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  1. “Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!” Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting. Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt. To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time. Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away. So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue. It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized. To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster. Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order. While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core? Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade? The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners. Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  2. “DROPPIN’ THREES! DROPPIN’ THREES!” “Everyone has a plan… until they get punched in the mouth!” Even the originator of this famous boxing quote knows, firsthand, how a well-crafted pugilistic plan to stick-and-move and rope-a-dope becomes, “Chew his dang ear off!” once things clearly aren’t going his way. Turning any of the Cleveland Cavaliers into Van Gogh isn’t in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Eastern Conference semifinals scene shifts to the Highlight Factory for Game 3 (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). But to avoid getting exposed once again, this time at home, the Hawks have to come up with a multifaceted approach that goes well beyond Plan A. “We came in with a gameplan we thought was really good,” said a hopelessly flummoxed Al Horford, “and it got discarded really quick.” Plan A had the Hawks jumping out to a 7-2 lead and feeling pretty good about themselves at the outset of Game 2. But Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers have this thing called an adjustment, you see. The first of an NBA-record 18 first-half triples rained down on Horford’s Hawks, and they found themselves with no logistical answers. Kyle Korver continued to be stifled and the Hawks were a dithering 2-for-11 on threes in the first half, while the Cavs were a blistering 18-for-27. When it was well past time for a Plan B, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer unveiled… what’s this? A zone defense??? Where’s my Nick Young meme when I need it? Things aren’t turning out much different for the Hawks in this series than it was for the Boston Celtics in the opening round. There was a nip-and-tuck affair late in Game 1, and a virtual pillaging by the home team from the start of Game 2. Atlanta built its confidence knowing it could take the things that Boston does best, and do them even better. Cleveland’s players have the same confidence regarding the Hawks. They have more players capable of penetrating and kicking out, players who don’t need 17 screens in a possession just to get separation and an accurate shot off along the perimeter. These Cavs know, if they can drown the regular season’s best perimeter defensive team in a barrage of triples, they can break the Hawks’ beaks early. While Korver struggles to make himself relevant (first three-point attempt a desperate heave with his team already down by 27), and his teammates make his decoy plays look like dead ducks, the Cavs are nailing shots with hands in their face, shedding defenders off one dribble, and catching-and-sinking ricochets off Mike Muscala’s forehead. The Hawks can also recall how cocksure they were heading out on the road to Game 3, after going up 2-zip on Boston, and how that turned out for them within just a few days. Among Cavs assistant Larry Drew’s favorite utterances was the word “Respond,” and the Cavs show they know how to do that from one possession to the next. The Hawks have to find the trait that allows them to respond in kind, not simply waiting in vain hope that The Law of Averages will eventually turn in their favor. The 38-point lead the Cavaliers established in the first half could have been worse if the Cavs had better looks inside; they were just 6-for-21 on 2FGs (4-for-18 in-the-paint) in the half. Kevin Love’s six offensive rebounds and 3-for-4 shooting from deep made up for another woeful interior performance (0-for-8 2FGs) in Game 2. But the extra foot-in-the-box by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, the extra defender sticking out to show when LeBron James and Cleveland’s point guards came charging across the paint, left them consistently a step short when the Cavs effortlessly kicked the ball out. Paul Millsap and Horford have to defend the paint, get strips, pull chairs, and rebound with the understanding that help isn’t coming. They also have to demand the ball on offense and finish in the paint consistently, first, before trying any high-wire-act shots along the perimeter. Eight Cavalier turnovers (three Hawks steals) does not make for a winning recipe for Atlanta in any game, much less versus the defending Eastern Conference title holders. Teague, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha must be aggressive with ballhandlers, rather than sitting back and allowing Cleveland to flawlessly execute their set plays. Budenholzer finally graced Atlanta with Kris Humphries’ presence with Cleveland up 35 midway through the third quarter, Mike Muscala entering the fray with the Hawks down 18 not long into the start of the second quarter. The Hawks cannot afford to waste time and wait until they’re falling behind by double digits before relieving Horford. Same deal with Jeff Teague and Korver -- don’t give up on Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway prematurely -- and if Mike Scott subs in, it needs to be for Millsap, not Horford. In the building that’s home to live mascots going rogue, dancers that pass out, shot clocks and timekeepers that may or may not be functional, and spectacularly failing trampoline dunkers, the Hawks are convinced a dash of home cooking will be a huge inspiration to come out victorious. Because sight lines, or something. But if Hawks fans wanted to see yet another postseason can of azz-whooping opened upon their favorite team, they’d hop in the time machine, and just watch Woodsonian-era basketball. Hawks fans are not here to endure another drubbing thanks to way-too-rigid game planning. Without major shifts in competitiveness and coaching strategy to stem Cleveland’s runs out of the gate, Hawks fans may not be here for Game 4, either. Let’s (Freaking) GO Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  3. “That’s enough of Schröder for me! I fold!” Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes. Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak. Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously. The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did. We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry. Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture. The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier. J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%. Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him. To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest. If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds). Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty. The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls. Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “Et tu, Lué?” “Now, if you want to CROWN them, then CROWN their {BLEEP!}” It’s hard to believe we are nearly ten years removed from a watershed moment in pro sports history. It was October 16, 2006, and Dennis Green, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks’ red-bird football cousins over in Arizona, was about to go ballistic. Green had a front-and-center view as his disappointing team, in its first Monday Night Football home game in recent memory, made one Cardinal error after another, blowing a multiple-touchdown lead to an undefeated Chicago team that had previously been bulldozing the NFL. Coming into that game, the Bears’ 5-0 start had many pigskin prognosticators suggesting a new Super Bowl Shuffle was right around the corner. Denny Green wasn’t down with the perception that a coronation was in order. “The Bears are what we thought they were,” the dumbfounded coach responded to a seemingly innocuous question, lurching into a frank discussion that was a lot like watching milk reach a boil in the microwave. Green smacks the microphone, and the dais seems to jump from the impact. You can bet the reporters jumped, too. “…they are who we THOUGHT they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!” This was a stunning development, not just for the fiery angst but the mouth from which it bellowed. Denny Green was like a real-life “227” Dad! Not a pushover by any means, but a pleasant, easygoing, mild-mannered fellow, pragmatic to a fault. Everyone expected disappointment, and frustration, from Green after the game, but no one in the media saw this reaction coming. Atlanta sports fans, however, may trace Green’s latent path to Vesuvius all the way back to January 1999. Back then, his 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were all set for a coronation, after racking up the most points ever scored in NFL history. The Vikes had long been an NFL bridesmaid, but seemed on-track to finally win their first-ever Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want to play along, though, capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes to seize their place as the NFC’s Super Bowl participant. Over seven years later, Green foresaw a small chance at redemption, tripping up a former division rival that was just beginning to enjoy its own scent. And he watched his team pounce, and then literally fumble the opportunity away. The Bears eventually did make it to the Super Bowl by season’s end, but they didn’t win it all. Green and many of his key players weren’t around two seasons later, when the Cardinals found their way to the big show, too. Fans of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers see that the coast is pretty clear for another trip to the NBA Finals, a journey that resumes tonight with their second-round Eastern Conference playoff round with the Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT, post-game on Fox Sports Southeast). They also perceive this playoff run as their best hope at ending a 52-year championship drought. There are four Eastern Conference teams left standing after the opening playoff round. Three of them are top-ten in the league in team salaries. One is the Hawks, once again a bottom-ten payroll team. What does an extra $35 million buy you? Cleveland certainly hopes it's a coronation. After nine seasons of postseason hoops, everyone seems certain the Hawks are what they’ve always thought they were. Atlanta has a chance to radically alter NBA observers’ perceptions, via this series. But that only happens if they can be a team that redefines what the Cavaliers think they are. The Hawks’ first-round series with the Boston Celtics concluded in fairly satisfying fashion. Relying on their recalibrated defense, Atlanta held the Celtics to a playoff-low 38.4 FG% and 27.5 3FG%. But just about everything is different with this next round’s opponent. Instead of a 5-foot-9, 185-pound score-first, playoff-under-experienced, first-time All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, the offensive tour de force Atlanta faces is LeBron James, an unselfish 6-foot-8, 250-pound, a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ who desperately wants to bring an NBA title to his home state. While Thomas turned to the likes of Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, James has fellow All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving (Playoffs-high 27.5 PPG) and Kevin Love at his disposal. Rather than a team that struggles to get hot from distance, Cleveland hit 36.3% of its three-point attempts during the regular season (7th in NBA), and 41.3% in the opening round (2nd in Playoffs). Instead of an opponent that thrived on high-tempo affairs, the Hawks face a Cavs team that enjoys slowing things down to a grind (28th in pace). While the Celtics relied on Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger to counter Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Cavaliers can turn to Love, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov. Boston ranked 26th in D-Reb% while Cleveland ranked 5th, not to mention ranking 9th in O-Reb%. Boston was just testing the bounds of their confidence. The Cavs exude it, facing a team they dusted in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as they chase after their 2016 destiny. For all the attention paid to James as a bruising scorer, he is most dangerous for Cleveland as a passer and an active help defender. In the Cavs’ 20 losses during the regular season, he scored slightly more points (25.4 PPG), and rebounded more (7.9 RPG), but took a higher volume of tougher shots (48.5 FG%, 27.5 3FG%), and made significantly fewer assists (5.0 APG), than he did in 56 victories (25.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 53.5 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). LeBron giving up the ball when he’s under pressure is not, in and of itself, good news for Atlanta. In addition to his heroball-quality 30.3 PPG (just 43.8 FG%) and 11.0 RPG, in the 2015 ECFs, LeBron picked apart the Hawks with 9.3 APG in their four-game sweep. This season, Cleveland was 40-5 (23-1 at home) when James contributed more than 5 assists. He also barely registers a blip in steals during defeats (0.95 SPG) compared to 1.52 SPG during wins (Cavs 30-3 when LBJ gets at least 2 steals). The more James resembles volume-shooting DeMar DeRozan, the better for Atlanta’s prospects. Restraining James from collecting the ball and finishing plays around the restricted area (without excessive fouling) will go a long way, and different defensive looks from a combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford will help in that regard. But the Hawks can truly help their cause by ensuring that their supporting cast denies James easy dimes to open shooters and bigs hovering around the hoop. LeBron’s occasional dunks may feel like knockout punches, but they’re mere body blows relative to his constant threat to find open shooters. J.R. Smith (40.0 3FG%) will spot-up at will, so deflecting kickouts in his direction will be beneficial, as is the case for Kyrie Irving (32.2 3FG%) at the ends of the shot clock. The Hawks must also limit open catch-and-shoot opportunities for Matthew Dellavedova (41.0 3FG%), Channing Frye (37.7 3FG%), James Jones (39.4 3FG%), and Richard Jefferson (38.2 3FG%). Millsap, Horford, and Mike Scott (68.1 eFG%, 3rd in Playoffs) need to pile up points in transition against Thompson, Love, and veteran perimeter marksman Frye, none of whom are defensive stalwarts. The same could be said of Irving and J.R. Smith, signaling the need for Jeff Teague (35.5 Assist%, 2nd among current Playoffs participants), Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway to remain aggressive in getting to the paint and forcing Cleveland, a team that prefers to force undesirable shots and secure the defensive rebound, to make stops. After dusting off Detroit in Round 1, Irving’s confidence has never been higher, but Teague, who had time to rest a bum ankle sustained in Game 6 against Boston, has the kind of two-way game that can create a deflating effect when it’s on-point. Schröder will be pushed, prodded, and trolled by the usual suspects, but is figuring out that his best clapbacks don’t require words at all. Horford’s mid-range game was poor in the first round, but the more the Hawks attack the interior, the better his chances to thaw out his jumper and make him a legitimate multi-faceted offensive threat. The more defensive breakdowns the Hawks can exploit, the more James’ attention can be directed away from the offensive end. Horford has suffered through his share of playoff-series drubbings, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2010. But he was also instrumental the very next season, when he led his team in rebounds and assists as the Hawks knocked off the favored Magic in six games. In 2008, Doc Rivers went from being an NBA head coach on shaky ground to one with an NBA championship ring. But Doc needed one of his old teams to lay down on the road for him to shake free of the skeptics. Now, another former Hawks point guard is pulling for a similar fate. Tyronn Lue needs to reach The Finals, at least, to sustain LeBron’s confidence and justify the seat he shifted into at the expense of David Blatt. Lue was supposed to strategically make the Cavs perform at a higher pace, but that accelerated play has yet to come to fruition. While the Hawks/Celtics series was the highest-paced series in the East’s first round (just a shade behind Houston/Golden State), the Cavs/Pistons series was the slowest. To push the pace on the Cavs, the Hawks cannot pass up good shots in hopes of a great shot later in the shot clock. Atlanta has to avoid the urge to force halfcourt shots that aren’t there, but when there is a good look, the Hawks must take them without hesitation (Al, we’re looking at you). Atlanta must also ensure there’s proper coverage for James in defensive transition, regardless of whether or not the shots fall. A sound offensive effort from Korver and Kent Bazemore (3.2 TO%, 2nd-lowest in Playoffs), who will get chased constantly by Matthew Dellav-he’lldiveonya and Iman Shumpert, would be nice. But poor shooting stretches can be overcome if the defense on Cleveland’s fastbreaks and perimeter shots remains stellar. Yes, James is the effective coach/GM/POBO for the Cavs. But Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has three playoff series wins under his belt, plus a wealth of tactical knowledge relative to Lue, who can at least turn to Larry Drew when the Cavs need a decent offensive play coming out of timeouts. At some point in this series, the coaching advantage along Atlanta’s sideline needs to be resoundingly clear and reflective of the competitive play on the court. The Hawks effectively chose this conference semifinal matchup at the conclusion to the regular season; if they intended to get thumped once again by the Cavs, there was no reason for wasting energy and crawling into another conference finals just to do that. Surely, though, Atlanta had loftier plans in mind. If, instead, they aim to shock the NBA world, an effort which requires at least one victory here in Cleveland at The Q, they might as well do it early and build their own confidence going forward. The Hawks know these Cavaliers as well as anyone left in the Eastern Conference does. But anytime the Cavaliers stumble during this playoff series, how often will these Hawks let them off the hook? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. “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
  6. “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
  7. “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
  8. “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
  9. “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
  10. “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
  11. “OMG… Playing time!" One more dress rehearsal to go before the playoffs! Our Atlanta Hawks get one more crack at the Washington Wizards in Our Nation’s Capital (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Mid-Atlantic) before sending them packing for an early summer. But any notions that the Wiz that do show up are merely going to lay down and die and have nothing left to play for are, at best, premature. Randy Wittman could probably be seen checking out the card stock options at FedEx Kinko’s in the middle of the night. The coach is in his fifth and likely final season at the helm in D.C., and he’ll be hoping not only to avoid his 200th loss as Wizards coach (alongside 177 wins), he’ll want to go out at least saying he lugged this team (40-41) to a .500-or-better record for the third-consecutive season. For Wittman, the writing in on his star point guard: John Wall, who isn’t likely to be giving him a warm sendoff anytime soon. Wall reportedly clashed with, and cussed at, Wittman and his teammates prior to the team’s postseason-eliminating loss last week in Detroit. While the report was from Peter Vecsey, thereby grain-of-salt rules applying, and the Washington Post got a denial of the report directly from Wall (“I’ve never cussed my teammates out.”), there was some admission-by-omission going on as it pertains to the coaching staff. Wall will sit out for a fifth straight game tonight with knee soreness. Bradley Beal sat out the Wizards’ last win on Monday in Brooklyn with a pelvis injury, and the future max-contract target is doubtful to appear on the Verizon Center floor as well. The team went ahead and saved them both (and perhaps Wittman) the trouble, by shifting exit interviews for the season to tonight, postgame, rather than tomorrow. Ted Leonsis, what’s the hurry? The absence of the Wizards’s top two scorers for the season denouement means it’ll be peanut-butter-jelly-time for a host of underutilized young players and upcoming free agents, all hopeful to give NBA employers reasons to suit them up next fall. Marcus Thornton (23 points in 23 mins., 5-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 23), we know what you’re up to. Cut it out! Alan Anderson (questionable with an ankle issue), you already had your fun last year against us with the Nyets. Nene, Jared Dudley, J.J. Hickson, and Drew Gooden? Stop clowning. Ramon Sessions (21 points, 12 assists in place of Wall vs. BRK on Monday), momentary Hawk Jarell Eddie, and Garrett Temple? Don’t y’all even start! By way of Mr. McMillen Going to Washington, Wittman came to Atlanta as a fresh-faced Hoosier back in 1983, barely a week after being drafted by the Bullets in the draft, and provided five solid seasons as a two-guard during the Hawks’ rise back to relevancy. For that reason, Atlanta is likely to be among the first places he’ll look to for a bounce-back gig, whether it’s in media or the front office. He’s not the only person subject to a draft-time deal between these two clubs. It’s not you, Kelly Oubre, Jr., it’s us. In our effort to get a more seasoned wing prospect, we sent you to D.C. and passed up on a fellow rookie, Jerian Grant as well. Game 82 is always that time for a Jared Cunningham or two to go off. But Tim Hardaway (15.0 PPG, 57.9 FG%, 46.2 3FG% during March back-to-backs vs. WAS) is the Junior we need playing eye-popping minutes from tonight, not you. After getting doghoused for much of the year by Wittman, and going 6-for-10 shooting against the Nets, we know there’s a breakout game left in you, Kelly. Would you mind saving that for Summer League? kthx… Markieff Morris (16.9 points per-36, same as in Phoenix; 46.7 FG%, 31.6 3FG% in WAS) fell short in his bid to Prove People Wrong. But before he kicks back to watch his twin balling out in the playoffs for Detroit, Keef (rested against the Nets on Monday) plans to showcase himself as an incumbent starter for next season, at least providing a reminder as to why it was worth the risk of passing up a first-rounder this summer. Center Marcin Gortat and Oubre will join Morris, Beal and Wall as the likely returnees laying out the welcome mat for an inspired new head coach… and at least one, still-hopefully-motivated, new free agent. Kevin Durant, all of this could be yours! The Hawks will spend much of the night playing Whack-a-Mole with whatever lineups Wittman casually throws out on the court during his probable going-away party. While the Wizards individually strive to Get Mine on every possession, Atlanta (48-33) needs to remain true to their fundamentals. Forcing turnovers and converting on transition opportunities, open three-point jumpers (3-for-22 3FGs by the non-Bazemores), and free throws (8-for-15 FTs) were elements sorely missing during their rout at the hands of the Cavs’ Big Three on Monday. In Cleveland, Kent Bazemore looked like the prank victim that runs out on the floor unaware that his teammates were hiding back in the tunnel. The less wear-and-tear he has to put on his sore knee, the better equipped he’ll be for Game 1 of the playoffs, so major production out of Hardaway, Mike Scott, along with Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha in short stints, will be critical tonight. A second consecutive “division” title for the franchise, for the first time since 1961, is not outside the realm of possibility, and the Hawks could fall prey to scoreboard-watching as the game goes on. But these Hawks have to show maturity, focusing on the task at hand, rather than the tasks that await. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “What’s our play been looking like, lately? Depends.” Does momentum matter? The Atlanta Hawks have been playing like it does, indeed, winners of their past three and closing strong in the face of a daunting second-half schedule. Their hosts tonight and the last team to beat them, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Ohio), could sorely borrow some of that momentum. There are just two regular season games remaining, and defending Eastern Conference champ Cleveland (56-24) still hasn’t clinched the top seed. The team breathing down their necks, Toronto (54-26), has only white-flag-waving Philadelphia and Brooklyn left on their slate, and the Raptors hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Cavs likely have to clinch the #1 seed either tonight, or on Wednesday against Detroit, their possible opening-round opponents. Cleveland has swung-and-missed in their last two attempts to lock that #1-seed down. Head coach Tyronn Lue rested LeBron James on Wednesday in playoff-hungry Indiana, and the tandem of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love could do little to hold back Paul George and company. In what may ring familiar to Hawks fans, the Pacers (another possible Cavs first-round opponent) rang up 70 first-half points (61.9 FG%, 53.8 3FG%) on The James-less Gang. By night’s end, Indiana outscored the Cavs 46-32 in the paint and got 50 of their whopping 123 points from their bench players. After a couple days rest, LeBron was back. This time, they were presented a chance to eliminate another Central Division rival, a Chicago Bulls team that has been largely left for dead. Instead, what should have been an improved bench unit was quadrupled in scoring by Chicago’s reserves (44-11) in a 105-102 primetime loss. Despite James’ 33 points (13-for-17 FGs, 4-for-5 3FGs) and the perimeter shooting of Love and J.R. Smith (combined 11-for-23 3FGs), the Cavs stumbled in the final quarter, three critical turnovers from Irving amid a 15-4 run helping the Bulls turn the tables and momentarily salvage their season. “I was just really (kinda rhymes with “pretty,” but kinda means the opposite) with the basketball,” Irving acknowledged to the Plain Dealer after the game. “I’ve just got to do a better job of leading that second unit, especially with LeBron and Kevin on the bench.” Irving understands that, for Cleveland, jacking up long-distance shots (29.8 team 3FG attempts per game, 3rd in NBA) will prove futile on many nights if there aren’t enough accompanying defensive stops. While Golden State at least has an NBA record worth chasing, it has to be unnerving that the East’s leaders aren’t yet able to rest their stars ahead of the postseason. While last year’s top-seed, Atlanta, wrapped things up well before April Fool’s Day despite some late-season struggles, the Cavaliers may have to do it this year while scrambling to finish their 1040s. To get it done tonight, or Wednesday, it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by Cleveland’s first unit, as their reserve options were thinned even more today. The Cavs will have to catch The Big Mo without the little Mo around to help. Maurice Williams is taking a trip to Dr. James Andrews’ Pensacola office, to see what can be done about his lingering knee issue before the playoffs begin. Also sitting out the final two games is starting two-guard Iman Shumpert, who had his knee drained and will rest to alleviate inflammation and soreness. Discounting little-used center Sasha Kaun and swingman Jordan McRae (both soon headed to a D-League Playoff assignment), that should leave the Cavs 10-deep going into tonight’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. Tristan Thompson (five O-Rebs, 1-for-6 FTs @ ATL on Apr. 1) replaced Shumpert in the lineup against Chicago, leaving Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, James Jones, Channing Frye and Timofey Mozgov to go against the Hawks. Lue intends to start Thompson primarily at the five going forward, creating mostly big matchups that keep James on the hunt for mismatches at the wing. On paper, the Cavs’ backcourt struggles should translate into more good news for Dennis Schröder, who reinvigorated his offense during a thrilling 118-107 win at the Highlight Factory on Saturday night. Schröder and the Atlanta bench (incl. Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Scott) contributed just 16 cumulative points on 5-for-19 shooting, plus one steal, 3 assists and 8 turnovers during Cleveland’s visit to Philips Arena on April 1, and they must make amends tonight. Jeff Teague will be counted upon to bring the same intensity to his matchup tonight that he brought to the table against Irving (5-for-23 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 1), Kyle Lowry (6-for-15 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 7), and Isaiah Thomas (6-for-19 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 9). Teague’s last six games include averages of 23.2 PPG, 5.5 APG, and just 2.2 TOs/game, while shooting 50.0 FG% (47.8 3FG%) and sinking 28 of 30 free throws. The Hawks’ defense will want to keep Irving off the free throw line, after Kyrie made 8 of 10 freebies (including the decisive five points in the final 20 seconds of overtime) in Atlanta to pad his scoring tally. But Teague and Schröder will also want to force enough contact on drives inside to put pressure on Lue’s frontcourt rotations. Atlanta’s point guards keeping Delly and Kyrie occupied on defense all night would be a big help to the Hawks’ frontline, especially Eastern Conference Player of the Week Paul Millsap (last 3 games: 19.0 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 BPG, 48.8 FG%, 46.2 3FG%), who was at once a human dynamo and a human piñata against Boston on Saturday. Sap’s performance against the Cavs on April 1 (29 points, 12 rebounds, in a 110-108 OT loss) suggests he may finally be shedding the hex that Cavalier defenders Tristan Thompson and James have had on him. Shumpert’s absence should also create more daylight for Kyle Korver, who was mostly absent from the scoreboard on Saturday but drew enough attention in the second half to keep the Hawks offense flowing. Korver hit 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the second half on April 1, helping the Hawks salt away a 14-point halftime deficit. Defensive rebounding parity should remain of paramount importance for Al Horford, Millsap, and Humphries, as Love, Thompson and James seek to attack the glass after every missed shot. Sefolosha struggled off the bench trying to help contain James (29 points, 1-for-5 3FGs) and close out along the perimeter in their last meeting. Tonight, Sefolosha can help Kent Bazemore (11 D-Rebs and 6 assists vs. CLE on Apr. 1) share box-out duties with the Hawks’ big men. With their boundless activity, both players can also help keep James from piling up fouls and points in transition. Love and Channing Frye will try returning the favor against Atlanta’s floor-spreading offense by taking lots of three-pointers, so the Hawks’ wing players must assist Millsap in securing boards tonight. To put a cherry atop the sundae that is Atlanta’s most successful two-season stretch of basketball (108 wins) in franchise history, a win tonight will secure homecourt advantage for the Hawks (48-32) in the first round. There’s no need to wait for Wednesday in Washington to get that done. The Hawks’ ability to nab a victory in the final meeting between these two teams would also leave the clinch-starved folks at The Q rightfully restless about what lies ahead. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “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
  14. “WE WILL… WE WILL… ROCK YOU!” As a young Phillies fan, my first real baseball season of conscience was in 1983. Despite a mid-season coaching change, Philadelphia got their bleep together, won 90 games, and claimed the National League East pennant. One problem though. Dale Murphy’s Bravos fell short of a repeat division crown out West, probably thanks to the Dodgers winning 11 of 12 games during the regular season against the Phillies. 11 to 1! How in the world would Philly have a chance in the NLCS, after being dominated by L.A. all year long? Well, a homer from Sarge Matthews here, a few Ks from Steve Carlton there, bada-boom, bada-bing, and the Phils found themselves back in the Fall Classic. In a head-to-head series, bada-boom, bada-bing is all it takes sometimes to turn the tables. I’m reminded of those Phightin’ Phils as the sun sets on the Atlanta Hawks’ regular season. Winning three straight last season against Cleveland, while shooting a scintillating 55 percent from the field, had no bearing whatsoever on the confidence the Cavaliers exuded rolling into Atlanta for the conference finals. By the same token, the Hawks need not be cowed by tonight’s visitors to the Highlight Factory, the Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, TSN), even though Dwane Casey’s club has bested Mike Budenholzer’s in eight of their last ten meetings, including four straight. Whether or not the Raps extend that streak to five shouldn’t matter one bit to the Hawks if these teams are fortunate enough to meet in a later round, which would be a first for Toronto since 2001. Confidence-building is fine and all, but there is much more to play for at this stage of the season, for both teams. After sitting LeBron and falling in Indiana last night, Cleveland still isn’t done sewing up pole position in the East. The Raptors (52-25) can move within 2.5 games behind the Cavs with four games left to play if they prevail tonight. After hosting those Pacers tomorrow, their final three come against the Knicks, Sixers, and Nets. So a sweep of likely playoff foes on back-to-back nights would put a lot of pressure on LeBron and Company to pull through. One slip, and any dreams of hosting Game 1 of the ECFs would be kaput. GM Masai Ujiri has no plans to type up War and Peace-style farewell manifestos anytime soon. But a third consecutive first-round postseason loss could imperil his status going forward, along with that of Casey. Toronto has been known to can people (looking at you, Butch Carter and Sam Mitchell) for far less significant shortcomings. Unlike the Raps’ previous GM, Ujiri doesn’t have a daddy to hook up a new cushy NBA gig for him. He and Casey recognize that drawing an 8-seed that probably just backed their way into the postseason could lessen the likelihood of disaster striking. As for the Hawks (46-32), they have no looming issues to worry about in the front office, only on the floor and in the standings. Atlanta doesn’t control it’s own destiny for the third and fourth-seeds, as it has to wrest it from Boston (their opponents on Saturday) and Miami. They got no help, Magic Number-wise, last night from their conference colleagues. So when it comes to first-round homecourt advantage, if you need a job to get done, you’re going to have to do it yourself. After allowing Phoenix to wear itself ragged for a full quarter on Tuesday night, the Hawks turned on the defensive jets and cooled off the Suns for a 103-90 victory. A 59-34 second half all but erased memories of the opening quarter, when Devin Booker, Ronnie Price, Archie Goodwin, Mirza Teletovic, and The Gorilla where plopping threes from all over the floor. It’s in those opening quarters where the Hawks look like a team that’s feeling out their opponents, and come away looking like they just bearhugged a cactus. Atlanta’s +11.1 net rating in fourth quarters leads the NBA (by comparison, Toronto’s +6.6 ranks third), and their +5.7 in third quarters leads the East. But that per-possession advantage dwindles to a modest +2.0 in second quarters and +1.0 in first quarters (both ratings 11th in NBA) this season. The Hawks have played close-to-the-vest from the jump against Toronto this season, but they haven’t scored more than 21 first-quarter points in their three meetings, and have been outscored 61-48 in second quarters in their last two meetings. A strong first-half start will be crucial to keeping the Raptors at bay by the close of the contest. Toronto knows how to get it done. On Tuesday night, they held the visiting Hornets to 16 points in the first frame, widened their lead to 14 by halftime, to 19 in the third-quarter, and never relented even against a fourth-quarter rally from Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker to salt the Raptor lead down to single digits. It was a similar deal last week when Atlanta came to Air Canada Centre. Toronto held the Hawks to 20 points in the first quarter, expanded the lead to 13 by halftime, and pulled ahead by 24 at the outset of the fourth before the Hawks’ bench corps arrived to make the final outcome look respectable. To get the ball rolling offensively, Atlanta needs to spread the Raptor defense out by sending shooters to the corners. Toronto foes shoot an NBA-high 44.9 3FG% from the left corner, 39.4% from the right. Drawing the Raptors’ defensive bigs out of the paint can open up cuts from the perimeter and weakside. The Hawks starters must produce when Jeff Teague serves up the ball, most especially Paul Millsap, who had a whale of a game during the comeback against Phoenix (17 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks) but has been next to invisible offensively against all season (season-low 84 O-Rating vs. TOR; 11.0 PPG, 9-for-23 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs). With Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola piling up points for the Raptors, Sap has to be much more than a rebounding presence tonight. Phoenix isn’t a strong 3-point shooting unit, but Toronto is (36.9 3FG%, 4th in NBA). Kent Bazemore (17 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals vs. PHX) ceded open shots at the outset to Phoenix, to help with the interior rebounding and defense, but adjusted accordingly as the Hawks turned things around. Tonight, his role needs to be more pronounced around the perimeter, helping to thwart dribble penetration from DeMar DeRozan but also helping Kyle Korver keep hands in the face of Terrence Ross and Norman Powell. And there's no telling what our good friend DeMarre Carroll (inactive since Jan. 3; 37.8 3FG%), finally activated for tonight's action, will bring to the table. Millsap must also close out properly on Scola (40.9 3FG%) and Patterson, making boxing out duty for Al Horford and Kris Humphries imperative against a much-improved Jonas Valanciunas (13.7 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) and Bismack Biyombo. Toronto may have more TO’s in their name than they allow in a game. The Hawks thrive on transition points off turnovers, but the Raptors have averaged just 12 TOs in their three contests against Atlanta. The Hawks are a mediocre 10-10 when they compel 12 or fewer turnovers, including the 12 committed by Cleveland in their 110-108 OT win at Philips last Friday. Eight of those ten Hawks victories had opponents shooting below 40 percent from the field. Toronto, by contrast, shot 45.6 percent, including 11-for-23 on threes in the March 30 game. The Dinos also earned more than double Atlanta’s free throws (28 to 13) in their last meeting. The story is always the same defensively. Man defenders have to turn Lowry and DeRozan into volume jumpshooters, and position themselves to force them into either taking inefficient shots, drawing charges or giving up the ball, without committing ticky-tack fouls. Despite a poor shooting night in Toronto on March 30 (4-fpr-19 FGs), Lowry scored 7 of his 17 points at the stripe. It was a similar deal for Lowry back on March 10 (6-for-14 FGs, 6-for-8 FTs) during Toronto’s 104-96 win. And during the Raps’ last visit to ATL, Lowry got to the line 12 times, 11 of his makes contributing to a successful 31-point night. No matter the recent history between these teams, the Hawks know what it takes to top Toronto on any given night. And they understand how valuable a victory could be as they move toward the end of the season. There’s nothing to it, but to do it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “¡Es un Nuevo Dia!” After a tough OT loss to King James and his Cavalier Court last weekend, the Atlanta Hawks should be rested and rarin’ to go against the Phoenix Suns (8:00 PM Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona). They should be eager to shake off their two-game losing streak, and also to exact a measure of revenge against a Suns team that simply begs to be taken out of their collective misery. Alas, these are our Hawks we’re talking about. And this is the dreaded game-after-a couple-days-layoff. “Should” is always the operative verb. The Hawks (45-32) started out just 3-5 (including four straight L’s) when they returned to play after two or more days of rest, but have since prevailed in their last four such scenarios. Homecourt advantage remains on the line for third-seeded Atlanta. But with several more challenging opponents for the Hawks on the regular-season docket, the Suns fit the role as a looked-past opponent ready-made to trip up lackadaisical birds-of-prey. After a sturdy 6-4 start to the season, victories have become more like blips for Phoenix (20-57). Starting in late December, lowlighted by Markieff Morris tossing a towel at his coach, the team lost four straight (including a home loss to the 76ers). That stretch prompted management to fire a warning shot by issuing walking papers to two of coach Jeff Hornacek’s assistants. The Suns then lost five more games (including a road loss to the Lakers), before pulling it together to drop a then-mediocre Hornets team back below .500. Six more defeats (including a road loss in Minnesota) followed before the Hawks paid Phoenix a visit. Atlanta played that January 23 game without their anchorman, Paul Millsap, due to personal leave. But a number of Hawks on the TSR Arena floor didn’t exactly show up, either. Not until midway through the third quarter, with the Suns enjoying a 15-point cushion. Kent Bazemore scored 13 of his team-high 21 points in the final quarter as Atlanta tied the game on several occasions. But with a prayer of a 3-pointer answered at the buzzer, for his then season-high 24th point, Archie Goodwin handed the Hawks a Badloss. Inspiring as the victory was for the Suns, it wasn’t enough to save their head coach’s jerb. Four consecutive losses followed, and then nine more after assistant coach Earl Watson usurped Hornacek’s position. Morris was sent packing in exchange for Washington’s hopefully-lottery draft pick and a pair of brief stays, by DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. A 6-7 run through mid-March, albeit against unimpressive competition, gave some hope that the team was finally leveling off. But sloppy, desperate play and the revolving door of injured players became too much to withstand. Just as was the case in January, they’re coming into the game tonight on a six-game skid. Then, as now, the Hawks won’t have to deal with Brandon Knight. Having re-aggravated a sports hernia, the Human Conundrum joins Eric Bledsoe and T.J. Warren on the season-ending sideline, setting the tank jobbery into full swing. Phoenix is crossing fingers that Euroleague star Bogdan Bogdanovic will cross the Atlantic and suit up in purple-and-orange next season. Also, they presently have three first-rounders coming their way (including Cleveland’s, via the Isaiah Thomas three-way deal) this summer. And as the team with the worst record in the league aside from the Suxers and Flakers, they don’t want to screw up with a win and risk giving Boston (who has shutting-down-for-the-year Brooklyn’s first-rounder) better lotto odds. The Hawks probably don’t want that to happen, either. With any of those picks, the Suns can only hope to select as good a blue-chip prospect as shooting guard Devin Booker. With 51 more points this season, he’ll become just the fourth NBA rookie (Melo and LeBron, KD) to amass 1000 points while still a teenager. The league’s youngest player emerged as the go-to option in the Phoenix backcourt, setting the stage for yet another “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Three of Us” situation next season when Bledsoe and Knight, the highest-paid and highest-scoring Suns, are set to return. Despite averaging 20.7 PPG in his last 20 games, Booker predictably struggles as a defender, and his accuracy (39.9 FG%, 28.7 3FG% post-All-Star-Break) isn’t what it was back in January during his coming-out party. Still, Suns fans’ hopes for a bright future are tightly affixed to the young gunner. Thus, the more-seasoned guards on the roster will certainly be on the market for just about any takers. Behind Booker, the Suns are taking a flyer with our old friend, John Jenkins, who was claimed off waivers from the Mavericks in late February. Jenkins is looking to stick as a hired gun off the bench somewhere in the league, and Watson is giving him much more room to roam than Dallas did. After sinking just three triples with the Mavs (none since the first week of December), Jenkins recently went 9-for-9 on threes over a five game stretch for Phoenix last month, finishing just four made field goals shy of the NBA-record Threak. His contract from the Mavs includes a team option for 2016-17, so Johnny is looking to give the Suns every reason to pursue bundling the more erratic Goodwin into a deal to go elsewhere. As is the case for a few NBA teams, the best option for floor general right now is the head coach. The injuries to Bledsoe and Knight have moved Ronnie Price (2.2 APG, 1.0 TO/game) up to the top line. Watson is also turning to his 2-guards to fill in time as the lead ballhandler, pushing Booker (team-high 2.6 APG) out of his comfort zone and creating another wrinkle of evaluation for Goodwin and Jenkins. Even without score-or-bust Knight around, the Suns are ripe for a turnover on just about every other possession (15.2 team TO%, worst in NBA; 20.2 opponent PPG off TOs, ahead of only Philly’s 20.3), especially at the high tempo Watson continues to push (101.4 possessions per-48 post-All-Star-Break, 3rd highest in NBA). That’s a banana the Hawks (14.4 opponent TO%, 5th-best in NBA) need to unpeel, every chance they get. Phoenix’s game plans are simple. Park both Tyson Chandler (three-straight double-doubles, season-high 21 points @ UTA last Sunday) and Alex Len (30.5 FG% from 3-feet out; 33.4 FG% on non-dunks) in the post, and let the 7-foot-1ers throw their weight around. The Suns will seek out lob, jump-hook and post-up opportunities for the pair, who were just beginning to start together when the Hawks visited back in January. Otherwise, the shooters will loft up whatever shots they can, in hopes of second-chance points (13.6 per-48, 5th in NBA) brought about by their bigs. One could argue that Chandler was 2015’s biggest free agency loser, certainly from a competitive standpoint. The Suns’ gambit of signing him to woo LaMarcus Aldridge, at the expense of the Morrii, blew up spectacularly. “It’s been a year,” said a glum Chandler to the Arizona Republic, when asked to look back upon this season. “Honestly, I feel like I came in blind this season. I expected one thing and it was another. I’ve been trying to adjust. I was expecting to play a certain type of basketball and it was different.” Publicly, Chandler remains a good-soldier and mentor to Len (16 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists vs. ATL in January), and is locked down for three more seasons. But for what he can only hope will be a parting gift, Chandler was granted a near-career-high of 27 rebounds (one short of his career-best; including a franchise-best 13 offensive boards) in the January win over Atlanta. Chandler’s defensive rebounding percentage this season (27.8 D-Reb%) is a career-best, and thank goodness for that (team 107.5 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA). Glue-guy P.J. Tucker will help Len and Chandler maintain the advantage on the glass. When Chandler needs a breather, the Suns can turn to 6-foot-8 Phoenix native Alan Williams. Undrafted last summer, college basketball’s top rebounder from 2014-15 (11.8 RPG) went to China and became the CBA’s top rebounder (15.4 RPG). Mirza Teletovic (39.2 3FG%) averaged 21.0 PPG and 7.8 RPG off the bench in his last four games, although he’ll be more interested in overtaking Chuck Person’s NBA record for 3FGs made by a bench player. Mirza’s just two triples behind The Rifleman, who set the mark in Mike Budenholzer's first video-coordinating season with the Spurs. Jon Leuer might play despite a sprained ankle. Chase Budinger exists. With all that defensive rebounding potential, Phoenix players hope to take advantage of Atlanta’s offensive dry spells, which have gotten Mojave-Desert-arid in recent games. On Friday, the Hawks made a basket to widen their brief lead to four points midway through the first quarter. Over seven basketball minutes and 13 missed shots later, the Hawks were still thirsting for their next basket. Once it arrived, the next five minutes involved seven misses and one make, while the Cavs artfully widened their lead. Just over a minute to go before halftime, and Atlanta found itself scrambling from a 20-plus-point deficit for the second consecutive game. Making one bucket every 3-to-5 minutes turns the Hawks into the burrowing animals we’ve grown accustomed to in prior years, and places undue pressure on an otherwise sound defense to hold together. By the time they drew back to within single digits in Toronto during the fourth quarter, and by the time they evened things up at home against Cleveland (39.8 opponent FG%, 31.6 3FG%), Atlanta was spent, unable to match the energies of their opponents to take the game-winning shots and grab the game-clinching 50/50 balls. Anything resembling a nip-and-tuck affair by the back half of the closing quarter of play tonight should be a deep disappointment for a team that’s supposed to be whetting its axes for the postseason. There is no reason for Jeff Teague (28 points, 9-for-23 FGs, 9 assists, 2 TOs vs. CLE on Friday) or Kyle Korver (4-for-6 3FGs vs. CLE) to fail to find whatever shots they want against the Suns’ defense, and even less reason to make them. Phoenix’s opponents shoot 38.0 3FG%, a league-high, so there should be no excuses about an off-night from the perimeter. Same deal for Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (combined 3-for-12 FGs vs. CLE; 5 Schröder TOs in 14 minutes), part of an offensively inept bench corps on Friday that carried the day for the Hawks two nights before during garbage time in Toronto. After 9 turnovers in the past two games, The Menace is on the verge of eclipsing Millsap for total turnovers on the season, despite spotting Sap well over 900 additional minutes of floor time. As tremendous a sixth-man as he has become, a continued lack of focus and ball-control risks having Schröder watching Kirk Hinrich from the bench to close out the year. Hardaway, meanwhile, needs to be preoccupied with getting stops and moving the ball, rather than getting up shots. Millsap did his part on Friday by matching James point-for-point (29 points, 12-for-22 FGs) while also matching Bazemore’s 12 rebounds. Millsap is of course available for the rematch with Phoenix, and he and Humphries will help Al Horford (5-for-11 2FGs, 0-for-way-too-many 3FGs, including the game-non-winner vs. CLE) achieve defensive rebounding parity with the Suns’ big men. Bazemore will play despite banging up his wrist during the demolition derby with the Cavs. He’ll be needed more for interior rebounding help and transition scoring than for roving the perimeter after wayward-shooting Suns. There will be not more than 20 individuals at The Highlight Factory tonight pulling for a Phoenix victory tonight, and they’ll all be on the floor, either in uniform or decked out in suit-and-tie. Hawks fans have zero appetite for another Suns win, and Suns fans definitely don’t want one, either. Are the Hawks capable of giving the people what they want? Congrats to the late Zelmo! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “There can only be one King. Sorry, LeBron.” Another big bout in primetime! The Atlanta Hawks have done tremendously (and oddly) well this season with the whole world watching, on either TNT or the Four-Letter Network. It would be great if they can keep that run going tonight at the Highlight Factory, against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports South, ESPN, Fox Sports Ohio), leaving analysts in their predictable postgame mode: “What’s Gone Wrong with the Other Team?” Either way, I’d prefer tuning in to the local broadcast, as the 13th-leading scorer in NBA history provides his u-Nique blend of color analysis to the game featuring the 12th-leading scorer all-time. LeBron swapped places with Dominique Wilkins during last night’s easy-breezy victory over the Nyets. “It’s an honor,” James remarked postgame about moving up to 12th. “It’s great to be in that position.” Of course, he’s referring to scoring, not the standings. The Eastern Conference coronation hasn’t happened just yet for LeBron and his merry band of Cavaliers. Cleveland (53-22) sits just 2.5 games ahead of the Toronto Raptors, who just slowed the Hawks’ roll on Wednesday. They know they need not fool around with clinching the top-seed, as the sooner they wrap things up, the easier it will be for deposer-head coach Tyronn Lue to rest his veteran players. Clevelanders were kind of hoping they’d be cruising into April. But while last year’s conference top-seed had to literally break a leg to get anyone’s attention, this year’s banner-carriers could do without one show-stopping distraction after another. There’s LeBron, subject of the annual player option this summer, casually unfollowing his team on Instagram just days after a blowout loss in Miami, scrambling to re-follow the team (but not on Twitter! Dun-dun-dunnnn…) just as the ensuing freakout reached its fever pitch. There’s LeBron, practicing in preparation to win the gold in Rio 2016, but not medaling in men’s basketball, no… in the men’s synchronized coaching event. Given a rest against the Rockets on Tuesday, he showed up in a suit and then suited himself to coaching duties, mimicking his marionette Lue on the sideline and during a timeout. Owning the owner and serving as the de facto president of basketball operations apparently isn’t enough. I imagine David Blatt was entertained by the display. There’s LeBron, palling around with Dwyane Wade at halftime of that Miami game, fraternizing with his old teammate during the second-half shootaround while his Cavs were down 21 points. There’s LeBron, saying that, yes, he would love to “get a year in” alongside Carmelo Anthony, Wade, and Chris Paul before his career concludes. “We’ve had plenty of conversations” about building such a super-team, James asserts. I’m sure all of that just warms the cockles of Kyrie Irving’s heart. Speaking of Kyrie’s heart, there was even more social-media drama for yo baby mama this past week, as his starlet girlfriend was sepia-filtered in the arms of her former beau, some random musician who’s better at the “arts” of getting trending clicks and making people use caps-lock than anything else. After grabbing her V-Day sweets, she chose to break up with the player she called, last month, “the greatest boyfriend of all time,” and run back to her old flame, which is perfectly fine. Except, there’s this thing, that once you’ve gained six-digit followers on social media for posting every silly detail of your life, you have to kind of carry them along with you on your journey from one celebrity bed to another. Twitter panic ensued, whole Instagram accounts were deleted, pics were scrubbed, suicidal fears were detailed (back on Instagram, of course). It was quite a time to be alive. “It’s hard enough to win without worrying about a d@mn Twitter,” noted Lue. Even Anthony had to acknowledge that while his Knicks are up to their knees in Melo-drama, the drama over in Cavalier Country has been “more comical.” Irving is doing his part to get his team’s stories out of the supermarket cashier aisles and nail salons, and back in the sports bar. “Everything surrounding our team, (it) is just crazy to think that we’re still in first place and we’re still the team to beat, honestly.” Not leaving well enough alone, ESPN pressed for clarification from Kyrie that he meant “team to beat” just in the East, but Irving wouldn’t oblige. “I feel like we’re the team to beat,” Irving responded, including the likes of the Spurs and Warriors. To LeBron’s credit, he’s able to insulate his on-court play from his off-court play as well as anyone. That was demonstrated as he earned the most recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor, averaging 29.0 PPG, 8.8 APG and 8.5 RPG while shooting 56.4 FG% (45.5 3FG%). It’s quite possible that LeBron is engineering some of these non-issues to draw the media heat lamp away from his team’s more pressing problems on the floor. Among them… Tristan Thompson is getting paid $15 million to do what? Cleveland’s newest Iron Man feasted on the glass against the Hawks in the postseason of his contract year, and promptly made bank. Yet, while he leads the league with a 129.5 O-Rating thanks to his outstanding ability to clean up the glass (13.5 O-Reb%, 6th in NBA), his on-ball defense hasn’t improved. While it’s not just Thompson’s fault, Cleveland’s team defensive rating has been going in the wrong direction, from 101.1 to 104.2 since the All-star Break, and their opponents’ 61.1 at-rim FG% ranks in the mix with a lot of non-playoff teams. The Cavs force just 13.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, which is also bottom-ten in the league. To try addressing the defensive issues, Lue has been interchanging Thompson’s starting spot with Timofey Mozgov, who has just been sort of there all season. Thompson’s offensive skillset despite having a marginal defensive imprint is nice, but they’ve got that guy already, in Kevin Love and now Channing Frye. Speaking of which… Can Kevin Love play center adequately? Assistant coach Jim Boylan doesn’t think so. “Kevin at center just hasn’t been effective for us,” he told Zach Lowe of ESPN. But as the SB Nation Cavs site pointed out, Cleveland has been fantastic offensively (133.7 O-Rating, team 61.9 TS%) with Love plugged into the 5-spot, while being no more than the usual sieve at the other end. Boylan and Lue have also noted that the once-feared pick-and-roll play featuring Love and James doesn’t work well, since teams simply switch and the ball stops moving. What was the whole deal about picking up the pace? A big part of the sell-job in replacing Blatt with Lue was that the Cavs were going to run more. The post-Blatt pace is 95.97 possessions per-48 (26th in NBA), hardly a noticeable uptick from 95.47 under Blatt (28th in NBA). It can be a chore to bring vets like J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson up to speed when they’ve grown accustomed to a certain tempo. Can they get some steadier play out of the bench? After apparently making a wrong turn along his way to an Aussie Rules Football game, Matthew Dellavedova is being relied upon more than ever. But he hasn’t shown many new wrinkles to his game (39.8 2FG%, 41.8 3FG%) aside from passing more often and improving his free throw shooting (85.2 FT%). Mo Williams started the season in place of Irving, but is only now rounding back into form after sitting to rest a swollen knee. Lue has fresher-legged options at his disposal, in Delly and Iman Shumpert, but is leaning on the likes of Jefferson, James Jones, and Frye more than he’d like. All of that said, in the mind of LeBron, there ain’t a problem that he can’t fix. But casting aside the James-less Cavs losing in Houston on Tuesday, there was the South Beach beatdown, and a road loss in Brooklyn last week, at the hands of Shane Larkin and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. A home loss to the remnants of the Grizzlies earlier this month was as bad optics-wise as anytime the Hawks were beaten by a shorthanded for. Fourth-quarter collapses included a 30-15 frame against Dallas, a game where the Mavs resurrected the ghosts of David Lee and J.J Barea, and 24-12 in Brooklyn after spotting the Nyets 59 first-half points. James, Irving, Love and company should not be working this hard, this late in the season, to be winning these types of games. The Hawks would relish that type of slippage over long stretches this evening. As for Atlanta (45-31), it’s fascinating that after a half-season of the team seeming to carry its star point guard, the roles apparently have switched. Jeff Teague led the way with 18 points in Toronto on Wednesday, making 8 of his 13 shots and doing his part to keep Kyle Lowry cool (17 points, but 2-for-15 2FGs, 5 TOs). But while Lowry (11 assists) had plenty of help from his supporting cast, Teague seemed to be the only starter willing to drive the bus for the Hawks. He’d have matched Lowry’s assist tallies easily if his teammates played with focus and finished plays without turning the ball over (18 player TOs @TOR, most since March 5). Kent Bazemore, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap were a combined 11-for-32 from the field. Bazemore, Korver, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. struggled to get open along the perimeter, and when they did, made just two of their eight attempts through the first three quarters. What good are wings without a feathery touch? To escape The Dime Trap tonight, Teague and Dennis Schröder need their shooting guards to live up to their position title and shift pressure onto Cleveland’s interior defenders. They’ll need Horford to make more out of his touches as well. It wasn’t until the final quarter, when Mike Budenholzer turned mostly to a quintet of Kirk Hinrich, Schröder, Tim Hardaway, and the Mikes (Scott and Muscala), that the pilot light finally came on, Atlanta chopping a 24-point cushion in half and forcing the Raptors to play Lowry and DeMar DeRozan much longer than they’d have preferred. Unlike the situation during last year’s conference finals, Thabo Sefolosha’s presence alleviates Paul Millsap of the dubious task of checking LeBron at the halfcourt line. Sefolosha’s sore ankle got plenty of rest in Toronto (12 irrelevant minutes of action) and Detroit (DNP-CD), and it will get even more recuperation time with three off days coming up. So Thabo should be spry and ready to give Bazemore and Millsap the help they’ll need, particularly when LeBron wants to break out in transition. Ultimately, this is shaping up to be another disappointing loss for the Hawks, who would fall to 2-9 against the league’s top six teams… April Fools! The Hawks took three of four from the Cavs last year, including three in a row, and it ultimately didn’t matter when the calendar turned to the postseason. Winning tonight only serves as a momentum builder, but that’s not the most important thing. A win tonight would not only pile onto Cleveland’s championship anxieties, it would help in the race to firm up a first-round homecourt situation for the Hawks. Despite the tough closing schedule on-paper, one thing the Hawks have working for them is that they’ve got more games in their pocket (76) than any playoff contenders that could catch them in the East. Each victory for Atlanta makes it extra hard for the teams in the 4-through-8 slots to keep up. And no win would be a better confidence-builder (and Twitter trender) than one in front of a ravenous crowd tonight. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. Say, did you know that the “De” in DeMarre stands for “Dónde estás?” Telephone poles throughout Ontario are plastered with “Missing!” posters, fans of the Toronto Raptors pleading for the return of their Junkyard Dawg II. On the verge of the first 50-win season in franchise history, the Raptors hope to hand the Atlanta Hawks not only another L tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, TSN), but also a flashlight, to help them out with the search for DeMarre Carroll. This JYD isn’t just any pooch, mind you. Toronto made him the top priority that the Hawks could not this past summer, a priority that costs them a team-high $14.5 million annual average, over this and the next three seasons. That’s nearly six times as much as Atlanta paid for their defensive stalwart, hustle hound, and postseason savior in 2015, a salary that actually went down a smidgen from 2014. After a modest 23 games, Carroll, who turns 30 this summer, surprised many with the announcement in January that he would be getting his knee scoped, and would miss some time. That’s okay, thought the Raptors’ faithful… so long as he’s back in time for the playoff push. Besides, Toronto was just beginning to make their power moves up the Eastern Conference standings without him, supercharged by the dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and bolstered by a supporting cast of improved players. Even with Junkyard Doggone, the Raps got blown out by top-ranked Cleveland, and then went on a 27-7 tear, including a thrilling home win over the Cavs last month with Lowry dropping a career-high 43 points. How good might they get once DMC gets back? There’s no need to rush things! “I mean, yeah, that’s what it’s all about, having him 100 percent when things matter, especially as we get closer to the playoffs,” DeRozan optimistically told the Toronto Star, after Carroll hobbled through his last game back in January. “Before we know it we’re going to look up and it’s going to be March, April. As long as we get guys 100 percent, that’s all that matters.” Well, after some signals that DMC would be working his way back into the Raptation in March, he has essentially disappeared from sight. Carroll has been Tweeting and making PR appearances (most recently, reported by the Toronto Sun to be hanging around the ATL on personal matters). But he hasn’t spoken to the media about his recuperation status since February. The calendar is turning to April, and now fans are growing as jittery as a Tim Hortons addict. Was there a setback in recovery? How bad is it? This guy was supposed to be their LeBron Impeder. Not Terrence Ross, not DeRozan, not rookie Norman Powell or James Johnson. This guy. Yet, not until this morning did the Raptors express renewed optimism that he’ll be back on the court before the regular season ends. Can Carroll work his way back into the rotation, and be productive, in time? With the investment they’ve made, will it be wise to just shut him down for the season, and simply grin and bear it without him? Those who asserted before the season began that the Hawks would sorely miss the presence of Carroll, especially once their ninth-consecutive playoffs tip off, are correct. What few could possibly have imagined is that the Raptors might miss him even more. Yet now, there’s hardly time to even entertain those thoughts. Elbow pasta, elbow bursitis. It’s always best if you drain them. Lowry has been playing through soreness in his shooting elbow, he says, since mid-January. That was back when he and DeRozan shared Player of the Month honors and the Raps soared, just ahead of the All-Star Game that he and DeRozan played in while his team hosted. Toronto went from being tied with the Hawks at 21-15 when DeMarre exited, both teams looking up at the Bulls in the standings, to joining the Cavs as the class of the East. Then, ten days ago, Lowry’s elbow pain and swelling flared up again after a fall against the Magic. He was rested against Boston and then tried playing through the discomfort, but the results on the scoreboard – a 1-3 record, with the sole win against residual Pelicans – and the box score – Lowry’s 23.9 FG%, 19.2 3FG%, and 54.2 FT% in three of those games – were less than stellar. Immediately after a blowout loss at the Air Canada Centre to the blazing-hot OKC Thunder, a struggling Lowry went to get his elbow drained of fluid. This isn’t just any bony joint, mind you. In Canada, this is The People’s Elbow. No less than a nation full of rabid hoops fans have waited patiently for the breakthrough of a franchise that has been around for 21 seasons and have one, solitary playoff series victory (during Vince Carter’s Chapel Hill graduation year of 2001) to show for it. Lowry’s back problems deep-sixed the Atlantic Division champions’ chances to advance in the 2015 playoffs. One year later, they’re relying on this star point guard’s elbow to make the passes, the steals, the help rebounds, the shots, that could lift this team to the conference finals – and beyond, if they dare. To his credit, Lowry was forthcoming with the postgame media about the status of his sore elbow, and is allaying fears that it might impair his effectiveness going forward, particularly now that it’s drained and has undergone additional treatment since. "It’s definitely something I don't want to play with, and I don't like to play with, but it is what it is," Lowry said to the press after the Thunder game. "It just gets you when you can’t extend your elbow and your arm the complete way. Hopefully we’ve got it taken care of. Hopefully I won't be playing and shooting as bad as I’ve been playing the last three games." Hopefully. He remains likely to play today despite sitting out shootaround this morning. Like the team, Lowry remains furtive about the status of someone who should be a starting forward for Toronto by the time the playoffs get here. When pressed for his estimation of the time Carroll will need before he’s playoff-certified: "I don't know, Dr. Kyle isn't in the office today." Two nights after the Raptors got triple-doubled by the magnificent Russell Westbrook, Jeff Teague’s arrival in town will certainly feel like a vacation for Lowry. But fresh from bewildering a desperate Derrick Rose, Teague (26 points @ CHI; 19 assists, ZERO turnovers in last 2 games) is in no mood to alleviate the Raptors’ woes. No one in Atlanta was shedding a tear during the first few months of the year, when Jeff’s lower leg was forming his first-name initial repeatedly on the floor. There was little regard to his persistent issues with lateral movement and finishing in the paint (44.3 2FG%, lowest since his rookie year), especially with a wunderkind in Dennis Schröder waiting-in-the-wings to close games out. There certainly was no mercy from Lowry when he plopped 22 of Toronto’s 39 fourth-quarter points in Atlanta back on December 2, his Raptors storming ahead with the lead while Teague Time consisted of exasperated 2-for-8 FG shooting. After sitting out a few games in November, through January Teague was shooting 41.7 FG% (43.1 2FG%) and averaging 13.7 PPG and 5.1 APG. Since February, he’s upped those values to 44.5 FG% (46.6 2FG%), 16.3 PPG and 6.8 APG. Jeff has also sunk his last 16 free throws, including four in the final 25 seconds to help his Hawks finally put the Bulls to bed. Teague did compile 17 assists and just a pair of turnovers in two losses to Toronto, but is out to make amends after shooting just 9-for-31 in those games. Actually, the whole Hawks team is out to bounce back after sinking just 5 of 22 three-pointers (0-for-8 in the second half) in Chicago. That’s three nights after drawing more iron than you’d find in a Geritol bottle (5-for-32 3FGs, 2-for-24 in final three quarters) back home against the Bucks, and two nights after making just a third of their treys (5-for-15 3FGs) as the Pistons tried to claw their way back into the game. The point guards’ effectiveness in seizing control of the game depends a lot on their teammates’ ability to bury perimeter shots and open up the floor. The Hawks continue to manufacture 16.1 wide-open three point shots per game (17.0 in March), 3.8 more than second-place Golden State, but have made just 34.7% of them (34.9 wide-open 3FG% in March), as none of the next ten most-frequent shooting teams converted at less than a 37.5% clip. Atlanta relies more than most teams on bigs that are just recently expanding their ranges, like Paul Millsap (31.4 wide-open 3FG%) and Al Horford (35.6%; 39.5% in March), the latter being tied with Kent Bazemore (34.1%; 22.9% in March) for the team lead with 2.6 wide-open 3s per game. But that doesn’t excuse snipers like Kyle Korver (36.1 wide-open FG%; 42.9% in March) or Tim Hardaway, Jr. (38.6%; 40.0% in March) from the need to continue getting their weight up. Hardaway has worked hard to carve a steady role in the Hawks rotation, but suffers from the dilemma suffered by shooting guards and swingmen of the past, like Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow. Specifically, if your shots aren’t falling, what ELSE are you doing out there? In the past three games, Junior (1-for-11 on 3FGs, 3-for-10 on 2FGs) has contributed one defensive rebound, 5 assists, four points-in-the-paint, three free throw points, and one steal, total. The Hawks need Hardaway to make a bigger imprint on both ends of the floor, especially to exploit their depth advantages on most nights. It’s well-known that I’m wary of making too much about Hawk opponents’ injuries, so I’ll quickly add that Toronto has upgraded Terrence Ross to probable, after their fourth-leading scorer missed the past three games with a sore thumb. Raptors coach Dwane Casey has been turning instead to Powell, and the rookie guard is certainly plugging the gaps. He’s made 47.4% of his 3-point attempts in the past three games (15.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and brings much more energy on the defensive end than Ross (6.6 TO%, 3rd-best in NBA), who is much improved as an on-ball defender in his own right. Still, the Hawks must find advantages among their reserves, and that begins in the backcourt. Dennis Schröder should have little problem outperforming Toronto’s Cory Joseph (32.5 FG%, 21.7 3FG%, 6.5 PPG, 2.7 APG this month), who has been struggling just as he’ll be needed to step things up while Lowry rehabs. Schröder and Hawks wing Thabo Sefolosha have to find ways to disrupt one of the NBA’s stingiest offenses in Toronto (NBA-low 6.5 opponent SPG; 14.3 opponent PPG off TOs, 3rd-lowest in NBA). If Lowry remains ineffective as a shooter, DeRozan is likely to put more of the offense on his shoulders. Sefolosha (probable, despite continued stiffness in his ankle) will be needed to help force Toronto’s leading scorer into inefficient shots, without bailout fouls (…Paul!) As was the case in Toronto’s March 10 victory over the Hawks (DeRozan 30 points, 11-for-20 FGs, 7-for-9 FTs), the Raptors are 7-3 when DeRozan gets more points than shot attempts taken (field goals plus free throws; 13-for-23 3FGs in those games). But they’re a pedestrian 8-7 when he gets at least 25% more attempts than points scored (3-for-26 on 3FGs in those games). They’re also 9-1 when he’s granted 14 or more free throw attempts, 10-1 when he makes more than ten of them. Over the course of a long career, former Raptor Kris Humphries’ 7.2 RPG against Toronto is his highest mark against any NBA team, his 8.1 PPG the best against any Eastern Conference foe. While undoubtedly much of that production came against guys named Bargnani and Garbajosa, Humphries will play a role in establishing defensive-rebounding parity for the Hawks’ big men as Toronto rotates Bismack Biyombo, Patrick Patterson and Jason Thompson behind Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas. Hampered by a slow pace of play, opponents average just 31.3 D-Rebs per game against the Raptors, second-lowest in the league. Horford (3-for-5 3FGs, 5-for-9 2FGs @ TOR on Mar. 10) and Millsap must continue to force opposing bigs to play faster, spurred on by aggressive guard play and ball movement. Atlanta’s perimeter shooters have little excuse against a Raptors team that allows opponents to make 37.5% of three-pointers, second-most in the league. Take care of business on the interior, find and convert open shots, and continue making offenses work outside of their comfort zones for whatever points they can get. And by the fourth quarter, the courtside rappers will have their minds set on mixtapes, ill-timed Instagrams, and “Where’s DeMarre?” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. “Okay, here’s the plan! You, go warm up the bus. You, send Jeff around the corner for pizza…” Sucking Wind City! While the Atlanta Hawks’ biggest issue at the moment is getting the headcount right on the travel bus, we’re just about at the point where their hosts tonight, the Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, CSN Chicago), will look to throw somebody under one. Last season, just five teams in the Eastern Conference had a winning record, and Chicago’s current mark (36-36) would have had them on pace for the 6th seed. Not so in 2016, with as many as ten East teams at least capable of finishing above .500, and the Wizards and Bulls on the outside looking in. Hawks GM Wes Wilcox was an assistant coach on LeBron James’ 2004-05 Cavs (42-40), the last East team to sit out the postseason despite amassing more victories than losses. That team had too many questions about its head coach, setting free Paul Silas despite 18 games left and his team still in 5th place despite a post-All-star swoon. This Bulls team seems to have even more questions about its leadership, including its first-year head coach. It’s not like the Bulls haven’t been down this particular primrose path before. In 1998, the team had vacancies all over the place after the final MJ-led NBA title followed with everyone of significance, including head coach Phil Jackson, abandoning ship. That summer, Jerry Reinsdorf went to the sleepy college town of Ames, and plucked Iowa State coach Tim Floyd, a 44-year-old with no NBA coaching experience (but one Sweet Sixteen appearance, so there was that), to serve their director of basketball operations, hoping against logic that Phil (and Mike) would have a change of heart and return to the fold once the lockout ended. Yeah, that was never gonna happen. When the season opened in February, Floyd was the coach, running the show for the first of nearly three-and-a-half disastrous seasons, when the Bulls couldn’t even crack 20 wins. Somebody in Chi-town must really like the Cyclones. Fifty wins, the NBA’s Most Improved Player in Jimmy Butler, and a conference semifinals appearance where the Bulls gave LeBron his strongest resistance along his path back to the NBA Finals, apparently wasn’t good enough for Tom Thibodeau to retain his job in 2015. Entrusted with joint management decisions, executive VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman figured, why the heck not? In comes Floyd’s first All-American college player, Fred Hoiberg, now a 42-year-old with one season of NBA assistant coaching experience back in 2006 (but a Sweet Sixteen appearance, so there’s that), as the new head coach. Being hopelessly enamored with the Big 12 is one thing, but would it have pained the Bulls brass to at least go after Lon Kruger? After blowing a home-and-home set with the Knicks and then getting their doors blown off down in Orlando, all in a span of four days, Chicago (10-16 since Feb. 1) is facing their worst season finish since stumbling out of the pen under Scott Skiles in 2007-08. The Hoi polloi are seeing red. Players are getting restless, too. “We’re losing to… trash teams.” Taj Gibson tried explaining his feeling “embarrassed” last week after the Knicks’ sweep, certainly not endearing himself to anybody in Gotham or the Magic Kingdom in the process. Well, Taj will be emboldened by the discovery that his Bulls blowing games against teams that are beneath him, in his estimation, is now a thing of the past. Beginning with an Atlanta (44-30) team that dispatched Detroit with surgical precision (34 assists, four player turnovers, 8 of 9 players scoring in double figures) on Saturday, six of Chicago’s next seven opponents are in playoff contention, and the seventh (Milwaukee) was eliminated last night. Just two of those forthcoming games are at home. After that stretch, they’ll host LeBron’s Cavs, their opening-round opponent even in a rosiest-case scenario. By that point, we’ll know if this is a roster that also deserves to get tossed into Gibson’s round file. The largest average fan attendance in the NBA fills up the United Center. But Chicago’s diminishing faithful anticipates another fall-flat performance tonight, and the tension is as thick as you’d find at a presidential candidate rally there. Their All-Star at the wing, Butler, is still laboring through a knee injury sustained back in early February, and is likely to get shut down for exploratory surgery the minute Chicago gets mathematically eliminated. “…at times I feel like I’m hurting this team. That’s the most disappointing part because I’m not the player I was,” noted Butler to the Chicago Sun-Times, in what had to sound a bit like an echo to fans of the Bulls’ starting backcourt. One good element of Butler’s return to action has been his passing (5.3 APG, 1.0 TO per game in last 8 games). But Jimmy “Pails” (14.3 PPG, 39.2 FG% in last 8 games) in comparison to the Jimmy Buckets (22.4 PPG, 45.8 FG%) that preceded his injury, and his defensive intensity has ebbed as well. Derrick’s Rose Rule contract expires after next season, while Pau Gasol may be following the injured Joakim Noah out the door in free agency. Gasol (nursing a sprained ankle, but probable for tonight; 8.3 PPG and 39.1 FG% in last 3 games) and Rose (18.4 PPG in March) have been trying to plug the gap in Butler’s production as best they can, but that only shows up on the offensive end of the floor for Chicago. The Bulls have allowed triple-digit opponent tallies in nine of their past ten games (the exception being the Jazz, who don’t even get down like that) and in 25 of their last 27 games, going back to January 31. Under Hoiberg, they’ve become offensively inefficient (26th in O-Rating, 25th in FG%) and, to the dismay of fans longing for the Thibodeau days, defensively deficient (24th in D-Rating since February 1). Reinsdorf would relish any fan-favorable news that kicks the soap opera by his White Sox off the front page, so it’s likely GarPax will get gored soon. But Hoiberg’s not in deep dish just yet. End the losing streak tonight against Atlanta, inspire a mad-dash charge for the 8-seed (they’re just 2 games behind Detroit, 2.5 back of Indy), and Hoiberg can make a case out of being a transition guy completing the first season of his five-year, $25 million contract, hamstrung by well over 180 man-games lost due to injuries. Even if the Bulls’ closing campaign falls short, a new managerial regime might arrive in the upcoming offseason with a lot to work with, including not just one but perhaps two lottery picks. The 2014 mid-season dealing of Luol Deng to Cleveland netted them a top-ten-protected 2016 draft pick via Sacramento, and the Kings are within just 1.5 wins of royally screwing that up. Throw in a full season of off-season recovery from Butler, Rose’s contract year, and growth from youngsters like Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic, and the skyscraper’s the limit. But any half-full perspectives for Hoiberg must begin with a big win, soon. And there’s no time like the present with the Hawks in town. Solving Atlanta involves figuring out the Hawks’ stifling perimeter defense. With Saturday’s victory over the Pistons, Atlanta matched last season’s total of 15 games holding opponents below 25% shooting on three-pointers, with eight games left to spare. Chicago’s 36.8 3FG% ranks 4th in the NBA, but among this season’s most accurate Bulls-eye marksmen, the top one (E’Twaun Moore) remains out with a strained hammy, the fourth-best was Kirk Hinrich, and the fifth-best is our old friend, and Drake troll victim, Justin Holiday. The Bulls’ Big Three (Butler, Rose, Gasol) have to look for targets like McDermott (43.2 3FG%; team-high 20 points on 6-for-13 FGs @ ATL on Feb. 26) and Mike Dunleavy (41.8 3FG%) in the corners, where Hawks opponents (37.8 3FG%) have had much better success than they have above-the-arc (NBA-low 32.2 opponent 3FG%). They’ll have a simpler time doing so if Thabo Sefolosha (ankle stiffness, questionable for tonight) isn’t on the floor to frustrate them all. Gibson will come out to the perimeter to guard Paul Millsap, who was having a whale of a game in Motown (3-for-4 3FGs, 23 points, 4 steals, 4 blocks) before donning a mask of crimson, courtesy of a fourth-quarter head-butt from Errin’ Aron Baynes. But he’s a hockey player, and after nearly a dozen stitches, Millsap is ready to hop back in the fray tonight. A stitch in time saves nine, so with Sap looking to repeat his team-high nine rebounds and nine points off threes from Saturday, he’ll need his point guards to beat their man off the dribble and make the Bulls pay for leaving Gasol (16 points, 17 rebounds, but 6-for-22 shooting @ ATL on Feb. 26) abandoned around the rim. Only the Lakers, Knicks, and Clippers have been outscored in the paint to a greater degree than Chicago (-3.1 PPG in-the-paint). Who knew the team would have such an aversion to Jeff Teague’s penchant for anchovies? Teague’s shooting hasn’t been Hot recently (36.2 FG% in his last 8 games), but he has been Ready to dice up teams like the Pistons and Bulls (6.0 team SPG and 11.9 opponent TOs/game, 29th in NBA) who aren’t aggressive with ball handlers. After 12 assists and zero turnovers in Detroit, Jeff, plus Dennis Schröder (7 assists, 3 TOs @ DET on Saturday) should have little trouble dicing up their defenders like pepperoni tonight, especially if Butler and Tony Snell get preoccupied with chasing around Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Al Horford stands to have a productive evening as well, after adding four assists and four blocks to his 18 points (8-for-11 FGs; 2-for-3 3FGs) in a 103-88, nearly wire-to-wire win over the Bulls in Atlanta last month. Consistent with the successful stretch that began with that victory, the Hawks shot just 20.6% on threes in the game and 41.6% overall, but the Bulls had even fewer answers (36.4 FG%, 5-for-20 3FGs). Horford and Millsap combined for 9 of the Hawks’ 11 blocked shots (compared to Chicago’s two blocks) and matched Chicago’s total of 3 steals as Atlanta built up a 20-11 forced turnover advantage. Hoiberg’s crew needs to find players willing to be more disruptive and force the Hawks to play Butler and Rose in transition. Only the Lakers and Knicks score fewer points off turnovers than Chicago (13.5 PPG, 28th in NBA). Getting the W tonight over the Bulls would virtually sew up the ninth-consecutive postseason for the Hawks, the longest for the franchise since the St. Louis-to-Atlanta run between 1963 and 1973. They have a tiebreaker over Chicago and a 2-1 edge in games over Washington, who should make it all official with a loss in Golden State tomorrow night. While Chicago resorts to internal finger-pointing meetings, maybe the Hawks can celebrate with a pizza party. Who’s buying? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “YOUR Dad’s a GENIUS!” It’s another Separation Saturday! When our Atlanta Hawks last left Auburn Hills, eight days ago, their Palace coup left the Detroit Pistons a bit embittered. Both teams have done fairly well for themselves in the days since, and each has a good reason to grab a win tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Detroit) —specifically, stiff-arming the competition below them in the conference standings. Atlanta and Detroit share the top spot among the East’s toughest remaining schedules, opponents each holding a 57% winning percentage. Seven of Detroit’s remaining nine games involve back-to-backs. The Pistons actually do pretty good with back-to-back series, as they’re an impressive 20-14 in those games. Even better, they’ve won their last six contests on the back ends of those series, and hoping to extend it to seven tonight. The Pistons are STILL amid that nine-game homestand that began with the loss to the Hawks on March 18. And the confines have gotten quite comfy. They dusted four lotto-bound teams before fumigating the Hornets last night (62 team rebounds in regulation, a season-high). Tonight, they’re on the hunt for their first six-game winning streak since the infamous Smoove Buyout spurred Stan Van Gundy’s club to seven-straight back in December-January of last season. After tonight, Detroit (39-34, 8th-seed in East) hosts OKC and the Mavs before finally hitting the road, for a three-game stretch that includes a miffed Bulls squad (2 games behind) and the heat. Their schedule concludes with a visit to Cleveland. Since they have a better record versus their Central Division rivals than they do against the Raptors, they might not mind bringing an extra bag to the Buckeye State in advance of a playoff series there. In the Hawks’ case, tonight concludes the back-to-backs (22-14, 11-7 on second nights) for the season. They’ve swept their last three series and are looking to extend that string to four tonight, after starting out the year sweeping their first three. Winning their sixth road game out of their last seven tonight should keep Atlanta (43-30, 3rd-seed in East) a half-game ahead of the Celtics, who are in Phoenix tonight awaiting a team that played yesterday, and extend their division lead over resting Miami to a full game. While two games each versus Cleveland and Toronto await, the sooner that these teams firm up their playoff positioning, the sooner they can focus on rest and recuperation ahead of the postseason. Bang The Drummond Slowly! The last time the Hawks were here, Mike Budenholzer’s strategic fouling of the Pistons’ mammoth center was a successful exercise in torture that even some presidential candidates could admire. Dre sunk almost half of his 17 foul shots to add 8 points to his 18-and-18 evening. But more importantly, Hack-a-Dre effectively short-circuited his entire team’s momentum, the Hawks eroding Detroit’s 11-point third-quarter lead to surge ahead for good in the fourth. “If we feel like it’s going to create an advantage,” Coach Bud said unapologetically to the postgame media, “we’ll continue to do it… (Detroit) was playing so well offensively, it’s a way to give your defense a little break and take the ball out of some other people’s hands and change the rhythm of the game.” Those “other people’s hands” rightfully belong to guys like Reggie Jackson (36.1 Assist%, 10th in NBA), who had 17 points and 10 assists without sinking a single three-pointer against the Hawks (0-for-6 3FGs on March 16). "He drilled us in transition, the pick-and-roll game, everything that we worked on," Hornets coach Steve Clifford praised of Jackson's offense after last night's game. Still, RJax is looking to right the ship after going 0-for-5 from deep last night while getting torched from the perimeter by Charlotte's Kemba Walker (25 first-half points; 6-for-9 3FGs; 5 assists and no turnovers). Their Atlanta counterpart, Jeff Teague, had half of the Hawks’ paltry 12 player turnovers last night versus Milwaukee, and went 0-for-5 on threes, but saved his best for last with 12 of his 18 points in the closing seven minutes of the contest. Detroit seized the frontcourt scoring edge from Charlotte thanks to 18-and-14 by Drummond (just two free throws, both missed), along with bench bigs Aron Baynes (16-and-8 in 18 minutes) and Anthony Tolliver (3-for-7 3FGs and 8 boards in 20 minutes). The Pistons will need a double-dip of that tonight from a bench corps that ranks last in the NBA with a cumulative 26.5 PPG and 41.4 FG%. Detroit relies more than any other team on three-point bench shots (40.7% of bench FG attempts are from 3-point distance), so the Hawks perimeter defense must continue to be on point today. Conversely, despite shooting just 32.0 3FG% on the season, the 45.4 FG% by Atlanta’s bench is the best in the East. Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kris Humphries, and Dennis Schröder will continue improving Atlanta’s offensive ambrosia, particularly when Kyle Korver (0-for-4 3FGs on Friday, 1-for-3 @ DET on March 16), Teague, and the All-Star starting frontcourt are having off-nights from the field. Detroit cooled off with 3-for-16 team shooting in the fourth quarter on Friday, as the Hornets’ reserves dwindled a 26-point mid-fourth-quarter deficit down to five with 38 seconds left to play. Similar to the situation with Atlanta’s bench scoring, in fourth-quarters, the Hawks shoot just 32.4 3FG% but their 46.4 FG% is second-best in the East, just a hair behind Miami (46.5 FG%). Detroit’s fourth-quarters haven’t been so hot (42.8 FG%, 26th in NBA). So they’re hoping once again to pounce early and hang on late, especially after SVG rested his starters in the final frame while the Hornets made their late-game charge. The Hawks got a bit discombobulated while up nine points with 80 seconds left in the last Pistons game, making the eventual outcome, a 118-114 win, a little tighter than necessary. After Paul Millsap’s And-1 bucket gave the Hawks the final lead of the night with under four minutes to go, their final 13 points were all free throws. A Teague turnover, a few missed freebies and some defensive lapses in the closing minute allowed the Pistons to sneak back into the rearview mirror. But Jeff’s 8-for-8 fourth quarter FTs helped make Detroit’s last stand too-little-too-late. Last night, Atlanta showed that they want to be a team that Lives by the D, not just the 3. Even with the iron unkind all night from downtown (5-for-32 3FGs), the Hawks refused to take, “Just not our night!” as an answer. They kept the Bucks few perimeter threats cool from deep (Khris Middleton and Jerryd Bayless 2-for-8 on 3FGs) and made Milwaukee earn just about every interior shot they could make. While Milwaukee missed 23 shots in the taint, I mean paint, Atlanta’s 58-42 points-in-paint advantage made all the difference in the final score. The Hawks also helped their own cause by slowing down the Bucks’ fastbreak, building a 22-14 advantage in that category as well. The Bucks, meanwhile, didn’t help their own cause by missing nine of their 26 free throw attempts. Foreshadowing, Pistons? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. “I must say, Woody… my hips are feeling just fine right now!” Remember last week, when I said it’s unlikely the Atlanta Hawks will have a chance to eliminate anybody from playoff contention? Well, that’s technically still true as the Milwaukee Bucks stop here, at Philips Arena (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Wisconsin), but just barely. For Milwaukee (30-42), their Tragic Number is down to 3, thanks in part to Myles Turner’s birthday bash yesterday in Indianapolis, and in part to their own 3-game losing skid, lowlighted on Monday by a last-second tip-in loss to Andre Drummond at Auburn Hills. If the 8-seed Pistons prevail at home tonight against Charlotte ahead of their Saturday night affair with the re-visiting Hawks, and if the Bucks falter in Atlanta, that’s just about all she wrote for any postseason prayers up in America’s Dairyland. But what’s the big deal, really? There’s no use in crying over melted cheddar. All things considered, this season is an unqualified success for Jason Kidd’s staff. The Bucks’ head coach missed 15 games in mid-season to recover from hip surgery, and his replacement, Spurs acolyte Joe Prunty, held serve with an 8-9 record. The team struggled with the squeezeplay of having Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Greg Monroe on the floor simultaneously, choosing to go with their 2015 free agent prize as a center. And they never could get comfortable with their rudder at point guard, Michael Carter-Williams never quite being to Kidd’s liking, up until MCW’s own season-ending hip surgery was announced at the end of February. Even before Carter-Williams’ departure, Kidd recognized the MCW-Monroe starting tandem was hampering his defensive gameplans. Kidd benched MCW and Monroe for awhile, and has since tried to plug ‘n play with backups at the point. But a guilty verdict was handed down in the case of “The Stairs vs. O.J. Mayo”, sending Option B out for the season as well with his broken ankle. That leaves the remaining lead-guard choices as Jerryd Bayless (now the starter) and second-year guard Tyler Ennis. After undergoing bone spur surgery back in November, Greivis Vasquez just began practicing with the team, but is unlikely to appear tonight. The depth behind Middleton has been shaky as well. Rookie shooting guard Rashad Vaughn hasn’t quite turned the corner, so the Bucks brought in former Hawks guard Jared Cunningham on a ten-day to see if he can shake things up a bit. Bayless (44.0 3FG%, 4th in NBA) and Middleton are about all Milwaukee has in terms of perimeter shooting, although Kidd has been encouraging Ennis to look for his shot more lately. Parker (career-high 13 rebounds plus 28 points @ ATL on Feb. 20) continues shaking off the cobwebs after missing most of last season’s turnaround due to injury. Middleton (2nd in NBA for minutes played; tied with Kyle Korver at 40.5 3FG%, 14th in NBA) struggles at times to live up to his new contract, but admirably fills in Milwaukee’s offensive gaps. Monroe (24 rebounds in two OT games vs. ATL this season) has been steady but hasn’t shown measurable improvement in much of anything, aside from maybe blocking shots, without Drummond around to help him at the pivot. Alpha-Bits (career-high 16 rebounds plus 28 points vs. ATL on Jan. 15) continues to fill out his boxscore lines as best he can. But defensively, Giannis cannot be patrolling the perimeter and the paint at the same time, and leads the NBA with 228 personal fouls. So with all that working against them, plus a still ridiculously young roster devoid of vets like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley (probably passed Orlando as the league’s youngest; their oldest active veteran, Bayless, is 27 years old), a 30-to-35-win season should be considered a successful step forward. That is, if it were not for the Worst-to-Mediocre season of 2014-15 that sprang the Bucks into the playoffs, going from 15-67 to 41-41. Despite the high expectations at the outset, consider this season more of a correction and recalibration for Kidd and the Gang. Any victories at this point are just Ones to Grow On for 2016-17. That includes the pair of overtime wins the Bucks have over the Hawks (42-30) this season. Neither victory was of the apply-hoof-to-tailfeather variety, and big shots in both games by Al Horford (16-for-30 2FGs, no free throws vs. MIL this season) kept the Hawks in the running. But in both contests, the Hawks’ multifaceted perimeter offense failed to stand out against a mostly limited 3-point shooting team. In Milwaukee in January, the Hawks shot the same from deep (30.0 3FG%) as their opponents, despite lofting 20 more attempts. Back at the Highlight Factory one month later, the Bucks made a paltry 3 of their 17 3FG attempts, but percentage-wise, Atlanta didn’t fare much better with 24 more three-point shots (9-for-41 3FGs) than Milwaukee, and ultimately couldn’t take advantage of Alpha-Bits fouling out in regulation. The Hawks weren’t great shakes up in Washington, either, through the first three quarters (10-for-30 3FGs) on Wednesday night. But then Dennis Schröder popped off a trey with three minutes to go, showcasing his versatile potential, and the spigot stayed on throughout the fourth quarter (7-for-12 3FGs), while the Hawks defense clamped down on John Wall and the Wizards for the 122-101 runaway victory. But for Atlanta’s super-sub, Milwaukee might not have needed OT to top the Hawks in either game. Can we all just hold hands and declare it together, definitively, out loud? “Dennis Schröder is The Best Sixth Man in the East, at least!” Someone out West is sure to win the annual hardware. But among Eastern reserves with at least 15 minutes-per-game and 50 games played without starting, only Toronto’s Patrick Patterson has a better net rating (+10.9) than Schröder (+10.4). In this category of backups, only Evan Turner (4.7 APG) averages more assists (4.6 APG), and no one averages more than Schröder’s 11.1 PPG over the course of this season. Throw in the absence of a bench sidekick like Tim Hardaway, Jr., until after the All-Star Break, and Schröder’s effectiveness only becomes starker. Take Dennis’ inside-outside threats with an invigorated commitment to defense, and he eclipses more lauded bench guys like Boston’s Turner or Cleveland’s Matty Dellave-dive-on. Plus, the precocious point guard doesn’t hit age 23 until September. There’s a saying that the most popular man in town is the backup quarterback. Jeff Teague remains, to use Budspeak, “a big part of what we do.” But to keep from eventually getting Bibbied himself, our Agent Zero has to be a bigger offensive threat, particularly at the outset of games like this, when opponents have meager options at the 1-spot. Despite 10 assists against the Bucks in January, Jeff shot just 4-for-13 from the field, egging Mike Budenholzer on to turn to Schröder, who promptly plopped in 16 points and added 5 dimes in just over 19 minutes. In the next matchup with Milwaukee, Jeff shot just 2-for-8 and struggled to play with a second-half wrist injury. This time, Dennis did yeoman’s work in 40 minutes (25 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists), bringing his shooting to 16-for-29 FGs in the pair of games against the Bucks. Washington thought they had Wednesday’s game in the bad, until they fell victim to The Budenhustle beginning in the back half of the third quarter. Rather than a Teague Takeover (3-for-10 FGs, 1-for-5 2FGs, 9 points and 6 assists in 26 minutes), Atlanta foisted a Schröder Shakedown (7-for-9 FGs, 8 assists in 20 minutes, four 3-point-assists in four fourth-quarter minutes) upon Wall and his suddenly flummoxed Wizards. The Menace also entered in the opening quarter with the Hawks down 25-15. Within five minutes, the Wizards hadn’t scored, and Atlanta tied the game. What’s the German word for “Microwave?” Teague and Schröder need to continue making smart ballhandler decisions, as they’ll face an opportunistic Milwaukee squad that, despite their faults, are just about as eager as the Hawks (19.1 points off turnovers) to score in transition (18.8 PPG off turnovers, 3rd in NBA; league-best +6.2 PPG off TOs in March). Paul Millsap (25.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG vs. MIL this season) was the biggest turnover culprit for Atlanta on Wednesday (5 TOs @ WAS, 3 off Wizard steals) and needs to make swifter decisions when he’s fed the ball inside, before Middleton, Alpha-Bits and the Bucks go for the strips. Hawks defenders must also play close-to-the vest on Bucks ball-handlers, forcing the action and disallowing the ability for Milwaukee’s core offensive starters to function in space. In addition to their offensive advantages at the point, the Hawks must exploit their advantage in terms of team defense. While Atlanta’s defensive measures since January 1 (97.1 opponent points per 100 possessions, 42.2 opponent FG%, 30.9 opponent 3FG%) all lead the league, the Monroe-infused Bucks have dropped from 4th in defensive efficiency in 2014-15 to 20th (105.4 opponent points per-100) this season. Monroe and his athletic associates (including Barnes-magnet John Henson) love to build up an edge on the interior (NBA-high 50.3 PPG in-the-paint), but are so single-minded on scoring around the rim that they’re subject to runouts at the other end. Despite their touted size, the Bucks are also dead-last in defensive rebounding (72.4 D-Reb%). Neither Bucks victory over the Hawks included Atlanta’s Kris Humphries, who played just 16 minutes in D.C. and should be well-rested in advance of this back-to-back set with the Bucks and Pistons. With another big game in Detroit tomorrow night, there’s no need for the Hawks to be Kidd-ing around in overtime again versus Milwaukee. To make tonight a small-g good Friday, Teague’s job is to guide the starters to a sizable first-quarter lead, then to leave it to Schröder and the bench mob to make quick venison out of the Bucks. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. They can’t guard me! Or, at least, they won’t. Not so long as I’m in my Big Panda disguise! So, I’m pooped! No time to put together a fulll Game Thread ahead of the Atlanta Hawks’ payback game against the Washington Wizards (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Mid-Atlantic). A few nuggets in lieu of the whole chicken: Like a Philly cheesesteak, the Wiz is on a roll! They last won six-in-a-row early last season, in November/December 2014. That said, they’re still clawing for a final playoff spot, because both the Bulls and Pistons (1.5 games ahead) are feeling their oats as well, winners of three straight games and six of their last ten. Washington knows they cannot afford any more missteps, particularly at home. They've won 9 of their last 10 at the Verizon Center. The Hawks are in a nice little logjam at 41-30, not the least of which is because the Hornets took care of business at home against the big, bad Spurs. A loss tonight drops the Hawks to 7-8 in-division, which won’t bode well for otherwise-meaningless division title contention with Miami (0.5 game ahead; 8-5 Southeast), Charlotte (now tied, along with Boston; 7-7 Southeast) and, for now, Washington (5.5 GB, 8-5 Southeast). San Antonio may give the Hawks a break by trying to extend their home winning streak tonight against the heat (41-29). Atlanta’s also in a race with Boston to be the first among the East’s Top 7 with 20 Eastern Conference losses, although the Celts have five more in-conference wins under their belts. The Hawks still have the toughest schedule ahead in the East, and likely need a winning road record (18-17) to keep the postseason on lock. The Wizards had the Hawks under a heat lamp on Monday at Philips Arena. Their 50.5 FG% was the best by any Hawks foe since their epic comeback in Houston back on December 29. That included a 13-for-25 shooting display for Washington beyond the arc, and 59 FG% in the middle quarters. The Zards are 24-5 when they hit the 48 FG% shooting mark, 16-3 when they bury half their shots. Atlanta’s offense, to be fair, wasn’t too bad on Monday, keeping the outcome entertaining until the wheels came off late. Al Horford was sharp as a tack (14 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals), and could stand to use even more touches tonight to get Gortat off his game. As a team Atlanta hit 55.6 2FG% and nearly 40 percent on threes (13-for-28 until the fourth quarter), thanks in no small part to Tim Hardaway, Jr. (4-for-5 3FGs). But John Wall, Bradley Beal (12 third-quarter points), and Marcin Gortat (12 first-quarter points) were too much to keep up with, the modest pace being more to the Wizards’ liking. After a rough start, Jeff Teague tried to keep up (23 points, 7-for-17 FGs, 6-for-9 in the middle quarters, 6-for-8 FTs) but it didn’t last for long. He and Dennis Schröder will hopefully be able to distribute more to starters Kyle Korver (1-for-2 3FGs, 19 minutes) and Kent Bazemore (0-for-4 3FGs, 21 minutes), who played sparingly. The latter seemed rattled after absorbing a hard offensive foul from Jared Dudley in the second quarter, and perhaps a day of recovery will serve him well. The Hawks tipped their cap all night to the Wizards’ offensive onslaught. But tipping one’s cap doesn’t also require tipping one’s hand. Teague and Schröder persistently went under on screens for Wall (just three mid-range shots outside the paint/FT circle, seven FGs at the rim), who turned on the jets. Once in the paint, with Hawk defenders scrambling to help, there was a candy shop full of options available for Wall (27 points, 10-for-21 FGs, 14 assists). If you’re Wall, you can await the cutters by Gortat and Markieff Morris, or swing the rock out to Beal (5-for-6 3FGs, 3 Wall-assisted), Morris (both Wall-assisted), or Otto Porter (both Wall-assisted). Or, stay behind the line and call your own number (Wall 3-for-5 3FGs). The Hawks did not practice on Sunday (or on Tuesday, Ye Ole Recovery Day), and maybe their much-improved pick-and-roll defense got out of whack. But the guards must put in the work to fight over screens (particularly by Gortat, who several Hawks praised as the best in the biz postgame) and catch up with Wall. Otherwise, there’ll be Big Trouble in Little Chinatown tonight. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  22. “There can be only one…” Another back-to-back, Jack! Coming off a successful twin-billing at home this past weekend, tonight starts one of just two back-to-back sets left for the Atlanta Hawks. Both include a trip to Greater Motown to face the Detroit Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Detroit). Hoping to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009, Detroit (34-33) comes into tonight’s contest looking every bit like a young, upstart .500 team. Is this a team that’s won three of their last five, or lost four of their last seven? Are they winners of seven in their past eleven games, or losers of nine out of their previous 16 games? Are these the Pistons that won, in recent weeks, in Cleveland, at home against Toronto, and by 20 versus Portland? Or is Stan Van Gundy’s club the team whose last four road losses were by double-digits, including a 33-point nationally-televised blowout on Monday, against fellow 8-seed contender Washington? The answer to all of that is, yes, these are those Pistons. And with Joe Dumars a distant memory around Auburn Hills, Pistons fans couldn’t be much happier. Detroit is just a percentage-point behind the Bulls for 8th in the Eastern Conference, and tonight, they will embark upon a NINE-game homestand. Yes, nine games, for a team that’s a modest 19-11 in the roller rink otherwise known as the Palace. Detroit knows that a surge over the next 17 days at home could have them charging right up the standings. They’re also aware that anything less than a 5-4 mark out of this homestand would turn postseason hopes into a pipe dream. Tonight, these Pistons hope to get even with Atlanta’s tepid (22-18) in-conference record. After hosting the Hawks, the Pistons have four relative cupcakes (Sacramento, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Orlando) paying them a visit. Then it’s the red-hot Hornets. Then, whaddya know, it’s those Hawks again, one night after Atlanta hosts the Bucks. Then the Thunder, and finally the Mavericks, one night before traveling to Chicago. SVG knows there won’t be much room for error after that. As was the case this weekend with the Pacers, the Hawks (38-29) hope to have the Pistons stumbling into their upcoming schedule, not soaring and using a win over Atlanta to build momentum. The Hawks have some chasing to do as well. The reigning Southeast Division champs are just a game behind Joe Johnson’s Miami heat, along with the potentially sliding Boston Celtics, in the standings. They’re 20-14 this season in games of back-to-back sets, but that included a 6-0 start to the season. They can match that early-season run, but not if they get caught looking past opponents like Detroit. In the teams’ last meeting in December, the Pistons came into Philips one night after, first, coming from way behind to prevail in Miami, then enduring weather delays that prevented their arrival in ATL until the morning of the game. Early and sporadically, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer deployed a Hack A. Drummond strategy, using Lamar Patterson, Tiago Splitter, and Mike Scott as part of the tag-team. Andre sunk 7 of his 25 points, but missed 11 free throws as the Pistons fell too far behind to catch up. Despite losing by just 107-100, the Pistons found themselves in a 19-point fourth-quarter hole before Atlanta kicked into cruise control. Drummond (league-highs 15.0 RPG, 34.6 D-Reb%) remains a top-notch defensive threat, but SVG has his All-Star center going after rebounds and steals, not Whitesiding and imperiling the paint by chasing after uncommitted shooters in search of box-score-busting blocks. Van Gundy upgraded the frontline by flipping Ersan Ilyasova to Orlando (along with Brandon Jennings) in exchange for Tobias Harris. But it’s really going to help the Pistons if forwards Harris, Marcus Morris, and rookie Stanley Johnson can help Drummond make stops. Harris is averaging 4.9 defensive boards through 13 games, and while that’s below his averages in Orlando, it still counts as second-best on the team. Detroit’s 3.6 blocks per game ranks 29th in the league, and their 7.3 steals average ranks just 21st. The Pistons are not strong shooters (26th in FG%, 22nd in 3FG%, last thanks to Drummond in FT%). But they are very stingy with turnovers (12.2 TO%, 6th-best in NBA), and they crash the boards after every carom (27.1 O-Reb% and 14.9 second-chance PPG, both 2nd in NBA). On defense, Paul Millsap and Kris Humphries must help Al Horford keep the paint clear of pernicious Pistons. The Pacers on Sunday couldn’t tell whether the frontcourt duo of Millsap and Horford (15-for-29 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 23) were coming or going (combined 11-for-18 2FGs, 4-for-8 3FGs vs. IND). Their ability to command defensive help has been freeing up Kyle Korver (4-for-9 3FGs vs. IND), whose 3FG% has grown from 29.3% in December, to 38.7% in January, 42.3% in February, and 52.8% mid-way through March. Leading scorer and dime-maker Reggie Jackson (career-high 22.3 points per-36 and 36.8 3FG%; 36.0 Assist%, 10th in NBA) helps Van Gundy push a Piston pace not seen by Michiganders since the days of Alvin Gentry, back around the year 2000. The less defensive pressure Jackson feels, the better Detroit’s chances for victory. The Pistons are just 2-9 (one win coming this past week, in Philly) when opponents get 10 or more steals, and the Hawks’ 19.2 PPG off turnovers now leads the NBA. Jackson commits 2.2 TOs per game (6.8 APG; 50.1 FG%; 48.5 3FG%) in wins, 3.2 TOs (5.5 APG; 38.2 FG%; 26.1 3FG%) in losses. Detroit’s ability to execute their offense successfully will be tied to Jeff Teague (4 steals vs. DET on Dec. 23) and the Hawks’ defensive effort versus R-Jax, whose defensive effort also falters when his offense isn’t fiyah. Dennis Schröder scored 11 of his 14 points in the first quarter of the last Hawks-Pistons matchup in December. Teague followed that up with nine of his team-high 23 points and four assists in the second. One X-Factor for the Pistons’ playoff hopes, but not tonight, will eventually be Jodie Meeks, who hasn’t played since October after injuring his foot, but will be activated soon. His fellow Georgian, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, has done a solid job of defending the perimeter, and will be busy chasing Korver (40.2 3FG% on the road) around tonight. But by the time of the Hawks’ next visit, Meeks could be the player that helps stretch the floor to the benefit of Drummond and Jackson. Detroit is the kind of up-and-coming team that could use a come-up against the Hawks, especially if Atlanta is the kind of team they might face in the first round of the playoffs. Winners of five of their last six, the Hawks can continue to whet their mettle, along the way to the postseason, by pulling off at least one Palace coup. Have a Happy St. Pat’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  23. “Serenity now… serenity now…” It’s Demotivational Week for the Atlanta Hawks! Over the next eight days, the Hawks can help put as many as four Eastern Conference wannabe contenders out to pasture. A home-and-home that begins at Philips Arena against the Washington Wizards (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Mid-Atlantic) initiates this stretch. To be sure, the postseason isn’t tied down yet for the Hawks (41-29), who will take a stab at six straight victories tonight. But in far more precarious situations are the Wizards, the Bucks, the Pistons, and the Bulls, all teams on the horizon in Atlanta’s schedule, all teams vying for what’s likely to be one of the final three playoff spots. While the notion of, “If only we could get in the playoffs,” is a tad played out in the minds of Hawks fans as their team marches toward their ninth consecutive trip, for their upcoming opponents, It’s Still Real to Them, Dammit. Chicago missing out would end a run of seven straight and likely kickstart a sorely needed shakeup in the management department. Detroit would be sitting it out for seven straight years, certainly a disappointment after having made moves strategically designed to snap the string. Milwaukee is just about out of it, but a last dash might re-energize a team that has moved in fits and starts, after surprising last season and making a big free agency swing last summer. As for the team up in the District of Columbia? They’ve won four in a row, including defeats of the Pistons and Bulls at home, one of two four-game win streaks that sandwiched a five-game skid. Despite allowing the most points per game of any of the East’s potential playoff teams, the Wizards have held opponents below 100 points in four straight games for the first time all season. Still, not all is sweet in Chocolate City. After swinging for the fences to get their hands on the Suns’ mischievous Markieff Morris at the Trade Deadline, finishing the season below the 8-seed spot is not likely to salvage the jerbs or either GM Ernie Grunfeld or head coach Randy Wittman. As of today, they’re 1.5 games behind those Pistons and Bulls for the final slot. You wanna see Kevin Durant in a Hawks uniform? Well, failing that, how’d you like to see him in a Wizards jersey? To hear anyone in our Nation’s Capitol tell it, getting John Wall and the Wizards into the postseason party has been nice, but in reality, the past couple seasons have merely been one giant postcard for the Durantula: “Wish You Were Here!” The D.C. native might not find palatable an NBA team that seems to be regressing and unstable, and a loss tonight would match the 36 losses from last year’s edition of the Wizards. Atlanta likely dodged a bullet (or, if you prefer, a wizard) when the clingy Dwight Howard looked elsewhere during his free agency period, and they can do their part this week to cure KD of any homesickness. Meanwhile, Bradley Beal should be available in Animal Style, he’s In-n-Out so often. The Wizards’ star shooting guard has 44 appearances and 24 starts out of 69 games this season, thanks in part to shoulder and leg injuries and a concussion. He was only recently eased back into the starting lineup, but missed four of the last seven games after spraining his pelvis against the Pacers and ruining any shot at starring in a remake of ¡Three Amigos! Still, Beal (career-high 17.6 PPG) is shooting a career-best 48.4 2FG% and, after a February swoon, his three-point shooting is coming around (45.8 March 3FG%). The Wizards sound committed to keeping him during restricted free agency this summer, whether the Slim Reaper joins them or not, so you can expect Beal to scour the market for max deals that the Wizards might have to match. It’s probable that the Wiz will not be able to improve themselves via the draft, barring trade-offs of key assets. Their 2016 first round pick is Top-9 protected and eventually headed to Phoenix, courtesy of the deal for Keef. Their second-rounder heads to the second-round-pick-hungry Hawks, and can get juicier for Atlanta with each Wizards loss. That pick arrived as part of a three-way 2015 Draft Night deal that sent rookie Kelly Oubre, Jr., to Washington, and the Knicks’ score-and-not-much-more guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., to the ATL. How is that deal looking right now? It’s safe to say that Oubre (10.5 minutes per game, 41.2 FG%, 65.1 FT%) would not be working his way into Atlanta’s rotation right now. The swingman totaled 28 assists in 36 games as a freshman with the Jayhawks, and isn’t doing much more than that as a rookie playing alongside teammates worth passing to. His 0.7 assists per-36 is the lowest rate among non-NBA centers with at least 500 minutes logged, the 7th-lowest rate overall when you bother to throw centers into the mix. That wouldn’t fly with the Hawks. Oubre was getting steadier minutes while the Wizards wrestled with a plethora of injuries at the wing positions, but hasn’t been on the floor for 10+ minutes in a game since January 20. As for Hardaway, he seems to be doing quite well for himself lately. Saturday’s win over the Rockets marked the second-straight time Junior reached the 20-point plateau, on the strength of a 5-for-7 3FG shooting bonanza. That brings his shooting splits since the All-Star Break to 50.0 FG%/42.2 3FG%/90.5 FT%. His four assists in the preceding game versus Denver showed he can fit within the flow of the Hawks’ pace-and-space-all-over-the-place offense. I can’t speak for Tim, but if I was averaging 14.3 PPG as a starter for an NBA team in Manhattan, no matter the circumstance, I’d expect rose petals being laid before my feet during my daily entrances into arenas. Hardaway showed a complete lack of ego upon his arrival to Atlanta, and his commitment to improving his defense, mechanics, and conditioning off the floor while remaining a good egg on the sideline, is just beginning to pay dividends. Morris plugs a starting spot at power forward that once belonged to Nene, as Wittman has chosen to bring his Brazilian big man off the bench. The player that began the season in that starting spot for the Wizards? Kris Humphries. Hump and DeJuan Blair were dealt to Phoenix in that Morris deal, was waived shortly thereafter, and now toils behind Paul Millsap and Al Horford in Atlanta. Blair was replaced on the roster by scuttled Nugget J.J. Hickson. With his head on straight, or even slightly ajar, Morris (10.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 52.4 2FG%, 21.6 3FG% in 17 games for WAS) should be a definitive upgrade over Humphries and brings some stability to Washington’s forward positions, given Nene’s inexorable decline, the inconsistencies of Otto Porter (15.0 PPG last five games; career-high 23 points @ ATL on Nov. 7), and the expiring contracts of both Nene and Jared Dudley (43.1 3FG%). In the immediate term, Morris will be used by the Wizards as an offensive answer for Atlanta’s Paul Millsap (last 3 games: 47.2 FG%, 10.3 RPG, 2.3 BPG). Whether Morris’ addition will be enough for the Wizards to crack the East’s Top 8 and make a meaningful playoff run remains to be seen. Any shot the Wizards have begins and ends with Wall, and he’s playing like he knows it. He rung up a pair of double-doubles and two triple-doubles in last week’s four wins, averaging 21.0 PPG (40.0 3FG%, 95.7 FT%), 12.0 APG and 4.8 TOs/game, plus 7.0 defensive RPG to boot. While Kyle Lowry won the Player of the Week honors for the East, only Horford (+21.3) and dunk-meister Kyle Korver (+20.3) enjoyed a plus-minus average that approached Wall’s +22.0 last week. Wall’s blazing speed is his selling point. Washington scores 18.7 fastbreak PPG (2nd in NBA) and runs the 4th-quickest pace in the league, but most of that is Wall pushing the tempo above all else. Defensively, the Hawks need to channel Wall’s energies to make him zip from sideline-to-sideline, rather than from hoop-to-hoop. Wall takes the most mid-range shots (6.8 FGAs per game) of any East guard aside from DeMar Derozan, but only shoots as well on those (35.8 mid-range 2FG%) as he does on above-the-break threes (35.2 3FG%). Stout defensive work by the Hawks, particularly with help from Kent Bazemore (25 points, 4-for-7 3FGs vs. WAS on Nov. 7) and Thabo Sefolosha can again make Wall’s outing (19 points and 11 assists, 7 TOs, 6-for-16 FGs @ ATL on Nov. 7) an inefficient one. Washington is one of the few teams that produce fewer second-chance PPG (10.2) than Atlanta (10.9). While both teams space the floor out for drives and pick-and-pop shots, Washington also deploys center Marcin Gortat for cuts to the hoop. Gortat’s 263 cut possessions are 61 more than the next closest player (Dallas’ Zaza Pachulia’s 204), although he isn’t especially efficient in scoring off them. Horford and Humphries should be prepared to short-circuit Gortat’s offense with sound positioning to disrupt passes and strip the ball when he struggles to gather it. Victories over the coming week aren’t likely to clinch anything or eliminate anyone. But there’s a chance that one of these upcoming teams on Atlanta’s slate could be their first round playoff opponent. The Hawks can use these games to continue fine-tuning their play, and simultaneously give these opponents reasons to want to avoid them when the calendar turns to April. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  24. “Tinder Love, Love So Tinder. Holding Me Close to You…” The NCAA doesn’t consider a 7-seed in the West Region beating a 3-seed in the East Region to be an upset. But fans of the Atlanta Hawks would feel just a tiny bit of a letdown if the Atlanta Hawks don’t ground the Houston Rockets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) on Swipe Right Night 2.0. After all, the Hawks have been making their case to march back toward a second-straight Final Four. Not too wild about the prospect of a $20-mill-plus-making Al Horford? The Rockets envy you. They’ve been shelling out that amount for Dwight Howard (61.8 FG%, 2nd in NBA; 28.9 D-Reb%, 6th in NBA) for a few years now, and are poised to compete with themselves this summer by paying him much more. The 30-year-old center has played a steadier role in the Rockets’ halfcourt offense, but still shoots a hack-able 50.4 FT% as his usage has fallen to the level of his rookie season. The Pride of The SWATS, Howard remains an interior help defender par excellence. But leaving his own assignment unattended leads to performances like Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (32 points, 13-for-22 FGs, 11 rebounds) yesterday. And it’s Dwight’s Rockets, not the Hawks, who allow a league-high 11.7 O-Rebs per game. Atlanta’s driving guards will be adequately checked by Patrick Beverley, and shooters by Trevor Ariza (career-high 2.1 SPG), but they can’t cover everybody. Cuts by Hawks forwards and wings will render Howard a paint traffic controller and allow for jumpers galore by Al Horford and Paul Millsap (combined 11-for-20 FGs on Thursday, as the Hawks cruised against depleted Denver). The one guy who can stop D-12 from returning to Clutch City in free agency also happens to be the team’s other pillar. There have been reports that, ever since the 2014 playoffs, the two have been coming-and-going through GM Daryl Morey’s revolving door and asserting that this one-horse town’s not big enough for the two of them, each Rocket pleading with Morey to work the phones for a deal involving the other guy. The animosity has been evident on the floor as well. “No chemistry with that group. (Bleep)ing horrible!” That was former Hawks star Jason Terry’s postgame utterance, after a final loss before the All-Star Break sent Houston back below .500. Since Kevin McHale got dispatched in November, that duty of mixing this toxic brew into something palatable has fallen to J.B. Bickerstaff, a finalist for the “At Least You Tried!” award from the Bart Simpson Foundation. Bickerstaff tried to weave Collipark’s Finest, Clipper outcast Josh Smith, into the starting power forward spot after the Break. Suffice to say, it hasn’t worked out. After Josh shot 30.4 FG%, 21.1 3FG%, and 20.0 FT% while totaling one steal and no blocks in five starts, Bickerstaff has been Smoovely explaining why he’s been DNP-CD’ing Smith in the last seven games. “Josh is taking care of his body right now, working to get himself healthy,” Bickerstaff said, cryptically, to the Houston Chronicle. “When he got here (from the Clippers, in late January), it had been a while since he played. We kind of thrust him into a position and made him play. His body wasn’t prepared for it at that time. So, he’s taking this time to get his body prepared so he can help us down the stretch.” That’s Bickerstaff’s story, and he’s sticking to it. In lieu of Smoove, whose body allegedly isn’t ready, the Rockets have been turning to Donatas Motiejunas – yes, the guy who couldn’t pass a physical, nixing his trade to Detroit at the deadline – and Michael Beasley, fresh off of winning MVP in the Chinese Basketball Association and scoring 63 points in the CBA All-Star Game. Donuts put up 17 points in last night’s home win against the T’wolves, and Beas matched that number coming off the bench against, perhaps ironically to Smith, the team that drafted him. Bickerstaff also likes to go small and shifts Trevor Ariza to the 4-spot on occasion. Back in the Highlight Factory, expect to catch Josh and JET stepping away from the bench to grab a food court slushie when Kiss Cam time comes around tonight. Houston’s PB didn’t come with much of a J in the past, but Patrick Beverley’s jumper is getting wet (career-best 40.2 3FG%), as demonstrated last night against Minnesota. The Rockets point guard nailed five of his nine three-pointers and still found time to dish out a career-best 10 assists as his pairing with Harden (29 points, 14 assists, 9 TOs, 3 steals) kept the Wolves hungry all night. Hawks guards will need to close out on the perimeter when Beverley or Ariza are hovering. Houston religiously avoids settling for mid-range shots (10.7 FGAs per game, 3.6 fewer than the next-lowest team). It’s rarely a bad thing to be compared to Artis Gilmore, but Harden is well on his way to relieving the A-Train of an unwanted NBA record. The reigning Player’s Choice MVP is going to blow past Gilmore’s record of 366 turnovers (4.5 per game), compiled while playing for the ne’er-do-well Bulls back in 1977-78. Harden raised his goofs-per-game average on Friday to 4.6, and while the assists are up from his real MVP-runner-up season, they’re not increasing relative to the turnovers. Harden runs into a Hawks team that ranks 3rd behind Houston (10.2 team SPG) and Boston with 9.3 steals per game. While all the signs are there that this should be a wild back-and-forth game, the Rockets allow 0.5 more PPG off of turnovers, while Atlanta scores a net-positive 2.7 PPG (4th-best in NBA). The Rockets will push the tempo with Harden looking to run fullcourt and draw contact, allowing the league leader in free throw attempts (career-high 10.5 FTAs per game; 86.7 FT%) to feast from the line. Whether it’s Beverley on Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, or Harden on Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr., those Hawks have to keep in front of their man and allow forwards to provide help with strips and pass pickoffs. Those help defenders should include a rested Kent Bazemore. Tonight will feature the rare on-floor meeting of guys who once swiped right on Kardashians. Kris Humphries will provide the requisite help around the paint to keep Howard and Clint Capela from producing second-chance opportunities (13.7 second-chance PPG, 5th in NBA). As is the case with turnover-transition points, the Rockets are a net-negative in this department, allowing 14.4 second-chance PPG (4th-worst in NBA). Expect Millsap, Humphries, and the Hawks’ big men to judiciously try extending Atlanta’s possessions. The Rockets will want to avenge the 121-115 loss to the Hawks in H-Town back in late December. Howard had 30 points (10-for-12 FGs, 10-for-18 FTs) and Harden added 26 (6-for-16 FGs, 11-for-12 FTs). But after starting out with a 41-25 first quarter and enjoying an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, Houston was overwhelmed by Horford (30 points, 5-for-7 3FGs, 14 rebounds), Teague (22 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover), and Bazemore (26 points, 5-for-9 3FGs), three of four Hawks starters with 20+ points. But for Kyle Korver’s 0-for-10 3FGs, or Schröder being in an abbreviated “player development” exile, it could very well have been five. Ty Lawson scored 14 points in that defeat, but can’t be kicked around anymore since he was waived in February, putting a lot more of the workload onto Terry. Bickerstaff needs to find enough defensive solutions to keep the Rockets close, and they’ll have to weaken Atlanta’s wing rotation with foul trouble to allow Harden to play Heroball at the close. With consistent on-ball pressure, transition defense and ball movement on offense, the Hawks can continue giving its fans more reasons to be smitten by what they’ve been accomplishing lately. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  25. “Wait, what’s that? They closed Dugan’s on Ponce?” March Madness continues for the Atlanta Hawks, coming off a crucial road win in Detroit last night. Here are just a few important names that help give you an idea of the mindset of tonight’s visitors, the Denver Nuggets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude Sports). Donatas Motiejunas. He was on his way to Detroit, as part of a three-team trade that the 76ers joined. In the process of acquiring Joel Anthony and a second-rounder, Philly had to make room on the roster by cutting a player loose. But by the time the Pistons confirmed what everyone already knew (that Donuts couldn’t pass his physical due to a bum back) and cancelled the trade, the Sixers had already gone too far, and JaKarr Sampson was a free man after coming off waivers. Sampson took the Nuggets’ offer and now starts, a big boost for head coach Mike Malone’s perimeter defensive plans. He’s been in Denver for less than three weeks, yet Sampson is already part of their second-most utilized 5-man lineup this season, producing +9.3 points per 100 possessions alongside Gary Harris, rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, and Nikola Jokic. Danilo Gallinari. The Rooster tore ligaments in his ankle at the end of last month, and the Nuggets’ leading scorer will sit out the remainder of the season. Now super-sixth-man Will Barton (14.8 PPG) is the team’s top remaining scorer. Steve Novak. At trade-deadline time, the Nuggets agreed to acquire-and-waive Novak, as part of a swap of Randy Foye for guard D.J. Augustin and a pair of future second-rounders. Relative to the almost-done Jameer Nelson, Augustin provides a steadier, healthier presence at the point behind Mudiay. He provided 10 assists plus 17 points as Denver blew out John Wall and visiting Washington on Saturday. The Nuggets also bid adieu to forward J.J. Hickson at deadline time. Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo. Both were dealt to Houston and Portland in the past couple seasons. Neither player is with Houston or Portland now. And at the moment, neither are those teams’ lottery-protected first-rounders for 2016. The Nuggets won’t mind terribly if those teams squeak into the postseason party. Carmelo Anthony. He is still with New York. But his former team, the Nuggets, hold a trade swap option, whereby the Knicks send the worse of their own spot or Denver’s to Toronto (thanks to Andrea Bargnani, who has blown through two New York City teams now). No matter how bad Denver’s record gets, they could find solace if Melo’s Knicks, a half-game behind them, finish worse. If Memphis manages to collapse, the Nuggets (Timofey Mozgov trade to Cleveland, via the Grizzlies’ Jon Leuer trade, 1-5 and 15-30 protected) can capitalize on that first-rounder, too. The upshot is that Denver (28-40, six games out of the 8th slot in the West) has a team that’s willing to competi-tank as it molds itself in their bulldog-minded head coach’s image. The Nuggets have gone nearly a month, a span of 12 games, without losing by double digits. While they’ve lost their first two games of their five-game East Coast road swing, those defeats came on the heels of Denver’s first four-game winning streak this year. Just about every player the Nuggets draft this summer will be about the same age, if not older, than Mudiay (March: 19.5 PPG, 6.0 APG), who just turned 20 years not-old. His 40.9 FG% (37.0 3FG%) and 2.9 turnovers per game since the All-Star Break are marked improvements over the 34.0 FG% (27.2 3FG) and 3.5 TOs/game to start the season. Mudiay and Malone verbally sparred early in the season. But they’re bonding, as the budding point guard gets a better clue of what his coach demands of him on the floor. And it’s not hard to figure it out what those demands are. Just look at the sidelines, and you’ll find Malone doing his best Jim Henson impersonation, mimicking the stance, posture, arm and foot movements he expects of Mudiay to keep opposing guards in check. Malone may feel the urge to hop on the court himself if Mudiay and Augustin have to endure the offensive onslaught Dennis Schröder and Jeff Teague brought to the fray last night in Motown. Both Hawks guards combined for 16 assists (and 8 of Atlanta players’ measly 12 turnovers) and 40 points. Schröder was a persistent threat both outside and inside. Teague didn’t have a strong day shooting the ball from the field, but got to the line 13 times and sunk 12 of them. The Hawks’ defense took an early holiday in the first half of a high-tempo affair, the second-highest pace of a Hawks game this season. But with the Hawks down 11 in the 3rd quarter, Al Horford, and coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hack-A-Dre strategy, took the game over. Al’s solid shooting display (9-for-15 FGs) picked up right where Paul Millsap (10 first-quarter points @ DET; team-high 22 points @ DEN on Jan. 25) cooled off, and made Andre Drummond’s 18-and-18 (8 of those points on 17 free throw attempts) look almost negligible. For Atlanta to have Denver looking on to the next one, they’ll need to assign bodies fullcourt to Faried (last 7 games: 15.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 4.6 offensive, 63.5 FG%), who lives for shots at the rim off putbacks and runouts. Faried (back) and Jusuf Nurkic (knee) are slowed by injuries, but Malone has silos full of big men to turn to, including Joffrey Lauvergne, Darrell Arthur and Jokic. Arthur and Lauvergne will do their best imitations of Faried if their jumping-jack power forward cannot go. Kris Humphries is still figuring out the intricacies of Budball, but chasing after unlikely offensive rebound chances, throws the Hawks’ transition defense out of sync. Hump and the Mikes (Scott and Muscala) need to log productive mid-game minutes at both ends to give Horford and Millsap (34+ minutes each last night) a proper breather. The Nuggets take a league-high 33.0 attempts per game at the restricted area, although their finishing in that zone (57.2 FG%, 26th in NBA; league-high 6.3 shots blocked per game) is less than desirable. The Nuggets give what they get (42.6 opponent FG% in-the-paint, 3rd -most in NBA) so Hawks attacking Denver’s interior for floaters and short jumpers should prove beneficial. Atlanta guards will have an easier time holding back Mudiay than they did Reggie Jackson in the paint (6-for-8 in-the-paint FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) last night. When Mudiay coughs up the rock, wings Kyle Korver, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Thabo Sefolosha have to be poised to convert those turnovers into points at the other end. Kent Bazemore (15 points, 10 D-Rebs last night) will deservedly sit this one out, as he rests a bruised knee. Denver is 4th in the NBA with 46.1 paint points, and the more Mudiay and Barton (8-for-9 FTs, team-high 21 points off the bench vs. ATL on Jan. 25) have to rely on mid-range jumpers, the sooner everyone can turn their attention to their brackets. Happy St. Pat’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw o’3 View full record