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  1. I wuz wrong, y'all! He's not On The Move like I figured he'd be. Not yet, anyway! ~lw3
  2. "I'm gonna fob your car after the game!" ~m@rcu5
  3. “HOW YOU LOSIN’ TO THE CAVS AGAIN? DAYYUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMNNNN!” “There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, when something named Lamar Stevens looks like a dadgum DuPont Factory on wheels strolling down the lane untouched in the clutch. Whatever. In usual Atlanta Sports years, by the time our Hawks had blown their 10th fourth-quarter lead of the season (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti), we’d be occupied with United fooling around in the playoffs, fretting over the Dawgs getting stonewalled by Saban, and watching Matty Ice waltz for his life behind a slushy O-Line. More often than not, we’re still washing out dandruff after scratching our heads about how the Bravos collapsed in the postseason. This time, that is. But nothing is usual in this most unusual sports town. The MLS season is delayed, the Flowery Branch Fail-cons are busy swapping out executive office furniture, Uga XVI or whatever is busy with doggie charm school, and members of the Baseball Club are still driving around the Gulf Coast seeking out directions to North Port. That means our Hawks, their beleaguered head coach, and their collective failures are on the A-Block in A-Town sports radio, and they’re trending for the wrong reasons on local anti-social media. “There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, as our young All-Star-on-the-Low is out here looking like Frank Drebin outside the fireworks factory. Alright, Move On! Nothing To See Here! Move Along! Please Disperse! Another Day! Another Opportunity! 100! I’m not wasting any energy waiting around to find out if Bogdan Bogdanovic is ever walking through that door. Not today, anyway. Instead, while the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) pay us a visit, hoping the Hawks will help them lick their own wounds, one night after their two All-Stars (smh) got licked in Lukaland, and help them return once again to .500 ball, I prefer to use this space to praise a local team that can now, finally, legitimately say, “We are a playoff team!” and not induce hearty guffaws. Your Friendly Neighborhood Bracketologist is here to share the good news. The Yellow Jackets of the Georgia Institute of Gotdang Technology are projected to be bound for Dayton! Wait, what’s that? Oh, okay, Indianapolis, then, fine! Unlike Bawb Rathbun whenever the Hawks are about to shoot free throws, I’m not even halfway jinxing these guys. It’s a Stone Cold Lock TM, baby! No more excuses about those brain-draining nuclear physics professors distracting Tech’s umpteenth-year scholars from standing toe-to-toe with the one-and-doner programs of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Yellow Jacket Men strode up to Blacksburg and jived those turkeys at Va-Tech last night. It’s their fourth victory in a conference-high seven games against an opponent that entered their contest ranked in the Top-25. And the PR director masquerading as the college’s head basketball coach won’t let you forget it. “There should be ELEVEN teams in the tournament coming out of the ACC!”, he says. Come home, Josh Pastner, you’re drunk. But they are getting eight, and the crew guided by Monstrous Moses Wright, Trae-Lite Jose Alvarado, and Bell Buckets Michael DeVoe are looking every bit like a top-7 ACC program right now. (By the way, the Lady Jackets are going Dancing, too. As a Top-8 seed, at that. Give ‘em hell, Nell!) At long last, Pastner has cleaned house of all his creepy colleagues from Memphis, and got his postseason ban out of the way at the perfect time. Finesse! Beating the Hokies last night gave the Jackets their first two-game in-conference road winning streak since 2008. When they beat the Fighting John Collinses in Winston-Salem next week, that’ll be three in a row. Once Pastner comes down from his high, he’ll have his team ready to run Jim Boeheim and student journalist killer Coach K’s clubs right on out the Thrillerdome over the next seven days. That, and a first-round victory in the ACC Tourney will sew up a spot in the 68-team dance for the first time in eleven (miserable!) years. Even a slip-up or two, at this late stage, would simply mean a “first-round” affair with Directional Kentucky or somebody is in the offing. These Jackets have come a long way from blowing gimmes at McSqueamish Pavilion, to local lessers Georgia State and Mercer during the Thanksgiving break. At that time, hardly any other sports teams were playing, the heat lamp was squarely on the head coach, and the home fans were disgusted, disgruntled and just flat-out dissed, with no confidence their team would even deserve an invite to the CIT, never mind the NIT, once all was said and done on the 2020-21 season. What they’ve done since that low point – winning almost all their home games on The Flats, beating ranked and favored opponents here and abroad, beating the remaining teams they absolutely had to beat, coming through at closing time – ought to be inspirational to another Basketball Club dribbling aimlessly just down the road, one that actually gets paid for their name, image, likeness, and, we have been led to believe, their competitive spirit. Let’s Go Hawks! Or Not. At This Point, Just Do Whatever! The Checks Gon’ Clear Either Way. ~lw3
  4. “No, seriously, Bama, how did we let this guy get away from our recruiters?” Our Atlanta Hawks got next-to-no help in the Leastern Conference standings, not in the intervening days between their first win since April 2018 against the Boston Celtics, and the rematch at TD Garden tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston). Not unless we’re trying to catch the Bucks. The Lakers that could play were a hot mess against the Nets that could play yesterday. The T’wolves tried their best by dragging Indiana into OT on Wednesday but ran out of gas. The Kings couldn’t help us out by crowning the heat at home yesterday, what would’ve been Miami’s fourth-straight loss amid a seven-game road swing. The last-place Pistons couldn’t hang on to a big first-half lead, letting Chicago win their second in a row in Wednesday’s suddenly rescheduled game. The Knicks lost that night, but only because the elfin’ Magic won. Milwaukee dropped their fifth-straight on national TV last night, as TNT hosts tied themselves into knots all night trying to mansplain how folks like Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal (the latter voted in as a starter, on behalf of his 9-17 Wizards) will all deserve their All-Star slots, while Trae Young (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti, fastest Hawks player to reach 4,000 career points, surpassing the great Bob Pettit) is somehow unworthy of a return to the game in his host arena. Because winning matters! Or career years, or something. Anyway, Coach Bud isn’t under fire because he’s got a couple COTY trophies sitting at his home, in the same town where he just got swept in consecutive games by Nick Nurse’s once-struggling Raptors. Track record matters, and consecutive 60-ish-win seasons while coaching an MVP into the playoffs as a top-seed offers an adequate shield when the swoons and the disappointing trends kick in. Budenholzer’s successor with the Hawks, Lloyd Pierce, remains on a seat that’s not piping hot, but simmering. Pierce remains out on paternity leave, but he’s peeking at the Celtics games hoping ace assistant Nate McMillan can continue to instill practices on the court conducive to winning basketball for his Hawks (12-16). Nate Mac isn’t interested in consuming LP’s top job, but he quietly has the motivation to help his current employer catch up with his prior team, the perennial-playoff Pacers, in the chase for postseason seeds. 2.5 games separate the Hawks from Indiana, who’s currently 4th in the NBA Least, and it’s the same buffer between Atlanta and Collin Sexton’s 14th-seed Cavs. “We’ve got to put together a 48-minute game. We’ve got to make our breaks,” McMillan expressed to media ahead of today’s game, again insisting he’s not doing anything “major” that Pierce would have done to top a Celtics team (14-14) who played on Wednesday without at least two key starters. There were some things, however, that Hawks fans could spy, with their little eyes, as evidence that McMillan can diagnose and address woes that players, under Pierce, seem left to figure out for themselves. One example: with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, 6 rebounds, just two 3FGAs taken and one made, a pair of made free throws, two steals, and a plus-14 finish during Atlanta’s 122-114 win at the Gahden, Cam Reddish had as close to a perfect game as one should come to expect of the sophomore swingman right now. “I think the ball movement was a little bit better,” Cam correctly noted of his team, without any intention of shade. Reddish’s efficient fullcourt performance helped Trae and the frontcourt tag team of John Collins and Clint Capela (combined 44 points, 19 boards, and two swats), who overwhelmed Boston on screen rolls. It also kept the extended shooting struggles of Kevin Huerter (29.7 FG% past four games) and Danilo Gallinari (combined 3-for-10 3FGs @ BOS) from affecting the team’s best field day of the season (57.1 team FG%, highest since beating Beal’s Wizards on 1/26/2020). Correcting his personal struggles as a closer in recent games, Young (16 points, 6-for-7 FGs in the 4th quarter) will want to cut down on his eight turnovers in the rematch with the C’s, who will likely have Kemba Walker back in their stead, but not hound-dog Marcus Smart. Yet it was encouraging that the other Hawks, including Reddish, cut down on the goofs while being disruptive on defense. They aided Atlanta in winning Wednesday’s turnover battle (16-15 on team TOs; just 1 TO by Trae and 2 by the Hawks in the 4th-quarter), keeping their final-frame lead, for once, from evaporating. Walker’s back after missing Wednesday’s game due to injury management, but the Massachusetts Ranger is one of the notable veteran guard even TNT hosts won’t pencil in over Young, not this season (career-lows 36.4 FG% and 4.0 APG). If Atlanta can keep Kemba from getting to the free throw line (career-high 90.2 FT%, although on just 3.2 attempts/game), make him chase around screens, and force him to settle for his waning mid-range shots (37.0 2FG% on the season; 40.7 3FG% this month), they can limit the chance for him to regain his “Cardiac Kemba” persona late in this game. Jaylen Brown (sore knee) is listed as questionable, perhaps putting more pressure on Tatum (35 points, 11-for-21 FGs, 10-for-11 FTs, 4 fourth-quarter assists vs. ATL) to earn his All-Star keep. Daniel Theis (team-high 1.80 Defensive RPM) is off the injury report, and he’d only need nine fingers anyway to help Boston thwart the Hawks’ interior attack. To compensate, Atlanta’s perimeter shooting needs to be on point, and Young can pile up even more points by stepping out just a tad bit further – that is to say, on his mid-rangers (3-for-3 2FGs @ BOS, all betw. 21-23 feet from the basket). The Hawks rank 25th in the league on catch-and-shoot three-point makes (8.5 per game, 0.6 more than Boston), and Huerter and Gallo must find their spots, not hesitate, and get good looks up before Celtic defenders with a foot in the paint can recover. One Western Conference team did give the Hawks the hook-up. The Spurs went to Charlotte and gave the short-handed Hornets an L on Valentine’s Day, then left behind a schedule scramble by having four players test COVID+ (RIP to DeMar’s dad, btw) as the Hornets had to hibernate under health ‘n safety protocols. Charlotte hasn’t played in six days, and if they do get to host Golden State tomorrow, it will likely be their last home game in a while, as they’ll have six West Coast games on the road to close out the first half. One of the teams the Hornets would have played today, Denver, got re-routed to Cleveland instead, and have been short-staffed themselves as they prepare to meet the Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday. The Hornets sit happily atop the Southleast Division, but only by 1.0 games ahead of Atlanta, who could outrace Miami to the top of the division if they can pull together for a winning stretch over the next few days. Knowing they’ll get little love from the media punditry, over the next week as coaches place their votes for reserves, Trae, JC, Clint and the Hawks understand they have to make their own All-Star-worthy case. Hearts out to our Squawkfam in Texas. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “I liked Beard Club for Men so much… I bought the company!” I didn’t have many wild NBA preseason predictions, except for this one: Danny Ainge, quietly, is preparing for his exit from Boston. Ainge doesn’t wait for rumors to swell before he decides he wants to spend more time with family. You’ll recall the Phoenix Suns were just six weeks into the 1999-2000 season, doing just fine at 13-7 when Ainge, then their 40-year-old coach and the newest inductee of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, said he wasn’t “jumping ship.” He was “diving overboard,” he insisted, “to save his family,” leaving his still-young star backcourt of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway on deck, scratching their heads, without a paddle. Danny righted the ship back home, then rowed his boat ashore at Boston, his legendary old team from the 1980s, to preside over basketball ops in 2003. He turned the tide for the Celtics with some celebrated maneuvers in 2007’s offseason. Since Boston earned its last banner in 2008, he has swung one big offseason deal after another to keep the C’s afloat. My hunch is, he sees it’s time to set sail again. Ainge moved his family to the tidy suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts upon harpooning the Celtics executive gig. But his soul screams, “West Coast Guy.” A three-sport high school All-American at Eugene High in Oregon, Ainge tantalized scouts as a collegian in Provo, Utah. Perhaps while playing with the Blue Jays in Toronto while studying at Brigham Young, he realized basketball might grant him more personal agency to move about. But he couldn’t complain about getting drafted by Larry Bird’s Celtics in 1981. After getting traded away in 1989, Ainge remained on West Coast teams – the Kings, the home-state Blazers, the Suns, for the balance of his NBA career. He retired in 1995 as a Sun, and after a spell as a TNT analyst he returned to run Phoenix’s team as its head coach the following season. He’s had his share of health issues, notably mild heart attacks in 2009 and in 2019, and you could do a lot worse than hanging around Beantown when you’re in need of top-notch medical care. But there’s this feeling, on my end, that Danny left his heart somewhere within 750 miles or so of San Francisco. It’s impressive that, as a GM/PBO for nearly 20 years with the same team, Ainge has never had to fire a head coach. Jim O’Brien sparred with Ainge’s roster re-shuffling before pulling an Ainge himself and resigning in the midst of the 2003-04 season. John Carroll finished out that season as an interim, then Ainge hired TV analyst Doc Rivers. Rivers endured feisty rookie guard Rajon Rondo, hung on long enough to win his ring with The Three Amigos, and looked on sadly as the plan to hand the leadership torch over to Rondo, a four-time All-Star, went up in flames as his pupil suffered through one debilitating injury after another. Shortly after one in the middle of 2012-13 quashed Rajon’s season and the Celtics’ title dreams, Doc and Danny finagled a trade that sent the coach to the Clippers. And then, there’s Coach Brad. The former Final Four wayfaring Butler U. coach, Brad Stevens has been at the helm since 2013. His Celtics could never quite get past LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the conference finals, then came up short in 2020’s conference finals against LeBron’s old coach, Erik Spoelstra, when the Miami heat made it out of the East to face James’ Lakers last season. While banners ultimately matter for this franchise, the Celtics haven’t had a 50-win season since 2017-18, Stevens’ peak season derailed by Kyrie Irving’s injury a mere month before the playoffs arrived. Percentagewise, it’s not looking likely they’ll be in the ballpark this season, either. The path to championship contention has been rocky this season for the Celtics. They have their current Big Three edition (Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum) together finally, now that Walker is working his way through injury management for his knee and Tatum is withstanding his personal bout with COVID. But Marcus Smart has been out all this month due to a strained calf, while Daniel Theis injured his finger midway through a bad loss at Washington, pressing Tristan Thompson (how is that man not 30 yet?) and the semi-sized Semi Ojeleye into extended frontline minutes. Boston (14-13) inched back above .500 with a relieving 112-99 win here at TD Garden, against a Denver Nuggets team also initiating a back-to-back, last night. But as they make a quick turnaround to face the struggling Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) and on Friday, inching above .500 in the Eastern Conference is not where Ainge, Stevens, and the Celtics’ fanbase wish to be. Ainge has been quick to shield his coach from the sour dispositions overheard on Boston tahk radio. “We’re not playing with the passion that we need,” Ainge acknowledged to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe a few days ago, adding, “I think that’s on the players. And the players on the team are on me.” “This was a team that was put together by me,” Ainge continued. The extent of Boston’s offseason, in a nutshell, was trading away Stevens’ former Butler star Gordon Hayward for not much more than a trade exception that’s unlikely to be used, coming away with Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith in the Draft, dispatching Enes Kanter to Portland for some second-rounders, and adding Hawks two-timer Jeff Teague and Thompson to patch up the roster holes. That doesn’t scream, “GM of a conference finalist going full-bore to push his club over the hump into The Finals.” “We’re not playing with enough consistency and,” (trigger warning, Hawks fans: here comes The U Word!) “urgency, and it’s my job to look to see what we can do to improve the team, but that’s always much harder than improving from within.” Those comments are intended to comfort Celtic fans and take some heat off of Coach Brad (a little heat around Boston right now would be nice). But, as has been well documented around here, Ainge rarely ever makes a splash before the NBA Trade Deadlines arrive. While the Celtics strive to achieve full health and, indeed, improve from within, my guess is that Ainge sees his marathon of pulling Boston’s strings has run its course. Having gone 5-10 over the past month, Boston got back into the win column by handling business at home yesterday against a Nuggets team that itself was without some key pieces – Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Gary Harris. The C’s resorted to letting Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (combined 68 points, but 12 TOs) have at it while neutralizing their teammates’ abilities to chip in. Given that Denver had to overplay guys like Zeke Nnaji, R.J. Hampton and Facundo Campazzo while saving up bodies for the Wizards today, the victory for the Celts, while resounding, wasn’t terribly reassuring. Even a series sweep as a gift from the sputtering Hawks is unlikely to win over hahts and minds up in what used to be known as Brady Country. The Celts will swing south next week, visiting the Pelicans and then the Mavs one day before arriving at State Farm Arena. Everyone wants to see a strong finish by this team before Brown (career-highs of 26.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 55.7 2FG/41.5 3FG/75.2 FT shooting splits), a fixture of the summertime protests here in Atlanta, returns home once more, for a likely spot in the All-Star Game. The building of positive momentum up the conference standings, regaining parity with the Bucks, Nets and Sixers, need not wait for the second-half schedule to commence. Much has been made of the Celtics’ offensive ills, characterized by excessive iso-ball (5th in isolation play frequency, but 5th-worst with 41.3 eFG% on those plays, barely better than Atlanta’s 39.4%) and poor finishing around the basket. Finally heeding former Celtic Dominque Wilkins’ pleas, Boston swung the ball from side-to-side last night. They produced decent looks, particularly outside the three-point line above the arc (Brown was 5-for-9 from this variable range). Brown turned over the ball a season-high seven times, and Tatum suffered through a poor perimeter shooting night. But they and many Celtics were especially good getting deep in the paint and scoring (17-for-20 within 7 feet vs. DEN, as per bball-ref). Without guys like Millsap around to be a bother, Boston did a better job of reading the defense while penetrating, producing opportunities to score or create for teammates. Lloyd Pierce has left the Hawks to spend more time with family, too, but just momentarily. Pierce’s second child is on the way, leaving head coaching duties to Nate McMillan, who split last year’s season series versus Stevens while coaching Indiana. Whether or not Nate Mac turns around the Hawks’ fortunes during their stay in Boston, if Atlanta (11-16; 1-7 this month) continues their string of lagging starts and dragging finishes, as evidenced in Monday’s 123-112 flop in New York, LP may soon wind up with more family time than he anticipated. Struggling coaches, like Pierce and Stevens, offer up the old secret recipe of “We got good looks, we’re just not hitting shots!”, and “Our opponents just couldn’t seem to miss!”, with a few added herbs and spices, during increasingly dour press conferences. For the Hawks, sitting around and waiting to see find out what kind of shooting day their opponents will have is not getting the job done. The only teams near Atlanta, with their 11.0 opponent TO% this month, are the Jazz and the Suns. But those teams (now) have high-caliber defenders around the perimeter (Conley, CP3 and Bridges), no longer just relying on Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker to step it up and force tough shots on that end. Those teams are winning, although I bet Phoenix would have liked a second-half stop or two last night against Brooklyn to keep their winning streak alive. If Cam Reddish (four steals, total, and 1.9 D-Rebs/game in 8 February starts) is no longer in the business of producing turnovers and getting stops, then he must at least be capable of staying in front of his man when his opponent’s handling the rock. Reddish, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter must entice Boston’s backcourt ballhandlers to settle for, “Oh, heck, why not?” contested jumpers and rely on C+C Muscle Factory members John Collins and Clint Capela to limit opportunities for putbacks and second-chances. They’ll get somewhat of a break tonight, as Walker sits and a rested Teague (DNP vs. DEN) starts with assistance from the eager-beaver rookie Pritchard (7 assists, 1 TO vs. DEN; 42.4 3FG% this month), but adherence to defensive principles remains the same. Tony Snell (sore Achilles) is available to help out as well. At the other end, shooting one’s way out of a slump occasionally entails going 1-for-4 on threes, not 2-for-8 in games like Reddish had on Monday. You’re not getting out from under sub-20-percent perimeter shooting by lofting seven or eight chances every game, as was the case for Cam in the last two losses, extending Atlanta’s record to 0-7 when he takes more than five 3FG attempts (1-2 last season, the losses in blowout fashion versus the Bulls and Cavs). As he demonstrated by fumbling away Atlanta’s last chance at getting off the mat to seize the lead in New York, Cam is over-dribbling and not electing to pass the ball much. Zero games with four or more assists, while shooting as wretched as he has been, is the definition of a “Ball Stopper”. To cut down on the “BS”, Reddish must understand with his open looks that there’s a reason he’s as open as Narragansett Bay, and he must commit instead to more intentional drive-and-kick action, aided by teammates getting open for passes, helping Atlanta’s offense (52.4 February eFG%, 23rd in NBA and just above Boston’s 51.3%) avoid another day of doomed dormancy. Cam’s on a streak of eight games with at least one assist, but as Huerter understands (5.0 APG, 1.6 TOs/game, 1.3 SPG and 41.5 3FG% in February) coming away with a paltry one or two assists, and few defensive stops or transition buckets, is insufficient. Red Velvet hasn’t done much of late with his own green light (8-for-30 from the field in last 3 games, incl. 4-for-20 on threes), but at least he gets the hint that if his shot isn’t falling, he has to do more for his team than just keep firing away until it does. Ainge has exhausted what once seemed to be a treasure trove of other teams’ first-round picks, moves that cemented his “Trader Danny” reputation. Brown himself arrived as a result of the Nets getting thirsty for KG and Paul Pierce in 2013. Tatum came by way of the Sixers’ thirst to move up and take Markelle Fultz, Philly dangling Sacramento’s fumbled 2017 pick as bait. The Celtics have all of their own future first-rounders in tow, but with the organizational bent against tanking (don’t have anybody recalling the big chase back in the day for Tim Duncan), it’s unlikely to see much of that bearing fruit, not in the form of out-the-box future stars. With eleven Celts under contract for next season, Theis being the most noteworthy exception, with Stevens locked down under a multi-year contract extension, with his middling team over-the-cap and hard-capped, and with Giannis locked down for the foreseeable future, I don’t get the sense Ainge wants to hang around much longer to see things play out. Danny (and eldest son Austin, current Celtics player personnel chief) look West and see a younger son, Tanner, serving as a county commissioner in Provo. Cooper Ainge tried his luck as a walk-on at BYU. Youngest son Crew went to play ball at Utah State before returning to The Bay State to finish his college years at hometown Babson College. Yet another BYU grad, Danny’s nephew was with the G-League’s SLC Stars, waived last week only after injuring his foot in the Glubble. The Celtics, anchored by passing local legends Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, seem to have been the only reason Ainge ever came East, and the organization, with its waning lore, appears to be the only thing still tethering his family to this coast. The destiny is near-manifest. Out in L.A., LeBron and AD aren’t going anywhere, and you can best believe the wannabe contenders in the Western Conference are willing to do what it takes to get on the defending champion Lakers’ level, and quickly. Portland always feels like they’re a couple pieces away, maybe they’ll seek to demote Neil Olshey and entice Oregon’s prodigal son home. Phoenix is on the come-up, maybe they’ll find room to give Ainge a second chance to make a first impression. Utah would move whatever Ainge perceives as heaven and earth to get him in their front office. Perhaps the Clippers want to saddle up to the table with Boston again, for more of a front-office-oriented swap this time around? He’s no longer the Young Man he was when he left his prior NBA job. But don’t be too surprised if Danny Ainge jumps on the urge to Go West. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Wait a minute… how did I wind up HERE?” Forget what you heard about Punxsutawney Phil. Danny Ainge isn’t wild about seeing his own shadow in February, either. While the Atlanta Hawks are in Boston feeling a little better about their roster construction than they were earlier in the week while playing against the Celtics, fans of their hosts tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) aren’t sure what all the fuss over the NBA Trade Deadline was about. What many realize is that while Trader Dan is known for his Mamba Mentality in poaching stars and draft picks, the Celtics’ longtime lead executive generally prefers to forage and frolic in the summertime. Midseason blockbusters can uproot players’ whole career paths, and Ainge knows this about as well as anyone. In February of 1988, the seventh-year guard was named to his 1st-ever All-Star Game as a member of the hallowed Celtics franchise. Elder statesmen and Boston teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale struggled to have much of an impact. But Danny came off the bench to hit three of four three-point shots (only four were made by both teams) to help Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins and the East team edge the West, during the last All-Star Game convened in MJ’s town of Chicago. An established starter on a team that had won NBA Championships #15 and #16 during his tenure, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Ainge was looking forward to his turn at aging gracefully. Larry Bird was still going strong, as were his fellow near-20-PPG scorers in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and their point guard Dennis Johnson, all in their 30s, all still together since 1983, all averaging over 30 minutes per contest. As Bird looked to the sunset of his great career, he had a young star in Reggie Lewis already learning the ropes. Ainge, who hit a three in a record 23 consecutive NBA games that season while edging Bird with a 41.5 3FG%, knew he had a niche that was hard to replace. Then, like Marky Mark’s bunch, things started getting a little funky. After nearly getting toppled by Nique’s Hawks in the Eastern semis, the Celtics were tripped up in the conference finals by upstart Detroit, in six games. Ainge’s jumpshot had a hard time falling as the C’s failed to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in a half-decade. Even as the top seed entering those 1988 playoffs, the 57 wins were already perceived as a decline from prior seasons hauling in 59, 67, 63 and 62. In a surprise, legendary coach KC Jones retired shortly thereafter, handing the reins to assistant Jimmy Rodgers as he moved upstairs to the front office. Bone spurs and Achilles’ tendinitis short-circuited the 1988-89 season as Bird would appear in just the first six games before getting shut down. Ainge had knee issues and missed time, too. And while Boston stumbled out of the gate without them, Rodgers and fans were growing enamored with their low-first-round pick from the summer before. Earning just $75,000 in salary, rookie Brian Shaw seemed to fit right in, and suddenly it wasn’t only Lewis who the Celtics saw as a future star. Ainge returned but by December was groveling about his playing time getting cut short. He would get his playing time back. Just not in a place anyone expected. In February of 1989, weeks before turning 30, Ainge found himself suiting up in California Wine Country, with Kenny Smith, Wayman Tisdale, and a Kings franchise that hadn’t been around Sacramento for very long itself. Geographically, functionally, aesthetically, this was a long way’s away from Boston. On a club that checked out that season at 27-55, Ainge made the most of his new humble abode. There, he averaged over 20 PPG for the first time in his career, and he went through the next season as a Kings starter, after which the Western Conference contenders in Portland came calling for his services. Already a West Coast guy growing up, Ainge would continue his career coming off the bench until hanging it up at age 35 in Phoenix. Still, it was obvious that the abrupt departure from what he thought would be a lifelong career in Beantown left him with lingering indigestion. What of Shaw, and the team Ainge left behind? Well, Boston would again lose to the Pistons in the playoffs, only this time in the first round. Also, in the absence of rookie-scale deals, the Celtics failed to guarantee Shaw beyond his first season, and by the summertime of 1989 a new threat was on the horizon. From across the sea. Megabucks Italian side Il Messaggero, which weeks before had lured Duke’s Danny Ferry from wrecking his NBA career as a rookie with the sad-sack LA Clippers, offered a couple million dollars, with an option to repeat the following season, that was too good for Shaw to pass up. Having exchanged Ainge (for the Kings’ frontcourt players Joe Kleine and Easy Ed Pinckney) in order to make room for Shaw, Boston went into the 1989-90 season with neither. The Celtics’ brass flew to Rome to entice Shaw back with a new NBA deal, then spent a year wrangling with his lawyers when Brian reneged on the plan to return to The States. Shaw did return and got his starting gig back in 1990, but even that lasted for just a year-and-a-half. After seeing rookie Dee Brown’s playing time Pump’d up at Shaw’s expense, the new regime shipped the oft-injured, confidence-sagging guard in midseason to Miami for The General, Sherman Douglas. We know things didn’t work out well for Boston going forward. Larry Legend and McHale followed DJ into retirement, Lewis passed away unexpectedly, The Chief had gone on to finish his career elsewhere. During that same period of the early 1990s, Ainge had reached The Finals twice, once each with Portland and Phoenix. There remains a sense of what might have been for the graying Celtics had management found some way to put up with the cranky Ainge and allow him to go off into the sunset with the other stars in Boston. Particularly at a time when three-point marksmanship was becoming more than a mere value for specialists, perhaps Ainge could have helped pass the baton onto youngsters for a new era of clover-green fortune. The Celtics would not make another trip to The Finals after trading Ainge away. By the time they did, it was Ainge pulling the strings in the front office. Now going on 17 years, Ainge continues to live in the afterglow of Championship #17 back in 2008. But when you look back at the totality of Boston’s maneuvers in that time, the Celtics’ signature player transactions tended to occur not at Trade Deadline time, or even really in midseason. The trading away of heart-and-soul guard Isaiah Thomas for tortured-soul Kyrie was in August of 2017. Replacing Kyrie and Terry Rozier with a less-scary All-Star in Charlotte’s free agent Kemba Walker (returning to action tonight) was in July of last year. In 2019, Ainge only lifted a finger high enough to launch the sketchy Jabari Bird into Atlanta’s caproom ether. Before that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 for a legitimate deadline deal, when the C’s sent out Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince and a future draft pick that became Skal Labissiere, in a three-team deal that was nearly as lauded for the arrival of Detroit’s Jonas Jerebko as it was for the Suns’ Thomas. That was only enough to help second-year head coach Brad Stevens to eke Boston into the playoffs as a 7-seed and enjoy his first playoff venture, a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron’s Cavaliers. Trading the prior coach, to the Clippers for a future first-rounder, happened only at the end of the 2013 season, rather than allowing the ring-bearing Doc Rivers to quit or be fired amid a down-turning .500 season. Ainge would move the deck chairs in the years before only slightly, getting Jeff Green during 2011’s deadline and another first-rounder for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson, a move, particularly of Perkins, that soured Rivers and the vets remaining on the roster. Nate had just arrived at the deadline one calendar year before. Summertime is not Ainge’s time to sit back and unwind. The Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett deals from that season of 2007 re-oriented the franchise back to one that expects winning and title contention. Before Ainge arrived, the team had already flubbed the drafting of Joe Johnson, and squandered a draft pick to Phoenix in that deal. In a few years, he would get a pick from the Suns back, in the form of a 2006 draft-day trade for incoming rookie Rajon Rondo. Sending away Antoine Walker in the start of the 2003-04 season was a big deal among the Celtic faithful. Getting Employee #8 back in 2005 at the Trade Deadline for effectively Googs, that future Rondo pick, and Yogi Stewart (Gary Payton would get bought out by Atlanta, just to return to Boston anyway). That’s a ton of Celtic lore, but not a bunch of deadline-day wheeling-and-dealing by Ainge, at least no strategic acquisitions that would make his team championship-competitive with the postseason mere months away. As a matter of course, Ainge will pick up the phone when called, and maybe stash away some intel for the purpose of a bigger scheme in the summer. Yet it’s why there really should not have been much surprise this week when Trader Dan asserted his contentment that the team did the important things to have Boston (35-15, 3rd in NBA East, 1.5 games behind Toronto) in position for a meaningful run back before this season began. “I think our #1 need is health,” said Ainge on Monday to NBC Sports Boston and reporters, before his Celtics outlasted the Hawks, 123-115 in Atlanta. “I think we’re going to look to see if there’s ways to strengthen the end of our bench. We like all of our guys. We do have probably too many really young guys.” Any inkling by Ainge to trade young players or draft assets in a win-now move was probably dashed on Monday night. That was after second-year guard Brad Wanamaker (2-for-3 3FGs, team-highs of 4 FTs and 4 steals, plus 5 assists) and rookie forward Grant Williams (6-for-9 FGs, incl. a game-sealing blow-by layup past the Hawks’ John Collins and a just-passing-through Evan Turner) stepped up at critical junctures, in Walker’s absence, to stop the Hawks from pecking away at Boston’s lead. Further confirmation for Ainge to stand pat came when Wanamaker and Williams (5-for-6 combined 3FGs vs. ORL) made big shots off the bench on Wednesday. Along with rookie Romeo Langford, who took Javonte Green’s momentary place in the starting lineup, the Celtics pulled away from Orlando here at TD Garden, 116-100, marking Boston’s fifth-straight home win and eighth victory in its past nine games. The youthful bench support has been beneficial for Stevens to keep the Holy Cow Trinity of wings, Jaylen Brown (questionable, ankle), Gordon Hayward (questionable, foot) and Jayson Tatum (28 points and 7 rebounds @ ATL, 33 points and 5 assists vs. ORL) from being overtaxed. All three logged 35-38 minutes against the Magic. With a short road trip out West and a return home to face the Clippers prior to the All-Star Break, one can envision Stevens being deferential to his less experienced charges tonight against Atlanta. Not having rookie Cam Reddish (concussion) back on the floor is a detriment for the Hawks to keep up with the Celtics’ swingmen and start the post-Deadline charge on the right foot. A further predictable setback was the unavailability of Clint Capela, Dewayne Dedmon and Labissiere, who have pending trade machinery and/or nagging short-term injuries of their own to get through. Trying to fend off the Timberwolves’ madcap fourth-quarter dash, Trae Young tweaked his ankle late in Wednesday’s 127-120 win in Minneapolis, but he is probable to give it a go along with Jeff Teague (knee). Now just a shade under 40.0 3FG% for the season, Kevin Huerter seems to be working well past his adductor pain. For the Hawks to stay competitive against Walker and the Celts tonight, one other contributor has to be a strong net positive. The Hindenburg. The Dust Bowl. De’Andre Hunter meandering while taking more than two dribbles. There are plenty of disasters in North American history to point to, but the rookie (4 TOs @ MIN, 3 in the second half) should not be attempting to rival them with any on-ball plays other than catch-and-shoot, or catch-and-pass. Wednesday’s win was the first in seven games for Atlanta (14-38) in which Hunter (available, despite an ankle sprain) committed four or more turnovers (incl. 4 second-half TOs during a 12-point loss to Minnesota back in November, if Karl-Anthony can remember back that far), and odd-ball plays on his part helped make the final quarter a bit too close for comfort. Trae (9.0 APG) produces enough wondrous offense to obscure at least some of his 4.9 TOs/game. But Hunter forcing actions toward the rim, for plays that just aren’t there, is glaring, when one isn’t tempted to cover their eyes. Atlanta’s third-leading scorer for just a little longer, Hunter (third-lowest pace on the team, aside from bench players Bruno Fernando, doubtful for tonight with a calf strain, and the recently-arrived Treveon Graham) gets too cerebral with the ball in his hands, or in his general vicinity, and makes things easy for defenders clamp down. As per stats, Hunter has a 9.5 TO% on spot-up possessions, second only to Russell Westbrook among players getting four or more such possessions per game (he gets a team-high 4.5). 7.9 percent of De’Andre’s passes turn into assists, a Bembryan value that could stand to climb into the double digits like Huerter (11.2 percent pass-to-assist ratio). Keeping clear of the Celtics’ eager arms and charge-drawing bodies (18.1 points per-48 off opp. TOs, 4th in NBA) will help Hunter keep the Hawks in contention for stealing a road win despite being short-handed themselves. With everybody back for Boston after the deadline, the Celtics will eventually have a roster glut at season’s end. If Hayward and the happy Enes Kanter take their player options, and the team elects to keep Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye on board, then Boston is projected to return 13 players when the curtain opens on 2020-21. Brown’s big contract extension kicks in, just as the Celts are expected to negotiate Tatum’s, lifting the salary bloat over $95 million even without the conditionals. Oh, and then there’s as many as three low-first-rounder rookie-scale deals on the docket, thanks in part to picks Ainge pried from Memphis and Milwaukee. But none of those matters are of pressing concern to the Celtics’ front office. All of it can wait until the summer when he really gets busy. In the wintertime, as Tree Rollins would likely say, Danny Ainge is, “once bitten, twice shy”. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “Didn’t I warn you to stay away from Big Baby’s Superb Owl Seven Layer Dip?” Welp, too much of a football-party coma to do any fancy-schmancy write-up for today’s game at State Farm Arena, with the Boston Celtics in town to deal with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBA Sports Boston). Instead, please, just mark the date and time, because it isn’t very often that I get to show my appreciation for a Celtic on the Interwebs. Three cheers for Jaylen Brown! Hip Hip! Hooray! New rule: if you are below the age of 30, you do not get to whine about how The Game Done Changed just because you didn’t get your coveted invite to The Big All-Star Dance. You all Devin know the suspects, so there’s no need to call them out Booker by name. Instead, let’s let the Pride of Wheeler High (one of them, anyway, since there’s Shareef, too), demonstrate how to show some class, Marietta-style. “I think there’s a lot of guys to choose from,” Brown told NESN after he was among the players on the outside looking in at the All-Star reserves. “a lot of guys having a good year. It is what it is. Just start gearing your mind, getting ready for the playoffs and stuff like that, building good habits.” It helps a little that teammates Kemba Walker (out tonight, sore knee, along with center Robert Williams) and Jayson Tatum will be headed to Chi-town. Also, that the Celtics (33-15, 3rd in NBA East) are all but assured of a return to the postseason, so the so-called snub can’t use the news Bradley as de-motivation to suddenly now start caring Beal about his team barging their way in as some sort of revenge. Not thinking of anyone in particular. “I try to look at anything and everything as motivation,” said Jaylen, not biting as the media prodded and poked for just a dash of pettiness. “Keep working and getting ready for the playoffs – that’s the stage you want to be in.” The high-minded Brown would rather let his play do all the smack-talking. He scattered and covered the Warriors after last week’s All-Star reserves announcement, then put up a team-high 32 points (despite 1-for-10 3FGs) and 9 rebounds to help Boston smother the 76ers this past weekend without Kemba available. “I thought that Jaylen handled it great,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Not being named, came out of the gates playing great.” In addition to Walker and Williams (hip edema), Enes Kanter (hip contusion) missed the Philly game and is questionable, while Marcus may make like John Krasinski and Smaht Pahk after sustaining a quad bruise on Saturday night. Unfortunately, the Hawks (13-37) are too inexperienced and not cohesive enough for it to matter much when opponents are missing key players. Particularly those who have a plethora of shooter options and a multitude of defensive looks they can throw in the direction of Trae Young (upgraded to probable, sprained ankle). That was the case in Dallas, as Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Dorian Finna-Score, and Maxi Kleber all had a field day from the field, while the double-teamed Young couldn't get into gear until it was too late. Look for Kevin Huerter (6-for-10 3FGs @ DAL) and two-way player Charlie Brown to try and fill the void on the wing with rookies Cam Reddish (concussion) and De’Andre Hunter (sprained ankle), plus DeAndre’ Bembry (neuritis) all on the shelf. The Celtics are strong enough at those positions that Brown, Gordon Hayward (1-for-11 FGs vs. PHI) and Jayson Tatum (7-for-19 FGs vs. PHI) can have off-shooting nights but still win handily if they get to the free throw line a lot (80.3 team FT%, 5th in NBA) while also making defensive stops (BOS 8th in SPG, 6th in BPG, 4th in opponent FG%). Boston gets away with Hayward as the default starting power forward, so opportunities abound for John Collins (last 10 games: 22.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 62.5 FG%, 35.5 3FG%, 85.7 FT%, 1,2 BPG, 4.6 fouls/game) to have another monster night on the boards if he and Damian Jones can avoid foul trouble. As far as being close enough to win the game late, as they nearly did in Boston last month but for Daniel Theis’ heroics, without the rookie swingmen or Bruno Fernando (strained calf), Alex Len (hip flexor) and Jabari Parker (impinged shoulder) available? We’ll just have to see what tricks Atlanta has up its sleeve. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. Me in the rain, finding out Trae topped all East guards in early-ballot fan voting. So much for a break in the upcoming schedule! The Hawks will get their first homestand of three games or more in nearly two months, tomorrow. But the catch is, they get to kickstart it after first playing the Celtics in Boston tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston). As Gray Mule, Buzzard and others have well noted, the schedule-makers have done Our Fine Feathered Friends no favors. Everybody the last-place Hawks (7-27) play, in ATL or otherwise, should be a tall order. But the next homestand itself, especially, has no cupcakes on the shelf. Tonight, the Hawks will leave TD Garden and return home to find a Pacers team, one seeking to move back into 4th in the NBA East, already waiting for them. A couple days later, the Nuggets roll into State Farm Arena, 2nd in the NBA West and vengeance-minded after getting toppled back home by a John Collins-less Hawks team back in November. A couple days after that, the Rockets arrive, and we know James Harden needs no introduction. But the Hawks understand they cannot look more than one minute ahead, and certainly not against the Celtics (23-8, 2nd in NBA East), who are 13-2 at home. Atlanta knows it kind of has to make its own breaks. Trae Young, out since spraining an ankle on December 27 versus the Bucks, is scheduled to return to action tonight, in what hopefully will be just the fifth game that he and John Collins have played in full together. Collins’ performances have been up-and-down since his suspension, but he and the Hawks could get more help. Jabari Parker (throat infection) is likely to return, listed as probable as Kevin Huerter (back strain) was removed from the mid-week injury report. Coach Lloyd Pierce may have a full complement of healthy players at his disposal for perhaps the first time since October. As an added break, his crew will appreciate having to hold off until the next Celtics-Hawks matchup to deal with Kemba Walker (questionable, flu-like symptoms). But for a few ill-advised fans going googly-eyed over Kyrie, Kemba (team-highs of 22.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 39.8 3FG%) could wind up in the Windy City as Trae’s All-Star backcourt partner in the Eastern Conference starting lineup. Flanked by more talented starters than he had in Charlotte while toiling under coach Brad Stevens’ team-oriented approach, Walker’s need to create off drives into the paint has subsided. While off-dribble drives were a signature of his Hornets tenure, his offensive play under Stevens’ watch is as efficient as ever before. Since Walker is indeed a no-go, Stevens will serve Trae a steadier diet of Marcus Smart (1.6 steals per-36), with help from Jaylen Brown, reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (Boston’s first weekly winner since I.T. in February 2017; 27.0 PPG, 57.9 3FG% in last 3 games), and Jayson Tatum to try taking away Young’s floater game. Returning from flu-type illness himself, Brown was not even active on New Year’s Eve as the Celtics handled the Hornets handily, 109-92 in Kemba’s return to Charlotte. As the Celtics’ talented young swingmen attend to Trae, Huerter, who stepped up late during Monday’s 101-93 slump-busting win in Orlando, and De’Andre Hunter (16 points, 3-for-6 3FGs @ ORL) have to be ready in the corners to let shots fly. As the Hawks without Young experienced down in O-Town, a dash of defense can make a world of difference. And the Hawks may have run into another nice break with the dashing and defense of Brandon Goodwin. The two-way contractor played up the two-way bench guard role nicely in the win over the Magic, hitting open shots all night (team-high 21 points and 6 assists, 3-for-4 3FGs, 4-for-4 FTs @ ORL) and sticking his nose into the fray for steals, rebounds, a block, and deflections (team-best +22 plus/minus @ ORL). Intriguing in the short-term is whether Goodwin is Pierce’s long-sought backup PG who can play alongside Young, allowing Trae some spells without having to initiate and conclude offensive possessions. Having to switch off onto the likes of Brown (40.0 3FG%) or Gordon Hayward (36.2 3FG%, 4.5 assists, 1.7 TOs/game) is not ideal for Young, but if Stevens goes small-ball on occasion, the Hawks could be capable of matching up adequately. The Celtics’ front line has been withered lately, as second-year center Robert Williams (hip bone edema) joined Euro-rookie Vincent Poirier on the sideline. The Hawks may find an advantage along the bench with Parker and Alex Len (9-for-11 2FGs, team-high 12 rebounds off-bench @ ORL) finally able to play together as reserves for Collins and rookie Bruno Fernando, respectively. Fortunately for Boston, they have enjoyed the defensive stylings of – checks notes – Enes Kanter. Not even Stevens could believe the career-high six shots Kanter rejected in Tuesday’s win over Charlotte. If Enes swats a similar number of shots tonight, he’ll have already matched his block tally from 67 games last season. That’s saying nothing of 14 rebounds on Tuesday, his seventh game of 9-or-more boards in his last eight appearances. Atlanta’s bigs will have to do much more than box out to neutralize Kanter this evening. But having Parker and Len available as a bench duo should help offset whatever Kanter and either of Semi Ojeleye or rookie Grant Williams bring to the floor. Even with Al Horford gone to division-rival Philadelphia, the Celtic defense (NBA-best 103.1 opponent PPG; 104.0 D-Rating, 3rd in NBA) remains stout with third-year big Daniel Theis (team-high 1.5 BPG; 6th-best D-Rating among NBA PF/Cs), who is likely to be glued to Collins for much of this contest. Whether it’s Trae, John, or another ball-handler drawing defenders, Fernando needs to be prepared to be fed around the rim, and feast in return with quick scores before the C’s defense collapses around him. While Boston’s defense has been very good, opponents are leaving an awful lot of points on the parquet. To date, Celtic opponents have shot just 74.0 FT% (2nd-worst in NBA), including a woeful 69.6 FT% at the Garden. Atlanta’s charity-stripe marksmanship has improved as the months have gone on (77.8 road FT% in December, 76.8% in November; 69.5 FT% overall in October), an encouraging development amid the losing skids. Converting at the line tonight could at least help keep the game close, or even keep the Hawks ahead, if Walker remains unavailable to contribute with his own free throw mastery. Trae, to his credit, is still a believer that fan talk of Competitanking can still be tuned out. “You see the bottom of the East, there’s not a lot of teams that have created separation besides the top 5-6 teams,” Young told The Athletic’s Jared Weiss and pregame reporters at shootaround. “I always focus on one game and if we do that and focus on one game at a time, you never know what could happen.” Embarking upon month number 4 of the season, Atlanta has yet to gel with a clear set of starters and rotation reserves, featuring rookies and sophomores that have yet to steady themselves with understood roles. The march toward the All-Star Break is about building identity and, eventually, momentum, enough so that Travis Schlenk and the Hawks’ front office could at least consider making moves worthy of a team eager to make a late charge toward the 8-seed (8.0 GB). That momentum may not begin tonight in Boston, or during a daunting spate of home games and back-to-backs ahead. But it hurts no one on the Basketball Club to try hard, one game at a time. Looking too far ahead at the schedule usually leaves NBA teams ripe for letdowns. In the Hawks’ case, looking at the schedule at all, beyond the game right in front of them, would be enough of a downer. Happy New Year! Happy New Decade! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “Braddy’s ALWAYS Happy!” Back on the road (Yours Truly, that is... not the Hawks... Safe travels, everyone!) So let’s keep this one short! Ahhh, sweet, sweet parity! The Warriors, losers of four straight, are hobbled and squabbling. The Wizards are at each other’s throats. Teams like the Jazz and Nuggets, who had thought they had finally turned a corner, are now not quite so sure. Teams like the Lakers and Rockets, who thought an 8-seed playoff spot was a worst-case scenario, are having second thoughts. And then, there’s the lingering post-Thanksgiving heartburn befalling the Boston Celtics (9-9). Celtics fans were supposed to be here at State Farm Arena today (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) for an early coronation, celebrating their team as the hands-down class of the Eastern Conference in this brave, new post-LeBron world. Instead, they’re hoping they’ve found rock bottom with a win over the Atlanta Hawks (3-15), who lately have satisfied themselves with being the momentary salve for just about every struggling NBA outfit. More news ‘n notes (including the fact you won’t have Al Horford to kick around!) in a bit. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “Oh, no! We’re actually gonna win!” Our Atlanta Hawks Nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Al Horford of the Boston Celtics (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England in BOS). Hi there, Al. Our former multi-year All-Star center bailed on Atlanta for Boston, largely, because he wanted more global acclaim without all the critical attention. He could be a $25 million man without being a $25 million scorer, and he wouldn’t have to up his $15 million rebounder game, either. Up until now, the whole shtick has worked well for him. His PER (as per basketball-reference) is the lowest it has been since his second NBA season. His current rebounding rate is a mild uptick from last season’s career-low. Yet, thanks to his choice to don this clover-green basketball jersey, toiling under the auspices of a highly respected coach-GM combo, he has never been lauded by the NBA fanbase more. Horford went into the playoffs last season looking forward to making a run at LeBron with his running buddy, Isaiah Thomas, handling the scoring load. A calendar year later, he enters the postseason without not only his free agent salesperson, but Thomas’ functional replacement, too. Kyrie Irving’s knee procedure leaves Boston without its only 15+ PPG scorer (second-year pro Jaylen Brown averages a team-high 14.4 PPG; rookie Jayson Tatum’s 13.9 PPG is right behind him). Lost in the season opener, 2017 off-season prize Gordon Hayward (ankle, tibia) won’t be around to fill in the gap. Coach Brad Stevens’ club will continue to rely on stifling defense, particularly around the perimeter, to carry the day. But even the defense is taking a hit, as guard Marcus Smart (thumb) will likely miss the opening playoff round. Rookie backup big man Daniel Theis (knee) is done for the year, and Guerschon Yabusele may be questionable after tweaking a knee in Friday’s 111-104 win here at TD Garden against Chicago. Working on Horford’s sharp-shooting craft began in Atlanta, and Boston has benefitted by him perfecting his outside jumper under their watch (43.2 3FG%, 7th in NBA). But with diminishing scoring, defense, and depth around him, the Celtics will need Horford to morph more into a 20-and-10 guy than ever before, once the playoffs begin. Thankfully, that’s not of immediate concern today at the Gahden. He is also the team’s top-remaining assist-man (4.7 APG), so doing it all will be essential at playoff time. Even if Horf gets to play today against his old team, Brad Stevens isn’t going to take too many risks at this point. Don’t expect to catch him wrestling with Miles Plumlee for 50-50 balls. “We’ll probably be judicious with minutes,” Stevens told shootaround media on Saturday. The C’s (54-25) have locked down the #2 seed in the East. With three games upcoming in the next four days, it is purely a matter of sorting out rotations and building positive momentum as the regular season draws to a close. Boston will also lean on the “Oh! Jays” more than they had hoped at playoff time, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While Horford and rookie Jayson Tatum rested on Friday, second-year pro Jaylen Brown scored his career-high 32 points to help fend off the visiting Bulls. Also helping the Celts avoid a worrying third-straight defeat, backup big Greg Monroe notched his second career triple double. Brown and Tatum will have ample opportunity, at least in the early stages, to do what Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards could not. Specifically, they’ll have to cool down the inside-outside wing combo of Taurean Prince (6-for-11 2FGs @ WAS on Friday) and sixth-man Tyler Dorsey (4-for-8 3FGs @ WAS), who helped the Hawks trip up a Wizards team that was doing itself no favors. Up front, it’s hoped that John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, each with a double-double and at least three dimes on Friday, will have a Morris twin around to defend them for at least a half. Marcus will be out trying to compensate for getting tossed on Friday, forcing Stevens’ hand in playing more of Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes than the Celtics coach would have preferred. For now, Stevens hopes he can count on the likes of Jabari “Don’t Call Me Larry” Bird and Kadeem “Don’t Call Me Ray” Allen to provide positive production in the backcourt. Bird and ten-day contractor Jonathan “Don’t Call Me Boobie” Gibson won’t be eligible for the playoffs, so days like today are where they will be expected to cut their teeth. Gibson, a 30-year-old point guard called back home from the Qingdao Doublestar Eagles, checked in during the fourth quarter on Friday and riled up the crowd with nine quick points, including a three-pointer to snap an 86-86 tie and provide the Celtics, and their fans, some welcome relief. In the short-term, Boston hopes these guards will be effective enough to preserve the necessary floor time from “Scary Terry” Rozier, who now starts in Irving’s place at the point. It won’t be put on Horford today to pull off a victory. But it will be time, very soon, where his enhanced play will be vital to Boston collecting four wins in seven games, several times over. For better or worse, this 2018 postseason will be where he gets to make a name for himself, where no one else can help make the name for him. Have fun in the playoffs, Al. Take care. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “Twenty bucks says Justin has a wardrobe malfunction this Sunday. Deal?” Oh, hi there! For a while there, I was worried the lights weren't coming back on here on the Squawk. So no fancy-schmancy preview of this contest between our Atlanta Hawks and the host Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) tonight, where it appears I might get to put a few "Ewing Theories" to the test! Instead a few Twitter links to help whet your appetite for what could be a Terry Rozier vs. Malcolm Delaney showdown. Hawks Game Notes from the Mothership are always available here: Welcome back! and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “…and starring Kent Bazemore as Neo, in…” We’ve got a rematch of top versus bottom tonight, as the Boston Celtics return to The Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) riding a 14-game win streak, putting up with your Atlanta Hawks once more. Despite some valiant efforts versus decent competition recently, plus a franchise-record 46-point trouncing of the Kings at home this past week, the Hawks (3-12) are holding up the opposite end of the Eastern Conference from Boston (14-2). Still, there’s an understated yet obvious reason why Atlanta will want to pull up their big-boy short-shorts for this specific contest. You remember when Al Horford made himself one of four Players of the Month, the Hawks quartet plus DeMarre and Thabo, and Pero and Dennis, banding together to go 17-0 back in January 2015, briefly turning the entire NBA world on its ear? That shouldn’t be like some GEICO ad, where it’s so easy even Aron Baynes can do it. Yet Al Jefe is about to pull off a similar feat, this time with Kyrie Irving and the “Ohh! Jays” (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) at his side, and tonight is #10 on the Celtics’ 16-game November schedule. Boston can become the seventh NBA club, since the implementation of the 82-game schedule back in the late 1960s, to go at least 16-0 on an undefeated calendar month (In addition to January 2015, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer had a hand as an assistant/video coordinator in two other unbeaten campaigns, the March 1996 and March 2014 Spurs). Wouldn’t it make a cool story for your bros if it was the present-day Hawks that finally tripped these Celtics up? But for Kyrie (35 points, 12 in the 4th quarter, 7 assists) revving up The Highlight Factory machine back on November 6, Tatum’s 21-and-8, and Horford bothering to rebound to near a triple-double (15-10-9 with one turnover), there would be no talk of the prospects for an unbeaten month. Boston led that game for just 50 seconds more than Atlanta, who was ahead by two at the two-minute mark before Irving and Tatum’s heroics. The slim, 3-point winning margin for Boston had as much to do with superb play by Hawks reserve gunner Marco Belinelli (19 points, 3 steals) and starting pivot Dewayne Dedmon (19 points, 12 boards), supplementing Dennis Schröder’s 23 points, as anything the Celtics did. As grand as Brad Stevens’ club has been in this surge to the top of the standings, as a team, they are shooting 42.7 percent from the field on the season, and their opponents are shooting 42.8 percent. Their 47.1 2FG% ranks 26th in the league, and their 34.6 3FG% ranks 24th. Night after night, the Celts are getting it done by getting opponent out of their offensive comfort zones (NBA-best 42.8 opponent FG%), without excessive fouling (20.3 opponent FT attempts/game, 10th-fewest in NBA), securing defensive rebounds (81.6 D-Reb%, 2nd in NBA, yes; this is with Al), keeping the giveaways down (13.2 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), and adding a dash of that tried-and-true leprechaun magic (73.5 opponent FT%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Despite all the superheated scoring this league has offered of late, here are Boston opponents’ point tallies during this 14 game streak: 92, 89, 89, 90, 94, 86, 94, 88, 107, 96, 87, 94, 102, 88. Atlanta’s 110-107 loss on November 6 was the clear anomaly; Kyrie’s game looked gargantuan because it had to be. But Hawks fans should anticipate a gritty, low-scoring affair tonight. Atlanta may go into this game without Luke Babbitt (questionable due to back spasms), but they will have more defensive reinforcements and frontcourt depth than they had 12 days ago. Despite leading a balanced attack with 21 points, Schröder was not particularly a standout during Wednesday’s washout of the Kings, also committing five turnovers. But he was able to feast on Sacramento’s lax defensive effort, something he won’t be afforded versus Boston (NBA-best 95.4 D-Rating) tonight. Dennis will again enjoy being defensively switched off Irving, but he must produce defensive stops against the alternative guards on the floor, be they Terry Rozier (31.9 3FG%) or Marcus Smart (16.5 TO%, highest among Celtic guards; 26.2 3FG%). Big minutes will be needed from Atlanta’s floor leader, as Isaiah Taylor (eye bruise from practice on Friday) is unavailable, while Malcolm Delaney has looked infinitely more comfortable at the 2-spot. Irving will be assigned to a murder of Hawks, including not only Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, at turns, but also possibly DeAndre’ Bembry, the second-year wing who has missed time with a wrist injury. Because winning, Kyrie is being touted as an MVP candidate despite shooting a career-low 42.9 FG%, including 31.9 3FG%. Jaylen Brown (team-high 22 points on Thursday vs. GSW) returns to town with a heavy heart. He will continue playing inspired ball following the passing of his longtime best friend from Marietta’s Wheeler High just days ago. Brown and the Boston starters need a stronger effort from their bench brigade than they received in Thursday’s 92-88 win over Golden State. Not counting garbage minutes from Daniel Theis, four Celtic reserves shot 2-for-19 from the field, which wasn’t of much help for the hounded Irving (4-for-16 FGs). Smart, Rozier, rookie Semi Ojeleye and Baynes need to be more than mere defensive stoppers if the Celtics intend to keep their distance from the Hawks tonight. Another big game could earn Dedmon (20 points, 14 rebounds, 5 asssits, 2 steals, 2 blocks) some nice also-ran votes for Player of the Week. To offset Horford and the Celtics’ frontline, Dedmon, the surprising Tyler Cavanaugh and gravity-defying John Collins will benefit from a deeper frontcourt rotation, as Ersan Ilyasova and the man-bunless Mike Muscala are back in tow. Coming off a titanic win at The Gahden over the defending NBA champs, the Celtics return to Atlanta as sky-high as they’ve felt in a long time. Wouldn’t it be a little bit funny if it was the Hawks that popped their balloon? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “C’mon, Al! Rebound it with your chest!” Stealing away a win in Cleveland yesterday evening, the Atlanta Hawks will be feeling pretty good about themselves in front of a capacity crowd at Philips Arena. But they’ll have to be careful as tonight’s visitors, Al Horford and the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston), and quite a few of the fans in the stands, are wearing crocodile green. When he’s not getting posterized in his backyard by his kids, GM Danny Ainge is a busy man in the summertime. Coming off a top-seed and trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17, he and the Celtics spent the offseason selecting yet another plum draft pick, beefing up their front line, wooing Gordon Hayward from away from Salt Lake, and turning Isaiah Thomas, some assets, and Jae Crowder into NBA Finals dagger-specialist Kyrie Irving. The momentum carrying Boston ever-closer to the NBA Finals seemed to take a cruel turn. Many a tear was shed on opening night in Cleveland, when Hayward tore up his lower leg trying to finish a questionable lob. With Hayward’s season cut short before it could really start, the Celtics would go on to lose to Kyrie’s old team, then dropped the next game one night later at home, succumbing to the Greek Freak. Just when the NBA world was beginning to sympathize with their plight, Boston used their crocodile tears as fuel to go on a tear. The Celts (8-2) are gunning for their ninth consecutive victory tonight, after dusting off the Magic 104-88 last night to climb to 2-0 on their three-game road swing. Over the past two weeks alone, coach Brad Stevens’ club got revenge in Milwaukee, handled their business at home against the Kawhi-less Spurs, and stormed ahead in the fourth quarter in OKC to steal Paul George’s and Westbrook’s Thunder. So far, the C’s are not yet moving the ball at a tempo amenable to Stevens’ liking (26th in NBA for pace), and they’re not shooting the rock exceedingly well (23rd in NBA for 2FG%, 21st in FT%). But what they have done exceptionally is neutering opposing offenses, their 94.7 D-Rating blowing away the field. Boston has been throttling foes at the perimeter (NBA-best 30.8 opponent 3FG%) and keeping them off the free throw line (19.0 opponent FTAs-per-48, 3rd-fewest in NBA). It’s unlikely that you’ll believe who is leading the defensive charge. Kyrie looks longingly at the dust accumulating in his NBA trophy case. The 2012 Rookie of the Year is indeed grateful LeBron James returned to Cleveland and put him in position to excel on the brightest stage for the past few seasons. Alas, there are just two individual end-of-season honors on the shelf alongside Irving’s rookie award, and one was from winning the All-Star Game MVP in 2014, the season before LeBron returned to Ohio. He was an All-NBA 3rd-Teamer in 2014-15, winning player of the week twice that season. And that was it, as far as season-ending accolades go. Irving’s craving as an NBA star to truly stand out, beyond James’ imposing shadow, without having to resort to flat-Earth tactics, was what prompted his appeal to have him moved, allowing him to help another team contend for the championship. And it has become apparent that one way he intends on being conspicuous, with Stevens’ help, is by changing the way he is viewed as a defensive player. Kyrie enters today’s contest ranked #1 in the NBA with 2.4 steals per game. His 0.8 defensive win shares places him second league-wide, while his 93.8 D-Rating has him ranked 3rd in the league (min. 30 minutes/game, 5 games played), behind former ATLien Al-Farouq Aminu of Portland and one other Celtic with whom Hawks fans are, or should be, quite familiar. About one week before NBA training camps opened, at a local-source burger joint in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, an athletic 6-foot-10 man in a jumpsuit stood outside in the parking lot, probing through his phone while anxiously awaiting his to-go order. A five-foot-three lady approaches, but casually walks a full 270 degrees around him toward the front door. She and others chomping away at the busy eatery with the patio view had nary a notion that the gentleman was not simply some genetically-blessed guy who might play some roundball in his spare time. The ability to enter the NBA as a rookie, even as a NBA lottery pick, and become a catalyst for a playoff run is an amazing rarity. To play a vital, occasionally heroic role in a near-decade’s worth of playoff appearances, for a franchise that had previously gone nearly a decade without appearing in any, likely deserves more merit than being treated like a random light pole in one’s former NBA home. Change Al Horford’s body to that of Durant, LeBron, or Melo, or even Giannis, in their current or former places of employ, and cars would screech to a halt, casual on-lookers would be gawking and magnetized, scrambling for camera phones, prayerful for a selfie. But such is life for the unassuming Horford, who stood far from the comfort and security of his gleaming white Range Rover, having spent 20 minutes in and outside the Atlanta restaurant before a single acknowledger approached him for respectful small talk and a good-luck wish. Building his reputation as a model of efficiency is what got Horford to where he was standing, the 11th-highest-paid NBA player that hardly anyone seems to know, or care to know. Atlanta sports fans succumb easily to the harsh outside criticisms of its star players – noodle arm, poor pocket footwork, can’t box out, can’t hit for average, horrid BBIQ, not a take-charge guy – and apply those critiques to render those players irredeemable. Al never averaged more than 18 PPG over a full season in his nine years as a Hawk, and drew increasing heaps of scorn as his teams wilted in one demoralizing playoff exit after another. Not helping matters, the center’s defensive rebounding, or lack thereof, dwindled in each of his final four seasons here. When Atlanta couldn’t turn to the box scores to belie what we saw with The Eye Test, we deemed Horford irredeemable, unworthy of a full-max contract. Now that he has taken his talents to Beantown, Everybody Loves Al. SB Nation Celtics writer Alex Kungu remarked yesterday on Twitter, in response to an observation that Horford is finally living up to his four-year, $113 million deal, “Al Horford always deserved his contract, he’s just now putting up counting stats that casual fans understand.” Indeed, the urge to look beyond “counting stats” was something Hawks-fan advocates from Buddy Grizzard to Kris Willis have urged for years. But that was to little avail, as Horford wasn’t yet playing in a sports town with decades of experience turning imperfect people into legends of lore. Horford is flourishing into the player Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer hoped he would become under his watch. With Stevens and the Celtics staff overseeing his development, Al is shooting threes (career-high 33.0 3FGA rate), and hitting them (51.5 3FG%), as frequently as ever before. Just as significant, the dovetailing defensive rebounding effort has made a U-Turn. 8.7 D-Rebs per-36 would be blow away his career-best, back when he was a bicep-kissing 22-year-old in 2008-09. That’s producing those “counting stats” that fantasy-infused onlookers love, like his third double-double of the season last night in O-Town. The on-ball defense, screening, and passing remain as sharp as ever, too. And he gets to play his long-desired position at the 4-spot for extended minutes, when free agent pickup Aron Baynes subs in. The Celts’ most utilized 5-man lineup of Irving, the “Ohh! Jays” (ATLien Jaylen Brown, rookie Jayson Tatum), Horf, and Baynes is netting a positive +16.9 points per 100 possessions. Brown (15.8 PPG, 42.6 3FG%, 56.5 FT%) is coming into his own offensively, while Tatum’s old-man offensive game (13.6 PPG, 51.7 3FG%) is drawing raves. Recently returning forward Marcus Morris seems to be fitting into rotations like a glove, as well. Dennis Schröder’s Eurobasket co-star Daniel Theis leads a cast of additional rookies (Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Olejeye, Abdel Nader) who can shine in short stints of playing time. Most players need to drop 50-plus points, dunk over unicorns, or shatter dusty league records, just to keep their teams in the running for victory every night. They might all look up, at All-NBA voting time, and find Al standing right alongside them. If his efficiency and proficiency hold through the season and well into the postseason, while getting promoted to the hilt in a ravenous sports market, Horford won’t be able to hide in plain sight much longer. Luke Babbitt just flew into town and, boy, are his arms tired. Nearly 42 minutes of floortime, sinking four three-pointers and contributing across the board (17 points, one of seven Hawks in double figures, plus a steal and a block) as a starter from Babbs was everything the Hawks needed just to escape with a 117-115 win in Cleveland yesterday afternoon. More yeoman’s work from Babbitt will be needed to keep the Hawks in the running with the deeper visiting club tonight. Expecting him to keep pace with Al borders on being unfair, so look for lots of pick-your-poison switches with Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, and even small forward Taurean Prince guarding Horford, in hopes of enticing the seconds-siphoning jab-fakes that keep the ball out of play-finishers’ hands. Irving (team-high 21.0 PPG) remains the league’s premier under-the-rim ballhandler and playmaker. But even with his newfound defensive exploits, he’ll have his hands full with Atlanta’s Schröder (28 points on 9-for-13 FGs at CLE on Sunday, 8-for-8 FTs, 9 assists, 6 TOs), the Demolition Man who bedeviled the excuse for defense presented by Kyrie’s former team. Isaiah Taylor (14 points, 3 assists in 26 minutes on Sunday) has asserted himself splendidly as Schröder’s backup. But the Celtics will have superior on-ball defenders, in Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, to compel Taylor to make plays outside the paint. The Hawks’ limited array of big men must execute screens without fouling, springing the point guards free until the Boston help defense contracts around the rim. Schröder must make crisp decisions when granted access to the paint, while wings Prince (47.4 3FG%, 43.3 2FG%), Marco Belinelli (0-for-4 FGs, all 2FG attempts yesterday), and Kent Bazemore can’t hesitate to catch-and-shoot when they get the ball with a sliver of space. With both teams playing on the back end of a back-to-back, consistency in offensive execution by Atlanta (2-8) will be key to getting to triple digits on the scoreboard, something Boston has stopped opponents from achieving (no more than 94 points) in all eight of their wins. Crocodile tears over Hayward’s injury have allowed Boston to get a jump on their sympathetic opponents and surge to the league’s best record through ten games. Carrying their underwhelming record and deflated expectations into this contest, Atlanta may be able to bottle those tears and use them to turn the tables on unexpecting opponents and their supportive fans in the Philips Arena stands. Might croc tears be a useful ingredient in a possum pie? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. Charania with the ShamWow for the day. Watch his space. ~lw3
  15. The three-team trade involving the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers is reportedly done. What are the Hawks getting? Atlanta is tied to two members of the Boston Celtics and both are intriguing in different ways C.J. Miles and Willie Reed are reported Hawks targets in free agency Much, much more
  16. It’s Time for yet another trip to the Second Round for Isaiah! Right, SLAM??? Welp, No Excuses Weekend didn’t turn out so hot. Still, because Atlanta Hawks fans live such a charmed existence, our Fine Feathered Friends have plummeted from fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings all the way down to sixth place. And that leads us to Spoiler Days! Kicking off against an even more charmed NBA team, the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), the Hawks are presented with prime opportunities to stick flies in the ointments of several teams, and not just the ones they’re playing. The Hawks’ next three games are versus two teams fighting for the top spot in the conference. The Celtics flew into town feeling quite ornery after getting blasted last night at home, 114-91, by the Cavaliers, who reclaimed the #1 seed and await Atlanta’s arrival tomorrow. Neither opponent wants to look back on the Hawks (39-38) as the team that kept them from securing homecourt advantage. Should we be so fortunate as to enjoy another win at any point this month, the Hawks’ next win would formally put the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons, both losers at home last night, in Atlanta’s rearview mirror. A single Hawks victory would also leave it to any of the next three teams below them in the standings (Chicago, Miami, Indiana, all at 38-40) to not lose three of their final four contests, the heat’s closing schedule (Toronto, Washington twice, Cleveland) looking the most suspect. “We are going to make the playoffs,” insists Hawks floor corporal Dennis Schröder, evidently unfamiliar with a past ownership regime’s checkered history when it comes to brash postseason declarations. Yet the adage doesn’t go, “If you want to get the job done, you have to hope others will do it for you.” Yes, this team has barely been able to skate by the depleted Suns and 76ers in recent weeks, and they have blessed the last-place Nets with a pair of wins in the past two weeks. But with the downturn in the season, the Hawks now have the look and feel of an eliminated 13-seed. During Spoiler Days, that’s good news. Bowing out of the postseason chase hasn’t stopped the Knicks from tripping up the playoff-hungry Pistons, heat, and Bulls in recent days. The Sixers put it to both Chicago and Boston, and even the Magic smashed the whiteboard on the Pistons’ heads just weeks ago, each lottery-bound club making playoff-clinching just a little bit easier for Atlanta. Despite at least three key Hawks (the rusty Paul Millsap, Junior Hardaway, and Kent Bazemore) playing through nagging injuries under closely-monitored minutes, Atlanta returns to the Highlight Factory rested and in position to put other teams in a sour mood, for a change. They can work toward clinching a playoff seed, and simultaneously screw with the desired seeds of others. Tonight, they can also plant a seed into the minds of the Celtics, one that suggests they won’t want the course toward the Eastern Conference Finals to have to come back through the ATL. To that end, a quick flashback. “After he led the Celtics to the second round, the so-called doubters have been very quiet regarding this 5-9 PG.” No, these aren’t tweets from the future, that was SLAM Magazine’s momentary lede for Isaiah Thomas’ entry into the #SLAMTop50 preseason player rankings, an October 2016 entry scripted by a diehard Celtics fan that should have known better. Fake News! But for a certain Squawker’s relentless nagging, that Alternative Fact would have gone unchallenged and uncorrected, if only because it “felt right” to the larger populace (Edited to… “After he led the Celtics to a 48-win season…” Wow, that sure silenced those haters!). Months later, SLAM is hoping to redeem itself by plastering Thomas, a player with a 2-8 postseason record over two of his six NBA seasons, on the new Playoff Preview cover of their rag. Seven years prior, the magazine breathlessly pinned their hopes on another high-scoring playoff newcomer. “BREAKOUT: Brandon Jennings Rocks the NBA”. Well, to an extent: the rookie’s Bucks rocked the Hawks in three unwatchable games during a first-round series, before bidding adieu in the pivotal Game 7. Now in 2017, Jennings’ next real chance of winning his first playoff game since that 2010 series needs to occur while hiding behind John Wall. Thomas can only hope his cover modeling doesn’t go the way of Jeff Francoeur or the Upton Boys. But that’s part of the reason he wooed Al Horford to Beantown in the first place. His whole idea was, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Poach ‘Em!” But with first place in the East on the line at TD Garden, the center endowed with the second-highest salary in the NBA could only muster six shots, seven rebounds, and three dimes over the course of 27 minutes last night. Another first-round exit, this time as a favored seed, could have I.T. pondering just how long he and Al Green should stay together. The TNT studio crew will spend ample time yapping about the Celtics’ ascension toward the top of the East, a couple minutes about last night’s loss, maybe a minute dismissing the Hawks for their lackluster efforts, and not a nanosecond about what transpired the last time these two teams faced off. Combining a balanced offensive attack with decent perimeter D (the Celts shooting 29.4 3FG%) and a smothering rebounding advantage, the Hawks shot just 6-for-25 on threes in Boston yet still cruised to a 114-98 victory back on February 27. Atlanta pounded Boston 60-34 in the paint, and was 40-for-70 on all shots inside the 3-point-arc, compared to the Men in Green’s 24-for-53. Millsap (8 first-quarter rebounds, 10 third-quarter points) and Howard (9 second-quarter points) encountered little resistance collecting double-doubles in that game (much like LeBron and Kevin Love yesterday), and Atlanta managed to coast from midway through the third period on without their starting center. Dwight got the heave-ho from the zebras after collecting two petty technical fouls, one drawn thanks to Al’s fake-tough-guy dramatics, another from trying to collect the rim as a souvenir after an easy dunk. Getting next-to-no help from Horf (3-for-9 FGs, incl 0-for-4 on threes, six rebounds, five assists), Thomas (4-for-21 FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 27) needed about half of his 17 misses to fall, just to keep his team in the running. His Hawks adversary, Schröder (9-for-11 2FGs @ BOS on Feb. 27) amassed just two turnovers in nearly 30 minutes while leading the Hawks with 21 points. Thanks to ball control and transition offense, the Hawks’ 25-11 scoring advantage off turnovers was the key difference in that game. Avery Bradley (1.3 SPG) hopes to tip the turnover game back in his team’s favor. He had just returned to face the Hawks after missing over a quarter of the season with an Achilles injury, and was minutes-restricted to less than one half of play. Serving doubly as the C’s second-leading scorer (16.4 PPG, 39.8 3FG%) and top perimeter defender (Marcus Smart’s flopping shenanigans notwithstanding), there’s little doubt that Bradley is the secret to the Celtics’ sauce. Along with Smart, he’ll be tasked with forcing Schröder and Hardaway (who joined Howard with 5 TOs apiece during Sunday’s 91-82 loss in Brooklyn) into uncomfortable shots and fruitless drives. On offense, Thomas will look to Bradley often to help bounce back from Thursday night’s loss, Bradley having shot just 1-for-8 from the field against the Cavs; Jae Crowder, Horford and Gerald Green to a lesser extent. Back in that February 27 game, Atlanta cruised in the final frame thanks to solid wing play, specifically from Bazemore (9 fourth-quarter points) and Taurean Prince (5 fourth-quarter rebounds). Despite falling behind by double digits, Boston was unable to take more than three three-point shots in the fourth, not even making one until 28 seconds remained in the game with the Hawks up by 19. Atlanta has only scored 114 points once since beating the Celtics; coincidentally, it was during a 135-130 home loss to Cleveland, back on March 3. Even if the iron remains unkind, the Hawks must again maximize their chances against an opportunistic Celtics club. In addition to Schröder and the Hawks’ ballhandlers not forcing plays that aren’t there, and Howard dominating the vacuum around the boards, that means staying tight defensively on any Celtics camping out along the perimeter, goading Thomas (31.0 FG% vs. ATL) into premature heroball jumpers, and guards helping the bigs seal off the paint only after shots go up. The inability for Celtic wings and point guards to help secure rebounds and second-chances puts pressure on Horford to play like the All-Star talent he’s paid to be. April 2016: “Horford, as much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player,” says Celtics blowhard legend Tommy Heinsohn. April 2017: Al receives the Red Auerbach Award, bestowed upon the player who “best exemplifies the spirit of what it means to be a Celtic.” Tonight, and perhaps in a couple weeks, the Hawks could find themselves a perfect situation to demonstrate just how true that statement is. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record