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  1. “Vatican just called. Il Papa wants the hookup on a case of BOLT24.” Tidbits Time! We won’t have Rudy Gobert around to spank us tonight! Dusting off the first double-digit L of the season, our Atlanta Hawks head to the Pacific Northwest. They’ll be thankful if the good sirs on the Portland Trail Blazers (10 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX) don’t have another paddling in store for them. Coach Lloyd Pierce conserved some players’ energies during the front-end of last night’s back-to-back, keeping every one of his Hawks (5-6) under 30 minutes. It’s not as if Trae Young (1-for-11 FGs; probable for today despite back tightness) and the starters did anything worth expending any more ergs. Imagine the margin if Cam Reddish (4-for-5 3FGs, rest of squad 1-for-23) didn’t bring his outside-shooting A-game! Cam’s questionable for today with a bruised knee, so even if he plays, he’ll give up some minutes to Kevin Huerter today. ‘Twas just a year ago, tomorrow, when Huerter’s velvety-smooth jumper ended our decades-long Hawks Hex in San Antonio. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell (7 steals combined, more than Atlanta’s tally of 6) stifled the Hawks backcourt with few problems, while Gobert gave Clint Capela and our wide-eyed rookie Onyeka Okongwu fits in the opening half. Aside from a pair of Atlanta runs in the second and third quarters, the eventual outcome was academic. Capela and the barely visible John Collins must be far more imposing this evening in Portland, as the Blazers (7-5) are reeling with the losses of their starting bigs. At worst, JC should find it easy to be the most impactful Collins on the court tonight. Zach Collins had to undergo his second ankle surgery in five months, on the same malady that ended his run in the Bubble. He’s out until probably the end of this month. The other beefy big in coach Terry Stotts’ starting lineup, 290-pounder Jusuf Nurkic, returned strong at Bubble time after planning to miss last season while recovering from a leg injury. But now, a broken wrist suffered in Thursday’s 111-87 home loss to Indiana will keep the center out, likely until after the Blazers’ currently scheduled games conclude. Nurkic wasn’t the singular reason the air escaped Portland’s balloon on Thursday. Even with him on the floor, Indiana went on a 21-8 run to close the half up 59-36. In the battle between Nate McMillan’s last two coached teams, the Pacers throttled the Blazers (7-4) without the services of either the traded Vic Oladipo or the incoming Caris LeVert. (Edmond Sumner filled in as the emergency starter for Indy; historians know who I’m talking about, but you’ll hear of another person named Sumner on Monday, if I can finish my rambling MLK Day pregame thread on time.) Portland had won four in a row before that loss, but now they’ve suffered four of their five defeats by double-digits. That includes losing the season-opener versus Utah, by 20, and at G-State by 13. How do the Blazers compensate? One thing Damian Lillard (26.9 PPG, 7.2 FTAs/game, 6.8 APG) and CJ McCollum (team-high 27.6 PPG, 43.4 3FG%, 5.3 APG) will try to do is shoot their way out of any situation. The pair was fairly inefficient with a combined 44 points on 34 shots plus 8 free throws. And aside from pogo-stick Derrick Jones (pro tip: if he’s heading toward the paint, foul him before he gets there, or run the other way), no other starters or Carmelo Anthony’s bench crew could get unstuck. For a team that’s not usually turnover prone (2nd-lowest TO% in NBA), Portland’s 16 assists and 18 player turnovers on Thursday won’t get it done on most nights. The Blazers (2nd in NBA for 3FGA rate, just ahead of Utah) could find themselves pressing too much to stay in front tonight, particularly trying to play tit-for-tat if Young’s wayward jumpers start finding nylon again. Make my funk a T-Funk! Trae’s momentary shooting woes (28.8 3FG%) are the least of my worries, as long as he contributes well in other facets of the game and other Hawks elevate their play when the ball heads their way. He won’t be hounded as much by Portland’s star guards as he will by Robert Covington and Rodney Hood. When the double- and triple-teams come, Young (8.4 APG, 4th in NBA) can artfully move the ball inside, where Collins, Okongwu and Capela can overwhelm the hope-you-miss defenses of Enes Kanter and Melo, the turn-sideways-to-go-missing Jones, and the hack-happy Harry Giles. Even if Atlanta’s shooters are off-line, second-chance points abound for the current NBA leaders in that category (16.6 points per-48). When Portland’s iron is unkind, there’ll be ample opportunities to score on the break (15.9 opponent fastbreak points per-48, 4th-most in NBA). A steal and a block from Young helped soften the blows last night in Salt Lake, with Portland’s backcourt stars getting multiple defensive looks from Atlanta’s young defensive wings, Trae will need to continue being an assertive help defender, aiding the Hawks in forcing mistakes and low-percentage jumpshots from Lillard’s and McCollum’s floormates. The Timberwolves will be in town for Monday’s MLK Day Game, and we’ve heard much of Karl-Anthony Towns and his family’s ordeal with the COVID-19 pandemic. @JayBirdHawk shared Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little’s weeks-long personal bout with the coronavirus in the Homecourt thread last month. As did Towns, Little advises everyone within earshot or eyeshot to please be careful: One clever way to stay close to family during the pandemic? Get them on the team! The pride of Hot Springs, Arkansas and Montana State basketball, Keljin Blevins is Damian Lillard’s cousin. Lillard has been a mentor for Blevins, even more so after the latter’s father passed away while he played at Southern Miss. After training with the Blazers and their Summer League roster in 2019, Blevins made it into the G-League and now serves as Portland’s sole two-way player. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “I’ve got two turntables. But that’s all. I swear!” Tidbits Time! Last week’s storming of State Farm Arena remains fresh in the minds of many a Hawk fan. Wins at turns by the Cavaliers, Knicks and Hornets, much like Atlanta’s win at Brooklyn, furthered confirmation that major corners were being turned in the NBA East. But only Charlotte, who fell below .500 yesterday, still has reason to feel that way. And at least until tonight, we’re back to looking down at all three of them. After beating Atlanta, New York went home and enjoyed an even bigger margin of victory versus Utah, flipping an 18-point deficit into a 12-point win. But the Knicks have since dropped four straight. Cleveland somehow gained even more big men, but it has lost five of six since departing The ATL. Most recently, they lost by 30 at home to the Jazz, themselves winners of three straight (7-4), all on the road, entering today’s game at Vivint Arena against the Hawks (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, AT&T SN in SLC). Coincidentally, and COVID-willing, the Knicks and Cavs face off at MSG tonight, so one team’s woes will continue. In the Western Conference logjam, the Jazz are vying with Portland (7-5), Phoenix (7-4), and Dallas (6-4, now with the Unicorn back) for the claim of Best in the West Outside of LA. After a pair of disappointing back-to-back games in the Brooklyn and Manhattan boroughs, coach Quin Snyder’s club righted the ship and concluded a six-game excursion with three road wins, including a 131-118 victory in Milwaukee last Friday. There were supposed to be seven consecutive away games, but… Wednesday’s Wizards/Jazz cancellation offered Utah an extended respite ahead of the arriving Hawks, who themselves hope they’ve Euro-stepped a big COVID-scare once Wednesday’s Suns game got canceled. An unspecified staffer, hopefully doing fine, caught a case presumably while the team was prepping in Phoenix. Coach Lloyd Pierce and some staff had to isolate in Arizona, on the Health ‘n Safety tip, but he’s been cleared for takeoff and traveled with the team. The Jazz remain among just five NBA teams in the “So You Think You Can Have Fans?” COVID-tition (Houston and Orlando lead the way, while the Yboraptors recently dropped out of the running). The Jazz have turnstiled about 1,900 fans per game, so it might be a bit disorienting for the Hawks, for the first time this season, to see a few moving cardboard cutouts sipping on mochachinos in the stands. They do allow coffee there now, right? Back home, we’ll have to wait until at least a week after the MLK game before anyone can saddle up (with their mask on) to the SVEDKA bar. Utah prevailed against the Bucks without the services of glue-guy Joe Ingles, whose NBA-long 384-game streak of regular-season appearances (418 w/ playoffs included… he’s been around here that long?) ended due to a sore Achilles’. Aussie Ripken’s next streak ended at 1. After giving it a go in Detroit, the 33-year-old was deactivated for the Cleveland game on Tuesday and remains listed as out for today. It may be true that social distancing demands were the only reason Donovan Mitchell didn’t try to strangle his all-world defensive center last winter. But All-Stars Mitchell (last 3 games: 29.0 PPG, 54.2 3FG%; NBA-high 36.3 PPG in the 2020 Playoffs) and Rudy Gobert (13.4 RPG and 2.6 BPG, 2nd in NBA and just off last season’s career-highs) have let bygones be bygones. They seem sympatico on the court (+6.1 in lineups as a duo), where it matters most. The real revelation comes at point guard. Mike Conley was, not even arguably, the most derided addition from 2019’s NBA offseason, and his clunker of a shot to conclude the postseason, after Utah blew a 3-1 lead over rival Denver, didn’t help matters. But the 14-year vet has entered this season with newfound confidence. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG, second on the club and a shade ahead of sixth-man Jordan Clarkson’s 17.2. Most importantly, his jumpshots are efficient -- 43.0 percent on threes – while he is passing and pressuring almost as well as he did in his peak years as a Grit ‘n Grinder. If the Jazz can continue eking their way to the top in the West, perhaps, there’ll be room for his first career All-Star nod? The Nuggets were reveled after taking out the Clippers and blowing up the well-predicted path to an all-LA Western Finals in 2020. But perhaps there would have been a redeem team led by Gobert with the chance to snip the Clips, had Snyder had the benefit of Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PPG last season) at his disposal. It’s imagined that his shooting accuracy (37.4 FG%, down from 49.7 and 44.7 the past two years) coming around is just a matter of time. While firing away from deep themselves (4th in 3-point attempt rate, 6th in team 3FG%), Conley and the Jazz aim to shoo people off the 3-point line, daring ballhandlers into the painted area to wrangle with the windmilling Gobert. Likely to be hounded once he crosses halfcourt, Trae Young’s off-drive floater game needs to be on-point. Because once Jazz opponents get inside (8th-most paint points per-48), they usually don’t get a second chance to make a first impression (6th-fewest second-chance points per-48). Young hits just under 41% on shots taken off drives to the hoop, and among the league’s ten most prolific drivers, Miami’s oddly off Jimmy Butler (39%) is the only other player shooting below even 50 percent. Utah usually goes about 8-deep, and they are a little shallower without Ingles and possibly Derrick Favors, the South Atlantan who could not wait to return to the comforts of the Beehive State after leaving LouiZiona. He’s probable to play, despite a sore knee, but Favors comes off the bench because Royce O’Neale rolls out to the three-point line (46.7 3FG%) when he isn’t helping Rudy out on the boards. Snyder would like to go deeper, especially in the early phases of the season, beyond relying on Clarkson, Ingles and Favors as reserves. But Georges Niang (36.7 FG%) has a front seat on the struggle bus. And the Jazz have yet to find somebody who can consistently help alleviate Mitchell, Jingles and Jangles on the defensive end. Shaq Harrison, Miye Oni, and Elijah Hughes are all hoping to become that ninth-man. But with each clocking in under ten minutes apiece, defensive depth for the Jazz (NBA-low 5.5 team SPG) remains a work in progress. Enter The Gwu-Tang! Will our Trojan Man, Onyeka Okongwu make his long-awaited rookie debut this weekend, in PAC-12 Country? Watching lotto peers like LaMelo, Baby Boy, P-Will and Wiseman show up and show out has been fun. But after enduring all these injury disruptions to the Hawks’ would-be rotation, it would be such a pleasure for Pierce to finally roll out his rookie and find out that Gwu-Tang ain’t nothing to… Thanks especially to the C+C Muscle Factory of Clint Capela and John Collins, Atlanta (NBA-high 31.3 O-Reb%) joins Utah (75.5 D-Reb%, tie-5th in NBA) among the NBA’s top-five rebounding units, hopefully making tonight’s battle along the boards, much like Martha, a Wash. The over-extended Bruno Fernando and Solomon Hill have rebounded just enough off the bench to make opponents go, “Hmm.” But if Okongwu can effectively sop up some of their floortime this weekend, Atlanta is gonna make Gobert, and whoever starts upfront for the Blazers tomorrow, sweat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Whoo! Good Golly, Mister Molly! You sure like to ball!” Kuester’s Revenge! Tracy McGrady, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Wilcox, Austin Daye were among the players fashioning a mutiny against their coach. Even withering legends Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace were in on the boycott, petitioning for an overthrow of Detroit Pistons coach John Kuester. His days were already numbered as the team piled on the losses, but by February 2011, his increasingly DNP-CD’d players sought to grease the skids by skipping shootaround and showing up to practice late. T-Mac complained of a “headache”, although the source of it seemed quite clear. Coach Kue was well behind the 8-Ball, but at this point, he had enough. It was time to put his foot down. Seven of Detroit’s rotation members were benched and suspended on gameday. The beneficiaries of Kuester’s Last Stand? Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and the resurgent Philadelphia 76ers. Elton would enjoy 20 points and a team-high 17 rebounds at the Pistons’ expense, and Philly wouldn’t need much more help than that. The Sixers looked across the floor at tip-off and saw five visitors suited up on the court, and just one available bench player, Jason Maxiell, on the sideline. There were more than 5 Seconds of Summers, as Detroit’s Dajuan was pressed into a career-high 39 minutes of action. Formerly doghoused by Kuester, Will Bynum couldn’t believe his reversal of fortune. “I sat and got DNP’s for a month and a half,” he said to postgame media. “You think I was turning down 48 minutes? I ain’t crazy!” Ben Gordon and Bynum tried their best to keep their team in the running through halftime, but as each got into early foul trouble, with no other backcourt options on the sideline, Kuester found himself at wit’s end. The coach got tossed by the refs, and T-Mac was caught on TV leading the sideline in barely constrained laughter. It’s hard to say who laughed last. They didn’t get Kuester’s job on a platter until the summer, by which time many of them were on the outs as well. And I’m guessing Kuester, wherever he is (last seen around the pro ranks as a Lakers scout), is giggling. Nearly a full decade later, Brand has assembled much of the current roster as the 76ers’ general manager, doing his best to build something competitive around inherited All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Aided by a new boss in Daryl Morey, his Sixers surged to a respectable 7-1 start, the best mark in the otherwise parity-loaded Eastern Conference. But now, Elton and new Sixers coach Doc Rivers can only look on in horror as the effects of COVID-19, quarantining and injuries whittle down their lineup to a daily crapshoot. They had a stacked squad in Brooklyn on Thursday, aside from starting guard Seth Curry, who was chilling on the sideline with a bum ankle. But when staffers gave Seth the hook and led him to the locker room, that was the hint that peculiarity was afoot. Curry had tested COVID+, creating a distraction for the Sixers as the fell to a Nets team missing both KD (quarantining himself) and Kyrie (allergic to tie-dye). The resulting ripple effects would have Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Terrance Ferguson, Vincent Poirier subject to the dreaded Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Rivers can’t even uncork Furkan Korkmaz (strained adductor) to help out. Trying to figure out things to do versus Denver when you’re down at least a half-dozen players, Coach Doc tried swiftly shelving Simmons (knee swelling) and Embiid (back tightness) and kept a recuperated Mike Scott (bruised knee) off the court, in hopes the NBA brass would postpone their Saturday matinee with the visiting Nuggets. The league wouldn’t budge. Not until today, at least, when it was time to dock Doc’s team $25k for their failure to have Simmons on the initial injury report. Rivers fielded seven Sixers to face the Nuggets, two aging yet still functional vets in Danny Green (along with Ferguson, part of the deal that dispatched our old friend Al Horford to OKC) and our other even older friend Dwight Howard, plus five fellows who you might expect to find in a dusty Who’s Who Among American Basketball Players yearbook. Led by rookie Tyrese Maxey’s 39 points and six assists, and Tony Bradley’s double-double off the bench, the spirited 76ers held their own through one half of play (up 58-51 through two quarters) before the wheels fell off in the third quarter of the 115-103 defeat. No, Dakota Mathias is not a song from The Lion King, although he was a passing craze (five assists, just 1 TO) during his 41-minute appearance as another rookie starter alongside Maxey and the new Arkansas Joe, Isaiah (4-for-18 FGs vs. DEN). The residual Not-So-Sick-sers are in town to face the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, NBC Sports Philly), and while Embiid and Scott are technically available to play, Kuester’s Kurse hovers over the visitors. The deposed ex-coach must suspect McGrady is still a Vet Min, or that “T. Young” is actually Thad, because a pox seems to have spilled over both teams’ houses. Knock on wood, until you get splinters, but be glad that Da ‘Rona is about the only thing not placing Atlanta players on the injury scroll. Tony Snell is listed as probable to make his Hawks debut tonight, but the swingman can only contribute to the ever-revolving door of injuries that is shutting the door on his team’s once-abundant optimism. The pu pu platter of maladies on Bogdan Bogdanovic’s knee (avulsion fracture, inflamed tissue, bone bruise), following Atlanta’s fourth-straight loss in Charlotte on Saturday evening, suggests we won’t be seeing him for a while. There’s no need for a roll call on the other Hawks taking extended time off for recuperative purposes. But just to field a team themselves, coach Lloyd Pierce has no choice but to roll out a list of probables. Including Snell, there’s Trae Young (sore wrist from Saturday’s 113-105 defeat), Kevin Huerter (sore ankle), and Bruno Fernando (sore hip). Pierce’s prime challenge in navigating this swoon is to keep his sore collective from leaving tonight’s matchup with the Six Sirs looking like a bunch of sore losers. From Collin Sexton, to Immanuel Quickley, to LaMelo Ball, one rookie/sophomore after another is doing their part to show up Trae and seize what we once hoped would be a slot for Cam Reddish (29.3 FG%, 1.2 APG in past five games) on this year’s fictional Rising Stars team. Maxey hopes to be next in line tonight, if Joe and Mathias don’t beat him to it. Another offensively potent outing or two might have Simmons returning to a full-time starting forward gig upon his return. Despite season-highs of 34 minutes, 21 points and four steals in Saturday’s rematch, Cam was only slightly more effective in his return to the reserve unit after LP went with Bogi. Now, with Bogi out, there may be no choice but to return a starting spot to Kevin Huerter, which would certainly not be a bad option. Red Velvet certainly looked like the only Hawk that showed up to play productive minutes for four quarters at home this past Wednesday (5-for-12 3FGs, 19 points and 6 assists vs. CHA). And while his aim on the floor was duller than Reddish’s on Saturday, Huerter at least looked capable of moving the ball (3-for-10 3FGs, 6 assists, no TOs in 34 bench minutes @ CHA). Atlanta parlayed the Hornets games without a single Hawks starter making more than a single three-point attempt. Trae (last 4 games: 15.8 3FG%, 40.4 2FG%, 3.3 RPG, 6.3 TOs/game) was already woeful before banging up his wrist, particularly flustered now that he’s not drawing trips to the free throw line. Now his sore wrist will make the Trae Tricks – sinking shots from Social Circle, lofting floaters, dribbling bounce passes between defender’s wickets – all the more a challenge to execute. When last the Hawks and Sixers played here at The Farm, at the end of January last year, Young enjoyed season-highs of 18 assists and 18 of his 39 points at the free throw line, flummoxing Brett Brown’s charges in a satisfying 127-117 victory. John Collins had a vengeance match of sorts against Embiid, coming up big with 17 points and a season-high 20 rebounds. Philly will field a bunch of bigs, but Embiid and Howard likely won’t play much together, and the others, with all due respect to the hobbled Scott and lissome two-way contributor Paul Reed, cannot keep up with Johnny Bap. This is the game for Collins (just 4 FGAs @ CHA; one 3FGA in last 2 games) to get his touches up, early and often in offensive sets, and he must come through, whether it’s finishing around the rim, drawing Joel and Dwight out the paint, getting to the line and making the Sixers pay. Defensively, Clint Capela is here specifically to minimize the need for Collins to risk foul trouble holding up against the likes of Embiid (3.3 APG, highest among active PHI players). When the Sixers’ star center puts the ball on the floor in the post, Collins and Young should be ready to pry, deflect and swipe to limit easy kickouts to Green (37.7 3FG%) and the Sixers’ spot-up shooters. Collins must also be more involved in moving the rock and setting up teammates, an element of his play that seemed to be unearthing itself in the Hawks’ late-game loss to the Cavs (5 assists vs. CLE on Jan. 2, most since April 2019), but has gone back underground since. Especially now with Bogi bogged down, it cannot just be predictable sources like Young and Huerter creating for Atlanta (62.9% of made FGs assisted, 4th-highest in NBA). At least the Hawks’ all-time career assist leader has some willing backcourt contributors to turn to without Simmons and Curry, even though those options unheralded newbies to the pro game. It has been almost a calendar year since Atlanta enjoyed a breakout performance from guard Brandon Goodwin, who subbed for a struggling Jeff Teague in Trae Young’s absence last January and sunk 3-of-4 threes for 19 points, helping Collins and the Hawks trip up Doc’s shorthanded Clippers. A double-digit, low-turnover scoring effort off the bench tonight from Goodwin to supplement Trae would be welcome, and long overdue. Coach Pierce has his hands full trying to chart a different course for the Hawks than we’ve seen over the past week-plus. But if Atlanta’s losing streak extends from tonight, the final home game before MLK Day, and through the upcoming three-game road trip, and if the fault appears to be more bad play than bad luck, there may be calls for somebody a little less kinder and gentler to run the show going forward. A harder-nosed taskmaster may be on the horizon, one looking for a little less conversation, and a little more action, please. Wait a minute… did you hear that crashing sound? Is that… is that John Kuester’s entrance music? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. Back before Trae, LP, and John, there was… Tidbits! The Atlanta Hawks hosted three disappointing games over the prior seven days against fellow non-Bubble teams, but all were consecutive fourth-games-in-six-nights. After a couple days off to reset, practice, and engage in some intriguing film sessions, will the Hawks use their rest advantage to pay back the Charlotte Hornets (CORRECTION: 7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL)? The Hornets (4-5) return home triumphantly after slow-boiling the Pelicans in a primetime Big Ball Brother bash last night in N’Awlins. Coming off his career-high 44 on Wednesday in Atlanta, Gordon Hayward rediscovered his groove in the fourth quarter yesterday with 22 of his team-high 26 points arriving in the second half. Maybe Road is where the Heart is? In the early going, 12 NBA clubs have winning road records, as many as the clubs with winning home marks. Atlanta’s 1-3 at The Farm, the sole victory nearly fumbling away a 20+ point lead to Detroit, while they’re 3-1 so far on the road, the sole loss a competitive one in Brooklyn. Charlotte would like to not only zip past the Hawks (4-4) in the standings today, but also even up their 1-2 record at Spectrum Center like they did their road record (3-3; 2 back-to-back losses at home-dominant Philly) in New Orleans. The Hornets’ biggest margin of victory (+18) so far came at Lukaland. Charlotte had two strong performers off the bench yesterday, in “Sky Miles” Bridges (20 points @ NOP, 4-for-6 3FGs plus a bunch of highlight-reel jams) and the triple-double-hunting LaMelo Ball (10 boards, 9 assists @ NOP), who looked way more comfy running the floor than his big bro 'Zo. If the Hawks keep their starting unit intact, they could use a stronger 1-2 bench punch from wings Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (5-for-12 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO vs. CHA on Wed.). Bogi has had more time to heal up his once-stiff ankle and must be a better finisher on plays inside the 3-point arc (38.9 FG%). Huerter (112.8 D-Rating) has been Atlanta’s most susceptible defender so far, especially on occasions when his help defense (team-high 1.3 SPG) doesn’t create turnovers, the Hawks don’t rotate, and opponents find open teammates in their comfort zones easily. Reinforcements may be coming in the next couple weeks, including Tony Snell (questionable for today, foot). But for now, Bogi and Reddy V must be two cylinders properly firing. A listless effort from Trae Young (6 of his 7 TOs in the 1st half on Wed.) and the Hawks’ starters on Wednesday (1-for-18 combined 3FGs vs. CHA) created a first-half hole (27-11 after one quarter, 59-40 after two) that could not be overcome. Their poor execution, and inability to get to the free throw line, obscured Atlanta’s ability to hold the Hornets to 30.7 3FG% at the other end. It’s hard to tell the Hawks’ perimeter defense is the league’s most effective (NBA-best 30.0 opponent 3FG%). Opponents are finding the interior chances they need when Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter are shielding outside shooters, which is the bad side of the 19 rebounds (13 defensive) that made their way into Clint Capela’s capable hands. Whether it’s drawing charges, winning 50/50 balls, or aggressively pressuring ballhandlers at the point of attack, Atlanta needs to force more stops (12.5 opponent TOs per-48, 4th-lowest in NBA; 1 paltry team block vs. CHA on Wed) on a regular basis, particularly when the ball makes its way inside. The Hawks must also create quality scoring opportunities in transition (1.07 PPP on those plays, 6th-lowest in NBA; 9.8% FT frequency; 2nd-lowest), as Charlotte (20.0 points per-48 off TOs, 4th-best in NBA; 27 off-TO points on Friday) did so effectively last night in New Orleans. It has been a tale of two cities at the charity stripe. Atlanta comes into today sinking 81.3 FT% (3rd-best in NBA), even with a cold Capela. That’s been completely offset by opponents nailing an NBA-high 82.7 percent of their freebies. Conversely, Charlotte comes into today shooting a lukewarm 73.1 FT% (6th-worst in the league), despite scoring leader Hayward sinking free throws at a 91.2 percent clip. Their fortune comes from opponents making just 70.9 percent of their chances (4th-lowest in NBA). No matter the outcome today, the Hawks’ most urgent opportunity for victory awaits on Monday, assuming there is in fact a game to play ahead of a three-game West Coast road trip. Doc Rivers’ 76ers plan to arrive in the ATL after playing this afternoon in Denver with just nine (CORRECTION already: eight, really seven today with Mike Scott sitting, too) healthy and COVID-eligible bodies, two of whom are two-way players. There’s no need to look ahead, but Atlanta will not want to conclude Monday night looking like unprepared victims of The Walking Dead. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “We’re the Atlanta Hawks. We are not a joke!” Let’s give some flowers to LaVar Ball, shall we? We are now well into our third week of rusty NBA basketball, and LaMelo Ball has yet to be named a starter in a Charlotte Hornets game. Playing ahead of the 6-foot-7, 19-year-old Chino Hills sensation on the Charlotte Hornets? A 6-foot-1 point guard, living off his breakout from last season, who is draining just 18.8 percent of his two-point looks. And a 6-foot-1 shoot-first guard, the established consolation for 2019’s loss of Kemba Walker, who is statistically and eye-test-ically a bottom-five guard on defense. Devonte’ Graham’s scoring offense (39.0 TS%, 3rd-lowest among NBA’ers w/ 5+ games and 20+ MPG) has made Terry Rozier’s defense (116.9 D-Rating, negative-15.4 Net Rating) look a little less scary. Yet, due to incumbency, they continue to start together. LaMelo has come off the bench and offered glimpses of Ballin’ Out, but he’s still solidly under the control of coach James Borrego. On Saturday in Philadelphia, Ball became the youngest NBA player to drop a boxscore line of at least 13 points, five dimes, four boards, four swipes, and two swats. He messed around real nice on Monday, too (12 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds in 30 minutes). But the 76ers made mutton out of LaMB’s teammates in both games, hanging on to big second-half leads (imagine that!) to drop the Hornets to 2-5. Losers of three straight, Charlotte heads into State Farm Arena to kickstart a home-and-home with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 in ATL). And yet, the first father with a surname that begins with B openly lashing out on his prodigal son’s organization is not the one most anyone would have guessed. You’re not turning on “First Things First Take Hot Take” and catching LaVar calling out Borrego in between pot-shots at the hosts, or demanding a trade anywhere out of Carolina, or claiming that Jordans are only the second-best shoe on the market (did anybody’s Big Baller Brand orders come in yet?). If he is on Twitter tweeting anything about anything, you wouldn’t know it without looking. For the Bugs, that’s a big win, certainly bigger than any victory they could achieve by the end of this week. LaVar’s public silence remains a testament to his maturing as an NBA Dad. Toe-tapping dreams of “My Three Sons” playing together and lighting up Tinseltown didn’t come to fruition. But think of the gumption it takes, like Rayford Young, Jr., to orient your child toward one day becoming an NBA lottery pick, proudly naming it and proclaiming it, and seeing it through. Now, do it again with a second kid. One who, like the older bro, won’t make it to the bigs by virtue of height alone. But for an immature and international incident before a game against Georgia Tech in Shanghai, a third Brother Ball might have been well on his way to pulling off the trifecta. Three boys, all growing up to get at least a sniff of NBA action, two of them Top-3 draft picks, by a dad with no Tito-style NBA pedigree to speak of. It’s not a Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson truck pull. But you must admit, that’s one heck of a lift. LaVar’s silence is a testament to his willingness to defer to the aura of His Airness. Michael Jordan’s stewardship of the Hornets franchise has been less than stellar, and the urgency for the small-market owner to get GM/PBO Mitch Kupchak to Do! Something! to turn the former Bobcats’ fortunes around brings guys like ex-Celts Rozier (team-high 21.6 PPG, 44.6 3FG%) and Gordon Hayward (18.7 PPG, 4.7 APG) to the Tar Heel State under iffy contract terms. But if The Last Dance reinforces anything, it’s that MJ is a petty, vengeful man. And you don’t want to create bad juju for your son, or your family, or your fledging startup LLC, by stirring up Jordan’s villainous vindictiveness. Mr. LaVar seems to understand that. LaVar’s silence is a testament to LaMelo and Lonzo as well. It turns out, people care a lot less about what your father has to say when you’re not playing for one of sports’ media-market darlings. When you’ve been dispatched by LeGM to Louisiana, when you’re scratching out your hopefully Hall of Fame career in Charlotte, or Atlanta, or Sacramento, you could probably endure your parents’ Twitter fingers getting occasionally itchy. Big Ray Young’s only entries into the Hawks’ complaint box were a couple of surreptitious “likes” of comments, back in February of last year, questioning Team USA assistant Lloyd Pierce for suggesting it wasn’t quite yet Tokyo Time for Trae. Earlier this week, even before the Hawks doubled-down on their downward trend at home with a collapse versus the Knicks, there was a not-directed-at-anyone-in-particular Retweet of a comment suggesting coaches need to look inward for criticism when their youthful players are struggling. Aside from that, not so much as a blip of consternation. That’s a display of respect by an NBA Dad, accentuating the positive, allowing his son to sort out trying stretches privately, with his coaching staff, just like every other teammate is doing. Like Ray, LaVar is understanding he can’t get away with being an AAU Dad anymore. LaVar’s silence about LaMelo coming off the bench in Charlotte is a testament. It is also a testa-his patience. “If he is your Marquee Guy,” LaVar queried about LaMelo, in front of TMZ cameras before his BBB holiday charity event in L.A., “what Marquee Guy don’t start?” He’s not wrong. Not even after a fairly treacherous preseason for LaMelo (26.2 preseason FG%, 3.5 TOs/game). Big Baller Brood’s comments were critical, but more on the side of promoting his son being able to cut his teeth from the outset of games, like his top-tier draft-mates hope to do (note that 2020 top pick Anthony Edwards is awaiting his first start, too), and not fire-roasting the team who is fashioning this rookie, for now, as a useful sixth-man. Kupchak expressed being perfectly fine keeping his powder dry. His Hornets planned to sit on its cap space (including Nic Batum’s expiring deal) and grow slow around their surprise Lottery prize, after a 23-42 season whose prospects, around Most Improved Player award finalist Graham, seemed to be brightening (7-6 in 2020’s final regular season games) before the league cut the lights off. But then, Charlotte’s cap-rich cousins down south started making free agent splish-splashes. Meanwhile, rumors were billowing that Washington wanted to go wowy for Westbrook. The calls from Jordanland started pouring in: Do! Something! So Mitch ditched the old plan, and reeled in a player the prior regime lusted after. Hayward signed an offer sheet with the Hornets back in 2014, one that Utah matched and only made easier for Charlotte to later pry free Batum from Portland, in that awful 2016 free agency season. They got Hayward, but not the form of the Jazz’s 2017 All-Star. After unfortunately breaking his leg in Game 1 of the next season with the Celtics, Hayward has worked his way back to All-Star-caliber minutes, and usage (23.2%). But he’s not quite at the scale of efficiency we saw even in his final season with Boston (52.3 eFG%, down from a career-best 56.1% last season). Not being able to supplement young star wings Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, but instead having to be one of those guys while rounding back into form at age 30, isn’t helping. Hayward (112.5 D-Rating) has to help plug the frontcourt dam, too. Longtime mainstay Cody Zeller is hurt yet again, the would-be starting center gone for the next 2-4 weeks due to hand surgery. Thus Bismack Biyombo (career-high 9.4 PPG and 28 MPG; 7.1 RPG) is getting overused, while second-year sophomore big P.J. Washington (37.5 FG% in past 3 losses; 42.6 2FG%) appears a bit overwhelmed. The Hornets have been scrappy at forcing turnovers via steals, specifically Ball (NBA-high 3.6 Steal%) and Hayward, while getting a boost in rim protection from Miles Bridges (1.6 BPG) off the bench. They’ve been Capitol-Police-crappy at keeping opponents from turning up the tempo and getting the shots they want (NBA-worst 17.9 opponent fastbreak points per-48). Like Cleveland, Charlotte comes into The Farm hoping for a successful trust fall, courtesy of the Hawks (4-3). Sphincterball takes hold in Atlanta anytime foes’ unlucky shots and breaks get lucky. Tightening up affects everything from Trae Young staying sound as a playmaker (36.7 2nd-half FG%), to Old Reliable John Collins (48.6 FG% 2nd-half FG%) finishing plays around the rim, to the whole team moving the rock (4.9 4th-quarter APG, 26th in NBA), hitting jumpers (30.6 4th-quarter 3FG%, 18th in NBA; 39.1% and 6th for full games), and disrupting opposing offenses when it’s time to close the deal. Playing it too cool early has allowed the Cavs and Knicks to hang around early, leaving points in their bag that shouldn’t be there when they make their 15-point comebacks in the second half. The idea of “Cam Clutch” isn’t as strong as the reality of the defensively stout Reddish unable to produce much at the other end of the floor in the first half (32.9 first-half FG%). A swifter hook of Reddish by Pierce, in lieu of Bogdan Bogdanovic, can help Atlanta start stronger early, so Cam can be of better service against Charlotte’s desperate, but proficient playmakers (NBA-high 29.7 team APG; they also allow an NBA-high 29.9 APG) late. Tonight, we’ll have the first inklings of what ought to be a fascinating, competitive division rivalry between two of the NBA’s top young point guard stars, one already an All-Star starter by Season #2, the other a soon-to-be starter on the Hornets. With the proper support around them, on the floor, on the sidelines, and at home, they’ll reach the lofty heights they’re aiming for. But it will be easier on these two, and everyone around them, if the Papas Don’t Preach. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “SHAKE WEIGHT, ELFRID! SHAKE WEIGHT!” An interminable, arduous offseason was coming to an end. Now, at long last, it was time for Santa to show up and show out. I had been not-naughty for as long as anyone could reasonably ask of a seven-year-old. And I put in the work, too – folded my hands all day in class, raising them only when prompted before bodying questions about proper fractions and American Revolutionary history. Straight-As on the report card if you ignored Phys. Ed. completely. I even cleaned my room and helped put away groceries on weekends! I was as much of a saint as Nick could ever hope to be. Putting up with second-hand gifts and utterly worthless toys for as long as I could remember, I never asked for much. Every year, regardless, cookies and milk were at the ready as I hit the bed early. But let me tell you something about this year, Mister Claus. If MARZON, Walking Giant from the Stars, isn’t under that tree on the wintry morning of December 25, me, you, and my size-2.5 hands are going to have a conversation in that dark alley out back. “MARZON! MARZON! He’s Right On!” I saw the ads on many cartoon-loaded Saturday mornings and was enthralled by the possibilities. I could be the first kid on the block with a robot! One twice my size, that marches down the hallways and driveways, right in stride with me! Reading the fine print on the box at the Kiddie City toy store, I even ordered my parents to have plenty of Size-D batteries at the ready, since Santa tends to get forgetful in his old age about including them. Crimmuh Morning, I peer down the stairs and The Box is there! MARZON, you are all mine! My heart swelled with joy as I imagined myself surging toward first place in the NTO (Neighborhood Toy Owner) Standings. I even had a not-so-fairy godmother serving as a helpful elf to assist in its assembly. Me and MARZON are gonna grow old together, bound for greatness! Well, yeah, about that. MARZON was basically not a mechanical creature at all, but a balloon, in the form of a knockoff C3PO humanoid. The balloon took over a half hour to blow up manually. It moves in one direction, forward, with the aid of a battery-powered panel at the robot’s feet. And here’s what The Box doesn’t warn you: getting the robot to slide into its “slippers” runs the risk of a puncture. MARZON made it upright, and it even advanced forward for a few feet down the hall. But the invisible, pin-sized hole at its feet gave my Walking Giant from the Stars a 20-minute shelf life on Earth. All the King’s Scotch Tape and All the King’s Men could not save MARZON from his deflating demise. He sure was fun, while he lasted. Our Atlanta Sports teams are great at producing unexpected and uncomfortable flashbacks for its fans, which is great news if you’re a therapist making bank around town. Our Fine Feathered Friends are particularly good at making things look like they’ve finally caught a break, only to find a way to break our spirits when the products that arrive, fresh out the box, aren’t quite what everyone was waiting and clamoring for. Several of the Atlanta Hawks’ newest arrivals are trying not to win the annual LaPhonso Ellis-Craig Claxton Memorial Offseason Addition Award. Rajon Rondo (knee), Tony Snell (foot), Onyeka Okongwu (foot), and Kris Dunn (ankle) were all damaged-on-arrival. And after a promising Hawks debut, Danilo Gallinari (ankle) won’t get to face the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Networks in The Big Apple), the club who first made “Il Gallo” into a bit of a legend. Not until February, in all likelihood, since he’ll be sidelined for several weeks. Lloyd Pierce won’t get much sympathy today from his opposing coach. In his first games running the show for the Knicks, Tom Thibodeau has already had his first-round rookies, Obi Toppin (out, calf strain) and Immanuel Quickley (probable, sore hip), missing valuable time. Backup guards Frank Ntilikina (out, knee), Alec Burks (questionable, ankle), and Dennis Smith (doubtful, quad) can’t seem to reach the floor, while Austin Rivers was slow to get going. For the moment, New York’s stuck with a deflating giant of its own, in former Hawks draftee big man Omari Spellman (out, knee). As LP finds himself lost in The Land of Unfit Toys, tasked with cobbling together a playoff contender around All-Star candidates Trae Young and John Collins, the pressure on Coach Thibs to win-now comes only from Gotham’s infamous tabloid rags. He and his trusty assistant, Mike Woodson, are simply challenged to spiff up the first-round gems, like R.J. Barrett (17.0 PPG, 37.5 FG%) and Kevin Knox (6.7 PPG, 37.5 FG%). The organizational goal is tangible, marginal improvement for a club that checked out last season on this floor at 21-45 (16-21 versus sub-.500 teams) and only seems to find success when it catches teams, like the Hawks, playing down to the level of its competition. Playing down. That’s what happened when Atlanta (4-2), glowing from its signature win in Brooklyn the night before, returned home on Saturday and went into the halftime locker room smelling itself after “holding” the Cleveland Cavaliers to 44 points. The Hawks would only score 35 themselves in the closing half, as Pierce errantly thought he could make do with Solomon Hill (minus-15 in 10 minutes vs. CLE), Brandon Goodwin and Bruno Fernando, together, for a long stint. That only set the stage at crunch time for Pebblebrook High’s Finest, a rested and newly 22-year-old Collin Sexton of the Cavs, to upstage the guard taken by Atlanta before him, in the 2017 NBA Draft. That same night, playing down is also what happened to Victor Oladipo and the Pacers, who were smarting after losing T.J. Warren for extended time due to injury and seeking solace in facing the same Knicks team they defeated soundly in Indy for the season opener. Never getting ahead by more than six points on the visitors, and settling for mindless mid-range and well-contested jumpers, Indiana let Julius Randle (11 rebounds, 8 assists) and Barrett (25 points, 4-for-5 3FGs) hang around the whole game until it was too late to do anything about it. There’s no “I” in “PARTY.” But there is one, in “PARITY”. That signature road win in Brooklyn? The Wizards have been there, done that, bought the Coney Island T-shirt on their way out of town last night. Cleveland was down in the dumps after popping their undefeated cherry at home versus these Knicks just last week. But Saturday’s comeback win has the Cavs sitting with the same 4-2 mark as the Hawks. New York smacked around Giannis’ up-and-down Bucks just two days after Milwaukee’s successful Christmas Day game. With a win tonight, the Knicks and Hawks would be side-by-side in the standings, too, at 4-3. Along with the Bucks, so long as Milwaukee doesn’t play down to Detroit tonight like the Hawks (7.3 Net Rating, 5th in NBA; minus-13.5 4th Quarter Net rating, 25th in NBA) did during the final frame of their last home win. Thibodeau’s imprint is already evident in the focus on getting stops and forcing unwise shot decisions out of their opponents (49.3 opp. eFG%, 3rd-best in NBA). The Knicks’ opponents to date have fired off nearly 40 threes per contest (2nd-most in NBA), but have hit nylon on just 29.1 percent of them, an NBA-low. Turning to Mitchell Robinson (team-highs of 1.7 BPG, 1.0 SPG) as “the anchor of our defense” after convening a preseason battle with Nerlens Noel to man the starting center spot, Thibodeau has quietly, much like Cleveland, crafted a top-10 NBA defense despite having to pair Robinson with forwards like Randle and Toppin. Elfrid Payton will drive the pressure on Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, although it would help having Ntilikina around for defensive purposes. Due to largely inconsistent shooting from Barrett (despite the hot shooting in Indy) and Reggie Bullock (33.9 FG%), the Knicks will saunter off, eventually, when opponents secure defensive rebounds, react decisively off timely passes, and make the most of the open shots New York allows. If Atlanta fails to do these things tonight, especially in the second half, they’ll set themselves up to be somebody else’s SportsCenter highlight. In the early going, already, everybody in the NBA has bad losses, boastful wins, blown big leads, breakout performances. And just about everyone will have to play with less than their full slate of teammates. Respectfully, Hawks exec Travis Schlenk did not build this Potemkin Village of Depth just to keep up with the likes of the Knicks, Hornets and Cavs. It is on Coach Pierce, the existing Hawks’ starters, and the top-tier sixth-men like Kevin Huerter (questionable, ankle; team-high 1.5 SPG) and Bogdan Bogdanovic to sustain a high quality of turnover-free, two-way play, no matter the caliber of the opponent or the score on the board. In a season where it seems NBA parity will reign supreme, there will be tough stretches, periods where Atlanta’s absentees will be sorely missed. But this week is not supposed to be one of them, and injuries, or “running out of gas” (tonight being the second “third game in four nights” in a row) are insufficient as an excuse. Nobody wants these Hawks to downgrade so swiftly, from a playoff contender not to be toyed with, to just the latest Atlanta sports team with unfulfilled potential succumbing to its fatal flaws, relegated to the back of the closet like the defunct, formerly high-demand toys of Christmas Days past. If you’re still reading, Santa, there is still time to hook me up with a PS5. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. Full Contact Tag Team Twister gets ROUGH! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The Cleveland Cavaliers, already in town and watching Atlanta cut down the Nets in Brooklyn last night, have a nice, wet blanket they’d like to remove from their shoulders and drape around the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio). Hear second-year Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff tell it: “Things are easy when things are good.” Cleveland was rockin’ and rollin’ after surprising everyone, including themselves, with a 3-0 start to the season. The winning streak culminated with a 118-94 win over the Embiid-less 76ers, coming home one night after blowing out their division rivals in Detroit. Andre Drummond’s was impactful on defense, and the dual dynamo of 6-foot-1 guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, seemed to be working great as an offensive tandem. Things were easy. A home loss two nights later, where the Knicks held Cleveland to 86 points, brought the Cavs back down to Earth. On New Year’s Eve, a 119-99 loss at Indiana rooted them in the Earth a little bit, too. “Things become a little more different when things are hard,” Coach J.B. told the Plain Dealer. “And our response to that is important… the grit we need to play with all the time… the confidence we need to play with all the time, believing in what we’re doing, and believing in ourselves through the good times and the bad times.” How the Cavaliers (3-2) come out tonight with a rest advantage on the host Hawks will help determine whether the good times for them are not quite over. Forward Kevin Love is already sidelined with a calf strain. Three of the Cavs’ developmental players – McEachern High’s Isaac Okoro (foot sprain + Health ‘n Safety), Dylan Windler (fractured hand), and Kevin Porter, Jr. (personal reasons) – haven’t made the trip. With professional crash dummy Matthew Dellavedova on the shelf, too, Cleveland is left to compete with a thin second-string and a pair of two-way rookies. The 6-foot-5 Dante Exum has shifted to small forward, effectively producing a three-guard starting lineup alongside Larry Nance, Jr. and Drummond. The Cavs have been at their best forcing live-ball turnovers and scoring in transition (NBA-high 11.2 team SPG, 24.4 PPG off TOs), sparked by Nance (2.6 SPG) and Drummond (2.4 SPG to go with 18.0 PPG and 14.8 RPG). But at Indiana, their struggles in stripping the Pacers and making free throws worked to their demise. Atlanta (4-1) won’t have to be at their letter-best in their first back-to-back of the season. But if they can be as crafty with the ball as they were last night (nine team TOs, 24 assists vs. BRK) in the 114-96 victory, and keep defensive hands in front of Garland (51.7 3FG%), Cedi Osman (37.0 3FG%) and Sexton (60.0 3FG%) at the three-point line, the chances of a letdown will be low. Brandon Goodwin (impinged ankle) is available to backup Trae Young once again, but Lloyd Pierce can also turn to a rested Rajon Rondo to help disrupt and offset Cleveland’s backcourt production. The Hawks are up to 2-0 in matchups with fellow Bubble Snub teams, and this week’s home slate with Cleveland, New York and Charlotte, followed by a visit to the Hornets’ nest next Saturday, offers a great opportunity to build momentum. But like the Cavs with Philly, all those teams already have their signature wins, too. The Knicks beat Milwaukee by 20, while the Hornets edged the Nets then followed up with a blowout of the Lumpy Lukas in Dallas. A reasonably clean sweep of these clubs will assure Hawks fans that last night’s promising win was, as John Collins insists, “not a joke”. Which team gets the next laugh tonight? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “and it was at that moment that I thought to myself, ‘hmm… Coaching, eh? Sounds good!’” Tidbits time! Game-time particulars for the Atlanta Hawks – Brooklyn Nets rematch at Barclays, up top (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC). The hottest offense in all of basketball (122.3 O-Rating; Luka’s Mavs topped last season at 115.9), the Hawks (3-1) are getting it done on that end even while Danilo Gallinari (out, now with a sprained ankle; #1 in O-Rating among NBA players w/ 40+ games and 20+ MPG last season) has missed most of the past two games. Brooklyn had the hottest defense in all of basketball before they found themselves in a shootout with the Hawks. They dropped from 1st to 8th after one game, and they could slide further down today in Trae Young (sore calf, probably Grayson’s fault, but probable to play; #1 in NBA Player Efficiency Rating, 2nd in Player Impact Estimate) continues bending the game to his will, and if Bogdan Bogdanovic (6-for-11 3FGs on Wednesday) and Kevin Huerter continue finding their stride off the bench. Keeping Trae cool from outside (0-for-4 on 3FGs Wednesday) continues to be Job One for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and company. Nash, to the New York Post, on DeAndre Jordan’s “struggles” Wednesday, and whether the Nets’ coach will consider an early shift to Jarrett Allen in the starting lineup: “That’s a good debate. It’s a small sample, one, and I’m not sure if plus-minus is the best barometer. But that was a tough matchup for DJ. Those guys are good, dynamic rollers, (Clint) Capela, but even more so (John) Collins' speed is exceptional getting out of the screen and it poses a unique problem.” A few of the players that were hoped to be in the mix at the outset were supposed to help Atlanta provide better defensive punch. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu (inflamed foot) and guard Kris Dunn (ankle surgery) are still unavailable, while the recovery-managed starting pivot Capela has yet to crack 20 minutes. Rajon Rondo, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell (out, inflamed foot) are at least supposed to be Notturner, Notparsons and Notbembry as backups. Throw into the fray De’Andre Hunter, who helped plug in the KD-and-Kyrie dam as best he could in Wednesday’s 145-141 loss but is questionable for today with a sore knee. Keeping a well-rested Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from getting their respective and obligatory 30-and-10s is a tough ask. But the Hawks’ ability to properly rotate, pressure Brooklyn’s shooters (notably Joe Harris, who hit 6 of 8 threes on Wednesday) and continue tightening the turnover gap could help them sneak out of Barclays undefeated in the calendar 2021. KD and Kyrie are gonna give you 60. But who is scoring the other 60, 70, 80 points? Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. Good Vibrations! Nashty Nash and the Funky Bunch (1994) During his final seasons as a Net, toiling against middling opponents like the Atlanta Hawks, winding down from the heady days of chasing titles with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, superstar Vince Carter had glimpses of his post-basketball future. After a rip-roaring dunk gets some of the few fans left at the Izod Center up on their feet, he’d peer over the media desk to see a guy who once performed such flights of fancy, Dominique Wilkins, rocking a headset while doing double-duty with the Hawks’ front office. The 8-time All-Star would catch Nique and The Stinger working the microphones on one evening, Grant Long on another. NBATV studios in Secaucus, on the way from East Rutherford to Manhattan, was but a swift 15-minute drive. A couple hours to the East was ESPN’s home in Bristol, Connecticut. So convenient! Not as springy a spring chicken as he once was, the tricenarian Carter could envision himself commentating on the types of half-amazing highlights that were, at the time, being served up to feature him. Retire as Mr. Net, slide over to the booth, become the other NYC metro team’s answer to Clyde Frazier, and live on Easy Street. The future Hall of Famer likely couldn’t fathom making it all the way into his 40s before hanging up the jersey, or the team he played for following Jay-Z’s lead out of Jersey, rendering the idea of his jersey in the arena rafters a bit problematic. It’s probable he didn’t imagine his professional career winding its way to Atlanta, yet somehow making his ESPN appearances more frequent and NBATV commutes even shorter. Yet, here he is. The Man with the Golden Pipes, Bob Rathbun, and The Human Highlight Film will scooch over at least six feet to make room in the Fox Sports booth for Half-Man, Half-Amazing. The now-Brooklyn Nets will spend tonight and, if necessary, New Year’s Day at Barclays Center, trying to cut the NBA’s number of still-unbeaten teams in half. Due to pandemic restrictions, Rathbun, Wilkins and Carter will call tonight’s game (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK) from a vacuous State Farm Arena. That venue is just a short drive south of Vince’s new, hopefully more-secure mansion in Buckhead’s tony Tuxedo Park, where he gets to Jump in with Rachel, RJ and the gang on weekday afternoons. These NBA Legends know they’ve got at least two other NBA Legends, still playing, to discuss tonight. Kevin Durant, a 10-time All-Star, has put down his crutches and his burner accounts and is back to his not-so-old self (26.7 PPG, 9-for-13 on 3FGs). When Kyrie Irving’s not busy pondering why his full name has a Third “I”, the 6-time All-Star gets to carve up opposing defenses (momentary career-high 29.3 PPG; 6.0 APG, 2.0 TOs/game) and simplify Brooklyn’s championship sprint with KD. Might there be more NBA Legends gracing the floor today? Certainly, if Trae Young continues to have a say in the matter. Already a master at the heave-ho three, the drive-and-float two, and the between-the-legs pass, Young (34.0 PPG on absurd 60.0 2FG/42.1 3FG/91.3 FT shooting splits) isn’t restless when it comes to craftily piling up the one-pointers, either. While it is likely impossible to keep up, Trae’s 15.3 free throw attempts per game triples the rate from an otherwise sterling rookie season, an age when referees are more inclined to ingest their whistles. There’s another NBA Legend starting out his new career, as a head coach, this season. Might there be a future one on the other side of the floor? In the early 1990s, California’s Central Coast Section Player of the Year got the star basketball player from the D-1 college down the street to not only recruit him on campus, but also hang out with him during Yurba Buena’s high school homecoming. Lloyd Pierce probably could foresee his surprisingly swaggy future backcourt mate and mentor, Steve Nash, as a head coach down the line, maybe even in the NBA. But Pierce probably had no idea he’d get to tell Nash what it was like to be one first. Just as Nash would drop copious basketball knowledge -- and the occasional lob dime -- to LP during their brief time together at Santa Clara, the retired Hall of Famer would graciously impart wisdom, decades later, to new coach Pierce’s wunderkind ballhandler from Oklahoma. “I’m a big Steve Nash fan,” said then Sooner star Young in 2017 to CBS Sports, regarding his personal favorite NBA Legend, “because he was a smaller point guard – wasn’t the most athletic, could really shoot, very cerebral. A lot of his intangibles really fit my game, like his touch.” “I feel I resemble a few players… Steve Nash, the way he has touch with a floater game. Kyrie Irving, the way he can get by a defender.” Ahead of the 2020 NBA Rising Stars game with Ja Morant, Trae got the chance to praise Nash directly. “I watch a lot a film, especially of a guy like you. You knew how to see things before it happened.” The summer before, the past and the future met at a Champions League soccer match in Madrid, then worked out together in California, Nash working with Young on lowering one’s hips and shifting direction, identifying angles, breaking down matchups. “We’re as similar as players from different eras can be,” Nash told ESPN’s The Undefeated. “We’re similar in our skillset. We’re creative around the rim because we’re not as explosive as some of our contemporaries.” Nash now gets the honor of drawing up plays to counter Pierce, thwart Young, and defeat the upstart Hawks (3-0). It certainly helps to have Irving, who was rested on a back-to-back along with Durant in Monday’s overtime home loss to Morant’s fellow Grizzlies, to make things arduous for Young. While Trae was unavailable due to a hamstring strain last January, Irving returned from a 26-game injury absence and feasted (10-for-11 FGs) against an outmatched Brandon Goodwin in a 108-86 romp for then-coach Kenny Atkinson on this floor. But it’s reasonable to suspect that the high-scoring, tricky-dribbling, silky-passing point guard most willing to lend an ear to Nash’s suggestions and guidance is wearing a Hawks uniform tonight. By going on Durant’s new podcast last month and declaring a new era in player-coaching, Kyrie fashioned himself and KD in the model of what Rajon Rondo now does in the shadow of Pierce, except while pouring in 30 or so buckets per game between each other. “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean?”, asked Irving, the crossover stylist who will likely retire one day to become the next host of John Edward’s “Crossing Over”. “KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper. But who is going to drink from Nash’s soda fountain of knowledge and apply it on the modern NBA stage? My money is on Trae and his bubbly persona, learning the tricks of the trade as both Nash’s understudy and Pierce’s receptive listener. Durant and Irving’s resounding season debuts, in wins versus Golden State and then on Christmas Day at Kyrie’s old stomping grounds in Boston, reassured Brooklynites that championship contention is just around the corner. But then, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to The Finals: the team’s third wheel came off. Spencer Dinwiddie got caught up with Bismack Biyombo on a drive to the hoop on Sunday in Charlotte. Now the most durable returning Nets scorer (20.6 PPG and 31.2 minutes per game in 2019-20), and the most likely beneficiary of KD and KI’s double-team outlet passes, has a partially torn ACL and won’t be available for the long haul of this season. Several guys will have to step up in Dinwiddie’s absence. Joe Harris, the shot-maker extraordinaire on a new contract, is already in the starting lineup, and his fellow 16-million-dollar man, swingman Caris “Baby Durant” LeVert (28 points, 11 assists, 5 steals vs. MEM in his first start on Wednesday), is a lock to make more waves as well. But after that, the depth gets murky. Taurean Prince (3-for-19 FGs, 0 assists through 58 minutes) must avoid the wrath that befell former Hawk and Net DeMarre Carroll once his jumpshot stopped falling. TP and newcomers Landry Shamet (4-for-21 FGs, 2 assists in 76 minutes) and Bruce Brown will find their minutes dwindling if they aren’t able to make meaningful plays in the two-game series this week with Atlanta. Nash is already turning to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (21 points vs. MEM) and two-way guard Chris Chiozza to gobble up Prince and Carroll’s floor time. Upfront, DeAndre Jordan has done a splendid job for Brooklyn (NBA-best 98.3 team D-Rating and 45.5 opponent 3FG%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 47.8%) with rim-protecting, rebounding and generally staying out of the driving lanes for his Net co-stars. They’ll need the veteran to remain durable for the full season, and Jarrett Allen to find means that obscure the basket aside from his hair, so Durant won’t have to overextend himself as a stretch-five. Allen must be more consistent as a defensive rebounder to lower Brooklyn’s league-high 19.8 second-chance PPG allowed, especially now that someone must assume for Dinwiddie’s third-place ranking in D-Reb% among the team’s regulars. Former UGA star Nic Claxton (out, knee tendinopathy) continues his struggle to make it on the floor, while Nash is hesitant to rely too much in the early going on third-year forward Rodions Kurucs or rookie and ex-Thomasville High star Reggie Perry. Who is charged with getting the Nets’ youngsters up to speed and conditioned in hopes of a deep playoff run? I present to you, our old friend, Tiago Splitter! The Nets’ former scout has been retained and promoted as a player development coach. Let’s all hope Nic, for his sake, isn’t closely related to Craig. It’s shaping up as Another Day, Another Opportunity for Atlanta’s second-unit to take advantage of mismatches on the floor and make the contest easier for Young to prevail in the clutch. As ably demonstrated by Rondo (8 assists, 5-for-8 FGs in 15 minutes vs. DET) and friends on Monday, the Hawks’ bench mob has dropped a league-high 8.7 threes per game on unsuspecting heads (46.4 3FG%), at rates far more efficient than Brooklyn’s could muster (32.3 bench 3FG%, incl. LeVert who now starts). It doesn’t help the Nets’ case that they’ve contested a league-low 15.8 3FGAs per game as a team, so a dizzying array of Atlanta shooters, from Bogdan Bogdanovic (5-for-7 3FGs vs. DET) to New Yorker Kevin Huerter could find themselves open with plenty of green lights. The Hawks will use their lengthy sophomore starters, Cam Reddish (team-high 20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 5 steals @ BRK back in January) and De’Andre Hunter, to help fluster Irving and Durant, while also aiming to keep Atlanta’s opposition cool from outside (28.6 opponent 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA), particularly Harris. But Atlanta has yet to sink its talons into the basketball while on defense (NBA-lows of 5.0 team SPG, despite Cam’s 2.0 SPG, and 10.7 deflections/game; 11.2 opponent TO%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Young and the Hawks’ help-defenders must do a better job of anticipating and disrupting the passing lanes. John Collins must again avoid the early foul trouble that keeps his stints on the floor short. He had no more than five minutes on the floor at any one time during Atlanta’s 128-120 win on Monday versus Detroit, and coming in cold for a rested Clint Capela, once the Pistons got up off the mat in the closing minutes, didn’t help the Hawks maintain a sense of cohesion. Detroit coach Dwane Casey masterfully used a mix of slower pace, ball control, and size advantages around Collins and Hunter to win the rebounding edge for his shorthanded club, diminishing a 24-point fourth-quarter Hawks lead down to five with less than two minutes to spare. Collins’ frontcourt cohorts, in particular Bruno Fernando, Danilo Gallinari (questionable, foot contusion), and Solomon Hill, must also make smarter decisions when the ball makes it way into their hands. Atlanta’s reserves have been superb scorers, but their moves with the rock (8.2 bench TOs/game) have been rocky. Among the only teams that have been worse, to this point, is Brooklyn (NBA-high 9.0 TOs/game), a factor that the Hawks must exploit and turn into transition buckets when the opportunities arise. 2021 is shaping up to be a bigger and brighter year for the Hawks, and while you may not see much of them on the small screen nationally in the early going, it will be hard to find a sports channel Vince isn’t on. Tonight, while Irving and Young chase each other from one end line to the next, and while Nash matches wits with his old Bronco buddy, Carter and his legendary broadcast partner will race each other, to find out who can shout, “Heat Check!” the fastest. Have a Safe and Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. You said it, SPANX Lady! This Just In: The Lions have given up yet another touchdown. While it’s not the best time to issue hugs to unsuspecting strangers, if you come across a Detroit Sports fan, offer ‘em an air-hug, or a fist pump or something. If you’re aged 30 or below, you likely don’t recall the last time the Lions won an NFL playoff game. Matthew Stafford will soon join Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Calvin Johnson on the At Least You Tried Ring of Honor. Last place in the AL Central, and dead-last-by-a-mile in the NHL, respectively, the Tigers and Red Wings know better than to have laughs at the Lions’ expense. All four of Detroit’s pro teams have been in dire straits for quite some time, including the visitors served up at State Farm Arena for the Atlanta Hawks’ home opener, the Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit). At least the Pistons once had Cleveland in their division to look down upon, last season. But a 128-119 double-OT home loss on Saturday to the momentarily undefeated Cavs has Detroit (0-2) dwelling the cellar. A foreboding schedule to kick off the 2021 calendar year (game pairs versus Boston and at Milwaukee) has folks wondering if there’s a subfloor. Far be it for any Atlanta sports fan to peer down upon anyone’s despair. But Mike Budenholzer was preparing for his first official game as the Hawks’ head coach the last time any Detroit major league team advanced in a postseason. When last the Pistons prevailed in a playoff series, Atlanta was still three seasons away from losing the Thrashers. While we rightfully critique our sports owners around here (the ones we can find), for various and sundry reasons, there has been a full-hearted push to get every one of Detroit’s owners, from the Ilitch and Ford families, to the Pistons’ reach-out-and-bilk-someone Tom Gores, to give up the ship. It’s a tale of two sports cities that, I believe, reflects the tale of two cities at-large. As a metropolis, Atlanta’s calling card is economic resilience. It’s hard to tell from a bird’s-eye view right now, with a rolling landscape of largely vacant office towers stretching from downtown to Sandy Springs amidst a global downturn. But on the ground, there remains a sense that our industrial diversity can keep The ATL afloat, long-term, in ways American metros sorely lacking in “depth” will struggle. Logistics, healthcare, legal services, entertainment media, information technology, hospitality, education, construction. All industries are being frazzled while wrangling with the pandemic, and many of Atlanta’s bellwether companies are gushing out laborers to keep their bottom lines from bottoming out. But the big bet here is that there is enough resolve among its citizens to shift with few seams from one workflow to another, enough ingenuity among its “creative class” to, if you’ll excuse the well-worn phrase, build our economy back better, as we alleviate ourselves from the stresses of COVID-19’s strains. Where Coke and Delta flounder, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, UPS, Inspire Brands and others hope to pick up the slack. At business scales both large and small, many towns don’t have such flexibility. While Atlanta, like Detroit, relishes in tearing outmoded things down, it generally doesn’t proceed without a forward-thinking plan to build functional replacements that last. It tries not to chase after old-hat concepts (“Hey, let’s build a bunch of casinos!”), swinging for the fences in hopes of hitting an economic grand-slam. Atlantans aren’t successful at every venture. But, by and large, rational outsiders can at least understand what we’re trying to accomplish. These are attitudes that we like to think those in charge of managing our sports clubs admire and turn to for inspiration. The spirit of ATL Innovation produces people like one part-time Disney World worker, stand-up comic and door-to-door fax machine salesperson, who struggled with her LSATs -- and her stockings -- while striving to become an attorney. Her ideas to reinvent the hosiery business were initially scoffed at, in the male-dominated manufacturing field. In less than 15 years after moving to Atlanta, by building Spanx into an empire, Sara Blakely became the youngest self-made female billionaire on the planet. Within 20 years, she and her jet-setting ex-rapper husband would be proud co-owners of the Atlanta Hawks. The spirit of ATL Resoluteness lives in Dominique. Dominique Armani Jones, to be exact. In the late 2000’s, the Atlanta native was a freshman-year dropout at Booker T. Washington High, and it wouldn’t be long afterward that a fight with some racist inmate, while in the pokey for drug possession, would extend his stay there. But through writing trap music, and maintaining connections with up-and-coming artists for mixtape collaborations, Jones made his way out of the larger trap built to absorb millions of young men like him. In five short years since his last release from jail, “Lil Baby” has amassed more Billboard Hot 100-charting hits than either Prince or Paul McCartney. It’s a pace of hip-hop bangers that rivals Atlanta artist Future zipping past 8-Miler Eminem on the hits list. The song that helped Lil Baby surpass those titans, his Grammy-nominated “The Bigger Picture”, became an anthem during a superheated summer of 2020 protests in Atlanta and around the world. Not forgetting his Oakland City neighborhood roots, Dominique spent the days before Christmas partnering with MARTA for a pop-up wintertime coat giveaway in the West End. We may be known for gritty yet glittery places like Magic City. But what comes across as ATL Magic to the uninitiated disguises the coherent scheming and willpower that drives this area’s citizenry, natives and newcomers alike. As Lou Williams can attest with his signature wings, we come up with the sauce and the sizzle that best sells the gristle. Other cities’ civic and corporate heroes now turn to Atlantans to help them thrive. Blakely opened a Spanx store in not only Atlanta’s but Detroit’s international airport. She once donated $100,000 of her fortune to a Detroit empowerment campaign that paid homeless women to produce sleeping bag coats for others in need. Motown drew world-class talents from Detroit and the upper Midwest to achieve top-tier status in the music world for decades. These days, through its joint venture with Atlanta record label Quality Control Music, Motown relies heavily on ATL performers like Migos, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby to stay on top in the record biz. This, while local products like Big Sean, Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, and Mike Posner toil for out-of-town labels beyond their own. On the hardwood, it’s hard to assess Detroit’s end-game strategy. But newcomer executive Troy Weaver, fresh from OKC, and incumbent coach Dwane Casey hope they’ll be granted enough time for all the demolition dust to clear. Detroit could “boast” of its league-high four players who were Top-4 NBA Draft picks. Or at least they would, except two are aging ex-MVP candidates -- Derrick Rose (out, rest) and Blake Griffin (injury management, left home ahead of Detroit’s third game in four nights tomorrow) -- while the others are redefining their careers after being literal busts elsewhere – Jahlil Okafor (questionable, sprained ankle) and Josh Jackson. Including lotto-pick guard Killian Hayes, and two-way backcourt mate Saben Lee, the Pistons have seven rookie or second-year contributors on its 17-man roster. But in the early going, Casey has not figured out a way to use them. With his leading minutes-logger (Griffin) and sixth-man spark (Rose) out of action tonight, Detroit’s coach won’t have much of a choice. “Everybody wants an instant overnight All-Star,” Casey told the Detroit News’ Rod Beard, “and that’s not going to happen with a 19-year-old kid. It’s a process with them.” Atlanta has stayed true to its process of molding a core of young talent. Now, unlike the case with Detroit’s Rose, it doesn’t necessarily require a 2008 Draftee clinging to what remains of his prime (Danilo Gallinari, questionable with a foot contusion) to help coach Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (2-0) outshine bad-to-mediocre competition. Detroit (NBA-low 97.3 O-Rating, with Griffin and Rose) needs its biggest-moneyed acquisitions, Jerami Grant (18.5 PPG), Delon Wright and Mason Plumlee (team-highs of 8.5 RPG and 5.5 APG so far), to have huge nights to stay in the running for a victorious result. Comparatively, Atlanta’s Bogdan might need more time to shed the early Bustdanovic label (31.8 FG% through two games), while Clint Capela (probable, Achilles), Kris Dunn (out, ankle surgery), lotto-rook Onyeka Okongwu (out, foot imflammation) and ex-Piston Tony Snell (see Okongwu) would do well to simply grace the floor with their presences. But if prospects like third-year guard Kevin Huerter and the unheralded Nathan Knight (combined 35 bench points, 6-for-8 3FGs in Saturday’s 122-112 win at Memphis) continue stepping up in the aforementioned Hawks’ absences, there’s no need to rush. While the Motor City has been spinning its wheels, Atlanta has been building an all-wheel drive collective that suits near-overnight All-Star sensation Trae Young just fine. When Trae quits subtweeting Ted Bruz and other professional trolls around the league, his play is garnering the most likes and follows. With 73 and 77 combined points from the opening two contests of Young’s past two NBA seasons, as per Stathead, only Wilt Chamberlain (105 in 1961, 106 in 1962) and Russell Westbrook (81 in 2015, 83 in 2016) have scored more to kick off back-to-back years. While there’s reason to anticipate what scoring feats Atlanta’s latest Pistol Pete, Trebuchet Trae, might accomplish through Game #3, it will be more beneficial for Young to get his frontcourt freewheeling. Whether through stealthy lobs, cuts, or switches off pick-and-rolls, Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers must find ways to endow Capela and double-double machine John Collins with productive touches around the rim. Keeping an overwhelmed Grant (28 points, 10 boards, 3 blocks in 2 OTs vs. CLE) and Plumlee contracted in the defensive paint and drawing fouls can wear down Detroit’s front line early. That would make it simpler for Young (87.1 FT%, leading the NBA’s most frequent and accurate free throw shooters) and Atlanta’s perimeter threats to make tonight’s game, unlike the case for Cleveland’s Sexton and Garland, a strictly four-quarter affair. Times are tough around the globe, and that’s especially true whether it’s in The 313 or The 404. But on and off the courts, strategic planning, collaborative talent building, and inner drive provides Atlanta the aspiration, depth, and flexibility to persevere and shine through all the down cycles thrown our way. No matter how grimy and sticky things get, as Lil Baby and Future know, it feels different when you can get it out the mud. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. Vegas says to expect the latter.
  12. “Nice. But what does THAT have to do with anything?” The Parliament of Great Britain was obsessed with tea, and not only in the late afternoons. Desperate to save the floundering British East India Company and its stockpiles of leafy product, the Brits sought to apply a duty to tea supplies illicitly smuggled overseas into its North American colonies by the Dutch. This was in the year 1773. Taxation without representation, it turns out, was not a compelling sell for dear old John Bull. While fumbling away the Americas, England’s brand of manifest Western imperialism stretched in the opposite direction, beyond India and toward the Pacific Ocean. European aggressions and incursions during the First and Second Opium Wars led to the seizure of Beijing and pried open Chinese ports to Western trade. The insatiable demand for Far Eastern-world tea made the cost for procuring Chinese tea of considerable importance among nobility. This was a matter tracked and noted routinely by aristocrats in powdered wigs during proceedings at the British House of Commons throughout the mid-1800s. Were it not for these developments, an English-borne idiom from those bygone days would never have crossed the seas, over the centuries, and landed squarely within the lexicon of a dear co-worker situated across from my glorified cubicle: “Sure, and what does THAT have to do with the price of tea in China???” Pre-Zoom, I would hear that query being uttered at least a couple occasions per month. First harked in an age before Wikipedia, this, I assumed, must be some whimsical quip she crafted entirely out of thin air. “You know, our accounts’ quarterly reports are due in 45 minutes,” her supervisor warns. “I can’t locate the Palm Bay portfolio file; I think maybe it got deleted by accident?” advises her subordinate assistant. “Sigh… we’re fresh out of K-Cups again!”, frets one lazy colleague. You know what’s coming. Tea. China. Not even Atlanta native Boldy James around to make it make sense. Matters that feel urgent to some are not so pressing to others. It is incumbent upon you, the urged, to explain in swift but certain terms why your urgency should rise to a level where she has to put down whatever she’s planning to do, while trudging through the planned tedium of her life and workday, to instead address your immediate needs. And don’t you dare lob a non sequitur in her direction. “Say, there’s new research that says people with exposed tattoos are significantly less likely to earn a raise. You might consider wearing more turtlenecks!” “Yeah, so what?” is not the most professional of retorts. The conceptual intrusion of valued plant product from half a world away is, I suppose, a far more novel approach to questioning relevancy. “…the price of tea in China?” is so off-putting, though, our co-workers never know how to craft a proper response, so they usually just saunter off to pester someone else. It’s the part about the tea that gets me. Here is another one you would hear in first-world Western dialogue. “I wouldn’t trade Trae Young away, not for all the tea in China.” It is truly hyperbolic, but “all the tea” represents something highly valuable, as in, “not for all the money in the world.” Up through the 1800s, global wars for geographic supremacy were often waged over the trade of innocuous yet regionally precious items like tea. Silk. Opium. That is all to say nothing of treating whole living, breathing, laborious people as cost-effective and controlled commodities. What I came away with, by my colleague’s routine rhetorical barb, is that the most impactful instances in our lives often hinge on decisions and events that we would give not as much as a moment’s thought. In modern times, the value of a barrel of crude oil in a land seemingly far away may have our local economic worlds plunging, or perhaps soaring. It may be the quality of life for a bear near a polar ice shelf, or some school of fish, essential for human sustenance, left to wrangle with some voracious invasive species that once served as a traveler’s fun baby aquatic souvenir pet. A half-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, inducing perennial coastal flood problems at trendy hi-rise condo parking decks in Miami, or for impoverished neighborhoods of sea-level dwellings in Luanda. A tyrannical, insular leader in a far-flung country that somehow was granted access to intercontinental missiles and bioweaponry. Residential growth encroaching a volcano, or a fault line, that is way past due for a cataclysm. Whenever calamitous major events happen in our lifetimes, they never impact people the same way universally. You can have the benefit of wealth, knowledge, geography, connections and/or health working in your favor over that of your neighbors and your fellow citizens yet, at the wrong time on the wrong day, be the one unduly impacted by Life’s Lottery. But the one thing about a global crisis -- when it is genuinely global in nature, and when one considers the indirect effects, no one individual is truly immune. Everyone is connected, and everyone, in some varying measure, is impacted. Did you wish to enjoy watching the Atlanta Hawks close out their season at the freshly refurbished State Farm Arena this past April? Fresh off March Madness, and a Final Four tournament flushed with collegiate prospects in the fancy new stadium around the corner? Were you looking forward to the start of the pro baseball and WNBA seasons, football practices, and futbol games, for our dear Boys and Girls of Summer? The NBA playoffs, the draft, Vegas Summer League, and a free agency period where our Hawks might flex their considerable cap space? The Olympic trials, and The Games themselves? Me too. Never mind sporting events packed with fans… how about the summer blockbusters at the movies? The social clustering at festivals in the parks and parades in the streets that commence every year, just as soon as the temperatures warm and the cherry blossoms bloom? What, pray tell, does any of that have to do with some wintertime outbreak of mysterious illness in mainland China? In the dumbest of all dumb luck, a guy from France, working for a professional sports team based in Salt Lake City, tries to assuage American reporters that a malady spreading from China and surging with oft-fatal consequences through Iran, Italy (as Danilo Gallinari’s friends and family could attest at the time), and the Pacific Northwest was not all that big of a deal. For no good reason, one must add, aside from him trying to lighten the mood at increasingly distant press conferences. Frenchie acquires said illness in short order, along with a teammate or two. In even shorter order, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2019-20 season, and future Hall of Famer Vince Carter’s sun-setting career, abruptly ends, just as things for the team looked to be getting zany and fun. Of course, many of us have been impacted in ways far beyond the inconvenience of watching our favorite team ball outta control during the long slog back to NBA relevancy. If you are reading this far, and that’s amazing unto itself, I do hope for the best of health and prosperity for you, your colleagues, and especially your loved ones. Frankly, though, the next time I must hear someone on TV murmur, “IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMES…”, is one difficult time too many. I am so tired and sick of 2020, y’all! A winter of uncertainty, a springtime of destabilization and despair, a summer of chokeholds, bullets, flames, tear gas, shattered glass and shuttered businesses, an autumn of polarization, destructive floods and fires, and “SARS-Cov-2: Pandemic Boogaloo,” with our medical and unsung professional heroes forced to take up recurring star roles. I talked so much trash about 2019, and The Teens in general, only for 2020 to do us all like this? Allow me to share a prior December time, when a new year was on the horizon, and things weren’t so sweet. After failing through years of balancing grad studies, a part-time internship, and second-shift jerbs here in Atlanta, I was completing my first full year of full-time 9-to-5 (8-to-6, really), a modest-paying Federal Gummint gig. The boss comes along and presents an offer she hopes I can’t refuse. “Would you like to ring in the new year alone, in this office, reporting to my superiors?” Ummm… tell me more? This wasn’t just any rando new year approaching. These days, you must sit down post-millennials and explain to them, as you might a small child, why pro wrestling star Chris Jericho ran around for years proclaiming himself, “Y2J.” (“Le Champiòn!” makes even less sense but, as usual, I digress.) “Y2K” was a Big Friggin’ Deal. Rest his purple soul, Prince tried his best to warn us all about Two Thousand Zero Zero, because the mood sure wasn’t feeling like a party to literally end all parties. Anxieties were high. We had just trudged through a year of deadly terrorist acts and terrorist trials, protests of police killings, downright absurd tornadoes, sudden and tragic fatalities of notables. The dot-com bubble that was touted to propel our global economy into the brave new millennium was leaking air. And here in the US of A, our immature and impeached commander-in-chief was on the outs, stressing everyone out along the way. Not in the least because, with all the shenanigans going on in the world, he wouldn’t resist his depraved urge to summon someone less than half his age into his ovular office so he could just grab her by so, yeahhh… Y2K! The onset of a year that everyone could see coming except, in all their infinite wisdom, the smarty pants that constructed the digital electronic foundation of modern society. We were told many of these innovative and inventive whiz-kids, over the decades, were not thinking forward enough to envision the first digit of a calendar year maybe one day needing to dial all the way up to 2. Your solar-powered calculator might no longer function on January 1, 2000. Will your wristwatch? Will the whiz-bang gadgetry in your new car? Will the banks? Might the ATMs stop spitting out money? Might they involuntarily start, and would that be a good or a bad thing? Will the air traffic control tower go kaput, and will planes drop from the sky like autumn leaves? Will we spend the ensuing months rediscovering candles, firewood, books, bicycles and manual typewriters, because the electric grid collapsed to a state beyond repair? None of this was my boss’ most pressing concern. Here in Atlanta, her intention was to pass the buck so while she was home stuffing her mattress with twenties or whatever, some lackey was overseeing her office, assuming the phones still worked, to report to her superiors on whether or not the Earth began melting as the clock struck one second past midnight. “Oh, and for your heroic effort on behalf of our agency and our nation, Lethal, how about… time-and-a-half for overtime?” I flew home to Philadelphia for the holiday break and, no, I would not return for the balance of that month. I hoped to spend New Year’s Eve nestled at home, quietly, with my dear parents. But Mommaweapon3 had other designs for my presence, too. Back in the days before The ‘Net and twerking, there was networking. The biggest Black business networking group in town announced the biggest Y2K bash in town would be on the penthouse floor of one of Philly’s tallest buildings. Champagne will flow! Hors d’Oeuvres will be devoured! Slides will be Electric! Business cards will float through the air like confetti! Lethal might find an acceptable date, and he might be compelled to finally come home! (Momma’s exclamation, not mine.) Two hundred dollars a head, already paid in full before I could head to Hartsfield. This was not up for debate. “Bring your BEST suit!”, MW3 demanded, her way of inferring polka-dots would be tragically out of vogue in the coming year/decade/century/millennium. With the hours ticking away before the clock struck midnight, my parents and I arrived at the Center City skyrise, in our Sunday Best on a Friday night, to find all the doors bolted shut. A glum security guard who probably was not offered time-and-a-half sauntered over from the lobby to share the predictable news. The fly-by-night Y2K Bougie Bash organizer, fearing what might happen to his bank account – because… Y2K – grabbed the loot out of his ATM and literally flew-by-night out of town. The networking group was too embarrassed to call people on their home landlines until it was way too late. My folks had reserved a hotel across the street, intending for us to have a comfy room to sober up and sleep after the final champagne toasts were clanged. Suddenly, they were scrambling back there to test whether Domino’s Delivers at the penultimate hour of the final night of the 20th Century. I had no designs on waiting around to find out. I ditched the tie, grabbed my change of clothes – “polka-dot silk shirt, CHECK…” – and hoofed it to Penn’s Landing. Just across the Delaware River, Sisterweapon3 made it to her “party like it’s 1999”, what was billed as a grand shindig inviting thousands to pack into the region’s big new riverfront aquarium. Only, she would find, there was no valet, no coat checks for all the goose down and fake fur, the “bottomless champagne” turned out to be insufficient to fill half of anyone’s plastic flutes, the lobster never made it out of the tanks, and the only hors d’oeuvres that made it inside were cool, stale “soft” pretzels. One per attendee, not that you could wash the pretzel down with anything. This was upsetting, to her and her homegirls, that the belugas were better fed at the 11th hour of her Night To Remember. My possibly final close-out meal consisted of Tastykakes, procured from a convenience store just before they closed for the evening, and a Snapple Iced Tea (thanks, China.) But I paid $2.50, not $250, so Advantage, Me. Awaiting the fireworks above the Ben Franklin Bridge, my mind raced over a dizzying number of matters, and not simply due to the sugar rush. “TEN!” “Will I still have a job after spurning my boss’ pleas down in Atlanta and skipping town? Just in case, how much rent have I got saved up? How much longer can I hold out before diving back into grad school? Did… I… just accidentally meet my future soulmate a couple months ago at the library? I’m really gonna have to pursue that when I make it back to Georgia next week. I WILL be able to get back, right? Right?” “NINE!” Those of us huddled around the riversides were putting on a good face, but the barometric pressure of what was, or was not, about to transpire in Y2K hovered over every half-cognizant adult’s head. Due to some combination of bumbling stupidity, woeful short-sightedness, and mindless avarice on the part of the grown-ups we entrusted to oversee our First World nations, there was no 95 percent confidence level about the world around us making it into 2000 unscathed. We can’t even get the boozy 1999 parties to go right… are the nuclear warheads secure at this hour? “EIGHT!” We had been conditioned for generations that 2001 was supposed to be a Space Odyssey, decades of dreams directed beyond the celestial heavens, boldly venturing where no mere mortal had gone before. Surely, as 2001 neared, we would be sipping mimosas at Sunday brunches on Mars. But no. With one year and mere seconds to go, here we were, gravity-bound mortals, on the same shores the colonial fellas rocking deerskin breeches in 1773 stood. Huddled masses, yearning to find an all-night diner or something. O, how far we have come! “SEVEN!” We got to “ZERO!” The fireworks didn’t misfire and take us out. Nobody died, not in unconventional ways. From all accounts, the globe seemed to be spinning okay. A passerby in a Flyers sweater who reeked of Jägermeister and Cheez Wiz jumped forward to give Yours Truly a celebratory smooch on the cheek, a fleeting reminder that, at least for the moment, Philly was still Philly. The mood, as I strolled through the South Street bar scene and around downtown until sunrise, was oddly comforting. Through all the missteps and disappointments, we did it. We crazy kids did it! No, we won’t be walking on the moon any time soon. But we did manage to moonwalk straight into the new millennium, so that oughta count for something. My spirits were lifted by yet another thought. Sooner or later, I will get to see if my lifelong favorite NBA team was finally getting up off the mat to become a true championship contender again. “HEY! SIXERS!”, bellowed a drunken fellow from the Fat Tuesday bar, pointing out my “76” ballcap with an assuring thumbs up (it’s Philly, but I’m reasonably sure that was a thumb). The 76ers spent most of the prior 15 years degenerating from a title contender, to a likely also-ran, to a nightly ran-out-the-building laughingstock in The Association. But over the years leading up to 2000, slow but encouraging progress was being made. Four years before, the owner that ran the team into smithereens sold the club to the NHL Flyers owner. He, in turn, turned to a physical therapist previously contracted to make something, anything out of Shawn Bradley, handing the PT the keys to the whole basketball operation. The new brass wanted to win, but they understood a competitive standard would take some time to build. They grabbed a Duke guy and made him the GM. They eventually brought in a defensive-minded mercenary with strong player connections to be the head coach. This rebuild would take several seasons, to be sure, with draft and trade missteps along the way. But Philadelphia fans like myself were more than willing to be patient. That is because the team drafted somebody, #1 overall in 1996, that was clearly worth the wait. That somebody was diminutive, barely 170 pounds soaking wet. But, he assembled a sturdy body made of copper wire, a golden handle, and a heart made of magnetic, titanium steel. His drives and dishes were daring feats defying physics and logic alike, and his clutch-shot capabilities had fans on their feet before the plays could even unfold. On-ball defense? Who cares? Turnovers? Served best with ice cream. Allen Iverson was a marvel, and he and his fans were willing to wait for the rest of his squad to catch up. Coming off a strike-shortened season where he became the first scoring champ not named MJ or Hakeem the Dream since 1985, A.I.’s Sixers upset Doc Rivers’ Magic in the 1999 Playoffs, their first playoff appearance in eight years. Not even a second-round sweep versus the experienced Pacers could dampen the spirit of usually dour Philly fans. “Wait ‘Til Next Year!” Can a cat this size, in his fourth pro season and certainly first as an All-Star, carry an NBA team on his back all the way to The Finals? To championships? As giddy fans, we just needed to stay positive and have the fortune to see this brave run through to its logical end. Y2K, please stay out of our way. Years later, my bandwagon-jumping landed me with both feet in my current NBA home. Armored up with ownership and management regimes we can believe in, Atlanta Hawks fans bear a consensual giddiness about our team’s assemblage for the race to the 2021 Playoffs. Not the least of which is because there is an emerging All-Star, in Trae Young (Top-4 NBA averages of 29.6 PPG, 9.3 APG), to craft a competitive unit around. But much remains to be assessed, with burning questions that will not likely be quenched at the start, or even the end, of this second pandemic-shortened season. The biggest one… Arrested Development, or Rested Development? It is possible that lottery teams like the Hawks and their hosts this evening, the Chicago Bulls (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Chicago) could benefit from having sustained their playing core through the disruption of last season, players distance-learning their way through the past nine months by focusing on personal conditioning, and by watching gobs of game tape together. Indeed, there is the prevailing argument that having twice to thrice the time off the NBA floor could grant clubs like the Hawks and Bulls a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime competitive rest advantage. The perspective is particularly sound if the league stays true to its edict limiting the “load management” of weary veterans on more established teams. Layer onto this the usual injuries and illnesses that unfold, and it is conceivable we will witness vets on shallow, exceedingly star-reliant playoff teams feeling overtaxed against rested upstarts. There is also the countering view, that nothing that forges a strong team better than trial by fire. The optimistic view toward the Phoenix Suns, a club stuck outside the postseason for over a decade, is steeped in the ability for everyone to observe their winning maturation during the summertime Bubble bonanza that concluded the 2019-20 regular season. Atlanta and Chicago (22-43) were not afforded this opportunity. Accordingly, it is the Suns (26-39 pre-Bubble) who get ESPN’s first spotlight of the season this evening, versus Luka and the Mavs. The curtain closed on the Hawks (20-47) in March as they dropped the fourth of their final five games in an overtime home loss to the lowly New York Knicks. That earned Atlanta another Top-10 lottery pick to add to the silo in the form of defensively versatile big-man Onyeka Okongwu, who will need time to catch up once he returns from his minor injury. There are a host of new veterans in the mix, including Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, former Bull Kris Dunn (a #5 draft pick just two years before Trae), Solomon Hill, and big-fish free agent pickup Bogdan Bogdanovic. But with the ability to measure non-Bubble teams’ on-court practices in weeks, rather than months, with the inability by Atlanta to cut their teeth versus live, playoff-caliber competition all this time, are teams like the Knicks that far off in the rear-view mirror? The pace of this season’s pandemic-truncated 72-game schedule is unforgiving for all NBA teams, not merely those on the come-up. Based on the first 37 games revealed, there will be significantly more instances where the Hawks appear for their third game in four nights (13 games so far; 20 scheduled last season), or fourth game in six nights (15 scheduled so far; 19 scheduled in 2019-20). In addition to seven pairs of contests on back-to-back nights, and counting, Atlanta’s first-half schedule includes three consecutive-game road opponents, all of whom are favored foes in the Eastern Conference (Brooklyn next week, Boston in February, Miami as the calendar turns to March). The only four-game homestand currently scheduled at State Farm Arena (Lakers, Mavericks, Jazz, Raptors), likely before a mere smattering of NBA fans, will be far from a cakewalk. Forecasting also involves the rosy assumption that the NBA’s protocols and arena-site regulations will keep players and staffs COVID-free while allowing games to tip off as scheduled. Football and baseball teams that went gung-ho on their seasons beyond bubbly environs withered through shortened rosters, postponements, cancellations, and other sudden scheduling shifts. In basketball, there is no 53-man roster, nor are there any “offensive line” or “pitching staff” specialists to isolate when the pervasive threat of an outbreak looms. The Hawks must rely on not only each other, but their opponents, to keep rosters healthy and capable of competition, thereby keeping an already crammed first-half schedule from becoming a mad-dash scramble on the other end of March’s All-Star Break. The teams that emerge from this season smelling like a rose will not only be those with top-flight talent staying upright, but those who have stocked their rosters with resiliency in mind. Each of Atlanta’s strategic newcomers is, arguably at worst, a substantial upgrade from an outgoing contributor during 2019’s season opener. Without naming names of the duly departed, the additions also include 2020 trade-deadline acquisition Clint Capela, whose defense and rebounding around the rim should spark a sea change in Atlanta’s ability to thwart opposing scoops to the hoop. The offseason work put in by basketball-ops executive Travis Schlenk and the administrative crew gives third-year head coach Lloyd Pierce and his own upgraded staff more options to compete and succeed from the outset. If the Hawks’ starters are performing well, there is less trepidation toward giving them a breather. When they are struggling, there is less concern about making a bad situation even more dire. Such are the benefits of possessing quality roster depth. But the pressure is on LP to assess, in real time, the optimal lineups and rotations in pursuit of victory. Hawk players’ hearts, guts, and brains will certainly be tested along the quest to attain playoff-worthy competency. Yet unlike the fraudulent fictional Wizard frantically pulling levers in the Land of Oz, there will be no curtain for Pierce to hide behind when the results of his gameday decisions disappoint. Resiliency will be measured by Atlanta’s ability to build positive runs in games, deploying multiple lineups, while swiftly stemming the runs by their opponents. It will be measured by their ability to cobble together winning streaks, and to keep the errors in one loss from bleeding into the next. Resiliency will be measured by opponents dreading what is coming but, aside from Trae and John Collins (21.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG), not knowing where it will be coming from. For a club that hopes to be more than just a worthy Play-in candidate, weeks-long losing skids are henceforth impermissible. Young going for forty, Collins hunting for 20-10s in his contract year, while their Hawks are down twenty, must become Yesterday’s News. While the early schedule is high-paced, the first nine games of Atlanta’s slate feature just one opponent that appeared in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, although the healthier, star-infused Nets and the Hawk-trouncing Grizzlies are noteworthy in this list. The Bulls made no significant moves to upgrade their roster, unless one counts lottery prize Patrick Williams and veteran guard Garrett Temple, the latter recently recovering from multiple symptoms of COVID-19. However, Chicago did make long-awaited moves that are hoped to infuse new life into a mostly young but dormant core. The Garpax regime is no more, as Arturas Karnisovas arrived last spring from the Nuggets to help clean house. Karnisovas previously helped turn Denver’s fortunes around after he wooed free agent Paul Millsap from Atlanta in 2017. After teasing the Bulls’ fanbase with the idea of retaining Jim Boylen, AK aimed his sights toward longtime Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan. The Thunder were supposed to be cellar-dwellers in 2020 after parting ways with several of Donovan’s biggest stars. But with the aid of a de facto player-coach in Chris Paul sticking around, OKC was instead a first-round playoff threat, a status that Chicago, whose last two playoff wins came with Rondo starting at the point in 2017, would graciously accept. But with all due respect to Thaddeus Young, Donovan no longer has an influential veteran presence the likes of CP3, or even Steven Adams, at his disposal. It is notable that Donovan would choose to break up with Sam Presti and his growing treasure trove of future picks to latch onto this rebuild in the Second City. Perhaps it is because Billy D trusts he can make more than Boylen could out of versatile super-scorer Zach LaVine (career-highs of 25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 SPG) and the surface-scratching young trio of Coby White, Wendell Carter, and Lauri Markkanen. Kirkland Signature oenophile Otto Porter, who returned from season-long injury just in time for last season to end, is only 27 years of age, and still has a chance to make his production match his Richie-rich contract in this contract year. Garpax, though, left behind precious little wiggle room in the salary cap for Karnisovas to flex in his first year, and little useful support along the back lines for Donovan to give his fledgling corps a boost. Chicago’s fortunes improved only slightly when Dunn replaced Tomas Satoransky in the starting lineup last year; the emerging White will assume that point guard spot this season. After Satoransky, Cristiano Felicio, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine, Chandler Hutchison, and Luke Kornet seem to be hanging around the United Center only long enough for their guaranteed contracts to expire. Amid this rough economy, with only a handful of NBA head coaching positions out there, long-term job security is likely of paramount importance to Donovan. He is likely assured of the opportunity to see a rebuild through if the playoff-push with this year’s crop falters early, and Chicago still has all its future first-rounders available if they need to start from scratch yet again. Whereas in Atlanta the heat will be on the coaching staff, in Chi-town the onus is on LaVine and the playable players to learn from Donovan and grow in meaningful ways together, lest they transition from aspirants to assets before the NBA’s trade deadline arrives. Atlanta Hawks fandom, at its height, is a perpetual state of cautious optimism. Beginning with ownership on down to the final spots on the roster, the feeling around town is that there is as much to look forward to as at any time in the past several seasons, if not decades. Whenever this collective, in its current shape, makes its big breakthrough, outshines its expectations, and achieves its greatest triumphs, I want more than anything for all Squawkers to be around to savor it, to have the ability to be together, in the arena, the forums and the streets, and rejoice in it. Whether times are looking up, or looking bleak, I want every Hawks fan, young and old, to be able to see this through. To do so, we must do what it takes to help ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors to persevere. Our willingness to do so acknowledges an understanding that we are all connected in ways large and small, and that our ability to unwittingly spew infinitesimal droplets of harmful viral load should not be the only way we affect one another’s lives. Our incremental decisions and risks we take can have consequences impacting others, not necessarily immediate, nor detrimental, nor obvious to the naked eye. But the wise decisions we make individually may help us all see things through. Get your teapot ready; a couple stories come to mind. A Polish prisoner during the Holocaust and his German captors, along a “death march” to a concentration camp during the final years of World War II, were under siege from Allied aircraft. Taking a wise but daring risk, the 16-year-old and other prisoners broke away from the doomed Nazi troops and proceeded to take cover in the Bavarian woods. When a tank neared him, the escapee recognized the US star and took the calculated risk to run toward it. An African-American GI appeared from the tank, and the escapee dropped to his knees and declared the only three English words his mother taught him: “God Bless America!” Assessing the emaciated kid as a non-enemy, the soldier pulled him into the tank. Liberated, the young man was eventually rescued by an aunt in Paris, winding his way from France to Australia to the United States, earning his J.D. from Harvard. What does this have to do with anything? The lawyer and future White House adviser’s harrowing tale of survival would serve as a source of inspiration for a stepson from his second marriage. In just a few weeks, that stepson will be overseeing America’s foreign affairs as our newest U.S. Secretary of State. The horrific atrocities committed by Nazis and fascists across Europe during the period through World War II compelled one Serbian sculptor. Dozens of his works memorializing victims and resistors from that period are peppered throughout what was then Yugoslavia, including the “Stone Flower” monument (1966) seen above. The sculptor became a respected university architecture professor and, later, mayor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital city. Yet he continued to speak unabashedly afoul of Slobodan Milosevic and his “Make Yugoslavia Not Too Shabby Again for the First Time in a While” nationalist tactics. As a dissident of the president, he suffered through threats of death and violent attacks by Milosevic’s henchmen, along with seizures of his university work and a spiteful disinformation campaign by the state-run media. Exiling to Paris and eventually Vienna, the renowned sculptor outlived the breakup of Yugoslavia, Milosevic’s autocratic regime in Serbia and, eventually, the accused war criminal Milosevic himself. What does that have to do with anything? During the height of the geopolitical breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegrin Serbs Dragan and Koviljka Bogdanovic dared to come together and bring a child into the world. They knew, precisely, which honorary was honorable enough to be worthy of their son’s name. Sorry, Slobodan. Bogdan and the new cast members cast the Hawks’ near-term potential in a different light. Even with Capela (doubtful, Achilles), Rondo (quarantine restrictions), Dunn (knee cartilage), Snell (foot bone inflammation) and Okongwu (same inflammation, different foot) unavailable for the opening games, the Hawks have a depth advantage over the Bulls and other NBA clubs that have been shelved for months, along with a coaching-continuity edge. What remains to be seen is if this team has figured out how to exploit these gains. There is no reason for Atlanta’s feeling-out process to be accompanied by listless losses, no reason to wait for growth and camaraderie to take hold before the winning streaks start, and no reason for “moral victories” to become the moral of this season’s story. Defeat wayward teams like the Hornets now, consistently, while they are on the schedule. That way, if 2021 becomes The Year of the Murder Hornets that 2020 was supposed to be, and we all get chased back into bubbly settings, Atlanta will have compiled enough Ws to keep from being left on the outs and getting stung again. In this season and in those to come, may our Atlanta Hawks be as prosperous on the hardwood as they look promising on paper. More importantly, through these years, may all Hawks fans around the world be healthy and stable enough to enjoy their team’s ride toward prominence. Preferably together, as the holiday song goes, if the fates allow. Because -- just between you and I -- ultimately, all our fates are intertwined. That’s the tea! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. And… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. This is the time to remember. ‘Cause it will not last forever… March Madness is here! Have you caught the fever yet? If so, you may want to self-quarantine and watch some NBA action to kill the time, if not a few germs, during tonight’s lull in NCAA conference tournament play. This time last year, it was about to be a nice little run for the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett, cementing himself as a certified PTP’er alongside Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson as Duke would win the ACC conference tourney championship. Indeed, those were the days to hold on to. Williamson would wind up entering the NBA with some experienced, if not accomplished, veteran talent around him. Barrett was granted high expectations, just by being picked shortly after Zion by New York, but not a commensurately high amount of usage. RJ ceded center stage to another former high NBA draft pick, in Julius Randle, trying to prove he can be a headliner, and a now-departed Morris Twin who was trying to grab the attention of his next NBA employer. But some fans and media are already dour over the prospect that Barrett (42.6 2FG%, 31.8 3FG%, 60.5 FT%) may not become the franchise-defining superstar for whom they have longed. Did I mention, he only turns 20 in June? Barrett returns with his Knicks to visit Reddish’s Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and I can imagine the #3 pick from last year’s draft is a bit envious of his former Dookie teammate’s situation. “Simply put,” Sopan Deb of the New York Times wrote in generality on Saturday, “being a rookie for the Knicks, a franchise seemingly addicted to chaos in the country’s biggest city, is different from being on any other team.” Deb noted that RJ’s career-high of 27 points in what should have been a rousing home win over Houston was overshadowed by the antics of his team’s owner and his squabble with its biggest superfan. “It can be jarring for young men entering adulthood, and even more so for Barrett – who fans hope will be the centerpiece of a long-desired championship team.” Maple Mamba has a few supporters above the border who have been tracking his path to the pros for some time, and there’s hope he can become a consistent go-to star for the Knicks, sooner rather than later. By the time he does break through, he will likely be under the guidance of his second team executive, the incoming ex-agent Leon Rose, and at least his third head coach. There’s a reason that surveyed first-timers, during a preseason poll predicted Reddish, above all others, would finish with the best NBA career. I suppose a lot if it is how well he has blended in as a talented teammate at all stages of his development, sharing the spotlight with Mo Bamba in high school, with Zion and RJ in Durham, and now with Trae Young, John Collins and a host of up-and-comers in The ATL. Cam isn’t under the urgency to be the signature star, or even to start, in Atlanta. Away from the pressure of lugging a mismanaged major-market titan back into viability for the first time in deceades, the optimism is higher than the expectations for Reddish (42.6 2FG%, 33.5 3FG%, 80.2 FT%), and neither is overblown. Spirits have lifted a bit, at least on the court, since coach David Fizdale got his ouster following a 4-18 start. Yet the wins have come in drips and drabs for “Mikey Two Shoes” Miller and the Knicks lately. Yes, they have won three of their last six, including that 123-112 win over the slip-sliding Rockets. But a regression could also be viewed in the context of the six-game losing skid that preceded the 3-3 run, a slide that began on February 9 with a double-OT loss (stop me if you’ve heard that before) to the Hawks at State Farm Arena. That 140-135 loss in Atlanta, like today’s game, was the back end of a road back-to-backs. New York (20-45) returns here today at 1-8 on the season in SEGABABAs, the sole victory, Miller’s first, by two points at Golden State three months ago. With the Knicks coming off a 122-115 loss in Washington last night, the indicators point to the Hawks (20-46) coasting past the Knicks in the right-side-up standings like two ships passing in the night. Alas, like the last game between these two, and like the double-OT win over the Hornets, we’re likely setting ourselves up for something akin to the Merrimack versus the Monitor. Miller must be somewhat miffed to see coaching colleague JB Bickerstaff turn a 5-5 start, in taking over the Cavaliers since the All-Star Break, into a multi-year extension. Well before that time, the Knicks’ interim coach has had his job status come up out of the blue by a new employee on First Take, and he has had to watch his owner prioritize the situation with celebrity entrance choices at MSG. On the court, however, Miller’s biggest issue has been his penchant for getting the upper hand, then giving it away with his rotations. His Knicks built up a sizable 31-20 lead on the Hawks here on February 9, thanks to Randle’s 12-and-8 in the opening quarter, only to watch it dissipate by halftime and dissolve completely by the end of the third (John Collins’ 14 second-quarter points propelled Atlanta), necessitating some late-game scrambling to force the OT periods. Last night, New York bounced back from a slow start to pour on 70 first-half points on the defensively woeful Wizards. But the Knicks could only muster 45 points the rest of the way as Washington turned the tables. Unlike the last Hawks game, the reserves carried the day in the first half, particularly Frank Ntilikina, the former lottery hopeful now in his third year who enjoyed his first 20-and-10 performance, and bug-eyed big Bobby Portis. But by the time Miller put the subs back into the game, it was too late to stop the Wizards’ second-half blitz. The Knicks do come into the game healthy. Starters like Elfrid Payton, Queens native and ex-Clipper Moe Harkless, and Taj Gibson, along with rotation players Mitchell Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Kevin Knox were used sparingly in D.C., so it’s imagined that Miller will ride with a lot of them to support Barrett and Randle, the latter of whom fouled out last night with four minutes to spare. New York will also hope, while challenged with defending Young for much of this evening, that Ntilikina’s offensive output on Tuesday was no mere mirage. Atlanta exploited Charlotte’s interior early and often, and more of the same will be needed from Lloyd Pierce’s young charges this evening. Randle will post up and hog the ball on occasion, and when transition opportunities come from his shots that Hawks need to turn those into points at every opportunity. Majestic offensive displays from Young and Reddish can come later in the contest. But early on, we’ll need to see the guards looking for Collins (28-and-11 vs. CHA), Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon (+20 plus-minus vs. CHA) running the floor against New York’s travel-weathered legs. Tonight ought to be a rookie showcase between former college teammates Barrett, the Knick who is challenged with becoming a more efficient scorer, and Reddish, who has been a defensive salve for the Hawks but could stand to become a more consistent rebounder and playmaker. So far, they’ve given us the best of them. And now, we need the rest of them. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “Guys! I think we’ve finally just turned a corner!” Just when you thought it was safe to go back into mediocrity! Remember all my claptrap about an “easier” schedule for our Hawks by March? Well, the trick is, Atlanta still must learn to make things easier on themselves. As the Hawks spin their wheels in mud, it turns out, several teams in the sad-sack Lottery East aren’t just sitting around waiting to be lapped. For example, the Cavaliers leapfrogged the Hawks in the right-side-up standings with a pair of home wins over Denver and San Antonio. The Knicks aren’t winning in the customer relations department these days, but at least they know how to beat the Pistons at MSG, along with the fizzling Rockets and Bulls during their recent eight-day homestand. The Wizards may not have enough to sneak into the playoff picture, but they’ve done enough to stiff-arm the Warriors and the Hawks in recent days. Even out West, the Pelicans and Warriors don’t project to be the same squads we saw earlier in the season, with the respective re-introductions of Zion and Steph to their rosters. The Hawks will get to play those teams on three occasions in the back half of what was supposed to be the very merry month of March, but only after a three-game, week-long homestand that begins tonight. Speaking of which, there are coach James Borrego’s Charlotte Hornets, who buzz their way into State Farm Arena this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL and CLT, 92.9 FM). Sunday’s home win over the Rockets has made them victors in six of their last 11 games, and any stretch remotely above .500 is good enough to surge Lottery teams up the standings. Sure, Charlotte (22-41, Tragic Number 13) had recently lost three straight. But those defeats were sandwiched between wins at Toronto and versus Houston. All three losses, to Milwaukee, Sam Antonio and Denver amid a seven-day homestand, were by single-digit margins. They’ve held the Raptors to 96 points, the Bucks to 93, and the Rockets to 99. Good things happen when they control the pace (NBA-low 96.4 possessions per 48 minutes) and put the clamps on opponents defensively. Many of the league’s tougher opponents await on the remainder of the Hornets’ schedule, but many of those contests will be at home, and none of them include the three games the Hawks (19-46) and Hornets have yet to play. So there remains a glimmer of hope among Charlotteans, so long as they can avoid being inundated by Trae Young like they were in December. Young had 30 points and 9 assists, making all 8 free throws in a rare early road win for the Hawks, a 122-107 sprint to the checkered flag in Charlotte. Trae is reportedly over the flu bug, now passed on to Jeff Teague (available for tonight anyway), and should be chomping at the bit to make up for the waxing he endured yet again at the Grizzlies’ hands this past week (1-for-14 3FGs, 6 total assists and 12 TOs over 2 games vs. MEM). Against his division rivals, Young will want to shake a perimeter funk that extends back a half-dozen games (17.6 3FG% in his past six appearances). Even if the struggle continues, Atlanta (19-46, hasn’t lost 4 in a row since Jan. 12) can still give themselves a puncher’s chance at victory. The NBA’s two worst defensive rebounding squads take the court tonight at The Highlight Farm. The worst of the two by default, visiting Charlotte nonetheless nabbed a season-high 47 in a balanced effort to topple the Raptors during the Hornets’ last road trek. They will need more of the same tonight, but the Hawks hope those guys will be spending more time retrieving the ball from the inner bottom of the net. This contest could hinge on which team creates more havoc on the offensive glass, earns productive trips to the foul line and extends possessions. Charlotte will lean on Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo (DNP vs. HOU on Saturday) and Willy Hernangomez to sneak in and create extra opportunities for Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and Devonte’ Graham (combined 13-for-23 on threes vs. HOU). Lloyd Pierce’s club will wish to counter with John Collins (probable, thigh bruise), who was suspended and unavailable for the December win in Charlotte, Bruno Fernando (team-high 8.6 O-Reb%) and Dewayne Dedmon, who would do well to match the five O-Rebs Alex Len contributed during 19 minutes off the bench in that game. Hopefully all the putbacks and second-chances won’t be necessary, if Atlanta’s backcourt executes well on the first tries. Against a Hornets squad that allows the most assisted baskets in the league (NBA-high 26.5 opponent APG), the Hawks can gain the upper hand if Young, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish (12 minutes vs. MEM before leaving with leg cramps, available vs. CHA) make sound passes and take advantage of open looks. Getting back in proper defensive assignments ought to be simpler against Charlotte, who doesn’t get out and run much anyway (1.04 transition PPP, 29th in NBA, ahead of only New York’s 1.03). For a team that has been presented lately as a Playoff Team of the Near Future, it would be good for Atlanta to see better all-around performances versus Non-Playoff Teams of the Present. With a homestand that includes New York and Cleveland stopping through later in the week, a rare three-game winning streak would be nice for a team that aims to win four-out-of-seven games a little over 13 months from now. In these waters, the Hawks don't have to be Jaws yet. They just have to know how to quit playing like a Baby Shark. That is to say, like Doo-Doo-do-Doo-do-Doo. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “You called that a foul, ref? Man… you’re a TRIP!” You all are familiar with the Memphis Grizzlies by now. Hopefully, our Atlanta Hawks know them a bit better, too. At least well enough to stay neck-and-neck with them as this week’s two-game series shifts to FedEx Forum (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL and MEM; FWIW, Five Stripes’ home opener will be on 94.1 FM and Fox Sports South). Monday’s 127-88 drubbing of the Hawks was the largest road win in Memphis’ franchise history, with a team-high nine Blue Bears ringing up double-figure scores. That 25-year franchise record for road victory margin was matched a mere two nights later in Brooklyn. The Grizzlies cut down the Nets on Wednesday, 118-79, likely the game that caused Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks to decide they should maybe stop seeing each other. Including the 105-88 win over LeBrongeles in Memphis, making them the first conference opponent this season to beat the Lakers outside of L.A., coach Taylor Jenkins’ club became the first NBA team to hold three consecutive foes below 90 points since yet another Budtree disciple, Quin Snyder, and his Utah Jazz did the deed back in March 2018. It was an impressive feat considering the Grizzlies are still roaming without Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow and Grayson “Dindu Nuffin” Allen. That party came to an end last night in Lukaville, but was it just an interruption? As the Hawks (19-45) headed to Graceland after Friday’s too-little, almost-not-too-late loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Grizzlies (31-32) slipped back below .500 with a 121-96 road defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team whose owner took quite an L of his own. Dallas rang up 30 assists while turning over the ball about half as much as Memphis (19 TOs, led by Ja Morant’s six). Was Jenkins’ crew simply conserving their energies? If the emerging Cam Reddish shows up and shows out, they’ll be glad they did. Reddish wasn’t available to plug the cracking dam for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club on Monday. But with Trae Young out due to illness last night, Reddish took it upon himself to become a faucet the Wizards would struggle to cut off. 6-for-10 inside the 3-point arc, 5-for-7 beyond it. Coming off the bench, Reddish built his career scoring high with only one free throw attempt (I don’t have a half-million to spare, but c’mon refs), and despite 7 TOs. The next big step for Cam (probable, back pain) is to outdo himself on the back end of back-to-backs. Last weekend at The Farm, he followed up an efficient 26-point performance (6-for-9 3FGs) in the win over Coach Kenny’s Nets with just 8 points in 24 minutes against the Blazers the next evening. In mid-January, 22 points to expunge the Spurs Hex on a Friday, 7 points on 3-for-10 shooting back home on a Saturday, as the Hawks lost at home to Detroit by 33. The back-end game before that one, in late December, Reddish tallied two points on one made bucket on five attempts, as the Hawks fell in Chicago by 35. He was a net minus-21 on that day, an improvement over the minus-23 in yet another 30-plus-point back-end loss in Chi-town just 17 days before. Granted, it shouldn’t all be about The Cam Reddish Show every night, certainly not at this early stage. The Hawks need a multitude of positive contributors at both ends of the floor, more seasoned folks like Kevin Huerter (career-high 11 assists vs. WAS yesterday) and John Collins (26-and-10 plus a pair of blocks vs. WAS; 16 fourth-quarter points), in particular. But the competitive progress Coach Pierce and his staff seeks of his Hawks will reveal itself when arguably(?) their most valuable two-way performer can be counted upon to recover quickly and string very good games together. Cam wasn’t the singular difference between victory and a 40-point tail-whooping. Yet, the Hawks needed Reddish on Monday the way Mississippi State games need more cowbell. The rookie is one critical defensive body that Pierce can use to help Young (still questionable w/ flu-like symptoms) and/or Jeff Teague thwart the Grizzlies’ ballhandlers, and to switch onto Memphis’ best perimeter-shooting forwards and swingmen. Reddish, his fellow rookie De’Andre Hunter (team-high 8 D-Rebs vs. WAS) will also be vital in keeping Jonas Valanciunas (7 O-Rebs @ ATL, none last night @ DAL) from getting easy catches on rolls to the rim and from feasting on the offensive boards. Their interior defensive activity, neutralizing the rebounding edge Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng seek to establish in the halfcourt, will make it tougher for the Grizzlies to scamper away during Atlanta’s predictable offensive lulls. The Hawks went from a Hunter three-pointer, putting the visitors up 52-48 last night, with five minutes to go before halftime, to a Reddish triple with two minutes left before the end of the third quarter to end a 35-13 Wizards run. No Hawk shots, aside from an 8-foot jumper from Brandon Goodwin were sunk beyond three feet of the rim in that time. Forcing Valanciunas and the Grizzlie bigs to do more than dig in their heels waiting for caroms will require a more diversified attack, exploiting driving lanes, moving the rock inside, outside and back in, and getting Collins, Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon more post-up opportunities. All eyes were on Morant on Monday, but Memphis’ offensive balance came largely from Tyus Jones (9 assists, 1 TO @ ATL, 6-and-0 @ BRK, 7-and-1 @ DAL), now the NBA’s active leader in assist/turnover ratio (5.3 ratio, actually down from 7.0 last season w/ MIN). It is that level of confidence with one’s own personnel, exhibited by Jones in his first season in Memphis, that Atlanta, with or without Trae, will be challenged to match. Jones’ former protégé with the Timberwolves, Teague made two assists in the opening six minutes of last night’s game, and he wouldn’t make another until Atlanta found themselves down double digits with ten minutes remaining. Young would help minimize those droughts with his passing wizardry and ability to get to the free throw line. But if he remains out tonight, the more balanced offensive approach should begin and end in the hands of Teague and Goodwin. “I ain’t THAT sick y’all… Relax lol”, tweeted Young prior to last night’s game, certainly a relief for fans to hear these days. Feeling better is Priority One for him, but Atlanta can still do plenty of things to aid what ails them on the court, particularly during back-to-backs and on the road. Trae isn’t THAT sick, but after a spirited comeback attempt in D.C., can Cam and the Hawks play THAT well, throughout tonight’s game? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “OnlyFans, but with you and Beal guarding people. OléFans!” “It’s a masterstroke of heartache, brutality, and redemption.” “YOU DIDN’T READ THE BOOK, DID YOU?” I let out a hearty snorkle (snark and chortle? snort and chuckle?) every time that car ad comes on. We all know that guy, the one who comes to class, the book club, or the big meeting, and does his best attempt at Winging It, in hopes of not making it obvious he showed up wholly unprepared? Few creatures do a better job at Winging It than hawks. But under the unrelenting scrutiny of the National Basketball Association, Atlanta’s young Hawks have a hard time getting away with it, not without getting exposed on the regular. Such was the case on Monday night at The Funny Farm, as brave onlookers endured the Hawks shooting 32 percent from the field on the same nets they used over the weekend, while a visiting Grizzlies club had randos walking into the arena and piling up double-digit scores with ease. John Konchar, professional basketball player or State Farm Agent? Josh Jackson, redemptive lottery pick or lost member of New Edition? (text your uncles, if you don’t know who they were.) Tyus Jones, steady NBA backup or one-armed blues legend? Think fast, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Brandon Goodwin. Y’all didn’t read the playbook, did you? After a promising weekend, our Hawks took off from their homestand finale with a bad taste in their beaks. The palate cleanser as they hit the road? None other than our good friend Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). I trust that Trae Young knows Brad’s lady friend’s name without prompting. Can we say the same about Shabazz Napier? Recent Wizard arrival, or the late Malcolm X’s pet cat? If you need to call a friend, Trae, check with former T’Wolf Jeff Teague. That sure might’ve helped the Hawks on Monday with Anthony Tolliver, who didn’t even have a jersey for Memphis’ shootaround that morning. “You can’t teach effort,” was about all a terse Lloyd Pierce would share with postgame reporters who, I can only assume, stayed awake for the entirety of Monday’s 127-88 flop. I can kind of disagree with the Hawks’ head honcho. NBA coaching and development staffs are charged with having their players adequately prepared to compete. How players prepare, as much as how they perform, is a reflection on the gentlemen in suit-and-tie on the sideline. They’ve got uber-talented kids who are inured to being up the night before playing Mario Go-Kart or whatever, then throwing on jerseys the next day to face some St. Ignatius Prep team that’s petrified of being on these guys’ Overtime and Ballislife highlight videos. If you’re not instilling into 22-year olds’ noggins the adequate level of discipline and preparedness for the highest level of this sport, then what are you instructing? I can’t forget that Lloyd Pierce is a newbie head coach as well, liable to be outwitted, hoodwinked, bamboozled (come on home, Spike) by even other neophytes on occasion. He’s learning what works and doesn’t work with his charges, even 145 NBA games into his tenure. He’s also fairly secure with his position for the next 145 games or so. It’s the rank and file below LL Cool P who should approach every game as if they’re walking with a panther. I’ve long been fond of Chairman Mel. While Melvin Hunt could use less bodily threatening tactics to snap Hawks players to attention, I can understand the desperation with which he resorts to a Bad Cop role. It’s not Pierce’s job that’s on the line in 2020 when the Hawks play poorly. It’s Hunt’s, Greg Foster’s, Matt Hill’s, Chris Jent’s, Marlon Garnett’s. Somebody within that quintet has to prove themselves capable of providing Pierce the feedback that keeps a 12-point deficit from careening to, say, 41. For example, what did Sidney Lowe, Chad Iske, and Maz Trakh once have in common? They were all assistants for Scotty Brooks on his 49-33 Wizards, the ones who paid back the Hawks in the 2017 playoffs’ first round before falling in seven games to the Celtics. That season’s run was the high-water mark of the Wizards’ history over the past four decades. Things have fallen apart a good deal for Washington (22-39, 2-6 since the All-Star Break, 9th-by-default in NBA East) since then, but Brooks is still standing strong, with the unwavering support of owner Ted Leonsis, as is lead assistant Tony Brown. A slide in the standings can be blamed on injuries and scheduling and stuff. But on teams that find it tough to woo top-notch talent in free agency, if people can’t point to players developing to become steady standouts, a recession in on-court performance can be Iske business. John Wall returning next season to hopefully recreate an offensively potent backcourt with Beal (NBA-high 38.0 post-Break PPG) is enticing. But Wizards fans have the right to wonder, with the emergence of division-rival bigs like Collins and Bam Adebayo, is it reasonable to expect a meaningful growth spurt from Thomas Bryant (last 3 games: 80.0 FG%, but 2.7 RPG)? Is Rui Hachimura (1st game vs. ATL) a core starter going forward, or will his lack of stretchiness (28.6 3FG%) and defensive chops hinder his development? A similar question can be asked regarding second-year pro Troy Brown (last 15 games: 1.4 SPG, but 41.7 FG% and 64.7 FT%), who has seen a subsidence in playing time from Brooks over the past month-plus. Taken a few spots before Atlanta selected Kevin Huerter, is Brown part of Washington’s starting core by this time next year, at the very least a valuable sixth-man waiting in the wings behind the backcourt stars? Speaking of underutilized mid-tier first-rounders, will the formerly stashed Clipper guard Jerome Robinson (5-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 16), starting in place of the injured Ish Smith, become the future answer behind Wall? Davis Bertans has provided some great offensive patchwork in Wall’s absence. Assuming he departs in free agency, who will pick up all those great perimeter looks in Bertans’ place? I said *great* looks, so surely, it’s not Wall. Will it be the mystery 2020 lottery pick? Is it someone the Wizards, who traded vets Isaiah Thomas and Jordan McRae away, are cultivating to be that guy? If so, is he hiding out on the Capital City Go-Go somewhere? The Hawks have at least enough viable young options, going forward, to start printing up Beatles-style T-shirts. If we look up at next year’s Wizards roster and see “John, Brad and ???”, the wannabe All-Star returnees will be screaming, “Help!”, at anyone who’ll listen. Even in the meantime, the Wiz cannot afford to be serving up one-fifty-burgers to opponents like the Hawks, who can hardly be bothered to know whether Moe Wagner is Wizards’ starting center tonight or the King of Pops guy in the State Farm Arena stands. When they visited Atlanta back on January 26, Beal scored 40 points (1-for-5 3FGs), only to be outdone by Trae’s cherry-picking 45 (6-for-11 3FGs), while a balanced home squad played more like a team that bothered to do its homework in Atlanta’s 152-133 win. Pierce will have Dewayne Dedmon (elbow) and Cam Reddish (probable, back pain) returning to the fold for the season’s penultimate road back-to-back series, which concludes tomorrow evening in the Grizzlies’ den. Trae is questionable with “just a flu”-like symptoms, as is DeAndre’ Bembry (abs pain). But if Young can tough it out, he can help Atlanta shake off the rust exhibited earlier in the week. One thing aiding Atlanta (19-44), heading toward the close of the season, is that they sauntered out of the loss to the Grizzlies with anywhere from 1 to 4 games in hand on their lottery-level competitors in the East. That was erased somewhat in the days that followed. But, as the Wizards return from a 125-104 loss, in Portland on Wednesday, to face their third opponent in four nights for the second-straight time, Atlanta had several days to go literally back to the drawing board in Brookhaven, even taking time out for a spades tournament in between (Kevin’s still on the hunt for the elusive Draw Four card). Atlanta is 3-2 when they’ve managed to have three or more preceding off-days, road losses at Milwaukee and Boston as Collins worked his way back into the swing of things being the setbacks. It’s in these interims where staff should be quick to remind the players that they have to gameplan for every possible opposing team, every opposing player. Atlanta would likely be 2-0 against the Wizards this season, entering today, if they had bothered to find out who McRae was (29-8-and-6 vs. ATL on Jan. 10) before he skipped town. Transition defense (7th-worst in NBA, based on points per possession; 2nd-most PPG allowed), exposed most recently in media reviews of plays ensuing Trae’s long-distance trey attempts, has to be an item of heightened focus for the Hawks. Young doing a better job hindering direct pathways to the rim is one challenge, but so it is for Young’s courtmates getting back, not only to help inside but to seal off the corners from dangerous-shooting personnel. Only James Harden’s Rockets and the Cavs are more subject to transition (17.5 percent of all opponent plays), successful or otherwise, by their foes. Washington, still somewhat new to this heightened pace of play under Brooks’ watch, is just about as bad (1.13 transition PPP allowed, to the Hawks’ 1.14), but they at least manage to stub runouts by forcing turnovers more effectively (14.1 opponent TO% on transition, 4th-most in NBA). A sloppy game that features the Hawks compounding unfortunate shooting with miscues, poor finishes, and lazy recoveries works well in Washington’s favor. After January’s embarrassing loss in Atlanta, the Wizards’ assistants will be eager to show what they’ve been working on in the intervening month. Rest assured, Brooks’ job won’t be on the line anytime soon, but their slots could be up-for-grabs, unless someone among the younger supporting cast steps it up soon. Similarly, the Hawks must begin demonstrating the more consistent composure and maturity that their coaching staff harps upon them, especially away from Atlanta, the city that hosted eight of their last nine victories. Coming off Monday’s loss, after nearly a full week of tutelage, the Hawks’ assistants are in no mood this weekend to field a team that looks like a dog ate their homework. The fans are right there with them. We want less heartache and brutality, and more redemption! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. “So you’re saying I just take the handoff, split the double-team HERE, then hurdle the seven-footer THERE. Got it!” The Race for the 8-Seed is underway! Well, not so much for our dear Atlanta Hawks, who would do well to ignore crazy talk about Tragic Numbers and whatnot. As Atlanta hopes to roar in like a lion in this new month of March, though, their outcomes versus several opponents will have a big role in determining who wins some dates out West with LeBron and LeBrow in the month that follows. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, who the Hawks will visit at the end of this week, just days after playing them here at State Farm Arena tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in both MEM and ATL). Not having had Lottery worries since 1997, fans of the San Antonio Spurs may rue the day their team finally let the Hawks off the hook back in November. Like New Orleans and Sacramento, the Spurs are just 3.0 games back of the last team currently in the Western Conference playoffs, the Grizzlies (29-31), and they’d love to have their two losses to Atlanta back. The Lillard-less Trail Blazers (3.5 games back of MEM) squandered their chance at a season-sweep of the Hawks, with Saturday’s 129-117 defeat at The Highlight Farm, as did the Suns (4.5 games behind MEM) back in January. The Kings, finally seeming to get out of their own way, hope to avoid a similar fate later this month. Ending a five-game losing streak that included a pair of defeats at the hands of Kent Bazemore’s Sacramento, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies upstaged the mighty Lakers with a resounding 105-88 win two nights ago at the Grindhouse. Yet, somehow, the first-round matchup for Los Angeles that America wants to see is with a team situated a little further down the Mississippi. The Pelicans, surprise winners of the 2019 Draft Lottery, had bouncy bowling ball Zion Williamson giving poor Kyle Kuzma fits last night in primetime, and now seemingly everyone is setting their dials 90 days early in hopes New Orleans can make a serious run at a series with the Lakers. Like the Grizzlies, before the Pels can dream of a run at The King (not you, Elvis), they must take care of business in a pair of games this month against Trae Young and the Hawks. Morant can be rightfully miffed that the Grizzlies are not the consensus Cinderella darlings in the NBA West. But after a long-needed shakeup and a stroke of good fortune that brought the Murray State product to town, Memphis has a lot of good things going for it right now. Lottery twins De’Andre Hunter (6-for-9 3FGs vs. POR) and Cam Reddish (team-high +16 plus/minus vs. POR, ahead of Hunter’s +12) have given Atlanta Hawks fans reason for optimism with their recent play. However, from the jump, the rookie duo that has taken the league by storm this season is not Hunter and Reddish, but Memphis’ Ja Morant, a three-time Rookie of the Month winner, and Brandon Clarke. Zach Kleiman took over the executive reins for the Grizzlies (when in doubt, get you a Duke Law School guy), and couldn’t believe his luck when the 33-49 club he inherited, like the Pelicans, leaped over several thirsty NBA clubs, including the Hawks, to nab the top two 2019 Draft selections. Memphis happily “settled” for Morant, and Kleiman sweetened the pot. Taking a mid-first-rounder he inherited from Utah for Mike Conley (imagine the former point guard star playing like he is now, only still in Memphis), Kleiman’s Grizzlies traded up two spots with Oklahoma City, giving the Thunder prospect player Darius Bazley in exchange for a more finished product in collegian Brandon Clarke. Morant (17.7 PPG, second now only to Zion; rookie-high 7.0 APG, not far behind 2018-19 rookie Young’s 8.1) has remained the highlight reel he was in the Ohio Valley Conference. Meanwhile, Clarke has been a smooth two-way contributor off the bench, shooting 65.5 2FG% (5th in NBA) while offering per-36 values of 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks. I can’t say what I expected to see out of a team coached by Taylor Jenkins, the longtime Hawks assistant and Budenholzer disciple. But I didn’t expect a shift from grit-and-grind to grease-and-grace to work out so smoothly in the early going. An uptick in tempo for Memphis (103.4 pace, slightly behind 6th-place ATL) was a long time in coming. But I doubt that, even with 2019’s NCAA assist leader in tow, the entire NBA expected to be looking up at Memphis with a league-high 27.1 assists per game. Jenkins has capable ballhandlers in Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton at his disposal, and he uses them liberally to free up Morant. Dillon “the Good” Brooks (37.2 3FG%), armed with a new three-year contract extension, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have helped spread the floor so Morant doesn’t have to kick the ball out to himself. Several of the Hawks’ recent foes had been struggling in their runs out of the All-Star Break. It’s not terribly surprising that, until Saturday’s win, the Grizzlies seemed to have stubbed their bear claws, too. Jackson has been out of action, the 3-and-PF forward bowing out midway through Memphis’ Western road swing with a sprained knee. Clarke (out, quad strain) followed suit one game later. Getting Andre Iguodala out of contract purgatory before the Trade Deadline also required parting ways with the team’s second-leading minutes-logger, Jae Crowder, and the surprisingly serviceable Solomon Hill. The return haul from Deadline Day maneuvers included Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota, Justise Winslow from Miami and Jordan Bell from Minny via Houston. But J-Win’s slow to return, mostly out since early December while working through back issues, and it will take time for Jenkins to get Dieng and Bell up to speed in the rotation with Jonas Valanciunas (27.6 D-Reb%, 9th in NBA; 20+ rebounds in back-to-back games) while Jackson rehabs. Returning home, however, proved vital for showcasing some of Memphis’ developmental talents. Midway through Saturday’s game, Jenkins trotted out a unit that featured Jones, Dieng, the resurrecting Josh Jackson, and two-way players Jon Konchar and Yuta Watanabe. That crew proved shockingly effective in stymieing a Lakers squad that came into town on an 8-game winning roll. Morant and his pass-happy Grizzlies set up tantalizing matchups this week with Young and the Hawks (19-43, 11-11 over past 22 games), whose 34 assists versus Portland (led by Trae’s 15 dimes, with just 2 TOs on his part) was a season-high. John Collins (4 assists, 2 blocks vs. POR) is threatening to join Karl-Anthony Towns (last three seasons) and Kevin Love (way back in 2010-11) as the only modern-era NBA players to shoot 40 percent on threes while averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game, and he’s showing a willingness to fill out other components of the boxscore as well. With Kevin Huerter (3-for-7 3FGs, 4-for-4 FTs, 8 assists, 3 steals vs. POR) showing signs that he can get it going, Atlanta offered a glimpse of balanced fullcourt effort nearing its peak, one that won’t always need a stellar perimeter outing from Trae (1-for-8 3FGs vs. POR) to thrive. Drawing Valanciunas out of the paint is a tall order, but the Hawks will look to woo the Memphis big man with plenty of open looks for Collins. Whether shooting or driving, Atlanta will want Hunter to catch-and-react quickly against Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson. A stout defensive effort to keep Morant from feasting inside and Brooks, who has been shaking out of a shooting slump (last 3 games 26.0 PPG, 35.7 3FG%), cool from outside will be crucial, particularly if Reddish (doubtful w/ back pain) cannot make it on the court tonight. Coach Lloyd Pierce’s crew will want to benefit from standout bench performances, as he did on Saturday from Treveon Graham and Bruno Fernando (combined 10-for-10 FGs vs. POR). If Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin can match the Grizzlie subs’ energy and production at the point, then the Hawks’ first three-game winning streak of the season will be within reach. The potential for a strong confidence-building March is here for the Hawks to seize. How many of their foes fare against them this month will become a major subplot in the story of How the 8-Seed in the West was Won. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. “Terry, we need to talk about your flair.” Well, they say the sky’s the limit. And, to me, that’s really true. But, my friend, you have seen nothin’. Just wait ‘til Trae gets through. It’s well established that statistically, and as per the eye test, Trae Young has been the worst defensive point guard in this national association of professional basketball. Unlike many subpar defenders, Young’s blistering offense makes him a net positive on an Atlanta Hawks squad that would struggle for 48 entire minutes without him. But ranking #493 out of 494 NBA players (thank you, Brad Beal) by defensive metrics draws out the deTraectors like nothing else. The good news is that an NBA star, in his second pro season, someone as reviled for his defense as he had been revered for his offense is far from unprecedented. If Kyrie Irving was in town yesterday with the Nets, and if Damian Lillard was here tonight with his Portland Trail Blazers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 103.3 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PTL), they would concur wholeheartedly. “Damian Lillard’s defense has been a topic for the wrong reasons since joining the Portland Trail Blazers,” scribed Bryant Knox for some Bleacher Report content. “Coming from a small school, people recognized his defensive deficiencies would be his Achilles heel in the NBA.” Ah, so that’s the issue. Small school. Darn you, Weber State! Knox continued in his blog post, “In 2014-15, it’s still a problem.” Oh, well come on, Mr. Dame Time! Isn’t this, like, the start of your third NBA season, already? Do I have to resort to tapping the wrist where my watch is supposed to be? You’re already 24, for Nique’s sake! Get out there and guard somebody, you “guard,” you! Time’s a wastin’! In the half-decade since, at our disposal we have been granted a plethora of statistical defensive metrics to help confirm, or challenge, what we as fans and pundits witness on the hardwood. Those developments have only served to make us even more impatient, more damning, of the teenaged and newly drinking-aged set of NBA upstarts. Being a perpetual minus on the court can be managed in the grander context of team hoops. But these days, us fans can identify the most minus-y minuses out there. When it’s somebody we’re not wild about, we can keep actual figures in our bag when it’s time to dig at his fans. “How can the worst defensive players in the history of the NBA be All-Stars?” You can be a big loser, or a weak link, in some respects. Just don’t be The Biggest, or The Weakest, lest you find dismissive critics who are more than happy to bid you, “Goodbye!” In that half-decade, James Harden has gone from YouTube laughingstock for his defensive nonchalance to an ex-MVP whose most critiqued defensiveness is directed at other All-Stars making fun of him not passing the ball. Once you get the teammates around you that accommodate your shortcomings, and you’re given the room to leave indelible offensive moments in our collective consciousness at playoff time, poof! Your defensive Debbie Downers have disappeared, as if it took the snap of Thanos’ fingers. Kyrie had LeBron come home, and he hit The Shot that secured Cleveland its first pro championship since, like, the Eisenhower administration. From that point on, has anyone questioned aloud whether he can guard a chair? Big Game Dame waved bye-bye to Harden, Dwight and the Rockets in 2014, and when his buzzer-beater dispatched Russ, PG and the Thunder in 2019, his defensive pot-shot artists seemed to hit the exits with them. Young needs not to go worst-to-first anytime soon. He just has to work towards getting his name off Page 13. Unlucky Page 13 on ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus (DRPM) ratings site is where you find Beal and, one spot above Young, Anfernee Simons, the prep-school-faced bench guard who is getting a splurge in playing time for the Blazers (26-34) with the injury to Lillard (groin, probably out through Monday’s end to their road trip in Orlando) and the alleviating deadline trade of Kent Bazemore to Sacramento. Page 11 is where you’ll find Kyrie. These days, Damian’s hiding out as a Page 10 guy. If PIPM’s your thing, and you sort from bottom-to-top on D-PIPM, there are the usual suspects (Trae, Brad, Half-Penny) right at the “top”. But you’ve got to take the effort to scroll down in order to find Lillard (18th-worst D-PIPM). Kyrie and Dame are still net-negatives, defensively. But absolutely nobody cares, not anymore. Accomplishments on big stages with the world’s eyes upon you help a ton. Teammates that have the sensibilities to know how to provide you adequate cover on that end of the floor are a big deal. Competent coaching, developmental, and managerial staffs that don’t give up on you go a long way. But the first big step for going from The Worst to Not Quite That Bad begins with you, the player, and your will to get better. “We’ve gotta get stops!” has been a mantra Trae has used at every opportunity in front of a mic since the Hawks returned from the All-Star Break. He’s not merely trying to speak French by saying, “we.” His awareness of how to avoid getting caught in space, or woefully out of position on pick-and-rolls, is improving. He stands out when he’s actively fighting for strips around the rim, or hounding ballhandlers as the shot clock nears expiration. As @Cwell commented yesterday, “Trae with the CLAMPS!! Lol”. Hawks fans are as vociferous and joyful in noting Trae’s defensive hustle, especially when it leads to a “stop,” as they are when he cans a logo-distance jumper. Much like Lillard (NBA-high 37.0 MPG, career-high 7.9 APG and 29.5 PPG) in his early seasons, one sign of Trae’s commitment to improve in many aspects is coming at the free throw line (91.7 FT% on 10.9 FTAs/game in February; 82.9 FT% on 5.1 attempts last season). Just a modicum of measurable improvement and consistency on the defensive end (119.5 D-Rating in losses this season, 108.1 in wins) gives his Hawks chances to win, and his slovenly slanderers a spray of Haters-B-Gone. Young understands he doesn’t necessarily have to get all the steals, blocks and boards that sweeten up the boxscores. But the stat at the end of his boxscore line will look better when he’s thinking of his duties on the defensive side of the ball, not the myriad #SCTop10 opportunities that await his team on the other end. Atlanta (18-43) has gone 3-2 since the Break, and coincidentally, Young has been zero-or-better on the plus-minus figure in four of the Hawks’ past five games. His +14 showing as the Hawks turned up the defensive heat in the final quarter last night and flamed the Nets, 141-118, was his best in over a month, despite offensive output that was subpar for his typical mastery (6-for-18 FGs). Also once hassled as a young Hawks starter for his struggles defending pick-and-rolls, Jeff Teague remembers his All-Star run, where he drew praise not merely for his uptick in scoring but for dogged defensive plays that led to highlight transition buckets. He provided a glimpse of the not-all-distant past with his cherry-on-top dunk off a mid-court theft in the closing minutes of Friday’s win over Brooklyn. When Jeff was a positive plus-minus, the Hawks were successful on the scoreboard. Similarly, Atlanta is 11-0 this season when Young turns in a +8 or better in a game. Anything +1 or worse, his Hawks are a diametric 0-34. Being an offensive supernova, but The Worst of the worst defensively, leaves you perceived as an NBA novelty act, categorized with the D’Angelo Russells and Lou Williamses of the world. The league’s Top 20 players for RPM generally co-align with MVP and MIP finalists (hello there, Dennis). While there are plenty of great two-way players in that mix, there are stars – Luka, Russ, Damian, throw in Curry and Kyrie if they were healthier – who are just slight negatives in the DRPM column. In the years to come, as Trae transforms from The Worst to just Bad, like his more accomplished peers, he’s going to find himself with a dedicated rung on the MVP Ladder. Trae doesn’t have to aim for DPOY glories. Halfway decent isn’t even required. When it comes to defense, our Hawks simply need him to be Bad. Come on, you know. Once he makes the Leap from The Worst to Bad, the whole world will have to answer, right then. Just to tell you, once again. Happy Leap Day! Happy HBCU Night! Go United! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. No worries, Harry’s bringing rebounding reinforcements! The marathon continues! Well, not just the figurative one. Here’s a travel advisory for our local fans tomorrow. If you’re seeing way too many people kicking around in shorty-shorts over the next couple days, no, The Bazemore Family Reunion is not in town. This is America’s Marathon Weekend, and already there are mini-Mebs scampering all throughout the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park areas. Roughly 12 hours after the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets do their thing at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK) tonight, Team USA will hold the Olympic Trials (broadcast live on NBC) to select the players going for the Gold in the men’s and women’s 26.2-mile races, assuming there will actually be some this summer (cough, wheeze) at the Tokyo Games. Around 750 of America’s best qualifying competitors, and thousands of cheering fans will run these streets, in downtown, Midtown, down by the Olympic Cauldron (which will finally be lit) near GSU Stadium, and the Eastside. All of that is to suggest, with most major intown streets closing, travel on and off the highways is going to be the true test of endurance, from about 11 AM Saturday through mid-afternoon. Hopefully, the roads will clear up before the back end of the Hawks’ back-to-back home-game test, the Portland Trail Blazers, tips off tomorrow evening. The biggest issue Atlanta the Basketball Club (17-43) will face with lane congestion in the coming days involves John Collins (team-high 38.3 3FG%; 25.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 62.7 FG% this month) defending and scoring amidst the trees. Without Trae Young available due to a hammy strain, the Hawks managed just 86 points up in Brooklyn on January 12. Young wasn’t likely to do much, anyway, to narrow Atlanta’s awful 62-33 rebounding deficit. They entered the game with John Collins (2-for-6 2FGs, 0-for-5 3FGs, 8 points and 5 rebounds in a dud performance), De’Andre Hunter, Damian Jones and Alex Len to staff the frontline, and Len (5-for-5 2FGs, 4 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench) came away as Atlanta’s best option largely by default. Frontline help was and is coming in the forms of Dewayne Dedmon (acquired for Len, in part), Skal Labissiere and Clint Capela, but not anytime over the next week or so. Dedmon is on the shelf after a non-surgical procedure to alleviate elbow pain, while Labissiere (knee) lacks a timetable and Capela is wisely taking a slower approach to heal his heel issues. Holding up along the interior is a routinely foreboding challenge that’s proving hard for Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks staff to sprint away from. “I’ve got to play some other guys a little bit more,” Pierce shared with reporters following Wednesday’s 130-120 defensive collapse against the Magic, wasting what was shaping up to be a nice Flu Game from Trae (37 points, incl. 26 in the first-half, 11 assists, and one crazy block of Mo Bamba) before he found himself running on empty (1-for-9 FGs in the final quarter). “The energy was low tonight.” Who those “other guys” are remain to be seen, but one is safe to assume we will see more of our favorite Half-Man/Half-Power-Forward in the interim. 43-year-old Vince Carter hasn’t been logging minutes in the double digits lately, but the Hawks have been more effective when he has used his short stints to help out on the glass. Carter’s two highest D-Reb% values in games came during close wins for Atlanta this month, versus the heat and Knicks, although that was just a trio of boards in the space of just under seven minutes of play. Vince did collect a season-high of seven D-Rebs (and 9 total) in 24 minutes three weeks ago, as the Hawks stayed close to the Celtics’ vest for a full half in Boston. The week before that, Half-Man’s half-dozen D-Rebs were all Atlanta needed to help Collins fend off Joel Embiid and the visiting Sixers. It’s not ideal, but this is a back-to-back weekend with De’Andre Jordan (season-highs of 20 points and 6 assists vs. ATL on Dec. 21), Jarrett Allen (25 rebounds in last two games vs. ATL) and Hassan Whiteside (NBA-high 3.1 BPG and career-high 14.2 RPG w/ POR) storming through the State Farm Arena turnstiles, and there will be only so much in the way of running gels for Collins, Bruno Fernando (back-to-back double-figure scoring with 10 points and 9 rebounds as a replacement starter vs. ORL) and Jones around to consume. (JC, check with somebody before you consume anything, okay?) Fernando’s playing time has ramped back up in recent games and could stand a further uptick, for the final February contests, on behalf of a Hawks team whose 70.6 D-Reb% is virtually tied for dead-last in the NBA with the Hornets. “2021 Eastern Conference Playoffs! Party of Two!” Whether that’s a reservation assured for Collins and Young remain to be seen, but in Brooklyn’s case, next year’s postseason has long been anticipated as a certainty, assuming Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and Kevin Durant (Achilles) return to 100-ish percent health next fall. Attendance in this year’s postseason party is somehow even less certain, which is why the Nets (26-31. 0.5 games ahead of Orlando, 6.5 ahead of 9-seed Chicago), like the Magic and various and sundry foes before them, will try to use the Hawks to once again break their slide while firming up their prospects. January’s home win in Brooklyn was a brief respite during the Nets’ 2-12 downturn. After absorbing the loss of Irving due to arthroscopic surgery, the Nets redoubled their efforts to win six of eight games prior to the All-Star Break. But since then, they’ve lost three of their past four, coming up short at home to Orlando and in Washington this week. As noted by Yahoo! Sports’ Mike Mazzeo, Kenny Atkinson is already the Big Apple’s longest-tenured major pro sports coach. He previously spent four seasons as a trusty assistant on Atlanta’s bench, and the Nets coach isn’t planning on doing that again anytime soon. To ensure he is indeed around to guide The Kyrie and KD Show in 2020-21, his Nets need to sweep floundering teams like the Hawks. Atkinson and his assistant, ex-Hawk Jacque Vaughn, are challenged with getting Brooklyn to play better perimeter defense. Brooklyn is 8-19 when they allow more than 12 made threes, and they’ll be hoping Kevin Huerter’s recent sophomore slump (31.1 3FG% in last 8 games) extends long enough that he cannot help Young get the Hawks over the hump tonight. Philly went just 4-for-22 from deep against the Nets back on February 20, but Brooklyn (3-10 when allowing 28 or more FTAs) watched the Sixers go 32-for-35 from the charity stripe (18-for-19 by Embiid) along the way to an overtime loss. Collins can create his greatest havoc by attacking the rim early and drawing Taurean Prince and the Nets’ bigs into early foul trouble. Softening up and contracting Brooklyn’s interior with shots around the rim, post passes and and-ones during the first half could grant him ample looks from outside in the second, when Young can make more forays inside and keep his torrid run going from the free throw line. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Prince and sixth-man Garrett Temple (combined 5-for-23 3FGs @ WAS on Wednesday) will try to atone for rough outings against the defensively anemic Wizards, failing to be of much assistance for Caris LeVert (team-highs of 30 points and 5 assists @ WAS). But the Hawks need to be more mindful of keeping toes in the paint, limiting second chances for Brooklyn (34.2 team 3FG%, 25th in NBA) and cutting off driving angles for Dinwiddie, who can pile up offensive fouls when forcing the action amid clogged lanes. For Pierce’s Hawks, finding the proper balance among the players sharing the floor with Young and Collins, placing extra emphasis on securing defensive boards as a team while giving the bigs ample help, can produce a more satisfying result than they’ve had all season long against Brooklyn, or any team that clogs the paint hoping Atlanta will miss lots of shots and come defensively unglued. Nobody said this journey for our young Hawks would be smoothly paved, or that the path to competency would be swift. Yet, as Chris Webber loves to say about life, you gotta just Run Through the Tape, baby! Say, does anyone know if C-Webb is, like, retired retired? We need rebounders of any age! 46 is the new 43! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. “See? I tried to tell ya... Should’ve jumped over the Sears Tower!” It’s Wednesday night, and two underwhelming NBA teams with losing records and no championship probabilities on the horizon face off in downtown Atlanta. The hosts, our Hawks, return to State Farm Arena after stumbling in Philadelphia a couple days ago. The visitors, the Orlando Magic, have no Shaq, no Penny, no Dwight, no dunk contest champs (gulp), no adversarial superstars that furrow the eyebrows of the random local sports fan. Will the house be packed anyway? The above factors were enough, over the prior quarter century or so, to produce the chirping sounds of crickets in Atlanta’s home nest. That we may see upwards of 15,000 in attendance for an unremarkable mid-week game like this (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in MCO) speaks to the compelling power of The Trae Young Experience. You can’t spell PARTY without T.Y., and Young (at home: 31.9 PPG, 39.1 3FG%, 9.5 APG) has brought that kind of atmosphere to a factory that could use his highlight offensive plays. Atlanta needs Trae producing (37.0 PPG, 47.3 3FG%, 10.6 APG in Hawks wins), early and often, to have a chance to win games, and he brings that when egged on with the encouragement of Ryan Cameron and fans screeching in support from every tier of these comfier confines. But coach Lloyd Pierce’s small-y young club can struggle mightily to find the proper chemistry, with or without Trae on the floor, at home or away, to string together consistent runs of competitive play. The Hawks will remain underdogs when stacked against most of the NBA, even at home (6-1 in their last 7 home games), and even against mediocre squads like Orlando, until Pierce and the coaching staff sort the ideal rotations out. Monday’s half-baked effort against the 76ers dropped Atlanta to 6-25 versus teams with a .500 or better record. Among the few teams doing worse in that department is the Magic (25-32), whose spiffy 21-7 mark against sub-.500 teams like the Hawks belies their 4-25 record against the cream of the NBA crop. That includes Cream City, and while it may not matter much come April, the Magic likely wishes to dodge the top-seeded Bucks, who swept all four regular-season contests by an average of 16.5 points, as an opening-round foe. They’re 0-9 versus Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston, but they won’t play the latter teams until April. Despite two losses already this season to the Hawks, Orlando relies on teams as poor as Atlanta (17-42) for subsistence. They’ve won three games out of their past four, beginning with the 135-126 victory in Orlando on February 10. They followed up by squeaking past whatever’s left of Detroit, at home before the All-Star Break. Bouncing back from last Friday’s home loss to Dallas, the Magic prevailed in the Somebody’s Gotta Make the Playoffs Bowl, coming back from 19 down midway through the third period to cut down the Nets, 115-113 in Brooklyn, on Monday night. While the 7-seed Nets may have trouble in the coming months, the schedule ahead for coach Steve Clifford’s 8-seeded crew (4.5 games ahead of Chicago) may allow them to stiff-arm the lottery competition and lock down a playoff spot sooner, rather than much later. Remaining teams have a 45.8 percent winning record, the 4th-easiest schedule in the league and just a few shavings tougher than Atlanta’s “easiest” 44.2 percent. All the Magic need to do is defeat the bad teams on the docket, as they’ve done for most of this season. Minnesota comes to O-Town, and then the Magic visits the Rodeo-weary Spurs to close out this month. The games at Amway Center to follow include the Lillard-less Blazers, Bulls, Hornets, Cavs and Kings, before a return to Brooklyn in mid-March. Bad-loss slip-ups, like the 101-93 home loss to the Hawks back in December, could leave the Magic susceptible to a needless scramble for the final postseason spots. Taking care of business early, alternatively, will allow Clifford to load-manage his key veterans during the final weeks. Clifford’s gameplan for Young is to allow the Hawks’ point god room to roam on the inside of the Magic defense, disallowing all but the most miraculous, contested three-point shots. On his young career, Trae’s 50.5 FG% versus Orlando is his best against any Eastern Conference club, 2nd-best against any NBA opponent. But within that is a subpar 29.7 3FG%, 3rd-lowest among NBA East foes. Young (47.2 3FG% in wins, 32.0% in losses) lofted 11 three-point attempts in Orlando on February 6 and sunk just a trio of them (1-for-7 through the first three quarters). He was 4-for-8 inside the arcs, also swishing 12 of 13 free throws while dishing nine assists. But his hero-distance shots were insufficient during a familiar fourth-quarter defensive collapse, the Magic’s 42-30 advantage in that frame wiping out a 96-93 Hawks lead. It was a similar scene Monday, after Trae’s last-second splash closed the third quarter in Philly with a 92-91 lead, his Hawks crawling out of a 20-point first-half hole. Young was just 1-for-11 on his other 3-point shots, and Atlanta found it was too easy to get pushed back in the hole (38-20 Sixer edge in the 4th). Against Orlando, neutralized teammates like John Collins (22 points and 8 rebounds, but minus-32 for the game) were unable to earn trips to the free throw line (1 fourth-quarter FTA for the whole team; 4 non-Trae FTAs the whole game), a hallmark of Cliffordian defense. Cam Reddish’s pair of shots in the final quarter of Monday’s game doubled that paltry total, and his entire team’s inability to hit from outside (0-for-11 4th-quarter 3FGs) made Collins and company easy pickings for Joel Embiid (22-and-8 in the closing quarter alone). Teams hitting jumpshots with unconventional proficiency is nothing new for opponents of the Hawks, and Orlando (47.4 3FG% on Feb. 6; 33.5 3FG% on the season, 28th in NBA, through yesterday) was no exception when they last faced Atlanta. Again overwhelming a Hawks’ frontline, one that included the recently re-arriving Dewayne Dedmon (14-and-9 plus 2 blocks off the bench @ ORL; probable, elbow pain), the Magic were aided further by a 14-4 edge on offensive rebounds (45-31 overall), second chances created by Aaron Gordon (season-high 6 O-Rebs), Nikola Vucevic and newcomer James Ennis, the latter of whom now starts in place of Wes Iwundu. The Magic thrived for many seasons behind Dwight, but is it possible that it’s Atlanta’s turn to benefit from a D12 of its own? De’Andre Hunter’s activity in his hometown debut (4-for-5 FGs, 7-for-7 FTs in the third quarter @ PHI) sparked Monday’s third-quarter turnaround. Hitting 15 of 33 threes for the month, his well-panned offensive efficiency is coming around, and his 6.1 RPG and NBA rookie-high 1.6 SPG averages through seven games puts him squarely in also-ran status for Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month with two February home games remaining. Going forward, better interior scoring and passing from De’Andre (upgraded to available, ankle sprain) could have him among the first drafted players to nab the Eastern Rookie of the Month hardware, a development few could have seen coming given his season-opening struggles (Chicago’s Coby White is the clubhouse leader for February, although his Bulls are just 1-7 when he has played). For Hunter and Reddish, if they also continue making strides with perimeter defense and help rebounding, the next two months could feature a productive potato-sack race for the final ROM trophies. As for Orlando and PBO Jeff Weltman, there’s no need to hope for (more) lottery luck, as future growth needs to come from within. Aside from the need to deflect the occasional shot in the lane, Mo Bamba (1.5 BPG) has yet to truly get off the ground. Jonathan Isaac returns from season-ending injury next year, as will 2019 first-round selection Chuma Okeke. And clearly, the best is yet to come for Markelle Fultz (career-high 50.9 2FG% and 74.6 FT%; 12.0 PPG and 5.2 APG as a starter), who will revel in fostering a fierce intra-division rivalry with Young. A rebuild that more sincerely features those young Magicians will commence next season. In the interim, Weltman has his focus on this offseason, challenged with massaging $96 million in already-guaranteed salaries for a clear non-contender. Beyond another pair of home playoff dates to appease a once-starved Magic fanbase, Weltman is relying on Clifford to maximize the value of the veterans, particularly the contract-extended Vucevic (24-9-and-9, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 6) and Gordon, Terrence Ross (5-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL), and Evan Fournier if the latter kicks the can down one year by opting in this summer. A strong close for each improves the quality of the trade offers Weltman can create and receive. To get anything close to the free agency impact that in-state, income-tax-free rival Miami enjoyed in 2018 with Jimmy Butler’s arrival, Orlando will need salary cap space. But they sure could use a captivating draw like Young, for prospective free agents, corporate sponsors and ticket buyers alike. Competitively, as a growing team taking their lumps, the Hawks are still struggling to find their heart. But Trae has established himself in Atlanta as The Show, and a happy, growing crowd of onlookers at The Farm are making it clear – finding the heart would be great, but for now, home is where The Show is. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES???” What day does, like, winter get here? My seasonal-snowbird family members and I are getting fewer and fewer calls asking, jealously, how the weather is down here in the Balmy South. In my case, it’s been hard to tell the difference. My hometown has gotten this deep into the so-called winter season without having to scrape off more than half and inch of snow, total. Zero-point-three inches, to be precise, the fewest flakes since 1972-73 (do not remind Philadelphia 76ers fans about 1972-73). By comparison, Raleigh has had eight times as much of the legal white stuff. Scientists are being pressed for answers, but I’ve got my couch-based theories. Perhaps it’s because, in Philly, the 76ers have been blazing hot at home. Or, perhaps, they’ve been holding out all this time for an Ice Trae storm to blow through. The humans on the Atlanta Hawks arrive in Philly today (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia) hoping to induce just a little more climate change. Philadelphia’s sterling 26-2 mark at The Center (still fussing with Wells Fargo over naming rights?) is the NBA’s best. The overall record (35-22) is decidedly not. Blowing road games, like the 127-117 flop against a 12-36 team in Atlanta back on January 30, has the Sixers wrangling with fourth-seeded Miami just to claim first-round homecourt in the Eastern Conference. Being almost Hawks-bad on the road (NBA-high 24 away-game losses for ATL, entering today’s action), Philly has their home crowds in an ornery mood, and that’s saying something. Atlanta’s second-year coach Lloyd Pierce, who has his rightful share of skeptics, learned the tricks of the NBA media-relations trade as an understudy for a variety of head coaches. None more effective, I’d argue, than Brett Brown, who has outlasted the entirety of The Process by mastering the mannerisms of the manager you’d like to speak to. Brown followed up a 19-63 season with a 18-64 campaign in his second go-round, back in 2014-15 when he added Pierce to his sideline as an assistant. The Sixers plunged even further to 10-72 the next season, but Brown was able to play victim-of-circumstance well enough to salvage his and his assistants’ jobs. A 28-54 run in 2016-17, with rookie Joel Embiid offering a 31-game glimpse of his boundless potential, was comforting enough to keep Brown and his staff around for the 52-30, playoff-bound breakthrough that followed. With that as a backdrop, you can forgive Pierce if he’s not sweating the follow-up of 29-53, in his maiden voyage rebuilding the Hawks, with a 17-41 setback-filled season that, suddenly, doesn’t have 30 wins beyond the realm of possibility. Unlike Brown’s tenure with Bryan Colangelo, Pierce works with a patient GM that isn’t undercutting the emerging young stars behind his back. Unlike Brown’s run under Sam Hinkie, Pierce knows his GM doesn’t need to write theses to keep ownership from getting too hasty. Superheating “The Process” runs the risk of a disquieting recess. Philadelphia is facing not only a slide in regular-season results for the second-straight year, but an early playoff exit after narrowly missing the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. Yes, they’ve won 12 straight at home. But, can a team that’s 9-20 in road games, one that hasn’t beaten an opponent that’s above .500 in their building since December 12, turn it up and advance in the NBA Playoffs as a 5- or 6-seed (as bad as Indiana has been, they’re still just two games behind Philly)? Even if we don’t have doubts, Philly fans sure do. If you feel bad for certain fans who shelled out the big bucks for a titanic “Trae versus Luka” deathmatch over the weekend at State Farm Arena, and are now screeching over the local airwaves about the unfairness of it all, imagine how poor Al Horford must have felt last month when nobody showed up to see him. Two days after playing at home against Pepperidge Farm Goldfish State, Brown decided he could afford to load-manage Al, saving him up for a nationally televised Saturday night game in Boston. Not only did his Sixers drop both games, but nobody in his old stomping grounds stomped and stammered afterwards about his absence from the floor at the Hawks game. There were plenty of Sixers fans at The Farm that evening, yes, but fans occasionally come to see teams win, not just individual players. And, sorry Al, but you’re no Luka. You’re no Trae, either. Things were not supposed to be this way for our dear friend Al. He wanted to be on a respected championship contender. He wanted fans who would appreciate his unique skillset as a big man. He wanted teams to show appreciation with not just vocal praise, but as much of The Bag as they could possibly dish out ($26.5 million-plus over four years isn’t Tobias Harris money, but it’ll do fine). Most importantly, most endearingly, he wanted to stop being penciled in as a fulltime center. I don’t wish to question any of Al’s moves up and down the Eastern seaboard. But Horford Hindsight seems to be filled with miscalculations, second-guesses and regrets. He left Mike Budenholzer for Brad Stevens, and now he has latched back onto a Coach Pop disciple in Brown. Fearing a future with Dennis Schröder, he thought Isaiah Thomas was going to be a sure shot. With I.T. and then Kyrie on the move, he decided to keep it moving himself, tying his point guard hopes to Ben Simmons (31 points on 10-for-15 2FGs @ ATL in January; out today with back pain), the near 6-foot-10, 240-pound All-Star whose shot beyond 3 feet (36.7 FG% on jumpers) is anything other than sure. Now featuring another All-Star in Kemba, Boston (4.5 games ahead of Philly) seems to be doing fine without Al. But the most attractive rationale for the 13-year veteran, by bailing Boston in favor of their longtime Atlantic Division rival, was finally being able to man the power forward spot full-time, wedged between Harris (upgraded to questionable, knee bruise) and All-Star Embiid, while playing his GM Elton Brand’s former role as a trusty backup, in very limited minutes, at the five-spot. Solving the Sixers’ spacing issues was supposed to involve Horford’s pick-and-pop. Instead, it’s been pick-and-ick. Al is shooting 32.0 percent on threes, the worst since he started shooting them in earnest under Coach Bud’s watch, on a career-high 4.4 attempts per game. The 51.5 2FG% is threatening to be the worst since his rookie season with the Hawks. Throw in 1.1 free throw attempts per game, and Horford’s 13.8 points per-36 is the lowest scoring rate since his second NBA season. You won’t be surprised to find that Al’s defensive rebounding remains at a low simmer, and his shot-blocking instincts have regressed. So have his assist-making exploits, although a lack of healthy three-point shooting recipients for his passes plays a big role. The five-time All-Star, the second-highest-paid Sixer, Horford is now coming off Brown’s bench, as a backup center, behind Embiid. It’s his first time not starting in an NBA game since filling in for Zaza as a Hawks rookie in November 2007. And, yes, since you’re wondering, the fans that have watched their Sixers win 12 straight at home have resorted to booing him, as he futilely jab-steps in the name of brotherly love. Nobody in top-seeded Milwaukee was jeering Al Jefe on Saturday night, when he entered as a reserve. He took seven shots, six of them from three-point range, and made just one for his game total of three points in 24 minutes as the Sixers lost by 21. In his last road start, also in Milwaukee, Al went 5-for-12 on threes but 0-for-5 inside as Philly fell by 11, concluding a road trip with all four losses by double digits. The first two games of Philadelphia’s four-game, two-week homestand bifurcated by the All-Star Break, Horford shot 4-for-10 and 0-for-6 in 60 combined minutes before Brown gave him his new backup Bawse role. In the home finale against Brooklyn, six points, three boards in 18.5 minutes. He watched most of the fourth quarter and overtime from a chair. Brand has cut loose the developmental Jonah Bolden, while doghoused veteran Kyle O’Quinn has been politicking for a buyout. Norvel Pelle was upgraded from his two-way contract to a full-time deal, but Brown has been left with limited choices upfront when giving Embiid (23.2 PPG, 12.0 RPG) a breather. Playing together, the Horford-Embiid duo’s O-Rating (98.9 as per stats; 10th-worst in NBA among 506 duos w/ as many as their 499 minutes on-floor together) has been O-MFG, so Al is left with no choice but to return to his least favorite position, and not as a starter. As one might expect, Brown is babbling as best he can to put a positive spin on the downturn of his team’s 2019 free agent prize. “He’s a prideful man,” Brown told local reporters after a team film session this past weekend. “He has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and (I am) just keeping (coaching critique) very straight, very clean, very quick… I want to help him help us. Somewhere in the middle of that, I am aware of it all. He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle.” It’s okay, I’m not sure what I just read, either. Brown softened the shoe further. “We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naïve to think some of his signing wasn’t driven to where we want to be in April, May and, we hope, June.” It is wise of Brown to keep everyone forward-thinking. But with the $69 million of cash guaranteed in the seasons to follow for the 33-year-old frontcourt player seemingly in decline, Sixer fans may not want to peer much beyond the forthcoming postseason. In this modern age of blurring frontcourt lines, it is nice to have a young player who isn’t grousing about his ideal or desired position on the floor. Similar in height to Horford, John Collins knows his limitations as a small-ball center, but he takes pride in learning to how to excel while playing and guarding multiple positions on the floor. With a load-managed Kristaps Porzingis watching from the sideline, Collins did exactly what he was supposed to do against Dallas and then some, adding 17 rebounds and a pair of blocks to go with his career-high-matching 35 points in Saturday’s 111-107 comeback win down on The Farm. While Atlanta’s former star big man, Horford, watched from the pine back in January, Collins wasn’t just putting up with the imposing Embiid (21 points, 3-for-6 3FGs, 14 rebounds). The Baptist rang up 20 rebounds to go along with 17 points (8-for-10 2FGs), helping Atlanta ace Trae Young (39 points, 18-for-20 FTs, 18 assists) to flatten Philly. The Hawks’ starting frontline was aided on that day by a productive Damian Jones (6-for-8 FGs, 2 blocks in 26 minutes), and Jones’ upgrades have since arrived in the form of momentary ex-Sixer Dewayne Dedmon (12 rebounds, 4-for-6 FGs vs. DAL) and the injured Clint Capela. But Collins (NBA-high six 20-and-10 point-rebound games this month) is in no mood to wait on the returns of Capela (heel) or Skal Labissiere (knee) before figuring out how to get his Hawks up off the mat. With the return of De’Andre Hunter (out for personal reasons vs. DAL; no one demanded their money back) to the starting lineup, Atlanta may have a legitimate advantage in the depth department tonight, if nothing else. Assuming both of Philadelphia’s top-two minute-loggers, Simmons and Harris, are no-goes today, Brown will need to rely heavily upon his whack-a-mole crew of reserves. More than one backup 76er must pop up so that Josh Richardson (DNP @ ATL in January; 16 points on 22 shots in past two games) and Embiid don’t have to carry an unfair burden tonight. In January, the supporting-role star was Shake Milton, who had 27 points (5-for-9 3FGs, 8-for-10 FTs) and 6 assists in 35 minutes as a replacement starter while trying to keep up with Young, his fellow Oklahoma state prep-school standout. Milton was hardly heard from again until Saturday, when he sank 5 of 7 triple-shots in the losing effort against the Bucks, and Brown would love to see another good game Sooner rather than later. Mike Scott (39.6 FG%) has been sporadic, scoring no more than three points in his past five appearances as his playing time has cratered. If the Sixers could put the occasionally hot perimeter shooting of Furkan Korkmaz (17 points, 3-for-4 3FGs vs. MIL) and the intermittent defensive wizardry of Matisse Thybulle (1.4 SPG, but just 7 thefts in his last ten appearances, incl. 2 @ ATL) together, they’d have quite a MyPlayer on their hands. Depth and chemistry remain challenges for the 76ers (4th-lowest bench points, 3rd-lowest bench boards, 3rd-lowest bench dimes per-48 in NBA), who added a pair of ex-Warriors in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson at the Trade Deadline for the stretch run while jettisoning Trey Burke and James Ennis. It is another reason why demoting Horford in hopes of a spark doesn’t sound like such a horrible idea. Philly has two more lottery squads (at Cleveland, vs. the Knicks) to contend with before putting their revamped rotation to a truer test. A three-day visit to STAPLES Center will kick off a four-game road swing at the beginning of March. The Hawks are gaining familiarity and late-game confidence amidst a home-friendly schedule that extends well into next month. If Atlanta can find ways to take that more competitive show on the road, too, opponents may continue load-managing stars at their own risk, but they’d need more than Zamboni drivers as subs if they expect to comfortably win the games. You all remember Zamboni machines and snowplows, don’t you, Philly? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “I… think… I… Cam… I think… I Cam… I think I Cam I think I Cam I…” Ah, frenemies. Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW). Luka, Trae. We all know what this is. Even with no Luka, and no Kristaps on the floor again (rest and whatnot). We all know how it’s gonna go. Someone’s team, by rule, is going to conclude the evening with a higher score than the other’s. That someone’s fans will then point to the results as confirmation of where they stand on Who Won/Lost The Trade. The other’s fans will dig in their heels, maybe point to boxscores, plus/minus data, standings, accomplishments by age, playoff statuses. Both will squabble over whether Cam Reddish, who exited the last meeting between these teams with a concussion, makes that much of a difference. But beyond all that kerfuffle, there’s a rivalry. One created by circumstance, ginned up by fans and skeptics of individual players and/or teams, puffed up by media outlets featuring writers and commentators with a prejudicial bent in one direction or another. At the core of this rivalry… two uniquely talented and whip-smart young professionals, with the weight of franchises’ future hopes foisted squarely upon them. Two young pros, who also happen to be rather fond of one another. Many of us are old enough to recall the days when players who were not teammates were not really allowed to openly appreciate each other’s game. Particularly, players of the same age cohort that are expected to enter and exit the league around the same time. Wilt and Russell, Bird and Magic, Chuck and Mailman, Hakeem and Ewing, Shaq and Admiral. But on the Olympic stage, guys like Arvydas Sabonis had no peer. The Soviets and Yugos paid to whoop up on American amateurs twice their age, squashing all hope of a Miracle on Hardwood in the 1980s, forged a transformation of the way we staff our Olympians. Team USA needed long embittered NBA foes, some who had been at each other’s neck since grade school, to bond together for a golden, common cause. The results elevated the global game and fattened these NBA stars’ wallets. Connections through super agents, the player’s union, social media, All-Star Weekend team events, offseason workout linkups, promotional basketball camps, and sneaker companies have further transformed the NBA’s competitive landscape. Luka Doncic and Trae Young are among the spawn of our brave new banana boat world. Merciless, dog-eat-dog competition, from the moment the ref lobs the opening tip airborne until the final horn blows. The endless days in between? Mutual praise and likes on Twitter and the ‘Gram when one or the other has a standout performance, the occasional friendly barbs, daps and bro-hugs during breaks in the All-Star Weekend action. “Back In My Day” Facebook hates to see it. But it’s the new normal. And a prosperous normal it could well become, in the specific case of these two emerging stars. Think of the "rivalry" as Annie Oakley “versus” Frank Butler. Artfully, but assertively pushing each other to higher career heights than they might have ever attained without their 2018 draft-day linkage. Two guys, built different, raised different, developed different, but effectively in a situation where they are now each other’s spotter. “No, you can’t!” “Yes, I can!” The first quote is more of a mockery of those who wanted to be so right about what they wouldn’t accomplish once they set foot in the league. He’ll be a bust, because Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric were oversold and under-delivered, and we all remember Darko. He’ll be a bust, because ESPN overhyped a guy who could barely carry a college team through the Big XII and into the First Four of the Big Dance. “No, they can’t!” It’s sort of a “Him, Too!” movement for Doncic and Young, the latter named January’s Community Assist Award winner for NBA Cares. Both want to succeed in this league – championship contention, championship rings, Hall of Fame inductions – and their personal achievements will shine brighter if neither one fails. NBA fans recognize this potential for decades of tethered excellence, which is a big reason why both were voted into the All-Star Game, as starters for their respective conferences, after just one-and-a-half seasons. Author of the most triple-doubles by an NBA player before age 21, Doncic dabbled with adding one more to his tally of 20 last night in Orlando (33 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists). Dallas’ 122-106 victory over the Magic has the team already with more wins than they had in the prior three seasons of Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight. Following their recent dip, owner Mark Cuban’s team is back above .500 as a franchise in their 40th season. Dallas has been first-or-second in NBA attendance percentage throughout the 2010s, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, now with the keys handed over smoothly from Dirk to Luka. Coach Rick Carlisle’s club is on pace for 50 wins, likely back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016, first-round homecourt still within sight. Everything is awesome. I do have questions, though. While we wrangle here in the ATL with valid questions of “team-building” and “Core 5” contributors, I do wonder, was Cuban’s grand plan to get his “Core 2”, in Doncic and former Knick Porzingis (both DNP vs. ATL on Feb. 1, a 123-100 Mavs win; both DNPs tonight, also on the back end of a back-to-back) together, and then just have exec Donn Nelson figure the rest out as the team goes along? Are Dwight Powell (out for season, Achilles surgery), Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber, Seth Curry, and Dorian Finney-Smith, true members of this “core”, too? The Mavs are locked down with them all, contracts guaranteed through 2021-22. Curry, Kleber, Powell and Wright will all cross over the age-30 plateau by then, Finney-Smith pushing 29. If not “core” members, are these fellows adequate bait to acquire another “core” talent – one not surnamed Wiggins – via trade? Already, the Mavs are hovering close to luxury tax level, thanks largely to Porzingis’ deal. Massaging cap room to woo other stars, or another star, to play with The Don and The Unicorn will be a tall order in the near-term. There will be no salary cap maneuverability this offseason if Tim Hardaway, Jr. decides he’s better off being a booby-prize free agent in 2021 and opts in for next season. Cuban won’t be shy about luxury or even more punitive tax payments. But will he be willing to do so for a team that projects as first-round fodder that can be saved only by Luka’s brilliance? Jalen Brunson (team-highs of 27 points, 8 assists vs. ATL on Feb. 1) is going to be nice. But are he and Wright going to be stuck with Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin-style minute-shares, watching Doncic (37.4 usage%, 2nd in NBA behind only Giannis; Trae’s 35.1% ranks 4th) dominate the ballhandling? Porzingis (41.8 FG%) is finally steadying his on-court production (last 7 games: 27.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 51.7/40.4/87.7 shooting splits) to one worthy of a 7-foot-3 stretch, after mighty struggles to recover from 2018 ACL surgery. But he has already missed a baker’s dozen worth of games, and will sit tonight, to address soreness in his other knee. Having the hyphenated Finney-Smith, Willie Cauley-Stein (out tonight, personal reasons) and now Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on board will help the Mavs’ frontcourt compensate somewhat for the loss of Powell (63.8 FG%, rest of team 45.4 FG%), and Boban Marjanovic is always entertaining for short spells. But can Porzinigs get sufficient rest, during this end-of-season chase, to be in fighting shape for this postseason? With the burly Doncic (29.0 PPG and 8.6 APG, just behind Young’s 30.1 and 9.2; 9.6 RPG) committed to creating backcourt mismatches, and Powell likely slow to return next season, is there a viable plan to beef up the “core” beyond 2020? Carlisle has withstood the early Ben Wallace Pistons, the Malice at The Palace Pacers, and the peak-Dirk Mavericks already in his impressive head coaching tenure. He’s under a contract that has been extended through 2022-23. But are the Mavs certain he is willing to see this push for Western Conference contention through? If he extends the first-round bounces that Dallas experienced four times between the 2012 and 2016 playoffs, will Cuban grant him that choice? We won’t see answers to these burning questions for a while. For them and the Hawks, there is just the game tonight, and some magic numbers to keep in mind. 105. When Dallas allows opponents to score less than that number, they’re a gaudy 15-0 (some garbage-time buckets by the Magic kept that mark from stretching to 16 last night). That includes their win at the start of this month back home, when the Luka-less Mavs hassled Young into a 4-for-13 shooting night (1-for-6 3FGs) while keeping him off the free throw line (3-for-4 on FTs) and incapable of finding teammates to bail him out (1 assist, 4 TOs in 26 short-circuited minutes). Conversely for the Mavs, there’s 115. Things get frosty as a Slurpee when Dallas (7-11) gives up that many points. As grand as the offense is (NBA-best 116.5 O-Rating, on pace for an NBA record; HOU’s 2nd at 113.6), thanks to Doncic and an array of reliable shooters, team defense remains terribly inconsistent. In the last 10 games, Dallas allowed 106, 111, 100, 103, and 100 in victories, the opponents aside from backsliding Indiana all around lottery level. In the losses they’ve allowed 123, 119, 121, 128 and 133, including defeats at home against Phoenix and in Washington. Opponents who push and control the tempo, don’t settle for engaging the Mavericks in a futile outside jump-shooting contest (9-2 when opponents take more than 40 3FGAs), and compel someone aside from Porzingis to make interior defensive plays (NBA-worst 10.7 opponent TO%; Wright’s 1.1 SPG is a team-high; 21-3 when opponents shoot less than 20 FTAs) get the upper hand. Kevin Huerter sunk 6 of 10 treys in Dallas earlier this month, but limited activity in other areas helped the Hawks play right into the shorthanded Mavericks’ hands. De’Andre Hunter will be out for personal reasons, but his fellow Hawks rookie Reddish, dragged unwittingly into this eternal Who Won debate, will be eager to keep the answer elusive and filled with nuance. Atlanta seeks to go 9-9 with a second-consecutive win tonight, following a topsy-turvy 8-32 start to the season. The surging confidence exhibited by Reddish (last 12 appearances, incl. the brief stint @ DAL: 44.4 FG%, 42.4 3FG%, 82.1 FT%, 1.1 SPG) during this stretch has been a key to the brightening view at the end of Atlanta’s season-long tunnel. A physical post-oriented game from John Collins (26 points, 5 O-Rebs, 6 D-Rebs @ DAL on Feb. 1; 1 foul in 33 minutes) will result in a statline tonight worthy of his considerable fullcourt energy. His Hawks’ cause will be aided if he (3.7 personals per game), Dewayne Dedmon (4.3 personals per game w/ ATL) and Bruno Fernando can stay vertical while defending, force opponents to shoot over height, and secure rebounds without piling up fouls that give the Mavs’ sweeter-shooting supporting cast members restful trips to the free throw line. From there, Young and Atlanta ballhandlers Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin (combined 13 bench assists and 2 TOs vs. DAL) can attack on the break (DAL opponents’ 16.4 fastbreak points per-48 are an NBA-high), getting and creating quality looks in the paint early and often. The Hawks are 4th in the league with 49.8 paint points per-48, and they’ll need to exceed that volume tonight to make the most of their relative rest advantage and build momentum from Thursday’s thriller at State Farm Arena against Miami. For Young, tonight is about continuing to learn how best to lead a team stacked with growing, meshing contributors, and not getting egged into trying to impress his frenemy watching from the sideline. Everything Trae already does, and does well, he can do better. Whether Luka can do anything better than Trae is a matter only Luka’s fans and Trae’s detractors need to worry about, not the players themselves. No, he can’t? Yes, he can! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “Yo, Jimmy, how long you stuck down there in Miami?” Alright, Atlanta Hawks fans. The Recalibration STARTS NOW! Well, not NOW now, but soon. Real, real soon! First off, congratulations to Messrs. Tony Ressler and Steve Koonin. You guys did it! Y’all did the dang thing! State Farm Arena: NUMBER ONE in the NBA for overall in-game experience among season-ticket holders, according to a survey the NBA itself conducted. We’re not merely striving to be some measly 8-seed with a first-round exit. Among the league’s local fanbases plunking down serious coin, our Hawks’ nest holds homecourt advantage throughout. Mind you, for the second-straight year! This is shaping up to be a true fan-experience dynasty, right here in The A! STAPLES what? Mercedes-Benz who? Everybody knows we’ve long had the best ushers on the face of the planet, the best announcers, the best mascot, and the best DJ. Throw in all the whiz-bang technology, the improved viewing angles, the upgraded grub ‘n booze, kid-friendly accommodations, the way-better retail options at the Hawks Shop, the Top Golf, the Barber Shop. Then, at every tier of the building, we’ve got whole sections of smart Hawks fans who know how to get raucous without getting flat-out rambunctious. From choking through stale popcorn while bellowing to stop J-Smoove from heaving threes in the general vicinity of the rim, Hawks fans, we have already come a long way. State Farm Arena is not just certified-LEED anymore, it’s a certified SHOW. And we’ve got ourselves a certified showman at center court. If you’re not paying rapt attention, you just might miss him swishing a jumper from that very spot. Second, shouts out to The Real MVP of All-Star Weekend: Jalaiah! Girlfriend was nearly just the next ATL-area kid to find her skills brutally appropriated by lesser talents, But now here she is, once toiling in Tik Tok obscurity, now featured in the New York Times, center stage at All-Star Weekend. Do that Renegade, youngblood, and get that Bag! Shoot, I’m still stuck over here trying to Wobble Baby Wobble. If you were just casually peeking at the festivities this weekend, you’d have thought the All-Star Game was being hosted right here in the 404. Jalaiah, 2Chainz, Luda, Quavo ‘n Offset, Chris Tucker, Wondaland’s Jidenna. Claim ATL-native Kanye, if you dare, or ATL-resident Ricky Rozay (sir, keep your local mansion’s valuables off the ‘Gram, please). Even Spike Lee, noted long-suffering Knicks fan, showed up rocking his Morehouse sweatshirt. We’ve got the show-stopping mega-stars repping The ATL, whenever or wherever it’s time for stars to shine. Having endured years of incessant ownership tumult, we’ve now got happy fans begging the Hawks to shut up and take their money. We’ve got a young All-Star who other All-Stars, current and future, are taking great pleasure right now in beating. That is, if they cannot join him. Behold, the unbridled joy by players smothering Team Giannis’ Trae Young after he canned the buzzer-beater, paying homage if not paying back his Rising Star draft-buddy Luka, who wouldn’t even pretend to D Trae up after missing his own 3-point attempt right before halftime. Young’s bomb closed the second-quarter proceedings at 51-30 in Team Giannis’ favor, a defensive clampdown that turned the tide and granted his East-heavy squad a cozy 92-83 lead. Young only got a shade under 16 minutes of action in the midseason showcase, benched by Nick Nurse ostensibly for defensive reasons (heh heh) so he could entrust his real-life point god Kyle Lowry to take charge(s) and seal the deal. Still, Trae snuck in ten very strategic assists to teammates during those brief stints. With his team needing just 24 points to win the contest, I’m sure Trae was chilling on the bench, poking teammate Jimmy Butler and bragging, “Hey, guess what? This game is OVER!” “this man @thetraeyoung was a teller of the future,” trolled Jimmy Buckets after his heat saved themselves from near-certain defeat against the Hawks back in December, coming back from 117-111 down with a minute to spare to force overtime and prevail, 135-121. “game WAS over!” Young was doing some trolling of his own after his tasty dish to Alex Len (remember him?) for a not-blown dunk put Atlanta up six, giving Miami’s bench his best Vince Carter Dunk Contest impression. It’s OVER! Imagine, a team that was 6-17, waltzing out of Miami while flexing. A sad 1-for-10 from the field in the fourth up until that point, the miffed Butler was left with no choice but to get these Young whippersnappers off his lawn. Although, Jimmy needed a little help from a kid named Duncan Robinson, inexplicably born before the Spurs even got their act together, dishing and crushing threes (five 3FGs plus 4 assists, for 24 of the heat’s final 34 points from the mid-4th quarter on) to help him save the heat’s bacon. Thanks in part to Trae’s late-game antics, this heat-Hawks rivalry finally has some sizzle. With the heat in town at The Farm tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA), it’s now up to Atlanta to bring not just sizzle, but steak, to the party. Speaking of parties… foolish me, but back in the spring of 2009, I thought D-Wade was just about D-one. Not just down in Miami, where the heat had just lost an unsightly seven-game, first-round series to Josh Smith’s Hawks. But in general, as an NBA headliner. There he was, about to turn 28, still unable to stretch the floor, dependent on the likes of a withering Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem and Michael Beasley to get the once-proud heat back into championship contention. Despite a league-best 30.2 scoring average to end 2009’s regular season, Wade was looking more and more like a Flash in the pan, playing through injuries, logging ridiculous minutes. A 4-1 pasting of his team the following season at the hands of the mighty Celtics made Wade’s farewell from Florida all the more likely. Erik Spoelstra’s, too. Then, in Wade’s critical 2010 season of free agency, Pat Riley rolled up his sleeves. Now, the Weekend of Wade ahead is a three-day party down in South Beach to honor #3 and retire his jersey. Wade is rightfully feted for not only getting Miami quickly out of the lottery morass when he was drafted 5th overall back in 2003, but for becoming the co-star that sizable Hall of Fame-caliber superstars would cling to on an annual quest for rings, from Shaq and Zo, to Bron and Bosh. Wade could have casually name-dropped L.A., or his hometown of Chicago, along the way. But he trusted Riley, stayed True to Wade County, and has three NBA titles and five Finals appearances to show for his troubles. It’s a lesson in persistence, and wherewithal, and making one’s NBA city a veritable star destination, that I’m sure a kid drafted 5th overall fifteen years after Wade is sure to take heed. Even with Wade finally hanging it up last season, Miami (35-19, 4th in NBA East) remains clearly the class of the NBA’s Dirty South Division. Team exec-extraordinaire Riley has uncongested the books of salary-cap calamities, making ample room to accommodate Butler and the once-exiled Andre Iguodala with multi-year deals. Spoelstra’s staff has solved longstanding depth problems with former unknowns like Robinson (43.8 3FG%) and Kendrick Nunn (Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for every month so far, despite going undrafted). Butler (20.6 PPG; career-highs of 6.8 RPG and 6.1 APG) is successfully swinging his persona from star malcontent to star magnet. Adebayo (10.4 RPG, 10th in NBA; 4th in NBA for Defensive BPM; 4.9 APG) has emerged as the supplementary All-Star that many heat fans hoped Justise Winslow would someday become. Even with so much having gone right thus far for the heat, one could reasonably envision the Hawks being the team coming into tonight’s game seeking the head-to-head season sweep. The Hawks, then an upbeat 2-1 after losing by just two points to Finals-hopeful Philly, were going toe-to-toe with host Miami back in October when Young turned an ankle early in the first quarter. Returning to Atlanta a couple days later, the heat did the best they could to skate away with a blowout win, but Young’s sudden replacement, Tyrone Wallace, and Jabari Parker (remember them?) were giving them a hard time in the fourth quarter. Then there was the December game when the Hawks, with Young (but not John Collins) back on the floor, had Miami backed into a corner, a three-wins-in four games stretch clearly in sight. Failing to stick the landing, the next 10-game losing spiral commenced for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club. Pierce’s Hawks (15-41) have squandered opportunities all season to seize prosperity by the horns. You can include the most recent flops at reeling Orlando and Cleveland before the Break, when an inefficient-shooting Young (5-for-18 while settling at times for 3FGs in last two games) played like a guy with Chicago on his mind, and his fellow Hawks (42 4th-quarter points allowed @ ORL; 19 1st-quarter points @ CLE) played like a bunch of slugs. Besides Trae’s singular All-Star exploits on behalf of the Hawks, heat players had themselves a fairly eventful weekend, too. Showing off the Scrabble-colored unis, Derrick Jones got some home cooking from Dwayne Wade and his Dunk Contest judging panel that clearly flunked at both collusion and addition. Adebayo reinforced the notion that indeed, Big Men got skills in the 2020s. Trae was a dud in the Three-Point contest, but it was Robinson who was the betting favorite and didn’t do that much better. At least Duncan was present, something few would have predicted coming off a two-way contract season where he shot just 28.6 3FG% in spot duty. By the way, did you see who was among the first to embrace Buddy Hield as the Sooner sealed the win? We see you out here, Trae. Much like Young, Bam got The Nick Nurse Treatment after leading Team Giannis in first-quarter scoring on Sunday night. He found himself subbed out and watching the next quarter from the sideline in favor of Nurse’s frontcourt star, Pascal Siakam. Adebayo wound up playing under 12 minutes, second-lowest among any All-Star who appeared, and not much more than Butler’s 13 minutes as a Team Giannis reserve. The good news for Coach Spo is that Bam and Jimmy each return from the Break not the worse for wear. Meanwhile, Jones will try to parlay his Dunk Contest infamy (bless you, Aaron Gordon) and new Puma shoe deal into a splash of free agency cash with a strong close to the season. After slaughtering the Sixers at home on February 3, the heat went into the Break with a five-game road trip, and had just one win, at lowly Golden State, to show for their troubles. Iguodala, who arrived before the Trade Deadline with momentary Hawk Solomon Hill and rabble-rousing Jae Crowder, will help Butler and Goran Dragic apply the defensive screws for Miami, which have been caught slipping away from home (106.0 D-Rating in home games, 111.0 on road). But the revival of a floundering offense (106.6 O-Rating in past 5 games, 27th in NBA) is what the heat must put on display, beginning tonight. The 137-point bonanza against Philly being the exception, Miami hasn’t exceeded 115 points in the past nine games, nor 120 points in their past 15 contests. The gritty-grindy pace that Spoelstra prefers has much to do with it, but so does his team failing to exceed 45 percent from the floor while failing to create second-chances. In Salt Lake back on the 12th, the heat chilled to just 43.2 percent, sinking just a third of their three-point shots, while getting thoroughly out-boarded 53-37 along the way to a 116-101 loss to the Jazz. Playing without Butler in Portland a few days before, Miami was worse inside the 3-point arc (19-for-49 2FGs, season-high 20-for-49 3FGs) than outside, while Adebayo found himself overwhelmed by Whiteside as the heat fell short, 115-109. A few days before that, no one aside Robinson could even hit threes, mustering just 21 fourth-quarter points in a 105-97 loss at Sacramento, the Kings’ benched guard Hield matching Adebayo with a game-high seven rebounds. Atlanta already knows Clint Capela, who’s healing his heel through at least the start of next month, won’t be around to save the day defensively. If Collins and Dewayne Dedmon can be just a bit more imposing on the boards than they were in Cleveland and avoid succumbing to early foul trouble, that’s half the battle won. Next year’s All-Star festivities are in Indiana, and several Hawks ought to have some goals to be right in the thick of it all. Three-point threat Kevin Huerter (probable, allergic reaction probably to Angel’s Food cake) on Saturday, Collins with Young on Sunday. Collins has lots of work cut out for him, competing with the likes of Adebayo and Siakam for frontcourt reserve attention once KD returns to form. But becoming a better passer and plus-defender, and a more consistent double-double machine (12 combined rebounds in losses at ORL and CLE) while helping Atlanta become a winning collective will help turn enough heads his way. On Friday of that weekend, beside whoever Atlanta takes with their 2020 lottery pick, we’d better see De’Andre Hunter (questionable, ankle sprain) and Cam Reddish earning unassailable selections to the Rising Stars’ USA Team. Offensive enhancements are important for the rooks going forward. Perhaps most importantly, becoming active and productive passers such that Trae, Brandon Goodwin, Jeff Teague or whoever’s running point can become omnipresent quick-strike threats off the ball. For a team that ranks last in the league with a 33.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG% (only team in NBA with a sub-50 percent eFG% on these plays), having Hunter, Collins and Reddish capable of drawing in overeager defenders and setting up the guards to score off the catch is an element of the offense that is yet to be unlocked. The Hawks are more reliant upon pull-up threes (6th most pull-up 3FGAs in NBA) than most teams in the league, but their 31.7 3FG% on those shots are less than desirable. Teams that catch-and-shoot proficiently, like Miami (57.8 C&S eFG%, 2nd in NBA; 39.1 C&S 3FG%, 3rd in NBA), tend to make things easier on themselves. Going forward, neither the postseason-hopeful heat, nor the hopefully upwardly mobile Hawks can afford long stretches of anemic offense without strategic game-plan shifts. The team that plays quarters as if there’s some 24-point Elam Ending to aim for will come away disappointed with the final score this evening. After just a few years of rebuilding in this town, the lights, the cameras, and the camera-ready star are already among the NBA’s best and brightest. All that Atlanta’s fans patiently await is some darn good action, the kind that puts Ws in the column. With six of the next seven games at home, starting today would be great! But if not, no worries! Just make it soon, very soon. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “Workin’ on a Cleveland weekend vacation guide. You mind helpin’ me out?” Our Atlanta Hawks helped the Orlando Magic slow their descent, if only for a moment, before the All-Star Break. Tonight’s host, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio), hope the Hawks will do them a similar favor. Sorry, Cavs. But my Hawks are on a very important, single-minded mission this evening. It’s time to firm up those sipping words! “Trae Young is here in Chicago this weekend, despite the Hawks having ONE OF the worst records in the Eastern Conference.” Sip, everybody, sip! “Ernie, ah’m tellin ya, there shouldn’t be anybody here on All-Star Weekend representin their conference when their team has the worst record!” “Chuck, the Hawks (15-40) only have ONE OF the worst records. The Cavs (13-40) are worst.” Sip! “All ah’m sayin, is we can’t have players on bad teams getting into All-Star Weekend.” “Chuck, your Sixers were next-to-last in the Atlantic Division with a losing record when you went to the ’88 All-Stars.” “Shaddup, Kenny. That’s ONE OF the worst ties you’ve got on that ah’ve ever seen.” Sip! “Weren’t y’all near last place before 1992’s All-Stars, when you were barking your way out of Philly, too?” “Aren’t you in need of a pedicure, Shaq? Listen, lemme say this. We were ONE OF the worst teams,” Sip!, “but ah had to put up with Kenny Payne and Charles Shackleford. And, one other thing… Collin Sexton is a Rising Star in this league, he’s a great rookie.” “He’s… he’s not a…” “ONE OF the best rookies in his class.” Sip! “Oh, Andre Drummond is ONE OF the best big men in basketball,” Sip!, “and he deserves to be here.” “We’re going to go to a commercial break before Chuck starts advocating for Kevin Love, too.” “That’s ONE OF the best ideas I’ve heard in this segment, Ernie.” Sip! Forgive Chuckles and the stream of unconsciousness we and his TV partners must endure this weekend. Yes, the Cavs would remain percentage points behind Atlanta with the first win at Quicken Loans Arena in their last 13 tries. But we know Auburn Mathematics in the 80’s didn’t get much beyond the first decimal. Seeing both clubs tied in the “games behind” column of the standings would only further embolden Charles’ point, which is technically a line but for 80’s-era Auburn Geometry. All-Star Break ’88 spelled doom for Barkley’s coach, Matty Guokas, and this season’s intermission could similarly be the end of the ‘lein. Cavaliers first-year coach John Beilein signed a five-year deal back in May of 2019. But we know by now that owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t mind paying coaches to get lost. Beilein’s departure would make the next clipboard clutcher the seventh in Cleveland’s last seven-and-a-half seasons. Coming off the worst home loss in 50 years of franchise history (which IS saying something for those of us who recall the Richfield years), a 133-92 thumping at the hands of a Clippers team on a SEGABABA that sat Kawhi Leonard and Pat Beverley, the Cavs and Beilein need a momentum-shifting victory tonight in the worst way. Andre Drummond (19 points, 2-fo-3 3FGs, 14 rebounds incl. 7 O-Rebs vs. LAC in his Cavs debut) won’t address the Cavs’ interior defensive woes the way Clint Capela is expected to eventually do for Atlanta. But the man can rebound, and as Kevin Love (questionable, sore Achilles) and Tristan Thompson zone out for the remainder of the season, Cleveland hopes Drummond (NBA-high 15.8 RPG, only player besides Love to lead league with 15+ RPG since 2003) should be able to hone in on his strongest attribute. Cavalier opponents have had little trouble getting desirable shots up (NBA-worst 49.3 opponent FG%, incl. 56.2 opponent 2FG%; NBA-low 3.2 team BPG). But on the occasions where foes have lousy shooting nights, Drummond (1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, as per bball-ref) can help clean up the glass for Cleveland and give his team a puncher’s chance. The early returns on the backcourt pairing of Sexton with Darius Garland (minus-12.0 points per 100 possessions, per bball-ref) continue to show little promise. Garland leads all rooks with 32 games hitting at least two threes, but he has been driving the struggle bus lately (31.3 3FG% in past 15 games). His lack of defensive production and inability to draw trips to the free throw line has him hitting the rookie wall like the Kool-Aid Man. The Young Bull from Cobb County, Sexton has been carrying the Cavs on his back (22.8 PPG, 47.9 3FG%, 94.0 FT% in last 15 games), exemplified back on December 23 when his team-high 25 points (12-for-19 2FGs) helped the Cavs eclipse the Hawks in John Collins’ return to NBA action. The rookie that has best supported Sexton of late has been not lottery-pick Garland, but the final pick of 2019’s first round. Kevin Porter nearly outscored Atlanta’s bench with 17 points (to the Hawks’ 15; incl. 9 in the final frame on Dec. 23), adding on 9 rebounds and teaming up with Love and Garland for a furious fourth-quarter opening rally to fend off the Hawks early. Porter was also one of the few bright spots against the Clippers (17 points in 27 bench minutes) and may be angling for Garland’s starting gig after the Break. The lack of any significant defensive presence on the floor has harmed Cleveland’s chances of staying competitive (NBA-worst minus-9.4 Net Rating), perpetually at the mercy of opponents that aren’t having poor shooting nights, finish close and/or open shots, and hustle back defensively in transition. Atlanta hasn’t often been that kind of team, especially late (42-30 4th-quarter deficit in the 135-126 loss to the Magic, whose 4th-quarter offense was their season-best). But recent losses in Boston and Orlando suggest they’re beginning to sort things out. Despite the struggles to thwart the East’s worst field-goal shooters as Monday’s outcome hung in the balance, a healthier set of Atlanta swingmen inclusive of Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter (available, played in ORL despite an ankle sprain) and DeAndre’ Bembry (probable, neuritis) ought to make it tougher to have Cedi Osman (38.9 3FG%) and, if he plays, Love, bailing Sexton and Garland out of tough spots. Wing players not patrolling the perimeter must be in position to disrupt passes in the paint and recover tip-outs and rebounds off wild shots that Thompson, Love and/or Drummond will be hunting for. It’s fairly safe for bettors to take the Over no matter the line, as Young’s Hawks and Sexton’s Cavs (125+ regulation points at home vs. GSW, NYK, and LAC this month) give up buckets quite easily. But if the Hawks push the tempo and limit their own turnovers on offense, they should find themselves spending much of the evening playing with the higher of the two scores. Cleveland’s coach may need Love to help Drummond play keep-away against Atlanta’s frontline of Collins (one of five players now averaging 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG; 56.7 FG% highest among the quintet) and Dewayne Dedmon. After all, Beilein doesn’t want news of his ouster to become a byline anytime soon. Speaking of Love, I don’t even need three special words to make my weekend ONE OF the best ever. Two will do just fine. Sip! Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy the All-Star Break. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  25. “When you wish upon a Star… Makes a difference who you are…” I can’t speak for you, but I am kind of glad, no longer having to care at all about the fate of the Netspick. In a secondary way, Atlanta Hawks fans no longer have to be concerned about tonight’s opponent, the slip-sliding Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), or any other lotto-quality Eastern Conference foe holding down one of the final two available playoff spots. For a minute there, mere weeks ago, it was looking like the 7-seed was no longer in play. Despite losing defensive glue Jonathan Isaac (severe knee sprain suffered on New Year’s Day) for the balance of January, the Magic responded by going 5-2, highlighted by a win at STAPLES Center, without Evan Fournier, over a Laker team that thought it was safe to rest Anthony Davis. Unfortunately for coach Steve Clifford’s crew, Orlando’s depth began absorbing too many hits. Knee surgery last month for the already-injured Al-Farouq Aminu, arguably the team’s biggest free agent addition over the summer, effectively concluded his season before it could really get going. Orlando was granted a Disabled Player Exception for Aminu, but not for Isaac, the latter application an indication that he won’t be rushed back by the team any time soon. In and out for much of the season already, Michael Carter-Williams was missing time due to injury, and by the time he returned to action in mid-January, he tagged out D.J. Augustin, whose patella irritation (still out tonight) has had the lead bench guard unavailable ever since. Orlando had already weathered the storm of losing recent All-Star pivot Nikola Vucevic for a month. But for a squad that relied on defensive fortitude from Isaac, a discrete set of offensive options around wayward-shooting ballhandler Markelle Fultz, and snail’s-pace ball-control keyed by Augustin and Carter-Williams off the bench as pillars to victory, Clifford’s Magic seem to be just about out of tricks. One night after upsetting LeBron’s Lakers to get within a game of .500 basketball, Orlando had to endure the dreaded STAPLES back-to-back and got clapped by the Clippers. They’ve been in an O-Town Funk ever since. Two wins, both on the road at charcoaled Charlotte, are all the team can claim from their past twelve contests. Their last victory here at Amway Center, over a month ago, came at the expense of a Wizards team that didn’t even have All-Star wannabe Bradley Beal. The Magic (22-31) began a three-game homestand getting toyed with by Giannis and top-seeded Milwaukee, a preview of what might be a sad but swift playoff opening round, should no other Eastern lottery teams step it up in the coming months. With just two home games left before the All-Star Break (Detroit arrives on Wednesday), the Magic hopes they can face a squad that tired itself out last night in Atlanta. The Hawks (15-39) needed four quarters and a pair of overtimes to outlast a Knicks team that itself was playing a back-to-back. Remember that the Magic had already been awaiting several young players to get healthy and emerge as stars for the future. They spent a mid-first-rounder on Atlanta native Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL while starring for Auburn during last year’s March Madness campaign, with the intention of rehabbing and bringing him along slowly as Aminu and Amile Jefferson played behind Gordon this season. They’ve been pleased that Fultz and center Mo Bamba have been healthy, steady members of the rotation. But they have been forced to rely more on the lotto-pick pair at critical junctures of this season than they likely anticipated. The same goes for third-year bench players Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch. Having already tripled his volume of starts in Philly before the Sixers discarded him, Markelle passes and shoots inside the arc reasonably well (4.8 APG; 50.1 2FG%). He’d be all the more dangerous with dribble penetration if he had reliable perimeter shooters at the ready. Atlanta ranks 30th in three-point accuracy (32.6 3FG%, 34.3% since Jan. 1), but the Magic (33.4 3FG%, 33.5 since Jan. 1) are coming on strong for that dead-last spot. 2019 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terrence Ross’ jumper has plummeted back to Earth this year (32.2 3FG%, 3-for-19 FGs vs. ATL this season). Vucevic and Gordon combined to shoot 0-for-13, and Ross 1-for-4, from deep against the Bucks in Saturday’s 111-95 loss, making Fultz (3-for-7 3FG vs. MIL, a season-high in makes; 26.9 3FG% on the season) look quite the marksman. At least the Hawks have a point guard in Trae Young (39 points, incl. 13 in 4th quarter; 5-for-10 3FGs, incl. the game-clincher, vs. ORL on Oct. 26) who can call his own number on occasion. Perhaps, two, at least until Jeff Teague (37.1 2FG%, probable for tonight despite sore shoulder) gets out of his shooting rut. Without Young, Brandon Goodwin saved the day for the Hawks in Orlando back on December 30, sinking big shots inside and out (team-high 21 points, 3-for-4 3FGs), generally catching the Magic off-guard in a 101-93 win. The former UCF and Florida Gulf Coast star guard isn’t as effective in spot duty. But when Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has turned to the two-way player and Midseason All-G-Leaguer for major minutes, Goodwin (just 4 minutes last night vs. NYK) has shown he’s up to the task (42.9 FG%, 100 FT%, 24 assists and 12 TOs in games w/ 20+ minutes). The sole major move by Magic exec Jeff Weltman to bolster team depth was the acquisition of James Ennis, the reserve forward who generally struggled with Philadelphia this season (37.0 FG% since Dec. 31) before waiving his no-trade clause to come to Orlando. Ennis is expected to premiere tonight for the Magic, who waived Jefferson at the Trade Deadline to accommodate Ennis and make 10-day contractor Gary Clark a full-time member. It is hoped that Ennis’ addition will give Gordon (41.9 FG%, 15.4 points and 3.4 assists per-36, down from 44.9%, 17.0 and 4.0 last season) more latitude to play full-time at the power forward spot, where he is perceived to be more effective. Orlando is 9-4 when AG snares 8 or more defensive rebounds, 3-13 when he grabs fewer than five. The Magic frontline has struggled to this point when plugging in either Iwundu or Ross in place of the sidelined Isaac, so they hope Ennis will be a difference maker defensively. Along the way to a 42-40 record in 2018-19, their first winning season since 2011-12, Clifford’s Magic were among three opponents to sweep the 29-53 Hawks in four games, and the only one to win them all by double-digit margins. With a chance to improve to 3-0 versus Orlando this season, it is reasonable to wonder whether Pierce and the Hawks finally have the Magic’s number. Clifford’s 36-46 Hornets similarly swept the 2017-18 Hawks by double-digits in four games. Matt Hill, a longtime Magic video analyst who was the sole assistant initially retained by Clifford when he took over for Frank Vogel in 2018, left shortly thereafter to join Pierce’s staff, and his intimate knowledge may be proving valuable in Atlanta’s competitive turnaround against mainstays Vucevic, Fournier and Gordon (DNP vs. ATL on Dec. 30). The trio was a combined 5-for-28 on threes and has been generally ineffective in second halves versus Atlanta through the first two matchups. Orlando may catch an extra break keeping up offensively if Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (38.3 corner 3FG% on team-high 1.6 attempts per game; team-high 35 minutes, 3-for-6 3FGs @ ORL in December; 48 minutes, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. NYK; questionable, ankle sprain) gets some rest today. Without several wing defenders available for the Hawks, Fournier and Ross must each be on-target today. Catching up with Orlando and attaining a playoff spot is a bit too much of an ask at this stage for a Hawks team that struggled to put the Knicks to bed last night, and they won’t have a core with a chance to gel until Clint Capela (out, heel bone) and Cam Reddish (questionable, concussion) make their likely returns after the All-Star Break. But it is possible for the Hawks to surge soon past at least one division rival. A win tonight would raise Atlanta to 5-4 within the Southeast Division (0-3 versus banner leader Miami), an above-.500 mark that neither Charlotte (1-6; 2.0 games ahead of ATL) nor Washington (4-8; 4.5 games ahead of ATL) is likely to claim. By comparison, yesterday’s win over New York vaulted Atlanta to just 4-22 versus the rest of the conference. Building competitive edges against the rest of the Southeast can bode well for Atlanta, both going into the Break and looking forward to next season. Will they have the legs and the wherewithal to keep building against the struggling Magic tonight? Orlando certainly hopes the answer is no. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3