.4 iso FG%). Melo (6th-most iso possessions in NBA) isn’t faring much better (39.1 iso FG%), leading many to suggest they need to share the floor a lot less. George, 10th in iso possessions as a Pacer last season, has been the odd-man out in OKC (22nd in iso plays) and barely registers a blip (34.4 iso FG%) once he finally gets featured in the offense.
    Fortunately for the Thunder’s starting lineup, they have Steven Adams (NBA-high 16.4 O-Reb%) back after missing time with concussion symptoms and handling cleanup duties with aplomb. They also have Andre Roberson to limit run-outs by opponents at the other end. Roberson also works well in the halfcourt with Adams (32.4 defensive roll-man FG%) to stifle foes’ pick-and-roll plays.
    But Donovan has yet to find a second-string rotation that keeps opponents in check while his top scorers catch a breather. OKC’s most-utilized 5-Man lineup without any of The Big Three (Raymond Felton, rookie Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and struggling free agent Patrick Patterson) have tallied just 15 minutes on the floor together.
    For any scenario that unfolds for their stars and their coach in the future, tonight, the Thunder need to do something that other NBA clubs have had no problem doing in recent weeks, and that’s blow out the Hawks’ discombobulated bench (minus-6.1 points per-100 possessions this month, 7th-worst in NBA).
    Atlanta’s reserves have displayed a propensity for blowing early leads of varying sizes. Offensive-oriented scorers have struggled to shoo anyone off the three-point line, or to keep opponents from tipping-in second-chance points. Defensive-minded players like DeAndre’ Bembry get sloppy when they’re – okay, he’s – expected to handle the ball.
    Then, bearing many of the same problems, the starters struggle to re-establish the squandered momentum upon their return. The holes dug by the Hawk reserves would be much steeper if not for the energies exerted by new-jack jumping jack John Collins (18 points on 6-for-7 FGs, 9 boards, but 4 TOs vs. IND on Wednesday).
    Despite going 1-5 in recent games, Atlanta has held leads well past the mid-point of first quarters, in five of those past six contests, at the time of Dennis’ first substitution (five times by Isaiah Taylor, and once by Malcolm Delaney). By the time he checked back into the game, each time before the mid-point of the next quarter, the Hawks found themselves playing from behind in five of those six games.
    The exception occurred in Wednesday’s loss, when the Pacers tied up the game at 36 apiece while Schröder sat, after Indy was down 21-17. The modest average lead of +3.3 PPG was gone, thanks to an average net swing of -6.7 PPG over an average stretch of about seven minutes.
    For the Competitank to roll efficiently against, and occasionally over, teams like the Thunder, Atlanta needs its bench crew to limit turnovers, as scoring on the other end tends to be OKC’s specialty (19.4 points per-48, 2nd in NBA behind red-hot Toronto).
    Further, Atlanta will need starters (NBA-high 14.4 opp. second-chance points per-48; OKC starters’ 15.4 points per-48 is an NBA-high) and reserves alike to box out and keep bigs like Adams and Dakari Johnson from racking up freebie points on extra-chances. Much like Donovan, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer must find a rotation that sustains leads better. Unlike Coach Billy D, Coach Bud is in under no pressure to figure that out.
    Let’s Go Hawks!