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  1. “Go to The General and save some time!” Sorry, Chicago Bulls. Looks like you won’t have Trae Young to kick around this time! While our Atlanta Hawks head back up to Chicago to wrangle with those wascally Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago), kicking off yet another multi-game road trek, Trae the Tank Engine is going to stay behind for now. In the process of trying to keep the Hawks relevant during what was shaping up to be a washout home loss to Giannis-less Milwaukee last night, Young turned his ankle, and a red-eye flight to The Land of Lincoln was certain not to help matters. The last two times the Hawks had to deal with Jim Boylen’s club, the Hawks were coming off a back-to-back. The Bulls flew to Atlanta back in early November and dusted, by 20 points, a Hawks team that had beaten the Spurs one night before, but was still reeling with John Collins unavailable and Kevin Huerter minutes-restricted. That was their biggest margin of victory this season. Until this month, when the Hawks, coming off a squandered overtime game in Miami, flew north and within 24 hours watched their dreadful defense head south. In what was becoming a theme for Atlanta (6-twentysomething) this season, the opposition scored their most regulation points, in a 136-102 blowout, since the time when Illinois’ Senator Obama was prepping for the Pennsylvania primaries. With those last meetings in mind, one wonders, without Trae in tow for the Hawks, how much of a breeze this game will be for the Bulls will be in the Windy City. Laser-focused on keeping Young restless since getting torched throughout last season, the Bulls have held Atlanta’s young star to 12.0 PPG (26.9 FG%, 7.1 3FG%) and a season-low 78 O-Rating. Might their gameplan be thrown off more than Atlanta’s? Kevin Chouinard noted postgame last night, when Lloyd Pierce was asked about his team’s table-setters in Trae’s absence, Atlanta’s head coach rattled off several inexperienced options: two-way contractor Brandon Goodwin, Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 assists in 27 minutes vs. MIL on Friday), Cam Reddish, even De’Andre Hunter. Perhaps, when it comes to keeping his true designs under wraps, LL Cool P is doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well. But don’t nobody share the Hawks coach’s response with E.T., The Extra Tradebait. Chicago-adjacent native Evan Turner (last player off ATL’s bench yesterday, 2 assists in 10 minutes) was conspicuous by Pierce’s omission. Well into the midst of trade season, this is as good a time as any for Pierce, with a little prodding by PBO/GM Travis Schlenk, to allow vets to showcase their wares. Atlanta should allow Turner (5.6 assists per-36, 2nd-highest on team), Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe (20 points, 4-for-7 3FGs, 3 steals vs. MIL) to offer flashes of what they could provide, if not the Hawks, then some other NBA team in the back end of this season, beyond their huge expiring contracts. But for whatever reasons, opportunities for Turner (probable, hammy strain from sitting on benches so long) to impress LL Cool P have been crushed like pink cookies in a plastic bag. Three turnovers in under 13 garbage-time minutes here back on December 11 didn’t help Evan’s cause. A daunting schedule awaits the Bulls (1-11 versus teams currently above-.500) after today, with Bud’s Bucks in town on Monday and games versus Utah and Boston and at Dallas to uncork the new year. At least in the local media’s machinations, Boylen is still on a hot seat, and his team cannot afford to stumble tonight after some questionably inconsistent performances. Of note, there was the 83-73 home loss to Charlotte two days after pasting Atlanta; a late-game collapse at Dennis Schröder’s OKC; a 1-point win at the whittled-down Wizards; 14 fourth-quarter points in a 103-95 loss at Orlando pre-Xmas break. Coming into tonight’s action, Lauri Markkanen (tummy flu) remains questionable to play. Leading scorer Zach LaVine (shoulder strain) and top rebounder Wendell Carter (abdominal) are listed as probable, while Otto Porter’s return (foot fracture) has been delayed until probably February. As much as Boylen would prefer to rest them all and allow Tomas Satoransky, Coby White (7-for-11 2FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 11) and Thaddeus Young (9 rebounds and team-high 6 assists off-bench vs. ATL on Dec. 11) run roughshod tonight, he knows his Bulls will need as many points as they can get to keep shorthanded Atlanta at bay. On a planet that includes the Hawks (103.6 O-Rating), Chicago (12-20) has somehow managed to be the league’s least-efficient offense (103.5 O-Rating). They’re not very good rebounders (bottom-ten in both O-Reb% and D-Reb%), they’re not great at protecting the rock (9th-worst TO%), and they’re not all that big on rim protection (4.4 blocks per-48, 25th in NBA). Imagine those ratings if they hadn't already played Atlanta twice. But much like George Gervin’s famous finger roll, Boylen’s Bulls can do one thing, really well. As Young can attest, they are masters at dispossessing opponents of the ball. With a little bit of a playoff push, Kris Dunn (NBA-high 4.2 steal%) would become a worthy All-Defensive Team candidate for the Bulls (2.5 GB 8-seed Orlando; 101.4 December D-Rating, second in NBA only to Milwaukee), the league’s leaders in thefts (9.7 steals per-48, no other team with 9 or more) and the NBA East’s standard bearer for deflections (17.1 per game). Much maligned in the past for his lack of defensive effort, LaVine (career-high 1.3 SPG) and the Bulls (+3.1 December Net Rating, 3rd in NBA East) are modeling for Atlanta how beneficial an aggressive defense can be for a struggling offensive team. The Hawks won’t have Young (11 TOs in 2 games vs. CHI) tricky-dribbling into the teeth of Chicago’s defensive coverages tonight. But with some well-designed DHO actions and strong-side post feeds featuring Collins (ATL season-high 16 boards last night), they could limit Chicago’s ability to pile on the points off Atlanta’s turnovers, staving off the Bulls’ desire to grab this game by the horns early. Still, steady low-risk ballhandling will be key, and it’s up to Pierce to identify the players on his roster who could provide that. After two Bulls’ bashes this season, might a Turner bout be fair play? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Ha! Now I’m up 9-3 in this here 3-point contest, 2Chainz. You know my last make was the DAGGER!” Okay, Atlanta Hawks, let’s shout it together. “No More Games Unnecessarily Dragged into OT on the First Night of a Back-to-Back While the Next Opponent Rests at Home” ON THREE. ONE-TWO-THREE!! While the Houston Rockets were on the last night of a three-day respite, just two weeks ago, they kicked back, relaxed, and watched the Hawks engage the Pacers in a knockdown, drag-out. Trae Young’s baskets and dimes (21 fourth-quarter points vs. IND) pushed Atlanta ahead of Indiana three times in what should have been the final nine minutes of the contest. But for a series of blown bunnies in the final minute of the 4th by Jabari Parker, Alex Len and everyone’s favorite crunch-time Hawk, DeAndre’ Bembry, the Hawks could have enjoyed a pleasant late-night charter from Indiana to South Texas. All of that, and an 18-point second-quarter lead that devolved into a 7-point deficit before the final quarter began. Instead, Young (8 OT points, too, out of his 49 in a losing effort) and the Hawks’ team bus and plane had to idle another hour before departure. All that energy would have been nice to have saved up for the next night’s game. Instead, Our Fine Feathered Friends found themselves treated to The James Harden Variety Show (60 points in three quarters) as the Rockets meticulously wrapped the Hawks into a Popeyes Po’boy. Fast forward to the proceedings last night down on South Beach. Sandwiched in-between some insane 23-8 and 24-4 runs by the hosts, the Hawks actually played some decent team-oriented basketball. Then Len did NOT blow a dunk opportunity created by Trae with 59 seconds to spare, putting the Hawks back up by six. That alone should have been worthy of glee, but Young failed to heed my warning (“Do NOT taunt #FloridaMan!”), re-enlivening the hosts for a final curb-stomping that extended all the way into the extra stanza. Hold that plane! Tonight’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) are quite grateful for the Atlanta Hawks’ pre-flight plight. They can empathize, too. After all, they were on the same floor as the Hawks were, on Sunday night, clinging to a 1-point lead they gained with under a minute to go. But then Zach LaVine missed a layup with seconds to spare. While LaVine made up for that with free throws to force OT, instead of flying home triumphantly to face the Raptors the next evening, the Bulls found themselves circling in a holding pattern until The Tyler Herro Hour was through. That show was sponsored by Chicago’s old friend, Jimmy Butler, who assisted on five of Miami’s final six buckets. Now having dropped three straight, amid growing reports of turmoil around his team, Heisenberg-hunting DEA special-agent Jim Boylen could not have hand-picked a more suitable opponent stumbling into Chi-town (8-17) without a full day of rest. Lambasted in the media, “social” and otherwise, since taking over for the meek Fred Hoiberg a year ago, for military-grade practice tactics and a “Leadership Committee” intended to quell player feedback, Boylen has to balance pleasing his defensively-deficient scoring star with the need to get stops when the outcomes of games hang in the balance (sounds a bit familiar, no?). When Butler’s heat forged a 13-0 lead a few weeks ago to start the game against the Bulls, Boylen shelved LaVine in hopes of a spark. “I felt there were some defensive mistakes that didn’t need to be made,” Coach Boy-ar-dee would say postgame. I thought [LaVine] needed to come over and think about it for a minute.” Or, six. Things didn’t get any better, the Raptors running around undeterred like shoplifters at Sears as Zach E. Fresh sat out the next six minutes. While Chicago’s final charge made the 8-point home loss to Jimmy Buckets and Miami look halfway respectable, all thoughts turned to LaVine and the players’ near-mutinous relationship with the coach. “I guess I was to blame for it,” LaVine (22.2 PPG; career-high 39.6 3FG%, but 44.6 2FG%) stated not all that cryptically about that loss. “I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do.” Having cycled through five head coaches already, now in his sixth season in the league, I suppose the 24-year-old LaVine’s a bit of an expert on pro coaching styles after all. LaVine (6th-lowest Defensive PIPM among players with 650+ minutes; you already know who’s #1) fanned the flames a bit further in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, when asked if his head coach “trusts” him. “I feel I earned that trust, but I guess he feels differently.” What LaVine may not have figured out by now is, Boylen is doing exactly what he was hired to do. He’s drawing a LOT of the slings and arrows that once flung in the direction of the two-headed management monster known around town as GarPax. Deferring organization-wide criticism away from Jerry Reinsdorf and Garpax, that is Job One. No future draft picks were coming when the Bulls’ “brain” “trust” shipped Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. Bulls fans hoped that Hoiberg would be the guy GarPax insisted could transform the young recipients from that deal, LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn into Rated-R superstars. Mayor Fred’s already a distant memory. Dunn has been relegated to a Bembry-style defense-ish role off the bench behind free-agent pickup Tomas Satoransky (team-high 27 points and 8 assists in the Bulls’ 113-93 win in Atlanta back on Nov. 6). Marky Markk has been no sweet sensation. He’s a seven-foot forward who can’t shift to the 5-spot, shooting 37.8 percent from the floor, averaging under seven boards and two assists in over 30 minutes per game. If it’s Otto Porter you’re looking for (3-for-4 3FGs @ ATL on Nov. 6), well, he’s been out with a bum foot after dancing on a ceiling. Tank prizes Coby White (hammy) and Wendell Carter (tummy) are soldiering through ailments of their own, as are Daniel Gafford (finger sprain) and Denzel Valentine (ankle). The one fellow who could conceivably push the Bulls over the top on any given night, LaVine, is on a mission to fry his egg-headed taskmaster, not recognizing Boylen is really just the Teflon. Dark waters, indeed. You can see why Trae turned his tongue into a lozenge after given opportunities by postgame media to hurl his own coach under the team bus last night, following a crucial final-minute benching. To be fair, Young may have worried that idling bus might run out of gas before the Hawks (6-18) could finally roll out of town. But the young star’s countenance showed he was as hurt by his coach’s non-substitution as anything The Chairman, Melvin Hunt, might have lobbed in his direction. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” Young repeated, in his best imitation of A Tribe Called Quest while his fans back home were screaming, “Oh My Gawd, Pierce! Oh My Gawwwwd!”. Trae could hardly Keep That Same Energy on Twitter, his emoji-laced postgame “Welp” comment met with derision by Butler and the heat star’s newfound #FloridaMan friends. Today’s “Another Day, Another Opportunity (100)” as Trae likes to say. But, for what? If Boylen is “You,” then Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce is the warm-seat Lottery Land coach “Your Significant Other Told You Not to Worry About.” Boylen would have pointed the finger at his subjects, then had them running suicides hours before today’s game. Pierce, rightfully, directed the bus wheels to roll right over him. Going “defense-offense” isn’t all that risky a strategy, unless you don’t go all the way through with the plan, and wind up with Bumble-bry trying to save the day with the ball in his hands as Trae watches from afar, “pulling for [his] teammates” from the sideline. “We ended up getting an empty possession on the offensive end (whodathunkit?), and then they come down and hit [Butler], it’s a big 3 to tie it up,” Pierce re-hashed to the AJC and postgame reporters. “And that’s on me… I feel bad. I think I had an opportunity to call a timeout after that first 3. In hindsight, you look back and think of what you could have done.” No bald-faced lies detected there. But as the Hawks approach tonight’s second opportunity to secure a winning road trip, it’s like arriving for a fancy feast with a horrible taste in your mouth that you can’t get rid of. Hawk-itosis! As far as riddance goes, Pierce has very little to worry about. The only media roasting he has to deal with is from us key bangers out in social media, most of us threatening not to fill arena seats we already don’t occupy, as the local sports media apparatus is way more toothless and way less ruthless than anything you’d find in the Second City. (Whoever that is over at Techwood Drive who pulled this game from TNT at the last minute, gracias.) Coming up short of the win in regulation, as his Hawks did last night, might even have earned Pierce some golf claps if we were solidly in the Competitanking™ phase of the season. Like last March, when a Vince-led ragtag group in Miami morphed from defenders into dodgeball competitors in the waning moments and lost by one. “D’oh! (wink, nod)” LP keeps relationships cordial and forthcoming with the beat writers, solid with the few locals that have any pull. Plus, he’s got unwavering support from the boss who picked him in PBO/GM Travis Schlenk, who only half-pretended this summer that his Hawks were immediately on the come-up to placate ownership and season-ticketholders. But the one way Pierce gets got is if his relationship with his star player deteriorates. If Young remains as much of a defensive liability as Pierce let on with his late-game substitution decision, that’s not so much a player issue as a problem for the staff and the guy who’s gained acclaim as a “defensive-minded coach” (hmm, what local team have we heard that from before?) and a “developmental coach.” Absurd runs like the heat, and various and sundry opponents, enjoy against Atlanta, at any time of a game, led by third-tier players whose individual contributions are worthy of induction into Springfield (wait… Duncan Robinson ISN’T the cake-mix guy?), isn’t squarely the fault of the players on the floor, but it can be attributable to the person who puts obviously shaky lineups and combos out there. In Chicago, LaVine doesn’t have the pull he needs to bend his front office’s ear. But the minute Young, bearing the brunt of mounting losses, decides to declare Pierce to be his Paul Westhead, his Doug Collins, LP would be at risk of getting the AX. Pierce must become as responsible with players on the court as he is relatable with them off it, especially his most important one. Atlanta’s first 20-point loss of the season came on the back end of a back-to-back, that November game against Chicago where Trae followed up a virtuoso performance against the Spurs by going 0-for-8 from downtown/burbs. Uncle Vince (3-for-4 3FGs, plus 5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes) was again the X-factor that kept the game remotely interesting for Hawks fans. That defeat came to the Bulls at home, after a satisfying win. What can be expected of this team on the road tonight, after a humbling loss? Hopefully, not another Houston-style game that has LaVine looking like Harden, and a rando like Satoransky looking like vintage Westbrook. Last month, the Hawks didn’t really have reliable contributions yet from De’Andre Hunter (career-high 28 points, 5-for-10 3FGs @ MIA), who needs to be more than an on-ball guardian to be effective defensively (no more than one steal or one block in past 12 games), and fellow rookie Cam Reddish (7 rebounds @ MIA, most since the season-opener). Getting these two, plus the returning Kevin Huerter (7 assists, 1 TO in 26 minutes), lots of looks tonight will be essential for Young to fend off a Bulls defense (NBA-high 9.4 team SPG, led by Dunn’s 1.9 and Sato’s 1.5; NBA-high 17.8 opponent TO%) that basically consists of guards pressuring ballhandlers into submission. Securing the defensive rebounds will be essential against the Bulls, whose 42.5 FG% is ahead of only the Knicks. Another rookie, Bruno Fernando, has been limited to under 10 minutes per game in his last four appearances, and should have a key role in Pierce’s frontcourt rotation to match Carter’s, Thaddeus Young’s and Gafford’s physicality. Yes, we’re still weeks away from John Collins’ return, but relying so heavily on “YPJ” to terminate opponent’s possessions hasn’t been a “PYT”. Good news! Our Hawks won’t have to deal with another back-to-back for 17 days after tonight. Barring an unfortunate trip to Vitamin World by John Collins, we’ll have him back to participate in all the fun and frolic by then. Maybe Huerter won’t be on a short leash by that time, either. The bad news? The first night of the back-to-back is against Giannis and Bud’s Bucks. Then, it’s another cross-country flight to… oh, wonderful, Chicago. Yeah, let’s just consider this here game a practice run, shall we? “Keep Bembry Off the Offensive Floor in a Tight Game” ON THREE. ONE! TWO!! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. Mecca. And, the Soul Brother. “It IS the Windy City,” for a reason, NBA legend Isiah Thomas recently remarked on NBATV. So you’re not going to see playground hoopers pulling up and firing away from long range. Chicago basketball is more of a ground game. It’s gritty, interior-oriented, with emphases placed on driving hard to the rim, fighting for loose balls, and generally creating havoc. “It’s basketball in any condition,” NBA star Anthony Davis noted of his fellow Chicago-raised hoopsters this past summer to the Tribune. “You find a way to play. Their love for the game is tremendous. No matter if it’s hot or freezing cold in the gym, or outside it’s raining, whatever, any basketball player from Chicago, it means a lot more to us because we are a basketball city.” It’s where Davis returns in the summertime, or whenever he can during the NBA season. Anthony Davis as a Kentucky Wildcat, as a #1 overall NBA pick, was and remains a nice point of local pride. In that town, Davis as a New Orleans Pelican was a mild curiosity. AD as a Los Angeles Laker, with none other than LeBron James as his sidekick, is a brow-raising supernova. At the United Center last night, Davis crammed every seat as his newest team, the Lakers, zoomed past the host Chicago Bulls. The latter club hopped on a plane at O’Hare to visit the Hawks in Atlanta tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago), on a back-to-back for both. While in town for his next-to-last NBA visit this season (the All-Star Game is there in February), Davis was asked to double-down on a pair of comments he made during the offseason, while visiting a Nike summer camp that has never been so packed with young hopefuls and even more hopeful parents. The first comment regarded a softball laid gently over the plate for the First Takes of the world: whether 2020’s top free agent had any interest whatsoever in leaving the Lake Show to sign with the NBA club closest to his dear Lake Michigan. The second comment was what piqued my interest, a closing statement he made while praising the gym rats and blacktop hustlers in and around The Second City. “And we are The Mecca of Basketball,” Davis said this summer. “You can quote me on that.” Definitive quotes are never enough for the rabid media, as ESPN’s Eric Woodyard was there after a Monday shootaround for AD’s re-iteration, and elaboration. “We’ve got the best basketball players ever. You look at the history with all the guys we’ve got that made the league, and even the guys that didn’t make the league.” “They say New York. But it’s not even close.” Oh, now you’ve gone and done it, AD. You’ve awakened The Giant That Never Sleeps. Might as well have started another useless fuss over what is and isn’t pizza. Not only were Gotham’s gabsters all over Davis’ slap at their hallowed metropolis – what else would they call Madison Square Garden? – but folks back in L.A. were taking umbrage, too, forcing Clippers head coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers to take a side. Understandably sparing of Tinseltown, he didn’t blink when the opportunity presented itself to lob some shade NYC’s way. “It’s not even a question,” Doc responded to ClutchPoints. “New York gets all the rub, which I don’t get. But Chicago is (Da Mecca). It’s not even close.” Clipper pest Pat Beverley was right there in lockstep with his coach. “Over the years, due to the violence, basketball has taken a step down. It has come back up,” P-Bev noted, citing Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Davis as more recent examples. America’s Big Dino-Cities continue to squabble over who is the, definitive, “Mecca” of basketball, tossing old names like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Starbury and D-Rose, Brooklyn-born but not really-bred MJ, Brooklyn-born but not readily-claimed Melo, back and forth at each other. Meanwhile, down here in Atlanta we have been, not so quietly, cranking out a growing legion of coveted college, pro, and soon-to-be pro basketball stars. The NBA’s tub is full of legends from the parks of NYC, Chicago, and LA (don’t even let Philly get a wedge in on this argument). But it’s The ATL these days with its hand on the faucet, and folks from those haughty old haunts can’t seem to turn it off. In the shadow of Georgia Power’s Vader-looking headquarters on the edge of downtown, my first immersion into the local hoop scene was unfolding on a random mid-90s summer weekend. Presumably a vestige of the slum clearance in the Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood Georgia Power replaced, a corner park’s raggedy single court was packed with hustling players and ringers, the fresh new street trees doing little to shade anyone from the 100-plus degree heat. The streets were lined with cars bumping bass, the sidewalks teeming with teenage wannabe-players, middle-age wannabe-coaches and wannabe-scouts, and ladies in sumptuous summer attire, keeping score on various fronts. They all peeked through the wrought-iron gates like on-lookers at a cage match. The on-court play, if one could simplify it by calling it “play,” was as roughneck and cutthroat as any scene you’d see portrayed on “Above the Rim” or “White Men Can’t Jump.” At times, amid the constant jostling and barking, it was hard to discern between teammates and opponents. The Saturday scene was the same up the street at Midtown’s newer Central Park courts, and at countless, less reputable parks across Atlanta. The summer leagues were fueled and ran by the town’s biggest dope kingpins. So the stakes were always high, drawing crowds that, in the Nique-got-traded era of Atlanta, would put The Omni to shame. On this stage, players like Anthony Carter, a high school dropout, thrived. This was one surefire way kids from the streets could make bank without resorting to illegalities, even if the cash sources probably were from ill-gotten gains. The big collegiate programs weren’t sticking their necks out in search of downtrodden kids like him. But scouts and connects from junior colleges knew they had an angle to offer streetball standouts like Carter a way up, and out. For this current G-League and former Sacramento Kings assistant coach, Anthony Carter’s path to a 13-year NBA playing career started here on humble blacktop, sidewinding through Saddleback Community College and on to the University of Hawai’i. A contemporary of his from that age of Atlanta streetball (no known relation) didn’t make it to the big league, or even the NCAA. But through Pearl River Community College, then Delta State University in Mississippi, Wendell Carter, Sr. was not about to go pro in something other than sports. Wendell Senior went off to hoop in the Dominican Republic for three seasons. It was back in the 80s, while in a summer-league dunk contest here in Atlanta, that an acquaintance from his humble apartment had a local hoop-star sister she wanted him to meet. Later, as he shared with The Undefeated, Kylia was asked by Wendell to hang on to his dunk contest trophy, and it wasn’t the last shiny object he would hand her. She went on to star at Ole Miss while Wendell was her Around The Way guy, at the smaller Mississippi schools. As the housing projects were tearing down, and as America’s War on Certain Drugs was ramping up, Atlanta’s kingpin-funded summer leagues were fading into obscurity. The prodigal basketball talent was shifting decisively to more responsible AAU outlets, where players could sharpen and showcase their skills well beyond the wards where they slept. As intown ‘hoods gentrified, you would begin finding the best basketball games at the fringes of Atlanta’s sprawling region. A prep star from Gwinnett or Cobb County high schools, or the once-segregationist private academies, making a big national splash would have once been unheard of. These days, the ATL burbs, inner and outer ring, are a veritable pipeline, and those local schools know exactly how and where to scour for competitive talent. Kylia and Wendell, Sr. put in a lot of hard work, sticking together through three decades of marriage plus courtship. They were able to impress upon young Wendell, Jr., the value of academics while maturing as a basketball player. That made the 6-foot-10 Fairburn native an ideal pupil when he was able to move from a small East Point prep school to Pace Academy, a local academic powerhouse near the Governor’s Mansion in a leafy, posh corner of Atlanta’s Buckhead. You would come to know Pace prominently by all the kids lining State Farm Arena’s Gucci Row while wearing their blue sweatshirts during the Coach Bud-and-Kyle era. But it is Carter, now a second-year standout with the Bulls, who has been putting Pace firmly on the larger sports map. In 2017, while selecting Duke over his parents’ wish for him to attend Harvard, the senior with the 3.8 GPA was named the Morgan Wooten National Player of the Year. The honor takes into account activities in the community and the classroom, in addition to the on-court accomplishments. Carter, Jr. followed in the footsteps of Wooten winners Dwight Howard (2004), Maya Moore (2007), and Derrick Favors (2009). Throw in, for good measure, Lou Williams, a Clipper no one bothered to approach with the Mecca query, as 2005’s Naismith Prep Player of the Year, one season after Dwight. No other metro area can claim more National POY winners in that 15-year span. LA had Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Katie Lou Samuleson and Lonzo Ball. Chi-town had Candace Parker, the Hawks’ Parker and Jahlil Okafor. Tina Charles has been The Big Apple’s only bite. Speaking of New York, the man who entrenched NYC streetball as a national phenomenon, Hall of Famer Julius Erving knew where to eventually settle down and raise kids, and it wasn’t NYC or even Philly. If the unfortunate soul in Wendell, Jr.’s Pace High poster pic above looks familiar, that was Jules Erving from suburban Sandy Springs’ Holy Innocents’ Episcopal. Aptly nicknamed, “Pre-Med”, the younger Erving is now a junior player at Cal. It’s not just The Doctor who diagnosed what’s been going on in the hoops world. You must be a McDonald’s All-American to even qualify for the Wooten hardware. And even the Chicago-based burger behemoth has a sense that basketball’s “Mecca” has moved south. After Trae Young and Carter, Jr. faced off at the United Center in 2017, Mickie D’s moved their Boys and Girls High School All-American Games out of Chicago, their host city since 2011, and into Atlanta’s Highlight Factory, seemingly to stay. The older metros have their share of Hall of Famers and NBA stars, past and present, to quibble over. But you don’t have to look hard to find an A-T-Lum on a current NBA roster. Some of the most respected and revered veterans in The Association right now – LouWill, Jae Crowder, Al-Farouq Aminu, Favors – cut their teeth on Atlanta-area rims. Dwight, too. Look, if you will, at the active, emerging players whom teams are investing their future. Marietta High’s Jaylen Brown. Recent Rookie of the Year winner, Greater Atlanta Christian’s Malcolm Brogdon. Alpharetta’s Malik Beasley. Mableton’s Collin Sexton. Alpharetta’s Kobi Simmons. Westlake’s Chuma Okeke. And the bumper crop keeps on growing. Your fingers don’t have to walk too far down the annual NBA Draft Boards before you point out an ATL-area product. The next big name, Anthony Edwards of Therell High and Holy Spirit Prep, dropped 24 in his collegiate debut last night in Athens. The UGA freshman is near-certain to be Top 5 in the 2020 Draft. UK-bound Brandon “BJ” Boston, a Norcross kid, is a top-5 NBA prospect for 2021. Five-star, seven-foot center Walker Kessler, of southside Atlanta’s Woodward Academy, just passed up on Carter’s Duke to accept an offer from UNC. Chances are good that Kessler won’t be around Chapel Hill for long. The brightest of the bright spots among the young ATLien NBA set has been Carter, who has already introduced himself to Bruno Fernando and the Hawks in preseason action. Losers of five of their last six, the Bulls (2-6) have had a frustrating start to the season. But Carter (14.1 PPG) has been the last person Bulls fans have been pointing to for blame. Averaging a team-best 9.6 RPG while hitting 64.2 percent of his two-point attempts, and as the sole Bull blocking a shot per game, Wendell has been Chicago’s Steady Eddy, no slight to Mr. Curry. The struggle has been real for backups Luke Kornet and Fernando contemporary Daniel Gafford, so it’s imperative for the Bulls to have Carter on the floor and staying out of foul trouble. He’s producing the mayhem around the offensive boards that Robin Lopez provided in recent years, useful for a team that has been bottom-ten in shooting from two-point range, three-point range, and at the free throw line (42.7 team FG%, 28th in NBA; 71.5 team FT%, 25th in NBA). Lead scorer Zach LaVine’s vow to become a more impactful defender has yet to bear much fruit (116.4 opponent O-Rating and 56.6 opponent eFG% on-court, as per bball-ref; 97.8 and 47.3% off-court). LaVine (21.8 PPG, 26-7-7 vs. LAL last night) and Lauri Markkanen’s defensive lapses often leave Carter and Otto Porter (4-for-7 3FGs vs. LAL) as Chicago’s last line of halfcourt defense. Further, only the Zion-less Pelicans have a worse defensive rebounding percentage than the Bulls (68.9 D-Reb%). Chicago often turns to up-and-down rookie Coby White to relieve Tomas Satoransky and pick up the tempo, and on Kris Dunn (1.9 SPG) and Thaddeus Young (1.4 SPG) to get crucial stops. But the Bulls’ backups have yet to find the cohesion, when playing with LaVine, Carter and/or Markkanen, that would consistently string 48 victorious minutes together. After The General Car Insurance mascot lookalike Jim Boylen left his reserves, incapable of thwarting Kyle Kuzma and the Lakers’ comeback from 19 points down (47-70 second-half deficit), in the contest late in the second half of last night’s 118-112 defeat, Carter expressed his frustrations in postgame commentary. But the second-year big man took pains not to directly implicate his coach. “I know I’m p*ssed. Not to talk about my past,” said Carter as he hinted at his brief stay in Durham, if not his scholastic laurels, “but me coming from a winning culture, and then last year (22-60, Carter lost by mid-January due to injury) wasn’t so good for us, and then this year, (losing) bothers me.” His Bulls being on track, in the early going, to duplicate last season’s result isn’t helping matters. As the only NBA team getting their shots stuffed more frequently than Atlanta (7.9 BPG, to the Hawks’ 7.7), there’s a good chance the Hawks will be treated to a block party at The Farm. Starting pivot Alex Len has been wretched offensively, but he is The Greatest Wall of Atlanta (1.2 BPG) in John Collins’ extended absence. Blocks by the offensively struggling Kevin Huerter helped the Hawks (3-3) turn the tide on the Spurs in the first and third stanzas, the latter block and some maddening ref non-calls thereafter setting the stage for The Traekover in the fourth quarter of last night’s 108-100 thriller. If Huerter, Cam Reddish and The DeAns of Defense (Bembry and Hunter) can keep that same energy tonight, and if the centers protect the rim and rebound to dominate the paint points battle, Atlanta could awaken to find themselves not only as a surprising top-ten defensive squad (102.5 D-Rating), but also a team with an early winning record. Celebrating anything desirable as a “Mecca” comes with the risk of being problematic, given the real town’s holy exclusivity. But there are similarities. Both Atlanta (long known as a “Black Mecca,” which sure as heck got my attention) and the Saudi pilgrimage are major draws for people arriving in waves from around the globe, albeit for quite differing reasons. Both places have been quick to tear down their history in the name of “progress” and making room for newcomers, preferably those with cash. Ultimately, it’s the phrase, “The Mecca of whatever”, that gets people in a hot-and-bothered tizzy across the sea. There can be only one hoops “Mecca” at a time. In this modern age, folks from all around Chicagoland will be watching their beloved Bulls, tonight, playing in it, their future star's old stomping grounds. The rest of your favorite metros can fight over which one is basketball’s Jeddah. “Mecca Adjacent,” if you prefer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “SPIN MOR CHIKN!” There’s a first time for everything, I reckon. Yet I’m going to try getting through this game preview of the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL) without tearing to shreds one of my favorite NBA management punching bags. That’s right, Garpax… you can call it a “rip-prieve”! The bad news for fans of the Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves is, when the ever-scrutinized managers of those clubs trade with each other, somebody has to come out on top with a “win”. Ask any bitter ex-NBA commissioner -- it’s rarely easy to glean a fair return when your young All-Star talent wants out. Especially, in this case, one who had already worn out his welcome in the locker room, just two seasons into what would certainly wind up as a four-year, $72.5 million extension deal. But the monster known as John Paxson and Gar Forman, attached at the hip, put their two heads together. They realized their old friend Tom Thibodeau was willing to make a devilish deal to scooch his unaccomplished roster into perennial playoff contention. Out went superstar sourpuss Jimmy Butler, on Draft Night 2017. In came beleaguered young lotto-pick guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, plus a seven-foot lotto-pick forward in Lauri Markkanen, the latter swapped for a rookie center with lingering foot problems that can’t seem to get onto an NBA floor. Butler’s addition helped Minnesota earn a pair of postseason home games, their first since 2004, after barely squeaking into the playoff on their final night of the 2017-18 season. They also got a massive headache, with a discontent Butler, a pair of butt-hurt first-overall draftees, and a tone-deaf Thibodeau leaving the Wolves hustling backwards into this new season. As for Chicago, the ACL tear LaVine suffered with Minnesota already had last season as a dream deferred. While LaVine rehabbed for a return after the All-Star Break last season, Dunn emerged as a solid defensive guard and ballhandler. Markkanen strung together enough threes, rebounds, and dunks to earn himself an All-Rookie First Team honor. Despite all the losing, the chemistry problems began to sort themselves out under the watchful eye of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. After punching his way up the depth chart, third-year pro Bobby Portis proved to be a serviceable big man around the glass. Portis’ growth, the Markkanen acquisition, and a pair of seemingly smart first-rounders from this year’s draft (the pride of Pace Academy, Wendell Carter, and Chandler Hutchison) are giving Bulls fans hope that there is, indeed, somebody competent at the wheel in the Windy City. Now, if only Hoiberg could get all his Bulls in the pen together. Coach Fred announced during training camp that Garpax’s big offseason get, Milwaukee restricted free agent and Chi-town native Jabari Parker, would be coming off the bench in hopes of an offensive spark. The bad juju seemed to follow that decision. Markkanen suffered a severe elbow sprain, in camp, that will likely continue to keep him shelved well into next month. After missing the first pair of games for personal reasons, Dunn returned just in time to suffer an MCL sprain that has him out of action for a similar span. Not to be outdone, Portis suffered a similar sprain during the first win of the season for the Bulls (1-4), a 112-110 home thriller against the Hornets, and he will likely be sitting for some time as well. 2016’s low-lottery pick, swingman Denzel Valentine, has been out all season with an ankle sprain. I’d be tempted to note that the Bulls could have upgraded their depth during the offseason by doing something with the contracts of Robin Lopez, the grungy mascot bully relegated to third-string behind Cristiano Felicio, and Omer Asik, the apparition whose contract got waived just this past week. But, again, this is a “rip-prieve”! RoLo’s deal, signed with the nyuk-nyuk-Knicks back in the summer of 2015, mercifully expires after this season, but his play thus far makes it hard to see a contending team willing to take the $14.5 million contract off Chicago’s hooves before the trade deadline (Milwaukee says they have enough Lopezes, thank you). Adding Parker to a club that already hoped to rely upon LaVine and Markkanen for major minutes, this was bound to be an uphill climb for the Bulls’ defense. That was even before Dunn and now Portis bowed out with injuries. Bulls opponents are already lofting nearly 40 three-point attempts per game, a league-high. Only the Hawks’ most-recent vanquished foes, the Cavs and Mavs, have seen more of those threes go through the hoop than Chicago (13.8 opponent 3FGs per game). Now, on the second night of a back-to-back, after watching Kemba Walker (5-for-10 3FGs, 30 points in Charlotte’s 135-106 payback win) have another field day, the Bulls (120.5 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) face a team whose head coach thinks 40 perimeter shots per game is miniscule. Thus far, only Coach Bud’s Bucks are sinking more threes per contest (16.0 3FGs/game) than his former team. Of the top-20 NBA teams in three-point attempts, only Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (37.8 3FGAs/game) have been hitting above a 40 percent clip. LL Cool P, demanding a breakneck tempo (NBA-high 109.0 pace), wants Atlanta’s attempts to get closer to 50 than 40. He’ll be leaning on Trae Young (NBA rookie-high 21.5 PPG & 7.5 APG) and his vet backup Jeremy Lin to push the pace, wear down the Bulls early, and set up quality perimeter chances for all their teammates. Healthy for the first time all season, Daniel Hamilton (shoulder) may have a role in the second half if he is activated. Lin (12.8 MPG, lowest among the Hawks’ active non-two-way players), whose early struggles compelled Pierce to rely on his wings to key the monumental comeback against the Mavs on Wednesday, will try to mimic the vintage night the Hornets’ Tony Parker enjoyed versus the bare-bones Bulls (7-for-11 FGs, 8 assists, one TO in 19 bench minutes) last night. The vastly-improved Cam Payne, pressed into starter’s minutes, and ex-Hawk Justin Holiday will try to fill in the offensive gaps alongside LaVine (29.8 PPG, 5th in NBA; 3rd in NBA Usage%), the off-guard is high-scoring but may want to trade off some of his high-flying paint plays for more perimeter chances (42.4 3FG%). Parker (19 points @CHA) still dutifully comes off the bench, although Hoiberg may be tempted to change that soon if the losing continues. Try all they might, there are simply not enough high-percentage, high-scoring opportunities for LaVine, Parker, and the Bulls to overcome their many defensive lapses. Even if they do force errors from Atlanta (16.1 TO%, 5th-highest in NBA) into quick points at the other end, it feels as though that just plays into Pierce and the Hawks’ hands by leaving Atlanta ample time on the game clock. Chicago will need to produce transition points from their wings in the three-point corners, much like the treys Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (combined 8-for-20 3FGs, 5 corner threes) used to feast on Dallas during the Hawks’ 111-104 comeback victory. The question, with Payne, Parker and LaVine focused on scoring, is whether their bigs can haul it down the court and effectively dish the rock, too. “We are live from Allstate Arena!” Ugghh. ESPN’s Mark Jones got Wednesday’s remodeled arena unveiling off to a bad start for the Hawks (2-2), but the team and their fans eventually made themselves feel right at home, at just the right time. Coming into this game with a rest advantage and momentum, there is no reason Atlanta can’t get off on the good talon against the Bulls. Chicago’s managers get a reprieve today. But that doesn’t mean the Bulls on the court should. Rip and Run! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. When it comes to quality tankjobs, it's not about how you start, it's about how you... Finnish? ~lw3
  6. Don’t choke, Robin! At least, not today! Kinda busy downtown today, eh? I’m way too immersed in March Madness (Go Georgia State!) and Atlanta United’s home debut to get too deep into this afternoon’s other contest, the Tank War between our Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in CHI). So, let’s stick to tidbits! No more Holidays for Justin! The Commish isn’t big-letter Stern anymore but he issued a small-letter stern warning to Chicago for ostensibly “resting” otherwise healthy guys like Justin Holiday (DNP’d for 4 consecutive games) and Robin Lopez for days on end. So expect to see the former Hawk in the starting lineup. Despite elevated usage the 28-year-old swingman may never see again in his NBA career, Holiday has been a wayward shooter all season long (37.9 FG%). But he did feast on Memphis cooking (5-for-5 FGs) in a Tank War win over the Grizzlies earlier this week. The Bulls (22-43) have won their last three versus the Hawks, including both games so far this season. They won handily in their last visit to Atlanta, a 113-97 edge led by Lopez’s 20 points (9-for-13 FGs). In just his first week of NBA action this season, Zach LaVine struggled from the floor but still managed to grab a team-high nine defensive rebounds. In that January game, Holiday, Jerian Grant, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis shot a combined 12-for-19 on threes, freeing up Lopez and rookie star Lauri Markkanen to do their damage on the interior (17-for-29 2FGs). Contributions off the bench from the soon-departing Nikola Mirotic weren’t really needed. Chicago’s starters combined for just 5 TOs between them, usually a recipe for disaster for the Hawks (20-46). Coach Fred Hoiberg’s crew enjoyed a season-high 62 rebounds (incl. 18 O-Rebs) against the Hawks in Chicago way back on October 26, yet still found themselves clinging to a 91-86 victory, thanks to Marco Belinelli finding a fourth-quarter hot-hand. Dewayne Dedmon (10.5 RPG vs. CHI this season) and John Collins together in the starting lineup should make it tougher for Lopez (18.0 PPG vs. ATL this season) and Lauri (16.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG vs. ATL) to get easy buckets and putbacks today. The Bulls’ only legit injury was to glue-guy Paul Zipser (foot), who is listed as doubtful for this contest. The Bulls have been lousy on the road (7-25), but most of those beatdowns have been out West (1-12). On that note, their next Tank War comes later this week in Memphis. Go Bulls Go! We can expect to see plenty more of rookie second-rounder Tyler Dorsey, among the few bright spots for the Hawks during Friday night’s 112-87 loss in Indiana (3-for-8 3FGs). There’s no need to pull a Bulls and DNP leaders like Kent Bazemore, or Dennis Schröder (18.0 PPG and 2.0 SPG vs. CHI this season) all week long, when Coach Bud can simply ramp up the minutes and flatten the learning curve for Dorsey and Isaiah Taylor. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “Now DIFF iff a contfeth I can ffink my FEEFTH intfoo!” The Atlanta Hawks continue their thrilling homestand by facing off with the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in The Chi) in a 2020 Eastern Conference Finals preview. We might as well go ahead and speak it into existence. Once LeBron is bawling outta control with the Clippers, Giannis gives hints he won’t be around America’s Dairyland much longer, Porzingis retires his tired body early, and Kyrie finally starts resembling Uncle Drew, by 2020, it could come down to which of the two teams on the Philips Arena court today add the right pieces and gel the quickest. If only Garpax can get out of its own way. No more absurd deals from the two-headed management monster, like the four-year, $32 million one handed out to backup pivot Cristiano Felicio, who is spending the day with Paul Zipser in G-League Wisconsin. No more buyouts of well-worn ex-All-Stars brought in to impart veteran “wisdom.” No more dumping Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for a run at Cameron Payne. Just find a way to keep 2018 restricted free agent Zach LaVine from getting Hardawayed out of town, continue to develop talent like lotto rookie Lauri Markkanen, give coach Fred Hoiberg room to instill his offensive schemes, bada boom, bada bing, conference finals, here we come. After the seeming success of drafting Lauri Legend (17.7 PPG, 47.2 3FG% and 8.2 RPG in last ten games) last summer, there are fans who would enjoy the Bulls (17-28; 14-8 since bottoming out at 3-20) taking another dip in the lottery tank. But losing skids are on hold in Chi-town until Nikola Mirotic finds himself in a new NBA home. Since returning from a preseason-practice face-bashing courtesy of teammate Bobby Portis, Mirotic (team-high 17.7 PPG, 45.7 3FG%. 6.8 RPG) quietly does his bidding, coming in off the bench, getting his buckets and boards, and sitting back down on his hands, the Bulls winning 13 of the 20 games in which he has appeared. He has made it clear he wants to be as far from Portis and his fisticuffs as possible, before the NBA trade deadline arrives, and simply moving Portis won’t satisfy him. Chicago also has LaVine back for the first time this season, although Hoiberg and the staff is limiting their future lead scorer’s playing time to 24 minutes (preserving time for the fourth quarter) as he returns from ACL surgery. Acquiring LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Markkanen in exchange for former star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton, is shaping up to be a boon going forward for Coach Fred and the Bulls. That’s especially true if LaVine returns this summer, after he and the Bulls failed to hammer out an extension deal last fall. Much like Atlanta with Dennis Schröder, the surge up the standings for Chicago (13.0 opponent TOs/game, last in NBA) in future seasons will coincide with LaVine’s commitment to strengthening his defensive imprint. For the Hawks (13-31), January used to be the time of year when Joe Johnson, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap would elevate their play, each making a final push to be considered by the league’s coaches deliberating over their All-Star reserve choices. Now, I don’t love L.A. quite like Randy Newman did. But even though the Hawks are momentarily languishing in The Gutter of the Eastern Conference, and nobody from around here will be checking in to give LeBron and Giannis a spell, there are a few Hawks I’d like to see dancing their way into All-Star Weekend festivities in La-La Land. They might be wearing different jerseys by the time they arrive, but either of Marco Belinelli (4.7 3FGAs/game, 38.7 3FG%) or Ersan Ilyasova (40.5 3FG%) ought to get consideration for the Somebody’s Bluetooth Headphones Three-Point Shooutout. It would be the third appearance for Belly (2014 champion) and the first for Thrillyasova. After dropping a cool buck-fifty (career-high-tying 15 regulation dimes! TEN in the second half! ZERO turnovers! Nice defense, Rondo!) on the Pelicans Thursday, Schröder (career-high 36.3 assist%, 9th in NBA) seems like a perfect candidate to return to the They Make Taco Shells Outta Eggs These Days Skills Challenge. For all that is holy, Menace, don’t blow the layup! With 17 monstrous Almost Dunks as whoa-inducing as his 72 made ones (as per bball-ref), rookie John Collins ought to get a call for the Can You Hear Me Now Slam Dunk Contest. He’s also a lock to be on the USA roster for the Caffeinated Livewire Sugarbomb in a Skinny Can Rising Stars Game. Although, with the American side lacking girth, it appears Jean Baptiste could get stuck with an unfortunate matchup, should Joel Embiid elect to do double-duty that weekend on behalf of Team World. Skip the Friday night events, Rihanna. With just ten rookie-sophs on each roster, there’s a tight squeeze for a final roster spot on the USA team, and Taurean Prince (12.4 PPG & 5.4 RPG , 8th & 5th among second-year players, respectively) still has a chance to thread the needle. To make Taurean Goes to Hollywood a reality, the Hawks swingman must find a way to shed his recent slump (32.9 FG% and 2.4 TOs/game in last 8 games; two total FTAs in his last 5 games) and outshine a collection of Baby Bulls, notably Kris (“Kwithf!”) Dunn (13.7 PPG) and Denzel Valentine (5.4 RPG), who get the benefit of a bigger-market push. Attacking the rim on cuts and drives more frequently, and disallowing missed shots from affecting his energy in transition, will go a long way for Prince to help himself earn a trip to Cali. Similar to the Pelicans, done in by a Bazebomb in Wednesday evening’s 94-93 thriller at The Highlight Factory, the Bulls come into Atlanta with limited depth, although Chicago won’t be playing off a 3-in-4 night overtime-filled stretch, not like New Orleans. Dunn’s under concussion protocol and getting his fronts fixed after taking a post-dunk spill during Tuesday’s 119-112 home loss to the Draymond-less Warriors. Payne has been out all season after foot surgery, while LaVine is minutes-limited. That leaves the Bulls’ ten-deep, and Hoiberg will lean on a committee that includes ex-Hawks draftee Jerian Grant, ex-Hawk Justin Holiday, Valentine, David Nwaba and LaVine to slow Schröder’s rolls to the hoop. There is minimal rim protection beyond Robin Lopez (0.9 BPG and 4.9 RPG, lowest since 2011-12) for the Bulls (18.8 opponent FGs per game within 5 feet, 6th-most in NBA), something Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Prince should seek to exploit. I can see it now: Dennis Schröder takes the dribble hand-off from Jaren Jackson, Jr. and flies to the hoop for the conference semifinals’ series-clinching layup in Game 7. As he returns triumphantly to the floor, Schröder turns to Orlando’s Luka Doncic and whispers, “Sorry, kiddo. It’s just not your time yet!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. Will the only person alive capable of stopping John Collins, please, raise your hand? It is possible that the Chicago Bulls are the worst team in the NBA. It’s also possible that they could notch their first victory of the season, at the United Center tonight, while hosting the occasionally up, often down Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, WGN in CHI). Both things can be true. We’re now in the ninth year of the Gar Forman-John Paxson axis in the Second City, the fifteenth year of the once-proud big-city club under Paxson’s thumb, the twentieth since MJ pushed off on Bryon Russell and left the team in the hands of Tim Floyd and Toni Kukoc. The passing of time has led Bulls fans to wonder, how awful would owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s club still be, if the 2007-08 team didn’t luck out in the lottery and land a healthy, bouncy Chicago native named Derrick Rose? Reinsdorf has stuck with “Garpax” through thin and thinner. Now that the year-plus-long spigot holding back NBA coach-cannings has finally been turned on, there’s nothing to suggest that Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg won’t catch the blame, and the axe, over Garpax’s ever-accumulating management and player-development failures. Former Bulls lead-scorer and passive-aggressive team captain Jimmy Butler got dealt on draft night to Minnesota, and the returning haul gave the Bulls two young guards that have yet to appear due to injuries (Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn), plus a lottery pick, Lauri Markkanen, that was likely to be stashed after a rough summer league stint. Aside from Butler and Rose, the Bulls have had a decades’ worth of draft picks that have failed to pan out in Chicago, including first-rounders Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine, still on the roster at least for now. Several picks in that span that have panned out did so, or are doing so, with other teams (Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, James Johnson… to say nothing of 2006’s LaMarcus Aldridge). That list seems to now include 2017 second-rounder Jordan Bell, a flourishing rookie sub who Garpax shipped to Golden State for cash to line Reinsdorf’s pockets. The Butler deal was probably not the worst of 2017 for Chicago. That would go to the trade-deadline deal of Doug McDermott (a 2014 lottery pick acquired for Harris and Nurkic) and team heart-and-soul forward Taj Gibson. Garpax exchanged them plus a second-rounder for three guys (Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow) who hardly registered a blip, and only the injured Payne remains. Of Chicago’s draft-day selections and acquisitions over the past five years, only Paul Zipser (doubtful for tonight, bruised knee in practice) and Markannen are starting on Hoiberg’s roster, and even these situations are merely out of dire necessity. One year before the Butler deal, the Rose trade with New York included guard Justin Holiday. Holiday (18.3 PPG, 35.3 FG%) is back on a free-agent deal, joining momentary ex-Hawks Jerian Grant (7.3 APG) and Kay Felder to further muddle the backcourt picture in advance of LaVine’s and Payne’s eventual returns. I’m as big of a Lover-Not-A-Fighter pacifist as you’ll find. But a good practice scrap every now and then can turn out pretty good for a professional hoops team struggling to bond. Exhibit A: that time Zaza Pachulia and Solomon Jones swung for the fences at each other, during an April pregame shootaround at MSG, and emerged with nary a splinter back in 2008. The Hawks won the ensuing game over the Knicks, moonwalked by that one game into the playoffs over the Pacers, got rewarded with Paul Pierce and the Celtics, and haven’t missed a postseason party since (okay, fine… they haven’t missed one yet). Key to that pivotal altercation, though, is Solo never smashed Zaza’s grill, which I just assume is unsmashable to this point of his career, as retaliation for the backup center getting all up in his. No Zaza, no fateful date with KG’s mug, maybe no inspirational final playoff dash to begin with. There’s no telling how big the dream-deferred would have been for playoff-starved Hawks fans, had Atlanta been simply observing Boston’s march toward destiny from home. The stakes weren’t remotely as high for the Bulls (0-3) on the day before the season-opener, when Portis chose to find out just what happens When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. Portis had lost a preseason battle to stick in the rotation at power forward, and he took exception when would-be starter Nikola Mirotic started feelin’ froggy around him during a skirmish in practice. Mirotic caught a two-piece, a biscuit, and a pepper from Portis. The whole malicious meal resulted in maxillary fractures that will surely have him looking like a stunt double from a horror film when he finally returns to an NBA floor in mid-November. The game-suspended Portis’ status with the team remains on shaky ground, and likely depends on whether he and Mirotic can break bread while they’re both on hiatus. The good news for Bulls fans is the fateful fracas eliminated two excuses Coach Fred could’ve hid behind in stashing “The Finnisher”, the rookie Markkanen. The lottery pick out of Arizona has been hitting a trio of threes per game (45.5 3FG%) while also leading the Bulls with eight defensive boards per game, allowing center Robin Lopez to focus almost exclusively on cleanup putbacks and help-blocks. His career-high 19 points (5-for-8 3FGs) during the Bulls’ 119-112 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday, after he and Holiday (4-for-9 3FGs) guided their team to an early 38-28 lead in the first quarter, earned him postgame praise from Cavs default point guard LeBron James. Until LaVine returns, Markkanen is the only guy capable of playing from the Jimmy Buckets trade, and the Bulls’ fans are pleased to see him get and take advantage of the opportunity. But the Bulls come into today’s contest ranking next-to-last in offensive efficiency, just a shave in front of Dallas for 28th on the defensive end. Chicago’s 12.8 opponent TO% is next-to-lowest, and their opponents’ 26.3 assists per-48 are next-to-highest. Who knew that the best guard option for the Bulls in the clutch, given some quality developmental seasoning, would-be Spencer Dinwiddie, discarded prior to the 2016-17 season, now a hero with the Nyets? Hoiberg has been dealt a lousy hand, and will either earn end-of-season honors for coaching this team into Eastern Conference parity, or a pink slip. He would love to be in the cartwheel-flipping Mike Budenholzer’s shoes right now. Inspired by the on-goings in Chicago with Markkanen, many Hawks fans would quite enjoy the imagery of Ersan Ilyasova (team-low 30.6 eFG%, min. nine minutes played), Luke Babbitt (5.1 Rebound%, lowest among Atlanta’s non-guards), and Mike Muscala (team-low 88.7 O-Rating, min. three minutes played) wrangling with one another atop a combine harvester. However messy the outcome, it would leave no choice for Coach Bud to play in the NBA’s rookie leader in player efficiency rating. John Collins also ranks second among rooks in per-48 Win Shares, behind Bell (sorry, Chicago), and third in the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate (min. 10 mins/game), behind the lauded Ben Simmons and De’Aaron Fox. Yet we can only speak in terms of efficiencies with Collins (13th in minutes-played among 2017 draftees), because Budenholzer sits the budding big-man at inopportune times for the Hawks (1-3). It is true that Coach Bud wants to be careful in over-relying upon his rookies, as evidenced in prior seasons with Dennis Schröder and Taurean Prince (20 points but 7 TOs @ MIA on Monday). It is also correct to assume that Collins has to work on his strength and defensive awareness versus post players, as was demonstrated when he allowed his fellow Deacon alum, Johnson, to plunk down one basket after another in the third quarter of Atlanta’s 104-93 loss in Miami. Yet Collins (14-and-11 in 18.5 minutes @ MIA; second-straight double-double) was instrumental in that quarter in dwindling Miami’s double-digit lead down to four points, his layup off a dime from Kent Bazemore drawing the Hawks to a 77-73 deficit after entering the second half down 62-44. If strength is such a concern, why is Muscala in the game in the clutch, allowing Justise Winslow to snatch the ball from him like candy from a baby? If defensive awareness is such a big deal, how did the heat go from 15 third-quarter points to 27 in the fourth, while Collins sat? Moose’s third and final turnover of the second half led to a fastbreak layup that essentially put the game on ice for the heat, and he was promptly replaced not by Collins but another Budfave, Malcolm Delaney, as the heat lead continued to swell. The Bulls’ defensively futile guard-play will allow another opportunity to see just how deep the abyss gets for Delaney (3-for-9 FGs @ MIA, raising his shooting to 29.2 FG%; 1 assist, 3 TOs in 33 minutes on Monday), who starts while Schröder is back home resting his sprained ankle in advance of tomorrow’s home-opener versus Denver. Budenholzer hinted he might give Isaiah Taylor and Josh Magette more minutes tonight. But that will largely be a function of how much of a hole Delaney digs, especially when getting lost on the defensive end and bricking open jumpers. Whosoever is handling the rock (including Baze) has to distribute it better in the directions of Dewayne Dedmon, the starting center who was a ghost on offense on Monday (0-for-3 2FGs, 0-for-2 3FGS, no O-Rebs), and former Bull Marco Belinelli (47.4 3FG%). Keeping that duo productive, cutting back on shot-clock usage for Muscala and Prince, and players other than Collins and Dedmon getting stops, would help Atlanta outpace Chicago, who might be just nine-deep, this evening. Let the Bulls get off the schneid at someone else’s expense. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. Cam also injured a foot (not sure it's the same one) after playing here over the summer. ~lw3
  10. The Chi-Town natives are getting a wee bit restless. ~lw3
  11. “Three famous boxers – Jake LaMotta, Rocky Balboa, and Glass Joe.” No Excuses Week wraps up with No Excuses Weekend! Not long after having split consecutive games versus the Gasol Brothers, this weekend’s Creature Double Feature has our Atlanta Hawks taking on the Lopez Twins. It begins this afternoon with Robin and his Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; WGN in Chicago) and concludes with another shot at Brook and the Nets tomorrow afternoon in Brooklyn. The Hawks are aiming for a second-straight season-sweep of Fred Hoiberg’s outfit, last time storming back with 41 fourth-quarter points (five starters, plus Tim Hardaway, Jr., in double figures) to zip past Chicago in the closing minutes for a 119-112 victory at the United Center. The Bulls haven’t beaten Atlanta since a meaningless season-ending home win back in April 2015. A win today, though, could mean a whole lot more to a bunch of people on West Madison Street. The Bulls simply haven’t had the graces that the Hawks enjoyed during the middle of the regular season. So in March, when Chicago followed up an upset of the lousy-shooting Splash Brothers with a deflating 1-7 stretch, their playoff prospects seemed dead in the Lake Michigan water. Things got even bleaker once second-leading scorer Dwyane Wade was put on ice for the season, after the Chicago native fractured a bone in his elbow a couple weeks ago. The team’s third- and sixth-leading scorers (Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, respectively) had previously been traded to OKC, for three Thunder players (Cam Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow) who are hardly giving the team anything of substance. The Wade injury has pressed Hoiberg to make nice with pine-riding guards Rajon Rondo (now starting again) and Michael Carter-Williams. But just when things weren’t looking too hot for Coach Fred or the Garpax management crew, a funny thing happened. Rondo (7.1 March APG) has been setting up the Bulls offense as well as ever before. Nikola Mirotic (March: 15.3 PPG, 49.6 FG%, 41.2 3FG%) has gone on an offensive tear. German rookie Paul Zipser has stepped into the starting lineup, and generally figured out how to stay out of the way, unless a clutch bucket or rebound is needed. All of that synergy has taken pressure off star Jimmy Butler (last 7 games: 26.4 PPG, 54.3 FG%, 8.6 APG, 2.4 SPG), who hasn’t had to mope as much as Central Division contemporary Paul George in recent days. Since Dwyane waded off the court, only Toronto has posted a higher net efficiency than Chicago (+5.1 net rating since March 15, 7th in NBA) in the East. Because of these developments, the Bulls have won four of their last six games and sit on the edge of the postseason in the ninth-seed. Yes, they did lose by ten to Philadelphia at United Center just 8 days ago. But Chicago also beat Utah and three division rivals (vs. Detroit, at Milwaukee, vs. Cleveland), all of whom are jockeying for playoff positions themselves. They also fell short by just two points in overtime at Toronto after failing to cling to a 15-point fourth quarter lead. The Bulls (36-39) can move into a statistical tie with Miami and Indiana, and two games behind Atlanta, with a win today. If they do that, they’re as much in the catbird seat as any other low-level playoff contender. They have a four-game road swing that begins tomorrow in New Orleans, who no longer holds a lotto pick and isn’t tanking. But after the Pelicans, the slate includes winnable contests in New York, Philly, and Brooklyn, then home games versus Orlando and Brooklyn to close things out. The playoffs are certainly within reach. But it behooves the Bulls to keep confidence high by first solving the Hawks today. The Hawks (39-36) can just about seal up a playoff spot with back-to-back wins over the Bulls and Nets. The first order of business for Mike Budenholzer’s crew involves figuring a way to keep Butler (9.0 FTAs per game, 4th in NBA; 86.1 FT%) from piling up points at the free throw line without Thabo Sefolosha or Paul Millsap available to help defend. The recently returning Kent Bazemore played with rejuvenated confidence in Wednesday’s 99-92 win at Philadelphia (4-for-5 3FGs, 2 steals and a block), but he and Taurean Prince (benefitting from Sefolosha’s tutelage) will need to share duties to help keep Jimmy Buckets, who averages more made free throws (7.7 per game) than field goals (7.3 per game), contained. The second challenge will be making catches and looks tougher for “Threekola” at the perimeter. Philly helped the Hawks’ troublesome perimeter defensive stats by taking 21 more three-point attempts than Atlanta, but only sinking two more of those shots. Chicago is taking 6.4 more threes per game than they were before the All-Star Break (Wade’s injury having much to do with that), and making 3.6 more of them. Rookie wing Denzel Valentine (35.3 March FG%, but 37.3 March 3FG%) has a 12-game Threak going while also helping with rebounding and defense. The third challenge will be suppressing Dennis Schröder’s errors (last 5 games: 7.0 APG, 6.8 TOs/game), a product of Millsap’s missing touches and shifting rotations as much as it is the Hawks point guard pressing unnecessarily instead of resetting plays. Coach Bud remains willing to ride-or-die with Schröder’s turnovers, not the least of which because Dennis has been making defenses pay at the free throw line (53-for-58 on FTs post-Break) when he can draw contact. Schröder (13 4th quarter points @ CHI on Jan. 25) has also shown a propensity for making up for some of those turnovers at the other end lately, his 1.4 SPG since the All-Star Break a marked improvement from the 0.8 SPG in the preceding games. The final ordeal will involve Dwight Howard and Ersan Ilyasova holding the fort in the middle and keeping the league’s biggest offensive board-crashers (NBA-high 12.4 O-Rebs per game) off the glass. Lopez (3 total O-Rebs, 6.0 PPG and 5.0 RPG in 3 games vs. ATL) has been mostly neutralized by the Hawks this season so far, and hopes to bring as much fight to today’s game as he typically reserves for mascots and the air around opposing big men. He gets less help with Gibson gone, but RoLo hopes to get some help off the bench today from Cristiano Felicio, who missed the past four games with a bruised tailbone, Lauvergne, and Bobby Portis, the second-year big who rebounds with vigor but is still figuring other elements of his game out. Atlanta has a tougher schedule ahead after this No Excuses Weekend, but can make things easier on themselves down the road with a strong fullcourt effort today (and tomorrow). Sounder execution will keep them in this game, while a high offensive pace coupled with persistent defensive pressure will help the Hawks enjoy the Running of the Bulls without getting gored. Let’s Go Bulls! April Fool’s! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “We both had to lead a Funky Bunch!” Hey, Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, are you ready to receive your gift? Those familiar with these gamethreads are familiar with my Coach Bud Gift Theory, in which I posit that the head coach of the visiting Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Chicago), reasonably secure in his current circumstance, lays off the gas and grants beleaguered colleagues a chance to pad their disappointing records with a win or two, especially when such opposition comes into the contest significantly shorthanded. The CBGT hypothesis is supported by the recognition that some of Atlanta’s worst defeats are often accompanied by an uncharacteristically slow game pace. The Hawks’ record when they play below-average tempo (11-13) isn’t disastrous, while spacing the floor and shooting the ball well tends to help pump up the winning side of the ledger. But then, you see some of those losses: by 15 points to a Lakers team without Russell or Randle, an 18-point deficit to the Pelicans that only seemed to widen once Davis got hurt. Deficits of 44 points to a Raptors team that started out the year a meager 8-6, and 36 points to a Pistons team that was having a tough time getting to .500. Two losses, over a span of six days, to a T’Wolves squad that was billed as up-and-coming but had already been fading out of playoff contention. And then, you look at the precarious position these opponent’s coaches are in. First-time coaches, and first-year veteran sideline managers struggling to make their mark, plus longer-tenured coaches on at least a warming, if not raging-hot, seat. Only then do you wonder if the jig is filled with helium. The first half of Monday’s 115-105 letdown to the Clippers wasn’t terribly different from the road flop in Detroit just last week. To be fair, falling behind 58-40 at halftime to an L.A. team missing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (the latter returning one night later, just in time to watch his team blow a 19-point lead to the Embiid-less 76ers in Philly) is kind of a marked improvement from the slouchy 42-18 first quarter against the KCP-less Pistons, who were again falling out of playoff contention. Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers should be sending Hallmark cards Bud’s way any day now. Each have been given a chance (two, in SVG’s case) to right their respective ships. It’s courtesy of a Hawks team (26-19) that, is playing right at, if not above, expectations, when one looks purely at the record and the standings, even with all the presents Santa Bud brings to the arena. Hawks fans willing to reject CBGT rightfully see it as an excuse for listless and sloppy play, particularly on the defensive end of the floor when their own shots aren’t falling. A consistent theme in these defeats involves the Hawks (sliding down to 11th in pace, still 3rd in the East) allowing themselves to be ground into a tempo amenable to their opposition. Suddenly, as the game slows down and the Hawks stop forcing the issue, struggling shooters like Marco Belinelli, Tobias Harris, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers (5-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL on Monday) find their sea legs, and precious few comebacks by the Hawks, no matter how spirited, prove to be enough. That’s especially the case when the toasted Hawks swingmen, like Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (1-for-6 FGs vs. LAC), aren’t matching the energy and production from the outset. A heaping of congeniality from Coach Bud’s Hawks would be right on time for the Bulls (23rd in pace) and Hoiberg, perhaps the most side-eyed coach in the league right now. Chicago (23-23) is aiming for their third-straight win, but they enjoyed some Referee’s Delight late in Saturday’s 102-99 edging of the Kings, and managed to find a team even more moribund than they were in Orlando last night. Before those two victories, the Bulls had dropped five out of seven, including last week’s 102-93 loss in Atlanta (Coach Bud tried to offer up some fourth-quarter bait, but the Bulls couldn’t bite hard enough). Much like Rivers, Hoiberg is pulling levers behind the curtain, in hopes his current rotation might be a consistently winning one. You’ll forgive the good people of Marquette University for feeling a bit more chipper than usual. Their men’s college hoops team knocked off top-seeded Villanova last night, and while their fans were storming the floor in Milwaukee, alums Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler went on a theft spree down in O-town. The pair combined for ten steals in their 100-92 win against the Magic, Wade’s seven steals plus 21 points the most by any player aged 34-years-or older since Boston’s Dominique Wilkins (as per Basketball-Reference) way back in 1994. Wade, Butler and the Bulls hope Dennis Schröder (5 TOs, one first-quarter assist and one second-quarter assist vs. LAC) will be as gracious with the basketball as Elfrid Payton (8 TOs vs. CHI) was yesterday. It was a case of too little, too late in the second half against the Clippers, but it was more effective movement and pinpoint passing from Schröder, Hardaway, and Paul Millsap (combined 18 assists, 3 TOs vs. LAC) that had the Hawks masquerading Monday’s outcome as something like a true contest, Atlanta crawling within five points of L.A.’s big lead on several occasions. Shot-jackers like rookies Denzel Valentine (2-for-8 3FGs @ ATL last Saturday) and Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic (0-for-5 3FGs @ ATL), Doug McDermott (4-for-6 3FGs @ ORL) all come off the bench for Hoiberg, whose Bulls rank dead-last in perimeter accuracy (31.6 3FG%), and not much better inside the arc (47.0 2FG%, 29th in NBA). He’s turning to young Jerian Grant (3.5 assists, 1.8 TOs per-36) to help initiate the offense, ahead of marginalized point guards Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams. Whether it’s Butler or the backups, Grant needs to find open-and-ready shooters somewhere on the floor. That’s if he intends to bounce back from a disappointing run (no assists in 20 minutes) in Orlando, his fifth time in six starts for the Bulls where he finished with two-or-fewer assists. Either that, or he needs to initiate contact on drives and get to the free throw line (95.2 FT%). Going 5-for-5 on fourth-quarter freebies versus Atlanta’s backups, Grant’s clock-stopping offense helped slow Saturday’s contest down and monumentally turn the tide for Chicago. Robin Lopez and the Bulls would greatly appreciate the charity of early foul trouble from Dwight Howard. His first called foul on Saturday came with the Hawks up 43-15, the second and third personals assigned to him with Atlanta already up 76-46 in the third quarter. Comparatively, Bud sat Dwight on Monday when the center collected his second foul early in the first quarter. The Clips were only up 13-12 on the poor-shooting Hawks, but even with a tentative Howard back on the floor in the second quarter, the seeds for a rout were sown. If Lopez struggles against Howard again, look for Hoiberg to turn to Cristiano Felicio (team-high 10 rebounds in 20 minutes vs. ORL), whose high pick-and-rolls helped the Bulls offense get off the ground yesterday. Like the Clippers, the Bulls hope to exhaust the Hawks’ backup big options, with Mike Muscala (sprained ankle) still questionable to play, Bruise-illian Tiago Splitter nowhere to be found, and Kris Humphries (9 rebounds in 20 minutes vs. CHI) occasionally over-utilized of late. Before getting DNP’d after six minutes of burned-out first quarter action against the Clips, Hump recorded 15+ minutes of play in the four prior games for the first time since his days with the Wizards in December 2015. The extra rest should serve Kris well tonight, in relief of Howard. With coaches’ votes already in, nothing Millsap does tonight will bolster his candidacy for a fourth-straight All-Star nod, the most since Joe Johnson logged six consecutive appearances from 2007-2012. Only Nique’s 9 and Lou Hudson’s 6 were longer runs. It’s likely that lower-performing bigs in higher-favored NBA locales (or Indiana) would earn some votes, especially if supposedly serious coaches delegate the task to assistants. Seeking a “true center” on the roster, players like Howard may vulture away a few key votes, particularly if coaches wish to reward Atlanta for getting back to above-average status. Nit-pickers may look discerningly at Millsap’s career-low 47.9 2FG% and choose to look elsewhere. But as one might expect, there is no NBA luminary that cares less about a possible snub than the Paul-star. “Whatever happens, it’s not about that,” Millsap shared with the AJC earlier in the week. “It’s about this team, and getting this team where it needs to be.” If he gets the honor once again, it will be more about representing his team more than himself. “A lot of teams have done great and should have guys in there,” he said, casually including his Hawks in the mix. Whether a trip back to his native Louisiana is in the cards or not, expect Millsap to continue his integral role in forcing stops and boosting the Atlanta offense. Getting inside scoring (5 dunks in 42 games, 40 in 81 games last season; career-low 25.7% of FGAs within 3 feet) is harder than it has been in the days when Bandwagon Al roamed the prairie. But the always versatile forward has offset those struggles by emerging as a reliable distributor (career-high 3.9 APG; Atlanta-low 2.2 TOs per game). Millsap’s ability to keep Taj Gibson occupied should open up the Hawks’ offense early and often tonight. That is, if Coach Bud is not in such a giving mood. His floor general, Schröder has to keep the heat up high on the Bulls’ point guards, and must not allow his teammates to lumber up the floor in transition. Atlanta is a much spiffier 15-6 when they play games at-or-above their season-long average pace. In those six losses, none were by more than seven points, and none have occurred since Russell Westbrook’s Thunder hung on to outlast the Hawks back on December 5. Since that date, only one of those uptempo victories came against a team with a .500 or better record, and that was Chicago last weekend. High-paced ball is competitive ball for the Hawks. Anything less is charity. You remember the old adage, “Defense Wins Championships”? That saying is quickly becoming as anachronistic as “Hang Up the Phone”. Just five years ago, when Rondo was the NBA’s leading assist-maker and Howard the leading rebounder, there were just two Eastern Conference teams, and six NBA squads overall, allowing triple-digit scoring averages. Those were the days when bigs, point guards and top-tier scorers (like Wade) didn’t need to add a steady jumper to their repertoire, when coaches could thrive playing Grindhouse halfcourt ball. That sun has set. Now, there are only three NBA teams holding opponents below 100 points per game, and even the Grizzlies are a mere 0.6 PPG away from reducing the number of teams to two. Offense is in, as LeBron James continues to suggest to his higher-ups, his in-name-only GM straining to feed him “playmakers” the way Seymour feeds his Venus flytrap. Defensive specialization, meanwhile, is quickly being left to the withering Sefoloshas, Gibsons, and Tony Allens that remain in the NBA world. As it pertains to offensive bars for winning NBA games, “110” is the new “100.” The message to offensively dormant teams like the Hawks (24th in NBA with 102.9 O-Rating; 96.7 in losses, 28th in NBA) and the Bulls (19th in O-Rating, 24th this month) is abundantly clear: these days, if you’re not scoring, you’re not trying. Chicago is 9-0 when they hit the 110 mark, and 16-3 (with one loss coming 115-107 in Atlanta back in November) when they score at least 105. Atlanta is 13-2 when getting to 110 points, Monday’s 115-105 loss dropping them to 18-4 when they reach at least 105. Whichever of the Bulls or Hawks establishes their offensive groove at the beginnings of quarters and halves will find themselves not only victorious tonight, but better suited to compete come playoff time… if that’s what they wanna do. (Am I doing this right, LeBron?) Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Hey, coach, I left you a gift over there. It’s a necktie!” All of our Atlanta Hawks have passed the final stage of the Bad Loss Protocol, and are cleared to participate in this evening’s matchup with the Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; WGN in CHI) at Philips Arena. To be declared free from the acute effects of CTH (Chronic Traumatic Hawkaflopathy), each Hawk must achieve acceptable marks during the following diagnostic tests: No signs of derisiveness (like bellies sore from laughter) directed toward the teams ranked above them in the standings. Yes, the Cavaliers got their doors blown off at Golden State, the Raptors suffered The Wrath of Embiid, and the Celtics were knocked off by the same Knicks team that Atlanta edged in New York just days before. But that’s no reason to get smug, especially when there are desperate rivals, like the Pistons and Bulls, expecting to come out and play like their hair is on fire. No indications (like scraped palms and knees) that they’re fine with playing at, or below, the level of lesser-achieving competition. Squeaking past a New York team without Kristaps Porzingis, the Hawks waltzed into Detroit’s palace self-satisfied with their 9-1 run, especially with the knowledge that the opponent’s top perimeter scorer and wing defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, would be sitting out. Whether the Bulls’ leading rebounder, Taj Gibson (sore ankle, but probable), enters the proceedings today should be of no consequence whatsoever to Atlanta (24-18). No strained necks from constantly looking over their shoulders at what the Thursday Night punditry has to say, or neglects to say, about the team and its key contributors. As the Falcons can attest, if they’re waiting for the Heath Evanses of the world to come around, they have the wrong goals in mind. 42-18 is only a favorable score when the Falcons are winning at the Georgia Dome, not when the Hawks are helping the Pistons drub them in the first quarter. No sour dispositions from fretting over who got voted, or eventually makes it, into the All-Star Game. All the good people of Stankonia were insufficient to get Dwight Howard more fan votes than Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova (thanks to fans a bit too sugar-high from Shirley Temple drinks). Meanwhile, human lunchpail Paul Millsap has lived a charmed All-Star existence for the past several seasons, and Kyle Korver received a mysterious late bump from Ohio (blame the voting machines, or the Russians) to pull ahead of Dennis Schröder. But dwelling on such petty affairs sets up the Hawks to get steamrolled by a highly worthy All-Star starter in Jimmy Butler (career-highs of 24.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.8 APG). This Butler is truly doing it, putting together a campaign that rivals, if not exceeds, the cherished MVP season of Derrick Rose from 2010-11. Jimmy Buckets is, at once, Chicago’s best hope as a clutch shooter and a defensive wing stopper. And Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is, slowly, figuring out how best to utilize him. Everyone outside of West Madison Street could have anticipated that the Bulls, with free agents Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo sharing the starting backcourt, would struggle as a team shooting the ball accurately and getting stops. Indeed, the starters, inclusive of Butler, Gibson, and Robin Lopez, rank last in the league with a 47.4 eFG%. Even with backups included, the Bulls take the fewest threes (20.3 3FGAs per game, two fewer than 29th-ranked San Antonio), and make the fewest (31.7 3FG%, last in NBA). Chicago is saved from being dead-last in true-shooting (52.5 starter TS%, 29th in NBA) only due to the starters’ propensity for drawing shooting fouls (18.7 starter FTAs per game, 4th in NBA) and hitting them (80.6 starter FT%, 7th in NBA even with Rondo, who now sulks from the bench). Aside from Butler’s routine heroics of late, Chicago has been able to rely on second-chances (NBA-highs of 29.5 O-Reb%, 16.2 second-chance PPG, +4.8 net second-chance PPG) when opponents fail to box them out. Opposing guards, meanwhile, have had field days against the Bulls, averaging 40.7 field goals per 100 possessions (3rd-most in NBA). Similar to the Hawks, Chicago’s saving grace is that their opposing guards rarely earn trips to the free throw line (19.4 opponent FTAs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA; Atlanta’s 19.7 ranks 3rd). The 99-98 loss to Dallas at the United Center on Tuesday was made possible by the Bulls’ inability to contain Deron Williams and J.J. Barea on drives, or to account for three-point shooters, like Seth Curry, or Wesley Matthews in the closing seconds. Replacing the erratic Rondo in the standard lineup (+1.9 net points per 100 possessions) with momentary Hawk Jerian Grant (+27.5 net points per-100), or the ball-dominant Wade and Gibson with Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic (+22.1 net points per-100), have been a boon for the Bulls’ offense. However, Hoiberg has turned lately to Michael Carter-Williams, who struggles like Rondo offensively but at least puts in some effort on defense, and German rookie Paul Zipser, who must be living off his preseason exploits, in place of Gibson. Atlanta can immunize themselves from Butler’s recent late-game dominance (10.0 4th-quarter PPG in January, 2nd in NBA) if they neutralize the things the Bulls do well, from the opening tip. That includes rebuffing Lopez on the offensive glass; denying Butler, Wade and MCW space to roam inside while depriving them of trips to the charity stripe, deflecting bailout passes and getting out to properly contest the few pseudo-reliable shooters Hoiberg trots out (Mirotic, McDermott, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, and Isaiah Canaan). All of that requires overcoming the final symptom of onset "CTH": players with sore hands from sitting on them, waiting on their teammates to get on the floor and provide the necessary spark. As an example, the Hawks offset the brilliance of Butler (39 points, 4-for-9 3FGs, 7 assists, 6 steals) and Wade (25 points, 10-for-17 FGs, 5 steals) back on November 9 with a highly-balanced effort at Philips Arena. In that game, eight Atlanta players scored in double figures, including former Bull Thabo Sefolosha with a stunning 8-for-9 FGs off the bench. The team shot a collective 50.6% from the floor, including 45.0% on threes, while sinking 22 of their 27 free throws. Howard (18 points, 10 rebounds, incl. 6 O-Rebs) rendered Lopez’s board-crashing (one O-Reb) ineffective. Solid offensive starts, like the 35-27 opening quarter exhibited against Chicago in November, obviates the indignity of Millsap lobbing threes (1-for-5 3FGs @ DET) in futile efforts to diminish unnecessary blowout margins. Inspiring the Hawks to play their A-game from the tip shouldn’t be as hard as it seemed on Wednesday night in Auburn Hills. All it takes to avoid yet another unsettling bout of "CTH" is to find somebody on the coaching staff willing to “tell the truth”, before it's too late. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “Go Hawks Go! GO HAWKS GO! Hey, Atlanta, what do you say?...” Letdown alert! An NBA team comes home trying to avoid a potentially deflating loss on the tail end of a back-to-back, one night after beating the undefeated reigning champs in their house. If the lamestream media eggsperts had to project which team that was, they would never guess the Atlanta Hawks. It would be more of a darling, a media-driven favorite contender like the visiting Chicago Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Chicago). Well, unskew the polls! Turns out, it was the Hawks that swooped in on the Cavs on Tuesday night. They relied upon assertive offense from Dennis Schröder (career-best 28 points) and “Klutch Kent” Bazemore, rebounding and rim protection from Dwight Howard, and fanatical on-ball defense from Thabo Sefolosha to pull off a 110-106 victory that hung an L on Cleveland for the first time since June and stopped the presses. It’s too early to call, but as of today, an NBA East that was once solidly Wine-and-Gold has suddenly become a swing conference, with a chance it could flip to Torch Red soon. The Hawks face their second-straight set of visitors who were catching Z’s while Atlanta (5-2) played the prior evening. The Rockets laid-in-wait for a couple days, while the Hawks left and then returned to town after losing to the Wizards last Friday. This time, it’s Chicago (4-3) who got to watch Tuesday’s Hawks-Cavs tilt from the comfort of their own Snuggies. They hope they’ll catch a Hawks team that’s sluggish out of the gate tonight. While the baseball Cubs are on the up-and-up, the Bulls have been up-and-down. They started out the season 3-0, scoring at least 105 points in each contest. Then they dropped three straight, two of those losses on the road to teams they already beat (Celtics, Pacers), and allowed at least 105 points in all three games. “We don’t even look like we’re out here competing,” groused star swingman Jimmy Butler after a 111-94 loss in Indiana, straining to avoid throwing shade on his coach again. But now, after trouncing Orlando at the United Center on Monday, Chicago hopes they’re on an uptick that will last on the road. They embark on a 17-day stretch that has them playing as the road team in eight of their next nine games, departing right after tonight’s game to head down to Dwyane’s old stomping grounds in Miami-Wade County. What’s the big challenge tonight for Howard and the Hawks? Chicago comes in as the league’s top rebounding team, averaging nearly 50 per game. Much of the attention has been placed on the arrivals of guards Wade and Rajon Rondo via free agency. But less focus was directed to the biggest prize of the Bulls’ draft-day deal, when they swapped Derrick Rose to New York. The fateful 2005 Joe Johnson deal that nearly tore the Atlanta “Spirit” Group asunder involved the Hawks dealing away not just espresso aficionado Boris Diaw, but two future first-round picks. The 2006 pick that materialized, Rondo, and the 2008 pick, former Knicks center Robin Lopez, have joined forces and face the Hawks tonight. When the seven-footer isn’t busy bullying mascots, Lopez is crashing the offensive boards, ranking fourth among qualifying players with a career-best 14.9 O-Reb%. Aside from leading-scorer Butler (career-bests of 21.0 PPG, 89.5 FT%) and Wade each shooting a surprising 43.5 3FG% thus far, Lopez’s extension of possessions for the Bulls (NBA-high 33.1 O-Reb% and 17.1 second-chance PPG) has Chicago ranked right behind the Celts and Cavs with a 110.2 offensive rating (3rd in NBA). While they’re still more of a plodding team, they’re slowly beginning to form the offensive image desired by necktie-shedding head coach Fred Hoiberg. Howard will have his hands full with the crowd of Bulls hovering around the rim, and he’ll need a big defensive effort from Paul Millsap (21 points, 5 rebounds @ CLE; no steals or blocks in game or first time since February 19) to keep Chicago one-and-done as frequently as possible. Atlanta’s frontline is thinned with Mike Scott (sore knee) out of action, Mike Muscala (sore back) questionable, and Tiago Splitter (hammy) still on the outside looking in, so expect a boost in floortime for Kris Humphries. While he’s not the caramel-chewy center of days past, RoLo averages just 3.0 defensive boards per game, preferring to chase after blocks (1.6 BPG, only Bull averaging more than one) instead. But while Lopez is flailing at opposing shooters in the paint, Taj Gibson (26.3 D-Reb%, 5th among NBA forwards), Nikola Mirotic and go-getter bench bigs Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio have covered for him in securing the defensive caroms. Butler, Rondo, and Wade all chip to support a team effort. Although they lead the NBA with 9.4 “contested” D-Rebs per game (i.e., opponent with 3.5 feet of a rebounding chance), the problems for the Bulls have revolved around defensive positioning well before opponent shots go up. Their foes have had little trouble tickling the twine (51.4 opponent eFG%, 8th in NBA), aside from lousy shooters like the Magic. And while they’re not drawing trips to the charity stripe (NBA-low 0.181 FTA/FGA), they’re not facing a lot of pressure, either (12.4 opponent TOs per 100 possessions, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Wade is not known for his defensive savvy (anymore), or Rondo for his defensive effort (anymore). And despite being named All-Defensive 2nd Team three seasons running, Butler’s production on that end of the floor seems to have waned. His 1.3 SPG is his lowest average since 2012-13, and he has yet to reject a shot in seven games. The lack of pressure from the Bulls’ defenders will feel like a boon for Schröder (50.8 2FG%, 37.0 3FG%, 82.8 FT%) who, like Millsap (2.9 TOs/game, just behind Dennis’ 3.0) could afford to cut down on the turnovers a little, while inducing a few more from their opposition (six Cav player TOs last night). Right now, Schröder’s per-possession, per-play, and per-minute turnover rates are below the values from his breakout third season. But the second-half stretches yesterday where the Cavaliers stormed back out of double-digit holes seemed to coincide with Schröder’s ill-timed passes and shot-selection decisions when the ball needed to keep moving. When Schröder needs a breather, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer won’t hesitate to turn to rookie Malcolm Delaney (4 assists vs. CLE), whose three turnovers last night managed to lower his assist-turnover ratio to 3.0. It was Delaney who was in the game when the Hawks pushed the lead back to double-digits for the last time. His two assists, a pair of 17-foot jumpers, and defense on an empty-calorie Kyrie Irving helped widen a 77-71 Atlanta lead to 96-81, setting the stage for Schröder’s closing heroics (five points and two game-winning assists in the final three minutes). Korver is likely to return tonight, and is always good to pop-a-shot or two against his former team (117 career O-Rating vs. CHI, highest vs. any team in the East). But he’s got to be a bit exhausted (not as much as the missus, though) from the past couple days, and with Wade and Butler likely to put up shots any time Rondo relinquishes the ball, Coach Bud will again lean on Sefolosha and Tim Hardaway to harass Chicago’s top offensive threats. While it’s fair to hope that Butler and Wade will cool off from outside, the Hawks’ wings will have little help from the bigs around the perimeter. They will need to remain mindful of reserve shooters like Mirotic, Isaiah Canaan and Doug McDermott when they’re in the game. Chicago’s 41.4 bench PPG ranks 4th-highest in the league, their collective offensive efficiency second only to Cleveland’s. Tuesday’s win was huge for Atlanta’s confidence, but the game planning deployed versus Cleveland needs to adapt to address a different Chicago offense tonight. If the Hawks can sustain their competitive flexibility, in this and the forthcoming games on the November slate, there may be another ballot surprise in store for the know-it-all pundits next month… when it’s time to begin voting for NBA All-Stars. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. Marc with the Stein-er Recliner... Can't you just feel the excitement? ~lw3