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  1. “BAG! ALERT! TRADING BAG ALERT!” I may or may not have shared this opinion in earlier gamethreads, but one of my Stone Cold Lock predictions for this season was that no Head Coaches would be fired. Not unless some sketchy old cellphone messages propped up, or something. Context matters, and you can’t get any more context for disappointing results in the standings and on the scoreboards than what this season offers. The shortened schedule, the lack of practice time, the lack of homecourt advantage, lengthy road trips, illness absences, hasty roster changes, revenue-strapped owners not eager to continue paying ex-personnel to sit at home, etc. Then Minnesota went and changed the game, their GM unable to wait any longer to pry free his pal from Toronto. With Ryan Saunders handed his walking papers, I was left with no choice but to dust off my COACHES’ HOT SEAT RANKINGS. Coaches get lumped into six categories. In reverse order, there’s FROZEN, COOL, TEPID, WARM, HOT, and FLAMING. There’s a big list under FROZEN, some coaches a bit slushier than others. On the other end, I had nobody’s keister feeling char-grilled, or even superheated. Just a handful of taskmasters in the WARM grouping, topped by Saunders. ‘Tis a shame that we take interest in the demise of somebody’s occupation, especially in this economy. But it’s hard to feel too bad when Vegas betting lines were immediately flaring up, with “Who is the NEXT NBA Coach to be fired?”, upon Saunders’ dismissal. Leading the betting odds, in a tie, were Dwane Casey, an admittedly odd choice given his sterling role as Detroit’s tank general, and Sacramento’s Luke Walton. Both Casey and Walton (+250, as of the day after Saunders’ canning) were on my WARM list, as were Washington’s Scott Brooks (+300, preseason odds leader for the FIRST coach to get fired) and Orlando’s Steve Clifford (+500). And one other fella. Somebody, hopefully, made a little pocket cash guessing right on the Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce (+1000). Atlanta has moved on to hand the job to an assistant, but to the surprise of many, their visitors this evening, the Sacramento Kings (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California), haven’t made the leap, yet. Five weeks ago, Kings fans redirected their ire toward their punching bag for this season, departed ex-ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan, who dissed De’Aaron Fox in December by declaring that Ja Morant was already everything that Fox fashioned of himself. The Kings had turned around a 5-10 start with a nifty 7-1 stretch to get into .500 territory in the NBA West, Fox had become a league leader in clutch scoring and earning Player of the Week honors and plaudits for All-Star contention. And their fans were ragging on Elhassan not even realizing he already left the Four-Letter Network for Team LeBatard down in Miami. No sooner had the shade been thrown that Sacramento’s winning ways were eclipsed by a nine-game losing skid. It began with the Kings getting swept in a five-game homestand at the hands of teams like the Magic and Morant’s Grizzlies. The Sactown swoon continued on the road, topped by a 19-point loss in New York. The Kings ended the streak in Detroit the next night, but they returned home to drop a game in Orlando Magic-deflating style, blowing an 8-point lead to Charlotte in the final 73 seconds. Fans’ ire finally wafted away from random sports analysts and toward head coach Luke Walton, perhaps the one coach in the league thoroughly disliked by not one, but two NBA fanbases. There is hope, though, that the dive back into Lottery Land for the umpteenth consecutive season might finally be bottoming out. Edging a Lakers squad, before the All-Star Break that was without LeBron and AD and starting 10-day contractee Damian Jones at center, likely salvaged Walton’s job. Thursday’s resounding 125-105 home win over the scraps of what was once the Houston Rockets, with Fox scoring 30-and-9 and a trio of starters adding 20 points apiece, was as much a relief for Coach Luke as it was a disappointment for a bet-maker over in Nevada. The Kings (15-22, 3.5 games behind Morant’s 10-seed Grizzlies) have also been able to rely, in recent weeks, on steadier scoring from 2018 lottery prize Marvin Bagley III. He’s scored in double-digits in 12 straight games, shooting 54 percent from the floor and 35.5 percent on threes, while averaging 17-and-8 as a rebounder. That’s good news for Marvin Bagley, Jr., the know-it-all father who tweeted for his son to be traded back when the big man was struggling in January (and that was when the Kings were merely at 3-3 on the young season). It’s also encouraging, for similar reasons, for GM Monte McNair, who has yet to really remake the team in his own image after taking the reins from Vlade Divac back in September. As the Trade Deadline nears, not being dubbed “Err McNair”, weighted down and harshly judged by the enumerable mistakes of his predecessor’s past, is a priority for the Kings’ general manager. It’s unlikely he will be fielding calls with anyone from Atlanta. Still cleaning up from the debacles of acquisitions of Dewayne Dedmon and, still stuck in DNP Land on the roster, Jabari Parker, he could only watch in horror this summer as restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic, last year’s third-leading scorer, bailed by accepting a contract offer from the Hawks that his team couldn’t match. McNair wants to be known as the guy who began righting the ship by not letting Tyrese Haliburton (3rd in rookie PPG, 2nd in rookie Win Shares and rookie APG) slip past him at pick #12 in November’s NBA Draft. Shooting a team-beat 43.4 3FG%, Haliburton would be a worthy starter alongside Fox, but the team, for now, is literally too indebted to Buddy Hield (career-low 39.0 FG%, career-high 34.9 minutes and 10.4 3FGAs per game). Finding a taker for Hield’s bloated multi-year deal may require attaching Bagley and engaging several suitors, a tall order. But whether this season ends in playoffs or not, McNair probably values the ability to enter next season with a fresh new set of problems to solve, including the coach. Atlanta (17-20) still has 99 problems, but the late-game coaching isn’t Problem #1 anymore. The Hawks have yet to provide the even, four-quarter effort that would suggest they’ve truly turned a corner. Getting one today against the Kings (league-worst D-Rating, opponent 3FG% and FT%) and allowing Nate McMillan (currently TEPID, on my hot-seat rankings list) to whip up a finishing sprint for the Hawks’ first four-game winning streak since Bud’s Bunch in April 2017? That would certainly be COOL. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Who’s prepared to pay the price? For a trip to paradise?” It’s the Cleveland State Vikings, and the Georgia State Panthers, in a play-in matchup to determine which team will get to face the top-seeded… oh, excuse me? Yeah, that’s right, don’t call it a play-in. Let’s try this again, with a dash of NBA flavor, to taste. Tonight, live from Atlanta, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers, visiting the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio) in a race to determine who will be worthy of an opening-round matchup with the top-seed for the East Region. It’s May Madness in March! It’s Awesome, Baby! Dipsy-doo, dunkaroo! As I groggily draft this gamethread opener, I would like to know who it is, up at NBA HQ’s scheduling office, that could not grant the Hawks (18-20) that extra half-hour graciously extended to several of Atlanta’s hosts on the back ends of back-to-backs. I needed to Fall Back to savor last night’s romp over the Kings, as well as the Last Team Standing ACC Champions up in Greensboro. Alas, thanks to Daylight Savings, there is precious little time for celebration in The A. The league could have at least been sensitive enough to grant Trae, Kevin ‘n Bruno, De’Andre, Big O Smalls, and Skylar time to figure out how far their favorite college teams will make it down the brackets in Indy this year. Rondo and Cam, y’all just sit this one out. JC will help you figure out how to enjoy the hiatus, he’s good at this by now. Worse yet, the Hawks get to face the Cavs (14-23) on a day’s rest. Cleveland, once again, has been granted ample time to lick their wounds, taste their own blood, and scout out their favorite NBA opponent to sink their teeth into. The first time they met this season, in January, Cleveland’s visit came two days after a deflating 20-point loss to the Pacers in Indy, at that point their worst loss of the young season. The second time they met, in the Buckeye State last month, the Cavs were reeling from a 10-game skid, with nine of those defeats coming by deficits of 16 to 38 points. If you were not the greatest fan of former Cavs assistant coach Lloyd Pierce running the show in Atlanta, then you can thank your lucky stars for the Hawks’ outcomes against their lottery rivals. The 112-111 loss by the Hawks provided Cleveland with not just a trust fall catch, but a trampoline bounce, the start of their season-best four-game winning streak. Now they arrive at State Farm Arena after a 34-point loss to the Pelicans on Friday. Just 2.5 games back of the free-falling Raptors for the final “NCAA First Round” reservation, JB Bickerstaff hopes Atlanta will be there tonight, once more, to catch his team on the rebound. Speaking of rebounds, Kevin Love is back upright! It’s hard to get pre-owned cars off the lot unless the customer can first hear the engine running smoothly. While Andre Drummond is being spiffied up on the showcase spinner ahead of the Trade Deadline, Coach JB has the five-time former All-Star starting but on a minutes restriction, perhaps up a smidgen from the ten he received during Friday night’s 116-82 washout in New Orleans. “I don’t want to speak hyperbole or take it over the top, but this is probably the most mentally taxing – not the most physically taxing injury – but the most mentally taxing for me for sure.” Whacked in the leg during preseason action, then re-aggravated Gallinari-style during his first game back in December, Love shared with the Plain Dealer the challenges recovering from his latest setback, the calf injury that sidelined him for nearly three months. “Just playing basketball, that’s what I love to do. It’s so much a part of me. When you have it taken away from you and you feel like there’s not much you can do after working so damn hard, that can be really disheartening and a tough hurdle to overcome.” The returnee the Hawks should be more concerned about is Larry Nance. The Cavs forward was averaging 2.4 SPG over his first 15 games until he was slowed by a hand injury that required surgery. Only the Sixers’ Ben Simmons has as many per-game deflections (3..9) as Nance, an element to defense that the Cavaliers (112.5 D-Rating, tied w/ ATL for 22nd in NBA) have sorely missed. Keeping the turnovers down and the margins close were problems for the Hawks in the two games versus Cleveland thus far (20-15 and 19-15, respectively), but not so much over the past three Hawk victories (8 player TOs last night vs. SAC, tying a season low). Much like the winning field day enjoyed, until yesterday, by the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, Collin Sexton enters today looking for a fifth consecutive victory over draft-mate Trae Young’s Hawks. The Pebblebrook High star has averaged 26.0 PPG (53.3 FG%, 40.0 3FG%) versus Atlanta, going back to December 2019. Young had 28-and-12 but sunk just one of seven three-point shots when the Hawks fell by a point last month. He was 0-for-3 in the final quarter while Sexton and Cavs rookies Dylan Windler and Isaac Okoro (combined 5-for-5 fourth-quarter 3FGs vs. ATL) were perfect from that range. To help spell Sexton and his backcourt mate Darius Garland (probable, missed Friday’s game due to a groin strain), Cleveland brought in Quinn Cook on a 10-day deal. Cook contributed 13 points in his 17 minutes at N’Awlins. Atlanta has to cut off passing lanes for Cleveland’s backcourt-centric offense (104.3 O-Rating, last in NBA; third-lowest 3FG%, lowest 3FGA rate, as per bball-ref), and must keep a hand in front of perimeter shooters and limit paint penetration without offering bailout fouls. Atlanta is a rational 16-7 when they permit 25 or fewer assisted buckets, so a little hero-ball from Sexton won’t hurt if it isn’t compounded by trips to the free throw line, wide open shooters, or second-chance shots. Clint Capela will find the going rougher securing defensive boards versus Jarrett Allen, JaVale McGee, Love and Nance, so he’ll need steady support and quality boxouts from John Collins and the small forwards to keep the Cavs at bay all day. I’m cutting off this gamethread opener early so I can get some beauty sleep. My Drexel Dragons are going Dancing for the first time in a long while, and I’m not gonna risk missing the reveal of which 2-seed they’re bound to upset this week because of the lost hour of shuteye. I sure hope the Hawks found plentiful rest last night, too. Go Jackets! (and Lady Jackets! And Lady Dawgs! And Lady Bears! We see you, Mercer!) Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Well, of course, his real name is Herb, Wanda! Why, what else would it be? Herbert?” Hail! Hail! The Gang’s all here! I care a heckuva lot now. It looks like we’ve all survived The All-Star Weekend of Our Discontent, and with nary a scratch! Bravo! Hawks Inc. and the NBA pulled off All-Star Sunday swimmingly well. HBCUs and the students were shining brightly. Further, The City was looking good from a bird’s-eye view, particularly if your particular avian species could fly high enough to avoid the occasional stray slugs. Luka ain’t win a dadgum thing on our court, even though all the Euros proved once again They Got Skills. Our Russian judge, J-Smoove, is looking good, and nobody had to risk losing they fronts to win over the persnickety dunk contest panel. Steph’s whole-day shooting display stole viewers away from Oprah and ‘em. And nobody we know about got sick. Win! Win-win-win-win! Most important of all, Hawksquawk Nation is safe and as sound as we reasonably can be. You all heeded the warnings to hunker down and not turn our streets into “Peachtree Road Race meets QuikTrip 500.” Now, if you couldn’t ever forgive yourself if you didn’t help stretch the occupancy limits at some fly-by-nite ultra lounge while nodding your head to Moneybagg Yo live and in full effect, well, check back with us in a couple weeks, to confirm you’re still among us. One year ago this evening, State Farm Arena was teeming with teens of thousands of pragmatic Hawks fans in full No-Wink-Nod-We’re-Not-Tanking mode. We had to shift our focus, from what was shaping up to be another unnecessary Hawks loss, against the lowly Knicks, to take in the news that was seeping into cell phones across the building and the country. Just as quickly, smart fans were bellowing at Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks coaching staff to Make. Vince. Shoot! Tell a visitor, one leaving The Farm to head out into some unsteady skies that night, that one calendar year later, a population of Georgians thousands larger than the 15.303 that went to see Knicks-Hawks would succumb to the same virus that was plaguing Italy, China, and corners of our country. Less significantly, that the Hawks’ entire season just ended on the spot. And, that the next time they MIGHT be able to chant “Let’s Go Hawks!” as fans in the building, it will probably be 2021, and they and the strangers “socially distanced” a half-yard away won’t want to shout it rawdog with their mouths agape. Oh, let ‘em know The ATL finessed an All-Star Game out of the ordeal. But unless you were a certain collegian or healthcare hero, you probably weren’t going. That, as best as we can tell, our lottery pick isn’t going to be some Insta-star. And, that Nate McMillan’s Hawks -- that’s right -- will kick off Game #37 in the back half of the truncated, delayed NBA season with a return to Florida. To face the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, TSN in T-Dot-O). In Tampa. Home of the reigning Super Bowl champions led by Tom Brady. They’ll think the world had gone mad! And they’d be right. I’m gonna keep on saying it until I’m as blue in the face as a Cameron Crazie, but we can thank our lucky stars that regular-degular injuries, and a few routine coaching mishaps, were the only things setting back Atlanta (16-20) in their charge uphill toward the NBA postseason. My knuckles have splinters from knocking on all the wood, but COVID and related quarantining hasn’t ravaged the Hawks’ roster, certainly not the way it has the Raptors (17-19). The host Traptors have been Protocoling Outta Control, and the brief time off to make room for the league’s All-Star festivities hasn’t changed their situation one bit. Here at Amalie Arena, home of the Stanley Cup champions (ugh.), Fred Van Vleet finds himself locked down, this time, by something a bit more potent than Kevin Huerter defending along the wing. Pascal Siakam, Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, and Malachi Flynn are all also on ice for Health ‘n Safety reasons. Siakam and FVV accounted for 40 of Tampato’s points during a 132-121 losing effort in Atlanta last month. Also doing five-for-fighting off the chances of catching COVID, until being cleared yesterday, was head coach Nick Nurse. He left a good paisan, assistant Sergio Scariolo, in charge of coaching up what remained last week. (Relax, Meyers, I looked it up. Paisan isn’t really a slur, not unless you use it disparagingly as a non-Italian. See how easy that is? Happy gaming!) Throw in, for good measure, Terence Davis as questionable for this evening with an ankle sprain, and I suppose I ought to be happy holding out a few more weeks for Cam Reddish and DeAndre’ Hunter to heal up (feel free to join in whenever you feel ready, Kristofer). Looming around the corner in Atlanta’s schedule is an arduous eight-game West Coast road trip, beginning with consecutive games against the Lakers and the Clippers at STAPLES. It’s a big reason why we hope McMillan’s Hawks approach tonight, and the intervening four games to come, with the same sense of urgency we should have seen of Pierce’s Hawks in that fateful first week of January. The same sense of urgency, over four quarters, that eventually prevailed in the six closing minutes of last week’s wild pre-Break finale, the conversion of a 106-90 deficit into a 115-112 win at Orlando. The stunning victory, on top of a win in Miami the night before, allowed Atlanta’s players, the fans, and the organization to go into the Break enjoying the whiff of That New Car Smell, even though the jalopy remains a bit broken down due to some missing tires. With confidence in McMillan buoying, the offseason additions massaging their way more consistently into lineups, and youthful reinforcements to mix in during the coming month, there feels like a light ahead for our tunnel-visioned Hawks. For once, a light not from the front of an oncoming locomotive. With their newfound energy and emerging cohesion, Atlanta needs to take advantage of opponents who are taking All-Star caliber talents past and present and tapping them on the shoulder, advising them, “Hey, come sit in this bubble wrap. Our front office is on that Hot Stove, cooking up a new place for you to go before the Trade Deadline arrives!” Toronto’s exec extraordinaire Masai Ujiri swung some nifty maneuvers to craft an Insta-champ in 2020, but the best move was probably the one he couldn’t make way back in December 2013. Kyle Lowry, then disgruntled, lost defensively, and struggling to mesh with his fellow headliner DeMar DeRozan, was on his way in a deal negotiated by his new house-cleaning GM to New York, the NBA town where if you can make it there, it would be truly rare. True to form, the Knicks’ James Dolan had the swap Knicks’d. “No,” Dolan thought, “we must keep our first-round pick, Metta World Peace and Iman Shumpert right here,” in what turned out to be quite a Manhattan project. Eight years later, and I think the Knicks, maybe, have a steady point guard now? One drawn charge at a time, the juice from Lowry (4-for-16 FGs and 5 assists @ ATL on Feb. 6), still a solid producer yet turning 35 on the date of the NBA’s Trade Deadline, becomes less worth the squeeze by Ujiri, and it does feel like the guard’s fabled time in Raptor red is drawing nigh. But when? Now? Or Later? Michael Grange of Canada’s Sportsnet insists there’s nothing to see here: “Lowry is not going to be traded before the March 25 Deadline.” Yes, Lowry reprtedtly sold his North Toronto abode (“It wasn’t me,” he says of the property recently owned by “KL7 Inc.”), but it makes sense, given the man hasn’t seen the inside of it for almost a year. His agent Mark Bartelstein, pushing back on reports that Lowry has been recently on a farewell tour of sorts behind the scenes, asserts, “[Kyle] has clearly not told anybody that he wants out of Toronto.” The Raptors do have 30.5 million expiring reasons to have Kyle see this season through. Perhaps, Ujiri estimates, what he can get in 2021’s free agent market, to bolster the team for a stronger run next season, is greater than his yield by snagging some mediocre-talent contracts and low-level picks, handing the backcourt keys full-time to Van Vleet, and scrambling toward the Playoffs without their fearless leader now. But if so, enterprising GMs do have two more weeks to change Masai’s mind. Despite the limited alternatives presently at Coach Nurse’s disposal, don’t be surprised to find Lowry’s workload dropping precipitously from the 35-40 minutes per night he was logging just last week. If Atlanta can come out with a strong first three quarters behind a hungry Trae Young, a rested John Collins and Clint Capela (offsetting what Lowry and Chris “Turns Sideways and Goes Missing” Boucher can bring to the table), and a rejuvenating bench brigade, the final minutes in Tampa tonight may be The Matt Thomas and DeAndre’ Bembry Show. Nobody’s standing around hoping to see that. Then again, I didn’t think anyone would be breaking their necks and their bank to see Jayda Wayda and Pooh Shiesty in concert last week, so I ought to be a bit less presumptive. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “Trust me, Lloyd, this head coaching biz can make you grow gray hairs fast. In places.” Supersonic motivating rhymes are creating. And everybody knows that Ohhh heyyy! It’s Ya Boi. Thanks to some divine intervention from our #1 Atlanta Hawks fan, The “Don’t Call Me Olivia” Pope (“What am I,” he groused, “some kind of miracle worker?”), it looks like I’m back in my happily unpaid internship gig, on the grind to deliver more long-winded pregame commentary. Through this NBA All-Star Break, at least. At this season’s long-awaited tip-off, if you told me about The First Eastern Conference Coach Who Got The Axe Despite a Crap-Ton of Untimely Setbacks, I’d have had no doubts you were referencing Steve Clifford. Don’t bring that noise up here, Orlando Magic fans would tell our Atlanta Hawks ahead of tonight’s first regular season meeting between the Southeast Division rivals at Amway Center (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), about how you’ve missed Bogdan Bogdanovic sooooo much. “I’ve got a man down!” They’re not tryna hear that, see. Longtime followers of the program know how long I have marveled at how, in a state where seemingly everybody’s less than 100 feet above sea level, Coach Cliff has managed to keep his head above water. The Magic (13-22, 9-22 since starting out 4-0) are hoping to stave off a losing streak, heading into the Break, that would stretch to five games, one that began by splitting a series at home with whatever Detroit throws out there. But for the fact that it’s the Hawks led by interim coach Nate McMillan coming to town, Clifford would have good reason to feel like he could spell relief, P-I-E-R-C-E. I mean, look at this hot mess. The athletic defensive maestro Orlando waited through most of last season to return from a knee injury makes it into the Bubble just in time for yet another debilitating knee injury that has him on the shelf for all of this season. The one significant addition that team prez Jeff Weltman made last season (that kinda sorta worked, at Bubble time) has been in-and-out of the lineup dealing with a calf issue. The oft-injured, prized point guard project Weltman pried from Philly made it almost eight games into this season before going down with a torn ACL. Fine. Get out there, emergency backup first-rounder project, and a break a leg! No, they said a leg, not a rib! Now they have to settle for the aging point guard project Philly prized before the last one, who himself just returned from injury after missing over a month. Also missing over a month, this season, was 2019’s lottery prize, the Atlanta native who spent all of last season recovering from a March Madness injury sustained while playing for Auburn. 2018’s lottery prize, and Cam Reddish’s lauded shot-blocking high school teammate, caught a bad case of COVID. He’s finally back, but he can hardly go for 15 minutes a night without looking like a SpongeBob meme trying to catch his breath. Also out of commission: the guy most known for hurdling mascots-on-hoverboards at Slam Dunk Contests (so glad John Collins didn’t get dragged back into this with his prop planes on Sunday… anybody seen Harry around?). He’s been out for over a month with a sprained ankle. Their un-Googleable hanger-on three-point shooting swingman, in town since 2012, who just can’t seem to find the exit, has been stuck in the revolving door with injuries, too. When Hollywood execs get around to adding a dash of Florida Man to the nightly array of medical trauma p0rn on TV, producers won’t find a more perfect setting than the Magic’s medical team offices. Floridians have grown increasingly accustomed to weathering storms, and they can find inspiration during the non-hurricane seasons by looking to Clifford and his All-Star-caliber center, Nikola Vucevic (29 points, 5-for-8 on threes, 15 boards, 8 dimes in Monday’s home loss to the visiting Lukatics). Our dearly departed head coach here in Atlanta didn’t have the luxury to point at the incessant inertia that is Weltman’s front office as an excuse. At least our GM tried, this past offseason, when pushed to do something. While we were going Bongo for Bogi, the Magic went after just one guy in free agency, and that was a side of Dwayne Bacon, a Struggle Bus straphanger from Coach Cliff’s earlier years in Charlotte. Clifford is threatening to fall about 5.0 games below the .500 mark, which is about where he was in his final two seasons before the Horcats cut him loose in 2018. Yet even as Orlando gets relegated, however momentarily, to the third-most respected NBA outlet in The Sunshine State, Clifford isn’t getting pushed out because, it appears, nobody in a suit-and-tie is pushing anyone around Central Florida. “It sucks,” Clifford remarked on Tuesday, parroting other coaches around the league as news of Lloyd Pierce’s sacking made the rounds. “He’s done a really good job. He’s a tremendous person. Yeah, this is a hard one.” You won’t need Key & Peele’s Obama Translator to know Cliff is simply saying what he’s supposed to say, and to avert any undue attention that might come his way if people peek at the direction the Magic seem headed, under his and Weltman’s watches. We all still think of Nate Mac as a Pacific Northwest guy, what with his longtime affiliations with the Sonics and, later, as coach of the Trail Blazers. But for the first decades of his life, McMillan was Mister Raleigh, from an age where people at that end of the Carolinas thought John Wall was some sort of brand-name particle board. He’s a Southern dude, through and through, one who grew up at a time when the Hawks and Bullets were the only pro hoops teams around. No one was even thinking about swampy Florida becoming a hotbed for pro basketball, or any athletic endeavor not known as baseball or jai alai. If all goes reasonably well in The ATL, McMillan will get a good chance to pad his stats. Now at 662-588 in the regular season for his career with last night’s 90’s Throwback victory in Miami, this year, he ought to pass the Hawks’ Czar of the Telestrator, Mike Fratello (667-548; thanks, Nique!), and Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni (672-527), moving into the Top 20 on the all-time NBA regular-season wins list. Nate’s playoff record is less than stellar, his only playoff series win out of nine tries coming way back in 2005 with Rick Sund’s Sonics (have a Coke and a smile, Rick). But that sounds pretty good right now to Tony Ressler, the Hawks’ owner in full Oleta Adams Mode, thirsting to get his franchise back in the NBA’s postseason party however he can. There’s added motivation for McMillan to excel, as well. If the Hawks (15-20) figure things out tonight and secure their first pair of wins on back-to-back nights this season (last Hawks B2B road sweep: Jan. 4-5, 2017 @ ORL and NOP), and if all the other home teams do them a solid tonight and tomorrow (go Cavs! Go Pels!), McMillan can go into the All-Star Break looking down at his former employer, the plummeting Pacers, in the standings. And the Bulls, too. Enjoy your time in our hotel rooms this weekend, Zach and Domantas. With just this one win, Atlanta could move up as high as 9th in the Leastern Conference, a half-game behind LaMeloville and one game behind the default division-leading heat. Nate knows, in this conference, a two-game hot streak is like a couple dashes of hot sauce on, well, anything (I got This Old finding out Texas Pete is actually made in Winston-Salem). For all things to go reasonably well, at least tonight, the Hawks cannot rely on the Magic settling for 80 points, like the stifled heat did yesterday. Greasing the skids for Pierce’s ouster was Atlanta making the league’s most dysfunctional offenses – Cleveland, OKC – look like the second coming of the 2016 Warriors, and the Magic (26th in O-Rating, dead-last in eFG% and TS%) poses a similar threat. Orlando thrives off of rebounding (NBA-best 76.1 D-Reb%) and winning second-chance-point margins. They’d really have something if they had the guards and shooters capable of pushing the rock off the defensive boards (NBA-low 1.03 transition points per possession). Fortunately for Atlanta, McMillan rested John Collins as his Hawks boat-raced Miami 31-14 in the final quarter. He can give Al-Farouq Aminu, Khem Birch and Gary Clark fits if both he and Clint Capela (questionable, foot pain) can stay out of foul trouble. Neither Atlanta (14.1 points per-48, 2nd-lowest in NBA) nor Orlando (14.2, 3rd-lowest), gets much juice out of scoring off turnovers, so a repeat of the Hawks’ 23 player TOs last night (one off their season-worst), while not ideal, won’t be a killer against this particular team. But there was much more experimentation in Atlanta’s halfcourt possessions yesterday, specifically passing out of the post and working Trae Young (16 games w/ point+assist double-doubles, tied-2nd in NBA behind only James Harden’s 21) off-ball, than we’ve seen in recent games. While Trae coughed up the ball on eight occasions, so did the combination of Capela and Solomon Hill. If the Hawks can cut down on the second-guessing and pump-faking, going up quickly on the catch-and-shoots, they’ll produce enough points that Vooch and the combo of Evan Fournier (26 points, 5-for-8 3FGs vs. DAL on Monday) and Terrence Ross won’t be able to keep up even if they’re all hot. There is a parallel universe somewhere, as @thecampster and other Squawkers rightly infer, that has upstart Atlanta nicely situated at 20-15 instead of 15-20, with Trae happily preparing to host the ASG as a reserve, and LP getting praise as a viable COTY candidate. Alas, all the Hawks can do going forward is look themselves in the mirror and, with McMillan’s help, begin cleaning up the problems we can all see, while resting up this weekend. Atlanta got no breaks from Da Schedule Godz in the back half of the season, what was already a tall order with several games versus Detroit and Minnesota already in the rear-view. Only three home games this month, oughta-wins versus the Kings and Cavs (on a back-to-back, no less) and the Thunder, precede a torturous road trip out West that will carry our team into next month. The Hawks putting intrinsic talent advantages, versus downtrodden squads like the Magic, to their own advantage, will aid them in bouncing back faster than a Spalding off Grant Williams’ heinie. Wins in-pocket now can only help when sidelined players like De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish return to action. The one fortune our Hawks have had, relative to many teams, are the precious few impacts, to the roster and the schedule, from the still-simmering pandemic. I’m hoping that wellness continues, not only for the players and staff, but for the fans and the readers of this here forum. In my twenties and thirties, I recall scratching my head, first during the Olympics, then during Freakniks, then during the Superb Owl, of all the tales of Atlantans hightailing it as far out of town as gas prices could take them. Then came 2003’s ASG, with the streets gridlocked with low-riders, the sidewalks loaded with ladies in the telltale Mariah-Carey-meets-Betty-Rubble get-ups, when I started to get The Hint. As crazy as that weekend was, there weren’t national health and associated socio-economic emergencies hovering over our heads. This weekend, our pothole-stricken roads will be filled with people, mostly out-of-towners, pretending not to notice and Doin’ Too Much on the off-chance their favorite NBA Baller might sneak out for some late-nite lemon pepper wings. Or, on the slightly less off-chance some Insta-model greased up in clear heels, unable to find said Ballers, will willingly settle for bump-and-grinding these aforementioned Jordans-rocking Busters at The Compound. We had shootings at The Blue Flame and INSIDE the Gold Room (the notorious old “Gold Club”, with a fresh coat of paint), and that was just LAST weekend because the evening temperatures were unseasonably swell. It helps that Da Weather Godz are putting a deep freeze on this weekend's evening lows, but still, Tallulah Gorge is suddenly sounding kind of nice. In all likelihood, though, this fuddy-duddy 404’er is gonna stock up and hole up in his Lethaldome until at least Monday, and I avidly encourage folks in and around The Perimeter to follow suit. Don’t be a Buster out here in these streets. Not this weekend, anyway. I don’t want to hear about any Squawkers this weekend being victimized by the wraths of either COVID-19 or COLT-45. Stay safe, preferably at home, and we’ll see you all next week! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “Don’t sweat the game tonight, Trae. Just chalk it up to a Bad Hair Day.” STATEMENT FROM THE ATLANTA HAWKS BASKETBALL CLUB ATLANTA, GEORGIA -- “Accountability matters,” says Principal Owner, and Chair of the Board of Directors for the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club, Tony Ressler. “When we’re losing for weeks on end, and the performance on the floor is not up to snuff, someone has to be held accountable.” For that reason, the Hawks have relieved Lethal Weapon 3 (“LW3”) of his duties as Head Gamethread Writer (“HGW”) at, effective immediately after tonight’s game with the Miami heat (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun). “We need insightful, portable analysis ahead of games if we have any chance of reaching the Playoffs,” said Ressler. “Like my wife’s performance in Twister, I demand precision and perfection out of everyone around me. When we’re about to play the Hornets, we can’t afford Storytime With Lethal veering off-topic about his ten most favorite Charlotte Flair matches. I’m sorry, but that’s not what I’m not paying for!” President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Travis Schlenk made the announcement today. “We needed a new voice for the second half of our season, to get us where we needed to go,” said Schlenk, adding, “¯\_(ツ)_/¯”. The Hawks (14-20) have won just 10 of 29 games after a promising 4-1 start to the 2020-21 season, including four wins in their last 15 contests. Over his seven-year career as HGW on HawkSquawk (“The Squawk”), LW3, a Philadelphia native in his third decade as an Atlanta transplant, averaged 84.7 Gamethread Posts Per Season (GaPPS). In that time, he amassed 14.3 season tickets per year, 3.5 likes per post and 0.99 stars per thread. “Lethal’s injury updates, ultimately, were an unfair reflection of where our Club is improving, health-wise,” said Mildred Ratched, R.N., Vice President of Athletic Performance and Sports Medicine. “Particularly our free agents. In fact, we’re wheeling out Bogdan Bogdanovic for a few minutes, in time for this next game. Kris Dunn is getting better by leaps and bounds, although, I admit, we’re still working on the whole leaping-and-bounding part. And Rajon Rondo would be activated by now if he would just bother to return my calls. Excuse me, he’s what?” “Anyway, just to find the positive news in the Gamethreads, you’ll get some silly sidebar from Lethal about memorable scenes from Mommie Dearest,” said Nurse Ratched. “I mean, enough about Tina and the Axe, already! Ugh!” “He’s a fine enough fellow, who cares way more about Atlanta and its sports history than any sane sentient being should. But, frankly, have you seen the ego on this guy? Unmanageable!”, added Uniform Fashion Guru, Organizational Fire Ranger and Chief Executive Officer Steve Koonin. “Believe me, I’ve had to work directly with Future on a weekly basis, so I know unmanagea— just a minute, folks, I’ve got to take this call… Hey, Camye. Hold on. What do you mean, that was 2Chainz?” “Don’t nobody look at me,” said Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God. “I’m totally just in this for the sweet, free jerseys. Do these come in full-length?” Gamethread viewership on The Squawk peaked in Atlanta’s 60-win season in 2014-15, and during LW3’s perennial Trade Deadline Karaoke. He has assailed over 600 current and former players, coaches, TV analysts, owners and general managers, and occasionally Russell Wilson, during his tenure as HGW. “Indeed, this month is the ten-year anniversary of when Dominique gave that former referee and suit tailor a shiner,” noted Head Coach Lloyd Pierce. “And while that’s nice trivia to know, it’s not the content I need when I turn to The Squawk to prepare for the Miami heat game. I need to read about how we’re going to get Trae to move without the ball after a double-team, how on Earth we’re going to keep Kendrick Nunn from getting wide-open corner jumpshots in transition!” “I depend on the Squawk to alert me, our scouts, my staff, and my players, that we’ve got to be physical,” said Pierce. “That we’ve got a tag on rollers. We’ve got a punch-on. We have to wipe the post. We’ve got to be into bodies and go over screens. We’ve got to be up to touch in the pick and roll. We’ve got to tag rollers. We have to get to closeouts. We have to force hot shooters to dribble. We’ve got to make our adjustments at the level to screen. We’ve got to X out on the perimeter. We’ve got to be multiple effort. We’ve got to be airspace on the closeouts. We got to pick up full court and get into bodies and change directions and try to spin some ballhandlers. We’ve got to deflect on the ballhandlers. We’ve got to make sure that, when they’re making their crossover, someone’s sitting there. When there’s a driving gap, we’ve got to be in the gaps. We’ve got to make sure that there’s an extra pass on every single possession. When there’s an extra pass, we got to make sure we get out and contest. We’ve got to do it with discipline, so that no one is fouling shooters on the perimeter. We’ve got to make sure we find bodies on the perimeter. We’ve got to come in and make our hits. We’ve got to rebound the basketball, so we can get out and run… oh, fellas, this is Tony on the line, I’ll finish my thoughts later. After all, we’ve got a big rematch with the heat coming up! Nate, wrap up practice!” “Can you believe nobody realizes I’m still here?”, asks Senior Basketball Advisor and former General Manager Rick Sund, from the Hawks’ corporate headquarters on Marietta Street. “Just between us? Nobody knows I’ve been The Mole this whole time. Shhh! I’m hiding out in an office behind the Coke machine!” The Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club has won one National Basketball Association championship in its 75-year history, as the St. Louis Hawks in 1958. They have won one Southeast Division championship in the years since LW3 assumed Gamethread duties on The Squawk. In the interim, Hawks fans will post random team stats and stat leaders, betting lines and trends, until they can convince Hubie Brown to take over HGW duties. For more information, please visit Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Stop the game! That jersey clashes with our pink and blue!” “What’s our record, Jordan, with our #fullsquad?”, David Lee wanted to know. He didn’t know to add the hashtag yet, while pressing his postgame media contingent. But he would, soon. “What’s our record? #Fullsquad. When we have everybody? Does anybody know what our record is? When we’ve got Andre, and Steph, and everybody in the lineup? We’re pretty darn good.” The excitement had been waning for Lee’s emerging Golden State Warriors. Coming off a breakthrough 2012-13 season, where the Dubs won their first playoff series since the We Believe era ended, head coach Mark Jackson found himself juggling the starting lineups in 2013-14, and he was losing believers fast. A 14-13 start to the season simply wasn’t good enough. But in Jackson’s defense, Lee inferred, fifth-year pro (and, soon-to-be first-time All-Star) Stephen Curry was in and out of the lineup with nagging ankle injuries. By the time Curry could be stabilized, the Warriors found themselves without their key offseason addition. Andre Iguodala, by then nearing age 30, wasn’t asked to fill too much of the boxscore, an open three-point jumpshot here, a steal or two and a fastbreak jam over there. Acquired over the summer via a surprising sign-and-trade from Denver, he was seen as the glue guy that made the Warriors’ competitive streak stick. But his hamstring injury had him missing nearly a month, greasing the skids on Golden State’s swoon toward mediocrity. But then, Iguodala returned. And in mere days, the Warriors went on a splashy run. A 19-point home win over the Lakers kickstarted a ten-game winning streak. To win their seventh-straight, Golden State had to erase a 15-point Hawks lead at Philips Arena with under seven minutes to play. Iguodala came through in the final minute, with an assist for a short Curry jumper, a defensive stop (with Curry being O-D subbed for Draymond Green) leading to a Paul Millsap miss, and his only swished three-pointer of the game at the buzzer, assisted by Curry, to win by one. It took the brilliance of Brooklyn Net Joe Johnson to finally stop Golden State, keeping the Warriors from becoming the first club in NBA history to go undefeated on a seven-game road trip. But by then, #FullSquad, uttered by Lee and reiterated in fun by Iguodala and multiple Warriors, had become a meme on Vine and a perpetually trending topic on Twitter. 2015’s Finals MVP, Iguodala returned around this time last year to the Bay Area, honored by the teammates who stuck together just long enough, with a little coaching change and a little more help, to win three NBA titles. Dre was returning with his latest team, the Miami heat. “We’ve got one of the greatest Warriors in the history of the organization back,” said Klay Thompson, who was recovering from the leg injury that ended both Golden State’s Finals run in 2019 and the 2019-20 season before it could begin. “I can’t wait to see your jersey in the rafters one of these days.” Addressing what we once recognized as a crowd at the new Warriors arena, Iguodala assured the fanbase about the absences of the Splash Brothers with a term they know so well. “My brothers will be back in action, #FullSquad next year, to wreak havoc on the league for 80 games. Love y’all!” What, Andre, not 82? He didn’t know it yet, but Iguodala would be a key “glue guy” element for his current NBA club’s surprise return to the NBA Finals in 2020. He, like most who ran through the Warriors’ reign in the 20-teens, knows as well as anybody that the most important ability is availability. For the Miami heat, their “culture” is built on defying the need for a #FullSquad to thrive. While their visitors for the next couple of days, the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun), spin their wheels, the defending Eastern Conference champs are finally taking off, seeking to win their sixth and seventh consecutive games at the Hawks’ expense. Coach Erik Spoelstra’s club has had to endure the wrath of COVID (guard Avery Bradley tested positive, while Tyler Herro had to quarantine when his housemate came down COVID+). Franchise All-Star guard Jimmy Butler caught Da Rona missed almost a dozen games. Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic have missed stretches. But down on South Beach, heat Culture dictates there’s always a “next man up.” Last year’s surprises of Duncan Robinson and Nunn have moved comfortably into Coach Spo’s starting lineups. When the heat needed offense in Butler’s and Bam Adebayo’s absences, two-way player Gabe Vincent stepped up with 46 points during a two-game series in Philly. Around once a week, the other two-way player, Max Strus, drops in and drops between three-to-five three-pointers in a game. Rookie first-rounder Precious Achiuwa has rendered free agent vet Moe Harkless nearly unnecessary. The team has been sloppy (8.7 opponent SPG and 16.1 player TOs/game, 2nd-most in NBA), and are routinely outshot on three-pointers with Butler and Adebayo ineffective from that range. But Miami is coming together at the right time, with the All-Star Break approaching. Having bigs like Adebayo (career-highs of 19.6 PPG and 5.5 APG) who can not only finish around the paint but also pass the ball enlivens an offense. Having vets like Iguodala and Butler who have not only preached about perseverance through adversity as a team, but lived through it, goes a long way, too. “We know what adversity is,” Jimmy Buckets shared with Rachel Nichols for ESPN’s The Jump, as his team, then at 11-17 while looking up at Atlanta and many others in the Eastern Conference standings, was preparing for its current winning run. “We’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to get better and bring everybody up with us. Maybe here and there we’ve forgotten that. We will get back to it, though. I promise you that. We will.” So far, with a .500 record on the horizon, it appears they have. In recognition of our team’s dear hosts in Miami, here are a couple lines of dialogue from one of The U.’s favorite sons. “Hey, Jabroni. Who are the Atlanta Hawks’ opponents missing today?” “Well, Tyler Herro’s got a bum hip, Meyers Leonard’s out for the season, and Avery Br—” “IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO’S OUT FOR THE HAWKS’ OPPONENTS!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “HOW YOU LOSIN’ TO THE CAVS AGAIN? DAYYUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMNNNN!” “There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, when something named Lamar Stevens looks like a dadgum DuPont Factory on wheels strolling down the lane untouched in the clutch. Whatever. In usual Atlanta Sports years, by the time our Hawks had blown their 10th fourth-quarter lead of the season (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti), we’d be occupied with United fooling around in the playoffs, fretting over the Dawgs getting stonewalled by Saban, and watching Matty Ice waltz for his life behind a slushy O-Line. More often than not, we’re still washing out dandruff after scratching our heads about how the Bravos collapsed in the postseason. This time, that is. But nothing is usual in this most unusual sports town. The MLS season is delayed, the Flowery Branch Fail-cons are busy swapping out executive office furniture, Uga XVI or whatever is busy with doggie charm school, and members of the Baseball Club are still driving around the Gulf Coast seeking out directions to North Port. That means our Hawks, their beleaguered head coach, and their collective failures are on the A-Block in A-Town sports radio, and they’re trending for the wrong reasons on local anti-social media. “There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, as our young All-Star-on-the-Low is out here looking like Frank Drebin outside the fireworks factory. Alright, Move On! Nothing To See Here! Move Along! Please Disperse! Another Day! Another Opportunity! 100! I’m not wasting any energy waiting around to find out if Bogdan Bogdanovic is ever walking through that door. Not today, anyway. Instead, while the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) pay us a visit, hoping the Hawks will help them lick their own wounds, one night after their two All-Stars (smh) got licked in Lukaland, and help them return once again to .500 ball, I prefer to use this space to praise a local team that can now, finally, legitimately say, “We are a playoff team!” and not induce hearty guffaws. Your Friendly Neighborhood Bracketologist is here to share the good news. The Yellow Jackets of the Georgia Institute of Gotdang Technology are projected to be bound for Dayton! Wait, what’s that? Oh, okay, Indianapolis, then, fine! Unlike Bawb Rathbun whenever the Hawks are about to shoot free throws, I’m not even halfway jinxing these guys. It’s a Stone Cold Lock TM, baby! No more excuses about those brain-draining nuclear physics professors distracting Tech’s umpteenth-year scholars from standing toe-to-toe with the one-and-doner programs of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Yellow Jacket Men strode up to Blacksburg and jived those turkeys at Va-Tech last night. It’s their fourth victory in a conference-high seven games against an opponent that entered their contest ranked in the Top-25. And the PR director masquerading as the college’s head basketball coach won’t let you forget it. “There should be ELEVEN teams in the tournament coming out of the ACC!”, he says. Come home, Josh Pastner, you’re drunk. But they are getting eight, and the crew guided by Monstrous Moses Wright, Trae-Lite Jose Alvarado, and Bell Buckets Michael DeVoe are looking every bit like a top-7 ACC program right now. (By the way, the Lady Jackets are going Dancing, too. As a Top-8 seed, at that. Give ‘em hell, Nell!) At long last, Pastner has cleaned house of all his creepy colleagues from Memphis, and got his postseason ban out of the way at the perfect time. Finesse! Beating the Hokies last night gave the Jackets their first two-game in-conference road winning streak since 2008. When they beat the Fighting John Collinses in Winston-Salem next week, that’ll be three in a row. Once Pastner comes down from his high, he’ll have his team ready to run Jim Boeheim and student journalist killer Coach K’s clubs right on out the Thrillerdome over the next seven days. That, and a first-round victory in the ACC Tourney will sew up a spot in the 68-team dance for the first time in eleven (miserable!) years. Even a slip-up or two, at this late stage, would simply mean a “first-round” affair with Directional Kentucky or somebody is in the offing. These Jackets have come a long way from blowing gimmes at McSqueamish Pavilion, to local lessers Georgia State and Mercer during the Thanksgiving break. At that time, hardly any other sports teams were playing, the heat lamp was squarely on the head coach, and the home fans were disgusted, disgruntled and just flat-out dissed, with no confidence their team would even deserve an invite to the CIT, never mind the NIT, once all was said and done on the 2020-21 season. What they’ve done since that low point – winning almost all their home games on The Flats, beating ranked and favored opponents here and abroad, beating the remaining teams they absolutely had to beat, coming through at closing time – ought to be inspirational to another Basketball Club dribbling aimlessly just down the road, one that actually gets paid for their name, image, likeness, and, we have been led to believe, their competitive spirit. Let’s Go Hawks! Or Not. At This Point, Just Do Whatever! The Checks Gon’ Clear Either Way. ~lw3
  8. “Alright, who leaked out that our coach voted for Horford and Scary Terry?” The NBA Blender is funny. Isaiah Thomas had long imagined that he, and a former Atlanta Hawks star, would play as a professional pair in a critical tournament game. As the self-made, former Boston Celtics star sipped on a socially-distanced margarita in San Juan last week, there’s no way he could have imagined, five years ago, that his ex-Hawk co-star would be Joe Johnson. It was at the All-Star midseason classic, in 2016, when I.T. whispered sweet nothings into Al Horford’s ear. Join me in Boston in the upcoming summer, Thomas confided in the All-Star center’s ear, and we can build a championship squad around us! Jeff Teague isn’t helping you reach the mountaintop. Neither is Jeff’s backup, Dennis Schröder. But, says Thomas, I’m the tank engine you need to get where you want to go. You. Me. Maybe, KD… Banner #18! “I wrapped him up,” Isaiah boasted of Horford’s free agent deal, confirming he broke the ice during the preceding All-Star break about prying free the four-time All-Star and aligning him on Team Green. “I knew he was coming to Boston, for sure.” “Man the things he was doing to us in the Playoffs,” Thomas told Bleacher Report in the offseason after being ousted by the upstart Schröder and the Hawks, while conveying the age-old sentiment that if you can’t beat them, get them to join you. “I’m looking forward to him doing that for us.” Word to Tito! A half-decade later, Thomas is representing Team USA. But not in Tokyo. No, he was in Puerto Rico last week with Joe Jeezus and Hawks one-timers Jordan Sibert and James Nunnally, aiding the Americans in locking down a qualifying spot in next year’s FIBA AmeriCup. Joe and Isaiah combined for 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists to keep Gustavo Ayon’s Mexico squad at bay in the finale and help USA finish at 6-0 in group play. The Dominican Republic, fortunately, didn’t need Horford’s help to go 4-1 and qualify for AmeriCup, too. Unlike Isaiah, Al is busy in the NBA, but not on the Celtics team he joined when he abandoned Atlanta for a four-year, $113 million deal. He declined the final year of that deal, and surprised Boston by signing with a division rival in 2019. But he’s not there, either. Instead, Alfredo is employed in the state that brought you Trae Young. Thomas, meanwhile, gets to watch his replacement with the Celtics (no, not you, Jeff) pairing up in the NBA East with the star of 2012 classic movie “Thunderstruck”, Kevin Durant, only on yet another Atlantic Division team. I.T. was showing out in the Caribbean in hopes an NBA club paying attention will toss him a raft ahead of the playoffs. In the meantime, he and the ex-Hawks are helping USA lock down a reservation for Olympics 2024 so that folks like Trae won’t have to do so years from now. Thanks for your service, Isaiah. Tonight, Young returns to his schoolboy state to face Horford, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), a club that has been very, very good to Hawks past and present. Dennis made a name for himself playing with Russell Westbrook and Paul George and, later, Chris Paul, before being sought out and acquired by LeBrongeles. Now, it’s Al’s turn to use his play and veteran leadership as a springboard for a timely trade back into championship contention. So far, so good! Late in Wednesday’s back-and-forth with the visiting Spurs, Lu Dort found himself in a shootout with Patty Mills. Normally, for a fellow known more for his defensive skills than his sharp-shooting, a second-year pro that was shooting 31.7 3FG%, it’s Advantage, The Other Guy. But San Antonio was hounding Gilgeous-Alexander (11 1st-quarter and 21 3rd-quarter points, career-high 42 points vs. SAS) defensively, daring somebody else to beat them. And Horford kept right on feeding Dort, who, I can only presume, Al thinks has a surname pronounced “Dart.” Lu lived up to Al’s trust (or, misperception) by bulls-eyeing all of his final three treys in the closing four minutes of action. Horford, who also splashed a fourth-quarter three and one of his mid-rangers to keep OKC in the running, assisted on two of Dort’s three-pointers, the final one off a kickout with under three seconds left to play to avoid overtime and secure the 102-99 victory. For rookie coach Mark Daigneault and the Thunder (13-19), they avoided losing their fifth in six games. Their prior victory was a resounding win in Cleveland this past Sunday, but let’s not mention the Cavs again, shall we? While they’ve gone 5-10 since going 8-9 to start the season, OKC showed no love while beating Giannis and Milwaukee on Valentine’s Day here at Chesapeake Energy Arena. They accomplished the win without the services of SGA (career-highs of 23.5 PPG, 6.4 APG, 55.8 2FG%, 41.9 3FG%), who has since returned nicely after missing time with a sprained knee. Nikola Jokic and Denver arrives in Okietown tomorrow. Seeing how well a certain team fared without Andre Drummond in the middle recently, Daigneault is saving Horford (out, rest) for Saturday. A former Hawk and Horford backup, Mike Muscala, is now the most experienced Thunder player active tonight, with Trevor Ariza (personal leave, out indefinitely) and George Hill (thumb surgery) unavailable. Also missing honey-dip dunker Hamidou Diallo (sore groin), Daigneault will throw Dort, SGA, Dariuses Bazley and Miller, rookie Theo Maledon, and whatever’s left in the kitchen sink to encourage Young to give up the ball and not get in back during Atlanta’s possessions. The pride of Norman North High had a rough outing in his last trip to this NBA floor, in January of last year. Despite 26 points, 16 assists and just one turnover by Trae, and solid production from John Collins and Cam Reddish (questionable for today, sore Achilles), discombobulated defense and a lack of creative offense made things easier on CP3 (18 points), Dennis (21 bench points) and SGA (24 points) to win the day over coach Lloyd Pierce’s visitors, 140-111. None of those guys, one must note, were the leading scorer for OKC on that wintry day. Young will greatly welcome Danilo Gallinari (OKC-high 25 points, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL in January 2020) averaging a team-record ten threes per game for the Hawks going forward, but hopefully that record-smashing production (38 points vs. BOS, most for Gallo since he was a Nugget in 2015) won’t be necessary to win on most nights. Inspired perhaps by Horford’s lead, plundering the Thunder tonight will require inside-oriented ball movement by Atlanta (14-18). The Hawks are 5-12 when Collins produces just one assist or fewer, and they’re 4-1 when Clint Capela cranks out two dimes or more. Swift decisions to either post-up or kick-out and crash the glass can grind the Thunder’s interior defense (17.6 opponent points per-48, 24th in NBA with Horford) into submission. On what is now (no longer “that other team from Ohio”) the league’s least efficient offense (NBA-lows of 104.6 O-Rating and 21.6 O-Reb%), Al’s absence should allow the Hawks’ frontline to shine at both ends while pressuring Isaiah Roby and Muscala into foul trouble. Even Gallo (career-low 39.1 2FG%) can get into the act with his height advantages, throwing the Thunder’s defensive game plan off-balance. Countering OKC’s defensive pressure on the point-of-attack will also require Tony! Toni! Toné! Snell (4-for-6 3FGs, helping the Hawks make a team-record 23 triples in the 127-112 win over Boston) to do it again. It feels good, too, if Kevin Huerter and Reddish, if available, can connect on what should be a bunch of open perimeter looks, and if Young can move off-ball to keep eyes on him. Horford, averaging his highest scoring average (14.6 PPG) since biding adieu to The ATL, has been putting on a good face, and the PR machine to max up his veteran value is running at full bore. “Philosophically, he just believes in team basketball, and he’s walked that walk for a long time,” Daigneault told The Oklahoman, who grants his big man a career-high 5.6 3FGAs per game (only Dort, the Thunder’s version of Marcus Smart, shoots more) in return for making his own job so much easier. “He’s just a flat-out winner.” But the anxiety is rising for Horford, who faces more than just sitting out the postseason for the first time since tearing pec #2 with the Hawks in 2013-14. He’s locked into his current contract, owed as much as $81 million over this and the next two seasons (2022-23 is non-guaranteed, but team exec Sam Presti might see that as reason to keep him around). Horf sees Nate McMillan, “Mister Sonic” who went on to coach Seattle, and Pierce’s top assistant must bring to mind a former Sonics rookie of McMillan’s, Nick Collison, who moved to the Sooner State with the franchise and never left until it was time to retire. Al wants no part of that fate. With the trade deadline mere weeks away, and OKC not in the running as a postseason threat anytime soon, Horford has no intention of becoming, “Mr. Thunder, Jr.” With GMs putting third-tier players on the waiver wire in hopes of making cap room for incoming veterans, Horford, and his exiled buddy Thomas, want to be among contenders’ final ingredients. They’ll need guys like Presti who are willing to press “Purée” on the presto-change-o machine. Relax, Al! Here, come sit by your old friend Moose. Do you like piña coladas? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “WHO WANTS TO SEXTON?” Michael Carter-Williams had arrived. 22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals, to help his lottery team defeat the juggernaut defending NBA champs in his professional debut. The sky was the limit. Brandon Jennings made his grand entrance. 55 points on national TV, while a fellow rookie named Stephen Curry watched from the bench. A star was born. Jamaal Tinsley’s big moment was here. A triple double, featuring 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 23 assists, as a rookie, in a win against MJ’s Wizards. Pass the torch! The ceiling is the roof! What if you hopped into the Hot Tub Time Machine, and shared with these happy hipster hoopers that this was pretty much as good as their careers were going to get? “147–135 in double OT. Against a title contender. Against three Hall of Famers. In a game we knew they were up for. W.” Just a few weeks ago, Collin Sexton scribed in the Players’ Tribune, “I put myself on the map.” The freshly fortified Brooklyn Nets showed up to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena expecting a grand entrance. But it was Sexton who showed up Kevin Durant, James Harden, and former Cavaliers legend Kyrie Irving in double overtime, showing the Nets the door with a thrilling career-best 42-point bonanza and a 147-135 victory. “I love how people went into that game talking about them other dudes……. and came out of it talking about the Cavs,” the former Pebblebrook High star admitted in his ink-spilling essay. “I love that we’re catching these so-called experts by surprise.” “I love the idea of teams marking us down as a W on their calendar, based on who they thought we were last season… then catching an L they didn’t see coming.” Matter of fact, there are a few Atlanta Hawks hiding their Sharpies, too, particularly once these 2020 lottery teams left a January 2nd game with equal records at State Farm Arena, a 96-91 grindfest where Sexton’s 27 points led the way to victory. “We’re back on the map,” Young Bull decreed as his Cavs returned to .500 ball with a 7-7 record. “Let’s stay awhile.” I hate to be Rand McNally here, but as the Hawks visit Cleveland tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio) on the front end of back-to-back games for each team, it feels like Sexton and the Cavs have already charted well off course. The Cavs pulled off the home sweep of the Nets two nights after Sexton’s signature performance on January 20, but have since dropped 14 of their past 16 to vie with their division-rival Pistons for the rights to the Eastern Conference cellar. After falling at home to Denver and OKC in this four-game homestand, by double digits for the 11th time in this stretch, Cleveland (10-21) hopes to avert their 11th consecutive loss this season tonight at the hands of the Hawks, who just beat the Nuggets in Atlanta on Sunday. It’s not Collin’s fault, at all, that GM Koby Altman still has Process-style designs for this club. Cleveland won those Nets games with Larry Nance and Andre Drummond holding the fort upfront. Nance would break a finger and will continue to sit out the next 2-4 weeks. The team also decided on Blakegriffining Drummond, lest he suffer a hangnail while delivering his customary double-doubles. Kevin Love remains mothballed, too. Taurean Prince, the former Hawk and Net thrown in with Jarrett Allen in the deal that made the Harden deal work for Brooklyn, has been sidelined with a sore ankle, doubtful to play today. The problematic Kevin Porter was shipped to Houston. Thon Maker hit the waiver wire. This leaves JB Bickerstaff to stir, as his frontcourt options, Allen and JaVale McGee, with a dash of Dean Wade and two-way player Lamar Stevens, to taste. The paper-thin rotation is also giving Sexton’s fellow Cobb Countian and lottery prize Isaac Okoro way more minutes than he can handle, sharing time chasing power forward with the decidedly Bazemorian Cedi Osman. But for the selection of Okoro with the 5th pick in 2020’s Draft, Onyeka Okongwu would be a very busy man right now. Sexton and Garland almost have to have signature nights just to keep Cleveland in the running. Frankly, Sexton’s map-making game almost didn’t come to pass. The Cavs blew a 13-point lead in the final quarter of regulation against Brooklyn, a lead built not so much with the aid of Sexton but with timely putbacks by Allen and shots by Prince, the vengeful former Nets. With the game on the line, tied with just seconds remaining, Harden stole the ball from Sexton but couldn’t convert after a Sexton non-shooting foul and a jump ball. Up to that point, Collin had a modest 20 points, 0-for-4 on threes, and just two assists. The layup and three-pointer in the final ten seconds which saved the game in the first OT period presaged the SportsCenter highlight reel that came in the second overtime. Four made threes, including some daring makes over the outstretched arms of Brooklyn’s stars, and 15 points in just five minutes. Since that career-defining scoring spree that almost didn’t happen, Sexton has sunk 18 threes in his past 17 games (31.6 3FG%), including a 1-for-6 outing against the Thunder on Sunday. He’s scoring on drives, getting to the line, and dishing the pill just fine since the swoon began (20.5 PPG, 45.6 FG%, 80.2 FT%, 4.2 APG in last 16 games). But with Garland (5.4 APG, 39.8 3FG%) serving as the point guard by default, the 6-foot-1 Sexton really needs that outside jumpshot to fall, and it simply isn’t happening, not like it was at the outset of the season (50.0 3FG% in his first 9 games, incl. the big win over Brooklyn). Even as Cleveland fades into tank-dom, Sexton still lives off a double-OT moment of majesty that, for Atlanta’s Trae Young, checks out as another day in the office. It’s not simply Atlanta sports fans, but the larger NBA media, that fail to note that while Trae lacks a winning pedigree thus far, he has hung buckets, and Ls, on superstars and media darlings alike. Before last season’s Bubble burst for Atlanta, Trae’s career-best of 50 came, in regulation, at the expense of a team few people suspected would be the Eastern Conference champions, outscoring beloved All-Stars Bam Outtadabayou and Jimmy Butler by his lonesome. In 2019-20 alone, he scored 42 or more points on ten occasions, upstaging Bradley Beal and, also not for the first time, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Including Sunday’s headache-relieving win over road-weary Denver, Young has scored 35 or more in eight games this season, the entire octet resulting in wins for Atlanta (13-17). In the final game a voting subset of coaches might notice, he also took time out of his day to dish out a season-best 15 assists on Sunday, his 14th double-double in 28 starts (28 double-doubs in 60 games last year). Entering today, Young has his three-year career-bests with 43.9 FG%, 37.9 3FG%, and 88.5 FT%. His per-game turnovers, while high, is down from last year while chugging along with a career-best 9.5 APG, a proportion of which should be much higher among Hawks exec Travis Schlenk’s offseason additions. Alas, we like to gloss over the crossover. Using Rock & Roll Hall of Fame comparisons, Atlanta’s ace has become Jimi, on the nights the match struggles to light and the guitar doesn’t go up in flames. Young’s occasional struggles become worthy of critique, while his proliferative performances have become de rigueur. Trae got the Slovenian Bounce in 2020’s All-Star balloting, Euro-fans who liked Luka’s draft-buddy denying grumps and media blisters the opportunity to publicly stiff-arm Young when it came time for NBA coaches to pick the reserves. That chance arrives today, and just as you can guarantee there’s a poorly researched narrative regarding why Young has had his turn already, perhaps too soon, at the All-Star trough, you can also be certain there will be “Big Ups!” for the emerging Cavalier star who’s all of 157 days and three draft picks Trae’s junior. From the tele-pundits, Sexton gets the glitz, and Young gets the glum. Because Cleveland, for all its struggles, has been missing key pieces, you see. And, gee, did you not see what Sexton did to Brooklyn? No one will mention how Trae and the Hawks dusted Kyrie and KD by 18, in Brooklyn, already this season. Oh, and his team didn’t need Taurean and Jarrett’s help (then still Nets) to get it done, in regulation. But for the Nets stars’ heroics to help edge Trae (30-and-11) and the Hawks by four points two nights before, that would have been a two-game sweep, too. NBA coaches are a brighter breed than the TNT studio commentators. Hopefully, good judgement will prevail and Young will be among the East reserves, making Sir Charles’ gut growl audibly this evening. But if not, and Trae has to wait to become a very likely “injury” replacement, then the week his chances went awry began last month with the Hawks’ loss to Cleveland. (I shall spare everyone my annual gripe that there should be 8 All-Star reserves, not 7, just as there have been 13 required active players for NBA games even before David Stern was commissioner. You are welcome.) No team currently above Atlanta in the NBA East standings has played more games versus teams currently at or above .500. The Hawks, with the win over Denver, sit at 6-10 in those 16 contests. By comparison? Domantas Sabonis’ Pacers have only played 12 such games, and they’re 4-8. Khris Middleton’s Bucks are 5-8. Zach LaVine’s Bulls are 2-10. LaMelo and the do-gooder Hornets (darn it, Draymond!) are 4-9, Butler and Adebayo’s heat are 3-12. Just a half-game below Atlanta, Nik Vucevic’s Magic are 1-11. Yet it’s the Hawks, Young and questionable rotator Lloyd Pierce, that are perceived as not living up to their Nique-given potential. That’s really because of what’s going on in the other column. Atlanta’s 7-7 versus below .500 teams, and that includes the superfecta of defeats, at the hands of the Cavs, Knicks and Hornets (twice) from January 2-9, that bedevils Trae and the Hawks deep into February. Everyone of Trae’s critics, conveniently, can just look at Atlanta’s spot in the standings and tsk-tsk. Also 7-7, against teams like the Hawks and the Cavs, are the Cavs. Detroit and Cleveland are the only clubs in the NBA East that have endured tougher strengths of schedules (based on bball-ref’s recipe) than Atlanta. And the Hawks’ schedule won’t ease up much, not with Boston tomorrow as a home finale and a road swing through OKC, Miami and Orlando to conclude the half-season. (We are still about to get hit with a Bubble, aren’t we? Any good reason we don’t have a second-half schedule with 16 days remaining?) Hopefully the schedule gods will be kinder, soon. But to ever get above .500 this season, Atlanta has to consistently beat the teams below that mark, particularly those, like Cleveland, that seemed designed and resigned to that fate. In honor of Charlie Harper, the Cavs have settled into a two-and-a-half-man halfcourt offense (NBA-worst 104.0 O-Rating, 2nd-worst 15.6 TO%), with Garland bringing up the ball, Sexton creating off drives, and Allen or McGee cleaning up the many, many misses (29.3 team O-Reb%, 4th in NBA; 30.1% this month) for second-chance opportunities. This is far from the offense and contributors that Bickerstaff envisioned, but with Okoro, Osman, Prince, Damyean Dotson, So-Not-D-Wade and rookie Dylan Windler all shooting between 35 and 42 percent from the field (all below 33.3 3FG%), ya dance with what brung ya. Cleveland’s best chance at producing successful offense is from pressing and scoring inside in transition (53.7 paint points per-48, 2nd in NBA; 15.7 opponent TO%, 3rd in NBA). Young, Skylar Mays and the Hawks ballhandlers must be judicious with their handles under pressure from Okoro (1.2 SPG, highest among active Cavs with Nance and Drummond out), Garland and the like. With Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter leading the way, the Hawks getting back on defense, after scores and live-ball turnovers, and packing the paint will be essential for keeping Cleveland on ice. Clint Capela (who deserves at least some mention during All-Star Reveal Night, NBA-high 13.9 RPG) was masterful versus Jokic on Sunday, and he will have his hands full once again keeping Cleveland’s few bigs off the offensive boards. The Cavs in their current configuration have no answer for John Collins (30.8 FG%, 0-for-8 on threes, 20 combined points in last 2 games), who should find himself feasting if he collects and keeps the ball off the ground. Same for Danilo “Salsa Piccante” Gallinari, who is capable of pairing with Tony Snell and helping Atlanta dominate the bench scoring if he’s not over-dribbling. It’s almost time for the All-Star Reveals! Whether Trae or Clint gets a nod or not tonight, hopefully they and the Hawks enjoy a quality, victorious game that doesn’t have the Atlanta-based TV hosts speaking disparagingly about Atlanta, while praising Sexton for whatever he’s doing on Cleveland’s behalf. Either way, I already have my volume set to zero for the grand occasion. Get well soon, Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “No, seriously, Bama, how did we let this guy get away from our recruiters?” Our Atlanta Hawks got next-to-no help in the Leastern Conference standings, not in the intervening days between their first win since April 2018 against the Boston Celtics, and the rematch at TD Garden tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston). Not unless we’re trying to catch the Bucks. The Lakers that could play were a hot mess against the Nets that could play yesterday. The T’wolves tried their best by dragging Indiana into OT on Wednesday but ran out of gas. The Kings couldn’t help us out by crowning the heat at home yesterday, what would’ve been Miami’s fourth-straight loss amid a seven-game road swing. The last-place Pistons couldn’t hang on to a big first-half lead, letting Chicago win their second in a row in Wednesday’s suddenly rescheduled game. The Knicks lost that night, but only because the elfin’ Magic won. Milwaukee dropped their fifth-straight on national TV last night, as TNT hosts tied themselves into knots all night trying to mansplain how folks like Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal (the latter voted in as a starter, on behalf of his 9-17 Wizards) will all deserve their All-Star slots, while Trae Young (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti, fastest Hawks player to reach 4,000 career points, surpassing the great Bob Pettit) is somehow unworthy of a return to the game in his host arena. Because winning matters! Or career years, or something. Anyway, Coach Bud isn’t under fire because he’s got a couple COTY trophies sitting at his home, in the same town where he just got swept in consecutive games by Nick Nurse’s once-struggling Raptors. Track record matters, and consecutive 60-ish-win seasons while coaching an MVP into the playoffs as a top-seed offers an adequate shield when the swoons and the disappointing trends kick in. Budenholzer’s successor with the Hawks, Lloyd Pierce, remains on a seat that’s not piping hot, but simmering. Pierce remains out on paternity leave, but he’s peeking at the Celtics games hoping ace assistant Nate McMillan can continue to instill practices on the court conducive to winning basketball for his Hawks (12-16). Nate Mac isn’t interested in consuming LP’s top job, but he quietly has the motivation to help his current employer catch up with his prior team, the perennial-playoff Pacers, in the chase for postseason seeds. 2.5 games separate the Hawks from Indiana, who’s currently 4th in the NBA Least, and it’s the same buffer between Atlanta and Collin Sexton’s 14th-seed Cavs. “We’ve got to put together a 48-minute game. We’ve got to make our breaks,” McMillan expressed to media ahead of today’s game, again insisting he’s not doing anything “major” that Pierce would have done to top a Celtics team (14-14) who played on Wednesday without at least two key starters. There were some things, however, that Hawks fans could spy, with their little eyes, as evidence that McMillan can diagnose and address woes that players, under Pierce, seem left to figure out for themselves. One example: with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, 6 rebounds, just two 3FGAs taken and one made, a pair of made free throws, two steals, and a plus-14 finish during Atlanta’s 122-114 win at the Gahden, Cam Reddish had as close to a perfect game as one should come to expect of the sophomore swingman right now. “I think the ball movement was a little bit better,” Cam correctly noted of his team, without any intention of shade. Reddish’s efficient fullcourt performance helped Trae and the frontcourt tag team of John Collins and Clint Capela (combined 44 points, 19 boards, and two swats), who overwhelmed Boston on screen rolls. It also kept the extended shooting struggles of Kevin Huerter (29.7 FG% past four games) and Danilo Gallinari (combined 3-for-10 3FGs @ BOS) from affecting the team’s best field day of the season (57.1 team FG%, highest since beating Beal’s Wizards on 1/26/2020). Correcting his personal struggles as a closer in recent games, Young (16 points, 6-for-7 FGs in the 4th quarter) will want to cut down on his eight turnovers in the rematch with the C’s, who will likely have Kemba Walker back in their stead, but not hound-dog Marcus Smart. Yet it was encouraging that the other Hawks, including Reddish, cut down on the goofs while being disruptive on defense. They aided Atlanta in winning Wednesday’s turnover battle (16-15 on team TOs; just 1 TO by Trae and 2 by the Hawks in the 4th-quarter), keeping their final-frame lead, for once, from evaporating. Walker’s back after missing Wednesday’s game due to injury management, but the Massachusetts Ranger is one of the notable veteran guard even TNT hosts won’t pencil in over Young, not this season (career-lows 36.4 FG% and 4.0 APG). If Atlanta can keep Kemba from getting to the free throw line (career-high 90.2 FT%, although on just 3.2 attempts/game), make him chase around screens, and force him to settle for his waning mid-range shots (37.0 2FG% on the season; 40.7 3FG% this month), they can limit the chance for him to regain his “Cardiac Kemba” persona late in this game. Jaylen Brown (sore knee) is listed as questionable, perhaps putting more pressure on Tatum (35 points, 11-for-21 FGs, 10-for-11 FTs, 4 fourth-quarter assists vs. ATL) to earn his All-Star keep. Daniel Theis (team-high 1.80 Defensive RPM) is off the injury report, and he’d only need nine fingers anyway to help Boston thwart the Hawks’ interior attack. To compensate, Atlanta’s perimeter shooting needs to be on point, and Young can pile up even more points by stepping out just a tad bit further – that is to say, on his mid-rangers (3-for-3 2FGs @ BOS, all betw. 21-23 feet from the basket). The Hawks rank 25th in the league on catch-and-shoot three-point makes (8.5 per game, 0.6 more than Boston), and Huerter and Gallo must find their spots, not hesitate, and get good looks up before Celtic defenders with a foot in the paint can recover. One Western Conference team did give the Hawks the hook-up. The Spurs went to Charlotte and gave the short-handed Hornets an L on Valentine’s Day, then left behind a schedule scramble by having four players test COVID+ (RIP to DeMar’s dad, btw) as the Hornets had to hibernate under health ‘n safety protocols. Charlotte hasn’t played in six days, and if they do get to host Golden State tomorrow, it will likely be their last home game in a while, as they’ll have six West Coast games on the road to close out the first half. One of the teams the Hornets would have played today, Denver, got re-routed to Cleveland instead, and have been short-staffed themselves as they prepare to meet the Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday. The Hornets sit happily atop the Southleast Division, but only by 1.0 games ahead of Atlanta, who could outrace Miami to the top of the division if they can pull together for a winning stretch over the next few days. Knowing they’ll get little love from the media punditry, over the next week as coaches place their votes for reserves, Trae, JC, Clint and the Hawks understand they have to make their own All-Star-worthy case. Hearts out to our Squawkfam in Texas. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Psst… Trae! C'mere. You ever heard of Henny Youngman?” Here’s all I’ve got, ahead of today’s game between our host Atlanta Hawks and the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN). Keep That Woman and That Family far, far away from All-Star Sunday in Atlanta. And, from Oklahoma. On any off-day before or after the break. Yes, Kougar Kim, this means y’all. Hawks fans, when was the last time you thought of Kris Humphries? It’s probably been more than 72 days, right? Exactly. Chandler Parsons thought he was in the clear after fooling around with Kendall, correct? Krash. LeBron had to leave sunny Florida to return home to icy Ohio, just to save Tristan Thompson from The Kurse that nearly ate Lamar Odom alive, and poor Tris still can’t quite escape (believe me, he’s tried). If they want to double-down on Canadians, they can go chase after Jamal Murray (career-high 50 points with no FTs on Friday, because he can make buckets with a hand or two in his face or with a nifty pass from his center and without pleading for help from the refs. Must be nice.) on their own time, not ours. D-Book! Be careful, young man. I'm not even talking about your pending stay in The A. I do not know the current cuffing statuses of Trae or JC or C-Redd or D-Hunt or Reddy V, and I don’t care to find out from TMZ, not until after at least, like, a postseason run or three. Let me catch Kim, or Kourt, or Kylie, or Cait, or Rob, anywhere around this town this March and I will personally call Mayor Keish and inform her of a citizens’ arrest underway. We’ve already got fifty-leven “Real” “House” “Wives”, wannabe Insta-celebs in this town who can’t get married, can’t stay married, and haven’t Swiffered a floor since the close of the Byzantine Empire. Listen to my mayor, Kim and Kompany. We Full! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “I liked Beard Club for Men so much… I bought the company!” I didn’t have many wild NBA preseason predictions, except for this one: Danny Ainge, quietly, is preparing for his exit from Boston. Ainge doesn’t wait for rumors to swell before he decides he wants to spend more time with family. You’ll recall the Phoenix Suns were just six weeks into the 1999-2000 season, doing just fine at 13-7 when Ainge, then their 40-year-old coach and the newest inductee of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, said he wasn’t “jumping ship.” He was “diving overboard,” he insisted, “to save his family,” leaving his still-young star backcourt of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway on deck, scratching their heads, without a paddle. Danny righted the ship back home, then rowed his boat ashore at Boston, his legendary old team from the 1980s, to preside over basketball ops in 2003. He turned the tide for the Celtics with some celebrated maneuvers in 2007’s offseason. Since Boston earned its last banner in 2008, he has swung one big offseason deal after another to keep the C’s afloat. My hunch is, he sees it’s time to set sail again. Ainge moved his family to the tidy suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts upon harpooning the Celtics executive gig. But his soul screams, “West Coast Guy.” A three-sport high school All-American at Eugene High in Oregon, Ainge tantalized scouts as a collegian in Provo, Utah. Perhaps while playing with the Blue Jays in Toronto while studying at Brigham Young, he realized basketball might grant him more personal agency to move about. But he couldn’t complain about getting drafted by Larry Bird’s Celtics in 1981. After getting traded away in 1989, Ainge remained on West Coast teams – the Kings, the home-state Blazers, the Suns, for the balance of his NBA career. He retired in 1995 as a Sun, and after a spell as a TNT analyst he returned to run Phoenix’s team as its head coach the following season. He’s had his share of health issues, notably mild heart attacks in 2009 and in 2019, and you could do a lot worse than hanging around Beantown when you’re in need of top-notch medical care. But there’s this feeling, on my end, that Danny left his heart somewhere within 750 miles or so of San Francisco. It’s impressive that, as a GM/PBO for nearly 20 years with the same team, Ainge has never had to fire a head coach. Jim O’Brien sparred with Ainge’s roster re-shuffling before pulling an Ainge himself and resigning in the midst of the 2003-04 season. John Carroll finished out that season as an interim, then Ainge hired TV analyst Doc Rivers. Rivers endured feisty rookie guard Rajon Rondo, hung on long enough to win his ring with The Three Amigos, and looked on sadly as the plan to hand the leadership torch over to Rondo, a four-time All-Star, went up in flames as his pupil suffered through one debilitating injury after another. Shortly after one in the middle of 2012-13 quashed Rajon’s season and the Celtics’ title dreams, Doc and Danny finagled a trade that sent the coach to the Clippers. And then, there’s Coach Brad. The former Final Four wayfaring Butler U. coach, Brad Stevens has been at the helm since 2013. His Celtics could never quite get past LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the conference finals, then came up short in 2020’s conference finals against LeBron’s old coach, Erik Spoelstra, when the Miami heat made it out of the East to face James’ Lakers last season. While banners ultimately matter for this franchise, the Celtics haven’t had a 50-win season since 2017-18, Stevens’ peak season derailed by Kyrie Irving’s injury a mere month before the playoffs arrived. Percentagewise, it’s not looking likely they’ll be in the ballpark this season, either. The path to championship contention has been rocky this season for the Celtics. They have their current Big Three edition (Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum) together finally, now that Walker is working his way through injury management for his knee and Tatum is withstanding his personal bout with COVID. But Marcus Smart has been out all this month due to a strained calf, while Daniel Theis injured his finger midway through a bad loss at Washington, pressing Tristan Thompson (how is that man not 30 yet?) and the semi-sized Semi Ojeleye into extended frontline minutes. Boston (14-13) inched back above .500 with a relieving 112-99 win here at TD Garden, against a Denver Nuggets team also initiating a back-to-back, last night. But as they make a quick turnaround to face the struggling Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) and on Friday, inching above .500 in the Eastern Conference is not where Ainge, Stevens, and the Celtics’ fanbase wish to be. Ainge has been quick to shield his coach from the sour dispositions overheard on Boston tahk radio. “We’re not playing with the passion that we need,” Ainge acknowledged to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe a few days ago, adding, “I think that’s on the players. And the players on the team are on me.” “This was a team that was put together by me,” Ainge continued. The extent of Boston’s offseason, in a nutshell, was trading away Stevens’ former Butler star Gordon Hayward for not much more than a trade exception that’s unlikely to be used, coming away with Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith in the Draft, dispatching Enes Kanter to Portland for some second-rounders, and adding Hawks two-timer Jeff Teague and Thompson to patch up the roster holes. That doesn’t scream, “GM of a conference finalist going full-bore to push his club over the hump into The Finals.” “We’re not playing with enough consistency and,” (trigger warning, Hawks fans: here comes The U Word!) “urgency, and it’s my job to look to see what we can do to improve the team, but that’s always much harder than improving from within.” Those comments are intended to comfort Celtic fans and take some heat off of Coach Brad (a little heat around Boston right now would be nice). But, as has been well documented around here, Ainge rarely ever makes a splash before the NBA Trade Deadlines arrive. While the Celtics strive to achieve full health and, indeed, improve from within, my guess is that Ainge sees his marathon of pulling Boston’s strings has run its course. Having gone 5-10 over the past month, Boston got back into the win column by handling business at home yesterday against a Nuggets team that itself was without some key pieces – Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Gary Harris. The C’s resorted to letting Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (combined 68 points, but 12 TOs) have at it while neutralizing their teammates’ abilities to chip in. Given that Denver had to overplay guys like Zeke Nnaji, R.J. Hampton and Facundo Campazzo while saving up bodies for the Wizards today, the victory for the Celts, while resounding, wasn’t terribly reassuring. Even a series sweep as a gift from the sputtering Hawks is unlikely to win over hahts and minds up in what used to be known as Brady Country. The Celts will swing south next week, visiting the Pelicans and then the Mavs one day before arriving at State Farm Arena. Everyone wants to see a strong finish by this team before Brown (career-highs of 26.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 55.7 2FG/41.5 3FG/75.2 FT shooting splits), a fixture of the summertime protests here in Atlanta, returns home once more, for a likely spot in the All-Star Game. The building of positive momentum up the conference standings, regaining parity with the Bucks, Nets and Sixers, need not wait for the second-half schedule to commence. Much has been made of the Celtics’ offensive ills, characterized by excessive iso-ball (5th in isolation play frequency, but 5th-worst with 41.3 eFG% on those plays, barely better than Atlanta’s 39.4%) and poor finishing around the basket. Finally heeding former Celtic Dominque Wilkins’ pleas, Boston swung the ball from side-to-side last night. They produced decent looks, particularly outside the three-point line above the arc (Brown was 5-for-9 from this variable range). Brown turned over the ball a season-high seven times, and Tatum suffered through a poor perimeter shooting night. But they and many Celtics were especially good getting deep in the paint and scoring (17-for-20 within 7 feet vs. DEN, as per bball-ref). Without guys like Millsap around to be a bother, Boston did a better job of reading the defense while penetrating, producing opportunities to score or create for teammates. Lloyd Pierce has left the Hawks to spend more time with family, too, but just momentarily. Pierce’s second child is on the way, leaving head coaching duties to Nate McMillan, who split last year’s season series versus Stevens while coaching Indiana. Whether or not Nate Mac turns around the Hawks’ fortunes during their stay in Boston, if Atlanta (11-16; 1-7 this month) continues their string of lagging starts and dragging finishes, as evidenced in Monday’s 123-112 flop in New York, LP may soon wind up with more family time than he anticipated. Struggling coaches, like Pierce and Stevens, offer up the old secret recipe of “We got good looks, we’re just not hitting shots!”, and “Our opponents just couldn’t seem to miss!”, with a few added herbs and spices, during increasingly dour press conferences. For the Hawks, sitting around and waiting to see find out what kind of shooting day their opponents will have is not getting the job done. The only teams near Atlanta, with their 11.0 opponent TO% this month, are the Jazz and the Suns. But those teams (now) have high-caliber defenders around the perimeter (Conley, CP3 and Bridges), no longer just relying on Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker to step it up and force tough shots on that end. Those teams are winning, although I bet Phoenix would have liked a second-half stop or two last night against Brooklyn to keep their winning streak alive. If Cam Reddish (four steals, total, and 1.9 D-Rebs/game in 8 February starts) is no longer in the business of producing turnovers and getting stops, then he must at least be capable of staying in front of his man when his opponent’s handling the rock. Reddish, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter must entice Boston’s backcourt ballhandlers to settle for, “Oh, heck, why not?” contested jumpers and rely on C+C Muscle Factory members John Collins and Clint Capela to limit opportunities for putbacks and second-chances. They’ll get somewhat of a break tonight, as Walker sits and a rested Teague (DNP vs. DEN) starts with assistance from the eager-beaver rookie Pritchard (7 assists, 1 TO vs. DEN; 42.4 3FG% this month), but adherence to defensive principles remains the same. Tony Snell (sore Achilles) is available to help out as well. At the other end, shooting one’s way out of a slump occasionally entails going 1-for-4 on threes, not 2-for-8 in games like Reddish had on Monday. You’re not getting out from under sub-20-percent perimeter shooting by lofting seven or eight chances every game, as was the case for Cam in the last two losses, extending Atlanta’s record to 0-7 when he takes more than five 3FG attempts (1-2 last season, the losses in blowout fashion versus the Bulls and Cavs). As he demonstrated by fumbling away Atlanta’s last chance at getting off the mat to seize the lead in New York, Cam is over-dribbling and not electing to pass the ball much. Zero games with four or more assists, while shooting as wretched as he has been, is the definition of a “Ball Stopper”. To cut down on the “BS”, Reddish must understand with his open looks that there’s a reason he’s as open as Narragansett Bay, and he must commit instead to more intentional drive-and-kick action, aided by teammates getting open for passes, helping Atlanta’s offense (52.4 February eFG%, 23rd in NBA and just above Boston’s 51.3%) avoid another day of doomed dormancy. Cam’s on a streak of eight games with at least one assist, but as Huerter understands (5.0 APG, 1.6 TOs/game, 1.3 SPG and 41.5 3FG% in February) coming away with a paltry one or two assists, and few defensive stops or transition buckets, is insufficient. Red Velvet hasn’t done much of late with his own green light (8-for-30 from the field in last 3 games, incl. 4-for-20 on threes), but at least he gets the hint that if his shot isn’t falling, he has to do more for his team than just keep firing away until it does. Ainge has exhausted what once seemed to be a treasure trove of other teams’ first-round picks, moves that cemented his “Trader Danny” reputation. Brown himself arrived as a result of the Nets getting thirsty for KG and Paul Pierce in 2013. Tatum came by way of the Sixers’ thirst to move up and take Markelle Fultz, Philly dangling Sacramento’s fumbled 2017 pick as bait. The Celtics have all of their own future first-rounders in tow, but with the organizational bent against tanking (don’t have anybody recalling the big chase back in the day for Tim Duncan), it’s unlikely to see much of that bearing fruit, not in the form of out-the-box future stars. With eleven Celts under contract for next season, Theis being the most noteworthy exception, with Stevens locked down under a multi-year contract extension, with his middling team over-the-cap and hard-capped, and with Giannis locked down for the foreseeable future, I don’t get the sense Ainge wants to hang around much longer to see things play out. Danny (and eldest son Austin, current Celtics player personnel chief) look West and see a younger son, Tanner, serving as a county commissioner in Provo. Cooper Ainge tried his luck as a walk-on at BYU. Youngest son Crew went to play ball at Utah State before returning to The Bay State to finish his college years at hometown Babson College. Yet another BYU grad, Danny’s nephew was with the G-League’s SLC Stars, waived last week only after injuring his foot in the Glubble. The Celtics, anchored by passing local legends Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, seem to have been the only reason Ainge ever came East, and the organization, with its waning lore, appears to be the only thing still tethering his family to this coast. The destiny is near-manifest. Out in L.A., LeBron and AD aren’t going anywhere, and you can best believe the wannabe contenders in the Western Conference are willing to do what it takes to get on the defending champion Lakers’ level, and quickly. Portland always feels like they’re a couple pieces away, maybe they’ll seek to demote Neil Olshey and entice Oregon’s prodigal son home. Phoenix is on the come-up, maybe they’ll find room to give Ainge a second chance to make a first impression. Utah would move whatever Ainge perceives as heaven and earth to get him in their front office. Perhaps the Clippers want to saddle up to the table with Boston again, for more of a front-office-oriented swap this time around? He’s no longer the Young Man he was when he left his prior NBA job. But don’t be too surprised if Danny Ainge jumps on the urge to Go West. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. “What’s that you want, Coach Thibs? ICE? ICE? ICE?” It’s not just our Atlanta Hawks under a cold spell! They’ll get to understand this from a front-and-center view all this week, as it seems the entire Eastern Seaboard, from the Georgia mountains north, has been walking through a winter plunder-land. By the time Our Fine Feathered Friends depart on Tuesday morning for Boston, after tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network) concludes, the near 40-degree temps will feel downright balmy. It’s probably the only time the Hawks will spend this week free of some combination of frigid temperatures and slippery roads and sidewalks. Just 0.5 games behind Atlanta (11-15) in the standings, the current 11-seed Chicago Bulls, playing the Pacers in Indy tonight, are the thin layer of ice keeping the Hawks in the Play-In picture. To keep from falling through, unconventionally, the Hawks must bring some warmth to their proceedings with the Knicks (13-15, seeking 3rd straight win) and the Celtics. But on a team that has lost six of their last seven games, with no sign of reinforcements coming in from the cold, who is providing the rays of sunshine? “Where my coach? Where my coach?” Johnny Davis’ heart swelled with pride as he was summoned to center court to share in his star player’s glory. “Is he around?” Allen Iverson declared his All-Star Game MVP trophy as a “tribute”, to his teammates on the Philadelphia 76ers, his family, his day-one friends. But, first and foremost, to Coach Davis. It had been up to this point a rocky, uphill climb, each of them in their fifth season together. Yet they were reaching the pinnacle of Iverson’s success as an All-NBA superstar, their team was making moves and making waves as perhaps the best in the Eastern Conference, and The Answer left no doubt as to whom he could credit, at the moment of his highest achievement, to date. Of course, you know it didn’t quite happen that way. Not for Coach Johnny D. The former Hawks assistant went 22-60 with a rookie Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse, and flotsam on the ever-rebuilding Sixers. The bespectacled Larry Brown would reap the rewards. Davis wouldn’t get another crack at a head coaching gig for seven seasons, as an assistant taking the reins for the struggling and fired Doc Rivers down in Orlando. Davis’ reward, for coaching another terrible team through another terrible season? A lottery win, bringing Atlanta prep sensation Dwight Howard down to the Magic Kingdom, joining Steve Francis and a suddenly spry Grant Hill. The Magic carpet ride ended for Davis when a 31-27 start led to a six-game losing streak that began right when Hill, again, got hurt. Five years later, Howard would lead Orlando to the Promised Land of the NBA Finals, but it was Stan Van Gundy holding the coaching reins by then. For folks like Davis, Detroit’s Scotty Robertson, Chicago’s Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins, Seattle’s K.C. Jones, among those coaches who lived long enough to catch the country ditty “I Got The Boy,” on the radio, I just know they turned that dial all the way up. “Winning” a lottery pick, and even “winning” in the sense of developing the pick into quick stardom, often can mean “losing” a job while coaching up the team around him. Nurturing a lottery prize into an All-NBA-caliber talent, as a coach, then being tethered for the rise toward championship contention, is awfully rare. Just go off the top of the 2018 NBA Draft alone. How many of the top-ten lottery picks are already on Head Coach #2, or some higher number, in their current locales? I think we can count the coaches still standing – Rick Carlisle, Steve Clifford, Lloyd Pierce – on one hand, and maybe still have a digit or two left over. In their respective cases, hopefully no GMs or owners are thinking of using those fingers to throw up deuces anytime soon. Kevin Knox didn’t even turn out to be the best takeaway for the Knicks in 2018’s Draft (that would be second-rounder and center Mitchell Robinson, who will miss about a month or so after injuring his hand in Friday’s 119-101 win in Washington). Knox and Robinson transitioned from coaches David Fizdale to Mike Miller to current taskmaster Tom Thibodeau, who has the Knicks feeling as confident as they have in quite some time. Thibs’ aid in making the Knicks look not-too-shabby is so appreciated, on a high-profile franchise that hasn’t sniffed a playoff appearance in eons, that the fact he has benched and all-but-shelved Knox for the past ten games is no real biggie. Thibodeau became one of those “You Got The Man” coaches, when he took over for Vinny Del Negro (for the “crime” of back-to-back seasons of .500 ball and first-round exits) right on time for Derrick Rose to become the league’s youngest-ever MVP in his hometown of Chicago. But Thibs didn’t just simply take over. He crafted a defensive juggernaut around a scoring star not known to exhibit much defense at all, using role players like Taj Gibson to lock opponents down. Perimeter scoring help off the bench from Kyle Korver certainly helped, too. The balance worked out, to the tune of 60+ win-quality seasons and rave reviews. But for Thibodeau’s reputation for running players into the hardwood, via excessive practices and playing time among those he entrusted, and Rose’s resultant career-changing injury in 2012’s NBA Playoffs, there’s no telling how far the two could have advanced as an offense-defense pair. Rose never wavered in his outward appreciation for Thibodeau, even after the Bulls years washed out and the two found their way to Minnesota. “I stuck with him and he looked out for me,” D-Rose wrote in his 2019 autobiography, “I’ll Show You,” as his coach leveled with him about his limited control over the now-veteran’s playing time with the T’wolves. “That’s one of the reasons I stuck with him and wanted to come back.” Now they’re reuniting again, and it feels so good. “I’m feeling grateful, anxious,” said Rose (14.7 PPG and 1.7 SPG in 3 Knicks games, 54.8 FG%), now a former Piston after being traded to New York in exchange for Dennis Smith, Jr., to the New York Post, “but at the same, I know what I have to do coming here. It’s about helping the young guys, playing as hard as I can, and, for one, thanking Thibs.” Styles clash, as do eras, yet Rose’s age-22, MVP-season stats (24.1 points, 7.4 assists, 3,0 rebounds 1.0 steals per-36; 48.1/33.2/85.8 2FG/3FG/FT shooting splits) can be compared with Trae Young’s current age-22 line (27.2, 9.8, 4.1, 0.7, 45.1/36.7/88.6). Perhaps even favorably, in Young’s case. Unfortunately, a half-baked Hawks team around Young only adds to the skepticism as to whether Pierce will be around to see things through. The swirl of media-borne skepticism around their team’s direction will only heighten as the losses mount and the touted All-Star weekend in Atlanta approaches. Much was made of LP’s defensive 75-second ramble last week, when pressed about how, exactly, he expects Hawks opponents to “feel us” defensively. If Young (now ahead of only 3 players, out of over 460, with his minus-2.67 DRPM, as per ESPN) sincerely hopes to keep Pierce around, he would do well to adhere to any of those defensive details, focus on perfecting them in games, and then publicly praise his coach when those efforts lead to stops and transition buckets. To be a player-coach duo worthy of keeping together for the long haul, it’s incumbent upon Young to make opponents, and fans, “feel” them as sympatico. As the subject of LP’s derision, The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner infers, post-game statements after a loss like, “I just think a lot of teams are throwing things at us that we’re not prepared for right now,” are another day, another opportunity to d@mn one’s coaches with not even faint praise. Trae fans have been miffed by the perception of a souring relationship between the Hawks star and his head coach, likely emanating from the cold reception LP initially gave to Young being omitted from the Team USA “finalist” list of 40-some players last winter. With the likelihood that a multitude of American veterans, particularly those that had limited postseason exposure and can afford to wait for 2024, will graciously bow out of playing under Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Pierce this summer in Japan, there is a reasonable chance Trae will be tabbed as an alternate. It would be ideal for Young and his coach if, into and through this summer, they still share the same NBA employer. In New York, Thibs isn’t weighted down with the misguided decisions of Knicks management past, as evidenced by the Smith trade. The regime that passed up on SGA, the Bridges, Empire Stater Kevin Huerter, and Michael Porter for the upside of Knox has been impacted, too. GM Scott Perry now answers to team president Leon Rose, the former CAA super-agent who hopes to woo top-tier talents to Manhattan again, or at least away from that other borough. A team-wide commitment to inchworm tempo (lowest pace in NBA) and vice-grip defense (107.2 D-Rating, better than all except the Lakers and Jazz) includes Julius Randle, a candidate for All-Star and Most Improved honors (career-highs of 22.4 points, 9.6 D-Rebs and 0.8 steals per game; also 36.6 MPG, because Thibs), Alec Burks (1.2 steals per-36), 35-year-old addition Gibson, and even lotto-rookie Obi Toppin (1.3 blocks per-36). Thibs has taken vinegar to several players’ defensive oil and, with some vigorous shaking, made a tasty vinaigrette. Even without Robinson, the shot-swatting pivot, the Knicks have shown the ability (and willingness) to step up defensively while dialing up the offense all the way to 11. To sweep its back-to-back this weekend, New York returned from D.C. and heated up the nets by hitting 12 of 28 3FGAs in a 121-99 win over the Rockets. The day before, season-highs of 50 defensive rebounds and 11 steals (4, by the inspired Rose) helped cast a spell on Alex Len and the Brad Beal-less Wizards (held to 9-for-34 on threes). With steady veteran Elfrid Payton helping rookie Immanuel Quickley handle the rock, the Knicks’ players turned the ball over against Houston just seven times. They’ve only committed more than 20 turnovers as a team on one occasion, back on December 29 in a win at Cleveland. Thibs knows that when his team wins the turnover and loose-ball battles, or, in the case of their win in Atlanta on January 4, taking higher-quality shots, his team gives itself the chance to prevail on most nights. Randle enjoyed a 28 point, 17 rebound, 9 assist evening in Atlanta last month, as did second-year pro RJ Barrett (26 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) in a similar fashion. New York starters took just 12 threes against the Hawks last month, sinking only one. But they played to their strengths, unimpeded by Hawks defenders (4 ATL steals, 2 blocks vs. NYK), and superior bench play from Austin Rivers and Quickley helped the Knicks overrun Atlanta in the final frame. As with the 38-13 Pacers fourth-quarter run along the way to a 125-113 home loss on Sunday, it’s a painfully perpetual theme for Atlanta (NBA-worst minus-8.4 4th-quarter Net Rating, incl. 118.1 D-Rating, 29th in NBA) that only Pierce, and an offense-minded “closer” in Young (NBA-high 5.7 TOs per-36 in clutch minutes, min. 10 games played), can collaborate to fix. Nerlens Noel, the #6 pick of 2013’s NBA Draft, moved into the Knicks’ starting lineup on Sunday, in place of Robinson, and he is putting up the kinds of modest yet impactful numbers (last 3 games: 6.7 PPG, 10-for-15 FGs, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG) one can only hope we can one day see out of the NBA’s most recent #6 pick. While Onyeka Okongwu figures out how to blend into Atlanta rotations on both ends of the court, tonight may be a good time to offer Syracuse native Nathan Knight some steadier frontcourt minutes behind Capela and John Collins. Pierce and his staff get little public credit for helping mid-tier pick Huerter (career-bests of 54.1 eFG%, 1.3 TOs/game and 1.2 SPG) become an All-Rookie second-teamer and a decent perimeter gunner, for ensuring Collins remains a worthy “Hey, let’s see if Atlanta will take our trash so the restricted free agent won’t leave them for nothing!” talent, for helping Clint Capela be the contributor everyone hoped he could be, for helping De’Andre Hunter become the sophomore pro hardly anyone was expecting. And it is just a rolling assumption that Trae’s swift ascension toward All-Star strata is all-natural, a foregone conclusion. That is all understandable LP’s positive work gets overlooked, given the results in the standings and the scoreboard often fall below expectations for Atlanta’s Basketball Club. Without a voice with gravity standing up on behalf of Coach Pierce before, during, and after the games, with persistent floundering and the appearance of tone-deafness, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility Young wakes up one morning to a bucket of ice water, courtesy of an old-fashioned drill sergeant like Jim Boylen, or winds up extracting splinters from his video-room seat while enduring a Hubie or a Fratello-type telestrator tongue-lashing. It’s not Lloyd’s job to be his star player’s eternal source for spotless, sunny dispositions. But Trae and his fellow young core of Hawks may soon figure out, too late, that there ain’t no sunshine when he’s… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “I’m tellin’ you, our duo nickname is gonna be catchy! You just gotta go by ‘Hooch’!” I’m putting as much effort into the thread for this game, between the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Indiana Pacers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), as the Hawks (aside from Skylar Mays) put in while preparing for last night's game versus Gregg Popovich, DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “No foul call. No peace!” Just four home games remain before the “Break”, and our Atlanta Hawks have to make the most of it with a back-to-back, tonight, versus the San Antonio Spurs (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Whoo-Whee It’s Cold in SATX), and tomorrow, against Nate McMillan’s prior employer, the Indiana Pacers. In a theme similar to several of our Hell Week visitors from just over a week ago, the Spurs (14-10, 1.5 games behind 4-seed Phoenix) have hardly had to move before arriving at State Farm Arena. Much has been made of their ability to, yet again, stay afloat in the uber-competitive NBA West, earning coaching legend Gregg Popovich plaudits he isn’t even seeking at this stage of his career. But the biggest beneficiary to his team’s record, to date, has been the schedule. Until arriving in Atlanta ahead of today’s contest, the Spurs haven’t left the Lone Star State this month. In fact, they haven’t seen an NBA game outside of Texas since Steph Curry delivered one of his Y’all Must’ve Forgot performances back on January 20 in Oakland. After that, seven consecutive home games at AT&T Center, then a horse ride over to Houston, then a gallop home for a series split with Steph’s Dubs. Twenty-five games in, and the Hawks (11-13) are the first Eastern Conference team the Spurs have visited all season. Their last road win came in Portland back on January 18, a victory made less impressive by the fact the Blazers were readjusting after losing CJ McCollum in the game versus Atlanta two days prior. Over three weeks of home cooking, and the Spurs have done, well, a’ight for themselves. LaMarcus Aldridge left midway through a blowout loss against Memphis back on February 1, and he remains out while getting treatment for a hip flexor, the same sore hip he had season-ending surgery on back in 2012. In his absence, San Antonio has gone 3-1, earning close victories over the Wolves, Rockets, and Warriors before a third-quarter combo of Curry and Kent Bazemore (24 combined points in that quarter) did them in during their last game on Tuesday. After showing some promise in the twilight of his career as a remodeled stretch-five last season, helping San Antonio nearly extend their absurd playoff streak to 23 seasons, Aldridge has the look of a 35-year-old pro hooper who now shoots threes primarily because his post-play faculties (career-low 8.4 rebound%) are betraying him. In his absence, Coach Pop has had to jump-start Jakob Poeltl, a 2016 discarded ninth-overall pick who has been (stop me if you’ve heard this before about young second-tier lotto picks, Hawks fans) wildly inconsistent. Coach Pop has also had to turn to a starting unit that often appears to have three swingmen on it. Poeltl, who signed a three-year deal in the offseason to stick around, arrived in the Kawhi deal that also brought DeMar DeRozan and a future pick that became Keldon Johnson into Popovich’s stead. DeRozan no longer treats three-pointers with the disdain Manhattan maids have toward windows (33.3 3FG%, nearly a career-high on 2.0 tries per game). But the 6-foot-6 forward is basically thrust into Aldridge’s former stretch-big role, due to San Antonio’s creakily constructed frontcourt. DeMar mans the 4-spot ahead of occasional Hawk Killer Rudy Gay who, like Aldridge, is in his 15th NBA season. Johnson, the 6-foot-5 second-year pro out of UK (y’all remember Kentucky Basketball?), is the Spurs’ leading rebounder, at 7.1 RPG. That’s just a shade ahead of Dejounte Murray (7.0 RPG), San Antonio’s starting point guard who is their secondary playmaker behind DeRozan (career-high 6.7 APG, just 1.7 TOs/game). Lots of players doing uncustomary things is how Coach Pop hopes to spur confusion for opponents preparing game plans. After playing in just 17 games for the entirety of his rookie season, Johnson has started in all 25 Spurs games so far. Similarly, My Main Man from 2021’s Draft, Devin Vassell, has to be shocked the slow-growth Popovich tabbed him for his first NBA start on Tuesday. Peachtree Ridge’s Finest was put on the top line as Derrick White’s long-awaited return from a toe injury proved a bit shaky. Until the point guard can put his best foot forward, Coach Pop is going with a Lands of Always Winter pairing of White-Walker off the bench. With Tre Jones and Luka Samanic on G-League assignments, and with Trey Lyles and Drew Eubanks used sparingly, Popovich runs out lineups that run at best nine-deep. Players know they’ll get quick hooks if they turn the ball over (NBA-low 10.9 TO%), don’t scamper back into defensive positioning in transition (NBA-high 38.8 opponent D-Rebs per-48; NBA-low 13.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs), don’t help secure boards off opponent misses (75.2 D-Reb%, 4th in NBA), or get too hack-happy (NBA-low 17.0 personal fouls per-48). Beyond their friendly schedule, it’s Popovich being a stickler with fundamentals that has San Antonio sitting comfortably above .500 even without Aldridge around for this seven-game road swing. Against mediocre competition, quality possession control keeps them in the running just long enough to grant Murray and DeRozan (career-high 89.2 FT%) chances to save the day. It has also helped the Spurs they’ve been lucky. Either that, or they’re savvy enough to know precisely whom to foul. San Antonio opponents’ 72.7 FT% (lowest in NBA) is diametrically opposed to Atlanta foes shooting an NBA-best 82.1 FT% (incl. 83.2% here at “home”. We sure could use some Thundersticks!). Hell Week concluded on Saturday for the Hawks’ players, but it continues unabated for head coach Lloyd Pierce. The challenge of climbing uphill, for coaches like Pierce, now in his third NBA season holding the whiteboard, is figuring out ways to out-strategize and outwit old-timers and long-haulers like Coach Pop and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. We’re eternally grateful that LP figured out how to do this 13 months ago, when Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish conspired to mercifully end The Curse in Alamo City. Then, there are games like Wednesday’s in Dallas, where the Hawks’ backcourt failed to close out on perimeter shooters and the game alike. The league’s worst three-point shooting team went 7-for-9 from Deep Ellum on many open looks in a 118-117 win over the Hawks, leading many fans to become far less gracious of LP’s tactics. Pierce’s schedule has faceoffs forthcoming versus Defense Over Everything Tom Thibodeau, Big Brain Brad Stevens, and Smarmy Face Erik Spoelstra. Getting repeatedly hoodwinked and bamboozled won’t help LP’s cause, nor will further complaints of a lack of “defensive urgency” by his own team stifle criticism of his own adequacy. My Man 20 Grand, Trae (25 points, 15 assists @ DAL) must find ways to excel in this game knowing his scoring output won’t likely come from pleas and idle threats for whistles. The Spurs will give him a multitude of pressures and traps, from a variety of angles and players, and he will have to make smart decisions with the ball in his hands and smarter choices away from the ball. He and the Hawks guards have to help secure long rebounds and keep the open-looks from Patty Mills and the Spurs’ shooters to a minimum. On offense, the ball must wind its way, preferably up high, to John Collins (33 points, 8 rebounds) and Clint Capela (21 minutes @ DAL due to foul trouble, 19-game double-digit rebounding streak ends), who should find size advantages galore to exploit. Similarly, the ball should hardly touch the floor for Danilo Gallinari (2-for-12 FGs @ DAL), who is due for a bounceback game after his would-be game-saving shot fell short in Dallas. Atlanta’s frontcourt leaders should be able to up-periscope most defenders the Spurs throw their way, and by boatracing San Antonio’s “bigs” in transition, they can alleviate pressure on Young and Atlanta’s perimeter shooters, enlivening the Hawks’ stale transition offense (10.2 fastbreak points per-48, 5th-worst in NBA; 14.2 points per-48 off TOs, 3rd-worst in NBA). We all recall how close Popovich himself came to getting usurped in his third season at the helm, probably by ex-Hawk and ex-Spur turned TV analyst Doc Rivers, after a 56-26 season and disappointing playoff run was followed by a drab 6-8 start for the perpetual also-rans to 1998-99. Coach Pop was rapidly running out of fingers with which he could point at other people. “The Admiral’s and Tim Duncan’s prime years are being wasted!”, was the hawt take of the time. Without the stick-to-it-iveness by the franchise with their self-appointed head honcho to see things through, there is likely no 31-5 finish to the strike season, no Memorial Day Miracle, no kickstart to an impressive NBA Finals and trophy run for the Spurs. Certainly, at least, not for him. Sometimes, for these neophyte NBA coaches, all it takes is some Big Fundamentals to turn the trick. Until then, instilling small fundamentals will do enough to pass the time. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “Thanks for the warning, Trae. Gorilla Glue for conditioner would’ve been a BAD idea!” Are we gonna get a second-half NBA schedule soon, or nah? It has been a tough slog for Atlanta Hawks, LLC. Modest momentum uprooted last March, shut out of 2020’s Bubble, constrained offseason practice time after months of waiting, unable to get key newcomers healthy and acclimated and on the floor simultaneously, delayed ability to sneak fans into The Farm, Karen. For Lloyd Pierce’s mostly young core of talent, the inability to immerse his team with significant practice time, in-season, remains a persistent barrier to growth, although this three-day layoff surely has helped. Despite the on-sideline setbacks, the on-court results have been right where I had Atlanta in the preseason Lethalputer, at 11 wins (11-13, if the Suns game had gone through) ahead of today’s visit to Lukaland for a rematch with the Dallas Mavericks before a live, national audience (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW, ESPN). The Hawks haven’t won the games I would have preferred – you know the ones. But they’ve also grabbed some Ws, over opponents like the Nets, Sixers, and Clippers under whatever circumstances, that I pegged as probable Ls. Up to now, everything has evened out. There remains, though, this uneasy feeling, that Tony Ressler’s basketball venture is going to get screwjobbed, somehow, some way. They’ve built up goodwill with the NBA front offices, granting the league some good pub by opening The Farm as a voting venue in the leadup to 2020’s general elections, collaborating with HBCUs and local citizen advocates as part of its Unity Nights promotions. They’ve committed to cutting-edge protocols with the aid of Sharecare and Emory brainiacs to safely shoehorn fans into a limited array of seats. As of this moment, though, any arena revenue Tony Our Tiger may be anticipating, as our populations get healthier and vaccinated, as the team gels following the returns of Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee-fracture recovery) and De’Andre Hunter (arthro-knee surgery) in the coming months, remains up in the air. Pierce and the coaching staff were granted just 18 days to scout and prep for upcoming opponents ahead the opening half to this season, and they may not get much more with the second half currently scheduled to commence 29 days from today. We don’t have a solid sense of what the final 35-game schedule could look like, what the resultant road/home and divisional or conference balances will be, whether Atlanta’s 8th-highest strength o’ schedule will ease like Dallas’ 2nd-ranked schedule strength surely will. With pandemic caseloads nationally such as they are, whether these games will be held at individual NBA home sites still feels less than certain. ESPN’s Woj reported last week that the back-end schedule rollout is still one or two weeks away. That’s a little too close, for my comfort, to the All-Star break. After Atlanta’s homestand closing win over the Raptors this past Saturday, the Hawks have but four remaining scheduled home dates over the next four weeks. Half of those four will occur this weekend, a back-to-back with the low-draw Pacers and Spurs in town. Tony and Hawks Inc. cannot be happy with the schedule-makers. Perhaps this unstable milieu is why The Association, and Chris Paul’s Player Union, are so adamant that an All-Star extravaganza must be held in Atlanta, a development that seemed to fall like an anchor out of the sky when it was first revealed as a probability last month. Could this be a salve for the news that’s yet to drop? Maybe they’ll use the high-profile game as a place for league media to promote the best second-half matchups, Mark Jones will announce, “when the entire NBA returns, March 11, to The Thunderdome in Tampa Bay!” I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. I’ve got no idea what Chrafty Chris is really scheming with this Trojan horse at our town’s doorstep. I’ll tell you what, though. Rick Carlisle and the other coaches had better do their darn job and make sure Trae Young is announced as one of the Eastern Conference reserves on TNT Thursday a couple weeks from now. Don’t let me turn on Al Horford’s Internet next month to find everyone losing their minds because Luka Doncic (past 5 games: 29.4 PPG on 10.6 FTAs; 42.3 FG%; 8.8 APG, 5.4 TOs/game) is standing at center court in The A, holding up the All-Star Game MVP trophy while CP3 claps and sneers, and while Trae is biding time from his bat cave in Oklahoma. No, not while John Collins (last 8 games: 21.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 58.0/47.5/88.2 shooting splits, as per bball-ref) is all over town schmaltzing for his first big contract as Atlanta’s ASG “ambassador”. Don’t have Collins (season-highs of 35-and-12 in the Hawks’ 122-116 loss to Dallas on Feb. 3) donning the headsets in a suit and palling with the announcers like he’s Frank Kaminsky in Charlotte while the games and sideshow contests go on with non-Hawk participants. Don’t do it! If “winning” truly matters, if NBA advanced metrics matter, don’t let me catch Young getting snubbed with Bradley Beal (6-14 with the Wizards) starting and Jaylen Brown penciled in while Trae enters today possessing the same exact Player Impact Estimate (15.4 PIE, tied for best among NBA East guards) as those two, while Atlanta’s star has the same 11-10 record in appearances as the so-called Finals contender Celtics’ Brown. If “context” matters, don’t paper over Young and the Hawks’ tribulations with tales of what the Wizards and Celtics have endured. I’m not Trae’s cherry-picking girlfriend, nor his butt-kissing media analyst, I just act like that sometimes on the Internet. Unlike some significant others, I know where to direct my ire if my favorites aren’t getting their just desserts. Just do your jerb, coaches, and get Trae back in there. And please note, at least one other Hawk deserves a first-time slot, too. He entered NBA retirement as a quadragenarian in Texas, and after winning a ring with the Spurs, he played his final game as a Mav, sharing the floor with Damien Wilkins’ Sonics in 2007. But 15 years before, he had Damien’s uncle, Dominique decreeing, “I have never seen anyone be so dominating. Ever.” Hope you didn’t let MJ read those comments in the paper, Kevin Willis. An aging Moses Malone left Atlanta in what passed for free agency in 1991, setting the stage for Willis’ Reign of Rebounding Terror. He couldn’t know whether the Hawks would ever return to title contention, or even the playoffs, under the watch of coach and part-time magician Bob Weiss. However, in the first year of his long-sought multi-million-dollar annual contract, Willis was committed to rebounding the mess out of the basketball. “It’s hard to say,” Willis told the media, “but I am the focal point this season and I need to apply myself.” He began the 1991-92 season collecting double-digit rebounds in 20 consecutive games, a run not seen in Atlanta since the days of Bill Bridges in the early 1970’s. “Eight years. Eight (BLEEP!) years,” Stan Kasten would say while kicking the big man he stuck by, through thick and thin, “and he had the talent to do this, all that time.” Who knew? Big into wearing and selling fancy and colorful leatherware fashion, Willis had become a terror to longhorns and backboards alike. Animal welfare advocate and Mavs center James Donaldson was no match for Willis when he rolled into Reunion Arena and collected his momentary career-high 31 rebounds in a Hawks victory, also finishing one point short of becoming the first 30-30 man in an NBA game since MVP Moses was fueling the Rockets for the final time in 1982. That 20-game run of double-digit boards concluded in December when Weiss played him “only” 31 minutes in a washout loss to Cleveland. No biggie. Beginning with the very next game, Willis would rattle off 40 consecutive contests coming away with ten or more rebounds, securing All-Star awareness while shattering Bridges’ Hawks franchise record. Not long after appearing in a mid-season classic highlighted by legends Magic Johnson and Vanilla Ice, Willis came home and bit the Washington Bullets with his personal game-best of 33 rebounds. Not even Dikembe would approach Willis’ consistent rebounding mastery in Atlanta. A 20-game stretch like that would not be seen from a Hawk again. Not, perhaps, until today. Former Rocket Clint Capela can pass Dwight Howard’s 19-game streak from 2017 and join titans Bridges and Willis in the upper pantheon of rebound streaks. The Game Done Changed since Willis’ heyday. But need it be mentioned that Capela (NBA-highs of 14.2 RPG, 15.0 O-Reb%) is also turning back 2.4 shots per game (3rd in NBA)? Across the floor, Clint has kept the Hawks as even-keel as possible, he and Trae guiding the constantly shorthanded Hawks to their best record through 23 games since Dwight and All-Star Paul Millsap reached the same 11-12 mark in the 2016-17 season. All this must be said to insist, don’t let me spot Kristaps Porzingis (20.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG) around here on All-Star night while Capela sits as an afterthought. Not unless the Unicorn’s boxing Nate Robinson in a halftime exhibition. Relax, Nate, I’ll throw the towel. Fans can go goo-goo over phenomena like Luka and vote their teammates in, as we are wont to do, but the coaches aren’t obligated to follow suit. If we must have another Mav tagging along as a reserve, might I suggest former Hawk Tim Hardaway, Jr. (5-for-10 3FGs @ ATL on Feb. 3; Luka and teammates went 8-for-30)? Despite the wishes of some capologists, Junior opted back in for this season and ranks 8th in the league with 76 made threes. He’s putting up the best offensive figures of his Dallas tenure (17.3 PPG; 5th-lowest TO% among NBA’ers w/ 400+ minutes) while helping everyone around the Metroplex forget about the Mavs (NBA-low 33.8 team 3FG%) letting Seth Curry walk. 11-12 may not be where some fans would have hoped the Hawks would be, ahead of what so far is the season’s only Hawks game on The Four-Letter Network. But there is some solace in that a game or two below .500, like Atlanta (1.5 games behind 3-seed Brooklyn) is a lock for at least a Play-In series in the NBA East. Going forward, it’s just a matter of holding serve and not letting losing skids get out of hand as the team hopes to get closer to full strength. Out West, a similar record like the Mavs (11-14, percentage points above Horford’s OKC for 13th in the conference; 2.0 games behind 8-seed Golden State), around season’s end, will have MFFL’ers here and abroad living on Tankathon. The Warriors stomped the Mavs 147-116 here at American Airlines Arena, one night after the win in Atlanta, and needed every last bit of Luka’s late heroics (42 points and 11 assists) in the rematch to ease indigestion from Steph Curry’s 57-sauce burger on ABC last Saturday night. On the Left, I suggest, while we’re Left… Start it! The ceiling is the roof for Cam Reddish after his disastrous home outing versus the Mavs a week ago. Much is made of his shooting struggles and inconsistencies, but in his elevated role as a starter, particularly in Hunter’s extended absence, it will help Cam to get in positions on the floor where he can Set It Off. On the left side of the floor, Reddish has made 5 of his 9 3FG attempts from the corner. Other side? 2-for-13 on the season from the right corner, and hopefully not counting. Saturday against the Raps, Cam sunk his one left-side three-point shot above-the-arc off a dime from Trae, expanding the Hawks’ second-quarter lead to five. On the right, 1-for-3, including both misses from the corner. Small sample sizes make for great theater. But inside the arc on non-straight-away shots, as per bball-ref tracking, Cam’s been a Redd-iculous 1-for-14 on 2FGs (0-for-6 in the paint) on the right (wrong?) side, a far more rational 7-for-21 (5-for-14 in the paint) when the Dutchie gets passed on the left-hand side. If our Hawks want to get the party started right, and quickly, finding Cam where he is most likely to produce as a jump-shooter, and encouraging him to drive and pass swiftly where he isn’t, is a sound strategy to promote a more balanced offense. In the meantime, he can work on his right-sided jumpers and floaters behind the scenes. Getting back to .500 before the national audience, while stashing the Mavericks further below that level as Mark Cuban makes excuses, would be nice and a confidence boost for Atlanta ahead of a road-dominant schedule. But with the biggest picture we’re allowed to see looking forward, it would be ideal, to me, if the Hawks were waking up on March 11 with some post-All-Star glow and a chance to match the total number of wins (20) from one year prior. It will take a lot of work, quality coaching and focus, but it’s possible. Will our Hawks be awakening on that March 11 morning in Atlanta, in some other NBA town, or in some hermetically sealed hoops hemisphere? I suspect only Adam Silver and CP3 knows for sure. Just like good neighbor Chris warns his State Farm agent, my Spidey senses are tingling that something’s about to go down. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. “But, OG… what about Scarves?” I don’t have much to share ahead of today’s game, where the Toronto Raptors hope to leapfrog the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA East standings (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN up in Maple Leaf Country) after playing the yo-yo’d Kevin Durant in Brooklyn last night. I do have one small rant. With everything going on ahead of the start to this whack-a-doodle NBA season, I really didn’t have major wishes, aside from hoping the Hawks would start out looking like a Play-in threat in the East, and by season’s end, a Playoffs threat that no higher-seed wants to see coming. So far, m’kay, even with the foreseeable swoon of this Hell Week. But there is one, really big, super-duper wish for this season that I want sitting under my NBA tree. Under no circumstances should Central Florida get the opportunity to host NBA Finals games. Again. Here in Atlanta, we had to jet our Thrashers to Manitoba after zero playoff victories in 12 seasons. Meanwhile, over in Tampa Bay last September, Lightning fans were thrilled to watch their team, all the way up in Canada, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, for the second time in their history, no less. It’s early, but it appears as if they’re well on their way to a return trip to the NHL’s championship round this season, too. Our Bravos got blocked out of the World Series for the third-straight season. But over on the American League side, the Rays snuck right in there. And a franchise that never seeks to splurge on anything suddenly had an intere$t in a feller named Ozuna. Thank you, pencil-pushers in some distant Colorado office park, for stepping up on our baseball club’s behalf at the last minute. Our Falcons vapored off into the ether after reaching the pinnacle of success through almost three quarters of a Superb Owl in 2018. At least we’ve long had the Buccaneers to kick around. Until now. Look who’s come in from the snow, looking for a salary tax break! None other than our old friend Tom Brady, who found the synchronicity with Tampa Bay’s initials too much of a marketing opportunity to pass up. TB12’s back in the Superb Owl, again. We can be happy the Saints didn’t make it, I suppose. Thanks a bunch, Tom Terrific. Oh, and where are this year’s grand football festivity being held? All because of one measly little ice storm and a sketchy Buckhead murder case, Uncle Arthur had to blow down a perfectly fine domed stadium (at least I think he did; I couldn’t see past the MARTA bus) and, for a nice dash of luck, tear down an old church or two, just to get a Superb Owl back in this town, one won by You Know Who. Tampa has had THREE Superb Owls in that rinky dink Ray J since then! Yes, the same place that will still put your eye out with a cannon-fired mini-football, that seats 6,000 fewer people than Atlanta’s “old” venue. What are they really packing in those Ybor City cigars during the sales pitch? Uncle Arthur suffered through several unkind cuts in 2020, not just involving his Dainty Birds. He was supposed to get some of that sweet NCAA revenue at The Benz, before the pandemic hit. COVID couldn’t even scramble here fast enough to save Atlanta United from endangering Josef Martinez’s leg. While the Five Stripes floundered and forced Arthur into Head Coach Firing #1, King Josef’s “children,” Orlando City SC, finally started smelling themselves after all these years. Atlanta’s Floridian foes nearly pulled off the MLS is Back tourney in their own backyard and finally claimed their first MLS Cup playoff win. Josef should be back to resume his reign of terror over Orlando City soon, hopefully if all the MLS players don’t wind up getting locked out. About that backyard. I thought Disney said this would be a place where all one’s dreams would come true? Florida’s official NBA team (sorry, Magic. At least you made the Playoffs), the Miami heat, would get to “CuLtUrE!” their way through the NBA Bubble, all the way to a Finals matchup with LeBron and Company. Central Florida got to host a Stanley Cup BOAT parade, World Series games, the Bubble NBA season, playoffs and Finals, the entire WNBA season, playoffs and Finals, the MLS is Back tourney, an MLS Cup playoff game. And tomorrow, the granddaddy of them all -- a Superb Owl, sickly barbers notwithstanding, with the home team in it for the first time ever, led by one very good, crazy-lucky QB seeking what should only be, like, ring #4. All in the past eight months, smack in the middle of a pan pizza. It is that pan pizza, now stuffed with anchovies, that had Canada telling their nation’s sole NBA team, “I don’t know where you’re going, but you can’t stay here.” Like the MLB’s Blue Jays, the Raptors (10-12, just like the Hawks) and the NBA had to shop around for an All-American venue willing to borrow them. Seattle? Ha-ha, very funny. Louisville? KC? Buffalo? San Diego? Orange County, California? Masai Ujiri had already moved the entire basketball operations to California, to keep things functional during the then-defending-champion Raptors’ time in the Bubble. But an East Coast arena made more sense for the Eastern Conference club. A place where, if there are to be fans, the protestor quotient would be low. And since there’s no need to replicate Toronto’s climate, a little extra sunshine for the snow-pterodactyls would be nice. Hey, here’s an idea! How about…? So Tampa catches yet another break. Some sports cities have all the luck. But it’s not supposed to be the town that brought Creamsicles and pewter to our American football color palette. The one saving grace we’ve had is that, up until this past week, it has not been smooth sailing for coach Nick Nurse’s club. Raptor fans raved about the opportunity to formally make Pascal Siakam their 1-A superstar. But Spicy P was nearly gobbled up faster than a Popeye’s sandwich under all the pressure. Tampa-to went 0-6 with him in the lineup to start the season, its only victory coming against the Knicks as Siakam was benched for a reported “disciplinary measure.” Pascal was getting to obligatory 20/9/5 per-game splits, but by the time the Raptors fell to 2-8 by blowing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Portland, his mediocre 46.3/31.0/75.0 shooting splits were becoming worrisome. Aaron Baynes is the only burly, prototypical center left around Siakam (Alex Len was, well…), and it’s perhaps the only reason the Baynes Train hasn’t been put in the shed (5.5 PPG in 19 starts, 40.9 FG%). What Pascal has been able to do is the leave the perimeter shooting (12.5% on 3.2 3FGAs/game over last 10 games) to his heady backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, while helping OG Anunoby and twizzle-sticked sub Chris Boucher from getting overwhelmed inside. FVV has been flashy but inconsistent. Nine points (1-for-7 3FGs), 4 TOs and no trips to the line in Sunday’s win over the Magic in Tampa, 54 points (11-for-14 3FGs) two days later, in the Gator State rematch down Interstate 4, 11 points (1-for-9 3FGs) last night. Until recently, Lowry has struggled to force turnovers when he isn’t sacrificing his tuchus drawing charges. VanVleet was a big resigning, but Ujiri’s only free agent addition, besides Baynes, was DeAndre’ Bembry, and only now is the longtime Hawk cracking Nurse’s rotation. Indicative of the Yboraptors’ woes is when Siakam has a tough time setting up his teammates – Tampa-to is 1-8 when he registers three or fewer assists, a respectful 8-2 conversely, including the loss to the Blazers and last night in perhaps his best performance of the season (33 points, 9-for-10 FGs, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, no TOs @ BRK). Despite Anunoby’s and Boucher’s best efforts, Tampa-to’s team rebounding isn’t potent enough to compensate when any combination of Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam are performing poorly from the field and/or not getting to the free throw line. One fortune to Tampa-to’s season thus far is they’ve played just three back-to-back series this season, but they’ve dropped both, on the road at Portland and most recently a couple weeks ago by 15 in Indiana (without Siakam, who was missing time with a swollen knee). Anunoby remains out with a calf strain, which ought to help even the odds a bit for a Hawks team that is seemingly disadvantaged due to injuries with everybody they face (Trae Young and Onyeka Okongwu remain questionable; Kevin Huerter remains probable; the other usual suspects remain usual). The Raps certainly were not built by Ujiri to advance deep through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, not this year. But then again, the Brady Bucs had to win three road games in order to host a Superb Owl, and here we are. It will be best for the rest of the conference, and for my sanity, to keep the Raptors down and looking forward to a return due north next season. Like sands through the top of the hourglass, Tampa and Central Florida’s sports luck needs to run out, completely, after tomorrow. No Tampa Raptors in The Finals is all I ask of this league! In the meantime, my prop bet money’s on Queen Latifah causing a surprise wardrobe malfunction on Toronto-native and Canadian crooner The Weeknd at Sunday’s halftime show. The parlay: will she tell him, “Don’t worry about it”? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. And, to think… we almost had him. Hell Week continues as our Atlanta Hawks trudge through a tough week with a visit from the happy-go-lucky Dallas Mavericks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW, SlovenlySportsNet in Ljubljana), and our opponents’ arrival begs the question: How much longer must we wait until Luka Doncic finally turns the corner and emerges to become an NBA star? We hear about “patience” a lot. And it’s understandable. After all, former head coach Lloyd Pierce constantly reminded us about how Luka (8.8 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.4 RPG) wouldn’t even turn 22 years of age until the end of this month. New coach Nate McMillan hasn’t wavered in confidence about Doncic’s growth curve as he slowly masters the NBA game. For his first two seasons, 2019’s All-Rookie Second-Teamer has been a useful tool off the bench behind Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry, displaying flashes of occasional flair whenever Dennis Schröder let him handle the ball. Shadowing future Hall of Famer Vince Carter for the legend’s final seasons of his storied career was a nice touch. “I did all I could to help the young man navigate the rigors of this league,” Carter, now a gameday analyst, would say of his swingman prodigy. Now, with Schröder doing hard time for the next 18 months, assuming good behavior, Doncic has been thrust unexpectedly from the small forward to the point guard spot. The results for the Hawks (8-13) have been fun on occasion, but mixed. In time, with better commitment to offseason conditioning and defense, he’ll be a steady influence on the top line with peripheral All-Star candidate John Collins and Kevin Huerter. Collins (40.3 3FG%), making strides since his PED suspension as a bouncy, burly forward that can step outside and hit threes, has helped accommodate Luka, who is clever maneuvering inside for scoops and scores, but is a dreadful perimeter shooter (29.3 3FG%). Not having Schröder around has helped relieve Doncic from the burden of being parked in the corners for inefficient bailout shots at the end of the shot clock. The lobs to Collins, Jabari Parker and Jaxson Hayes are entertaining, especially when the bigs bother to finish around the rim. But the defensive skillset, going three seasons in, is lacking, and returning from Europe out of game shape didn’t help in the transition to this season. Absent the foot speed and lateral quickness to keep up with average guards, Doncic has been useful primarily in attaching to ballhandlers’ hips, funneling drives into the paint, hope they miss, and helping secure defensive rebounds for transition chances. Schröder, Evan Turner and Jeremy Lin were all worse. But not by much. Summoning the ghosts of Josh Smith, Luka gets easily mopey when things aren’t going his way. And during this latest losing skid, there have been many such times. Now locked down to a max-extension, Collins openly grouses when one-note Doncic wears down the shot clock and sets up chances for himself rather than his mates. Similarly, certain fans in the stands grouse when Coach Mac yanks Luka early in hopes of a defensive upgrade. McMillan deserves time to institute better principles for the Hawks’ shaky team defense, and to figure out how to pick up the pace, keeping Lukaball from slowing games to a crawl. Despite the Hawks’ six-game slide, bringing forth chants that it’s imperative that we Suck for Suggs, Luka has been all anyone could ask of him in this perpetual-tank setting. He’s not developing any worse than fellow Hawks Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada, Onyeka Okongwu, Hayes or his similarly thin mate Aleksej Pokusevski. In due time, he’ll be worth the wait. But, gosh almighty, it would be so good to have some Traemania around here right now. Tony Ressler desperately sought a franchise-defining player when he insisted on having GM Travis Schlenk take Doncic in 2018’s Draft (“There was only one schmuck in the room,” he says in hindsight, “and that was me.”). The Hawks owner has got his man. And, so did Mark Cuban. The Hawks and Mavs each avoided the minefields of going all-in for tempting big men like Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, Jr., and Mo Bamba. But as the ATL dithers about with Doncic and his dizzying potential, around the Metroplex, it is all about Trae Young, the brightest star in a town that is oriented year-round to the Cowboys. Young was exactly the change of pace that Cuban and the Mavericks envisioned when they moved on from a future Hall of Famer of their own, in Dirk Nowitzki. Rumors abounded that Dallas wanted to go the Euro route again. And, after all, they just drafted their point guard of the future one season before. But Young and his Mahomes-style Big XII, big play offense is proving to be exactly what the Shark Tank star ordered. Moving on quickly from Dennis Smith, while he was still an asset, allowed the Mavs to build the roster further. Smith’s 2019 trade to the Knicks helped bring the healed-up Kristaps Porzingis into Dallas to rekindle his unicorn reputation, along with former Hawk Tim Hardaway, Jr., producing an explosive T-n-T backcourt. Sharp-shooting Seth Curry is sorely missed after leaving in free agency. Still, defenders Josh Richardson and Cam Reddish provide Mavs coach Rick Carlisle the balance he needs to compete every night in the wild NBA West. Dallas is 10-10, isn’t terribly deep, and is likely a first-round exit for now. But who cares? Mavs basketball is fun again. Last year in the Bubble, Young came of age under the playoff lights, splashing buzzer threes and clutch shots to keep the Clippers stressed (pro tip: you might not want Reggie Jackson covering him with a playoff game on the line). Dallas sports fans are so enthralled with their Lubbock, Texas native, Young, that they’re even rooting for OU in the Red River Rivalry. All of 22 years old himself, Young (27 PPG, 9 APG, season-high 16 assists on Monday) has already been minted as an All-Star caliber talent. And James Harden hitting the trail for Brooklyn has left Trae as the Lone Star State’s lone NBA superstar and high Vegas-odds MVP candidate. While national media speculates around the clock about the types of third-wheel stars, like Gordon Hayward, the free-wheeling Mavs can woo in free agency, Atlanta’s slow-growth strategy only draws short-term plugs like Wesley Iwundu. Here at State Farm Arena, some have interpreted Luka Doncic as Slovenian for “Big Tease.” Others around town have cynically declared him “Marvin Williams Part Deux”, given his pre-draft hype has yet to materialize while a more sure-shot lead ballhandler prospect was there for the taking. They note how eager the Hawks were, with this pick, to appease a certain segment of the fanbase to come hang out downtown. In that regard, it worked! (Greetings, by the way, to all our newfound fans at our sister site, At least, until the pandemic hit everyone hard. But even with what was record attendance constrained, like on Monday, there’s always the telltale Instagram model and RHOA wannabe bleating incoherently at opposing stars while drinking dark liquor, standing beside some sugar daddy that looks like an extra from a Viggo Mortensen action yarn. Win or lose, Luka has brought quite a cast of savory characters to The Funny Farm. Hopefully, they’ll all stick around to see this project through. That is, if they can avoid getting thrown out. Gremo Jastrebi! (Let’s Go Hawks!) ~lw3
  19. “If you’re ever gonna be a head coach in this league, Quin, you’re gonna have to quit sucking your thumb.” Is it crazy to question if the Utah Jazz – yes, the Jazz – are slipping just a bit? It sure would come in handy against an Atlanta Hawks team that just hosted Doncic and the Lukatics last night. The Jazz waltz into State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in SLC) with a 16-5 record, the NBA’s best. They were certainly firing at all cylinders even before they throttled the Hawks, 116-92, in Salt Lake City back on January 15 (Trae Young shot just 1-for-11 on the evening and added just two shots from the free throw line). But upon tipping off for what would be their fourth-straight win, the Jazz embarked on a nine-game stay entirely within the Mountain Standard Time zone, leaving The Beehive State just twice to visit their Nugget cousins to the east. They enjoyed the ability to scout and play consecutive games against the Pelicans and the Mavericks on their own turf, sweeping those games by double digits, too. It took Denver’s Nikola Jokic, catching Utah on their fourth-game-in-six-nights and racking up 47 points and 12 boards to finally muffle the Jazz in January. Still, the surge was good enough that Quin Snyder earned the Western Conference Coach of the Month award, his first since March 2018. All was well returning home, as the Jazz blitzed to 28-point opening-half and 27-point third-quarter leads against the downtrodden Detroit Pistons on Groundhog Day. Then, in a stretch that Utah won’t want to wake up and re-live, their lead was whittled down to four with 90 seconds remaining. (This feels like a thing, with the Pistons.) Cold shooting, blown free throws, slippery backcourt defense, sticky iso-ball… no matter. A couple of quick threes from Bojan Bogdanovic in the closing minutes helped to finally put the Pistons to bed. Donovan Mitchell (32 points vs. DET; 6-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL in January) missed out on the Mavs series while clearing his way through the concussion protocol. There remain stretches, notably in the preceding Pelicans series, where he can look like his dominant self, and runs of play where it appears he could use a Snickers. And much of Spida’s excessive ballhandling seems unnecessary, particularly while playing alongside Mike Conley (+30 plus/minus vs. ATL on Jan. 15; behind only Kawhi Leonard among NBA starters for plus/minus per game) with his renewed efficiency. In games when Donovan exceeds the 32.5 percent usage produced against Atlanta last month, Jazz outcomes are a toss-up (3-3, incl. blowout losses to the Knicks and the per-Harden Nets), compared to 11-2 when his teammates execute a higher share of the plays. Even last season, Utah was 1-9 when Mitchell’s usage exceeded 36 percent (44-17 otherwise). When he’s used in a traditional 2-guard role, he thrives (50.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG%, higher than all but Joe Harris and Paul George among NBA’ers with more than 2.0 makes per game) and the Jazz do, too. Atlanta (10-11) wants Mitchell (career-high 3.4 TOs per-36; 0.76 iso points-per-possession, lower than all except Vic Oladipo among NBA’ers with more than 2.0 iso possessions per game) milking the clock and producing more turnovers than the paltry ten they coaxed out of Doncic and the Mavs last night. What the Hawks don’t want is the floor spread and Mitchell joining Conley, Bogdanovic, and sixth-men Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles having field days with open shots beyond the 3-point arc. All of those players have made over 40 percent of their treys, excepting Clarkson (38.2 3FG%), who isn’t too shabby, either. So far, Utah has shot better in away games (41.0 team 3FG% on the road, 2nd in NBA) than they have in SLC. Sticking Trae (questionable, bruised calf), defensively, onto Mitchell and not falling for the trick of helping may be a “trap”, of sorts, in the Hawks’ favor. By acquiring Mitchell for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles, the Jazz won the 2017 draft-day trade with the Nuggets in a rout. For the Hawks to ever say they edged out Dallas in 2018’s Draft, we’ll need to see much more than we got out of a listless Cam Reddish yesterday (1-for-8 FGs, 2 wretched turnovers vs. Luka, 1 assist, no steals). Reddish played the fewest minutes of the Hawks’ starters last night, and today he’ll need to be energetic and impactful at both ends. Offensively, and perhaps by design, Cam was one of Atlanta’s bright spots against Utah in January (team-high 20 points, 4-for-5 3FGs and a pair of O-Rebs), but his inability to produce stops (1 steal in 28 minutes) had him end the evening with a game-worst negative-34 plus/minus. Reddish needs to be disruptive in picking off passes to Utah’s would-be shooters and turning those into transition buckets. Defensively, Clint Capela and John Collins (career-high 35 points vs. DAL) hope to do a better job of having Rudy Gobert (15-and-13 plus 4 blocks vs. ATL on Jan. 15), Georges Niang and Derrick Favors in jail when they get touches around the paint, keeping the Jazz (30.0 team O-Reb%, 2nd in NBA) to maximum one-shot possessions. But if Reddish, Young and Kevin Huerter (probable, sore ankle) are letting the Jazz bigs’ outlet passes go undeflected, they’ll be effectively bailing Utah out. If the Jazz are slipping a bit, don’t treat them like the Mavs and break their fall. Happy Trails to Bebe. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. Sure hope they’ve Patched things up! It’s our Atlanta Hawks versus the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, here at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Spectrum SportsNet in LAX). MVP candidates LeBron James and Anthony Davis are in town for this high-profile matchup, the first of what is shaping up to quite a Hell Week for our up-and-coming Atlanta club. But this isn’t the adversarial relationship with Georgia residents that I still have my eye on. It’s February 2021 and, somehow, “The State of Georgia versus Dennis Schröder” is still open. This was a case that opened in September 2017 within the young confines of the City of Brookhaven. The newly incorporated suburban city took over jurisdiction of long stretches of old strip shopping centers along the ATL’s infamous Buford Highway, in 2012, from DeKalb County. Their police arrived in the wee, small hours of a weekend morning to find one man down on the asphalt outside a hookah bar, and other men ambling around the lot fishing for their car fobs. Schröder himself owned a hookah lounge in Atlanta’s Buckhead, but somehow found himself in the middle of the fray at closing time of a separate spot along Buford Highway, not far from his place of residence. Police reviewed a video that – there’s that word… “allegedly” -- showed Dennis and three of his menacing allies serving up ten fingers and ten toes apiece to the aggrieved victim. The Brookhaven coppers arrested the accused attackers, charging them with misdemeanor battery. They were released pending arraignment, but there would be no such hearing for over two years. A few months after the incident, the victim fashioned up medical records indicating a torn ACL and a torn meniscus, enough leg damage to qualify as a Hawks free agent target. DeKalb’s Assistant Solicitor General recommended upgrading the cases to a felony charge of aggravated battery, in light of the severity of the injuries, surgeries and rehab presented. The entire time that the wheels of justice were moving like the Grizzlies’ Kyle Anderson, Schröder was the marquee name for the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club. His incident would occur right around the tipoff of NBA training camp, raising the specter of untimely Hawks’ transgressions past. Albeit almost by default, Dennis would go on to average a career-best 19.4 PPG, plus a shade over six assists and a steal per contest for Mike Budenholzer. Yet Atlanta’s award-winning coach surmised that sticking around for a roster rebuild under first-year GM Travis Schlenk, with a felonious punk leading the charge, was not likely to end well. Schlenk also suspected the point guard he inherited, once hoped to be a bridge between the height of success under Coach/GM Bud and a new regime, might not even be around the NBA for much longer, for a reason that had nothing to do with basketball. It’s why Trader Trav was bound to replace not only his lead ballhandler, but his franchise face. However, he knew he had to hurry. It’s nice to have a fixer. But Schlenk couldn’t just don a white coat and connive behind the scenes to make this case disappear. He couldn’t control when DeKalb County might turn the case over to a grand jury, dragging it back onto front-page local news and A-block sports opinion shows. He works in a sports town where anything that can go wrong usually does, in short order. Yet it’s remarkable that the video evidence reviewed by Brookhaven police in 2017 never resurfaced in the hands of TMZ, CourtTV, or any other Enquiring Minds eager to scrutinize the blow-by-blow. Perhaps it’s because the victim, due to some combination of common-gender and having just one uninjured leg instead of three, didn’t generate media interest, keeping the potential for scandal just beyond the public scope. In an inner-ring county where making some big “Tough on Crime” stink, about a local athlete facing justice for some late-night dude-spat, doesn’t exactly stir the pot, DeKalb DA Sherry Boston hasn’t had any urge to comment on the snail-paced proceedings. There’s the likelihood that the other alleged assailants, including one aging Gambian soccer star, are somewhere overseas, complicating matters for those in charge of the case. But it has also helped, resolutely, that Dennis wasn’t playing for some hyped-up pro sports team. Not one like the Los Angeles Lakers (15-6, 1.0 games behind the Clippers in the NBA West), where Kyle Kuzma changing his hair color becomes a story fit to print. The AJC hasn’t followed up, nor has the LA Times or even the OC Register. It took the full 2017-18 season, and all the way beyond the fateful 2018 NBA Draft, yet Schlenk was able to move what seemed to be a ticking, albeit lightly-smoking, PR time bomb out of his hands. Schröder’s trade to the Thunder allowed Dennis to reset his career arc in swaggerless Oklahoma City. Perhaps, one thought, it would further encourage the criminal case against him to waft into the ether. He did return to what’s now State Farm Arena once, with OKC in January 2019. The only bench mate of Russell Westbrook providing his club anything of substance, he offered 21-and-6 in 27 minutes, only to see his old teammate, John Collins, and his new rookie replacement, Trae Young, prevail in a 142-126 shootout. But with his own hookah hangout shuttering and his lounging days subsiding, by most accounts, Dennis hadn’t returned to Atlanta to face the music. He is back in town today, but things have since changed for him, on the court and on the docket. An indictment hearing and grand jury warrants proceeded in September 2019, and an arraignment hearing was scheduled for March 2020. Incidentally, the scheduled date was just days after the NBA shut down due to a surging bi-national pandemic, and just before Schröder, receiving the highest praise of his professional career under the tutelage of Chris Paul, could return with the Thunder for another game in town. The last note in DeKalb’s Judicial Information System regarding Schröder was an “Application for Leave of Absence”, posted in June 2020. By that point, Schröder and the Thunder were preparing for a momentous trip to the NBA Bubble in Orlando, one that would cement Dennis’ value in the league as a top-line sixth man and a borderline star. Statistically, Dennis’ maturation was best demonstrated by his field goal shooting, career-bests of 51.3 2FG% and 38.5 3FG% in his second go-round with the Thunder. Consecutive games scoring 29 and 30 points, helping OKC even their first-round series with James Harden’s Rockets, and a season-high 31 points at STAPLES Center nine months before, would not go unnoticed by the Lakers’ real GM. In this past offseason, LeBron ordered an upgrade of wayward-shooting Danny Green, and Rob Pelinka got the deal done, sending Green and Jaden McDaniels to the Sooner State and outfitting Schröder in regal purple-and-gold. Dennis is a full-time starter for the first time since departing the Hawks, as the NBA champions wage for a repeat. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski noted in December that the Lakers were eager to lock Schröder, currently an unrestricted free agent, down with a contract extension. But his agent saw no need to rush, and not because the Lakers hold his Bird Rights in the coming offseason. Fifteen days from now, Dennis’ eligibility for an in-season extension can be raised from two years and a five-percent salary raise to four years and up to as much as $83 million. From February 16 on, he might be inclined to take what the Lakers offer him. In part, it’s because his play has regressed. Entering today’s game, Dennis’ 28.9 3FG%, 50.6 TS% are at levels not seen since his washout rookie season with the Hawks in 2013-14. As LeBron (7.8 APG, down from an NBA-high 10.2 APG last season; career-best 41.3 3FG%) capably manages primary play-setting and play-finishing responsibilities, Schröder’s 19.7 assist percentage is a career-low. And there are but scant hints of the elevated defensive aptitude gained from playing under and alongside CP3 last season. Balding eagle Alex Caruso (52.8 3FG%, 2.1 APG, 0.9 TOs/game) has been the more efficient option as a true Laker point guard so far. But to keep Schröder in a mood to negotiate a reasonable deal, and to keep him focused on improving ahead of the NBA Playoffs, the Lakers don’t want coach Frank Vogel stirring the pot just yet. Another reason Schröder might soon be nailing down some long-term, guaranteed money is that a day could come – hopefully, not today – where he gets the long-awaited tap on his shoulder that his presence has been summoned in a Georgia courtroom. Maybe the victim will eventually let bygones be bygones, take a little parting cash under the table, and petition the courts to drop the case. But one would imagine that such transactions toward a closure, if possible, would have transpired by now. Hawks fans can be grateful that, in shipping the squirrely Schröder and a Moose in 2018’s multi-team deal for what could be a low first-rounder in 2022, Schlenk didn’t wait to find out whether our Rocky and Bullwinkle would become our Boris and Natasha. Having Trae Young (41 points @ WAS in Friday’s 116-100 win) in Schröder’s stead was a bonanza for what used to be a box office, and he remains a far more stable option to build a franchise around. The week ahead for Atlanta may not be quite as hellish a homestand as once feared. The four visiting opponents have certainly had their super stars and sterling reputations in recent seasons. But one must note that, if the season ended today, the Hawks (10-9) would be a definitive playoff team (i.e., no play-ins required), while forthcoming foes from Dallas and Toronto, each sitting at 8-12, would not. Tonight’s result is incapable of changing that. The Mavs, in particular, may very well lose their sixth straight game tonight, at home versus CP3 and Phoenix, despite being fully healthy. Like the finally cooled-off Jazz, who’ll arrive one day later on Thursday, Dallas will depart Atlanta to play the back end of a back-to-back series. The Lakers themselves haven’t been exactly at their best, and that’s not simply because of Schröder’s uneven performances. The Lakers have really struggled to clamp down on opponents over the past two weeks. Steph, Draymond and the Warriors caught Los Angeles sleeping at STAPLES back on January 18, eking out a 115-113 win. The Lake Show went on the road to win three straight, but only perhaps the victory in Davis’ Chicago hometown came in impressive fashion. They needed an ungodly 46-point performance by LeBron to salvage a win in his home metro of Cleveland, one week ago. That was before slip-ups in Philadelphia and, while resting Davis, Detroit on back-to-back nights. Tonight’s game, the final of a seven-game East Coast odyssey for the Lakers, comes after a Saturday slog in Boston, a 96-95 victory over the Celtics marked by 1990’s tempo and lousy perimeter and free throw shooting from both teams. Marc Gasol has been serviceable as a starting center, mostly for sopping up 20 minutes per night that don’t require Davis (questionable, quad) or LeBron (questionable, ankle) to slide over to the 5-spot for defensive purposes. Montrezl Harrell (8-for-10 FGs, 3 blocks, 2 steals) has been able to maintain his presence as a sixth-man spark. But rarely, in recent weeks, have the Lakers been able to contain the quality starting frontcourt players in the league, be they Andre Drummond or Joel Embiid. Even Blake Griffin pulled off some vintage play on the Pistons’ behalf last week. That bodes well offensively for the Hawks’ Clint Capela (seven double-doubles and 1 triple-double in past 9 games) and Collins (19.8 PPG, 52.6 3FG% in last 4 games), if they continue to out-run their assignments on the floor and turn touches into quick shots. It would certainly help Atlanta’s cause if they had a healthy De’Andre Hunter this week. Second to Trae (probable, sore knee) in minutes-logged last season, and second in per-game minutes in this one, the Hawks’ most improved player was diagnosed with articular wear-and-tear after injuring his knee in Washington on Friday. Hunter underwent a non-surgical procedure to deal with his discomfort over the weekend and hopes to return soon. Months of compensating for the absences of Collins, last season, and Danilo Galllinari at the 4-spot have perhaps, taken their toll on Hunter. But a healthy Gallo can make up for lost time by putting a foot in the backside of the Lakers’ frontcourt defenders, especially if a road-weary James and Davis are occupied with helping Schröder and Caruso with Young. Los Angeles’ NBA-best 104.8 D-Rating is predicated upon keeping opposing stars like Trae (16-for-17 FTs @ WAS) off the free throw line. The Lakers neutralize offenses by allowing an NBA-low 17.6 attempts per-48. Young and ex-Laker champ Rajon Rondo must be masterful in reading and executing on the pick-and-roll (LAL opponents score on 38.4 percent of P&R ballhandler plays, 4th-lowest in NBA), being sure not to force actions but feed their wingmen, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish, when the defense adequately contracts in the paint. In Hunter’s absence, sprinkles of solid two-way play from Tony Snell, Solomon Hill and rookie Onyeka Okongwu (probable, sore Achilles) will be needed for Atlanta to sustain competitive efforts against the league’s top teams, particularly if those teams are playing at their top levels. It remains curious that the sports and local media has not pried further into Schröder’s irresolute and longstanding legal circumstance, even as he returns intriguingly close to the scene of the crime. Perhaps, in the best interest of both Dennis and the title-bearing titans of Tinseltown, it’s for the best that everyone reserves their right to remain silent. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “So y’all was just gonna keep the GameStop news to yourselves, huh?” Purgatory Week’s Game #3 is here! And I bet you can guess what one young lady named Kamiah has been up to since yesterday. Do you know, do you know, do you know? That’s right! NBA All-Star team voting is well into its second day, and just like people all around the great District of Columbia, Kamiah Adams-Beal is occupied with people other than herself quietly stuffing the ballot box for their favorite candidates. Maybe even legally. “RT fa me one timeeee !”, The Bride of Bradley Beal exclaimed yesterday while strategically hash-tagging #NBAAllStar on her IG. And who can blame her? Her big-baller beau is carrying the Washington Wizards, or at least as many as can reasonably suit up for the Wizards, as much as ever before. Somebody has to step up on behalf of the NBA’s leading per-game scorer (35.4 PPG), who is also hitting his freebies (88.5 FT% on 8.7 tries/game) and rebounding (5.3 RPG) at career-high levels. It’s a shame he’s had to do it, on a nightly basis, in losing fashion. The good news is, Beal cannot break the record for most consecutive losses where an NBA player scores 40 points, not tonight against the visiting Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). The bad news is, sadly, he has already shattered former Hawks legend Walt Bellamy’s nine-game mark (as a rookie, with Slick Leonard and the 1961-62 Chicago Packers). Beal’s tenth-straight 40-burger defeat came at the hands of Zion and the Pelicans on Thursday. 47 points by Beal, and the Wiz lose by 18. 60 points on January 6, both a personal career-high and a franchise record, all in regulation, and his team falls short in Philly by 5. You hate to see it. I hear you snickering over there, you heartless Hawks fan, you. Cut that noise out. This is not a joking matter! “It’s politics and it’s a joke,” Kamiah shared on the Wizards Radio Network at about this time, exactly one year ago tomorrow. This was after last season’s NBA All-Star Game reserves were revealed on TNT and her new fiancé was left wanting, in both the popular voting and the electoral college. This was upsetting Kamiah, and her homegirls. “It’s a popularity contest. It’s about who has the most followers on Instagram, who has the most likes,” the then-Ms. Adams argued last January, with nary a hint of irony, “and it’s a joke to me… you can’t name five people that were selected for reserves on either the East or the West who are outplaying Bradley Beal right now.” To be real, Kamiah wasn’t wrong. Not until Brad-caster Glenn Consor steered Adams off course by summoning the name of someone not a reserve, voted in by 30 NBA coaches who are supposed to see The Game up close and know better, but a young All-Star starter, one already selected daily by the fans, players, and media members just like Consor, weeks beforehand, on more than just Instagram. “It’s a joke to me,” Beal’s fiancée reiterated, confiding with Consor on the public airwaves when asked, curiously, about Atlanta’s sophomore sensation Trae Young. “Not taking away from his game,” she opined, with no bias whatsoever, “He’s playing cherry-picking basketball.” Har-dee-har-har. In both Consor’s and Adams’ cherry-picking minds, sure, Young was racking up the assists, producing highlight-worthy plays, making people go wow-zers on the Interwebs. Whirling behind backs and between legs to deliver one fancy dish after another into the ever-so-talented paws of Jabari Parker and Alex Len for layup attempts at the rim. But Trae’s team wasn’t winning games, you see. Nothing like their darling Wizards, who were climbing uphill without franchise face John Wall and were at least, by that time, a gaudy 16-31 thanks to Beal. Atlanta, a full 4.0 games behind Washington at 13-36, couldn’t hold a candle. Yet, the Wizards fans colluded to complain, it’s Young who gets to pal around and play reindeer games in Chicago with Beal’s former All-Star buddies, while Kamiah’s future lesser half is stuck at home, cleaning gutters or something. Shouldn’t the standings count for something? This is about ethics in All-Star Game voting! Fast forward one year, and it’s Atlanta (9-9) sitting comfortably at .500, arriving in D.C. merely two days after a moral loss in overtime at home to the surefire All-Stars on the Brooklyn Nets. The Hawks have been missing newcomers, like Kris Dunn (out at least two more weeks post-ankle surgery), Rajon Rondo (questionable, sprained ankle), Onyeka Okongwu (available, sore Achilles) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may have been enough to pull out some of their close-shave defeats (five L’s by six points or fewer). But they, at least, have the look of a play-in team, one that has time to get healthy and gel while they weather through any Purgatory Week and Hell Week setbacks. Meanwhile, Washington (3-11) tired of waiting to see if John Wall, returning this season after an extended injury period, would ever return to All-Star levels alongside Beal. They replaced him in the offseason with former league MVP Russell Westbrook. Despite slinging the ball around at Trae Young levels (10.2 APG, 5.2 TOs/game), Westbrook (37.4 FG%, 61.7 FT%) has struggled with his durability, his shot mechanics, and his defense (1-8 in games appeared, the sole win at Harden-less Brooklyn) while meshing with Beal. Further complicating matters for hot-seat head coach Scott Brooks, a season-ending injury to big man Thomas Bryant three weeks ago had an already shallow roster reeling. Quickly buried on the bench in Tampa, Len was desperately picked up off waivers by the Wiz and is back to logging 20 minutes per night. And, put on for size, seven Wizard players catching Dat Rona, causing a weeks-long delay in the schedule while many continue to recover and quarantine. Washington last beat Phoenix soundly on January 11 before having their game shut down like the MLS lockout. They returned this calendar week and have since lost by 20, by 19 (to a vengeful Wall’s Houston Rockets), and by 18. I guess they’re getting better. So, yeah, 3-11 is 3-11. Dead-last in the NBA is dead-last. But making judgmental decisions about All-Star worthiness based on relative positions in the standings was so 2020. This year, the Beal household wants you all to understand, context matters! At least for the moment, the dollar-store version of Mike Conti, Consor, is wisely keeping his All-Star vote opinions, and his not-so-sneaky shade, to his darn self. Hopefully, by now, Glenn can discern screen-setters from screen-savers. Neither Hawks nor Wizards fans ought to worry their heads over which of their franchise guards is getting voted in by fans on Twitter this time around. There are only two available starting backcourt slots, and with Brooklyn having a physically sound Kyrie and the recently arriving Harden on the ballot, the Nets have those positions, as the cool kids of five years ago might say, on lock. The only competition that remains is decided upon by the thirty head coaches or their designates. With Young in town, Beal is determined to put on a show tonight and put coaches like Lloyd Pierce on notice: if Trae (44.3 2FG%, down from 50.1% last season) gets in, I want in, too. Westbrook, who joined the previous guy he was traded from OKC for, Chris Paul, atop the Western reserves list in 2020, wouldn’t mind getting a few Eastern promises of his own. Frankly, Brad can go for 70 on 70 shots, if he chooses, but he’s got to come away with some wins, too. The COVID-delayed games are getting packed back into the first-half of this season by the league’s schedule-makers, so a bunch of back-to-backs on short notice for Brooks’ crew awaits. The Zards face Brooklyn here at Capital One Arena on Sunday, and Portland on Tuesday, a day before flying down to Miami for a series with a division rival that may have Jimmy Butler back by next week. Narrowing the gap with the Hawks, and heat, would make Beal’s resume look much spiffier by the time the coaches submit their ballots to the league. “We want to win, and I want to win,” Beal shared with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk after Wednesday’s 124-106 loss to N’Awlins. “This is why I stayed… I figured this is the place I can get it done.” “Last year was what it was,” was another Bradley bromide. “We had a lot of guys out. John was out,” Beal added, referring to Mr. Wall and not, coincidentally, to Atlanta’s months-long suspended Mr. Collins. “It was just a rotten year. COVID hit. This year, it’s the same thing. Like a mini-Bubble outside the Bubble. No fans, no nothing, no practice time. It’s been tough.” This is where free agent retainee Davis Bertans, second-year forward Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner will come in handy. The frontcourt trio returns from their COVID hiatus just in time for tonight’s game. Mix in dashes of Len, and Jordan Bell on a 10-day deal, and Washington should have enough frontcourt rebounding to make up for the loss of Bryant, and enough shooting (if Bertans isn’t rusty) to help Westbrook and Beal better spread the offensive floor. Going forward, it’s just a matter of whether Washington (114.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA, last in East) can produce enough stops to finally make Beal’s prolific offense matter. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus data is in! As bad as Beal was at the defensive end last season (minus-4.79 DRPM), along with teammates Troy Brown and Ish Smith (both still out, along with rook Deni Avdija, on the health ‘n safety tip) and Bertans, Brad could usually take solace in looking down at Young (league-worst minus-6.17 DRPM). That holds true in 2020-21. But this time, both Beal (-1.68 DRPM, #434 of 451 NBA players) and Young (minus-2.25 DRPM, #446 of 451) can currently look down upon Beal’s teammate, Westbrook (minus-2.38, #447), to say nothing of star peers Zach LaVine, Kemba Walker and Harden. Of course, fans and data wonks go radio-silent about a player’s problematic defense once a Podoloff Trophy is collecting dust on the shelf. Beal (4 steals @ NOP, 1.4 SPG) is doing a little more in hopes of being disruptive and helping Russ and the Wizards stay in games by scoring off turnovers (19.6 points per-48 off TOs, 4th-most in NBA). But when Bradley’s doing badly at seizing the ball, opposing offenses find it easy to execute first-shots on most possessions (NBA-worst 55.3 opponent 2FG%; 56.0 opponent eFG%, second-worst in NBA). The Wizards’ frontline resistance, with all due respect to Wagner, doesn’t compare with Collins or Clint Capela (54.2 defended opponent FG%). Atlanta’s starting frontcourt duo sends back 3.5 shots per game, slightly more, by themselves, than the Wizards have produced so far (3.4 team BPG). One thing the Wiz will do, when they can’t stop you, they will hack you (NBA-high 23.4 personals per-48). Atlanta can keep Washington in the rear-view mirror by beating their man off the dribble, getting inside on cuts and drives, getting into the bonus quickly, and converting their free throws (4-2 with 25+ FTs/game, two close losses against the Nets; 1-5 with under 20 FTs/game, sole win @ BRK last month). The Hawks have watched opponents, like the Nets (17-for-20 FTs on Wednesday) hit an unlucky 81.5 FT% (highest in NBA), but the Wizards (74.4 team FT%, 23rd in NBA), aside from Beal, are prone to leaving crucial points on the table. Every team in the NBA has been tripped up for a disappointing loss or two. In the NBA East, though, the cream rising to the top is at least winning most of their in-conference games. None of the East’s Top 6 are doing worse than 8-6. Atlanta (5-7), for the next couple of weeks, will have a tough time extricating themselves from the eight Eastern conference teams beneath them. But that feat becomes unnecessarily tougher when the Hawks struggle to close out and put away (negative-2.4 fourth-quarter plus/minus, 27th in NBA), the Hornets, Pistons and Wizards across the league. Hawks fans would have reason to be disappointed, particularly if there is to be some midseason showcase hosted in The A, and Trae Young isn’t sharing center stage. Still, no matter how the final All-Star returns pan out, Atlanta fans won’t be storming NBA offices, kicking their feet up on Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum’s desk just because the official tallies didn’t go their favorite players’ way. I mean, that would be a “joke.” Right, Madame Beal? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “Excuse me, Mr. Ref? I don’t think this is basketball!” Rasslin’ fans: what is your most memorable heel turn? Seth Rollins breaking up The Shield? Nobody can forget Bash at the Beach ’96. My favorite WCW shocker in the 90s was big-bro Scott on the Steiner Brothers, sneak-attacking his baby-faced sibling Rick to join that badass new World order. In more modern times, Tommie Ciampa busting up bosom-buddy Johnny Gargano happened while nobody in NXT was expecting it. They bonded again, but only to find themselves prey to Crossfit Jesus Finn Balor’s stunning heel turn on them. Shawn Michaels smashing up poor Marty Jannetty, once and for all, in Brutus the Barber’s shop was downright iconic. Go back even further, and Larry Zybysko bloodying his ageless mentor, Bruno Sammartino, with a wooden chair created a lot of buzz. As a gimmick, the heel turns are all part of a necessary evil. Everybody can’t be friends until the end, or the goodie-two-shoes hero who does everything by the book and bores every fan to tears. To grease up the adversarial relationships, competitors eventually must jump ships and turn on their mates. Pupils defying masters, masters waylaying pupils. When they’re executed best, the works catch everyone off-guard, tear up old alliances to create new ones, and keep everyone at the edge of their seats. The new heels, from Hollywood Hogan to Big Poppa Pump to the Savior of SmackDown, engender whole new cults of personality. The victims draw sympathy for their plight, making their babyface runs reach unforeseen heights as well. That’s what made Steve Nash’s heel turn on his disciple, Trae Young, last month more fun than a Barrel of Monkeys. “Steve Nash is my favorite player of all-time,” the fresh-faced true frosh from Oklahoma revealed in the run-up to the 2018 NBA Draft. “With his size and my size, we’re very similar. He’s very cerebral, he can score from all three levels, he knows how to get his teammates involved and he’s a winner.” Wait a minute, Trae, what’s this about “three” levels? I thought there were just two-pointers and three-pointers for you little guys! Soon, Trae would up the ante on the fawning by going beyond mere discussions of “favorites”. Kobe’s kid Gigi had her favorite must-see NBA baller, too, but as far as GOATs go, in Trae’s mind, there can be only one. “If anyone asks me who the best player of all-time is,” Young, starting his second season as a pro, proudly told Sam Amick in November 2019, “I tell them, ‘Steve Nash’. That’s my favorite player, and it’s always been my favorite player. I definitely try to model my game as much as I can to Steve.” Aww. I’m not sure who Trae would say is his favorite coach of all-time. Lon Kruger? Aww. One thing, though, is for certain as his Atlanta Hawks get a visit from the stupefyingly star-studded Brooklyn Nets tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK). It sure as heck won’t be “Coach Nash.” Steve understands the task at hand. He’s a first-year coach, handed MVP-caliber talent and ordered to earn some rings, and fast. The whole world is watching him, and learning the ropes on the fly is not an option. He understands that, in order to get his Nets (11-8, 5th in the NBA East) to climb the ladder and grasp the title belt, he’s got to knock upstarts like Young and his Hawks (9-8) out the box, leaving them to fend with the lumberjacks below. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant came to their coach’s rescue as Young’s Hawks waged war with the Nets on December 30, their fourth-quarter heroics seizing the final pinfall of a high-flying, fun-filled 145-141 cage match. Trae wasn’t making it easy. After making his defender scramble around a Clint Capela screen, Young delivered a mini-Rikishi as he went up for the jumper. The ensuing whistle caused Kevin Durant to grab his head in faux disbelief, and a flustered Coach Nash to utter to the referee what had to have felt like a chairshot aimed at his longtime protégé: “That’s Not Basketball!” Oh, really? Et tu, Brute? “I bet if I was playing for Steve, he’d be happy,” a miffed Young told The Athletic’s superb Chris Kirschner in response to his hero’s outburst. “I think [Nash] wanting to get in the refs’ ears a little bit was just trying to help him. I learned a lot about drawing fouls from him.” “If he says it’s not basketball, he must’ve been saying it about himself, because he’s done it a couple of times throughout his career and was so successful.” Mic. Drop. Exit Music. But the cerebral mind games of Stevie “The Brain” Nash got into the heads of the refs and Young, at least for quite a while. After dropping 30-and-11 (14-for-16 FTs) on the Nets, Trae would score just 21 points (7-for-21 FGs) two days later in their teams’ rematch at Barclays Center. Atlanta would win that New Year’s Day game resoundingly, 114-96, in part due to a well-balanced offensive attack and Irving (3-for-11 FGs) cooling off. But Young could only get 4 opportunities to score from the charity stripe, his first game of this season not getting double-digit free throw chances. That drought would linger for five of the next six competitions, the Hawks dove-tailing from 4-1 to 5-6 as the refs’ swallowed whistles neutralized the offense built around Young. 33.0 PPG on 14.8 FTs/game, and 50.7/34.8/90.3 shooting percentages to close out the 2020 calendar year; 16.5 PPG on 5.8 FTs/game, and 33.3/21.4/82.9 shot splits in the half-dozen games after the Nets series. Nice work, “Classy” Stevie Nashty. But it appears that over the past five Hawks games, Trae has been drawing his bumps and getting up off the mat (33.0 PPG, 10.8 FTs/game, 46.1/40.7/87.1). The rediscovered effectiveness of his perimeter jumpshot is opening defenses back up for him to exploit them. Trae’s bounceback sets the stage for an intriguing payback match this evening, one with a new, special-guest competitor. But, first, a quick look back. In the entirety of his illustrious NBA playing career, MVSteve never once averaged 20 PPG in a regular season. The last time in his life the first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer did so, he was a 20-year-old, still in college. Go ask Lloyd Pierce and Marlon Garnett, they were standing right there! The Hawks lead and assistant coaches will recall, back in the 90s, Nashty Nash upping the craftiness of his foul-draws, and thus, his shots at the free throw line from 3.2 to 6.4 per game. In so doing, that took a gangly and otherwise unremarkable Canadian junior from the lowly WCC conference (and not from John Stockton’s Gonzaga, either) and placed him formally on NBA scouting radars. Fast forward ten years, and the guard reached MVP strata, trying to prove his mettle as the Rated R Superstar in the NBA Playoffs. No more was he simply serving up the ball to watch Dirk Nowitzki drain the life out of the shot clock. In Phoenix, Nash and his coach Mike D’Antoni understood, there’s hardly a need to peek at the clock, as play decisions must be made, and fast. Deservedly facing double- and triple-teams while bringing up the ball and at the point of attack, Nash began drawing contact again. A 12.9 percent free throw attempt rate (as per bball-ref) for the point guard, in his final season as a first-round exit with Dallas, became 23.0 percent, 31.3 percent, and 28.8 percent rates as his Suns made their peak charges toward the Western Conference Finals. Thanks largely to free throws, and his legendary accuracy, Nash would average 20+ as a scorer in his first two playoff runs with the Suns. The signature foul draw of his career was getting Rob Blaked by Robert Horry into the sideline boards during a pivotal Game 4 in 2007 and, boy oh boy, Nash sure sold the heck out of that one, eh? Sold it so good, he tricked two tag team partners, Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw into getting themselves tossed and suspended, sapping any momentum Nash thought his Suns would gain by having the refs kick Mr. Playoff Clutch out of the ring. “Four years later,” Raja Bell admitted in 2014 in one of those newfangled things called a podcast, “I’m hanging out with Steve at a bar in Santa Monica somewhere, or somewhere in L.A., and he says that he gave that hip check (from Horry) a little bit of flair.” Whooooo! Just be glad The Canadian Crippler didn’t smash a bottle of LaBatt Blue Light on your head for leaking out the tricks of his trade, Raja! “He admitted to putting a little sauce on that hip check,” Bell confidently shared of Nash’s famously flubbed flop. Mamma Mia, that’s a not a basketball! It was actually Raja running up on The Horry-ble One and nearly getting chokeslammed, not so much Nash’s zesty sauce, that drew the DQs of Stoudemire and Diaw, but that’s neither here nor there. Horry got two games, the other Suns got one apiece. Advantage: Tim Duncan. The Spurs, not the Suns, would go on to sweep young LeBron in the most royal of rumbles. Despite Nash’s best sell, there would be no new World order in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference. And maybe that’s what gets Nash’s gander up when he watches Trae (57.0 free throw attempt rate) waltz to the line with impunity. Like last night, when an exasperated Tyronn Lue, coaching his clipped-down Clippers in a handicap match, could only look on in horror as Young (11-for-11 FTs, 7-for-7 in the second half, along the way to 26 points in the Hawks’ 108-99 win) curried favor with the greyshirts. Basketball is not former Nets head-honcho-turned-heel Jason Kidd demanding Tyshawn Taylor run into his gin-and-Coke so Brooklyn could gin up a timeout it didn’t have. It’s not even the player Kidd racing, toward a clueless Mike Woodson standing outside the coach’s box, so he could run into Atlanta’s coach and draw a momentum-swinging technical. Trae has simply watched what the legends of the league have done, and he works tirelessly on improving upon that. It’s not that petite guards with crafty handles drawing fouls isn’t basketball. It’s that there’s a petite guard in the league drawing fouls better, and earlier in his career, than Nash ever could. We can’t forget, either, that Nash is no longer just some casual, objective mark, but a manager who’s been handed championship-belt expectations from the jump. He’s standing just outside the ring, begging the refs to give his poor jobbers like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot a break when they forget the game plan and find themselves, once again, hoisted up on Trae’s back. No, not another F5! If what Trae has been doing wasn’t basketball, the self-appointed arbiter of what is or isn’t basketball should have marched himself right up the glass tower to Sean Marks’ front office and told his GM that under no circumstances should Brooklyn be going after The Dirtiest Player in The Game. Alas, here is James Harden, in nWo black. That’s right, the guy “Not basketball”-ing his way to leading the NBA in free throw attempts in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, is joining forces with Irving and Durant in a quest for greatness. What’re you gunna do, brudder? Nash stood by and watched as the Nets tossed Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs, and I think B. Brian Blair and Rocky King over the top rope to make room for The Bearded One. All that, plus a trove of future picks and pick swaps that Nash could have used if he and Marks were around to rebuild this roster, if necessary, should the grand plan fail. If the inference wasn’t clear that it’s Win or Bust for Nash before acquiring Harden, it is now. Down the bench, D’Antoni can tell Nash of how he inherited a contender that spent years under Harden and Dwight Howard getting dispatched in the postseasons by the likes of diminutive Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry, only to find his squad getting bounced by Curry and, this past season, LeBron (don’t blame Clint Capela), despite Harden pairing up with another former league MVP. Harden and D’Antoni escaped H-Town after Daryl Morey’s maneuvers left the Rockets with a sizable hole at the 5-spot that only P.J. Tucker could spackle. In the 2021 Playoffs, at crunch time, who is Brooklyn’s last line of defense around the rim? Will it be Durant (7.2 D-Rebs/game, 1.4 BPG), who is already giving it his all at the other end of the floor (NBA-best 139.4 4th-quarter D-Rating)? If not KD, DeAndre Jordan? Reggie Perry? Norvel Pelle? Nic Claxton? Jeff Green? Guys like Bam Adebayo, who amassed 41 points and 9 dimes on Saturday propping up a Miami team that’s been missing Jimmy Butler for a minute, would have field days on the interior if Durant is occupied guarding talented forwards. While the Nets defense (115.2 D-Rating since dumping LeVert, Allen, et al. for Harden, 25th in NBA) contracts to help, the backcourt cannot afford to find themselves getting tuned up like Bickerstaff’s Collin Sexton did while wearing Kyrie’s old number last week. And don’t let a key frontcourt guy like Durant or Jordan get banged up and miss critical time. Three thirty-point threats, and a guy who can bury triples in Joe Harris (48.4 3FG%), used to be enough when teams struggled to average 110 points and play with pace, but no more. On a shallowed roster with few rotational options, can Nash commit Harden and Irving (1.2 SPG apiece) to a sustainable defensive strategy that’s greater than, “I score, you score”? Just to be sure, Nash is going to want to see his stars put a squash job on Trae and the Hawks, who avoided a deflating loss last night with a solid second half. But Young has his share of enforcers. John “C-na” Collins racked up 50 points (61.8 FG%) and 19 rebounds in the last two Atlanta-Brooklyn bouts. There’s also Kevin “Fourth Querter” Huerter, whose Hawks high of 13 points (3-for-3 3FGs) in the final frame helped Young and De’Andre “The Giant” Hunter (team-high 23 points @ BRK on Jan. 1) snip the Clips last night. Danilo Gallinari (probable, ankle) missed all but 3 minutes of the two-game series in Brooklyn. He was held under 15 minutes yesterday and is rounding back into form. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu was DNP’d against LA and can provide valuable floor time plugging the paint after Capela (questionable, hand; 18 rebounds vs. LAC) and Collins (11 boards, 5 blocks vs. LAC). Any defensive help Cam Reddish (questionable, Achilles) can offer tonight is gravy. Nash did offer a touch of kayfabe after the December 30 game, flowering his 22-year-old professional prodigy with praise. “[Trae] took a big jump from last year to this year at drawing contact and recognizing situations where he can draw contact to deceive the opponent,” Nash said postgame, as transcribed by Bleacher Report. “It’s impressive, and he’s done really well. He’s getting to the line at a league-leading rate. I’m impressed and I think it’s a real skill he’s developed.” With Harden sharing usage with Irving and Durant, the race to crown a new #1 contender for the free throw title is on, Young (10.9 FTAs/36) neck-and-neck with giants like Embiid (12.2) and Giannis (10.9) for that coveted spot. As The Beard (7.1) tries to catch up, pulling copious foul-call flops out of his bag of tricks tonight, it would be fun to catch Nash’s other former tutee, Pierce, calling it out: “Hey! Ref! That ain’t basketball!” Nash might think he’s Jim Cornette standing up for his Horsemen and their henchmen, but his old friend LP can bring a tennis racket to the squared circle, too. RIP Sekou! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “I did all I could, coach. You know what would help us out tonight? Some real good wings.” Postponed! We officially announce that Hell Week #1 has been moved to next week. In the meantime, Atlanta Hawks fans, we’re enjoying Game #2 of Purgatory Week. Having ended a quick road trip in Milwaukee, where De’Andre Hunter and John Collins dropped scoring tallies in the 30s (shoulda been 40 for Hunter, to keep it a Buck) to help the short-taloned Hawks, they return to see State Farm Arena, and a few of the LA Clippers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Prime Ticket in LAX, NBATV). Hunter and Collins might be a bit surprised to discover, tonight, they’re destined to be the two best forwards on the floor. Clipper stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are under wraps, quarantining under the NBA’s Health ‘n Safety protocols. A third starter, grimy guard Patrick Beverley, injured his knee during Sunday’s 108-100 win over Mike Muscala’s Thunder, and he will be sidelined as well. stats has Pat Bev and The KLaw as the league’s best 2-man tandem on the floor (min. 300 mins. played) by Net Rating (+20.5), three places ahead of Leonard and PG-13 (+17.7). The latter pairing has a Player Impact Estimate of 57.3, equivalent to that of the Collins and Trae Young combo that serves up the best PIE that any Eastern Conference squad outside of Philadelphia or Milwaukee can offer. Not too far behind is the dystopian duo of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, whose Nets will grace The Farm with their presence tomorrow. Tyronn Lue’s club has performed well in the early going, checking in at 13-4, and they’ll still strive to win their eighth-straight today even without their best leaders. But one must note that six of their past seven games, excepting a trip up the coast to Sacramento, were home games at STAPLES Center. LA’s last loss involved letting Steph Curry go wild in a second half collapse to the Warriors in Frisco. But this is the first Clippers game outside of “The Golden State” since playing around the way in Phoenix on January 3. Further, they’ve made it this deep into their schedule without playing beyond the Pacific or Mountain time zones. The next nine days encompass a six-game East Coast road trip for LA. While opponents won’t exactly constitute a Murderer’s Row, four games are a pair of back-to-backs, including Miami and Orlando on Thursday and Friday, respectively. Returning home from a Brooklyn-Cleveland back-to-back next week, the Clippers will have Boston waiting for them. The only pole position that should matter to Lou Williams tonight is the one held by the Lakers, currently a half-game ahead of the Clips after LeBron’s successful return to Cleveland last night. How well the Clippers finish relative to their banner-raising in-town rivals dictates how successful this regular season can be objectively viewed. The pride of South Gwinnett, Williams has played like a guy sorely in need of a lemon-peppered pep-dance in recent weeks (49.9 season TS%, his lowest since 2005-06; 21.4 FG%, 2.8 APG in past four appearances). To keep up with the Jameses while George and Leonard are shelved, Lue will need LouWill to shake out of his doldrums. The leading active scorer for the Clippers entering today is Serge Ibaka (12.2 PPG, team-highs of 6.5 RPG and 1.0 BPG), which is, well, yeah. A balanced scoring effort versus Atlanta (8-8) is necessary for LA to get this road trip off to a promising start. The newly acquired and contract-extended Luke Kennard (45.0 3FG%) will have to step up, as will point guard Reggie Jackson (5.3 assists per-36, leads active Clips ahead of LouWill’s 5.2). Terrance Mann had some productive minutes when filling in as a rookie for Kawhi against the Not- Ready-for-Prime-Time Hawks back in November 2019 (6-for-8 FGs, 8 assists). The 2019 second-round swingman did the same in winning last season’s finale in the Bubble, when the Clippers sat Kawhi, PG and LouWill, and he’s past due for a quality outing in a game that isn’t a blowout victory. LA leads the league shooting 42.3 percent on threes, but they’re accustomed to Kawhi and PG being the primary creators of open looks. Returning from illness, Marcus Morris will need to be as much of a threat inside the 3-point arc (37.5 2FG%) as outside (47.4 3FG%, highest among active Clippers). Sacre Bleu! Maybe Charlotte was the problem all along? Last season, Nic Batum (34.6 FG% in just 22 games in 2019-20) was behind the glass the Hornets would break only in an emergency. Now, he’s sinking half his shots, digging in defensively (1.3 SPG) and at times looking every bit the multi-tool starter Charlotte thought they were getting back in 2015. The additions of Batum and Ibaka were the key additions in a mediocre offseason directed by GM Lawrence Frank, who bid adieu to Doc Rivers and handed the keys to assistant coach T-Lue (notables on the bench are assistants Larry Drew, Kenny Atkinson and Chauncey Billups). Ibaka has helped take pressure off the green Ivica Zubac, who cannot compare whether starting or otherwise to the departed Sixth Man award winner Montrezl Harrell, now a Laker. But Batum’s renewed competency has allowed Lue, to this point, to get away with a three-swingman starting unit. How the Clippers proceed over the next few games will help assess whether there are alternative rotations that could work at postseason time. The Hawks took advantage of the undermanned Timberwolves and the Pistons to ascend back to a .500 record. Now, with the schedule getting far stronger in the coming weeks, during Purgatory Week, it behooves Lloyd Pierce’s club not to look any gift horse in the mouth. Speaking of Trojan horses, our Man of Troy, firehose-water-guzzling Onyeka Okongwu, did the best he could filling in for Clint Capela (questionable, talk to the hand) in Milwaukee on Sunday. But Giannis and the Bucks nearly doubled up the Hawks on the boards (52-27, incl. 16-5 offensive) in an otherwise entertaining 129-115 loss for Atlanta. The Greek Freak got solid help from Khris Middleton, Donte DiVincenzo, Bobby Portis and even Pat Connaughton, and tonight’s Hawks would do well helping box out and secure boards to win the battle of second chances. LA tops the league with a low 9.8 opponent second-chance points-per-48, but George, Leonard and Beverley aren’t around to help out Ibaka, Zubac and Batum. Ultimately, it would be great to have Young (questionable, back spasms) available for upwards of 70 combined minutes today and tomorrow. But Rajon Rondo (7 assists, 2 TOs in Sunday’s 30-minute start) and Brandon Goodwin will need to provide net-positive production, no matter how long their stints on the floor tonight. Until Cam Reddish (5.9 assist%, lowest among 22 NBA sophs w/ 20+ MPG; 43.1 3FG%, second-lowest) gets his jumper in gear, he’d do well to use his considerable ballhandling skills to help Atlanta keep the rock moving. With or without Trae or Clint tonight, sound passing and rebounding will keep the Clippers chances’ at stealing a victory on some wings and some prayers. Ya Boi is not one of those who will Risk It All to show up at a basketball game, yet there are at least one-to-two thousand of us around The ATL who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity. Fortunately, our Hawks have partnered with Emory Healthcare and Dr. Oz’s outfit, Sharecare, on more than just the floor and jersey sponsorships. Applying the “Safety Six” and “3W” health protocols of their own ought to keep attendees reasonably safe from airborne infection and from each another, while they’re in the building. Wash your hands! Watch your distance! Wear your mask! A fourth “W”? Worry, about any disinformation garbage about masks, tests and vaccines you “learned” from perusing Worldstar forums on your own time, please, and thank you. On top of that, all I ask is that the ticket-goers who saunter into The Farm at any time this season be as True To Atlanta as anybody the Hawks can find. Don’t be That Guy nagging Hawks Customer Service for your money back because Your Guy on the opposing team isn’t suiting up. And don’t let me catch doofuses from Douglasville in there on TV, popping their Nets, Mavs, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers jerseys while trying to distract our Hawks at the free throw line. If we wanted annoying distractions, we’d just hire Pat Beverley full-time. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “Aye, B-Good, after the game, how ‘bout we swap jerseys? Shorts, too!” “You’re a SNITCH!” Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap. “You’re a SNITCH!” The stands were empty on Monday afternoon. But don’t think the ghosts of State Farm Arena past weren’t haunting the soul of one D’Angelo Russell. The man is frustrated, and I’m a bit worried he could be hearing voices. And claps. There’s little wonder why Russell, the Snitch, resorted to playing The Snatch Game with Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter at the close of the Timberwolves’ 108-97 loss in Atlanta on Monday. On a Minnesota club sorely missing Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and others, the team’s current top scorer is trying to show toughness and leadership. It just remains to be seen whether he knows exactly how. This wasn’t supposed to be his lot in life, not six seasons into a career that began as the NBA flagship Lakers’ #2 overall pick back in 2015. But then the kid discovered Snapchat, played around too much, and blew up roommate Swaggy P’s engagement with Iggy Azalea prematurely. Now, D’Angelo looks on with disgust, as the mantle of Point Guard of the Future to Play with Superstars in L.A. got passed on to Lonzo Ball and now to, of all people, Dennis Schröder. He made it worth his while in Brooklyn, earning an All-Star nod, although he couldn’t escape the wrath of the squawking Hawks faithful who jeered him into a 6-for-23 outing and a near-disastrous loss in March 2019. Today, it’s Kyrie standing in his place, as part of the newly formed Biggie 3. Golden State couldn’t wait to pair him up with Steph Curry while Klay Thompson healed up. Then, once Steph joined Klay on the shelf, the Warriors couldn’t wait to put out a flyer for Andrew Wiggins, who enjoys the occasional Curry dish still today. Playing with his buddy, Karl-Anthony Towns, in Minnesota was supposed to be fun. Alas, gloom has followed Russell here, too. Towns is fighting through a bout with COVID-19, a malady that has claimed a parent and multiple family members, while the duo plays for a head coach that has struggled to elude the shadow of his late father in the Twin Cities. 2020’s lottery luck brought them the #1 overall pick in Anthony Edwards, but coach Ryan Saunders and the Timberwolves have yet to show how the Ant-Man and Russell can mesh (minus-22.2 points per 100 possessions as a two-man combo, MIN’s second-lowest w/ 150+ minutes, as per bball-ref) without getting in each other’s way. With a single Jimmy Butler-inspired playoff appearance to show for the past 16 years (a series dominated, coincidentally, by Houston’s Clint Capela), and now one win to show for the past eleven games after a promising 2-0 start, the 2020-21 season already feels headed to that familiar sunken place for Wolves fans. Steady 20-plus-PPG scoring, with five-plus assists per game to boot, used to be enough to have major value and earn staying power in this league (Russell’s plus/minus of -11.8 per game is far-and-away the lowest of 24 NBA’ers meeting this threshold). Big multi-year extended contracts, like the one Timberwolves’ second-year GM Gersson Rosas inherited from Golden State by dumping Wiggins and possibly this year’s top-3-protected first-rounder for D’Angelo, used to be immobile, too. In 2021, Russell foresees himself, despite his soon-to-be $30 million annual deal, still getting passed around the league like a hot pierogi. He gets to watch other top scorers dictate precisely where they want to go, or, if they choose to stay, who they want coming to play with them. When they warn you repeatedly “Don’t Press Send!” on a stupid social media post, and you smash down the button anyway, your destiny as a professional is officially out of your hands. D’Angelo knows he must offer something else of positive value to change his career narrative. He’s not quite sure where that ray of sunshine is, which is why he’s out here grabbing at anything he can. That was much to the dismay of Hunter, who had to cling onto the final meaningless possession on Monday with D’Angelo draped on one arm, then jump-ball with a sore knee (like Cam Reddish, he’s still questionable to play today) while Russell’s shoes never bothered to lift from the floor, the guard whining about the quality of an unnecessary toss with the referee. The Hawks fans didn’t forget D’Angelo’s Snapchat misdeed, and he in turn couldn’t grow up enough to forget their taunts. He missed out on playing Atlanta at all last season, and he thought he’d offer up a touch of payback worth remembering, before the Hawks play their rematch tonight (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP), even though us fan-trolls are all now catcalling from the comforts of our Barcaloungers. If anything, Russell’s chicanery on Monday is already far less memorable than KAT giving our lowly Hawks shade, and then lots of buckets, following his late-night gaming escapade Gameboy Ben Simmons from that same month of 2018. For as infrequently as he faces the Hawks (nine games, fewest of any team he hasn’t already played for; 20.8 PPG w/ 43.8 FG%), D’Angelo would do well to make like Frozen and Let It Go. Trae Young is shooting the ball worst of anyone in the NBA’s current 20-and-5 Club (39.0 FG%, the only one lower than Russell’s 44.0%). But he’s maintained a franchise-face presence in Atlanta, a team that at least looks to have a play-in trajectory on paper, and I suspect that’s what really grinds D’Lo’s gears. That Young is getting to the line with ease and, aside from Wednesday, sinking them even easier, sticks in the craw of Russell (68.9 FT% on 3.5 attempts/game) almost as much. Trae’s Hawks do have 99 problems, but a Snitch, well, you know. In the decisive final seconds of regulation, as the shorthanded Hawks charged back from 17 points down in the second half to even things up with Detroit on Wednesday evening, Atlanta’s head coach Lloyd Pierce had Trae in the game. On defense. Young gave us his latest submittal as a DPOY nominee by staving off a hard-charging Jerami Grant under the rim, his help giving the recovering defender John Collins just enough time to erase the Piston star’s would-be game-winning layup attempt. The Hawks would go on to prevail, 123-115 in OT, and even their record to 7-7. In the decisive final seconds of regulation, after his team threatened to blow a 20-point home lead to the remnants of the Magic, and mere minutes after the Hawks’ victory, Russell was on the bench, a coaching decision made by Lil’ Flip just in case a swift defensive stop was needed. One was needed. Up by two with under five seconds to go, Jarred Vanderbilt clanked a pair of would-be game-clinching free throws, and Orlando’s Cole Anthony grabbed the long board and sprinted down the floor, delivering for his struggling Magic on a corner heave over Malik Beasley that had Greg Anthony looking like the proudest papa on NBATV’s Crunch Time. Instead of escaping with a sorely needed win, Minnesota fell to 3-10, still looking up at everyone in the Western Conference standings. Fortunately for Minnesota’s spirits, Rosas had just recently missed out on the opportunity to pass up on Cole Anthony. Almost one year ago, Atlanta’s PBO Travis Schlenk had handed him Brooklyn’s draft pick, the multi-team swap bringing the Hawks Capela (∞ points, ∞ boards vs. DET) while landing the T’wolves Beasley and, eventually, a reservation two spots behind Orlando in 2020’s Draft. (oooh, and speaking of suspected snitches, how about Evan Turner, as @NBASupes helpfully reminds us?) Rosas could have doubled up on top-20 first-rounders, much like Atlanta did in 2018 when they used Minny’s pick (wherever on Earth you are, blessings to you, Adreian Payne) to select Kevin Huerter (career-highs of 15.4 PPG, 50.7 2FG%, 84.6 FT%). With the #19 pick, perhaps the Wolves could have tried their luck with prospects like Precious Achiuwa, Saddiq Bey, or Tyrese Maxey. But Rosas wanted to bring back Ricky Rubio to the North Star State, a surefire fan draw in a season with no fans in the seats. Right now, Saunders and the T’wolves are up a creek, and neither Rubio (6.3 PPG, 38.1 FG% pre-quarantine) nor compadres Juan Hernangomez (health ‘n safety, likely out again today) and Towns, have been around lately to help Russell paddle. Minnesota’s maleficent malaise over the decades has involved a cycle of making the tough decisions to part with high-value talent, but not getting much more of value in return. From KG, to Al Jefferson, from K-Love, to Butler, and now Wiggins. Even though the Wolves are reluctant to pull the triggers, they make big, bold, blockbuster trades. They just can’t seem to win them. In Rosas’ turn at the wheel, it is beginning to appear as though that time is arriving again soon, with Russell and Atlanta-native Beasley in his sights as the league’s trade deadline nears. Just the slightest of winning runs puts their 2021 first-rounder in jeopardy (they gave up their own second-rounder, too, in the Wiggins deal), and at some point in the back end of this season, a healthy Towns and Rubio and a growing Edwards makes that risk very real. In the meantime, Rosas needs just what transpired this week. He needs Russell to ball out (31 points, 4 steals and 7 assists @ ATL, team-high 19 points, 6 assists and 2 blocks vs. ORL) enough to pump up his trade value, but not so much that he risks Minnesota losing out on a top-tier lottery pick. Same with Beasley, who threatens to join a 20-and-5 club of his own, too (career-highs of 19.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG). Ultimately, for Russell to improve the likelihood he winds up this summer with a bench-scoring-starved legitimate playoff contender, and not Sacramento, the hijinks are going to have to stop. No coach or GM, aside from maybe LeBron, is going to risk silliness sinking their championship voyages. D’Angelo is going to have to understand, every step he takes, every boneheaded play and/or video post he makes, some GM out there is secretly recording his every move. Should the Hawks fans he wants to Troll So Hard be the ones to break the news to him? Nah, we ought to keep it to ourselves, there's no need to risk stitches. Don’t press send, y’all! RIP, Hammerin’ Hank! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  25. “Please, don’t T me up! I was just trying to do the Buss It Challenge. Now, I’m stuck like this!” Los Angeles’ Anthony Davis shoveled a pass down the right corner to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Donte DiVincenzo stood, with a foot still stuck in the paint, confounded. KCP had already hit six threes on that chill Thursday night. LeBron was closing out on his season-high 34, featuring six threes of his own, and Davis was chilling, too, with 18-9-and-6. Bucks defenders struggling to contain either Laker superstar left Caldwell-Pope and a slew of other contributors open all night. By the time Donte could react -- too late! KCP looks back at AD to see if he wanted it back, then confidently swishes three-pointer #7. For Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, watching James and the LeBronnaires pick apart a team coming off two consecutive seasons as a #1 seed in the East had to be a haunting feeling. Hawks fans recall looking on in horror as a decimated Atlanta club, coming off its greatest regular season ever, finally made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, only to have J.R. Smith looking like the second coming of Kyle Korver, anytime they dared to double LeBron. The next season, in the conference semis, Coach Bud’s Hawks had to contain LBJ and the healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, only to find themselves fit to be Fryed. The Cavs sank over half of their threes on the way to another 4-0 sweep and, this time around, an NBA championship. Bud did have one scrappy competitor coming off the bench in 2016’s series. Budding guard Dennis Schröder was taken two picks after Milwaukee stole Hawks prospect Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013’s NBA Draft, and he outscored LeBron with 27 points in Game 1 of the second series. Bud would sour on Schröder, and Dwight Howard, as potential leaders he could hang his hat on. But, not before Dennis would help Atlanta pull off some more menacing wins over James’ Cavs in the regular season, during the Hawks’ last hurrah with Coach Bud still in charge. Bud had Luke Babbitt playing 42 minutes in November 2017, with rookie John Collins offering support off the bench. While LeBron’s Cavs, this time with Korver on their team, were figuring out what the heck Bud was up to, Schröder had 28-and-9, and the 1-8 Hawks stole one at The Q, doubling their win total and denying Cleveland a chance to return to .500 as they fell to 4-6. James was beginning to craft his exit, and so was Budenholzer. Both have had grand success in their new NBA locales. In L.A., James cleaned house throughout the organization, and commandeered the arrival of Davis and his next championship ring. Budenholzer elbowed his way into the opportunity to coach up the Greek Freak in Milwaukee, earning the Greek Freak a pair of MVPs, somehow a DPOY (which I think AD noticed), and some more Coach of The Year hardware for himself. This past week, the Lakers were in Milwaukee, on national TV, and this time with Schröder in his corner, James had the Bucks’ head coach in perpetual Budface mode. Los Angeles sank 51.4 percent of their threes on Thursday, three days after Kevin Durant and James Harden’s Nets teammates, Jeff Green and Joe Harris (combined 9-for-16 3FGs; whole team 48.4 3FG%), found themselves routinely wide open beyond the arc. Milwaukee won 60 games in his first season in charge, finished 2019-20 on pace for 63, but was stopped by Kawhi and Jimmy Buckets (or, if you prefer, Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra) from reaching The Finals. Even if he manages to get over the Eastern Conference hump at long last, is there a game plan for The James Gang that doesn’t feel, especially from the vantage point of Hawks fans, like the same old song, just with a different beat? The coach that replaced Budenholzer in Atlanta, Lloyd Pierce carries his Hawks into town tonight (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin, NBATV) hoping to win four straight games for the first time since Bud’s Hawks were closing out the franchise’s last winning season, in 2016-17. Atlanta (8-7) will face a Bucks team that’s not wild about the prospect of losing three straight games again. The last time that happened, in March of last year, a 10-point loss by the 53-9 Bucks to the Lakers (LeBron and AD combined for 67 points) led to a three-game slide on the road, one that only ended because of the NBA season suspension. The ship never quite righted in the Bubble, the Bucks winning just 3 of the final 8 regular season games, getting upset once by the Magic in the playoffs’ opening round, then trounced by Miami’s three-point marksmen in a conference semifinal series that only went five games. One thing the Bucks (9-6) can’t complain about is rest. After beating Luka and the Mavs at Fiserv Forum to win their fourth-straight game, they had two days off before losing in Brooklyn, then a couple days off before falling here to the Lakers. Milwaukee has had a couple days off to lick their wounds before dealing with Atlanta tonight, and then they get a couple days more to rest before meeting the Raptors down in Florida. Given all this extra time to reflect and reset, the thing the Bucks must resolve is the knowledge that it’s possible to walk and chew gum when playing defense. Opponents have made the decision of whether to clamp down on opposing stars posting up or driving down the lane, or, to cut off and close out stopgap shooters waiting in the wings, an either-or proposition. They’ve already had five games where they allowed opponents to hit shots at a 45 percent clip or better, and they’ve lost the whole quintet. It’s not just Finals threats like the Lakers and Nets. After winning their Christmas Day game, the Bucks flew to New York and got trounced by 20 to the Knicks, who hit 59.3 percent of their 27 3FG attempts while also getting fouled and drawing plenty of trips to the free throw line. What Milwaukee would rather do is shoo ballhandlers and their passes inside the 3-point line, daring them to engage in a futile battle of interior field goal accuracy with Antetokounmpo (62.0 2FG%, highest of any active NBA’er w/ 9 or more 2FGAs/game), Khris Middleton (56.5 2FG%, belying his 44.3 3FG%) and Jrue Holiday (56.1 2FG%). While they won’t have to worry whether Clint Capela (∞ rebounds and ∞ blocks in Atlanta’s 116-98 win @ MIN on Friday) is going to go off this evening from outside, Milwaukee is going to rely on latching Holiday and DiVincenzo (combined 3.3 SPG) onto Trae Young (43 points, 8-for-12 3FGs @ MIN). The Bucks may catch a break, as both Capela (sore hand, as you might imagine yours would be) and Young (back spasms) are listed as questionable. Whether Trae plays, and stays hot shooting from deep, or not, Atlanta will need to get the ball out and around the horn to open jumpshooters the entire evening. Besides Rajon Rondo coming in during the ends of halves on Friday to pad the Hawks’ lead, and Young, Atlanta’s remaining Hawks shot a collective 4-for-17 versus the well-worn Wolves. Danilo Gallinari, and the swingman tandem of Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, will see looser minute restrictions going forward after coming off injury absences of varied length. Getting these three, and Kevin Huerter, going on threes, and a dash of John Collins stepping out will keep Antetokounmpo defending in space, he and Middleton unable to help Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis inside as Atlanta crashes the glass in pursuit of putbacks and extra-chance opportunities. A plethora of wide-open made threes will help add to Budenholzer’s growing headaches. LeBron, AD and the NBA champs’ front office made strong offseason moves to bolster its chances for a back-to-back championship. Milwaukee did secure Giannis for a good while. But GM Jon Horst’s roster re-construction – replacing Eric Bledsoe with Holiday, depleting the bench of veteran talent – felt like a club that took a big step sideways after coming up short two postseasons in a row. There is ample time to fix what ails the Bucks, who threaten to slip out of the top-ten for defensive efficiency after leading the league the past two years. But even if they make it out of the East this summer, if the head coach doesn’t figure out how to tighten up their perimeter D by the time the Lakers show up, they can go ahead and nip their championship dreams in the… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3