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  1. “Lemme tell ya, Spo, I’ve been accused of having a Suspicious Package a few too many times for my liking, y’know what I mean?” Three games under our belts, and we still don’t have a series! We’re often told it’s not a series until somebody steals a road game, or when a team finds itself up for elimination, having lost its third game, for example, in a seven-game series. Neither of those things transpired on Friday, and that still may hold true if the Atlanta Hawks play even incrementally better against the Miami heat tonight at State Farm Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT). Atlanta indeed needed every last screech and ca-caw from their swag-surfing fans at The Farm to climb out from a double-digit hole and curtail a heroballing Jimmy Butler at Friday’s final horn. Cramming commuter-fans into their seats in a timely fashion, on a pleasant Sunday evening, shouldn’t be as much of a challenge, so the house should be packed for Game 4 and rocking at tipoff. That should benefit these Hawks, who persistently crow about the advantageous comforts of playing before the home crowd, in producing their best opening quarter in this series. Butler faces the additional challenge of carrying some laboring co-stars. Kyle Lowry’s hamstring is acting up from all of his pratfalls. It rendered him inactive for the pivotal final quarter of Game 3 and pairs his upper-leg ailment with Bam Adebayo’s continuously bruised quad. While the evening tip time does not necessarily translate into a schedule win for Miami, the extra intervening hours that were not afforded Atlanta ahead of Game 1 should aid in the heat players’ recuperation. Neither of Lowry (5.1 PPG below; 31.3 FG% in series) nor Adebayo (9.8 PPG below; 45.0 2FG%) are scoring near their regular-season averages, while the ice is only beginning to crack for sixth-man Tyler Herro (5.6 PPG below, despite a team-high 24 points in Friday’s 111-110 loss). Butler has been ready and willing to be Playoff Jimmy, but it’s hard to foretell whether his perimeter proficiencies (42.9 3FG% on 4.7 3FGAs/game vs. ATL; 23.3% on 2.0 3FGAs/game in regular season) can hold up for an entire series, particularly this one. It is reaching the height of suspicion that heat coach Erik Spoelstra may choose to ride with one of Gabe Vincent (probable for Game 4), on his bum toe, or Herro to offset Lowry’s absence or limitations as a starter, while Victor Oladipo watches Trae Young (19.0 PPG despite 17.4 3FG% vs. MIA) and Delon Wright from afar. “[Caleb Martin] played [in Game 2] and had significant, important minutes in that second half. I anticipate the same thing will happen for Vic and [Markieff Morris],” Spo told media after Game 2, although both vets were scratches on Friday, too. Martin (ankle sprain) now joins Kyle, Bam, and P.J. Tucker (strained calf) on the list of gameday questionables. However Spo rotates his backcourt, Atlanta’s under Nate McMillan has a conditioning advantage to exploit, even with Lou Williams (out, back ache) unlikely to appear unless an elimination game is on the horizon. McMillan cannot be pleased that his Hawks had been losing the turnover margins against Miami (16.0, to MIA’s 15.0), but he must have enjoyed the turnover-free comeback in the fourth-quarter of Game 3. Also, while the languishing nature of Game 1 skews the head-to-head stats, one advantage Atlanta currently holds is in points scored off of those same turnovers (20.3, to MIA’s 18.3). The possibility of having Clint Capela (questionable, hyperextended knee) back in the lineup is tantalizing for the Hawks, particularly in seizing back the rebounding edge going forward. But the immediate task ahead is to run on the weary-legged heat and execute with few unforced errors and out-of-rhythm shots. If Atlanta can continue to tamp down the heat in the middle quarters (MIA +6 in the combined 2nd and 3rd quarters of Game 3, down from +10 in Game 2 and +20 in Game 1), they could find Butler and the heat scrambling late in hopes of avoiding a return to Florida, and later Georgia, with this series knotted at two wins apiece. Closing the books on Game 4 would require the Hawks to commit to limiting catch-and-shoot open perimeter looks (particularly for Max Strus, Tucker, Herro and Duncan Robinson), going over on screens, and staying high enough on heat ballhandlers that they cannot barrel into defenders and draw foul shots with the clock stopped. Let us all make it through Game 5 before anybody starts calling this 1-versus-8 matchup a series. That goes for you, too, Paul Pierce! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. The only PEG I acknowledge. We PEGging out here? Ugh! Oh, how I loathe me some Playoff Ending Gamethreads. The only thing worse than a PEG is the prospect of having to scribe at least two more. And I don't have the cholesterol to even think about IG-friendly offseason resorts like Tulum. As a twisty, turny campaign appears to be nearing its sunset for our dear Atlanta Hawks, I’m just about ready to hang the DIDN’T GET SWEPT LOLZ 2021-22 banner within bird’s-eye view of the SWAG Shop and turn that page. A few Knicks fans feel me on that. There is one other element, with Game 5 versus the top-seeded Miami heat looming at FTX Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBATV), that has me eagerly looking forward. Beginning with next season’s tipoff, our view of the Hawks, and especially the internal perception by the team, will no longer be framed by the starry close to the postseason summer of 2021, the reverberations of which were still being felt yesterday, in Philadelphia, and in at least one borough of New York City. Barring retirement or some desire to return to assistant-ship, Nate McMillan will still be here running the show. Amid last season’s magical late-season carpet ride, McMillan shared with The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz about how “Old Nate” is a relic of the past. The cold, curt, curmudgeonly sideline general had transitioned to a new philosophy, one that began in his latter years with Indiana. Transferring an air of being Calm, Clear, and Connected to his staff and players serves to the benefit, as I trust any cardiologist for upper-50-year-olds would acknowledge, of Nate himself, at minimum. McMillan professed that his recent years as an overseer helped him learn a lot about how best to adapt his coaching style to the new kids of the NBA today. I, for one, would love to see how what “New Nate” has learned translates to a competitive advantage on the modern NBA floor. Because we sure didn’t see much of that from his Hawks at home in Game 4. Yes, Nate was able to outfox groveling peers like Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau at playoff time last year. But teeth-grinding coaches like Mike Budenholzer, and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, are able to secure longevity and sustain success by adjusting on the fly until something works, not by sticking to a preconceived gameplan in hopes it will eventually work. Midway through the second quarter of Game 4, Spoelstra dialed up the zone defense and aggressive switching to neu-Trae-lize the Hawks’ solitary-star-reliant offense, Atlanta’s 86 points the puniest playoff output since getting mowed down by Matthew Dellavedova’s Cavs in Game 2 of the 2015 ECF. A harried Trae Young took just one shot inside the three-point arc, a point-blank miss near the end of the first half as the Hawks’ momentum had slipped away. Further, Young’s one free throw, a missed technical foul shot after the heat’s P.J. Tucker took it upon himself to get under every doe-eyed Hawk’s skin in the third quarter, set the tone for the remainder of the contest. Dour, Doomed, and Discombobulated. The Traemates did little on Sunday evening to lessen their perception as a skin-of-their-teeth 8-seed, one that did not deserve to share the floor with Jimmy Butler and the East’s top-seeded heat. Atlanta’s one-note offensive attack came at the heat repeatedly from the left corner at the outset of Game 4. But once Spoelstra and Butler switched up the coverage, McMillan was caught without a reliable Plan B. The contest exposed not simply the scale of one-upmanship by the heat on the floor, and along the sideline, but in the front office, too. Sitting smugly in the stands during Game 4, heat team prez Pat Riley did not need to drown his coach in a motel shower (is that a spoiler? I think that might be a spoiler…) to get Spoelstra to reassess his strategies after Miami got bounced by Bud’s Bucks in 2021’s opening round. Riley had a little more time than Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk to transition into 2021-22. But he only needed a couple of days to re-tool the roster with limited salary room, and he did so quite effectively. Using Percious Achiuwa and a trade exception to upgrade Goran Dragic into Kyle Lowry, Riley brought back the oft-injured Victor Oladipo, while prying Tucker, the Bucks’ hero from the 2021 ECF, from Milwaukee. Riley also brought back several underwhelming young players to buttress the team depth, and he put his player development staff to work. I have written on several occasions in season’s past about Anthony Carter, the former streetball hustler who dropped out of Atlanta’s Crim High as a freshman but made his way to JuCo ball, then D-1 at the University of Hawaii, before kicking off his 13-year NBA career with the heat. Riley wooed him back to his program as an assistant for their G-League team in Sioux Falls in 2016, then continued promoting him over the years with heightened expectations. Now the heat’s designated director of player development, assistant coach Carter was handed a guard, in Gabe Vincent, that shot just 37.8% of field goals, and a swimgman, in Max Strus, that shot just 33.8 percent on threes, each while averaging 13 minutes per game in 2020-21. Both immensely improved their output in elevated playing time under Carter’s and Spoelstra’s watches this season. This was essential for a program that endured the struggling Duncan Robinson all season while missing veterans Oladipo and Markieff Morris for the lion’s share. Strus and Vincent represent two of Miami’s nine undrafted players on the conference’s first-place roster, punctuating Riley’s defiance of the tank-and-they-will-come approach applied by many struggling NBA staffs. As an injured Kyle Lowry looked on, Strus (+34 plus/minus in Game 4) and Vincent plugged in capably on Sunday, sinking seven of Miami’s 13 triples and dishing 7 assists (1 combined turnover) while helping Butler and Oladipo thoroughly scuttle Atlanta’s ballhandlers. Conversely, Schlenk’s sole impactful addition from last offseason, Delon Wright was underwhelming aside from his offensive rebounds. Much is made of the need for the Hawks, perhaps hamstrung by the forthcoming salary raises for its young core, to acquire a secondary veteran star in this offseason to alleviate Young from having to be alpha and omega for McMillan’s offense. But it will be as important, in my estimation, to bring in plug-and-playable veterans infinitely more capable than Gorgui Dieng and Lou Williams, to foster rookies and young players in anticipation of positive inputs at playoff time, and to develop the existing core players to have more dimensions to their fullcourt game than just waiting to see if Trae graces them the opportunity to finish plays. Just as much as Schlenk stepping up to compete full-bore with the Rileys, Horsts and Ujiris of the world is essential going forward, enhanced success for the Hawks is also going to require an evolution from McMillan and his staff to get on Spoelstra’s level. Modifying his approaches to relying on under-experienced players earlier in the regular season, to using timeouts to disrupt adverse game flows, to deepening his bench contributions, should all be a part of the “New Nate” Hawks fans ought to see by 2023. “New Travis” working with Nate to re-tool the assistants and developmental staff would be an integral part of Atlanta’s evolution. While all of that rumination rightfully has me PEGged as a defeatist in preparing to close the books on 2022, I still get the sense that if there is any 8-seeded team capable of pulling off a possum job and winning three straight head-to-heads, including two here in Miami, it’s this one, despite their struggles on the road versus decent competition. Throughout this season, Atlanta has often looked like the lazy college kid, self-satisfied with his high school accomplishments, who wanders into class late, scribbles anime in his notebook during lectures, flubs group projects, is last to turn in assignments, teeters on flunking out, yet somehow shows up on graduation day as the salutatorian. If the banged-up John Collins and Clint Capela are none the worse for wear after Game 4, they and Onyeka Okongwu should be able to provide a more united front for a Hawks defense that actually did reasonably well in keeping Miami to another mild 110-point outing. It was Atlanta’s offensive inertia, and the deflating shots from the Gray Mule line, that needed the most correction. Fixing that while stifling Bam Adebayo and the heat’s second-chance and extra-chance opportunities could help them, as Toronto did yesterday, prolong the series and give the faithful fans back home a final first-round do-over in Game 6. At least momentarily, we are back to the Woody-style years of ruing our Hawks’ perennially disappointing postseason conclusions. There are occasions when I miss the serenity of the Tank years under Bailout Bud and LP, when there were few postseason heartbreak possibilities abound. Just Game #82 or whatever, and the obligatory, accompanying Season Ending Gamethreads. But without vast offseason improvements by personnel from the top down, we may all find ourselves back in that Game-82 mindset next spring: “Let’s talk about SEGs, baby! Let’s talk about all the good things, and the bad things, that may be!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Wait, is that… James? James Butler, from Tomball High???” Joe Johnson was giving people buckets! So, for that matter, was Josh McRoberts. And Justise Winslow. Such was the case the last time the Miami heat won a playoff game in Miami-Wade County. Just ask Erik Spoelstra, he was there. Or, better yet, ask Kyle Lowry. He was giving buckets, too, albeit for the other side. May 13, 2016, to refresh your memory. After getting dispatched for years as the marquee performer on the annually playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks, Joe never got a chance at playoff vengeance against the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar during his latter runs to glory as a founding member of the heatles. Instead, the eventual 34-year-old had transitioned fully into If You Can’t Beat ‘Em mode, previously with KG and the ex-Celts in Brooklyn, then in Miami with D-Wade, with Udonis Haslem helping Coach Spo keep everyone’s bench seats warm. The Three J’s were doing all they could to help Dwyane and Goran Dragic earn their keep in the aftermath of the Return of the Former King to Ohio. They would do enough to help the heat outlast the Raptors’ static duo of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in Game 6, but their production was not enough for Miami in the series finale at Toronto. We have established the Miami heat as the gold standard of the Southeast Division, if not the Eastern Conference, and this season’s slow, if unsteady rise to a conference-leading 53-29 record did little to tarnish that reputation. Spoelstra’s got his shiny rings, team godfather Pat Riley has more than his share. But I get this gnawing feeling that the heat are like the Sears Roebuck of the 1990s NYSE. They’re atop the charts, as they have been for awhile, looking pretty, with zero idea what is soon to befall them. Wade and Shaq helped salvage the heat’s reputation as a good club that couldn’t get it done when it mattered most. That was less than a decade after Coach Riley’s 1-seed heat were stunned at home by the 8-seed Knicks in the fifth and final game of the first-round series. Beset by injuries and chemistry challenges during a truncated regular season, scrambling late in the season just to get playoff-qualified, arch-enemy New York upset Miami in the first round, for the second year in a row, this time on the path to The Finals. If you catch yourself wondering why you’ve been treated to the random musings of Jeff Van Gundy on a weekly basis for decades on end, thank Riley’s heat from the ‘90s. Had Stan not gotten canned by Riley early in 2005-06’s title season, we’d never get either brother’s opinions off our TV sets. Wade’s Miami campaign seemed to be coming to a close, and Spoelstra’s rookie run taking over for Riley about to be one-and-done, in 2009 when the heat lost a seven-game rockfight at the hands of Joe, Flip Murray and the Hawks. It was 4-seed Atlanta’s first series win in ages. As Joe’s Hawks finally looked to be on the precipice of breaking through as Orlando’s top challenger, for Wade, Spoelstra and Haslem, they seemed to be nearing the end of the Metromover line. Dwyane and his banana boatmates had other ideas. I can’t possibly ask for much out of this series that begins today (1 PM Eastern, really ought to be later in the day like the Pelicans but okay, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), furthering another chapter in the Hawks-heat rivalry. My hurried fingers aren’t even typing were it not for “The Big Chill”, Trae Young, being Shot-on-Ehlo-GOOD in the second half of Friday’s triumphant high-wire act in Cleveland. All I can request, whichever way it falls, is that these contests look pretty. And not pretty ugly. The 2009 series rivaled 2010’s seven games against Brandon Jennings’ Bucks as the butt-ugliest Best-of-7 NBA playoff round in recent memory. Thirteen years later, there should be nothing reminiscent of Iso Joe milking the shot clock dry, Smoove daring his own fans with off-balance, off-rhythm threes, Al jap-stepping with no follow-up plan, no wild shooting off the bench from the likes of Marvin, Flip, Mo and Zaza. At the other end of the sideline, with all respect due, there will be many better options for Spoelstra to deploy in 2022 than Mike Beasley and Daequan Cook. Sixth-man extraordinaire Tyler Herro, bucket splasher Duncan Robinson and defensive backstop Bam Adebayo (active, Straight Outta COVID) will offer ample support for Lowry and Jimmy Butler, each of whom commandeered their way to Miami in hopes of extending past glories at playoff time. The desperation for Riley and Miami to acquire Lowry, a ring-bearing point guard, was heightened after last season’s Playoffs. First, Butler and the heat were stifled by Giannis’ Bucks in a first-round sweep loaded with blowouts. Then, they watched Young’s upstart Hawks push those same Bucks nearly to the brink in the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami won those conference finals in a Bubble just up the road in Disney World in 2020. But they haven’t been successful as the home team, in a venue that didn’t feature Max Headrooms and cardboard-cutout celebrities, since the spring of 2016. Old Man and the Three’s J.J. Redick, along with Marco Belinelli and Dario Saric carried precocious Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to a gentleman’s sweep of Wade and the heat in 2018 that included two Sixer wins in what is now FTX Arena. Miami's horrible fans didn’t even want to be let back in by games' end. Over the last 15 games of this season, it was the heat (9-6; 3.7 Net Rating, 8th in NBA East) that looked more the part of an 8-seed than Atlanta (10-5; 5.6 Net Rating, 7th in NBA). That’s not counting the past week’s Play-In contests. Miami having Adebayo and P.J. Tucker (probable, strained calf) will aid in securing defensive boards, as is their team’s frontcourt forte. Where Miami could fall into trouble is in failing to get shots up without turning over the ball (14.4 team TOs per-48, tied w/ CLE and ORL for most in NBA East). Lowry, Herro, Adebayo, Butler and even Victor Oladipo commit at least two turnovers per game, in all but Butler’s case close to three per 36 minutes. The turnovers that the heat, in particular Lowry, produces tend to be more of the dead-ball variety, allowing opponents a moment to recover. If Atlanta can win the live-ball turnover game, along with the fastbreak scoring (MIA minus-1.5 net fastbreak points per-48 since the All-Star Break; ATL opponent’s 10.7 fastbreak points per-36 in the regular season lowest among Playoff teams), they can control the pace and keep the heat cooled on their heels. While the short turnaround in the schedule is disconcerting for the Hawks, and the absence of Clint Capela (out through at least Game 3, hyperextended knee) and the tentative return of South Floridian John Collins a bit disorienting, Atlanta affirmed that when they’re not over-reliant on either Young or the supporting cast to carry the entire day, they can be a tough cover, and a tougher out. Against this version of the heat, Onyeka Okongwu is free to play the role of ’99 Marcus Camby, as the breakout young center pressed into prominence in a playoff pinch. Obviously, these Hawks already know the drill: steal a game or two here in Miami, take care of business back home, move on and move on up. Ultimately, I hope to see two decent teams, led by well-seasoned coaches, play like it, and if there can to be only one, make it Nate McMillan’s. However long this series lasts, I want to see crisp closeouts, bodacious boxouts, scintillating screens, rational rotations, and handy dribble hand-offs. Pretty, please. With sugar on top! Ramadan Mubarak! Chag Pesach sameach! Happy Easter! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. The Hero We Deserve. Nerlens Noel thought he had the solution. Just as his New York Knicks thought they might narrow Atlanta's playoff series lead to 3-2 at Mad Square Garden, here goes that pesky Trae Young again, this time with a nine-point second quarter to help widen the Hawks’ lead to five. If only Nerlens could show Young and the Knicks’ faithful in the stands that he and his team still had some fight left. Alas, he’s not in the game. What to do? What to do… As the refs depart for halftime and Young gets plowed by Julius Randle into Taj Gibson on a floater attempt, in that order, Noel decides the time is right to be a Roxbury Guy and bump Trae, too. He’d greet him with a blindside shoulder bump as he passes by at halfcourt, he thought. Nerlens Noel thought, which was the start of his problems. He didn’t have Solomon Hill as part of his calculation. After seeing his star guard get accosted, Hill promptly showed Noel how to deliver a proper shoulder shiver. How do you do, Nerlens? The Knicks never saw the lead again, as Atlanta’s final lead of the series ballooned to double digits in the second half. New York hardly saw much more of Noel, either. After inking a three-year, $32 million deal over the summer, he appeared in just 25 games, averaging 3.2 PPG, before getting shelved with a foot ailment before the All-Star Break. The cogwheels in Noel’s head were creaking earlier in the 2021 playoff series, too. Early in Game 3, with the series still up for grabs at one win apiece, he was standing around the paint, then moonwalked into a flop in a failed attempt to get the refs’ attention. Solo stands his ground, lowers that boulder of a shoulder, and makes the flop worth Nerlens’ while. The cogwheels were shaken free of cobwebs, and not for the last time. Can I help you up from that wet spot, Nerlens? Hill offers his floor-bound foe a hand before artfully retrieving it. The Hawks weren’t able to get much during this regular season out of Hill, on the court, before he was attached to Cam Reddish in New York’s trade-off of Kevin Knox. But what has felt missing thus far in this year’s first-round series versus the Miami heat, which continues with Game 3 before a hopefully early-arriving crowd at State Farm Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN), is a veteran who can set the tone, without regard to his direct impact on the boxscore. Hill had the peak of his NBA playing time with then-associate head coach Nate McMillan and the Pacers, but not the zenith of his playoff success. That came as an end-of-bench glue guy with coach Erik Spoelstra’s heat, as Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro surged in the 2020 Bubble to come out of the East and reach the NBA Finals. Despite being able to stake his claim as an Eastern Conference champion, make no mistake that Hill leaves little clue as to where he butters his bread in this Hawks-heat series. “he for the moment,” tweeted Hill last week as the series began, reminding followers of Trae’s future portrait in the Louvre from the Hawks star’s time at MSG. “might have to pull up for a game,” Hill tweeted as a follow-up. Right now, Hawks fans wouldn’t mind Solo pulling up for a game or three. Without his presence to counter the goonery that Young (9-for-15 2FGs, 2-for-17 3FGs @ MIA in-series) faces on the court, there is one guy that Solo, and Yours Truly, identify who needs to make his mark in this series and fully put the heat’s heels on their heels. “i thought JC was hurt,” tweeted Hill last week in his signature small-caps style, as the Hawks were beginning to turn the elimination tables on the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “he just switched to #8.” Il numero otto is Danilo Gallinari, who played a team-high 41 minutes against the Cavs and splashed a crucial third-quarter triple that helped Trae and the Hawks, without John Collins and then without Clint Capela, climb the mountain before overtaking it. Young was spectacular and essential in the second half, but Gallo finished that half with just one assist, no rebounds, and two more points off free throws, but a team-best +18 as his offensive gravity and length to cool off Lauri Markkanen threw the Cavs off-balance just enough for Atlanta to come away victorious, granting the Hawks at least two home playoff games. To have a chance at one more playoff game at The Farm, at the minimum, requires the veteran who is the second-highest salaried Hawk, and potentially the third-highest next season with a contract guarantee, to produce more efficiently and effectively (4-for-11 2FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs, 1 assist in 51 minutes @ MIA) than he has to this point in the first-round series. Drawing charges, getting strips and deflections, seizing loose balls – these are things that, while far from Gallo’s forte, can ease the tasks ahead for Collins and Onyeka Okongwu in keeping Adebayo suppressed (4-for-11 FGs, 7.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG vs. ATL) and Butler overextended. At worst, Danilo has to outpoint heat forward Duncan Robinson, who was hardly needed in Game 2 (under seven bench minutes, after going 8-for-9 on threes in Game 1) as Gallinari went 0-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line (DNP’d in the 4th quarter, minus-12 in the pivotal 3rd) in Atlanta’s 115-105 loss. At best, he’s helping to get under the skin of Lowry and the smaller heat, either by making them pay for flop attempts in the paint or by scoring on his patented periscope-up shots when bigs switch onto Trae. The Hawks need more decisive execution to disallow Miami defenders to sink their hooks into Young (10 af ATL's 19 player TOs, 2-for-10 3FGs in Game 2) and Atlanta’s ballhandlers and would-be finishers. Even without Capela available, Atlanta has been winning possessions by rebounding, and the Hawks must turn these advantages into hesitation-free transition buckets. Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic corner threes helped narrow the gap in Miami near the end of Game 2, and Gallo, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter can help create the gap in Game 3 by picking up the pace and getting defenders behind them on chases to the corners. Hunter stood his ground in the middle of the second quarter and barked at Lowry, but his on-court bite in Game 2 (nine 1st quarter points) dulled as the contest went on. It would be swell if McMillan could turn more to gentle giant Gorgui Dieng, or the young pups Knox and Jalen Johnson, for pivotal playing time to offset the frontcourt minutes lost by Capela’s extended absence and Collins’ painful re-acclimation. But winning this weekend’s home games are instrumental in changing the tenor of this series, and the Hawks will need Gallinari to be their Stradivari. Should Lowry and the heat try any funny business with Young, Gallo is the ideal guy to be their Jeff Jarrett. “El Kabong!” Feel free to pull up at any time, Solo! We can find you some nice seats behind the heat bench. Bring Zaza and Ivan with you! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. First in Flight! Which one of y’all is Orville? For a moment, I believed I finally unmasked Harry. “He always used to dress in costumes,” shared Dorell Wright, the former preps-to-pros draft pick of the Miami heat, and eleven-year NBA player, of his younger brother, Delon. He told VICE Sports in 2017, “whatever team I was on, he was always the mascot.” It is funny to imagine a nimble 14-year-old Delon donning the Burnie getup at what is now FTX Arena, during the heat’s first run to an NBA championship in 2006. Beginning, at that time, to follow in his elder bro’s footsteps out of South Central L.A. as a star hooper for SoCal’s Leuzinger High, Delon had ample reason to look up to his three-point shooting NBA hero. Now the tables have turned, and the retired Dorell does all the caping. By day, or at least by evening in the Bay Area, Dorell toils as the Golden State Warriors’ studio analyst for NBC Sports. Still, there is no withholding his enthusiasm for how far Delon has run with the Wright family’s NBA baton. “OMG, I’m bad,” Dorell confessed to HoopsHype back in 2017 about watching the then-Raptors upstart while finishing up his own pro career in Europe. “I want him to do so well. I find myself yelling and fussing a lot when he’s playing.” (Mark your calendars, as Dorell’s son Devin is a Class of 2026 guard prospect entering high school). Yes, a schedule-weary Atlanta Hawks team found itself ransacked by the top-seeded heat in the opener to the NBA Playoffs. But as the scene shifts to Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), one would be hard pressed to find a Hawks player more primed for the moment. That player will be hard pressed to discover a bigger supporter in his corner, albeit from afar. “Facts!!”, Dorell breathlessly quote-tweeted, as The Athletic’s Tony Jones noted following Friday’s Hawks win in Cleveland that Delon, “gave a masterclass tonight on how to change a basketball game without touching the basketball.” The “100” emoji was Dorell’s reaction when Sky Sports analyst Mo Mooncey tweeted, “Trae (Young) will get all the glory (and rightly so, he was amazing) but if Delon Wright didn’t put the clamps on the defensive end, the Hawks wouldn’t have won that.” “One thing about Delon,” offered Dorell in his own, understandably biased view, “…he’s going to impact the game and a lot of the things he (does) won’t show up on the stat sheet. Winning Player!!! #situpinclass.” Young will assuredly be more glorious than he was in Game 1 (1-for-12 FGs, 6-for-7 FTs, 4 assists and 6 TOs), especially if the referees don’t allow him to get tenderized by the hosts without chalking it up to Playoff Basketball. Neither, for that matter, will sixth-man Bogdan Bogdanovic (0-for-8 FGs) having combined with Trae to go 0-for-11 on threes versus Miami’s grubby defense. Danilo Gallinari (1-for-3 3FGs) will be looking to get more shots off, and in. “I think mentally we needed to recover,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan told the AJC today, “and we should be better both mentally and physically tonight.” The extra stretch of rest and video review on Monday preceded this morning’s shootaround. With the returning John Collins having a half-game under his belt, the Hawks will be better prepared to counter the onslaught brought forth by heat headliners Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry, who were able to lean heavily on their own defensive energy and teammates’ big shots to carry the day in Game 1. Despite a mild shooting display of his own, Delon was the steadiest guard that McMillan had at his disposal in Game 1. Wright registered a team-high six assists while turning over the rock just once, collecting a pair of steals without drawing a single foul. He’s up to 18 dimes and two turnovers in his bench minutes over five games against the heat this season. Even as Herro struggled at the offensive end (2-for-7 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs, 5 assists but 5 TOs, incl. each of Wright’s second-quarter thefts as Miami’s margin was momentarily dialed back to single digits) while being stalked by Delon in Game 1, Wright’s teammates let white-hot heat players, namely Duncan Robinson and ageless wonder P.J. Tucker (combined 12-for-13 3FGs) have carte blanche access to the three-point line. Robinson and Tucker being allowed to treat the hoop like a cornhole made it easy for Miami to thwart any chance for Atlanta to come up for air. Herro, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent can be counted on for better stretches in this series, but key for Atlanta to stay in contention will be the activity of the Hawk wings and guards on the defensive boards. Miami had just four offensive rebounds in Game 1 -- half of those by former Hawk Dewayne Dedmon in the first two quarters and none by Adebayo -- but primarily because there weren’t many off-rhythm shots worth chasing, thanks to confused Atlanta defenders’ many missed assignments. Anyone not in position to defuse the heat’s three-point threats need to be beating Adebayo, Tucker, Dedmon and their own assignments to the ball. Young absorbed a lot of Game 1 punishment going after boards and loose balls that should have found their way to De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Bogdanovic (combined to tie Trae with five D-Rebs). Defensively, Trae needs not to be as active in the paint in this contest, especially with Collins around to aid Gallo and Onyeka Okongwu for longer stretches. Yet he will be needed to be impactful in flustering Lowry (9 assists, zero TOs in Game 1) and Butler and luring them into settling for one-r-hero-ball shots outside the paint. Atlanta will play to win Game 2, but they recognize it is essential to come out on top at least once in Miami’s house if they hope to have their season continue beyond next week, coincidentally as Delon hits The Big 3-0. As the Hawks’ stars improve their all-around performance in this series, they may very well have the ideal teammate, one who is unselfish to a fault, defensive-minded and familiar with these environs since his teenage years, to eventually make this happen. Delon’s older brother holds no qualms about flapping his wings with pride, even if the team who presently employs him faced the Hawks in The Finals. "Just to show support for my little brother," Dorell told VICE Sports five years ago, "it means the world to me. We come from the same place, we come from a struggle, and I know what it takes and all the hard work we had to put into get to where we are today." Dorell earned a ring as a memento from his long tenure in Miami, but he leaves no doubts these days as to where his allegiances lie. In this series, blood is thicker than heat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “I’m not telling you again. A hot dog is NOT a sandwich, UD! And tomato ketchup does NOT count as a fruit. What, are you some kind of fruity sandwich guy? And what maniac washes their chicken before frying it, but seasons the grease?” “Catch me outside, Jimmy! How ‘bout dat?” The Miami heat get to borrow back their Dirty South Division title for one more season. The Atlanta Hawks are a gracious lot, but if all goes well, that munificence might not last for much longer. This is the way we ball, but I know I’m the among the few NBA fans left who give a lil’ flip about subregional rivalries these days. Despite crawling toward a second consecutive winning season, this was far from a banner year for our Hawks, so I’m resigned to accept that Miami gets to hold the pennant for a few hundred more days. Here’s the deal, though. If my team cannot have first in the Southeast in any particular season, then, by golly, I want second-place all to my lonesome. It's selfish, but that’s another reason it would greatly benefit the Hawks, tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Sun in MIA), to win at FTX Arena and offer the heat a taste of what might be coming down the pike, should Atlanta and Charlotte wind up in the Chase for #8. #7 would be heaven, but short of that, I simply like to see Charlotte beneath Atlanta in the standings. In any standings. Don’t even get me started on the MLS action at the Five Stripes’ Little Brother’s house this weekend. Per my back-of-napkin work, the Hawks have the superior divisional record, granting them the two-team tiebreaker, as well as the edge over Charlotte in the event of a four-way tie at 43-39. But in a three-way scenario where Brooklyn gets involved, the Hornets would earn the higher seed over Atlanta, due to finishing with the best three-way head-to-head. Sorry, Charlotte, but I’m just greedy, in this narrow, one-upping way. Besides, I don’t want Atlanta’s Road to the Playoffs to roll through the nest of a Hornets team that hasn’t been there since Purple Shirt Guy’s big mouth got them dispatched all the way back in 2016. Keeping them entrenched at the 10-spot, the Horcats would need a pair of miraculous road wins just to get there, much like the Wizards need chemistry and the Magic need some milk to sneak in next season. In the meantime, I’d rather enjoy snootily looking down upon them all. Pat Riley’s and Eric Spoelstra’s heat are used to enjoying this perch above all of us, having made this pedestal all their own pretty much since the Heatles arrived and the Dwightmare unfolded. They’ve leased out the division title to the Goody Two Shoes Hawks, The Best Backcourt in The East Wizards, and the Parity Magic on occasion, yet they always find their way back on top. Still, even while bearing the best record in the NBA East (52-28; 12-2 intra-division) this season, the sands seem a little shifty down in SoBe. Almost midway through a four-game losing skid a couple weeks ago, as Jimmy Butler let a Warrior not named Steph Curry zip by him as part of a 19-0 Golden State run, Coach Spo called a timeout, and squabbled with Jimmy Buckets before the heat’s unofficial team mascot piped up. The spat between Butler and Udonis Haslem ignited a verbal sideline fracas, featuring a clipboard-slamming Spoelstra, that burned through another Miami timeout. After losing that game, the fuming heat went on to let the Knicks go on a winning 19-2 fourth-quarter run, then fell behind by 37 at home to the Nets. Fortunately, with a five-game win streak that included back-to-back wins this week at Jimmy and Kyle Lowry’s old stomping grounds of Chicago and Toronto, they’ve since righted the ship. For the time being, Butler and Miami are feeling like Kings of the World. For the record, I’m on Team Jimmy. Yes, I want The Human Napalm to stick to that franchise long enough that I can enjoy the eventual Miami meltdown. And, yes, Jimmy being loaded up on a personally crafted double espresso instead of a General Foods International Coffee doesn’t help matters when things get tense and go left. But much like Full Force with their fully functioning olfactory receptors in House Party, Butler loves to sense what he sees as sawftness among his cohorts and bosses. Calling it out, sooner than later, tends to turn his would-be empires into washed-out sandcastles. This time around, he perceives that Spoelstra and everyone else in the heat organization lack the gumption to thank Haslem for all he did back when LIVESTRONG wristbands were cool, hand that man the obligatory golf clubs, cancel his key card and order him to skedaddle. The man and his team can’t tell you whether he’s an assistant coach, a heckler, or a sergeant-at-arms. But at Markieff Morris’ salary, UD’s the highest-paid at each profession in the NBA. This isn’t Auburn Hills. Why is a 41-year-old threatening to beat the donkey of an NBA star? And who gets the authority to do this while in official team gear, and cashing a paycheck? We get it, Miami, you’re grateful for your local legend. But turn the dadgum page, why don’tcha? Riley has Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson locked in through 2023-24 ($126 million guaranteed for the quarrelsome quartet at that time), and Spoelstra show no signs of retiring. It would be fun to watch Haslem and Butler complete the slow-motion implosion from afar, especially if they pull a 1999 and fail to reach the second round. I’ll be over here on the hillside just in case, fiddle in hand. Tonight, Hasbeen probably isn’t planning on exceeding the 11 minutes he logged during the COVID craziness of December. But Spo may not have much choice in the matter. Starters customarily get to dress up like Udonis after clinching the 1-seed during the final weekend of the regular season. But the heat also have a litany of reserves designated as questionable on the pregame injury/illness list. The Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his role in last month’s sideline skirmish, Dewayne Dedmon is dealing with a sprained ankle. Omer Yurtseven’s got a tummy bug. For Gabe Vincent, the piggy that went to market is bruised. Keef and Haywood Highsmith have matching hip flexors. P.J. Tucker is definitely on the outs, having joined Caleb Martin with a calf injury. Many of these guys will play today anyway, aside from Tucker, having had two off-days to recuperate. Plugging Sixth Man Award frontrunner Tyler Herro, Robinson and Max Strus alongside a reacclimating Victor Oladipo (no consecutive games played since March 11; DNP’d in MIA’s 144-115 win over CHA) ought to serve just fine as a kickstarter without much contribution from Lowry or Butler. But if Adebayo is due for any rest, with limited healthy frontcourt options, it may be Turn Back the Clock Night for UD in what ought to – excuse me, could – be the Miami native’s career home regular season finale. While there is still no word on the timetable (oh, how I despise that word) for South Floridian John Collins, the Hawks’ injury list is much shorter, as Bogi Bogdanovic’s sore knee and Lou Williams’ back discomfort (each questionable for today) are the only other citations. Particularly without the BLAH offense (Butler, Lowry, Adebayo, Herro) around to do much for long stretches today, Atlanta should have the talent advantage on the floor from start to finish, to go along with the health-and-conditioning edge. Whether these Hawks have the will edge, avoiding the bad habits with transition and perimeter defense, offensive inertia and shot selection that put them in the Play-In position, will be a determinant for whether they’ll get a Play-In game or two back home. Had they played the hand of cards they were dealt better earlier in the season, Atlanta would be right up there trading paint with Boston, Milwaukee, and Philly for a home Play-Off opening round. But now that they’re in this situation, they need to make good on the perception that they’re a team no one, be it Miami or Charlotte, wants to see at elimination time. If you’re not first, you’re last, sure. But in the Dirty South Division, I want the team I root for to be the best last. And I don’t mind if the Hawks, and not the Hornets, perform well enough going forward to have the chance to become the last team top-seeded Miami sees during the playoffs. With all respect due to a NASCAR racing clan, it’s the one way I get to be a Petty year-round. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “May I have your attention, please!” “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Instead, the Former King ran rings around the planet’s third-wealthiest sports owner. After winning two in South Florida, Former King was gracious enough to swing by the shores of Lake Erie and bestow a ring upon Dan Gilbert’s finger before heading out once more, earning a fourth ring with yet another team while hanging out in Central Florida. Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Dan and Former King get to kick back, crack open a frosty O’Doul’s, and watch the 2022 NBA Playoffs together? There could be plenty of room in both these fellas’ busy schedules to make it happen. I’m a self-titled Atlanta Sports fan, certainly a Hawks fan, so by definition I can’t be in the business of personally guaranteeing anything. But America’s most successful loan shark has gotten a glance at just how much his self-titled Personal Guarantees are worth. On this one, Dan’s deep into default. In case the Guardians are scouting, they should know Chuck’s hitting a higher batting average on Guar-On-Tees. Immediately after spell-checking his Comic Sans missive and pressing ‘Send’, Gilbert’s Cavaliers were committed to figuring out a means to contend for championships without the aid of Former King. Twelve years removed from that 2010 Personal Guarantee to the Cavs faithful, frankly, those guys are still at it. It’s not like they haven’t had help along the way. The Clippers sent the remains of Baron Davis and a first-rounder to Cleveland in 2011 for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. That first-rounder became top-pick Kyrie Irving, who looked to be left to his own devices to figure out how to tricky-dribble the team around him into the postseason. Getting Tristan Thompson with their own pick at #4 wasn’t a bad deal, either. More Lottery Luck landed The Land the top NBA picks in 2013 (moving up from 3rd) and 2014 (up from 9th). That gave them the fodder they needed to bring Kevin Love to town, to the great satisfaction of Former King. King, Kyrie, Kardashian and K-Love got the breaks they needed to win it all, at long last, for Cleveland in 2016. One ring was all there was to be for Mr. Dan, as a gentleman’s sweep during the next Finals at the hands of the Warriors quickly had King and Kyrie looking to faraway lands. But, hey, Kevin’s still here! And more Lotto Luck was to come. Yes, the Cavs dropped three spots out of the #2 position twice, in 2019 and 2020, leaving them to settle for Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, respectively. No Zion or De’Andre Hunter, no Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball would be coming to save them, sorry. But then that old table-tennis ball magic came through once more last year, the Cavs eking up from 5th to 3rd and having Evan Mobley ripe for the picking. Mobley proves ready to ball out from the jump for coach JB Bickerstaff and company. Garland breaks fully out of an injured Collin Sexton’s shadow (Ricky Rubio’s, too) and into the All-Star limelight. Getting in on the drama in Houston orbiting a plumpy James Harden, GM Koby Altman completes a four-team deal in 2021 that sent Harden to the Nets, Caris LeVert to the Pacers, and Jarrett Allen to the Cavs. Allen joins Garland in 2022’s All-Star festivities, proudly representing a team hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference. Now, LeVert’s here, too? Playoffs, here they come! Even two-time world champion Rajon Rondo wanted in on the action. “This type of personnel, the DNA that we have, the character in this locker room with the coaching staff,” Rondo shared with a Cavs sideline reporter just a month after arriving via trade from Los Angeles (with nary a hint of Lakershade), “We got a chance to do something special.” He could have stayed sunnin’ and funnin’ in L.A. with Former King. But the former veteran backup to Atlanta Hawks’ All-Star Trae Young knew he’d have a greater shot at meaningful postseason action for himself by returning East. To an extent, Rondo has been proven right. Rondo has a vital role helping Brandon Goodwin back up Garland as the Cavs, despite losing in Brooklyn a few nights ago, have a single shot at snapping a string of Playoff-less appearances that goes back to 1998. It was under coach Mike Fratello, in those Nique-awful uniforms, that Cleveland last appeared in a Playoff game without the services of Former King. While Rondo was the top second-grade hooper in his class, it was under coach Lenny Wilkens that the Cavs last won a playoff series without Former King, a 1993 five-setter when they edged Rumeal Robinson, Drazen Petrovic and the Nets. These hexes can’t go on forever. But I can personally guarantee they will extend at least another year if the Cavs fall at Mr. Dan’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL). I don’t think I am underestimating how humungous this Play-In game is for Cavalier Nation, for the sun-setting Rondo and Love, and for one well-heeled guarantor in particular. Just making it to Miami for Game 1 of the first round would qualify as “something special.” They have the misfortune of trying to tackle a Hawks team that is getting used to this business of playing spoiler to fatally-flawed NBA teams’ postseason hopes and dreams. They played the Caron Wheeler role to devastating effect during Wednesday’s 9-versus-10 game in hurtling the funhouse Hornets back to reality (Sixers and Knicks fans: “So, Charlotte, this here’s your first time?”). Particularly so in the second half, as Hawks fans realized how ever do they want, and need, an exceptional-playing Hunter (16 points, 4 rebounds in 3rd quarter vs. CHA). Atlanta by now ought to recognize, though, that the team that swatted the Hornets into ether is rarely the same once they leave the cozy confines of State Farm Arena. Open looks don’t fall so cleanly, the bottom-ten defense (117.3 post-Break away-game D-Rating, 22nd in NBA) gets tight, and everyone not named Trae starts looking to each other for answers to the riddles on the road. As @Final_quest noted following the Hornets’ game, the Hawks caught their first L of this season in this Fieldhouse in October, days after what felt like a momentous home triumph over Luka and the Mavs for the season opener. Cam Reddish led the non-Trae Hawks with 19 bench points as the team shot 38.4 percent from the field, including Hunter (5-for-16 FGs) and a foul-troubled John Collins (3-for-8 FGs). With no Garland in that low-scoring affair, the Cavs didn’t shoot it much better (41.6 team FG%). But Rubio sure seemed to have his way taking pressure off of Sexton, while the questionable pairing of Mobley with Allen in Bickerstaff’s starting frontcourt looked like it might work out after all. For Atlanta, that 101-95 loss was a setback that kicked off a 1-8 start to the road schedule, quickly dampening expectations that the Hawks were ready to pick up where they left off. Garland was unavailable once more, on New Year’s Eve, when Trae and the Hawks got a measure of payback in Cleveland, despite 35 throwback points from Love, with the help of Chaundee Brown, Wes Iwundu, and a whole other Cam, namely Cameron Oliver. The Hawks would then go into 2022 to strike out a Jaywalker’s Row of opponents in their buildings – the Kings, Hornets, Magic, Wizards, Knicks, Pacers, Thunder and Rockets – all of whom as of Wednesday night are watching the NBA postseason from afar. The upshot is that Atlanta has to be considerably better, tonight, than the road teams that beat those opponents, if the Hawks want to return to Miami for a few days in a professional capacity, and to do something good once they arrive. It is unlikely we’ll witness a Hornet Lover’s Feast resembling the one Clint Capela sopped up with a Cheddar Bay biscuit on Wednesday. This Win Or Go Home contest will feature Mobley and, more likely than not, Allen (sprained finger), which was not the case when the Cavs were blitzed in Atlanta by a 131-107 score on March 31. Cleveland will have answers that they lacked versus Capela and Mobley’s AAU-mate, Onyeka Okongwu. The heightened challenge of scoring via lobs and floaters will require Young, Delon Wright and the Hawks’ ballhandlers to exploit Cleveland’s perimeter defense (38.5 opponent post-Break 3FG%, 4th-highest in NBA, incl. 44.2% from corners). Swingmen and forwards staying in motion to get open while keeping Okoro, Lauri Markkanen and LeVert busy picking poisons will help Young generate scoring opportunities with greater efficiency, particularly for himself (6-for-17 2FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs, 11 assists, 3 TOs vs. CHA). Bogdan Bogdanovic is listed as questionable due to a sprained ankle, but the presence of Kevin Huerter, Hunter and Danilo Gallinari still grants Atlanta a superior array of options. As the Cleveland bigs cluster to protect the interior, a few of Atlanta’s timely dimes for threes could come from the hands of Capela, whose Hawks are 12-2 this season when he registers at least three assists. Depth has been a challenge during Cleveland’s slide out of first-round-homecourt territory. As Kyrie’s Nets had the Cavs climbing out from a 20-point first-quarter hole, Bickerstaff had to rely heavily on Rondo (9 assists in 27 bench minutes) to help Garland (34 points @ BRK, 5 assists, 6 TOs) move the ball, and on Love (3-for-4 3FGs, team-highs of 4 O-Rebs and 9 D-Rebs in 29.5 bench minutes) to hit threes and secure boards. The Cavs need current starters Markkanen (54.2 eFG%, down from 59.4 last season w/ CHI) and LeVert (48.1 eFG%, down from 49.6 this season w/ IND) to have a positive impact, particularly on the offensive side of the court (combined 6 steals but 9-for-26 FGs @ BRK) and alleviate overreliance on a withering reserve unit. Getting Hunter and Danilo Gallinari to abdicate help in the paint would benefit Garland on his drives, and Mobley and/or Allen on his post plays. If they fail at that this evening, there will be not much left for Cleveland to do but run it back for 2023. Love, LeVert, Markkanen, Cedi Osman, Okoro and Dylan Windler are all part of a core that could return, under contracts personally guaranteed, by Gilbert through at least 2022-23. Add in another dash of Lottery Luck (their own pick from the LeVert trade with Indiana is Lotto-protected), plus an extended offseason for recalibration and growth, and these Cavs might have a better chance, next season, at finally chasing after a ring, or at least a playoff series win, without the Former King. Come on, Mr. Dan. What’s not to like? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “I’m so excited! And I just can't hide it! He’s about to lose control. And I think I like it!” Atlanta crawls, then stumbles, then walks, so Charlotte can fly. At 370 feet tall, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport proudly cut the ribbon last week on their new, state-of-the-art control tower. It more than doubles the old one’s size, with about 70 feet to spare, and offers traffic controllers expansive 360-degree views of the friendly Piedmont skies. It's now the second-tallest freestanding control tower in the USA, in North America, and the Western Hemisphere. If you know who’s in first, you already understand why Charlotte’s got a touch of control-tower envy. The one trade where Atlanta, Georgia is the unquestioned Showtime Lakers of the universe, in kind of a good way, is passenger aviation. Hartsfield-Jackson has just reclaimed its pre-pandemic top spot as the busiest airport on Earth, with over 75 million enplanements and deplanements last year. But check out who is riding hot on our heels. Charlotte’s airport ranked 34th globally in 2019, but they’ve surged to over 43 million trips in 2021, surpassing Las Vegas, Orlando, Guangzhou. With no Mouse, no glittery casinos, no Great Wall, no fancy movie studios, CLT is sneaking up on LAX for the title of the nation’s, and the world’s, fifth-busiest aerotropolis. Charlotte, North Carolina draws its inspiration from so many things Atlanta does. But what Charlotte does isn’t as simple as just peering over the shoulders of Atlanta, or Washington or Raleigh, and cribbing notes. No, what they do is sit back, watch carefully at what rivals like Atlanta are up to, try to learn from their successes and their mistakes, then aim to do something just as good, if not better. Every time we pull a Home Depot, they come up with a Lowe’s. We Chick fil-A, they Bojangles. This mimeographing attitude applies to urban transport, to CBD nightlife (not that kind of nightlife, I mean the central business district), to skylines and gentrification and sporting arenas. Sports teams, too. As he was drawing his pennies together, George Shinn got to watch Tom Cousins and, later, Ted Turner try their best to make pro basketball in the South, centered around Atlanta, kind of a big deal. Naming his expansion outfit with a winged creature, he Muggsy’d our Spud, and Granmama’d our Human Highlight Film, but he also innovated with a team color scheme that’s now a lasting element of the Queen City’s identity. Shinn would literally screw away what goodwill he fostered, taking the club with him down to the Big Easy. But once Charlotte got a second crack at an NBA team, the new owners and the business community brought his dream of a new transport-accessible downtown arena to life. An Omni Plus, if you will. Mitch Kupchak and the current regime has done much of the same imagineering of Atlanta, ver. 2.0, for a Hornets franchise that has struggled since its Bobcat reincarnation to reach the NBA playoffs with any degree of regularity. You need a Popovich disciple who can transform the style of the Hornets’ color-by-numbers play? But Atlanta has already been there, done that, and moved on from Coach Bud? Go get James Borrego, then. You chased after a Malik Monk, and let Wake Forest’s jumpin’ John Collins escape your grasp? No problem. Next year, you can acquire Miles Bridges in a draft trade. You need a scene-stealing guard who wakes up and chooses violence towards the NBA’s hallowed record books? But Trae Young, the NBA’s scoring and assist-making leader having duplicated his feat as a college freshman, is locked down in the ATL? No problem. Tank, and go snag LaMelo Ball, who is sure to threaten the “Most triple-doubles by Age XX” marks with each passing game. With his extended size for rebounding, the All-Star Ball may one day be an upgrade of All-NBA Trae. One day. The Hornets, with their 4th winning season (43-39) since returning to the NBA in 2005, caught up to the Hawks (4 winning seasons since going 60-22 in 2015-16) this season in the standings and now visit them at State Farm Arena for a Win or Go Home Part One contest (7 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL) before a sellout crowd. Borrego and Ball direct an offensively efficient club (113.6 O-Rating, 3rd in the East) that almost compares to Atlanta’s (115.4 O-Rating, tops in the East). Try as they might, though, there is no one on the floor who parallels a Clint Capela. Goodness knows they tried, bless their hearts, first replacing Cody Zeller with Miles Plumlee, then acquiring the rim-running Montrezl Harrell at the trade Deadline. But Capela has the East’s best Defensive Real Plus/Minus, while Bridges is unable to outleap him by ranking a team-best 55th. Atlanta’s relative defensive efficiency improved as the season went on (114.7 D-Rating post-Break, better than Charlotte’s 21st-ranked 116.0; 113.3 over past 15 games to the Hornets’ 117.0), and they don’t get to middle-of-the-road in this league without the stewardship of Capela and the emerging input of two players, guard Delon Wright and center Onyeka Okongwu, who the Hornets can’t quite approximate, with all respect due to Cody Martin and P.J. Washington. Whatever defensive precepts Borrego instills seem to get lost when the Hornets hit the road, too (115.4 away-game D-Rating, 26th in NBA and worst among still-active teams). Coach Nate McMillan’s Hawks will have to not only win the turnover game by keeping their offensive goofs to a minimum, but by pressuring Charlotte’s would-be spot-shooters to the ball on the deck, and by picking off harried passes. In the Hornets’ 130-127 win here at The Farm on December 5, the Ball-less and Rozier-less Hornets committed as many turnovers as a team as Young (six of Atlanta’s reasonably low number of ten). Charlotte players turned over the rock on just nine occasions to Trae’s six on March 15, but the host Hornets were able to take advantage of an off-shooting night from Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic to prevail 116-106. When the Hawks were at their letter-best in mid-season, they walloped the Hornets not only by suppressing their perimeter shooting (4-for-36 3FGs on Jan. 23) but by stealing the ball twelve times to account for 16 Charlotte turnovers. Neutralizing the Hornet offense will require fighting over screens and chasing shooters out of their comfort zones, while boxing out and keeping Ball, Plumlee and Harrell from earning extra-chance opportunities. Even without Collins (finger) available, if De’Andre Hunter, Okongwu and Danilo Gallinari can match the rebounding and rim-finishing energy from Bridges and Washington, the Hornets will be left to hope Atlanta’s guards are in for another off-shooting eve. For what amounts to Game 6 and Game 7 practice for these teams, thanks to their 2021 playoff sprint, Atlanta now has the experience advantage on the floor, unless you count bucket-fillers Terry Rozier and Isaiah Thomas’ runs with the injured Gordon Hayward on the Celtics, back in the mid-20Teens, and Harrell’s time in the Bubble with the Clippers, as meritorious. These Hawks have already gotten, once, where the Hornets aspire to be. But so long as Atlanta isn’t “bored” with the prospect of traveling to Northeast Ohio after the game (Young reaffirming himself as The King of New York will have to wait at least a bit longer, after last night’s Nets win for the 7-seed) and up to the task of eliminating teams at home, Charlotte will have to reassume the position of looking up at Atlanta while biting our style. Or perhaps, down, while flying out of town for the final time this season. Cancun is a more pleasant nonstop flight destination than Cleveland this time of year, anyway. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “That Trae Young, man, he sure drives New Yorkers from all our boroughs to drink. Ahh, Champale. Earthy notes!” We might have been one bunion away, last summer, from getting a Post-Game 1 press conference from then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Gothamites already got one mayor out the paint in 2021, but not before Bill de Blah Blah Blah made a stone fool of himself by taking time out from a resurging global panini last spring to chastise the Atlanta Hawks’ ace point guard for daring to expose his dear, dear Knickerbockers. How dare this interloper waltz into The World’s Most Haughty Arena and derail his spitting-mad constituents’ fever dreams? Stop that, Trae Young. You stop that, right now! The thing New Yorkers are gonna do, is replace one head-scratching lead executive with another. Enter Adams, the latest Hizzoner in NYC (despite one mayoral write-in vote for Young), left to make sense of the non-sensical as it pertained to You Know What policy and salvaging his Brooklyn Nets’ big-moneyed championship scheme. With Kyrie Irving finally back in Barclays Center, and not as a fan. With or without Sen Bimmons on the playing part of the floor. The funny thing is -- it may not matter. It may be too late. Imagine, as 2021’s stunning playoff run concluded for the Hawks, assuring local fans that next season, Atlanta gets the pleasure of eliminating the Knicks from contention once more, and, perhaps this time, the Nets, too. That this deep in the regular season, with NO context whatsoever, the Hawks will host Brooklyn at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, YES Network in The BK, NBATV), with an opportunity for Kevin Huerter and company to pass Kevin Durant and company in the conference standings. “Shut up and take my money,” right? It's not like the Nets have been juggernauts in their home venue. They’re 23-16 in road games like today’s, but Thursday’s fourth-quarter collapse and OT loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo and company dropped Brooklyn to 17-21 at home, a deflating record not much better than the Knicks’ 16-22. Still, the idea was, at worst, Brooklyn would earn an elimination game at home once the regular season ended. Nobody imagined that game might be a Play-In. And absolutely no one thought, as a #10 seed, that a home post-season game might not happen at all. A loss today at The Farm, and #10 may be a reality. Heck, this may be the 9-10 preview. Coach Steve Nash’s crew won’t get another shot at Charlotte, who avenged Kyrie’s 50-point masterpiece from earlier this month by holding him to 16 points (6-for-22 FGs) in a 119-110 win at Barclays last Wednesday. Not at least until the Play-Ins commence. Irving tricked off most of the first half of the season, unwilling to give Nash and the Nets’ chance at building up a dream season centered around their Big Three, well, a shot. James Harden didn’t want to stick around for the conclusion. Even with the team relenting to allow Irving to return for eligible road games, the Beard latched himself back onto Moreyball in Philly, leaving the Nets with Seth Curry (44.0 career 3FG%, 1st among active NBA’ers) and the Gameboy-loving apparition that is Bimmons. Sharpshooter Joe Harris’ injury was untimely, and players like Patty Mills and Bruce Brown would have doubled up on their vitamins over the past offseason if they were aware they’d play so many compensatory minutes. Durant’s midseason injury absence was all the more inconvenient. While KD has returned to full form (7.2 FTAs per game, same as Young… somebody tell ‘the god’ to stop hunting fouls!... 90.8 FT%), the hole from which he and Irving now have to climb their Nets out, with no word whether Bimmons will be able to chip in, is proving to be difficult of late. Brooklyn has dropped three of its past five games in splitting its last eight. The opposing names on jerseys sharing the State Farm Arena floor shift from the Lauri Markkanens and the Isaac Okoros to names far more experienced and accomplished. Brooklyn is sure to shoot and hit from outside at a better clip than Cleveland’s 23.3 team 3FG%. The two carryovers from Thursday’s resounding 131-107 win over the Cavs that should make the difference for the Hawks will be throttling transition defense and limited second-chances, ensuring caroms don’t lead to unfettered runouts for Brown, easy putbacks for Andre Drummond, nor make their way back to Irving to help Brooklyn dominate possession. The Nets’ schedule after today isn’t terribly daunting – a crosstown back-to-back versus Houston and at MSG, before home games against the Cavs and Pacers. Yet both the Hornets (8-2 over last ten games, playing in Philly this afternoon) and the Hawks (9-3 over last 12), if motivated, can leave Brooklyn in the cellar of the Play-In seeding after today, and they’re under no obligations to let them back upstairs. One false move, and the Nets could be looking squarely at a 9-10 eliminator, maybe even in Kyrie’s old stomping grounds in Cleveland. As Nash knows, that’s not Playoff basketball. One more false move in that game, and they’re looking at joining LeBron and company on an early trip to Cancun. You won’t need three eyes to foresee it. As Brooklyn native Nas’ album was once titled, “It Was Written.” However the Nets get into the Playoffs, we have been reassured by the hoop intelligentsia, the NBA East’s highest-salaried team is a threat to go all the way to The Finals, perhaps even the favorite. However, they have put themselves in position where they may be unable to finish their own composition. For all of Atlanta’s faults and shortcomings, no matter what was prematurely scribbled as Brooklyn’s destiny, the Hawks have their clutches firmly on the eraser. Quick, Mayor Adams! Make Trae give back the key to the City! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “Y’all don’t talk about me? No? No? No? No???” Please join me as we happily close the books on what has been a miserable, rotten, no-good regular season. I’m not even talking myopically about our Hawks, as if you’ve been around this sports town long enough, you already know nothing gold can stay. (btw, get well soon, Josef!) No, I join The Commissioner as he looks forlornly upon what has happened to The Association. He gets paid the big bucks to put on a good face, but Adam Silver wishes he could tear his hair out over all the bigger bucks the teams and players are collectively burning. You get used to hearing the phrase, “Billable hours! Billable hours!” in my line of work. NBA players don’t get paid hourly wages, thankfully, but let’s call their production time, “baller minutes lost.” Just go across the league to see how much more talent and competitive play the NBA fans have had to do without. It’s easier to go in order of salaries from top to bottom to assess the scale of “BML.” Yes, there are legitimate injuries, although teams have been allowed to be less than forthcoming about the arcs of recovery for their marquee players, from Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal to Jamal Murray. Still, could the Hawks have spooked Ben Simmons that badly? Kawhat? Kawho? Anthony Day-to-Davis? Can Jonathan Isaac simply go on to get his new bag and get it over with? And what is the deal with Zatarain’s Williamson? Oh, yeah, one more. When was the last time anyone saw the shadow of John Wall? If we get stuck with a few more weeks of wintry weather, we’ll know he’s finally seen it. Wall got $44 million to get ghost this season, and he’ll get paid $47 million, either lump-sum or spread out, when he opts in for GM Rafael Stone’s Rockets next season. That’s not bad for the former Best Point Guard in the East. It is bad, though, for fans who deserve to watch him play, somewhere, and not just burning holes through their favorite team’s cap sheet. The quest for Stone to keep this team young and gunning, but clueless enough under coach Stephen Silas’ watch to imperil lottery odds, affects not just veterans like Wall. The second and third highest-paid Rockets, Eric Gordon and Christian Wood, have been conveniently shut down. Daniel Theis was air-mailed back to Boston at the Trade Deadline, and of the three players brought back, Enes was granted his Freedom, while our old friend Dennis Schröder is left to wonder how things might have gone had he not bet on himself to leave the Lakers (all things considered, maybe it was for the best). The sole member of that trade trio who is likely to grace the floor for Silas today (3:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) is another chum, one not-so-old. Bruno Fernando hasn’t appeared on-court in over a week, but Silas did feature him in a pair of must-lose home games versus the Kangz, where he compiled 40 points, four blocks and 17 rebounds. Bruno won’t need to do much today for Houston (20-61), but his incremental contributions, should the Hawks (42-39) half-tailfeather their way through today’s proceedings, might become the reason why they’ll have to play an elimination game in a town that begins with the letter C. Today’s season-ending game from H-Town's side of the equation is simple. Kevin Porter, Jr. is going to get his, in the form of 30 points, whether it takes 30-plus combined shots or not to get there (last 6 games: 29.2 PPG and 7.7 APG, 49.2/38.5/86.7 shooting splits). Same get-mine deal, if he can go, for rookie Jalen Green (questionable, non-You Know What illness). The Rockets made the VanVleet-less Raptors fight to the bitter end in Toronto on Friday, falling by just a 117-115 score, and while Green was laboring in that contest, he has been dueling with KPJ for the scoring lead in the prior seven contests (29.1 PPG, 49.0/45.0/79.3 splits). For Atlanta, it’s a matter of who, be it Alpo Sengun, Bruno, Jae’Sean Tate, Garrison Mathews and the like, do they allow to go off and surge the high-tempo Rockets (101.2 Pace, 2nd in NBA) into the 120-point stratosphere. A more focused all-around effort than exhibited at the close of Friday’s loss in Miami, from De’Andre “Car 54” Hunter and the Hawks, would be enough to keep the Rockets’ offense reasonably grounded. I’d get into the particulars, but I’m already in Play-In mode. I am more interested in just balling up this regular season and putting it in the rubbish. Mr. Janitor, sir, would you mind tossing this here seas– oh, please forgive me, Mr. Wall, I didn’t recognize you! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. LOB! American Style! Truer than the Red, White and Blue. LOB! American Style! That’s me and you! The race was on late last night! At least I hope so. As the Atlanta Hawks were wrapping up their loss in Toronto, a bit further to the west, the playoff-hungry Minnesota Timberwolves were early in the third quarter, getting run out of their own gym by the Washington Wizards. The Hawks, it is hoped, concluded their obligatory interviews and caught the first thing smoking out of Canada before the Wizards-Wolves game reached the final horn. Given the value of the Hawks’ home finale at The Farm (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and Washington’s history of being a late-season spoiler, hopefully the Wiz gave the Wolves everything they had before hopping on their red-eye. If the Hawks (41-38) look down on the playoff-eliminated Wizards (35-44) for lacking not only Brad Beal but Kyle Kuzma (out, knee tendinitis), then they risk falling into the same mind-trap Minnesota did yesterday. The Wolves still had a faint chance of catching Utah or Denver for the Play-In-averting 6-seed and perhaps the Northwest Division crown by sweeping their three-game homestand. Those hopes were all but squandered as they allowed season-high scoring tallies to both Rui Hachimura (21 points) and Daniel Gafford (24 points, 12 boards). Relevant to the Hawks’ loss last night, Gafford manned the frontcourt alongside monumental Trade Deadline acquisition Kristaps Porzingis for a significant, tide-turning stretch in the second half, and for the first time this season under head coach Junior Unseld’s watch. It worked out so well that Unseld was able to rest Porzingis for the final quarter, ahead of today’s matchup with Clint Capela, as the Wizards’ sizable rotation of forwards wore down Karl-Anthony Towns and pulled out to a 23-point lead. Yes, the Wizards were just blasted in Boston by 42 points on Sunday. But in addition to Minnesota, Unseld’s charges over the past couple weeks have screwed with the playoff-seeding hopes of Golden State, the LOLakers, and KP’s former team, Dallas. They’ve shown a propensity for bouncing back lately. Despite the injuries, they’ve won five of their past eight, and there’s nothing so appetizing about 2022 Draft slots from #7 on down that they have reason to gather up the tents and tank. From Christmas through the week after St. Patty’s, Washington won consecutive games on only one occasion. Victory tonight would make that thrice over the course of the past 13 days, and the first pair of wins on back-to-back nights since Thanksgiving. Washington did not have the Unicorn at their disposal when they fell to the Hawks, 117-114 on March 4. They did have Georgia native Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went bonkers from outside (6-for-6 3FGs for 18 of his 28 points) as his Wiz waged a second-half comeback from as many as 14 points down. How did the Hawks prevail, going wire-to-wire, when they were outshot 54.1-41.8 percent from the field, including a 6-for-22 shooting display from Trae Young, and out-assisted 37-18 (incl. 11 dimes by Kuz and seven by Raul Neto)? Well, for one, the Zards were unable to get to shot-worthy whistles, as Young and De’Andre Hunter (combined 17-for-18 FTAs), alone, doubled their opponents’ free throw attempt total (34 ATL FTAs, to WAS’ nine). They were unable to get Atlanta to cough up the ball, the Hawks committing just four player turnovers for the game. Finally, absent Porzingis, Washington was also unable to contain Capela on the glass, as eight of Clint’s 12 rebounds were cleanups on the wayward Hawks’ offensive end. That game last month lacked not only John Collins but backup big Onyeka Okongwu, who has had his struggles in recent games versus Brooklyn and Toronto (8 combined rebounds, 1 offensive, over 33.5 minutes) after feasting on the boards on back-to-back nights in OKC and versus Cleveland (25 combined over 53 minutes) last week. Hunter is doing a better job of mixing it up in the paint in recent days, and Atlanta will need him, Jalen Johnson and Bogi Bogdanovic to aid Capela and Okongwu in securing a wide berth for defensive boards, particularly off long caroms when Porzingis (last 4 games: 25.3 PPG, 55.6% on 4.5 3FGAs/game) settles his 7-foot-3 frame along the perimeter. Porzingis’ arrival gives Beal a little more to chew on as he weighs the value of his $36 million player option for next season. KP has one of his own the following offseason, but the current calculation Beal, back next season after February surgery for a torn wrist ligament, will have to make is whether there is a proper core around him to get back in immediate contention in the NBA East, something this team hasn’t been able to suggest since Beal was paired in the backcourt with a prime John Wall. Promoted team prez and GM Tommy Sheppard has built up some flexibility to shift if Beal opts out, although acquiring a talented point guard via a thin draft or free agency is a tall order. The more likely scenario is Beal locks himself into the five-year supermax offer, looks at the lay of the land with duplicative forwards Kuzma, Gafford, Hachimura, Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija, and kindly requests of owner Ted Leonsis to be Westbrooked once he becomes eligible for trading. That move would allow Sheppard to finally kick the rebuilding phase of the Wizards into high gear. The collective likely won’t be good enough, with another year of growth, a healthier Beal, and another lottery pick under Unseld’s command, to make a meaningful surge up the Eastern Conference charts. But what they have, right now, is good enough to knock off the Hawks on a random Wednesday evening, particularly if the hosts aren’t adequately prepared and don’t bring the A-game they presented last week to the Cavs on a home SEGABABA. If we’re fortunate tonight, lethargy will be clearly on Washington’s side of the floor; traveling East and cross-country while completing a third game in four nights, like Atlanta, but on the road with an hour lost due to the time zone change. It will require a committed effort with respect to rebounding, on-ball defense and motion offense, but hopefully a spirited Hawks team will be halfway toward victory, before the Wizards can even get their shorts on and lace up their shoes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “Welcome to Jurassaintcominghere Park!” Who is about to find themselves caught up in the Canadian Fly Trap? I, for one, believe there’s enough international-incident action as it stands. The hope is that the potential for conflict ahead of the NBA Playoffs – or, Play-Ins, rendered unnecessary for the Toronto Raptors if they can beat the visiting Atlanta Hawks this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in TOR) and the Cavaliers falter down in Orlando – will turn out to be a big ol’ ball of nothing. I lack the patience to hear about a(nother) random Celtic, or Sixer, past or present, getting canonized by a convoy of cosplaying truckers, this time as the player’s team finds themselves down a man or two during a road playoff game. We all understand what’s required to avoid that scenario and, surely, the suspected players do as well. But if their mindset this late in the NBA season is, “We’ll just win our home games as the higher seed, no problem!”, against the Raptors (45-33; 24-16 in away games, 2nd-best in the NBA East)? Well, that’s a bold strategy, Cotton. If the Hawks have to clear Customs and return here to Scotiabank Arena anytime in the coming months, then that would be great news for fans of both teams. Atlanta (41-37; 10-3 over past 13 games) enters today’s action on a five-game winning surge, led by reigning Eastern Conference POW Trae Young, and seeking to secure a winning record following months of uneven struggles. After some stumbles of their own out of the All-Star Break, Toronto figured things out a few weeks faster. Their 114-109 loss to top-seeded, Jimmy Butler-less Miami, in Kyle Lowry’s return to town on Sunday evening, ended a five-game win streak of their own, and coach Nick Nurse’s team has prevailed in ten of their past 12 contests, keeping them just outside of the soup (2.5 games ahead of CLE, who is 1.5 games ahead of ATL) that is the 7-through-10 Play-In seeding. Nurse would love to have OG Anunoby (questionable, bruised thigh), who missed the loss to the heat, back in action this evening to haggle Young (35.7 PPG over past 3 games, 11.6 APG over past five). Anunoby was out for the February 26 meeting in Atlanta when Trae went for 41-and-11 (incl. 16-for-20 2FGs) in a 127-100 Hawks win, and the Raps missed his defensive input more than the Hawks missed John Collins. Earlier that month, with OG in the lineup in Toronto, Young still was able to find his way to the hoop (9-for-16 2FGs, 0-for-4 on threes), and dished the rock with ease (11 assists, 1 TO @ TOR on Feb. 4). But Trae struggled to aid Atlanta from outside, as did every Hawk save for Bogdan Bogdanovic (4-for-9 3FGs on Feb. 4, teammates 5-for-20; 18 bench points and 4 steals, questionable for tonight, sore knee) in a 125-114 Hawk loss. Lately, Young is beginning to get considerable backup support in the backcourt. Former Raptor Delon Wright (last six games: 3.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, 56.3% on 2.7 3FGAs per game) came through (3-for-6 3FGs) even as Bogi struggled offensively (0-for-6 3FGs) in the Hawks’ essential 122-115 home win over Kevin Durant and the Nets. If Wright, Bogdanovic and one other ex-Raptor, 2015 Sixth Man Award winner Lou Williams, can provide the proper fullcourt balance when subbing in for Young or Kevin Huerter (2-for-10 FGs vs. BRK, but 21.3 PPG and 60.6 3FG% in prior four wins), it will take immense pressure off of Young as he adroitly creates for everybody. Nurse wants his players to be assertive at both ends in beating teams to the ball (NBA-highs of 17.8 deflections/game and 3.5 defensive loose-ball recoveries), wherever it lies. Hanging out on the offensive side of the court, ROY finalist Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Khem Birch each average over two O-Rebs per game, entrusting Pascal Siakam and Anunoby to get back on defense in transition. Toronto tops the NBA East with a 12.9 O-Reb%, and the entire league with 16.3 opponent TO%. The Raps’ negative-4.4 differential in turnover percentage points is well ahead of the rest of the league (no other team fares better than negative-2.0). A chunk of the few turnovers Toronto does commit derives from All-Star guard Fred VanVleet’s predictability with passing on drives into the paint (NBA-lows of 40.4 FG% and 3.6 FGAs, NBA-high of 57.5 pass%, 8.0 TO% on drives, min. 10+ drives/game and 40 games played). De’Andre Hunter and Atlanta defenders will have to be mindful on Fred’s forays that the ball is being redirected toward Siakam, when left open, and Gary Trent, Jr. along the perimeter. Siakam (33 points vs. ATL on Feb. 4) and Achiuwa went a combined 8-for-8 on threes during the Hawks’ last visit to Toronto, the Raptors 63.0 team 3FG% a season-high and their 70.3 team TS% a season high at the time. Nate McMillan’s charges adjusted for the next meeting, and the Raptors’ offense became discombobulated 22 days later in Atlanta. They needed Spicy P and Precious A (2-for-4 on 3FGs @ATL) to compensate more on the defensive end without Anunoby available, and neither guards Trent nor Malachi Flynn (combined 1-for-9 on threes @ATL) were up to the task of being release valves for VanVleet. Conversely, Atlanta shot 57.8 percent from the field on Feb. 26, and an off-night from Danilo Gallinari (1-for-9 FGs vs. TOR; questionable for today, flared-up knee) was all that kept that percentage from being a team season-high, too. Young was able to punish the Raptors inside despite their contracting in the paint, while his floormates could swing the ball around to find good looks for Hunter, Huerter and Wright (combined 8-for-13 3FGs). The Hawks would like to hold off thoughts and discussions of Play-In scenarios for as long as possible this week, and a crucial road win would help them do just that. The Raptors don’t have to leave Canada until Sunday’s finale at New York, but they would rather secure a Top-6 finish tonight than carry the suspense into a back-to-back later this week versus Philadelphia and competitanking Houston. However things shake out this week, there is comfort in both clubs knowing they are closing out this season competing as well as they have in a while, even without their rosters at full health. Also, unlike other clubs, there aren’t any mission-critical players on their rosters jab-stepping about the jab, imperiling their team’s postseason prospects on some personal freedoms tip. Talking about being inoculated or divinely exempted or somesuch, this deep into the Twenty Twenties, and thinking that’s going to sway folks North of the Border? Like a pterodactyl from the late Jurassic period, that’s not gonna Fly for much longer, not when the time comes to travel to Toronto as a playoff series fate hangs in the balance. With the Canadian Fly Trap in clear view for every NBA player to see, I’m grateful our squad isn’t going to find itself stuck! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. “I promise! I’ll be mindful not to posterize you like that when we finally get to the BIG 3!” Thankfully, the Thunder got struck yesterday. But how did the Atlanta Hawks and their visitors tonight, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Ohio) handle those storms last night? To land in ATL overnight, both teams had to navigate their way through the treacherous line of thunder-boomers that rambled across the American Midwest and South. That sets the stage, on the second tip-this NBA evening, for a groggy, sloppy affair at State Farm Arena, one which the Cavaliers (42-34) would graciously accept. It has been an overachieving season for coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s team, adorned with a pair of All-Stars in guard Darius Garland (25 points, 4-for-4 3FGs, 10 assists, 4 steals in the 120-112 loss vs. Luka’s Mavs last night) and center Jarrett Allen and likely concluding with a Rookie of the Year honor for forward Evan Mobley. The slide back toward the middle of the conference began, though, even before losing Allen for the possible balance of the regular season with a finger injury earlier this month. The Cavs have won just seven of their past 20 contests, going back to the final week before the All-Star Break. More disturbing is the lack of success away from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Going back to a victory in OKC on January 15, Cleveland has pulled off road victories on just three of 13 occasions. Two of those were in Indiana, and the only other one was a win without Garland and Lauri Markkanen, but with 29-and-22 from Allen, back on February 4 in Charlotte. For Cleveland fans that haven’t seen a team without The Chosen One clinch a playoff spot (Brevin Knight, Call Me Bob Sura, Danny Ferry, Wesley Person and coach Mike Fratello made it in as a 6-seed back in 1998), an opening-round exit sounded like a grand goal at the outset of the season, one that began with Collin Sexton (out for season, torn meniscus) continuing to hog a good bit of the ball. But now, just to have an opportunity at that, it appears the Cavs need to win just enough to ensure that a Play-In elimination game, if there is to be one, goes down in The 216. The road woes for Cleveland included the February 15 game in Atlanta. Trae Young was kind enough to spread his 41 points (and 9 assists) across four quarters instead of three as the Hawks prevailed, 124-116. Filling in for John Collins, Danilo Gallinari (questionable for tonight, elbow contusion) chipped in a timely 25 points. The Cavs haven’t been excessively atrocious on offense in the six road contests they’ve played since the All-Star Break (52.5 road eFG% post-Break, 23rd in NBA; 57.5 TS%, 13th in NBA), particularly in games where Garland (90.3 FT%, but just 3.5 FTAs per game) earns at least a few trips to the free throw line. That wasn’t the case in mid-February, when just two of Garland’s 30 points came at the charity stripe. The discrepancy has been most glaring at the defensive end (119.2 road D-Rating, 27th in NBA), where pre- and post-Break has looked like the difference between Villa Rica (with all due respect to Jae Crowder’s hometown; lovely in the springtime, I’m sure) and Buckhead. Lately, only the Pacers and LOLakers have had opponents nailing threes at a higher clip than Cleveland foes’ 40.1 percent. The 55.6 opponent eFG%, since January 15, is a drag on what has been a top-five defense from the field (51.8 eFG% in 2021-22, 5th-best in NBA) all season. Perhaps a case of hacking the wrong personnel, or at least a small sample size since the Break, Cavalier hosts have made 87.5 percent of their freebies, well ahead of second-worst Washington’s 84.2. The recent absence of Mobley, who sprained his ankle early in Monday’s home win over Orlando, and the season-ending knee surgery for forward Dean Wade complicates matters for Bickerstaff and company. To keep from wearing out the Cavs’ Human Ring of Honor Kevin Love and the lightly-used Ed Davis this late in the season, Bickerstaff is starting Moses Brown, likely signed as a two-way for the stretch run after his second 10-day expired last night (team-high 9 rebounds and 5-for-5 FGs vs. DAL). Coach JB needs the returning Cedi Osman, Markkanen, Lamar Stevens and Love to play big, or at least knock down open shots when Garland’s and Brandon Goodwin’s paint penetration draws extra defenders. Acquired by team exec Koby Altman expressly for the stretch run toward a favorable playoff seed, Caris LeVert (Cavs-high 32 points vs. DAL yesterday in a team-high 38 minutes) will need to string solid games together to keep opposing defenses off-balance. A few more wins ought to sew up the 7-seed for the Cavs, pre-Play-In, and fend off any on-comers beneath them. But the win over the Magic is Cleveland’s only one in the past five games. Further, the only home games left on the docket is this weekend versus Philly, one day after visiting the Knicks, and the following weekend’s season-finale against the Bucks. Hawks fans could have predicted the skid for both Chicago and Cleveland, given their tougher post-Break schedules, and it’s likely a higher seed is in play only if the Bulls (2.0 games ahead and tied with current 6-seed Toronto) tumble harder. Atlanta (3.0 games behind CLE at 39-37) can secure the 3-1 potential head-to-head tiebreaker with a victory over the Cavs tonight, and at least make the final turn toward the close of the regular season much more intriguing. Nate McMillan preserved a banged-up Clint Capela (DNP 4th quarter, along w/ Young, 11 rebounds in 20 minutes @ OKC) in anticipation of today’s game. The Cavs will be hard-pressed to keep him from finishing around the rim, especially if they now have to account for Kevin Knox (17 points, 3-for-6 3FGs @ OKC) as a gravity-producing frontcourt threat, to say nothing of Gallinari if he can return. After winning an unprecedented three Game 1s as a road playoff ‘dog in 2021, a healthy Trae-led Hawks team wouldn’t stress out over specific Play-In seeding, so long as they secure one and formally eliminate the Knicks for the second season in a row with a victory today. Conversely, one road game in the Play-Ins might be survivable for the playoff-hungry Cavs. Two, and they know it could be stormy weather. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “Do you know who you’re passing to? Do you like the things that I am coaching you? Where are you throwing to? Do you know?” Everybody and their mother trying to get out of the Big XII Conference is trendy now. But consider Trae Young, a small-t trail, small-b blazer in that one department. This guy spurned blue-blood Kansas to stay close to home, spending his freshman year in 2017-18 under the watch of Lon Kruger, who had recently helped propel Kansan prep-schooler Buddy Hield into the upper echelon of the NBA Lottery. The Sooners were not known to be an NBA blue chip factory; prior to Hield in 2016, the last lottery pick was Blake Griffin in 2009, and you’d have to roll the clock back to 1989 to find the prior one in Stacey King (also a sixth-pick; Mookie went post-Lotto 12th). But Trae was undeterred, staying True to Norman, the college town just south of his heroes playing for the Thunder in Oklahoma City. His reward was getting to become the face of a team whose next-best player was a James… Christian James, currently with a team in a second-tier professional Italian league. Young was left to carry this team, and carry he did, becoming a network TV sensation while leading the nation in points and assists per game. OU surged up as high as #4 in the NCAA D-1 rankings, with wins over USC, then at #3 Wichita State, at tenth-ranked TCU, and versus his dad’s alma mater of Texas Tech to go 14-2. Then the Big XII scouting reports were full – get the ball out of Trae’s hands, and then make some of these other OU players beat them. Sooner than later, the faltering started, and Young shouldered the blame. Because who else are critics going to waste time criticizing? I mean, Brady Manek? Kameron McGusty? Who are these guys? Does even Trae know? Going 2-12 the rest of the way, hurtling out of the polls, the Sooners were bounced by their in-state rivals -- Lindy Waters III and the Oklahoma State Sooners – in the opening round of the Big XII tournament. Charitably deemed a 10-seed, OU fell in the “first round” of the NCAA tourney, too, to Jeff Dowtin (how do you not name the kid Thomas?) and the Rhodey Rams. Trae was a hero, and the stats backed him up. But he couldn’t save everyone, and that was held to his detriment at Draft scouting time. What the reality was – and somewhat is, as Young prepares to face rookie Waters and his new team, the OKC Thunder (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Oklahoma) – was that Trae was NBA-competition ready, and even NCAA Tournament ready, but the players he relies on nightly to help sustain prominence are not-so-much. I bring up the examples of McGusty and Manek because, in 2022, each had a starring role for their college teams, after transferring out of Kruger’s OU and finishing up elsewhere. McGusty’s Miami Hurricanes made it to the Elite Eight. Manek’s UNC Tar Heels will be playing the game of their lives against Coach K in the Final Four on Saturday. But McGusty, then a sophomore, and Manek, a touted in-state freshman, weren’t up to snuff in 2018, when a one-and-done Young was ready to shine. James was All-Big XII in 2019, but his accuracy declined from 55.9 eFG% (w/ Trae the prior year) to 43.5. Manek’s, from 57.7 to 55.7, declined every season before leaving the retiring Kruger and finding his way to Chapel Hill this season. McGusty, who transferred to Coral Gables upon Trae’s departure, never reached 50.2 eFG% again until this, his senior season where he led the ACC in points scored. It would have been convenient to have had peak McGusty and peak Manek at the time of Trae’s wondrous college season. Better success on the scoreboards for OU could have forced Atlanta’s hand to trade up, not down, if they wanted a shot at Young. But often, those developmental levels don’t align. For now, we as fans of the Hawks (38-37) have to hope that the peaks of John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu coincide with Trae’s All-NBA-worthy tenure in Atlanta – and, that we haven’t already seen these NBA career zeniths. There’s not much more to share ahead of today’s game, as Jalen Johnson (out, concussion protocols) joins the power forward heap on the injury report. Danilo Gallinari (out, elbow contusion) remains sidelined while there isn’t much news on the timeline for Collins (foot strain, finger sprain). Hawks coach Nate McMillan was able to lean on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot for forward minutes in Monday’s 132-123 win at Indiana, and he may need to do so even more if Hunter (questionable, sore knee) is again a late scratch. Tomorrow’s rescheduled game back home against Cleveland will necessitate deeper lineups for Coach Nate, so Gorgui Dieng will likely see more of the floor alongside either of Onyeka Okongwu or Clint Capela. The Thunder (22-53) still intend to close out the season with a bang, even as it takes one key player after another and puts them in rice. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (ankle) joins Darius Bazley (knee), Josh Giddey (hip), and Ty Jerome (hip) on the out-for-the-season list. Old fogies like Mike Muscala and Derrick Favors have long been shut down, while timetables for Kenrich Williams (knee, out since February) and Lugie Dort (shoulder, same) don’t exist. That leaves a lot of upstarts for Mark Daigneault to play heavy minutes, including Waters, Theo Maledon Vit Krejci and Isaiah Roby. The quartet hit four triples each as the Thunder came back late to beat the subsiding big-T Trail big-B Blazers in Portland on Monday night, 134-131 in OT. Roby (30 points @ POR) and Aaron Wiggins (28 points) each achieved career highs, joining forces with Maledon (team-high 10 D-Rebs) and Aleksej Pokusevski (11 assists, 8 rebounds, 6 TOs) to keep up with the Blazers on the boards. OKC shot 44.4 percent on threes Monday in Portland. If the Hawks elect to play at the level of their competition for 48 minutes, they might find themselves scrambling to keep up with an outfit with nothing to lose that shoots even sharper than Indiana (47.2 team 3FG% vs. ATL on Monday). As was the case down the road in Norman years ago, Young’s current team seems to be leveling off, at best, just as he is ascending, although his brilliance may be enough to lead another upset or two at postseason time. It simply comes down to not having enough teammates peaking at the right time, no matter how eager you are the be the winning, show-stopping star – isn’t that right, Shai? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “Snatching that Hairy Lollipop joke out of my monologue at the last minute this weekend was a WISE decision. Phew! Ol’ Day Day sure dodged a five-piece and a biscuit this time!” First order of business: There’s some feel-good news about our Atlanta Hawks to share. You all remember that late summer Sunday in September 2014, when life got flip turned upside down for our favorite NBA team? Owners were outwardly infighting, the solid-ground GM was suddenly on thin ice, and an ugly internal “But His E-mails!” showdown was uncovered. Fans and locals and activists and Twitterfolk were incensed, from inside and outside the Perimeter and as far away as Africa. We found out the hard way that Real GM had a service that real GMs actually used. Poor chap Luol Deng couldn’t grasp how he managed to catch a stray. The positive spin from the post-surprise-playoff offseason had evaporated, the value and status of Atlanta’s unsellable NBA franchise, much like the dearly departed NHL one, seemed to be in dire jeopardy. And Steve Koonin, the then-new minority owner and CEO who grew up adoring these Hawks and took the leap from helping run Time Warner’s Turner Networks, was left to hold the smelly, burning bag. The public face to withstand the corporate PR blowback, Koonin found himself in quite the entanglement, pulled into one Red Table Talk after another to profess genuine remorse for a hot-suburb mess he pretty much moonwalked into. Eight years removed, it is safe to say, Steve pulled a Stanley Steemer on the entire organization. Having transcended the morass to see through the transition to new, steadier, more diverse and less problematic ownership regime, the Hawks’ CEO stuck around and strategically transformed a third-rail toxic product, and the home venue, into local and regional assets for which we, fans and citizenry, can all embrace proudly. Regardless of the nightly results on the hardwood floor, no matter what the Hawks are selling us in the front, no one needs to feel skeptical anymore about shadiness going on in the back of this team’s shop. Accordingly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Southeast chapter will be honoring Koonin and the Atlanta Hawks with their annual Torch of Liberty Award, this Thursday over at Ponce City Market’s City Winery Atlanta (any event where Michelle Malone and Gurufish are set to perform is destined to be a good one). Bestowed upon individuals and companies since 1988, the Torch of Liberty honors those "making outstanding contributions to the welfare of our community." Congrats to Steve! More info on the award recipient and the event are linked here: Second order! Speaking of defamation and the potential consequences thereof, you will squeeze no more liquid from my stream of consciousness regarding the event that unfolded last night in Tinseltown. Persons of my stripe, especially, got precious little shuteye, in anticipation of having to blacksplain the blow-by-blow to co-working colleagues this morning. Once one gentleman decided, “I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!”, and another found himself knocked back into the hole-in-the-wall rib joint of his heyday, I knew that I would have neither the bandwidth nor the cholesterol for reactionary thinkpieces any more rambling than the ones you endure from me routinely around here. As one might imagine, the resulting thread opener ahead of tonight’s game between the Hawks and the hosting Indiana Pacers (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) is sure to be brief, and all over the place. No, Pacers fill-in coach Lloyd Pierce wasn’t trying to respond to a mid-game question from Chris Kirschner. But whatever bars got spit during the second quarter on Saturday up in Toronto was flames! Scotiabank Arena got cleared of fans, due to the need to extinguish fire shooting out from an overhead speaker, and LP’s team had to hold out for an extra hour or so before the Raptors could finish cleaning their clock. Pierce hands the head coaching keys back to Rick Carlisle, who missed Thursday’s 133-103 mauling in Memphis and Saturday’s 131-91 trampling in Toronto due to personal leave. Back at the Fieldhouse, Carlisle’s Pacers should expect to fare much better, having nearly added to the Hawks’ pile of miserable outcomes just a couple weeks ago in Atlanta. The lightly regarded Duane Washington and new additions Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield helped Indy whittle down a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in the closing minutes of the Hawks’ 131-128 escape on March 13. Atlanta needed every bit of Trae Young’s 47 points (33 in the first half), and six other Hawk double-figure scorers, including Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, to build up the victorious cushion. No longer still kicking in the hunt for a Play-In slot, the Pacers (25-50) justifiably remain cautious about fielding their would-be marquee contributors, be it Malcolm “My Main Man” Brogdon (out, rest? Up all night, too, eh?) or Myles Turner (out, stress-reacted foot). The players that do grace the floor on Indiana’s behalf will be permitted to throw caution to the wind. Chris Duarte (out, sore piggy that went to market) and Isaiah Jackson (out, headache; team-high 15 rebounds @ ATL on Mar. 13) are no-goes, and even Washington (22 bench points @ ATL; questionable, bruised hip) and Goga Bitadze (questionable, sore foot) may not suit up. The Pacers might have one ex-Hawk at his disposal tonight, although they’d have to upgrade his contract from a ten-day to an end-of-season variety. “He’s been the best player on the [Fort Wayne Mad Ants], and probably the best player in the entire [G-League],” said Carlisle to Fieldhouse Files in heaping praise upon Justin Anderson, whose second ten-day call-up expired yesterday (His first one came simultaneous with ex-Hawk Lance Stephenson’s re-signing back on New Year’s Day). Starting in place of Take Your Pick, Anderson sunk four of seven 3FGAs on the way to an 18-point outing in Toronto, not far behind Oshae Brissett’s 21. Including Stephenson and somehow Anderson, by my count, those are eight definitely active players for Carlisle to run with, relying upon the loosest possible definition of “active.” Hawks fans understand this means the Pacers have Atlanta, who may be without Bogdanovic (questionable, sore knee) and Gallinari (questionable, bruised elbow) tonight, right where they want them. If Nate McMillan could have any one game back from last season’s momentous turnabout, it would have been the 133-126 loss here in his old stomping grounds back on May 6. In the only smudge on their final month’s regular-season schedule, Atlanta let the team led by Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert and T.J. McConnell make over 62 percent of their shots from the field while piling up 35 assists. This revived Indiana’s Play-In prospects, despite the Pacers having been blitzed by Sacramento’s Delon Wright and Hield on this Fieldhouse floor one night before. In a McMillanian theme that would carry forth into this season, that late-season loss soured a convincing win over a surging Suns team back in Atlanta the prior evening. It would also be a reason the fateful Hawks-Knicks series would kick off in Manhattan instead of Atlanta. The silver lining is that Brissett and Bitadze are the only present-day active Pacers who were around to participate in that contest. Nonetheless, the Hawks are not a team capable of resting on their laurels, however flimsy they may be at any moment. The Pacers, while new to this whole tanking biz, are in no mood to hand Atlanta any pillows. Everyone from Trae to De'Andre Hunter may be a bit groggy at pregame shootaround. But the same could be said for the Pacers and most NBA players, who were up late last night turning Twitter and The 'Gram into a virtual barbershop of memes and hot takes. Once they get all the grit out of their eyes, the Hawks have to lead with their defense to secure victory today, shielding would-be spot-up shooters, limiting Haliburton’s paint penetration, winning the turnover and transition-bucket battles, and disallowing Indy to dictate the pace of play to their own liking. I can’t say for certain how important it is to Atlanta (37-37) to want to finish this topsy-turvy season with a winning record, wherein a 5-3 close would suffice. But with this game, followed by a return to Trae Young’s home state in a couple days before flying back to The A to face reeling Play-In candidate Cleveland, when it comes to blazing a path to Above-.500 Land, and maybe even a Play-In home game? As the great Kenny Loggins would put it, This Is It! Just make no mistake where you are, play like you know your back's to the corner, and don't be a fool anymore, certainly not this week. Are you gonna wait for your sign, Hawks? Your miracle? Stand up and fight! No, no, wait, no! Not like… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. If Oprah was a Hawks fan… Zero-dot-something-or-other. That’s where my enthusiasm level currently lies as an Atlanta Hawks fan, on a scale of 1 to 10. That’s not where any of us are supposed to be, running on Emotionally Empty this late in the season, especially not with visions of Knicks On Ice dancing in our heads. But our Hawks aren’t supposed to be, on a scale of 1 to 10, still teetering toward 12 in the NBA East. After Birdboxing and forcing myself to witness the tragicomedy that was the middle quarters of Wednesday’s curb-stomping loss in Detroit, I went searching for Oprah. Specifically, a JPG version of a specific GIF that aptly expressed my visage of abject dissatisfaction with the Hawks’ focus and effort, or the lacks thereof. I came to discover, while Googling “oprah smdh”, a treasure trove of reactions from America’s Talkmaster, with all due respect to our own dear Neal. Each one perfectly encapsulated the faces I was making during not just the Pistons game, but the Pelicans game and that other Pistons game and the Spurs game and… From the Royals to yahoos up in Forsyth County, from Whitney and MJax, to Kim K, and Tom on the Couch, from fake-mad cattle ranchers to a “non-fiction” author peddling fiction for her Book Club, Oprah has put up with, and seen, and heard, an awful lot. That’s just the stuff with the cameras rolling on her for the better part of four decades. You can try it yourself, with “oprah nope,” “oprah disgusted,” “oprah what,” or the like in the Search window, and you’ll find yourself watching Hawks games through her reactions. We’re all in The Sunken Brewster’s Place with this team. If we could simply cleave out the seven-game road skid AND the ten-game home skid, these latest flops would seem like minor irritations, blips and slips unbecoming of an otherwise sure-shot Eastern Conference title contender. Sadly, we cannot. Instead, we’re repeatedly left feeling like James Caan in “Misery,” laying captive and beaten up in Kathy Bates’ bed and, frankly, we’ve just grown tired of feeling at this point. If you want to see a fanbase at wit’s end with their head coach for his once tried-and-true, now growing tired-and-untrue, rotations and schemes, hang out with supporters of the Golden State Warriors (48-25, still 3rd in NBA West, 3.0 games ahead of Utah) this evening. At least Steve Kerr has RINGZ to fend everybody off, and starting off a season 29-7, with zero two-game losing streaks, grants any coach plenty of rope. Unfortunately for us Hawks fans, tonight’s outcome matters not. We already know things are going to go one of two ways with Nate McMillan's team. Behind Door Number One: our Hawks will see that the Dubs left their heart, Steph Curry (50 points vs. ATL on Nov. 8), and his sprained foot in San Francisco, not take the game-planning seriously (coaching staff included), and then leave themselves susceptible to Jordan Poole’s and Jonathan Kuminga’s Show of Shows. Those guys just had the first-place heat in Miami looking like The Shield breaking up, steel chairs and all, but our players will still have their minds fixated on what, if anything, a rested Klay and Dray bring to the proceedings. Or, behind Door Number Two: the Hawks do come home armed with a reactivated Danilo Gallinari and the infamous Sense of Urgency, quit complaining about a lack of "legs", handle their business for 48 minutes on a Friday night at The Farm (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Yay Area in SFO, NBATV elsewhere), and lift Atlanta sports fans’ spirits. Momentarily. Atlanta (36-37, Play-In Magic Number: 5) will likely have to win two consecutive road games just to make it into the NBA Playoffs, but they have not put together a two-game road streak since The Night Before The Night Before Christmas (Dec. 23 @ PHI, 8 days after a win @ ORL; the last two-game streak with limited intervention was around Thanksgiving). The Hawks’ last likely chance to do so comes next week, in Indiana and in Trae’s home state, at Oklahoma City. When they fail to do so for the umpteenth time, not a creature will be stirring. On scales of 1 to 10, my ambivalence and numbness levels are hovering around Pi Squared. I truly want to care more, to feel more, and I am grateful that thousands of Atlanta fans in attendance tonight are Built Different. There’s only so many more ways, unfortunately, my face can contort like Oprah’s as these Hawks play their favorite game against random opponents: ‘You get a point! And YOU get a point! And YOU…!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. “When we BOTH lose a bidding war this summer… to the CAVS? Yo, I’mma be…” Who will direct the Emmy-award winning 30-for-30 about, “Atlanta Sports: One Mad Month in March 2022”? The events of the past week up in Flowery Branch only served to remind me how fortunate I am that New Orleans and Atlanta are not embittered hoop rivals. “Scrapping for Scraps: the Falcons-Saints Rivalry,” would be a stone-cold-lock SAG nominee. Certainly, a superior option For Your Consideration than this season’s submittal from Georgia, “.500 Time: The Resumption of the Atlanta Hawks Stagnancy”. Fighting annually and often for the right to avoid last place in the NFC West/South, the diverse and spirited banter-making in these two metropolises over the decades would make for quite a popcorn-muncher, if left in the proper hands. From Petit, to Pistol, Ted’s territorial games in NOLA, to even the Millsap seasons, there’s been enough infusion of Hawks lore in Louisiana to generate generations of Hawk-fan cousins, even among the Aints faithful. Sure, the Hornicans have been at this NBA thing consistently for over two decades now. But many of New Orleans’ favorite team’s fans ought to be tuning in today (6 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS NO) to check out their favorite regional backup team down on The Farm. Surely it can’t be the Grizzlies. It can’t be easy for the Big Easy to watch 2019’s #2 pick, Ja Knievel Morant, hurl himself into the sun for games on end, vaulting Memphis into on-paper contention in the NBA West. The empty calories that have been the statuses of Zion Williamson’s extended foot rehab have been unable to propel Vet-Min-turned-head-coach Willie Green’s club forward, and it’s been a drain around Lake Pontchartrain. But not all is lost. LeBron’s Lakers dumped Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and some future picks for the right to ring-chase annually with Anthony Davis. Lonzo’s offseason redirection to the Bulls didn’t pan out for David Griffin and company, with all respect to Garrett Temple. But 2020’s Most Improved Player, Ingram (out for the past two weeks, sore hammy) has become a perennial All-Star, and Hart shockingly helped carry the team through this injury-laden season until he got dealt to Portland in a multi-player swap for CJ McCollum. If you wonder how Griffin is still kicking around, don’t look any further than the-ee Pels and Herbert! Herbert Jones! Herbert Jones, Herbert Jones. They’ve got a thing going on with 2021’s second-round pick and surefire All-Rookie First Teamer, the stretchy forward leading the Pels with 1.5 SPG and 85.5 FT%. With his infusion of defensive energy, it has been hard for Coach Green, or the occasional loose ball, to keep Jones off the floor. There aren’t many teams whose top two minute-loggers, in Jones and Graham (questionable, sore hip) are former second-rounders. But in New Orleans, the best ability is durability. Piling onto Williamson’s absence, 2020’s lottery pick Kira Lewis was lost for the season with a knee ligament sprain suffered in early December. Up steps Jose “Yes, I Can Shoot!” Alvarado, the undrafted rookie who, in last year’s March Madness run, helped keep Josh Pastner in Georgia Tech’s good graces for another season or two. Still on a two-way deal but not for much longer, Alvarado has dished 7.3 APG in his past three games coming off the bench, and he is likely to start today if Graham can’t give it a go. McCollum is still kicking sorting things out in his new NBA home, but he is creating buckets for others about as well as he has for himself (26.1 PPG, 52.0 FG% & 6.6 APG in 14 games w/ NOP; 20.5, 43.6% & 4.5 this season w/ POR). The Pels would be in greater shape if they weren’t 9-18 versus Eastern opponents, worst among the NBA West’s Top 12. Lately, it has been Run Up the Score or Bust for Willie G’s team, who have won just three of 19 games that Ingram has missed to date. The Pels lost in OT in Denver two Sundays ago, ending a four-game winning streak, and then lost three of the next four games. But going back to January, ten of their last eleven victories have been by double digits. With Ingram, they notched a 15-point win in Phoenix late last month, then extended their streak with wins by 28, 30 and 34 versus the Lakers, Kangz and Jazz. Each of the Pels’ last five wins were by 25 points or more, although none of their losses since February 1 have been by less than seven. When they’re hot, they’re hot. The Spurs were wholly unprepared for Sideshow Jaxson Hayes. He and center Jonas Valanciunas made their first three three-pointers on Friday night in San Antonio, the pair combining for 21 first-quarter points as the Pelicans blitzed to a 35-10 lead, then cruised to a 124-91 win. Take what Green has at his disposal, right now, and give them enough wins to slip past Los Angeles (0.5 games ahead of NOP after screwing up in D.C. last night) for the Play-In’s 9-seed. AD, Bron and company may have to salvage their disaster-comedy season at the Smoothie King Center. With Ingram, former Lakers Larry Nance, Jr. and Hart, and maybe even AD’s would-be-star replacement in Zion, in tow. I’d have the late Anne Rice penning that chapter if I could. It's as much a Know Your Personnel game for the Hawks (35-35) as any, particularly if they’d like to extend their home winning streak to eight games (9-1 in last 10 home games). Neutralizing Willy Hernangomez (5 O-Rebs @ SAS), Valanciunas and Hayes along the glass will be a tall order, but half the battle. As demonstrated by Bogi Bogdanovic (5-for-6 3FGs, 30 points and 3 steals) and fill-in starter Delon Wright (4-for-6 3FGs, 18 points and 5 steals) in Friday’s pleasant shorthanded win over Memphis, Atlanta does When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, too. Specifically, when it comes to success when hitting their threes (19-5 when making 40+ 3FG%). But the Hawks do have Monday’s win over McCollum’s former team as an example (25.0 3FG%) of how to come out on top of subpar opponents when the iron is unkind. The blueprint involves forcing turnovers (Memphis’ 16 was eclipsed only by Portland’s 20) while rotating and recovering to limit open-look jumpers and second chances. A non-lethargic performance from De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta’s leading minutes-logger acquired when the Hawks passed up on Hayes by trading upward in 2019, could be crucial for victory today. Dominating the glass, Atlanta’s season-high of 21 O-Rebs came back in October, the Hawks escaping New Orleans with a 102-99 win despite making just 8 of 30 3FGAs. They had John Collins (7 O-Rebs @ NOP; out indefinitely) in that game but not Onyeka Okongwu (9 rebounds in three of his past five games off the bench), who is proving to be quite the menace at both ends along the boards. Tyler Perry and Ava DuVernay seem a little busy, but maybe we could interest Steven Spielberg in cranking out one more trophy winner with an Aints-versus Dirty Birds short film. I am just pleased we don’t have all this enmity built up for the Pels, and vice versa. After all, there’s not much compelling about a villainous story arc for Tony Snell (DNP-CD’d last 3 games; 0 points and 0 assists in last 41 minutes on-floor), who has re-established his reputation for being quite the donut-maker. What’s that, Zion? No, I meant in the box scores. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. “You’re the best Cunningham since Richie! You don’t…? Okay, since Randall. Randall? Oh, c’mon!” Listen, Detroit. We can help each other out! The Pistons are beyond thrilled with the development of their 6-foot-6 rookie lead guard, Cade Cunningham (last 6 games: 23.3 PPG, 8.2 APG, 5.0 TOs/game). After securing him with the first-overall pick last year, they would take kindly to a first-dibs double-dip in 2022. Un problema. Oklahoma City (2.0 games “behind” the Rockets) is thundering up the NBA Lottery charts, their ten straight losses moving OKC firmly in the neighborhood with Houston, Detroit (1.0 games “behind” Houston) and Orlando. Even the Magic took time out of their busy schedule of giving away career-highs, like Saddiq Bey’s 50-burger-with-cheese, to “beat” OKC on Sunday. When it comes to top Lottery odds, three’s company, and four’s a crowd. It's why Nate McMillan’s Sonics-era assistant, Pistons coach Dwane Casey, is in a great position to help the Hawks’ head coach. That is, if Atlanta is willing to accept and properly return the favor tonight (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast, BS Detroit). Casey’s job seems secure, as Pistons prez Troy Weaver remains enamored with the former NBA COTY winner, as well as the prospects of building another season around Cunningham, Bey, Isiah Stewart and Jerami Grant. Atlanta (Play-In Magic Number: 5) enters today’s game down a few bodies and just arrived from New York. If Casey’s relatively rested Pistons could just hold off on going full-bore until this weekend, when the Wizards and Knicks stop by Little Caesars Arena, it would be greatly appreciated down in the Empire State of the South. Besides, our Hawks already gift-wrapped Detroit a thrilling home win, a 113-110 victory, Detroit’s third-straight before dropping six of their last seven, where Cunningham (28 points, 10 assists) featured prominently, a couple weeks ago. This isn’t the kind of double-dip most Pistons fans wish to see. That loss in Motown on March 7 came off two days rest for Atlanta, after wins over the Bulls at home and the Wizards in D.C. Two things the Hawks are gonna do, is get drunk off of good games and bad calls. “Did you all see what we did last night / the other day?” is Atlanta’s generous sip from a screwtop bottle of vintage Ripple. Bogi Bogdanovic (questionable, sore knee) may not be able to give Trae Young the supplemental boost off the bench, if anything, tonight as he did in Atlanta’s comeback win over boisterous New York last night (32 points, 3 steals). He might not also be around for a repeat of his nightmarish fourth quarter here a couple weeks ago. In that final frame, Bogi went 2-for-7 from the field and committed four personals, including an atrocious one with under 2.0 seconds left that resulted in freebies for Cade and (after the added comedy of a missed gift FT by John Collins, courtesy of Marvin Bagley) ushered in overtime. Collins, of course, will be watching from the sidelines, this time along with Danilo Gallinari (1-for-6 3FGs but team-high 10 rebounds yesterday; out, sore Achilles). We already know what this doesn’t mean, so expect to see a ramp up of activity for Gorgui Dieng alongside Onyeka Okongwu. Extended floor time for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is also likely, given Bogi’s ailing knee plus the unavailability of Lou Williams (out, personal reasons) and Skylar Mays (questionable, non-You Know What illness). The shortlist of supporting cast mates means big, foul-trouble-free nights need to be in store for Kevin Huerter (DNP’d @ DET on Mar. 7 due to a shoulder injury; 8 rebounds but 5 TOs @ NYK) and last night’s game-sealer, De’Andre Hunter. Both will have to attack quickly on offense and avoid the over-dribbling mistakes that lead to strips and opponent runouts. Huerter will have his hands full in hopes of another slow scoring night against the Hawks for Bey, while Hunter will be left to pick poisons between guarding Grant and helping keep Cunningham out of the paint. That would leave Young, coming off brilliant finishes to halves that turned NYC into TYC, to prove he’s not bored with the follow-up act. His pestering defensive activity versus the Knicks was almost as notable as his offensive highlights. His ability to coax Cunningham into off-balance shots and rushed passes would greatly pave the path to victory for Atlanta, and to an above-.500 mark for the first time since reaching 13-12 back on December 6. Former Piston Delon Wright is likely to have an improved performance from last night in helping everyone out on the defensive end. Ultimately, it all comes down to how much resistance Detroit (30.0 O-Reb% vs. ATL on Mar. 7, highest over last 8 Piston games) wishes to bring to the floor tonight, particularly on the offensive boards versus Clint Capela and Okongwu, who were relatively restrained against the Knicks ahead of tonight’s back-to-back. Perhaps Bagley and Stewart can be restrained today, in kind. C’mon, Coach Casey. Help us, help you, help us! Tank you very much! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. “We’ve got some Hair-raising teams to coach up, Tom, don’t ya think?” My expectations for you were low, New York Knickerbockers. But holy Shinola! And this is coming from an Atlanta Hawks fan! The Hawks and Knicks each broke through with equal, winning records at the end of last season. Ten games above .500, with late-season surges pushing both clubs into the 4-5 playoff matchup. The Knicks had not only the tiebreaker, after sweeping the regular season head-to-heads, but the season’s Most Improved Player award winner, and the soon-to-be-announced Coach of the Year. All the narratives lined up neatly like bowling pins. The first chance to win a playoff series since Woody got Melo’s mob over the hump eight years before. Get past the happy-to-be-here Hawks, went the prevailing thought, and there’s a great chance those hated Sixers and crosstown Nets would be in Manhattan’s sights. By almost all accounts, that was the Knicks’ series to lose. And man alive, did they ever lose it. Gutter ball! In a more figurative sense, New York’s fans and their then-mayor lost it, too. Fast forward to today, and New York (Lottery Tragic Number: 7) is wrangling with the Beal-less Wizards at 30-41 for the right to finish 11th in the East. This is with our Hawks spotting them three early-season wins! Do you even lift, bros? The Knicks could sweep the team that beat them in the 2021 Playoffs, tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), for the second-straight season, and it still may not be enough to get into the Play-In. Great Caesar’s Ghost, Gotham! It's unfair to decent clubs, at this stage, to even look at either of these two team’s Play-off prospects. Atlanta (35-36) allowed native New Yorker Jose Alvarado to make himself at home on Sunday evening down on The Farm, all but ensuring that they’ll have to attend the Charlotte Invitational, and win that plus another game to the north, just to have the chance to play at The Farm for games 3 and 4 versus a 1-seed. Another magical postseason run would be conceivable, with or without John Collins, if Atlanta didn’t already possess the worst road record, by a country mile (12-22), among the NBA East’s Top 10. They’re going nowhere, if they don’t go somewhere, and guard and shoot better when they get there (114.2 road D-Rating, 26th in NBA, 117.5 post-All-Star-Break; 54.0 road TS% post-Break, 26th in NBA). Fortunately for the Hawks, they travel to MSG to face the team with the worst home record (15-20) among the conference’s Top 13. Atlanta’s three head-to-head losses, all by nine points or more, represents one-fifth of the Knicks’ in-conference win tally (15-26 vs. NBA East), and the share becomes one-fourth if New York comes out on top once more tonight. Yet that serves as cold comfort for Tom Thibodeau, who has all but been assured that Leon Rose and the Knicks don’t know how to quit him. A shell of its sports-snark glories of yesteryear, Deadspin kicked off this month by calling out Nate McMillan, asserting that his “tenure with the Hawks is downright Thibs-ian.” I’ll get around to reading it eventually, but I can’t quite go that far with that spin in the headline. McMillan is similarly notorious for sticking with short rotations and letting young talent develop off the NBA floor (Miles McBride? Meet Jalen. Jalen Johnson? Miles.) But while he has had to wage uphill climbs at times due to untimely injuries, those setbacks weren’t byproducts of him running his favored players into the ground. Thibs has done that with Derrick Rose (ankle surgeries, out since December) once more, and now the score-first point guard isn’t around to save the Knicks from themselves. COTY trophies are notoriously jinx-y, but the thing with near-unanimous Most Improved Player winners is they aren’t supposed to regress while the award is being molded, certainly not under the COTY’s watch. McMillan had Victor Oladipo winning MIP in 2018, and the Pacers star was well on his way to superstardom before a freak injury changed both of their trajectories. As for Thibs, his award-winner has been available virtually all season long, serving ably as the embodiment of New York’s relapse. Julius Randle (20.3 PPG, 41.3 FG%, 10.0 RPG, 5.1 APG) had another one of those Julius Randle days, defending poorly and shooting 6-for-21 from the floor (1-for-6 on threes) in Sunday’s loss to the visiting Jazz, with many of those shots rejected in the paint. Shown up by New York native Donovan Mitchell, a flustered Randle sought to engage Rudy Gobert in a tussle at the *end* of the 108-93 loss, which may actually be an improvement in and of itself. His Knicks were cruising in Phoenix a couple weeks ago when he took it upon himself to shove Cam Johnson, displacing a referee while trying to get to his opponent. As a poet might scribe, Randle got tossed, and the Knicks lost. Johnson stuck around to complete the Suns’ comeback by nailing the game-winning three-pointer, sealing New York’s seventh-straight defeat at the time. Unlike Thibodeau’s tenure after leaving Chicago, Nate Mac has lugged shorthanded teams into postseasons, often in consecutive years, and he at least has a shot to do so again, despite his worst full-season mark since coaching the Ail Blazers back in 2007. Doing something with his teams once they got there was never McMillan’s calling card, not until 2021 in an interim capacity. But thirsty fans of teams like the Knicks would embrace such scenarios, 10 times out of 10. Despite the 4-1 series stomp that made Trae Young a flat-hold name around NYC, Atlanta was the perceived underdog going in, and Leon Rose and company spun its wheels determined to finish ahead of the Hawks next season. They’ve still got a shot, and the Knicks doing so could push the Hawks out of the running for that final Play-In slot, but they’re running out of time. They ran out and grabbed, as an attempt to counterweight Young and perhaps Kyrie, Kemba Walker (DNP’d by mutual agreement since the Break). In hopes of improving their perimeter shot-making, with Reggie Bullock bidding adieu, they sought out another Celtic, sending cash to Boston for Evan Fournier. Neither of those moves worked, although the Hawks did all they could to help both players look serviceable on Christmas Day and Fournier (50.0% on 9.5 3FGAs over last 4 games) appears to be escaping a slump lately. Further, starting pivot Mitchell Robinson’s return to action proved not to be a panacea. L-Rose doubled-down on Dookie Diaper Dandies, doing away with the beleaguered Kevin Knox by shipping him and a future Hornets’ pick to Atlanta. Yet Thibs didn’t warm to the desire to play Cam Reddish with R.J. Barrett (19.6 PPG, 41.1 FG%), either. Not at first, and by the time he did, it was Reddish’s turn to be shelved with a shoulder injury. L-Rose spun his wheels harder than Atlanta peer Travis Schlenk, in hopes of enhancing a newfound playoff team. But he didn’t count on Thibodeau working harder than McMillan in keeping the gear stuck in neutral, if not reverse. Despite owner James Dolan’s permission to cut Thibs loose, as reported recently by the New York Daily News, the Knicks’ president remains eager to see things through beyond 2022 with his head coach and former CAA client on the sidelines. In my myopic view, if Thibs is secure in New York, Nate’s job status should be in Fort Knox. Before the home loss to Utah, the Knicks were 5-2 over their prior seven games, coming up on the short end of close games at Memphis and Brooklyn. They travel to Charlotte for a game tomorrow, and know they’ll need both wins to keep the fading fever dream of a Knicks-Nets Play-In game alive, and also keep the Knicks faithful from tuning out and Tankathon-ing completely. Eight of their final 11 contests have New York facing teams seeking either to avoid or reach the Play-In phase, making them as impactful as any in how the final seedings play out. Statistically, they’re not much different in games than the edition that closed out last season. New York's interior offense remains wretched (NBA-low 49.3 team 2FG%) and the ball still sticks no matter which Knick is clinging to it (NBA-low 21.5 team APG). But they are Thibo-decent defensively (11th in D-Rating, despite the problematic personnel), and the Knicks still rebound well at both ends, giving them shots to win despite themselves when games get sloppy. Trae and the Hawks were sloppier than a Manwich in the first quarter (9 TOs, incl. 5 by Young, and 6 FGs on 18 shots vs. NOP) on Sunday, setting the stage for a comeback that proved too little, too late against Alvarado’s Pelicans. Cutting down on telegraphed passes and aimless dribbling versus the likes of McBride, Alec Burks, Fournier and Immanuel Quickley would make life easier on Atlanta today. It ought not be a chore for Young (21 points and 10 assists vs. NOP, despite 7 TOs) to find a hot hand, and in that spirit Kevin Huerter and Bogi Bogdanovic (combined 2-for-13 3FGs) have to get going early. Keeping the Knicks’ defensive paint unclogged is essential for Young to drive and set up scores on floaters and lobs, and former Knick Danilo Gallinari (season-high 27 points vs. NOP) can help keep Randle in no-man’s land by drawing him outside. Once skeptical, I am a current fan of the Play-In series, as it gives teams at the back end of the standings a reason not to pack things up, if just for a little longer. But if I had my druthers this year, I’d prefer to have the league settle on 1-through-8, then play the Hawks and Knicks in a one-game eliminator, vying for the opportunity to embarrass the Lakers once more. We could call the game, and the loser’s trophy, the Disappointment Bowl! Admit it, It does have a ring to it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. Not THIS week, Ronald, please! Read the room, will ya? I’ve got little to share ahead of this Friday night home game for our Atlanta Hawks at The Farm (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 in ATL & MEM), one that hopefully, given its superstars of questionable status, will be worth attendees’ while. Only an acknowledgement that I’ve been choking on Taylor Jenkins and the Memphis Grizzlies’ dust for months on end. And, my words, too. Here was Yours Truly, with my whole chest out, talkin’ spicy about the hot seat I suspected Pop-and-Bud disciple Jenkins was occupying, ahead of the red-hot Hawks’ post-Thanksgiving visit to Memphis. Coming off a 38-34 season in 2020-21 and a tidy first-round exit versus Utah in last year’s playoffs, Jenkins is challenged to demonstrate growth and a stronger, more playoff-competitive roster. If the defensive lapses continue and young players’ development continues to stall on his watch, Memphis’ coach won’t find himself challenged for much longer. Imagine, an Atlanta Hawks fan, concernstipated about defensive lapses and young players’ development on some other NBA team. It’s a hard ask, I concur, but go on and try. And then Nate McMillan’s crew, with no De’Andre Hunter and no Onyeka Okongwu, strolled into FedEx Forum and blew the doors off the Griz, 132-100, although the skids got greased quick once Memphis’ Ja Morant (questionable for today, missed their 33-point win over Indy with a sore back) went down midway through the first quarter with a knee injury. Oh noes, Memphis, now you’re a game below .500 and, geez, in LeBron’s NBA West that might not be enough to ensure a Play-In. And it’s already November! What will you do? It turns out the Beale Street Bears just went into hibernation early. There was too much offensive emphasis on a recently returning Dillon Brooks, who was too inefficient with his selected shots (Still is.) Perimeter defense was, as I said then, was as soft as Grits-and-Butter, and the offseason acquisition of Jarrett Culver to aid in that endeavor was looking funny in the light. (Still is.) Inside, center Steven Adams seemed to be lost as to his role alongside Jaren Jackson, Jr. (Not so much these days.) It wouldn’t be long before they all got out of their cave. So much of the team’s faults were addressed by the coaching staff as the season went along, and now, Memphis (48-24, now 2nd in the NBA West, a game ahead of the Steph-less Dubs) has become the veritable embodiment of Hustle & Flow. Clearly, Coach Jenkins is in charge, and he’s saying it like he means it. The Grizzlies join the Suns and Culver’s prior team, the Timberwolves (???) as the only clubs sitting Top-10 in both O-Rating (5th) and D-Rating (7th), along with Pace (8th). Jenkins’ joint ranks number-one in the league in O-Reb% (34.2), second-chance points per-48 (18.5), fastbreak points per-48 (17.5), paint points per-48 (57.9), steals per game (9.9), blocks per game (6.5) and loose-ball recoveries per-48 (3.4). They’re fourth in opponent TO% (14.9) and second in Deflections per-48 (8.6). Third in opponent points allowed per-48 off TOs (14.3). Right behind Atlanta (2.05, 5th in NBA) in assist-turnover ratio (1.95). And they’ve got a highlight-reel headliner in Morant (27.5 PPG, 9th in NBA, 49.3 FG% highest among Top-20 scoring guards) giving people buckets. While Trae Young and the Hawks (34-35, Play-In Magic Number: 9) have proven to be an acquired taste, Morant in his third season has firmed up the Grizzlies as a must watch. Memphis, even with Morant, shoot poorly overall due to threes (34.5 team 3FG%, 3rd-lowest in NBA), although they don’t shoot many unless Desmond Bane (41.8 3FG%) is open, and free throws (73.1 team FT%, 3rd-lowest), despite getting sent to the line more than all but three clubs. Hacking to disrupt Memphis’ flow is not McMillan’s style. But whoever pushes the ball for the Hawks will have to press the Grizzlies quickly in transition, not allowing Memphis (12.9 opponent fastbreak-points per-48, 10th-most in NBA) to dig their defensive bear claws into the halfcourt. That assumes the Hawks will have the frontcourt bodies to adequately contest and box out the paint-heavy Grizzlies bigs Jackson and Adams for defensive boards. They’ll have one more at their disposal as Jalen Johnson has arrived from College Park to at least cheer from the sidelines while Danilo Gallinari (questionable after leaving midway through the loss in Charlotte with a bruised bicep) and John Collins (out indefinitely, sprained foot and swole finger) rehab. Just because Jenkins and the Griz seem to have the bacon, lettuce and tomato doesn’t mean McMillan and the Hawks are obligated to provide the toast. If the Hawks allow Memphis’ bigs to control the glass, and the opposing guards to dictate the tempo in both directions, then Atlanta will find itself choking on their fumes, and a gamethread scribbler gagging on more of their dust. Anybody got a Swiffer handy? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “I need answers to two questions. One, who scribbled ‘Borrego. IT’S IN THERE!’ on my whiteboard? Two, why do I know the answer is Oubre?” Four seasons into his tenure with the Charlotte Hornets, I cannot believe this was the kind of roster James Borrego imagined he would be coaching. It does help to have a Duncan at the pivot, a Manu off the bench, a Parker at the point of attack and a Kawhi among the wings. Yet I occasionally have to shake this Pop-o-myth out of my head that the heralded Poptree, to say nothing of the University of San Diego coaching frat, would bear fruit in the form of all these Pop-bot taskmasters churning out pacy, spacy, collectivist motion offenses and nuanced, throttling defenses. Alas, there are times when one has to settle for an approximation of one, barely a hint of the other. Bud and Dennis understand what I’m rambling about. Accepting the offer from Mitch Kupchak to coach MJ’s NBA club in 2018, Borrego took the helm of a group that had grown stale, relying on mid-tier fellers like Nic Batum, Marvin, MKG, Jeremy Lamb and Cody Zeller to chip in as All-NBA franchise face Kemba Walker steered the wheel. They were dull, by most estimations, especially whenever Walker got a breather. Yet the Hornets finished 2018-19 perched just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoffs, looking in. Not about to let free agent Walker run to the arms of Boston poachers the way Atlanta lost Al Horford, Kupchak at least got a yield in the form of Terry Rozier. Like Kemba, Terry could give you buckets, but wasn’t exactly renowned for his defensive prowess. Thanks to a dash of luck, Devonte’ Graham stepped up and treated the next season like he was running a G-League crew, feeding young forwards Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington. The Hornets could score, but without Walker around, they didn’t know how. Their win-loss record took a dive during the youth movement. With the 2019-20 season abruptly suspended, Borrego’s Bugs closed out the year with a win over eventual NBA Finalists Miami, but 9th place in the East wouldn’t earn them an invite to the Bubble. More of the same in 2020-21, finishing just a game out of 8th place after losing five straight. Only this time, award-winning rookie sensation LaMelo Ball had arrived to liven things up in Uptown. And the NBA’s newfangled Play-In series gave Charlotte a chance to sneak into the Playoffs through the back door. Young Melo could give you buckets, and was a nifty passer, but, you get the gist. Borrego’s team would score 117 points in Indiana in that 9/10 Play-In eliminator, but they allowed a foreboding, season-worst 144. Certainly, defensive upgrades would be an offseason priority for Kupchak. So Graham gets dealt to N’Awlins last summer for… Wes Iwundu and the Pelicans’ lotto-protected first-rounder this year? And Wes doesn’t even make the team? Acquired with a 2021 draft pick, plugging the hole left by Zeller, here comes… Mason Plumlee? Incoming via free agency are… Kelly Oubre and Ish Smith? Is this thing on? Borrego has made the most he can out of his charges on the defensive end. With the rangy Ball (1.5 BPG) leading the way, the top six minute-loggers for the Hornets each grab at least one theft per game, including Messrs. Oubre and Rozier. Charlotte pushes a high tempo on offense, and they go for broke trying to thwart opposing offensive plays before they build up a head of steam. The results haven’t been stellar. On one hand, while Charlotte’s 114.9 PPG could be a tad more efficient with better interior options (they do miss the ankle-injured Gordon Hayward, but still), it is second-highest in the NBA, and nobody accuses the Purple and Teal of being drab anymore. But entering today’s action with the visiting Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL), the Bugs allow almost precisely the same amount of points, worst in the entire NBA East and behind only the Kangz and Rockets overall. Kupchak sees Borrego’s desperation for defense, and responds at the Trade Deadline by shipping Smith and Vernon Carey to D.C. and reeling in… Montrezl Harrell? Then with the open roster spot, his Hornets chase after… Isaiah Thomas? Mitch, are you just trolling JB at this point? Borrego has resorted to simply turning on the offensive fire hoses and seeing which opponents his Hornets (34-35) can drown. Between Scary Terry, Oubre, Small Wonder, Washington and even Cody Martin (40.9 3FG%), the 20-year-old All-Star Ball has ample options, where he can simply aim for mild-scoring double-doubles (no 30+ scoring outputs since Feb. 11, no 25-point games since Feb. 12, no double-digit assist or rebound tallies since the Break) and not have to be the primary finisher every night, all night. Plenty of Charlotte’s foes have been doused, including New Orleans (142 Hornet points in regulation last Friday) and OKC (134 this past Monday). Ball heated up with four threes in roughly two minutes of the third quarter, matching IT’s second-quarter to help plunder the Thunder. But these Hornets are just as likely to get what they’re giving, as healthier, more knowledgeable, and more talented opponents than the Thunder and Pels backstroke on Charlotte’s defense. The victories over N’Awlins and OKC have the Hornets feeling more spirited, winners of four of their past six as they kick off a five-game homestand today. But they have also dropped three of their past four at Spectrum Center, having concluded a treacherous month (2-13 from January 30 through February 28) with an overtime 127-126 loss to the visiting Pistons before a 130-106 loss in Milwaukee. A week before he gave the Magic 60, Kyrie Irving waltzed into this building and handed the Hornets 50. Now they’ll have to hope Trae Young doesn’t have designs on another pinball-tilting evening, or, worse, that Young (93 points in last 2 games, Atlanta +12; 29.9 PPG on 47.4/40.4/91.0 splits and 9.7 APG since Feb. 1) will feel he’ll need such an outing just to put Atlanta in contention for victory tonight. The most statistically efficient defensive guard in NBA history, based as we know on bball-ref’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus, now a venerable NBA head coach, knows a thing or two about grinning and bearing it when it comes to extolling the virtues of team defense upon his offensively-gifted star and his mates. Nate McMillan can feel Borrego’s pain. His Hawks (34-34) have put themselves in the unenviable position of wrangling with the Hornets for a favorable Play-In slot by failing to Keep That Same Energy away from State Farm Arena, bearing a lotto-worthy 12-21 road record. The defensive efficiency wanes (114.0 D-Rating in away games, down from 113.5 at home), albeit not as starkly as the offense (111.7 O-Rating on the road, 117.3 at home) as opposing hosts grow more comfortable sticking their hooks into Young and company. One of the few times the Hawks kept an opposing road team cool was in this building, back on January 23. The Hornets were an abysmal 4-for-36 on triples, and they missed 8 of 27 free throw attempts in what became a 113-91 laugher, a rarity these days for Trae (30 points, 8-for-15 3FGs) and Atlanta. The big cutoff point for Charlotte’s success is not how well they defend, rebound, or shoot from the charity stripe but, simply, whether players are getting the shots they want, from the spots they prefer, and converting. The Hornets are 19-1 when they hit half of their field goal attempts, the flubbed Pistons game in OT (50.6 team FG%) being the exception. Their record is more like the Pistons’ when they fail to make half their shots (15-34 w/ sub-.500 FG%s). Speaking of Nate, ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus finally leaked out (why it takes over half the season to unveil it, I’ll never know), and do y’all realize Clint Capela has the highest Defensive RPM in the league? His Offensive RPM is as bad as Plumlee’s, yet Capela can help the Hawks’ cause this evening by rendering Plumlee and Clint’s former Rocket teammate, Harrell (each averaging 2.5 O-Rebs per game w/ CHA), spectators on the Hornets’ offensive end. Easier said than done for Danilo Gallinari. Starting once more in place of John Collins (out, Hamburger Helper finger), Gallo probably returns from a brief illness striving to keep Bridges (32 points in a win @ ATL in December) from making sick plays around the rim, so De’Andre Hunter (20 points, 3 steals @ CHA in January) can turn his efforts assuredly toward Charlotte’s wing gunners. While Onyeka Okongwu will likely get the grittiest work, Danilo’s best defense might involve encouraging Bridges, who can be turnover-prone, to over-dribble on drives from outside the paint, and to get him in foul trouble on the opposite end of the floor. The ”new version” of RPM, as ESPN calls it, was modified with little explanation midway through last season, and the reformulation was notable in that it took Trae decidedly off the defensive back page. This season, Young checks in at a positive +0.70 DRPM, not far behind either Ball brother (LaMelo’s at +1.04, Lonzo 1.01) and ahead of notables like Malcolm Brogdon (+0.13), Ja Morant (-0.43), Schroo (-2.01), and Kyrie (-2.03). Based solely on DRPM ver. 2.0, Trae stands middle-of-the-pack, still low among high-volume ballhandlers for defensive impact, with ample room for improvement that could one day help him reach MVP-level heights as his Hawks attain steadier outcomes. But as it stands, Young could at least look to one oft-cited measure and know he is no longer the definitive worst in The Association. By the way, do y’all realize who complements Capela with the NBA’s highest ORPM among PGs, and second among all players behind Giannis? Trae will let you have one guess. Real recognizes Real. Negating a then-record 35-point performance, Bridges’ teammates combined to shoot 28-for-74 from the field, and missed six of 15 freebies, when the Hornets lost in Atlanta back in November. One more subpar night would grant the Hawks the coveted head-to-head tiebreaker, and a theoretical home game in the Eastern Conference’s First Four rounds, should the teams finish tied for either seventh or ninth place. Tonight’s victor can reach .500 in another way, joining the teams ahead of them in the standings with break-even-or-better in-conference records (each club 21-22 vs. NBA East). Once more, Borrego and Charlotte appear to be headed just outside of the playoff picture, peering in. With my team’s playoff chances on the line for a fourth straight season, with my professional reputation and job status on the line, and with just a modicum of defensive aptitude potentially making all the difference, if my boss brings me Trezz Harrell and Isaiah Thomas? I can’t speak for Borrego, but I would take that personally. Erin go Bragh! Go GSU Panthers and Mercer Bears! And, Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “Geaux Tigers! Say, Freshman, what’s your name, again?” He was well on his way to a career-high scoring day in the first half, the guard leading the home team to a nearly 20-point halftime lead over an opponent missing multiple stars on the back end of a back-to-back. But soon, he and his team would find themselves knocked back on their heels. Their road-weary foes still scrambled to narrow the margin to single digits in the fourth quarter. His team’s potential Play-In status was in peril. Luckily for the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Atlanta Hawks by extension, Josh Hart wasn’t having it. Not on this day. The burly guard and fifth-year pro’s and-one four-point play closed out Saturday’s career-best outing at 44 points. Hart (6-for-9 on threes, team-highs of 4 steals and 6 assists) toiled in tandem with fellows named Trendon Watford and Brandon Williams to help Portland repel the Wizards (Molte Grazie!) and nip a six-game post-Break skid in the bud. Portland’s schedule out of the Break has been a bit unkind, for a club presently fielding none of the nine players that coach Chauncey Billups trotted onto the court to kickstart this season. (Damian Lillard? On the shelf after abdominal surgery in January. CJ McCollum, Larry Nance, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell? Traded. Nassir Little? Out for the season. Cody Zeller? Cut. Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons? Injured.) Hart and his newfound Blazers entered the Break with encouraging wins at Milwaukee and Memphis. But that was with Nurkic, Simons and fellow acquisition Justise Winslow upright. Nurkic’s plantar fasciitis put him on ice just as Portland embarked on a stretch of blowout losses, first versus G-State and Denver, then on the road at Phoenix, a pair of games in Minnesota, and at Utah. Simons (knee tendinopathy) and Winslow were lost along the way, too. Now after beating Washington, Portland is on the road once more, initiating a five-game Eastern swing in Atlanta (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ROOT Sports in PDX). A hungry Hart coincidentally has the Blazers within 1.0 game of New Orleans, Hart’s prior employer, for the final Play-In slot. Everything about, “We have resorted to starting CJ Elleby and Drew Eubanks,” suggests stuffing this blah Blazer season in a pita, drizzling in some tzatziki, and calling it a wrap. But what goes down over the next couple weeks, as Portland visits Manhattan, Kyrie’s Funhouse, and the Pacers and Pistons, will dictate how eager they’ll be to get Nurkic, Eric Bledsoe and even Lillard out of street clothes. Will Portland need a gyro, after all? The juice of a Play-In road game as a 10-seed, for them, wouldn’t be worth the squeeze. But, say, a 9-versus-10 home game, with a win in Portland and then at Minnesota to set up a seven-game series with Phoenix? As, one supposes, LeBron watches the postseason proceedings from home? How are those crunches going, Dame? Portland (26-40) exists in a somewhat parallel universe to Indiana, their Eastern Conference cousins who mustered up enough second-half energy to nearly snatch the Hawks’ wigs at State Farm Arena last night. The Blazers, ignoring injuries, have been done-in to this point by their woeful 9-22 road mark. They are 1-12 amid a Northwest Division that includes OKC and no current top-three seeds, 10-18 against the rest of the NBA West. Yet Coach Chauncey’s team is 15-10 versus the NBA East, inclusive of their 136-131 victory back on January 3, when Nate McMillan’s Hawks paid them a visit and Trae Young (career-high 56 points; his 14 assists one off his season-high) could barely be contained. Watford, a two-time Alabama Mr. Basketball and an SEC All-Freshman Team member when the Skyhawks’ Skylar Mays was starring at LSU, is the only active Blazer that appeared in that game, a team-low 10 minutes off the bench. The forward’s two-way deal was upgraded a few weeks ago, in part out of necessity, and in part due to the potential of what he did on Saturday (career-high 27 points on 11-for-14 2FGs, 5-for-5 FTs) against the Fighting Kyle Kuzmas. Watford’s two-way slot was filled by Williams, one of Portland’s former ten-day contractors. The rookie guard set his career-high mark at 27 points (aided by 11 made FTs) last Monday at Minnesota, besting his 21-point outburst (nine FGs) against the same T’Wolves two nights before. Even Dame’s cousin, two-way hanger-on Kelvin Blejins, walked out with his career-high of 11 points in the rematch. Much like IHOP, any night is good night for a career night among the folks suiting up (someone double-check the uni colors pregame, please) for the Blazers right now. Former Spurs center Eubanks’ second 10-day hardship deal expired last night, and he made his best case on Saturday to get extended once more with his career-best 20 points plus 12 boards to zap the Zards. While Hart was hot from long-range, Portland’s 70 paint points were a season-high, as were their 28 points off the fastbreak. Sunday’s not-so-great escape of the Pacers by the Hawks was just yesterday’s second-least satisfying sports victory in downtown Atlanta (Thank you, Jake from Around the Corner from State Farm!). Atlanta United took a bunch of no-names from Charlotte un-seriously in front of the rabid home crowd. They coughed up the expansion MLS franchise’s first-ever goal, minutes after Atlanta’s soccer superstar gave the Five Stripes the lead, and they needed hustle and a dash of Irish luck in the waning moments to avoid gifting the wannabe rival Crowns their first MLS table point. Oh, what an unnecessary relief it is. The Hawks (33-34) don’t even have the fortune of ending games in a draw. 92.9’s Mike Conti, who called ATLUTD’s game, notes tonight will be the sixth consecutive opportunity for the Basketball Club to reach .500 since falling to 13-14 at home against Houston on December 16. To avoid a sixth consecutive failure, as the homestand gets disrupted with a trip up to Charlotte, our Cardiac Cagers need to do what it takes to keep random dudes named Trendon from trending. Halfcourt execution from Atlanta, the team that still sports the lowest turnover percentage in the league (12.2 TO%, 9.9 post-Break; 16 straight games w/ fewer than 15 player turnovers), will be essential, be it pick-and-roll offense or rotational defense. Portland’s 15.2 team TO%, since the Break, is neck-and-neck with Cleveland as the league’s highest, while their post-Break D-Rating of 123.4 is unmatched. Transition D is key, too, particularly with this current iteration of Trail Blazers seeking to pounce on its rest advantage as they did with the Wizards. Atlanta remains a cellar-dweller leaguewide in this category (1.20 opponent points per transition possession, slightly better than the Knicks), but there are encouraging signs some evolution is happening under Nate Mac’s watch. The Hawks have permitted just 6.9 fastbreak points per-48 since the Break, by far an NBA-best (20th-ranked before the Break with 12.8 allowed), while the Hawks +3.7 net points per-48 off TOs in that time (a negative net of -0.6 pre-Break) ranks behind only Toronto and Miami in the NBA East. Portland has been paint shy all season long, even with Nurk in tow (41.7 paint points per-48 post-Break, behind only the Sixers, somehow). But Billups now fields a bunch of opportunists ready to head off to the races, preferably toward the rim, upon snaring any loose ball or defensive rebound. Young, Kevin Huerter and Bogi Bogdanovic cannot get caught flat-footed and playing, “Who He Play For?” while settling for take fouls to stem Blazer runouts. Coming off his second-highest tally of the season just last night with 47 points (33 in the first half), Young will hopefully not need to match that season-high in shot volume (41 combined FGAs & FTAs) just to conclude Atlanta’s three-game homestand with a clean sheet. Danilo Gallinari and Huerter were duds from outside during January’s loss in Portland, negating not only Young’s offensive brilliance but also a perfect game, from the field (10-for-10 FGs @ POR; 5-for-5 last night), from center Clint Capela. Mays and TLC filled the gaps, albeit not so ably, from the absent John Collins, Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter in that January game. Collins (questionable with his finger and foot ailments) may find himself rested once more, so Bogi’s offense (2-for-9 3FGs vs. IND on Sunday) and Dre’s defense will be desired to get back on track. We’ll note here that Trae’s former defensive-nemesis-turned-momentary-backup, Kris Dunn, was scooped up yesterday on a 10-day hardship deal, and that his career-high 32 points was set with Chicago against recently-waived Blazer Dennis Smith’s Mavs back in January 2018. May we Hawks fans never have to revisit that particular figure again. And no Night to Remember for Cousin Kelvin, please! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “Then the Dodgers said, ‘Oh, and then we’ll go after Freddie, too!’” Elimination Szn is here already! It’s not the kind of setup the Atlanta Hawks dreamed up when looking ahead to this promising season. But Nate McMillan getting the chance to send Lloyd Pierce’s Indiana Pacers to bed in our house (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) will have to do. “Big Deal!”, said the big Kings-Pacers deal, with a dash of snark. As Sam Butler of HoopsHabit alluded to in his post-trade analysis yesterday, Sacramento is a mere 4-9 since Domantas Sabonis was reactivated with the Kings, dropping them to the third-worst record in the Western Conference. Third-worst in the NBA East, the Pacers have gone 4-8, including last night’s game denying Coach Pop’s similarly shorthanded Spurs from padding his new all-time record in San Antonio. The Kings, as one might imagine, are desperate to earn a playoff seed ASAP. Or they were. Sadly, after a fourth straight defeat last night, it looks like the drought will continue unabated. Indiana (23-46; Play-In elimination Tragic Number: 6, 3 with a loss today) is in no such rush. Indiana would happily sneak into the playoffs, despite a tough closing schedule, if there was a mad dash left in Pacer coach Rick Carlisle’s reconfigured rotation. But with Myles Turner still out, Malcolm Brogdon momentarily shelved, and the first top-ten draft pick since Paul George went 10th in 2010 on the way, what’s the big hurry? Indy team prez Kevin Pritchard saw how division rival Chicago’s tinkering at 2021’s Trade Deadline set up a momentous offseason and a surge in the standings in 2022. Pritch wants that for the Pacers, who don’t have a timetable for the returns of Turner or T.J. McConnell and have over $30 million in salaries (incl. Ricky Rubio and the ghost of T.J. Warren) coming off the books, well in advance of a future extension offer for new franchise guard Tyrese Haliburton (team-high 19 points, 10 assists, 3 steals in yesterday’s 119-108 win @ SAS). While they wait, Carlisle is doing some tinkering of his own, with the playing styles of some of his new arrivals. The next shot Buddy Hield didn’t like will be the first one. Indeed, Hield came into Pacer games guns blazing, heaving nearly 12 three-point tries per game in his three appearances, all Indiana losses. Carlisle is encouraging him to shot-fake and kick the ball out more, ideally producing a three-man playmaker unit with Haliburton and, when healthy, Brogdon (out since Tuesday due to concussion protocols). After maxing out with a season-high of six dimes with Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox in Sactown, Hield is averaging 5.7 APG with the Pacers, still getting his Buddy Buckets (team-high 19.3 PPG, double-digit scoring every game w/ IND, with almost no daily trips to the FT line) and shooting threes at a lesser volume (last night’s 3-for-12 display excepted) around his season-long, career-low 36 percent clip. Well, buckle my shoe and knock at the door, because somebody is going to pick up Stix this summer! The 10th pick in 2020’s Draft with his third-year option declined, former Suns backup forward Jalen Smith has been given free range to shoot from long range, sinking 42 percent on almost four 3FGAs per game. When Smith’s doing that and helping current starter Isaiah Jackson, Goga Bitadze (playing through foot pain) and Oshae Brissett protect the rim in Turner’s absence (active team-high 8.0 RPG, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks off-bench yesterday @ SAS), the Pacers find themselves in position to snatch some Ws. Shot-struggling Boston discovered this a couple weeks ago. Cleveland was befuddled in Indy for three quarters until Darius Garland same alive to help the Cavs escape last Tuesday. Brogdon is again unavailable to play in Atlanta, but Chris Duarte is back in the backcourt after missing time with a jammed toe injury. Duarte lost some rhythm in the ROY race after getting yo-yo’d in and out of Carlisle’s starting lineups. Since leading the way with 25 points in the watered-down, post-trade Pacers’ 133-112 loss here at The Farm on February 8, Duarte has had to play umpteenth-fiddle behind Haliburton, Hield and Brogdon. While Duarte started last night in Brogdon’s place, Carlisle has been turning to undrafted Keifer Sykes and red-hot two-way guard Duane Washington, Jr. (matching Haliburton’s 19 points off the bench @ SAS; 15.3 PPG w/ 62.9 FG% in last four games) in hopes of even more ball-movement production. Saturday’s win in San An raised the Pacers’ record to 12-12 versus Western opponents. Injuries aside, what has done in Carlisle’s crew is its 11-33 in-conference record, including a conference-worst 2-13 amid a Central Division that includes (close your ears, Hawks fans) the Pistons. Only Detroit holds a worst road record than Indy (8-26) among Eastern clubs. The Pacers have had just one road SEGABABA since the “Big Deal!”. Coming off that 21-point win at home over the Celts, Indiana suffered the wrath of Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba one afternoon later, in a 16-point drubbing down in O-Town. Indy leans on its backcourt to provide enough offensive explosion to knock teams on their heels (118.8 PPG and 38.3 3FG% post-Break, 5th in NBA). But the team will get sloppy (14.9 team TO% post-Break, 3rd-worst in NBA; 21 player TOs @ ORL on Feb. 28) and the frontline is both visibly and strategically thin following the departures of Sabonis and, for now, Turner. Atlanta doesn’t do much of anything comfortably, particularly of late. Friday’s 112-106 eclipsing of the Clips was the sixth consecutive game for the Hawks (32-34) that concluded with a single-digit margin in either direction. After victories #20 through #29 were all by eight points or more, the three wins over the Hawks’ past five games were by no more than six. Another late-game nail-biter would make it the longest such stretch since LP’s Hawks rattled off nine games late in the 2018-19 season. Niftier perimeter shot-making from Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic, following off-nights on Friday, will be welcomed by the home crowd. But McMillan will need better perimeter closeouts, as displayed in the fourth stanza versus LA, and more multifaceted two-way play from Clint Capela (7-for-9 FGs vs. LAC), John Collins (questionable, finger sprain and foot strain), DeAndre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu and Danilo Gallinari to overwhelm his old team today, and his older team tomorrow. We can only hope they treat the upcoming games as if they're kind of a "Big Deal." The Pacers arrive to this SEGABABA road game, from the Central Time Zone on a redeye, with yet another sixty fewer minutes of shuteye thanks to Daylight Savings. They’re a team just daring to be tucked in and put to bed, for the season. Are the Hawks primed to spring forward, or will they once again fall back? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “Aye! This not how Trust Falls work, Mane!" The Atlanta Hawks had their All-Star, ace scorer and playmaker, however controversial the acquisition. They had their athletic, futuristic big-man prototype. They had their no-nonsense head coach. They had young wings and forwards bustling with potential. But on the back end of season #6 of the Hawks’ rebuilding managerial regime, Atlanta still found itself just on the wrong side of the playoff line. Billy Knight understood the task in front of him. He had to do… something. Out went veteran point guard Anthony Johnson, his graying backup and longtime Hawk Tyronn Lue, first-round disappointment Shelden Williams, and the late Lorenzen Wright. Reggie Theus’ Sacramento Kings were already tiring of missing the playoffs, too, and needed reinforcements in hopes of a swift turnaround, that year or next. In came Mike Bibby, recently returning from a thumb injury that had him out for most of that season. As the Grizzlies’ GM, BK had previously shipped Bibby to Sactown in 2002, for the rights to Jason “Kobe’s Not a Top 5 Laker” Williams and Nick Anderson. Didn’t work out, probably helped cost him his job. But he bounced back with the Hawks, and eight years after dealing the Bibbster away, reeling him in might have been what he needed to keep his current one. Didn’t work out. The keeping-his-job part for BK, that is. But in the meantime, Bibby upped the tempo and his scoring and dime-dropping boost helped the Hawks eke into the postseason for the first time in the millennium, with the added benefit of giving big, bad Boston a scare in three noisy first-round games at The Highlight Factory. Whatever our feel for the next decade of Hawks playoff basketball that ensued, it only began when Atlanta’s lead basketball executive felt pressed to go out and do… something of substance. You all know that ITIT as much as anybody around the 404. Around this time last year, at the Trade Deadline, Travis Schlenk surveyed the landscape, plucked a hesitant Lou Williams from coach Ty Lue’s LA Clippers, plus some down-the-road second-rounders, for the low-low price of former big, bad Boston guard Rajon Rondo. Schlenk didn’t add anyone else to the mix and, as it turned out, he didn’t need to. Lou Will gave our Hawks all the patchwork offense he could muster, and the improved health and organic growth under Nate McMillan’s watch paid off, this time with several more ear-splitting playoff games in Atlanta. The rip-roaring postseason fun was undoubtedly worth building upon. Yet, in the ensuing offseason, Travis brought Lou back, and Solomon Hill, too. Skylar Mays was retained on a two-way. Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper seemed to fall into our Hawks’ laps at draft time, a perception that glistened during Summer League. Kris Dunn begat Delon Wright. Gorgui Dieng and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot were inked to deals. Cam Reddish wanted to shoulder the load somewhere else, so Schlenk dealt him in January to kick the tires on Kevin “The One Who” Knox. Aside from the 35-year-old Lou Will’s kind contributions midway through Wednesday’s loss in Milwaukee, none of the aforementioned were factors as Giannis did his three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust routine at John Collins and Clint Capela’s expense. Most didn’t play. Many haven’t played, and won’t, save for absolute necessity. I destroy Girl Scout cookies with as much zeal as anybody this time of year, but these rows upon rows of Tagalongs can get mighty stale after a while. Oh, but wait! Schlenk did do… something. He did bring back Bucks’ world champion and longtime ex-Hawk Jeff Teague. Not as an unsigned free agent offering veteran backcourt depth, though. No, Teague punches the clock these days as a team scout, closely watching March Madness for the next set of Diaper Dandies that Nate Mac will have nothing to do with. It's too easy to rag on the Hawks’ (latest) beleaguered head coach for not knowing, or caring to know, how best to utilize deeper lineups, especially when the top dogs are taking turns waging through off-night struggles in the midst of a playoff chase. I turn on the telly, and I witness teams that didn’t really have to go for it doing just that. Where, I beseech, is our DeMarcus Cousins this time of year? Shoot, where’s our Norman Powell? Other teams in the East are going out and doing… something. After dealing away party animal James Harden for the off-chance of Ben Simmons reanimating himself, and getting Seth Curry to boot, Brooklyn spatchcocked the Sixers last night and left new pickup Goran Dragic in there to clean up the bones. Isaiah Thomas hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since his Leprechaun years ended a half-decade, but he just might get the chance alongside Charlotte’s recent acquisition of Montrezl Harrell. The Wizards make room for Tomas Satoransky. The Knicks. The Pacers not only remodel with Haliburton and Hield, but also figure out how to make use of Phoenix’s Jalen Smith. They also grabbed Tristan Thompson and released him just in time to ragdoll the Hawks and freak out Ayo Dosunmu as a member of the Bulls. None of this is to say that any of these additions-by-transaction are great. But they are… something. I don’t mean to Even the Clippers the Clippers, 33-32 and sneering down at the Lakers in a masterful coaching job by Lue. Certainly, not while they’re in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS SoCal). They could have waved the white flag and punched their ticket to Lotto Land after Paul George joined Kawhi Leonard on Gucci Row, and even the Clips’ fanatical owner would have understood. Yet they got… something, out of trading for Robert Covington (out for today, personal leave) and Powell, at least out of the latter (out indefinitely, 21.0 PPG w/ LAC) until he injured his toe three games into his tenure. They’re doing… something behind the scenes, and it seems to have energized the short-staffed Clipper rotation into doing some things on the court. Reggie Jackson (team-high 17.0 PPG on 39.5 FG%, 4.8 APG, 2.3 TOs/game) gets to live out his All-most-Star dreams with little restraint from Lue. Marcus Morris gets to do Marcus Morris things. Nobody tsk-tsks Nicolas Batum anymore. Ivica Zubac has free reign in the post with Serge Ibaka gone. Luke Kennard goes bananas from deep range one night, Terrance becomes a Mann among men the next. The Clips do this neat trick, where they retrieve 20-year-old Norcross native, Klutch Academy member and deep-second-round rookie B.J. Boston from Agua Caliente G-League duty and, more times than not, actually play him, and let him learn the ropes in real time with the big fellas. (At least Jalen and Sharife are helping with a playoff chase… down in College Park). No PG and no Kawhi allows this to happen, of course. Yet they’re winning ball games, too. Somehow, they’ve managed to win six of their last 8 games, including five straight until last week plus Wednesday’s 115-109 home win over Washington (Jackson, Morris and Kennard combined for 77 points incl. 12-for-20 on 3FGs) for which fans of the Hawks (31-34 in 10th, 1.5 games ahead of the Wizards) are grateful. With a championship ring already in his pocket, T-Lue aged into his 30s in Atlanta, waiting for Billy Knight and the ragtag ownership group to transform the Hawks into… something, anything more meaningful than an NBA laughingstock. He’d get the chance to perform in the playoffs in 2008, but instead with Dallas, who went out and did… something, scooping Tyronn up after clearing waivers with Sacramento. Having pocketed another ring in another capacity, Lue gets to coach once more, today, against the latest Hawks point guard left to simply mind the store until management decides to do… something more. A three-game homestand versus the Clips and two sub-.500 visitors was supposed to be the comforting part of the late schedule. But fans are just waiting to count how many more T-Balls where the Hawks will whiff (welcime back, Bravos, by the way). At least somebody around here is clearly comfortable. “We looked at a lot of different stuff, but we’re comfortable with our group,” Trader Trav said to the AJC, after the deadline for deals passed last month. “We know this group has the ability to be successful, as we saw last year. And we want to give them the opportunity to prove it to the world they can do it again.” Again, ITIT, ITIT, ITIT, until the Chick-fil-A cow comes home. BUT… as the season nears its sunset and the final roster spot stays unfilled, I get the sensation that Schlenk sees, and saw, the magic carpet ride of the 2021 Playoffs as a one-off. As long as Trae Young continued to provide the entertainment, and John Collins the occasional highlight-worthy flush, there was little pressure on Schlenk to do anything substantive, much less something drastic, to improve Atlanta’s immediate playoff hopes. That was true, up and until 2021. Then, 2021 happened. Now that Trae’s postseason majesties have brought the present-day ownership useful and unexpected revenue streams that won’t run dry anytime soon, there is even less pressure for Schlenk to ensure the product on the floor is winning, competitive and sustainable. At least for the time being. With no urgency, beyond the locker room to enhance either Atlanta’s postseason position or potency, Schlenk seems fully recommitted to the slow-growth approach as he looks ahead to his sixth season in charge of the Hawks. The headline on Travis’ Playbill reads, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fourth Straight Lottery Offseason,” and he intends to kick back and enjoy each act of the show. Why bother… doing something? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  25. Semi-Pro II (2022) [PG-13] Pssshh, who needs Poke? It’s time for The Hachimura Bowl! “With the 9th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft,” the Commissioner read aloud, “the Washington Wizards select… Ru-“ I never got to hear the rest, as State Farm Arena had erupted in joy. The consensus of the Draft Party? Get one of Coach K’s kids, and it’s a win. Done. Atlanta Hawk fans who didn’t know each other from Adam Silver were hugging in the stands, high fiving, dancing, crying. The team announcer started spelling C-A-M with his toe upon the announcement that the Wizards had selected somebody whose first syllable was clearly NOT Cam. By all measures, Atlanta’s multi-year playoff recess had culminated in an add-water-and-stir superstar. It wasn’t like this when the Hawks traded up for a second spot five picks before the Wizards. The aviary was more like a library when it was announced Atlanta had moved up to nab De’Andre Hunter, the headlining star of 2019’s NCAA Tournament champions. With all due respect, even championship Virginia doesn’t bring that ACC pop. Where, Hawks fans thought, was our Dookie diaper dandy? Hachimura should have been proud of this moment. Highest drafted and second drafted player ever from his home country, for starters. Further, consider that Rui hailed from The Dook of the West, a Gonzaga program that ranked #1 in the land up until their final conference tournament game. He was the highest drafted Zag in over a dozen years. Sadly, the ghost of Adam Morrison, in the eyes of NBA fans, had not been completely exorcised by Domantas Sabonis. Hawks management looked past Hachimura, the Julius Erving Award winner, for another accomplished small forward named De’Andre Hunter, and had their eyes on yet another swingman. Hawks fandom, Pushin’ P(otential), looked past him upon the mere utterance of his name, mutually enthralled with the prospect that future great Cam Reddish had fallen into their laps. Silly Wizards. Rui was granted months of personal leave during this season, missing each of the Wizards’ early-season contests versus Atlanta. We’ll never likely know the source of his need for leave, but his extended departure left the door open for his former Zag teammate, 2021’s Erving Award honoree, to grow with the team. Now rookie Corey Kispert starts ahead of third-year Rui on first-year coach Wes Unseld, Jr.’s forward depth chart. Also coming off the bench ahead of Hachimura has been 2020’s #9 pick, Deni Avdija, at least until the Israeli left early in Tuesday’s 116-113 escape of the visiting Pistons with a bruised quad. Not everything has gone well during Rui’s tenure in the District of Columbia. But he can take solace in knowing he’s still with the team that drafted him, not already dealt away for future-pick hopes and discarded lottery detritus. The Hawks Comic Universe never had reason to regret passing up, not once but effectively twice, on the chance to acquire Hachimura. Now, Rui has at least two chances to give Atlanta some reasons, tonight at Capital One Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) and, if the Zards play their cards right, on April 6 in Georgia, with Play-In seeding probably on the line. “I love it,” said Bradley Beal, now out for the season following wrist surgery, and he wasn’t speaking of his potential offseason windfall in Washington. “He needs to shoot more.” The franchise face was speaking glowingly of Hachimura, whose third-quarter catch-and-shoot triples helped his team keep the Pistons game from slipping away, and whose three-pointer early in the fourth quarter put Washington back up momentarily by 12 points. Rui has been contributing binary digits across the nightly boxscores. But when he’s encouraged to shoot that thang (last 18 games: 9.6 bench PPG, 58.5% on 2.3 3FGAs/game, 47.8 FG%, 82.6 FT%) it has been a bonanza for the Wizards. Since thrashing Philly on MLK Day to reach 23-21, the Wizards have gone 5-12. Brad is on ice, and the team remade under team prez Tommy Sheppard’s watch has been remodeled once more. Like The Eagles, Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday are already gone. Davis Bertans and his ill-fated salary was attached in Dinwiddie’s deal to Dallas, and there’s no telling whether former Mav center Kristaps Porzingis (out, bruised knee) will be able to aid in a late playoff push. The backcourt now turns to Raul Neto, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and some recently acquired, perennial Hawk Killers in Tomas Satoransky and Ish Smith. Even with the services of Beal, Bertans and Dinwiddie, Washington was one of the least-shooting-est (currently NBA-low 10.3 3FGs/game) and worst-shooting-est (33.4 3FG%, 26th in NBA) clubs in The Association. While extracting those wayward volume shooters have proven to be addition-by-subtraction, Unseld is eager to have someone aside from Kyle Kuzma (team-highs of 17.0 PPG, 5.6 3FGAs/game and 8.8 RPG) and KCP (41.2 FG% but 38.3 3FG%) stepping up to knock down jumpers. Enter Hachimura, who will require a capable Hawk defender tonight to keep his hand from getting hot while open. Atlanta pulled off last night’s late thriller with Chicago (only NBA team to lose this season shooting above 59 team FG%) by winning the POOT game. The Wizards force a league-low 12.0 TOs/game, while coach Nate McMillan’s Hawks (6 team TOs vs. CHI; 19-to-9 edge in points off opponent turnovers) cough up the fewest (12.2 TOs/game). Whether or not Trae Young is able to heroically push the rock once more on his sprained ankle, quality execution in transition offense by Atlanta’s ballhandlers and finishers provides the best opportunity to put the hosts away. Young’s heroics were made possible in part, because Hunter came to play versus Chicago. Adding DeMar DeRozan to De’Andre’s Dungeon late, and attacking the basket with flourish early, helped Atlanta withstand the Bulls’ flourishes and avert a situation, today, where the Wizards could have surpassed the Hawks in the standings with a victory. Similar assertive activity from Hunter and Kevin Huerter versus Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma would help the Hawks build on their buffer from the 11-seed. On the sunny-side-up view, the Wizards (28-33) have been more comeptitive lately. Those past five victories have come in the previous 11 contests. They’re 3-3 over the past six, even though the wins came against Detroit (twice) and a star-less Nets team in Brooklyn, and none of those defeats have come by double-digits. In the first two losses after the Break last week, they were edged at home by the Spurs in double-OT, traveled to Cleveland and lost the next night to the Cavs, but only by a 92-86 score. They are well-rested and were able to take copious notes from last night’s Bulls-Hawks game. Even if the Wiz don’t exceed .500 ball the rest of the way, there remains enough talent in D.C. to catch a low-lying Eastern squad by season’s end. If so, Atlanta is just hopeful that club is the Hornets. But the Hawks, at this stage, need to do more than just hope. Atlanta remains within grasp of a winning record (30-32), but they won’t get there if they continue coughing up games away from The Farm (11-19, one win at Orlando in past six road games). Failure to carry their perimeter closeouts and game-closing on the road, executing the plays at both ends necessary to put the Wizards away at the end, and playoff-starving Atlanta could soon find itself on the Road to Rui. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3