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  1. 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
  2. “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
  3. When it comes to quality tankjobs, it's not about how you start, it's about how you... Finnish? ~lw3
  4. 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
  5. “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
  6. 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
  7. Cam also injured a foot (not sure it's the same one) after playing here over the summer. ~lw3
  8. The Chi-Town natives are getting a wee bit restless. ~lw3
  9. “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
  10. “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
  11. “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
  12. “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
  13. Marc with the Stein-er Recliner... Can't you just feel the excitement? ~lw3
  14. “Okay, here’s the plan! You, go warm up the bus. You, send Jeff around the corner for pizza…” Sucking Wind City! While the Atlanta Hawks’ biggest issue at the moment is getting the headcount right on the travel bus, we’re just about at the point where their hosts tonight, the Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, CSN Chicago), will look to throw somebody under one. Last season, just five teams in the Eastern Conference had a winning record, and Chicago’s current mark (36-36) would have had them on pace for the 6th seed. Not so in 2016, with as many as ten East teams at least capable of finishing above .500, and the Wizards and Bulls on the outside looking in. Hawks GM Wes Wilcox was an assistant coach on LeBron James’ 2004-05 Cavs (42-40), the last East team to sit out the postseason despite amassing more victories than losses. That team had too many questions about its head coach, setting free Paul Silas despite 18 games left and his team still in 5th place despite a post-All-star swoon. This Bulls team seems to have even more questions about its leadership, including its first-year head coach. It’s not like the Bulls haven’t been down this particular primrose path before. In 1998, the team had vacancies all over the place after the final MJ-led NBA title followed with everyone of significance, including head coach Phil Jackson, abandoning ship. That summer, Jerry Reinsdorf went to the sleepy college town of Ames, and plucked Iowa State coach Tim Floyd, a 44-year-old with no NBA coaching experience (but one Sweet Sixteen appearance, so there was that), to serve their director of basketball operations, hoping against logic that Phil (and Mike) would have a change of heart and return to the fold once the lockout ended. Yeah, that was never gonna happen. When the season opened in February, Floyd was the coach, running the show for the first of nearly three-and-a-half disastrous seasons, when the Bulls couldn’t even crack 20 wins. Somebody in Chi-town must really like the Cyclones. Fifty wins, the NBA’s Most Improved Player in Jimmy Butler, and a conference semifinals appearance where the Bulls gave LeBron his strongest resistance along his path back to the NBA Finals, apparently wasn’t good enough for Tom Thibodeau to retain his job in 2015. Entrusted with joint management decisions, executive VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman figured, why the heck not? In comes Floyd’s first All-American college player, Fred Hoiberg, now a 42-year-old with one season of NBA assistant coaching experience back in 2006 (but a Sweet Sixteen appearance, so there’s that), as the new head coach. Being hopelessly enamored with the Big 12 is one thing, but would it have pained the Bulls brass to at least go after Lon Kruger? After blowing a home-and-home set with the Knicks and then getting their doors blown off down in Orlando, all in a span of four days, Chicago (10-16 since Feb. 1) is facing their worst season finish since stumbling out of the pen under Scott Skiles in 2007-08. The Hoi polloi are seeing red. Players are getting restless, too. “We’re losing to… trash teams.” Taj Gibson tried explaining his feeling “embarrassed” last week after the Knicks’ sweep, certainly not endearing himself to anybody in Gotham or the Magic Kingdom in the process. Well, Taj will be emboldened by the discovery that his Bulls blowing games against teams that are beneath him, in his estimation, is now a thing of the past. Beginning with an Atlanta (44-30) team that dispatched Detroit with surgical precision (34 assists, four player turnovers, 8 of 9 players scoring in double figures) on Saturday, six of Chicago’s next seven opponents are in playoff contention, and the seventh (Milwaukee) was eliminated last night. Just two of those forthcoming games are at home. After that stretch, they’ll host LeBron’s Cavs, their opening-round opponent even in a rosiest-case scenario. By that point, we’ll know if this is a roster that also deserves to get tossed into Gibson’s round file. The largest average fan attendance in the NBA fills up the United Center. But Chicago’s diminishing faithful anticipates another fall-flat performance tonight, and the tension is as thick as you’d find at a presidential candidate rally there. Their All-Star at the wing, Butler, is still laboring through a knee injury sustained back in early February, and is likely to get shut down for exploratory surgery the minute Chicago gets mathematically eliminated. “…at times I feel like I’m hurting this team. That’s the most disappointing part because I’m not the player I was,” noted Butler to the Chicago Sun-Times, in what had to sound a bit like an echo to fans of the Bulls’ starting backcourt. One good element of Butler’s return to action has been his passing (5.3 APG, 1.0 TO per game in last 8 games). But Jimmy “Pails” (14.3 PPG, 39.2 FG% in last 8 games) in comparison to the Jimmy Buckets (22.4 PPG, 45.8 FG%) that preceded his injury, and his defensive intensity has ebbed as well. Derrick’s Rose Rule contract expires after next season, while Pau Gasol may be following the injured Joakim Noah out the door in free agency. Gasol (nursing a sprained ankle, but probable for tonight; 8.3 PPG and 39.1 FG% in last 3 games) and Rose (18.4 PPG in March) have been trying to plug the gap in Butler’s production as best they can, but that only shows up on the offensive end of the floor for Chicago. The Bulls have allowed triple-digit opponent tallies in nine of their past ten games (the exception being the Jazz, who don’t even get down like that) and in 25 of their last 27 games, going back to January 31. Under Hoiberg, they’ve become offensively inefficient (26th in O-Rating, 25th in FG%) and, to the dismay of fans longing for the Thibodeau days, defensively deficient (24th in D-Rating since February 1). Reinsdorf would relish any fan-favorable news that kicks the soap opera by his White Sox off the front page, so it’s likely GarPax will get gored soon. But Hoiberg’s not in deep dish just yet. End the losing streak tonight against Atlanta, inspire a mad-dash charge for the 8-seed (they’re just 2 games behind Detroit, 2.5 back of Indy), and Hoiberg can make a case out of being a transition guy completing the first season of his five-year, $25 million contract, hamstrung by well over 180 man-games lost due to injuries. Even if the Bulls’ closing campaign falls short, a new managerial regime might arrive in the upcoming offseason with a lot to work with, including not just one but perhaps two lottery picks. The 2014 mid-season dealing of Luol Deng to Cleveland netted them a top-ten-protected 2016 draft pick via Sacramento, and the Kings are within just 1.5 wins of royally screwing that up. Throw in a full season of off-season recovery from Butler, Rose’s contract year, and growth from youngsters like Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic, and the skyscraper’s the limit. But any half-full perspectives for Hoiberg must begin with a big win, soon. And there’s no time like the present with the Hawks in town. Solving Atlanta involves figuring out the Hawks’ stifling perimeter defense. With Saturday’s victory over the Pistons, Atlanta matched last season’s total of 15 games holding opponents below 25% shooting on three-pointers, with eight games left to spare. Chicago’s 36.8 3FG% ranks 4th in the NBA, but among this season’s most accurate Bulls-eye marksmen, the top one (E’Twaun Moore) remains out with a strained hammy, the fourth-best was Kirk Hinrich, and the fifth-best is our old friend, and Drake troll victim, Justin Holiday. The Bulls’ Big Three (Butler, Rose, Gasol) have to look for targets like McDermott (43.2 3FG%; team-high 20 points on 6-for-13 FGs @ ATL on Feb. 26) and Mike Dunleavy (41.8 3FG%) in the corners, where Hawks opponents (37.8 3FG%) have had much better success than they have above-the-arc (NBA-low 32.2 opponent 3FG%). They’ll have a simpler time doing so if Thabo Sefolosha (ankle stiffness, questionable for tonight) isn’t on the floor to frustrate them all. Gibson will come out to the perimeter to guard Paul Millsap, who was having a whale of a game in Motown (3-for-4 3FGs, 23 points, 4 steals, 4 blocks) before donning a mask of crimson, courtesy of a fourth-quarter head-butt from Errin’ Aron Baynes. But he’s a hockey player, and after nearly a dozen stitches, Millsap is ready to hop back in the fray tonight. A stitch in time saves nine, so with Sap looking to repeat his team-high nine rebounds and nine points off threes from Saturday, he’ll need his point guards to beat their man off the dribble and make the Bulls pay for leaving Gasol (16 points, 17 rebounds, but 6-for-22 shooting @ ATL on Feb. 26) abandoned around the rim. Only the Lakers, Knicks, and Clippers have been outscored in the paint to a greater degree than Chicago (-3.1 PPG in-the-paint). Who knew the team would have such an aversion to Jeff Teague’s penchant for anchovies? Teague’s shooting hasn’t been Hot recently (36.2 FG% in his last 8 games), but he has been Ready to dice up teams like the Pistons and Bulls (6.0 team SPG and 11.9 opponent TOs/game, 29th in NBA) who aren’t aggressive with ball handlers. After 12 assists and zero turnovers in Detroit, Jeff, plus Dennis Schröder (7 assists, 3 TOs @ DET on Saturday) should have little trouble dicing up their defenders like pepperoni tonight, especially if Butler and Tony Snell get preoccupied with chasing around Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Al Horford stands to have a productive evening as well, after adding four assists and four blocks to his 18 points (8-for-11 FGs; 2-for-3 3FGs) in a 103-88, nearly wire-to-wire win over the Bulls in Atlanta last month. Consistent with the successful stretch that began with that victory, the Hawks shot just 20.6% on threes in the game and 41.6% overall, but the Bulls had even fewer answers (36.4 FG%, 5-for-20 3FGs). Horford and Millsap combined for 9 of the Hawks’ 11 blocked shots (compared to Chicago’s two blocks) and matched Chicago’s total of 3 steals as Atlanta built up a 20-11 forced turnover advantage. Hoiberg’s crew needs to find players willing to be more disruptive and force the Hawks to play Butler and Rose in transition. Only the Lakers and Knicks score fewer points off turnovers than Chicago (13.5 PPG, 28th in NBA). Getting the W tonight over the Bulls would virtually sew up the ninth-consecutive postseason for the Hawks, the longest for the franchise since the St. Louis-to-Atlanta run between 1963 and 1973. They have a tiebreaker over Chicago and a 2-1 edge in games over Washington, who should make it all official with a loss in Golden State tomorrow night. While Chicago resorts to internal finger-pointing meetings, maybe the Hawks can celebrate with a pizza party. Who’s buying? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “D*mn, Douglas! Back at it again, with the white Jordans!” Don’t nobody cry for the Chicago Bulls! They’ve done pretty well after the All-Star Break even without leading scorer Jimmy Butler, winning three straight home games and averaging 117 PPG (29.3 APG) along the way. They may have to play again tonight without Derrick Rose (hamstring tendinitis). But that should only be a concern for the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Chicago, ESPN), who are out to avoid their first five-game home losing streak since December 2006 by finally defeating a shorthanded squad they’re supposed to beat at The Highlight Factory. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is pushing full-steam-ahead with his revamped Chicago offense. The Bulls have scored at least 25 points in 10 of their last 12 quarters. They rode with Doug McDermott’s 30 points off the bench to topple the Raptors last Friday. Two nights later, it was guard E’Twaun Moore’s turn, matching Rose with 24 points to pull away from the Lakers. Rose sat out Wednesday’s game versus the Wizards, and Pau Gasol played a Flu Game Lite. But Moore, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell and McDermott all came through, part of a season-high committee of seven Bulls reaching double-figures. Even our old pal Justin Holiday got in on the action, nailing his first three-point attempt in Bulls Red. They’re all out to gain a measure of revenge after Atlanta’s last victory, a decisive 113-90 win at the United Center sixteen days ago, had Bulls fans booing their team off the floor right before the All-Star Break. Chicago (30-26) pulling off yet another victory without Rose (6-2 this season), or Butler, Nikola Mirotic, or Joakim Noah, won’t be a surprise to them. It also won’t surprise fans of the Hawks (31-27), who have been spooked by one skeleton crew after another all season long. That wasn’t really the problem on Monday, as Atlanta succumbed to a performance by new Threak-holder Stephen Curry that the Orlando Magic would describe as “merciful.” In all three games of this disappointing homestand, Hawks players committed more than 15 turnovers (6-16 this season), a stark difference from the first 8 games of the season when they started out 7-1 with no more than 15 turnovers in any of them (25-11 on the season). The February 10 victory over the Bulls was just the second time in this calendar year that Hawks players committed 12 or fewer turnovers (last time a Jan. 16 win vs. Brooklyn), compared to 13 occasions between late October and December. The Hawks are 2-7 when leading scorer Paul Millsap (4-for-13 FGs, 1 assist, 3 TOs vs. GSW) turns the ball over more than thrice in a game. Sap is pushing to draw fouls and get to the free throw line, but spends too much time dramatizing for foul calls, instead of fighting to retain possessions, when the ball gets stripped from his hands. Dennis Schröder (last 2 games: 21.5 PPG, 58.1 FG%, 38.5 3FG%, 8.0 APG, 3.5 TOs/game) put the Hawks on his back in the to help erase a dismal 23-point third-quarter deficit against Golden State, and is pushing to take over that top point guard spot from incumbent Jeff Teague (last 2 games: 10.5 PPG, 35.0 FG%, 25.0 3FG%, 50.0 FT%, 5.5 APG, 5.5 RPG, 3.0 TOs/game). His defensive effort has improved, yet Schro’s ability to make an indelible impression on Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be enhanced by cutting down on turnovers. Thabo Sefolosha has no interest in starting unless he has to, but disappearing act Kent Bazemore (last 4 games: 22.2 FG%, 8.3 3FG%, 1.0 APG, 2.5 TOs/game) is creating very little choice. “I love shooting,” Coach Bud exclaimed after somebody yanked the pull string again yesterday. “I don’t think you can have enough shooting on the court… we have to get better offensively and we have to make more shots.” Budenholzer doesn’t expect his players to be on fire all the time. But if you are not shooting the ball well, you had better be doing other things well on the court: rebounding, getting stops, sparking transition, taking care of the ball. The Hawks’ struggles can be traced to starters who aren’t executing the other elements of the Hawks Cycle well when their shots from the floor go cold. The good news for Atlanta is that Chicago doesn’t force turnovers. Their 5.9 team SPG and 11.8 opponent TOs/game rank last in the Association, and their top three ball-thieves are Butler, Mirotic, and Rose. The Bulls prefer to pester opponents into tough shots (league-best 43.2 opponent FG%) and, when they’re at a defensive disadvantage, hack the mess out of opponents (19.3 personal fouls per game, 5th in NBA) and send them to the free throw line (22.4 opponent FT attempts per game, 6th in NBA). Fortunately for Chicago, opponents have not been making them pay. Their 71.9 opponent FT% is the best BDL since the 1999-2000 Trail Blazers (71.6%) and the 22nd-lowest enjoyed by any NBA team since the league started keeping track in 1970-71. Washington got ten more shots from the charity stripe on Wednesday, but could only hit 73.1% of them, compared to the Bulls’ 81.3 FT%. Hosting the best team in the league, Atlanta made just 10 of their 16 free throws, ultimately helping Golden State keep the outcome beyond the Hawks’ clutches. The Hawks’ 73.3 FT% (22nd in NBA; 17.9 attempts/game) in February continues quite a slide, from 78.1% (11th in NBA; 18.9 attempts per game) in January, 78.8% (6th in NBA; 21.2 attempts/game) in December, and 80.6% (3rd in NBA; 21.1 attempts/game) in October/November. They’re getting less, and making less, as the season goes on. Critical misses also cost the Hawks regulation victories at home this month against Orlando and Milwaukee. With so much pre-occupation with “shooters” at the three-point line and the area around the rim, it’s free throw shooting that’s in greatest need of re-emphasis. Al Horford (23 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals, 1 TO vs. GSW) did just about all anyone could ask to keep the Hawks in contention on Monday. Atlanta will need another full court effort from him and recalibrated efforts by Millsap (4-for-13 FGs vs. GSW) and Mike Scott (0-for-4 FGs, but 9 defensive rebounds in 21 minutes vs. GSW) to keep Gasol, Gibson and Bobby Portis off the offensive glass. After the dreaded Few Days Off, Horford should be spry enough to outlast an under-the-weather Gasol. And after surviving the onslaught of the Splash Brothers, the Hawks backcourt should have an easier time keeping Moore, Snell, Aaron Brooks and Mike Dunleavy in front of them. Should. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. AND NOW, YOUR ATLANTA HAWKS PRESENT, "THE 2015-16 HIGHLIGHTS OF JUSTIN HOLIDAY..." THIS HAS BEEN, "THE 2015-16 HIGHLIGHTS OF JUSTIN HOLIDAY." It's all good, Justin. Don't kill us up there in Chi-Town, 'kay? ~lw3
  17. “Up, Up… and Away?” “Say, pal, how much did you pay for that?” Seriously, can you stand people that ask questions like that? Whether it’s your cars, clothes, shoes, lunch, whatever… there is always That Guy or That Gal who gets obsessed talking not merely about your worldly possessions, but the price tags that came with them. “You paid how much? Sheesh. I saw that on sale around the way for 20% less!” Well before tonight’s finale before the All-Star Break against the depleted Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Chicago), our Atlanta Hawks have established themselves as the I Can Get It For You Wholesale team of the NBA. You’re not gonna pay a whole lot for decade’s worth of playoff appearances. Up to four All-Stars… and a division title… without the four-All-Stars price! Bigger-market teams like the Knicks, Nets, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, and these Bulls (even, briefly, the Sixers, remember?) have gone All-In in that span on big-money schemes. Yet individually, since 2010, none of the above can boast of more Conference Finals appearances than Atlanta’s solitary one. That said, having the best probable early-round exit that money can buy isn’t a huge sell around these parts. Even if ownership has long been satisfied with their “Great Value!” savings, NBA fans around town want more a little more bang for their hard-earned bucks. Certainly, more bang than what the Hawks (30-24) have been producing lately. Is it too much to ask for some sizzle with this Salisbury steak? Here were those high-flying Hawks in summer 2015, with revenues at the box office and eyeballs on the tube as high as ever, on the heels of the most regular-season and postseason victories in their franchise’s semi-storied history. With a new owner in tow, and In Bud We Trust at a peak level, the offseason was a big chance to make some splashes and feed the fans’ growing frenzy. What did we get? We got yet another team that’s bottom-10 in total salary, quite like 2014-15, quite like 2013-14. When we were spending big, it was largely tied up in one dude. These days, despite an expanding cap, when it comes to spending we’re just a million or so ahead of an Orlando Magic team that, in an alleged surprise, swept the Hawks on back-to-back nights this week. Only the Magic, Bucks, and Suxers are deliberately paying less in the East. No, you’re told, there’s no need to splurge on talent to hang around the middle of the playoff rat-pack! But video-projection floors, nightclub-quality DJs, and homegrown-rapper concerts? Oh, we’re all over that! The Hawks have the look of somebody that showed up to the biggest cocktail party of the year humble-bragging about the three-piece suit they bought for a steal at K&G, the unbelievable deal they got on their gown at Dress Barn. And they’re quite satisfied with being the most lukewarm sports ticket in town. There’s no more blaming the A$G. We’ll have ourselves a national holiday for Justin Bieber before we get steady production out of Justin Holiday. Kent Bazemore has moved up to the top-line to replace DeMarre Carroll, but no worries, people, we brought in Lamar Patterson from Turkey! Why roll the dice on a rookie prospect, when we can bring in Tim Hardaway, Jr. from the Knicks? You all remember Tiago Splitter from the Spurs, don’t you? His salary declines just like Kyle Korver’s, isn’t that nice? And hey, just wait ‘til you all see the work Edy Tavares has put in! He can even dribble now! Quality 82-game-ready depth should have been of utmost priority for Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks, who lost one starter to free agency, and had one starter and one key bench player each returning from broken legs. They replaced two backup centers with a guy that hadn’t appeared in 60+ games in the prior two seasons and a not-ready-for-prime-time project. Then, Coach Bud pushes these pace-and-spaced-out Hawks to play at the team’s highest tempo since 1992-93. It’s little wonder, then, why Atlanta’s starters have frayed. Kyle Korver’s shooting slumped right out of the gate. Jeff Teague grinned-and-bore-it through a bothersome ankle, leaving him ineffective on both ends of the floor for months. Franchise captain Al Horford has been as “Where’s Waldo?” as ever around the glass and at the free throw line. Even remnant All-Star and Birthday Boy Paul Millsap, as demonstrated in the Magic sweep, has struggled to find the rim in the clutch. Collectively, they’ve sapped the “fun,” and a lot of “da mentals,” from a team built largely on fundamentals. For a team that places so much emphasis on rest-and-recovery days, it’s hard to see the results on the floor over the course of 48-minutes, no matter the quality of the opponents. Just as much as rest and recovery, this team needs reserves, at more than just point guard. Now, it’s the rest of the league that’s trying to bargain-shop the Hawks. How ‘bout a pastrami-on-rye for Teague? If we throw in a pickle, can we get Horford, too? With a bag of chips, can you give us Dennis Schröder? Teague, to his credit, has done little this month to depress his value in the eyes of opposing team’s GMs (20.6 February PPG, 52.8 FG%, 56.5 3FG%, 1.4 SPG) as the trade deadline approaches. And while he doesn’t waste too much time on so-called “social” media, he did enjoy a little Instagram fun at the expense of nosey NBA fans yesterday. A lot of NBA players get very Mopey Smurf at the prospect of being traded out of town, especially when it’s the only NBA town you’ve known. For all his flaws, Jeff remains pragmatic, not overly dramatic, and isn’t allowing all the speculation to weigh him down. You paid how much to go 27-24? The Bulls ($19 million over-the-cap) are among the many teams Atlanta has money-trolled in recent seasons. Teague first got the NBA world’s attention when he came out of nowhere to frequently stare down the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, in the 2011 Playoffs. With the Rose Rule kicking in, it was Danny Ferry and the Hawks who swooped in to rescue Korver from NBA irrelevancy. Although largely due to injuries for Chicago’s hometown star, Rose, Teague and Korver all have one All-Star appearance since those 2011 playoffs. Rose has been passing the franchise-face mantle onto fellow backcourt mate Jimmy Butler. But with Chicago having dropped three straight and sitting just 1.5 games above the playoff Mendoza Line, the cape is back on Rose (career-low 15.9 PPG; 43.8 2FG%, 24.0 3FG%, 25.6 Assist%) to save their season. Butler is out for at least the next three weeks with a strained knee. Rose himself is expected to play despite nagging soreness in his leg, lest he join Joakim Noah (out for season, separated shoulder), Butler and Nikola Mirotic (appendectomy, hematoma removal) on the IR. Butler was trying to play through knee issues for at least a week, yet Bulls first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, Thibodeauian-style, had his All-Star slog through 47 minutes in Utah. After sitting out the Bulls’ next game in Sacramento (Chicago’s sole win in their last six games), Hoiberg trotted Butler back out in Denver, and Jimmy Buckets promptly put up 19 points in 18 minutes before getting wheeled off the floor. The Bulls went on to lose that contest with the Nuggets, then collapsed late in Minnesota and early (without Rose) in Charlotte, the ninth-seed that’s now just 1.5 games behind them. While Coach Bud has been reluctant to expose many of his scrubbier players, Hoiberg has been trotting out Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore, Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich, Cameron Bairstow and the recently-returned Mike Dunleavy to try and fill the gaps. In a similar vein as the Hawks, the last time the Bulls played ball at their current pace (98.6 possessions per-48, 11th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 99.2), Michael Jordan was still a season away from crying over his first NBA title. Suffice to say, the results in Chi-Town have been less than championship-contention-quality. The Bulls have allowed triple-digits in their past six games for the first time since the Vinny Del Negro era was screeching to a halt in 2010. And Chicago remains Bullish when it comes to forcing turnovers (league-lows of 10.7 opponent TO%, 12.0 TOs per game, and 6.0 steals per game; 13.7 points off TOs, 28th in NBA). Throw in an offensive rating that ranks 26th in the league. However, somebody please let Coach Bud know that Fred Hoiberg’s job isn’t a charity case. While the Bulls aren’t exactly parsimonious, board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has no interest in paying three coaches’ salaries in 2016-17. There are signs of a rift among the two heads of the GarPax monster that is likely to be resolved this summer, but Hoiberg’s gig is safe. So there’s no need for Bud’s Hawks to gift-wrap a job-saving win tonight at the United Center. One pillar that Hoiberg can still lean on is Pau Gasol. The 35-year-old center is averaging a double-double (17.0 PPG, 10.9 RPG) for the second-straight season and holding the fort defensively, earning himself a trip to Kobe’s final All-Star Game in Butler’s stead. Thanks to Pau, Taj Gibson and rookie Bobby Portis, Chicago is second in the league with 36.4 defensive rebounds per game and holding opponents to one-and-done basketball (47.2 opponent eFG%, 3rd-lowest in NBA; 56.5 opponent restricted-area FG%, 2nd-lowest in NBA). Gasol is poised to join Horford in summertime free agency when he spurns his player option, leaving the Bulls to spend their All-Star Break snooping around for long-term options at the pivot. As for today, he and the Bulls’ frontline will try to wear down a Hawks unit that has scant interior defensive options behind Horford (33 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocks vs. CHI in a 120-105 win on Jan. 9) and Millsap, with Splitter remaining out until at least after the Break. Butler won’t be around to patrol the perimeter, so there will be considerable sag in Chicago’s defense of the three-pointer (33.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th in NBA). Moore will take pressure off of Rose by D’ing up whichever of Teague or Korver (52.8 February FG%, 50.0 3FG%, season-high 2.6 APG; 3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Jan. 9) has the hotter hand. But Hawks’ frontcourt players Millsap, Horford and Bazemore have to find open shots from outside as well, helping to drown out Chicago’s long-range output from Dunleavy, Gasol (3-for-5 @CHA on Monday) and Doug McDermott. The Hornets tried this tactic on Monday with 36 total shots from Uptown by all nine players against the Bulls, leaving it mostly to the guards to scrap for second chances while the bigs got back on defense. An attacking Rose would make this particular ploy much more difficult tonight. While the Bulls have benefitted from opponents shooting a league-low 71.4 FT%, key to Atlanta succumbing to the Magic’s pixie dust on back-to-back days were blown free throws, especially at crucial junctures. Whining about ref calls is a bad look when you’re not taking advantage of what opportunities you’re given. As a team, Atlanta has failed to make 80 percent of their freebies in their past five games, the longest stretch of Hawks BDL since December 2014, the month before the magical carpet-ride that defined this core group’s competitive zenith. With the league’s trade-deadline on the horizon, this could be the last opportunity for this cast of characters to show they’re worth people’s time and, perhaps down the road, a little bit more money. Will they perform like they know it? Will Bud and Tony Ressler recognize if they don’t? Or is Discount Contender status still good enough for them all? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. “Wow. Says here they’re actually keeping Dimitroff, for some reason…” In the Eastern Conference, it only takes a little trending for a couple weeks to change your outlook on the season. Atlanta ended 2015 with a 7-1 run, but bad back-to-back losses to the Knicks has Hawks fans looking askance, even after shaking off the cobwebs with a 126-98 trouncing of lowly Philadelphia this past Thursday. Atlanta (22-15) seeks to avoid heading into a three-day layoff with a bad taste in their mouths by sliming the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, WGN) on 90’s Nickelodeon Day. Meanwhile, in the Windy City, head coach Fred Hoiberg has transcended from a perception as a meek college professor-type to become “Hoisenberg” in the space of just two weeks. Hoiberg is pushing an above-average pace not seen since the days of Vinny Del Negro, yet after some turbulence on and off the court, the Bulls are on pace to win more games than they have in any of predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s final three seasons. The Bulls’ six-game winning streak has Chicago right where Atlanta was a couple weeks ago: a few games shy of the top-seeded Cavs, with a prime opportunity to break away from the pack in the Eastern Conference. Not so fast, though! Within the Bulls’ 22-12 record are 21 home games, the most of anyone in the NBA East. Only OKC and San Antonio have enjoyed more so far. Away from the Bulls’ pen, they’ve been just 6-7 to this point of the season. After four underwhelming road wins, the Bulls went a month without any before setting the Thunder asunder on Christmas Day. To keep the win streak going, Chicago needed all of Jimmy Butler’s team-record 40 second-half points (after just two points in the first half), which eclipsed His Airness’ 26-year-old team record for any half, to pull off a victory in Toronto last Sunday. Chicago covets this win in ATL not only to even up their road record, but to keep the positive momentum going ahead of a 4-games-in-5-nights work week that begins Monday. They have elements of their road play that need fixing. The Bulls generally force tough shots from all over the floor. 55.4 opponent FG% in the restricted areas (despite the 2nd most shots), and 35.7 opponent FG% at mid-range are the league’s best marks. But in their away games, their 71.3 defensive rebounding percentage is the league’s worst. Opponents average a league-high 14.0 O-Rebs per game when they’re hosting the Bulls. Accordingly, Chicago’s defensive rating drops from a stout 96.1 at the United Center (4th in NBA among home teams) to a mediocre 102.8 (15th in NBA; Atlanta is 12th) away from home. Offensive rebounding isn’t Atlanta’s bag (20.7 O-Reb%, 5th-lowest in NBA), but as Al Horford (5 O-Rebs on Thursday) and the Hawks demonstrated against the Sixers, they’re not above it, particularly if they don’t fear teams that will make them pay repeatedly in transition. The Bulls are making do without Joakim Noah, who has had issues with his shoulder for weeks and was left back in the Second City ahead of the upcoming 4-in-5 stretch. Pau Gasol won’t be left on an island, however. Rookie Bobby Portis (24.3 minutes/game, 8.0 RPG in his last 6 games) is getting steady minutes in the rotation to alleviate Pau, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. Gasol is going for swats more often than ever before (career-high 2.3 BPG), so he needs his frontcourt teammates to secure the defensive rebounds. Part of Chicago defenders forcing tough shots is staying in front of their man, and as a result they limit their risks of gambling for deflections and steals. Their opponent turnover ratio (12.1 per 100 possessions) is an NBA-low, and only Portland and the Knicks average less than Chicago’s 13.9 PPG off turnovers. On the road, they’ve been outscored off turnovers by 4.3 PPG (4th-largest deficit in NBA). The league-leader in points off turnovers, Atlanta, will look to take advantage of this particular incongruity today. Jeff Teague basically went through the motions for three-and-a-half quarters in Philly, and tonight the Hawks will need him zeroed-in defensively on the inefficient Derrick Rose (22.9 3FG%, career-low 72.2 FT%, 25.8 assist percentage, and 44.1 TS%). Part of Rose’s ineffectiveness stems from an inability to get into the lane, as he’s taking 32 percent of his shots as mid-rangers from 10 feet out (highest proportion since 2009-10). While Rose’s bloom is off, Jimmy Buckets has become the go-to distributor as well (10 assists in each of his past two games; 6.9 APG, 2.4 TOs/game in last 7 games). It will be tougher to keep Butler cool with the former braided Bull Thabo Sefolosha (sore wrist) inactive today. Kent Bazemore will have to stay out of foul trouble. Hawks guards and wings have to minimize paint penetration from Butler and Rose, while the forwards must disrupt deep-dishes to Gasol into the post, forcing turnovers and inefficient shots all while avoiding bailout fouls. Doing those things and beating the Bulls’ bigs down the floor in transition will lessen the need for Mike Budenholzer to break out the Thinking Chair in the closing minutes of the game. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record