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  1. “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
  2. “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
  3. 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
  4. “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
  5. “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
  6. “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
  7. “…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
  8. “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
  9. Charania with the ShamWow for the day. Watch his space. ~lw3
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. “You’ve got a ways to go to become as famous as me, kid!” In July 1776, George Washington dispatched a messenger to travel from Philadelphia to Boston, and along the way, the messenger parked his horse at a tavern in Worcester. There, the messenger met a young lad who impressed him with his oratory skills and experience in the newspaper publishing biz. It didn’t take much prodding before the messenger allowed the gentleman to gather the local tavern patrons around. And on that day, the newly-scripted Declaration of Independence was read aloud, for the first time anywhere in New England, in enthralling fashion, by one Isaiah Thomas. That “I.T.” was a mere 26 years of age, and by the time he reached his powder-wigged eighties, Thomas would have established a publishing empire, everything from almanacs to journals to Bibles. Before even this, he reported the first accounts of Revolutionary War battles at Lexington and Concord. He wrote the first extensive book on the history of American publishing. And he founded the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), the oldest historical society focused on national history in the United States. That society hangs an 1818 portrait of Isaiah prominently in its Worcester library, and a detailed plaque of his achievements lie with him in a nearby cemetery. These days, an AAS-hired actor dressed as Isaiah Thomas goes around Worcester schools to teach history to fifth-graders. You can see why this Isaiah Thomas is the Most Famous Isaiah Thomas in Massachusetts, and why a modern-day Isaiah, he of the Atlanta Hawks’ opposing hosts tonight, the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; You Don’t Wanna Know in BOS), has a lot of work cut out if he ever intends to take over that mantle. Without glancing at Wikipedia, the most famous Dennis Schröder in world history probably resides in Georgia. But to keep “famous” from turning into “infamous” (like another Isaiah who once played around these parts), Dennis has a lot of maturing to do. Yes, it is March 2017, and we are still out here talking about people’s moms. Schröder was pressed by the Boston media to deny Isaiah Thomas’ denial, from over a month ago, that Mutter Schro had some disparaging references directed at her through her progeny. This ain’t exactly the Lincoln-Douglas Debates here. Dennis (from Jan. 13 to today: 43.1 FG%, 28.8 3FG%, 6.4 APG, 3.0 TOs/game) remains the Hawks’ future. But he is incapable of excelling in the present while dwelling on the past. The same cannot be said of Thomas (29.7 PPG, 2nd in NBA; 91.1 FT%, 3rd in NBA; career-high 38.5 3FG% and 52.4 3FG%), the All-Star guard who practically bathes in his own history. Did you know Isaiah was the last player selected when he was drafted in 2011? Did you know how he was disregarded by the brilliant minds in Sacramento? Do you know how hard he has to work every day just to make a name for himself in this league, given his diminutive size? Why, of course you knew. He probably just reminded you himself. Dennis couldn’t resist digging up the Five Fingers to the Face question asked by Thomas way back during Game 3 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals, as an example of how “not professional” Thomas can be as a player. He tried to drag Thabo Sefolosha into the discussion as a witness to Thomas’ unbearable atrocities. Sefolosha, to his credit, backed Schröder but claimed Veteran’s Amnesia about the January beef. Guess who’s going to win the war of words in the public eye? Hint: it’s not the homie who shot 2-for-11 and registered three assists in 22 minutes at home on national television against a vaunted foe. Not the dude who got benched in that whole fourth quarter (and the end of the third), leaving Kent Bazemore and Malcolm Delaney exposed for Thomas’ late-game and last-second heroics to escape Philips Arena with a 103-101 Celtics victory. It won’t be the feller whose team has gone 10-10, riding a three-game blowout losing streak, since the two teams last tipped off, his opponent tonight having gone 14-6 in that same span. And it sure won’t be the guy who makes First to Leave, Last to Arrive his mantra, making his lack of punctuality the one current topic about the Hawks that’s remotely interesting to the general public. Schröder’s recent benchings don’t quite beckon the antacids Hawks fans popped over that other hoopster named Isaiah, a future-star hopeful who smoked his way through 60 games before getting waived back at the turn of the millennium, ostensibly for arriving late to games. But these lapses are concerning enough to raise alarm bells about the focus and direction of the whole Basketball Club. Mike Budenholzer remains resolute that his team only needs the likes of Malcolm Delaney, plus some patchwork from Bazemore, Junior Hardaway, recently-released Lamar Patterson and/or rookie DeAndre’ Bembry, to back up Schröder (8 assists and 1 TO, but 4-for-17 FGs off the bench vs. ORL on Saturday) whenever his lead guard doesn’t have his head where it needs to be. The dearth of movement on offense and the lack of enhanced perimeter closeouts on defense (12.8 opponent 3FGs per game in February, 2nd-most in NBA) belie Coach Bud’s assertions. On this team, barring some surprise roster addition, the best alternative to a poor Dennis Schröder is a laser-focused Dennis Schröder. Beyond the player himself, it is on this coaching staff to get his head screwed on straight, and keep it there, if the Hawks seriously intend to become what they claim they could be by season’s end. Al Horford (6 assists, 1 TO @ ATL on Jan. 13) isn’t around Atlanta to direct traffic anymore. The “center” is scoring and rebounding less (14.2 PPG, 6.6 APG) in his first season in Beantown than he did in any full season since 2008-09 with the Hawks. But with the knowledge that Jeff Teague was on the outs, and given his familiarity with Schröder’s resolve after several seasons together, he is probably thrilled about the decision he made to hop onto Thomas’ bandwagon this past summer. Because of his ability to set up his teammates efficiently (career-high 4.9 APG, NBA-high among centers; 1.7 TOs/game), you get zero complaints from Chowderheads about the Son of Tito and his accompanying $26.5 million price tag. Horford’s Atlanta counterpart, Dwight Howard (6.7 assist%, lowest since playing with Kobe in 2012-13) has struggled with the concept of moving the ball unless it’s an outlet pass. The essence of Budball is neutered not only when the guards are more focused on gazes, shimmies, and Yo Momma slights, but also when the center is almost exclusively receiving the ball in the paint for lob attempts and hurried shots before the hacks arrive. Dwight (3 assists in past 7 games) is averaging 40.5 passes per game, as per SportVu data, which ranks 11th in the league among centers. But of the 12 pivots averaging over 40 passes dished out, only the recently injured Joakim Noah (23.4) receives fewer passes from teammates than Howard (25.4 per game), Utah’s Rudy Gobert (29.9) the only other member of that group receiving the rock less than 30 times. The inactivity in feeding the post, by Schröder and his motley crew of fellow ballhandlers, and setting up for kickouts, engenders a predictable, stifling, dull offensive approach for Atlanta (February: 100.3 O-Rating, 28th in NBA; 1.35 assist/TO, 24th in NBA) that opponents love to exploit. If your center is fully engaged in a vibrant offense, he doesn’t become single-minded on the floor, unlikely to commit four fouls in the first half of play. The Celtics have played well enough for GM Danny Ainge to sit on his plum stash of future draft picks through the trade deadline, allowing coach Brad Stevens to continue to build on the team chemistry with the current roster. Coach Bud’s Hawks, conversely, have been shuffling in a cavalcade of rookies and recent arrivals into his rotations, while even core players (Schröder, Millsap and Howard, specifically) are still working through the kinks among themselves. There will be little time for Atlanta to sort things out. After facing Thomas, and hosting Dallas on Wednesday, the upcoming homestand proceeds with names like Kyrie, Teague, Curry, and Lowry swinging by Philips Arena, in short order. Dennis hopes to become a heralded All-star name, like the aforementioned, at some point down the road. But to get there anytime soon, his team needs victories, versus good and bad teams alike. To get them, The Menace needs to take control of his actions and mindset, on and off the court. When you show up late to buses and practices, you give away any right to expound upon who is and isn’t a “professional” in your line of work. There is no more time to get roiled about opponent’s misdeeds and ill words. For Dennis and the Hawks, it is past time to show up (on time!) and show out, beginning tonight at TD Garden. It would be a shame if, decades from now, some techno-pop DJ wizard from Wurzburg turns Atlanta’s point guard into “That other Dennis Schröder.” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “And, in 2017, I’ll pillage your rebounders, too, Atlanta!” The greatest enemy to the Atlanta Hawks franchise is in town this weekend. By any legal means necessary, this man MUST be stopped. “How about bringing the @ ATLHawks to Seattle!!!!?” That was Cincinnati-born, Richmond-raised, Seattle-spoonfed Russell Wilson in 2014, butting his nose where it didn’t belong, during the very height of Deng Fever plaguing our beloved basketball team, tweeting from 2,635 miles away. Oh, great. Why not call them the @ SEAHawks once they get to the Emerald City, Russ? “#Supersonics I vote yes!” Nobody even asked you, you sponge-haired freak! The second-highest-rated QB in NFL history (the top-rated QB ever arrives here the following week) forgot that he needed to stick to football. For that, his reprimand will be getting Vic-timized on Saturday, as his season draws to a fitting conclusion – once again – in the Georgia Dome. Ciara, please, come get your boy! Right down the street this weekend – tonight, in fact – there’s a Sea-Tac native who, likewise, could stand to learn a lesson about meddling in Atlanta Hawks affairs. He’s easy to find if you look down, as he’s rocking a Seachickens hoodie around town today. The star of the visiting Boston Celtics (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Save Yourself the Agony in BOS; ESPN everywhere else), Isaiah Thomas had been whispering sweet nothings in the ear of Al Horford, ever since the longtime Atlanta pivot interrupted his winter break to head to the 2016 All-Star Game. Then, Isaiah swooped in during free agency and helped GM Danny Ainge (I hope his finger still hurts) pry him from the pragmatic Hawks’ clutches. Here’s what this coup was supposed to do. It was supposed to kneecap the team that ultimately punked Thomas and the upstart Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Their ploy was to move the Hawks out of the way, for good, clearing the path for Boston’s ascension back into championship relevance. Further, Horford’s presence was supposed to woo Kevin Durant away from OKC, forming a Superteam that could rival contenders like, oh, say, the Warriors. Theoretically, acquiring the top PF-C in the free agent class was supposed to make the Celts a more serious rebounding team. And, with Horford joining forces with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and ATLien rookie Jaylen Brown, Boston could formally seize Atlanta’s place as the top defensively-efficient team in the East. Farewell, Atlanta, good luck with your fire sale. Look out, Cleveland, here we come! Add a $26.5 million big man and stir, that was the grand plan in Beantown. A few months into the season, how is that working for them? The pre-Horford Celtics of 2016 finished with 48 wins. The Horford-infused Celtics of 2017 (24-15) are currently on pace for… 50 wins! Wow, quelle différence! LeBron is quaking, I’m sure. The 2016 Celtics finished the regular season sixth in total rebounds per game, but 26th in D-Reb%. They added Al, and they’ve somehow managed to get even worse: 25th in team RPG, dead-last (30th) in D-Reb%. Gee, do they miss Jared Sullinger that much? Perchance, they’re still waiting for Durant to arrive? Boston’s leading per-game defensive rebounder? No, don’t look at Al (5.3 RPG), nor Kelly Olynyk, nor Amir Johnson, nor Jonas Jerebko, not Tyler Zeller. Try on Avery Bradley (5.9 RPG) for size – at 180 pounds, the lightest player (Thomas included) on the Celtics’ roster. Unfortunately, he has been out recently with a strained Achilles, and is not available for tonight’s game. Celts fans are self-assured that Bradley’s injury in Game 1 of last year’s postseason series with Atlanta was the difference between winning and losing. Without Bradley or Zeller (sinus infection) around, Toronto had not one (Jonas Valanciunas, with 23), but two (DeMar DeRozan, with 13) players enjoying career-highs in rebounds, as the Raptors stormed past the C’s on Tuesday night. The only other NBA team with under a 74.0 D-Reb%, besides Boston? You guessed it. Toronto. The next night, despite Boston prevailing at TD Garden, each of the Wizards’ five starters, and bench man Jason Smith, wrested at least two offensive boards away. Among the Celtics’ frontline, further shorthanded without Johnson (ankle, questionable for tonight) around, only Crowder could muster a physical response. But the reaction only came after the game, and was a bit too on-the-nose. When it comes to defense, the Celtics are indeed making history… just, not in the way they anticipated. Their team defensive rating (105.8 opponent points per 100 possessions, 20th in NBA) is presently the storied organization’s worst since the 15-67 squad coached up by M.L. Carr back in 1996-97. Yes, the rock-bottom team that had its bosses assuaging fans: “Relax, we’ll be good again soon. Rick Pitino is coming to fix everything!” After Boston started out its first seven games with the league’s worst defensive efficiency (112.3 D-Rating), all it took was an uptick in December (not long after Horford returned from concussion protocol) for a writer for to declare, in his article’s title, “C’s Becoming Elite Defensive and Rebounding Team.” No, not “Lite”… not “Effete”… “Elite” was no typo. Such scribbles are emblematic of an organization, from Ainge to Tommy Heinsohn and right on down, that makes its living blowing smoke up gullible people’s patooties. Their logo does wink at you while gnawing on a pipe, though, so no one can say they weren’t warned. Clawing their way out of their mid-season malaise, during Atlanta’s current winning streak (since Dec. 28) the Hawks have produced a league-best 96.1 D-Rating, something few individuals paid to write about such things outside of the ATL has bothered to mention. In the same period, those “Becoming Elite” Celts have bested only the Kings, Nuggets, and Pistons with their 111.8 D-Rating (27th in NBA). $enor Horford… what do you have to say for yourself? “I need to get rebounds when I can,” stated Horford as quoted in the “Elite” article, probably nasally, “but my priority is to box my man out, and make sure we hold the team to one shot.” While the Horford-less Hawks allow 13.6 second-chance points per-48 (8th-most in NBA), they score 14.1 (6th-most in NBA) themselves. And the Horford-full Celtics have given up 13.9 (5th-most in NBA), outscored on that basis by 1.9 points per-48. It’s all scheme, you see. The “Elite” author explains that Boston coach Brad Stevens wants his big men to clear the lane by boxing out… so that the Guards (which explains Bradley, to a lesser extent Smart) can swoop in and grab the boards themselves. On a per-36 basis, there are 10 Celtics averaging between 4.9 and 6.1 defensive rebounds. Al insists he’s following the directives of not only his current coach, but his former one, too. “I remember that Bud in Atlanta was like, ‘I don’t care if you get two rebounds. I just want you to box out and our guards will figure it out. We need them to be great at rebounding for us to be a good team.’” Even if that’s a mild exaggeration (was Korver ever close to “great” at rebounding?), might it be that Al Horford’s replacement on the Hawks isn’t Dwight Howard after all, but Mike Muscala? Is Moose Al’s power animal, or vice versa? Super-sibling Anna Horford has her brother’s team diagnosed. “…The C’s need a true center. We need Al at the 4,” she tweeted a couple weeks ago, laying to rest where La Familia Horford’s perceptions lie about his willingness to play to his size in the post. Anna expounded, “Adding some more height/solid backup would help tremendously.” Maybe another $26 million or so should be budgeted toward this expense. What do you say, Coach Brad? “It’s a good question,” Stevens said to the Springfield Republican before the Wizards game. “I’ve said it all year, we’re not going to win many rebounding battles. If we can manage it, then we have a chance to win.” Little defense, little rebounding, few problems. Right, Coach Brad? “If we’re the same in April as we are now, we’re in trouble,” foreboded Stevens, before Tuesday night’s loss to the Raps. Professional pundits, where are the alarm bells? Records don’t matter, right? If you can’t make stops, can’t board, can’t fathomably beat Cleveland or Toronto (0-4 versus those two clubs this season) in a series, aren’t you supposed to be “blowing it up”? Isn’t that how this works? Doesn’t somebody out there need Olynyk, or Amir, or Bradley, to fashion themselves a serious contender for LeBron’s crown? Instead of a hot stove in Boston, ESPN is pushing Stevens as a hot candidate for the All-Star Game (T-Lue can’t coach it, per rules, so it’s up to a mid-season race for second place in the East). “That would be big,” said Thomas (28.2 PPG and 90.5 FT%, 4th in NBA), the Mighty Mouse with the mightier mouth, said to ESPN prior to Tuesday’s game. “Not just for (Stevens), but for this organization and the direction we’re going in. Hopefully, we can make that happen for him.” Stevens draws a lot of praise, just for quickly making Boston playoff-relevant again. The fourth-year coach senses, though, that more important than some mid-season honor is avoiding another first-round washout this spring, especially at the hands of hardly-hyped teams like the Hawks. Without at least a series victory, anything Stevens sells will wind up smelling like his initials. The burning question, then, is, how far can his self-made All-Star point guard carry this flawed team? “Right behind Westbrook and Harden” is where Isaiah says he sees himself among the MVP contenders. Defense allegedly wins championships, yet Thomas (437th out of 437 players in Defensive Real Plus/Minus, as tabulated by ESPN without much fanfare, and Player #436 is not even close) knows that his best defense – his only defense – is a hella-good offense (8th out of 437 in Offensive RPM). Isaiah (110.2 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA w/ min. 30 minutes per game) is wagering that his ability to score and draw fouls off dribble penetration (NBA-high 10.1 PPG off drives) while assisting on three-point shots (Celts 3rd in 3FG attempts per game) is more than enough to outweigh the decidedly negative impact of his presence on the defensive side of the floor. Thomas can posture and pose about his animosities toward the marquee lead guards in the East. But there is undoubtedly one, and only one, point guard whose face he has pinned to a dartboard somewhere. Thomas (24.2 PPG but 39.5 FG% in 2016 Playoffs) was supposed to be the only gnat on the floor during last year’s playoff series with the Hawks. Yet here he was in Game 3, frustrated, swatting Dennis Schröder across the head after the backup guard scored another layup against him. The refs acted blind to that, but not when Dennis retaliated with a hip check on the next possession, T’ing up both guards. Isaiah would be punished with a Flagrant-1 later by the league. “If he doesn’t slap me in the head, we’ll be fine,” quipped Dennis during pregame warmups. Don’t let Jae “boop” you, either! 2016 was supposed to be Thomas’ playoff coming-out party, and were it not for Schröder, the Hawks might very well have obliged. Instead, Dennis closed out Game 6 in Boston with a flourish of plays at both ends, and all a flummoxed Thomas could do is front when his season came to a screeching halt. “We’ll meet you in the back,” Isaiah warned Dennis after the game. “We” who? You and your secret pal Al? “In the back” half of next season? Whether shooting or passing off drives, there is relatively little difference between Thomas’ and Schröder’s effectiveness. Where Thomas stands out is in how much more frequently he draws whistles from the refs. Dennis (7.9 PPG off drives, 5th in NBA) draws personal fouls in just 8.2 percent of his drives, 2nd-lowest among the NBA’s 25 most-frequent playmakers on those plays, leading to 1.8 fewer free throw attempts per game than Thomas (fouls called on 15.0 percent of his drives). Schröder (20.0 PPG, 41.7 3FG%, and 6.6 APG during 7-game win streak; 19 points, 10 assists, no turnovers vs. BRK) is fully capable of beating Thomas incessantly off the dribble, drawing help and finding open teammates. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry hung out on the perimeter when Thomas got lost on Tuesday, burying 5 of his 6 three-point attempts to go along with 9 assists. On Wednesday, the Celtics helped Thomas with John Wall (4-for-21 FGs), but the Wizards point guard still dished out 10 assists while committing just one turnover. Get a bead on Thomas, and as Jeff Teague might say, it’s “Too Little, Too Late” for Isaiah. Brown (ankle) and Johnson will each try to go tonight, providing Horford some reinforcements at the forward positions. In any case, Stevens might continue to start Jordan Mickey at center and leave the starting 4-spot to the desirous Horford, who ought to have a decent-sized dossier on Paul Millsap by now. Sap, conversely, has seen Ye Olde Jab Step enough times to know not to bite. Millsap’s field goal shooting is at a career-low 43.7 FG% (including a pedestrian 47.6 2FG%). But that’s somewhat to be expected, given his newest starting frontcourt mate lives and thrives in the lane, drawing defenders further inward. Even alongside Howard (7.3 post touches per game, 3rd in NBA; 0.99 points per post touch, best among 5 most frequent NBA players for post touches), Paul’s 17.6 PPG remains the best in the past three seasons, plus he’s passing the ball more confidently than ever (career-high 4.0 assists per-36; Hawks-tenure-low 2.3 TOs per-36). On top of that, Paul’s arguably more effective as a two-man tandem defensively alongside Dwight (league-best 95.1 D-Rating as a two-man lineup; +7.4 Net Rating; Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha’s 95.2 ranks 2nd) than he was in the past three seasons with Al (100.3 D-Rating in 2015-16; +4.4 Net Rating). Boston’s top 2-Man pairing is Horford and Crowder (+5.8). Whichever frontcourt starter doesn’t draw Horford should be capable of feasting against Mickey, Jerebko, Olynyk, or the injury-slowed Johnson. The C’s can only switch and help but so much, given the need to provide cover for Thomas. Dominating the boards will be crucial against a Celtics team that is 12-0 when they snag more than 49% of the available rebounds. On offense, spreading Atlanta’s bigs onto each side of the floor, and having Tim Hardaway, Jr. (62.1 3FG%, 17.2 PPG in January) and/or Muscala (5-for-9 January 3FGs) chipping in with some perimeter shots off the bench, would provide a cornucopia of options to help the Hawks’ point guards excel tonight. Outscoring Isaiah is not as important as out-producing him as a distributor and a defender. Building up a cushion through three quarters will prove useful when Thomas shows up for his end-of-game (NBA-high fourth-quarter 9.8 PPG) stat-padding. Directing Isaiah, as a ballhandler, toward the sidelines, and keeping him from picking up cheap shooting fouls, will make things simpler for Atlanta at closing time. There will be plenty of green representation in the Philips Arena stands tonight, especially Boston clover green, and Seattle neon green, egging on Isaiah and the Celtics. But on 70s throwback night, the only greens that matter are lime and volt. The Hawks (just 10-7 at home) benefited from a spread-out schedule over their past ten games (21 days), versus a mostly struggling array of opponents. While the upcoming games are more home-friendly, the next ten games are condensed into 16 days. They’ve won enough of late to earn themselves a bubble in the conference standings, but a win tonight would go a long way toward helping the Hawks climb up a tier, and further away from the Eastern Conference Crab Barrel (5th through 11th seeds) that’s 2.5-to-5.5 games behind them. Boston, meanwhile, is eager to get a win for Not-so-Big Al, and desperate to avoid slipping into the barrel themselves. You can count on any of Thomas, flop-meister Marcus Smart, or the Villa Rican villain, Crowder, instigating in hopes of some retaliation that thins Atlanta’s ranks, either to beat the Hawks tonight, or to induce suspensions that might cost the Hawks a game or two in the standings. Atlanta’s players are experienced enough against this outfit, hopefully, to know not to fall for any Celtic shenanigans. Based on current trends, even with Horford having moved to Boston, even with Thomas magnifying himself, even with Ainge hoarding a truckload of draft picks, thanks largely to the improving play of Schröder, it’s really Atlanta’s Future that’s looking bright. Wouldn’t you concur, Russ? Speaking of Dennis the Menace... Hey, Mister Wilson! I’ve got a novel idea for you. Since you seem so concerned, once your fellow Sea-hag Isaiah shoots his way into a big-money contract, how about you pair up with him, and buy out Wyc Grousbeck and company? I’ve got just the perfect name when you poach an NBA team back to the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Sea-eltics! I vote Yes!!!! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “Never Forget…” Any Way You Want It, That’s The Way We Need It. Any Way You Want It… Atlanta Hawks fans have gone on many a Journey with their favorite NBA squad over the past five-plus decades. Whether you’ve been Ryde-or-Die with them for fifty-plus years, or just hopped on board in the perennial playoff era of the last ten, you’ve built up quite a Bucket List in that time. High up on that list, the Hawks can, tonight, cross off a to-do that’s lingered seemingly forever: go into the house of the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Go app, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT for the locally-impaired), and send them packing for the summer. Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, Fred Jones, Mickael Pietrus, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert. Guess what they all have crossed off their Bucket Lists? All of them have hit big shots to help eliminate the Celtics, and they did it in Beantown. Not only that, they were among six different NBA teams that left Tommy Heinsohn sobbing into his Sam Adams on the TD Garden sideline in just the past 15 years alone. Shumpert and J.R. Smith took care of business in Boston, on two different teams in the previous three seasons. Jason Kidd has gotten it done thrice, as an in-his-prime Net and a past-his-prime Knick. How about our old wayfaring friend Anthony Johnson? He’s been-there-done-that FOUR times, with THREE different NBA teams (not the Hawks, obvs). It’s a bit like skydiving. It looks challenging, and it is. But after you’ve see George H.W. Bush willingly jump out a plane every five years or so, not so much. “Not Magic, or Doctor J, it’s Andrew Toney that keeps me awake at night!” So reportedly claimed Matthew Dellavedova’s power animal, current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, back in the 1980s, about which player worried him most whenever playoff time rolled around. Atlanta is chock-full-o’ Toney-caliber players. But which ones are willing to emerge tonight as the Hawks’ Boston Strangler? Could it be Al Horford (last 3 games: 27.6 FG%, 6.3 PPG), who apparently needs to see his shadow before coming out offensively against what should be an overmatched Celtics frontline? Rumored to be quietly managing a groin strain, Horford has been distributing the ball well (5.0 APG, 0.7 TOs per game) in those last three appearances, but needs to be less passer, and less passive, in Game 6. In his rookie year of 2008, in an injury-riddled season of 2012, Al’s playoff odysseys came to an end in this building. Closing out the C’s here tonight with an impressive All-Star-quality effort should be Shoni-Schimmel-huge in importance to the upcoming free agent big man. Could it be Paul Millsap, who did not need a monumental scoring effort in Game 5, but has had two of the greatest individual performances of his career against these Celtics in this month alone? A double-barreled blast of Millsap and Horford would go a long way toward finally getting these Hawks over this little hump (a pellet or two of Big Hump wouldn’t hurt, either). Paul knows all about apparitions, and he’s even not talking about the ones that have chased the Hawks around Boston for eons. “I think we learned that when we have a team down, it keeps coming back. It’s like a haunted ghost, it keeps coming after us,” Millsap noted, shortly after his team petered away a 16-point second-half lead in Boston along the way to a Game 4 OT loss. “We’ve had opportunities to put people away all year and haven’t gotten it done for whatever reason. And now’s the time to learn that lesson and try to implement it.” The Hawks went small (an adjustment, from coach Mike Budenholzer? Is this real life?) and Mike Scott (7-for-9 FGs in Game 5), Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore (4-for-9 3FGs in Game 5) and Thabo Sefolosha flipped the script on the Celtics in the second quarter on Tuesday. But an eerie hand rose from the crypt in the second half, when Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger hit shots to whittle Atlanta’s double-digit lead down to five. Who you gonna call? To bury the Green Goblins for good, Atlanta went with two graveyard shifts, one featuring Teague, Kyle Korver (16 3FGs, 3rd-most in Playoffs), and Horford, then one led by reserves Dennis Schröder, Scott, and Sefolosha. The Hawks widened the lead to 17 by the close of the third quarter and finally heeded Boston the Band’s sage advice: Don’t Look Back. On the road for the final time in this series, the Hawks will need the same collective focus and poise tonight, to make the spirited Celtics get ghost and notch Atlanta’s first playoff victory on Boston’s parquet floor since 1988. As Millsap said, now is the time to “put people away,” and Coach Bud has had ample time to figure out the rotations to get it done. Paul at least sounds like he kinda gets it. Referring to the blown leads, “it reaches a certain point where if something constantly keeps happening, it’s who you are, he said. “And it’s not who we are. We want to be better than that.” Both teams have had enough experience in this series alone to know their opponents Don’t Stop Believin’ just because a big run has them mired in a mid-game hole. Isaiah Thomas won’t exactly be standing there with Open Arms, ready to embrace a season-ending loss in front of his legions of newfound fans. A surefire future stand-in for actor J.D. Williams, Thomas is concerned about not just the agony of defeat, but the agony of Da Feet, his ankle having twisted up like an Auntie Anne’s on National Pretzel Day. Still, there’s no way Thomas is going to let Teague and Schröder, the latter having successfully shaken off an ankle injury in this series himself, dictate the proceedings tonight. It probably peeves the Hawks’ lead guards that Thomas, after struggling through most of Games 1 and 2, was receiving inspirational texts from a longtime ATL-area resident, diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson. Our Hawks can barely get life advice from Latrell Sprewell, much less encouragement from our local NBA retirees. “Keep fighting,” Thomas reported A.I. advised him after Game 2. “(The Hawks) did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta. Now, it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.” Dude, were you not a 76er? What in Billy Penn’s name are you doing, cheering up a Celtic, of all people? No more endless TGI Friday’s appetizers around here for you, Bubba Chuck! While Thomas has enjoyed counsel from Hall of Fame-caliber guards, his favorite hoops mentor is always forthcoming with advice, and fortunately, there’s one particular insight that has helped Atlanta adequately defend Thomas at home in this series. “Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips I can’t tell you guys about,” hinted Winning Isaiah, after dropping a career-high 42 points on Atlanta in Game 3. But prior to Game 5, Isiah-without-the-extra-A Thomas expertly illustrated on NBATV how the Celtics star is in the catbird seat whenever he can barrel down the middle of the floor, ball in hand. Zeke showed that when a small but quick guard like Thomas can drive from the center of the court toward the paint, he’s got the most direct path to the hoop, he has optimal vision of what’s happening on each side of the floor, he can use his dribble to keep his on-ball defenders guessing on direction, he can create confusion among help defenders, and he can improve the likelihood of drawing fouls. The Hawks were at their defensive best in Game 5, and in Games 1 and 2, when they denied Thomas (NBA-leading 17.2 drives per game in playoffs, five more than second-place Teague) access to the middle of the court. Instead, they met him at half-court and funneled his activity toward the corners, where it’s easier to trap him and coax him into deferring the ball. When Thomas played off-ball, the Hawks maintained their emphasis on denying him the rock at the top of the 3-point arc. Neutralizing this aspect of Thomas’ game put the onus on his teammates to get open and execute plays before the Hawks’ defenders could properly rotate. His floormates did that quite well at home. But after repeatedly failing to replicate that effort on the road, it is Thomas Who’s Crying Now. “(Atlanta’s) game plan was to let the Other Guys beat us. It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates for (Atlanta) to put two (defenders) on the ball every time I have it,” Thomas grumbled after Game 5. “Other Guys have to step up and make plays. That’s what it comes down to. If (the Hawks) try and do it again in Game 6 (and they will), it comes down to Other Guys making plays. I’m just going to get the ball out as quickly as possible out of the trap.” When the finger-pointing point guard finds himself stuck in the AT&L phone booth, the Other Guys he calls upon ought to include Marcus Smart (7 first-quarter points in Game 5), who has drawn champagne throughout this series from his dry-well of a jumpshot, but can afford to create more havoc on baseline drives to the hoop. Those Other Guys also include Amir Johnson (65.6 FG% this series, 3rd in NBA), who must get post touches and make Millsap more of a man-defender than a helper, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Smart and Turner (16 playoff TOs, most in East) must keep the ball moving, and need to consider the option of dishing the ball right back to Thomas in the event they can catch a trapping Hawks defender sagging back to his main assignment. Did someone mention poise earlier? When you’ve got a cornered animal, you don’t need Dennis Schröder poking it. Schröder (4-for-7 FGs in Game 5, just one TO in 14 minutes) must treat Game 6 as Dellavedova Practice, and ignore any wolf tickets Thomas and the Celts wish to sell. Boston will try to play Atlanta’s ball-handlers physically in hopes of reactions that draw the undivided attention of the Step-Brothers (referees Scott Foster and Tony Brothers). While Boston tries to get subcutaneous, both to rattle Schröder into making mistakes and simply to motivate themselves, Dennis can be enough of a Menace by adhering to his defensive principles and having a sound, multi-dimensional plan in mind when he drives to the hoop. There’s no time to get in the last dig, it’s simply time to put people away. Building off five steals from Korver, and three from Sefolosha in less than 20 minutes of action, Atlanta finally established a significant turnover advantage (20 for Boston, 12 for Atlanta) in Game 5. Failure to secure 50/50 balls in the opening quarter had the Hawks slow out of the starting blocks, but the amped-up activity after Atlanta’s opening 18 minutes (18 points, 70 in the next 18 minutes of the 110-83 win) helped blow the game open. That must continue in Game 6 for the Hawks, including their 19-8 advantage in fastbreak points, 30-19 in assists, and 44-32 in paint points. Korver, Sefolosha, and Bazemore’s synergy at the wing spots must be evident tonight, via their abilities to defend perimeter shooters without fouling, securing defensive rebounds and sparking transition, making Thomas move more laterally and less downhill, beating their man to desirable spots at the other end, and scoring on cuts to the paint. There’s no reason to wait until Game 7 before the Hawks and Celtics have to head their Separate Ways. Even without the Celtics and the Ruins playing at TD Garden, there’d still be plenty to whet the appetites of Boston sports fans. The Pats get to make their annual draft-steals in another day or two. The Sawx are only now loosening their belts, and the MLB and MLS seasons ought to be wrapping up around the time Tom Brady returns from his deflating suspension. Celtics fans can happily turn their attention toward a summer filled with multiple first-round draft choices and free agent fascination. First-round exits are always disappointing, but easier to swallow when you’ve got 17 title banners hanging in the rafters. Back in Atlanta, there is little rush around here for anyone to turn their sights toward the Falcons, the Dream, or the Bravos (the expansion Blaze just started playing lacrosse, so, there’s that). Hawks fans have seen enough of the Celtics at the Highlight Factory, and there’s no desire to see visitors in an elimination game this weekend. Maybe save that for a later round, guys! While the Hawks dare not look ahead, they certainly wouldn’t mind Friday becoming a rest-and-recovery day, rather than preparation for an all-the-marbles Saturday Night game back home. And while they can’t acknowledge it publicly, the players are fully aware of the significance to their franchise’s history, and their own NBA legacies, if they can shake free of some longstanding Hawks Hexes tonight. So Hold Tight, Hawks Fans. Hold Tight… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “Marcus, when’s the next 2-for-1 Special at Supercuts?” The fine folks in the produce section at Whole Foods would want nothing to do with the Atlanta Hawks after coming up empty in their last trip to Boston. Rotten-tomato shooting for the better part of 3.9 quarters, wilting like lettuce on both ends of the floor as the outcome hung in the balance, and just one playoff performer (finally!) earning his celery. Add to that yet another corny overtime effort, this latest one enough of a carrot to entice the host Celtics into easily evening up this first-round NBA Playoffs series at two apiece. It’s hard for Hawks fans to be cool as cucumbers as the scene shifts back to the Highlight Factory tonight for Game 5 (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT). Particularly when their whole team looks like they could’ve had a V8. As far as Game 4 goes, to put it in my best Stefon voice, “This Game Had Everything!” Botched rebounds, botched ball handling, botched assignments, botched closeouts, botched cross-court passes, botched substitutions, blown technical free throws, blown open jumpers, blown layups, blown double-digit leads, a shumble… You know, a shumble! That thing where you have a chance to take a game-winning shot in the closing seconds, but don’t run anything resembling a play and fumble away the shot as time expires. A shumble! Atlanta’s hottest club is D’OH! But you can’t blame Paul Millsap, not this time, anyway. Awakened by the Spirits of 1988, Sap shook off his notorious playoff shackles and dropped a playoff-career-best 45 points (19-for-31 FGs) on the C’s in the Gahden, while also taking time to register 13 boards (five O-Rebs) and four swats. And thank goodness Regular Season Paul Plus finally bothered to appear on the floor, because his teammates (combined 18-for-69 FGs) were seemingly still stuck in the showers. It’s been like this for quite awhile now for the Hawks, who talk as good a game as anyone about playing together, sharing the ball and getting things done as a team instead of leaning on one or two dudes to carry the day. For all of that All for One, One for All shpiel, all you get lately is Moe, Larry, Curly and Aramis on some nights; Porthos, Athos and Shemp on others. A normally wayward jumpshooter, second-year guard Marcus Smart (7-for-15 FGs in Game 4, 3-for-8 3FGs) has stepped up and is swishing the types of shots the Hawks (9-for-37 FGs) were supposed to be making, leaving the door cracked open for Isaiah Thomas (Playoff-high 28.2 PPG, 9-for-16 FGs in Game 4) to blow through it in the clutch. The Celtics guards’ success at one end tends to discombobulate the Hawks at the other, as Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder (six TOs, 7 made and 24 missed FGs in Game 4) strive to go it alone offensively. Teague’s dish to Millsap with just over nine minutes to go, widening Atlanta’s lead to six points, was the last assist either Hawk guard could muster. In that same span, Boston’s trio of Thomas, Smart and Evan Turner connected on six dimes together, helping the Celtics turn the tables in their favor and salt the game away. Teague’s shumble (fumpshot?) shouldn’t have even been necessary, but for poor “strategery” on coach Mike Budenholzer’s part to have Kyle Korver in the game, ostensibly, for defensive purposes, while Teague sat after giving Atlanta the lead with 20 seconds to go. From the top of the key, Thomas screened around Thabo Sefolosha and treated Korver like a lamppost along his way to the hoop for the acrobatic game-tying basket, all in a manner of five seconds. The disparity in dribble-penetration, unburdened lane access, and in-paint production between Atlanta’s and Boston’s guards set the stage for the Celtics tying up this series. Despite the Hawks limiting Boston’s star to five free throws, 16 of Thomas’ 28 points came in the paint in Game 4. Smart was 3-for-6 on field goals inside, including a crucial fourth-quarter dunk while knifing unimpeded across the baseline. Meanwhile, Teague was 1-for-6 on FGs in the paint, Schröder 2-for-4 but susceptible to untimely turnovers on his drives. To flip this series back in Atlanta’s favor, the Hawks’ execution on drives and halfcourt defense by their perimeter players needs to improve significantly. While Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson (7-for-8 combined FGs in-the-paint in Game 4) were feasting inside, Al Horford (1-for-2 FGs in-the-paint, zero shots around the rim, 1-for-6 outside the paint) was content with being a center hovering around the periphery. That also needs to change for the Hawks, particularly given the iron is so unkind to Al and Paul’s teammates. Boston outscored Atlanta 52-40 in Game 4 on paint points, after being outscored by an average of 45.3-38.7 in the first 3 games of the series. While Atlanta’s transition defense has been imperfect, the Hawks did outscore Boston in points off turnovers in Games 3 and 4 (45-37 combined) despite the turnover margin being relatively even. While taking care of the rock on offense is crucial, Atlanta needs to better pressure Thomas and his mates into putting the ball on the floor, fostering the kind of indecisiveness that results in simpler strips, deflections, and interceptions. The Hawks managed just 16 points combined off Celtic turnovers in the first two games of the series at home, as did Boston. It’s unfair for anyone to rely on Millsap for another Herculean offensive performance in Game 5, but his paths to the hoop will be eased if Boston has to take Atlanta’s jumpshooting wings (Kent Bazemore 1-for-5 3FGs in Game 4; Sefolosha 0-for-3; Korver 0-for-4 in second half plus OT) seriously. Brad Stevens slipped Smart onto Millsap in the fourth quarter and slowed his roll (1-for-5 FGs) enough to give Boston the chance they needed. Coach Bud seems to have fallen back out of favor with Tim Hardaway, Jr. (four seconds in Game 4, four more than Kris Humphries) but he needs to rely on a deeper rotation in this series, exploiting what ought to be a depth advantage and minimizing the risk of foul trouble for Atlanta’s top performers. The Celtics’ media crowed about how the Hawks will fold like a crepe when it matters, but things technically won’t matter until one team gets their 3rd win tonight. Time is even more of the essence for both teams, now that LeBron is kicking back in his lair, drumming up clever ways to troll the folks who are dead certain he doesn’t drive a Kia. After blowing two chances to build an insurmountable series lead, Atlanta comes into Game 5 disappointed, yet knowing they can turn Game 6 in Beantown into an elimination game for their opponents. The problem is the visiting guys in greens know they can do the same, if they can coax the Hawks into another vegetable of a performance. Which players have the onions to shine under the pressure of primetime? Which team wants to “turnip” and produce when it really counts? Lettuce find out. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “How am I feeling? Slap happy!” Fuh-nool? Fah-neel? Feh-noil? Fan-wheel? As long as I can recall, I’ve been advised how to properly pronounce Faneuil Hall, and I still forget. Besides the marketplace, though, Boston has plenty of wonderful sites to see: the USS Constitution, Paul Revere House, Bunker Hill Monument, JFK Museum, Fenway Pahk… all in all, it’s a splendid place to visit. Once. The Atlanta Hawks have seen enough of New England in the springtime. There is no reason to plan a return trip anytime soon. That is, unless they slip up again in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Boston Celtics (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, TNT if you can stomach it). Advancing in the playoffs gets done quicker when you can prove yourself capable of beating teams in their own gym, in front of their rabid crowd. The 2015 Hawks managed to do it three times, despite blowing their own homecourt advantage, in order to earn their maiden voyage to the conference finals, however much by the skin of their beak. Every year since 2009, a visitor prevailed at Philips Arena along their path to the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting the job done in Game 4 obviates the need to do it in Game 6, and maybe the need for a Game 6 to even occur. Alas, Atlanta’s performances away from the Highlight Factory, without Sir Foster on the 1s and 2s, Harry the Hawk scrambling his eggs, or Ryan Cameron rocking the mic, have lately left much to be desired, to say nothing of their season-long results versus shorthanded teams like the Celtics (missing Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley) in Game 3. On March 28 in the Windy City, the Hawks allowed 31 first-quarter points, then surged ahead of the Bulls by 15 points midway through the third period, only to find themselves needing to hit free throws in the final four minutes just to win by two. A couple nights later in Toronto, the Hawks were outpaced for three quarters by the Raptors, before Atlanta's bench players came alive and kept the outcome from becoming a complete laugher. Coming off a successful homestand, the Hawks played a valiant game in Cleveland for all of one quarter before letting LeBron and Kyrie pull the ripcord. Two nights later, they mailed in their chance at a division title, falling flat against a Washington team fielding half of its players with little precious left to play for beyond pride. It only took one win after seven straight playoff losses, but Celtics Pride was revived on Friday night, as Isaiah Thomas (42 points, 5-for-12 3FGs, 7-for-12 2FGs) asked the Hawks’ defense what the five fingers said to the face. After the Celtics could muster just 15.5 free throw attempts per game in Atlanta, Thomas used the favorable whistles at TD Garden to his decisive advantage, getting 15 of Boston’s 33 free throw shots, and making 13 of them. Thomas will return for Game 4 despite whacking Dennis Schröder (8-for-10 2FGs, 20 points) across the mug, which is actually good news for a Hawks team that would allow air to get a triple-double. The Celtics wanted to make this series more physical, and pump-faked, flopped, and pimp-slapped their way back into contention, baiting the Hawks into their preferred style of play. Brad Stevens’ inclusion of two catalysts into the starting lineup, Evan Turner (five steals, 17 points, seven assists, five TOs in Game 3) and Jonas Jerebko (12 rebounds, four assists, in Game 3) also allowed the Celtics to shift the tone of the series. Benching slower-of-foot Jared Sullinger allowed the older but spryer Amir Johnson (7-for-8 FGs in Game 3) to have a field day around the rim and put more defensive pressure on Al Horford (4-for-7 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs in Game 3). Do-some-but-not-all-Paul! We’re now three games into the offensive black hole that has been Playoff Paul Millsap (3-for-8 2FGs, two O-Rebs in Game 3). The Hawks’ leading scorer, rebounder, ball-stealer, shot blocker and frontcourt assist-maker in the regular season hasn’t led Atlanta in much of anything in this series (31.3 FG%, 12.5 3FG%, 6th among Hawks in PPG, 3rd in RPG, 4th in APG, 3rd in SPG, 2nd in BPG). Credit the Boston defensive game plan for neutralizing Millsap’s availability as a scoring option on many possessions. But the Anchorman’s sinking contentment with being relegated to role-playing (specifically, staying back for rebounding and transition defensive purposes) is overtaxing the Hawks in many ways on the floor. Kyle Korver (5-for-9 3FGs, fouled out at critical juncture of Game 3) finds himself swiping and grasping at everything within reach. Kent Bazemore (8-for-19 FGs in Game 3) takes it upon himself to lead the team in jumpshots. Horford (team-high 6 assists, probable for Game 4 despite a groin strain) becomes the Hawks’ floor leader. Mike Muscala comes in for two minutes and is immediately jacking up shots. Isolation plays, and dribble-drives into the teeth of the Celtics defense without open outlets, become the order of the day. A lot of this extra activity is related to Millsap’s reluctance to improve his own positioning, to roll to the hoop on screens, and to demand the ball to make plays in the post. With any of Bazemore, Korver, or Thabo Sefolosha on the floor, the Hawks have ample transition defenders and help rebounders, allowing Sap more room to roam at the offensive end. It’s past time for Atlanta’s jack of all trades to show he’s a master of something beyond being a defensive pest. Whenever Thomas or Marcus Smart (2-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) hits a big shot, and the Garden crowd goes wild, the immediate impulse by Jeff Teague and Schröder (7 combined assists, 6 TOs, 0-for-8 3FGs in Game 3) is to go back at him or their individual defenders on the offensive end. The Hawks guards need to remain committed to setting up the team’s optimal shots rather than the payback shot, moving the ball and putting Thomas to work defensively. Persistent motion from the Hawks’ bigs can keep the Celtics’ interior defense guessing, but it’s up to Atlanta’s ballhandlers to find them and feed them. No matter their role in the offense, all of the Hawks have to finish when they get the ball in the paint. After a power-outage in the first-quarter of Game 3, the Hawks surged ahead only to flounder in the fourth quarter. Scrambling back into contention, and gaining the lead, after falling behind by 20 points, can bring on fatigue, but that is no excuse for missing 7 shots within six feet of the rim in the final quarter of the game. In Game 2 back home, Atlanta made six of seven shots from that close range. That Celtics may be able to slap and flop at will, but they’re not moving the rim. If the Hawks prevail in this series, that likely concludes the homecourt advantage going forward. Any success that follows hinges on Atlanta’s resolve when playing away from their home nest. The Hawks need to show better maturity, poise, and balance to make Game 4, not Game 6, a farewell party at the Garden for the Celtics. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “Atlanta’s Kent is smokin’ haht!” Readers know by now that yours truly grew up a 76ers fan. Pretty much any Sixers fan aged 40-plus remembers the joy of their team beating the Lakers in L.A. and winning the 1983 NBA Finals, “fo-fi-fo” and all that. But an even more fond memory didn’t even result in an NBA title. It involved a game one season before, one in which Boston Celtics fans showed up rocking… bedsheets. No, there was no school desegregation protest going on. The Sixers had blown playoff advantages in previous seasons, often in tragicomic fashion, often right in the eerie, decrepit, yet revered Boston Garden. The 76ers blew a 3-1 playoff lead versus the Celtics in 1981, and were on the verge of doing it again in the 1982 conference finals. Celtics fans knew their team had a psychological leg up in this bitter playoff rivalry with their conference rivals, and dressed up The Ghosts of Playoff Pasts to ensure Philly wouldn’t forget. It was up to Doctor J and the soon-to-be-named Boston Strangler, Andrew Toney, to exorcise these ghosts and break their hex to return to the NBA Finals. Decades later, the Atlanta Hawks are in a prime position to follow the Spirits of 76ers and terminate a ghoulish playoff history in Boston, beginning tonight in Game 3 of their first-round series (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England, ESPN2). Will the Hawks be Ghostbusters, or will they remain spooked by the specter of raised expectations? March 29, 1960, Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Bob Pettit scored 35 points, he and cat-quick guard Si Green keying a second-half comeback as the Hawks overcame a 7-point halftime deficit to win by 13, boos raining down from the Gahden faithful in what was called “a dogfight to the end,” despite 30 points from Bill Sharman and a then-playoff-record 40 rebounds from Bill Russell. April 6, 1973, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semis. Behind Herm Gilliam, the Hawks turned the tables on the Big Green Machine after ending the first-quarter down 29-16. John Havlicek totaled 83 points in the first two games of the series, but could only muster 18 points in Game 3. Lou Hudson with 37, Gilliam with 25, Pete Maravich with 24. Head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons credited a scrumptious team dinner in Boston the night before: “It helped us get it all together.” May 18, 1988, a pivotal Game 5 of the conference semis. The Hawks stormed ahead with 43 fourth-quarter points, shocking the Celtics and forcing a titanic elimination game back in Atlanta. Boston had previously prevailed in 133 of 141 games at the hallowed Gahden, and an unlucky 13 straight games versus the Hawks in that building. “Everybody felt sorry for us that we couldn’t win here,” said coach Mike Fratello, who shifted a struggling Dominique Wilkins to shooting guard late in the contest. “When you’re going against a streak like that, you just have to work through it.” Nique shot a Durant-esque 7-for-22, but finished with 25 points after the Czar’s benching and re-positioning. Kevin Willis carried the day with 27-and-14, Doc Rivers had 21 and Cliff Levingston added 16 off the bench. And, that’s all, folks! 29 playoff games by the Hawks in Beantown, and in 26 of those occasions, the guys in green came away victorious. In all but one of those previous nine playoff series, the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage; the Hawks fumbled away Game 2 at home in 2012, and that was all she wrote. Tonight’s Hawks hope Atlanta’s playoff losing streak in Boston halts at nine games. Much like reaching the ECFs in 2015, a win tonight would place the Hawks in fairly uncharted territory as a franchise. The last time the Hawks went up 3-0 versus anybody was in 1970, a 4-1 series win over the Chicago Bulls. And there was apparently a tectonic shift since the last time Atlanta swept anybody, a 2-0 sweep of the Houston Rockets in a 1979 Eastern Conference first round series. Never in its history, not in Tri-Cities, Milwaukee, St. Louis, nor Atlanta, had this team run the table in a seven-game series. To place themselves in position to break out brooms on the TD Garden parquet floor, the Hawks must collectively check off boxes that aided their cause in the comfier confines of Philips Arena. In Atlanta, the Hawks held the Celtics to a Playoffs-low 38.4 effective field-goal percentage and limited their opponents to a 19.0 offensive rebound percentage (2nd-lowest in Playoffs), 8.0 points off turnovers (lowest in Playoffs) and just 15.5 free throw attempts per game (2nd-lowest in Playoffs). In the fastest-paced series so far in this postseason, the Hawks have posted a league-high 17.5 fastbreak PPG, compared to Boston’s 11.5 PPG. The Hawks have gotten the job done thus far without appreciable offensive input from regular-season leading scorer Paul Millsap (1-for-12 FGs, 1 assist, 5 TOs in Game 2), more than one half of perimeter fire from Kyle Korver (5-for-6 3FGs in 1st half of Game 2), or reliable bench output (1-for-6 3FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs). Millsap and Kent Bazemore combined to shoot just 3-for-26 from the field, but made enough defensive plays in Game 2 to ensure the Hawks went wire-to-wire in an 89-72 win. The Celtics have been adamant about using Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson to make post play troublesome for Millsap. But with Atlanta’s perimeter game slowly opening up and Al Horford (3-for-4 3FGs in Game 2) finding his groove, Crowder will be less able to provide help and stop Millsap from wrecking shop on the Celtics’ inferior interior. Dennis Schröder showed signs of life early in Game 2 but sprained an ankle late in the contest. If he can go, he’ll need to focus on forcing mistakes and contested shots out of Marcus Smart (probable after sustaining a rib injury early in Game 2) and Isaiah Thomas without fouling. If not, while Jeff Teague will provide a heavier workload, those tasks will fall to Kirk Hinrich, one of two veterans (including Kirk Humphries) rested by coach Mike Budenholzer who are likely to see more playing time on the road. Boston is seeking to avoid a franchise-record tying eighth consecutive playoff defeat, and one can bet the Garden will be amplifying crowd noise at every sense of Celtic momentum. The Hawks were unable to force the Celtics into committing turnovers in Atlanta, and will have to gain an advantage in this area during Games 3 and 4 to quell a boisterous but increasingly desperate crowd. It’s up to Thomas (3-for-9 2FGs, 1-for-6 3FGs, 7-for-8 FTs in Game 2) to get the Celtics’ offense purring, not just from looking for his own shots. Boston’s 30.5 catch-and-shoot attempts per game lead the Playoff field, but their 26.2 FG% on those shots is a league-low. The omnipresent fear of Hawks ripping-and-stripping the ball away keeps the Boston offense looking harried as players think twice about putting the ball on the floor. Thomas and Smart (five assists in 60 combined Game 2 minutes) must do a better job of feeding teammates in ideal positions to score quickly. Boston cannot thrive off of iso plays from Amir Johnson (6-for-9 2FGs in Game 2) and Evan Turner (5-for-10 2FGs in Game 2) alone. Head coach Brad Stevens may replace Smart with Turner, a solid passing wing, in the starting lineup in hopes of more consistent offensive results. The Celtics guards must get the ball into Jared Sullinger (14 mostly ineffective minutes in Game 2, 2-for-5 FGs) and Johnson in the low post. Without touches and activity around the rim, the cherry-picking Sullinger will receive another short hook in favor of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko, the latter better capable of matching Horford’s floor-spreading arsenal. Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) remains highly questionable to appear in Game 3. That old Massachusetts Mystique doesn’t just taint the perspective of Hawks fans. We’ve secretly replaced balanced perspective and analysis with CSN New England sports-yap host Michael Felger’s crystal-clear commentary. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference! “The Hawks will be the Hawks,” Felger bellowed back on Monday, with Atlanta holding a 1-0 lead in the series, uttered with an air of certainty that would give his team’s winking-bum logo a run for its money. No worries, Felger assured the Celtics faithful, because Atlanta will “fold when it matters.” Because, history, duh! And elfin’ magic! “We now turn to FS1 correspondent Curt Schilling,” is the only statement more certain to be uttered in the near future than “Hawks blow it in Beantown, again,” to hear Felger tell it. Felger, his fellow Celtics fans, and the team they adore would do well to heed a voice from their fading past… although he’s not walking through that door anytime soon. “We felt we were a better team than Atlanta,” said Larry Bird back after that 1988 Hawks victory. “Maybe that’s why we lost.” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. “No, that call wasn’t B.S. But you are!” Bitter! Party of One! We’ll never know, but one would think that being involved in some manner for 17 championships, all with one NBA franchise, would tend to mellow a person out. The added fortune of having Bill Russell carry your water through much of that early run should assist with one’s contentment. Alas, Thomas William Heinsohn has a deep-seated issue with the franchise now known as the Atlanta Hawks, who look to hold serve tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT if you dare) and build a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with Heinsohn’s Boston Celtics. Tommy Boy entered the league as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 1956, winning Rookie of the Year over Russell (acquired from the St. Louis Hawks via draft-day trade, who arrived late to the NBA due to the Olympics). His Celtics needed two overtimes against the Hawks to win its first-ever NBA title in 1957. As a nine-year NBA player, Heinsohn went on to end his career as an NBA champion in every single year… but for one. Apparently, memories of 1958 still stick in the Hall of Famer’s craw. If the NBA Finals were Wrestlemania, and Heinsohn the Undertaker, the ’58 Hawks would be his Brock Lesnar. As a soother for this seether, however, it’s the Celtics who have handed the Hawks their Last Rides for the better part of six decades since -- nine times in nine playoff meetings, seven times since the franchise packed up and relocated to Atlanta in 1968. Nearly 58 years have come and gone, and while the Hawks’ sharply-dressed Hall of Fame color analyst has a statue of his likeness outside Philips Arena, Tommy has grown too old and tubby to even serve as a stand-in for his team’s logo. Which is his right. But the crotchety color commentator has only half of the fat-and-happy persona down pat. What’s making his ample belly ache these days? The era that had the Hawks on the business end of the Celtics’ leash appears to finally be reaching its sunset. Tommy doesn’t seem to like that. And now, with his salad days a distant memory, he’s directing his venom at one man, in particular. “… (Al) Horford, as much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player,” hissed Heinsohn, after the Celtics’ 102-101 too-little-too-late road loss in Game 1 on Saturday night. “Get a man on him, and he has trouble scoring.” We’ll never know if Tommy had to provide the front money for Paula Pierce, when the rookie Horford earned his ten stacks by plopping a jumper above a prone Pierce, sealing Game 3 in 2008 and quashing designs on a series sweep and a perfect path to another clover-leaved coronation. In any case, Tommy comes off like a man with an axe to grind, and that’s never a good look from an 81-year-old man who’s losing teeth to grind. Never mind a fellow as accomplished as Heinsohn. Horford, to his credit, has just enough panache to get that dirt off his shoulders. “That’s his opinion, you gotta respect it,” Al responded when pressed by the media for a schoolyard response. “I’ve been in this league a long time,” added Horford, whose NBA playing career has now lasted as long as Heinsohn’s. “I know I have to focus on my team and this is the playoffs, we’re in a great position and we have a great opportunity.” Indeed, Al will keep his focus on the tasks ahead, preferring to catch lobs from his guards rather than quibbling over grumpy old men lobbing shade from the TV booth. Besides, while even Al recognizes he’s still quite a ways from Springfield, Tommy’s broadside says less about the star-quality of Atlanta’s four-time All-Star than it does the cast of characters whose arduous job it is to stay “on him.” But if Oscar the Grouch just inferred you need to get on his level, you’re probably crossing Sesame Street off your summertime destination list. That notion was not lost on Heinsohn’s broadcasting colleague, who was quick to clean up Tommy’s verbal vomit regarding the upcoming unrestricted free agent, on behalf of Boston GM Danny Ainge. “I’ll tell you what,” said Celtics’ TV studio host Kyle Draper, “if (Horford) put on Green next season, Tommy wants his jersey retired, hanging from the rafters.” They may all have to settle for Al’s Volt Green banner instead. It’s not as though Tommy’s completely off-base, as he’s merely seeking to motivate his team from afar. Boston remains very much in this series, as demonstrated in the second half Saturday, when head coach Brad Stevens’ club charged back valiantly from 19 points down to hold a momentary second-half lead. But Stevens knows what “getting a man on Horford” usually entails, and the results for the Celtics are less than ideal. Way too often, that means abdicating the paint when Horford (team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive, in Game 1) is not posted there, and Atlanta’s 52-36 points-in-paint advantage made all the difference in the series opener. It risks exposing the rim to the likes of a cutting Kent Bazemore (6-for-7 FGs at-rim, 8-for-10 FTs, playoff-career-high 23 points and 8 boards). “Getting a man on” Horford also means keeping up with the center in transition, impeding his rolls toward the hoop, and picking off those dishes from his point guards. And if your “man on him” options are Jared Sullinger (4-for-14 FGs, 4 D-Rebs in 20 minutes of Game 1), birthday-boy Kelly Olynyk (questionable to play, with a sore shoulder) and Tyler Zeller (DNP Game 1), without defensive help, you’re behind the proverbial 8-ball more times than not. What’s scary for Boston is that there were stretches where Jeff Teague (12 assists, most in any NBA Game 1 this weekend, 7 to Horford) and Dennis Schröder weren’t even looking Horford’s way. Even less so Paul Millsap (6-for-11 FGs in 36 minutes, 7 of his 14 points in the first 6 minutes of Game 1), as the desperation to get Kyle Korver (a Durant-envious 0-for-7 3FGs, but 9 rebounds) going from long-range, and Schröder (0-for-6 FGs) going from anywhere, allowed the Celts to get the Hawks’ claws off their necks. For much of the national TV audience, this was their first time becoming familiar with a Hawks team that needs Korver’s triples to sustain leads or reduce deficits, but not necessarily to win games. Atlanta finished 5-5 this season when Kold Korver went 0-for-anything, 16-10 when he sunk just one three-point shot. Usually, it’s because he’s helping in other ways beyond just stretching the floor. Korver, Bazemore, and Sefolosha combined for 22 of Atlanta’s 40 defensive rebounds in Game 1, alleviating Atlanta of the need for Horford and Millsap to seal off all comers around the rim. Eight of Boston’s top nine participants came away with at least one O-Reb, yet that was mostly the product of plenty of long rebounding chances from the Celts’ missed threes. The Celtics made more than twice as many three-pointers (11-for-35 3FGs) as Atlanta (5-for-27 3FGs), but missed a couple more than the off-target Hawks did. Keeping the Hawks down from downtown becomes much more of an uphill battle without Boston’s premier perimeter defender available. Avery Bradley (out with a strained hamstring) not only served that role, but was also the Celts’ most accurate three-point shooter in the backcourt, his 36.1 3FG% a shade ahead of top-scorer Isaiah Thomas’ 35.9%. Stevens will green-light Olynyk (40.5 3FG%), if available, and Jonas Jerebko (39.8 3FG%) to help keep Boston relevant from deep. Stevens will also deploy his rookies, Georgia State alum R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier, as an offense/defense rotation off the bench. Hunter is thrilled about the prospect of making an impact in his first NBA playoff series. “I don’t have any fear of anyone in the league right now,” said Hunter, a beneficiary of lunchtime collegiate tutorials from Korver and visits from his fellow high school alum, Teague, while at GSU. “I think right now, especially with the Hawks, how they cram into the paint, I can definitely be that spacer.” Hunter contributed his momentary career-high 12 points in a rookie-high 20 minutes during a November 24 loss in Atlanta, and is 6-for-8 on threes in four games against the Hawks. Defensively, the top Sixth Man of the Year vote-getter in the East, Evan Turner, and flop-meister Marcus Smart will be relied upon to reach a bit deeper into their bags of tricks. Turner (4-for-13 FGs in Game 1) knows from past experience that he’d best leave the defensive assignment of Teague to Smart. He’ll try to do a better job of fronting Bazemore (probable, knee stiffness), Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (fully-healed groin strain), while getting help from Jae Crowder (limited laterally while recovering from an ankle sprain during the regular season). “Guys like (Bazemore), we gotta try to limit them,” said Thomas. “We can’t have guys like that having big games. That hurts us if we have guys like Teague and those guys going off and then a guy like Bazemore is going off as well.” When called upon, Mike Scott has to play every NBA game as though it’s his last, as he knows it might well be. Scott, who certainly qualifies as one of Thomas’ “guys like that,” was the only difference-maker for the Hawks off the bench (14 points and 5 boards in 18 minutes, 2-for-4 3FGs). Head coach Mike Budenholzer believes his Hawks can only compete at their optimal best when there’s a strong, balanced bench effort supporting the starters. Schröder finished third in 6MOY voting among the East’s bench men, and fifth among NBA guards. But Budenholzer needs his top reserve to focus on on-ball defense first (especially when matched up against Thomas or Turner), setting up teammates second, and hero-ball forays to the hoop last. After struggling for much of the past couple weeks (last 7 games: 30.0 FG%, 1.4 D-Rebs per game in 10.3 minutes/game), Kris Humphries (DNP in Game 1 and in the Wizards-Hawks series last year) may be getting preserved for crunch-time situations when a veteran presence is needed in the paint. Or, he may have been brought in with the intention all along to boost the confidence of Mike Muscala, who appeared briefly in Game 1. Either way, both bigs have to be ready to produce, as the Celtics throw out everything they have trying to get Millsap (1 steal, 3 blocks, 1 personal fouls) and Horford in foul trouble. Horford was called for his third and final foul of the game with under two minutes to go, an event Stevens hopes will arrive earlier tonight (Tony Brothers, please help!). Atlanta could not capitalize on Boston’s tempo-thwarting hack-fest early in the third-quarter of Game 1. But by the time the dust settled, the Hawks had 11 more free throw points than the Celtics, despite missing 5 more attempts than Boston. Boston disallowed any field goals in the final two minutes, but Horford, Bazemore, and Teague making 8 of their final 10 freebies helped make the outcome academic. Any time your color analyst leaves viewers yearning for the likes of Dominique Wilkins, you’ve got issues. Those Hawks fans stuck settling for the CSN New England broadcast of Game 2 wouldn’t mind a steadier and better-balanced effort from Atlanta, one that leaves Tommy Heinsohn tearing out whatever hair he can still reach. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “So glad my Dad’s buddy’s favorite player wasn’t Etan Thomas!” First things first. As Chris Hardwick says near the end of every @midnight show, “Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe Wipe…” What you’ve accomplished, or didn’t, since Halloween doesn’t matter. Who you defeated, or didn’t, or couldn’t, doesn’t mean a thing. Nor does whatever it is you achieved last year. You’re the Atlanta Hawks. All that matters is, you worked to earn first-round homecourt in the NBA Playoffs, and now you’ve got it. Game 1 is here. Your Hawkamaniacs are right here in The Highlight Factory, rocking the Volt Green and ready to shout their lungs out. And you’ve got the Boston Celtics (7:00, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Go app, ESPN if thou must) in your house. Whatcha gonna do, brudders? Now, if I may, full disclosure. As a result of countless movie-night duties from my drunken fratboy era, I devolved into becoming quite the kickfighting flick aficionado. I’m not even talking about quality Shaw Brothers stuff, with the white-bearded kung fu masters and dudes yapping in hilariously delayed overdubs while flipping around in yellow jumpsuits. I’m talking Psycho Burmese Ninja Kickboxer 12 here. I’m told there’s therapy for this sort of thing. This is all Ralph Macchio’s fault, you see. It all started innocently enough, mimicking the Rocky formula to wax-on wax-off success as The Karate Kid. But then, Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, messed around and franchised it. Soon, along came the Muscles from Brussels, knocking ‘em out the box while doing splits everywhere. Suddenly, everyone who can scratch their ear with their pinky toe fashioned themselves as America’s Next Action Film Star. After three, or three hundred, of these films, you grow inured to the copy-paste formula of this fluff. Take some Euro-American black-belt in reality who’s not wild about the prospect of one day waking up as a 50-year-old point fighter, and dress him up as some jamoke who’s down on his luck. Have him run into a past-his-prime Mister Miyagi guy who’s got no more protégés since his dojo’s been trashed by some bad gang, the same head-busters who’ve been bullying the sad sap hero around the neighborhood. Enter the dimepiece, a Pearl Pureheart who empathizes with the hero’s plight but manages to get abducted by the baddies. To save the damsel-in-distress and win her heart, the hero and his meek yet vengeful master team up, the hero willingly enduring one arduous exercise after the next to “toughen up” while taking random Fortune Cookie advice to heart. The underdog hero gets the job done, eventually, but not until he backflips his way through the adversity of dozens of competitors interlocked in some sort of super-double-secret, inter-disciplinary, multi-national brawl. A tournament, held in an underground lair that somehow pays its electric and sewer bills but nobody sane knows about, owned by a megalomaniac with hundreds of bloodthirsty fans as his gambling buddies. Conceptually, this was what passed for MMA in the days before MMA. From one flick to the next, in the middle of the movies, you begin to notice the very same guys getting their heads beat in. These are happily paid stuntfighters, experts at turning an absorbed kick into a triple salchow before going splat on the mat. Their sole raison d’être is to make The Big Hero, and The Big Villain, look unstoppably good. And their characters are hopelessly done in by predictable fatal flaws. Who told the Scottish dude to show up in a kilt? Sumo-dude, TKD-kicker-dude, seriously, diversify your skillsets, please! There’s often the friendly drunken sidekick who thinks he’s just as good without working half as hard, whose snapped neck becomes just one more thing the hero has to get vengeance for. There’s usually the street-toughened ex-ex-ex-con, who never seems to figure out winding up punches from behind his head has disastrous consequences. There’s always the capoeira master who flips all around the cage but, sadly, thinks leaping into the spine-crushing arms of his behemoth foe is a splendid idea. The stuntfighters are all incredibly talented, hard-workers at their crafts, unquestionably athletic, occasionally entertaining, and ultimately grist for the mill. They’re fast-forwardable opponents serving as filler for the middle of any random 90-minute flick, mere agents for the attempt to keep viewers tuned in for the real showdown that awaits them before the credits roll. There’s no need to care about the stuntfighters' story arcs, because they won’t be upright much longer. I identify our latter-day Hawks with these guys. We’re heading into our ninth consecutive year of watching the Hawks enter the NBA’s Kumite, and, yes, “Two Teams Enter, That Other Team Leaves” is the likely eventual result. But, at least for once, I’d enjoy it if these Hawks were unafraid to diverge from the script a little. Atlanta has faced 13 opponents over eight seasons, each one taking at least two games from the Hawks during their 7-game series. The core of the team has done this postseason thingie for a few years together now, suffering through plenty of beatdowns, and putting up with a lot of junk along the way. I’d like to see Atlanta discover its Johnny Badass gene. I’ve got no expectations of being the Big Hero everybody pulls for. But the best butt-whooping flicks always has that moment where it’s looking like things might not shake out for the scripted hero, who’s forced to do something... well, heroic… to save the day. That’s because of a Big Villain that earned his world-beater status. It sure would be fun to see our Hawks become Bolo Yeung, or Sho’Nuff, or Goro, or the dude who fights in a kimono that breaks out the bear claw where his hand used to be. No, they won’t be The Last Dragon standing. But by now, why can’t our Hawks be Cobra Kai? Sweep The Freaking Leg, Jeffy! Swagger, without the necessary skills, leaves you like the 2008 Hawks, going bravely and literally head-to-head with opponents, even when everyone sees you are not on their level. Skills, without accompanying swag, leave you like the 2009 and 2010 Hawks, or like last year’s edition, a mightily-crafted sandcastle just waiting to be kicked into nothingness by some basketball bullies. It’s merely a matter of pulling the two components together. These Hawks clearly have the skills. They’ve bringing probably the second-best defense in franchise history (oh, those ill-fated 1999 Hawks) to the table, plus an offense that, while off-kilter from time to time, has but one NBA Champion peer when it comes to sharing the basketball and creating assist-worthy shots. In fits and starts, the swagger is coming along as well. Few young players have the brazen, unshakeable confidence of Atlanta’s top sixth man, arguably one of the best bench threats the NBA East has to offer. Mix his fastball in with the sliders and knuckleballs expertly lobbed by battle-tested vets Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap, and you’ve got a rotation that could even help the Bravos win a series or two. The point guard Dennis understudies, Teague is quick to remind everybody who is too small or too slow to stop him for getting to the hoop. The most effective Villains don’t allow middling, inferior opponents any oxygen, no daylight to shine. That has long been Atlanta’s issue no matter where they’ve been seeded. From Delonte West and Rashard Lewis, to Brandon Jennings and John Salmons, to Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavannoya, they all used the Hawks in their quest to emerge as America’s Next Big Clutch Playoff Performer. Their presence in Hawks series have that uncanny way of making you want to add the warning, “THESE OPPONENTS ARE CRAPPIER THAN THEY APPEAR”, at the bottom of your screens. Players who either are looking for a fat new contract, or justifying one they recently got, have long used the Playoff Hawks as the palette for their Rembrandts. The Celtics are loaded with these kinds of guys. NBA All-Homonym First-Teamer Isaiah Thomas (career-high 22.2 PPG) is poised for a big household-name breakout. The Little Engine that Could became a Bullet Train in just his fifth NBA season. The 2011 second-rounder reestablished himself as a starting-quality guard in November, and has rewarded the Celtics with All-Star virtuoso performances ever since. His starting backcourt mate, Avery Bradley (career-best 15.2 PPG, 1.5 SPG), is hoping to cement his place as the league’s preeminent perimeter defender. So is Bradley’s teammate, Marcus Smart. Until the rest of his game picks up (25.3 3FG%, passing Toine 2000 and Smoove 2014 for worst 3FG% with at least 200 attempts), Smart will settle for making a name for himself as the league’s youngest team enforcer and crap-stirrer. Center Jared Sullinger (career-high 8.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG) seeks to shed not just a pound or two, but his sullied reputation as a player whose conditioning issues might weigh him down from ever achieving NBA greatness. Considering some Boston-area sportsmen, he’s thrilled that NBA uniforms don’t come equipped with belts. Kelly Olynyk wants to be known as anything other than the Poor Man’s Fabio that kimura’d Kevin Love right out of the 2015 playoffs. Tyler Zeller hopes to join Sullinger in restricted free agency, and stout playoff performances off the bench may lead to some nice summertime offers. It’s a similar deal for Evan Turner, who continues trying to show his 2014 comments about his former teammate Korver’s defensive skills weren’t hypocritical. No one is questioning Amir Johnson’s two-year, $24 million deal, and he wants to keep it that way (68.2 FG%, 8.2 RPG since March 15) after a strong end-of-season push. Villa Rican forward Jae Crowder (career-best 14.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG) got his five-year, $35 million contract last summer, too, and wants to foster the indispensable glue-guy love DeMarre Carroll created last year during the Hawks’ campaign. All of these aspirations have been well-managed by their young mad-scientist head coach Brad Stevens, who The Vertical just yesterday touted, “might be the NBA’s next great coach.” Stevens joins reigning Coach of the Year (for another couple days) Mike Budenholzer in setting up players for career-years without an overreliance on individual players dominating the ball. There are so many hopes for a rise to prominence, a return to glory, up in Beantown. And yet, Stevens’ crew is still looking for their first playoff game victory today. That’s because they ran right into The Big Villain in 2015, LeBron’s Cavs outpacing the Celtics 4-0 in the opening-round series, despite losing Love, before going on to steamroll the Hawks along the path to The Finals. The Hawks have the tools to close the door on Boston’s aspirations, and to keep the door sealed shut. They can do many of the things the Celtics do very well (perimeter defense, transition scoring, passing offense, efficient point guard play, floor-stretching frontcourt play) and can often do it better. Integral to the Hawks getting their Tong Po on in this series is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shot-blocker, and ball-stealer. This will be the third-straight postseason in Atlanta for do-it-all Paul Millsap, and it is past time to see Playoff Paul (40.4 FG% last 2 playoff years; 15.2 PPG and 8.7 RPG in 2015) at least resembling Regular Season Paul (51.2 2FG%, 17.1 PPG, career-high 9.0 RPG), a three-time All-Star. Millsap and Al Horford need to dominate their matchups in the post and around the perimeter, relying on help rebounding from the wing players to capitalize upon their unique help-defender skills. The more effective Millsap, Horford and ex-Celtic Kris Humphries are on the interior, and the more efficient Korver, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (game-time decision, participated in shootaround today despite his strained groin) and Kent Bazemore are with perimeter jumpers, the less confident Thomas and Smart will be containing Teague and Schröder in space. The pace that both coaches preach will make games in this series wild-and-wooly for long stretches, as was often the case during the regular season. The Celtics’ regular season ended well, but only after a 62-36 first-half deficit versus Miami, a decisive 39-13 second-quarter hole at home against Charlotte, and a 51-36 second half deficit in this same building that muted a 71-point first-half effort by the C’s. Boston goes on big runs, but they give up as many as they get. Point guard stewardship can make the difference for Atlanta, who must build more sustainable runs to keep Boston out of reach at the ends of games. Schröder, in particular, must cut down on turnovers and hurried shots while disallowing Smart from getting under his skin. Armed with a healthy Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta must stem Boston’s desire for runouts off turnovers and bailout shots by Thomas. Long-rebound chances will abound from a Celtics team that shot the third-worst percentage on three-pointers (33.5 3FG%, 28th in NBA), so limiting Johnson, Smart and Sullinger from producing second-chances will go a long way toward cutting off the air for the Celtics (25.1 O-Reb%, 2nd-highest in East). Booted in the past two postseasons by the #1 seed, the Hawks have sufficient know-how to understand what they need to do to win playoff games, along with knowing what not to do, as well as just about anyone in the Eastern Conference field, certainly enough to leave these less-experienced Celtics green with envy. The NBA world is ready to fast-forward straight through these NBA Playoffs in anticipation of Golden State versus Cleveland at the end. The Big Hero, against The Big Villain: a tale as old as time. Watching their ninth sequel, rather than enduring another bloody ending, it would be a lot of fun for Atlanta fans if their Hawks can figure out a way to flip the script. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. “You don’t need your ankles to punch, do ya?” The Atlanta Hawks have a great chance to firm up first-round homecourt advantage with a win in their regular season home finale versus the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South). But first, may I look ahead for a moment, and indulge you in my annual airing of playoff-time grievances? Lemme go find my red Sam I Am hat… I have no appetite for a first-round affair with (other) teams that won’t bring eyeballs to the screen or booties to the seats. None. Yes, Charlotte Hornets, I am looking at youz guyz. An opening round affair between the Hawks and the Hornets is something only The Hoopers’ All-Star family begrudgingly talks about. When multiple games are on, we’ll be the ones relegated to truTV or Destination America or something. “Up next, it’s the Hawks and the Hornets going at it in Game 4… right after the Swamp Loggers marathon!” Nobody needs to see another Ex-Hawk Seeks Revenge series in the first round. Yes, Marvin, go spread your wings and fly against somebody else. Then, maybe if we take care of our business, we can meet up in the conference finals. Joe, again? I’ll go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 if I wanna see a sequel so badly. When’s Ride Along 17 due to come out, anyway? To get and keep the basketball world’s attention, the Hawks have to slay a sacred cow. And there’s no more blessed bovine in the first-round to turn into roast beef than the ones donning Celtic green. Eleven times, the Hawks and Celtics have met up for a postseason series. Ten times, the Hawks’ season ended there. That includes nine times, since our franchise’s title year of 1958, that Boston sent either St. Louis or Atlanta packing for the summer. But for Bill Russell spraining his ankle in Game 3 and Bob Pettit going bananas in Game 6 of the ’58 Finals, this might still be a clean sweep. There’s no better time than the present to break a longstanding Hawks Hex. There are no Larry Legends, Hondo Havliceks, or Ratface Pierces in the way this time around, so Boston would need to look to some new heroes to keep the Hawks caged. Isaiah Thomas sure fits the part. He is making his final charge for an All-NBA lower-team nod (Atlanta’s Paul Millsap has a decent shot, too), and he’s making his closing statement with guns-a-blazing. Only Larry and Havlicek have ever turned in a Celtics season with 1600 points and 500 assists, and seven more dimes tonight ascends IT into that lofty realm. When it comes to averaging at least 22.0 PPG and 6.0 APG while committing less than 3.0 TOs per game, this season, Thomas sits in a class by himself. Not too shabby for a guy who was Mister Irrelevant in the 2011 NBA Draft. To get the end-of-season accolades Thomas craves, it helps a ton if his team is playing Games 1 and 2 of the opening round at home. And that makes tonight’s tussle with Jeff Teague and company very important. The Hawks and the Celtics (both 47-32) now control their destinies for securing the 3-seed and 4-seed (Thank you, Orlando! Keep that up, please!), but that could change again for whoever comes up on the short end of the stick tonight, with Charlotte and Miami nipping at their heels. Thomas could barely miss last night (7-for-9 FGs, 5-for-5 FTs) against the Bucks at The Gahden, but Tyler Zeller was the big exceller (26 points, 4 blocks) for the Celts, as coach Brad Stevens unleashed his bench on Milwaukee. Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (16 points, 5-for-5 FGs) pounded the Bucks’ bewildered interior as Thomas was able to turn distributive duties over to reserves Evan Turner and Marcus Smart (9 assists apiece). All six of Boston’s steals on the evening were produced by bench players. Starting forward and glue-guy Jae Crowder is returning to form after rehabbing from an ankle injury last month. And Turner is getting accustomed to goggles after a gnarly eye injury (“I thought that bad boy came out!”, he said) that he suffered on Sunday against the Lakers. It will help Atlanta’s cause if Kent Bazemore (stiff knee, gametime decision) can help Teague and Thabo Sefolosha chase Thomas off the ball. Having defensive savants Smart (0-for-2 FGs but +24 in 27 minutes last night vs. MIL) and Avery Bradley available helps Boston keep opposing guards like Kyle Korver and Junior Hardaway (7-for-13 3FGs vs. TOR on Thursday) cool from outside. That wasn’t a problem for the Hawks in their last game versus the Celtics, way back on December 18. Atlanta shot just 4-for-20 on threes but still used a 38-28 fourth quarter to prevail, 109-101. The game was apt as a microcosm of the season for Atlanta (51.6 eFG%, second-best in East; 103.1 O-Rating, 17th in NBA), where they’ve still pulled out victories down the stretch even when their perimeter-shooting as a team has been underwhelming. Thomas was able to feast from the free throw line (14-for-15 FTs) in that game, and finished with 29 points. But the Celtics were unable to do what they do best, forcing turnovers, from the Hawks (23 assists, 12 player TOs). They were also incapable of holding back either Millsap (20 points, 6-for-10 2FGs, 8-for-10 FTs) or Al Horford (21 points, 10-for-17 2FGs, 10 rebounds, 3 swats) inside, the dynamic duo combining to make 10 of 13 shot attempts in the restricted area alone. Unlike the Hawks, who went after former Celtic Kris Humphries, Boston made no moves to bolster the quality of their interior play since the two teams last met (unless you count their waiving of David Lee). Atlanta’s frontcourt trio plus The Mikes (Scott, 11 points and 7 boards in 14 minutes vs. TOR, and Muscala) must put the Celtics bigs (namely, Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger, both rested after logging under 20 minutes last night vs. MIL, plus Olynyk and Zeller) to work defensively. That will make life easier for Teague (last 5 games: 23.0 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 44.4 3FG%), Dennis Schröder, and the wings as they try to make productive plays from outside the paint. Look for Millsap (last 8 games: 11.8 RPG, 2.9 offensive) to make boxing out miserable for a Celtics squad that allows 14.3 second-chance PPG (4th-most in NBA; Atlanta’s 13.1 opponent PPG ranks 14th-most). Shut out of the scoring column during the Hawks’ big win against Toronto, Schröder has been lounging in more ways than one lately (last 4 games: 6.0 PPG, 20.0 FG%, 11.1 3FG%, 2.3 APG, 3.8 TO/game). But it was his spark off the bench (team-high 22 points, two of the Hawks’ four 3FGs, 5 assists and no TOs, 4 steals), not the struggling Teague’s play, that allowed the Hawks to storm ahead in the fourth quarter in Boston back in December. Getting Schröder off the schneid is imperative for enhancing the Hawks’ postseason prospects, and it’s going to take much more than un-blonding the ‘DS’ in his hair. Dennis does have to cease the reversion to driving full-bore into defensive fly traps and jump-passing the ball into the waiting arms of the enemy. But his teammates have to use more motion to get open for outlet passes, drawing defenders out of driving lanes. Static positioning whenever Schröder is pounding the ball makes his next moves more predictable for his opponents. Despite Atlanta’s careful play in the December 18 contest, this should be another wild, high-paced game, featuring two teams that thrive on turnover-transition offense. The Celtics’ pace (101.2 possessions per-48) ranks 1st in the East, while Atlanta’s ranks 4th (99.2) and second among playoff teams. Boston’s net of +3.9 PPG off TOs this season leads the NBA, and the Hawks’ +2.7 isn’t far behind. Whichever team provides superior transition defense off of their opponent’s stops will hold the edge for the balance of the contest. The last two times the Hawks faced Boston, the Celtics were within a game of Atlanta in the standings. Now they’re statistically tied, and prevailing for the third-straight time in the series would provide just the separation Atlanta needs for the closing run. A Hawks W would establish a decisive head-to-head advantage in case of a two-way tiebreaker, and it would bring the Hawks’ in-conference record (currently 28-21, worst among the East’s Top 6) within a game of Boston, who goes home from here to face Charlotte and Miami next week. With a Hawks win tonight in their home finale, I might just get the first-round matchup I’m pulling for. Buzz off, Hornets! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. “Oh, come on! That dress is clearly Black and Blue!” So, all’s better, right? Right? The Atlanta Hawks think, maybe, their offense has turned a corner after scoring a season-high 127 points on the 1-26ers on Wednesday. Their previous season high? That was scored most recently against tonight’s hosts, the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN New England), who fell 121-97 in Atlanta back on November 24. Of course, the Hawks thought they shook out of their slump for good back then, as well. “We had some hard practices,” Jeff Teague said following that victory over the Celtics, almost a mirror image of the commentary that preceded the win over Philly, following three weeks of floundering play. “Great practice,” glowed Paul Millsap this past Tuesday. “Very intense. It was great. Something we needed. Hopefully, it’s the turning point.” One can only imagine the torturous tricks Mike Budenholzer has up his sleeve for the Hawks on their newly-remodeled practice court, if the Hawks (15-12) regress against superior competition like the upstart Celtics and Magic (Sunday night) on the road. Many Eastern Conference teams re-tooled their defenses in the offseason, and it shows. Each of the East’s momentary Top-8 are giving up under 99 points per game to opponents. Atlanta (100.0 PPG; 14th in Defensive Rating) and Boston (99.2 PPG; 4th in NBA for Defensive Rating) are each striving to get back to that level. Similar to the Hawks, the Celtics (14-12) have struggled to sustain success for terribly long, having prevailed in three straight games just once this season, and that was a month ago. Their defense can be best characterized as uneven, particularly following the departure of Marcus Smart back before Thanksgiving (bruised knee, out until probably January). Prior to Smart’s absence, Boston surrendered triple digits in regulation in just four of its first 12 games. Since that time, they’ve given up 100 or more in half of their 14 contests. The Celts went 1-6 in those games, including 119 points ceded in a wild shootout loss in Detroit on Wednesday, one night after holding Cleveland to 89 but scoring just 77. All-Star candidate Isaiah Thomas’ 38 points were insufficient to fend off the Pistons, who sunk half of their 20 three-pointers (neglecting a lucky Andre Drummond half-court heave) and shot 48.7 percent from the floor on the evening. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens needs Smart’s replacement in the starting lineup, Avery Bradley (career-high 15.9 PPG and 41.7 3FG%; 25 points @ ATL on Nov 24), to have a stronger defensive presence around the perimeter, lest he turn instead to Evan Turner, who is a far worse shooter (13.5 3FG%) but a similarly-skilled on-ball defender and a superior passer. Boston GM “Trader Danny” Ainge is on the hunt for a “go-to scorer,” a “reliable scorer at the end of games, night in and night out.” While such a comment would make Thomas (career-high 21.2 PPG) feel like chopped liver, Ainge clarified his preference is for a scoring complement among the big men, where Jared Sullinger leads Boston’s PF/C’s with just 10.0 PPG. Knowing that Ainge doesn’t want to part with his stockpile of future picks, either David Lee’s expiring $15 million contract, or Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko’s 2016-17 team options, could sweeten the pot for teams willing to take Bradley off their hands. Upfront, Sullinger has been among the best defensive rebounders (29.9 D-Reb%, 4th in NBA) in the game. While Johnson has held his own at power forward, the Celtics would like to go more with Tyler Zeller (season-high 12 points @ DET on Wednesday) than the inertial free-agent arrival Lee (career-low 48.9 FG% and 19.6 D-Reb%). But both Zeller and Kelly Olynyk have to make impacts defensively in order to stay on the floor. Olynyk has the inside track in that regard, which may or may not be a good thing. To get better defensively, both the Celtics and the Hawks have to thwart dribble penetration by opposing ball handlers. On Wednesday, the issue helped Isaiah Canaan (6-for-8 3FGs) and the Sixers (52.0 team FG%) to slide back into the game from way behind at least twice against Atlanta, and allowed Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (54 combined points) to have field days at the Palace versus Boston. When the Hawks’ defensive positioning (particularly, Teague’s and Dennis Schröder’s) held firm and the Sixers settled for mid-range jumpers, Atlanta was able to widen their mid-game leads. “I didn’t know that. Thanks for that uplifting stat,” Stevens dead-panned a reporter who informed the Celtics coach his team ranked last in the league in offensive eFG% on “wide-open” shots. Please, no one remind him that it’s the Hawks who free up their players for the most such shots (no defender within six or more feet of the shooter, 21.4 FG attempts per game) in the NBA. But despite Atlanta’s league-high 15.1 “wide-open” threes per game, they’ve shot just 34.9 3FG% on them, ninth-lowest among the ten most prolific teams in the wide-open threes department. Kyle Korver’s seven points (two triples and a technical free throw) against Philly came in the space of just over one third-quarter minute of play, but they were pivotal in stemming the Sixers’ last good second-half run. He’ll again be hounded by Jae Crowder for much of the game, but the Hawks will again go to a team approach to perimeter shooting, swinging the ball around to keep Boston guessing. In the blowout win over the Celtics on November 24, it was Lamar Patterson (3-for-5 3FGs) and Mike Scott (2-for-3 3FGs) coming off the bench to help Korver (3-for-3 3FGs) and the Hawks keep the C’s spread out, beneficial for Paul Millsap (10-for-13 2FGs, 25 points, 4 O-Rebs) inside. Stevens might be emboldened to know that Hawks’ opponents have hit 36.7 FG% on threes, 2.9% above their normal averages, the third-highest differential in the league. Thomas is looking forward to getting up shots early and often against Teague (7-for-9 FTs vs. BOS on Nov. 24), who frustrated the losing Isaiah to no end in their last meeting. While Thomas jacks away heroically on behalf of his team, Al Horford and the Hawks’ big men will have quite some time keeping Sullinger away from the offensive boards and limiting Boston’s second-chances. In Atlanta’s last visit to Beantown on November 13, the Kenny Atkinson-coached Hawks allowed a season-high 103 field goal attempts, which tied February’s win over Golden State for the most opponent shots in a regulation-ending Hawks game since 1998. Only 17 of the Celts’ 50 first-half shots connected in the opening half, but their combination of dominant rebounding (season-high 86.8 D-Reb%; 17 O-Rebs for Boston, six by Crowder) and keeping their own turnovers low allowed Thomas to eventually come alive and the Celts to pull away. Unless your surname is Govan, who wants to be left sleeping with the Fishers? You don’t want to be on the team stuck with Derek Fisher’s Knicks nipping at your nose by the time Christmas Break rolls around. Both the Hawks and Celtics can use a win tonight as a building block for a run back up the conference standings. If Atlanta fails to capitalize this weekend, you can expect the Hawks will endure even more “tough” practices and “intense” video sessions in the very near future. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record