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  1. “Let’s kick off Black History Month in style!” You really can’t expect much more than you’ve gotten out of Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks. They come into Atlanta tonight (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest) aiming for their fourth win in five games, the sole exception being a blowout loss to a red-hot Golden State. They’ll also look to snap a four-game losing streak against the Hawks head-to-head. Amid a stretch of five games in seven days before the All-Star break, Carlisle is running a master-class in conserving player energies. Future Hassel-HOFer Dirk Nowitzki sat out from yesterday’s home game vs. Phoenix, in advance of tonight’s contest. While his 44.8 FG% is the second-lowest of his storied career, Dallas (28-22) is a stout 12-3 when Dirk (5-for-12 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) contributes at least 20 points in a game. Former Hawk and almost-All-Star Zaza Pachulia (career-best 10.8 RPG) rested a sore leg for three games last week, then returned and picked up right where he left off (12.5 PPG, 13.5 RPG in wins versus Brooklyn and Phoenix to wrap up a homestand). He and Dirk are adequately running a Statler and Waldorf frontcourt, delivering plenty of silly media soundbytes while betting which player can log the most dunks by season’s end (Z-Pac’s up 9-4, for those keeping score at home). The one player who was a wild card at the start of the year due to the prior season’s injury, free agent acquisition Wesley Matthews, leads the team in minutes played. Wes is mired in a shooting slump (37.6 FG%, 28.4 3FG% in last 15 games) but insists he’ll play his way out of it. “Look, he’s fine,” Carlisled remarked after yesterday’s game. “I’m not going to fistfight him tomorrow to try to get him to sit out.” The Mavs have a well-seasoned roster whose top 8 players in minutes-per-game are aged 27 and up, and six of them (excepting Matthews and swingman Chandler Parsons) are at least 30. One of them, former Hawk Devin Harris, has missed the past several games and was left back in Big D to heal his sprained toe. Mark Cuban is more interested in fielding a League of Legends team than pulling any moves as the trade deadline approaches. “Nothing is really tempting to us,” Cuban told recently. Injecting youth for the sake of youth ahead of the playoffs only threatens Dallas’ team chemistry. Collectively, Dallas doesn’t turn the ball over (12.3 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), as only DFW-raised Deron Williams exceeds two TOs per game. They set up lots of three-point shots (28.0 3FGAs per game, 4th in NBA) and tend to make their free throws (10th in NBA for FT%). The one bad free throw shooter among their top scorers in Parsons (61.6 FT%), who is bouncing back in other aspects of his offensive game (January: 16.1 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 43.8 3FG%). Much like Atlanta, they shy away from crashing the offensive glass (20.4 O-Reb%, 29th in NBA), save for easy opportunities for Pachulia or JaVale McGee. Unlike Atlanta, the Mavs do clean up on the defensive end with a focus on rebounding (34.2 D-Rebs per game, 3rd in NBA) over blocks (28th in NBA) and steals (25th in NBA). Altogether, they’re smack in the middle of the league (15th in NBA) in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Yet they’re over-achieving at 10th in the overall NBA standings. That’s because they have veteran leadership that actually leads, a no-nonsense coach armed with a contract extension that still won’t accept mediocrity, and a vocal owner that’s willing to pull strings and take risks at the first sign of slippage. Dallas will try to make more hay out of the turnovers they produce against Atlanta. In their last meeting in mid-December, the Mavs committed just 9 turnovers to the visiting Hawks’ 15, yet were outscored off turnovers by a 17-16 margin as the Hawks wrested back the lead in the final three minutes to prevail, 98-95. Bench players like J.J. Barea (0-for-6 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) and Dwight Powell did light work in yesterday’s game, Jeff Hornacek’s swan song in Dallas, and will be expected by Carlisle to help Dallas push the pace. Raymond Felton filled into the starting lineup in place of Nowitzki and recorded six assists (zero TOs) as the Mavs went small against the Suns. As for the Atlanta Hawks (27-22), losers in their last three games, and in five of their last six? When they decide to give their fans something worth writing about, we’ll mention it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. “Phew! Got LeBron out of here just in time!” The race to be the Best of the Rest is still on! For all their losing ways of late, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to regain their clutch on the third-seed in the Eastern Conference, with another road win in Miami against the heat (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports). With another road loss, what would be their third in their last four away games, they could drop as far as sixth. The Hawks can’t say their Southeast Division foes haven’t given them ample opportunity to pull away. Charlotte floundered but is surviving through the absences of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson, while the Wizards have struggled to keep Bradley Beal on the floor. Orlando has stayed relatively intact but have missed Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo for spells recently. Only the Magicians have failed to regain their footing in the division, and even with amid an 8-game losing skid, they’re still just 5.5 games behind Atlanta (27-21). Erik Spoelstra’s club went through a 2-8 stretch in mid-January, with wins coming only at Phoenix and at Denver, grinning and bearing their way through the schedule despite injuries hampering Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and Hassan Whiteside (strained oblique, missed last four games and out again today). In addition to dealing with injuries, home games like today’s have become a rarity for Miami. After a home-friendly start to the year, this will be just the second game at AmericanAirlines Arena since January 6. The heat return home with their spirits lifted after three straight road wins in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee. But even after today’s game, the heat hit the road again for three games (at Houston, Dallas and Charlotte), before returning to host the Clippers and Spurs. Part of Miami’s turnaround of late has to do with boosting the pace and making smart offensive plays. Looking as healthy as he has in awhile, Wade has led the charge in his past four games (25.3 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.0 TOs/game, 51.3 FG%). The heat are not great 3-point shooters (32.9 team 3FG%, 27th in NBA), and Wade isn’t wasting much time with those (8 3FG attempts since Miami won in Atlanta on Dec. 14, no 3FGs made since Dec. 16). What he is doing is penetrating lanes, getting to the free throw line (10-for-13 FTs @MIL last Friday), dishing the ball to teammates in advantageous positions (15 total assists in last two games). He’s also finding his comfort zone on long-distance two-pointers, particularly on the left side of the rim. But it’s not all on offense where the 34-year-old star is making his mark. “He can’t do it the whole game,” Chris Bosh remarked to the Palm Beach Post, “but late in the game he can guard their best guy. Period. And that guy’s probably not gonna get open. If he really wants to, he ‘s gonna lock him up.” The heat have only won by four or five points in their past three games, and Wade has been prominent in sealing the deal. Wade stripped Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim on Friday with under 30 seconds to go, keeping the big Buck from tying the game. If Miami is turning to Wade to help out in the paint, particularly since Whiteside and Chris Andersen (knee soreness) cannot go, Atlanta’s perimeter shooters have to be primed and ready to catch-and-shoot quickly. The Hawks were not aided on Friday by either Kyle Korver or Mike Scott (combined 2-for-13 3FGs). Ultimately, if you’re going to get a jump on Miami with offense, you’d better do it early. Even with the recent absence of Whiteside, the heat has the league’s best fourth-quarter defensive rating (97.7 opponent points per 100 possessions) and hold teams to just 41.7 FG% in the closing frame. Thanks to this, according to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, their fourth-quarter +1.1 is their only net positive point differential in quarters of games. Despite a +1.7 fourth-quarter differential that ranks 4th in the league, the past two games (17-21 vs. LAC, 17-29 vs. IND) haven’t helped Atlanta’s standing. After playing from behind for much of the contest, the Hawks clawed their way to a 90-88 lead in Indy on Friday night, only to pull the rip cord and watch the Pacers go on a blistering 23-2 run to close the game out. Despite playing through nagging injuries from time to time, the Hawks have held together physically, if not psychologically, through much of the season. All-Star forward Paul Millsap sprained an ankle midway through the loss in Indiana, but is expected to be good-to-go at tip-off time today. Still, all of the signs of pending collapse are there for Atlanta, after a disappointing January (6-8) that concludes this evening. Having played the East’s second-easiest strength of schedule so far (48% winning percentage of played opponents, as per, they now face the East’s most daunting schedule going forward (54% winning percentage of remaining opponents). Particularly without Millsap, the Hawks could find no means of stopping Indiana’s offense. Al Horford was out-Horforded by rookie first-time starter Myles Turner in Indiana, and needs to put up a stronger two-way effort against his fellow floor-spreading big Bosh (22.0 PPG, 52.8 FG% in last six games) today. Both Millsap and Horford need to keep starting center Amar’e Stoudemire occupied in the paint. With the aid of Deng and rookie reserve Justise Winslow, Miami clamped down on the Hawks’ starting guards (Jeff Teague and Korver 4-for-24 FGs) in last month’s 100-88 win. Kent Bazemore was left open and carried the team offensively (28 points, 11-for-18 FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs), but he cannot get it done himself. Thabo Sefolosha’s offense (4-for-5 FTs, 13 points) awoke after a month-long slumber, but Atlanta’s reserves universally struggled on the floor defensively on Friday. The bench has to keep Gerald Green (20 points on 9-for-14 FGs in Miami’s 100-88 win in Atlanta on Dec. 14) from getting the green-light shots he wants, particularly in transition. Tyler Johnson is questionable with a strained shoulder, adding to the need for the Hawks’ bench to build a sizable advantage. Dragic returned against Milwaukee (12 points, 8 assists) after missing eight games with a calf injury, and it’s hoped he’ll continue elevating the pace of play (29th in NBA) for Miami. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder need to be the one-two punch for Atlanta that pushes the tempo and puts Dragic (and Wade) to work on defense, early and often. The Hawks will be visited by Miami on February 19, and by that time the trading deadline will have expired. Despite the recent upturn in play for the heat, another slide will likely compel team president Pat Riley to make critical trade offers that get the team below the punitive luxury tax apron. Today is the last opportunity Atlanta will have to kick those executive phone calls into high drive. Another losing skid for either team would drop them from the Best of the Rest and leave them competing among the Least o the East. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  3. “Need a new mascot, Hawaiian Punch? I’ve got just the guy…” The Atlanta Hawks got a chance to scout both the Clippers and the Indiana Pacers, as both upcoming opponents played on Tuesday. That didn’t seem to help the Hawks avoid a muckfest and a loss to the Clippers last night. Ahead of tonight’s matchup with the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Indiana), the Pacers themselves got a day off to rest and scout the opposition. Will that reflect in their play before an increasingly nervous home crowd? In the Eastern Conference, after Cleveland and Toronto, who’s the Best of the Rest? Much like the Clippers, the Pacers compressed the Hawks offense in Atlanta, riding Monta Ellis’ 26 points to a 93-87 win in December 28, ending a four-game losing streak. Indiana then eked past the Hawks in the standings in mid-January to peak at 22-16, the choice was becoming quite obvious. Well, that was before Indiana (23-22) dropped six of their last seven, the one break being a three-point victory in Phoenix. Now they sit in the East’s 8th-seed spot, with four teams closer to catching them than they are of catching Atlanta (27-20). All-star starter and franchise face Paul George (31 points, 11 rebounds in 38 minutes vs. LAC on Tuesday) doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge a little fatigue in his comeback season from a broken leg. To the Indianapolis Star, George recently attributed his inconsistent play of late to, “just being overly confident that I can go out and still do the things I was doing (earlier in the season),” when PG was November’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month. The notions that the perennial MVP candidate is “all the way back” from his injury have ebbed. “It’s not the case. It’s hard and it’s weighing on me right now, it’s weighing on my body, it’s weighing on my mental (approach). It just sucks knowing where you were at.” Since breaking out of the gate in November (27.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 45.9 FG%, 45.5 3FG%), George’s offensive production has slid (22.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 38.9 FG%, 34.4 3FG%, 3.7 TOs/game). Tuesday’s game was just the second time in the last 25 games he made 10 or more field goals (compared to nine times in his first 20 games). After pouring on 34 points in Sacramento and 31 against the Clippers in losing causes, George (career-low 41.5 FG%) is crying out for some consistent help. The next four leading scorers for Indiana, guards Monta Ellis (43.5 FG%, 27.9 3FG%), George “Blondie” Hill (44.1 FG%, 44.8 2FG%), Rodney Stuckey (41.0 FG%, 20.8 3FG%) and swingman C.J. Miles (39.2 FG%) haven’t fared all that much better. So head coach Frank Vogel is turning more and more to a rookie big that’s been turning plenty of heads lately. Pacers (former) reserve Myles Turner was unleashed in Denver a couple weeks ago, and turned in an 11-for-13 FG shooting display for 25 points that featured a very comfortable mid-range game. Five days later, thanks to his 31 points (12-for-17 FGs, 7-for-9 FTs) and 8 rebounds, Indiana was one of the rare teams that escaped the wrath of Golden State reasonably unscathed, a 12-point loss at Oracle. Turner had little problem getting shots off against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers, scoring 16 off the bench (7-for-11 FGs for 16 points in just 18 minutes). Turner’s teammates shot just 38.9% from the field in Tuesday’s loss. “Definitely want to look at that,” Vogel told reporters recently, about the possibilities of pairing Turner and Ian Mahinmi together (they tried this last week in Phoenix, briefly, before Mahinmi re-sprained an ankle). “I like the idea of those guys playing together.” Especially since it may be a good reason to suspend the grand Larry Bird Experiment and pull George further away from the basket as a small forward. Bird is pretty much left to shrug his shoulders on Vogel’s plan to go back to playing big. “We talk about it daily,” Larry Legend told “I think he feels comfortable going with two bigs. I wanted to score 103 points a game.” The Pacers sit at 102.3 PPG (2nd in the East), with George’s occasional struggles, so not much to fuss about there. Ideally, Bird wanted George to spend the lion’s share of time at the 4-spot so he wouldn’t be chasing guards around the perimeter, but the wear-and-tear of defending in the paint is showing, too. “If (Vogel) feels that’s what he thinks will get us the most wins, that’s what we should do.” With the green-light to revert to the days of Hibbert and West, all Vogel needs are some wins at his sails. Vogel announced late today that Turner will begin his starter duties tonight at power forward, ahead of Lavoy Allen. “I know my bro Myles Turner should (have) made that Rising Star list. Keep Ya head up bro(.) We will show who are the best rookies this year!!” This nugget of pseudo-fraternal love was tweeted by Joe Young, the backup guard to Hill that is beginning to work his way into the rotation as well. Young’s time to shine came courtesy of the injury to Stuckey (sprained foot/bone bruise) and paternity leave for Hill. Against the Nuggets, the second-rounder scored 15 points (7-for-11 2FGs) and added 7 assists with just a single turnover. Versus the Warriors, the former Oregon star made half of his 12 shots along the way to 16 points, plus 8 assists in a season-high 28 minutes. Young isn’t restless, but he is hungry to improve his shooting and defense to increase his floor time. He’ll also need to control the ball better, and his four turnovers against L.A. on Tuesday in ten minutes won’t help his cause. George is not the only Paul to openly express some fatigue in recent days. “Tired!” was the first utterance from Paul Millsap, responding to Olivia Harlan in his halftime interview amid last night’s game. Horford was similarly caught grabbing his own shorts as the half was winding to a close. This was despite the Clips being the team that flew in to complete their road trip with a back-to-back, and despite the team forgoing shootaround for a pregame walkthrough. It was Horford who was flung to the floor like a rag doll in the Clippers’ game-winning play, an Easy-Bake dish from Chris Paul to Jordan for an open jam. With the game again on the line, it was Millsap who blew two shots from close-range that could have at least produced overtime. Millsap has just heard that he’ll be headed to the All-Star Game for a third-straight time, and his honor should not be tainted by last night’s performance. It should be noted that while Millsap and the Hawks are rightfully derided for their “clutchiness” of late, it is currently the All-Star starter George’s Pacers with the most losses (7) by one-possession in the Association. Still days removed from their West Coast road trip, will the Hawks continue to look, and sound, as though they’re suffering through jet lag? Atlanta players committed a season-worst 22 turnovers (9 by Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder; 8 by Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha) against Los Angeles. Both the Pacers (20.1 points per-48, 1st in NBA) and Hawks (19.7 points per-48, 2nd in NBA) feast on opponents’ turnovers. So when the Hawks coughed up 20 turns (6 by Teague) against in their last trip to Indiana on December 28, the outcome wasn’t all that hard to predict. Just like the Pacers’ ten missed free throws came back to haunt them in a 91-89 defeat at the hands of the Clippers on Tuesday, the Hawks met a similar fate one night later. They resorted to hacking Jordan (7-for-12 FTs) and coming away looking hypocritical (7-for-14 team FTs) in the 85-83 setback that wasted an otherwise solid defensive effort against a shorthanded and road-weary but still star-studded team. Finally a starter, Turner will provide a great match-up for Millsap (team-high 24 points vs. IND on Dec. 28) and Horford (5-for-8 2FGs, 1-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC). A superior rim protector to Mahinmi, Turner is also willing to come out to defend Horford’s jumpers, or those of anyone in his vicinity. But the limited defense at the wing for Indiana (28.7 opponent restricted-area FG attempts per game, 4th-most in East) is leaving them exposed to cutters when he vacates the paint. “We can talk all these stats defensively,” Bird lamented in a midseason interview, “but how many times did we get beat backdoor the other night in key situations?” As Pacer defenders scramble to cover leaks into the paint, there are often open shots available in the corners (7.1 opponent corner 3FGAs per game, 4th-most in East). Unlike last night, this is an ideal setup for Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott to feast and take some pressure off of Millsap and Horford. Perhaps, one other Hawk as well. Despite all the turnovers and 41.9% shooting against the Pacers in December, the Hawks stayed in contention late, thanks to 14 points (6-for-8 FGs) and 7 rebounds off the bench by Thabo Sefolosha. Besides his scoring, seal-tight defense in tandem with Paul Millsap on George (3-for-14 FGs, 9 points) helped hold the Pacers to just three points in the closing three minutes of action. If anyone, Sefolosha can certainly sympathize with George’s challenges of recovering from a broken leg during a full season of basketball. Those 14 points on December 28 were the most Thabo has contributed in any ballgame since (last 14 games: 5.3 PPG, 5.3 3FG% - not a typo, 39.7 FG%). While his defense remains valuable (at least one steal in each of his last seven games), the Hawks must find a way to get Sefolosha going offensively, lest his teammates struggle as defenses play them 5-on-4. Vogel did not have to gameplan much for a very cold Kyle Korver (0-for-8 3FGs) in his last meeting with Atlanta. In his last three games, though, Korver has shown a greater comfort level with shot/pass decision-making, and it shows in his improved accuracy from deep (66.7 3FG%). Ellis will scratch-and-claw at the ball as a help defender but does little to get through screens, like the one that helped Korver get free and granting the Hawks their final lead late in last night’s game. The need to help Ellis may spring Hill free from his occupation of Teague and/or Schröder, or George from the Hawks’ forwards. All of these players should be prepared to receive the ball and get to the rim quickly. An emphasis on smart passing and player movement over excessive dribbling will keep the ball out of George (2.0 SPG) and the Pacers’ greedy clutches and bring Atlanta’s turnovers back down to sane levels. “I am looking at 9-and-0!” If you’ve heard this a lot in the past couple of months on Atlanta sports radio (92.9 FM), that’s because the drive-time hosts were looking ahead at the football Falcons’ schedule and predicting great things. We know how that turned out. It was similarly simplistic to look ahead to a soft January schedule for the Hawks and know that, at the very worst, barring health issues, they’d extend their winning months of basketball (discounting Octobers) to ten. Now sitting at 6-7 for the month, the Hawks are out to close out a disappointing January right at .500. Both teams want to climb out of the Eastern Conference’s crab barrel soon, and a win tonight for either squad would go a long way in the fight to become the Best of the Rest. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “Stick and Move! Stick and Move!” To the fans who planned on trolling Josh Smith tonight, as the L.A. Clippers face the Atlanta Hawks at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, PRIME), I am sorry to break it to both of you. The New Day has been deferred until mid-March, as Smoove was rocketed back to Houston. But have no fear, Paul Pierce is here! He’s already called Series, I’m sure! And he will be far busier for the Clips than he ever anticipated. This just in: Funny thing… it turns out, the Pimp Hand isn’t all that strong. Blake Griffin had to learn this the hard way a few days ago, when he two-pieced a co-worker at a Toronto restaurant. While an equipment staffer is being soothed back home with Microsoft Money to pay for his swollen face and make the whole ordeal go away, Griffin is the one who needs to wear a mask around Tinseltown. That’s because he decided Keeping It Real was more important than maintaining the structural integrity of his shooting hand, imperiling the Clippers’ postseason seeding prospects. Griffin was already aware, over the weekend, that he would be unavailable for this week’s contests in Indiana and Atlanta. This, after plans to return two weeks after tearing his quad in a Christmas game were already delayed, may have served as underlying frustration. But now, his pugilistic exploits on his fellow employee and reported pal will cost him a return trip to Toronto in a couple weeks, 4-to-6 more weeks on the pine to mend, plus whatever post-appeal punishments get handed down by the team and the Association. Odds are, with the money available to paper over the issue, Griff will never face charges for his battery. But barring a major kiss-and-make-up event, this flare-up will hover over team morale for awhile. The Clippers (29-16) ran through nine straight less-than-imposing opponents, and despite losing half of their past six, the prevailing sentiment was, “Imagine how good we can be, once Blake gets back!” Now, the prospect of playing 15, 20, or even more games Griffin-free, plus whatever added time it takes for him to get re-acclimated with shooting, dribbling, passing and defense on the floor, has L.A. wondering just how sustainable this latest run at the Conference Finals is, really. Is the toast of Rodeo Drive about to hit Skid Row? Clippers GM/coach Doc Rivers had already tired of his fellow former Hawk, sending Josh Smith plus cash back to H-Town in exchange for some fava beans. It was supposed to be addition-by-subtraction, the supposition being that Griffin was on the verge of returning, and Rivers had already demonstrated the Clips had a puncher’s chance (sorry) to win any game, even while Smoove and Lance Stephenson were busy slapboxing each other on the sideline. Instead, it’s up to the 38-year-old Pierce (8.2 PPG, 37.3 FG%, 35.9 3FG% since starting in place of Griffin), Atlanta’s favorite postseason foil, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (19 points w/ PHI vs. short-handed ATL last March) to hold the fort at the forward spots for an indeterminable period. Backup center Cole Aldrich (career-high 5.9 PPG) has earned enough trust for Rivers to part ways with Smith, and will see more minutes alongside Jordan when the Clips want to risk going big with their lineup. For this trio, their job is basically to defend as best they can, and not turn the ball over as they defer to the Clippers’ remaining stars. All-Star Chris Paul (NBA-high 51.0 Assist%; 9.6 APG), league-best perimeter shooter J.J. Redick (48.9 3FG%), and Paul’s Hooper-wife DeAndre Jordan (NBA-high 71.4 FG%; 13.5 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 19 rebounds vs. IND last night) will all continue to elevate their shot volumes in Griffin’s absence. Meanwhile, Rivers will rotate bench guys like Wesley Johnson (5-for-6 3FGs vs. IND last night), former Hawk and current trade-bait Jamal Crawford (NBA-high 92.0 FT%), Stephenson, Doc’s son Austin, and Pablo Prigioni, in hopes he’ll find someone with a hot hand. The strategies have borne fruit so far, as the Clippers conclude what is already their third five-game road-trip on the season. L.A. has come away victorious in their last three games on the second night of a back-to-back set, after losing their first four this season. In the battle of Demon Deacon alums, Jeff Teague will be challenged to stay in front of Paul, but he and his teammates must recognize that Paul is much more dangerous as a passer than as an interior halfcourt shooter (47.8 2FG%, his lowest since 2006-07). The Clippers don’t turn the ball over much (13.0 TOs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA), so forcing L.A. into suboptimal shots and rebounding will be critical. Despite the decoy Jordan presents, 35% of the Clips’ points coming in the paint is a league-low, so the more mid-range shots (and fewer threes and free throws) induced by the Hawks, the better. Atlanta (27-19) must keep Jordan out of lob territory, seal off passing lanes allowing Paul to kick out to perimeter shooters, and contest Paul’s three-point shots (4-for-8 3FGs vs. IND) late in the shot clock without bailout fouls. It’s essential for Hawk defenders to minimize catch-and-shoot opportunities for Jordan (62.7 TS%, 4th in NBA despite 41.4 FT%) and Redick (64.8 TS%, 2nd in NBA behind Curry). On offense, Al Horford (49.6 2FG% from 16 feet out; 8-for-12 FGs, 2 rebounds vs. DEN on Monday) should be able to play pick-your-poison with Jordan (2.2 BPG, 3rd in NBA). Either come out of the paint to contest Horford’s jumpers, or camp out and allow Paul Millsap to wear down Pierce or Mbah a Moute on the low block. Millsap’s mismatches can also open up shots for the Hawks on the weakside and in the near corner. Led by Paul (2.0 SPG), the Clippers managed to exert enough energy last night to hold Indiana scoreless for about eight minutes in the second half, then fended off a late rally from Paul George and the Pacers to escape with a 91-89 win. They would certainly appreciate a low-pace game tonight. The Clippers will foul (31.0 opponent FTA rate, 3rd in NBA) when they need to slow the game down, so Millsap (86.0 FT% last 11 games) and the Hawks must convert when they’re granted trips to the free throw line. Three is the magic number not only for Redick but Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who has sunk at least three triples in his last three games for the first time since Black Friday. Kyle has also assisted on three-or-more baskets in his last four contests. His four assists in Monday’s win over the Nuggets raises the Hawks’ record to 8-1 this season (20-2 last season) when he logs at least four dimes. Korver needs to keep his body and the ball in motion, to keep Redick and the Clippers’ perimeter defenders guessing. The Hawks’ fastbreak opportunities will come not off of turnovers but from defensive rebounds and catching L.A. flat-footed on quick inbounds after they score baskets. Even as trade winds begin to swirl, Atlanta has the energy and the focus advantage coming into tonight’s action, so it’s on them to find different ways of beating the Clippers to the punch (sorry). Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. “I Can Has Rebound?” Are our Atlanta Hawks playing down to the level of their opponents? Or is this simply their new level? In either case, we’ll get to see the Hawks play at a level not experienced all season tonight – Mile High, or however far up the Denver Nuggets play at the Pepsi Center (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude). The thin air hasn’t been kind for Our Fine Feathered Friends in the past decade or so. The last time Atlanta pulled off a W in the 303, Lorenzen Wright, Tyronn Lue, and Shelden Williams were all starters. Back in December 2006, Salim Stoudemire dropped 21 off the bench to help Joe Johnson erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and barely outpoint Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony. Since then, no matter if it was George Karl, Brian Shaw or Melvin Hunt running the sideline, the Nuggets have always held serve at home. The Hawks’ downright laughable display in Phoenix on Saturday night produced little confidence that things will change tonight. Al Horford grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds (12 defensive) against the remnants of the Suns, but he and the Hawks could only sit back and watch as Tyson Chandler (27 rebounds, 13 offensive, by himself) took their lunch money and bought himself a chimichanga. Yes, the Hawks (26-19) were without All-Star forward Paul Millsap for personal reasons, and he’ll be back and ready to go tonight. But just because you have a missing link doesn’t mean you have to play like one. Deadspin even took time to comment on the absurd closing minutes as two teams “just kind of (running) around like a bunch of puppies in the snow.” The wide-open spaces around Atlanta’s hoop have to look tantalizing to Denver’s three-headed monster at center, consisting of rookie Nikola Jokic (61.4 TS%, 10th in NBA; 17 points and 3 blocks on Saturday), Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. In a pinch, Nurkic and his immediate family could back up the Broncos’ O-Line in Super Bowl 50. Forward Kenneth Faried (53.6 FG%, 5th in NBA; 3.7 O-Rebs per game) has a sore adductor and while it’s unlikely he’ll appear, after seeing Chandler’s exploits, he certainly will do all he can to get in this game. That’s just four of seven Nuggets (26.4 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) averaging at least one offensive board per game. Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (1.1 O-Rebs per game 19.3 PPG, 7.8 FT attempts per game) is known to do some slashing-and-crashing himself. The 16 freebies he earned in Saturday night’s home win (plus the game-winning fade-away with 24 seconds left, along the way to 30 points) left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson (himself a former Coloradoan) grasping for answers, if not air. “A guy’s shooting 16. Great player, but a guy’s shooting 16,” RJax bemoaned, while poring over Danilo’s line in the postgame boxscore. “I attack the basket more than most players in the league and I can’t get a free throw. I shot two free throws. We shot 19, he shot 16 by himself. It makes no sense.” It can make sense if you lack defenders capable of keeping Gallo from forays into the paint without committing cheap fouls. The Hawks have two such players in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but both will be out to make amends after their half-baked play in Phoenix. Sefolosha (3 steals vs. PHX) certainly can’t be blamed for Archie Goodwin’s game-winning prayer, but he’ll have to do better than the 1-for-9 FG shooting he turned in. Despite a team-high 21 points and his game-tying baskets during the Benny Hill-themed conclusion, Bazemore blew dunks, free throws, and chunks defensively throughout much of the game. His glee over his Carolina Panthers victory last night will hopefully translate into better play at both ends today. Bazemore lacks the size to wrangle with Gallinari inside, so Mike Budenholzer will look to switch Millsap (4th in NBA for defensive win shares) onto him. That would grant Bazemore and Sefolosha more time to keep human energy-shot Will Barton, Gary Harris and jump-shooters Randy Foye and Mike Miller cool from long-range. While he’s still 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring, Barton has cooled off significantly (34.4 FG%, 29.5 3FG%, 11.5 PPG in January) after a torrid December run (20.8 PPG) had him in the hunt for Sixth Man of the Year. The defense-oriented Harris (career-high 5 steals vs. DET) is improving across-the-board on the offensive end, but will be tasked tonight with chasing Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. PHX) off the three-point line. The heady play directed by Nuggets coach Mike Malone has translated into some surprising wins and many more competitive outcomes. It’s been nearly a month since Denver (17-27) last dropped a contest by double digits. They’re hoping to make this eight-game homestand that concludes tonight a winning one. During this stretch, the Nuggets posted wins over a sleepy Golden State and Indiana, plus close-shave losses to Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis. Malone will rely on more interior offensive play to wear down Horford and Millsap, knowing the duo is getting little help so long as Tiago Splitter continues to look like an accidental tourist on the floor. If Faried remains out, Denver will need big minutes from forward Darrell Arthur (18-and-11 vs. GSW; career-best 41.5 3FG%) to spread Atlanta’s defense thin. They’ll also need someone capable of feeding the big men the ball. That’s where Emmanuel Mudiay (18 points, 4 assists and 4 TOs vs. DET on Saturday) comes in. The rookie returned for the Nuggets’ homestand after missing a month due to injury, and he continues to find his footing as a shooter (last 8 games: 37.6 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 55.2 FT%) and a passer (5.6 APG, 3.1 TOs per game). But as ballhandlers go, Mudiay (16.0 TO%, highest among starting NBA point guards) is about the only option Malone has available. Jameer Nelson can only coach from the sideline as he heals an injured wrist. That the next leading player in assists per-36 is Mike Miller tells you about all you need to know. Jeff Teague (10.5 PPG, 37.3 2FG%, 19.6 TO% this month) picked a fine time to let slip The World’s Worst Secret, after his Hawks fell flat once again on the road. “I’m dealing with an ankle injury,” he advised to a pestering C-Viv at the AJC. “That’s okay, I’ll be back,” which are soothing words to hear, if you happen to be rooting for The Terminator. This was a stretch of games for Atlanta where it would have been in the team’s best interest to rest that ankle, let lead conditioning guy Keke Lyles do some of his magic off-line, and allow Dennis Schröder (19 points, team-high 5 assists off bench vs. PHX; 36.2 Assist%, 9th in NBA) and Shelvin Mack to fully cut their teeth. If he (and Coach Bud) insists on him starting, he might as well make himself useful. Other high-turnover opponents (Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams) have come out smelling like roses in recent games against Atlanta, and point guard-by-default Goodwin (24 points, 8-for-9 FTs) looked like Steve Francis with drives to the hoop on Saturday. If Teague (4-for-13 FGs, 3 assists, 5 TOs vs. a shell of a team in PHX) can neither get the separation he needs to zip past subpar opposing guards and finish plays inside, nor stay in front of cat-quick guards like Mudiay, then he needs to be in Budenholzer’s “player development” purgatory until he demonstrates that he can, once again, do these things. Teague contributed 3 or more steals in 21 games last season, but just four times in 42 appearances this season and in none of his last 11 games. While there’s much attention laid on his shots around the rim (career-low 49.2 FG% on lay-ups), the once-patented floater is just about gone from his arsenal as well (career-low 30.2 FG% between 3-10 feet from rim). If the starting point guard struggles to produce points, and struggles to guard, there’s simply no point in starting. Even as Millsap’s return to the lineup will boost the scoring, hustle, and rebounding, the Hawks’ success tonight will be sustained for as long as their lead guards can reliably carry them. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  6. “My! Three Suns!” Get Off My Well-Manicured Lawn! As tonight’s battle looms between the Atlanta Hawks and whatever passes as the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona) these days, the building frustration over the flameout of the Suns (13-31) has owner Robert Sarver ornery, about… you guessed it… millennials. Kids these days. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks,” Sarver railed recently, “and Markieff Morris the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it. I'm not sure if it's the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I'm not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it's like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations.” This confirms that one of the Suns’ towel boys also runs their Twitter page. Sarver may be having a tough time dealing with one of the elder millennials, in particular, on his executive team. GM Ryan McDonough may have waited too long to deal Keef after that “setback with his brother” (the more recent setback, anyway), and now has a caustic mess on his hands. The Suns swung for the fences this summer by signing 35-year-old Tyson Chandler to $13 million this year, plus $39 million more for the next three seasons. They wound up with a bloop single, when the move to acquire Chandler was insufficient to pry LaMarcus Aldridge from San Antonio’s grasp. After getting shaded by Goran Dragic last season, McDonough rewarded Brandon Knight for his half-season of loyalty with a 5-year, $70 million extension this summer. Struggling to keep Phoenix afloat on most nights without Eric Bledsoe (out for season after knee surgery) sharing the backcourt, Knight went to L.A. yesterday to check out an aggravated abductor strain, and is questionable to play tonight after missing Thursday’s blowout loss to Aldridge’s Spurs. As Dragic, miffed about being crowded out of the backcourt by mates Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, was getting dealt last February, McDonough also helped out his old buddies (GMs: stop doing this!) by sending Thomas to the Celtics. None of Dragic, Knight, or Bledsoe will be an All-Star this season, but it turns out Thomas has a very good shot. The Suns will get the Cavs’ first-rounder this summer for their trouble, but there’s reason to believe neither of McDonough or head coach Jeff Hornacek will be around town to find out what happens with it. Horny’s been dead-coach-walking for some time now, but he can at least point to the rash of injuries the Suns have been dealing with, plus the Mole-keiff Morris situation, as reasons for the disappointments this season. He could blame his boss directly, but that’s just something millennials would do before deleting their Instagram posts. Anyway, as of the moment, he’s still there. Two of Hornacek’s top assistants weren’t so lucky. Sarver canned Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting after falling at home to the Suxers, just ahead of a game versus Cleveland, something David Blatt probably found to be a tad rash at the time. With the continued lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive end, Phoenix’s slide has continued (one win in its last 16 games), and now the injuries have reached the point where Hornacek might have to sign a 10-day himself. Blaming tired legs for Shaqting-a-Fool on a dunk try versus the Pacers on Tuesday, Morris strained his shoulder in the process. Knight and Jon Leuer (back spasms) are officially out tonight, while Morris, Mirza Teletovic (ankle), and P.J. Tucker (bruised chest), are all wild cards to suit up in orange-and-purple against Atlanta tonight. Ronnie Price (toe) recently joined Bledsoe among the guards that were shelved post-surgery. Hornacek was left with just nine players (two of them 10-day contracts, forward Cory Jefferson and guard Lorenzo Brown) at his disposal on Thursday against the Spurs. In turn, San Antonio disposed of Phoenix in the fourth quarter despite some spirited play from guys like center Alex Len. Chandler (5.4 PPG, 20 blocks in 35 games) has been not much more than a well-paid nanny for Len to this point, but did give Phoenix its money’s worth with 20 rebounds against the Spurs, while Len surprised with a couple monster yams on Spurs monster-rookie Boban Marjanovic. If there’s one millennial Sarver won’t shake his fist at, it’s the youngest player in the league. Against Indiana, Devin Booker (17.7 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 34.9 3FG% this month) became the third-youngest NBA player to drop 30 or more points in a game, bested only by Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He followed that up by pouring in 24 points and five assists against a tough Spurs defense. This wasn’t supposed to be Devin Booker’s Team already, but the Suns have been left with little choice. Without Knight, the Suns will again be limited at point guard, leaving Hornacek to turn to Dennis Schröder’s troll-victim Archie Goodwin. There is no reason for Jeff Teague and Schröder to struggle on either end against Goodwin, Sonny Weems or whomever the Suns throw out there to handle the rock. Even Knight (3.5 TOs/game, 7th in NBA), often guilty of doing way too much in crunch time, would have created lots of points-off-turnovers for the Hawks. Despite having two top-ten TO-committers on the floor together in Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, it was Atlanta who coughed up the ball six times in the final quarter on Thursday, as they failed to mount a comeback against a similarly-fatigued Sacramento team. Phoenix will try to use Mirza (42.5 3FG%, 12th in NBA), their healthiest leading scorer in T.J. Warren (11.1 PPG, 41.5 3FG%), and/or Booker to spread out Atlanta’s defense and then use Len and Chandler to crash the boards for putbacks and extra-chance points. But the Hawks (26-18) have the health, depth, and energy to outpace the Suns and use defensive pressure to keep plenty of Suns shots from getting up in the air in the first place. The Hawks have no excuse for finishing their evening below 110 points, especially coming off the paltry offensive display in Sactown two nights ago. Phoenix started the much giving up 142 points to the Kings and has allowed a league-high 112.0 PPG (40.1 opponent 3FG%, NBA-highs of 48.8 opponent FG% and 29.4 opponent FT attempts) in January. Atlanta is 21-2 when scoring in triple digits in regulation, including 11-0 when exceeding 110 points, 16-1 when surpassing 105. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “((COUGH)) Sorry! Just wolfed down too much Hot Chicken!” You’ll forgive the dinnertime product placement but, until very recently, you ever heard of Nashville Hot Chicken? Certainly, not this new-wave carpetbagger. Yours truly had achieved a fairly comfy existence for a decade or four, including a trip or two to honky-tonk tourist-trap Lower Broad, without ever hearing of this culinary contraption. Suddenly, Fast Food, Inc. is foisting this entrée onto consumers at every commercial-break opportunity. It’s a wonder that Dirty Grandpa isn’t gnawing on some NHC. But, is it real? Is it finger lickin’ good? And will it last long enough for me to care? One other smoky-hot thing you may not have been introduced to heretofore? The Sacramento (Hot) Kings, coming off a Staples Sweep of the Clippers and Lakers. The Kings are poised to win on back-to-back nights for the first time since this season, if they can defeat the Atlanta Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), who just outlasted Portland last night. In so doing, Sacramento (18-25) will have won four in a row for the first time all season and, more significantly, would gain a foothold on the eighth-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. But are these Hot Kings real? Are they genuinely good now? Will the good vibes last long enough for anyone outside of Sactown to care? East Point’s Finest, former Olympian and Hawk All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s decent but brief NBA career was winding down when he finally got to taste the playoffs in 2006 (ending an NBA record drought) with Rick Adelman’s Kings. Led on the floor by Mike Bibby and an exiled Ron Artest, the Kings fell in the opening round to Nazr Mohammed’s and Mike Budenholzer’s San Antonio Spurs in six games. The Kings enjoyed brief stays in the postseason just twice in their first 13 seasons in the California capital, before Adelman’s arrival. But by 2006, an eighth-straight playoff appearance was ho-hum, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. In came former Lon Kruger and Mike Fratello assistant Eric Musselman, who could tell Coach Bud a thing or two about starting one’s head coaching career off on the wrong pedal foot. Out went Adelman, and with him went the last vestige of Sacramento’s playoff history. At least Reef hung around town for a little while longer. In the decade since, Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, and Ty Corbin have all been run through Sactown’s coaching grist mill. The franchise itself was oh-so-close to getting snatched out of town until two madmen (Mayor Kevin Johnson and team purchaser Vivek Ranadivé) collaborated to save the franchise from the clutches of the Pacific Northwest and also build a new palace that the team moves into next season. How nice would it be, though, to exit the dusty Sleep Train Arena with a couple playoff games? Don’t worry if you’re thinking that heads are getting too big here. Similar to the Pelicans of yesteryear, dreams of future championship contention can wait. Ranadivé has his fingers and toes crossed that by the time tax day comes around, his meddling maneuvers (including the reintroduction of George Karl to the sideline) and his team’s undying faith in the surly set of point guard Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, will bear fruit in the form of a first-round playoff series. And not just any series, mind you: one that brings Norcal’s spiciest hoop star, Steph Curry, and his Golden State Warriors back into town. By design, Sacramento’s offense has been Nashville hot (100+ points in 10 of their last 11 games) and the defense, like the aforementioned chicken, seems deeply coated in lard (100+ opponent points in 10 of their last 11 games). The one exception among the Kings’ opponents occurred last night, as Sacramento “held” the Lakers to 97 points. Coach Karl’s high-paced squad will graciously give up three-point shots (NBA-high 29.2 opponent 3FGAs per game). But if you’re hopelessly incapable of making them (LAL 4-for-25 3FGs yesterday), that’s not their fault. Despite having the touted “best big man in the game” in Cousins (4th in NBA in scoring and RPG, 1st in Usage%, 36-and-16 last night at Staples), the Kings are still spread a bit thin upfront. Lotto rookie Cousins’ and Rondo’s Wildcat cousin Willie Cauley-Stein starts by default, since he can dunk and swipe at everything resembling a basketball. Meanwhile, it might take a week before anyone realizes Kosta Koufos (10th in NBA in O-Reb%) swapped unis with Tiago Splitter. Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay have timeshared at the starting 4-spot (shifting Cousins back to center) and, well, just no. Karl, Vivek and the Kings’ competitive philosophy seems to be, “Hurry Up and Shoot, So We Can Hurry Up and Score.” A league-high 16.3% of Kings buckets (incl. 11.8% of their 2FGs) come with 18-22 seconds still left on the shot clock. It’s Reno Bighorns Basketball, writ large. Unfortunately for the Kings, the “Shoot” and “Score” roles get interchanged on many nights. Even yesterday, the Kings could not muster more than 6-for-20 from outside, even as guys like Kobe and Lou Williams presented as little resistance as possible. Defensively, the bigs will cluster around the paint, working like a co-op, striving to keep lanes clogged for 2.9 seconds at a time, and leaving it to Rondo (1.8 SPG) to provide a modicum of pressure to the opposing ball handler. While opponents are encouraged to swing the ball around and snipe away from the perimeter, Sacramento is susceptible to waving the white flag when said ball handler (0.86 opponent points per possession, just below Brooklyn and Portland; 48.0 eFG%, 3rd-highest in NBA) gets past Rondo (or Darren Collison) off a pick. The frenetic but limited frontcourt situation results in Sacramento allowing the fewest shots around the rim (34.5 opponent restricted-area FGAs) but a league-high 63.7% of those shots going in. Cousins (1.3 SPG, 2nd among NBA centers; 1.3 BPG) plugs just enough leaks to keep the Kings from giving up more than their league-high 107.9 opponent PPG. Perhaps, in a season like this, that’s all they’ll need. With last night’s win over the “Lackers,” DMC is back above-.500 (17-16) with the Kings in games played on the season. DMC was 9-6 last season, too, before he got injured at Vivek got crazy with Malone, but that’s neither nor there at this point. To stay winning, of course, Cousins has to maintain his on-court composure, such that it is, and not cost his team and himself by throwing ‘bows at sleeping almost-giants like Al Horford. Doing that back on November 18 marred his own 24-point (13 in the 1st quarter), 12-rebound performance at Philips Arena, and enlivened both Horford (mostly in the first half) and Paul Millsap (23 points, 16 boards) enough to halt, similar to tonight, the Kings’ incoming 3-game winning streak. The wet-nap that Dennis Schröder’s play reliably brought to clean up Atlanta’s messy starts lately finally dried up in Portland last night. His defense on Blazer guards was superior to Jeff Teague’s in the first half, but by the second half he proved a menace merely to courtside photographers, as he struggled to find the cup (3-for-13 FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs). Teague Time (6 second-half dimes) arrived just in time to help Atlanta pull away, but Schröder’s limited floor time (under 20 minutes in the past four games) will be useful on the second night of a back-to-back against Rondo (11 points, 17 assists @ LAL yesterday; 12 points, 12 boards, 10 assists, 7 TOs @ ATL on Nov. 18) and Collison. In place of an injured Teague, Schröder contributed 22 points and 6 assists (1 TO) in Atlanta’s 103-97 win back in November. Millsap referred to his team’s reserves (9-for-26 FGs, incl. Schröder; 1-for-7 3FGs) as “elite” in the postgame commentary, and we’ll need to see more production from them tonight to know Sap wasn’t merely speaking with tongue-in-cheek. The defensive rebounding (14.3 bench D-Rebs per game, 5th in NBA) and steals (NBA-high 4.3 bench SPG) this month suggest notions of the reserves’ potential impact is more than a non-starter. The Hawks prevailed in that November meeting without not only Teague, but Kent Bazemore (3-for-6 3FGs @ POR, matching Millsap’s 23 points), as both starters rested ankle sprains. Baze and Thabo Sefolosha will be instrumental in thwarting the Kings’ fast breaks, disrupting outlet passes from Cousins and the guards to finishers like Gay and Ben McLemore, and to sharpshooters like Omri Casspi (7th in NBA for 2FG%, 4th for 3FG%) and Marco Belinelli. Forcing Sacramento to resort to Plans B and C later in the shot clock will slow the tempo and work to Atlanta’s advantage. The Kings need to take better advantage of opponents boarding the Sleep Train on the back end of back-to-backs. They’re 1-5 in those scenarios thus far, including losses to their last two opponents (New Orleans and Golden State) before embarking on their successful three-game road trip. Meanwhile, the Hawks (26-17) have won here in their last seven trips going back to 2009, have won 15 straight in this head-to-head series, and are 7-3 (incl. their last 3 tries) on the back half of back-to-back sets this season. Extend those streaks with sound play at both ends tonight, inch a little further up in the East standings, and who knows? Maybe we even can market the thing. “Atlanta Hot Wings”… sounds tasty to me! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. “Miss Me Yet? Yes? No? Maybe So?” Welcome to Snub City! The Atlanta Hawks have headed West, and are out to get back above-.500 on the road. Unfortunately, as was the case last season, they could not have possibly picked a worse time to run into Damian Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, ESPN, KGW-TV in PDX). Around this time last January, Baby Hooper showed off his Bitter Beer Face to the world when he was unable, at the time, to grab a spot on the Western Conference All-Star roster. Coincidentally, Lillard was in the ATL, planning to make an example out of a high-flying Hawks squad, thereby showing the NBA voters, the coaches “who feel I wasn’t good enough,” just what they’d be missing in mid-February. “A wise man once told me,” D-Lill mused on Instagram, “it ain’t always gone be peaches and cream but somebody has to pay for the reason it’s not.” Confucius, no doubt! Well, forty minutes of 6-for-20 shooting and six turnovers later, Atlanta had their 18th-consecutive victory under their belts, and even those voters in Lillard’s camp were having second thoughts. Now, it’s time to cue the synthesized violins once again. Lillard was perhaps the most notable snub as USA Basketball announced, on Monday, the 30 finalists for the U.S. National Men’s Basketball Team that will be going for the literal gold this summer. Dame was previously one of the final cuts for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup team in 2014 (his current teammate, starting center Mason Plumlee, made the cut, and returned for a 2015 mini-camp, but didn’t even get a call for 2016). Lillard’s embitterment toward the 2014 experience probably didn’t help his cause. “If I’m going to invest myself in something, I want to have a real opportunity in that,” Lillard told the Oregonian. “I felt the decision was already made before the decision was made. Whether I played good or bad, it didn’t matter.” As it stands, Lillard (24.4 PPG) is the highest-scoring NBA player, and second-best assist-maker among active Americans (behind tomorrow night’s opponent, Rajon Rondo), that will have to buy a ticket if he wants a shot at a trip to Brazil. Any designs on the part-time rhyme-spitter cutting videos with Snoop Dogg in Escadaria Selarón may have to get scrapped. Well, guess who trips into Rip City just as this news drops? Lillard is quite certain to play Blame it On Atlanta, now that he’s certainly not headed to Rio. “Ignore the dream killers and doubters,” he tweeted yesterday, “or just use them to fuel your [emojis of fire, or something]” (Mike Scott can probably translate for me). Tack on the likelihood that he’ll again be on the outside looking in when the All-Star votes roll in, and you can bet he’s already hit the studio to drop some bars on all this for his next mixtape. Help a brutha out: you got anything that rhymes with Colangelo? While Lillard goes for 50 (shots, if not points) tonight, it will be up to Jeff Teague to keep him in check, while ensuring the Hawks remain balanced offensively and control the pace of the game. Lillard generally stays out of the corners, and if a shot above-the break (7.6 FGAs per game, 2nd in NBA) isn’t available, he’ll tend to take a step or two inside for a mid-range J off a screen. Or he’ll try to slip past defenders on isolation drives to the hoop (6.1 restricted-area FGAs, 3rd among NBA guards). The good news is that Lillard shoots blanks going for points at point-blank (47.3 restricted-area FG%, lowest among NBA guards with 4+ shots per game) even more than Teague (49.5 restricted-area FG%, 6th-lowest) or Schröder (49.1 FG%, 5th-lowest). But it’s incumbent on the Hawks guards to avoid bailing Lillard out with fouls and limiting kickouts to McCollum (the Most Improved Player award candidate who, like Lillard, isn’t exactly shy around a microphone) and Crabbe (46.9 January 3FG%). It’s also on the Hawks’ frontcourt mates to box out for what should be a plethora of defensive rebounding chances. Here’s my crack at deciphering the nuanced offense of the Portland Trail Blazers (19-25), which I’ll call Stotts’ Steps: 1) Do you have the ball? If Yes, Go to Step 2. If No, Get Ready for That Rebound! 2) Are you Damian Lillard? If Yes, Go to Step 3. If No, Jump to Step 5. 3) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Dribble Around a Screen or something, and Go to Step 4. 4) Now do you see a shot you like? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to C.J. McCollum. 5) Are you C.J. McCollum? If Yes, Go to Step 6. If No, Jump to Step 7. 6) Do you see a shot you like, right now? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Pass to Allen Crabbe. 7) Are you Allen Crabbe? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Go to Step 8. 8) Are you Al-Farouq Aminu? If Yes, Shoot It! If No, Stop Wasting Time Reading This, Pass the Ball, then Go Back to Step 1! Stotts’ Go-Back-to-Step 1 Guys include Ed Davis (2.9 O-Rebs per game) and Plumlee (2.7 O-Rebs per game), and Harkless (collects a team-high 47.9% of O-Reb his chances). Thanks to this cleanup crew, the Blazers produce 15.0 second-chance PPG (2nd in NBA). Neither of Davis, Harkless or even Leonard are starters, however. The Noah Vonleh Experiment continues in earnest, and while it hasn’t reaped dividends yet (3.3 PPG, 3rd-lowest among NBA starters; 39.5 FG%, same scoring and shot percentage as last season in Charlotte’s doghouse), the second-year starting power forward did follow Stotts’ Step 1, and nabbed nine boards in just 17 minutes in D.C. on Monday. Terry Stotts’ elaborate gameplan took a hit when both Lillard (plantar fasciitis) and McCollum (sprained ankles, 20.5 PPG) were unable to participate in Atlanta back on December 21. In their place, second-year guard Tim Frazier gave it his all for 47 minutes, after totaling 48 minutes in the prior 28 games. He and the balance of Blazers kept Jeff Teague cool, but had no answer for Dennis Schröder, whose performance off the bench (18 points in 17 minutes, 3-for-4 3FGs) could hardly be defined as toothless. Portland’s whole team (including sporadically-used center Chris Kaman) is healthy now, allowing Stotts’ Steps to go into full execution. Key to the flow chart working is that at least one of Lillard (14th in FG made; 5th in FG missed) or McCollum (5th in FG made; 4th in FG missed) must get hot for the Blazers to have half a chance. When that fails, you get duds like Saturday (Lillard and McCollum 10-for-36 FGs) when Portland got blown out, 114-89, by the Suxers in Philly. When both members of the Blazers’ Dynamic Duo are on, like on Monday (16-for-32 FGs, McCollum 6-for-10 3FGs), all Portland needs is a little extra push (Plumlee a double-double plus 7 assists; Meyers Leonard 4-for-7 3FGs) to run teams like the Wizards off the floor. The Blazers are 17-6 when shooting an eFG% above 50.0%, 2-19 otherwise. Despite the momentary loss of McCollum and Lillard, Portland sat right that 50.0% Mendoza line in Atlanta last month, and only lost by a single-digit deficit, 106-97, after scrambling from behind with a full-bore 39-29 fourth quarter. The Hawks’ commitment to Budball (2 O-Rebs) allowed Portland to reach a season-high 94.7 D-Reb%. But Portland’s weakened depth allowed Mike Budenholzer to limit floortime for Paul Millsap and Al Horford (24.5 minutes apiece, Sap’s lowest of the season) and exploit the reserve quartet of Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Scott, and Tiago Splitter (20-for-29 FGs). While this particular road trip has some cushy opponents on the schedule, the Hawks have already proven (in Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New York, Minnesota) they can play down to their competition as well as anyone else, especially away from the nest. Atlanta has dropped 10 of its last 16 away games after winning its first four on the road this season. All four of the upcoming opponents are among the ten least-efficient defenses, and are among the least successful in forcing misses on threes above-the-break. Yet this stretch over the next six days will be a great opportunity for the Hawks to whet their defensive chops, taking on many individuals who believe their best defense comes by way of a smoking-hot offense. Among the next four opponents, Portland is ninth in scoring efficiency, two teams (Sacramento and Denver) are top-ten in the percentage of field goals assisted, two teams (Denver and Portland) are in the top-ten for O-Reb%, two teams (Sacramento and Portland) are top-ten for eFG%, and the Kings and Suns, bless their hearts, push the pace about as much as Golden State, with varying results. This trip poses a fine challenge for Atlanta (25-17) to drag their opponents’ scoring average on the season (100.1 PPG) back below triple digits. Only Atlanta (100.6 D-Rating, 10th in NBA but 7th in East) and the Chicago Hoibergs (100.7 opponent PPG) are ceding a per-game average of 100 or more among the East’s current Top 7 teams. The Blazers, like Phoenix and Sacramento, are among the ten most frequent turnover-per-possession committers. Atlanta will get a bigger leg up than they did at home against Brooklyn and Orlando if they convert consistently off turnovers from the outset. Might we have a new Threezus on our hands? Hitting 55.5% of his threes this month (5th in NBA, min. 2 attempts per game) has Teague over the 40-percent threshold, which would blow away last year’s season-finish of 34.3 3FG% and his small-sample second-season career-high of 37.5%. Defense, passing, and finishing in the paint (career-low 42.3 2FG%) haven’t been up to snuff for Agent Zero, but it’s hard to quibble with the noticeable improvement in his perimeter shooting. As of now, there are nine NBA players in the 40/40/80 club (min. 2 3FG attempts per game) averaging at least 10 PPG (Steph, KD, Klay, Kawhi, Khris, Redick, Neal), and two rock the Torch Red: Teague (41.9 FG%/40.7 3FG%/84.5 FT%) and Kent Bazemore (46.5 FG%/41.9 3FG%/85.7 FT%). Coincidentally, over in the 50/40/80 club, regardless of scoring (min. 2 3FG attempts per game), there are just four guys presently on that Mount Rushmore: Steph, KD, Kawhi… and oh, hello there, Mike Scott (50.5 FG%/40.5 3FG%/80.0 FT%). We see you, Ben Sullivan! Portland’s foes shoot a league-high 43.8 FG% on in-the-paint shots outside the restricted area, but their 39.9 PPG is the league’s third-lowest. The ability for Millsap (9 first-quarter points vs. ORL on Monday) to draw defensive help for Vonleh should open up decent options all over the floor. Properly reading the Blazer defense should create plenty of hockey assists for the Hawks. But the key will be on defense, where Atlanta’s guards and wings must deny penetration and easy passing lanes for Lillard and McCollum, while the bigs must seal off the paint and minimize extra chances for the Blazers. Getting this road trip off on the good foot entails thwarting Portland at every Stotts’ Step along the way. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “…one day, on the red hills of Georgia…” It’s “A Day On, Not a Day Off” for millions completing service projects around the country and, particularly, in the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many volunteers will then choose to sit back and relax at Philips Arena, getting serenaded by Regina Belle-Battle, and hoping their Atlanta Hawks won’t take a day off against the Orlando Magic (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida, NBATV). If They Could, Orlando fans would Make It Like It Was back in December, when the Magicians went 10-5 (after starting out with what was already an impressive 9-8 record) and earned Scott Skiles an Eastern Conference Coach of the Month nod. Going 13-5 between Thanksgiving Eve and New Years’ Eve, the best mark in the East during that span, had the O-Town faithful feeling they’d entered A Whole New World, at least one different than the seasons after the Stan Van Gundy era came to a close. That was before a 1-6 skid this month, interrupted only by a road win versus Atlanta’s last vanquished foes, the Brooklyn Nets. On the whole, the 20-15 start has the Magic all set to eclipse their 25-57 record from last season, the high-water mark of the prior three seasons. But fans who recall the abbreviated success of James Borrego last season know that things can de-escalate quickly. Over the past six calendar years, Orlando has overcome the Hawks just once in 11 road trips to the ATL. Without a road win over a team with a current winning record, the Magic would love a victory against their division-champ rivals to start turning things back around. But they would have to do it while dealing with a lot of moving parts in the backcourt. The Magic offense has gone “poof!” ever since point guard Elfrid Payton (5.8 APG, 8th in the East), hobbling since mid-December, was shelved a couple weeks ago to heal an ankle bone bruise. Victor Oladipo slid into Payton’s spot and has shot the ball well lately (70.1 TS% last five games). But ball movement has not quite been to Skiles’ liking, as if there’s anything that Skiles likes. Only the Nets (94.7 points per 100 possessions) have a lower offensive efficiency in January than Orlando (95.2 O-Rating in January; 104.9 O-Rating in December, 1st in East; 19.3 January O-Reb%, last in NBA). Just as concerning for the Magic has been the lack of transition-scoring opportunities since Payton starting having issues with his ankle. Steals per game have gone down from 9.3 in December to 5.7 this month, while opponent turnovers declined from 15.3 last month to 11.3 in January. Payton returned and played briefly in the Magic’s loss in London versus Toronto, but Oladipo sprained a knee taking a charge during that game and is now out indefinitely. It was Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics that allowed the Magic to nearly pull a big win out of their hat against the Raptors in London last Thursday, before falling short in overtime. Sidelined since November, guard C.J. Watson had a setback in his plans to return from a sore calf and is also out indefinitely. Shabazz Napier has been under the weather as well, prompting Orlando to nab D-League star Keith Appling over the weekend. Despite the intercontinental flights, Payton’s ankle should be well-rested following a four-day layoff that allowed the Magic to scout two Hawks games. Elf’s return allows Skiles to field his December starting lineup again, but expect to see a lot of rookie Mario Hezonja backing up both Payton and Evan “Never Google” Fournier. In Orlando back on December 20, the Magic shot just 4-for-12 from deep against the Hawks and proved to be no match for the Alabaster Blaster. In perhaps his last successful long-range shooting display, Kyle Korver went off in the second half and finished with 6-for-8 three-point shooting for a team-high 19 points, including the game-winner with 44 seconds left, as Atlanta seized back the lead to edge the Magic in a 103-100 victory. Korver was joined off the bench by Mike Scott (3-for-5 3FGs, 15 points vs. ORL Dec. 20), who can be can’t-miss so long as he isn’t, like, dunking or anything. Orlando will try to counter with Fournier, Hezonja, and a suddenly-struggling Channing Frye (42.2 3FG%, 7th in East; 15.4 January 3FG%). But Skiles must also encourage his array of supporting-cast bigs (including Aaron Gordon, habitual Hawk Killer Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson) to get out on the perimeter defensively and keep Atlanta from figuring out which Hawks have a hot hand. Aside from Oladipo, the Magic shot just 4-for-16 on threes in London on Thursday, and despite out-shooting Atlanta over the course of the season, their January swoon of 31.1 team 3FG% ranks just 25th in the league. The last time Skiles’ team needed a sharp-shooting mid-season boost, his Bucks shipped a hardly-used Tobias Harris to Orlando in exchange for a half-year rental of J.J. Redick (you, too, Gustavo Ayón and Ish Smith). It’s safe to assume Skiles won’t let Harris get away so easily again. Now the highest-paid Magician on the payroll, Harris has been a delight for those trying to forget the last guy who wore #12 in the Magic Kingdom. His scoring is down to 13.6 PPG from 17.1 PPG last year, but that’s in part because Skiles implores Harris to de-emphasize scoring and model the versatility of stretch-forwards like Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh. Tobias’ interior shooting is at a career-best 51.9 2FG%, while he is also posting career marks with 7.2 RPG and 2.1 APG. Fan voting for the All-Star Game in Toronto concludes at the stroke of midnight tonight, ushering in the coaches’ voting phase. Coaches, like the fans, vote in two guards and three frontcourt players, but they also elect two wild cards from each conference. Isaiah Thomas has argued his case since the season started, and John Wall has been carrying the Wizards through adversity all year. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving are locks whether they start alongside Dwyane Wade or not, and you can’t leave Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out in the cold. Thus, the coaches will be inclined to grant both wild card spots to guards, leaving guys like Atlanta’s Millsap (2nd in East in PER, 3rd in per-48 Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus, 4th in VORP) and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (4th in East in FG%, 9th in PER) in a squeeze play for three precious frontcourt slots. Despite the surge by Carmelo Anthony to the third starting spot in the East, Andre Drummond is too tough a case to snub. There’s plenty of love for his fellow yung’uns Kristaps Porzingis and Hassan Whiteside, while Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh get their Lifetime Achievement sentiments. LeBron James has a lot of pull to get His Guys in, so it will be hard to keep Kevin Love out, especially since then-first-place Atlanta got four All-Stars last year. Then, there’s the dismissive You Had Your Turns Already attitude toward mid-market semi-stars. That means for guys like Sap (career-highs of 18.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 BPG) and Vooch (career-best 2.8 APG; 20 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 20), the only way to keep NBA coaches’ rapt attention during the voting period is to play well in a winning effort. The Hawks’ powerful forward is the team’s only entry deserving consideration, but Do it All Paul will fall quickly into injury-replacement territory if Atlanta keeps dropping games to the Knicks, Hornets, Bucks, and Magic of the world. We’re at the midway mark of the season. If, back before Halloween, someone were to tell you the Hawks would not be firing on all cylinders, struggled hitting threes and keeping opponents below triple-digits, had several returning All-Stars either regressing or playing inconsistently, and had not yet worked any newcomers into prominent roles in the rotation while on pace for “just” 48 wins… yet still would be sitting on top of the Southeast Division (ahead of perpetually-hyped Miami and Washington) and 1.5 games out of second in the East, you would begrudgingly take that scenario, especially given a roster that has reached the midway point relatively healthy. Now the fun begins. Can Al Horford (one rebound, offensive, in 23 minutes vs. BKN on Saturday) string together a couple productive weeks of basketball in a row, or at least a couple games? Can Jeff Teague (7 assists, 1 TO vs. BKN; 37.3 2FG% in January) and Korver (1-for-6 FGs vs. BKN) slip out of their respective cocoons, especially defensively in Teague’s case? If not, will Coach Bud turn even more toward bench options like Dennis Schröder (15-and-10 plus 1 TO vs. BKN, first double-double of the season), Tiago Splitter and, dare we say it, Tim Hardaway, Jr.? And would that necessarily be a bad thing? As the February trade deadline approaches, does GM Bud have any tricks up his sleeves? Might continually underwhelming play shake him out of “We Like Our Group” mode? Winning 60 or even 50 games isn’t as important as building positive momentum toward the springtime. But an impressive home win over a team like the Magic, ahead of a modest four-games-in-six-nights West Coast swing, would signal to Hawks fans that there is, indeed, something good on the other side of that mountaintop. Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “Relax! I’m just demonstrating to Jeff and Dennis how to stay in front of people!” Boo, Brooklyn! Boo this team! Boo! Oh, only now do the Brooklyn Nets want to fall completely flat on their collective face. Now that the Atlanta Hawks have squeezed as much of the vapor as they could out of not one, but two first-round swap deals for Josephat Johnson, only now do the Nyets want to try Gunnin’ for That #1 Draft Slot. And to think, they’re not even doing this for themselves! They’re doing this for the benefit of a division rival! The kahma gahds are really making us Hawks fans pay for Tree Bites Man back in 1983. That was one costly nibble, Tree. Danny Ainge, you lucky, plucky ducky you! If we could give you The Finger, Danny, it would be your own. Well, guess what, Danny? You’re not going to get off so easy. Especially given the way our Atlanta Hawks have been playing lately. Tonight’s game at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, YES Network) is not going to be another automatic L that you winking, pipe-smoking, Sansabelt knickers-rocking leprechauns up in Beantown can stick in your little three-leaf clovered, ensemble-matching derbies. Nosiree! We see exactly what you’re up to, Danny Boy. Your former team from your home state magically got right back in the game last night in Brooklyn. The Portland Trail Blazers were down six in the fourth quarter and, one thing leads to another, ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, they’re up five. Tony Brown’s Journal probably doesn’t have “foul Damian Lillard” as a discussion topic, and yet that’s what the Nets did anyway… while Lillard (33 points, 10 assists, ZERO turnovers) was in the midst of shooting a three-pointer. Mmmm hmmmm. The Jig: it’s not down! Down to 11-29 on the season they go. In the one year where 2-through-12 means a playoff spot is up for grabs in the East, this is the season the Nets chose to be a solid 14. Well, down here in Hotlanta, we’re not going to just take this lying down, Danny! We don’t care if it’s the Nets, or the Bucks, or the Knicks, or the Hornets. We’re going to do what we’ve done the past few games, and play right to our opponent’s strengths, and put ourselves in position for a disappointing loss against yet another team who’s just waiting to be defeated. We’ll see who laughs last tonight, Danny! “OMG, they called Kenny! You bastards!” Okay, not quite yet. But you just know another Danny is hanging around Brooklyn to make his grand NBA comeback, taking over for the recently-deposed Dookie buddy that stuck his neck out, while this Danny was in ATL suffering from the lingering effects of foot-in-mouth disease. Once that Danny takes over, and once the Nets are decidedly out of postseason play and coach Brown gets his Thanks for Coaching parting gifts, rest assured that he won’t be blaming Long Islander Kenny Atkinson for the Hawks’ floundering, listless play of late. Maybe Mike Budenholzer is trying to poison the well, so Kenny won’t go all Quin Snyder on him. Head-scratching rotations, failure to exploit opponent weaknesses, overplaying guys with five fouls at crucial junctures suddenly seems to be en vogue. With all the consternation directed at Coach Bud from the refs’ union for piggybacking people, why are we allowing various and sundry Bucks to hang around the rim, stripping and clawing at them like they’re an unwitting millionaire wanderer in The Bluff, in front of Marc Davis of all people, and then acting appalled when our starting forwards (including poor Paul Millsap, the one Hawk who hasn’t gotten The Memo) are riding the pine, and the free-throw-attempt deficit is 37 to 6? That could not possibly have been the game plan for Milwaukee. Unless… Mike Scott going for style points on point-blank dunk attempts? Paul and Kent Bazemore racking up fouls against the Bucks’ bigs while Tiago Splitter is on some kind of preservation plan? Jeff Teague driving right into three Bucks on a clearout and aiming his shot right at their antlers as the clock expires? Kyle Korver forgoing mildly-contested threes for swatted-to-Kenosha long-twos when the Hawks (23-17) are down by multiple scores in overtime? No way is that the intelligent design on Bud’s whiteboard. Surely, there’s something sneakier going on. Sorry, Kenny, but you ain’t getting out of here so easily. We’ll reconfirm our suspicions today when Brook Lopez is allowed to freely camp around the high post like it’s a national wildlife refuge or something. When Joe Johnson gets to suck what little energy is left out of the building, dribbling the ball through the Georgia maple for 95 percent of the shot clock. When Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin (filling in for out-for-the-season Jarrett Jack) look like the most competent lead guards on the floor. When Thad Young and Thomas Robinson (9 O-Rebs between them last night) will have NBA fans running to Twitter to hashtag them for All-Star votes. When Andrea Bargnani finishes with a positive plus-minus for the first time since the Nets were in New Jersey. Coach Bud is onto both of you, Danny A and Danny F. And he’s not having it. Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… The Jig! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “Oh, Dear! We Fear that You Ain’t Here!” It’s time for the We Miss Zaza Bowl! The Atlanta Hawks prepare to face the Milwaukee Bucks tonight at the BMO Harris Bradley MECCA Whatchamacallit (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Wisconsin), and two clubs that bring the “Con” to “Consistency” sure could use Georgia’s Favorite Georgian in their lineups, albeit for vastly different reasons. First, a flashback. The year was 1996, and while Atlanta was undergoing an Olympic-sized hangover, down in San Antonio, the Macarena was still the rage, Dave Cowens was departing the Spurs to run the Hornets, and Mike Budenholzer was ready for his big promotion. Two years into his stint as Video Coordinator Bud, his ascension to assistant coach under Gregg Popovich opened up a spot on the Spurs’ staff. Enter Joe Prunty, a high school coach from San Diego, who joined the Spurs as an assistant video coordinator. Four years later, Prunty found himself a seat behind Coach Bud and Coach Pop as an assistant, helping out with mundane tasks like rebounding for Avery Johnson during pregame warmups. He would go on to serve as an assistant (and Summer League coach) for the staffs of five more teams over a span of 16 NBA seasons. Right after Bud and Joe helped Popovich guide the Spurs to the 2005 NBA Championship, Prunty hopped alongside Coach Avery as a lead assistant in Dallas, as the Mavs sailed to the 2006 Finals. Now double-dipping as the head coach for Great Britain’s men’s hoops team, Prunty has become best known as the premier acolyte for Jason Kidd, who Prunty coached during his final season in Dallas in 2008. With the Nets in 2013, Coach Kidd was suspended for the opening games due to a DWI. Kidd put Prunty (and not the spurned, embittered, team-handpicked assistant Lawrence Frank) in charge. The Nets split both games under Prunty, defeating the defending champion Miami Heat. When Kidd bailed the borough in favor of Milwaukee and his new owner-palsy-walsy Marc Lasry, Prunty followed him there, without hesitation. I like to imagine Kidd’s infamous 2010 sideline run-in with then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson as the catalyst that got his hip hopping. Kidd has been out indefinitely after undergoing hip surgery on December 21, and there’s no surprise he would turn to his trusty confidant to hold the proverbial fort. Coming up from the same Spurs-ian roots, both of tonight’s sideline sergeants are cerebral, analytical, meticulous, and methodical. The difference lies in the talent they each have to work with. The Bucks went from worst to not-too-shabby in 2014-15 on the strength of some hungry and healthier veterans, like Pachulia and Jared Dudley, inspiring some up-and-coming talents like Wheel of Fortune nightmare Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. After playing .500-ball and surprisingly reaching the playoffs, Milwaukee could have tried to keep the band together for another run up the standings in 2016. But lotto-forward Jabari Parker was on his way back from injury, and there had to be some way to intermingle his minutes with those of Alpha-Bits, John “Run the Jewels” Henson, and coveted free agent Greg Monroe. Thus, out went Dudley and Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova, via trades. And with them, out went whatever veteran stability the team had to offer. The senior Bucks now consist of guards Jerryd Bayless (out with an ankle sprain) and O.J. “Boo-Ray” Mayo (questionable with a sore hamstring), and “senior” doesn’t necessarily translate into “most mature.” Also, while the outgoing vets were no defensive masters, by replacing them with Monroe (12th in NBA for FG%, top-15 in O-Rebs and D-Rebs) and nightclub-going stabee Chris Copeland, the Bucks essentially said Buh-Bye to team defense. Milwaukee has dropped from 1st in the league for steals (in 2014-15) to 13th, from 24th to dead-last in defensive rebounding percentage, and from 4th to dead-last in defensive rating. Dudley and Pachulia aren’t even mad, though. Pachulia has become a fan-favorite down in Big D for essentially what he’s been doing all along, under tinier spotlights. Once a struggling shooter, Dudley was exiled to America’s Dairyland last season and made the most of it. Now the good DC sniper (47.0 3FG% with the Wizards) is grateful that the Bucks decided to commit to the youth movement and move on. “The thing about the Bucks, you can tell about how first-class an organization they've become, putting me and Z in great situations,” Dudley told reporters recently after shootaround, prior to his Wizards slipping past the Bucks on Wednesday. “They didn't have to send me (to Washington). They basically got nothing out of it.” True, true. (Apologies to all you future second-round talents out there). “Showing veteran players, if you go to Milwaukee, if you help out, they'll look out for you. They put Za in a great position (in Dallas). Me and Za can only thank them. We had a great time. Worst record to the playoffs, so it was a great year last year.” This year, Milwaukee (16-25) is left with a young, vigorous bunch that’s eager to make big plays and win but not quite sure how, one that goes to the rack with reckless abandon (league-high 36.0 shots per game within 5 feet of the rim, and 46.1 shots per game in the paint) but isn’t quite sure why, or what to do once they get there. They’re guided by a third-year headmaster who is still figuring things out himself in J-Kidd. His mobility issues now leave him to turn to a top aide, in Prunty, who has a superb pedigree but didn’t spend his offseason planning to be the guy drawing up plays. What you get is a team that hasn’t strung together more than two straight victories since November 7. You get a team that, on one night, produces a season-low 5 turnovers to topple the Chicago Bulls at home, then hits the road and coughs up a season-high 27 goofs in a loss to Washington. The Hawks can certainly relate, even though they really shouldn’t. They scorch the nets for 52.1% shooting and 33 assists against the Bulls at home, then hit the road and lay an egg with a near-season-low 37.0 FG% in a laugher up in Charlotte two nights later. They’ll stem one opponent’s six-game winning streak, then end another’s seven-game losing skid. From quarter-to-quarter, half-to-half, game-to-game, week-to-week, it’s tough to tell what’s gonna fall out of the Hawks’ box of chocolates. But unlike Milwaukee, these aren’t a bunch of wunderkinds merely finding their way. These are the defending Eastern Conference regular season leaders, only slightly re-tooled from last year. They have only cobbled together winning streaks of more than two games twice, as we near the halfway mark of the season. It’s up to the reigning NBA Coach of the Year to remind these guys why they should still care. But it’s not all on him. Bread-and-butter. PB-and-J. Rice Krispies-and-Milk. Teague-and-Horford, pick-and-roll. That was an essential, nutritious part of what made the Hawks offense snap, crackle, and pop over the prior two seasons of Budball. As a roll man on P&Rs, Horford still holds up his end of the bargain. Of the 17 NBA big men this season with 100 or more roll-man plays, Al ranks 2nd (only behind Marcin Gortat) with 1.14 points per possession and 57.7 eFG%, with the third-lowest turnover percentage (behind Blake and Dirk), while his team’s scoring percentage of 54.7% on those plays ranks third overall (behind Gortat and Jason Smith). But it takes two to make a thing go right, and therein lies a problem. Both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder are among 31 NBA guards with 200 or more possessions as P&R ball handlers. Of that set, Teague and Schröder rank, respectively, 21st and 29th in points per possession, 27th and 30th in eFG%, 13th and 14th in turnover frequency, and 21st and 26th in team scoring percentage. While so much attention has been placed on Kyle Korver’s long-range shooting decline, the short-circuiting of the P&R pillar of Atlanta’s offensive attack is perhaps more worrisome to Budenholzer. Coach Bud definitely recalls the days of Popovich chopping like a white-bearded kung fu master on Tony Parker, ruthlessly funneling his incessant, blazing ire into this French rapper-wannabe, steeling the pupil’s resolve with the dark arts of The Spurs Way until Parker finally “got it,” and became a Finals MVP with two rings already on his fingers. Now, like last night against the Cavs, Pop can occasionally lay back, holler at Parker with the occasional “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!” and even let him design plays out of timeouts. That’s because Parker (2nd only to Steph Curry in P&R ball-handler eFG% and points per possession) bothered to listen. Now, he chases championships instead of teammates’ wives. To reach the next step, or any step at all, Bud needs Teague’s ears to be functional as his eyeballs. When Teague put on his headband last season, he hit the floor looking like a motivated Karate Kid, soaking up all of his coaching staff’s directions to devastating effect as he began executing and defending screen plays with exquisite precision. These days, Jeff (30.5 assist%, lowest since 2011-12; 53.5 TS%, lowest since 2010-11; career-low 42.4 2FG%) comes across as more of a bloated Steven Seagal, perhaps too drunk off of his sudden success to heed the direction of any more Mister Miyagis. That was on display early on in Charlotte, on Wednesday. Teague failed to direct the offense, and reverted to old bad habits on defense against his division rival, Kemba Walker. The once-reeling Hornets could not believe their fortune, as Atlanta (23-16) essentially played to Charlotte’s strengths on both ends of the floor, passing up good shots for downright silly ones and finding itself down 17-2 from the jump. Bud lights into Teague at the first timeout, but Jeff is too busy admiring the intricacies of Charlotte’s arena rafters. Schröder was brought into the game to replace Teague and help right the ship, but by the second quarter with Schröder and Teague sharing the floor together, the bottom fell out. The Hawks need floor generals and not soldier trees. Atlanta has, arguably, the most efficient stretch-four-point-five in the game at its disposal, but that is of little use if Horford is not demanding the ball, and if his point guards aren’t running plays to set him up. Following up from a solid week of production and a few days of rest, Wednesday (2 points, 2 boards, no steals, 1 block, 4 fouls, 27 minutes) was Horford’s fourth double-single on the season. Those inexcusable outputs from the Hawks’ reti-center will come with greater frequency, as long as he and Teague decline to take command from the outset of games. When the height of your cutthroat competitiveness comes not from throwing down against the likes of Cody Zeller, but at tens of thousands of feet in the air as you’re throwing down Draw Fours on Thabo Sefolosha, it shows on the floor. It shows up in the stands, and in the waning moods of an already-fickle and understandably skeptical NBA fanbase. As Exhibit A, here lies Horford, as much of a collegiate champion as Tim Tebow, a perennial Rated-PER Superstar, having helped lift his longtime NBA franchise to unforeseen heights before national audiences just eight months ago. And yet, he doesn’t draw a blip in the All-Star voting, locally or nationally. But guess who does? Al’s old backup, who has been balling in Dallas all of three full months and, just by showing consistent (there’s that word again) hustle and heart on the floor, piling up double-doubles along the way, is about to surpass Tim Duncan – Tim Duncan! – for All-Star hashtags. As Coach Bud knows, with and without NBA titles, Duncan is used to getting ripped into by his head coach, in front of teammates, just like Parker, and then responding with inspirational play on the floor. If your senior-most leaders are only giving off Alfred E. Neuman-style attitudes against teams like Milwaukee and Charlotte, it will be obvious there’s none of Larry Drew’s patented Sense of Urgency to be found. NBA fans believe in what Pachulia, and Duncan, can and will do on a nightly basis. Horford? Teague? “We don’t believe you! You need more people!” At least Milwaukee has had two chances to hang on to Z-Pac. Now they give up the most second-chance points per 100 possessions, and the fourth-most per-possession points off turnovers. Unlike not-so-turnover-prone Charlotte, that can work right into Atlanta’s wheelhouse, if they choose to take advantage. It will help if Bud gets Thabo Sefolosha (wrist, DNP vs. Charlotte) back on the floor to be disruptive and productive in transition. Thabo’s 2.7 steals per 100 plays ranks 6th among non-point-guards, just behind Millsap (2.8 steal percentage). It will also help if Horford bothers to re-join Paul Millsap (1 or more O-rebs in 37 of 39 games) on the offensive glass and grant Atlanta extra chances when shots aren’t falling. Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore can keep a body in front of Alpha-Bits (the NBA leader in personal fouls), as the Bucks strive to get their lanky Euro-stepper the ball in open space. Just as Horford should find little trouble crashing the boards at both ends against Monroe and the Bucks’ frontline, and pick-and-rolling and pick-and-popping Milwaukee apart, Teague should have little problem forcing MCW into costly mistakes. Carter-Williams’ defensive rating (107.2, worst among East guards with 30+ MPG) has reverted to where it was during his Rookie of the Year season in white-flag-waving Philadelphia. Meanwhile, mong 43 NBA guards logging 30+ minutes, his 13.7 turnovers per 100 possessions ranks just behind Rajon Rondo’s 14.3. At some point, if you’re a starting point guard, and the tutelage of Kidd isn’t rubbing off on you, you’ll be in deep trouble. With Greivis Vasquez out of action, and Bayless and Mayo hampered with injuries, Prunty has few playmaking options to turn to. Just like in Charlotte, and New York, the pins are all set up for Horford, Teague and the Hawks to deliver strikes. Will they show up ready to knock ‘em down? Or will they again leave it to somebody coming off the bench to pick up the spares? Until this particular pair stops putting the “Con” in “Consistency,” there will be no telling what to expect. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “It’s time that we have That Talk, lil’ Hooper!” Familiar with a kid that confidently pedals down the street as he’s learning to ride a bike, only to wobble and crash once he looks over their shoulder to discover there’s no parent guiding them from the rear? That’s been the season to date for the Charlotte Hornets, who host the Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports South in CLT) at the Cable Box while trying to avoid extending their losing streak to 8 games. With Panthers Mania (and Clemson Clamoring) going on, there hasn’t been much buzz for the Hornets in the Carolinas these days, anyway. But for a minute there, things were looking up for the Purple and Teal. After getting edged by the Hawks on back-to-back games to fall to 0-3, a mini-roll had Charlotte rising to 10-7 by the end of November. Kemba Walker was red-hot that month (48.3 FG%, 42.4 3FG%, 5.0 APG, 2.1 TO/game). Walker had two catalysts in Nicolas Batum (Nov.: 43.0 3FG%, 17.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 4.7 APG) and Marvin Williams (Nov.: 42.6 3FG%, 6.5 RPG) working the forward spots and providing solid wing defense in the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Plus, he had a nice change-up to his fastball, with Jeremy Lin coming off the bench. Surging into the upper echelon of the wild-and-woolly Eastern Conference, there was the sense that Kemba was finally turning the corner, and carrying the Hornets with him. Then, Al Jefferson had to go and screw up all the mojo. The Hornets’ gravitational force at the pivot strained his calf early in a game on November 29, and was sitting it out when he got popped for violating the NBA’s don’t-get-caught-smoking-weed-three-times rule, resulting in a five-game suspension once he healed. Al Jefe was brought back slowly off the bench for a couple games after Christmas. But then, Charlotte received another lump of coal when he announced he’d need arthroscopic surgery and another six weeks off after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. Jefferson has never been accused of being a defensive stalwart (58.3 opponent at-rim FG% when he’s defending, highest this season among players with opponents taking 5+ at-rim shots). But his space-clogging, his time-eating, and his ability to tenderize opposing bigs at the other end of the floor tended to give the Hornets a leg up over the course of 48 minutes. Now, what is Plan B? More than two weeks later, they’re still sorting it out. In past seasons, the Hornets could turn to the oven-mitted prospect Bismack Biyombo to patrol the rim, but the Hornets’ brass did not want to risk going over the cap to grant him a qualifying offer over the summer, and now he’s charming fans and teammates up in Toronto. These days, the Hornets have to turn to a Cody Zeller, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Frank Kaminsky up front, a frontcourt platoon that brings all the pizzazz of Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread. After being told he’d likely miss the entire regular season, MKG has been cleared to return to practice. His return to the gameday floor can’t arrive soon enough, though, as both Batum and Marvin regressed defensively after starting off so well. “Moar offense!” was the selected defensive approach by the Hornets to compensate, leading to a brief 4-game win streak in December buoyed by Batum, Walker and the Jeremies (Lin and Lamb). Then the bottom dropped out, especially after Kemba cooled and Batum started missing games with a sprained toe. The Hornets (17-20) have lost to some hot teams during this 7-game skid, but during their recent West Coast swing they also stopped the 9-game-slide of the throwing-in-the-towel Suns (Phoenix’s only win without Eric Bledsoe) and made the Kenneth Faried-less Nuggets look competent. They’re like Wile E. Coyote running full speed after the Road Runner, before forlornly noticing they’ve run right off a cliff. Did somebody say Cliff? “We don’t think about defense to start the game. We think about scoring.” That’s not Steve Clifford’s game plan, that’s just the Hornets’ coach’s observation about what has been going wrong. Referring to the sieve around the perimeter, Clifford noted to the Charlotte Observer after his team flamed out in Phoenix, “A lot of it is just one-on-one. You don’t have to make a stop, but you have to make it hard (to score) so we can help.” During this slide only the Suns have posted a worse defensive efficiency than these helpless Hornets (112.1 opponent points per 100 possessions, 29th in NBA since Dec. 30), while their own wayward shooting has proven inadequate as cover (45.1 eFG%, 26th in NBA since Dec. 30). What’s wild is the Bug Bigs are doing their job on the interior (since Dec. 30: league-low 29.4 opponent points in the paint; 46.2 opponent FG% in-the-paint, lowest in NBA). Yet opponents have taken a league-high 22.9 threes above-the-break, with good reason (league-high 46.9 opponent 3FG% above-the-break since Dec. 30; Cleveland’s 39.6% is second-worst). Five of Charlotte’s last seven foes sunk at least 44% of their three-point attempts, a mark that the Hornets themselves surpassed just once in their last 20 contests. Having received a multi-year contract from Michael Jordan (perhaps a tad too hastily) just last month, Clifford’s job seems safe despite the downturn. But while he’s got his finger on the pulse of the problems, he can’t seem to find the elixir to cure them. P.J. Hairston’s puts up his best fights with teenagers at the Y, but Clifford has little choice but to rely on him (34 starts, 121.2 D-Rating), Walker, and the Jeremies to figure out how to stop getting burned on opponents’ screens and dribble hand-off plays. Hairston provides height but perhaps not the know-how at this point, so Clifford may start turning more to third-year guard Troy Daniels (48.1 3FG%) for better two-way production at the 2-spot. All is not lost yet for the Hornets, who remain just 3 games below .500, are 13-7 at home, and sit just 2.5 games behind the 8th-seed in the East. They have eight at-or-below-.500 opponents on the docket before the end of the month, and a victory at home tonight can springboard a quick turnaround back toward the middle of the East’s postseason pack. Al-ite has gone from Al-Lite to Al-ive! Key to the Hawks’ bounceback in the past two games has been the mastery of Al Horford (25.5 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 4.5 O-Rebs per game, 9.5 RPG vs. PHI and CHI), a sight for many Hawk fans’ sore eyes. Atlanta’s ballhandlers are finally figuring out you have to feed a cold and have been looking him on the low block. Atlanta (23-15) is a stout 14-1 this season (including 2-0 against Charlotte) when Sorta Big Al gets at least 12 shots up and hits at least half of them. Meanwhile, Horford is realizing he enjoys a speed-and/or-smarts-advantage against most opposing centers. In accordance with the Hawks’ perimeter shooting woes, Horford has been crashing the offensive boards lately (21 O-Rebs in last six games; 20 in prior 15 games) and still getting back in position to make defensive plays (4 steals, 7 blocks in last two games). Horf contributed a season-high 10 defensive rebounds on Nov. 1 in his last trip to Charlotte, plus 3 blocks. The Hawks are 9-2 this season when Horford secures 7 or more defensive rebounds, and 6-1 when he returns at least three opponent shots to sender. An active Horford on both ends takes so much pressure off of Paul Millsap (20.0 PPG, 3.5 O-Rebs/game, 3.8 APG, 2.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 48.8 FG% last 8 games), producing a tandem that leaves opposing bigs unsure whether they’re coming or going. While Zeller will start and attack the rim as often as possible, Clifford will try countering more with Kaminsky and Hawes, who can similarly stretch the floor when they’re shooting well outside the paint. Tiago Splitter continues to struggle with finishing around the rim (2-for-10 FGs last 2 games) in his return from injury, but Atlanta needs him to improve as a defender and continue drawing extra points from the free throw line (83.9 FT%). The Bazemore clan is likely to be front-and-center once again at Time Warner Cable Arena, and Batum and Marvin will be tasked with keeping Kent Bazemore from producing even more heroics in front of his fellow Carolinians. Baze’s fourth-quarter baskets (among his team-high 19 points) stemmed the visiting Hornets’ rally from 14 points down back on October 30. Two nights later in Charlotte, his triple and free throws in the closing minutes (among his team-high 20 points) secured a fourth-quarter Hawks comeback. Defensively, Bazemore and the returning Thabo Sefolosha (wrist) will have to keep Marvin (8-for-13 3FGs vs. ATL) and Batum from offsetting Atlanta’s perimeter production. Jeff Teague (5-for-9 FGs vs. CHI on Saturday; 45.5 3FG% on the road) and Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Saturday) are each dealing with nagging ankles, but they and Dennis Schröder (combined 2-for-17 3FGs vs. CHA) have to find and make open three-point shots in order to get the Hornets unglued early. Walker goes from Texas Ranger to Carolina Gunner whenever he finds his team playing from behind, so the Hawks’ perimeter defenders must deny Batum the ball early in the clock while pressuring Walker into premature hero-ball decisions. While Kemba and Lin keep their ballhandling turnovers down, their questionable forced-shot volumes will create ample transition opportunities for Atlanta. Exploit Charlotte's shortcomings early and often, and it won't take long for the Hornets to wonder where the training wheels went. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Wow. Says here they’re actually keeping Dimitroff, for some reason…” In the Eastern Conference, it only takes a little trending for a couple weeks to change your outlook on the season. Atlanta ended 2015 with a 7-1 run, but bad back-to-back losses to the Knicks has Hawks fans looking askance, even after shaking off the cobwebs with a 126-98 trouncing of lowly Philadelphia this past Thursday. Atlanta (22-15) seeks to avoid heading into a three-day layoff with a bad taste in their mouths by sliming the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, WGN) on 90’s Nickelodeon Day. Meanwhile, in the Windy City, head coach Fred Hoiberg has transcended from a perception as a meek college professor-type to become “Hoisenberg” in the space of just two weeks. Hoiberg is pushing an above-average pace not seen since the days of Vinny Del Negro, yet after some turbulence on and off the court, the Bulls are on pace to win more games than they have in any of predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s final three seasons. The Bulls’ six-game winning streak has Chicago right where Atlanta was a couple weeks ago: a few games shy of the top-seeded Cavs, with a prime opportunity to break away from the pack in the Eastern Conference. Not so fast, though! Within the Bulls’ 22-12 record are 21 home games, the most of anyone in the NBA East. Only OKC and San Antonio have enjoyed more so far. Away from the Bulls’ pen, they’ve been just 6-7 to this point of the season. After four underwhelming road wins, the Bulls went a month without any before setting the Thunder asunder on Christmas Day. To keep the win streak going, Chicago needed all of Jimmy Butler’s team-record 40 second-half points (after just two points in the first half), which eclipsed His Airness’ 26-year-old team record for any half, to pull off a victory in Toronto last Sunday. Chicago covets this win in ATL not only to even up their road record, but to keep the positive momentum going ahead of a 4-games-in-5-nights work week that begins Monday. They have elements of their road play that need fixing. The Bulls generally force tough shots from all over the floor. 55.4 opponent FG% in the restricted areas (despite the 2nd most shots), and 35.7 opponent FG% at mid-range are the league’s best marks. But in their away games, their 71.3 defensive rebounding percentage is the league’s worst. Opponents average a league-high 14.0 O-Rebs per game when they’re hosting the Bulls. Accordingly, Chicago’s defensive rating drops from a stout 96.1 at the United Center (4th in NBA among home teams) to a mediocre 102.8 (15th in NBA; Atlanta is 12th) away from home. Offensive rebounding isn’t Atlanta’s bag (20.7 O-Reb%, 5th-lowest in NBA), but as Al Horford (5 O-Rebs on Thursday) and the Hawks demonstrated against the Sixers, they’re not above it, particularly if they don’t fear teams that will make them pay repeatedly in transition. The Bulls are making do without Joakim Noah, who has had issues with his shoulder for weeks and was left back in the Second City ahead of the upcoming 4-in-5 stretch. Pau Gasol won’t be left on an island, however. Rookie Bobby Portis (24.3 minutes/game, 8.0 RPG in his last 6 games) is getting steady minutes in the rotation to alleviate Pau, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. Gasol is going for swats more often than ever before (career-high 2.3 BPG), so he needs his frontcourt teammates to secure the defensive rebounds. Part of Chicago defenders forcing tough shots is staying in front of their man, and as a result they limit their risks of gambling for deflections and steals. Their opponent turnover ratio (12.1 per 100 possessions) is an NBA-low, and only Portland and the Knicks average less than Chicago’s 13.9 PPG off turnovers. On the road, they’ve been outscored off turnovers by 4.3 PPG (4th-largest deficit in NBA). The league-leader in points off turnovers, Atlanta, will look to take advantage of this particular incongruity today. Jeff Teague basically went through the motions for three-and-a-half quarters in Philly, and tonight the Hawks will need him zeroed-in defensively on the inefficient Derrick Rose (22.9 3FG%, career-low 72.2 FT%, 25.8 assist percentage, and 44.1 TS%). Part of Rose’s ineffectiveness stems from an inability to get into the lane, as he’s taking 32 percent of his shots as mid-rangers from 10 feet out (highest proportion since 2009-10). While Rose’s bloom is off, Jimmy Buckets has become the go-to distributor as well (10 assists in each of his past two games; 6.9 APG, 2.4 TOs/game in last 7 games). It will be tougher to keep Butler cool with the former braided Bull Thabo Sefolosha (sore wrist) inactive today. Kent Bazemore will have to stay out of foul trouble. Hawks guards and wings have to minimize paint penetration from Butler and Rose, while the forwards must disrupt deep-dishes to Gasol into the post, forcing turnovers and inefficient shots all while avoiding bailout fouls. Doing those things and beating the Bulls’ bigs down the floor in transition will lessen the need for Mike Budenholzer to break out the Thinking Chair in the closing minutes of the game. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “Now, check your hand. See? Told ya, it doesn’t come off!” “Finally! The Hawks! Have come back! To Slumpbuster City!” Oh, but were it so easy! We have no idea whether the Atlanta Hawks have truly reached Rock Bottom, after blowing back-to-back games to the Knicks. But we’ll have a better smell of what the Hawks are cookin’ based on their performance tonight, back on the road against the newish-look Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia). Philly’s a .500 ballclub! At least, when you check out just their record since Christmas Day. Disregard all you recall about their record-shattering 0-18 and 1-30 starts. Ignore the 127 points hung on the Sixers during the Hawks’ wire-to-wire victory in Atlanta on December 16. That was when the Hawks needed to bust a three-game slump, turning the frown upside down by sparking a six-game win streak. That was Philadelphia’s Woe-is-Us version, before owner Josh Harris’ additions Mike D’Antoni and Jerry Colangelo were brought on to oversee The Process in the boardroom and along the bench. For head coach Brett Brown, the presents began unwrapping on Christmas Eve, when the Sixers “waived” goodbye to Tony “Murder Possessions, He” Wroten (3.6 TOs/game in 18.0 minutes/game), then tossed a couple of nice second-round shekels New Orleans’ way to bring back Ish Smith (who, perhaps coincidentally, wears #5). The former Demon Deacon joined the roster at the back end of last season after riding the pine with OKC, and was instrumental in Philly going 6-11 (including a 92-84 win over the half-resting Hawks here at “The Center” back on March 7) before the bottom dropped out. The 76ers were 12-43 before Smith’s arrival back in March. They’ve already quadrupled their win total in his second go-round. Philly could expect Smith to hit the ground running upon his return, and he hasn’t disappointed (14.7 PPG, team-high 8.2 APG and 84.2 FT%). Just as importantly, Ish has rekindled his rapport with forward Nerlens Noel (15.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 72.2 FG% last six games), who up until recently had been simply going through the motions. Noel and Smith will be out hunting for those lobs that Hawks’ opponents have come to enjoy so much of late. Carl Landry was clearly insufficient as a veteran counterweight to rookie Jahlil Okafor’s high-wire offcourt antics. Now, with a little nudging of Sam Hinkie by Colangelo, they’ve got a respected former #1-overall pick, Rookie of the Year, and two-time All-Star on the roster. Former Hawk and 76er Elton Brand is someone who not only embraces Philly as his adopted home, but also is old enough to speak the jive common in Okafor and Kendall Marshall’s daddy’s day (Dramatization: “Chill! Nik Stauskas is the bomb-diggity! Brett Brown is all that, AND a bag of chips! Word to your mutha!”) to keep things copacetic. Brand arrives at the expense of Christian Wood, who will likely resurface with the Delaware 87ers of the D-League. Giving the Sixers’ ship some sense of a rudder has been enough to pull off three victories in their past six games, including two on the road (in the smoldering NBA towns of Phoenix and Sacramento) and Monday night’s 109-99 home win over Minnesota. The win over the Wolves was highlighted by Smith’s team-high 21 points (9-for-16 FGs) and 11 assists, and Landry’s breakout 8-for-11 FG mid-range shooting display. “That’s what we worked on!” The infusions of Smith and Brand have instantly livened up something that was anathema to at least one former Sixer superstar. “This is no 4-and-33 gym,” remarked Brown to CSN Philly after a recent practice. “It ain't even close… You look at the practice we just had and we've come off a few wins. There have been some days you say uh oh, but almost all of the times that we've spent with these guys have been pretty good despite our record. So that's not going to happen on a veteran team that's 4-and-this record. They're young, they forget quick — that's a good thing — and [Brand] looks and sees what I see. It's a highly-spirited, competitive group that are good guys and they do care and I enjoy coaching them. I like it a lot better when we're winning, but I do enjoy coaching this group.” Now, the Sixers will continue to lose to quality competition, as evidenced in a 31-point road-trip-concluding loss to the Blake Griffin-less Clippers last Saturday. It’s just that the quality competition has to make the effort to show up from the outset, and that’s something the Hawks (21-15, still a half-game out of first in the Southeast Division, thanks to New York winning again in Miami last night) have failed to do lately, particularly in the opening halves of games. A 32-22 first-quarter deficit versus the Knicks back on December 26, followed by a 31-13 second-quarter hole in Indiana, then 41-25 out the gates in Houston, a 33-24 second-quarter setback in NYC, and a 29-20 opening-quarter deficit back home against those same Knicks on Tuesday. All of it speaks to a Hawks team that is so pre-occupied by its numerous offensive doldrums that they’re neglecting defense and fundamentals, often until it’s too late to bother catching up. “We keep having mental lapses as a group,” Al Horford noted postgame on Tuesday, “forgetting assignments, little things in order to win. It’s hard, you have to be able to do these things consistently.” By the final quarter, all of Atlanta’s blown free throws, airballed/back-ironed threes, and botched point-blank baskets came home to roost, and the Hawks are too unnerved by all of that (plus the occasionally out-of-left-field referee call) to notice all of the fast-breaking wings and not-boxed-out bigs and easily-open perimeter opponents sharing the floor with them. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis and Lance Thomas took turns eating Paul Millsap’s lunch in the opening frame of New York’s 107-101 win in ATL on Tuesday, something Sap’s and Horford’s (game-high 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists in 4th quarter) second-half surge could not overcome. By the time Millsap logged a point, there were just four minutes to go in the opening half. Collectively, Noel, Robert Covington and an emergent Richaun Holmes will seek to sap ‘Sap early to keep Philadelphia phightin’ late. Millsap shot a spiffy 7-for-8 from the field, and 6-for-7 from the line, for a team-high 21 points in his last meeting with the Sixers. On Tuesday, the Hawks neither kept Carmelo Anthony out of the paint, nor kept Arron Afflalo from getting any shot he wanted at any range. Both Anthony and Afflalo repeatedly beat Hawks players off the dribble to earn themselves decent looks. Isaiah Canaan (a Korver-esque 11-for-46 FGs in his last five games) enjoyed a season-high 24 points (6-for-8 3FGs) in a losing cause against the Hawks last month, and is well-rested after logging just 25 minutes in his last two games (that’s a hint, Bud). A stronger defensive effort from swingmen Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha is needed to ensure Canaan’s shots are outside of the flow (such that it is) of Philadelphia’s reconfigured offense. This time, when the Sixers go big, Atlanta will be able to counter with reserve center Tiago Splitter, who is probable to appear after missing the past four games with calf soreness. For all his imperfections, so far this season, the Hawks are 15-8 when they can get Splitter in the mix, a winning percentage good enough for second in the East right now, an iffy 6-7 otherwise. Edy Tavares has performed ably in Splitter’s stead, but it’s important to get Tiago (4-for-5 FGs vs. PHI on Dec. 16) functioning in the Hawks rotation again. DeShawn Stevenson? Anthony Morrow? Anthony Tolliver? As the curtain was set to open on Larry Drew’s 2012-13 campaign, it wasn’t immediately clear who was most suitable to start at the wing for the Hawks, alongside Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. Say, LD, how about the 31-year-old guy who’s started just ten times in his previous 426 NBA games? The Threak eventually made the selection of Korver academic in hindsight. But adding to Korver’s case was his ability to contribute in ways other than jacking threes toward the goal – particularly passing, help defense, and rebounding. 240 starts and an All-Star nod later, Korver’s long-range sharpshooting (career-low 35.4 3FG%) isn’t what it once was. That should place Korver, who started under a third of his first four-plus seasons as a 76er, back in Morrow/Tolliver Territory: if shots aren’t falling, what else is he providing that’s a positive on the floor to justify 30-plus minutes? Are you, as a team, drawing that many defensive 3-second violations and technical fouls per night to rely on his designated free throws? On a team that relies so heavily on assisted baskets, is 2.1 APG (2.5 assists per-36, down from 2.9 and 3.1 the prior two seasons) an adequate average for the 2-guard? Starter or not, Kyle cannot help the Hawks with persistent binary production. One assist, zero steals or blocks versus the Knicks on Tuesday; one free throw, one steal, one O-board, no blocks two days before. Korver did contribute a season-high 7 assists (despite 4 TOs) versus the 76ers back on December 16. It’s imperative that Korver’s energy is not limited to scurrying across the floor in hopes of a mechanically-rushed jumper. On a team whose offense thrives on strips and steals and transition, one solitary steal over his past seven games (204 NBA minutes) isn’t getting the job done, never mind the 17.4 3FG% in that stretch. Budenholzer may be starting to crack, and tweaking the rotation to make better use of developmental wings like Justin Holiday and Tim Hardaway, Jr. While getting Dennis Schröder back into a routine is crucial, the small-ball backcourt with Jeff Teague hasn’t been an ideal substitute. In any case, while shaving down Kyle’s floortime could be beneficial, the solution isn’t to replace him, it’s to make sure that when he is on the floor, he’s focused on everything other than the next jumpshot opportunity. Atlanta needs to end their brief 0-for-2016 run tonight, and build positive momentum toward Saturday’s slime-fest with the Bulls. But the Hawks will be sadly mistaken if they think this is the same lackadaisical, laissez-faire Sixer bunch that rolled in-and-out of the Highlight Factory a few weeks ago. With back-to-back games upcoming during this 4-day homestand against the Cavs and Raptors, Philly has the Hawks in their sights, and has no plans to be anybody’s Slumpbuster. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “Who He Play For???” There’s nowhere to hide, Atlanta Hawks! It’s January. The Bravos aren’t out on the diamond immolating themselves, and the Failcons aren’t on the gridiron getting in their own way. No Dream and no Dawgs playing with annually outsized expectations, no Jackets with already low bars to crawl under. Before winter meetings and spring trainings, the Atlanta sports fan’s attention will be undividedly directed toward the Hawks, who will try to keep the New York Knicks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network) from evening up the season series at the Highlight Factory. A major factor in the brilliance of Atlanta’s campaign last January was the timing. Despite ongoing concerns as to whether Dan Quinn would ride into town on a white horse, the Hawks’ ascension to the top of the NBA East became increasingly harder to keep off the front-page headlines. Add in a tradition unlike any other (individual Hawks making runs for non-fan All-Star Game bids) and January becomes a great time to annually build up the Believer base. It cuts both ways, though. Stories of the Hawks getting crop-dusted by Arron Afflalo and the Knicks, as was the case in Sunday’s 111-97 defeat up in Manhattan, can no longer be obscured by Matt Ryan’s weekly insistence on remaking himself into Vinny Testaverde. The quality of Atlanta’s nightly performance on the hardwood, flaws and all, will be laid bare, along with the Hawks’ ability to at least remain a solid contender in a much more competitive Eastern Conference. All eyes are on thee; what shall we see? To achieve significant levitation toward a permanent spot at the top of the East, Atlanta (21-14) must recommit itself to a primarily defensive identity. At the moment, they look like a team more focused on creating good shots, not so much making them. With a spry DeMarre Carroll bringing it as a starter last season, the Hawks established themselves as a team capable of getting stops and, with the help of crisp offensive ball movement, taking (and making) more advantageous shots than their opponents. Kent Bazemore (4-for-7 3FGs but 2-for-6 2FGs @ NYK on Jan. 3) and Thabo Sefolosha have stepped up their play in DMC’s departure, but perhaps not enough defensively to compensate for a slower-reacting Kyle Korver and a occasionally checked-out performances by Jeff Teague (3-for-12 FGs, 3 assists, 1 steal in 29.5 minutes @ NYK) and Al Horford (3 rebounds in 28.5 minutes @NYK). Last season’s record-breaking edition of the Hawks finished 7th in the NBA in defensive rating (100.7 opponent points per 100 possessions). As it stands this season, they’re 7th in the East (101.2 D-Rating), although 11th overall in the league doesn’t look so bad, now that almost the entire West is going full 1980s. Many of the Hawks’ conference contemporaries spent their past couple offseasons retooling their defensive strategies and reorienting personnel. Now, Atlanta’s the sole team among the East’s Top-9 allowing triple digits per game. Coincidentally, New York (16-19) is the sole bottom-five team in the East allowing under 100 PPG. Poor perimeter defense is among the eye-poppers, and Atlanta’s 36.0 opponent 3FG% above-the-break is 7th worst in the NBA, but the worst in the East, while the 42.4 opponent 3FG% in right corners is the 5th-worst mark in the league. If you’re looking for the number of the truck that ran us over on Sunday, try #4. Afflalo exploited Atlanta’s underwhelming closeout efforts by sinking his first seven threes, all of them above the break, all of them buttressing New York’s double-digit leads even as Carmelo Anthony (4-for-10 FGs, 11 points, fewest shot attempts in complete game since 2012) was largely bottled up. The Knicks’ 11-for-26 three-point shooting followed the Rockets sinking 11-of-20 five days before, which produced another hole for the Hawks to try climbing out from. Atlanta, by comparison, has shot 35% or more on treys four times since December 1, compared to 12 occasions back in October/November. Rather than jacking up a franchise-record 41 attempts (as was the case in Houston) just to try keeping up, tightening up the perimeter closeouts (especially after opponents’ second-chance and broken plays) without fouling will produce more desirable results. Tack on a league-high 44.1 opponent 2FG% in-the-paint (outside the restricted area) and you can see that Atlanta’s defense is, as Mike Budenholzer is wont to say, “not where it needs to be.” Keyed by Paul Millsap (team-high 4 TOs but 5 steals @ NYK on Sunday), the Hawks’ defensive strategy has been Steal or Bust (9.6 steals per 100 possessions, 2nd in NBA, tops in East). Opponents wise enough not to put the ball on the floor, keep the ball stuck on one side of the floor, or mindlessly hold the ball at waist-level are most likely to recoup the benefits. New York connected on 9 of their 17 attempts in the paint beyond 5 feet on Sunday. Millsap and Horford have to bring more to the table than strips against Robin Lopez, whose stat line on Sunday (5 TOs, 4 via Hawk steals, but 7-for-10 FGs and 5 O-Rebs, plus 5 assists) well-encapsulates how one-dimensional Atlanta’s defense can be. Jose Calderon and rookie Jerian Grant (combined 7-for-13 FGs; Grant 7 assists and 1 TO in 18 minutes) should not experience such little resistance getting to the interior and making plays. It’s on Teague, and whomever Budenholzer graces with minutes behind him, to limit penetration. We’ll await to find out whether Dennis Schröder continues “developing” from the pine. If Coach Bud is intending to showcase Shelvin Mack (5-for-10 FGs, 5 assists, 3 TOs in 18.5 mins. @ NYK), he won’t want other GMs to know that Hawk opponents have scored 17.9 points per-36 off turnovers with Mack on the floor, the most by any non-76er who has logged 100+ minutes this season. While Smooving Schröder, Bud has also sung the praises of rookie Lamar Patterson (last ten games: 50.0 FG%)at every opportunity, particularly as a short-term ballhandler and on-ball defender. With his and Mike Muscala’s contracts becoming fully guaranteed this week, Patterson will get even more opportunity to demonstrate his worth in the coming days. But at whose expense? We’ll have to wait-and-see. It’s January, Atlanta Hawks. The whole town is watching! No pressure, though! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “Could’ve done this with my own arm, but okay!” It’s the first day after Christmas. Did your true love give to thee -- a Kristaps Porzingis jersey? Hands down, Kris P. Kreme is the hottest, freshest thing flying out of the Big Apple’s ovens these days. Children trained by their fathers to thumb-down the selection of the 7-foot-3 Latvian-a-leaping over the past summer are now, in what is purported to be wintertime, begging Santa, the NBA Store, and anyone who’ll listen for his jersey. That has a lot to do with the 20-year-old’s highlight-reel talents. It also has an awful lot more to do with the name of the city on the front of the jersey. Porzingis’ New York Knicks are in town to face the Atlanta Hawks (EARLY START: 7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network), and dormant Knicks fans around the ATL could not be more pleased. You have to keep this all in context. The Knicks have exactly one 50-plus win season, and one playoff series victory, in the past 16 NBA seasons, including this one. That season had Mike Woodson, of all people, running the show. At this point, as the calendar turns toward 2016, Knick fans around the globe could not possibly care less about title contention. Winning always sounds great. But failing that, they simply want to be entertained. Linsanity, Imandemonium, Zingsanity, whatever it’s called these days, just make the darn games interesting. Do fans fret over whether Derek Fisher and this concocted New York (14-16) roster are mediocre, at best? Does Spike Lee care if Chi-Raq or whatever he cranks out breaks even at the box office, or gets three stars from critics, anymore? All that matters, for now, is give Knicks fans a decent reason to watch. The Porzstar (23 points, 13 rebounds @ CLE on Dec. 23) is doing all of that, and more. Judging from the reactions of the Gotham populace, one would think he was doing much more than averaging 13.3 PPG while shooting 42.5% from the floor (making roughly a third of his threes). But on a team that’s spent multiple seasons with players merely going through the motions, Porzingis’ 8.2 RPG (2.2 offensive) and 2.0 BPG shows he is putting forward the effort, and has the attitude to kick any mistaken aspersions of cottony Euro-softness to the proverbial curb. He’ll see to it that this ain’t Frederic Weis Redux, or Andrea Bargnani Junior. Carmelo Anthony has to feel like it’s Christmas morning each time he steps onto the floor. He’s scoring the fewest points per game (21.8 PPG) since his sophomore campaign in Denver, while shooting a career low 42.1 FG%. But nobody cares. All eyes aren’t on him anymore. There’s no need to be Manhattan’s LeBron. Plus, he doesn’t have to wear himself out at the 4-spot anymore, so long as Porzingis and Robin Lopez (7.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG, and 48.5 FG%, lowest in past four seasons) are hanging around. The Knicks’ leading scorer injured his ankle on Monday in the Knicks’ loss to New York, sat out Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, and might rest again as the Knicks embark on a 3-games-in-4-nights swing. But who cares, really? Nobody’s freaking out about the 31-year-old’s salary pushing $25-million over the next two seasons, or questioning if he deserves to be an All-Star starter, or an All-Star at all, or whether he wants to be traded, or the missus’ Twitter-pinions about anything. If he can contribute tonight, tomorrow, or next season, that’s really swell. If not, oh, well! The Bright Lights of the Bigger City now shine on Porzingis, and Melo couldn’t be happier. After a lost first season at the helm, Fisher has his future star here with Melo, Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, and Lopez, and all of them are sorting out this whole Triangle thingie together. They are quite content with keeping the pace low (24th in NBA) and finding the best long-range shot they can get near the end of the shot clock, so it’s not much of a surprise that despite Porzingis and Lopez’s talents the Knicks rank last in the league with 33.6 PPG in-the-paint. Being out-scored by over 10 PPG in-the-paint won’t help against the Hawks, who oppose the Knicks three times over the next five games and whose 52.4 PPG in-the-paint since starting their five-game win streak on Dec. 16 ranks 3rd in the league. That’s unless Atlanta (19-12) suffers once again from the post-holiday blahs. Spirits were merry and bright for the Hawks last year at this same time, riding a five game win streak and a spiffy 21-7 record into a post-Christmas home game against Milwaukee. That was before Jared Dudley put some coal in their stockings, Atlanta disappointing upbeat fans with a 30-point letdown. At that time, though, there was no sense that a 19-game win streak and heightened expectations would follow. A year later, Atlanta has to come out tonight playing strong perimeter defense, versus everyone from Melo and Porzingis to Sasha Vujacic and Lance Thomas, and keeping the Knicks from a bunch of extra-chances. The struggle for New York is greater without Kyle O’Quinn, perhaps their top-performing defensive big man, who remains questionable with an ankle injury. If you’re Kyle Korver (3-for-5 3FGs @ NYK on Oct. 29), chances are Arron Afflalo and the Knicks’ opposing guards will Forget You are open for jumpers, and you have to take advantage when the ball comes your way. Jeff Teague (team-high 23 points, 9-for-10 FTs @ NYK on Oct. 29) bounced back with a magnificent game against the Pistons (team-high 23 points, 9 assists, 4 steals, 2 TOs) on Wednesday. Teague has to bring the same level of energy, and when on the occasions when they are bottled up in the paint, they have to be mindful of open shooters like Korver and Kent Bazemore, and not force interior shots. They’re the flagship NBA team of America’s biggest market, and have not one NBA title in the past 40 years to show for their trouble. At this point, the Knicks’ fans simply don’t worry about winning the next game or the next ring, so long as their team shows some competitive fire from night to night. Does that make them Crazy? Possibly. But who cares? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout what they call these days, ‘open marriage’, Al! I’m talkin’ ‘bout… ((WAP!))... I was only trying to help!” On travel today (suffered through the Hornets game last night, gonna kiss the ground when I get back to Ball Movement City), so no running my mouth ahead of today's matinee in MSG between our Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network). How many points will the Hawks give up (63 vs. NYK on Dec. 26, 71 at HOU on Dec. 29) before coming back this time? And who shows up in the boxscore first, Dennis Schröder, or Kyle Korver? In any case, these teams will be good and sick of each other by the time Tuesday night's game concludes! Let's Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. Should auld acquaintance be forgot… and NEVER brought to mind? 2015. Phew! What a year, eh? Couched around the greatest postseason push in Atlanta Hawks history, and a record four All-Star Game participants, was the second-most successful calendar year of regular season games ever experienced by the franchise. From the rafters, Dikembe Mutombo wags a disallowing finger at those daring notions that Calendar Year 2015 was the greatest Hawks regular-season campaign ever, or that the most successful January-to-December stretch came from players rocking a Pac-Man jersey. Deke, Lenny, Smitty, and Mookie’s Hawks went 59-25 (70.24%) in 1997. In The Year of Many People’s Lord 2015, the Hawks had a chance to match that win total by winning last night’s and tonight’s road games. Even failing that, no outcome tonight will stop the gaggle of Hawks including Bud, Bawse, Jeff, and Sap from the 4th-best percentage record in any calendar year of its speckled NBA history (going all the way back to Tri-Cities). Currently at 67.86%, that’s a mark bested only by the 1997 edition, and the teams rolled out by the Czar with Nique, Doc, and Kevin in 1986 (69.62%) and 1987 (68.51%). To separate from the ’87 players and stand alone in second-place among calendar-year win totals, the 57-27 Hawks of 2015 must take out the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) tonight at the Toyota Center. Speaking of Toyota… oh, what a feeling. If you’ve felt a tinge of a letdown after the wild success that marked the first half of 2015, try getting sympathy from a Rockets fan. H-Town was in the NBA Final Four last season, too, and even won a game once they got there. They have the Players’ Choice MVP, plus a “real” center who is still supposed to be, even at age 30, among the upper tier at his position. Furthermore, they went out in the summer to acquire a speedy point guard that shores up the position, at least offensively, and conceivably made it where their high-usage superstar shooting guard no longer has to handle the rock so darn much. None of that was supposed to add up to their current record of 16-16. Central to the issues in Space City was putrid defensive effort. A team that finished among the top-ten in defensive rating in 2014-15 (100.5, just ahead of Atlanta’s 100.7, 6th in NBA) has dropped down to 23rd so far this year (104.4, just ahead of Philadelphia). Rocket opponents are shooting 63.4 FG% in the restricted area (2nd-worst in NBA) and are making hay at the corner-three zones (2.9 corner 3FGs per game, 3rd-most in NBA). A team starting Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley, along with the emerging Clint Capela, shouldn’t have so much trouble getting stops on the regular. Of course, decent team defense takes a five-man effort. And the fifth starter has been a problem. Houston’s superstar, James Harden, built up his MVP credentials in 2014-15 with gritty defensive effort. But the Bearded One seems to have reverted back to the downright hairy defense of yesteryear, the lackadaisical stuff that once made him a YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons. Harden leads the way with a career-high 28.4 PPG (2nd in NBA), but his usage rate (even with Ty Lawson in tow) has inexplicably risen to a career-high 32.8%. His shooting percentage of 41.7 FG% (career-low 33.5 3FG%) the worst since his thunderous rookie season, and his turnover percentage of 15.3% is a career-high. Meanwhile, his defensive box plus/minus (-0.7) and defensive rating (106.1; net rating of -3.4 in home games) indicators suggest he’s about as ineffective a defender as he has ever been. It turns out it might actually take a Rocket scientist to figure out not only how to get Harden re-focused, but to find the proper balance of the Lawson/Beverley platoon. Beverley was in-and-out to start the season with an ankle injury. Lawson started the first 11 games before getting deposed, and has been a Porter Ranch-scale disaster (34.8 FG%, 31.0 3FG%) as a shooter and a defender. While one team tonight has an All-Star center who is only accused of pacing himself through the season, the other team has a well-paid center who openly admits to doing exactly that. Howard has been slowed by issues with his knee and back. As he looks forward to VetMinning his way to retirement at age 40, Howard, now in his twelth NBA season, doesn’t mind one bit when the coach rests him for whole quarters, or whole games. Dwight has become, essentially, a offensive board-crasher and help-defender who hopes nobody hacks him and sends him to the line (50.3 FT%, his worst in last three seasons). Howard’s partner-in-crime Josh Smith left over the summer for Los Angeles, and filling the hole at the power forward spot has been like trying to spackel a drive-thru window. Donatas Motiejunas just returned, and Terrence Jones (career-low 45.5 FG%) has been underwhelming in his return to action, and Montrezl Harrell, well, just no. So Capela has been granted trial-by-fire at the 4-spot. McHale’s navy tried to plug all the leaks, but after just 11 games (4-7), the commander was tossed overboard. J.B. Bickerstaff now steers the wheel, and while the team has crawled back to .500 under his watch, it’s hard to say whether they would have gone 12-9 under Kevin McHale anyway. “Over and over again,” Bickerstaff bickered Mark Jackson-style, after the Rockets fizzled late in New Orleans on Saturday, “we’ve disrespected the game”. Despite a pleasant Christmas Day defensive effort in a home win over the Spurs, J.B. wants to stop the “ugly Rockets” from rearing their heads. Jettisoning Lawson in favor of Jason “JET” Terry and Beverley has generally worked out, as has putting more trust in Thabo Sefolosha’s Swiss bro Capela (14.7 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA). But Bickerstaff has a better chance of righting the ship if he can find steadier contributions of the bench. Houston’s reserves manage just 27.1 defensive rebounds per-48 (28th in NBA) and their turnover ratio (16.6 per 100 possessions) ranks 27th. The Hawks (20-13) couldn’t hit the broad side of an Indiana barn last night (41.9 team FG%; Kyle Korver 0-for-8 3FGs), and was as sloppy with the ball as we’ve seen all season long (19.0 TO%, worst since losing in Brooklyn on Nov. 17). And yet they still found themselves, on the road, within a bucket of the lead with just under a minute to play. The defensive work to limit Paul George’s effectiveness, and coax him into questionable shots without fouling, allowed Atlanta to stay within reach until the sloppy end. They’ll need a similar effort tonight versus Harden, but they also need to keep a shoot-first guard like Terry from thinking he can be Monta Ellis. Whichever Hawks guard doesn’t draw Beverley should find minimal defensive resistance (unless Bickerstaff leans on Corey Brewer, or the barely-used K.J. McDaniels) and should have ample opportunity to make amends tonight. That guard is likely to be Korver, and the struggling shooter must work the corner spots with reckless abandon tonight, in order to shake off his slump. Capela and Howard will crash the glass, and create extra-chances. But Atlanta also did well yesterday making outlet passes off the Pacers’ offensive rebounds tough last night and should continue to do so again whenever they fail to snare the defensive rebound. Getting to the paint and making the extra pass without drawing charges and getting rejected will help the Hawks go into 2016 on a high note. Have a Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “Who on this row has three rings? Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?” The last time Paul George of the Indiana Pacers faced the Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, Fox Sports Indiana) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse? It’s been a minute - May of 2014, actually. By that time, the top-seeded Pacers needed all of George’s 30 points and Lance Stephenson’s 19-and-14 to finally hold off a first-round upset by the Al Horford-less Hawks in seven games. Until that performance, George and the Pacers had been booed off the floor by the home crowd, perturbed at their inability to do much of anything against guys like DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antić, Shelvin Mack, and Mike Scott. Quite a bit has changed in just the 19 months since that playoff game. George needed almost a full season off to heal a leg he broke in the summertime. And by the time he returned, the Pacers and Hawks traded places. With Horford back in tow, Atlanta ascended to the top of the East in the regular season (sweeping the Pacers along the way), while Indy hung around the eighth-seed until the final week of the 2014-15 season. The frontcourt anchors from the Pacers’ 2014-15 season, David West and Roy Hibbert, departed from the Hoosier State as free agents this summer. Instead of searching for replicates, Pacers team president Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel decided to live up to their team name. Pushing the pace meant convincing George that he’d thrive more as a stretch-four than a swingman. Bringing super-scoring free agent Monta Ellis (12.7 PPG, lowest since rookie year; 28.4 3FG%) into the fold, and making C.J. Miles (career-highs of 14.6 PPG, 39.5 3FG%; 55.1 eFG%, 2nd in East ahead of Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore) a more permanent fixture at the 3-spot, made the switch to power forward for George easier to understand. By all accounts, George (career-highs of 24.8 PPG and 7.7 RPG; 40.6 3FG%) has played good soldier, which helped the Pacers get off to a strong start. George won the conference Player of the Month award for October-November as Indy won 11 of their last 13 games in November. Team pace has climbed from 94.9 possessions per-48 (20th in NBA) during Indiana’s 2014 title run to 99.4 (8th in NBA). This season, both teams have been swapping paint while chasing Cleveland for pole position in the conference. Atlanta (20-12) comes into tonight’s game riding a six-game winning streak and enjoying improved play out of Horford as well as guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. Indiana (17-12) had struggled with three straight defeats until topping the T’wolves in Minnesota on Saturday. Each team needed to find a high gear during the second half to come away victorious in their most recent games. The Pacers’ recent struggles from 3-point range continued (9-for-26 3FGs) against Minnesota until a 36-20 fourth-quarter run put the Wolves out of reach. Indiana is among the top 3-point shooters (9.2 3FGs per game, 4th-most in East, up from 6.7 in 2013-14), particularly of the unassisted variety (21.4% of threes, 3rd-highest in NBA). So it would really help their offense if they could shoot better than 35.7% from deep. Coincident to the Hawks’ latest win streak is improved perimeter defense. Atlanta’s last four opponents shot just 28.4% on threes, compared to 47.1% in the prior five games. Against the Knicks on Saturday, Atlanta’s headfromrectomy procedure came during the second half, holding New York to just 35 points after allowing 63 in the opening half. New York cooled off to just 29.2 3FG% for the game, and ultimately had no answers for the Twin Mid-Risers, Horford and Paul Millsap (combined 17-for-32 FGs, 14 assists, 5 steals, 2 TOs) or the point guard hydra of Teague and Schröder (combined 10-for-21 FGs, 10 assists, 1 TO). The Pacers will be challenged to neutralize at least one of those duos, and to keep bench players like Scott (7-for-8 FGs vs. NYK) from getting their giddyup on at their expense. Tonight’s game features the two most opportunistic teams in the NBA, the Pacers’ 19.8 PPG off turnovers bested only by Atlanta’s 20.2. Millsap (1.8 SPG, 4th among NBA PF/Cs) will enjoy enticing George (career-high 3.8 TOs/game) to attempt post moves without getting stripped. Millsap won’t be as thrilled if Indiana can get George operating in space by way of isolation plays. When Atlanta’s defensive help arrives outside the paint, George must make the proper passes, but his teammates in turn (particularly Ellis and Rodney Stuckey) need to keep the ball moving instead of settling for quick, contested jumpers. They would all do well to look inside for Hibbert’s replacement at the pivot, Ian Mahinmi (59.4 TS%, 4th in East behind Atlanta’s Kyle Korver). George also needs the gold-coiffed George Hill and Ellis (1.8 SPG) to pressure Atlanta’s ballhandlers fullcourt. Teague has turned the ball over no more than twice in ten of his past 12 appearances. Coming off the bench, Schröder has done the same in just one of his past 8 contests. The unofficial turnovers have come by way of missed buckets around the rim and occasionally-questionable shot selection. Minimizing those factors would limit George and Ellis’ ability to score in transition. Both teams are a bit thinned in the frontcourt. Atlanta’s Mike Muscala will need to step up again while Tiago Splitter recovers from a calf injury sustained against New York. Rookie center Myles Turner fractured a hand back in November, boosting floor time for Indiana’s Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill. Vogel will be pleased to find capable of plugging the middle against the Hawks, whose 46.8 PPG in-the-paint in December ranks second in the East. Unlike 2014, fans won’t resort to jeering George and the Pacers if Atlanta manages to keep their winning streak going tonight. After all, losing at home to the Hawks is no longer a disappointment. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. “Bad Boys to the Bone!” Well, hello, there. Stan Van Gundy! Did you have yourself a Happy Smoove Buyout Day? One day before tonight’s tangle between the Detroit Pistons and the host Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, Fox Sports Detroit), yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Van Gundy inviting Josh Smith into his office to advise: “Look, it’s not you, it’s… okay, screw it, it’s you. We’re cutting you loose!” The Pistons sat at 5-23 when their GM/coach elected to apply the CBA’s stretch provision to his most notorious stretch-four. Even 5-23 doesn’t begin to reflect the scale of abject dysfunction that pervaded the roster, symbolized by its highest-salaried player, signed to a head-scratching free agent deal by a GM that no longer worked there. This was 5-23 with Smith, with Brandon Jennings, with Greg Monroe, with Andre Drummond. The team was a nightly #NotTop10 laughingstock. Piston fans were Pistoff, and Detroit’s once-proud suburban home attendance had fallen through the Palace floor. Just getting settled into the Motor City, Van Gundy wasn’t about to crash-and-burn in this Edsel. He knew Detroit would have to consult the White House to find a bailout more momentous than placing Josh Smith on waivers. Jumpshot Josh bounced from Motown to an eventful stop in H-Town, and now sulks and seethes on the bench in Tinseltown while averaging several career-lows, alongside just the latest head coach with that how-do-I-get-this-dookie-off-my-shoe look etched on his face. Picking up new paychecks at each stop along the way, he stopped by A-Town last March, and bragged to Ryan Cameron that “It’s a new day!” after sinking some lucky threes. Van Gundy could not possibly agree more with you, Josh. After waiving Smith, Detroit played .500-ball the rest of the way (27-27) through last season, threatening to break into the playoffs, and might have done even better were it not for Jennings rupturing his Achilles amidst their January turnaround. Since the waiver, the Pistons are a sound 44-39 coming into tonight’s meeting with another one of Smoove’s grateful former employers. Detroit didn’t chase Monroe is free agency, and now That Other Moose is handsomely paid on a Central Division rival that can’t seem to find traction. Midway through last season, and again this summer, they rolled the dice and committed to a backup lead guard from Oklahoma City. Today, Reggie Jackson (career-highs 20.4 PPG, 6.4 APG, 35.5 3FG%) waltzes into tonight’s contest as the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. It is Jackson’s second such honor this season, matching Drummond, who won it for each of the first two weeks of the NBA season. No longer flanked by Smith and Monroe, Drummond has continues to come into his own. He earned his first weekly honor of the season, in part, by trouncing Budball with 18 points and 19 rebounds in a season-opening 106-94 win over the defending regular-season conference champs in Atlanta. 19 boards would count as a career day for most NBA players, but Drummond has already met or bested that tally eight times this season. That included 29 boards one week after the Hawks game, versus Indiana, and 21 rebounds in Chicago last Friday in a back-and-forth battle that stretched through four overtimes. Playing 54 minutes, Dre would certainly have grabbed even more boards had he not fouled out with just over a minute left. The Windy City win was the first four-OT game in the NBA since Jeff Teague’s Hawks nipped Paul Millsap’s Utah Jazz back in March 2012. But while Chicago had to fly out to New York for a game the next night, Detroit followed up their running of the Bulls with a restful three-day layoff. Still, one can hope that when the Pistons flew into Hartsfield-Jackson, their arms were tired. Much like the Hawks’ last opponent, the Pistons arrive in Atlanta one night after squeaking out a win in Miami, storming back from being 18 points down in the second quarter. The AJC's C-Viv notes they arrived early this morning, due to the soupy weather delaying their flight from South Florida. Detroit is 0-for-3 thus far, including a loss to the Lakers, when playing the back end of a back-to-back on the road. Stan has kept things steady among the starters. Detroit (17-12) has maintained the same starting-five since the successful season opener in ATL, with Jackson and Drummond joined by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forwards Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova. Due largely to a lack of healthy options and backcourt defenders, KCP (30.2 3FG%) is second only to Houston’s James Harden in daily NBA floor time, averaging 38 minutes per game. The former UGA star’s offense is beginning to turn a huge corner as well. Despite going 7-for-14 (4-for-7 3FGs) in Atlanta in October, his field-goal shooting was in the dirty thirties (38.9 FG%) through November. But KCP’s jumper is looking extra-crispy lately, particularly when Detroit is desperate for a closer to take pressure off of Jackson. He’s been shooting 43.9 FG% this month, hitting a big triple with under two minutes left in the fourth OT to corral the bickering Bulls, and overcoming a rough shooting night with the final seven Piston points to temper the heat yesterday. Jennings has returned to the lineup for the Pistons, and his good-soldier attitude (“best PG in the East right now,” he tweeted two days ago) has defused any questions so far about the Jackson/Jennings dynamic. He will be used not only as a Jackson backup but, more likely, as a secondary shooting guard to relieve Caldwell-Pope (40 minutes yesterday in Miami). While he’s unlikely to appear tonight, Jennings is expected to boost the bench, as he gets back up to speed. But he may also get showcased in Van Gundy’s quest to improve Detroit’s shallow backcourt situation. Jennings’ $8.3 million salary concludes his contract this coming summer. Detroit has managed without not only Jennings but Jodie Meeks. The former Norcross High standout, Meeks fractured his foot in just the second game of the season and remains out for a couple more months. Factor in the recurring D-League development of youngsters at the bottom of the depth chart (Spencer Dinwiddie, Darrun Hilliard, and Reggie Bullock) and Jackson, KCP and the crafty Steve Blake have had the guard rotation essentially all to themselves. Due to the diminished depth, and the boundless energy of Van Gundy’s young upstart starters (you too, Ersan), Detroit’s reserves rank last in the league with a collective 15.6 minutes per game, 23.3 PPG, 37.3 FG%, and 2.0 SPG. But the marksmanship of ex-Hawk Anthony Tolliver, Blake, and rookie Stanley Johnson last night (collective 11-for-17 3FGs @ MIA) helped Detroit’s reserves quickly turn the tables on the heat in the second quarter. The Hawks have to push the pace on the Pistons, and Jeff Teague needs to lead the way. The Hawks still go as Jeff goes: 12-0 when he posts a plus-minus of zero of better, 17-2 when it’s minus-3 or better, eight double-digit losses (including to these Pistons) when he’s done worse. Teague (38.5 2FG% in December) has contributed either 20 points or 10 assists just once in the past ten games, and that was ten games ago. On offense, especially when his jumpshot isn’t falling (4-for-12 FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs vs. Tim Frazier and Poor-tland), he must work his way around Jackson and draw help defenders into the paint. Atlanta is 9-1 when Teague gets at least six free throw attempts. He’ll find lanes to attack whenever triple threat Kyle Korver (8-for-12 3FGs last two games) draws Caldwell-Pope to the other side of the floor. On defense, Teague (1.1 SPG, down from 1.7 in 2014-15) must get back to bringing the same fullcourt terror to opposing guards that he provided consistently last season when the Hawks got on a wintertime roll. In the ten losses where Teague played this season, he totaled just 7 steals. It’s his responsibility to make shoot-first PGs like Jackson work the full floor. Jeff must not only spark the Hawks, who thrive off scoring from opponent turnovers, but make opponents pay by converting those opportunities into points. Among the top 25 NBA players in transition possessions, Teague’s 21.0 turnover percentage on those possessions ranks as the second-worst, and his 55.8 eFG% is the fifth-worst. While Teague has been merely putting on the veneer of a top-flight point guard, Dennis Schröder (7-for-10 FGs, team-high 18 points in just 17 minutes) took his own veneer and stuffed it in his sock, while socking it to the toothless Trail Blazers on Monday. The gummin’ German has recommitted himself to defend opposing guards better (2.4 SPG in last 5 games, 0.8 before that), and it’s resulted in an uptick in productive floor time (52.0 FG%, 50.0 3FG%, 5.0 APG, 1.6 TOs/game in last 5 games). Schröder and the bench corps must exploit the rest-and-preparation advantage over their lead-legged Detroit counterparts. Thabo Sefolosha will join Kent Bazemore in forcing tough perimeter shots, but it will help a ton if Lamar Patterson (one steal in his last 13 appearances) can get a couple stops, or if Justin (no significant minutes since November 21) can make the Holidays happy. Tight-but-smart defensive pressure along the perimeter and limiting dribble penetration by Piston guards will lighten the load for Paul Millsap and Michigander Al Horford as they try to keep Drummond and Morris (13 combined O-Rebs, 29 boards @ATL on Oct. 27) from piling up second-chance points, which is naturally the Pistons’ specialty (league-high 15.8 PPG). Horford and Millsap (who, like Teague, will play through a tweaked ankle) are among the league’s top-ten in Roll Man possessions, and Al is hoppin’ when he’s not just pick-and-poppin’. Among the top 15 Roll Men, Horford’s 55.9 eFG% is tops, while his 2.9 turnover percentage on those possessions is the best among the Top 30. Atlanta’s ball handlers must recognize this and feed Horford early and often on rolls to the rim. Millsap, meanwhile, ranks 2nd among the league’s Top-20 in eFG% on Post-Up possessions, and 31.6% of those Post-Ups ending in free throw chances blows away the field among the NBA’s Top-50 post-uppers. Atlanta’s bigs, including Mike Scott, Tiago Splitter and The Real Moose, must be relentless on interior shots against a Detroit team that allows 45.2 PPG in the paint (most in the East), and their guards must be clever enough to feed the bigs when they’ve got the likes of Ilyasova, Morris, and Tolliver covering them. Sharp passing and assertiveness can neutralize Drummond’s cherry-picking ways, compelling him to focus more on his defensive tasks, and making plays on the drivers and cutters rather than the ball itself. With the floor spread out in his favor last night, Chris Bosh didn’t bother to ask his doctor before feeding Drummond a pill or two around the rim, and Horford can certainly follow suit tonight. Drummond’s dominance in the offensive rebounding column has just as much to do with the Pistons’ own struggles making halfcourt shots (50.7% true shooting, tied for 2nd-worst in NBA) as anything else. Detroit only shot 37.9% on two-pointers back on Oct. 27, but 12-for-29 (41.4%) on threes (Detroit’s 8-1 when they sink ten or more). Last season’s MLK Day game saw Drummond nab 11 of his 18 rebounds (surpassed in the same game by Monroe’s 20) in the first quarter, but Detroit could muster only 12 points (8-for-24 FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) in that frame. Last season, Atlanta’s opponents took the bait and jacked a league-high 25.8 threes per game, but shot just 34.1 percent on them. So far this year, Hawks foes aren’t settling quite as much (24.0 3FGAs per game, 16th in NBA), but are getting better looks (36.8 3FG%, 5th-most in NBA). Rather than being mesmerized by Drummond’s prodigious play in the post, improving the perimeter defense would make things easier on the Hawks tonight. Hawks point guards and roving wings can minimize the need for the bigs to vacate the paint (and Drummond) to help. A third-straight victory over Atlanta, a fourth consecutive victory overall, a fourth-straight road win to even up their away-game record, and a possible vault up to second in the East. All of that would suffice as quality gifts for the Detroit Pistons as they head into the Christmas Day break. But don’t bother wrapping anything, Atlanta. For Stan Van Gundy, Christmas already came a couple days early. Merry Christmas to you and yours, and Happy Holidays! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. “Hi, Damon? This is Steve Harvey. I am SO sorry, but remember when I announced that you beat out Pimentó for World’s Best Mixtape?” Tonight, watch Hawks fans Nae Nae! But more importantly, hopefully you’ll get to watch the Atlanta Hawks Whip the Portland Trail Blazers (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Northwest) at the Highlight Factory. Thanks to Kooninball, we’ve had plenty of rhyme-spitters grace our floor lately. But how many of these ATL-based artists can boast that their government name ends with “Hawk?” Richard Lamar Hawk has that going for him: you know him better by his stage name, Silentó. We have no idea whether the soon-to-be-18-year-old, a Soul Train Award winner, is merely the latest summertime one-hit dancing wonder to Bankhead Bounce his way in and out of our hearts. But he’s already accomplished more on wax than 25-year-old Damian Lillard, whose #4BarFridays have fallen on America’s deaf ears, somewhere in between “40 Bars” and K.O.B.E. (that’s a pretty wide spectrum). It’s been a good thing for Portland that Lillard keeps his night job. One of just three players in the NBA’s top-ten for both per-game scoring (24.6, 8th in NBA; career-low 41.8 FG%) and assists (6.8 APG), the two-time All-Star Lillard has been a true ironman for the Trail Blazers (11-18) as the team lurches through Year 1 of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era. Despite the wise departure of Aldridge to San Antonio, made possible by Atlanta’s acquisition of Tiago Splitter, Lillard found himself a new 20-PPG sidekick to Kid ‘n Play with. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (20.1 PPG, 40.7 3FG%, 1.3 SPG) certainly relates well to Weber State’s Lillard, having been a tad overlooked as a lottery pick coming out of a small-conference school. McCollum came alive in last year’s brief playoff run, averaging 17 PPG (up from his 6.8 regular-season average) and hitting 48% of his threes as the replacement for the injured Wesley Matthews. Today, Toronto is the only other NBA team (sorry, Klay) that boasts of a backcourt with two 20-point scorers. Unfortunately, neither guard will grace the hardwood with their play today. Keeping up the latest run of injuries to current and former NBA point guards (Jeff Teague, Elfrid Payton, and Jason Kidd included), Lillard aggravated a nagging plantar fascia last night in the loss to Miami, and his rest tonight will put an end to his 275-game playing streak. Like Lillard, McCollum also arrived in Atlanta a bit banged up, rolling his ankle and banging knees with Miami’s Dwyane Wade late in last night’s game. He’s been ruled out as well due to the ankle sprain. The heat tenderized the Blazers along the way to a 116-106 victory, Miami shooting a Blazers-opponent-high 57.3% from the floor (52.2% on threes) as they wiped out a strong offensive run by Portland in the first half. Portland arrives in Atlanta for the fourth game of their five-game road swing without their double-barreled backcourt available, and coach Terry Stotts will pull lots of levers in hopes someone else can step up with productive minutes on the second night of a back-to-back. The Blazers have given up triple-digit scoring in each of their past five games and in eight of their last ten, creating deficits that are tough for Dame and C.J. to overcome. Starter Mason Plumlee (2.7 O-Rebs per game) and reserve Ed Davis (2.8 O-Rebs per game) have been eager beavers on the offensive glass, cleaning up many of Lillard’s and McCollum’s misses. The Reggie Miller-eared Allen Crabbe (47.4 FG%) and Gerald Henderson (41.7 3FG%) come off the bench to provide perimeter shooting, athleticism, and not much more. But right now, Stotts needs stops, in addition to shots. Second-year power forward Noah Vonleh (3.0 PPG, 41.4 FG%) is highly unpolished on offense. Yet Stotts starts the 20-year-old, ahead of Meyers Leonard and alongside Atlanta native Al-Farouq Aminu (career-high 11.0 PPG, 37.9 3FG%), because defensive effort is a premium on this un-ripened roster. Inexperience in general, never mind playing together, is what puts the Trail Blazers behind the 8-ball, as all of their starters are aged 25 or younger. Lightly-used center Chris Kaman, bugged by an illness, is the only Blazer over the age of 30. The second-oldest player on the team, Henderson, just turned 28 a couple weeks ago. With the scoring guard options depleted, who will Stotts turn to? Up goes Frazier! Tim Frazier made a name for himself last season in the D-League, the 6-foot-1 guard out of Penn State being honored as both D-League Rookie of the Year and MVP after averaging 16.1 PPG, 9.5 APG, and 7.1 RPG. In his February call-up to Philadelphia, Frazier notched 11 assists in his NBA debut. Late last season with Portland, he dropped a double-double (13 points, 10 assists) on Dallas. Later, he averaged 67 percent on threes in the preseason. The Hawks can expect a lot of energy from Frazier as his next big chance to impress awaits. He’ll be backed up by Notre Dame’s 2015 March Madness hero Pat Connaughton. Whichever of Crabbe or Henderson starts will be buttressed by Mo Harkless and rookie Luis Montero. The struggle is real. Atlanta won their 18th straight game against a sulking Lillard and Portland back in January, despite missing DeMarre Carroll (Achilles) and losing his backup, Thabo Sefolosha (calf strain), at the outset of the game. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer turned to Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott (9-for-11 combined FGs) off the bench, and the duo showed off Atlanta’s understated depth at forward. Kaman, if healthy, and Leonard are the only returning Blazer participants from that game available to play tonight. With Carroll having gone north of the border, Bazemore (55.3 eFG%, 15th in NBA) now starts for Atlanta, and Scott re-emerged last night with 15 points off the bench (3-for-5 3FGs) plus some heady defensive plays as the Hawks outlasted the Magic in Orlando. It was the reserves that once again kept the Hawks (17-12) in contention last night, until the starters, led by Kyle Korver’s 6-for-8 three-point blitz, could pull through late in the fourth quarter. As a starter, Baze certainly brings boundless energy, but may be getting caught overcompensating, or at least out-of-position, when the Hawks’ backcourt combo of Teague (1.1 SPG, down from 1.7 last season) and Korver breaks down defensively. Atlanta’s 5-man starting lineup with Bazemore has averaged a minus-1.3 on the plus-minus scale this season (11.1 mins/game, 1.6 team SPG, 1.2 team BPG; 49.9 eFG%, 51.2 opponent eFG%; 12.3 O-Reb%, 25.8 opponent O-Reb%) , compared to a plus-1.3 (13.0 mins/game, 2.5 team SPG, 2.0 team BPG; 52.6 eFG%, 46.1 opponent eFG%; 26.9 O-Reb%, 29.3 opponent O-Reb%) when the veteran Sefolosha gets inserted in place of Bazemore. Coach Bud wants to keep Thabo spry for the long haul, so his staff needs to find ways to improve Kent’s positioning on the floor with the top unit. Teague (6 TOs @ ORL on Sunday) has struggled the past couple games, and his one logged assist came on Korver’s dagger three-pointer off a baseline dish in the closing minutes of last night’s game. He and Dennis Schröder (1-for-3 FGs, 3 assists, 4 TOs @ ORL) will do well to connect with cutters, and those teammates in turn should focus on finishing in the lane and earning trips to the line against Plumlee (3.4 personal fouls per game, 6th in NBA) and a hack-heavy Trail Blazer front line. Only Milwaukee matches Portland with a net +4.1 whistles per game on personal foul calls, and the Blazers allow an NBA-high 26.7 opponent FT attempts per game. Atlanta’s 79.8 FT% currently ranks 4th in the league. But leaving points on the board, as the Hawks did on six out of 20 occasions at the charity stripe on Sunday, could keep even the shorthanded Blazers in contention late. Here’s hoping that Silentó’s sinuous dance moves represent the most thrilling action on the floor by the end of the night. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  22. "So, our producers Google Image'd your surname, Evan, and here's what they found..." Way too busy again for a preview of this evening's tilt between the visiting Atlanta Hawks and the Orlando Magic (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports)! Chime in at will! See you in the Squawkchat! (PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Evan's nickname is "Never Google," and for good reason. Do NOT, under any circumstances, Google Evan's last name. No, seriously, do NOT! I see you over there thinking about it. Stop that right now! Think about basketball! This is your final warning!) ( PSA PART II: Here's a safe-click explanation as to why... ) Let's Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “Oh, come on! That dress is clearly Black and Blue!” So, all’s better, right? Right? The Atlanta Hawks think, maybe, their offense has turned a corner after scoring a season-high 127 points on the 1-26ers on Wednesday. Their previous season high? That was scored most recently against tonight’s hosts, the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England), who fell 121-97 in Atlanta back on November 24. Of course, the Hawks thought they shook out of their slump for good back then, as well. “We had some hard practices,” Jeff Teague said following that victory over the Celtics, almost a mirror image of the commentary that preceded the win over Philly, following three weeks of floundering play. “Great practice,” glowed Paul Millsap this past Tuesday. “Very intense. It was great. Something we needed. Hopefully, it’s the turning point.” One can only imagine the torturous tricks Mike Budenholzer has up his sleeve for the Hawks on their newly-remodeled practice court, if the Hawks (15-12) regress against superior competition like the upstart Celtics and Magic (Sunday night) on the road. Many Eastern Conference teams re-tooled their defenses in the offseason, and it shows. Each of the East’s momentary Top-8 are giving up under 99 points per game to opponents. Atlanta (100.0 PPG; 14th in Defensive Rating) and Boston (99.2 PPG; 4th in NBA for Defensive Rating) are each striving to get back to that level. Similar to the Hawks, the Celtics (14-12) have struggled to sustain success for terribly long, having prevailed in three straight games just once this season, and that was a month ago. Their defense can be best characterized as uneven, particularly following the departure of Marcus Smart back before Thanksgiving (bruised knee, out until probably January). Prior to Smart’s absence, Boston surrendered triple digits in regulation in just four of its first 12 games. Since that time, they’ve given up 100 or more in half of their 14 contests. The Celts went 1-6 in those games, including 119 points ceded in a wild shootout loss in Detroit on Wednesday, one night after holding Cleveland to 89 but scoring just 77. All-Star candidate Isaiah Thomas’ 38 points were insufficient to fend off the Pistons, who sunk half of their 20 three-pointers (neglecting a lucky Andre Drummond half-court heave) and shot 48.7 percent from the floor on the evening. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens needs Smart’s replacement in the starting lineup, Avery Bradley (career-high 15.9 PPG and 41.7 3FG%; 25 points @ ATL on Nov 24), to have a stronger defensive presence around the perimeter, lest he turn instead to Evan Turner, who is a far worse shooter (13.5 3FG%) but a similarly-skilled on-ball defender and a superior passer. Boston GM “Trader Danny” Ainge is on the hunt for a “go-to scorer,” a “reliable scorer at the end of games, night in and night out.” While such a comment would make Thomas (career-high 21.2 PPG) feel like chopped liver, Ainge clarified his preference is for a scoring complement among the big men, where Jared Sullinger leads Boston’s PF/C’s with just 10.0 PPG. Knowing that Ainge doesn’t want to part with his stockpile of future picks, either David Lee’s expiring $15 million contract, or Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko’s 2016-17 team options, could sweeten the pot for teams willing to take Bradley off their hands. Upfront, Sullinger has been among the best defensive rebounders (29.9 D-Reb%, 4th in NBA) in the game. While Johnson has held his own at power forward, the Celtics would like to go more with Tyler Zeller (season-high 12 points @ DET on Wednesday) than the inertial free-agent arrival Lee (career-low 48.9 FG% and 19.6 D-Reb%). But both Zeller and Kelly Olynyk have to make impacts defensively in order to stay on the floor. Olynyk has the inside track in that regard, which may or may not be a good thing. To get better defensively, both the Celtics and the Hawks have to thwart dribble penetration by opposing ball handlers. On Wednesday, the issue helped Isaiah Canaan (6-for-8 3FGs) and the Sixers (52.0 team FG%) to slide back into the game from way behind at least twice against Atlanta, and allowed Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (54 combined points) to have field days at the Palace versus Boston. When the Hawks’ defensive positioning (particularly, Teague’s and Dennis Schröder’s) held firm and the Sixers settled for mid-range jumpers, Atlanta was able to widen their mid-game leads. “I didn’t know that. Thanks for that uplifting stat,” Stevens dead-panned a reporter who informed the Celtics coach his team ranked last in the league in offensive eFG% on “wide-open” shots. Please, no one remind him that it’s the Hawks who free up their players for the most such shots (no defender within six or more feet of the shooter, 21.4 FG attempts per game) in the NBA. But despite Atlanta’s league-high 15.1 “wide-open” threes per game, they’ve shot just 34.9 3FG% on them, ninth-lowest among the ten most prolific teams in the wide-open threes department. Kyle Korver’s seven points (two triples and a technical free throw) against Philly came in the space of just over one third-quarter minute of play, but they were pivotal in stemming the Sixers’ last good second-half run. He’ll again be hounded by Jae Crowder for much of the game, but the Hawks will again go to a team approach to perimeter shooting, swinging the ball around to keep Boston guessing. In the blowout win over the Celtics on November 24, it was Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs) and Mike Scott (2-for-3 3FGs) coming off the bench to help Korver (3-for-3 3FGs) and the Hawks keep the C’s spread out, beneficial for Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 25 points, 4 O-Rebs) inside. Stevens might be emboldened to know that Hawks’ opponents have hit 36.7 FG% on threes, 2.9% above their normal averages, the third-highest differential in the league. Thomas is looking forward to getting up shots early and often against Teague (7-for-9 FTs vs. BOS on Nov. 24), who frustrated the losing Isaiah to no end in their last meeting. While Thomas jacks away heroically on behalf of his team, Al Horford and the Hawks’ big men will have quite some time keeping Sullinger away from the offensive boards and limiting Boston’s second-chances. In Atlanta’s last visit to Beantown on November 13, the Kenny Atkinson-coached Hawks allowed a season-high 103 field goal attempts, which tied February’s win over Golden State for the most opponent shots in a regulation-ending Hawks game since 1998. Only 17 of the Celts’ 50 first-half shots connected in the opening half, but their combination of dominant rebounding (season-high 86.8 D-Reb%; 17 O-Rebs for Boston, six by Crowder) and keeping their own turnovers low allowed Thomas to eventually come alive and the Celts to pull away. Unless your surname is Govan, who wants to be left sleeping with the Fishers? You don’t want to be on the team stuck with Derek Fisher’s Knicks nipping at your nose by the time Christmas Break rolls around. Both the Hawks and Celtics can use a win tonight as a building block for a run back up the conference standings. If Atlanta fails to capitalize this weekend, you can expect the Hawks will endure even more “tough” practices and “intense” video sessions in the very near future. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  24. “Beating the Hawks? Hmm. I’d say I’ve got… a Puncher’s Chance!” The Force sure hasn’t been with the Atlanta Hawks in a minute! It’s Star Wars Night at the Highlight Factory, and fans may chase the Hawks off the court with their light sabers if they flub their fourth straight game in a regular season for the first time since March 2014, particularly at the hands of a Philadelphia 76ers team (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Philly) that can’t tell whether it’s coming or going. The 76ers (1-25) are over the totally-winless hump after topping the last team the Hawks beat at home, the 4-21 Lakers, back on December 1. But there remain other hexes to fix. While nowhere near the 1992-1993 Sacramento Kings’ record of 43 consecutive road games, Philly has dumped 20 in a row going back to last season. They wouldn’t mind plugging that particular losing string here, versus a Hawks team (14-12) that’s dropped three of their last four at home and suffering through a crisis of confidence. It’s not as though Philadelphia never puts up a fight (on the court, that is) when they’re on the road. It’s just that they get only so far, before somebody pulls the rip cord. As recently as Monday night, the Sixers were up by five at halftime in Chicago. The night before, they made a spirited run to get back within six points late against the Raptors in Toronto. Before that, they’ve held multiple-basket fourth-quarter leads in Brooklyn, Memphis, Houston, Boston, Minnesota, Miami – and lost them all, several by double digits. As C-3PO might suggest, the Sixers seem to be made to suffer: it’s their lot in life. They’ve been like a racecar that can’t make the final turn because the pit crew intentionally shorted them on gas. Head coach Brett Brown has been trickling out the fuel for the Sixers, and has even slowed down the pace on offense a bit. But when the only player on the roster born before 1990, Carl Landry, is rehabbing in the D-League, and you’re turning to the likes of T.J. McConnell and Jerami Grant (a year-and-a-half YOUNGER than Knicks rookie Jerian), you’re depending on a lot of inexperienced fellas to seize the day. I’d imagine if someone on the street yelled to me, “The Sixers suck!”, my inclination would be to respond, “Yeah, well sure. But we’re drinking milk, and we’re getting stronger!” It wouldn’t be to ask anybody to Meet Me in Temecula or Tom’s River or something, like rookie star Jahlil Okafor has been doing since getting drafted this summer. While Okafor’s been a bit punchy (with people and gas pedals), the guy who signs his NBA checks now seems on the verge of throwing in the towel. Josh Harris signed on to the “Trust the Process” process of his general manager, Sam Hinkie. But after a few years of plucking plum collegiate stars who haven’t panned out (Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid), are sitting it out (Dario Saric), or risk flaming out (Okafor), the Sixers owner appears primed to Trash the Process. Harris has his eye on new sports endeavors (a new Premier League soccer team, maybe an NFL team in London) and no longer wants the Sixers to be a drag on his other investments. While he insists that he remains patient, Harris doesn’t want to become the Leon Hess of the league, enduring decades of fan disdain in hopes of an add-Hall-of-Famers-and-stir payoff. Harris brought on longtime NBA exec Jerry Colangelo to “partner” with Hinkie the way George partners with Lennie. He’s also heeding the howls from the league to cut out the Romper Room roster construction, although getting accomplished NBA veterans to serve as band-aids, babysitters, and bodyguards is asking a bit much. “Help me, Elton Brand, you’re our only hope!” has been the call of late, as the brass tries to woo respected Dookies like the retired ex-Hawk (who ought to be an assistant somewhere, soon) and Shane Battier into the fold as nanny-managers. “Karl-Anthony, I AM your father! Or, at least, I’m old enough to be him!” The sudden changes from above, coupled with the ushering in of Hot Stove trade rumoring, suggests a lot of 76er players know they’re playing for their next (and hopefully, not last) NBA gig. Guys like the returning Tony Wroten and Isaiah Canaan don’t just want to be traded in mid-season and immediately bought out somewhere. If they play their cards right, they might get enough interest to stick with somebody else, maybe even for a little playoff run. While Brett Brown’s unseasoned troops dress to impress, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks have looked less like Skywalkers and more like sleepwalkers on offense lately. Another listless start, this time at home against Miami, has Hawks fans giving the side-eye to Al Horford and the backsliding backcourt of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. The trio combined to shoot 3-for-16 from long-range and weren’t much better around the rim, either (Teague 1-for-9 2FGs). Teague and the Hawks’ guards have struggled to make proper reads on pick-and-rolls, and teammates have been caught overhelping, leaving opponents like Chris Bosh (4-for-6 3FGs @ ATL on Monday) open on jumpshots, and other bigs like Hassan Whiteside (5 O-Rebs @ ATL) in excellent position for easy putbacks off their own “Bud Stop” misses. At least, Jeff is smelling himself. “I think I’ve been the worst of everyone,” Teague said postgame, without much argument from anyone. It’s hard to tell if his starting center has a similar feeling. Horford continues to be a non-factor as a rebounder, leaving it to the likes of Korver (team-high 8 defensive rebounds vs. MIA, twice that of Horford) and Paul Millsap to do the dirty work for him. Sensing the unnerved reactions of fans, the Hawks, like Darth Vader, may find the lack of faith disturbing. The desperation to Do Something, without understanding just what to do, is reflecting on the coaching staff, and it has bench players like Thabo Sefolosha (4 turnovers in just over 9 minutes vs. MIA) and Dennis Schröder grasping at straws. The overall languidness is wasting efforts like Kent Bazemore’s, whose career-high 28 points against Miami were for naught. Baze and Sap are at least attacking the rim, but absent sound team play, they’re going Solo like Han from night-to-night, hoping for a spark that never arrives. Philly’s Nerlens Noel (eye abrasion) remains unavailable tonight, leaving Brown to look to Christian Wood (fresh from the D-League), Grant (five blocks @ CHI on Monday) and Richaun Holmes to step up off the bench. It’s on Horford and the Hawks’ frontline to neutralize whatever production Towns (NBA Rookie-high 17.8 PPG and 2.5 offensive RPG; NBA-high 89 points over last six days) and Robert Covington bring to the table, particularly in the paint. As for Atlanta’s guards and swingmen, the task isn’t terribly complex. Shoo Canaan (35.1 3FG%, 28.9 2FG%, 85.2 FT%) off the three-point line and cut off easy passing lanes, forcing him into tough mid-range jumpers without bailout fouls. The task is similar for recent returnees Wroten and Kendall Marshall. Korver has been a disappointment lately (2-for-12 3FGs, 2-for-8 2FGs past two games) but needs to at least outduel Nik Stauskas (28.8 3FG%) tonight. Philly will turn the ball over (league-high 18.2 TOs per 100 possessions) in bunches, but unlike in recent games, Atlanta must be able to turn transition opportunities into buckets. The more the Hawks avoid matching the youthful Sixers’ recklessness, the easier it will be to put the game away in the second half. Atlanta still leads the NBA with a +5.1 PPG margin off of turnovers, but with the team shooting as poorly as they have lately, margins like the 17-11 advantage they gained against Miami must be larger. Anytime a game against the 76ers gets categorized as a must-win, instead of just an oughta-win, things haven’t been going well at all. Despite faltering late, as is their custom, Philly held a lead with three minutes to go during the final victory of the 40-8 Hawks’ magical January carpet ride. Just over a month later, Hollis Thompson went buckwild from long-range (5-for-7 3FGs) and the 14-48 Sixers gave the shorthanded 49-12 Hawks no breaks. Philadelphia prevailed 92-84 in that last meeting, ceasing Atlanta’s six-game win streak and initiating a plateau trend for the rest of the Hawks’ season, one that appears to be extending into this one. You can count on the Sixers making their big second-half runs, making the game get hairier than Chewbacca. And then they will give the Hawks a chance to win, but that’s as far as they’ll go. With all due respect to Amdiral Ackbar, it’s not a trap. It’s simply up to the other team on the floor to seize whatever opportunities Philadelphia gifts them. If the Hawks fail to live up to this challenge, they should prepare to face the Dark Side. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  25. “You’re telling me, all I have to do is stand around and smirk for your product line? Where do I sign?” ((Too busy today for a full game preview, so have at it!)) In Springfield, Massachusetts, on a late summer evening in 2025, Gregg Popovich spans the crowd amid his induction speech. There they are, his NBA coaching tree: Ime Udoka, Quin Snyder, Becky Hammon, Mike Brown, Monty Williams, Brett Brown, Boris Diaw. All successful to varying degrees, thanks to his tutelage, and all grinning as they’re seated side-by-side. Coach Pop, however, reserves his best shade for his most trusty sidekick. “I could always count on my colleagues to give it the best they’ve got. As an example, Mike Budenholzer never could beat me in a regular-season game. But, you know what? At least you could tell he gave it his best!” The Atlanta Hawks could do something to thwart this event from happening (not the induction, you know what I mean) by putting a screeching halt to the San Antonio Spurs’ ten-game head-to-head win streak this evening at Philips Arena (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest). The last couple of meetings, the Hawks didn’t really seem all that up to the task. The Spurs mastery continued back on November 28, as the Hawks were held to just 12 second-quarter points, and just 88 for the game, as San Antonio easily pulled away. The crotchety Popovich expresses his begrudging disdain for the long ball: “I still hate it. I’ll never embrace it. I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing.” But his Spurs tied their own season-high with nine triples against the Hawks while holding Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford to one three-point attempt apiece (all misses), and limiting Jeff Teague (2-for-10 FGs) to 6-for-23 on threes. Millsap and Horford were rendered futile again on Thursday, as the Hawks (14-10) were hammered on the boards, 52-38, in Oklahoma City. Atlanta sat out Tiago Splitter, who also missed the first meeting versus his old team due to a hip injury, and his presence must be felt tonight to help minimize the rebounding disadvantage. Still, Budball almost pulled it out on the second night of a back-to-back, pulling within a point in the fourth quarter. But blown opportunities around the rim and at the free throw line proved too costly when Kevin Durant and the Thunder made their final successful run. Half-hearted execution and leaving points on the board won’t fly against a disciplined San Antonio team, looking to make amends after faltering to a DeMarre Carroll-less Raptors team in Toronto on Wednesday. It’s the Hawks with a bit of a rest advantage this time, and the Spurs (19-5) fly in from San Antonio after trouncing the Lakers last night. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record