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  1. B? Leave. Ugh! Another PEG (Playoff Elimination Gamethread), already? We were just starting to have some fun around here! Anyways, some Tidbits. The “Atlanta Sports” narrative is the Hawks let the head coach who sought his independence by abandoning this franchise, some four score and three years ago, walk out of town on Independence Eve with a glittery Eastern Conference trophy ball under his armpit. The competing, “Believe Atlanta” narrative ain’t tryin’ to hear none o’ that mess. If the Milwaukee Bucks have learned anything from the 76ers, it’s that these Atlanta Hawks don’t fear The Reaper. With all respect due to the Blue Öyster Cult, and to the happy people of Starkville, Mississippi, do you know what the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals series could use? A little more Collins. We have Finals Fever, and the only prescription is, more Collins! Ring it up! We’re going to insist that John Collins (0-for-5 FGs with neither a board nor an assist in Game 5’s troubling first quarter) really explore the studio space, this time. That goes for Game 6 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), before a rambunctious, standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, and once more in a couple days back in Wisconsin. He’s got to make enough noise, with his two-way play, that it becomes downright uncomfortable for anyone who has to share the stage with him. At the risk of summoning the FULPers, Collins’ prior head coach, seemingly as a point of pride, indicated on many occasions his gameplans run, paraphrasing, “literally not a single play” for an athletic, energetic fella, one who was supposed to go out and rack up 20-and-10s just off vibes. Since his rookie-year coach skipped town, John has thrived on offense by waiting to be served an array of lobs, layups and open threes, often courtesy of point guard Trae Young (questionable, bone bruise in foot), while feasting on stick-backs when his teammates’ jump-shooting offense stalls and clueless opponents get lax with boxing out. Speaking of boxing out, Collins alone cannot be blamed for the lack of rebounding presence in Game 5. Even Khris Middleton (team-high 13 rebounds on Thursday) had a field day on the glass as all five Buck Starters collected at least two offensive rebounds in Antetokounmpo’s absence. Thanks in part to early second-chances, Milwaukee’s 66-36 paint-point advantages rendered Milwaukee’s subpar shooting day (31.0 team 3FG%) and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s breakthrough (team-high 28 Game 5 points, 7-for-16 3FGs) moot. A team effort to keep the Bucks one-and-done is essential going forward, but Collins can do more to lead the way in that regard. It is true that this is just Collins’ first playoff foray, as it is for many an Atlanta Hawk. But the constrained development, to date, is why a guy about to receive ginormous contract offers in a few weeks can look so painfully pedestrian (2-for-8 FGs in Atlanta’s Game 5 win) in halfcourt sets, especially without Young to offer guidance. After going 10-for-11 on 2FGs in the Hawks’ successful series opener, Johnny Bap has hardly made a blip on the inside (15-for-27 combined 2FGs in past 4 games) while game outcomes are still up-for-grabs. One should note that this is only Bobby Portis’ second playoff run, the punchy Bucks forward’s first since a brief trip in 2017 with the Bulls. Yet the first-time starter, filling in in a pinch for Giannis Antetokounmpo (out again for Game 6, hyperextended knee), looked like a completely comfortable veteran in getting what he wanted in Game 5. It’s an awkward time to start running plays with Collins as a focal point, but Atlanta Playoff Basketball on Independence Day Weekend is, by definition, an awkward time. In these NBA Playoffs (Knicks and Sixers series included), JC has managed to shoot a sturdy 64.0 eFG% on post-up plays, his 1.13 points per possession placing him a smidge ahead of Philly’s center Joel Embiid and not far from The BK’s Kevin Durant. But it’s hard to recognize this, since he’s had the option to post-up on just 1.8 plays per game, according to Synergy stats on nba.com, roughly half of Antetokounmpo’s 3.4 and a far cry from Embiid’s 8.5, or even KD’s 4.4. Collins also hardly draws foul-worthy contact (6.7% FT frequency) on those few plays. Efficiency-wise, the only postseason player still standing who has fared better is Danilo Gallinari (1.18 PPP, on just 2.2 post-ups per game), who has shot at a slightly lower eFG of 57.1% but gets to the foul line (21.1% FT frequency). With Giannis down for the twenty-count once more, Collins and Gallo ought to receive more post-ups, peeling Brook Lopez and Portis away from helping on guards while elevating the Bucks’ risk of early foul trouble. Whether they emanate from Young, Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter or Bogdanovic, Collins in particular has to do a better job of getting in position to receive passes on the low block, and he needs to maintain his dribble until either a decent shot goes up or he gets the whistle. Of course, it would be nice if one of his prior coaches had the power forward honing his post-up game in real time, prior to and during the regular seasons, but that issue for a more well-heeled Collins can wait for 2021-22 to get here. We all can wait for 2021-22 to get here, but I remain hopeful our Squawkers and the rest of Atlanta Hawks Nation can do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and upright, in what will soon be a very brief interim period. For those of you heading intown or to some friendly watering holes this evening, you’ll likely notice we have a wilder group of companions in the mix. 99 percent of us are up to some good, but there are a few jackboys, gun-runners, sliders, club-busters and raging drivers out to make “fun” for themselves on this busy weekend by spoiling somebody else’s. In what we can still hope will be a warm-up act for Game 3 of The Finals, have a great, boisterous time tonight, but be cognizant of your surroundings and avoid confrontations on your way to and from the arena and wherever you go to enjoy the proceedings. If our Hawks still don’t fear The Reaper… we’ll be able to fly! Happy Fourth! Believe Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. https://www.nba.com/news/east-finals-notebook-game-5
  3. You may say to yourself: “My God. What have I done???” Until 2021, many an Atlanta Hawks fan will tell you how the scene inside then-Philips Arena, during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, was as loud as they had ever heard the place. Pent-up fan emotion, from having to endure a near-decade of laughable, madcap basketball teams, owners, coaches and players, the scramble to sneak in as an 8-seed, and the venturing into town of the top-seeded opponent from a legendary franchise that fashions itself as predestined for glory, bubbled up at The Highlight Factory to tear the roof off the sucker. At long last, on Atlanta’s home floor, plenty of things seemed to finally be coming together. There was the rise of a coveted young playmaking guard, one for whom the spiritless ownership group nearly ate each other alive over acquiring, to become a steely All-Star reserve. There was a big man with a two-time NCAA championship pedigree, for whom the elevated stage didn’t seem too big. There was the midseason upgrade at point guard, a ball caddy who already had his moments going toe-to-ugly-toe with Shaq and Kobe. There was the backup big from That Other Georgia, who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, or step on toes, if he felt it necessary to win. There was a forward who, while not ordained to reach the professional heights of Chris Paul, was beginning to make a nice versatile scorer and defender out of himself. There was the local high school standout who took whatever was missing between his ears and made up for it with hops and heart, who brought highlights to the Factory, and whose multifaceted nightly box score made him the darling of counting-stat-heavy fantasy hoops leagues everywhere. All of the aforementioned were in their 20s, toiling for coach Mike Woodson, with only the incoming point guard exceeding age 26. Running the self-satisfied Celtics out of town on a rail, and not just once, in the NBA Playoffs’ opening round was more than enough to satisfy even the most obstinate local sports fan on the fence about supporting these Hawks. Set within the context of the sub-.500 team’s relative youth with ample room to grow, being already good enough to push a championship favorite to seven games, the future was bright. The present, that spring in 2008, was looking not-too-shabby, too. Then, suddenly, that summer. There was one other twenty-something in the Hawks’ mix, the team’s top sixth-man, who shared the first name of the multi-faceted forward and was drafted eleven picks before the latter by Atlanta in 2004. Josh Childress was another up-and-comer being groomed as an integral part of the Hawks’ slow rise to playoff prominence. The lanky guard from Stanford was a restricted free agent and, as Hawks’ management was wont to do, Atlanta intended to let Chillz shop around for the best offer sheet he could find, allowing the Hawks brass time to pursue other interests while preparing for the clock to be set on matching the deal. That non-negotiating approach often served to miff players, from The Other Josh to Jeff Teague, who thought they had invested enough into the club to deserve a little back-and-forth bargaining. What was worse for this Josh, Hawks Inc. seemed to be prioritizing The Other Josh’s pending offer sheet first, while the offers this Josh was receiving, certainly not NBA-starter-level appeals, were unappetizing. Childress and his agent, though, had an ace up his sleeve that no one else saw coming. An alpha, if you will. “Greece!”, is the word that they heard. I have long wondered what the news of Childress’ Gambit, to forgo NBA Free Agency altogether and instead land a lucrative deal with once-proud Greek powerhouse Olympiacos B.C., did for Nigerian parents’ impressionable kids running the streets of Sepolia in northwest Athens. Specifically, one who only began playing organized basketball the year before, at the ripe age of 12. The Michael Jordan By Default of Greece was on his way there, and that had to be a double-take moment for the young, wispy Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings. Chillz was several stratospheres removed from His Airness, but you wouldn’t know it by Childress’ 3-year, $20 million tax-free deal, the fancy Volvo and the condo floor with a swimming pool that the club reserved for his personal use. (Did I mention, in Greece, there was a major post-Olympic austerity crisis underway?) In making Childress the highest-paid hooper ever outside of North America, Olympiacos’ investment didn’t quite pay off the way the team had dreamed. Yes, they reached the Greek League title games in each of Childress’ first two seasons there. But they couldn’t get over the hump versus hated rival Panathinaikos in either year. Their rivals basically paid a lot less for ex- Memphis Grizzlie and American expatriate Mike Batiste, the Greek League MVP, to get the job done for seven years straight. The larger aims for Olympiacos were EuroLeague championships. The Reds fell short after reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in Chillz’ first season, and the title round in his second. And the true team stars by that time were Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza and point guard Milos Teodosic. The riches and perks delivered to an American, mediocre among his own NBA-level countrymen, to be the third-banana on a team not winning trophies, was not lost on a growing legion of angry Greeks. All that movie-star munificence, for The Ron Harper By Default of Greece, while everyone already there struggles to make ends meet? As sporting venues built for 2004 were already looking like ancient ruins? Opa! That Olympiacos would go on to win those coveted Greek League and Euroleague titles in ensuing years without Josh, but with the leadership of guys named Acie Law and Pero, only underscored the peninsula's consternation over Childress' nationally lampooned European vacation. Not much gets past the radar that was Childress’ sizable ears. Before the third season could arrive, before his value in the NBA could spoil, Chillz opted out of his Olympiacos deal, returning to The States to take Robert Sarver’s taxable money. “That man brought in Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire, disparagingly, of his former paycheck signer at the Phoenix Suns. When Stoudemire’s free agency period arrived, Stoudemire told the All the Smoke Podcast that Sarver bragged that the NBA All-Star “could be replaced, tomorrow.” When he took a gander at these so-called replacements, “I said, ‘Man, you got to be kidding me,’” Amar’e recalled. “So, I end up going to New York.” No high-level free agent, by that point in 2010, was banging on doors to grab much of Atlanta Spirit Group’s money, a stash that was dwindling by the year. Josh’s overseas exploits didn’t prove to be something Atlanta would sorely miss. But the ability to develop Childress further here, versus NBA competition, as part of the organic growth of an emerging young club, felt like an opportunity only the Hawks could creatively squander. Around town, Childress’ departure was the Jenga moment for consumer confidence in Hawks stewardship. Subsequent to the dreamy postseason of 2008, the team itself scraped through the next two years of opening rounds, only to be waxed thoroughly, at home and away, in second rounds, by teams seen as authentic superstar-led contenders. “The Hawks looked to have a nice thing going, for a minute there,” was the old saw. “And then Josh Childress ran off to Greece, so that’s the end of that. Atlanta Sports! smh.” Whether it’s Childress bailing for the Aegean Sea, or Thabo and Pero celebrating the clinching of the top-seed with a fateful late night out on the town in NYC, you never know precisely when the Hawks’ Jenga moment arrives, and especially not how. What you come to understand, in hindsight, is the destabilizing event causes a step back that makes it hard for Atlanta’s carefully-crafted collectives to recover. As Game 4 unfurls here at State Farm Arena in these Eastern Conference Playoffs (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), Hawks fans can only hope that Trae Young’s step back, onto the clown shoe of a Game 3 referee along the sideline following a bad pass, won’t be just another Jenga block to toss into the fire of, “We had a good run going, BUT…” Atlanta Sports moments. In this series with the Milwaukee Bucks, as other Hawks have struggled to be reliable offensive contributors, Young’s scoring proficiencies are essential for Atlanta to keep up with a phenom from Greece, that former 12-year-old from Sepolia who’s all grown up now. Giannis was but 16 in 2011, the year after Childress concluded his Olympiacos run, when he was invited to play for a third-tier semi-pro basketball league, catching the eye of European and at least a couple American pro-league scouts alike. A full decade later, simply counting to ten remains a challenge at times for Antetokounmpo. But the two-time NBA MVP and 2020 DPOY has had little trouble maturing in many other aspects of the game. Giannis has assumed the top-spot previously held by Atlanta’s Clint Capela (12.7 RPG) as this postseason’s rebounding leader (13.3 RPG). Blending his newfound strength with his eye-popping dexterity, the Greek Freak only needs teammates willing to compensate for his shortcomings at the three-point line (18.5 Playoff 3FG%) and at the charity stripe (55.1 Playoff FT%, with a few of the makes disallowable, but for the referees out here trippin’). His 6.3 APG in this series now outpaces Young (team-high 6.0 APG; as per Locked On Bucks podcaster Frank Madden, held in consecutive games below 5 assists for the first time since March 2020), as does Khris Middleton’s (6.3 APG) and Jrue Holiday’s (9.7 APG). The ball movement for coach Mike Budenhozer’s club has become a point of exploitation, in contrast to a Hawks offense (107.8 O-Rating, lowest among the NBA Final Four) that gets stilted for long stretches and struggles to create when Young isn’t initiating plays. Giannis’ dips, dunks, and dishes deep in the post are creating opportunities for his co-stars, who in turn create quality offensive chances for the rest of the roster. Whether it’s halfcourt heaves, awkward layup shots, or contested mid-rangers, Atlanta’s field goal makes in the two most recent games come with much higher degrees of difficulty. Rebounding, after Capela and John Collins (10.3 series RPG, despite 4.0 personals/game), dime-dropping, after Trae, and defense, after Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 blocks in Sunday’s 113-102 loss, which only scratches the surface of how good he looked) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.3 SPG), are near-binary in numerical production among the remnants of the Hawks’ cast. Hawks coach Nate McMillan could do well to consider going big earlier, introducing Danilo Gallinari as a quick sub for Bogi (listed as probable ahead of Game 4), and preserving the swingman’s weary knee for crucial defensive stops later in the contest. Bogdanovic played through Sunday’s entire final quarter but was a defensive non-factor as Middleton (20 4th-quarter points in Game 3, incl. 4-for-6 3FGs) ignited to help Milwaukee surge ahead for good. It wasn’t the playoffs, but two months ago, a Hawks team without Young available caught Giannis and the Bucks slipping. One night after clobbering an injury-and-illness-riddled Sixers team at home, Milwaukee flew to Atlanta and was feeling good after entering the fourth quarter up by 8 points. As was the case on Sunday, Middleton heated up in the final frame as well, with 12 of his 23 points. But so did Atlanta’s Bogdanovic and Lou Williams from beyond the 3-point arc (combined 8-for-9 3FGs). Meanwhile, Capela and fill-in starter Solomon Hill did just enough on that April evening to contain Antetokounmpo, while Buck teammates were of little use, at either end, on the back end of their back-to-back. In Game 3, the revelatory rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed he could serve Hill’s defensive role well, and maybe not just in a pinch. Whether Young (6-for-14 3FGs in Game 3; listed as questionable, bruised foot) is fully functional, fully productive, fully available, or not, some of the Traemates have to catch fire from outside if Atlanta intends to fully recover in this series. The Otherhawks (4-for-19 3FGs in victorious Game 1, 7-for-31 in Game 2) were by default a series-best 9-for-23 on non-Trae treys in Game 3, skewed downward by Bogi’s 2-for-10 outing, and are 21-for-70 in this series overall. Having the proper personnel getting back on defense is essential, too, whenever the Bucks aren’t retrieving Atlanta’s jumpshots from the bottom of the net. Hopefully, Young will be available to help the Hawks wage a fairer fight with Antetokounmpo and company tonight, earning Atlanta a guaranteed third home game in these conference finals while staving off the potential for elimination on Thursday in Wisconsin. In so doing, the Hawks will also have staved off what looked to be, on Sunday night, another Jenga moment for Atlanta Sports history. Also, it is hoped, we’ll get through the summer offseason without any others unfolding. John, if you get a call in a few weeks about a business opportunity from the Sultan of Brunei, please, just hang up the phone. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “Been There. Done That. Made The T-Shirt!” The Hawks had the Bucks dead-to-rights. In their house, Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum. The prize that awaited Atlanta was a date with destiny. The season before, a classic nip-and-tuck affair between Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, at hallowed Boston Garden, had the Hawks coming up on the short end but earning the admiration of NBA fans everywhere. It was far too late to establish Atlanta, in their lovely red-and-yellow jerseys, as The Team of the 80’s. But who would take the lead and rule the roost in the final full season of the decade? After edging the Hawks in 1988’s second-round series, the Celtics would relinquish the Eastern Conference crown for the first time in five years, to Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons. The next season, Boston lost Bird to a season-ending injury early, leaving the NBA East as wide open as it had been in recent memory. Who would challenge the new kings of the East, in their Auburn Hills palace? Chicago, and Michael Jordan? As far as anyone could tell, the eventual 6th-seeded Bulls weren’t ready. Cleveland, and Brad Daugherty? A breakthrough season awaited, but the core of Lenny Wilkens’ 3-seed Cavs were so young. Patrick Ewing and the Knicks? They would win the Bird-less Atlantic Division. But they finished with the exact same 52-30 record as Nique and the Hawks, who improved on the prior year’s 50-32 mark. Entering the playoffs, on the heels of the Nique-Bird duel… why not Atlanta? The window was open for the 4-seed Hawks, as the top-seeded Bad Boys, who easily swept the Celts, awaited their arrival. All Atlanta had to do was to Take Care of Business, on its homecourt, before a heavily partisan crowd. Their opponents? A Milwaukee club the Hawks played, and swept, in the regular season, winning all six times by an average of 11.0 points per game. The core of the same Bucks team that the Hawks bounced, 3 games to 2, out of the first round with a Game 5 home win the prior postseason. Milwaukee began that season at a gaudy 40-19 but stumbled across the finish line with 14 losses in the final 23 games, including two versus the Hawks, one in Atlanta by 25 points. Defensive maven Paul Pressey, whose late-season injury greased the skid, would be unavailable for the entire first-round series. Seemingly on his last legs, point guard Sidney Moncrief was about ready to retire. This wasn’t the Bucks’ series to win. Not until Atlanta made it that way. Including the prior year’s first-round faceoff, the Hawks and Bucks always held serve at home in the playoffs. That was until Game 2 at the Omni, when the Hawks could not contain super-sixth-man Ricky Pierce and Milwaukee cruised to a 108-98 win, wasting Wilkins’ 32-point effort. With the 5-game series turned to the underdogs, the Bucks were in position, at the MECCA, to close out the series upset. Wilkins’ contemporary, fellow All-Star and NBA All-3rd-Teamer Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle early in Game 4. Led by All-Stars Moses Malone and Dominique, plus John Battle off the bench, the Hawks capitalized and survived in OT on Milwaukee’s famous Robert Indiana floor. Cummings, like Pressey, was left with no choice but to watch from Wisconsin as the series shifted, for the last time, back to Georgia. For the Bucks, with their seasons on the line, there would be no leading scorer, no top defender. Problem? “The shot on Ehlo GOOD! BULLS WIN!” was ringing in everyone’s ears that day. Perhaps too loudly, at the Omni, for the Hawks to realize they were getting tuned up by not just Pierce, but Fred Roberts, Paul Mokeski and Jay Humphries. Bucks rookie behemoth Tito Horford didn’t have to lift a finger. Thanks to buzzer-beaters sunk by Mokeski and Roberts, and a plethora of missed Hawk free throws, Atlanta could not sustain a lead in any quarter. The Omni crowd felt a wave of relief when the Hawks grabbed an 86-85 lead on the Cummings-less and Pressey-less visitors, with just under three minutes to go in the elimination game. But then Atlanta let the Bucks rattle off eight straight, a Doc Rivers three-pointer proved too little, too late, and all was lost. Including, that date with destiny in Detroit. “This will be hard for us to get over,” Wilkins said after the Game 5 loss. He didn’t know the half of it. The next season, Rivers would be out due to injury for two months, Atlanta would sink to 41-41, 6th in the Central Division. Pete Babcock would arrive from Denver to help a busy Stan Kasten run things, and longtime coach Mike Fratello would resign after Atlanta narrowly missed the playoffs, finishing just behind Pierce’s Bucks, coach Lenny’s Cavs and Reggie Miller’s Pacers. With Jordan answering the call in 1991 to overtake the Pistons, not Dominique in 1989, the window for the Hawks’ Finals hopes had closed. For at least a few more years. Taking Care of home. It’s what likely would have made such a difference for Wilkins and his Hawks at the Omni, as their fates entered the 1990s. With his statue now perched at the entrance to State Farm Arena, and the balance of power in the NBA East once again up for grabs in the 2020s, Taking Care of Home is what would make the difference for a fresh, new group of Hawks to boldly go where no Atlanta team has gone before, the NBA Finals. The common denominator? The visiting Milwaukee Bucks (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame Coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), in town for Games 3 and 4. No worries, Atlanta! Tito and Mokeski retired long ago. Despite a washout loss in Game 2 of this series, the underdog Hawks upset Milwaukee in Game 1, granting themselves the opportunity once more to maintain homecourt advantage and close out coach Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks in no more than six games. But this is a far more challenging visitor than the ’89 Hawks faced, thanks to the whirling dervish that is Giannis Antetokounmpo around the paint. Giannis was a rolling, spinning highlight reel in Milwaukee’s 125-91 win on Friday night, but he didn’t need to put up pinball-tilting figures (25 points, 3-for-4 FTs, 9 rebounds in 2.5 quarters). Teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton did the dirty work in pestering Atlanta ace Trae Young (2021 Playoffs-high 3 assists, 9 TOs, 1-for-8 3FGs) while Holiday, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton (combined 9-for-12 3FGs) hit the key jumpers Atlanta (Traemates combined 8-for-28 3FGs) could not. Multiple Bucks chipping in to balloon the lead gave Giannis, his fellow starters and, by extension, Atlanta’s starters, a respite ahead of Game 3. The lack of a secondary ballhandler production, either off the bench or sharing the floor with Young, is a challenge that coach Nate McMillan and the Hawks have to overcome in this three-day homestand. McMillan leaned on Young to sort out his Game 2 struggles to make better reads and connect with teammates for too long. Deploying Lou Williams for longer stretches, as a substitute for either Trae Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic, in combination with a back-in-action Cam Reddish, could make for better balance in the Hawks backcourt. With Atlanta getting gashed on the boards in Milwaukee, sixth-man Danilo Gallinari has to expand his focus beyond his patented up-periscope jumpshots and help secure rebounds on defense, when John Collins and Clint Capela are occupied with Antetokounmpo and/or Lopez. Having to rely on Solomon Hill to lead the bench in minutes, as became the case once Atlanta waved the white flag in Game 2, is not a scenario conducive to securing homecourt victories. Both Eastern Conference Finals entrants have reason to celebrate reaching this stage. Milwaukee tried tanking in Giannis’ rookie year, were rewarded with Jabari Parker and Thon Maker during the come up, but eventually realized acquiring a sound cast of savvy vets and scrappy prospects around their emerging supernova was the best approach. The Hawks weren’t huge winners in the NBA Draft Lotteries during their rebuilding phases, either. They aren’t tying their successes solely on the haul of Lottery picks, including Reddish and the injured De’Andre Hunter, to get them to this stage and pull them through. Not this year, anyway. If Atlanta comes away from Games 3 and 4 with a decided advantage, it’s because veteran supporters, from LouWill to Gallo, stepped up their games when called upon. With better contributions from developed non-Lottery talent like John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks returning to more competitive rebounding, timely shooting, and proper closeouts on the Bucks’ shooters, will aid in Taking Care of Business before its home fans. This remains the Bucks' playoff series to win, only, if Atlanta allows it to be that way. With a year-round focus on competitanking for future game-changing talent in the rear-view mirror, Hawks fans are no longer feeling a draft. Yet here, in the Hawks’ downtown arena, fans recognize there remains, unmistakably, an open window. Take Care, Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “So, I was playing H-O-R-S-E with Bobby Portis, and…” (tied up all day tomorrow... sorry for the super-early entry! Go Hawks! ~lw3) Harry the Hawk could only look on, in horror. Fooling around while entertaining fans at the Phoenix Suns Arena, Harry and a small collection of other mascots were simply killing time, schmoozing attendees and keeping the kids’ rapt attention on an otherwise dull All-Star Saturday afternoon. The goal for the mascots, on this warm winter day in 2009, was simple. Take a bunch of halfcourt shots, and hope one or two go in. Always a good way to keep the fans lathered up. Alas, Bango the Buck was out here Doin’ Too Much. Harry, as we Atlanta Hawks fans know, has long been quite the daredevil. Diving off the corner stands into a hidden landing pad in the tunnel below. Demonstrating, with smug pride, his impeccable balance along a rail, then playing off the agony of his sore pellets after slipping and getting racked. Skidding down a flight of stairs in a fan section. The difference, though, is every stunt Harry did for our guffaws was a bit. You knew, going in, whatever Atlanta’s mascot would do would be well planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed. Bango, Milwaukee’s mascot, just runs out on the floor and does… stuff, for doing stuff’s sake. It’s the latter’s seemingly reckless, pompous nature that made him the pride of Milwaukee sports and established him, with Harry, Rocky, and The Gorilla, among the best mascots the NBA has to offer. On this afternoon, to Bango, the thought of dudes in anthropomorphic costumes hoisting shots from just beyond Trae Young range, as entertainment, wouldn’t do. Flexing his acrobatic skills and dexterity, Bango managed to climb the stanchion, standing behind the glass where the halfcourt heaves were directed. It’s nothing to Bango, something he does often to seize the crowd’s attention. Showing up The Association’s other gravity-bound mascots was an extra benefit in Bango’s mind. “Betcha can’t do it like me! Nope!” But on this occasion, rather than sitting on the rim, presumably to allow the bit to keep going, or just staying behind the glass, Bango ventured to stand atop the rim, his big, furry hooves holding him up on 36 square inches of back iron as he encourages his fellow mascots to keep right on jacking up shots. Even Harry the Hawk knew this was too much for a bird’s-eye view. Later that same year, Ultimate Rap League battle-rapper Conceited, while clutching a mystery beverage in a red SOLO cup, made a face that would become an indelible meme some seven years later. But at this time, that same, pursed-beak reaction shone right through Harry’s get-up. “Uh-oh. Not a good idea, Bango! But, okay, fine. You do you!” Embodying the spirit of his franchise, Bobby the Bobcat (maybe that was his name, does it matter, really?), was oblivious. Before Bango could firmly establish his footing, Bobby fired off a shot that ricocheted off the deer’s, er, midsection and plopped into the basket below. Nothing but Nu, umm, Net! The Arizona crowd, just happy to enjoy the air conditioning and not stuck outside watching Joe Johnson playing H-O-R-S-E, goes halfway between mild to wild. After taking in a stunning shot in more ways than one, Bango played it off as best he could, applauding the sunglass-clad bobcat for his success. But, then… Bango slips. He attempts to gather himself by clutching the top of the backboard with his fuzzy hand. But that proved no match for Newtonian physics. THROUGH the rim goes the nearly seven-foot beast, antlers and all. Oh, Deer. As TNT play-by-play man Kevin Harlan would say, “Up High! And Down Hard!”. It wouldn’t be a clean swish, though. Bango’s left hoof got caught up between the rim and the netting, leaving him momentarily dangling as clueless Bobby is still at the sidelines, high-fiving the fans to celebrate his own accomplishment. Only The Raptor makes a half-hearted attempt at attending to Bango, once the ruminant twists free and finally makes his crash landing on one-and-a-half legs, writhing along the hardwood below with what would be diagnosed and reported as a torn ACL. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit, and Harry understands mascots can’t scare the kids in the stands by showing legitimate concern for his misguided colleague’s well-being. The banged-up buck gets it, too. He hops up as best he can, waving to the crowd as he hobbles away, as The Show must go on. Likely muttering under their breaths, Harry and the Wizards’ Skyhawk-looking dude simply skip off into the tunnel. Deal with those torn ligaments in the back. It’s Red Panda Time! Riding high and smelling themselves is about where the team that Bango reps found themselves, in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals’ Game 1. The Milwaukee Bucks felt the momentum on their Fiserv Arena floor surging toward a double-digit lead over the happy-go-lucky Hawks. Losing focus on the things that mattered most, they started slipping: forgoing coach Mike Budenholzer’s ball-movement schemes to settle for ”You do you!” iso-ball, aimless passes, blown bunnies, and abject failures at boxing out to secure defensive rebounds in the clutch. As Bango’s Bucks lick their wounds while pretending, for the sake of the stunned crowd, that There’s Nothing To See Here, the team Harry represents, the Atlanta Hawks, have a chance in Game 2 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) to saunter off Milwaukee’s floor and exit their arena for the final time in 2020-21. The Hawks earned this opportunity when teammates hopped on the cape of Trae Young (Playoff career-high 48 Game 1 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds). Then, they executed their fundamental roles so as not to spoil their magical carpet ride. Does Atlanta deserve to be standing eye-to-eye with the Bucks? Bear in mind, Kevin Durant dropped 48 points for the higher-seeded Nets in an elimination game, a contest that Milwaukee won (thanks to KD’s toenails at the three-point line). It comes down to which star makes the best use of their teammates, and early on in this series, it’s Trae 1, two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo 0. I’ve been talking until I’m Papa Smurf about how we’re waiting for Peak Hawks to take hold, how just a game or two of optimal two-way, 48-minute ball under coach Nate McMillan’s direction would make such a difference in the outcomes of Atlanta’s playoff series. Ultimately, the pressure is not on Atlanta, but on the so-called favored, higher-salaried teams to play Peak Favorites. When they lay so many flaws bare, they leave themselves susceptible to the underdogs that are just hanging around, staying within striking distance. Then, suddenly, the favorite looks every bit like the underdog. For Milwaukee to avoid slipping through the hoop once again tonight, it means dropping drop coverage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll, with defensive guards committing to going over on screens, and forwards protecting the rim when Giannis, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and center Brook Lopez dare to step further out. One of Atlanta’s advantages coming into the playoffs is they’ve played all season (and, frankly, some of the prior ones) missing an essential roster component and/or adjusting to accommodate a key player returning off injury management. Whereas the Hawks’ offense has hardly skipped a beat with the hampered Bogdan Bogdanovic, and without second-year pros De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, teams like Philly seemed at a loss on how to adjust, without Danny Green as a corner shooting option and as an extra defender to hurl at Young. A similar theme seems to be taking hold with Milwaukee. Fifth on the team in regular season minutes played, Donte DiVincenzo’s absence due to his season-ending ankle injury has been a struggle for Coach Bud to compensate. Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and veteran Jeff Teague (combined 1-for-7 Game 1 3FGs) struggled mightily to hang with Young, and the disparity widens when their offensive contributions are muted. Given Milwaukee’s limited in-season development, slim depth and short rotations, Budenholzer can’t turn to rookie Elijah Bryant or two-way guard Axel Toupane to step up on Donte’s behalf. Acquired for Torrey Craig from Phoenix at the trade deadline, Cash Considerations isn’t of much use, either. That leaves Khris Middleton, also a dud in Game 1 (0-for-9 3FGs) to live up to his All-Star and Olympic-level expectations, and for Giannis to occasionally assist in meeting Young and Atlanta ballhandlers off the screens. To throw Milwaukee defenders further off-kilter, Young’s teammates (8 combined Game 1 assists; 8.7 APG vs. PHI; 10.8 vs. NYK) should be mindful that they can also pass the ball amongst each other, especially around the horn when Young draws the defense inward, and that not every receipt from Trae is definitively the best shot during a possession. After a few well-drawn plays go right, and when the lead is working in their favor, Milwaukee might risk making the same fatal mistake conducted by recent Hawks opponents, of playing laissez-faire basketball, waiting for the visitors to fold and bow themselves out of the series. If they veer off-course from the gameplan and take too many unsound risks again, the Bucks will find themselves once more caught like a bunch of Bangos, staring catatonically into the hypnotizing, shimmering headlights of Trae Young. Poor Harry can hardly bear to watch the aftermath. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “I’m just asking Bob: how does a so-called rookie grow so much hair on his chest? Is it the beer?” There are quite a few Milwaukeeans looking forward to giving your Atlanta Hawks the business. About 90 percent of those folks are above the age of 75. Children, teenagers, and young adult sports fans were eager for something fresh in postwar America’s Dairyland. After winning the NFL Championship in 1944, their pigskin heroes, up the road in Green Bay, had fallen on rocky times. Single-wing fanatic Curly Lambeau had an ugly divorce with the Packers and eased on down the road to coach the reviled Chicago Cardinals. Basketball, and not necessarily good basketball, meant the Badgers over in the state capitol of Madison, back in the day when you couldn’t sneak Victrola-sized recorders into locker rooms. Carnival barker Bill Veeck kept the Brewers interesting, but, with all due respect to our modern-day Stripers, there’s only so much AAA minor league baseball you can watch. Having grown by over well over 20 percent in each decade up to 1930, the boomtown years in Milwaukee seemed to be drawing to a close by the time the 1950s arrived. Losing luster and populations to Midwestern rivals in Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, the city’s boosters were eager to get civic projects cooking. It was essential to showcase Milwaukee as a bonafide major-league city. Up would go the first American ballpark financed with public funds, Milwaukee County Stadium. As the stadium was being erected, in hopes of drawing a Major League Baseball team to town, the ribbon was cut for Milwaukee Arena. The latter was regarded as the first new sports venue engineered explicitly to accommodate the brave, new world of broadcast television. That was more than enough to woo Ben Kerner and his NBA franchise out of its dusty fieldhouse in Moline, Illinois. With just a slight tweak of Kerner’s team’s name, the Milwaukee Hawks became the big, full-time pro team in town, tipping off in the spacious, 11,000-seat, taxpayer-paid Milwaukee Arena seventy years ago this November. Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns, second fiddle to the beer-company Cardinals in MLB, and his attempt to bring the Browns to beer-town Milwaukee was blocked by American League owners, setting up the Browns to become birds of a whole different feather. Tired of losing fans to Ted Williams and the Red Sox, Construction magnate Lou Perini leaped at Veeck’s misfortune. His National League outfit, the Braves, arrived from Boston in 1953 to ensure the fancy new outdoor stadium wouldn’t sit empty in the summertime. Treated much like Pabst “cheese product,” being a Hawks fan in the early 1950s was about enduring The Process. That is to say, the team sucked royally. 17-49 in their maiden season as the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951-52, 27-44 in 1952-53, 21-51 in 1953-54. Last-place in the Western Division, every year. It didn’t help that the rival Lakers, of nearby Minneapolis, were not merely the envy of the NBA West but the whole league, pulling off an unprecedented three-peat in those years. But just as The Land of 1,000 Lakes would always have their Lakers, Wisconsinites knew they would always have their Hawks. Mel Hutchins entered the league as a top-2 draft pick and was a rebounding machine for Milwaukee. The team traded 1952’s top pick to Philadelphia, and they wound up with an All-Star returning from military duties in Don Sunderlage. Despite the losing, local fans were catching on to the grand plan. “What’s the Secret?”, asked envious owners of the turnstile-struggling Knicks and Celtics, of Kerner’s ability to pack crowds in Milwaukee’s swanky new arena to watch a bottom-feeder team on the move. Crowds dwindled again, though, commensurate with the Hawks’ dovetailing record. But then, with the drafting of natural scorer Bob Pettit in 1954, the LSU star averaged over 20 points and 13 boards per game out of the box. With so many emerging stars in place, fans surely thought, the future of NBA basketball in Milwaukee was brightening. Until that future was no more. It turned out this bottom-feeder Hawks team was on the move. Out of town. Already. Four years after moving in. St. Louis was quite clear to Kerner, they weren’t building him and his cagers a new arena. But the Hawks owner, who never really filled out the one in Milwaukee, figured the Missouri hotbed along the powerful Mississippi River had more going for it than the slower-growing burg off Lake Michigan’s western shore. Eero Saarinen’s Arch was a long way from being finished, but the city of St. Louis was not only seen by Kerner as a larger market, but the geographic center of the nation, and a shining gateway to the rising American West. The NBA owner was more than happy to move out of a state-of-the-art Milwaukee venue and shoehorn his squad into an aging Kiel Auditorium. Bear in mind, at this time, that Rochester, New York was in the NBA’s Western Division. In an age before air travel, to far-flung places like California, could be viewed as part of a sustainable sports budget, Missouri was about as far west as major sports leagues were willing to stretch. The sense permeated that if Milwaukeeans wanted to watch professional sports, hey, Chicago’s a short drive away. For pro hoops? Fort Wayne, and Minneapolis, make for pleasant road trips. Shoot, they’ve always trekked up Lake Michigan to watch football in chilly Green Bay. The local resentment was high among the young fans who were just beginning to invest their time and energies into Milwaukee Hawks Basketball. “You know what?”, they thought. “Screw the Hawks. We’ll always have our Braves!” The extra-unkind twist of the knife came when the Hawks pulled a Calgary Flames on Milwaukee fans. Just two seasons into their St. Louis tenure, Kerner’s Hawks finished with another losing record, but won a series of tiebreaker games with the hated Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons for first place in a weakened NBA West Division. They swept Minneapolis to reach The Finals in 1957. Kerner got Beverley'd in the schnoz by Red Auerbach amid a heated dispute over the basket height, but the Hawks, behind Pettit, went nose-to-nose with the favored Celtics through seven games. Hawks Fever would reach its fever pitch the very next season, when Pettit’s 50-burger sealed the deal and brought Kerner his first NBA Championship. But wait. This was not supposed to be St. Louis’ team to celebrate! That town never suffered through the lean years with the Hawks! No matter, thought Milwaukee, because just a few months before, their new, darling Braves just beat the mighty New York Yankees, already giving this town its first World Series title. The Hawks arrived first, but the Braves were smoking hot from the time the once-dormant club arrived from Boston. They finished no worse than third in the NL with over 85 wins every season before breaking through in 1957, with the great Warren Spahn and reliever Ernie Johnson Recently Senior pitching, plus Eddie Mathews and an amazing kid named Henry Aaron knocking it out the park. They almost caught the D@mn Yankees napping again in the World Series, after winning the NL pennant in 1958. By the close of the 1950s, Milwaukee was, officially, a tried-and-true world-class baseball town. Basketball what? Basketball who? This here is Braves Country, pal. Forever and ever, Amen. From the time of the Hawks’ departure from Milwaukee, it would take 13 more years before the NBA would come back to the basketball arena that would later be known as the MECCA. In that time, the beloved Braves would be wooed out of town, in 1965, to the promise of an expanded media market in the Deep South. An increasingly barren pro-sports town was going to take anything it could nail down by that time. Bucks Country, you say? Fine. They’ll help pass the time. That is, whenever Vince Lombardi isn’t coaching on Sundays. Just months after receiving their expansion franchise announcement, in 1968, Milwaukee was humored to find out St. Louis had lost the basketball team they poached, the Hawks, to Georgia, too. Fans endured a predictably terrible inaugural season by the Bucks. But it concluded with a nice win, of sorts. The Bucks and their expansion cousins, the Suns, wound up in a coin flip for the top pick. Milwaukee won, and the prize was UCLA’s Lew Alcindor. To this very month, Phoenix would never win an NBA Championship. As for Milwaukee? Well, give them just a few minutes. An NBA-record 29-game improvement came the next season, and by 1971, with Oscar Robertson in tow, Milwaukee posted a first-ever 20-game winning streak and paraded their first NBA Championship. There was regarded as the fastest run from expansion team to title in American sports, in the days before anyone had heard of Atlanta United, or soccer for that matter. Bud Selig had just brought MLB baseball back by snatching the Pilots from Seattle under the cover of night. But by this time, Milwaukee was Bucks Country. A re-enlivened basketball town, unlike stuffy old Chicago. There is little visible record of the first three times the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks faced off in the NBA Playoffs, the five-game sets of 1980s-era series that Glenn Rivers and Dominique Wilkins won once, and Sidney Moncrief and Paul Mokeski won twice. There is also little record of the only seven-game series between these clubs, in 2010, because I watched them all and made it by personal mission to burn all the tape. But there has never been a bigger Hawks-Bucks series than the one that is set to unfold tonight, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals (8:30 PM, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A former Milwaukee franchise that won it all once, in another town in 1958, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. A current Milwaukee franchise that was gifted a young legend, hung onto to him long enough to win it all in 1971, returned to come up short in 1974, had the renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanding a trade (as reported at the time by a young sportscaster named Marv Albert) to a big city in 1975, was forced to hoof it to the Eastern Conference in 1980, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. Only one can advance for a shot at ending their championship droughts. If that is not enough drama for you, Jeff Teague is out here starving, sisters and brothers. The last time your Hawks were in these Conference Finals, a half-dozen years ago, Teague averaged over 21 PPG and 4 APG for Atlanta. But his teammates were like deer-in-headlights against Matthew Dellavedova and the LeBronnaires of Cleveland. Now, the 2015 All-Star has reunited with in Milwaukee with his old Hawks coach, Mike Budenholzer, after getting traded by Boston and mercifully waived by Orlando. If all goes well, Jeff will hardly have to lift a finger. The newly 33-year-old Teague gets to kick back and watch a 2013 All-Star, who’s two years his junior, go to work on the 2019 All-Star point guard who is now the toast of Atlanta. It’s Jrue Holiday’s first playoff run since 2018 with the Pelicans, and the first two rounds have been less than stellar (39.8/24.6/69.6 FG/3FG/FT shooting splits) for him as a scorer. But as a release-valve (7.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in playoffs) for the hulking Giannis Antetokounmpo, and as a hounding defender on and off the ball, one could settle for a lot worse to try to impede Trae Young. The Bucks don’t have a lot of head-to-head game tape on Young to work with from the regular season. Back spasms caused him to sit out of Milwaukee’s home win back in January, along with Clint Capela. Returning after missing two April games with a bruised calf, Young struggled to get going as The Fighting MLKs, absent John Collins and Danilo Gallinari and others, fell for the first time in Atlanta. The Hawks would make amends with a home win a week-and-a-half later, but Trae’s sprained ankle had him cheering from the sidelines. Since then, Budenholzer’s trusty assistants have had plenty of other opponents’ playoff tapes to pore through. Young has soldiered through his first postseason while nursing a sore shoulder on his shooting arm. Regardless of whether he or his teammates are struggling from the field, they have done more than enough, through ball movement, rebounding and defense, to outlast and sacrifice two of the NBA’s blessed, highly favored, sacred cows. Holiday will latch onto Trae, so long as he’s not needed to curtail other Atlanta shooters. If the situation changes, and if Young can swerve around the likes of Khris Middleton to serve up copious assists, this series won’t feel like much of a holiday for Milwaukee. Jrue is an All-Defensive First Teamer, but so was the wayward gentleman from Down Under who, with help from Trae and the Hawks, turned America’s sports programming into “B.S.”PN for the past two weeks. The Bucks lack the array of backcourt defensive assignments that Young faced when the Philadelphia series began. It’s in part due to Coach Bud’s short rotations (sorry, Jeff), and to an untimely injury. Because of an ankle ligament tear suffered in the Bucks’ opening round, Donte DiVincenzo won’t be able to participate in the proceedings with the Hawks. It must be noted that DiVincenzo is here with the Bucks, rather than Sacramento, because Bogdan Bogdanovic is not. Jon Horst and the Milwaukee front office jumped the gun in trying to secure another sweet-shooting guard before this season, perhaps to replace the soon-to-retire Kyle Korver. When talks with the Kangz fell through in November, Bogi entered restricted free agency, and he has since aided the Hawks’ rise to playoff prominence in the back half of this season. Meanwhile, the Bucks’ efforts to contact either him or his agent, prematurely, will dock them a second-round pick next year. How much more Milwaukee will have to pay, in the near term, for failing to reel in Bogdanovic will depend on the health of his knee, and his ability to improve on a disappointing postseason to date. Still Atlanta’s third-leading scorer at 13.8 PPG, Bogi has shot just 30.4 percent on threes in his first NBA postseason (28.0 3FG% vs. PHI). His ability to defend along the wing, while diminished, would be sorely missed if he cannot go for long stretches of this series, as the Hawks strive to keep Middleton, Bryn Forbes (40.0 Playoffs 3FG%) and Holiday in check. But there’s at least one Hawk who can, and occasionally has, stepped into the limelight and can help supplement, if not supplant, Bogi’s fullcourt production. Kevin Huerter is in Atlanta, likely, because DiVincenzo is not. Milwaukee took the 2018 Final Four Most Outstanding Player in the fateful NBA Draft, two picks before Atlanta selected the relatively unheralded Huerter. The heralds have been coming, however, for “K’Von” following his breakout performance in the decisive Game 7 victory over Philadelphia, serving as perhaps Atlanta’s most clutch performer throughout that uncanny contest. Huerter doesn’t need a reason, at this stage, to make the Bucks pay for passing him up. But should he seek out a reason, there you go. There was a time, just a few years ago, that Milwaukee really needed the services of Tony Snell. Middleton’s injured hamstring cost him over half of the 2016-17 season, pressing Snell into starting duties in his first season as a Buck. His efficiency as a shooter shined that season, and in the playoffs, and Horst’s first move as the new GM was to hand Snell a 4-year, $44 million deal to keep him around. That contract would be largely panned as among the worst in franchise history, on a club that has penned some real doozies in the past decade alone (Miles Plumlee, what up?). That contract also expires this season, and while Atlanta hasn’t really needed Snell to this point, back in March when they did, his jumpshot served as the match that ignited the Hawks’ improbable turnaround. The mini-dimensional but efficient-shooting Snell would relish some chances to show Milwaukee, and perhaps some suitors this summer, why he is known, today, as Mister 50/50/100. The year before DiVincenzo was picked, the Bucks had an array of power forwards to choose from at Draft time. Awash in Big Ten land, John Hammond and the Bucks’ brass went after Michigan standout D.J. Wilson, leaving T.J. Leaf for the rival Pacers. Down in ACC country, the Hawks were again two picks behind Milwaukee, and elected to go for John Collins. It’s looking like things worked out, in Atlanta’s case. Try to imagine, when Mike Budenholzer bolted from the ATL for Milwaukee in 2018, that he might have inherited not only one of the most impregnable forces in pro sports, an imperfect hoopster yet a two-time MVP before age 26, but another talented if imperfect tag partner in Collins (15.1 PPG and 10.0 RPG vs. PHI, on downright Snellian 54.7/38.9/85.0 shooting splits), who has now held his own at playoff time against the likes of Julius Randle and Tobias Harris. A Gianny-Johnny pairing could have been mighty useful when the top-seeded Bucks faced a 5-seed, Bam Adebayo’s Miami, in the second round of 2020’s playoffs. Instead of putting Collins to work during the course of his rookie deal at playoff time, in Milwaukee, Coach Bud had to put up with the dwindling utility of Wilson, who was DNP’d the entire postseason. Like Rakim, the Baptist this summer is about to be paid-in-full. But if he needs a reason to stick it to his rookie-year coach who abandoned him for supposedly greener pastures, jumping to a team that passed him up for Wilson, well… Wilson was supposed to be in Horst’s ill-fated package, last autumn, to Sacramento for Bogdanovic. Instead, he and another D.J., Mr. Augustin, brought a P.J. into town at this year’s trade deadline, along with the lightly-used Rodions Kurucs. Capela’s longtime teammate in the frontcourt, the 36-year-old P.J. Tucker (like Nate McMillan, the pride of Raleigh’s Enloe High School) exists primarily to be a thorn in the side of anyone he is assigned to guard. Daryl Morey’s team in 2020, as you’ll recall, ditched Capela to a rebuilding Atlanta team, because they thought the 6-foot-5 Tucker could adequately hold his own sliding over to Clint’s center spot on a title contender. Capela has already made Morey, now In Philly, pay for that miscalculation. While Clint won’t be able to see Mike D’Antoni anytime soon, over the next week or so, he can serve up some helpful reminders of what his former Houston bosses missed in the Bubble. Fortunately for Tucker, who took over for Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup for the Brooklyn series, he won’t have to worry much about going head-to-head with Clint. Getting passed up by Milwaukee in the Draft has often been a badge of honor. In Danilo Gallinari’s draft class of 2008, two picks after the Knicks’ selection, the Bucks went after Joe Alexander. The next big man taken two picks later, the New Jersey Nets’ Brook Lopez, has turned out quite alright. The man who wanted to retire with just one team, the star-studded club that now resides in Brooklyn, served a cold dish to them last weekend, putting his remodeled stretch-five game to good use under Coach Bud’s tutelage. Lopez and Antetokounmpo will strive to draw Capela out of the paint. But a Hawks defense that has held playoff foes thus far to an NBA-low 48.3 2FG% will be able to deploy any of Collins, Onyeka Okongwu or Gallinari to meet the Bucks bigs away from the rim, contesting mid-range shots and threes while permitting Clint to be in good position to protect the rim and secure defensive rebounds. Having endured the tricks of Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent rounds, and as familiar as anyone with the antics of Tucker, Capela is ideally suited for this matchup with the Bucks’ frontcourt. Do you Hawks fans need some more red meat? How’s our old friend, Larry Donnell Drew, Sr., holding together this morning? You know, that “other” departing head coach that pulled the rug out from under Atlanta’s best-laid plans. Drew’s advice to his new employer forced the Hawks to come away with Dennis Schröder, in a familiar theme, two picks after our internally well-scouted international kid of mystery, Giannis, was snatched up by Milwaukee in 2013. Rewarded only with the chance to coach up Antetokounmpo’s 15-win rookie year, Drew is now an assistant for the Clippers. Yes, the crew coached by former Hawk (and Buck) Ty Lue, who was handed the steamroller keys just in time for LeBron ahead of 2015’s playoff run through what was left of Atlanta. Let’s say L.A., now down 2-0 after last night’s absurd finish in Phoenix, finagles a way past the Suns out West. What Hawks fan wouldn’t want (figurative!) swings at that pinata? Still, considering how his Milwaukee tenure ended, I can’t imagine which team LD is rooting for to come out of the East. The playoff campaign Atlanta has waged to date has been as much about the tried-by-fire steely maturation of coach McMillan’s Hawks as it has been about the myth-busting of certain opponents. Myth: Everyone get out of the way, because Julius Randle’s time is now. Myth: Ben Simmons doesn’t need to work on his shortcomings, or his attitude, to lead a team to championship glory. Myth: if you need a coach to get you beyond regular season merits and into The Finals, don’t waste time with old-hat options like McMillan. You need a coach for the modern age, one with a Spurs pedigree, one like Budenholzer, to get you to the top of the NBA pyramid. That last myth may prove true, for Phoenix. But in Milwaukee, absent a sound thumping of the Hawks and an advance into the championship round, the myth of Bud’s superiority as a whiteboard wizard has already teetered perilously close to busting in the past month. That pinata might only need four more whacks, and in a poetic twist, his former team holds the stick. The fans in and around Milwaukee’s newest arena are far more cool-headed than anybody Trae and the Hawks players have tolerated over the past month-plus along the Eastern seaboard. It’s all about that Midwestern Nice mentality, you know. Yet, like one St. Louis beverage company’s frosty beverage tagline used to say, don’t let the smooth taste fool you. To say little of one recent league MVP who has become not much more than a singles hitter as his team loses ground to the Cubs, and a reigning league MVP causing heartburn around the clock for his team, these are supremely anxious times for Wisconsin sports fans. They’re subsided only by the fact that Giannis chose not to dip his toe into the 2021 free agent waters, thereby ensuring the Bucks will get multiple cracks at title contention over the next few years, so long as he doesn’t pull a Kareem. But in the minds of many a fan, longtime vets along the Bucks’ roster, and Coach Bud himself, this crack might be the last, best one they’ll get. Wisconsin’s current pro basketball team, collected to avenge the ouster by a five-seed from the South that featured a narrative-busting breakout NBA star in 2020, finds itself in a familiar position this season. For a few local Bucks fans that are longer in the tooth, the city that took two of the teams Milwaukee once beloved, and the name of the team that stands in the way of a shot at its first title in 50 years, ring a bit too loud of a bell. By the end of either of the next couple of games, if a cane winds up tossed onto the Fiserv Forum floor, you’ll understand why. Thank you, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. The Philadelphia Was Up By... I’ll be real with y’all, I don’t do PEGs (Possible Elimination Gamethreads) terribly well. So before I put quick thoughts together about Game 7 between the 76ers and our amazing Atlanta Hawks in Philadelphia (8 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), here are a few season-oriented Tidbits I wanted to roll out there. I got my answer to a question I posed in the season-opening thread about the theme of this Hawks campaign: Rested Development? Or, Arrested Development? Turns out the answer is decidedly, “Both.” Thank you, Magic 8 Ball! The work put in during the elongated layoff served to benefit Trae Young, the recuperated Clint Capela, and De’Andre Hunter quite well. While Hunter’s burgeoning confidence was the biggest surprise, Cam Reddish struggled mightily in his sophomore season, before injuries for both cut them short. All will continue to improve, given a return to a steadier conditioning regime and schedule next season. In the meantime, Atlanta can take pride in becoming the best team, in the East, among those left out of last season’s Bubble. Have I introduced you to your favorite NBA team’s principal owner? Going forward, please be sure you spell his name right. This is Mister Tony Re$$$$$ler. This man has been chomping at the bit to spend, spend, spend, and not just on real estate and arena swag. Don’t think this Beverly Hills mogul isn’t looking admiringly at Clippers owner Steve Ballmer right now. Team prez Travis Schlenk is here to ensure the Hawks owner isn’t just spending for spending’s sake. Nonetheless, we are about to enter Hot Billionaire Summer. Re$$$$$ler is about to match a big-bucks offer sheet for John Collins, like it or love it. Too rich for your blood? Not for Tony Our Tiger! Besides, ask 76ers owner Josh Harris if Al Horford is still burning holes through his pockets. Re$$$$$ler’s about to lock down Trae Young to a max contract extension. Because, duh. Young is displaying why it was so critical not to settle for bowing out during, or before, the Play-Ins. This is already, on a good day, a title contender, because of the level-headedness and stewardship of young Trae. We’re trying to get where the Sixers (roughly $30 million higher team payroll) already are, where even on a bad day, we’re a title contender. Schlenk wouldn’t know for sure on 2018’s Draft Night, but the lack of respect for Young at NBA Awards time, relative to his trade partner in Dallas, probably saves his boss a few coins at extension time. Weirdly enough, it turned out the trade deal may have saved Schlenk his own job, too. Oh, and if Re$$$$$ler is feeling a little frisky after Trae’s extension gets inked? Have you all met Green Velvet? The most pressing items on Tony’s expense sheet? A harness and grapple line. Just in case the 76ers hold a higher score than the Hawks in the final second of today’s action, when that final buzzer sounds, Re$$$$$ler is going to drop down like Sting from the rafters and hand Nate McMillan a multi-year coaching contract deal, and a Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus pen. Heck, he might even let McMillan keep the little scribbler. Nate may throw in some riders before he inks the deal. Can my son Jamelle (Ben Simmons’ sister’s ex, by the way) join the staff? “Sure. Happy Father’s Day.” Can LP come back on board, too? May I pry Gary Payton from Oakland? “Done and done.” What you want? Baby, Re$$$$$ler’s got it! What’s this I’m hearing, about some NBA Draft Lottery in a couple days? That’s nice. How would I want it to shake out if I had my druthers? Houston. OKC. Minnesota (sorry, Warriors). Chicago (nah-uh, Orlando, no double-dipping this year!). That’s all for Draft Lottery talk for awhile. If Trae wants to go full Tokyo Drift, go for it! As long as he understands he’s sitting beside LP the whole time while Coach Pop lets elder guards like Dame Lillard go for the Gold, more power to him! Don’t let me catch Derrick White out there with the Albanians, though. Whatever he decides, be safe out there! The real Summer Games? Cam! Gwu Tang! Nate Knight! Skylar Mays! Maybe B-Goody? Our next first-rounder! Whether it’s to continue the upwardly mobile development on the main roster, or firming up a roster spot in College Park, I look forward to seeing them all in Las Vegas! Oh, yeah, so, Game 7. I don’t have much, I just hope Coach Nate has more up his sleeve than I can conjure up. Shooters gotta shoot, and at this point, they gotta swish. If we can assume we’re not going to have Bogdan Bogdanovic ver. April.0, if any edition of him, then we’ll need major two-way performances (getting stops, hitting shots) out of Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. We may not have our MLK jerseys on, but remember, Collins and Capela, when the trolls on the Sixers start trolling, violence is not the answer! Collins will have to make more out of his touches, early in the game and not simply once the Hawks have to scramble out of deep holes. Lou, Gwu and the bench mob (when blended in with the top line) must outshine their counterparts, because Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the Sixer starters are bound to overdo everything to salvage their season. One more tidbit. The Real 2020-21 MVP? You, the fans. There has been a lot to endure. The 2020 playoff run interceded by a pandemic, having to wait over eight months before the Hawks could make personnel moves, over nine months before they could tip off again. The early promise of 2021 derailed by injuries, bad losses and a coach upheaval. Bigger than all of that, keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy and even-keel, as best we could. Much like the Hawks, we’re all still standing! Whether this Hawks run lasts for a few more hours or 32 more days, I hope Hawks fans have found ample moments of worthy joy throughout the journey. Celebrate the Hawks, tonight, but be sure to take time to celebrate yourselves and each other. Happy Father’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. Home. Upon reflection… it’s where the traeHeart is. “SIXER FANS! Get on your feet! Give it up, Philadelphia! Let’s have a round of applause, for your, legendary, ALLEN! IVERSON!” Allen Iverson steps onto the Wells Fargo Center floor. He’s got on his casual gear and his obligatory Sixers cap, sometimes his old jersey on top. The Hall of Famer rings the ceremonial Liberty Bell knockoff, waves to the Philly crowd, and bathes himself in waves of rare Philly adulation. A.I. is being paid, by the Sixers, to be among the Philadelphia crowds. Keeping up appearances is essentially his job. As soon as 76ers games near their end, Iverson glad-hands the people he’s supposed to glad-hand, steps into a waiting car, and heads home. Via the airport. These days, Iverson hops on the first thing with wings smoking to return to his country-club home hundreds of miles away, currently in Charlotte. For many years after his NBA career reached its twilight, this “work trip” concluded by alighting at Hartsfield-Jackson for the ride back to his palatial mansion not far from “Da Nawf”, the places in and around Gwinnett County, that Lou Williams and Migos calls home. Julius Erving makes this honorary commute, too. He’s been an Atlanta resident, living it up with family in Buckhead Not City and Sandy Springs for the better part of the past decade. “This is the real deal. It feels right. It’s wearing right,” the Doctor shared with the AJC’s Steve Hummer, back in 2012, of settling in the South, and specifically in The ATL. Another periodic Sixer Bell Ringer and fan favorite (no, not you, Al Horford), Dikembe Mutombo was traded out of Atlanta to help then-MVP Iverson’s team make their majestic run to The Finals. Yet the NBA Global Ambassador never really left here. His son and his private-school buddies were instrumental in organizing the youthful, eye-opening social-justice protests in swanky Buckhead last summer. Charles Barkley calls the Atlanta region his home, giving the corpulent former Sixers great a place to work and eat and hobnob and chill not far from his Alabama roots. Like A.I., like Dr. J., Sir Charles will come to Philadelphia, when summoned, for some honorary bit like a statue unveiling. But it seems that none of the greatest Sixer legends of the past four decades choose to kick back in, say, Bryn Mawr, to bask in the glow of their past pro-ball glories. The French Riviera, the English countryside, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Only the greatest of places are where Sir Elton John chooses to rest his weary head. When he spends his days toiling on the East Coast of North America, the global icon and legendary musician spends his evenings at his posh high-rise condo in Buckhead, with its skyline views spanning in multiple directions. Goodbye, Yellow Brick. Hello, Peachtree Road! In a couple weeks, thousands will huddle around Penn’s Landing to take in the fireworks, with his soaring 1975 opus serving as background. But as Elton wakes up on many mornings and stoops out on his patio, Georgia sunshine, not “Philadelphia Freedom,” shines on him. 2021 makes it 30 years for John as an Atlanta resident. “People always ask me, ‘Why do you have a place in Atlanta?’”, he told the AJC, after finding year-round L.A. living to be overbearing, and New York a tad too dangerous. “It’s because people here have always been that nice to me… I’ve always been welcomed. I feel at home.” You love Atlanta as much as anywhere in America, Elton? “Yes, I do!” Shirley Franklin, a Philadelphia native and Penn grad, ran for Mayor, and won. In Atlanta. Her fellow high school alum, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, saw her future was best set in this town, too, moving here to audition and ignite her groundbreaking rapping and singing career, among other items. Philly native Kyle Pitts? Welcome to Atlanta, where, at least for now, Philly-burb native Matty Ice plays. Remember “Free Meek Mill?” The legendary Philly rapper was freed, and already has been such an advocate for criminal justice reform in this town, he was bestowed with an honorary “Meek Mill Weekend” by Atlanta’s city council. For so many individuals who came-of-age or reached heights of professional glory in connection with Philadelphia, Atlanta and the South has become the place of choice when it was time to grow up, and/or settle down. The celebrity and talent pipeline from the heart of the mid-Atlantic to the heart of the mid-South is emblematic of decades-long trends. Census data projects the Atlanta metropolitan area is bound to outgrow Philadelphia’s four-state-large metro’s population by next year, if it hasn’t happened already. Philly in 2019 was among just five U.S. markets that could boast of having at least 2.5 million TV households, as per Nielsen. This year, that shortlist is up to nine, Atlanta having joined three other US metros. The upshot? If you’re inclined to view the 215 as a premier, big-city American market, it’s time to accept the 404 is right there with them. Long self-identifying as a little-brother rival to NYC, Philadelphia has long taken solace by peering its nose down upon Atlanta and many of the metros that make up the NBA’s Southeast Division. This Eastern Conference Semifinals series has been instructive for die-hard supporters of the Sixers and old-media brand-name teams around the league. Whether we create it or take it, the talent in Atlanta, the city, and on the Atlanta Hawks, the team, are neck-and-neck with whatever they throw out there. If not better. If the Hawks are better, they will have the opportunity to prove it by toppling the conference’s top seed tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) before a standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, clinching an NBA Final Four berth at home for the first time since 1970. The opportunity presented to Atlanta has been well-earned, most recently by way of Wednesday’s epic comeback from 26 points down to prevail in Game 5, 109-106, before a cheesesteak-choking capacity crowd at Philly’s Wells Fargo Arena. Former Sixer assistant Lloyd Pierce was supposed to be another of the many who left The City of Brotherly Shove in his prime for a chance to flourish here. One can’t help but wonder, are LP and his old boss, ex-head coach Brett Brown, palling up to watch this Hawks-Sixers series together? The Browntree of coaching has dried up, and it got chopped down with the quickness. Yet Brown might still be in his head coaching chair, and not Doc Rivers, were he able to see the 2019-20 season through in Philadelphia. Brown’s Sixers had the best home record in the NBA, sitting at a gaudy 29-2 before the pandemic struck. But that season’s edition was a paltry 10-24 away from home, and a lackluster Florida Bubble performance by the 76ers sealed his fate. Brown’s successor, Rivers conducted a more balanced effort in this regular season, guiding the Sixers to a 29-7 record at home, before a growing cluster of satisfied Phans, while finishing respectably above-.500 in away games (20-16). It’s what gives him and The Farm’s visitors confidence they can pull off a second playoff road win in this series, as the Hawks have already done, and then dare Atlanta to close out Philly for a third time in their building on Sunday. “We will be back here for Game 7,” Glenn vowed. Rivers shared with players and the media how he lost at home to another former team of his, the Spurs in 2015, before bouncing back to have his Clippers win Game 6 in San Antonio and the rubber match back in Los Angeles. The Clips would advance, but lost the second-round to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Jason Terry and backup center Clint Capela’s Rockets in seven games. James Harden chipped in a bit in that series, too. “Chris Paul made an amazing shot at the end,” recalled Rivers of the comeback in 2015’s first-round series by L.A. “Unfortunately, he almost tore his hamstring doing it, but he made a big shot.” Philadelphia can only hope they won’t need Joel Embiid (“questionable,” small meniscus tear) to break a leg, Broadway-style or otherwise, to keep the #1-seed Sixers’ season alive. It would be preferable for Embiid (32.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 4.6 APG) to have his supporting cast of Sixer stars come through each time, such that he won’t be expected to make the season-saving plays at the ends of games. Ben Simmons (11.6 PPG, 4th on the team; team-high 8.4 APG) and Tobias Harris have been passing, but passive, as games wear on, entrusting Joel and Dwight to snare the key rebounds on defense, while leaning heavily on Seth Curry (21.4 PPG after his Game 5 tear, 57.9 3FG%), Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle to keep the hot perimeter hands. Embiid has given it his all trying to fry Capela and the Hawks at the starts of games, but in the second halves of losses (1-for-5 FGs, Philly’s only 2 assists and 1 steal in 4th quarter of Game 5), he wound up looking more like the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich worker meme. Every 76er on Wednesday, aside from Curry (4-for-4 4th-quarter 2FGs, but no made threes) and Embiid, were non-factors in the rebounding, scoring, passing and defensive departments (combined: 0-for-7 FGs, 2-for-4 FTs by Ben, 2 O-Rebs by Dwight, no D-Rebs, no assists, no steals) as Atlanta completed their historic surge in the final frame. As dominant a scorer as Embiid has been, it has come at the expense of Capela and Atlanta seizing back control of the glass. Joel’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting in the first quarter of game 5 was accompanied by just a pair of defensive rebounds, one fewer than Curry and fill-in starter Furkan Korkmaz. What gains Philadelphia should be making by the Hawks’ early shooting woes have been nullified by Clint and John Collins’ active work on the offensive glass. Simmons (5.4 RPG, down from 7.2 in the regular season), getting outrebounded in this series by Hawks reserve Danilo Gallinari (5.6 RPG in 53 fewer minutes), seems reticent to mix things up around the rim. Atlanta’s Trae Young, meanwhile, got the assistance he needed when it ultimately mattered. In each of the past two victories, Trae’s nifty, near-iconic dishes for game-changing threes by Collins has The Baptist considering changing his nickname to Big Shot John. Gallinari, defended by the diminutive Curry in the clutch, found himself in a “Game, Blouses” mood. And the rug was pulled out from under Rivers and Philadelphia’s gameplans by a Snellville high-schooler they drafted back in 2005. No one was ready for Lou Williams except Lou Williams (7-for-10 FGs in 2nd half of Game 5). He was deployed in a small-ball backcourt by coach Nate McMillan that contrasted, late in the last game, with Atlanta’s larger frontline, featuring Gallo with Capela and Collins. Having Danny Green (out, calf strain) rendered a fashionable sideline dancer has made it tougher for Rivers to defend Williams and Young individually, much less together. Once pondering retirement after getting traded by the Clips in mid-season, the ATL native Williams, in his second go-round with the Hawks has the opportunity to bring the joy of a conference finals berth to an adoring home crowd. Lou’s, and Doc’s, former employer has the chance to do the same later this evening, somehow for the first time in that franchise’s history. The Hawks can put a dash of lemon pepper on the Sixers’ season tonight, if they can get positive contributions at both ends from slumping starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (combined 0-for-8 3FGs, 0 FTs, 2 assists, 1 steal and 5 rebounds in Game 5). Bogi, by himself, collected 19 assists to just 4 TOs in the five-game Knicks series. But along with Red Velvet, they have struggled to serve Young as secondary play-makers (combined 19 assists, 18 TOs through Game 5) versus Philly’s more adroit and lankier defenders. Each swingman must avoid hesitating and allowing effective Sixer closeouts on spot-up shots early in the game. As Embiid wears down or Howard hovers closer to the rim, with Harris and Simmons overcompensating, drives for floaters, pocket passes, lobs and kickouts will abound, freeing up not only Young and Williams off-ball, but Capela or Onyeka Okongwu inside, and Collins or Gallinari outside. Better reads, and swifter reacts, out of Huerter and Bogdanovic would allow Atlanta to start strong, for once, and finish stronger. It sure would be nice to rest, on the laurels of, “We pushed the conference’s best team to seven games!”, and look forward to turning the page to the promise of next season. But then one looks up the road, at what was the 2020 Bravos. Having beaten top-seeded Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium twice already to start the NLCS, Atlanta’s baseball club, up 3 games to one, had the vaunted Dodgers dead-to-rights in Truist Park, with a chance to claim a trip to the World Series. They blew that game, had to fly back to L.A. for Games 6 and 7, and came home empty-handed. But, hey, we got the shine of the reigning National League MVP, and the youthful exuberance of Ronald Acuna and his budding relationship with manager Brian Snitker. Coming into 2021, most Atlanta fans figured, Mike Soroka will be back on the mound! Ender Inciarte has nowhere to go but up! If we can keep our closer, shore up the bullpen, bring back the NL’s top home-run hitter and RBI-maker, watch out! Stir it up, baby! Well, we’ve turned that page only to find their chance to Run It Back has hit a concrete wall, even breaking a hand in the process. Fab Five Freddie’s hitting infield flies. Soroka’s Achilles is still on the mend. Inciarte is yo-yo’ing on and off the bench. Marcell Ozuna was a figurative, and allegedly literal, choke job. And now Acuna and Snitker are squabbling over “stupid” matters. The good news for the Hawks is that their executive oversight doesn’t consist of a mainframe computer in a suburban Colorado office park. Still, there’s no need to presume the best chance to reach the conference finals, or The Finals, is off somewhere in a future season. With a growing legion of fans applying wind to their sails, Atlanta should approach tonight with a sense of F.U.N. -- the Fierce Urgency of Now -- then let the chips fall as they may. This sports town deserves a celebration worthy of its beautiful home floor. Besides, Hawks fans really aren’t feeling like one more long trip to Philadelphia should be necessary. Quite a few Philly legends, satisfied with life here in the Dirty South, would rather not trifle with a Game 7 call-up, either. That, I Guar-On-Tee. As the great Doctor J said of Atlanta, “This is the real deal." Indeed, it feels right. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “I'm going down double digits at halftime. Then, I'll get the Sixers right where I want ‘em!” Alright, Believe Atlanta, I’m trying to be pragmatic here! 2021 wasn’t supposed to be Finals Szn! Yet our Atlanta Hawks are just a 2-1 record, at worst, from becoming the Eastern Conference Finalist that only the Believing-est of Believe Atlanta Believers could believe. No one on the roster should be looking ahead. Not past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, who still get a shot at securing their manifest destiny by holding down home court, including today’s matchup at Wells Fargo Center (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). Not past the team who was holding an authoritative 2.5-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series until Joel Embiid’s tire began hissing air in the back half of Game 4. This team’s fanatical supporters, however, sure can peek ahead. If the Hawks can replicate what they did in New York City and spoil the hosts’ hopes not just once, as they’ve already done, but twice, they could very well be back in NYC once more, tipping off the Conference Finals against The Big 2.25 of Brooklyn. Seth Curry Piercing the Sixers’ final attempt in Game 3 allowed the Hawks put ice on a monumental comeback and even this series. Six grueling playoff wins down, six to go! What’s wilder, in this series, is we have yet to see Peak Hawks out of the players that coach Nate McMillan rotates on and off the floor. This isn’t to say we need Danilo Gallinari (1-for-6 FGs in Game 4, 7-for-18 3FGs in series) going all 10-Threes-on-the-Celtics-in-the-MLK-jersey to help Atlanta knock off the Sixers. Just that it would be pleasant to see a full game where the reality of multiple Hawks players hitting their perimeter shots (30.0 team 3FG% in Game 4, up slightly from 26.1% in Game 3, also in Atlanta) is as potent as the pervasive threat. It’s not enough to suggest that the Hawks are simply skating through, thriving solely off the 76ers’ mistakes. More so, Ice Trae is cross-country skiing through slush. The lack of hot-hand shooters has made it tougher for Young (25 points, career-high 18 assists in Game 4; youngest NBA player with 18+ playoff dimes, per Elias Sports, surpassing Atlanta’s Spud Webb in 1986) to speed-skate around the myriad of Sixer defenders thrown his way, and to make-good on his few good-look shots beyond the paint (41.5 FG%, 31.4 3FG%). Trae is credited on NBA.com stats with 19.9 Potential APG in these playoffs, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 20.4 in Washington’s first-round loss to Philly, and well ahead of Chris Paul (14.8, a number that’ll be frozen for a while) among still-active postseason performers. He is creating offense with far fewer passes (55.7) than Sixers counterpart Ben Simmons (69.0 made passes per game, 13.3 potential APG). For Atlanta (110.4 O-Rating, 5th among the seven still-standings), the team assist tallies would be higher, the turnover margins greater, the beginnings to games more competitive and the conclusions less so, if Clint Capela would catch and finish around the rim with purpose and greater frequency. Nobody’s perfect, and Capela’s team-high 57.6 2FG% (66.7% in the first round vs. NYK) would be fine in a vacuum. But averaging over three missed shots per game within 4 feet of the rim are fuel for Philadelphia’s high-pressure transition scheme. Collins attacking the rim effectively allowed the Hawks to turn the tide in Game 4’s third quarter. But for a flubbed Collins-to-Capela pass at the close of Game 4, Atlanta would have tied the NBA Playoffs record, as per StatMuse, for fewest team turnovers (3 TOs by 7 teams, most recently the 2018 Cavs). Atlanta can’t rely on such near-perfection in a road contest that will feel, to Sixer fans at least, like an elimination game when they’re on the losing end of the score. So decisive passing, movement to get open, proper paint finishes and getting back on defense swiftly will be key for the Hawks’ frontline. Aside from Mike Budenholzer’s die-by-the-3 Bucks (31.0 team 3FG%, incl. whatever that is that Gioshis Antetokounmpo's doing), every playoff team shooting worse than Atlanta’s 35.5 3FG% is currently watching the postseason from either home or Cancun. Bogdan Bogdanovic (8-for-24 3FGs in past 3 games, 5-for-12 in Game 1), Kevin Huerter (6-for-11 3FGs in Games 1 and 2, 3-for-10 since) and Hawk shooters need to do a better job of connecting on threes, punishing Sixer defenders scrambling to recover after hounding Young. That way, Capela (12.7 RPG, 3rd in Playoffs) can focus less on offensive rebounding for Atlanta (26.4 O-Reb%, highest of NBA teams in this round) to create extra chances, and more on sealing Philly (25.5% of FGAs under 3 feet, highest among active teams) off the rim, and applying the defensive clamps to Embiid (questionable with the meniscus tear, but we know the deal by now). McMillan did come to his senses in Game 4, first by getting Solomon “Shiv” Hill out of the starting lineup, then in the third quarter, when he enveloped a withering Embiid with the jumbo-lump frontcourt lineup of Gallo, John Collins and Capela. The Hawks going big while properly closing out on Philadelphia’s perimeter threats confounded Joel (0-for-12 second-half FGs) and eventually had the Sixers visibly out of sync in the clutch, as Atlanta walked down an 18-point third-quarter deficit. It begs the question as to whether Coach Mac will want to stick with this frontcourt lineup at the outset of all halves, not just the second one. Also, whether Doc Rivers, and his coaching bench stocked with McMillan’s former Pacer assistants, can drum up a responsive gameplan predicated on an at least half-effective Embiid in the middle. With one assist in 35 limited minutes this series, backup center Dwight Howard is far removed from the Magic years of drawing a deserving number of extra bodies around the rim and kicking the ball out. With limited skilled-size advantages to exploit after Embiid and Howard, the Sixers would have to resort to more small-ball featuring Tobias Harris at the pivot and, perhaps, lightly-used ex-Hawks Anthony Tolliver and Mike Scott. While such lineups could be smaller, they wouldn’t be any more spry against Atlanta lineups. The Sixers and the skeptical media gave the Hawks every bit of bait to fold the tent, accept the “Good season!” pat on the head, and saunter off boldly into the offseason. The Hawks and their Believe Atlanta fans wouldn’t bite. As playoff-battle-tested as the 76ers’ core starters are, Simmons and Embiid have as many Conference Semifinal series wins as Young (probable, sore shoulder) and Collins do. Now, the pairs share an equal number of head-to-head wins, and the series won’t reach its conclusion without Atlanta fans having one final say. Atlanta feels almost as close to Finals Szn as they’ve been in the entire NBA history of this town. This, despite the imperfections, despite the injury setbacks, despite the disadvantages, despite the missed opportunities, despite the inexperience, despite the flaws. Dada could not have painted a prettier, nor more improbable, playoff picture for these Hawks. You can’t spell, “Surrealist” without A-T-L! Thank You, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “Where It Started…” The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching! Okay, fine. Maybe not the entire planet spins on the NBA’s axis. But this league, more than ever, is a Global game. Observe, just from this season, its Serbian MVP, taking honors previously bestowed upon a Greek, and its Cameroonian runner-up. Behold, its French DPOY, its Filipino Sixth Man of the Year, and their respective Australian runners-up. American players can These Colors Don’t Run to their hearts’ content. But in this day and age, when the pressure’s on and you find yourself under siege, it is good to know you’ve got a Bogdanovic in the corner with you, on your side. It’s not just people from the Delaware Valley and North Georgia with a keen interest in the outcome of the Philadelphia 76ers – Atlanta Hawks playoff series, Game 4 of which continues this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame analysis on Bally Sports Southeast). Travel across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Adriatic, and you’ll find folks in fancy suits sweating bullets. As it pertained to hoops, “The Global Game” used to refer to the Games of the Whatevereth Olympiad, a quadrennial affair that was becoming quite the Soviet bloc party until USA Basketball firmly put their foot down shortly after the demise of the Berlin Wall. Tokyo was back on the block to host in the summer of 2020, before a global pandemic decided to play games with these Games. As of this writing, there is still not 100 percent certainty that the Olympics, delayed from last summer to kick off in late July, will go on as planned. Organizers are hoping to implement something as successful as the 2020 NBA Bubble, writ large, with stringent protocols designed to keeps athletes of all sports safe. But what can no longer wait are the myriad Olympic Qualifying Tournaments. Teams like Ben Simmons’ Australia, and LP and Derrick White’s United States ((cough)), have already locked down bids via 2019’s FIBA World Cup. After including Olympic host Japan, that leaves four spots open for each winner of FIBA’s six-team “OQTs.” The qualifying tourneys kick off in just over two weeks from today. Depending on which of the Sixers or Hawks come away with the short end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals stick, one of those fancy-dressed folks is going to reach out and touch someone, with the quickness, upon the sound of the NBA playoff round’s final buzzer. Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, and his agent, is most certainly on speed-dial. His native city, Belgrade, hosts the Serbian national team and five others in their OQT. The top scorer in 2019’s FIBA World Cup, Bogi likely has a vested interest in helping 2016’s Rio silver medalists wage a return to the medal stand in Japan. That is, if both he and Nikola Jokic are, uh, available. As of today, one certainly is. If he “makes it,” Bogi may find a partner, and an OQT adversary, in his traveling party. Group A in Serbia’s OQT has Jordan Clarkson’s Philippines and Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns’ Dominican Republic. The other side of the bracket, Group B includes the Italian national team, where Danilo Gallinari could be eager to make amends. In an obvious case of, “quando mantenerlo reale va storto,” Gallo hauled off on the face of a Dutch player during a kerfuffle at the free throw line, amid a meaningless exhibition match, and cracked his own thumb. Losing Danilo short-circuited Italy’s best chance at challenging Bogi’s Team Serbia in the Eurobasket 2017 quarterfinals. The Serbians made it all the way to the finals, where they fell to an undefeated Slovenian squad that has this really good player named Goran Dragic, among others. There are some bigwigs that would love to talk Turkey with the Sixers’ Furkan Korkmaz (you’ve all met Furkan in Game 3), along with former Hawk and current Jazzman Ersan Ilyasova, about joining their national team at Canada’s OQT. Adding those veterans with 2021 likely NBA lotto-rookie Alperen Sengun, and former Hawks draft pick Shane Larkin, could make the Turkish team much more formidable as a medal finisher. Even over in Kaunas, Lithuania, Angola’s got something to say. Paired up in Group B with heavy favorite Slovenia, Team Angola would greatly appreciate having the Hawks’ Bruno Fernando to join in the fun. After all, somebody is going to have to deal with Slovenian greats like Goran’s brother, Zoran, and, now that he’s “freed up,” the Nuggets’ Vlatko Cancar. National team executives find themselves in the twisted position of hoping their compatriots stay healthy and perform well in NBA play, while wishing with wringed hands that their teams lose the playoff series. And quickly, s’il vous plait. How eager Bogi (19 points but 4 TOs in Game 3) and Gallo (9-for-9 FTs but 0-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) are to pack their bags for a land far, far, away will be reflected in their performances in the remaining games of this Eastern Conference semifinal, where the 76ers have seized back the upper hand while Cameroon’s Joel Embiid is serving up a lower foot to the backsides of the Hawks’ frontline. The Indomitable Lions narrowly missed out of the running for Olympic Qualifying back in 2019, so Embiid (35.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.3 BPG) has no one to distract him carrying Philadelphia as far as he can. Down Under, the powerful Boomers’ qualification as an Oceania representative is pretty much a routine layup, even with the continent having to lump their qualifying in with Asian nations. That’s good news for Ben Simmons and for a Sixers’ teammate, Matisse Thybulle, who could make the team even though he only spent early childhood years in Australia. With their Olympic bid in hand, should they choose to attend, they can maintain their focus on putting the screws to Atlanta’s Trae Young as best they can. Of course, Trae (1st in NBA history with 20+ points and 7+ assists in 1st 8 games of playoff debut) might be getting that Love Tap from Team USA soon, too. Every American-born baller wants a bite of authentic Olympic gold, and all the trappings beyond Wheaties boxes that it could bring. But you’ve got star guards who are now all but certain to be playing NBA hoops well into the end of this month, at least. Then, there’s a van fleet of guards who recently received their first few weeks of legitimate, recuperative time off since maybe 2019, and are beginning to like it. Even some guards may be too banged up from the close of their NBA seasons to be in a position to consider. Impose daily IOC protocols and limited maneuverability around some constrained Olympic Village, and there’s bound to be a number of “Thanks! But, no thanks!”, and all Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo can do is stomp and stammer about it. Then, call guys like Trae. That assumes, naturally, if Young makes himself available for an LP Reunion Special and, before that, if his Hawks make him “available” by concluding this series over the next several days. Improving the likelihood of “availability” in the near term would entail Nate McMillan failing, once more, to adjust the starting unit (Solomon “el Cuchillo” springs to mind) or rotations to address the dexterity advantages brought forth by Philadelphia’s Embiid (12-for-16 FTs in Game 3; 8 assists, 1 TO) and Tobias Harris (22 points on a team-high 16 FGAs in Game 3; 5 assists, 1 TO). The Hawks’ defense found themselves victims of death by 1,000 Sixer cuts to the basket on Friday, particularly in the third quarter as the visitors pulled away for the 127-111 win. Addressing this extends beyond simply staying in front of assignments, not getting cowed by the allure of aiding Clint Capela and John Collins (two blocks each in past 3 games) with double-teams outside the paint. (Capela's Team Swiss didn't even bother to try qualifying this go-round. Neutral bunch, those guys). Communication to disrupt inbound passes is key, particularly by Hawk players guarding the ballhandlers, so players like Bogdanovic (5.2 deflections per game in NYK series; 3.3 versus PHI) and Young (team-high 1.7 SPG) can thrive as roving defenders. Atlanta won the turnover-production edge in their one victory thus far (19-17 in Game 1; 9-18 in Game 2, 11-even in Game 3), and they’ll need that to be the case again going forward if they are to prevail in meetings going forward. Hawk guards on the floor cannot afford to stray from Seth Curry (60.0 3FG% this series), but they’ll have to know which player is assigned to stay on Seth’s hip and which can afford to help the forwards disrupt Philadelphia’s drive and cut lanes. Kevin Huerter struggled to make an impact over 23 minutes in Game 3, but he can get the Hawks rolling again if he can force stops and give the Sixers a taste of their own transition medicine. Unlike Gallinari, Lou Williams, Tony Snell, Huerter and many of the Hawks’ reserves won’t be going far, not on someone else’ dime, if the successful-on-balance season concludes this week. They might as well go all-in on behalf of a raucous State Farm Arena crowd, exploiting matchups, making open shots when attention is drawn on the starters, and giving the Hawks a decisive bench scoring edge. If all goes well tonight, Atlanta will be rewarded with a third home playoff game in this series. As for the Italian Basketball Federation? Well, you folks will just have to sit and wait. For many nations, the chance to earnestly Go For The Silver hangs in the balance. But that "sense of urgency" should not be anybody in The ATL’s problem. I’m sorry, but, frankly? “1-2-3, Belgrade!”, has a terrible ring to it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. Planking. The Choice of an Old Generation. Down by a point midway through the third quarter in Atlanta, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player found himself confounded by the Hawks’ defensive positioning. For Golden State’s Stephen Curry, this was in a good way. The ball made its way to him on the left corner, right near Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard, the tent-poles for the regurgitating Atlanta Basketball Club under former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s watch. Standing around fussing about his careless turnover while trying to get the ball up the court, Howard got into a see-wut-happened-wuz squabble with Dennis, about how the play should have been run, not far from their own basket. Kent Bazemore was guarding the inbounder, but soon found himself scrambling in vain as Schröder, bickering with Howard but not minding Curry, left him alone in the far corner for one of the most open three-point shots of Steph’s famed career. Splash. Oh, Brother. Los Warriors take the lead. Time out, Los Hawks. “And I heard a big cheer,” said an unfamilar color analyst for the visiting Warriors, “from… you would think, a partisan crowd.” Ya think? Steph is giggling uncontrollably, drawing hand slaps with coaches and teammates as he skips to the sideline for a quick Shasta break. Coach Bud is beside himself, too. But in his case, there is no joy in Hawkville. “I don’t understand Coach’s decision,” groused Schröder after that pivotal game, a 119-111 loss that still had the Hawks, losers of three straight, with a respectable 34-29 record. Benching Dennis, Bud had elected to roll with Junior Hardaway and Malcom Delaney the rest of the way. “Maybe I’m too competitive, I don’t know.” Indeed, the Hawks’ marquee point guard did not know. This, on the heels of a missed game and suspension after the All-Star Break due to a visa snafu, didn’t help matters. Dwight wouldn’t play much longer in that game after the defensive flub, either. Ersan Ilyasova consumed the lion’s share of what would have been Howard’s residual floor time, as Zaza Pachulia’s Dubs sat him and went small-ball. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the outcome of the game that was crucial for the evolution of the Hawks franchise, but that one, egregiously neglectful play. We will never know the precise moment, maybe in the ensuing spring of 2017, when Budenholzer marched over to incoming GM Travis Schlenk’s office and said, “Look, small-b bud, please, I’m trying to get the Dellavedova out of here!” But it couldn’t have been terribly long after. Up to a certain point, Schlenk was assuring the public upon his arrival that, no, the Hawks were disinterested in conducting a full-on rebuild, that somehow it was possible to fine-tune using the remnants of a core that, just two years before, held the top record in the NBA Leastern Conference. And Dennis, and Baze, and Dwight. “Being Competitive, and increasing our Flexibility, that’s still where we are,” Schlenk would emphasize. But then, Schlenk looked closely at what he had to work with on the floor, and what passed for veteran leadership. He figured he maybe had more hangtime with Schröder. But in the ensuing season, Atlanta eroded to a 24-58 mark with Bud angling for an exit hatch and a soft landing. As Dennis was adding hookah-bar rap sheets and noise ordinances to his resume, shooting sub-30 percent on threes all the while, Travis understood the dream of grooming a responsible All-Star-caliber point guard out of this guy, a first-rounder from the prior regime, had run its course. Further, that tethering the point guard’s “maturation” to him any further ran the risk of managerial malpractice. Still, the decision on Dennis would be over a year away. As he unpacked his boxes in his new, spatial Marietta Street corner office, Travis already understood… he had no time to waste with Dwight. Atlanta’s Own (the other one) thought he had finally aligned his NBA home with his old home. Mimicking Bazemore’s tears at their Summer 2016 Free Agency press conference (someone, PLEASE, make a 30 For 30 about Summer 2016, and hurry), Dwight was self-assured that the Hawks would be his Final Destination. Moved all his snakes over here from Houston into another palatial mansion, and everything. Much like Final Destination the movie, his tenure began and ended disastrously alongside Schröder and Baze, the Curry wide-open three-pointer serving as the piano slipping perilously from above. Atlanta, Watch Yer Head! In June 2017, Schlenk made the Dwight trade to Charlotte his first official maneuver as GM, making the final two years of what was to be a three-year, $71 million deal the Hornets’ problem to wrestle with. In turn, Atlanta got a test-drive of Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee’s contracts, a nice Summer League run with Alpha Kaba, and a cup of tea with Tyler Dorsey as Schlenk traded down in the second-round with Charlotte (maybe coulda had Thomas Bryant instead of Dorsey, but that’s pure Draft Snobbery on my part. The good pick came with Johnny Bap in the first round). Howard would get the ring he long sought by returning to Los Angeles and clinging to LeBron and AD in the 2020 Bubble, although not before getting passed around from Atlanta, to Charlotte, to Washington, getting waived by Brooklyn and Memphis along the way. Now 100.1% assured of a Hall of Fame induction, Dwight gets to be a pseudo-Thanos of sorts, collecting gems on his fingers by coming off the bench behind all-world talents like Joel Embiid. He’d love nothing more than to have a role in making the once low-key Hawks his personal Loki, especially as this series has ventured into Dwight’s hometown (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) for what the Hawks (13 straight home wins; 21-2 at State Farm Arena since February 13) hope will be another successful two-game homestand. But as the crew collected by Schlenk following Dwight’s 2017 departure from ATL comprehends, Clint Capela doesn’t need to fare better than Captain America, versus Joel (39.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG in 1st two games of series) and Dwight, for the Hawks to come out on top in Game 3. Travis was in Golden State’s War Room in 2009 when handlers for Curry pleaded with Monta Ellis’ club to let the Davidson star slip down to the Knicks, who were holding the next pick. Schlenk and the Warriors graciously denied the request, and that longtime, downtrodden franchise has been laughing its way to the bank ever since. (“Welcome to New York, Jordan Hill!”) He knows the value of homegrown point-god talent, done right, mentored right, developed right. As Schröder, unshackled from the tutelage of Westbrook and CP3, resorts to old bad habits and drawing the ire of Earvin in L.A., Schlenk is recouping the benefits of moving on, on the fly, as Trae Young grows out from his Sorcerer’s Apprentice cocoon to reveal something truly magical. The Sixers in 2018 were pleased as punch with the burgeoning promise of 2016’s first-overall pick, Ben Simmons (hey there, “Gameboy.” We ain’t forgot about you; 4 points, 7 assists, 2 steals over 34.5 minutes in Game 2). So much so, that they had no interest in trading up with their lottery pick like Dallas would. We have The Prototypical Point God of The Future already, Philly said, thank you very much. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-11! Instead, they took hometown product Mikal Bridges, had his mom who WORKED FOR THEM singing their praises on television, only to swiftly trade down with Phoenix and acquire Zhaire Smith instead. They got Miami’s first-rounder this year, but even that didn’t last long, coughed up in the deal that brought Tobias Harris and our old friend Mike Scott over from LA. Bridges, riding a rookie deal on this Sixers team, would look pretty darn good right now. Zhaire, at right about this moment, might be at a Memphis-area Whataburger. As a customer, that is to say. The prior Sixers’ regime’s error became Daryl Morey’s gain, as the Rockets GM escaped H-Town just in time to take over in 2020. The inherited successes are to Morey’s gain as well. Harris (21.0 PPG, 59.4 FG% this series) would be a strong contender for Playoffs MVP, although, please, nobody advise Embiid until this series ends. Joel and Ben were already under maximum-extended contracts. Also locked down were developmental rotation guards Matisse Thybulle, a dogged defender, and Shake Milton (13.0 PPG and 35.0 3FG% in regular-season), whose Pop-A-Shot performance late in Game 2’s 118-102 home win for the Sixers should not have been such a surprise. Morey’s grandest offseason stroke wasn’t signing Dwight to a one-year rental, or ditching Al Horford and a protected future pick for the expiring deal of Danny Green (8 assists, 0 turnovers in Game 2). It was the heist of marksman Seth Curry (5-for-6 3FGs in Game 2) from Dallas. Having Curry and last season’s 3FG% leader, George Hill (54.5 Playoff 3FG%), plus Embiid and Harris sharing the floor has alleviated Simmons (DPOY runner-up) from the pressure to expand his floor game to include a perimeter threat, although there’s nothing keeping Ben from avoiding Dwight-level free throw accuracy (3-for-15 FTs in series). His teammates coming through early and often to withstand Atlanta’s runs in Game 2 granted Ben a reprieve from an onslaught of media and fan scrutiny. “The Simmons narrative is tired, to be sure. But it’s not without merit,” wrote Brad Botkin of CBS Sports yesterday. “A team that is aiming to win a championship with a lead ball-handler who can’t, or won’t, shoot the ball is an obstacle in perpetuity.” Botkin notes that his defensive effort on Trae (“only” 21 points and 11 assists in Game 2; 5-for-18 3FGs in series) works as an excuse for his shortcomings only so long as his teammates are able to compensate. In the march toward postseason prominence, Young would love to have waged this campaign with the young complements of Cam Reddish and now De’Andre Hunter all season long. In the absences of those Philly-raised products, the Hawks have turned to more seasoned veterans to help sustain their competitive edge. Try as he might, Solomon “Mack” Hill has proven inadequate with the starting lineup at the starts of halves, likely leading Hawks coach Nate McMillan to turn to one of Danilo Gallinari or Tony Snell. Filling in as a starter for the injured Reddish in late February, Snell’s efficiency was key to igniting the turnaround of Atlanta’s season, a wing role lessened by the full recovery of Bogdan Bogdanovic. As per basketball-reference, the Hawks’ most utilized 5-Man regular-season lineup of Young/Kevin Huerter/Reddish/John Collins/Capela was a net-minus 6.0 points per 100 possessions (195 minutes). The second-most, substituting Tony for Cam, finished the season with a net-plus 11.6 points per-100 (184 minutes). Gallinari was an offensive conundrum for the Sixers in Game 2, and nearly had Embiid on the precipice of a premature exit. Uncoupling Gallo’s minutes with fellow sixth-man Lou Williams’ could lead to better-balanced rotations. Limiting turnover production is vital to McMillan, and one could do worse than upping the offensive roles for Gallo (team-low 7.2 regular-season TO%, as per bball-ref) or Snell (team-low regular-season 0.8 TOs per 36 minutes). McMillan will likely choose a starting replacement for Hill based on how effective they’ll be in helping with Embiid and Harris in the halfcourt and keeping Collins and Capela (11 combined PFs in Game 2) from soaking up fouls, how capable they are in thwarting Philly’s transition offense, and how helpful they can be in springing Young free to create offense for the Hawks. “I didn’t think we did a good job of setting screens in that game,” Nate Mac said while reflecting on things to improve upon from Game 2. Nate game-planning for these Sixers, though, is nothing compared to Bud making chicken salad out of Dwight, Dennis and Baze against the league’s top-flight, star-studded teams. Ensuring a capacity crowd in Atlanta a few years ago was dependent on drawing opposing NBA fans. But this year’s edition has shown and proven enough over the past several months to get local sports fans to Believe Atlanta, and they’re showing it with their presence and their pocketbooks. Trae and his team’s infectious play have drawn more fans to represent for The ATL than the jolly giant with the cheesy grin ever could during the abbreviated stay in his hometown. Two or three more Hawks victories here at State Farm Arena would surely bring many more new tag-alongs, although room for the bandwagons may soon have to spill beyond the arena to Centennial Olympic Park. Here’s hoping for a decidedly partisan crowd, today and Monday, rooting for a team that has evolved in just over four years to one eliciting big cheers, instead of audible groans. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. The OFFICIAL Meme of Winning Atlanta Sports Teams! Zaza Pachulia didn’t quite get there with us. And it’s not what he intended when the words fell from his mouth in front of a roaring crowd. But near the end of Atlanta’s first post-millennial journey into the NBA postseason, Zaza’s words proved prescient. "Nothing Easy! Nothing Easy!" Our Atlanta Hawks overcame a decades-long hex to finally reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. Alas, no, we were not allowed to just chill, kick back, and watch the clock come down before celebrating a monumental moment in franchise history. The Hawks coughed up a ten-point edge with nine minutes to go, leading to a nail-biting final five minutes of Game 6 in D.C. At the final buzzer’s sound, Washington was going bananas, Paula Pierce was Paula Piercing, and Atlanta was meandering aimlessly around like somebody stole their baby pet hippo. After further nail-biting review, though… HAWKS WIN! Don’t you feel ECSTATIC, Hawks fans? Yay. Plop, Plop! Fizz, Fizz! “Hawks Win, but D@MN!”, is the default banner-headline emotion after many major victories. And it’s not just them in this crazy sports metropolis. The Bravos’ last trip to the World Series? Playing at home, the baseball club blew a 5-0 first-inning, and a 7-3 lead in the top of the 7th, then needed a Brian Hunter single to salvage a tie in the 8th. The Mets strategically loaded the bases in the 10th with one out, to pitch to a kid hitting .217 for the NLCS. Thankfully, Kenny Rogers’ 3-2 pitch was so wild, even Andruw in good conscience couldn’t let the bat leave his shoulders. “Bravos Win, but…!” Earlier, that same year. The Falcons’ first trip to The Big Game? It wasn’t Morten Andersen’s clutch kicks, or Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson’s final drives, that was the story. It was Mister Automatic, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, failing to secure Minnesota’s destiny with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, after Atlanta seemed to have let the gains of a late rally slip away. “Falcons win, but…!” It’s not simply our local teams blowing chances at victories that’s part and parcel of The Atlanta Story. It’s also about when they *do* win a big game, it is rarely decisive and without late, often seemingly unnecessary, drama. Whatever deals we made with our own personal Mephistopheles to get our Hawks into this year’s NBA Playoff party, and then to be as successful as they have been at this stage, we as fans are well past the point of negotiating how games and series must end. In the space of just over three months, Nate McMillan took over a club that was underwhelming to most everyone and he has them exceeding the wildest and most irrational of expectations. If it has to come with a sprinkling of Atlanta Sports? So be it! McMillan’s charges sprinted to a 26-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 1 at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, then withstood volleys from a prideful, top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers team in the third quarter. With Atlanta holding a 19-point lead over the Sixers with just over eight minutes remaining, Nate Mac handed the strategic coaching keys over to Dan Quinn. Either that, or Trae Young and the Hawks are just merrily rolling the ball up the court, toying with the game clock and daring the Sixers not to force turnovers before plays can develop. Five of Atlanta’s six fourth-quarter turnovers came in the final 4.5 minutes of play, the spoils of enhanced Sixer pressure compounding a spell of missed jumpers, a blown putback layup from Clint Capela, and referees confusing whistles for lozenges. Sixer Basketball is forcing turnovers and scoring in transition while the opposing defense is destabilized, and Philly did that to great effect as Atlanta’s 107-88 lead was whittled down to 126-124 with ten second to go. Atlanta’s saving grace came at the Gray Mule line, as Capela’s third-quarter miss was the only one of the Hawks’ modest 21 free throw attempts that did not hit nylon. They need not tempt fate again in Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A raucous Sixers crowd will do all they can to try throwing the Hawks off their game and keeping the Sixers from falling into Clippers territory heading into games in Atlanta. Philadelphia’s late-game barnstorming could not have come to pass without their likely MVP runner-up. Playing through his torn meniscus for 38 grueling minutes, Joel Embiid (39 points, 14-for-15 FTs, 9 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals), gave Capela his best shot. Unfortunately for Joel, he found woefully himself out of position and behind plays in the final frame (zero 4th-quarter D-Rebs or blocks) while trying to will Philly to victory on offense. Like Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (sore knee, DNP Game 1), Embiid is again listed as questionable to play in Game 2. The Hawks will need to assess which side of the court Joel, assuming he plays, is favoring and pressure his Sixer teammates at the other end accordingly. If Embiid is going heavy on offensive post play, get to the cup in quick-strike transition, compelling Sixer defenders to commit fouls even the refs can see. If he is camping out in rim-protection on defense, Trae and Lou Williams should use dribble-drives and kickouts to free up shooters (ATL Playoffs-high 15.8’ average shot distance; 37.3 3FG%, 5th among remaining 8 teams). Meanwhile, Hawk frontcourt contributors should place emphasis on limiting Ben Simmons (7-for-7 FGs in Game 1, all within 4 feet of the rim; team-high 10 assists to match Young, but 5 TOs and 3-for-10 FTs) from playing catch-up with interior shots. A league-high 91.0 percent of Philadelphia’s three-point makes in the postseason are assisted, and Hawk wings and roving guards must stay active in anticipating chances for deflections and steals. The team that is more disruptive with dishes off penetration is likely to hold the upper hand in Game 2. If Atlanta can be more consistent across quarters, we can have a “Hawks Win… OK!” kind of game. The ‘98-99 Falcons, the ’99 Bravos, and the ’15 Hawks each had major, history-making wins, but took so much skin off their own teeth in the small-p process, they had no bite left once it was time to sink them into the likes of John Elway, Derek Jeter or LeBron James in the next big rounds. The ’21 Hawks have a bit of familiarity with letting momentum slip away in recent games, but so far have come away on the fortunate side. Atlanta allowing an early 11-point lead to evaporate in Game 1 of the conference semis was overshadowed by Trae’s closing heroics, but it gave New York and their fans confidence that they could seize momentum back in Game 2, and beyond. That didn’t happen, because Knicks, but the Sixers have far better talent and awareness to make their hopes come to fruition. Rather than merely hoping Embiid runs out of gas, the Hawks must have the high-quality ballhandling and passing under pressure, the focus to create and make open jumpers and layups, and the will to hound Philly’s perimeter threats, such that it becomes obvious that Embiid is perilously running on E to everybody, especially coach Doc Rivers. The pride of Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner must have been a lowkey Hawks fan in 1971, when she grabbed the mic before covering Credence Clearwater Revival and announced, “You see, we never do nothing NICE and EASY. We always do it NICE and ROUGH. So, we’re going to take the beginning of this song, and do it EASY. Then, we’re going to do the finish ROUGH.” Like “Proud Mary,” this is the way we do, “Atlanta Sports.” The 2015 edition of the Hawks perhaps found itself a bit too shellshocked, with the way they crept into the conference finals, to be properly focused on the juggernaut that awaited them. This new version, hopefully, never lost one minute of sleep over the close of Game 1, worrying about the way that things might have been. The approach to this game must stay on what could be. It’s Game 2, Atlanta. Big wheel? Keep on turnin’! Thank You, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. “You’ve got the Brawn. I’ve got the Brains!” “LET’S MAKE LOTS OF…” Ah, yes, there he is! The Greatest** Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time. ** I hear you, advocates for He Who Can No Longer Be Named. Atlanta’s point god of the 90’s was a one-time All-Star, too. Plus, a two-time steals champ, an All-Defensive First Teamer, arguably the first Hawks starter who, for better or worse, embraced the dawning age of the three-point line. Sadly, there were just too many poor playoff exits, too many bad shooting nights. More sadly, he got reckless in causing a fatal wreck after his career ended. And let’s not stress out over what could have been with Pistol Pete. Going forward, “MB10” refers to Mike Bibby, and Doc Rivers is The Greatest. For Now. The Hawk franchise’s all-time Assist king, Doc Rivers has likely been making the Confused face long before it became an indelible, viral meme. Begin with the first time he glanced up at the State Farm Arena rafters and saw #21 up there, representing the Hawks’ coming-of-age era of the 80’s, by its lonesome. Then, when his eyes revert downward, and sees Erick Dampier, Thabo, or Alex Len hoofing it up and down the court wearing #25. How, he must wonder, did everyone think The Human Highlight Film, deemed the league’s 51st greatest player at the time of its golden anniversary, get so many highlights? Somebody set that man up for the near-entirety of his first nine professional seasons. Dominique Wilkins didn’t get to Springfield on the strength of Dunk Contest trophies alone. Rivers was the prime caddie for many thousands of Nique’s 23,000 points, during their Atlanta tenure together. Yet maybe the best show of appreciation that Doc (“Glenn,” here in Philadelphia, because yeah) has received were golf claps, after the sporadic grainy montage of his peak years in town airs during timeouts on the Jumbotron. “Thanks, Doc.” Rivers will join Wilkins in Springfield. But solely as a head coach, and, oh, what a strange, twisty-turny journey it has been. He’ll never go down as the greatest taskmaster in NBA history, but he has got to be top-three in terms of coaching careers that are the most Doc-umentariable. But for his buddy, the retiring Danny Ainge, he’d likely never have gotten the chance to be head coach in Boston, not after stumbling to a 1-10 start with Tracy McGrady and Ty Lue in 2003, his fifth season in Orlando (high schooler Dwight Howard’s probably not landing in O-Town the next summer, either). Despite several mediocre seasons, he was allowed to hang around long enough for The Three Amigos, Banner #17, the Rondo Wonder Years, and his “trade” to the Clippers, when Ainge signaled the time had come for a rebuild. He was in L.A. for the continued rise of spry Blake Griffin, the commissioner-engineered gift of the gifted Chris Paul, the Sterling 4 Lyfe fiasco handing him the keys to run the show, the e-Clips of the Lakers as Tinseltown’s top draw, Saving Private DeAndre, the big breakup, and the arrivals of Cali Kawhi and Playoff P. Out-classing the Warriors proved to be too much of a task over the years, but Rivers’ star-studded teams checked out of regular seasons in either 1st or 2nd place within the Pacific Division. In 2020, after a dreary playoff showing by his Clippers, Doc was granted permission to move on. He’s back East, this time with the #1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers. A guy who began this NBA season moving into 10th-place all time in regular-season coaching victories will find, at the opposite end of the sideline today (1 PM Eastern, ABC, 92.9 FM in ATL; Postgame Show on Bally Sports Southeast), a fellow who had no expectations of moving into the Top-20 list anytime soon when the season began. Shocked! Dismayed! Disappointed! Such were the sentiments of Rivers over the March canning of colleague and former Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. “You’re in the middle of the rebuild, and then, you blame the coach for the losses that you had no chance to win,” Doc groused, perhaps unaware that defeats versus Cleveland, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Indiana, then at Cleveland and Oklahoma City, didn’t quite fall into such an impossible category for a Hawks team nearing the Break at 14-20 and leaking oil. One might be able to excuse the commentary the winningest active African-American coach in the NBA (Rivers’ 992 wins behind Lenny Wilkens’ 1332) reserved when the second-winningest, McMillan, was handed his walking papers back in August. After all, at the time of Nate’s eye-opening ouster, Doc was in the midst of saving his own bacon, with the second-seeded Clippers, while fending off a wunderkind named Luka Doncic in the first playoff round. He wouldn’t know for sure, but open critiques of teams with whom Rivers might have to apply could have been problematic. Stuffed like a baked potato with oodles of class and armed with a single-season of guaranteed cash as a parting gift from Indy, McMillan wasn’t looking for broadsides directed at his former employer. The interim Hawks coach also won’t look back critically at members of his head coaching frat for not going out of their way to publicly back him at the time of his firing. “Doc has been respected,” McMillan told The Undefeated in December, as Philly’s Rivers moved into 10th place in wins all-time, with Nate having no idea he would add to his own tally in 2021, “and he gets the respect from everyone because he not only has won games, but a title,” referring to fading memories of Doc’s time in Beantown. “And that’s the thing for us, as Black coaches, is to win titles to put us on the level so people will look at us as some of the good coaches in this league.” Nate gets it. Having Black coaches, like Lue, able to demonstrate their caliber of coaching as championship-contender quality, not limited to nurturing subpar talent until the figment of some hotshot ebonistically-challenged upgrade arrives, is vital to building a coaching fraternity that more closely mirrors that of the NBA talent being coached, analyzed, and developed. “What I love about Nate,” Rivers told The Undefeated in kind, “is that he’s his own man. Nate keeps quiet and wants to do his own thing, is a family man that just wants to do his job and go home. He ain’t out there calling reporters, working GMs. That’s not who Nate is. Nate believes, and I agree with Nate, ‘Do your job, and your work will speak for itself.’” The Hawkward part of this? Doc already has his ring, having lasted long enough in the league to win it all and build his own brand off of that experience. In this series, Rivers’ club has a strong chance to come out of the NBA East for the first time since Allen Iverson reigned supreme in 2001. But McMillan and his Hawks find themselves in no mood to be deferential. Back in May of 1988, Rivers’ 22 assists helped the Hawks tie up their second-round series with the mighty Celtics at the Omni, giving Atlanta hope that their turn at the top of the Eastern table had finally arrived. These were the third-most assists by any NBA player in a playoff win at the time (two behind Magic’s 24 back in 1984; Johnson logged 23 in a 1985 playoff victory, too), perhaps inspiring Utah’s John Stockton to try one-upping Doc’s total the very next day (24, in a loss to Magic’s Lakers). A year before that, McMillan made a little history of his own. The unheralded second-rounder from NC State hung 25 Sonic assists in a regular-season game on Larry Drew’s lowly Clippers. At that time, that tally tied for the fourth-most all-time, in any NBA game. To this day, it’s tied with Ernie DiGregorio for the most ever dished out by a rookie in this league. Neither coach earned an NBA title as a player, but they’ve endured many a bitter playoff battle, and they each know the value of a capable court conductor in determining the outcomes. Philadelphia has arrived on the strength of Ben Simmons (14.2 PPG, 6.9 APG, 7.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG regular-season). Whatever his flaws, be it free throw shooting or limited shot selection, the 24-year-old uses his size, length, and guile to stymie opposing point guards at both ends of the court, setting the stage for, among other things, the MVP candidacy of center Joel Embiid (28.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 37.7 3FG%). Simmons averaging 14.8 PPG, 9.2 APG, 10.2 RPG and 1.2 SPG in the first round was enough to help the 76ers fend off Washington in five games, despite losing Embiid in Game 4 (“small” meniscus tear). His Wizards counterpart, Russell Westbrook averaged his obligatory triple-double but was pressed into inefficient shooting from the field (35.9 2FG%, 25.0 3FG% vs. PHI), as was Bradley Beal (21.9 3FG% vs. PHI). Despite being hamstrung by COVID, in January, and by injuries at inopportune times throughout the season, Philly (49-23) had reason to expect being here, hosting Games 1 and 2 of an Eastern Conference semifinal game. After being swept in the opening round by Boston in 2020’s Bubble, leading to LP’s former boss’ ouster, the Sixers brass and its hard-to-please fans would have expected nothing less. To the surprise of many, particularly those in the mid-Atlantic states, Atlanta has arrived to this second-round stage, and they did so on the strength of Trae Young (25.3 PPG, 9.4 APG). From deep, down the lane, and on the line, Young is persistent in producing offense for himself and inducing high-percentage offense for his teammates. He demonstrated in the Hawks’ first-round media upset of New York that his flair for showmanship can withstand the heat created by opposing thugs, fans, and political opportunists. Doc has a couple aces up his sleeve, that is, ace coaching assistants. While building his new coaching bench, he got two of McMillan’s longtime top assistants from Indiana, Dan Burke and Popeye “Hockey Dad” Jones. Rivers will be as much picking their brains about McMillan’s strategies, particularly Burke about the Hawks on the defensive end, as he will be game-planning the players on the floor. Doc will soak up as much advice as he can get, as he gets to see a lot of The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time wearing #11 in this series. No asterisks required. The truncated regular seasons of 2020 and 2021 are the only reasons Trae isn’t already halfway to Doc’s career assist mark with the Hawks. Health-permitting, Young will be the team’s all-time Dime King while it’s still early in his Maximum Contract Extension phase. If all continues to proceed well, once Trae’s done with #11, there’ll be no Esteban Batistas or Tiago Splitters as a follow-up act. The differences between the East’s 4-seed and its top-seed will be evident by the diversity of defensive options thrown Trae’s way. For Philadelphia (NBA-high 9.2 team SPG), Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and George Hill offer a stronger mix of skill and experience for guarding Young. The best postseason performer thus far for the Sixers, bouncing back from last year’s bomb in the Bubble and the 2019 series with Toronto, Tobias Harris will have a better clue than Julius Randle on what to do (or not) when Young leaks into the paint, and at least he’ll know better than to poke the cub. Embiid, on less than two functional legs, and former Hawks center Dwight Howard should be a defensive upgrade over the committee that manned the middle as best they could for the Knicks. Drop coverage by Philly (0.87 opponent points-per-possession on P&R ball handler plays, best among East’s remaining teams) will be susceptible to Young’s floating giant-killers, but his on-ball defenders can recover over screens enough to up the degrees of difficulty. The elevated heat on Ice Trae, and former Sixer legend Lou Williams, means the shooters on the floor for Atlanta, notably Bogdan Bogdanovic (33.3 3FG% vs. NYK) and sixth-man Danilo Gallinari (32.0 3FG% in first round), have to be ready to catch and convert when the ball finds its way out to them. There wasn’t much to glean from the regular season head-to-heads, due to so many key players DNP’d, but the Hawks produced just 33.3 field goals per game, the lowest by any Sixers opponent, a Sixers season-high 9.3 of Atlanta’s attempts rejected. Establishing the perimeter threat will get the interior for the Hawks uncongested. The Hawks’ forwards and centers also have to be in position, via rolls, cuts, lobs and putbacks, for buckets at the basket. Masterful in guarding what was supposed to be an unstoppable Randle in the prior round, John Collins’ offensive production will need to be raised by a degree to fully offset what a more confident opponent in Harris (25.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 38.1 3FG% vs. WAS) can bring to the table. Be it by defensive rebounds or live-ball turnovers, the Sixers want to get Simmons downhill after securing stops, with shooters dashing to the corners (Green 45.2 corner 3FG%, 45.6 percent of all his 3FGAs) and trailing (Seth Curry 45.0 3FG%), to exert maximum pressure on the opposing backcourt. Philadelphia’s 17.9 points per-48 off turnovers ranked 5th in the NBA, their 15.0 fastbreak points per-48 ranked 3rd. Atlanta (NBA-best 10.0 opponent points per-48 off TOs and 0.86 opponent points per transition possession in Playoffs) had an easier time getting back against the Knicks, and will rely heavily on Bogi, Philly native De’Andre Hunter (questionable for Game 1, sore knee), and Kevin Huerter to keep the Sixers from building up heads of steam. Alleviated from protecting the interior on the break, Young’s ability to hustle and fluster shooters, without fouling, has to shine through. Hawk bigs must put pressure on the rim on offense, but they have to also create the advantage of beating their assignments down the floor. Marginalized as an offensive option during his postseasons in Houston, then dispatched from a title contender to a developmental team at 2020’s Trade Deadline, Clint Capela (NBA-high 14.3 RPG in 2020-21, 2.0 BPG) will have the opportunity to show Daryl Morey, beneficiary of the gains of The Process, what the new Sixers executive left behind Door #2 when he made the pivotal deal with Atlanta. Capela largely avoided foul trouble versus New York, and it’s essential that he stays on the floor while handling Embiid adroitly on post-ups (Philly’s 9.2% frequency and 1.29 points per post-up possession are Playoff-highs) and boxing Joel or Dwight out. The Hawks’ five-game series win over the Knicks got McMillan (36.2 playoff winning percentage) past not only former Hawks coach Mike Fratello (32.3%), but the guy who supplanted Nate in Portland, the now-former Blazer coach Terry Stotts (34.3%), among the least playoff-successful coaches with 500 or more regular-season wins. Coach Nate doesn’t have a radar for this, but if he did, he’d find within his sights Gene Shue (39.0%), who peaked with The Original Doc by taking Philly to The Finals in 1977. A successful Hawks series that goes no more than six games would allow Nate to shoo off Shue. Head-honcho jobs are opening up across the league, making it of some comfort for Hawks, Inc., that McMillan keeps his eyes only on the prize of the next opportunity to win a playoff game. “You have to be loyal to whoever you are working for,” he shared with The Undefeated while still assisting LP. “I always have taken the approach that the organization that I am working for is where all my attention is.” “I don’t really look back… I am not doing things for my next job… If you commit to that organization and that team, things will work out for you.” Word, Nate Dogg! Philadelphia’s five-game series victory over the Wizards pushed Rivers a little further past the .500 postseason line (95-90), but Doc has commandeered many a disappointing conclusion to seasons with talented teams, notably a Clipper club that still awaits its franchise’s first Conference Finals. He’s desperate to change that narrative, too, but he’ll have to reach the Eastern Finals with a hobbling Embiid leading a core (with Simmons and Harris, throw in Mike Scott if you wish) that has only one more series win under their belts than the current Hawks collective. The invectives thrown and spewed Young’s way have already reached a scale that Rivers, who could hide a little behind guys named Nique and Tree, rarely had to experience by himself during his tenure in the Pac-Man jerseys. Trae’s aware of the Sixer-fan hijinks already sprinkled upon former league MVP Westbrook in recent weeks, a player Young has watched and learned from since his youthful years in The Sooner State. Trae also knows that, unlike fans from a town to Philly’s north cheesing for clout on behalf of their longtime unlovable losers, the fans in the City of Brotherly Shove are quick to turn their vitriol and Cheez Wiz onto their own teams, when things aren’t going their way, and as opponents are bending games to their will. The lesson to be gained, Philly sports fans? The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard is in town. Get your popcorn ready. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “Orange and Blue” is the New “Black and Blue”. New York Knicks jerseys aren’t new, but they are the new Beer Muscles. I didn’t need to know my Jake Pauls from my Logan Pauls from my Cliff Pauls from my Mrs. Paul’s. But goshdarnit, Nate Robinson, back when you still had your faculties and all, what were you not thinking? Putting on that orange and blue with the “NEW YORK” emblazoned on it makes New Yorkers think they can step to anyone and accomplish anything, even if the Knicks themselves haven’t accomplished much of anything since Watergate. Moreover, it’s not just the tried-and-true natives of New Amsterdam who get their Dutch courage from a dash of Knicks gear. Irrationally, I opine that the athletes helming from the far-away land of Seattle are top-tier, a view I’ve held strongly since the heady heydays of Jamal “Don’t Crack” Crawford. Maybe it’s the crisp air, I dunno. Folks like Katelyn Ohashi, Apolo Ohno, and Gail Devers help give this theory some gravity. When it comes to hoops, Pacific Northwesterners that grew up seeing and learning of grungy Sonics-era guys like Nate McMillan, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have been flowing into the NBA in waves ever since. A multi-sport athlete on the come-up from U-Dub, NateRob got the benefit of making the biggest NBA splash right from the jump, courtesy of a 2005 draft-night deal when the Suns drafted then sent him with Quentin Richardson out to the Knicks for Kurt “Mr. Happy” Thomas. I have zero doubts that “Former Slam Dunk champion and SACRAMENTO KINGS star Nate Robinson” wouldn’t be walking in cold to anyone’s pay-per-view celebrity(?) boxing match unless he paid for a ticket. Note that I’m using “celebrity”, in the modern-day YouTube sense, as loosely as I can here. Was Salt Bae unavailable to glove up? You’re not gonna catch Atlanta Hawks legend Spud Webb out here, decades after his dunk title, taking up bullfighting or cheese-rolling or some nonsense. Where might you catch him all those years later? Standing still, as he should, as a prop while Nate leaps over him (on, what, the 14th try of the night?) to win his own contest. Especially for us gravity-bound shorties, it was a quaint little sporting achievement that, 15 years removed, Robinson continues to overexploit, because he can, because NEW YORK. Last time you were forced to think about the athletic exploits of Fred Jones (Indiana) or Jeremy Evans (Utah) was when? Exactly. Just this very moment and, maybe, never again. He was a member of five NBA clubs over the course of his first 11 years in the NBA. But because of his Knicks tenure, the pride of the Emerald City is in a perpetual New York state of mind, hiring an Empire State dude to be his agent and drum up all kinds of crazy ways he can keep his name social-media-relevant. Said agent runs into wannabe pugilist and “influencer” Jake Paul (I’m just assuming it’s Jake, I don’t feel like double-checking), shoves his client into a gym for a months-long crash course in the squared circle, then propels him into a ring clad in blue-and-orange, thoroughly under-trained for even an undercard, with a whole (bored) world watching. After the bell, let’s have some introductions, shall we? NateRob, this is Leather. Canvas, say hello to Nate. Now Billy Paul or whoever is out here takin’ ‘bout, “If he dies, he dies,” him and his bro using Nate’s snoozing body as a stepping stone to talk mess with actual UFC fighters. Worst decision by a Puget Sound-area athletic competitor since Jason Terry, with his Celtic beer muscles, said to himself, “Ay, lemme go break up this lob here right quick.” NateRob could have chosen to rock some Seatown green before getting rocked in turn. But now, he done embarrassed his people on two American shores. It is true that a little better focus and readiness, and a lot more time in the gym, would have allowed Robinson at least a little more time on his feet. But none of this is happening if we were dealing, 15 years before, with Nate Robinson, high-flying top-scorer of some lackluster New Orleans Hornets team. The current fellows suited up in New York Knicks gear venture into Game 5 of the Best-of-7 series with the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT) trying their darnedest not to look like an accidental tourist that stumbled into some “celebrity” exhibition bout opposite Evander Holyfield. "It’s gonna be okay, my guy, don't fret! He's not gonna bite ya." Like schoolyard schemers who believe they’re Vince McMahon, New York sports fans in your corner will gas you up into thinking you’re some all-time great when you’re, at best, pretty good – or, “improved” -- and ready to be trotted out for anything against anybody when any sentient observer could advise that you’re not. The franchise clusters together ONE fine regular season (same as the Hawks, roughly equivalent to 47-35), their first in many years, and the dutiful New York sports media is doling out super-sized Bags of Chips while declaring their Knicks are All That. These Knicks thought they could roll a little Spike, a little spittle, a little spokes-mayor, a little Sbarro’s out there, and Atlanta would turn tail. That’s what they thought because that’s what they’ve been taught. You’re repping New York, and that’s all that matters. Why bother putting in the necessary work? The lower-seeded Hawks have put in the work, and that has been revealed for the balance of this first-round Eastern Conference series (as much as I hate to say these two words…) “thus far.” Not only did Atlanta have the homecourt disadvantage entering this series, but there was a rest disadvantage built into the scheduling, too. There were seven days between regular season’s end and Game 1 before a ravenous crowd at Madison Square Garden, then two-more off days before Game 2 in the same house. Game 3, in Atlanta, came with a one-day break. So did, Game 4 with its early-afternoon start at State Farm Arena. Now with two full days off before Game 5 back in NYC, coach Tom Thibodeau’s collective has been granted ample time not only to lick their wounds after losses, but also to gameplan and adjust to what McMillan’s Hawks are presenting out on the floors. Historically, the Bockers are 0-12 all-time when tasked to climb out of a 3-1 series hole (NBA teams are 13-248, as of last night, when trying to survive this deficit, as per Land of Basketball), and their opponents are from a sports town that knows a little something about counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Now, here's a little story that needs to be heard. If you ask Spike nicely, he’ll recall the time his Knicks blew a 3-1 lead to their former head coach. Game 5 in Miami went Pat Riley’s way, saving the heat’s season, but Jeff Van Gundy’s club got unglued near game’s end, when Lady Byng Citizenship Award winner P.J. Brown snapped and went Citizen Kane, rag-dolling pesky low-bridger Charlie Ward WWE-style into the photographer’s section. John Starks gets tossed, along with Ward and Brown. Yet while Miami’s P.J. was suspended for the remainder of the series, New York’s Starks, Ward, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson also got suspended for one game. The latter three penalties were the result of rules imposed by David Stern – if you’re not in the game, don’t leave the bench! – after a 1993 halftime dust-up featured an inactive New York guard Greg Anthony, a Las Vegas kid with Beer Muscles and dressed in horrifically garish 90’s fashion, stepping on court to cheap-shot Kevin Johnson in defense of Doc Rivers. Through their union, Knick players sought an emergency legal injunction, but a New York judge (and begrudging Knicks fan) denied their motion to stay the suspensions pending arbitration. Per league rules requiring nine players per team, Ewing and Houston sat out with Ward for Game 6, while LJ and Starks were suspended for Game 7. With the Knicks missing key reinforcements, Miami prevailed at MSG in Game 6 and made Game 7, back in their house, a mere formality. New York had blown their last, best chance to wrestle the Shute from Chicago with The Finals on the line, because Beer Muscle Rules dictate they had no choice but to Keep It Real. There’s a good moral to the story in there for Hawks coach McMillan to share with his young pups ahead of this Game 5. There’s little question that the team headed by Trae Young (Mount Rushmore du jour: 4th newbie in NBA Playoffs history to average 25 PPG and 10 APG in first four games) and a bloodied-yet-unbowed John Collins will be ready to roll with whatever punches, however figurative, come their way. Granted a final eight-count, will Julius Randle and his teammates come up off the mat ready to properly stick-and-move? I keep waiting for Orange Julius to pull back the hood and reveal 2011-era Josh Smith. Every instance that Randle pokes his hands out at referees, pleading like Oliver Twist and pouting, go right ahead and chalk up another two or three points for the Hawks in your head. By default, he landed his best jabs of the series in Game 4, a 113-96 loss to a Hawks team that laid off the gas late. But in a playoff series where his inexperience and unfair expectations are getting exposed, he gets too easily punch-drunk when things aren’t going his way. So much attention, including his own, is directed at Julius’ shooting struggles (16.3 PPG on 24.1 shots/game, FTs included). But a remodeled point-forward who averaged a team-high 6.0 APG in his award-winning season could only muster 10 assists, to go with 10 turnovers, through the first three games of this series. Even in Game 4, Randle managed to up the ante with 7 assists, but accompanied that with 5 turnovers, 5 fouls for the second-straight game (the final hack a sketchy one), and lackadaisical defense that would have gotten someone else on Thibs’ roster benched. Much of Randle’s dime-drain stems from the lack of teammates, aside from Derrick Rose, making even open perimeter shots. Bailey, Banks and Biddle could come in and drop more gems than the trio of Barrett, Burks, and Bullock (combined 20-for-67 3FGs for the series). “I see it. I’m open,” RJ shared with The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov after Game 3. “I just got to make it.” Barrett proceeded to score 21 mostly by attacking inside, but the sophomore went 2-for-7 on jumpers outside the paint on Sunday. Randle’s Knicks have been grounded and pounded by the Hawks’ stout man and recovering help defenders, unable to sustain their rebounding advantage (lost 48-39 in Game 4), and unable to use foul-shot discrepancies as an excuse (Playoffs-low 17.5 FTAs/game; 70 FTs attempted by ATL in four games, 74 FTs made by NYK on 21 more attempts). While McMillan continues to preach to the Hawks about pursuing second, third, and fourth options in halfcourt possessions, the Knicks are getting mired in My-Turn, Your-Turn Land between Rose and Randle, and the other so-called “options” around the horn aren’t trying to locate each other. Playing to if not just a bit outside of his strengths, Rose (22.8 PPG, highest in a full series since his 2011 MVP season) is doing all he knows to do to help his team, but Randle (26.3 FG% on isos) isn’t creating for himself or others via post-ups. Third in the NBA in post-up possessions during the regular season, Julius is faintly credited by NBA Stats with a single post-up possession through four games in this series. Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock (1.0 APG this series; zero Game 4 points, 4 FGAs in 34 minutes) is so focused on putting the screws to Trae and others on defense, as Thibs explained to reporters on Sunday, that he’s running on empty at the other end. New York would love to have even Mr. 50/50/100 himself, Tony Snell, as a veteran option for spurts. Snell has been DNP’d after logging 12 minutes in the first two contests, and if he’s healthy he could be a surprise boost off the bench. In terms of scoring impact, Thibs’ mid-series decision to move Rose into his starting five was offset only slightly by substituting an injury-nagged Nerlens Noel with starter Taj Gibson. A starting Rose makes it imperative that Atlanta’s bench brigade seizes the opportunity to outshine New York’s once more. Leading the backups to a 31-28 edge over the Knicks in Game 3, 37-28 in Game 4, Atlanta reserves Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter rebounded and made key shots and plays, such that starters Bogi Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter didn’t need to have banner days for Atlanta to keep the Knicks at bay. Add a touch of a semi-productive Lou Williams, Onyeka Okongwu and/or Snell to the mix in Game 5 and the Hawks, outscored 64-31 in bench points in Game 1 and 55-22 in Game 2 thanks to Rose, could gain a decisive final advantage on the road. Just don’t All-Bench ‘em, Coach Nate. Division rival Washington gifted, let’s just say, this series’ eventual winner by extending their series with Philadelphia on Monday, denying the Sixers and their momentarily injured star center a definite rest advantage ahead of the Eastern Conference semis. That should only serve as further incentive for the Hawks to conclude the series with New York as soon as possible. Doing so on the road could serve as useful experience for what could lie ahead. It’s not about, “if I can make it here, I can make it at anything, anytime, versus anyone, anywhere.” Striving to be an omni-athlete on multi-vitamins in your late 30s is fine. Sadly, Nate Robinson had to learn about the flaws of relying on New York’s Tough-Guy Transitive Property, with poor preparation and poor focus, the hard way. Hopefully, Clint Capela and the Hawks will be able to assert the problematics of adhering to such a short-sighted mindset into the brains of the Knicks, along with the adoring fans that bothered to bring their brains with them, a bit more subtly tonight, just once more in the house that Ali-Frazier built. “We win the game, we talk ((Dellavedova)) and we push around. So, what are you gonna do about it?” Capela (13.0 RPG, 2nd in NBA Playoffs) asserted when asked of the Hawks’ calm, cool, connected counterpunches to the Knicks’ Glass Joe, wannabe-Fat Joe bravado. Clint has personal experience closing out Thibodeau, Gibson and Rose, plus Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler in Game 5, first-round action, when his 26 points and 15 boards helped CP3 and James Harden’s Rockets gentlemanly dispatch the Timberwolves to the hinterlands in 2017. “We can be physical, but we can win games as well. Now, we’re coming to your house to win this game, again, and send you on vacation.” I’m told the fish in the Hudson put up a good fight in the summertime. What are the Knicks going to do? A prominent New Yorker once noted that everybody has a plan until, well, Mr. Robinson surely knows the ending to that quotable. Do these Knicks even have a plan, one perhaps involving a basketball? It may no longer matter if they do, but we’ll all find out soon enough. When it comes to the outcome of this playoff series? It’s no longer up to you, New York, New York. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “Psst! Mayor Bill! Here. Come sit by me.” We’re back in The Traedium for Game 4 (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC)! “Tidbits in the Morning!” We want the New York Knicks and their unctuous supporters to mutter, “Well, we’ll just see you back here in Game 6!” and “Knicks in 7!” once today’s affair concludes. Doing so will require our Atlanta Hawks to continue take care of The Seven R’s. Randle. Rose. (hold on, the time clock just messed up again. Okay, where were we? At two?) Rebounding. RJ. Reggie. Recovery. And the Refs. One sobering Knickfan on SB Nation put it plainly after Friday’s raucous Game 3 win. Paraphrasing: in this series, one team’s star is building its entire team around him and the infectious synergy he creates. The other team’s star is trying to get up off the mat and do all he can think to do, for a club that effectively drafted his eventual replacement back in November. Julius Randle (14.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, but 20.6 2FG% and 30.0 3FG%) is struggling to be the best R on his team, much less the best R on the floor (Hey, New York, maybe try “RAYFORD!” as a Game 5 taunt? It used to work so well for Mets fans with “LARRY!”). I see Derrick Rose (24.3 PPG, 51.7 FG%, 4.7 APG) as more of a release valve than a player steaming up the nets in this series. His scoring efficiency would be problematic for the Hawks if he were the Knicks’ supplementary, not the primary and ultimate, threat. Somebody has to score, and he’s scoring mostly in his own conventional ways, although Atlanta doing better at honoring his three-point shot (3-for-5 3FGs in Game 3, rest of NYK 6-for-25) will help bring that efficiency down. If he can give the Knicks quality production over the course of 25-30 minutes, not 35-39, that would be better for them in the long haul. If only to get somebody aside from Rose to stir things up inside, look for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to put his rookie Immanuel Quickley (89.1 regular-season FT%, 11th in NBA) on the ball more going forward. Momma Payton, I am so sorry. Similarly, it would aid New York if they could get rebounding and stops from a guy over three years Rose’s senior in 15-20 minutes, not 25-30. Taj Gibson could not duplicate his Game 2 impact on Friday (six rebounds and 0 steals, down from 7 and 3, respectively; 2-for-6 FGs in 26 minutes), allowing Atlanta, less hemmed-in by foul trouble, to narrow the Knicks’ rebounding advantage from 54-41 last Wednesday to 45-42. The Knicks still nabbed 13 O-Rebs for the third consecutive game, with all five starters plus Nerlens Noel and Obi Toppin digging in during Game 3. Atlanta properly boxing out and relying on help rebounders like De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Tony Snell, to cut down on extra-chance scoring opportunities will make New York’s uphill climbs steeper. We never got to find out how the player Atlanta traded for, out of 2018’s #3 spot, might have fared in his postseason debut, had it come about in his second pro season. We can only hope it would not be as much of a challenge as it has been, so far, for the fellow the Knicks came away with at #3 in 2019. With one more Hawks win tonight, Canada Men’s National Team GM Rowan Barrett will hope to begin re-orienting his son, RJ (34.2 FG%, incl. 2-for-9 in Game 3), toward another team entirely next month. A three-game comeback and another week or two of second-round action won’t give Rowan much time to convene his talented kid with Nick Nurse, Andrew Wiggins and the Canadians for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which begins in British Columbia less than a month from today. Looking at the current ongoings in Japan, though, this “problem” may take care of itself. Some bad news from Game 3 was, the Hawks only scored a pair of fastbreak points. The good news is Atlanta still won that category on Friday, by two (2-0 Game 3, 15-6 Game 2, 9-9 Game 1). Getting shut out in that department won’t sit well with Thibs, who expects a modicum of quick-strike transition after defensive stops to throw teams off. The Hawks will look to push the pace more frequently on a team so reliant on Rose and Gibson to run the court. The Knicks will turn to Quickley, on occasion, to hurry the ball upcourt and kick out the ball to their killer B’s (Reggie Bullock, Barrett, Alec Burks), in hopes of getting them unstuck with kickouts to the corners. Can Elf give Bullock some hair advice? That’s all I’ve got for Reggie. If Atlanta is so fortunate as to begin pulling away in the second half, Bullock and the Knicks have an R of their own up their sleeve – Resorting, to thuggery, either to tilt Game 4 back toward their favor and/or “send a message” that a potential closeout Game 5 in Manhattan won’t be so kind. As young and inexperienced as the Hawks are, they pulled off a masterclass in rash-alk on Friday… trash-talk, without any T’s. Whatever they’re doing to keep the Referees’ attention on the Knicks’ big mouths, keep it up! Closing tidbit: I’m happy Mayor Keisha hasn’t been goaded into a pointless wager with Bill de Blah-Blah-Blah. Who wants to win some wet teddy bears on a bun, anyway? We’ll keep our bushels of peaches, thank you. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. The Moment Knicks fans realized they got stuck with the wrong Italian. Welcome to the Madison Square Garden branch of the New York Public Library. Now, sssshhh, you blowhard New York Knicks fans. Can you not see, Trae Young is reading you up and down right now? The Human Spoiler Alert, Trae and his Atlanta Hawks cannot get too far over their skis ahead of Game 2 (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT). But when you form Mount Rushmores with LeBron (30-10-and-5+), D-Wade (game-clinching FG with under 5 seconds left), and Derrick Rose and CP3 (w/ LeBron, 30-10+) in your winning NBA Playoffs debut over a thirsty media darling, you get to dictate what’s going on with the Dewey Decimal System. The Big Idea in The Big Apple was that Atlanta’s hush-puppy point guard would wilt in his postseason debut, perhaps confusing 2021 Trae with the young man who officially began his career in 2018 on this hell-owed Madison Square Garden floor. Then, his resounding Game 1 performance on Sunday (32 points on 10-for-20 2FGs and 9-for-9 all-4th-quarter FTs, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 TOs) helped his Hawks gut out a 107-105 win and the playoff-starved host’s fanbase simultaneously. Now, the new Big Idea as Game 2 approaches is that it’s their one-time All-Star who gets the butterflies out of his system. Reaching as high as #15 among all-time players with no NBA Playoffs experience under their belt (446 regular-season games, tied with Brandon Knight, Darius Miles, and Geoff Petrie), 2021 Most Improved Player award-winner Julius Randle is officially off the list, leaving behind Zach LaVine (411 games) as the new active leader. In the cases of the other three stuck at 446, no one was expecting those guys to lead a team’s charge into the playoffs by the time each reached appearance #400. It turned out that the rust was real for Randle (6-for-23 FGs, would-be 6-for-24 had his mid-range heave gotten off in the final 0.9 seconds of Game 1, 1-for-2 FTs and 12 rebounds), much of it a product of the defensive activity by the Hawks’ John Collins to lure him into rushed off-screen jumpers rather than attacks around the rim, with help at turns by De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari. Randle has no choice but to be better in Game 2, but any incremental improvement may also be offset by one from the Collins-Clint Capela duo (combined 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting, 20 rebounds and 4 blocks) if coach Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted defense can’t thwart pick-and-roll penetration. Randle’s second-in-command, second-year forward RJ Barrett (6-for-15 FGs, including 1-for-6 on threes) had a moment to remember but a night to forget. The Maple Mamba’s third-quarter, game-tying poster waffle served only to wake up Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finished a syrupy sweet 4-for-6 from Times Square. Bogi also had two critical steals and a mid-floor stop on Rose in the second half. Knick starters took a grand total of six free throws and shot a combined 17-for-53 from the field. At this stage, it borders on unfairness to classify Elfrid Payton (0-for3 FGs and 1 assist in 8 minutes) as a starter. Throw in Rose, the 32-year-old sixth-man logging a team-high 37.7 minutes in the series opener for Coach Thibs, and those six Knicks were a combined 4-for-21 on threes. Hawk defenders Hunter and Kevin Huerter did a fine job of shooing shooters off the three-point line in the clutch, keeping New York from pulling away. Thank goodness, Spike and the Knicks fans must have thought, for Alec Burks (27 points, 9-for-13 FGs and 6-for-8 FTs in 26 “not basketball” minutes) heating up, rookie Immanuel Quickley getting some hero-shots to fall, and the oldest Knick on the roster, Taj Gibson (9 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive), being the beneficiary of some of those wayward Knick caroms. New York starters have no choice but to be a better collective in Game 2. But any incremental advantage they gain may similarly be offset by a stronger performance from Atlanta’s Gallinari, whose binary bench production (1 3FG, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block) belied his 3-for-11 shooting display. Getting open shots from Gallo and Bogi to splash early can facilitate Trae putting games on Ice late. The Hawks got just enough from Lou Williams, and drips and drabs from Tony Snell, to keep the team in position for Young’s silencing salvos, setting the stage for New York’s first home loss this season after leading through three quarters. The new goal for Atlanta is to build up enough of a fourth-quarter lead that the new #84 on the No-Playoffs-Yet list, Kris Dunn, gets to enjoy some floor burn. He was radio silent on whether Washington Capitals goon Tom Wilson making frozen mincemeat of Rangers star Artemi Panarin’s face was hockey. And he struggles to say much of anything with his whole chest about his governor hunting aides around the office. But when it comes to the concept of Knicks opponents “hunting fouls,” it appears NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio has found his voice. “ThAt HaWk WoN’t FlY. I tHiNk ThE kNiCkS aRe GoInG tO tEaCh YoU a LeSsOn.” Shut Up and Politics, Billy De Whinyams! Hizzoner knows a legitimate threat when he sees one. So does Barnes and Noble, the library-killing NYC-based store which took time out of their lengthy liquidation to name-check Mr. Young this past Monday morning. The threat is not so much the free throws Young earns, it’s the knowledge that you might have to smuggle pigeons and pizza rats into MSG just to distract him from making most, of not all, of them. Nine years ago, both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were gifted nine freebies during a Game 2 loss against the heat in Miami, but each missed three of them. Stoudemire promptly assailed a sign that said “Break Glass in Case of Emergency,” and extinguished himself. Melo’s co-star’s lacerated hand left him wanting to punch himself as the Knicks failed to win Game 3 back home (despite 19 combined free throws by Melo and Tyson Chandler), all but sealing the deal of ever catching up with LeBron (12-for-13 FTs) and Friends in that first-round series. Eight years ago this month, Paul George made 7 of his 8 foul shots in Game 1 at the Garden. He’d have made more had the Knicks’ J.R. Smith not come off the bench hunting for fouls (7-for-10 FTs) and snookering PG-13 out of the game. Alas, coach Mike Woodson’s Knicks let that critical home game slip away, allowing Indiana to hold serve at home and prevail in six games. The city is only now recovering from eight years of being New York Undercover. The Knicks still want to win this series, but with all the hullabaloo after Game 1, it’s clear their fans, and the shrill shills in the media that finance their livelihoods purely off them, are simply starving to see their team win a playoff game in their own building for the first time since outlasting PG’s Pacers for a stay of execution in Game 5 of that 2013 series. Knick fans are all packed, ready to invade StubHub and head South. But quite a few will be checking their refund policies if their team finds themselves down 2-0. Young, coached up by Nate McMillan, understands Atlanta needs more than one Hawk to fly. The Knicks have to either deny him the ball, or deny his paint penetration, and take away his shot-making threats. Even with Thibodeau’s layered schemes, it remains to be seen whether New York defenders can accomplish two of those three tasks for significant stretches of games, all while not getting caught hacking. They’ll have to do the same with Bogdanovic and Williams, neither of whom found much resistance finding their own offense or their teammates when handling the rock. Staying true to McMillan’s edict, Young’s two turnovers were a team-high (six ATL player TOs in Game 1), and the “Fowl-hunting” Knicks have to be disruptive of more than just Trae to even this series. Might the MSG Library close tonight? For the fanbase, waiting for a Game 5 to celebrate a Knicks home victory might prove to be a wait that’s a few days too long. The gnashing of teeth around Gotham is the realization that if they don’t turn it around convincingly, today, they might have to hold out another year, or eight, to get another chance. Randle could be outta here by 2022, while Rose, Burks, Nerlens Noel (questionable for Game 2, sprained ankle) and Reggie Bullock could catch a payday somewhere else this summer. Due to term limits, Mayor De Bloviator knows 2021 is his last chance to artificially boost his ratings ahead of his next run for a job somewhere in the Empire State. By next year, playoffs or not, when Trae Young and Atlanta pays a visit, this place could become the New York Public Library, State Farm Arena North branch. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. A random employee in Atlanta says, “Hey! I’ve got your broom, Right Here!” 1989! The number. For young movie director Spike Lee, it was not about to be just another summer. For young 1st-Team All-NBA star Charles Barkley, it was shaping up to be just another long, bitter one. Sprawled out on the Spectrum arena floor, the NBA’s second-leading rebounder had carried his 7-seed 76ers as far as he could lug them. That limit was a first-round exit, a three-game sweep, at the hands of Rick Pitino’s New York Knicks, proud winners of a division title for the first time in 18 years. Barely over two weeks before the Morehouse grad’s new epic Do the Right Thing would premiere at Cannes, exuberant Knicks fans like Lee made the trip down I-95 to pack Philly’s hallowed arena for Game 3, with brooms in tow. Overwhelmed at turns by Pat Ewing and Charles Oakley protecting the rim, Sir Charles lacked the support to outshine New York’s leading scorer, Gerald Wilkins. After losing Games 2 and 3 by just a single point, the series-clincher in OT, Philadelphia’s final indignity came after the final buzzer, when a smug young Brooklyn-born heathen strutted his way into the stands. Just a second-year pro from St. John’s, Mark Jackson found a broom near his bench, then “borrowed” it from boastful lower-bowl Knick fans. He then led Charles Oakley, Eddie Lee Wilkins and teammates in a celebratory, inglorious “sweeping” of the Spectrum floor. To boos, as is custom, and select fingers from departing fans of the division rival. NYC. New York Cockiness, crystallized. “Instead of acting like they’d been there before… because THEY’d never actually been there before,” recalled Mike Vaccaro, New York Post columnist to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It just ticked off the basketball gods.” Indeed. Another upstart initialed MJ, one with more hubris than Mark Jackson and all the Knicks put together, awaited the Knicks in the next round. Momma, there he goes! Pitino quickly realized he’d better head to Lexington if he wanted to chase championships, and his hunch proved true. Over the next decade, New York could never escape The Real MJ’s shadow, finally reaching The Finals only after the Bulls’ star took some personal time off. Catching a break from the Atlanta Hawks in the strike-season playoff of 1999, an aging Ewing’s Knicks bowed to San Antonio in The Finals, leaving the team at 0-for-2 in the 1990s. New York hasn’t come close in the 22 years since. And, believe it, they’ve spent, and waved around, a lot of money just trying to come close. He was Rookie of the Year in 1988, and an All-Star in his second season, playing for his hometown team, so it was tough for Jackson, having won his first playoff series, to keep his “arrogaNYCe” in check. Jackson would feel bristles on his backside just two years later, as Michael Jordan’s Bulls closed out a not-very-gentlemanly 3-0 sweep at Madison Square Garden. Traded the next year, essentially for a more seasoned Doc Rivers, Mark would have to wait until age-34 of his 17-year career, in Indiana, just to get into The Finals. Perhaps, instead of a broom, Haughty Mark should have thought about grabbing a postgame microphone instead. Philadelphians, as you may have guessed by now, haven’t forgotten about The Brooms. The Sixers haven’t been any more successful, over the long haul, than their rivals to the north in reaching the Finals and doing much once they got there. But they do take joy in noting, like hockey fans used to rag the Rangers about “1940!”, about how long it’s been since the big-market bully’s basketball team won the whole shebang. “At least we’ve won a ring since 1973!”, is the cheesesteak-laden refrain. Amazingly, these fierce Atlantic Division rivals haven’t met in an NBA playoff series since the Knicks literally swept Barkley’s booty off his own floor. Philadelphia enters the 2021 NBA Playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top-seed. Alex Len and the Wizards of Westbrook will be a handful, but the Sixers and their fans would relish some long overdue second-round revenge. Oh, and let’s not forget the fellows that won their Game 1 yesterday, just five miles away from Madison Square Garden. The Nets of New Jersey got the last laugh, and their first laugh, over coach Lenny Wilkens’ Knicks back in 2004’s playoffs, a 4-0 sweep. They’ve since moved into posher, newer, closer settings in Brooklyn, spending gobs of moolah and the better part of the past decade making the Manhattan club look like NYC’s red-headed stepchild. Nets fans will tell you the Knicks aren’t yesterday’s news, they’re the prior millennium’s news. Brooklyn is what’s hot in these streets! That red-headed stepchild, emblematic of the Knicks? He’s grown up to become Michael Rapaport, in a mid-life crisis. The poor man can’t seem to decide which Atlantic Division team to throw his weight behind. Just four months ago, the part-time actor and full-time blowhard hopped on a podcast and declared the Knicks to be a “bleeping bleep show,” (you can easily fill in the bleeps), adding, “I will have to look at the god-bleep roster again, and be like, Who the bleep are at least eight of these bleeping guys?” This, before praising the Nets’ “culture” and announcing he is now a Boston Celtics front-runner. The Celtics. Because Kevin Durant got in his fee-fees, don’cha know. You want to guess who will likely be sitting along Gucci Row at MSG today? The longtime Knicks fan and movie director who got kicked out by the owner in 2020 and declared himself a Nets fan, until further notice, of course. The longtime Knicks fan who just got fed up with being a longtime Knicks fan and became, first, a Nets fan, then, a Celtics fan. Must be nice. A presumptive favorite to come out of the East with all of their all-world stars upright and aligned, the Nets wouldn’t mind putting the foots to Philly in the conference finals. But the prospect of a Gotham-themed Subway Series, with the conqueror heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in decades, or ever, is just too $cintillating a concept to ignore. The Knicks fans are at the table. The Sixers fans are at the table. The Nets fans are at the table. Banging their utensils. Knives out. Forks out. Staring directly at each other, salivating, ready to dig in. One NBA team has a good shot at ruining everybody’s appetite. Beginning today with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in New York (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT… hi, Chuck), if the Atlanta Hawks venture out of this series quashing decades-long dreams of revenge over the Brooms fiasco, if they turn the prospective Subway Series into more of an Amtrak Crescent Series, glum New Yorker fans everywhere, on WFAN radio, on TV, online, are going to become Sue Sylvesters. They are going to create an environment that is so… TOXIC… When the Hawks’ season abruptly concluded in 2020 with an overtime home loss to the Knicks, there remained dreams of a playoff appearance in 2021, one with a respectable first-round showing and a graceful exit against an established conference contender – maybe Rapaport’s Celtics, or perhaps his next team, the Raptors – summoning blissful memories of 2008 and 2014 inside what is now State Farm Arena and hopes for the future that lies ahead. Lloyd Pierce was right when, in 2020, the Hawks’ then-head coach adamantly declared, this is a playoff team next year. Not knowing who the additional Lotto-rookie and veteran talents Travis Schlenk could add as upgrades, aside from injured recent pickup Clint Capela, to surround his young core of Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter. LP was also unaware he would prove incapable of ensuring, as Clyde Frazier might say, that his intuition could come to fruition. He would have no idea, at that time, who would be the assistant taking over to make sure that it did. It was never his intention when he agreed to join Pierce’s staff, but Nate McMillan has proven to be a superior communicator and strategy designer, what one would hope of an interim coach now in his 21st NBA season directing a team. Steering back a Hawks club that looked to be veering off course over the first two-and-a-half months of this season, McMillan nearly had the Hawks (41-31; 27-11 officially under Coach Nate) in the same surprising 4-seed slot that his Pacers were in entering the last postseason. While riding the wave of healthier contributors on the roster, Nate has salvaged the Hawks’ season, and their forward-facing direction, much as he has done at his prior NBA stops. A grateful Atlanta club can reward him with much more than a mere contract extension, beginning with this series. Under the auspices of the Hawks, McMillan became the NBA’s 20th all-time winningest coach this season. But after having been swept in three of four postseasons with the Pacers, situations not helped by untimely injuries and star instability, Nate has the worst playoff coaching record (17-36, 32.1%) of any of the 35 most successful regular-season winners. A win today would help McMillan slip past the only person on that list who comes close – the Czar of the Telestrator, former Atlanta coach Mike Fratello (20-42, 32.3%). A series victory could help McMillan pass Terry Stotts (21-40, 34.4%), his successor at Portland who never saw a playoff game when he was a Hawks coach for three seasons. Nate looks at none of this stuff, but his legacy as a would-be Hall of Fame coaching entrant is muddled by having just one playoff series win in ten tries, when his 2005 Seattle Supersonics outclassed Rick Adelman’s Sacramento Kings. Hopefully, in 2021, he’ll have some players that will care about sweeping that history under the rug. As many Atlanta fans expected, the Hawks do get to be a road underdog in their first playoff appearance since 2017. But it turns out that it’s not the Celtics or Raptors who are hosting, nor is it the Sixers, Bucks, or Nets that were predictable adversaries Atlanta would strive to overcome. Instead, it’s virtually the same Knicks club (41-31, 3-0 vs. ATL to win the 4-seed tiebreaker) that barely eked ahead of the Hawks when the pandemic shut down last season for both teams. A New York club who was summarily dismissed by the Rapaports of the world, when a five-game skid had them at 5-8 to start this year. A club that didn’t need a Kyrie, a KD, or a Harden to regain its regional relevancy. It’s a New York team that began the season with a different head coach. One that had also been left out of 2021’s Bubble, and who became a parody of himself, while coaching elsewhere. Tom Thibodeau moved into the NBA’s Top-50 coaching-wins hierarchy with the Knicks’ late-season flourish (16-4 in final 20 games). But much like McMillan, his 24-32 postseason mark isn’t stellar, either. It would assuredly be much better had Thibs not overplayed his hand with young former MVP Derrick Rose, and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson, at two different NBA stops, beginning in 2012. Still, the two seasoned veterans’ presence as Knicks gives the rest of this year’s roster comfort that Thibs is a guy who’s worthy of their trust. Thibodeau gets the benefit of any doubts around New York because his assistant history, preceding his head coach years, included peak-year turns for the Celtics, Rockets and, going back to the late 1990s, the Knicks. It also helped that Thibs has taken a slow-paced squad with a moribund defense and converted them, with his imprint, into a snail’s-pace team that’s a defensive juggernaut (107.8 D-Rating. 4th in NBA). Seventh-year pro Julius Randle (career-highs of 24.1 PPG, 41.1 3FG%, 10.2 RPG, 6.0 APG) has been rejuvenated into the banner-bearing superstar two prior clubs no longer believed was conceivable when they let him swim away in free agency while searching for bigger fish. The sophomore slump that befell Atlanta’s Reddish prior to his injury did not come to pass for his former Duke teammate, R.J. Barrett (17.6 PPG; 40.1 3FG% and 74.6 FT%, up from his rookie-year 32.0 3FG% and 61.4 FT%). Mix in Reggie Bullock, and sixth-men Rose and Alec Burks, and you have under Thibs’ tutelage a true 3-and-D collective, their five leading active per-game minute-loggers all hitting above a 40-percent clip on three-point shots. Rookie Immanuel Quickley, at 38.9 3FG% (45.3% in his last 20 games), is not all that far behind. Together, they will milk the shot clock dry in halfcourt sets, until Randle discovers a shot, or a teammate mismatch, that his Knicks can exploit. New York can struggle to control the tempo, though, if they struggle to maintain possession. They finished this season with a 5-21 record when they’ve failed to collect at least 48.6 percent of the game’s total rebounds. These were games where the Knicks had to shoot spectacularly well to give themselves a shot at victory. Collins, who was not active on the boards (3 rebounds in 27 minutes @ NYK on April 21) when New York last defeated the Hawks, 137-127 in overtime, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu can help Capela (25 points, 9 O-Rebs and 13 D-Rebs @ NYK) firmly seize the rebounding edge from Randle, Gibson and Nerlens Noel. The Knicks will also have a tough time seizing possessions if Young (9.4 APG, 2nd in NBA) doesn’t hand any to them. Heeding McMillan’s pleas, Trae has trimmed down his turnover rate (2.15 assist/TO ratio pre-, 2.44 post-) since the All-Star Break. Last month, here at MSG, he was enjoying a field day as a passer (14 assists, 1 TO @ NYK on April 21; also 16 of his 20 points in the 1st quarter) before he and the Hawks were derailed by his third-quarter injury. Thibs will continue throwing all manner of defenders Trae’s way, from struggling starter Elfrid Payton and Quickley to Frank Ntilikina, to wings in killer-B’s Barrett, Bullock and Burks, while bringing bigs out to meet him at floater range. But Young is reading through the defenses with McMillan’s aid. Further, Trae and the Hawks are capable of dismissing unfair referee calls and non-calls, remaining focused, as easily as they can the audible distractions from New York’s blaring coach and desperate fans. Trae will have to be cognizant that out-of-flow, adventurous jump shots serve as Hawk turnovers just as effectively as a picked-off pass. He no longer has to be Mr. Big Shot, as he was in the run of play during his Lottery-bound seasons. But he can be Mr. Right Play, reminiscent of an accomplished Jason Kidd leading New Jersey to that desirous first-round sweep of the Knicks in 2004. Trae can help jog those fading memories of Knick fans further by being active on the defensive end, communicating and committing steals and deflections from passes produced out of the paint. Young has guys who can bring the 3-and-D, in Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic, to offset the Knicks’ perimeter threats. He has some D-if-not-much-3 support in the form of the returning De’Andre Hunter and former Knick fan Kevin Huerter. And he’s got some 3-if-not-much-D help from former Knick Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell, and Lou Williams. Young also has unrelenting lob threats to Collins and/or Capela when he beats his man, off-dribble and around screens, and draws bigs toward him on his drives. Not since Tom Hanks tap-danced on the keys at FAO Schwarz has a young man had so many fun toys around him to play with. But in the serious nature of playoff season, how well Atlanta fares will be tethered to Young’s maturing overall presence. Atlanta can be taken more seriously as an advancing lower-seed threat, in 2021, if they take defensive intensity as seriously as they do inside State Farm Arena (107.2 D-Rating at home under McMillan, mostly without Hunter or Reddish, since March 1, 5th in NBA). Up until Pierce’s departure, the Hawks’ D-Rating of 114.1 in away games (24th in NBA through February 28) was not ideal. But the efficiency got worse under McMillan’s watch (115.5 road D-Rating, 28th in NBA since March 1). Injuries and a more arduous midseason road schedule have played their parts. But, by comparison, Thibodeau’s defensive show consistently goes on the road (105.0 NYK road D-Rating before March 1, 109.2 from then on, both 2nd in NBA). It makes it simpler for pundits to overwhelmingly lean toward the Knicks as the favorites to win this series, a plurality of those prognostications in less than seven games. Active contributions from a well-rested Bogdanovic and Hunter on the defensive end, and steady commitment from Collins and Young to simplify coverage for Capela, can help Atlanta turn the tide in Games 1 and 2. Attendees at the Mecca of Basketball love their Knicks when they’re playing well, and love to loathe their Knicks when they’re not. Another trait is that they hold in high esteem the entertaining opponents who, individually, seem impossible at times to stop. MJ, Hakeem, Scottie, Reggie, Tim, Kobe, Steph, Harden. Many a Hall of Fame resume has been shined up on this floor with grand games, and indelible moments, at the expense of the host team. Young will have at least two opportunities to put up a memorable playoff performance at MSG, but it is all for naught if he tries to do too much single-handedly and the Hawks fail to tilt homecourt advantage in their favor. He’ll need to be less of a game-master, and more of a game-maestro. At the risk of being fined, it’s no mystery that New York’s longtime lovable losers finally showing some competence, and confidence, is a storyline that draws eyeballs throughout America and beyond. Even when not completely packed, arenas chock full of A-List celebrities, B-List celebrities, and C-List hangers-on will be spending of lot of their money and energy creating a cacophony, in New York and down in Georgia, in hopes of granting their team the psychological edge and having the Hawks quickly swept away, enough to probably fulfill the dreams of Knicks-Sixers and/or Knicks-Nets playoff face-offs. Atlanta already has the right guy with the coachspeak to keep the Hawks calm, cool and connected throughout this series, wherever it leads, in the face of menacing fans of the NBA’s darling mid-Atlantic teams. But in case that’s not enough, here’s some gleeful motivation from another accomplished “coach,” of sorts. Sue Sylvester, take it away! “It’s not easy to break out of your comfort zone. People will tear you down; tell you that you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. But let me tell you something: there’s not much of a difference in a stadium full of cheering fans, and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise; how you take it, is up to you. Convince yourself that they’re cheering for you. You do that, and someday, they will.” And that’s the double truth, Ruth! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. “I’m feelin’ good! I just thought you should kno-ooow!” Ahhh, the joie de vivre of one Mr. Tilman Fertitta. He never knew Lottery Love like this. “I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games,” Fertitta shared with Tim McMahon of ESPN, his team a win short of its current total. “…when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I’m just happy.” Clap along if you know that sucking is what you wanna do. “I know it’s unusual to feel this good with your coach and your general manager, but I do.” Happy to oblige, says Stephen Silas and Rafael Stone, respectively. Beginning with the end of Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching run of T-Mac and Yao in 2007, through the next decade of ownership under Leslie Alexander, to the oversight of Fertitta from 2017 through last season, teardowns weren’t something Houston liked to do. Through the Rick Adelman, Kevin McHale, and Mike D’Antoni coaching eras, the Rockets haven’t fallen below .500 in a season. Not until this one. The constant up until this season was Moneyball Morey, the analytics guru and offseason sultan of swat. Daryl Morey had a good thing going, swinging for the fences in deals for fellows like James Harden and Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook, until his Hong Kong Oopsie tweet at the outset of the 2019-20 season had Tilman tap-dancing, and Morey unsure, with just two Conference Finals trips over the course of his lengthy tenure, whether he could be Fertitta’s No. 1 super guy for much longer. In the midst of this uncertainty swooped Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk. Swinging a four-way deal at 2020’s Trade Deadline with Minnesota and Denver, the Hawks sent out what was left of Evan Turner and Brooklyn’s first rounder to the T’Wolves, and a 2026 second-rounder to Houston. What Atlanta got back for their trouble was a handshake with Nene, and this season’s leading rebounder and third-leading shot blocker, Clint Capela (14.3 RPG; 1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, per bball-ref). Without much argument the Hawks’ Southeast Division-winning season MVP, Capela could get to take one last dig at his old employer as the Rockets pay Atlanta a visit (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) to close out their season. Atlanta (40-31) may not have much left to play for – first-round homecourt depends on what our first-round opponent, the Knicks, do this afternoon – so hopefully Capela won’t have to make an imprint on this game for terribly long. Drafted as a raw 20-year-old in the lower end of the first round by Houston back in 2014, Clint had been the only thing resembling a homegrown Rockets product, as Morey swore off developing his own draft picks, or even taking them, while going for the gusto. Olivia’s hubby (she works for MGM Sportsbooks now) Sam Dekker, selected the next year in 2015, was the last selection the Rockets took with their own first-rounder. The last Houston draftee to actually play, just a little bit, for this team? 2017 second-rounder Isaiah Hartenstein, who was cut before the team made it to the 2020 Bubble. I will suggest here that, while there were worthy questions about the Swiss center’s health heading into the 2020 Playoffs, the Capela deal was probably the first warning to the rest of the organization – to D’Antoni, Harden, Westbrook, P.J. Tucker – that it was finally time to get out while the getting’s good. Scratch that… we can maybe go back a few months more, to Eric Gordon’s four-year, $76 million extension in August 2019, for the first sign. Capela’s expulsion, excused with the D’Antonian desire to go all-out with the so-called “small ball” in a playoff run that almost ended prematurely against Westbrook’s former club, was probably just the loudest clarion call. “I’m still p*ssed,” tweeted Eric Gordon, in reply to McMahon highlighting Capela’s blocks triple-double in one of this past January’s wins over the T’Wolves. Gordo knows that Capela, when healthy and playing to his strengths, is among the more efficient bigs in the league, and his presence at both ends of the hardwood makes otherwise good guards look great. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/HOU/ As an example, look at bball-ref’s list of Houston’s “Top 12 All-Time Players”, based on cumulative Win Shares, a nearly elite list of Hall of Famers and NBA notables. Look who is sitting there, in Hawks gear, at #12 (Atlanta’s “#12” is Atlanta’s Own, Josh Smith, pictured in Rockets gear. Life is a circle). You can’t convince me that, had he ridden out most of the five-year, $90 million deal he inked from Morey and Fertitta in the summer of 2018, and had he again been playing to his strengths, that Clint (13th in Win Shares this season) wouldn’t be sitting there to the left of Otis Thorpe by the time he left Houston. Thorpe played in that town from age 26 until his age-32 season. Capela doesn’t hit 32 until 2026, coincidentally, the year Atlanta’s second-rounder to Houston comes due. Building a little more wisely around the All-NBA talent they reeled in, the Rockets could very well have kept going at title runs for the better part of the next half-decade. Instead, everyone, from the GM and coach to the stars, either jumped ship or demanded a life raft. Left behind, Fertitta is determined to convince us he’s on the Good Ship Lollipop. How else can Fertitta feel? That I-just-threw-up feeling after overindulging for too long can come with an odd touch of relief. Stone and Silas are providing the right amounts of plop-plop-fizz-fizz until Fertitta is capable of saddling back up to the table. With a combined $63.5 million in guaranteed cash due next year, John Wall and Gordon get to sit out the back half of this season with injuries. Joining them on the shelf, today, are as many as nine other players, including Booby Trapper Sterling Brown, Bubble buster Danuel House, 2020 offseason prize Christian Wood, and Harden consolation prize David Nwaba. That leaves Kelly Olynyk, out to pump up his 2021 free agency profile, and D.J. Augustin as the sole recognizable veterans in the season finale on Silas’ roster. Otherwise, it’s been plug-and-play for Silas with a host of two-way players, ten-day dudes, can-tank-erous castaways, other teams’ second-rounders, hardship pickups and unsigned free agents. Here’s the thing, though. No one who plays is encumbered with the unspoken obligation of losing ballgames. Thanks largely to a 20-game midseason freefall after starting out 11-10, Houston (17-54) has secured the #1 pre-Lottery slot, and nothing they do today imperils or improves their Top-4 Lottery odds. Everyone on the floor is encouraged to go for the 20-and-10 boxscore line of their choosing. The Clippers, who sat virtually all of their starters on Friday while satisfied with their Top-4 playoff standing, learned this the hard way as Kelly Olynyk went almost Westbrook (20 points, 11 ASSISTS, 9 rebounds) on Jay Scrubb and the Clipper scrubs in Houston’s home finale. Our old friend Khyri Thomas (that Snell-Dedmon deal still looks pretty good, btw) got snatched up recently on a ten-day deal, and has averaged 16.4 PPG, including 17 in the 122-115 win over the Clips. Brown’s Booby Trap buddy Kevin Porter, Jr. (22 points and 8 assists vs. ATL on Mar. 16) is having himself a ball. Milwaukee lost Giannis less than a minute into their game in Houston just a couple weeks ago, and KPJ decided to assert himself as the star of the game, pouring on an obvious career-high 50 points and 11 assists as Tucker’s Bucks found themselves fresh out of answers. The Rockets won that game, too. Silas has his Rockets dousing the net with three-point attempts early and attacking the rim late. If they can find hot hands at the outset, they then hope to get enough and-1’s and foul calls to break opponents’ will. The show hasn’t translated well on the road, with Orlando and Minnesota being their sole away-game wins since February 4, and a lack of quality defensive communication (119.2 road D-Rating post-All-Star-Break, worst in NBA) is a big factor. But whether it’s fireplug forward Jae’Sean Tate (20 points, 3-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC), highlight hunter KJ Martin (career highs of 27 points and 10 boards @ UTA on May 8; 26 points the night before @ MIL), or April pickup Armoni Brooks (18.5 PPG in last six games), you can’t know who is going to show up to State Farm Arena feeling dangerous. Under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks reached the .500 plateau with a 119-107 win in H-Town on March 16, and never looked back. They fended off a third-quarter charge from Tate 25 points, 4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL), a showcased Victor Oladipo, and momentary Rocket Mason Jones to pull away in the final frame. Leading the charge off the bench on that evening was rookie big Nathan Knight (season-high 6 FGs), his 15 points one off of the season-high he tallied two nights before in Cleveland. One more productive outing from Knight can help Atlanta give Capela and Onyeka Okongwu (questionable, sore shoulder) a breather before the Hawks barrel into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in four years. Has it only been four years? The Hawks’ “Recess”, under Schlenk’s watch, wasn’t all that painful, especially compared to other NBA so-called rebuilds, like the one Houston has initiated. While there was a lot of stress over mantras like “Play Badly for Bagley!”, “Stop Tryin’ for Zion!”, and “Fall ‘til you Ball!”, Atlanta dipped their toe intentionally into Lottery waters on three occasions, failed to finish Top-2 in any of them, and basically came away with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Okongwu. Not quite a Murderer’s Row of certified future All-Stars, but a solid Pickpockets’. While not all had gone perfect with these young Hawks’ development from the jump, with one-time All-Star Trae by far the closest to instant stardom, the aforementioned panaceas on the Pelicans and Kings, as of today, are still looking forward to clinching their first playoff trips, while guys like Ball and Ja Morant still have a lot of work to do on that front this week. Thanks to some ownership-encouraged expedition on the Recess, smart additions like Capela, and a well-timed coaching shift, Atlanta has already built themselves back better than they were when Coach Bud was stuck with the GM duties. This is already a more comprehensive, cohesive, and competitive collective than the crew Bud endured in 2017, Atlanta’s final postseason go-round to date. Whether it proves to be any more successful at playoff-time than when Dwight and Dennis’ goofball goonie gang bowed out to Wall’s Wizards will depend on how things play out, today and in the coming weeks. Fertitta, who has never gone the Recess route before, is taking a much longer tack, echoing management views held by one of Morey’s predecessors in Philly. “I can tell you this: I’m going to be patient,” he vowed to McMahon. “We’re not going to go do something stupid to try to get into the playoffs next year,” (are you writing this down, Messrs. Gordon and Wall?), “that then will prevent us from competing for a championship in a couple years.” Houston’s got a 52.1 percent shot at keeping their pick in the Top 4 this year, otherwise it heads to OKC as part of Morey’s Westbrook rental scheme. For the same reason, they’ll get to play that game again in 2024 and 2026. But they’ll get their hands on Portland and Brooklyn’s first-rounders this year, and possibly the Nets, Pistons, Wizards and Bucks in future ones. What’s the rush? “It could be 2027,” Fertitta exclaims, “that we get a Top-5 pick that ends up being the next greatest player.” This is true. He could also end up being the next Kris Dunn. Either way, you rising 7th Graders in AAU and tweens around the world, consider yourself put on notice. Work on Your Game. Because, let’s face it, there’s a chance you’re already on some Rocket scout’s Top-50 watch list. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. “Yo, R.J., chill! We only beat the Pistons!” “I WANT TO RIDE MY BICYCLE! I WANT TO RIDE MY BIKE!” Six years ago this month, Brandon Goodwin was preparing for a trip to Orlando’s Orange County Courthouse. It wasn’t a long trip, since he lived a few miles east at the University of Central Florida. The rising junior was facing a felony charge of Grand Theft… Bicycle? Go back to the prior summer of 2014, a time when electric rental scooters were not every doggone where. Goodwin sauntered over to a rack near the campus basketball arena to discover his bike had gone ghost. Upset about his alleged theft, and probably running late for goodness-knows-what, Brandon did what any self-respecting rising college sophomore would do, and that’s snatching away somebody else’s bike. Don’t b-bad, B-Good! The hoops scholarship at UCF was supposed to be the culmination of a lifelong turnaround, one that at its disciplinary nadir had Goodwin expelled from suburban Atlanta’s Norcross High and relegated to “alternative school” as a freshman. His turnaround upon his return to Norcross made him Georgia’s state scholastic boys’ player of the year. This latest poor lapse in judgment was not the type of quick-trigger decision that someone in, oh, let’s say, an NBA scouting department would expect a desirous professional point guard prospect to make. What probably saved Goodwin’s evaporating NBA chances was the decision he made next. Later explaining he “felt bad” about his geared-up reaction, Goodwin did not return the bike in its original location, but he parked it at a nearby campus building. The bad news was that while video surveillance never caught the perp who stole Goodwin’s bike, it did catch him torch-red-handed. The bike he chose to steal was not some random cutter’s, but one left there by campus police as part of their “Bait Bike” program. Collegiate athletes committing criminal acts around Florida campuses come a dime per dozen, but if you’re not built like a Cam Newton or an Aaron Hernandez, a felony arrest is probably not going to fare well for your pro-ball dreams. With no playoff basketball, no summertime pro teams and no more Dwightmare, there was ample space in the Sentinel sports pages to follow the fate of what was to be UCF’s next breakout basketball star. But Brandon lawyered up, and by the time of his May 2015 arraignment, he was ready to plead down, to a misdemeanor petit theft charge. He was not about to endure a season’s worth of hecklers in Colnago cycling caps at American Athletic Conference games, so the next big move he made was to take his talents to Dunk City. The next time Goodwin returned to Orlando, he was the 2017 Atlantic Sun Conference newcomer of the year and tournament MVP, he and his 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast team scaring the mess out of Jonathan Isaac and 3-seed Florida State during March Madness at Amway Center. Who knows what might have been for Goodwin at UCF, which settled for a postseason run that year in the NIT. Pedaling forward ever since, Goodwin is in a big closing stretch of games for the Atlanta Hawks, and for the extension of his professional career in the NBA. Tonight, with the injured Isaac’s Orlando Magic in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Florida), then on Sunday with the visiting Houston Rockets, if all goes well, Goodwin will have prominent, and hopefully productive, roles in helping Trae Young and the Hawks close out the regular season. Young (sore hip) is listed as probable to start against upstart rookie Cole Anthony, after outlasting Russell Westbrook and the Wizards twice over the past three days. Tony Snell (sore Achilles) will sit this one out, while Clint Capela (heel pain), Bogdan Bogdanovic (sore hammy) and Danilo Gallinari (sore back) are each listed as questionable. The sweep of the Wizards clinched a Top-6 seed for Atlanta, but the Hawks (39-31) still have a Southeast Division title and potential homecourt advantage with a 4-seed to pursue. Even with a few unavailable players, not inclusive of the returning De’Andre Hunter, the Hawks’ starters should be capable of at least holding serve versus whatever Magic head coach Steve Clifford drums up. The Magic (21-48, 4th-place betw. OKC and CLE in the upside-down standings) are also proceeding toward season’s end without the services of Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, rookie Chuma Okeke, Otto Porter, and Terrence Ross. Despite having dropped four straight games, the Magic have more wins over their past ten games (3-7) than any of the NBA’s bottom five. Mo Bamba has played with greater confidence of late, particularly with his rebounding and rim protection, but he’s questionable to play due to a non-COVID illness. With Isaac and Markelle Fultz already out for the season, it becomes tough for Magic opponents to know who precisely should be subject to their game-planning. Heck, Coach Cliff hardly knows himself. Some nights, it’s Hampton, or Anthony, or Bamba with the breakout day. Others, it’s a newcomer, like former Knick back-bench forward Ignas Brazdeikis. The continual inventory of injured Magic players may grant Clifford and team president Jeff Weltman yet another offseason to coalesce a dynamic core, although next year’s will be much younger once as many as two new lottery picks join forces with Anthony, Isaac, Fultz, Bamba, Carter and Okeke. The retrieval of lightly-protected future first-rounders from Chicago and Denver at 2021’s Trade Deadline may have been enough to save Weltman’s bacon. Tuesday’s spirited but futile 114-102 defeat in Milwaukee made it seven losses in Orlando’s past ten road games, including a 112-96 loss in Atlanta on April 20. The three victories were in Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. Anthony, Pace Academy star Wendell Carter (17 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals @ ATL last month) and sixth-man R.J. Hampton will dress to impress. But Hawks coach Nate McMillan will seek to use this and the next game to urge the resumption of suppressive defensive tactics, forcing the ball to keep moving so no Magician discovers a hot hand. The onus will be on John Collins, Hunter and rookie Onyeka Okongwu to limit Orlando from feasting on second chances as well as trips to the free throw line. Goodwin split bench duties with Lou Williams (22 points vs. ORL last month) the last time the Magic visited The Farm, and he is likely to gain a larger share of floor time tonight if he can be disruptive at the point of attack. Goodwin shined in spot starts at Charlotte and Toronto last month, and he was encouraging during a vital win over Miami two nights after Trae exited a game against the Knicks due to injury. But the intervening games were less than impressive, and the four appearance after the heat game (21.4 FG%, 4.0 APG, 2.0 TOs/game in 21.8 minutes) led Coach Nate to limit the reserve guard to just 3.5 cleanup minutes in one game over the past six Hawks contests. Goodwin is subject to a qualifying offer decision by the Hawks’ front office this summer, but the greater likelihood is he will put the finishing touches on the resume this week for his next employer, be it in the NBA, the G-League, both, or elsewhere. If Atlanta defenders disrupt and create a lot of broken Magic plays, and if the Hawks can get decent offensive production out of a couple bench players to alleviate Young and the starting unit, then sweeping the season series with the Magic (first since playing Jacque Vaughn’s misfits from 2012-13) will be as easy as stealing candy from a… no, let me not give Brandon any bad ideas. It will be as easy as riding a bike! One’s own, that is to say. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. “I promise, I can’t catch your Per-Game Assists lead. Have you thought about taking off a day to rest your hamstrings?” Hump Day Tidbits! The Atlanta Hawks could win out and, by virtue of a theoretical three-way tie with the Knicks and heat at season’s end (“Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division,” sayeth the league office), secure homecourt advantage in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. At State Farm Arena, they’ll again host a Washington Wizards team practicing the spoiler role this evening (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, ESPN) and, the Wizards hope, beyond. Banner Szn! The division-winner thingie takes precedence as a three-way tiebreaker over head-to-head winning percentage (it’s the reverse when dealing with two-way tiebreakers). Because of it, Atlanta is in the odd position of hoping, if the Knicks get back on the horse after falling in OT last night to the Lakers and go 3-0, that the heat go 3-0 as well. Of course, none of this is likely to matter if the Hawks (38-31) don’t address their ballhandling and defensive flaws versus Washington, or if they slip up when Orlando and Houston pay visits to The Farm tomorrow and on Sunday, respectively. Monday’s 125-124 win over the visiting Wizards was a bit too close for comfort, but our Hawks could use just a little more last-minute tension. Only Utah (3-2), Cleveland (4-2), and Houston (3-3) have closed out as few games with a margin of three points or less as Atlanta (3-3). Comparatively, the Wizards (11-8) hold the NBA’s Cardiac Kids crown, with well over one-fourth of their contests and five of their last six games ending within a long-distance bucket one way or the other. It’s why the white-knuckle conclusion to Monday’s action served as a great learning opportunity for the Hawks. In addition to “winning-home-games” practice, tonight is “series-sweep” practice for Atlanta. The Wizards have seized at least one win from the Hawks in every season since 2011-12, a time when Jordan Crawford was arguably John Wall’s most talented teammate. Historically, Washington has never beaten any team more than Atlanta, but they still have a losing record all-time against the Hawks. According to the team’s Game Notes, the Wizards’ next victory over Atlanta would be their 150th, but the Hawks have won 158 in this decades-long rivalry. A harried Russell Westbrook’s inability to finish off Monday’s historic night with a likely game-clinching three-pointer made the Wizards’ race to Win #150 have to last at least a couple days longer. I’m going to use this space to praise The Commish for the Play-In concept, particularly now that the Hawks’ chance of appearing in it is virtually zero. The only people whining loudly about it are owners, players, and fans of teams that might have to win-to-get-in to reach the Playoffs, particularly those that never, in their wildest nightmares, imagined their teams being in this situation. Even the high-profile whiners make for good publicity. The Play-In prospect (or, specter, depending on one’s perspective) has given fans of subpar teams much more reason to watch end-of-season games, in the event their team’s seasons may not actually be ending. You think you can take out a top-two seed, subpar team? Prove your worth, first, by eliminating another subpar team or two. Brilliance. No one around the DMV is wringing their hands over the dwindling chances of getting Rui Hachimura and the injured Deni Avdija another low-lottery playmate. The Wizards (32-37, 1.0 games behind 8-seed Charlotte) still have little reason to shift to cruise-control through the remainder of their schedule (after tonight, they go home to host the Cavs and the Hornets). Their next win formally clinches the Play-In appearance, although the 11-seed Bulls are highly likely to lose a game so long as their final two opponents, Brooklyn and Milwaukee, bother to show up. Washington can neither edge Boston (35-34) in a two-way tiebreak scenario, having lost two of three against the free-falling Celts, nor in a multi-team scenario due to its poor in-conference record (14-25 vs. NBA East), and thus can no longer finish any higher than 8th. But any Play-In seed is better than #10, so the Wizards will want to win out, too, and enter next week’s extra game(s) hot with Bradley Beal (out again tonight, strained hammy) on the mend. The Hawks will go back to resting De’Andre Hunter (injury-return management) in hopes he’ll be able to build up his performances against the Magic and/or Rockets (as playoff practice, I’d have rather Dre face the Wiz again, then sit out tomorrow, but that’s why they pay the training staff the big bucks). As of this afternoon, Tony Snell is listed as available after being a late scratch on Monday due to a sore Achilles, while Kevin Huerter is available after being previously listed probable because of a sore hip. Tightening up the defensive effort, particularly in the second half (45 4th-quarter points by WAS on Monday), would make tonight’s proceedings easier on the Hawks, but it’s not like a lot of teams have figured out how to cool off the Wizards lately. Since getting throttled in Phoenix without the services of Beal on April 10, Washington has exceeded 115 regulation points in 16 of their past 17 games, the exception being a 117-115 OT win over New Orleans last month. As fantastic and worthy of flowery ink as Westbrook has been, he is shooting at a 38.8 FG% clip over the past three Wizards games, 32.2 3FG% and 73.3 FT% over those past 17 contests. Opponents are getting suckered into dragging extra defenders onto Russ (21 assists, incl. 10 in the final quarter; 3 TOs @ ATL on Monday), particularly on his drives and coming off screens, under the guise that his acrobatic finishes and off-bounce perimeter attempts are more damaging than anything Davis Bertans (5-for-9 3FGs, 4-for-5 in the tide-shifting 4th quarter when Russ’ teammates made 6 of 7 threes) or Ish Smith could provide. His Atlanta counterpart, Trae Young (1-for-7 3FGs, 0 steals, 6 TOs vs. WAS) led the Hawks with 36 points and 9 assists, and finished at +18 alongside Atlanta’s superior starters, but the superstar guard could stand to do more to keep Westbrook’s Wizards at bay. Bearing less of the burden to chase around Westbrook, Young must be more anticipatory of where the Wizard guard’s passes are headed. A combination of improved weakside communication and strong-side deflections or steals to induce turnovers should help Trae (3 steals in past 6 games, 2 of those vs. CHI eleven days ago) keep Washington’s revved-up offense from firing at all available cylinders. Gleaning from Russ that the threat of his long-ball three is currently eclipsing the reality (27.8 3FG% in 6 games for Trae since his return from injury), Young needs to exploit shot-fakes to his advantage, avoid the hero-shot mentality when more efficient plays are available, and be more decisive with his handle and his passes in the early going. After a balanced effort sunk the Suns last week, Atlanta’s bench brigade climbed back into its shell over the past two games, going a modest 5-for-14 on threes in Indiana last week before Monday’s droll showing (0-for-4 bench 3FGs vs. WAS, 9-for-21 FGs overall incl. 3-for-7 from Hunter). Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are too ineffective with their defensive play to be inert for full games at the other end. Hawks head coach Nate McMillan hasn’t tinkered much with a defensive-oriented backcourt tandem of Kevin Huerter and Kris Dunn (Sample Size Theater: +20.2 points per 100 possessions in their less-than-ten minutes sharing the floor). Tonight would be a good time to pair them together with some sweet-shooting forwards, including Gallo, Snell and the re-emerging John Collins (26.5 PPG, 69.0 FG% in last 2 games). With or without Beal, the Wizards are going to get buckets, but just a little more defensive pressure and possession control, consistently applied, while keeping Westbrook off the free throw line and continuing to dominate the glass, is what it will take for Washington to relent. DAYS SINCE A BEAL GOT PEEVED ABOUT A CURRENT OR FORMER HAWK: 1 Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “Hey, Russ! Rook here says he made way more Triple Doubles than you, back in his day!” The time has come. It’s Banner Szn! There is no such thing as a FACE Banner (“Finished Ahead of Consensus Expectations 2020-21”). You don’t chase after a “See? Told Ya We’d Make the Playoffs!” Banner. There’s no, “Beat the Odds Despite a Crap-ton of Injuries”, no “Hey, At Least We’re Not Like Cleveland This Year, Huh?” Banners. Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan can’t ascend a “Phew! Avoided That Pesky Play-In” Banner to the State Farm Arena rafters. The one tangible, non-fungible token that the coach and his team can offer Tony Ressler and Company is a red-black-and-yellow Banner that reads, “Southeast Division Champions 2020-21”. For all their “Not One, Not Two, Not Three” bluster, the Miami heat would like one made-to-order in those colors, too. With mere days to go in this goofy NBA season, our refabricated Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the same predicament Pawl, Al, Kowl, and Jeff put themselves in during the waning days of 2015-16’s. Win the week, and you can beat the heat for the Southeast Division crown. Standing in the way, then, and now (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, NBATV)? A Washington Wizards team that’s missing key players, a crew with not a whole heckuva lot left to play for, other than being a spoiler to a division rival. Since the NBA Finalist Hawks of St. Louis captured the Western “Division” title in 1961, this franchise’s history of hurdling a relatively low bar with any measure of frequency or consistency has been, well, a trip. There was 1970, the team’s second season in Atlanta, 1980, 1987, the MJ’s-Not-Here-Anymore-But-Let’s-Never-Speak-of-This-Season-Again year of 1994, and Mike Budenholzer’s Peaklanta season of 2015. Heavy B and the Boyz, the following season, had the opportunity to leave an indelible imprint, as the clear-cut most accomplished collective of Hawks in the team’s spotty five-decades-long Atlanta history. Unlike a certain baseball team, this Atlanta club had never experienced winning division titles in consecutive years. All they needed to do was to edge, in the standings, a Miami outfit that was, by then, sustaining themselves purely off the fumes of LeGone. As you all know how much it sticks in my craw ‘til this day (where’s Deontay Wilder, when I need him?), Our Fine Feathered Friends fumbled the flag. They couldn’t pass muster in the penultimate game of the season in Cleveland against LeBron’s reigning and future conference champs. But the make-up date came two days later in the District of Columbia, where the core of the prior year’s 60-game winners were tasked with closing out the season of Coach Randy Wittman, Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions, Tsunami Papi, Jarell Eddie, J.J. Hickson, Marcus Thornton, Nene, Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden, and I need not go on. Just win that game by a point, Atlanta, and we are back-to-back Southeast Division champions, my friends. There’s no other way to put it, but in his final regular season game as a Hawk, Al Horford and the crew blew it. He could have at least left us with another Banner, like ‘94’s, to sneer at. Instead, in the space of just a few games, Joe Johnson was able to leave his Miami heat – yes, you read that right – with a commendation he and Al could not earn for Atlanta during any of their All-Star-studded years here together. While it’s now likely relegated alongside Marc Anthony’s Banner for some record number of sold-out shows, Miami was able to dangle the 19th division banner in its relatively short 28-year history from an arena beam. All Hawks fans were left with was the blissful memory of shutting up Isaiah Thomas and the 5-seed Celtics in the first-round. I can hear the mantra through the screen: Division Titles Mean Nothing. And in the grand sense, that’s correct, particularly to us old grumpycats, and especially in an era where Divisions themselves don’t amount to hills of beans, in terms of competitive stature, anymore. As a counterargument, for one-title-from-long-ago franchises like the Hawks, who have since changed cities, and the Wizards, who moved out of the ‘burbs and changed names, they still matter. Down on The Farm, while gnawing on a cricket taco, some kid that just learned multi-digit subtraction looks up from their seat, at “1993-94 Central Champs!” and “2014-15 Southeast Champs!” and wonders what on Earth happened in the intervening decades (Pro Tip: if you dare to try answering the question, be sure to start during the first quarter). The biggest kid in the stands is Ressler, and he would rather not be here when the 2036-37 Banner goes up, and some wisecrack smart-aleck shouts, “Yo, where are all the Banners since 2015?” When John Wall and Bradley Beal were waging their annual charge to overtake the Southeast Division, it mattered a lot. For one, there’s no “Look, Ma! We Finally Won 50 Games” Banner to pursue. In a town that spent an inordinate amount of fan energy chasing LeBron, in the standings, then wooing LeBron or a similar superstar, in free agency, the inference that your NBA team is the best that the warmer climes of the Eastern seaboard have to offer goes a long way; having something to point to as proof certainly helps make the case. It feels like eons ago, but there was a time when four NBA Division titles and a Celine Dion concert attendance record were all Miami had to offer. When Tim Hardaway, Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Coach Pat Riley won their first of four straight division championships, in 1997, it was like Carnival in the streets. It served as a pivotal sign of a dormant sports team in a town with a lot of distractions finally gaining some footing and establishing themselves as a club not to be trifled with. "Watch out, Orlando, here we come!" That’s about where the Hawks could find themselves in 2021. Five years before, a consecutive Division Banner could have been the signal to Al… and Bud… that they’re still moving in a direction worth sticking around and building around long enough to see through, together. Instead, on the night it should have mattered the most, we got toasted by Razor Ramon Sessions, and thus formally began the search for the exits. As was the case in 2016’s season-ender for the Wizards, Beal (out today and Wednesday, strained hammy) won’t be an impediment to any lofty divisional dreams we might have here in The ATL. But Wall’s functional replacement, with any due respect, is no Ramon Sessions. On that note, let’s all check in on The Notorious K.A.B., shall we? The cherry blossoms around our nation’s Capitol have bloomed just twice since Kamiah Adams-Beal was goaded into grousing about how second-year guard and People’s Choice All-Star Trae Young was “playing cherry-picking basketball.” She apologized, appropriately, but Kamiah’s consternation with guys on non-playoff teams, stuffing stat-sheets and currying favor with fantasy managers to get voted into midseason extravaganzas, ahead of Her Main Man, remained a soapbox worth standing on in 2020. That was, until 2021! We’re all allowed to evolve in our steadfast positions on matters big and small. (Noting here that Kamiah’s crankiness extended into the Bubble season, with Brad being an All-NBA “snub”… “Put some respect on his name!”, she tweeted). But that transition is eased when, in lieu of a creaky-kneed 30-year-old co-star whose prominence historically depended on his top-flight end-to-end speed, team president Tommy Sheppard and Wizards management paired Beal with a strong, quick, 32-year-old former league MVP whose stat-accumulating prominence, in the present day, remains historic. If you’re like me, you applauded heartily as Russell Westbrook tied The Real Big O’s all-time Triple Doubles mark (33 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists for #181) in Washington’s 133-132 OT victory Saturday, in the fieldhouse of the re-enlivened Pacers. All that meant, for me, was that Hawks fans would not have to endure both the pursuit of tying Oscar Robertson’s once-seemingly untouchable record, on a Monday, and surmounting it, on a Wednesday (the Hump Day game is now at 7 PM on ESPN, because we know the nation can’t wait to celebrate De’Andre Hunter’s regal return). The old saw was how Westbrook’s play was detrimental to ultimate team success. That take’s dead-and-buried, now that the Thunder and Wizards teams Russ played for have now won over 75 percent of games where he messed around, trailing only Magic (78.3 percent) and LeBron (76.8 percent) according to NBA.com. Westbrook hasn’t been cleaning the glass and dishing purely to ham-and-eggers, but neither was Magic, and at least after around, oh, 2008, neither was James. Brad’s better half was not in a good mood, back on January 31, and neither was her hubby. Two nights after Trae Young dropped 41 on the Wizards in D.C., in a resounding 116-100 Hawks win that seemed to have righted Atlanta’s sails, season-leading scorer Beal was acting Kevin Love-glum throughout the first half, as the next club in town, the superteam Nets, were about to drop Washington to 3-13 on the season. Braddie and The Brodie had yet to gel on the floor, Davis Bertans and the supporting cast looked lost, and the season already seemed to be getting away from them all. Then came the spark they had been waiting for. Westbrook and Beal combined for 37 fourth-quarter points, a corner three from Russ capping a stunning and victorious comeback to win. The new Mrs. Beal could not contain her venom, sniping at NBA Twitter for clowning her and her husband’s non-playoff-bound team on The Interwebs. When one follower suggested that some owed her a personal apology after the final horn, she bristled, “They can keep it and shove it up their (Dellavedovas).” Ouch! Thankfully, time, and a horde of sympathetic fan, player and media votes for an NBA All-Star starter spot despite a sub-.500 record, has healed all wounds. Spurred on by the All-Star love, Beal joined Westbrook in lifting Washington out of a 6-17 hole to reach the Break at 14-20. The post-Break drop from Beal’s sugar high took some time to overcome, the Wizards lapsing back into irrelevance at 17-32. But their 15-4 closing run, to date, has the dynamic duo looking like they won’t be an easy out at Play-In time, or perhaps any time after. Going forward, Russ can focus solely on padding his career record from the next young upstart who dares to take a Luka his lead and make a run after it. His coach, Scott Brooks, whose job at the helm has likely been saved by Westbrook’s recent brilliance and collaboration with Beal (31.4 PPG, 2nd in NBA), and the rest of the Wizards still have other things worthy of chasing. Washington (32-36) is all-but assured of moving on from State Farm Arena, this week, to the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament (“Like a good sponsor…”) next week. Yet it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it’s the Wizards greeting Brad Stevens’ backsliding Celtics in Boston for the East’s opening 7-8 game. For teams doomed, if you will, to the Play-In, the objective now is to be in position of needing to play in just one game, not two, to determine their postseason fates. The 9-seed Wizards need only to slip ahead of Charlotte (1.0 games ahead w/ the tiebreaker) to accomplish that. Failing that, it ought to be helpful to play a 9-10 elimination game in front of your own adoring fans. Before Beal exited with his injury at the close of regulation, Washington needed every one of his 50 points (19-for-31 FGs; rest of team incl. Russ 30-for-79) to claw back into a draw with the Pacers. The win leapfrogged Washington (0.5 game ahead of IND) over their Hoosier hosts, and they will not want to return there anytime soon. Beal’s absence puts the onus on Ish Smith (7 rebounds, 4 assists in 19 minutes), and two-way gunner Garrison Mathews, to provide some spoiler spark. Raul Neto (2.3 SPG) was plugged into the starting unit in mid-April with rookie Deni Avdija (fibula hairline fracture) likely sidelined for the season, and he’ll be needed to offer his best T.J. McConnell impression versus in disrupting Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, who were decidedly listless and sloppy until the turnaround proved to be too late when the Hawks blew yet another SCRAP game, on Thursday evening in Indy. John Collins (25 points, 7 rebounds @ IND) must make concerted efforts to box out his old chum, as former Hawk Alex Len, a starter at the pivot due to the early-season exit of Thomas Bryant, and former Bulls forward Daniel Gafford will try to keep the second-chance opportunities alive. At the other end, with Westbrook hunting around the paint for defensive rebounds, the Hawks have to make quick shots off smart passes, providing Russ precious few stat-padding caroms to secure. There’s no Rondo around to get under Westbrook’s cuticles this time around. And while there may not be a Hunter, whose injury absences due to knee problems began with that January 29 game in D.C., there wasn’t a Bogdan Bogdanovic, a regular-rotation Tony Snell, or a Lou Williams available either. They should be able to beat Neto, Bertans, and Chandler Hutchison off the dribble to create whatever shots they desire. Russ’ acrobatic shots and needle-threading passes, when they lead to scores, are cap-tippable. But a four-quarter effort, today and Wednesday, to win the turnover and rebounding margins will render his Wizards capsize-able. This is effectively playoff homestand practice for the Hawks (37-31, seeking a season-high 8-game home win streak) as well. Advancing, or at least appearing as a threat to advance, entails taking the consecutive home dates you're given with a singular opponent and making sure they’re winning ones. If all goes well this week, this pair of games will be a warmup for Games 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, in a couple weeks. If things go disastrously bad, this confident Wizards team, with Beal back in tow, could become Atlanta’s (first) Play-In opponent this time next week. But the Hawks won’t play well if they get preoccupied with the hot coals beneath them. They have a prize, up high, to keep their eyes on. Unlike Medina Spirit’s laurels, a Banner for an NBA Division Title can never get snatched away. It’s time to run for the roses. Alright, Atlanta. The objective is clear, and in sight. You’ve worked hard just to get to this stage. Now, get out there, before your home fans, and have yourself a Banner week. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!” The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece. A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.” Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over. “I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC. Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor. Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan. After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft. Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself. It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers. Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night. T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice. Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up? With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat. 25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night. Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting. Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now. Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month. Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week. Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night. All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games. Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets. At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland. “Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all? Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time? Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this: “Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker. Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now. Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so. Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines. By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends. It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been. From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “Who got fired… …for trading me away for Marquese Chriss?” Thank you, CP3! Do you have any idea how unbearable Knicks fans would be, right this minute? Chris Paul sunk seven points in the space of the final 85 seconds at Madison Square Garden on April 26. He assisted on a Mikal Bridges jam for the Phoenix Suns’ score before that binge, all of it needed to fend off the hard-charging Knicks one night after Paul’s Suns set across town against the Nets. Aside from that one blemish for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, they would currently be riding a 13-game winning streak, a run nearly thwarted early if not for an untimely Trae Young injury, and Macy’s would be out there doing the New Year’s Day parade all over again. Spike has conveniently kissed and made up to Hideous Lord Jimmy Dolan, finding his way back to a seat on MSG’s Gucci Row with a slew of front-running celebs. There’s blue-and-orange ticker-tape everywhere around Manhattan, as dreams abound of a Subway Series for the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewww. This is a good, and rare, time to praise the well-heeled individuals who have been, objectively, the worst owners in The Association, going on decades now. Glen Taylor, for one, is slowly stepping aside in Minnesota. Although Sactown’s back in the lottery once more, Vivek Ranadive is no longer acting as if he’s running his girls’ AAU team. And like Dolan, when was the last time anyone had a thought about Robert Sarver? “In my view, people are the most important,” Sarver shared with CNBC last week, as his Suns (47-18) continue on quite a roll of their own, now surging to a tie with Utah for the top honors in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, and thus the NBA. For too long with those under his employ, “people” meant, “Soylent Green.” But he’s gained a new lease on life as an owner. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people that can identify talent, develop talent, and people that can coach talent.” It was just a few years ago when Sarver thought it clever to sneak live goats into his neophyte GM Ryan McDonough’s office – intended to inspire a search for a GOAT on par with his WNBA Mercury’s Diana Taurasi – only to discover the goats’ greatest talents involve shedding hair, chewing furniture, and defecating profusely. These Suns aren’t baaaaaad anymore, and it’s a testament to their longtime interventionist owner, who is learning to simply let talented people link together under his umbrella, and then get out of the way. The stench of the goats and the Suns’ owner-tinkered operations are long gone. In its place, NBA retiree James Jones has been granted the room to make critical decisions, from hiring coach Monty Williams, to aiding (before McDonough’s ouster) in the decisions to Max-Ex star Devin Booker and to acquire Bridges, Cam Johnson and #1 pick Deandre Ayton via the Draft, to enticing point god Paul to join a so-far unaccomplished club in free agency. Pretty much everything has worked out, and with the latest Sun-burst confirming their emergence pre-CP3 in the 2020 Bubble was no fluke, Jones and Williams are among the reasons Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan will be Honorable Mentions, respectively, at NBA Awards time. Phoenix distinguishes itself in the standings as the only NBA club yet to endure double-digit road losses (NBA-best 22-9, after outlasting Cleveland in overtime last night). Even if they join the other 29 teams today (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Arizona), who are the only other clubs at just 7 games above-.500 in away games? Denver, Dallas, and Portland, the weary latter of whom succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers at State Farm Arena on Monday night. Slithering their way to the top of the NBA, Monty’s pythons are no laughing matter. Even so, something is amissssssssss. Possessing a very young core despite the presences of Jae Crowder, league late-comer Torrey Craig and Paul, the Suns lack the steamroller instinct versus lesser competition seen among traditional title contenders. Despite the fewest losses in the NBA, early-season losses for the Suns included games at Sacramento, Detroit, and at a still-clueless and Westbrook-less Washington. After the All-Star break, there were home losses to Indiana and Minnesota, then a schedule loss on the road in Orlando, the farewell game for several Magic players before getting traded away the following afternoon. Phoenix hasn’t rattled off a double-digit winning streak all season, currently winners of six in a row. On Sunday, they nearly lost their second game of the season to OKC, a Thunder club that was just blown out 152-95 by visitors from Indiana the evening before. With the Suns up by as much as 18 midway through the final quarter, and 12 with two minutes to spare, a sudden lack of rim protection and turnovers, plus a technical foul by Booker, required free throws from Bridges to close out a seemingly unnecessary high-wire act. The daredevil stunt was a near-repeat of a close-shave win in Houston a month ago. Last night in Ohio, the Suns let Collin Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro go off in the second half, the Cavs erasing a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, then closing a seven-point gap in the final six minutes to force an overtime period. With six points and a game-tying assist, Sexton feasted in the final 70 seconds on buckets all within feet of Phoenix’s rim. The Sun saviors in these recent comebacks have not been Paul and Booker, and certainly not Ayton, but Bridges (17 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 4th-plus-OT @ CLE) and Johnson, perhaps a risky approach, by Williams, to test the younger guns’ mettle as the playoffs approach. The sum of the Suns’ past three wins has been a galling minus-23.3 Net Rating in fourth quarters (2nd-worst in NBA), a recession that encourages teams to endure Phoenix’s game-planned early efficiencies and hang around long enough to take part in a threatening comeback. It’s reminiscent of when Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and his Hawks made their pandemic-delayed visit to Phoenix on March 30, a couple nights after getting drubbed in Denver. Riding red-hot shooting from Dario Saric (20 points vs. ATL), Phoenix blazed to a 16-point first-half lead, but they plateaued over the next two quarters before Bogi’s hot hand (team-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-8 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO) had the Suns feeling as though they were running uphill with the lead. Responding to a spectacular dunk by Bridges, a Bogdanovic triple narrowed the score to 109-108 with under 70 seconds to go. An Ayton putback of a Booker miss, and a CP3 dish to Crowder (5-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 30) in the corner finally put the game on ice, keeping Atlanta from disrupting what would become Phoenix’s season-best seven-game winning streak. “We closed the game out,” Paul told postgame media. “But we shouldn’t have been in that situation.” Despite their recent uptick in success, they have found themselves in several similar situations since. The already-hobbled Hawks may have been able to squeak that one out, had John Collins not tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. Atlanta dropped below .500 with that loss for what would be the final time this season. Tonight, with yet another road-weary team in town, a recuperating Hawks club (36-30) could secure a winning season for the first time in Collins’ four-year career. They may not wish to hold off and try achieving that above-.500 status in McMillan’s former NBA town tomorrow, as a seventh-straight home win, this one over the momentary NBA leaders in the standings, would be an impressive feat. Phoenix is thrilled to be reaching the postseason for the first time since then-coach Alvin Gentry took the Suns to the Western Finals in 2010, and the prospect of making a Utah team that’s 28-4 at home the road team in this year’s conference finals, with a chance of giving Paul the breakthrough to the NBA Finals he has long craved, sounds mighty tempting. But they’re going to want to avoid am early-round letdown similar to McMillan’s ’94 Sonics, who found themselves mounted by a Mutombo. To that end, Phoenix is going to need their former local high school and college star, Ayton, to string together some not-pedestrian performances. For Ayton (14-and-14 vs. ATL in March), who did his best to keep up with Clint Capela (16-and-15 @ PHX) when the Hawks and Suns last met, a 15 point, 8 rebound showing versus the Cavs was a slight departure from his previous four games (7.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG, 2.0 FTAs/game, 46.2 FG%). Still, aside from a blocked shot, Deandre was persona non grata in the fourth frame as Cleveland made their advance. Two more overtime rejections brought his block tally to a season-tying high of 5 by night’s end. But for the former first-overall pick, it should not have come to that, nor Johnson’s reverse-yam in OT over Jarrett Allen, to put the Cavs to bed. At the Omni hotel this morning, Williams will be grateful not having to awaken to tornado sirens. But he will have to make tough decisions on who can log heavy minutes against a Hawks team bearing a rest advantage. Look for more minutes for ex-Hawk Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in the backcourt, and for Saric and Frank Kaminsky upfront. Craig continues to start in place of Crowder, who remains out with a sprained ankle. Phoenix (NBA-best +2.3 bench plus/minus) hopes to sustain any early leads they can seize for as long as possible without relying on star turns by Booker (8-for-19 FGs vs. ATL in March; 25.1 PPG but 25.3 3FG% since April 5), Bridges and Paul (active leader in career steal percentage at 3.21%, as per bball-ref; a fellow Carolinian, McMillan’s 3.75% ranks 3rd all-time). The Hawks’ reserves (NBA-worst minus-8.6 bench plus/minus and 38.2 bench FG% in last 4 games) could use a boost from sixth-man specialist Lou Williams (19.2 FG%, 5.3 PPG in last 4 games), held under 15 minutes of action in his past two games, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, to at least hold serve in this area. With Bogdanovic (NBA career-best 15.5 PPG and 42.0 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs vs. POR; listed as available despite a still-sore hammy) having averaged over 36.2 MPG as a starter during his past four back-to-back series, Coach Nate would love to spread his sharp-shooting guard’s floor time out at a lower scale today and tomorrow. Among Atlanta’s starters, a stronger interior presence from Collins (just 9-for-14 2FGs over past 3 games) would be a welcome sight. But he has the outside jumper that Ayton comparatively lacks. Showing newfound confidence as a shooter since his return from injury (multiple threes in four consecutive games, longest since last February’s late-season scoring tear) while sharing the floor with multiple Atlanta snipers, balancing Collins’ offense with more paint finishes will have defenses unsure of whether he’s going or coming. After citing his boss’ maturation and the Suns’ recent retooling as an “inflection point,” one of Sarver’s few hangers-on, CEO Jason Rowley, via CNBC, presses longtime skeptics to “look at the people we have on the team, you look at the culture that’s been built here – when I look at the success we’re having now, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We have the opportunity to have something sustainable.” This may hold true. But then you take a gander at the cap sheet. ESPN’s Zach Lowe foretells of the looming “money crunch” for Sarver, as Paul’s $44 million player option for 2021-22 either kicks in or gets torn up in favor of a lucrative negotiation. Ayton may not be worthy of an extension nearing the values coming for, say, Young or Luka Doncic, but the first-overall pick’s agents will be as demanding as Zona boosters in pursuing that kind of deal. Crowder and Saric are under contract through 2023. Their deals are reasonable, but they’ll likely hold more value as expirings than as contributing players by then. That Grant Hill is one classy fella. “He never dressed me down. Was always good to me,” he said of his former boss, Sarver, refuting a 2019 ESPN report (same one, by Kevin Arnovitz, featuring the goats) that the Suns’ owner barged into a halftime locker room and demanded better on-ball defense by Hill against another withering former superstar, the Mavs’ Vince Carter. Hill took great pains to explain Sarver’s intentions were to have switch Hill off of Dirk Nowitzki. It would take a monumental effort to get Grant to baaaaaad-mouth anyone, even Sarver. But it’s no longer lost on the owner that intruding in player affairs, as he once did, does his team and his franchise no favors. Sarver thanks his lucky stars that Jones accepted his entreaties instead of latching onto any of his GOAT-pal LeBron’s endeavors. Because there’s at least one reason Hill, and former Sun Carter, didn’t choose to spend their NBA retirement years in the warm climes of Arizona. They’ve elected to invest their time and energy in Georgia with the Resslers, who aim to prove that this state is a better place to do business, and basketball. I do hope Mr. Paul is taking notes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “Bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble…” Sheed. Qyntel. Bonzi. Damon. Trent(, Sr.). Z-Bo. Ruben. These fellows ran Portland. Quite nearly, into the abyss. At the time, Trail Blazers execs sought out a lifeline for someone capable to come in and shake things up. In some cases, to help ship people out. That lifeline reached 150 miles north, to Seattle. “From Day One,” Nate McMillan told the Seattle Times, about four years after his arrival and into the Blazers’ revival, “the plan was to change the type of players we brought in. We were going to look at, not only the talent, but also the character of players.” Until then, Portland’s “Jail Blazers” were individually known for being a character, not necessarily possessing some. “What a player could do off the floor was just as important as what he could do on the floor. We had to change, on the floor, but we also had to get out into the community and allow them to get to know us.” It was a slog, to be sure. While shaping up and shipping out much of the clubhouse, the man called “Sarge” ought to be credited with salvaging Zach Randolph’s pro career, predating the folk-hero status the burly power forward would warmly receive in Memphis. Yet with Randolph taking center stage as one of the last vestiges of the tawdry Jail Blazers era, Portland finished a league-worst 21-61 in 2005-06, setting up an unsuccessful lottery and a draft that brought a pair of rookies, including a Seattle native, on board. Selecting Tyrus Thomas and trading up two spots with Chicago, Portland landed the Bulls’ pick, LaMarcus Aldridge. Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair were packaged to Minnesota for the seventh pick, Randy Foye, who in turn was packaged for the draft rights to Timberwolves pick and Seattleite Brandon Roy. Just like that, McMillan had his young pillars. A more surefire big-man talent than Andrea Bargnani was in the waiting after next season, as Portland leapt over Atlanta, Seattle and five other teams to land the top lottery pick. With next-big-thing center Greg Oden set to join the emerging Roy and Aldridge, fans were enthralled again, home sellouts were a thing again, and the future was bright. 2007’s Rookie of the Year, Roy, became a heralded three-time All-Star in the ensuing seasons. Aldridge, a self-professed “project”, was fast becoming a double-double machine by year two of his development. By their second years, Portland was a .500 club and a playoff threat. The next season, 54-28, a remarkable turnaround under McMillan’s watch. But as the Jail Blazers were a thing of the past, it would not take long before the “Frail Blazers” label would take hold. Oden’s balky knee gave way midway through 2008-09, leaving McMillan little choice but to turn to the Vanilla Gorilla, Joel Pryzbilla, in a futile first-round contest with what we now know as the last hurrah of Houston’s Yao Ming. By the end of the next season, despite Portland’s 50 wins, it was Roy’s turn to begin breaking down, he and Oden contributing to, as The Oregonian recalled, 311 player games lost to injury. At playoff time, an aching Roy would be replaced at turns by starters Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless, McMillan’s lead-legged club unable to sustain the pace with Steve Nash and the Suns at playoff time. That cost McMillan’s GM buddy, Kevin Pritchard, his job one hour before the 2010 Draft, although the courtesy of letting him make the final trades and picks on that night, anyway, was a sweet touch. The next year, more of the same. More surgeries for Oden, the sad close to B-Roy’s ephemeral career via retirement, and 48 wins for Nate Mac, who was clearly on notice after an opening-round series loss to Dirk Nowitzki’s eventual NBA champions. Hired to replace Pritchard, Rich Cho never even got to do a draft before he was fired by gazillionaire owner Paul Allen at season’s end. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Aldridge tried to carry the load, with Gerald Wallace and a buttery Raymond Felton assuming what was Oden and Roy’s floor time. The club collapsed, losing seven of nine after the All-Star Break, and Mr. Allen ushered in what, remarkably to this day in 2021, was really the last big Blazerquake. Within days: G-Wallace and Marcus Camby, traded out of town. Oden, five knee surgeries in, placed humbly on waivers. And McMillan was handed his walking papers. Even team president Larry Miller high-tailed it up the road to his old job, running Nike’s Jordan Brand. Coach Nate would never get to see the next metamorphosis first-hand. And while beloved in Portland for wiping away the bad front-page news items, he was never given the leeway his successor did. Despite having failed to lift the fortunes of clubs in Atlanta and Milwaukee, Terry Stotts’ success as an assistant on that championship Mavericks roster compelled Allen and the Blazers to give him one more try. Only this time, new team exec Neil Olshey, saved from Donald Sterling’s Clippers, wouldn’t let Allen cut Stotts loose so easily. They stick with Stotts, despite the team finishing 8-26 after a 25-23 start. Dealing Crash Wallace away yielded the Blazers New Jersey’s first-rounder in 2012. There was no lottery win, and thus no AD. But Charlotte went for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while Cleveland and Sacramento plucked Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. Portland was the first to go small-school, drafting Damian Lillard of Weber State at Pick #6 ahead of UNC’s Harrison Barnes and the Washington Huskies’ Terrence Ross. As mostly disastrous choices were made above them the next year, the Blazers went small-school again, this time with fellow guard CJ McCollum of Lehigh. Stotts, like McMillan, would find that he got his young pillars, plus Aldridge, to coach up and build around. Unlike McMillan’s haul, Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves fairly durable, CJ joining in as a second 20+ PPG scorer by the then-two-time All-Star’s fourth season. Unlike McMillan, Stotts’ ace guard was upright and ready to shine at playoff time, Lillard first bidding adieu to the star-laden Rockets in 2014, dispatching a twilight Clippers club in 2016, then serving as the author of 2019’s shocker over Wayoff P and OKC, setting the stage for Portland’s first Conference Finals berth since 2000. As Lillard morphed from a David to one of the league’s Goliath’s, Stotts has been at the helm throughout, even though the team made a decided regression one season after each breakout playoff performance. Coupled with seven consecutive postseasons is an inability to improve the talent via the lottery. Olshey seems to have skated as well, more interested in giving away picks and settling for lower-first-round longshots. 2015’s 23rd pick, traded on Draft Day essentially for Mason Plumlee, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is back in black and red, after being waived by Minnesota in December and having his 10-day contracts made full. The highest Olshey pick since McCollum, 2017’s 15th, was packaged with two other low-firsts to Sacramento, in exchange for what sounds like a Lifetime movie: The Wrong Collins. This year's mid-to-low-first heads to Houston as part of the pre-season trade for Robert Covington. Even their 2021 second-rounder belongs to Memphis as part of a 2019 multi-team deal. Last week, former Blazers beat-writer and Lillard chum turned insider at Yahoo! Sports Chris Haynes was right to wonder aloud whether Dame, in particular, is spinning his wheels for a club he his remained steadfastly dedicated to representing in the NBA. This, as the brain trust that was wise enough to reel him and CJ in, and pay them handsomely to stick together through 2024, hasn’t figured out how to draft or entice the right mix of co-stars for a championship-contending balance. Haynes also ponders whether Stotts will finally be the next chip to fall as Olshey tries to fend off a Blazerquake that’s beginning to feel overdue. The writer’s close connections to Lillard created consternation around Oregon that Lillard (43.6 FG%, his lowest since 2015-16; career-best 92.6 FT%), soon to be 31 and admittedly going through his roughest stretch staying healthy, is leaking out what he cannot opine publicly. “(Lillard) has been a constant professional,” Haynes opines, “and in return, it’s made central figures throughout the organization comfortable.” Dame was coy in denying a lack of communication with his front office, perhaps obscuring a lack of confidence. I ponder about what would have happened were McMillan granted the latitude to participate in the rebuild of the Frail Blazers, instead of dumping him to take a shot with Stotts. Maybe here, he would have transitioned Lillard, more quickly, from a high-usage shot-jacker to the more efficient game-managing clutch-gunner (NBA-best 8.3 Offensive BPM and Offensive WS last season) he is known for being today. Maybe Lillard and McCollum (career-highs of 23.3 PPG, 4.7 APG) would have been compelled to improve their defensive wherewithal sooner in their careers. Maybe it’s Lillard, at Dame Time, who helps McMillan shed his limited playoff success persona, as he did with Stotts. Nearly $103 million in guaranteed player salary is locked down for next season, including center Jusuf Nurkic’s $12 million that locks in on the first of July. But Blazer fans feel like they’re in a similar position on the gerbil wheel to where they were entering 2014, with the scale of their title contention tethered simply to whether Lillard can get the Dame Time apparatus going, and for how long. While they’re in better shape than at the finish of last year’s regular season, Portland (36-28) is now scrambling with the Lakers and the Mavericks to avoid having to fight their way into the postseason via a Play-In game or two. Injuries, to McCollum and Nurkic early, and to Lillard for a few games last month, have once more given Stotts the cover not bestowed upon McMillan for this long. Zach Collins still remains hopeful of a return during a playoff run, if it comes to that. But success in their topsy-turvy season hinges on the ability of Lillard, McCollum and/or Nurkic and the bigs (the latter group via screen sets) to find the hot hand, somewhere. Unable to rely on their defense to keep teams close on even mediocre shooting nights, Portland (115.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA) is 19-0 so far when hitting threes above a 42 percent clip, 7-21 when they fall below 35 percent. An exception came when Portland made just 38.8 FG% versus the Atlanta Hawks on January 16, as McMillan assisted then head coach Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks were finding their way, but with the victorious opportunity that availed itself when McCollum (4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL) went down to an early-game injury, no one, save for Clint Capela (25 points, 11-for-16 FGs, 15 rebounds @ POR) could find the center of the hoop from long-range (6-for-30 team 3FGs). Capela also lacked the frontcourt support he needed on that eve from John Collins (8 points, 6 rebounds in 30 minutes) to secure defensive boards away from Derrick Jones and Enes Kanter, allowing the host Blazers ample opportunities to overtake the Hawks in the second half. Collins' activity on the defensive end, displayed in Saturday's 108-97 win over the Bulls (career-tying 4 steals, 8 D-Rebs, one block) will be needed today, as keeping Portland below triple digits is impossible without a concerted effort. Tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX), the Blazers are seeking to extend this successful road trip to 5-0, after Lillard’s return couldn’t stave off an 0-5 downturn that featured consecutive home losses to the possible 10-seed Grizzlies. Last night in Boston, Portland (50.0 3FG% vs. BOS) aided the Hawks by prevailing 129-119, pouring it on it the second half. Lillard (26 points, 13 assists, 5 TOs) and McCollum (team-high 33 points, 5 assists) dished it out, and Robert Covington, Trade Deadline arrival Norman Powell (questionable for today, knee tendinopathy) and bench vet Carmelo Anthony (combined 11-for-17 3FGs vs. BOS) could take it. They wore down a Celtics team still burning off the fumes of their massive comeback win over San Antonio. With limited depth and starters logging between 29 and 39 minutes last night, the Hawks (35-30) hope they can wear down Portland in turn, like they did after waking up against Chicago in the second half on Saturday, here at State Farm Arena. After Portland flew in from Logan late last night, this morning’s hotel evacuation due to a tornado warning (hope all’s good in Adamsville and along Cascade) may have the Blazers’ heads spinning a bit. Last night, Stotts reserved Hollis-Jefferson, Derrick Jones and Nas Little in hopes of working them heavily into the active rotation today. Bogdan Bogdanovic (probable, sore hammy) and Danilo Gallinari were unavailable at the time of January’s meeting, and each can help Trae Young (33 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 11-for-12 FTs, 7 assists vs. CHI) match Portland’s firepower, possibly even Tony Snell (upgraded to available, ankle sprain). Bogi and Kevin Huerter (off the injury list, although still working through his shoulder stinger) can also play an important role of defending the perimeter and keeping Blazer guards off-kilter. McMillan’s coaching odyssey would likely have continued elsewhere anyway after 2012, particularly if he failed to overachieve at playoff time once more in Portland. But as it stands, considering where he has sated a playoff-hungry owner along with the fanbase, Nate would likely find more stability here than if he tried to ride out the current, longstanding epoch of the “Stale Blazers.” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  25. “Ohhh! See, when you said you heard we just got Justin Fields, I thought you meant…” Saturday Tidbits! The last time the Chicago Bulls stopped by State Farm Arena, one day after playing in Tampa, All-Star Zach LaVine dropped a career-best 50 points, including 39 in the first half… and his team lost. What happens tonight, when the red-eyed Bulls arrive to face the Atlanta Hawks (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) less than 24 hours after playing the Bucks in Chicago, and LaVine is nowhere to be found? LaVine has been away from the team since April 15 and remains out due to Health ‘n Safety. A backup at the wing, Wizards acquisition Troy Brown has been out while healing a sprained ankle for the past two weeks. Forward Lauri Markkanen and emergency big Cristiano Felicio (non-COVID illness) were late scratches yesterday, and the former is listed as questionable to play today. LaVine’s splurge in A-Town didn’t set SportsCenter’s A-Block aflame, back on April 9, largely because Ice Trae was très cool. Getting in the paint and scoring at-will, Trae Young had 22 paint ponts and made 11 of 14 free throws as part of his 42-point contribution to the Hawks’ 120-108 victory. Similarly, in Young’s return to action in Philadelphia last night, any struggles he had scoring from outside were compensated by ample floaters and a perfect 10-for-10 on trips to the free throw line. His team would soon be revving up the plane for Hartsfield-Jackson just as the Bulls were still coming out from their halftime break. As Jayson Tatum and, eventually, Jaylen Brown can now attest, no lead is safe in The Association. Chicago watched their 66-53 halftime lead evaporate within less than a quarter back on April 9. The Bulls were constrained to 42 second-half points, a few of those in the garbage-time period as LaVine scrambled to get his 50. Last night, they nearly erased a 19-point first half deficit before Giannis-less Milwaukee regained control of the game. Chicago’s last loss here precipitated a five-game skid, featuring losses to Minnesota and Nikola Vucevic’s prior employer, Orlando, that made the subsequent climb without LaVine much steeper. They remain competitive, with helpful wins over Boston and Charlotte while splitting a series in Miami over the past two weeks. But much like the Hawks on Friday night, the Bulls are hoping today they can avoid being held under 100 points for the third-consecutive contest. The Hawks turned sleepy once Philly woke up yesterday, particularly John Collins (11 points and 4 rebounds over 26 minutes @ PHI) and the bench brigade of Lou Williams (0-for-7 FGs) and Danilo Gallinari (4-for-6 3FGs but minus-29 plus/minus). Still, with Tony Snell and Solomon Hill keeping seats warm for Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter, respectively, Atlanta offered the Sixers a taste of what might await them if the Hawks (34-30) have to emerge from a Play-In game for a first-round series. Atlanta held Philly to just six points in the opening 6.5 minutes of play, racing to a 21-8 lead until Ben Simmons took matters into his own hands. In his own return after missing a game due to heel pain, Clint Capela was solid in short stints (11-and-15 double-double over just 17 minutes) versus a balanced but hostile Philly front. This is the dawning of The Age of… Coby White? Well, he is an Aquarius, so, we’ll go with that! Bulls coach Billy Donovan is turning to White, who got his starting spot back after a month on the bench once LaVine hit the shelf, as more of a primary offensive creator. The second-year guard and 2020 All-Rookie Second-Teamer is coming through with more efficient numbers of late (last 9 starts: 18.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 39.1 3FG%). He’s already become less tentative as an interior finisher than he was in his rookie year, but there have been signs his consistency as an outside shooter is coming around, too. He sunk 4 of 8 triples yesterday to aid his team-high 21 points versus Milwaukee. The Raptors game preceding the latest LaVine-Young Classic occurred only because it was one of four games, due to COVID-related postponements, the Bulls had to cram into their post-All-Star-Break schedule. They still have two more squeezed into their final May run, at Charlotte and versus Boston on back-to-back dates toward the end of next week. Today’s game is one of three SEGABABAs left that Donovan’s Bulls have to manage, and the coach has to balance the desire to preserve bodies with the growing sense the race for a final Play-In spot is about over for Chicago (26-37, 3.0 games behind 10-seed Washington). Bear in mind, barring some Lottery luck, the Bulls’ next first-rounder went out the door with Wendell Carter, so they’re tempted to keep fighting until they’re mathematically eliminated. But including the last loss here in Atlanta, the Bulls are 1-4 on road back-to-backs, the sole victory coming against Vucevic in Orlando back in the first week of February. Vucevic played last night (6-for-18 2FGs, 1-for-9 3FGs vs. MIL, five straight double-doubles) but was listed pre-game versus the Bucks as probable, working his way through a tight adductor muscle. It was the All-Star’s fourth straight-game logging 35+ minutes, tying the longest run he’s had this season and the most since arriving from Orlando at the Trade Deadline. Now listed as questionable today, Vooch appeared in four back-to-backs last month and appears to be a candidate to at least be reduced to limited minutes today, if any. The anticipated restraint of 2021’s All-Star Skills Challenge winner provides the opportunity for Collins (last 6 games: 5.3 RPG, 2.5 FTAs/game), who missed the prior Bulls game due to injury, to enjoy a bounceback game, and for Capela (22-and-10 and a pair of blocks vs. CHI on April 9) to positively impact the game for longer stretches. Donovan will try to counter Atlanta’s frontline with struggling Lotto rookie Patrick Williams (6.1 PPG in last 13 games), veteran Thaddeus Young, Gwinnettian Al-Farouq Aminu, and former Celtic Daniel Theis (16 points, 10 rebounds vs. MIL). The bigs will all strive to stay out of each other’s way while crafting driving lanes for White and Thaddeus’ fellow 80’s baby on the Bulls, guard Garrett Temple. As was the case in Philly, someone other than Gallo (4-for-8 3FGs vs. CHI on April 9, rest of team 3-for-19) will have to hit open perimeter shots to keep the Bulls stuck in the stable. If Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (both questionable) are no-goes and Young (24.3 3FG% in past seven games) remains in a deep-freeze, hopefully Lou Will can provide some home cooking similar to his last breakout game at The Farm (4-for-4 fourth-quarter 3FGs vs. MIL) that helped Trae-less Atlanta beat the Bucks. The Bulls’ first-half stampede in Atlanta last month was attributed to the play of LaVine and Vucevic, but Tomas Satoransky (8 of 10 assists in first half @ ATL on April 9), played a crucial role despite going 0-for-6 from the field on the evening. Coach Nate McMillan’s adjustments helped slow Satoransky’s facilitations, and the addition of Sato’s former teammate, Kris Dunn, should keep the Bulls guard stuck in neutral on offense as he tires of chasing Trae’s taillights to the other end of the floor. It’s a formality at this point, as the Raptors prepare to face the Jazz in Utah and these Bulls are unlikely to run the table, that the Hawks (Magic Number vs. TOR and CHI: 1) can turn their full attention to avoiding the Play-In series (Top-6 Magic Number: 8, tied to BOS and/or MIA, who face off twice over next ten days). But with the NBA postseason in view, this game can serve as practice for eliminating teams that find themselves on the ropes. Against a team that won all 3 games (as a 22-43 team) versus Atlanta last year, one that, despite their struggles, has taken at least one game head-to-head over the Hawks in every season since 2016-17, this contest is also a good opportunity to practice pursuing a series sweep. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3