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  1. “May I have your attention, please!” “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Instead, the Former King ran rings around the planet’s third-wealthiest sports owner. After winning two in South Florida, Former King was gracious enough to swing by the shores of Lake Erie and bestow a ring upon Dan Gilbert’s finger before heading out once more, earning a fourth ring with yet another team while hanging out in Central Florida. Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Dan and Former King get to kick back, crack open a frosty O’Doul’s, and watch the 2022 NBA Playoffs together? There could be plenty of room in both these fellas’ busy schedules to make it happen. I’m a self-titled Atlanta Sports fan, certainly a Hawks fan, so by definition I can’t be in the business of personally guaranteeing anything. But America’s most successful loan shark has gotten a glance at just how much his self-titled Personal Guarantees are worth. On this one, Dan’s deep into default. In case the Guardians are scouting, they should know Chuck’s hitting a higher batting average on Guar-On-Tees. Immediately after spell-checking his Comic Sans missive and pressing ‘Send’, Gilbert’s Cavaliers were committed to figuring out a means to contend for championships without the aid of Former King. Twelve years removed from that 2010 Personal Guarantee to the Cavs faithful, frankly, those guys are still at it. It’s not like they haven’t had help along the way. The Clippers sent the remains of Baron Davis and a first-rounder to Cleveland in 2011 for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. That first-rounder became top-pick Kyrie Irving, who looked to be left to his own devices to figure out how to tricky-dribble the team around him into the postseason. Getting Tristan Thompson with their own pick at #4 wasn’t a bad deal, either. More Lottery Luck landed The Land the top NBA picks in 2013 (moving up from 3rd) and 2014 (up from 9th). That gave them the fodder they needed to bring Kevin Love to town, to the great satisfaction of Former King. King, Kyrie, Kardashian and K-Love got the breaks they needed to win it all, at long last, for Cleveland in 2016. One ring was all there was to be for Mr. Dan, as a gentleman’s sweep during the next Finals at the hands of the Warriors quickly had King and Kyrie looking to faraway lands. But, hey, Kevin’s still here! And more Lotto Luck was to come. Yes, the Cavs dropped three spots out of the #2 position twice, in 2019 and 2020, leaving them to settle for Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, respectively. No Zion or De’Andre Hunter, no Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball would be coming to save them, sorry. But then that old table-tennis ball magic came through once more last year, the Cavs eking up from 5th to 3rd and having Evan Mobley ripe for the picking. Mobley proves ready to ball out from the jump for coach JB Bickerstaff and company. Garland breaks fully out of an injured Collin Sexton’s shadow (Ricky Rubio’s, too) and into the All-Star limelight. Getting in on the drama in Houston orbiting a plumpy James Harden, GM Koby Altman completes a four-team deal in 2021 that sent Harden to the Nets, Caris LeVert to the Pacers, and Jarrett Allen to the Cavs. Allen joins Garland in 2022’s All-Star festivities, proudly representing a team hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference. Now, LeVert’s here, too? Playoffs, here they come! Even two-time world champion Rajon Rondo wanted in on the action. “This type of personnel, the DNA that we have, the character in this locker room with the coaching staff,” Rondo shared with a Cavs sideline reporter just a month after arriving via trade from Los Angeles (with nary a hint of Lakershade), “We got a chance to do something special.” He could have stayed sunnin’ and funnin’ in L.A. with Former King. But the former veteran backup to Atlanta Hawks’ All-Star Trae Young knew he’d have a greater shot at meaningful postseason action for himself by returning East. To an extent, Rondo has been proven right. Rondo has a vital role helping Brandon Goodwin back up Garland as the Cavs, despite losing in Brooklyn a few nights ago, have a single shot at snapping a string of Playoff-less appearances that goes back to 1998. It was under coach Mike Fratello, in those Nique-awful uniforms, that Cleveland last appeared in a Playoff game without the services of Former King. While Rondo was the top second-grade hooper in his class, it was under coach Lenny Wilkens that the Cavs last won a playoff series without Former King, a 1993 five-setter when they edged Rumeal Robinson, Drazen Petrovic and the Nets. These hexes can’t go on forever. But I can personally guarantee they will extend at least another year if the Cavs fall at Mr. Dan’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL). I don’t think I am underestimating how humungous this Play-In game is for Cavalier Nation, for the sun-setting Rondo and Love, and for one well-heeled guarantor in particular. Just making it to Miami for Game 1 of the first round would qualify as “something special.” They have the misfortune of trying to tackle a Hawks team that is getting used to this business of playing spoiler to fatally-flawed NBA teams’ postseason hopes and dreams. They played the Caron Wheeler role to devastating effect during Wednesday’s 9-versus-10 game in hurtling the funhouse Hornets back to reality (Sixers and Knicks fans: “So, Charlotte, this here’s your first time?”). Particularly so in the second half, as Hawks fans realized how ever do they want, and need, an exceptional-playing Hunter (16 points, 4 rebounds in 3rd quarter vs. CHA). Atlanta by now ought to recognize, though, that the team that swatted the Hornets into ether is rarely the same once they leave the cozy confines of State Farm Arena. Open looks don’t fall so cleanly, the bottom-ten defense (117.3 post-Break away-game D-Rating, 22nd in NBA) gets tight, and everyone not named Trae starts looking to each other for answers to the riddles on the road. As @Final_quest noted following the Hornets’ game, the Hawks caught their first L of this season in this Fieldhouse in October, days after what felt like a momentous home triumph over Luka and the Mavs for the season opener. Cam Reddish led the non-Trae Hawks with 19 bench points as the team shot 38.4 percent from the field, including Hunter (5-for-16 FGs) and a foul-troubled John Collins (3-for-8 FGs). With no Garland in that low-scoring affair, the Cavs didn’t shoot it much better (41.6 team FG%). But Rubio sure seemed to have his way taking pressure off of Sexton, while the questionable pairing of Mobley with Allen in Bickerstaff’s starting frontcourt looked like it might work out after all. For Atlanta, that 101-95 loss was a setback that kicked off a 1-8 start to the road schedule, quickly dampening expectations that the Hawks were ready to pick up where they left off. Garland was unavailable once more, on New Year’s Eve, when Trae and the Hawks got a measure of payback in Cleveland, despite 35 throwback points from Love, with the help of Chaundee Brown, Wes Iwundu, and a whole other Cam, namely Cameron Oliver. The Hawks would then go into 2022 to strike out a Jaywalker’s Row of opponents in their buildings – the Kings, Hornets, Magic, Wizards, Knicks, Pacers, Thunder and Rockets – all of whom as of Wednesday night are watching the NBA postseason from afar. The upshot is that Atlanta has to be considerably better, tonight, than the road teams that beat those opponents, if the Hawks want to return to Miami for a few days in a professional capacity, and to do something good once they arrive. It is unlikely we’ll witness a Hornet Lover’s Feast resembling the one Clint Capela sopped up with a Cheddar Bay biscuit on Wednesday. This Win Or Go Home contest will feature Mobley and, more likely than not, Allen (sprained finger), which was not the case when the Cavs were blitzed in Atlanta by a 131-107 score on March 31. Cleveland will have answers that they lacked versus Capela and Mobley’s AAU-mate, Onyeka Okongwu. The heightened challenge of scoring via lobs and floaters will require Young, Delon Wright and the Hawks’ ballhandlers to exploit Cleveland’s perimeter defense (38.5 opponent post-Break 3FG%, 4th-highest in NBA, incl. 44.2% from corners). Swingmen and forwards staying in motion to get open while keeping Okoro, Lauri Markkanen and LeVert busy picking poisons will help Young generate scoring opportunities with greater efficiency, particularly for himself (6-for-17 2FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs, 11 assists, 3 TOs vs. CHA). Bogdan Bogdanovic is listed as questionable due to a sprained ankle, but the presence of Kevin Huerter, Hunter and Danilo Gallinari still grants Atlanta a superior array of options. As the Cleveland bigs cluster to protect the interior, a few of Atlanta’s timely dimes for threes could come from the hands of Capela, whose Hawks are 12-2 this season when he registers at least three assists. Depth has been a challenge during Cleveland’s slide out of first-round-homecourt territory. As Kyrie’s Nets had the Cavs climbing out from a 20-point first-quarter hole, Bickerstaff had to rely heavily on Rondo (9 assists in 27 bench minutes) to help Garland (34 points @ BRK, 5 assists, 6 TOs) move the ball, and on Love (3-for-4 3FGs, team-highs of 4 O-Rebs and 9 D-Rebs in 29.5 bench minutes) to hit threes and secure boards. The Cavs need current starters Markkanen (54.2 eFG%, down from 59.4 last season w/ CHI) and LeVert (48.1 eFG%, down from 49.6 this season w/ IND) to have a positive impact, particularly on the offensive side of the court (combined 6 steals but 9-for-26 FGs @ BRK) and alleviate overreliance on a withering reserve unit. Getting Hunter and Danilo Gallinari to abdicate help in the paint would benefit Garland on his drives, and Mobley and/or Allen on his post plays. If they fail at that this evening, there will be not much left for Cleveland to do but run it back for 2023. Love, LeVert, Markkanen, Cedi Osman, Okoro and Dylan Windler are all part of a core that could return, under contracts personally guaranteed, by Gilbert through at least 2022-23. Add in another dash of Lottery Luck (their own pick from the LeVert trade with Indiana is Lotto-protected), plus an extended offseason for recalibration and growth, and these Cavs might have a better chance, next season, at finally chasing after a ring, or at least a playoff series win, without the Former King. Come on, Mr. Dan. What’s not to like? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “I promise! I’ll be mindful not to posterize you like that when we finally get to the BIG 3!” Thankfully, the Thunder got struck yesterday. But how did the Atlanta Hawks and their visitors tonight, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Ohio) handle those storms last night? To land in ATL overnight, both teams had to navigate their way through the treacherous line of thunder-boomers that rambled across the American Midwest and South. That sets the stage, on the second tip-this NBA evening, for a groggy, sloppy affair at State Farm Arena, one which the Cavaliers (42-34) would graciously accept. It has been an overachieving season for coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s team, adorned with a pair of All-Stars in guard Darius Garland (25 points, 4-for-4 3FGs, 10 assists, 4 steals in the 120-112 loss vs. Luka’s Mavs last night) and center Jarrett Allen and likely concluding with a Rookie of the Year honor for forward Evan Mobley. The slide back toward the middle of the conference began, though, even before losing Allen for the possible balance of the regular season with a finger injury earlier this month. The Cavs have won just seven of their past 20 contests, going back to the final week before the All-Star Break. More disturbing is the lack of success away from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Going back to a victory in OKC on January 15, Cleveland has pulled off road victories on just three of 13 occasions. Two of those were in Indiana, and the only other one was a win without Garland and Lauri Markkanen, but with 29-and-22 from Allen, back on February 4 in Charlotte. For Cleveland fans that haven’t seen a team without The Chosen One clinch a playoff spot (Brevin Knight, Call Me Bob Sura, Danny Ferry, Wesley Person and coach Mike Fratello made it in as a 6-seed back in 1998), an opening-round exit sounded like a grand goal at the outset of the season, one that began with Collin Sexton (out for season, torn meniscus) continuing to hog a good bit of the ball. But now, just to have an opportunity at that, it appears the Cavs need to win just enough to ensure that a Play-In elimination game, if there is to be one, goes down in The 216. The road woes for Cleveland included the February 15 game in Atlanta. Trae Young was kind enough to spread his 41 points (and 9 assists) across four quarters instead of three as the Hawks prevailed, 124-116. Filling in for John Collins, Danilo Gallinari (questionable for tonight, elbow contusion) chipped in a timely 25 points. The Cavs haven’t been excessively atrocious on offense in the six road contests they’ve played since the All-Star Break (52.5 road eFG% post-Break, 23rd in NBA; 57.5 TS%, 13th in NBA), particularly in games where Garland (90.3 FT%, but just 3.5 FTAs per game) earns at least a few trips to the free throw line. That wasn’t the case in mid-February, when just two of Garland’s 30 points came at the charity stripe. The discrepancy has been most glaring at the defensive end (119.2 road D-Rating, 27th in NBA), where pre- and post-Break has looked like the difference between Villa Rica (with all due respect to Jae Crowder’s hometown; lovely in the springtime, I’m sure) and Buckhead. Lately, only the Pacers and LOLakers have had opponents nailing threes at a higher clip than Cleveland foes’ 40.1 percent. The 55.6 opponent eFG%, since January 15, is a drag on what has been a top-five defense from the field (51.8 eFG% in 2021-22, 5th-best in NBA) all season. Perhaps a case of hacking the wrong personnel, or at least a small sample size since the Break, Cavalier hosts have made 87.5 percent of their freebies, well ahead of second-worst Washington’s 84.2. The recent absence of Mobley, who sprained his ankle early in Monday’s home win over Orlando, and the season-ending knee surgery for forward Dean Wade complicates matters for Bickerstaff and company. To keep from wearing out the Cavs’ Human Ring of Honor Kevin Love and the lightly-used Ed Davis this late in the season, Bickerstaff is starting Moses Brown, likely signed as a two-way for the stretch run after his second 10-day expired last night (team-high 9 rebounds and 5-for-5 FGs vs. DAL). Coach JB needs the returning Cedi Osman, Markkanen, Lamar Stevens and Love to play big, or at least knock down open shots when Garland’s and Brandon Goodwin’s paint penetration draws extra defenders. Acquired by team exec Koby Altman expressly for the stretch run toward a favorable playoff seed, Caris LeVert (Cavs-high 32 points vs. DAL yesterday in a team-high 38 minutes) will need to string solid games together to keep opposing defenses off-balance. A few more wins ought to sew up the 7-seed for the Cavs, pre-Play-In, and fend off any on-comers beneath them. But the win over the Magic is Cleveland’s only one in the past five games. Further, the only home games left on the docket is this weekend versus Philly, one day after visiting the Knicks, and the following weekend’s season-finale against the Bucks. Hawks fans could have predicted the skid for both Chicago and Cleveland, given their tougher post-Break schedules, and it’s likely a higher seed is in play only if the Bulls (2.0 games ahead and tied with current 6-seed Toronto) tumble harder. Atlanta (3.0 games behind CLE at 39-37) can secure the 3-1 potential head-to-head tiebreaker with a victory over the Cavs tonight, and at least make the final turn toward the close of the regular season much more intriguing. Nate McMillan preserved a banged-up Clint Capela (DNP 4th quarter, along w/ Young, 11 rebounds in 20 minutes @ OKC) in anticipation of today’s game. The Cavs will be hard-pressed to keep him from finishing around the rim, especially if they now have to account for Kevin Knox (17 points, 3-for-6 3FGs @ OKC) as a gravity-producing frontcourt threat, to say nothing of Gallinari if he can return. After winning an unprecedented three Game 1s as a road playoff ‘dog in 2021, a healthy Trae-led Hawks team wouldn’t stress out over specific Play-In seeding, so long as they secure one and formally eliminate the Knicks for the second season in a row with a victory today. Conversely, one road game in the Play-Ins might be survivable for the playoff-hungry Cavs. Two, and they know it could be stormy weather. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. Somebody’s got to lead the Hawks in steals these days! I get really dangerous this time of year. Yes, there’s an Atlanta Hawks game tonight, with the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers paying us a visit at The Farm (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Ohio). But there are so many local sports options vying for my attention, and I zone out very easily when things start going south. The defending Eastern Conference champions are back! That’s right, everyone, Rugby ATL has already kicked off their Major League Rugby schedule, having had to move to Silverbacks Park in DeKalb County after their field at Life University was damaged by flooding near the end of last summer. Even with an ownership and coaching upheaval, the RATLers are scoring in bushels are look to be a contender once more in the early going. The Sidney Crosby of box lacrosse is in town! With all due respect to Josef Martinez, Lyle Thompson may be the most accomplished champion athlete playing in this town right now. He’s leading the National Lacrosse League in goals and points for the team that got the ATL’s Titletown feel rolling, the 2017 NLL champion Georgia Swarm. Come for the lacrosse league’s greatest scorer at Gwinnett’s Gas South Arena; stay for the Poulin Wall plugging up the opponent’s goal! Also in Duluth, the Atlanta Gladiators are neck-and-neck for the East Coast Hockey League’s Southern Division crown. You all know how much I adore divisional banners. Shoot, somebody's got to love 'em. What’s worse? I’ll keep flipping the channels and get fixated on a random SEC men’s hoops game. I’ve gone from wanting to dump the Hawks’ first rounder at Deadline time to wondering aloud whether Kennedy Chandler or Tari Eason or TyTy Washington could best address the Hawks’ defensive woes, and how many rings could be counted inside an oak tree before Nate McMillan elects to play them. Bah, lemme check and see if The Italian Mare is hooping today. Georgia Tech’s women’s hoops is Top 20 heading into March Madness, and 6-foot-4 forward Lorela Cubaj just might be good enough to fall into the newfangled Atlanta Dream’s lap come April at Draft time. So, yeah, the Hawks (26-30) can hold me down for a quarter or two. But a defensive collapse tonight like the floundering that occurred mid-game over the weekend in Boston, and Johnny Davis’ Badgers visiting Coach Woody’s Hoosiers starts to look mighty appealing. It’s all a bit disrespectful to the Cavs (35-22), who have done things the right way seemingly all season long. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad handed a gloating Hawks team their first L of the season back in October, and the subsequent injury losses of Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio and extended mid-season absences for Lauri Markkanen (out, sprained ankle) and Isaac Okoro haven’t caused the Cavaliers to skip a beat. Now it’s the Hawks looking up in the standings, and Cleveland, newly fortified with ex-Pacer swingman Caris LeVert, eager to see who they might soon shock in first-round playoff action. The loss of Sexton, in particular, seemed to alleviate the log jam around Darius Garland (20.1 PPG, 8.0 APG), the leading scorer and third-year dime-dropper who gets to play as a host in this weekend’s All-Star Game. At the upper rung of the NBA’s Rookie Ladder, Evan Mobley (1.7 BPG, 0.8 SPG) has made Bickerstaff’s commitment to Tall Ball work with his defensive tenacity, helping Cleveland keep foes off the free throw line while allowing a league-low 102.1 PPG. Kevin Love has been the glue guy, helping as a rebounder, an extra passer and a release valve on the perimeter to allow the younger stars to excel on the inside. I am often in the business of putting sketchy GMs on the hot seat with these gamethreads, but I must give Koby Altman his flowers while he's here. Nothing said, coming off a 22-50 season, that Altman was worth keeping around, or that he should stick with his hiring of the Bickerstaffs for much longer. There were no worries, internally, about chemistry or fit when the Cavs sent Taurean Prince and a second-rounder to Minnesota for Rubio, or when the team acquired Markkanen via trade with Chicago, mere days after extending Allen and drafting Mobley. While the Bulls’ Billy Donovan may have a leg up in the race for Coach of the Year, right now, it’s Altman for Executive of the Year by a nose. When last we left the Cavs in Cleveland, the hosts were down several key guards due to injury and illness, while Kevin Pangos and former Hawk Brandon Goodwin were at the mercy of Trae Young (35 points, 11 assists, 1 of ATL’s 2 player TOs on the evening). In an inversion of Sunday’s recent action in Boston, Atlanta piled up a 40-22 advantage in the third quarter to turn the tables and negate otherwise monstrous outings from Kevin Love (35 points, 7-for-14 3FGs, 11 boards and 4 assists off the bench) and fellow bigs Evan Mobley and newest All-Star Jarrett Allen (combined 17-for-23 FGs, 16 rebounds and 5 blocks). Love’s teammates were 1-for-11 from outside, and Trae’s teammate Clint Capela still managed 23 rebounds (11 offensive) on the inside, helping Atlanta’s skeleton crew escape New Year’s Eve with the 121-118 road win. While the Hawks have continued drowning around in a morass of their own making, a loss today for the Cavs (15-6 since Jan. 1) would be their first consecutive loss since that Dec. 31 defeat to Atlanta. The Hawks have to establish defensive cohesion that doesn’t get out of whack when a player exits due to foul trouble, or when the starters return to keep up momentum gained by the bench, or vice versa. Without cohesion and an understanding of defensive assignments, McMillan’s lineups have a hard time staying calm, clear, or connected. Pitchers and catchers might not be reporting down in Florida for quite awhile. But for the Hawks to keep my rapt attention, some guards, forwards, centers and coaches need to stay clocked in for 96 minutes over the next couple days. The clicker finger on the remote gets very itchy nowadays, and it’s not going to get much better unless the Hawks do. You can’t get here soon enough, Thiago Almada! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. Looking Forward! “After a coaching change, Your Favorite Sports Team is going to make late-season dash for the playoffs.” That’s what Mephistopheles offered me on New Year’s Eve, 2020. “Not only that, Your Team is going to wallop not just one, but two flawed, hyper-hyped league favorites in the playoff rounds. Then they will put a scare to the eventual league champions. They’ll miss out on The Finals by a foot. But they will advance as far as they ever have before in Your Favorite Sports Town, with Your Team and Its Superstar earning national adulation. They’ll roll into the next season by whooping The Team Who You Got Your Superstar From (and, maybe, An Extra Star, too). Oh, and The Baseball Team in Your Favorite Sports Town will fare even better. BUT…” “A’ight, deal.” “Now, hold on. I didn’t mention Your Team would flop, suffer through injuries, decline to trial-by-fire their draft picks, then flop some more, mostly at home, then get waylaid by positive tests in the midst of a still-raging pandemic. This exact time next year, as Your Team just tries to keep up with the depleted Cavaliers in Cleveland (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Ohio), Your Team’s Fans will be lamenting the pandemic-related departure of some rando named Malcolm Hi—" “Are you deaf, Mephisto?” ((spits in palm)) “I said, DEAL. Shake, you big-horned, winged freak, you. SHAKE!” Have a Healthy, Hearty, Happy New Year! Let’s Go “Hawks”! ~lw3
  5. “Straight INTO Compton, how ‘bout dat?” It’s a lot like a family, the man in Kate’s living room assured, about her son joining this man’s gang. Mom would be taken care of. Son would be in good hands. “Once you’re part of it,” the high schooler was promised, “you’re a part of it for life.” My eyebrow would furrow, too, if I was told the gang leader’s founding co-partner was a guy who was known around town as Super Crip. Thankfully, this was no ordinary gang or, worse, any kind of MLM scheme. Kate Okongwu granted her permission. With that, a Cali kid named Onyeka Okongwu would become a member of the famed Compton Magic AAU basketball team. There, he would join forces with future USC teammate Eric “Isaiah” Mobley, Isaiah’s younger brother, a Trojan in the wings named Evan, and future UCLA sensation Johnny Juzang. You, Atlanta Hawks fan, have likely been in that “gang” leader’s living room, too. Etop Udo-Ema, and his partner Super Crip, can boast of not just one, but two blue chippers recently fast tracked into the NBA via the upper echelons of the Draft Lottery. Onyeka, who celebrated being drafted by the Hawks with family in Udo-Ema’s house, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley are likely to face off, if only momentarily, as NBA pros for the first time during this evening’s affair at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Ohio). Actually, no they’re not, since Mobley, like the Hawks’ Trae Young and a slew of Cavs teammates are on the NBA’s You Know What list following Cleveland’s late-night arrival from Milwaukee, putting the game and at least logical lineups in peril. Fortunately for me, like the Hawks when they play at home, I’m not interested in making adjustments this late in the game. Anyway, here’s a scenario for you. You, a high school senior, are out with your buddies today, chillin’ in a car near a Compton street corner, when an out-of-neighborhood rival approaches from another vehicle, promptly spraying you and your fellow passengers with bullets from an AK-47. The worst part is, one of your friends dies instantly from a shot to the head, another one is injured in the stomach. Having ducked low enough to avoid the worst of the gunfire, you escape the vehicle, but experience searing pain from a bullet that grazed across your back. Question: Are you insistent on playing your crosstown high school rivals, Santa Margarita High, at UC Irvine *tomorrow*? If the answer is, “Bleep it, cuz, I’m playing… I gotta hoop!,” are you then dropping 27-and-15 on they heads? If the answer is, yes, then congratulations. You are hereby worthy of the nickname: Super Crip. Surviving the crossfire, David Hamilton would go cross-country to play two D-1 seasons at Auburn, before closing out his college hoops career at the NAIA level. But before that, he was a budding prep-hoops star who, along with future Cavs second-rounder Jeff Trepagnier, was helping build Udo-Ema’s summertime travel ball outfit of Compton-area players into a powerhouse. As the excellent February 2021 piece from Bleacher Report sportswriter Eric Yeboah (B/R link) details, for 15 years through 2005, the Magic fielded a competitive hoops roster based solely of residents from Compton, Cal-i-for-ni-a. The program’s success allowed them to draw interest and recruit from outside the city limits, but the egalitarian play-sharing atmosphere allowed them to stay true to their edgy edge-city core. Eight and nine years before Okongwu won it twice, Hawksquawk’s friend of the program Allen Crabbe came away with California’s Mr. Basketball honors. A fellow Compton Magic alum of Crabbe’s was highly touted prep center Isaiah Austin, the 5-star prospect who wound up at Baylor. The team was able to dominate at the AAU level without overtaxing their biggest names. “(Etop) would play other kids over me at some tournaments, and I wouldn’t care,” the Fresno native Austin recalled. “Because I knew, that’s my friend. He wants to go to college and get offers like I do… Etop used the elite players that he had to get exposure for some of the players that wouldn’t have got that much exposure. I just knew it was a big family.” They’d travel annually, senior team members with parents in tow, to Cabo, and stayed involved in volunteer outreach activities back home. When traveling for games in Atlanta, Udo-Ema would make sure the squad spent time at the MLK National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue. Years of team-bonding on top of individual successes built up to the point where it was easy to sell the Magic program to kids from Temecula, like the Mobleys, and from Chino Hills, where the freshman Okongwu already had quite the reputation during high school hoops season. With Juzang, the Mobleys and Okongwu leading the charge, the Compton Magic unofficially won 2018’s AAU national championship in a Las Vegas showcase tourney, defeating that year’s Nike EYBL champions in overtime. The Magic are likely to crank out lottery picks in future seasons, too. While he is completing his prep years in North Carolina, San Diego’s five-star 2023 recruit Mikey Williams is already a Compton Magic alum. “I should’ve been dead,” Hamilton recalled on a BallIsLife podcast aired back in February of this year, as he and former Compton Magic associates walked through the razed, chained-off property they once called their neighborhood, and stopped at the intersection where his life nearly ended. “The message is to get across that we’re trying to do something out here in these streets,” Hamilton says on the very R-rated episode (YouTube: “We’ve been out here. We just trying to wake y’all up.” While the NBA never formally came calling for Hamilton, he would continue rebuilding his life on the East Coast, in Georgia, starting up an apparel brand while continuing to support the Compton program. Earlier this year, Hamilton proudly closed on a house here in the ATL, offering him many more opportunities to bond with the Hawks’ second-year pro. I can’t say for sure that Travis Schlenk, on 2020’s Draft Night, knew of the legend of Super Crip. But I wouldn’t dare put it past him to know that in Atlanta, Onyeka would still be in good hands. When it comes to matters of meaningful human connections, Travis has long been woke out here in these streets. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. Live look-in at Dan Gilbert’s new diving platform! "What's not to like?" “I see what You’ve done for other people. And I want that for me!” You’ve seen the meme. A soundbite from a televangelist’s prayer to the Upstairs gets selectively captioned for the sake of Internet humor. Like Frank’s Red Hot, we put that Dellavedova on everything! Let somebody flaunt the latest SNKRS drop for followers on The ‘Gram, or some previously non-existent abdominals, lined up in a gym mirror, after a workout pays off. Perhaps that chrome Hummer they’re leasing for some weekend parties out on the shore. Soon enough, here comes the preacherman! In short order, our Atlanta Hawks (1-0) have become the Thirst Trap of the NBA. It’s true, at least, for the usual suspects hanging out in the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta reached the NBA’s Final Four in 2016, spent roughly three-and-a-half seasons in sTankonia, and got back with a completely different cast of characters. Meanwhile, the forthcoming slate for the Hawks includes opponents that haven’t been seriously playoff-relevant in a minute. Washington hasn’t won 50 games, in a full season or on pace, since the 1979 Finalists, also the last time they appeared in a conference finals. Anthony Davis wore a “That’s All Folks!” tee to his finale in New Orleans, who promptly stole logo-petting Zion in the Lottery. A few years of butter-fried tilapia sandwiches later, Pels fans have been left to wonder, “That’s All?” Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since bowing out of the Conference Finals in 2008. And then, there’s Cleveland. The Cavaliers host the Hawks (6 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Bally Sports Ohio) one evening after another thirst-trapping club, Charlotte (no playoff-series wins since 2002), paid a visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mike Fratello was the head coach for Brevin Knight, Bob Sura, and Danny Ferry. A rookie named Zydrunas Ilgauskas was taller than the Empire State. And Shawn Kemp was wider than Victoria Lake. That was the last time, in 1998, that a Cavaliers team reached the Eastern Conference Playoffs without The Chosen One. In the next strike-shortened 1998-99 season, Fratello dragged the club to the equivalent of a 36-46 season, before being forced to take his telestrating talents to television. In the ensuing ten non-Bron seasons, 33-49 in 2013-14 was the Cavs’ high watermark. All this is to say, head coach JB Bickerstaff has an awfully low bar to clear in his second full season. Eleven summers ago, team owner Dan Gilbert sought to assure miffed Ohioans, in comic fashion, that he is capable of shepherding a championship-level NBA franchise, without the services of the former hometown hero who wore a picnic table cover to a summertime interview at the Boys and Girls Club. Dan’s sort of still working on this. Only now, bearing the ring he got thanks to The Prodigal Son briefly returning to team up with Third Eye Blind, Gilbert gets his chance at a do-over. Nobody cry for Dan, though. While you were slumbering the summer away, Gilbert went out and septupled his net worth, as Rocket Mortgage went public. Of North America’s sports-team majority owners, Steve Ballmer is now the only one who isn’t muttering, “Dow Jones, I see what you have done for other billionaires…” No matter the final record, whether Bickerstaff hangs on, young talents like Isaac Okoro (NBA rookie-high 32.4 minutes/game in 2020-21) and 2021 Lottery catch Evan Mobley break through, Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen prove to be worth the investment, Collin Sexton adroitly handles the club’s disinvestment, or Ricky Rubio sticks around through the springtime, 2021-22 is bound to conclude in favorable, encouraging fashion. That’s because Kevin Love’s albatross of a contract, in 2022-23, will at long last become an expiring one. Watch your back, Ballmer! Gilbert’s comin’ for that numba one spot! Even if they find their top players snubbed, like Atlanta in 2021, for their All-Star Weekend, it’s bound to be a win-win of a season in Cleveland. But it would be soooo much better for the fans if the Cavs could win-win more than 35 times and, like the Hawks, make any sort of noise in the Playoffs. Heck, even in the Play-Ins. As he did last season with a 3-0 season start, Coach JB is going to want to find a way to snag some early Ws, because the schedule gets treacherous fast. The Cavs (0-2) follow up tonight’s SEGABABA with a ten-day, five-game excursion. They’re at Denver on Monday, then, the dreaded double-dip at STAPLES Center, then at NBA Finalist Phoenix, then a cross-country flight to LaMeloville. The schedule eases up from there until mid-November, but who knows how squirrely things can get if they suffer too many early drubbings. The Cavs acquitted themselves fairly well in their first road test, Wednesday’s season opener in Memphis. Despite getting gashed (53-36) on the glass at both ends, Cleveland surged back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, behind Darius Garland (career-high 12 assists, ahead of Rubio’s 10), Mobley and Sexton, to get within a point of the Grizzlies with under two minutes to spare. Relying on players like Cedi Osman, rather than Garland and Rubio, to handle the rock, and not getting back properly after they turned the ball over, made the hole Cleveland fought to climb out from deeper than necessary. They hung with the Hornets for a half last night, but found themselves bashed on the boards again, this time at the hands of Messrs. Bridges and Plumlee. Love comes off the bench, still displaying mastery at kickouts off the defensive boards if not much else (team-high 10 D-Rebs, all in 1st half, 4 assists vs. CHA), with Sexton (6.5 fastbreak PPG, most among NBA’ers w/ 2 games in their pockets) the most obvious beneficiary. It’s a tall task, but the Cavs (NBA-low 36.0 team RPG so far, bottom-five in D-Reb% and D-Rating) are going to need near-7-footers Markkanen and Allen (11-for-11 FGs in his season debut @ MEM, 1st to do so in shot-clock era, as per Elias, but just seven D-Rebs through two games) to mix it up more on the defensive end, both to preserve Love and alleviate lanky rookie Mobley. An NBA team could lose exactly one game to every NBA opponent, in a full season, and still come away with 53 wins. A solid regular-season finish for the 1-0 Hawks (1-2 versus 22-50 Cleveland in 2020-21, 0-2 against the 19-46 Cavs the season before) entails winning not just games, but series, especially versus teams like the forthcoming half-baked quartet of adversaries on the docket. The WingStop duo (h/t @ATLHawks3) of Cam Reddish (team-high 20 points in the 113-87 win vs. DAL) and De’Andre Hunter (+19 vs. DAL, behind only Trae Young’s +21; one of 4 Hawks w/ 2 blocks) should be capable of doubling up the defensive production Cleveland relies upon from Okoro, and also tripling the sophomore’s offensive value. That would facilitate Young, John Collins and Clint Capela targeting and exploiting matchups that smell an awful lot like barbeque chicken from American Deli. Hawk players have long been gracious and gentlemanly in their obligatory pregame pleasantries. Beginning this season, from teams like the Cavs that were just getting used to Atlanta as their playoff-starved peers, individual Hawks are going to hear an awful lot of, “Thanks! I’m just trying to get on your level!” Go Bravos! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “WHO WANTS TO SEXTON?” Michael Carter-Williams had arrived. 22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals, to help his lottery team defeat the juggernaut defending NBA champs in his professional debut. The sky was the limit. Brandon Jennings made his grand entrance. 55 points on national TV, while a fellow rookie named Stephen Curry watched from the bench. A star was born. Jamaal Tinsley’s big moment was here. A triple double, featuring 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 23 assists, as a rookie, in a win against MJ’s Wizards. Pass the torch! The ceiling is the roof! What if you hopped into the Hot Tub Time Machine, and shared with these happy hipster hoopers that this was pretty much as good as their careers were going to get? “147–135 in double OT. Against a title contender. Against three Hall of Famers. In a game we knew they were up for. W.” Just a few weeks ago, Collin Sexton scribed in the Players’ Tribune, “I put myself on the map.” The freshly fortified Brooklyn Nets showed up to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena expecting a grand entrance. But it was Sexton who showed up Kevin Durant, James Harden, and former Cavaliers legend Kyrie Irving in double overtime, showing the Nets the door with a thrilling career-best 42-point bonanza and a 147-135 victory. “I love how people went into that game talking about them other dudes……. and came out of it talking about the Cavs,” the former Pebblebrook High star admitted in his ink-spilling essay. “I love that we’re catching these so-called experts by surprise.” “I love the idea of teams marking us down as a W on their calendar, based on who they thought we were last season… then catching an L they didn’t see coming.” Matter of fact, there are a few Atlanta Hawks hiding their Sharpies, too, particularly once these 2020 lottery teams left a January 2nd game with equal records at State Farm Arena, a 96-91 grindfest where Sexton’s 27 points led the way to victory. “We’re back on the map,” Young Bull decreed as his Cavs returned to .500 ball with a 7-7 record. “Let’s stay awhile.” I hate to be Rand McNally here, but as the Hawks visit Cleveland tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio) on the front end of back-to-back games for each team, it feels like Sexton and the Cavs have already charted well off course. The Cavs pulled off the home sweep of the Nets two nights after Sexton’s signature performance on January 20, but have since dropped 14 of their past 16 to vie with their division-rival Pistons for the rights to the Eastern Conference cellar. After falling at home to Denver and OKC in this four-game homestand, by double digits for the 11th time in this stretch, Cleveland (10-21) hopes to avert their 11th consecutive loss this season tonight at the hands of the Hawks, who just beat the Nuggets in Atlanta on Sunday. It’s not Collin’s fault, at all, that GM Koby Altman still has Process-style designs for this club. Cleveland won those Nets games with Larry Nance and Andre Drummond holding the fort upfront. Nance would break a finger and will continue to sit out the next 2-4 weeks. The team also decided on Blakegriffining Drummond, lest he suffer a hangnail while delivering his customary double-doubles. Kevin Love remains mothballed, too. Taurean Prince, the former Hawk and Net thrown in with Jarrett Allen in the deal that made the Harden deal work for Brooklyn, has been sidelined with a sore ankle, doubtful to play today. The problematic Kevin Porter was shipped to Houston. Thon Maker hit the waiver wire. This leaves JB Bickerstaff to stir, as his frontcourt options, Allen and JaVale McGee, with a dash of Dean Wade and two-way player Lamar Stevens, to taste. The paper-thin rotation is also giving Sexton’s fellow Cobb Countian and lottery prize Isaac Okoro way more minutes than he can handle, sharing time chasing power forward with the decidedly Bazemorian Cedi Osman. But for the selection of Okoro with the 5th pick in 2020’s Draft, Onyeka Okongwu would be a very busy man right now. Sexton and Garland almost have to have signature nights just to keep Cleveland in the running. Frankly, Sexton’s map-making game almost didn’t come to pass. The Cavs blew a 13-point lead in the final quarter of regulation against Brooklyn, a lead built not so much with the aid of Sexton but with timely putbacks by Allen and shots by Prince, the vengeful former Nets. With the game on the line, tied with just seconds remaining, Harden stole the ball from Sexton but couldn’t convert after a Sexton non-shooting foul and a jump ball. Up to that point, Collin had a modest 20 points, 0-for-4 on threes, and just two assists. The layup and three-pointer in the final ten seconds which saved the game in the first OT period presaged the SportsCenter highlight reel that came in the second overtime. Four made threes, including some daring makes over the outstretched arms of Brooklyn’s stars, and 15 points in just five minutes. Since that career-defining scoring spree that almost didn’t happen, Sexton has sunk 18 threes in his past 17 games (31.6 3FG%), including a 1-for-6 outing against the Thunder on Sunday. He’s scoring on drives, getting to the line, and dishing the pill just fine since the swoon began (20.5 PPG, 45.6 FG%, 80.2 FT%, 4.2 APG in last 16 games). But with Garland (5.4 APG, 39.8 3FG%) serving as the point guard by default, the 6-foot-1 Sexton really needs that outside jumpshot to fall, and it simply isn’t happening, not like it was at the outset of the season (50.0 3FG% in his first 9 games, incl. the big win over Brooklyn). Even as Cleveland fades into tank-dom, Sexton still lives off a double-OT moment of majesty that, for Atlanta’s Trae Young, checks out as another day in the office. It’s not simply Atlanta sports fans, but the larger NBA media, that fail to note that while Trae lacks a winning pedigree thus far, he has hung buckets, and Ls, on superstars and media darlings alike. Before last season’s Bubble burst for Atlanta, Trae’s career-best of 50 came, in regulation, at the expense of a team few people suspected would be the Eastern Conference champions, outscoring beloved All-Stars Bam Outtadabayou and Jimmy Butler by his lonesome. In 2019-20 alone, he scored 42 or more points on ten occasions, upstaging Bradley Beal and, also not for the first time, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Including Sunday’s headache-relieving win over road-weary Denver, Young has scored 35 or more in eight games this season, the entire octet resulting in wins for Atlanta (13-17). In the final game a voting subset of coaches might notice, he also took time out of his day to dish out a season-best 15 assists on Sunday, his 14th double-double in 28 starts (28 double-doubs in 60 games last year). Entering today, Young has his three-year career-bests with 43.9 FG%, 37.9 3FG%, and 88.5 FT%. His per-game turnovers, while high, is down from last year while chugging along with a career-best 9.5 APG, a proportion of which should be much higher among Hawks exec Travis Schlenk’s offseason additions. Alas, we like to gloss over the crossover. Using Rock & Roll Hall of Fame comparisons, Atlanta’s ace has become Jimi, on the nights the match struggles to light and the guitar doesn’t go up in flames. Young’s occasional struggles become worthy of critique, while his proliferative performances have become de rigueur. Trae got the Slovenian Bounce in 2020’s All-Star balloting, Euro-fans who liked Luka’s draft-buddy denying grumps and media blisters the opportunity to publicly stiff-arm Young when it came time for NBA coaches to pick the reserves. That chance arrives today, and just as you can guarantee there’s a poorly researched narrative regarding why Young has had his turn already, perhaps too soon, at the All-Star trough, you can also be certain there will be “Big Ups!” for the emerging Cavalier star who’s all of 157 days and three draft picks Trae’s junior. From the tele-pundits, Sexton gets the glitz, and Young gets the glum. Because Cleveland, for all its struggles, has been missing key pieces, you see. And, gee, did you not see what Sexton did to Brooklyn? No one will mention how Trae and the Hawks dusted Kyrie and KD by 18, in Brooklyn, already this season. Oh, and his team didn’t need Taurean and Jarrett’s help (then still Nets) to get it done, in regulation. But for the Nets stars’ heroics to help edge Trae (30-and-11) and the Hawks by four points two nights before, that would have been a two-game sweep, too. NBA coaches are a brighter breed than the TNT studio commentators. Hopefully, good judgement will prevail and Young will be among the East reserves, making Sir Charles’ gut growl audibly this evening. But if not, and Trae has to wait to become a very likely “injury” replacement, then the week his chances went awry began last month with the Hawks’ loss to Cleveland. (I shall spare everyone my annual gripe that there should be 8 All-Star reserves, not 7, just as there have been 13 required active players for NBA games even before David Stern was commissioner. You are welcome.) No team currently above Atlanta in the NBA East standings has played more games versus teams currently at or above .500. The Hawks, with the win over Denver, sit at 6-10 in those 16 contests. By comparison? Domantas Sabonis’ Pacers have only played 12 such games, and they’re 4-8. Khris Middleton’s Bucks are 5-8. Zach LaVine’s Bulls are 2-10. LaMelo and the do-gooder Hornets (darn it, Draymond!) are 4-9, Butler and Adebayo’s heat are 3-12. Just a half-game below Atlanta, Nik Vucevic’s Magic are 1-11. Yet it’s the Hawks, Young and questionable rotator Lloyd Pierce, that are perceived as not living up to their Nique-given potential. That’s really because of what’s going on in the other column. Atlanta’s 7-7 versus below .500 teams, and that includes the superfecta of defeats, at the hands of the Cavs, Knicks and Hornets (twice) from January 2-9, that bedevils Trae and the Hawks deep into February. Everyone of Trae’s critics, conveniently, can just look at Atlanta’s spot in the standings and tsk-tsk. Also 7-7, against teams like the Hawks and the Cavs, are the Cavs. Detroit and Cleveland are the only clubs in the NBA East that have endured tougher strengths of schedules (based on bball-ref’s recipe) than Atlanta. And the Hawks’ schedule won’t ease up much, not with Boston tomorrow as a home finale and a road swing through OKC, Miami and Orlando to conclude the half-season. (We are still about to get hit with a Bubble, aren’t we? Any good reason we don’t have a second-half schedule with 16 days remaining?) Hopefully the schedule gods will be kinder, soon. But to ever get above .500 this season, Atlanta has to consistently beat the teams below that mark, particularly those, like Cleveland, that seemed designed and resigned to that fate. In honor of Charlie Harper, the Cavs have settled into a two-and-a-half-man halfcourt offense (NBA-worst 104.0 O-Rating, 2nd-worst 15.6 TO%), with Garland bringing up the ball, Sexton creating off drives, and Allen or McGee cleaning up the many, many misses (29.3 team O-Reb%, 4th in NBA; 30.1% this month) for second-chance opportunities. This is far from the offense and contributors that Bickerstaff envisioned, but with Okoro, Osman, Prince, Damyean Dotson, So-Not-D-Wade and rookie Dylan Windler all shooting between 35 and 42 percent from the field (all below 33.3 3FG%), ya dance with what brung ya. Cleveland’s best chance at producing successful offense is from pressing and scoring inside in transition (53.7 paint points per-48, 2nd in NBA; 15.7 opponent TO%, 3rd in NBA). Young, Skylar Mays and the Hawks ballhandlers must be judicious with their handles under pressure from Okoro (1.2 SPG, highest among active Cavs with Nance and Drummond out), Garland and the like. With Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter leading the way, the Hawks getting back on defense, after scores and live-ball turnovers, and packing the paint will be essential for keeping Cleveland on ice. Clint Capela (who deserves at least some mention during All-Star Reveal Night, NBA-high 13.9 RPG) was masterful versus Jokic on Sunday, and he will have his hands full once again keeping Cleveland’s few bigs off the offensive boards. The Cavs in their current configuration have no answer for John Collins (30.8 FG%, 0-for-8 on threes, 20 combined points in last 2 games), who should find himself feasting if he collects and keeps the ball off the ground. Same for Danilo “Salsa Piccante” Gallinari, who is capable of pairing with Tony Snell and helping Atlanta dominate the bench scoring if he’s not over-dribbling. It’s almost time for the All-Star Reveals! Whether Trae or Clint gets a nod or not tonight, hopefully they and the Hawks enjoy a quality, victorious game that doesn’t have the Atlanta-based TV hosts speaking disparagingly about Atlanta, while praising Sexton for whatever he’s doing on Cleveland’s behalf. Either way, I already have my volume set to zero for the grand occasion. Get well soon, Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. Full Contact Tag Team Twister gets ROUGH! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The Cleveland Cavaliers, already in town and watching Atlanta cut down the Nets in Brooklyn last night, have a nice, wet blanket they’d like to remove from their shoulders and drape around the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio). Hear second-year Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff tell it: “Things are easy when things are good.” Cleveland was rockin’ and rollin’ after surprising everyone, including themselves, with a 3-0 start to the season. The winning streak culminated with a 118-94 win over the Embiid-less 76ers, coming home one night after blowing out their division rivals in Detroit. Andre Drummond’s was impactful on defense, and the dual dynamo of 6-foot-1 guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, seemed to be working great as an offensive tandem. Things were easy. A home loss two nights later, where the Knicks held Cleveland to 86 points, brought the Cavs back down to Earth. On New Year’s Eve, a 119-99 loss at Indiana rooted them in the Earth a little bit, too. “Things become a little more different when things are hard,” Coach J.B. told the Plain Dealer. “And our response to that is important… the grit we need to play with all the time… the confidence we need to play with all the time, believing in what we’re doing, and believing in ourselves through the good times and the bad times.” How the Cavaliers (3-2) come out tonight with a rest advantage on the host Hawks will help determine whether the good times for them are not quite over. Forward Kevin Love is already sidelined with a calf strain. Three of the Cavs’ developmental players – McEachern High’s Isaac Okoro (foot sprain + Health ‘n Safety), Dylan Windler (fractured hand), and Kevin Porter, Jr. (personal reasons) – haven’t made the trip. With professional crash dummy Matthew Dellavedova on the shelf, too, Cleveland is left to compete with a thin second-string and a pair of two-way rookies. The 6-foot-5 Dante Exum has shifted to small forward, effectively producing a three-guard starting lineup alongside Larry Nance, Jr. and Drummond. The Cavs have been at their best forcing live-ball turnovers and scoring in transition (NBA-high 11.2 team SPG, 24.4 PPG off TOs), sparked by Nance (2.6 SPG) and Drummond (2.4 SPG to go with 18.0 PPG and 14.8 RPG). But at Indiana, their struggles in stripping the Pacers and making free throws worked to their demise. Atlanta (4-1) won’t have to be at their letter-best in their first back-to-back of the season. But if they can be as crafty with the ball as they were last night (nine team TOs, 24 assists vs. BRK) in the 114-96 victory, and keep defensive hands in front of Garland (51.7 3FG%), Cedi Osman (37.0 3FG%) and Sexton (60.0 3FG%) at the three-point line, the chances of a letdown will be low. Brandon Goodwin (impinged ankle) is available to backup Trae Young once again, but Lloyd Pierce can also turn to a rested Rajon Rondo to help disrupt and offset Cleveland’s backcourt production. The Hawks are up to 2-0 in matchups with fellow Bubble Snub teams, and this week’s home slate with Cleveland, New York and Charlotte, followed by a visit to the Hornets’ nest next Saturday, offers a great opportunity to build momentum. But like the Cavs with Philly, all those teams already have their signature wins, too. The Knicks beat Milwaukee by 20, while the Hornets edged the Nets then followed up with a blowout of the Lumpy Lukas in Dallas. A reasonably clean sweep of these clubs will assure Hawks fans that last night’s promising win was, as John Collins insists, “not a joke”. Which team gets the next laugh tonight? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “Workin’ on a Cleveland weekend vacation guide. You mind helpin’ me out?” Our Atlanta Hawks helped the Orlando Magic slow their descent, if only for a moment, before the All-Star Break. Tonight’s host, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio), hope the Hawks will do them a similar favor. Sorry, Cavs. But my Hawks are on a very important, single-minded mission this evening. It’s time to firm up those sipping words! “Trae Young is here in Chicago this weekend, despite the Hawks having ONE OF the worst records in the Eastern Conference.” Sip, everybody, sip! “Ernie, ah’m tellin ya, there shouldn’t be anybody here on All-Star Weekend representin their conference when their team has the worst record!” “Chuck, the Hawks (15-40) only have ONE OF the worst records. The Cavs (13-40) are worst.” Sip! “All ah’m sayin, is we can’t have players on bad teams getting into All-Star Weekend.” “Chuck, your Sixers were next-to-last in the Atlantic Division with a losing record when you went to the ’88 All-Stars.” “Shaddup, Kenny. That’s ONE OF the worst ties you’ve got on that ah’ve ever seen.” Sip! “Weren’t y’all near last place before 1992’s All-Stars, when you were barking your way out of Philly, too?” “Aren’t you in need of a pedicure, Shaq? Listen, lemme say this. We were ONE OF the worst teams,” Sip!, “but ah had to put up with Kenny Payne and Charles Shackleford. And, one other thing… Collin Sexton is a Rising Star in this league, he’s a great rookie.” “He’s… he’s not a…” “ONE OF the best rookies in his class.” Sip! “Oh, Andre Drummond is ONE OF the best big men in basketball,” Sip!, “and he deserves to be here.” “We’re going to go to a commercial break before Chuck starts advocating for Kevin Love, too.” “That’s ONE OF the best ideas I’ve heard in this segment, Ernie.” Sip! Forgive Chuckles and the stream of unconsciousness we and his TV partners must endure this weekend. Yes, the Cavs would remain percentage points behind Atlanta with the first win at Quicken Loans Arena in their last 13 tries. But we know Auburn Mathematics in the 80’s didn’t get much beyond the first decimal. Seeing both clubs tied in the “games behind” column of the standings would only further embolden Charles’ point, which is technically a line but for 80’s-era Auburn Geometry. All-Star Break ’88 spelled doom for Barkley’s coach, Matty Guokas, and this season’s intermission could similarly be the end of the ‘lein. Cavaliers first-year coach John Beilein signed a five-year deal back in May of 2019. But we know by now that owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t mind paying coaches to get lost. Beilein’s departure would make the next clipboard clutcher the seventh in Cleveland’s last seven-and-a-half seasons. Coming off the worst home loss in 50 years of franchise history (which IS saying something for those of us who recall the Richfield years), a 133-92 thumping at the hands of a Clippers team on a SEGABABA that sat Kawhi Leonard and Pat Beverley, the Cavs and Beilein need a momentum-shifting victory tonight in the worst way. Andre Drummond (19 points, 2-fo-3 3FGs, 14 rebounds incl. 7 O-Rebs vs. LAC in his Cavs debut) won’t address the Cavs’ interior defensive woes the way Clint Capela is expected to eventually do for Atlanta. But the man can rebound, and as Kevin Love (questionable, sore Achilles) and Tristan Thompson zone out for the remainder of the season, Cleveland hopes Drummond (NBA-high 15.8 RPG, only player besides Love to lead league with 15+ RPG since 2003) should be able to hone in on his strongest attribute. Cavalier opponents have had little trouble getting desirable shots up (NBA-worst 49.3 opponent FG%, incl. 56.2 opponent 2FG%; NBA-low 3.2 team BPG). But on the occasions where foes have lousy shooting nights, Drummond (1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, as per bball-ref) can help clean up the glass for Cleveland and give his team a puncher’s chance. The early returns on the backcourt pairing of Sexton with Darius Garland (minus-12.0 points per 100 possessions, per bball-ref) continue to show little promise. Garland leads all rooks with 32 games hitting at least two threes, but he has been driving the struggle bus lately (31.3 3FG% in past 15 games). His lack of defensive production and inability to draw trips to the free throw line has him hitting the rookie wall like the Kool-Aid Man. The Young Bull from Cobb County, Sexton has been carrying the Cavs on his back (22.8 PPG, 47.9 3FG%, 94.0 FT% in last 15 games), exemplified back on December 23 when his team-high 25 points (12-for-19 2FGs) helped the Cavs eclipse the Hawks in John Collins’ return to NBA action. The rookie that has best supported Sexton of late has been not lottery-pick Garland, but the final pick of 2019’s first round. Kevin Porter nearly outscored Atlanta’s bench with 17 points (to the Hawks’ 15; incl. 9 in the final frame on Dec. 23), adding on 9 rebounds and teaming up with Love and Garland for a furious fourth-quarter opening rally to fend off the Hawks early. Porter was also one of the few bright spots against the Clippers (17 points in 27 bench minutes) and may be angling for Garland’s starting gig after the Break. The lack of any significant defensive presence on the floor has harmed Cleveland’s chances of staying competitive (NBA-worst minus-9.4 Net Rating), perpetually at the mercy of opponents that aren’t having poor shooting nights, finish close and/or open shots, and hustle back defensively in transition. Atlanta hasn’t often been that kind of team, especially late (42-30 4th-quarter deficit in the 135-126 loss to the Magic, whose 4th-quarter offense was their season-best). But recent losses in Boston and Orlando suggest they’re beginning to sort things out. Despite the struggles to thwart the East’s worst field-goal shooters as Monday’s outcome hung in the balance, a healthier set of Atlanta swingmen inclusive of Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter (available, played in ORL despite an ankle sprain) and DeAndre’ Bembry (probable, neuritis) ought to make it tougher to have Cedi Osman (38.9 3FG%) and, if he plays, Love, bailing Sexton and Garland out of tough spots. Wing players not patrolling the perimeter must be in position to disrupt passes in the paint and recover tip-outs and rebounds off wild shots that Thompson, Love and/or Drummond will be hunting for. It’s fairly safe for bettors to take the Over no matter the line, as Young’s Hawks and Sexton’s Cavs (125+ regulation points at home vs. GSW, NYK, and LAC this month) give up buckets quite easily. But if the Hawks push the tempo and limit their own turnovers on offense, they should find themselves spending much of the evening playing with the higher of the two scores. Cleveland’s coach may need Love to help Drummond play keep-away against Atlanta’s frontline of Collins (one of five players now averaging 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG; 56.7 FG% highest among the quintet) and Dewayne Dedmon. After all, Beilein doesn’t want news of his ouster to become a byline anytime soon. Speaking of Love, I don’t even need three special words to make my weekend ONE OF the best ever. Two will do just fine. Sip! Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy the All-Star Break. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “Say, JC, I’m stuck around here trying to stop kids like Ja Morant at the rim. You got any more of that stuff?” ((checking this baby in early since I hit the road in the morning. Safe travels, everybody! ~lw3)) “Welcome Back” my foot! I hope you enjoyed your little extended training camp, John Martin Collins the Third. I sure hope you had yourself a ball! I am certain that Atlanta Hawks players and staff, to a woman and to a man, have been nothing if not fully embracing and encouraging of John The Pharmacist, as all await his re-activation following the NBA’s mandated 25-game suspension. It doesn’t mean that I, Joe Sixpack of White Claw, nor any Hawks fan should feel obligated to do the same. Not yet. My arms are still folded tight. Which is good, because in that position, my armpit-clenched hands cannot wring any fool’s neck. In my book, this man granted himself 53 extra days of closely monitored conditioning and workouts, to do for his body what he thought some “contaminated” over-somebody’s-counter dietary supplement would do for him. Fifty-three extra days of game tape to understand what he needs to do, and especially the stuff he’s not supposed to do, once he gets back onto an official NBA floor. The “Before HGH” JC was already doing fine. More than fine, honestly, the Rising Star having added some nice jumpshot mechanics, and more recently a dash of rim protection, to his efficient borderline 20-and-10 game. From the jump of today’s matchup in Cleveland against the Cavaliers (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio), going forward through at least the season finale between these two teams, we’d better witness one heck of an “After”. Trae Young is the 5-pound bag of sugar that sweetens the Torch Red Kool-Aid. But John Collins is the straw that stirs Atlanta’s whole drink. Without him, Hawks fans have been left to ingest a lot of sour-tasting play. And, at the end of gamedays, there’s a lingering toothache. All-Star balloting commences in a couple days, and you can be sure the de-Trae-ctors are already out here digging at the Hawks’ bottom-dwelling record (6-some multiple of 6) to justify his snub. Also… what’s this? In the year 2020, Anno Dominique, you suddenly must show some defensive wherewithal in order to play in… an NBA All-Star Game? Cool story, critics. Tell me more! Entering the season, I suspected that standing out among Kyrie/Kemba/Ben/Lowry/whoever’s feeding Giannis to become a starter at guard, or even a reserve, was going to take quite a bit of legwork. But accomplishing such a feat would require some wins in the lead-up to the final voter tallies. Also, along the way, a metric ton of lobs and paint-point passes headed in the surefire direction of somebody more capable than Alex Len and Damian Jones. In the Eastern Conference, the way for a Hawk to get into 2020’s midseason classic would be as an emerging frontcourt star. LeBron’s gone, Kawhi’s gone, KD’s not back until next year, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are becoming faded memories. Collins needed only to join a crowded pool of neophytes, like Pascal Siakam, Domantas Sabonis and 2017 draft-mates Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo, swimming upstream. Yet John not only GHRP-derp’d away any chance of that happening, his absence submarined any chance for supporters of Young (#2, behind Giannis, among active East players for PPG; #1 for APG) to point to a halfway decent record in the NBA East, with Trae lugging an assortment of fellow age-20-ish kids and washed vets, as rationale for his worthy All-Star selection. This holiday season, here’s what I want to see under the figurative tree. John Collins, the All-NBA Third Team performer who understandably settles for Honorable Mention votes in 2020 because he got himself suspended. John Collins, the career 1.6 APG man that starts applying his high-post and top-of-key positioning to devastating effect as a spark for Atlanta’s starving, static offense. John Collins, the player who draws double-teams in the paint, whose gravity finally allows dullshooter Kevin Huerter time to work through his injuries-aided sophomore slump. John Collins, the player whose .162 Defensive Win Share (would-be Top-10 in NBA, if we also include the recently returning DeAndre Ayton, too) and 34.5 defended-opponent FG% through the season’s first five games were no mere mirage. John Collins, the player who allows Jabari Parker to revert to a sturdy sixth-man role while excelling at Jabari Parker things. John Collins, the player who dominates his position so thoroughly that Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Hunter at the 4-spot are exhibits one is as likely to find at the Fernbank Museum. Is that too much to ask? I don’t know, maybe. Also, ask me if I care. John Collins, the frontcourt star whose singular re-introduction transforms the Hawks from languishing leaguewide laughingstock into potent playoff pushers, compelling PBO/GM Travis Schlenk to seek out worthy talents that can hold down the center spot for a postseason series, or two. People like… sorry, Mr. Love (36.7 D-Reb%, 2nd in NBA), your multi-year contract ($91.5 mil thru next 3 seasons) is a tad too rich for my blood. But hey there, Tristan Thompson, what you doing? If I’m a GM working out of the Buckeye State, and I’m ordered to offer an open NBA head coaching spot to a Big Ten coach from That State Up North, Jim Beilein would not have been my first choice. Yet thanks to the committed efforts of the no-longer-Karkrashian-Kursed Thompson (team-high 31.2 minutes/game, 15 double-doubles in 28 games) and Love, in helping their first-year pro coach nurture a cast of inexperienced teammates, Cavs fans are no longer making an early bee line toward the Quicken Loans Arena exits. Cleveland (8-21) has enjoyed two days off after outlasting Charlotte and Memphis at home, kicking back to watch Atlanta brick away the game against Brooklyn on Saturday night. Hey, NBA schedule makers, can our poor Hawks get a rest advantage against somebody, soon? Holdovers from “Remember that time LeBron came home and we did something nice?”, Thompson, Cedi Osman and Love are sopping up lots of productive floor time so prospects Kevin Porter and Ante Zizic won’t get overwhelmed. But they will soon tire of being pylon practice as guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland (-12.8 per 100 possessions as a two-man tandem) send opposing drivers soaring down the runway. And that’s when the time comes for Koby Altman to roll up his GM sleeves. Altman remains wedded to the gamble of pairing the sophomore Sexton with the rookie Garland (team-high 3.1 APG), in hopes of a Lillard-McCollum-style payoff, as he is with the seasoned new coach. So, something else must be shaken up within Dan Gilbert’s franchise, with an eye toward its near-term future. If Larry Nance, Jr. was a surefire cog, he’d probably be a regular starter by now. But with his annual salary dropping faster than his ceiling, he ought to be a keeper. Matthew Dellavedova (28.6 FG%) is always likely to sweep people off their feet, but his contract ($9.6 million expiring) probably won’t. John Henson? Hard pass. Brandon Knight? Harder pass. Jordan Clarkson? May never pass. That leaves Tristan as a most likely pre-Deadline candidate, and Altman may be looking for 2020 Draft help in return. Why? Remember that Cavspick we held for a while in exchange for the Kyle Korver rental? It’s no longer in our control, thanks to our 2019 Draft pick swap for De’Andre Hunter. But the pick is Top-10 protected for Cleveland (just 3.0 games behind Lottery spot #11), becoming latter-year second-rounders for the Pelicans if it fails to convey in 2020. Now, I’m not suggesting the Hawks ought to Competitank this particular game away. But there are three future meetings between the Hawks and Cavs. Let’s suppose, Collins proves not to be our power forward panacea by the time they see each other again, right before the All-Star Break. Wouldn’t it be a pity if, say, Cleveland wound up at #11 by season’s end, their Lottery pick likely diverting to New Orleans, a Western Conference team? A crying shame, it would be. You’d hate to see it. Atlanta’s minus-7.0 Net Rating, this month, should not a 2-8 record make. This month’s worst team efficiency-wise, the Cavs check in at minus-12.8. But for December so far, they’ve gone 3-7, and as a club they’re pragmatic and upbeat. That’s because their best ability has been availability. For Beilein, having the Top 9 players in his rotation individually available, including Love, for all but 4 of 29 games can go a long way. Must be nice. Collins returns in time to help a Hawks team with the worst defensive rebounding percentage in the league face the team with the December’s highest offensive rebounding percentage (32.7 O-Reb%, just ahead of the Hawks’ last opponent, Brooklyn’s 31.7%). As far as I’m concerned, you spring the leak, you plug the dam. We’re at the point where, no matter where the Hawks finish this season in the win-loss column, Collins will absorb the blame for the right-side figure being upwards of ten more (16 ATL losses by margins 15 points or fewer, 13 since he last played on Halloween) than it should’ve been. Break even to finish with 32 wins? Imagine where Atlanta would be in the East with 42 wins instead. Maybe Atlanta was destined to be an awful team this year after all, what with all the defensive and strategic coaching and ballhandling and wayward shooting and depth flaws that have been laid bare. But John should at least have been right there in the mix, on the floor, shouldering the load, shouldering some blame, over the past two months as all of this has unfolded. With 52 games left to go, ten’s the minimum number of game-winning plays I’ll need from John to impress upon me that he cares, that he understands the gravity of his misdeed weighing Trae and their team’s spirits down. That’s enough Airing of Grievances for now. Tonight, we ought to see the second-best JC worthy of celebration this week. No, he’s nobody’s savior. Collins ain’t fixing this. But he darn well better be out here looking, leading, competing and producing like a man who’s desperate to try fixing this. Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Funny Festivus to you and yours! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. It’s only crazy until you Do It. As far as I can tell, Rudy Wanderone never even spent a minute in the Gopher State. He was an immigrant New Yorker. During the Great Depression, Rudy did what many a young Manhattanite aspired to do during the Roaring Twenties. He became a pool shark. And a darned good one, too. Taking his trick-shot skills on the road, Rudy got well into his adulthood, relocating to D.C. and later Illinois and Virginia, craftily separating marks from their money at the billiards tables. Gaining a low-key notoriety among those in the know, the burly Wanderone was just fine adopting the sobriquets he was given along the way: “New York Fats,” “Broadway Fats,” “Chicago Fats”. Then came The Hustler. The 1961 adapted film starred Paul Newman opposite the stocky Jackie Gleason, in a pool-styled predecessor to the Rocky-Apollo Creed skit. The antagonist that Gleason played from both the book and the flick, depicted as the hands-down best pool player in America, went by the name “Minnesota Fats.” Believing with all his heart, that the character was based on him, Rudy Wanderone didn’t ask for permission. He adopted that fictional moniker for himself, just in time for book deals and a viewership eager to be entertained as the Golden Age of Television reached its sunset. Turns out, that was a wise, profitable move. Over a half-century later, ask around about the greatest men’s billiards player of all time, and you’d find most folks would be pressed to recall the exceptional, but dry, Willie Mosconi. If you needed to win on “Super Password” with the secret word, “Fats”, start with “Minnesota…” and your gameshow partner isn’t likely to guess “Timberwolves?” Minnesota Fats became America’s Pool Player, even though he never actually won a formal billiards championship. He remains known as such decades after his passing; many people thought that was his birth name. Using his wit and guile to belie a boastful, competitive spirit, he successfully promoted not only his own persona but the game he loved, lifting it out of smoky gambling halls and into the living rooms of the mainstream. It’s time for somebody else to be globally renowned by the first-name Minnesota. Kevin Love was well on his way to becoming the second-greatest Timberwolf named Kevin of all time. That was, until Akron native LeBron James got homesick, looked around Cleveland, and suspected a future that included Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett was likely to be a murky one... after all, I mean, what does everyone think LeBron is, a babysitter? James donned his Super Secret GM hat for his second go-round with the Cavs, and he grabbed a three-time All-Star from the T’wolves via trade, to help Tristan Thompson chase his and Kyrie Irving’s misses. By that time, Love was the preeminent rebounding forward in the game, at the ripe age of 25. He was also just beginning to display a pleasant perimeter stroke and a smooth passing touch he spent many years honing. In his final season with the Wolves, Love earned All-NBA Second Team, averaging well over 25 PPG, over 12 RPG, and a career-best 4.4 APG. The rub was just that his Minnesota team, much like the one that surrounded Kyrie, was wretched, his Wolves topping out at 40-42 and nine games out of the playoffs in the West. Joining LeBron in Ohio was supposed to fix all ills. It certainly did fix the “not making playoffs” issue. But it created new ones for Love. Kevin got his ring in 2016. But shortly after arriving in Cleveland, it did seem like “Kevin” had become his middle name – and “Blame” his first. Clevelanders tentative to heap criticism on The King, who was kind enough to bestow his presence upon a perpetual lottery team after winning titles in Miami, or face-of-the-future Irving, found convenience in turning a lot of their scorn onto Love, who was decidedly (perhaps, too comfortably) the third banana. Some teammates weren’t all that far behind the fans. Moments which directed a high degree of the unforgiving spotlight towards him, like the Kyrie-free contest against Luke Babbitt and the lowly Atlanta Hawks in November of last year, brought about panic attacks for Love at the worst possible times. Dealing with them, undiagnosed and untreated, brought forth internal team dissension that was no longer possible to obscure. A disappointing loss? Blame Kevin Love. “When,” fans would ask each other, loudly enough for him to hear, “are we finally going to see Minnesota Kevin?” Congrats, Cavs Nation, you are getting your chance. Like another guy once regaled as The King, LeBron Has Left The Building, probably for good this time around. Kyrie read the tea leaves a season early, and skidded across the flat earth all the way to Beantown. That essentially leaves Kevin Love as the face of the Cavaliers for today’s home opener at Quicken Loans Arena. That could be a good thing for the Hawks’ opponent this evening (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), if one chooses to look at it that way. Love returns with greater peace of mind, now getting treatment for his illness, and with a new, four-year, $120 million contract in his pocket. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the Cavs are going to need their 30-year-old star to play like “Minnesota Kevin” if they are going to return to the playoffs. Post moves to attack the rim, boxing out for defensive boards and making Wes Unseld-style outlet passes to ignite breaks, drawing extra defenders and kicking the ball out to open shooters. Most importantly for Minnesota Kevin, not hesitating in deference to superstars who no longer roam The Land. LeBron’s Leftovers on coach Tyronn Lue’s squad would be smart, though, to ignore what any Kartrashian spouse has to say, particularly about their team still being the defending conference champions until further notice. Sears was a prominent department store for quite some time, too. But nobody’s deluded into thinking they’ll be around for much longer. The immediate challenge for Love is that he gets to play in The Land of Fatally Flawed Toys. Fellows like J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, George Hill and local native Larry Nance (questionable, ankle) were never going to be headed to Cleveland without LeBron’s explicit blessings during the annual runs to The Finals. Heck, Thompson would probably have been long gone, too. Now they all remain, defensive deficiencies and all (26th in D-Rating through two games, worse than Atlanta’s 24th), left to the whims of T-Lue and Larry Drew to make work as the reformulated Pips, behind Love’s Gladys. With James gone, and Nance (questionable, sprained ankle) and Dekker (head injury @ MIN) dealing with early injuries, 2015 second-rounder Cedi Osman evolves from a Cool Story Bro to an actual starter on this roster, one which struggled to stop pretty much any Raptor (what a difference a few months make, eh?) during their 116-104 opening loss in Toronto – four team steals, zero blocks. Lottery rookie guard Colin Sexton, plus big men Ante Zizic and Sam Dekker, essentially spackle the final holes among the reserves. In Friday’s consternation-filled home tipoff for the T’Wolves, Love offered fans for both teams a glimpse of the Minnesota Kevin of yore – 25 points, 19 boards (17 defensive), 7 dimes. While he continues to feast from drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe (10-for-10 FTs @ MIN), he suffers in a vein similar to Hawks rookie Trae Young. Opposing defenders don’t respect Love’s floormates, bringing double-teams his way all over the court. That leaves Love a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter (6-for-19 FGs) who needs complete games from Osman (career-high 22 points, 8 assists @ MIN), Thompson (7-for-9 FGs, 4 O-Rebs @ MIN), and others off the bench, for his team to stay in the running most nights. With Love (16 third-quarter points) leading the charge, Cleveland (0-2) dropped 41 points on the Wolves in the third quarter, yet still fell by a 131-123 score. His team-high 21 points two nights before (5-for-18 FGs, 10-for-14 FTs @ TOR), and Osman’s 17 points and 10 rebounds, proved futile against the Raptors. The Cavs (five team steals, three blocks @ MIN) need to manufacture stops, and it’s not likely that they’re missing the defensive inputs of Smith (sore elbow) and Nance any more than Atlanta has tried to impede foes without ankle-hobbled frontcourt starters John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, among others. For all their woes on defense, especially around the perimeter (42.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th-highest in NBA), the Hawks’ offense under new coach Lloyd Pierce is showing signs of life (54.3 eFG%, 10th in NBA). That is, when they’re not committing copious unforced errors (league-low 1.07 assist/TO ratio; 19.6 TO% and 26.0 opponent PPG off TOs, 29th in NBA). Whether the Cavaliers will take an active role in forcing errors out of Atlanta (0-2) remains to be seen. Minnesota Kevin leading the way to victory today, and more often in the months to come, might prove beneficial for both the Cavs and the shorthanded Hawks (2019 top-10-protected pick, from the 2017 Korver trade) in the long run. But if Hill and Sexton fail to get help prying the ball out of Young’s deft hands, will it be the Cavs that find themselves getting… snookered? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. CAPTION: Hawks fan reacts to Dewayne Dedmon news. LeBron James brings his resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers into town to take on your Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), and The King wants answers, y’all. “I need some answers,” James tweeted three days ago. “Feels like my man was a fall guy.” LeBron’s “man” was former Hawks and heat assistant and recently-deposed Memphis head coach David Fizdale. The Grizzlies used an eight-game slide and a rift with the hometown-raised NBA star to give Coach Fiz the heave-ho, just 107 games after prying him from the coastal comforts of South Beach. I can only hope LeBron has insurance coverage for the Irony Hammer that fell upon him. There was once another head coach, some dude named… David… that not only won 143 NBA games, but also notched a pair of NBA Finals wins during his maiden NBA season. All of that, before “David” was handed his walking papers and shipped back overseas, in large part for the unforgivable, abominable crime of getting blown out at home to the reigning NBA champs in January. Whose mans with that, LeBron? You can find the answers you seek in that mirror over there. What’s the commonality? In the NBA, the Goliaths fell the Davids. The Association is not some “prison” a few NFL owners are deluded into thinking they run. It’s as open a society as one will find in professional sports. Yet, it’s also the place where players bickering with staff can abruptly lead to J.B. Bickerstaff. Players run this modern NBA, and star players, the big money-earning, bigger money-making ones, wield unprecedented influence over the rank-and-file, in some cases, all the way along the bench. Play a scenario forward, where the Hawks of Summer 2017 re-sign their aging free agent vets, and elect to simply ride out their long-term plans to refashion Dwight Howard into a team-first player. Go ahead and double their current win total (4-16), but assume a handful of those losses are of the 112-78 variety, like the one recently suffered to the Raptors (just like last season’s 128-84 drubbing). Assume Dwight, Atlanta’s homegrown star, begins moping publicly about playing time, touches (much like last season), and personal development. Here’s the question. Is Mike Budenholzer still here? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality that there’d be a good chance he’s no longer around reflects the NBA climate in the LeBronze Age. One where, if you have not won your franchise Larry O’Brien trophies within your first couple years on the job, even the mildest player-coach dissension can keep your seat Carolina Reaper-hot. Our youthful Hawks are looking for more legitimate answers, now that it appears they’ll probably have to lug through their December schedule without their starting center. The absence of Dewayne Dedmon (tibia stress reaction) for 3-to-6 weeks, plus the continued shelving of Mike Muscala (sprained hoof), will lead to some considerable scrambling along the Atlanta front line. John Collins will get to start at center in place of Dedmon, and as usual, restraining himself from unnecessary whistles will be key to getting a full game out of him. He’ll be paired with Luke Babbitt, who returns after missing several games with a lower back injury. Tyler Cavanaugh is likely get an uptick in play, but might Coach Bud pull out a Plum instead? Miles Plumlee (quad) insists he’s as ready to contribute as ever before, although this might not be the ideal contest for him to make his season debut. The Hawks will get some reprieve as Cleveland is doing without Tristan Thompson, thanks to a calf strain that’s had him sidelined for most of this month. But the Cavs (14-7) are riding a nine-game winning streak (longest since some coach named "David" was there, in 2014-15) and are 10-1 since the Hawks pulled off the November Surprise, a 117-115 nailbiting win at the Q on the 5th of this month. Measurably better all-around play out of Kevin Love (1-for-6 FGs, 4 rebounds in 18 minutes vs. ATL) appears to be a big part of the turnaround. Being Cleveland’s only real starting option at center, Love’s 38-point effort during Tuesday’s home win over Miami reflected an acknowledgement that his team needs “Minnesota Kevin” in the offense, compensating for the departure of Kyrie Irving and the continued unavailability of Isaiah Thomas. Love is shooting career-highs of 52.7 2FG% inside the 3-point arc and 89.3% at the free throw line. During their nine-game win streak, Cleveland is committing fouls more selectively and strategically (opponent 69.6 FT%, to the Cavs’ 80.7 FT%). In the November 5 win the Hawks were granted 34 free throws, a tally surpassed only by Houston (36 FTAs) in the Cavs’ last defeat back on November 9. Dennis Schröder (28 points @ CLE, 8-for-8 FTs), Collins (7 O-Rebs @ CLE, 6-for-8 FTs), and Kent Bazemore (9 rebounds @ CLE, 4-for-8 FTs) will need to continue creating havoc for their opponents, punishing the defensively deficient members of the Cavs’ rotation and drawing contact in the paint. The Hawks should get some more backcourt support as Isaiah Taylor (14 points in bench-high 26 minutes @ CLE) returns to the lineup from an eye injury. As was not the case in last weekend’s blowout loss to the Raps (6-for-27 3FGs), Atlanta shot the ball well (11-for-25 team 3FGs) from the perimeter in their November 5 upset victory over the Cavs, just well enough to make Kyle Korver’s heroics (5-for-11 3FGs) too-little-too-late. Schröder, Babbitt and Taurean Prince combined to hit nine of their 17 attempts, and they could use some more reinforcement off the bench from Marco Belinelli (3rd among NBA never-starters with 12.1 PPG) and Cavanaugh to stay with or ahead of the Cavs for significant stretches. The Cavaliers do have their confidence back, but this recent winning run has been fairly weak in terms of strength-of-schedule, and it won’t take much, like a second loss to the Hawks, to send the Cavs back into what would be, for them, a tailspin. No matter what ups or downs this season brings, the Cavs’ Tyronn Lue knows better than to rub his team’s real PF/PG/HC/GM/PBO the wrong way. Otherwise, he won’t be LeBron’s “man” much longer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Listen, Woody. If you want, I can just take over the clipboard, and you can go out there…” The Tyronn Lue Job Preservation Project continues this afternoon in Cleveland, where his Cavaliers prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio). Yes, this is a downtrodden opponent for the Cavaliers, checking in at 1-8 and counting. And yes, if they survive games this week versus Milwaukee and at Houston, the Cavs (4-5, 2-3 at home) will have a chance to fully right their ship with road games at Dallas and New York. But a question is hovering over T-Lue as his team strives to climb out from a below-.500 record. Can Cleveland consistently beat decent teams without their star player, now in his 15th season, posting statlines of 57-11-7-3-2 in 42 minutes? LeBron James is certainly more than a mere star, and his mastery of the Washington Wizards in a 130-122 road victory last Friday serves as adequate evidence he could be bulldozing fools well into his 50s. While playing and defending upwards of five positions on the floor out of necessity, his blazing 61.0 FG% and 82.6 FT% would blow away his career highs. Further, his 29.1 PPG would be his highest since the fateful 2009-10 season, where he subsequently donned the picnic table cover and declared he would be playing Buddyball down in South Beach. Buddyball is essentially what James does, otherwise his old Miami dance partner Dwayne Wade would be anywhere other than in The Buckeye State right now. James doesn’t suffer alongside the Malcolm Delaneys and Mike Muscalas of the NBA universe, preferring instead to roll with a cavalcade of washed ex-stars and past-their-prime All-Stars (J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Wade, and the minutes-restricted Derrick Rose), heady vets (Jose Calderon, Channing Frye, Jeff Green) and energetic role players (Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert). That chemistry puts a perpetual hit on owner Dan Gilbert’s salary cap situation, but that’s the price one pays for placating a King. Gilbert knows he can seat your fifth-grade homeroom teacher in the general manager’s chair, since everyone knows it is LeBron and his off-court team of whisperers who dictate the product on the floor and the presence along the sideline. No matter what gets said about his teams coasting through regular seasons, a LeBron-headlined team has finished first-or-second in the NBA East in each of the past nine seasons. If the up-and-down struggles continue for the three-time defending LeBronference champs, momentarily 10th in the East, James will zone in not on the papier-mâché GM, or his crumbling cast of co-stars, but on the guy who benefitted the last time he zoned in on a head coach in mid-season. David Griffin fell into a situation where LeBron added himself, and Kevin Love (41.4 FG%), to one previously led by Kyrie Irving. His Cavs went 53-29 in his first season as an NBA head coach, reaching the NBA Finals, and was 30-11 midway through his second season when James decided that wasn’t excellent enough. Following a shocking deposition, it was instead Griffin’s lead assistant, Lue, who has been in the coaches’ throne through the past two NBA Finals. Now, Lue Hefner must soon fix a defense that has been the worst in the league (111.9 D-rating), the Cavalier opponents sinking a league-high 13.7 threes per game at a league-high 42.1 3FG% clip. He’ll have to figure out a scheme with seven players on Cleveland’s roster, including James, past the age of 30, and two others (Love and Rose) not known for their defensive exploits and hitting age 30 next season. Isaiah Thomas would be unlikely to be of much help on that end, even once he returns in January after repairing a tear in his hip. Thomas’ absence leaves Crowder as the sole Cav currently on the floor in the wake of the Irving trade. The player most likely to help raise Cleveland’s opponent turnover rate above 12.0 percent (28th in NBA), Shumpert, has been out for over a week with a sore knee. The player best suited to help James and/or Love secure the defensive boards, Thompson, will be out for several weeks due to a calf strain. Suffice to say, Lue resolving the Cavs’ defensive woes with the current roster components won’t be easy, even against a Hawks squad that is itself shorthanded and struggles to shoot straight (43.1 team FG%, 26th in NBA). Rose (8-for-16 FGs @ WAS on Friday) and Korver (47.7 3FG%) and James filling up buckets is not a problem. The fact that they absolutely must do so on a nightly basis just to keep the Cavs in front is the problem. If the losses and opponent points continue piling up, Lue should not be surprised to find former Hawks coach Larry Drew, who himself understands what a Game of Thrones the pro coaching business is, sliding over into his chair someday soon. Hawks fans who wanted to see how their team might fare competitively without Delaney and/or Muscala on the floor are about to get their chance. Muskie was left behind for the trip to Cleveland to heal a bum ankle. Delaney’s ankle isn’t much better, but while he is with The Basketball Club, his chances of appearing today are unlikely. Moose and/or Malcolm have been part of Atlanta’s eight worst two-man lineups in terms of net points per 100 possessions (min. 80 minutes played), each of those tandems allowing anywhere from 13 to 24 additional points in their opponents’ favor. Their collective absence should amount to a “win” for the Hawks today from an efficiency perspective alone. On the downside, missing Muscala along with Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee will mean Hawks fans will get to endure a lot more of rookie John Collins at the 5-spot, behind Dewayne Dedmon. Or, maybe just a little more of him, if his penchant for hacking-as-defense returns against the bruising James and Love (88.9 FT% so far, also a career-high). Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer played Collins more at power forward during the Hawks’ 119-104 home loss on Friday night to the Rockets, and he posted one of his better all-around games (8 points, 12 boards, two steals, four blocks) in 28 minutes of action off the bench. He and Dedmon will need Luke Babbitt, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince to help keep the Cavs, even without Thompson around, from building up a big rebounding edge. Fellow rookie Tyler Dorsey (2-for-4 3FGs) and Isaiah Taylor (5-for-9 FGs, five assists in 24 minutes) also found time to shine, particularly late in the game during Atlanta’s blowout loss on Friday, so the young guards should be able to see more playing time in the first half of action today. Atlanta can keep themselves competitive in this game if they avoid getting bowled over by LeBron’s myriad highlight plays, and if execute the offense without getting scatterBazed everytime they have to dribble-drive or spot-up from three-point land. A team led by Delaney, Ilyasova, Calderon, Muscala, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Dunleavy strolled into Quicken Loans Arena last April and stopped the Cavs from clinching the top seed in the LeBronference. So anything can happen today, particularly if Dennis Schröder can contribute a better two-way effort against Rose than he provided at home on Friday. No matter the outcome, strong offensive play by the Hawks could have LeBron redirecting his glower from his opponents to his teammates, and his head coach. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “I SAID, THE KING’S IN THE BUILDING... TELL ME, HOW YOU FEELIN’?” Spoiler Days continue! There’s not much more to say ahead of today’s matinee for the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE, NBATV everywhere else). Thanks to back-to-back, but completely different shockers against the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, the Hawks (41-38) are moonwalking into the NBA Playoffs for the tenth-consecutive season, just two seasons fewer than whatever team LeBron James graces with his presence. Victory today at the Highlight Factory would make it two regular-season series wins for Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s teams against James’ Cavaliers in the past three seasons. It would also clinch a winning regular season record for the Basketball Club, for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. More importantly, winning serves as a confidence-building exercise for the Hawks, and their long-bemused fanbase, as they make their final push toward the postseason. The Rules of Engagement are about the same for the Hawks as they were in Friday night’s fantastical upending of The King and his subjects on his merry Cleveland court. Don’t foul; stay adhered to the three-point shooters; don’t fall for the trap of helping and overpursuing inside; catch the opponent napping in transition; keep the unforced errors down; move the ball and keep moving yourselves. Only this time, the actors will be a little different. Less Ryan Kelly and Kris Humphries (the latter probable, despite neck spasms), more Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. It’ll be like the way soap operas do it: “The role of Perimeter Closeout Guy will now be played by Kent Bazemore.” One can only hope that the sharp-shooting exhibited by the Junior Mints, inclusive of Mike Dunleavy (20 bench points, outscoring Kyle Korver, 4-for-5 3FGs) and occasional tour de force Tim Hardaway (9-for-14 FGs, 4-for-9 on threes, 5 assists, no TOs vs. CLE), will take pressure off Dennis Schröder in his return to action. Jose Calderon (7 assists, 2 TOs vs. CLE) laid a sound blueprint for Schröder on how to distribute the rock and keep everyone involved. The Cavs struggled to keep up with so many Hawks cutting to the basket, something Schröder can help exploit this afternoon by looking for Bazemore and the Hawks’ athletic wings. It will be tough for Coach Bud to stuff the rookie genies back in the bottle. DeAndre’ Bembry accentuated the positive with yeoman’s work defending James on the interior. Also off the bench, Malcolm Delaney (8 assists, no turnovers) was sneaky good. Prince will look to bounce back after his mostly-off night (2-for-9 FGs, 4 TOs) was lost amid the madness on Friday. Keeping the youngsters involved in the offense suggests not becoming overreliant on Schröder and the Hawks’ frontcourt stars playing iso-ball. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue remains adamant that everyone aside from Tristan Thompson (thumb sprain) will be available to play, as the top-seed and homecourt advantage for Cleveland (51-28, 0.5 games ahead of Boston) in the Eastern Conference playoffs is still up in the air. That suggests Kyrie Irving is still expected to step up despite persistent problems with his sore, surgically-repaired knee. If Irving can’t go, ballhandling duties will shift toward not only James, but Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert. J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson will be counted on to jack up more shots on Kyrie’s behalf. It’s always fun to play the Spoiler role. How ‘bout we keep this thing going for a few more days, or weeks! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. Hey there, Atlanta, Milwaukee… I hear you guys are having a little trouble making the playoffs? My heart aches for you. Aches, I say! Facing the defending champ Cavaliers in Cleveland, our Atlanta Hawks might be pulling volunteers from the Quicken Loans Arena stands tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE, NBATV elsewhere), to help make up for the many players who won’t be suiting up on the second half of a back-to-back. Usher, can you be True To Atlanta for just one night? The leading scorer and rebounder from last night’s bruising battle with Boston, Paul Millsap? Nope, he’ll rest that swollen knee some more. Kent Bazemore? No way, Mister Calderon, because Baze is healing up from a bruised knee. Thabo Sefolosha? Not a snowball’s chance in Cleveland. He’s just trying not to aggravate his troublesome groin while driving his new Brinks truck around town. The starting backcourt of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr.? Ixnay on the laypay. Both guards are dealing with foot sprains, while THJ also has a bruised knee to boot. Thankfully, No Excuses Week is a thing of the past for the Hawks, because stealing a win tonight will be a tall order with Cleveland’s Big 3 active and likely to play. Beyond the usual suspects, Kyle Korver (NBA-leading 45.2 3FG%, 49.2% with the Cavs) has been recuperating from foot troubles and will grace us with his perimeter presence. Coach Tyronn Lue is aware that homecourt advantage for the Eastern Conference playoffs can be secured with consecutive wins over the Hawks, tonight and on Sunday back in Atlanta. T-Lue and the Cavs’ Big 3 understand that this is no time for the Cavs (51-27) to play down to their competition. Clevelan Rocks! Clevelan Rocks! Even famous native Rew Carey must have been alarmed by the lack of D exhibited by the Cavs recently. The defending champs were a horrific (for them) 7-10 in the month of March, their defensive rating for the month (113.1) better than only the Lakers in the entire league. Because of that, their net rating of -2.9 for March was not all that distinguishable from the Hawks’ -3.0, and we all know how bad Atlanta has been. To keep from going out like a lamb, the Cavs have turned things around to an extent over the past week, best exhibited by their 114-91 curb-stomping of the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday. But they’ve generally been winning games only by piling up ungodly amounts of points. On the season, Cleveland forces very few turnovers (11.5 opponent TO%, 29th in NBA) and seem more focused on getting the ball back to their stars on offense than on keeping opponents’ balls from finding their way into the net (45.7 opponent FG%, a pedestrian 15th in NBA). Despite Kyrie’s 43 and LeBron’s 38, the Cavs had to withstand a 42-point barrage from the Hawks just to prevail by five points in Atlanta back on March 3 (they surely will not miss seeing THJ, or a repeat 36-point performance from him, tonight). That same 135-130 outcome was replicated in a double-OT win over the Pacers last Sunday. All of LeBron’s 16 fourth-quarter points were needed to keep Indiana from stealing a victory after falling behind by 14 in the final quarter of regulation. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s shuffled lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s likely we will see a lot more of Taurean Prince (career-high 20 points, plus 7 rebounds in 41 minutes vs. BOS) and Jose Calderon, plus former Cav Mike Dunleavy, Jr, at the outset. Rookies DeAndre’ Bembry and Malcolm Delaney are in line to get a sudden boost in floortime as well. Kris Humphries will be needed to shore up the frontline behind Howard and Ersan Ilyasova, and perhaps a cameo appearance from 15th Man Ryan Kelly could even be in the offing. This game will remain competitive for Atlanta (40-38) for only so long as as Howard can remain on the floor, without foul trouble, and exploit a Cavaliers team that has struggled to protect the rim, all the more without Tristan Thompson (sprained thumb) around. If Channing Frye struggles to hold down the pivot spot defensively, Lue may have no choice but to turn to a very green Larry Sanders to be a difference-maker tonight. The Hawks on the floor can help their center out not only by avoiding unforced errors, and getting back in transition, but by not straying from their man to help the former 3-time Defensive Player of the Year and 5-time All-Defensive Team member police the paint. That includes Ilyasova, who is normally an opponent-turnover sponge on the inside but will have to get out to defend Love, Frye, and occasionally James, keeping Cleveland’s bigs cool from outside. What about when James and Irving spring free of their man, and come barreling toward the rim in search of some highlight plays? So what? That’s just two points, if we don’t exacerbate the situation with fouls. The key for the Hawks is to avoid being exposed for open catch-and-shoot three-pointers by pretty much any Cavalier. They could even catch Cleveland when they’re at their most smug by getting the ball down the court for quick transition scores. The flashy dunks and dribbles from LeBron and Kyrie Irving are just a mirage for a Cleveland team that ranks second in three-point attempt rate (39.7% of all FGs taken from downtown) and accuracy (38.7 team 3FG%). Their teams’ 8 most-frequent three-point makers hit threes at a minimum 36 percent clip. The Hawks will likely struggle to get a leg up on LeBron and Company through 48 minutes, but that is no reason not to keep a hand up on their Cav-alcade of jumpshooters. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “It’s so nice to get in a few practice swings before each shot now!” After once more prying victory from the jaws of defeat on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks’ six-game homestand continues in what could potentially be a victory C.I.G.A.R. (Champs, Indy, G-State, Atkinson’s crew, Raps); their first toke comes courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; ESPN). There are ample reasons why it behooves Atlanta to begin playing their best stretch of fullcourt, 48-minute hoops this season. It’s official: the Hawks are mathematically eliminated from clinching last place in the East. Putting the next group of conference bottom-dwellers out-of-reach, though, will take considerably more work. But with a decent homestand performance, sewing up a tenth-consecutive playoff spot could go from a duty to a formality very quickly. Lakers, Nyets, Nyets again, Knicks (by 1). That is the full set of road victories by the Toronto Raptors (out of 13 games). The first three wins came with a healthy Kyle Lowry, the All-Star point guard who is out for at least four more weeks with wrist surgery. After amassing a whopping total of three assists in the first three quarters of Wednesday’s home loss to Washington, the Raps embark on a five-game road swing tonight in D.C. Their trek continues next week in ATL. If the Hawks take care of business during this homestand, Watch for Falling Raptors! The division-leading Wizards have won 20 of their last 22 at home, which is great for them, because after this weekend’s games, there are just six Verizon Center contests remaining. 11-15 in away games, Washington must keep their recent winning ways going on the road, including two long West Coast swings. If Atlanta steps up their own play against their daunting March slate of opponents, by the time the two teams meet again in a few weeks, they could be trading places. One of Atlanta’s signature wins this season came way back in November at the Q. Along the way to a 110-106 victory, Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Paul Millsap (74 combined points on 55.6 FG%, 9-for-16 3FGs) virtually matched Cleveland’s Big 3 (76 total points on 42.6 FG%, 3-for-16 FGs) bucket-for-bucket. Long accustomed to having his way with the Hawks, Tristan Thompson (no shots, 2 rebounds in 25 minutes; 3.7 O-Rebs per game, 4th in NBA) was stymied by Dwight Howard (17 rebounds, 3 blocks in 27 minutes) at every turn. At the same time, Thabo Sefolosha, Taurean Prince and Tim Hardaway, Jr. did a sound job of giving J.R. Smith (2-for-13 FGs) mostly heroball looks from the perimeter. Atlanta has done some fine-tuning to their lineup since that game. In anticipation of another championship-quality stretch run, Cleveland is adjusting to a major makeover among its supporting cast. Not making that November trip to Cleveland was Kyle Korver, who remained in the ATL to celebrate the arrival of a third K-baby for the Korver clan. Smith’s thumb surgery in December ushered in what Cavs assistant Larry Drew once frequently described as a “sense of urgency,” hastened further by a 2-6 stretch in January, and Kevin Love’s arthroscopic knee surgery last month. LeBron James banged his shoe on the table demanding more “playmakers”, however ambiguously and ironically, on what was already the NBA’s highest-salaried team. The first “playmaker” to arrive in Believeland was Korver. Kyle was sincerely disenchanted with having to leave the NBA home where his career had late-bloomed, but came to understand how easily he would get open shots as a Cavalier, without having to run half-marathons across the court every night. After just one contribution of 20-or-more points through December (and once, back in November, of the prior season; two since January of the season before that) with the Hawks, the “Kahlvalier” logged four 20-plus-scoring affairs in February, burying 58.9 percent of his threes that month. Ponce de Leon couldn’t possibly find as many Fountains of Youth as the reinvigorated Korver (21-game Threak) has during his noteworthy career. His essential challenge going forward is to simply keep his shooting arm from falling off. Still, more griping from The King begat Miami’s scuttled Derrick Williams (55.8 FG% through 8 games with CLE). Even he wasn’t D-Will enough for LeBron, so the Cavs pulled Dallas’ discarded point guard Deron Williams into the fold, soon to be followed by ex-Maverick teammate Andrew Bogut. The center won’t dress for tonight’s game, though, as he works to pass his physical. Both D-Wills were pressed into duty immediately, including James tossing a potential game-winning three pointer cross-court to Derrick with seconds to spare on Wednesday. Williams’ miss cemented Boston’s 103-99 victory, a Cavs loss made possible by an off-night from Korver (1-for-7 FGs) and most of Cleveland’s supporting cast. When it comes to LeBron’s “playmakers,” the Cavs’ centripetal, and not gravitational, presence has remained Kyrie Irving, whose offensive game has been out… oh, my mistake… “off” of this world lately. “World B. Flat” still struggles on the defensive end, but has cut down on his ballhandling turnovers (career-low 11.0 TO% on the season) while averaging 7.1 APG to accompany his 25.4 PPG (93.3 FT%) in February. Cleveland’s ticket to the 2016 conference finals was punched on this floor last May, thanks in large part to the injured Love and his replacement starter Channing Frye. There is no mystery (to Hawks fans, at least) as to the Cavs’ modus operandi tonight. After coach Tyronn Lue finds some Pepto-Bismol (he missed this morning’s shootaround while a bit under the weather), he will want his team to force the ball inside on drives and post-ups by James (Eastern Conference Player of the Month, for the 34th time in the past 74 possible months; 12.0 RPG and 10.3 APG since the All-Star Break) and Irving, dare Howard into shying away from his man, and test Atlanta’s ability to eschew paint help and keep defenders at home on the Cavs’ willing shooters. Each of Cleveland’s six most-frequent shooters, among the active players alone, shoot at least 37.5 3FG%. Athletic wings staying in front of both Irving and James will be key for Atlanta (103.2 D-Rating; 5th in NBA, 1st in East) in thwarting the stars’ ability to supplement the Cavs offense (110.9 O-Rating; 3rd in NBA, 1st in East) with runout scores in transition. Despite the Hawks victory, Cleveland’s 25 points off 19 Atlanta turnovers remains a season-high for that club, Atlanta being outscored 15-2 on the fastbreak. The Hawks must again learn to live with LeBron’s and Kyrie’s highlight-reel halfcourt forays, and box out to secure rebounds off missed interior shots. The pair was 20-for-40 from the field in Wednesday’s loss to Boston, while their teammates were a collective 17-for-51. Cleveland’s non-Big-3, which included Korver-trade acquisition Mike Dunleavy, Jr. (inactive tonight), went 11-for-38 from the floor and were granted just two free throw attempts by the Hawks in the November game. It’s a big night for fans of the 70s, as the late, great Pete Maravich will have his jersey number ascending to the arena rafters tonight. Twice an All-Star while with the Hawks, the Pistol’s 24.3 PPG over four uber-hyped NBA seasons still ranks second only to Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta-era history, and his 5.6 APG ranks fourth. His trade to New Orleans might have panned out for the Hawks, if only the shaky ownership at the time wasn’t outbid by the ABA for #1 NBA pick David Thompson, and if the latter, like the former, didn’t succumb to the ravages of drug addiction. He’s no Pistol on the court, but Schröder (Hawks franchise-leading 33.9 assist percentage; 26.7 usage%, 3rd in team history) isn’t exactly a Peashooter, either. Dennis could have a banner-worthy Hawk career himself, if he brings the two-way intensity to the table that was evident during Atlanta’s victory over Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics, and in the opening half against reigning Rookie of the Month Yogi Ferrell’s Mavericks. Atlanta’s 56.3 FG% versus Dallas represented a season-best, a value that could have stayed in the 70s, too, but for a sloppy second half by the Hawks. The listlessness that defined the second-half versus Dallas by not only Schröder (five of his seven TOs) but the whole team would do Atlanta no favors against a hungry Cavs squad in front of a primetime Friday Night audience. Millsap has had several half-baked first-halves (30.0 1st half FG% in last six games; 51.5 2nd half FG%) recently. For both he and sixth-man Hardaway (last six games: 34.4 1st half FG%, team-high 8.5 2nd half PPG on 47.5 FG%), coming out of the gate at least lukewarm from the field will draw defensive attention away from their teammates and enhance the Hawks’ offensive floor balance. Tristan Thompson would have to vacate the middle to help Frye and Derrick Williams, while Iman Shumpert would have to stray away from Schröder more often. James’ focus on the Hawks’ big men may especially help Bazemore (25 points, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. CLE on Nov. 8; 40.5 3FG% last 20 games) enjoy another solid outing against the Cavs. Recent acquisition Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 18 points, 6-for-7 FGs, at least four forced DAL TOs on Wednesday) has the potential to provide at least as positive a boost for the Hawks in the postseason as Frye provided for the Cavs in 2016. Hawks fans found themselves shorted on several recent “High Voltage” Fridays (121-85 loss to the Pistons in December, 112-86 loss to the Wizards in January, 108-90 loss to the heat last week). The Hawks must bring the energy from the outset tonight against the class of the LeBronference. Otherwise, fans may clamor to permanently retire the throwback jerseys, right along with Pistol Pete's. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “A Tribe Called Champs!” It was the week of Atlanta’s discontent, May 2nd through 9th of this year. And TV viewers were subjected not only to another tidy four-game sweep of the Hawks at the hands of tonight’s opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio, NBATV, 92.9 FM in ATL), but also the incessant ESPN ads promoting an upcoming “30 for 30” special. “Believeland” was the title, showcasing the Beleaguered Land of sports off the shores of the occasionally flammable Lake Erie in Northeast Ohio. Viewers were subjected to the abject failures and disastrous annual denouements of Cleveland’s pro athletes over the past five decades. The intention was to tug at your heartstrings, to get you to empathize with a town pulling for its lovable loser teams, one of whom might, one day, finally kick Lucy’s football through the uprights. Hawks fans didn’t know for sure at the time, but their team helped usher that day into being, just over a month after their postseason came to a screeching halt. Not only did the Cavaliers goad Golden State into shaking off a hex that harrowed Cleveland since 1964, but their baseball brethren nearly followed suit, coming within one victory of their first World Series title since 1948. A lot has changed in once-sad-sack Cleveland since the last time the Hawks visited The Q. Heck, but for a 2011 draft-day blockbuster trade involving Julio Jones, who knows what the Browns might have accomplished by now? It began against Detroit in the opening round, but it was against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semis that the Cavs finally found, and fully embraced, their true identity under coach Tyronn Lue: a three-point shooting team that feasts off of home-metro favorite LeBron James as the Association’s ultimate decoy. LeBron (7.8 APG vs. ATL in playoffs) drives: kick, swing, swish. James posts up: dish, spot-up, splash. Time out, Hawks! Go to break. “What if I told you…” Well before Kyrie Irving drained a series-clincher in Steph Curry’s deadeye, he was 12-for-18 in the Hawks series from deep. Kevin Love (19-for-40 3FGs), suddenly, seemed relevant. J.R. Smith was doing a full Petey Pablo, taking his shirt off and spinning it ‘round like a helicopter, before nailing 14 of his 28 attempts, many with a desperate Hawk hand perched in his face. The ghosts of Channing Frye (11-for-19 3FGs) and Richard Jefferson (5-for-6 3FGs) were summoned. Even Iman Shumpert (5-for-6 3FGs) got into the act. In the rare event of a Cav miss? No worries, since either one of Love or Tristan Thompson was there to grant their team extra chances to pelt the Hawks from afar. They were largely unimpeded by Al Horford, whose 11.8 D-Reb% for the series sat below that of Kent Bazemore (15.6%) Kyle Korver (11.8%) and even the lightly-used Kirk Hinrich. No NBA team had ever sunk 15 three-pointers in four consecutive games… playoffs or otherwise. An NBA-record 25 triples in Game 2 was just part of a record 77 made threes for a four-game series sweep. That volume blew away the 4-game record (57 threes) the Cavs established in the prior series versus Detroit. Cleveland has carried this identity into a new season that has them starting out at a perfect 6-0. Taking 40.1 percent of shot attempts beyond the 3-point arc, second only to Atlanta’s prior opponent (Houston’s 43.0% of FGAs), while hitting 38.5 3FG% (3rd in NBA), the Cavs’ offensive ideology is, thusly: if you must insist on driving inside to score (NBA-low 32.9% of points from shots in the paint), you had better come away with either points or drawn fouls. Well, the Hawks (4-2) would like to believe it’s a new day in Believeland. Not the least of which because they’ve held opponents to a mediocre 33.8 3FG% (14th-lowest in NBA) thus far, and because they’ve got a rebounding stopgap in center Dwight Howard (27.6 D-Reb%, 14th in NBA among players w/ 20+ minutes per game) elevating Atlanta’s team D-Reb% from 25th in 2015-16 to 10th thus far this season. Unlike Horford, Howard has been keeping opposing bigs honest around the other rim as well (NBA-high 18.9 O-Reb%, among players w/ 20+ minutes per game). While the Cavs have allowed 17.7 second-chance PPG (2nd-most in NBA), the Hawks have dwindled their number down to 10.3 per game (5th-fewest in NBA). The Hawks will need to avoid falling for the fakeouts presented by James (Eastern Conference Player of the Week for two straight weeks) and Irving on drives. LeBron, in particular, has taken 8.8 drives per game this season, NBA-high among non-guards, but has converted just 40.0 FG% on drives where he shoots, resulting in just 4.0 PPG. James dished out passes on 41.5% of those drives, third-most among the 14 players (including Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder, 29.0% pass rate on 11.5 drives per game) who has driven toward the hoop more frequently. Teamed with a more surehanded rebounder in the middle, Paul Millsap (2.3 SPG, 6th in NBA), Thabo Sefolosha (starting in place of Kyle Korver, who’s on paternity leave; 2.8 SPG, 2nd in NBA), and Kent Bazemore (2.0 SPG, 15th in NBA) can help roam the perimeter more aggressively. The active defense of rookie Taurean Prince, who moves up the depth chart in Korver’s absence, need not be slept on, either. The challenge for the Hawks is not just contesting Cleveland’s three-point bombers, but picking off and disrupting the Cavs’ inside-out and cross-court passes before the ball arrives in opposing shooters’ hands. The Hawks’ 19.2 deflections per game ranks 2nd in the league thus far. Even with all the steals and deflections, Atlanta has smartly committed just 18.2 personal fouls per game (4th-fewest in NBA). Thanks to the Hawks’ crafty forwards, Atlanta opponents have turned the ball over on an NBA-high 18.9 percent of possessions, leading to a league-high 23.7 PPG off their turnovers. If LeBron is trying to make highlight-reel plays running the full court, let them come while he’s transitioning to defense, and not the fastbreak (Cleveland’s 17.7 fastbreak PPG rank 5th in NBA). Atlanta made wise decisions on the offensive end on Saturday night against Houston (season-best 52.9 FG%; 29 assists), not engaging in a tit-for-tat perimeter shootout with the Rockets (12-for-36 3FGs vs. ATL). While much better defense can be expected from the opposition tonight, similar principles apply. James and Irving will have their high-volume touches and highlight-worthy plays, but it will be Atlanta’s job to keep the supporting cast from burying them in an avalanche of made perimeter shots. If the Hawks can do this well tonight, they’ll find some more Believers of their own in the house tomorrow night, against Chicago. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. “Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!” Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting. Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt. To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time. Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away. So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue. It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized. To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster. Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order. While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core? Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade? The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners. Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “DROPPIN’ THREES! DROPPIN’ THREES!” “Everyone has a plan… until they get punched in the mouth!” Even the originator of this famous boxing quote knows, firsthand, how a well-crafted pugilistic plan to stick-and-move and rope-a-dope becomes, “Chew his dang ear off!” once things clearly aren’t going his way. Turning any of the Cleveland Cavaliers into Van Gogh isn’t in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Eastern Conference semifinals scene shifts to the Highlight Factory for Game 3 (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). But to avoid getting exposed once again, this time at home, the Hawks have to come up with a multifaceted approach that goes well beyond Plan A. “We came in with a gameplan we thought was really good,” said a hopelessly flummoxed Al Horford, “and it got discarded really quick.” Plan A had the Hawks jumping out to a 7-2 lead and feeling pretty good about themselves at the outset of Game 2. But Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers have this thing called an adjustment, you see. The first of an NBA-record 18 first-half triples rained down on Horford’s Hawks, and they found themselves with no logistical answers. Kyle Korver continued to be stifled and the Hawks were a dithering 2-for-11 on threes in the first half, while the Cavs were a blistering 18-for-27. When it was well past time for a Plan B, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer unveiled… what’s this? A zone defense??? Where’s my Nick Young meme when I need it? Things aren’t turning out much different for the Hawks in this series than it was for the Boston Celtics in the opening round. There was a nip-and-tuck affair late in Game 1, and a virtual pillaging by the home team from the start of Game 2. Atlanta built its confidence knowing it could take the things that Boston does best, and do them even better. Cleveland’s players have the same confidence regarding the Hawks. They have more players capable of penetrating and kicking out, players who don’t need 17 screens in a possession just to get separation and an accurate shot off along the perimeter. These Cavs know, if they can drown the regular season’s best perimeter defensive team in a barrage of triples, they can break the Hawks’ beaks early. While Korver struggles to make himself relevant (first three-point attempt a desperate heave with his team already down by 27), and his teammates make his decoy plays look like dead ducks, the Cavs are nailing shots with hands in their face, shedding defenders off one dribble, and catching-and-sinking ricochets off Mike Muscala’s forehead. The Hawks can also recall how cocksure they were heading out on the road to Game 3, after going up 2-zip on Boston, and how that turned out for them within just a few days. Among Cavs assistant Larry Drew’s favorite utterances was the word “Respond,” and the Cavs show they know how to do that from one possession to the next. The Hawks have to find the trait that allows them to respond in kind, not simply waiting in vain hope that The Law of Averages will eventually turn in their favor. The 38-point lead the Cavaliers established in the first half could have been worse if the Cavs had better looks inside; they were just 6-for-21 on 2FGs (4-for-18 in-the-paint) in the half. Kevin Love’s six offensive rebounds and 3-for-4 shooting from deep made up for another woeful interior performance (0-for-8 2FGs) in Game 2. But the extra foot-in-the-box by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, the extra defender sticking out to show when LeBron James and Cleveland’s point guards came charging across the paint, left them consistently a step short when the Cavs effortlessly kicked the ball out. Paul Millsap and Horford have to defend the paint, get strips, pull chairs, and rebound with the understanding that help isn’t coming. They also have to demand the ball on offense and finish in the paint consistently, first, before trying any high-wire-act shots along the perimeter. Eight Cavalier turnovers (three Hawks steals) does not make for a winning recipe for Atlanta in any game, much less versus the defending Eastern Conference title holders. Teague, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha must be aggressive with ballhandlers, rather than sitting back and allowing Cleveland to flawlessly execute their set plays. Budenholzer finally graced Atlanta with Kris Humphries’ presence with Cleveland up 35 midway through the third quarter, Mike Muscala entering the fray with the Hawks down 18 not long into the start of the second quarter. The Hawks cannot afford to waste time and wait until they’re falling behind by double digits before relieving Horford. Same deal with Jeff Teague and Korver -- don’t give up on Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway prematurely -- and if Mike Scott subs in, it needs to be for Millsap, not Horford. In the building that’s home to live mascots going rogue, dancers that pass out, shot clocks and timekeepers that may or may not be functional, and spectacularly failing trampoline dunkers, the Hawks are convinced a dash of home cooking will be a huge inspiration to come out victorious. Because sight lines, or something. But if Hawks fans wanted to see yet another postseason can of azz-whooping opened upon their favorite team, they’d hop in the time machine, and just watch Woodsonian-era basketball. Hawks fans are not here to endure another drubbing thanks to way-too-rigid game planning. Without major shifts in competitiveness and coaching strategy to stem Cleveland’s runs out of the gate, Hawks fans may not be here for Game 4, either. Let’s (Freaking) GO Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. “That’s enough of Schröder for me! I fold!” Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes. Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak. Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously. The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did. We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry. Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture. The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier. J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%. Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him. To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest. If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds). Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty. The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls. Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. “Et tu, Lué?” “Now, if you want to CROWN them, then CROWN their {BLEEP!}” It’s hard to believe we are nearly ten years removed from a watershed moment in pro sports history. It was October 16, 2006, and Dennis Green, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks’ red-bird football cousins over in Arizona, was about to go ballistic. Green had a front-and-center view as his disappointing team, in its first Monday Night Football home game in recent memory, made one Cardinal error after another, blowing a multiple-touchdown lead to an undefeated Chicago team that had previously been bulldozing the NFL. Coming into that game, the Bears’ 5-0 start had many pigskin prognosticators suggesting a new Super Bowl Shuffle was right around the corner. Denny Green wasn’t down with the perception that a coronation was in order. “The Bears are what we thought they were,” the dumbfounded coach responded to a seemingly innocuous question, lurching into a frank discussion that was a lot like watching milk reach a boil in the microwave. Green smacks the microphone, and the dais seems to jump from the impact. You can bet the reporters jumped, too. “…they are who we THOUGHT they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!” This was a stunning development, not just for the fiery angst but the mouth from which it bellowed. Denny Green was like a real-life “227” Dad! Not a pushover by any means, but a pleasant, easygoing, mild-mannered fellow, pragmatic to a fault. Everyone expected disappointment, and frustration, from Green after the game, but no one in the media saw this reaction coming. Atlanta sports fans, however, may trace Green’s latent path to Vesuvius all the way back to January 1999. Back then, his 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were all set for a coronation, after racking up the most points ever scored in NFL history. The Vikes had long been an NFL bridesmaid, but seemed on-track to finally win their first-ever Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want to play along, though, capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes to seize their place as the NFC’s Super Bowl participant. Over seven years later, Green foresaw a small chance at redemption, tripping up a former division rival that was just beginning to enjoy its own scent. And he watched his team pounce, and then literally fumble the opportunity away. The Bears eventually did make it to the Super Bowl by season’s end, but they didn’t win it all. Green and many of his key players weren’t around two seasons later, when the Cardinals found their way to the big show, too. Fans of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers see that the coast is pretty clear for another trip to the NBA Finals, a journey that resumes tonight with their second-round Eastern Conference playoff round with the Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT, post-game on Fox Sports Southeast). They also perceive this playoff run as their best hope at ending a 52-year championship drought. There are four Eastern Conference teams left standing after the opening playoff round. Three of them are top-ten in the league in team salaries. One is the Hawks, once again a bottom-ten payroll team. What does an extra $35 million buy you? Cleveland certainly hopes it's a coronation. After nine seasons of postseason hoops, everyone seems certain the Hawks are what they’ve always thought they were. Atlanta has a chance to radically alter NBA observers’ perceptions, via this series. But that only happens if they can be a team that redefines what the Cavaliers think they are. The Hawks’ first-round series with the Boston Celtics concluded in fairly satisfying fashion. Relying on their recalibrated defense, Atlanta held the Celtics to a playoff-low 38.4 FG% and 27.5 3FG%. But just about everything is different with this next round’s opponent. Instead of a 5-foot-9, 185-pound score-first, playoff-under-experienced, first-time All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, the offensive tour de force Atlanta faces is LeBron James, an unselfish 6-foot-8, 250-pound, a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ who desperately wants to bring an NBA title to his home state. While Thomas turned to the likes of Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, James has fellow All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving (Playoffs-high 27.5 PPG) and Kevin Love at his disposal. Rather than a team that struggles to get hot from distance, Cleveland hit 36.3% of its three-point attempts during the regular season (7th in NBA), and 41.3% in the opening round (2nd in Playoffs). Instead of an opponent that thrived on high-tempo affairs, the Hawks face a Cavs team that enjoys slowing things down to a grind (28th in pace). While the Celtics relied on Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger to counter Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Cavaliers can turn to Love, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov. Boston ranked 26th in D-Reb% while Cleveland ranked 5th, not to mention ranking 9th in O-Reb%. Boston was just testing the bounds of their confidence. The Cavs exude it, facing a team they dusted in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as they chase after their 2016 destiny. For all the attention paid to James as a bruising scorer, he is most dangerous for Cleveland as a passer and an active help defender. In the Cavs’ 20 losses during the regular season, he scored slightly more points (25.4 PPG), and rebounded more (7.9 RPG), but took a higher volume of tougher shots (48.5 FG%, 27.5 3FG%), and made significantly fewer assists (5.0 APG), than he did in 56 victories (25.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 53.5 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). LeBron giving up the ball when he’s under pressure is not, in and of itself, good news for Atlanta. In addition to his heroball-quality 30.3 PPG (just 43.8 FG%) and 11.0 RPG, in the 2015 ECFs, LeBron picked apart the Hawks with 9.3 APG in their four-game sweep. This season, Cleveland was 40-5 (23-1 at home) when James contributed more than 5 assists. He also barely registers a blip in steals during defeats (0.95 SPG) compared to 1.52 SPG during wins (Cavs 30-3 when LBJ gets at least 2 steals). The more James resembles volume-shooting DeMar DeRozan, the better for Atlanta’s prospects. Restraining James from collecting the ball and finishing plays around the restricted area (without excessive fouling) will go a long way, and different defensive looks from a combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford will help in that regard. But the Hawks can truly help their cause by ensuring that their supporting cast denies James easy dimes to open shooters and bigs hovering around the hoop. LeBron’s occasional dunks may feel like knockout punches, but they’re mere body blows relative to his constant threat to find open shooters. J.R. Smith (40.0 3FG%) will spot-up at will, so deflecting kickouts in his direction will be beneficial, as is the case for Kyrie Irving (32.2 3FG%) at the ends of the shot clock. The Hawks must also limit open catch-and-shoot opportunities for Matthew Dellavedova (41.0 3FG%), Channing Frye (37.7 3FG%), James Jones (39.4 3FG%), and Richard Jefferson (38.2 3FG%). Millsap, Horford, and Mike Scott (68.1 eFG%, 3rd in Playoffs) need to pile up points in transition against Thompson, Love, and veteran perimeter marksman Frye, none of whom are defensive stalwarts. The same could be said of Irving and J.R. Smith, signaling the need for Jeff Teague (35.5 Assist%, 2nd among current Playoffs participants), Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway to remain aggressive in getting to the paint and forcing Cleveland, a team that prefers to force undesirable shots and secure the defensive rebound, to make stops. After dusting off Detroit in Round 1, Irving’s confidence has never been higher, but Teague, who had time to rest a bum ankle sustained in Game 6 against Boston, has the kind of two-way game that can create a deflating effect when it’s on-point. Schröder will be pushed, prodded, and trolled by the usual suspects, but is figuring out that his best clapbacks don’t require words at all. Horford’s mid-range game was poor in the first round, but the more the Hawks attack the interior, the better his chances to thaw out his jumper and make him a legitimate multi-faceted offensive threat. The more defensive breakdowns the Hawks can exploit, the more James’ attention can be directed away from the offensive end. Horford has suffered through his share of playoff-series drubbings, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2010. But he was also instrumental the very next season, when he led his team in rebounds and assists as the Hawks knocked off the favored Magic in six games. In 2008, Doc Rivers went from being an NBA head coach on shaky ground to one with an NBA championship ring. But Doc needed one of his old teams to lay down on the road for him to shake free of the skeptics. Now, another former Hawks point guard is pulling for a similar fate. Tyronn Lue needs to reach The Finals, at least, to sustain LeBron’s confidence and justify the seat he shifted into at the expense of David Blatt. Lue was supposed to strategically make the Cavs perform at a higher pace, but that accelerated play has yet to come to fruition. While the Hawks/Celtics series was the highest-paced series in the East’s first round (just a shade behind Houston/Golden State), the Cavs/Pistons series was the slowest. To push the pace on the Cavs, the Hawks cannot pass up good shots in hopes of a great shot later in the shot clock. Atlanta has to avoid the urge to force halfcourt shots that aren’t there, but when there is a good look, the Hawks must take them without hesitation (Al, we’re looking at you). Atlanta must also ensure there’s proper coverage for James in defensive transition, regardless of whether or not the shots fall. A sound offensive effort from Korver and Kent Bazemore (3.2 TO%, 2nd-lowest in Playoffs), who will get chased constantly by Matthew Dellav-he’lldiveonya and Iman Shumpert, would be nice. But poor shooting stretches can be overcome if the defense on Cleveland’s fastbreaks and perimeter shots remains stellar. Yes, James is the effective coach/GM/POBO for the Cavs. But Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has three playoff series wins under his belt, plus a wealth of tactical knowledge relative to Lue, who can at least turn to Larry Drew when the Cavs need a decent offensive play coming out of timeouts. At some point in this series, the coaching advantage along Atlanta’s sideline needs to be resoundingly clear and reflective of the competitive play on the court. The Hawks effectively chose this conference semifinal matchup at the conclusion to the regular season; if they intended to get thumped once again by the Cavs, there was no reason for wasting energy and crawling into another conference finals just to do that. Surely, though, Atlanta had loftier plans in mind. If, instead, they aim to shock the NBA world, an effort which requires at least one victory here in Cleveland at The Q, they might as well do it early and build their own confidence going forward. The Hawks know these Cavaliers as well as anyone left in the Eastern Conference does. But anytime the Cavaliers stumble during this playoff series, how often will these Hawks let them off the hook? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  22. “What’s our play been looking like, lately? Depends.” Does momentum matter? The Atlanta Hawks have been playing like it does, indeed, winners of their past three and closing strong in the face of a daunting second-half schedule. Their hosts tonight and the last team to beat them, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio), could sorely borrow some of that momentum. There are just two regular season games remaining, and defending Eastern Conference champ Cleveland (56-24) still hasn’t clinched the top seed. The team breathing down their necks, Toronto (54-26), has only white-flag-waving Philadelphia and Brooklyn left on their slate, and the Raptors hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Cavs likely have to clinch the #1 seed either tonight, or on Wednesday against Detroit, their possible opening-round opponents. Cleveland has swung-and-missed in their last two attempts to lock that #1-seed down. Head coach Tyronn Lue rested LeBron James on Wednesday in playoff-hungry Indiana, and the tandem of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love could do little to hold back Paul George and company. In what may ring familiar to Hawks fans, the Pacers (another possible Cavs first-round opponent) rang up 70 first-half points (61.9 FG%, 53.8 3FG%) on The James-less Gang. By night’s end, Indiana outscored the Cavs 46-32 in the paint and got 50 of their whopping 123 points from their bench players. After a couple days rest, LeBron was back. This time, they were presented a chance to eliminate another Central Division rival, a Chicago Bulls team that has been largely left for dead. Instead, what should have been an improved bench unit was quadrupled in scoring by Chicago’s reserves (44-11) in a 105-102 primetime loss. Despite James’ 33 points (13-for-17 FGs, 4-for-5 3FGs) and the perimeter shooting of Love and J.R. Smith (combined 11-for-23 3FGs), the Cavs stumbled in the final quarter, three critical turnovers from Irving amid a 15-4 run helping the Bulls turn the tables and momentarily salvage their season. “I was just really (kinda rhymes with “pretty,” but kinda means the opposite) with the basketball,” Irving acknowledged to the Plain Dealer after the game. “I’ve just got to do a better job of leading that second unit, especially with LeBron and Kevin on the bench.” Irving understands that, for Cleveland, jacking up long-distance shots (29.8 team 3FG attempts per game, 3rd in NBA) will prove futile on many nights if there aren’t enough accompanying defensive stops. While Golden State at least has an NBA record worth chasing, it has to be unnerving that the East’s leaders aren’t yet able to rest their stars ahead of the postseason. While last year’s top-seed, Atlanta, wrapped things up well before April Fool’s Day despite some late-season struggles, the Cavaliers may have to do it this year while scrambling to finish their 1040s. To get it done tonight, or Wednesday, it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by Cleveland’s first unit, as their reserve options were thinned even more today. The Cavs will have to catch The Big Mo without the little Mo around to help. Maurice Williams is taking a trip to Dr. James Andrews’ Pensacola office, to see what can be done about his lingering knee issue before the playoffs begin. Also sitting out the final two games is starting two-guard Iman Shumpert, who had his knee drained and will rest to alleviate inflammation and soreness. Discounting little-used center Sasha Kaun and swingman Jordan McRae (both soon headed to a D-League Playoff assignment), that should leave the Cavs 10-deep going into tonight’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. Tristan Thompson (five O-Rebs, 1-for-6 FTs @ ATL on Apr. 1) replaced Shumpert in the lineup against Chicago, leaving Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, James Jones, Channing Frye and Timofey Mozgov to go against the Hawks. Lue intends to start Thompson primarily at the five going forward, creating mostly big matchups that keep James on the hunt for mismatches at the wing. On paper, the Cavs’ backcourt struggles should translate into more good news for Dennis Schröder, who reinvigorated his offense during a thrilling 118-107 win at the Highlight Factory on Saturday night. Schröder and the Atlanta bench (incl. Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Scott) contributed just 16 cumulative points on 5-for-19 shooting, plus one steal, 3 assists and 8 turnovers during Cleveland’s visit to Philips Arena on April 1, and they must make amends tonight. Jeff Teague will be counted upon to bring the same intensity to his matchup tonight that he brought to the table against Irving (5-for-23 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 1), Kyle Lowry (6-for-15 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 7), and Isaiah Thomas (6-for-19 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 9). Teague’s last six games include averages of 23.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, and just 2.2 TOs/game, while shooting 50.0 FG% (47.8 3FG%) and sinking 28 of 30 free throws. The Hawks’ defense will want to keep Irving off the free throw line, after Kyrie made 8 of 10 freebies (including the decisive five points in the final 20 seconds of overtime) in Atlanta to pad his scoring tally. But Teague and Schröder will also want to force enough contact on drives inside to put pressure on Lue’s frontcourt rotations. Atlanta’s point guards keeping Delly and Kyrie occupied on defense all night would be a big help to the Hawks’ frontline, especially Eastern Conference Player of the Week Paul Millsap (last 3 games: 19.0 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 BPG, 48.8 FG%, 46.2 3FG%), who was at once a human dynamo and a human piñata against Boston on Saturday. Sap’s performance against the Cavs on April 1 (29 points, 12 rebounds, in a 110-108 OT loss) suggests he may finally be shedding the hex that Cavalier defenders Tristan Thompson and James have had on him. Shumpert’s absence should also create more daylight for Kyle Korver, who was mostly absent from the scoreboard on Saturday but drew enough attention in the second half to keep the Hawks offense flowing. Korver hit 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the second half on April 1, helping the Hawks salt away a 14-point halftime deficit. Defensive rebounding parity should remain of paramount importance for Al Horford, Millsap, and Humphries, as Love, Thompson and James seek to attack the glass after every missed shot. Sefolosha struggled off the bench trying to help contain James (29 points, 1-for-5 3FGs) and close out along the perimeter in their last meeting. Tonight, Sefolosha can help Kent Bazemore (11 D-Rebs and 6 assists vs. CLE on Apr. 1) share box-out duties with the Hawks’ big men. With their boundless activity, both players can also help keep James from piling up fouls and points in transition. Love and Channing Frye will try returning the favor against Atlanta’s floor-spreading offense by taking lots of three-pointers, so the Hawks’ wing players must assist Millsap in securing boards tonight. To put a cherry atop the sundae that is Atlanta’s most successful two-season stretch of basketball (108 wins) in franchise history, a win tonight will secure homecourt advantage for the Hawks (48-32) in the first round. There’s no need to wait for Wednesday in Washington to get that done. The Hawks’ ability to nab a victory in the final meeting between these two teams would also leave the clinch-starved folks at The Q rightfully restless about what lies ahead. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  23. LD gets to stick it to Milwaukee, eh? For anybody who recalls, was David Blatt the guy LD visited when Ferry sent him over to Israel in the 2012 offseason? (EDIT: Eureka. Ah, the MC reporting years... ~lw3