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  1. “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
  2. “Who the heck rolled out an ICE machine in the middle of the – Cam? NO!” The Knickerbockers of New York City have won four games in five, and seven of their last ten. Even without triple-double machine Kemba Walker, or the esteemed Derrick Rose, coach Tom Thibodeau’s charges banded together on Wednesday to put together a complete effort, haggling Dallas’ Luka Doncic, and former Knicks Timmy Hardaway and Reggie Bullock, to off shooting nights. Even Julius Randle’s wildness with the ball was tolerable, what with his team-high 12 rebounds and eight assists. Guiding the way to New York’s 108-85 win with 32 points, RJ Barrett has been looking about as good as was once advertised when he departed Durham. Now, he’s got a fellow Dookie Diaper Dandy, Cam Reddish, to join him in blue-and-orange as their team seeks to scooch back above .500. Beginning with their trouncing of the Spurs and the Mavericks at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks (21-21) got a pair of off-days to get down to Atlanta ahead of the coming sleet-storm to play the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC). New York doesn’t have to play anywhere else, aside from here and MSG, until visiting the Cavs nine days from today. They were already kicking back with marshmallows, hot chocs and reading socks in Midtown as Atlanta (17-24) scurried back from last night’s tough 124-118 loss in Miami. Barrett, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson’s former coach, David Fizdale, was an assistant under first-year coach Mike Woodson the last, and only time, the Hawks lost 11 consecutive home games, at least in Atlanta. Tom Gugliotta’s late three-pointer 17 years ago today, off a dish from Ty Lue, forced OT against the juggernaut Pistons and almost cut the losing string short early. Along the way to a 13-69 finish, an upset win over Latrell Sprewell’s Timberwolves was the only way bustin’-for-Bogut Atlanta avoided dropping 15 straight to close the books on 2004-05. Randle and Barrett had a hand in initiating the Hawks’ current home beak-dive, back on the day after Black Friday. Aside from Atlanta helping break their fall on Christmas Day, the team struggled in the weeks since (1-7 after beating the Hawks in November; three double-digit road losses since New Year’s Eve). But Thibs’ team seems to be getting back on their horse, particularly at home, and here in Atlanta, it is simply a matter of the visitors making themselves at home. With Robinson back with renewed spirit in the starting lineup, these Knicks can make it an even bleaker Saturday night (no overtime, please! Ride home safely, Hawks fans!) by extending Atlanta’s home slide to ten games. Taking another L tonight, Atlanta’s potential record-tying loss could come on MLK Day, on national TV against the defending NBA champions. How sway. Perhaps the playoff-craving T’Wolves, coming into town off a trip to MSG, can be gracious enough to save our bacon once more, this coming Wednesday. The Hawks’ current visitors are rested, they’re rejuvenated, they’re reinforced, they’re prepared, and they’re motivated to beat the team that ate their playoff cornbread once more. Oh, and they’re a bit used to traveling home on occasion in a wintry mix. Can somebody say, “schedule loss”? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Knicks fans, please stand clear: the doors are closing yet another basketball season. BING BONG!” Don’t blame You Know What. But on this otherwise bright, wonderful, warm Atlanta morning, I’ve got Brain Fog! There is no lucidity or coherence to be found in today’s Christmas Day gamethread stocking, as remnants of both the New York Knicks and our Hawks tip off ((knocks on wood; 12 noon, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL)) at Madison Square Garden. But there will be brevity. No Ice Trae taking a bow, or doing the shoulder shimmy, or hushing fans up, or the “Brrrr!” thing? Bah! Humbug! No Gallo, and no Reddy V? No Clint, and no Yeka at the Mecca? What lump of coal is this? I hope I haven’t lost my sense of taste to watch this game. Speaking of taste, what’s Zion eating as he’s watching R.J. Barrett take on fellow Dookie diaper dandy Cam Reddish on this holiday? My guess is figgy pudding. If you thought we fans of the Hawks (15-16; six straight road wins) were going through the ringer lately, imagine trying to be a fan of the patience-trying Knicks (14-18; 6-11 at home, 9-15 in-conference). New York shared Atlanta’s 41-31 record at the close of the 2020-21 regular season but kicks off today’s slate of Christmas Day games 1.5 games behind the Hawks that dispatched them, in 2021’s opening playoff round, and on the outside of the Eastern Conference Play-In picture, looking in. Beginning today, the Knicks embark on a stretch of 14 games versus teams presently bearing sub-.500 records. Washington would have joined this group of opponents on Thursday. Alas, Kemba Walker could only score 44 points when 52 were needed. Struggling center Mitchell Robinson was dusted off on Tuesday, and helped the Knicks outlast Detroit and win their first home game in the last seven tries. But this is the last chance for New York to impress the home faithless before a four-game road swing carries them into the New Year. They’ve needed someone to step up in recent games, from bench guards Deuce McBride (out, Health ‘n Safety) and Immanuel Quickley to help pull away from the Rockets, to Evan Fournier in a losing effort versus his prior team, the Celtics, last Saturday. Lately, there were starters that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau benched due to lethargic play, namely Robinson and Walker, who regained their footing this week when used out of necessity. Unlike the playoffs, Thibs cannot turn today to Derrick Rose (out 6-8 weeks, ankle surgery) to run ‘n shoot for 38 minutes like it’s 2011 all over again. They could really use, perhaps, one of the finalists for this season’s Least Improved Player award. Julius Randle (0-for-5 on threes vs. WAS) could go off for 20-20 or even 30-30 today. But the Knicks need less of the 30 (points), 30 (FG%) performances of high-usage, low-efficiency from their franchise-face forward. I don’t want to mention the names of any active Hawks today, lest I jinx them into entering protocols. I’ll only go so far as to hope somebody doesn’t become known as 0-fo-twenty-fogdanovic, and starts out strong on both ends to make this contest entertaining at the outset. Whether Spike Lee can bear to watch, or not, when it comes to a momentum-building victory for our Hawks, we’ve gotta have it. Sorry, it's the Brain Fog hitting again. Or, whatever's in this here Egg Nog. Have a Merry Christmas and a Holly-Jolly Season. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. This season is already one for the rafters. Props to the pride of THE Georgia Institute of Technology! DWTS meets THWG! Iman Shumpert got his cha-cha on the hardwood early enough, during his decade-long NBA career, that the Yellow Jacket could simply slide through the rest. Over half of Shump’s points, rebounds, and assists came in his first four pro seasons, the last of which featured his attachment with J.R. Smith to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, courtesy of a trade by his first pro team, the New York Knickerbockers. Nearly two-thirds of his NBA starts came while suiting up for New York. Playing for the Knicks can get you places, like the express line at Sbarro’s. It might even get you the hookup with a random, enterprising R&B star. But it won’t guarantee you a shot at center stage of ABC’s hit dancing show. Not unless you make yourself a spectacle of a “star” by publicly feuding with owner Jimmy Dolan, or something like that. Now, winning a gold ball while hooping adjacent to a LeBron, or a Kobe, or some such, that could draw some faint curiosities as to your paso doble skills. It takes two teams to tango, and Shumpert’s former team gets to do that for the first time this season with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC). This time it’s in the State Farm Arena building where, last spring, the Knicks’ dreams of postseason glory began to quickly tap away. Tom Thibodeau’s club came into this season like a team with its hair or fire, winners of five of their first six games. That included victories over division rivals Philly and Boston, and the withstanding of a late charge by the Bulls to prevail in Chicago. Since then, the Knicks (10-9) have played in November like a team with its hair like Coach Thibs’. It's a back-to-back for both clubs, each having arrived in The A with somewhat differing trajectories. As “Clint the Clinic” Capela (season-highs of 23-and-17 plus 3 highlight-reel blocks @ MEM on Friday) was helping Atlanta (11-9) make quick grits of the grisly grinders in Memphis, last night, the Knicks were preparing to hop on a flight south, after getting scorched at home by the Suns. The Knicks have gotten up for big-name opponents, tripping up a Middleton-less Bucks team in Milwaukee near the beginning of the month, then outlasting a LeBron-less Lakers team at MSG this past Tuesday. But unlike the Hawks of late, New York hasn’t been able to string victories together. And then there were disheartening defeats at the hands of the Cavs, Pacers and Magic (twice). Despite the ostensible upgrade at the point guard position with Kemba Walker, ball movement has stagnated this month (1.41 assist/TO ratio, tie-28th in NBA). Despite the return of center Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks are struggling to win rebounding battles (71.4 D-Reb%, 24th in NBA). Despite the introduction of wing scorer Evan Fournier to pair with R.J. Barrett, the effectiveness with shot-making has waned (53.4 November TS%, 25th in NBA, down from 2nd in October w/ 58.2 TS%). Through it all, last season’s Most Improved Player award winner, Julius Randle (19.8 PPG, 42.0 FG%; 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG), has continued since the Hawks’ playoff series with the personification of the acronym WYSIWYG. With Randle going 3-for-8 on shots last night for 9 points (6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 TOs) in 31 minutes before he and the starters were granted an early reprieve, no one around Manhattan harbors any grudges that Trae Young and the Atlanta interlopers disrupted a path to the 2021 Finals. New York (33.2 pullup 2FG%, 3rd-worst in NBA) is settling frequently for isolation jumpers well outside of the paint, and Atlanta defenders will need to be mindful of closing out above the break, where the Knicks’ 37.2 3FG% matches Atlanta for 2nd-best in the league. The Hawks should be able to box out and pull away with superior halfcourt offensive designs, especially with the adroitness with which Young (27.7 PPG, 9.0 APG. 44.2 3FG%, 89.2 FT% during 7-game win streak) is reading and reacting to defensive pressure. The Knicks return home from Atlanta to visit Brooklyn in a few days, and then Chicago comes to town. Accordingly, they only hope the start of an eye-opening winning streak, and not the extension of a slide down the standings, can be as easy as A-B-C. In seasons past, no matter their situation, they were ensured of playing here before a Knick-friendly crowd, using the word “friendly” loosely. Those days are past, and those obnoxious fans will continue to fall back in the rearview mirror as fans of high-quality basketball show up to The Farm proudly rocking red and yellow. Alright, New York and all your crazy fans! Get to steppin’. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “Orange and Blue” is the New “Black and Blue”. New York Knicks jerseys aren’t new, but they are the new Beer Muscles. I didn’t need to know my Jake Pauls from my Logan Pauls from my Cliff Pauls from my Mrs. Paul’s. But goshdarnit, Nate Robinson, back when you still had your faculties and all, what were you not thinking? Putting on that orange and blue with the “NEW YORK” emblazoned on it makes New Yorkers think they can step to anyone and accomplish anything, even if the Knicks themselves haven’t accomplished much of anything since Watergate. Moreover, it’s not just the tried-and-true natives of New Amsterdam who get their Dutch courage from a dash of Knicks gear. Irrationally, I opine that the athletes helming from the far-away land of Seattle are top-tier, a view I’ve held strongly since the heady heydays of Jamal “Don’t Crack” Crawford. Maybe it’s the crisp air, I dunno. Folks like Katelyn Ohashi, Apolo Ohno, and Gail Devers help give this theory some gravity. When it comes to hoops, Pacific Northwesterners that grew up seeing and learning of grungy Sonics-era guys like Nate McMillan, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have been flowing into the NBA in waves ever since. A multi-sport athlete on the come-up from U-Dub, NateRob got the benefit of making the biggest NBA splash right from the jump, courtesy of a 2005 draft-night deal when the Suns drafted then sent him with Quentin Richardson out to the Knicks for Kurt “Mr. Happy” Thomas. I have zero doubts that “Former Slam Dunk champion and SACRAMENTO KINGS star Nate Robinson” wouldn’t be walking in cold to anyone’s pay-per-view celebrity(?) boxing match unless he paid for a ticket. Note that I’m using “celebrity”, in the modern-day YouTube sense, as loosely as I can here. Was Salt Bae unavailable to glove up? You’re not gonna catch Atlanta Hawks legend Spud Webb out here, decades after his dunk title, taking up bullfighting or cheese-rolling or some nonsense. Where might you catch him all those years later? Standing still, as he should, as a prop while Nate leaps over him (on, what, the 14th try of the night?) to win his own contest. Especially for us gravity-bound shorties, it was a quaint little sporting achievement that, 15 years removed, Robinson continues to overexploit, because he can, because NEW YORK. Last time you were forced to think about the athletic exploits of Fred Jones (Indiana) or Jeremy Evans (Utah) was when? Exactly. Just this very moment and, maybe, never again. He was a member of five NBA clubs over the course of his first 11 years in the NBA. But because of his Knicks tenure, the pride of the Emerald City is in a perpetual New York state of mind, hiring an Empire State dude to be his agent and drum up all kinds of crazy ways he can keep his name social-media-relevant. Said agent runs into wannabe pugilist and “influencer” Jake Paul (I’m just assuming it’s Jake, I don’t feel like double-checking), shoves his client into a gym for a months-long crash course in the squared circle, then propels him into a ring clad in blue-and-orange, thoroughly under-trained for even an undercard, with a whole (bored) world watching. After the bell, let’s have some introductions, shall we? NateRob, this is Leather. Canvas, say hello to Nate. Now Billy Paul or whoever is out here takin’ ‘bout, “If he dies, he dies,” him and his bro using Nate’s snoozing body as a stepping stone to talk mess with actual UFC fighters. Worst decision by a Puget Sound-area athletic competitor since Jason Terry, with his Celtic beer muscles, said to himself, “Ay, lemme go break up this lob here right quick.” NateRob could have chosen to rock some Seatown green before getting rocked in turn. But now, he done embarrassed his people on two American shores. It is true that a little better focus and readiness, and a lot more time in the gym, would have allowed Robinson at least a little more time on his feet. But none of this is happening if we were dealing, 15 years before, with Nate Robinson, high-flying top-scorer of some lackluster New Orleans Hornets team. The current fellows suited up in New York Knicks gear venture into Game 5 of the Best-of-7 series with the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT) trying their darnedest not to look like an accidental tourist that stumbled into some “celebrity” exhibition bout opposite Evander Holyfield. "It’s gonna be okay, my guy, don't fret! He's not gonna bite ya." Like schoolyard schemers who believe they’re Vince McMahon, New York sports fans in your corner will gas you up into thinking you’re some all-time great when you’re, at best, pretty good – or, “improved” -- and ready to be trotted out for anything against anybody when any sentient observer could advise that you’re not. The franchise clusters together ONE fine regular season (same as the Hawks, roughly equivalent to 47-35), their first in many years, and the dutiful New York sports media is doling out super-sized Bags of Chips while declaring their Knicks are All That. These Knicks thought they could roll a little Spike, a little spittle, a little spokes-mayor, a little Sbarro’s out there, and Atlanta would turn tail. That’s what they thought because that’s what they’ve been taught. You’re repping New York, and that’s all that matters. Why bother putting in the necessary work? The lower-seeded Hawks have put in the work, and that has been revealed for the balance of this first-round Eastern Conference series (as much as I hate to say these two words…) “thus far.” Not only did Atlanta have the homecourt disadvantage entering this series, but there was a rest disadvantage built into the scheduling, too. There were seven days between regular season’s end and Game 1 before a ravenous crowd at Madison Square Garden, then two-more off days before Game 2 in the same house. Game 3, in Atlanta, came with a one-day break. So did, Game 4 with its early-afternoon start at State Farm Arena. Now with two full days off before Game 5 back in NYC, coach Tom Thibodeau’s collective has been granted ample time not only to lick their wounds after losses, but also to gameplan and adjust to what McMillan’s Hawks are presenting out on the floors. Historically, the Bockers are 0-12 all-time when tasked to climb out of a 3-1 series hole (NBA teams are 13-248, as of last night, when trying to survive this deficit, as per Land of Basketball), and their opponents are from a sports town that knows a little something about counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Now, here's a little story that needs to be heard. If you ask Spike nicely, he’ll recall the time his Knicks blew a 3-1 lead to their former head coach. Game 5 in Miami went Pat Riley’s way, saving the heat’s season, but Jeff Van Gundy’s club got unglued near game’s end, when Lady Byng Citizenship Award winner P.J. Brown snapped and went Citizen Kane, rag-dolling pesky low-bridger Charlie Ward WWE-style into the photographer’s section. John Starks gets tossed, along with Ward and Brown. Yet while Miami’s P.J. was suspended for the remainder of the series, New York’s Starks, Ward, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson also got suspended for one game. The latter three penalties were the result of rules imposed by David Stern – if you’re not in the game, don’t leave the bench! – after a 1993 halftime dust-up featured an inactive New York guard Greg Anthony, a Las Vegas kid with Beer Muscles and dressed in horrifically garish 90’s fashion, stepping on court to cheap-shot Kevin Johnson in defense of Doc Rivers. Through their union, Knick players sought an emergency legal injunction, but a New York judge (and begrudging Knicks fan) denied their motion to stay the suspensions pending arbitration. Per league rules requiring nine players per team, Ewing and Houston sat out with Ward for Game 6, while LJ and Starks were suspended for Game 7. With the Knicks missing key reinforcements, Miami prevailed at MSG in Game 6 and made Game 7, back in their house, a mere formality. New York had blown their last, best chance to wrestle the Shute from Chicago with The Finals on the line, because Beer Muscle Rules dictate they had no choice but to Keep It Real. There’s a good moral to the story in there for Hawks coach McMillan to share with his young pups ahead of this Game 5. There’s little question that the team headed by Trae Young (Mount Rushmore du jour: 4th newbie in NBA Playoffs history to average 25 PPG and 10 APG in first four games) and a bloodied-yet-unbowed John Collins will be ready to roll with whatever punches, however figurative, come their way. Granted a final eight-count, will Julius Randle and his teammates come up off the mat ready to properly stick-and-move? I keep waiting for Orange Julius to pull back the hood and reveal 2011-era Josh Smith. Every instance that Randle pokes his hands out at referees, pleading like Oliver Twist and pouting, go right ahead and chalk up another two or three points for the Hawks in your head. By default, he landed his best jabs of the series in Game 4, a 113-96 loss to a Hawks team that laid off the gas late. But in a playoff series where his inexperience and unfair expectations are getting exposed, he gets too easily punch-drunk when things aren’t going his way. So much attention, including his own, is directed at Julius’ shooting struggles (16.3 PPG on 24.1 shots/game, FTs included). But a remodeled point-forward who averaged a team-high 6.0 APG in his award-winning season could only muster 10 assists, to go with 10 turnovers, through the first three games of this series. Even in Game 4, Randle managed to up the ante with 7 assists, but accompanied that with 5 turnovers, 5 fouls for the second-straight game (the final hack a sketchy one), and lackadaisical defense that would have gotten someone else on Thibs’ roster benched. Much of Randle’s dime-drain stems from the lack of teammates, aside from Derrick Rose, making even open perimeter shots. Bailey, Banks and Biddle could come in and drop more gems than the trio of Barrett, Burks, and Bullock (combined 20-for-67 3FGs for the series). “I see it. I’m open,” RJ shared with The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov after Game 3. “I just got to make it.” Barrett proceeded to score 21 mostly by attacking inside, but the sophomore went 2-for-7 on jumpers outside the paint on Sunday. Randle’s Knicks have been grounded and pounded by the Hawks’ stout man and recovering help defenders, unable to sustain their rebounding advantage (lost 48-39 in Game 4), and unable to use foul-shot discrepancies as an excuse (Playoffs-low 17.5 FTAs/game; 70 FTs attempted by ATL in four games, 74 FTs made by NYK on 21 more attempts). While McMillan continues to preach to the Hawks about pursuing second, third, and fourth options in halfcourt possessions, the Knicks are getting mired in My-Turn, Your-Turn Land between Rose and Randle, and the other so-called “options” around the horn aren’t trying to locate each other. Playing to if not just a bit outside of his strengths, Rose (22.8 PPG, highest in a full series since his 2011 MVP season) is doing all he knows to do to help his team, but Randle (26.3 FG% on isos) isn’t creating for himself or others via post-ups. Third in the NBA in post-up possessions during the regular season, Julius is faintly credited by NBA Stats with a single post-up possession through four games in this series. Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock (1.0 APG this series; zero Game 4 points, 4 FGAs in 34 minutes) is so focused on putting the screws to Trae and others on defense, as Thibs explained to reporters on Sunday, that he’s running on empty at the other end. New York would love to have even Mr. 50/50/100 himself, Tony Snell, as a veteran option for spurts. Snell has been DNP’d after logging 12 minutes in the first two contests, and if he’s healthy he could be a surprise boost off the bench. In terms of scoring impact, Thibs’ mid-series decision to move Rose into his starting five was offset only slightly by substituting an injury-nagged Nerlens Noel with starter Taj Gibson. A starting Rose makes it imperative that Atlanta’s bench brigade seizes the opportunity to outshine New York’s once more. Leading the backups to a 31-28 edge over the Knicks in Game 3, 37-28 in Game 4, Atlanta reserves Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter rebounded and made key shots and plays, such that starters Bogi Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter didn’t need to have banner days for Atlanta to keep the Knicks at bay. Add a touch of a semi-productive Lou Williams, Onyeka Okongwu and/or Snell to the mix in Game 5 and the Hawks, outscored 64-31 in bench points in Game 1 and 55-22 in Game 2 thanks to Rose, could gain a decisive final advantage on the road. Just don’t All-Bench ‘em, Coach Nate. Division rival Washington gifted, let’s just say, this series’ eventual winner by extending their series with Philadelphia on Monday, denying the Sixers and their momentarily injured star center a definite rest advantage ahead of the Eastern Conference semis. That should only serve as further incentive for the Hawks to conclude the series with New York as soon as possible. Doing so on the road could serve as useful experience for what could lie ahead. It’s not about, “if I can make it here, I can make it at anything, anytime, versus anyone, anywhere.” Striving to be an omni-athlete on multi-vitamins in your late 30s is fine. Sadly, Nate Robinson had to learn about the flaws of relying on New York’s Tough-Guy Transitive Property, with poor preparation and poor focus, the hard way. Hopefully, Clint Capela and the Hawks will be able to assert the problematics of adhering to such a short-sighted mindset into the brains of the Knicks, along with the adoring fans that bothered to bring their brains with them, a bit more subtly tonight, just once more in the house that Ali-Frazier built. “We win the game, we talk ((Dellavedova)) and we push around. So, what are you gonna do about it?” Capela (13.0 RPG, 2nd in NBA Playoffs) asserted when asked of the Hawks’ calm, cool, connected counterpunches to the Knicks’ Glass Joe, wannabe-Fat Joe bravado. Clint has personal experience closing out Thibodeau, Gibson and Rose, plus Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler in Game 5, first-round action, when his 26 points and 15 boards helped CP3 and James Harden’s Rockets gentlemanly dispatch the Timberwolves to the hinterlands in 2017. “We can be physical, but we can win games as well. Now, we’re coming to your house to win this game, again, and send you on vacation.” I’m told the fish in the Hudson put up a good fight in the summertime. What are the Knicks going to do? A prominent New Yorker once noted that everybody has a plan until, well, Mr. Robinson surely knows the ending to that quotable. Do these Knicks even have a plan, one perhaps involving a basketball? It may no longer matter if they do, but we’ll all find out soon enough. When it comes to the outcome of this playoff series? It’s no longer up to you, New York, New York. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. A random employee in Atlanta says, “Hey! I’ve got your broom, Right Here!” 1989! The number. For young movie director Spike Lee, it was not about to be just another summer. For young 1st-Team All-NBA star Charles Barkley, it was shaping up to be just another long, bitter one. Sprawled out on the Spectrum arena floor, the NBA’s second-leading rebounder had carried his 7-seed 76ers as far as he could lug them. That limit was a first-round exit, a three-game sweep, at the hands of Rick Pitino’s New York Knicks, proud winners of a division title for the first time in 18 years. Barely over two weeks before the Morehouse grad’s new epic Do the Right Thing would premiere at Cannes, exuberant Knicks fans like Lee made the trip down I-95 to pack Philly’s hallowed arena for Game 3, with brooms in tow. Overwhelmed at turns by Pat Ewing and Charles Oakley protecting the rim, Sir Charles lacked the support to outshine New York’s leading scorer, Gerald Wilkins. After losing Games 2 and 3 by just a single point, the series-clincher in OT, Philadelphia’s final indignity came after the final buzzer, when a smug young Brooklyn-born heathen strutted his way into the stands. Just a second-year pro from St. John’s, Mark Jackson found a broom near his bench, then “borrowed” it from boastful lower-bowl Knick fans. He then led Charles Oakley, Eddie Lee Wilkins and teammates in a celebratory, inglorious “sweeping” of the Spectrum floor. To boos, as is custom, and select fingers from departing fans of the division rival. NYC. New York Cockiness, crystallized. “Instead of acting like they’d been there before… because THEY’d never actually been there before,” recalled Mike Vaccaro, New York Post columnist to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It just ticked off the basketball gods.” Indeed. Another upstart initialed MJ, one with more hubris than Mark Jackson and all the Knicks put together, awaited the Knicks in the next round. Momma, there he goes! Pitino quickly realized he’d better head to Lexington if he wanted to chase championships, and his hunch proved true. Over the next decade, New York could never escape The Real MJ’s shadow, finally reaching The Finals only after the Bulls’ star took some personal time off. Catching a break from the Atlanta Hawks in the strike-season playoff of 1999, an aging Ewing’s Knicks bowed to San Antonio in The Finals, leaving the team at 0-for-2 in the 1990s. New York hasn’t come close in the 22 years since. And, believe it, they’ve spent, and waved around, a lot of money just trying to come close. He was Rookie of the Year in 1988, and an All-Star in his second season, playing for his hometown team, so it was tough for Jackson, having won his first playoff series, to keep his “arrogaNYCe” in check. Jackson would feel bristles on his backside just two years later, as Michael Jordan’s Bulls closed out a not-very-gentlemanly 3-0 sweep at Madison Square Garden. Traded the next year, essentially for a more seasoned Doc Rivers, Mark would have to wait until age-34 of his 17-year career, in Indiana, just to get into The Finals. Perhaps, instead of a broom, Haughty Mark should have thought about grabbing a postgame microphone instead. Philadelphians, as you may have guessed by now, haven’t forgotten about The Brooms. The Sixers haven’t been any more successful, over the long haul, than their rivals to the north in reaching the Finals and doing much once they got there. But they do take joy in noting, like hockey fans used to rag the Rangers about “1940!”, about how long it’s been since the big-market bully’s basketball team won the whole shebang. “At least we’ve won a ring since 1973!”, is the cheesesteak-laden refrain. Amazingly, these fierce Atlantic Division rivals haven’t met in an NBA playoff series since the Knicks literally swept Barkley’s booty off his own floor. Philadelphia enters the 2021 NBA Playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top-seed. Alex Len and the Wizards of Westbrook will be a handful, but the Sixers and their fans would relish some long overdue second-round revenge. Oh, and let’s not forget the fellows that won their Game 1 yesterday, just five miles away from Madison Square Garden. The Nets of New Jersey got the last laugh, and their first laugh, over coach Lenny Wilkens’ Knicks back in 2004’s playoffs, a 4-0 sweep. They’ve since moved into posher, newer, closer settings in Brooklyn, spending gobs of moolah and the better part of the past decade making the Manhattan club look like NYC’s red-headed stepchild. Nets fans will tell you the Knicks aren’t yesterday’s news, they’re the prior millennium’s news. Brooklyn is what’s hot in these streets! That red-headed stepchild, emblematic of the Knicks? He’s grown up to become Michael Rapaport, in a mid-life crisis. The poor man can’t seem to decide which Atlantic Division team to throw his weight behind. Just four months ago, the part-time actor and full-time blowhard hopped on a podcast and declared the Knicks to be a “bleeping bleep show,” (you can easily fill in the bleeps), adding, “I will have to look at the god-bleep roster again, and be like, Who the bleep are at least eight of these bleeping guys?” This, before praising the Nets’ “culture” and announcing he is now a Boston Celtics front-runner. The Celtics. Because Kevin Durant got in his fee-fees, don’cha know. You want to guess who will likely be sitting along Gucci Row at MSG today? The longtime Knicks fan and movie director who got kicked out by the owner in 2020 and declared himself a Nets fan, until further notice, of course. The longtime Knicks fan who just got fed up with being a longtime Knicks fan and became, first, a Nets fan, then, a Celtics fan. Must be nice. A presumptive favorite to come out of the East with all of their all-world stars upright and aligned, the Nets wouldn’t mind putting the foots to Philly in the conference finals. But the prospect of a Gotham-themed Subway Series, with the conqueror heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in decades, or ever, is just too $cintillating a concept to ignore. The Knicks fans are at the table. The Sixers fans are at the table. The Nets fans are at the table. Banging their utensils. Knives out. Forks out. Staring directly at each other, salivating, ready to dig in. One NBA team has a good shot at ruining everybody’s appetite. Beginning today with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in New York (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT… hi, Chuck), if the Atlanta Hawks venture out of this series quashing decades-long dreams of revenge over the Brooms fiasco, if they turn the prospective Subway Series into more of an Amtrak Crescent Series, glum New Yorker fans everywhere, on WFAN radio, on TV, online, are going to become Sue Sylvesters. They are going to create an environment that is so… TOXIC… When the Hawks’ season abruptly concluded in 2020 with an overtime home loss to the Knicks, there remained dreams of a playoff appearance in 2021, one with a respectable first-round showing and a graceful exit against an established conference contender – maybe Rapaport’s Celtics, or perhaps his next team, the Raptors – summoning blissful memories of 2008 and 2014 inside what is now State Farm Arena and hopes for the future that lies ahead. Lloyd Pierce was right when, in 2020, the Hawks’ then-head coach adamantly declared, this is a playoff team next year. Not knowing who the additional Lotto-rookie and veteran talents Travis Schlenk could add as upgrades, aside from injured recent pickup Clint Capela, to surround his young core of Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter. LP was also unaware he would prove incapable of ensuring, as Clyde Frazier might say, that his intuition could come to fruition. He would have no idea, at that time, who would be the assistant taking over to make sure that it did. It was never his intention when he agreed to join Pierce’s staff, but Nate McMillan has proven to be a superior communicator and strategy designer, what one would hope of an interim coach now in his 21st NBA season directing a team. Steering back a Hawks club that looked to be veering off course over the first two-and-a-half months of this season, McMillan nearly had the Hawks (41-31; 27-11 officially under Coach Nate) in the same surprising 4-seed slot that his Pacers were in entering the last postseason. While riding the wave of healthier contributors on the roster, Nate has salvaged the Hawks’ season, and their forward-facing direction, much as he has done at his prior NBA stops. A grateful Atlanta club can reward him with much more than a mere contract extension, beginning with this series. Under the auspices of the Hawks, McMillan became the NBA’s 20th all-time winningest coach this season. But after having been swept in three of four postseasons with the Pacers, situations not helped by untimely injuries and star instability, Nate has the worst playoff coaching record (17-36, 32.1%) of any of the 35 most successful regular-season winners. A win today would help McMillan slip past the only person on that list who comes close – the Czar of the Telestrator, former Atlanta coach Mike Fratello (20-42, 32.3%). A series victory could help McMillan pass Terry Stotts (21-40, 34.4%), his successor at Portland who never saw a playoff game when he was a Hawks coach for three seasons. Nate looks at none of this stuff, but his legacy as a would-be Hall of Fame coaching entrant is muddled by having just one playoff series win in ten tries, when his 2005 Seattle Supersonics outclassed Rick Adelman’s Sacramento Kings. Hopefully, in 2021, he’ll have some players that will care about sweeping that history under the rug. As many Atlanta fans expected, the Hawks do get to be a road underdog in their first playoff appearance since 2017. But it turns out that it’s not the Celtics or Raptors who are hosting, nor is it the Sixers, Bucks, or Nets that were predictable adversaries Atlanta would strive to overcome. Instead, it’s virtually the same Knicks club (41-31, 3-0 vs. ATL to win the 4-seed tiebreaker) that barely eked ahead of the Hawks when the pandemic shut down last season for both teams. A New York club who was summarily dismissed by the Rapaports of the world, when a five-game skid had them at 5-8 to start this year. A club that didn’t need a Kyrie, a KD, or a Harden to regain its regional relevancy. It’s a New York team that began the season with a different head coach. One that had also been left out of 2021’s Bubble, and who became a parody of himself, while coaching elsewhere. Tom Thibodeau moved into the NBA’s Top-50 coaching-wins hierarchy with the Knicks’ late-season flourish (16-4 in final 20 games). But much like McMillan, his 24-32 postseason mark isn’t stellar, either. It would assuredly be much better had Thibs not overplayed his hand with young former MVP Derrick Rose, and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson, at two different NBA stops, beginning in 2012. Still, the two seasoned veterans’ presence as Knicks gives the rest of this year’s roster comfort that Thibs is a guy who’s worthy of their trust. Thibodeau gets the benefit of any doubts around New York because his assistant history, preceding his head coach years, included peak-year turns for the Celtics, Rockets and, going back to the late 1990s, the Knicks. It also helped that Thibs has taken a slow-paced squad with a moribund defense and converted them, with his imprint, into a snail’s-pace team that’s a defensive juggernaut (107.8 D-Rating. 4th in NBA). Seventh-year pro Julius Randle (career-highs of 24.1 PPG, 41.1 3FG%, 10.2 RPG, 6.0 APG) has been rejuvenated into the banner-bearing superstar two prior clubs no longer believed was conceivable when they let him swim away in free agency while searching for bigger fish. The sophomore slump that befell Atlanta’s Reddish prior to his injury did not come to pass for his former Duke teammate, R.J. Barrett (17.6 PPG; 40.1 3FG% and 74.6 FT%, up from his rookie-year 32.0 3FG% and 61.4 FT%). Mix in Reggie Bullock, and sixth-men Rose and Alec Burks, and you have under Thibs’ tutelage a true 3-and-D collective, their five leading active per-game minute-loggers all hitting above a 40-percent clip on three-point shots. Rookie Immanuel Quickley, at 38.9 3FG% (45.3% in his last 20 games), is not all that far behind. Together, they will milk the shot clock dry in halfcourt sets, until Randle discovers a shot, or a teammate mismatch, that his Knicks can exploit. New York can struggle to control the tempo, though, if they struggle to maintain possession. They finished this season with a 5-21 record when they’ve failed to collect at least 48.6 percent of the game’s total rebounds. These were games where the Knicks had to shoot spectacularly well to give themselves a shot at victory. Collins, who was not active on the boards (3 rebounds in 27 minutes @ NYK on April 21) when New York last defeated the Hawks, 137-127 in overtime, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu can help Capela (25 points, 9 O-Rebs and 13 D-Rebs @ NYK) firmly seize the rebounding edge from Randle, Gibson and Nerlens Noel. The Knicks will also have a tough time seizing possessions if Young (9.4 APG, 2nd in NBA) doesn’t hand any to them. Heeding McMillan’s pleas, Trae has trimmed down his turnover rate (2.15 assist/TO ratio pre-, 2.44 post-) since the All-Star Break. Last month, here at MSG, he was enjoying a field day as a passer (14 assists, 1 TO @ NYK on April 21; also 16 of his 20 points in the 1st quarter) before he and the Hawks were derailed by his third-quarter injury. Thibs will continue throwing all manner of defenders Trae’s way, from struggling starter Elfrid Payton and Quickley to Frank Ntilikina, to wings in killer-B’s Barrett, Bullock and Burks, while bringing bigs out to meet him at floater range. But Young is reading through the defenses with McMillan’s aid. Further, Trae and the Hawks are capable of dismissing unfair referee calls and non-calls, remaining focused, as easily as they can the audible distractions from New York’s blaring coach and desperate fans. Trae will have to be cognizant that out-of-flow, adventurous jump shots serve as Hawk turnovers just as effectively as a picked-off pass. He no longer has to be Mr. Big Shot, as he was in the run of play during his Lottery-bound seasons. But he can be Mr. Right Play, reminiscent of an accomplished Jason Kidd leading New Jersey to that desirous first-round sweep of the Knicks in 2004. Trae can help jog those fading memories of Knick fans further by being active on the defensive end, communicating and committing steals and deflections from passes produced out of the paint. Young has guys who can bring the 3-and-D, in Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic, to offset the Knicks’ perimeter threats. He has some D-if-not-much-3 support in the form of the returning De’Andre Hunter and former Knick fan Kevin Huerter. And he’s got some 3-if-not-much-D help from former Knick Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell, and Lou Williams. Young also has unrelenting lob threats to Collins and/or Capela when he beats his man, off-dribble and around screens, and draws bigs toward him on his drives. Not since Tom Hanks tap-danced on the keys at FAO Schwarz has a young man had so many fun toys around him to play with. But in the serious nature of playoff season, how well Atlanta fares will be tethered to Young’s maturing overall presence. Atlanta can be taken more seriously as an advancing lower-seed threat, in 2021, if they take defensive intensity as seriously as they do inside State Farm Arena (107.2 D-Rating at home under McMillan, mostly without Hunter or Reddish, since March 1, 5th in NBA). Up until Pierce’s departure, the Hawks’ D-Rating of 114.1 in away games (24th in NBA through February 28) was not ideal. But the efficiency got worse under McMillan’s watch (115.5 road D-Rating, 28th in NBA since March 1). Injuries and a more arduous midseason road schedule have played their parts. But, by comparison, Thibodeau’s defensive show consistently goes on the road (105.0 NYK road D-Rating before March 1, 109.2 from then on, both 2nd in NBA). It makes it simpler for pundits to overwhelmingly lean toward the Knicks as the favorites to win this series, a plurality of those prognostications in less than seven games. Active contributions from a well-rested Bogdanovic and Hunter on the defensive end, and steady commitment from Collins and Young to simplify coverage for Capela, can help Atlanta turn the tide in Games 1 and 2. Attendees at the Mecca of Basketball love their Knicks when they’re playing well, and love to loathe their Knicks when they’re not. Another trait is that they hold in high esteem the entertaining opponents who, individually, seem impossible at times to stop. MJ, Hakeem, Scottie, Reggie, Tim, Kobe, Steph, Harden. Many a Hall of Fame resume has been shined up on this floor with grand games, and indelible moments, at the expense of the host team. Young will have at least two opportunities to put up a memorable playoff performance at MSG, but it is all for naught if he tries to do too much single-handedly and the Hawks fail to tilt homecourt advantage in their favor. He’ll need to be less of a game-master, and more of a game-maestro. At the risk of being fined, it’s no mystery that New York’s longtime lovable losers finally showing some competence, and confidence, is a storyline that draws eyeballs throughout America and beyond. Even when not completely packed, arenas chock full of A-List celebrities, B-List celebrities, and C-List hangers-on will be spending of lot of their money and energy creating a cacophony, in New York and down in Georgia, in hopes of granting their team the psychological edge and having the Hawks quickly swept away, enough to probably fulfill the dreams of Knicks-Sixers and/or Knicks-Nets playoff face-offs. Atlanta already has the right guy with the coachspeak to keep the Hawks calm, cool and connected throughout this series, wherever it leads, in the face of menacing fans of the NBA’s darling mid-Atlantic teams. But in case that’s not enough, here’s some gleeful motivation from another accomplished “coach,” of sorts. Sue Sylvester, take it away! “It’s not easy to break out of your comfort zone. People will tear you down; tell you that you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. But let me tell you something: there’s not much of a difference in a stadium full of cheering fans, and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise; how you take it, is up to you. Convince yourself that they’re cheering for you. You do that, and someday, they will.” And that’s the double truth, Ruth! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “Psst! Mayor Bill! Here. Come sit by me.” We’re back in The Traedium for Game 4 (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC)! “Tidbits in the Morning!” We want the New York Knicks and their unctuous supporters to mutter, “Well, we’ll just see you back here in Game 6!” and “Knicks in 7!” once today’s affair concludes. Doing so will require our Atlanta Hawks to continue take care of The Seven R’s. Randle. Rose. (hold on, the time clock just messed up again. Okay, where were we? At two?) Rebounding. RJ. Reggie. Recovery. And the Refs. One sobering Knickfan on SB Nation put it plainly after Friday’s raucous Game 3 win. Paraphrasing: in this series, one team’s star is building its entire team around him and the infectious synergy he creates. The other team’s star is trying to get up off the mat and do all he can think to do, for a club that effectively drafted his eventual replacement back in November. Julius Randle (14.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, but 20.6 2FG% and 30.0 3FG%) is struggling to be the best R on his team, much less the best R on the floor (Hey, New York, maybe try “RAYFORD!” as a Game 5 taunt? It used to work so well for Mets fans with “LARRY!”). I see Derrick Rose (24.3 PPG, 51.7 FG%, 4.7 APG) as more of a release valve than a player steaming up the nets in this series. His scoring efficiency would be problematic for the Hawks if he were the Knicks’ supplementary, not the primary and ultimate, threat. Somebody has to score, and he’s scoring mostly in his own conventional ways, although Atlanta doing better at honoring his three-point shot (3-for-5 3FGs in Game 3, rest of NYK 6-for-25) will help bring that efficiency down. If he can give the Knicks quality production over the course of 25-30 minutes, not 35-39, that would be better for them in the long haul. If only to get somebody aside from Rose to stir things up inside, look for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to put his rookie Immanuel Quickley (89.1 regular-season FT%, 11th in NBA) on the ball more going forward. Momma Payton, I am so sorry. Similarly, it would aid New York if they could get rebounding and stops from a guy over three years Rose’s senior in 15-20 minutes, not 25-30. Taj Gibson could not duplicate his Game 2 impact on Friday (six rebounds and 0 steals, down from 7 and 3, respectively; 2-for-6 FGs in 26 minutes), allowing Atlanta, less hemmed-in by foul trouble, to narrow the Knicks’ rebounding advantage from 54-41 last Wednesday to 45-42. The Knicks still nabbed 13 O-Rebs for the third consecutive game, with all five starters plus Nerlens Noel and Obi Toppin digging in during Game 3. Atlanta properly boxing out and relying on help rebounders like De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Tony Snell, to cut down on extra-chance scoring opportunities will make New York’s uphill climbs steeper. We never got to find out how the player Atlanta traded for, out of 2018’s #3 spot, might have fared in his postseason debut, had it come about in his second pro season. We can only hope it would not be as much of a challenge as it has been, so far, for the fellow the Knicks came away with at #3 in 2019. With one more Hawks win tonight, Canada Men’s National Team GM Rowan Barrett will hope to begin re-orienting his son, RJ (34.2 FG%, incl. 2-for-9 in Game 3), toward another team entirely next month. A three-game comeback and another week or two of second-round action won’t give Rowan much time to convene his talented kid with Nick Nurse, Andrew Wiggins and the Canadians for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which begins in British Columbia less than a month from today. Looking at the current ongoings in Japan, though, this “problem” may take care of itself. Some bad news from Game 3 was, the Hawks only scored a pair of fastbreak points. The good news is Atlanta still won that category on Friday, by two (2-0 Game 3, 15-6 Game 2, 9-9 Game 1). Getting shut out in that department won’t sit well with Thibs, who expects a modicum of quick-strike transition after defensive stops to throw teams off. The Hawks will look to push the pace more frequently on a team so reliant on Rose and Gibson to run the court. The Knicks will turn to Quickley, on occasion, to hurry the ball upcourt and kick out the ball to their killer B’s (Reggie Bullock, Barrett, Alec Burks), in hopes of getting them unstuck with kickouts to the corners. Can Elf give Bullock some hair advice? That’s all I’ve got for Reggie. If Atlanta is so fortunate as to begin pulling away in the second half, Bullock and the Knicks have an R of their own up their sleeve – Resorting, to thuggery, either to tilt Game 4 back toward their favor and/or “send a message” that a potential closeout Game 5 in Manhattan won’t be so kind. As young and inexperienced as the Hawks are, they pulled off a masterclass in rash-alk on Friday… trash-talk, without any T’s. Whatever they’re doing to keep the Referees’ attention on the Knicks’ big mouths, keep it up! Closing tidbit: I’m happy Mayor Keisha hasn’t been goaded into a pointless wager with Bill de Blah-Blah-Blah. Who wants to win some wet teddy bears on a bun, anyway? We’ll keep our bushels of peaches, thank you. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “Hey, look, he found a seat in the rafters! That’s CRAZY! What up, Spike? We see you!” The Georgia Dome might still be with us. It could have been a beloved local landmark. I doubt we’d have enjoyed the luck Tampa Bay did, watching the hometown NFL team win a Super Bowl in there. But for a fleeting 48 hours in May, in the lockout-shortened year of 1999, the prospect of a packed house for an NBA Finals in Atlanta was lining itself up nicely. The #1 seed in the East, the heat, was already gone. So was the #3 seed, the Magic. As for the #2 seed, the Pacers lost the season-series to the Hawks, 3-1, and the one win was in a nip-and-tuck overtime period, one forced by a Steve Smith buzzer-beating three. But for that late-season defeat, Atlanta would have been the #2 seed. And the rickety Market Square Arena, where the Hawks already won twice that season, was no Georgia Dome. Entering the conference semifinals, and boasting the league’s best perimeter and scoring defense, the #4-seeded Hawks were as sound as any team remaining in the East. While a new arena was being constructed around the corner, Atlanta could pack over 22,000 fans, or more if necessary, under the lights in the white-domed palace that was the pride of the Dirty Birds. To get within one step of the NBA Finals, all Atlanta had to do was hold homecourt, beginning with a pair of games against a #8 seed that was happy just to have made it that far. The problem for the Hawks, and their fans at the Georgia Dome, was the name on the front of the jerseys, and on the front of T-shirts worn by much of the capacity crowd. Knicks fans from Long Island and Brooklyn, Knicks fans from LaGrange and Brookhaven. From the looks and sounds of the games, it appeared as if “NEW YORK” had taken over Georgia. Just weeks before, New York had narrowly avoided losing the final playoff spot to Charlotte. By the time the visiting Knicks arrived in Atlanta, though, Latrell Sprewell, in a stunning PR turn, had become a folk hero, Allan Houston an actual one. The youngest Knick on the roster, the springy Marcus Camby, joined Spree off the bench to outshine Atlanta’s Smith and Dikembe Mutombo by leaps and bounds. As for the Hawks, Mookie Blaylock and Grant Long were disturbingly sloppy and out-of-sync. As Sprewell and the Knicks surged, the only choking going on involved coach Lenny Wilkens’ club, under pressure in their own rented place, with few of their own fans to turn toward for motivation. The uplifting energy to get hobbled Knick legend Pat Ewing one more shot at a ring became an overwhelming force, making Hawks Fever, or the lack of it, easy to stifle. With Atlanta near last-place in attendance despite the spacious settings, the Knicks were able to roll out The World’s Largest Welcome Mat for their own fans to open the semifinal series. Even with only two days’ notice, fans of New York sports, and sports fans from New York, had Georgia’s Dome packed, and rocking. The Hawks’ starters let a promising 13-2 start to Game 2 dissipate quickly. Much like the end of Game 1 featuring Anthony Johnson, by the time the fourth quarter began and Atlanta’s only offensive hope was Ed Gray, the defeatist mindset crept in. With the Knicks up 2-0 on the Hawks, the teams left for Madison Square Garden, and there was never to be a Game 5 back “home” at the Dome. Top-seeded Miami getting upset by their hated northern rivals in a decisive fifth game was one thing. But 8-seeds aren’t supposed to be the ones doing the sweeping. Atlanta ceded their seeding, and their will, away over the course of two home games that could have been pivotal to making “Believe Atlanta” something worth chewing on. 22 years later, the opportunity to “Believe Atlanta” has come around once more. The 5-seed Hawks almost had the Knicks thinking of Gone Fishin’, but Game 2 became The One That Got Away. Still, sneaking out of MSG with the eye-opening Game 1 win has the Hawks in the pilot’s seat in this best-of-seven first-round matchup. Win your home games and you’re in the second round, regardless. The worry going forward, beginning tonight with Game 3 (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, ESPN), is that sense of New York becoming “NEW YORK” when things are going well for the visitors at State Farm Arena. It must be emphasized, however, that 1999 is not 2021. While this season’s collective is only now getting their feet wet, the Hawks of yesteryear already had soggy, smelly toes. There were, by 1999, seven consecutive postseasons, most of them under Coach Lenny, without breaking through to the Eastern Conference Finals. Frankly, without Dominique Wilkins in tow, the appetite to see that particular group break through was appallingly low. No one dreamed of erecting a statue of a trophy-hoisting Chris Crawford in the plaza between the Dome and the old Omni. Especially with the heat out of the picture, 1999 was the last chance for those Hawks to prove, to fans, to scant and skeptical local media, to the shaky management and tenuous ownership, that this was a barren bandwagon worth jumping on. Smitty and Mookie falling flat at that, spectacularly so under the bright lights, ushered in the Isaiah Rider and Bimbo Coles era. The completion of the Thrashers’ and Hawks’ new arena was coupled with the eventual demolition of the roster, and the dispatching of their cigar-swilling, but beleaguered, head coach. Comparatively, 2021 is the current Hawks’ first chance to demonstrate itself as a team on the come up. Local media is halfway-decent and reasonable. Ownership isn’t tentative, management is far from shaky. And today’s fans are more likely to paint the town red, not blue-and-orange, because Atlanta’s star guard is far from shook. Since the Hawks blew Game 2 in NYC with a weak second-half showing, there won’t be any brooms parading about The Farm this weekend. Still, this is a team that can help sweep away notions of Atlanta Sports Past, where local teams find themselves cowed into submission, while playing at home, by the lore of name-brand opponents. Beyond Hawks-Knicks ’99, see Hawks-Lakers ’70, Flames-Red Wings ’78, Flames-Maple Leafs ’79, Falcons-Cowboys ’80, Bravos-Phillies ’93, Bravos-Yankees ’96, Bravos-Yanks ’99, Bravos-Giants ’02, Bravos-Cubs ’03, Thrashers-Rangers ’07, Bravos-Giants ’10, Falcons-Packers ’11, Bravos-Cards in Chipper’s farewell (Infield Fly, anyone?) ’12, Falcons-Niners ’13, Silverbacks-Cosmos ’13, Hawks-LeBron ’15. UGA-Bama ’18. Over the course of five decades, these were playoff games, playoff series, and title games, as either on-paper favorites, or underdogs earning a chance at an upset, where Atlanta simply needed to hold serve in their home venue to bend the course of this town’s sordid sports-history trajectory. For fans to Believe Atlanta, our players needed to believe in their own collective capacity to shatter national narratives and regional doubts. The daring Hawks that were 8-seeds in Boston, in 2008, had little chance of success in slaying that emerging giant in Boston’s garden. But on the three occasions the Celtics brought their bean-eating fans into The Highlight Factory, the host Hawks stood firm, inspiring local fans who drowned out anything and anybody repping Team Green. Even today, one could envision somebody molding a Zaza Pachulia forehead statue somewhere. The 2008 team, in their playoff debut, didn’t put everything on Joe Johnson’s shoulders. Neither should it be the case this weekend for Trae Young, joining Phoenix’s Devin Booker this year as only the 6th NBA player to score over 30 points in his first two postseason appearances. With a little help from his friends, Trae can help the Hawks do much more than just get by. Starting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, and bench mates Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Tony Snell came up small in Game 2’s 101-92 defeat (combined 4-for-24 3FGs), while starting bigs John Collins and Clint Capela came up infinitesimal on the offensive end (2-for-7 FGs, each of Clint’s makes coming in the fourth quarter comeback attempt). Scoreless for the first time in his pro career, Collins’ utility was neutered by foul trouble, but Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau did a fine job of taking lob plays from Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, to Capela and/or Collins, off the table. With so much focus on pressuring Trae, and keeping paint touches for Atlanta bigs slim, it was a great opportunity for Bogi, Gallo and others to sink enough shots, or make enough productive passes, to ensure a triple-digit final score and put New York away early. But in this playoff-intense environment, the Knicks roughed up Lou Will, De’Andre Hunter and others, over the course of the game, enough that the Hawks could not seem to place its focus on the basket (2-for-12 fourth-quarter 3FGs) at closing time. It’s certainly not the primary rotation question that dogs Hawks coach Nate McMillan after Game 2, but Nate Mac was hesitant to overplay Onyeka Okongwu (a doug-e-fresh six minutes in Game 2, less than three in Game 1). That decision left Danilo Gallinari on the floor with guards Kevin Huerter (minus-29 in Game 2) and Williams for longer stretches in the second half than was ideal. To be sure, Gwu Tang’s an inexperienced rookie, but so is the forward drafted two spots after him. Thibs was able to spell a still-struggling Julius Randle with Obi Toppin in minutes impactful enough that the MSG crowd was chanting the rookie’s name early in the fourth quarter. While attacking the rim on offense, Toppin helped secure defensive boards and protect the rim at the other end, aiding Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson in controlling the Game 2 glass (13-6 offensive and 41-35 defensive rebounding advantages vs. ATL). Joining Toppin and Boston’s Aaron Nesmith as the sole Lotto-rookies getting playing time in the postseason, Okongwu isn’t expected to come through in the clutch like Al Horford did in 2008’s tone-setting Game 3 home debut. But he can offer that defensive presence inside that Gallinari, watching Taj Gibson burrow and Toppin fly around him, cannot. That can allow Hunter to sink his teeth defensively on Knick shooters like Reggie Bullock (matching Trae’s 4-for-7 3FG output in Game 2) and the ageless wonder, the free-wheeling Derrick Rose (26 points, 2-for-3 3FGs, 4 assists, 1 TO as the de facto lead point guard). If not Yek, McMillan can at least take a Stab at deploying Solomon Hill for a few short spells. Trae was magnetic with his pull-up jumpers, and with his “Dr. T” flair on one first-half scoop to the hoop around Randle, who he has personally given fits in this series. But the added defensive attention directed to Young means his floor mates must do more than spot-up and shoot when gifts from their gifted guard come their way. “It was a lot of settling on the perimeter as opposed to attacking,” Coach Nate shared with the AJC’s Sarah Spencer and reporters of the Hawks’ second-half shot selection after Game 2. “I don’t know if that was because our guys were a little tired ((with that extra day off, they shouldn’t be)), or what, but we weren’t getting to the basket, playing in our third and fourth option.” Driving inside gets Gibson and Noel to vacate their assignments, allowing Collins and Capela to finish plays, not just the lobs, before the Knicks’ bigs can recover. This series is an opportunity to showcase not only the revamping of the Hawks’ roster. Extensive remodeling of then-Philips Arena began in 2017, with the focus on maximizing the views and amenities for basketball fans. Years of staged improvement culminating in a State Farm Arena that, by 2020, was touted as the #1 Overall Game Experience among NBA season-ticket holders. The question remains: for which team’s fans, precisely? The Hawks’ spitfire point guard, his steely composure shining and not spitting-mad about the fans in NYC, is salivating at the possibility for a different Overall Game Experience in Games 3 and 4. “I hope Atlanta’s ready to bring that energy,” Trae told the AJC on Wednesday. “I hope it’s loud. I hope everybody’s excited to have the playoffs back in The A.” While the mouth-watering Young is clearly pumped up, he is going to need nine fellow Hawks to give it their letter-best for up to 40 -- okay, Nate, fine – 35 minutes of wild-and-wooly action. He’ll need at least 12,000 fans in attendance who are willing to Believe Atlanta, or at least outcheer the attendees who don’t. A more balanced offensive effort and continued adhesion to defensive principles in the face of the Knicks’ Gorgeous George tactics, will have the Farm rocking and the site of the Hawks’ 12th consecutive home win. By the time State Farm Arena is up for renewal, around 2035 or so, let’s hope this core of Hawks becomes part of the reason it stays standing, beginning with the way they bring down the house with their performance tonight. “We can’t tear down a legendary landmark!”, we’ll squeal. “After all, it’s not just The Highlight Factory, it’s ATLANTA’s Championship Factory!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. The Moment Knicks fans realized they got stuck with the wrong Italian. Welcome to the Madison Square Garden branch of the New York Public Library. Now, sssshhh, you blowhard New York Knicks fans. Can you not see, Trae Young is reading you up and down right now? The Human Spoiler Alert, Trae and his Atlanta Hawks cannot get too far over their skis ahead of Game 2 (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT). But when you form Mount Rushmores with LeBron (30-10-and-5+), D-Wade (game-clinching FG with under 5 seconds left), and Derrick Rose and CP3 (w/ LeBron, 30-10+) in your winning NBA Playoffs debut over a thirsty media darling, you get to dictate what’s going on with the Dewey Decimal System. The Big Idea in The Big Apple was that Atlanta’s hush-puppy point guard would wilt in his postseason debut, perhaps confusing 2021 Trae with the young man who officially began his career in 2018 on this hell-owed Madison Square Garden floor. Then, his resounding Game 1 performance on Sunday (32 points on 10-for-20 2FGs and 9-for-9 all-4th-quarter FTs, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 TOs) helped his Hawks gut out a 107-105 win and the playoff-starved host’s fanbase simultaneously. Now, the new Big Idea as Game 2 approaches is that it’s their one-time All-Star who gets the butterflies out of his system. Reaching as high as #15 among all-time players with no NBA Playoffs experience under their belt (446 regular-season games, tied with Brandon Knight, Darius Miles, and Geoff Petrie), 2021 Most Improved Player award-winner Julius Randle is officially off the list, leaving behind Zach LaVine (411 games) as the new active leader. In the cases of the other three stuck at 446, no one was expecting those guys to lead a team’s charge into the playoffs by the time each reached appearance #400. It turned out that the rust was real for Randle (6-for-23 FGs, would-be 6-for-24 had his mid-range heave gotten off in the final 0.9 seconds of Game 1, 1-for-2 FTs and 12 rebounds), much of it a product of the defensive activity by the Hawks’ John Collins to lure him into rushed off-screen jumpers rather than attacks around the rim, with help at turns by De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari. Randle has no choice but to be better in Game 2, but any incremental improvement may also be offset by one from the Collins-Clint Capela duo (combined 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting, 20 rebounds and 4 blocks) if coach Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted defense can’t thwart pick-and-roll penetration. Randle’s second-in-command, second-year forward RJ Barrett (6-for-15 FGs, including 1-for-6 on threes) had a moment to remember but a night to forget. The Maple Mamba’s third-quarter, game-tying poster waffle served only to wake up Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finished a syrupy sweet 4-for-6 from Times Square. Bogi also had two critical steals and a mid-floor stop on Rose in the second half. Knick starters took a grand total of six free throws and shot a combined 17-for-53 from the field. At this stage, it borders on unfairness to classify Elfrid Payton (0-for3 FGs and 1 assist in 8 minutes) as a starter. Throw in Rose, the 32-year-old sixth-man logging a team-high 37.7 minutes in the series opener for Coach Thibs, and those six Knicks were a combined 4-for-21 on threes. Hawk defenders Hunter and Kevin Huerter did a fine job of shooing shooters off the three-point line in the clutch, keeping New York from pulling away. Thank goodness, Spike and the Knicks fans must have thought, for Alec Burks (27 points, 9-for-13 FGs and 6-for-8 FTs in 26 “not basketball” minutes) heating up, rookie Immanuel Quickley getting some hero-shots to fall, and the oldest Knick on the roster, Taj Gibson (9 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive), being the beneficiary of some of those wayward Knick caroms. New York starters have no choice but to be a better collective in Game 2. But any incremental advantage they gain may similarly be offset by a stronger performance from Atlanta’s Gallinari, whose binary bench production (1 3FG, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block) belied his 3-for-11 shooting display. Getting open shots from Gallo and Bogi to splash early can facilitate Trae putting games on Ice late. The Hawks got just enough from Lou Williams, and drips and drabs from Tony Snell, to keep the team in position for Young’s silencing salvos, setting the stage for New York’s first home loss this season after leading through three quarters. The new goal for Atlanta is to build up enough of a fourth-quarter lead that the new #84 on the No-Playoffs-Yet list, Kris Dunn, gets to enjoy some floor burn. He was radio silent on whether Washington Capitals goon Tom Wilson making frozen mincemeat of Rangers star Artemi Panarin’s face was hockey. And he struggles to say much of anything with his whole chest about his governor hunting aides around the office. But when it comes to the concept of Knicks opponents “hunting fouls,” it appears NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio has found his voice. “ThAt HaWk WoN’t FlY. I tHiNk ThE kNiCkS aRe GoInG tO tEaCh YoU a LeSsOn.” Shut Up and Politics, Billy De Whinyams! Hizzoner knows a legitimate threat when he sees one. So does Barnes and Noble, the library-killing NYC-based store which took time out of their lengthy liquidation to name-check Mr. Young this past Monday morning. The threat is not so much the free throws Young earns, it’s the knowledge that you might have to smuggle pigeons and pizza rats into MSG just to distract him from making most, of not all, of them. Nine years ago, both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were gifted nine freebies during a Game 2 loss against the heat in Miami, but each missed three of them. Stoudemire promptly assailed a sign that said “Break Glass in Case of Emergency,” and extinguished himself. Melo’s co-star’s lacerated hand left him wanting to punch himself as the Knicks failed to win Game 3 back home (despite 19 combined free throws by Melo and Tyson Chandler), all but sealing the deal of ever catching up with LeBron (12-for-13 FTs) and Friends in that first-round series. Eight years ago this month, Paul George made 7 of his 8 foul shots in Game 1 at the Garden. He’d have made more had the Knicks’ J.R. Smith not come off the bench hunting for fouls (7-for-10 FTs) and snookering PG-13 out of the game. Alas, coach Mike Woodson’s Knicks let that critical home game slip away, allowing Indiana to hold serve at home and prevail in six games. The city is only now recovering from eight years of being New York Undercover. The Knicks still want to win this series, but with all the hullabaloo after Game 1, it’s clear their fans, and the shrill shills in the media that finance their livelihoods purely off them, are simply starving to see their team win a playoff game in their own building for the first time since outlasting PG’s Pacers for a stay of execution in Game 5 of that 2013 series. Knick fans are all packed, ready to invade StubHub and head South. But quite a few will be checking their refund policies if their team finds themselves down 2-0. Young, coached up by Nate McMillan, understands Atlanta needs more than one Hawk to fly. The Knicks have to either deny him the ball, or deny his paint penetration, and take away his shot-making threats. Even with Thibodeau’s layered schemes, it remains to be seen whether New York defenders can accomplish two of those three tasks for significant stretches of games, all while not getting caught hacking. They’ll have to do the same with Bogdanovic and Williams, neither of whom found much resistance finding their own offense or their teammates when handling the rock. Staying true to McMillan’s edict, Young’s two turnovers were a team-high (six ATL player TOs in Game 1), and the “Fowl-hunting” Knicks have to be disruptive of more than just Trae to even this series. Might the MSG Library close tonight? For the fanbase, waiting for a Game 5 to celebrate a Knicks home victory might prove to be a wait that’s a few days too long. The gnashing of teeth around Gotham is the realization that if they don’t turn it around convincingly, today, they might have to hold out another year, or eight, to get another chance. Randle could be outta here by 2022, while Rose, Burks, Nerlens Noel (questionable for Game 2, sprained ankle) and Reggie Bullock could catch a payday somewhere else this summer. Due to term limits, Mayor De Bloviator knows 2021 is his last chance to artificially boost his ratings ahead of his next run for a job somewhere in the Empire State. By next year, playoffs or not, when Trae Young and Atlanta pays a visit, this place could become the New York Public Library, State Farm Arena North branch. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “STARRING: Julius Randle (left) and Tom Thibodeau, in THE ODD COUPLE. Wednesdays, 8 Eastern/7 Pacific, on ABC” We all understand, this isn’t supposed to actually be working, right? A former top-10 pick dumped by the Lakers after struggling to develop into a superstar, and a past-his-heyday head coach getting passed around the NBA, come together in a New city. Add in a top-fight Dookie, plus a gaggle of misfit veterans and youthful ne’er-do-wells, and just sit back and watch the sparks fly. Get your laugh track ready! That’s the story of the New Orleans Pelicans, with Brandon Ingram filling in occasionally for either of Zion’s or Lonzo’s roles alongside SVG. That’s the tale that was supposed to have fun, frolic, and surprising victories along the way. Not the one about the New York Knickerbockers Basketball Club. Consider, also, that the Manhattan flat Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau share, with R.J. Barrett, some Cats, and a few Tar Heels, has a notoriously maniacal superintendent. This was supposed to be an unmitigated disaster! Funny, yes. But, disastrously funny! Well, the Super has finally relented, giving up oversight of his run-down, overpriced digs to professional management, led by former mega-agent Leon Rose and Steve Mills-era holdover GM Scott Perry. Under Rose and Perry’s watch, the Knicks drafted Obi Toppin, then took a draft-and-stash foreign import and traded him for rookie Immanuel Quickley. They brought in Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, then cut and re-signed Elfrid Payton in the offseason. Early in the season, they reeled in Thibs disciples Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. The team’s only Trade Deadline move was collecting a pair of second rounders for Austin Rivers’ contract. On its face, this is all well and good. But from a team that checked out of 2020’s pandemic-shortened season at 21-45, this does not a 32-27 team make! The transformation is clearly about the two leads, who go together, like, ramma lamma lamma, ka ding a da dinga a dong. It’s a Broadway smash! Who needs to see some Damn Yankees? (Good luck to Ian Anderson tonight, btw.) It’s hard to imagine Thibodeau walking in the door, staring at his marquee-by-default forward and declaring, “You’re The One That I Want”. Oh, yes indeed, the Post’s Yaron Weitzman reports Thibs was “hardly sold” on Randle, maybe as an Alton Lister, but not as his A-Lister. Yet after tenures with the Bulls and Timberwolves went sour, in the new Knicks coach’s mind, “there’s no rebuilding or long term with Thibs,” a colleague relayed to Weitzman. His commitment to dance with whatever Rose and Perry can bring through the door gives him job security. Meanwhile, Randle’s commitment to stepping up his skills at both ends of the floor gave him a worthy All-Star nod. Julius is shooting from the floor at about the same clip as he did in 2020’s lost season, only instead of 27.7 3FG% on under four attempts per game, he’s nailing 40.1 3FG% on over five shots. He’s upped his free throw shooting from 73.3 FT% to 80.2 FT%. Dusting off hints of what he could be back in his primitive Laker years, Randle’s become a nifty passer (career-high and team-high 6.1 APG). Even despite the injury absence, and then season-ending loss, of center Mitchell Robinson, Randle has been more of a force on the interior, doing a better job of forcing turnovers while cutting down on his inclination to foul anything in his vicinity. With Noel stepping up to offer more rim protection, Randle can focus on securing boards and getting down the floor to help Payton, Rose and Quickley set up plays. The ne’er-do-wells are still here, folks like Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. But Thibs’ ability to rely on Quickley and the veterans around Randle limits the necessity of giving those guys major floortime. Coming out of the end of last month and heading into this one, things weren’t exactly clicking. After beating the starter-less Bucks in Milwaukee, New York dropped five of six games, sinking the team back into the 7-through-10 morass of the NBA East. Letting a late lead slip away in Boston just two Wednesdays ago, the Knicks and their division-rival Celtics looked like two ships passing in the night. But now, New York has turned their little a H.M.S. Pinafore around, and it’s been full speed ahead ever since. After crop-dusting the Hornets last night at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks are awaiting the arrival of the Atlanta Hawks (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network in NYC) and hoping tonight will make it eight victories in a row, their longest streak since Melo, Junior Hardaway and coach Mike Woodson won eight-straight back in March 2014. The Knicks (1.5 games ahead of 7-seed Miami) are not only seeking to surpass the 38 wins, combined, they collected over the prior two seasons, nor are they simply out to finish this 72-game season with more wins than when Thibs assistant-turned-Hoosier recruiter Woody guided this team to a 37-45 record in 2013-14, his final season in charge. The flagship franchise of the NBA’s largest sports market, New York has never gone eight seasons without a postseason appearance, the current drought being the longest since sitting out of the Eastern playoffs from 1960 through 1966. The only way to avoid this fate, for certain, is to eliminate the risk of rolling a gutter ball on this season’s 7-10 split. The Hawks, also playing a back-to-back after fending off Orlando last night, are near ideally positioned to be the team that can slow the Knicks’ roll. New York has the second-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA East, but you wouldn’t know it until you peek at the road trip that awaits that team in May. The West Coast swing starts quietly enough, in Houston, but then things slowly get amped all the way up to 11. Playoff-hungry Memphis, the next night, then Denver, then Phoenix, then the Clippers, then a Lakers team whose stars are currently healing up. It would be useful for Atlanta (32-26) if they and, say, the Suns, can serve up a couple defeats during this six-game MSG homestand and get the doubts seeping back in, before the Knicks have to put their 13-17 road record to the test. It has been a couple years since I’ve had to worry about it, but you all know how I feel about first-round opponents for the Hawks whenever playoff time nears. No smaller-market, low-hype teams allowed. Don’t give me the Hornets, the Pacers, or the P.K. Raptors, with games shoved over to truTV or NBATV+ or something. Now, the Knicks, or the Celtics, or the heat, as a first-round challenge to force outside eyes to take the Hawks seriously? Bring it on! Before tipping off tonight at the so-called Mecca, the Hawks have to decide whether they want this to be Game 1, Game 5 and Game 7 Practice, or Game 3 and Game 6 Practice. This is shaping up to be a tasty prospect for a 4/5 matchup. That is… UNLESS… Atlanta wants to get greedy, commit to sound basketball over the next couple weeks, and make Hawks-Knicks a possible 3/6. As a theoretical and stunning three-seed, maybe it’s Clint Capela (NBA-high 14.5 RPG) who steals precious votes away from Randle at Most Improved Player and All-NBA voting time. Perhaps, it’s Nate McMillan (NBA-best 18-6 since March 1) who ekes ahead of Thibs in the final Coach of the Year tallies. Overcoming the heightened praise of the NYC media would be quite a feat, but a 3-seed is about what it would take. The reconfigured Randle is capable of feasting both inside, as demonstrated in the Knicks’ successful 113-108 visit to Atlanta on January 4 (11-for-14 2FGs, 17 rebounds, 9 assists), and outside, as shown in New York’s 123-112 win on February 15 (44 points, 7-for-13 3FGs, 9 rebounds, 5 assists). Coming off an assertive mutual performance yesterday against the Magic, the C+C Muscle Factory (combined 25 points and 34 boards for John Collins and Clint Capela vs. ORL, each under 27 minutes logged) will have a better gameplan for assessing what kind of game Randle is aiming for tonight. The Knicks have grown accustomed to Thibs’ orders, forcing ballhandlers into insane shots, and grabbing lots of misses to control possessions. Knick opponents shoot an NBA-low 33.6 3FG%, and even their 75.6 FT% is the second-lowest. The rebounders and the wing defenders keep the second-chance and transition opportunities low (NBA-best 12.5 April opponent points-per-48 off TOs), and the defensive efficiency high (105.9 April D-Rating, 3rd-best in NBA). A repeat of Tuesday’s season-high 65 team rebounds is a bit too much to ask of Atlanta, especially given the Knicks (38.0 team 3FG%, 6th in NBA), unlike the watered-down Magic, are capable of hitting the side of a barn. When Randle gets bottled up, he can look to some killer B’s – Barrett (39.1 3FG%, up from 32.0% his rookie season), Reggie Bullock (40.1 3FG%), and aside from today, bench man Burks (40.8 3FG%, but out due to Health ‘n Safety Protocols) to provide a little sting. The Hawks’ swingmen will have to do more than merely counter. Anderson’s Shen alum Kevin Huerter is in a New York State of Mind, seeking to make amends after going 1-for-9 from deep during his last visit here. Unavailable for that game, and mostly a non-factor in January, Bogdan Bogdanovic (47.3 3FG% in last 8 games) seeks to build from an understated outing yesterday. Trae Young (9.8 APG in last 6 games, 22 assists in 2 games vs. NYK) can find these shooters in their spots even as he’s being hounded. But Atlanta’s guards and wings must be impactful with their perimeter defense and rebounding, not just with their shooting. Fighting for loose balls and long caroms, and serving up some New York strip when the bigs hesitate and bring the ball below their waists, can defuse what can be, despite Randle and the Knick wings’ prolific shooting skills, a sluggish and selfish offense (NBA-low 96.4 Pace, 95.8 this month; 53.9 assist%, 2nd-lowest in NBA). The Hawks under MacMillan have shown the ability to play, and excel, at slower tempos (9-4 in March despite the league’s second-slowest Pace in that stretch). Controlling the ball (via rebounding and turnover margins) and the pace to suit the talent on the floor can help Atlanta overcome this month’s most efficient team (NBA-best 8.9 April Net Rating by NYK). The Knicks would love moving up a few spots in the East and being considered a serious championship contender like their cousins across the East River. But as far as their long-suffering fans are concerned, this season, thanks to the Thibs-Randle comedy duo, is already a box-office boffo. If this collective simply makes the playoffs and survives the first round for only the second time in 21 years, in this town, they’ll be remembered forever, as shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom-de-boom. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “What’s that you want, Coach Thibs? ICE? ICE? ICE?” It’s not just our Atlanta Hawks under a cold spell! They’ll get to understand this from a front-and-center view all this week, as it seems the entire Eastern Seaboard, from the Georgia mountains north, has been walking through a winter plunder-land. By the time Our Fine Feathered Friends depart on Tuesday morning for Boston, after tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network) concludes, the near 40-degree temps will feel downright balmy. It’s probably the only time the Hawks will spend this week free of some combination of frigid temperatures and slippery roads and sidewalks. Just 0.5 games behind Atlanta (11-15) in the standings, the current 11-seed Chicago Bulls, playing the Pacers in Indy tonight, are the thin layer of ice keeping the Hawks in the Play-In picture. To keep from falling through, unconventionally, the Hawks must bring some warmth to their proceedings with the Knicks (13-15, seeking 3rd straight win) and the Celtics. But on a team that has lost six of their last seven games, with no sign of reinforcements coming in from the cold, who is providing the rays of sunshine? “Where my coach? Where my coach?” Johnny Davis’ heart swelled with pride as he was summoned to center court to share in his star player’s glory. “Is he around?” Allen Iverson declared his All-Star Game MVP trophy as a “tribute”, to his teammates on the Philadelphia 76ers, his family, his day-one friends. But, first and foremost, to Coach Davis. It had been up to this point a rocky, uphill climb, each of them in their fifth season together. Yet they were reaching the pinnacle of Iverson’s success as an All-NBA superstar, their team was making moves and making waves as perhaps the best in the Eastern Conference, and The Answer left no doubt as to whom he could credit, at the moment of his highest achievement, to date. Of course, you know it didn’t quite happen that way. Not for Coach Johnny D. The former Hawks assistant went 22-60 with a rookie Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse, and flotsam on the ever-rebuilding Sixers. The bespectacled Larry Brown would reap the rewards. Davis wouldn’t get another crack at a head coaching gig for seven seasons, as an assistant taking the reins for the struggling and fired Doc Rivers down in Orlando. Davis’ reward, for coaching another terrible team through another terrible season? A lottery win, bringing Atlanta prep sensation Dwight Howard down to the Magic Kingdom, joining Steve Francis and a suddenly spry Grant Hill. The Magic carpet ride ended for Davis when a 31-27 start led to a six-game losing streak that began right when Hill, again, got hurt. Five years later, Howard would lead Orlando to the Promised Land of the NBA Finals, but it was Stan Van Gundy holding the coaching reins by then. For folks like Davis, Detroit’s Scotty Robertson, Chicago’s Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins, Seattle’s K.C. Jones, among those coaches who lived long enough to catch the country ditty “I Got The Boy,” on the radio, I just know they turned that dial all the way up. “Winning” a lottery pick, and even “winning” in the sense of developing the pick into quick stardom, often can mean “losing” a job while coaching up the team around him. Nurturing a lottery prize into an All-NBA-caliber talent, as a coach, then being tethered for the rise toward championship contention, is awfully rare. Just go off the top of the 2018 NBA Draft alone. How many of the top-ten lottery picks are already on Head Coach #2, or some higher number, in their current locales? I think we can count the coaches still standing – Rick Carlisle, Steve Clifford, Lloyd Pierce – on one hand, and maybe still have a digit or two left over. In their respective cases, hopefully no GMs or owners are thinking of using those fingers to throw up deuces anytime soon. Kevin Knox didn’t even turn out to be the best takeaway for the Knicks in 2018’s Draft (that would be second-rounder and center Mitchell Robinson, who will miss about a month or so after injuring his hand in Friday’s 119-101 win in Washington). Knox and Robinson transitioned from coaches David Fizdale to Mike Miller to current taskmaster Tom Thibodeau, who has the Knicks feeling as confident as they have in quite some time. Thibs’ aid in making the Knicks look not-too-shabby is so appreciated, on a high-profile franchise that hasn’t sniffed a playoff appearance in eons, that the fact he has benched and all-but-shelved Knox for the past ten games is no real biggie. Thibodeau became one of those “You Got The Man” coaches, when he took over for Vinny Del Negro (for the “crime” of back-to-back seasons of .500 ball and first-round exits) right on time for Derrick Rose to become the league’s youngest-ever MVP in his hometown of Chicago. But Thibs didn’t just simply take over. He crafted a defensive juggernaut around a scoring star not known to exhibit much defense at all, using role players like Taj Gibson to lock opponents down. Perimeter scoring help off the bench from Kyle Korver certainly helped, too. The balance worked out, to the tune of 60+ win-quality seasons and rave reviews. But for Thibodeau’s reputation for running players into the hardwood, via excessive practices and playing time among those he entrusted, and Rose’s resultant career-changing injury in 2012’s NBA Playoffs, there’s no telling how far the two could have advanced as an offense-defense pair. Rose never wavered in his outward appreciation for Thibodeau, even after the Bulls years washed out and the two found their way to Minnesota. “I stuck with him and he looked out for me,” D-Rose wrote in his 2019 autobiography, “I’ll Show You,” as his coach leveled with him about his limited control over the now-veteran’s playing time with the T’wolves. “That’s one of the reasons I stuck with him and wanted to come back.” Now they’re reuniting again, and it feels so good. “I’m feeling grateful, anxious,” said Rose (14.7 PPG and 1.7 SPG in 3 Knicks games, 54.8 FG%), now a former Piston after being traded to New York in exchange for Dennis Smith, Jr., to the New York Post, “but at the same, I know what I have to do coming here. It’s about helping the young guys, playing as hard as I can, and, for one, thanking Thibs.” Styles clash, as do eras, yet Rose’s age-22, MVP-season stats (24.1 points, 7.4 assists, 3,0 rebounds 1.0 steals per-36; 48.1/33.2/85.8 2FG/3FG/FT shooting splits) can be compared with Trae Young’s current age-22 line (27.2, 9.8, 4.1, 0.7, 45.1/36.7/88.6). Perhaps even favorably, in Young’s case. Unfortunately, a half-baked Hawks team around Young only adds to the skepticism as to whether Pierce will be around to see things through. The swirl of media-borne skepticism around their team’s direction will only heighten as the losses mount and the touted All-Star weekend in Atlanta approaches. Much was made of LP’s defensive 75-second ramble last week, when pressed about how, exactly, he expects Hawks opponents to “feel us” defensively. If Young (now ahead of only 3 players, out of over 460, with his minus-2.67 DRPM, as per ESPN) sincerely hopes to keep Pierce around, he would do well to adhere to any of those defensive details, focus on perfecting them in games, and then publicly praise his coach when those efforts lead to stops and transition buckets. To be a player-coach duo worthy of keeping together for the long haul, it’s incumbent upon Young to make opponents, and fans, “feel” them as sympatico. As the subject of LP’s derision, The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner infers, post-game statements after a loss like, “I just think a lot of teams are throwing things at us that we’re not prepared for right now,” are another day, another opportunity to d@mn one’s coaches with not even faint praise. Trae fans have been miffed by the perception of a souring relationship between the Hawks star and his head coach, likely emanating from the cold reception LP initially gave to Young being omitted from the Team USA “finalist” list of 40-some players last winter. With the likelihood that a multitude of American veterans, particularly those that had limited postseason exposure and can afford to wait for 2024, will graciously bow out of playing under Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Pierce this summer in Japan, there is a reasonable chance Trae will be tabbed as an alternate. It would be ideal for Young and his coach if, into and through this summer, they still share the same NBA employer. In New York, Thibs isn’t weighted down with the misguided decisions of Knicks management past, as evidenced by the Smith trade. The regime that passed up on SGA, the Bridges, Empire Stater Kevin Huerter, and Michael Porter for the upside of Knox has been impacted, too. GM Scott Perry now answers to team president Leon Rose, the former CAA super-agent who hopes to woo top-tier talents to Manhattan again, or at least away from that other borough. A team-wide commitment to inchworm tempo (lowest pace in NBA) and vice-grip defense (107.2 D-Rating, better than all except the Lakers and Jazz) includes Julius Randle, a candidate for All-Star and Most Improved honors (career-highs of 22.4 points, 9.6 D-Rebs and 0.8 steals per game; also 36.6 MPG, because Thibs), Alec Burks (1.2 steals per-36), 35-year-old addition Gibson, and even lotto-rookie Obi Toppin (1.3 blocks per-36). Thibs has taken vinegar to several players’ defensive oil and, with some vigorous shaking, made a tasty vinaigrette. Even without Robinson, the shot-swatting pivot, the Knicks have shown the ability (and willingness) to step up defensively while dialing up the offense all the way to 11. To sweep its back-to-back this weekend, New York returned from D.C. and heated up the nets by hitting 12 of 28 3FGAs in a 121-99 win over the Rockets. The day before, season-highs of 50 defensive rebounds and 11 steals (4, by the inspired Rose) helped cast a spell on Alex Len and the Brad Beal-less Wizards (held to 9-for-34 on threes). With steady veteran Elfrid Payton helping rookie Immanuel Quickley handle the rock, the Knicks’ players turned the ball over against Houston just seven times. They’ve only committed more than 20 turnovers as a team on one occasion, back on December 29 in a win at Cleveland. Thibs knows that when his team wins the turnover and loose-ball battles, or, in the case of their win in Atlanta on January 4, taking higher-quality shots, his team gives itself the chance to prevail on most nights. Randle enjoyed a 28 point, 17 rebound, 9 assist evening in Atlanta last month, as did second-year pro RJ Barrett (26 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) in a similar fashion. New York starters took just 12 threes against the Hawks last month, sinking only one. But they played to their strengths, unimpeded by Hawks defenders (4 ATL steals, 2 blocks vs. NYK), and superior bench play from Austin Rivers and Quickley helped the Knicks overrun Atlanta in the final frame. As with the 38-13 Pacers fourth-quarter run along the way to a 125-113 home loss on Sunday, it’s a painfully perpetual theme for Atlanta (NBA-worst minus-8.4 4th-quarter Net Rating, incl. 118.1 D-Rating, 29th in NBA) that only Pierce, and an offense-minded “closer” in Young (NBA-high 5.7 TOs per-36 in clutch minutes, min. 10 games played), can collaborate to fix. Nerlens Noel, the #6 pick of 2013’s NBA Draft, moved into the Knicks’ starting lineup on Sunday, in place of Robinson, and he is putting up the kinds of modest yet impactful numbers (last 3 games: 6.7 PPG, 10-for-15 FGs, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG) one can only hope we can one day see out of the NBA’s most recent #6 pick. While Onyeka Okongwu figures out how to blend into Atlanta rotations on both ends of the court, tonight may be a good time to offer Syracuse native Nathan Knight some steadier frontcourt minutes behind Capela and John Collins. Pierce and his staff get little public credit for helping mid-tier pick Huerter (career-bests of 54.1 eFG%, 1.3 TOs/game and 1.2 SPG) become an All-Rookie second-teamer and a decent perimeter gunner, for ensuring Collins remains a worthy “Hey, let’s see if Atlanta will take our trash so the restricted free agent won’t leave them for nothing!” talent, for helping Clint Capela be the contributor everyone hoped he could be, for helping De’Andre Hunter become the sophomore pro hardly anyone was expecting. And it is just a rolling assumption that Trae’s swift ascension toward All-Star strata is all-natural, a foregone conclusion. That is all understandable LP’s positive work gets overlooked, given the results in the standings and the scoreboard often fall below expectations for Atlanta’s Basketball Club. Without a voice with gravity standing up on behalf of Coach Pierce before, during, and after the games, with persistent floundering and the appearance of tone-deafness, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility Young wakes up one morning to a bucket of ice water, courtesy of an old-fashioned drill sergeant like Jim Boylen, or winds up extracting splinters from his video-room seat while enduring a Hubie or a Fratello-type telestrator tongue-lashing. It’s not Lloyd’s job to be his star player’s eternal source for spotless, sunny dispositions. But Trae and his fellow young core of Hawks may soon figure out, too late, that there ain’t no sunshine when he’s… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “SHAKE WEIGHT, ELFRID! SHAKE WEIGHT!” An interminable, arduous offseason was coming to an end. Now, at long last, it was time for Santa to show up and show out. I had been not-naughty for as long as anyone could reasonably ask of a seven-year-old. And I put in the work, too – folded my hands all day in class, raising them only when prompted before bodying questions about proper fractions and American Revolutionary history. Straight-As on the report card if you ignored Phys. Ed. completely. I even cleaned my room and helped put away groceries on weekends! I was as much of a saint as Nick could ever hope to be. Putting up with second-hand gifts and utterly worthless toys for as long as I could remember, I never asked for much. Every year, regardless, cookies and milk were at the ready as I hit the bed early. But let me tell you something about this year, Mister Claus. If MARZON, Walking Giant from the Stars, isn’t under that tree on the wintry morning of December 25, me, you, and my size-2.5 hands are going to have a conversation in that dark alley out back. “MARZON! MARZON! He’s Right On!” I saw the ads on many cartoon-loaded Saturday mornings and was enthralled by the possibilities. I could be the first kid on the block with a robot! One twice my size, that marches down the hallways and driveways, right in stride with me! Reading the fine print on the box at the Kiddie City toy store, I even ordered my parents to have plenty of Size-D batteries at the ready, since Santa tends to get forgetful in his old age about including them. Crimmuh Morning, I peer down the stairs and The Box is there! MARZON, you are all mine! My heart swelled with joy as I imagined myself surging toward first place in the NTO (Neighborhood Toy Owner) Standings. I even had a not-so-fairy godmother serving as a helpful elf to assist in its assembly. Me and MARZON are gonna grow old together, bound for greatness! Well, yeah, about that. MARZON was basically not a mechanical creature at all, but a balloon, in the form of a knockoff C3PO humanoid. The balloon took over a half hour to blow up manually. It moves in one direction, forward, with the aid of a battery-powered panel at the robot’s feet. And here’s what The Box doesn’t warn you: getting the robot to slide into its “slippers” runs the risk of a puncture. MARZON made it upright, and it even advanced forward for a few feet down the hall. But the invisible, pin-sized hole at its feet gave my Walking Giant from the Stars a 20-minute shelf life on Earth. All the King’s Scotch Tape and All the King’s Men could not save MARZON from his deflating demise. He sure was fun, while he lasted. Our Atlanta Sports teams are great at producing unexpected and uncomfortable flashbacks for its fans, which is great news if you’re a therapist making bank around town. Our Fine Feathered Friends are particularly good at making things look like they’ve finally caught a break, only to find a way to break our spirits when the products that arrive, fresh out the box, aren’t quite what everyone was waiting and clamoring for. Several of the Atlanta Hawks’ newest arrivals are trying not to win the annual LaPhonso Ellis-Craig Claxton Memorial Offseason Addition Award. Rajon Rondo (knee), Tony Snell (foot), Onyeka Okongwu (foot), and Kris Dunn (ankle) were all damaged-on-arrival. And after a promising Hawks debut, Danilo Gallinari (ankle) won’t get to face the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Networks in The Big Apple), the club who first made “Il Gallo” into a bit of a legend. Not until February, in all likelihood, since he’ll be sidelined for several weeks. Lloyd Pierce won’t get much sympathy today from his opposing coach. In his first games running the show for the Knicks, Tom Thibodeau has already had his first-round rookies, Obi Toppin (out, calf strain) and Immanuel Quickley (probable, sore hip), missing valuable time. Backup guards Frank Ntilikina (out, knee), Alec Burks (questionable, ankle), and Dennis Smith (doubtful, quad) can’t seem to reach the floor, while Austin Rivers was slow to get going. For the moment, New York’s stuck with a deflating giant of its own, in former Hawks draftee big man Omari Spellman (out, knee). As LP finds himself lost in The Land of Unfit Toys, tasked with cobbling together a playoff contender around All-Star candidates Trae Young and John Collins, the pressure on Coach Thibs to win-now comes only from Gotham’s infamous tabloid rags. He and his trusty assistant, Mike Woodson, are simply challenged to spiff up the first-round gems, like R.J. Barrett (17.0 PPG, 37.5 FG%) and Kevin Knox (6.7 PPG, 37.5 FG%). The organizational goal is tangible, marginal improvement for a club that checked out last season on this floor at 21-45 (16-21 versus sub-.500 teams) and only seems to find success when it catches teams, like the Hawks, playing down to the level of its competition. Playing down. That’s what happened when Atlanta (4-2), glowing from its signature win in Brooklyn the night before, returned home on Saturday and went into the halftime locker room smelling itself after “holding” the Cleveland Cavaliers to 44 points. The Hawks would only score 35 themselves in the closing half, as Pierce errantly thought he could make do with Solomon Hill (minus-15 in 10 minutes vs. CLE), Brandon Goodwin and Bruno Fernando, together, for a long stint. That only set the stage at crunch time for Pebblebrook High’s Finest, a rested and newly 22-year-old Collin Sexton of the Cavs, to upstage the guard taken by Atlanta before him, in the 2017 NBA Draft. That same night, playing down is also what happened to Victor Oladipo and the Pacers, who were smarting after losing T.J. Warren for extended time due to injury and seeking solace in facing the same Knicks team they defeated soundly in Indy for the season opener. Never getting ahead by more than six points on the visitors, and settling for mindless mid-range and well-contested jumpers, Indiana let Julius Randle (11 rebounds, 8 assists) and Barrett (25 points, 4-for-5 3FGs) hang around the whole game until it was too late to do anything about it. There’s no “I” in “PARTY.” But there is one, in “PARITY”. That signature road win in Brooklyn? The Wizards have been there, done that, bought the Coney Island T-shirt on their way out of town last night. Cleveland was down in the dumps after popping their undefeated cherry at home versus these Knicks just last week. But Saturday’s comeback win has the Cavs sitting with the same 4-2 mark as the Hawks. New York smacked around Giannis’ up-and-down Bucks just two days after Milwaukee’s successful Christmas Day game. With a win tonight, the Knicks and Hawks would be side-by-side in the standings, too, at 4-3. Along with the Bucks, so long as Milwaukee doesn’t play down to Detroit tonight like the Hawks (7.3 Net Rating, 5th in NBA; minus-13.5 4th Quarter Net rating, 25th in NBA) did during the final frame of their last home win. Thibodeau’s imprint is already evident in the focus on getting stops and forcing unwise shot decisions out of their opponents (49.3 opp. eFG%, 3rd-best in NBA). The Knicks’ opponents to date have fired off nearly 40 threes per contest (2nd-most in NBA), but have hit nylon on just 29.1 percent of them, an NBA-low. Turning to Mitchell Robinson (team-highs of 1.7 BPG, 1.0 SPG) as “the anchor of our defense” after convening a preseason battle with Nerlens Noel to man the starting center spot, Thibodeau has quietly, much like Cleveland, crafted a top-10 NBA defense despite having to pair Robinson with forwards like Randle and Toppin. Elfrid Payton will drive the pressure on Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, although it would help having Ntilikina around for defensive purposes. Due to largely inconsistent shooting from Barrett (despite the hot shooting in Indy) and Reggie Bullock (33.9 FG%), the Knicks will saunter off, eventually, when opponents secure defensive rebounds, react decisively off timely passes, and make the most of the open shots New York allows. If Atlanta fails to do these things tonight, especially in the second half, they’ll set themselves up to be somebody else’s SportsCenter highlight. In the early going, already, everybody in the NBA has bad losses, boastful wins, blown big leads, breakout performances. And just about everyone will have to play with less than their full slate of teammates. Respectfully, Hawks exec Travis Schlenk did not build this Potemkin Village of Depth just to keep up with the likes of the Knicks, Hornets and Cavs. It is on Coach Pierce, the existing Hawks’ starters, and the top-tier sixth-men like Kevin Huerter (questionable, ankle; team-high 1.5 SPG) and Bogdan Bogdanovic to sustain a high quality of turnover-free, two-way play, no matter the caliber of the opponent or the score on the board. In a season where it seems NBA parity will reign supreme, there will be tough stretches, periods where Atlanta’s absentees will be sorely missed. But this week is not supposed to be one of them, and injuries, or “running out of gas” (tonight being the second “third game in four nights” in a row) are insufficient as an excuse. Nobody wants these Hawks to downgrade so swiftly, from a playoff contender not to be toyed with, to just the latest Atlanta sports team with unfulfilled potential succumbing to its fatal flaws, relegated to the back of the closet like the defunct, formerly high-demand toys of Christmas Days past. If you’re still reading, Santa, there is still time to hook me up with a PS5. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. This is the time to remember. ‘Cause it will not last forever… March Madness is here! Have you caught the fever yet? If so, you may want to self-quarantine and watch some NBA action to kill the time, if not a few germs, during tonight’s lull in NCAA conference tournament play. This time last year, it was about to be a nice little run for the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett, cementing himself as a certified PTP’er alongside Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson as Duke would win the ACC conference tourney championship. Indeed, those were the days to hold on to. Williamson would wind up entering the NBA with some experienced, if not accomplished, veteran talent around him. Barrett was granted high expectations, just by being picked shortly after Zion by New York, but not a commensurately high amount of usage. RJ ceded center stage to another former high NBA draft pick, in Julius Randle, trying to prove he can be a headliner, and a now-departed Morris Twin who was trying to grab the attention of his next NBA employer. But some fans and media are already dour over the prospect that Barrett (42.6 2FG%, 31.8 3FG%, 60.5 FT%) may not become the franchise-defining superstar for whom they have longed. Did I mention, he only turns 20 in June? Barrett returns with his Knicks to visit Reddish’s Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and I can imagine the #3 pick from last year’s draft is a bit envious of his former Dookie teammate’s situation. “Simply put,” Sopan Deb of the New York Times wrote in generality on Saturday, “being a rookie for the Knicks, a franchise seemingly addicted to chaos in the country’s biggest city, is different from being on any other team.” Deb noted that RJ’s career-high of 27 points in what should have been a rousing home win over Houston was overshadowed by the antics of his team’s owner and his squabble with its biggest superfan. “It can be jarring for young men entering adulthood, and even more so for Barrett – who fans hope will be the centerpiece of a long-desired championship team.” Maple Mamba has a few supporters above the border who have been tracking his path to the pros for some time, and there’s hope he can become a consistent go-to star for the Knicks, sooner rather than later. By the time he does break through, he will likely be under the guidance of his second team executive, the incoming ex-agent Leon Rose, and at least his third head coach. There’s a reason that surveyed first-timers, during a preseason poll predicted Reddish, above all others, would finish with the best NBA career. I suppose a lot if it is how well he has blended in as a talented teammate at all stages of his development, sharing the spotlight with Mo Bamba in high school, with Zion and RJ in Durham, and now with Trae Young, John Collins and a host of up-and-comers in The ATL. Cam isn’t under the urgency to be the signature star, or even to start, in Atlanta. Away from the pressure of lugging a mismanaged major-market titan back into viability for the first time in deceades, the optimism is higher than the expectations for Reddish (42.6 2FG%, 33.5 3FG%, 80.2 FT%), and neither is overblown. Spirits have lifted a bit, at least on the court, since coach David Fizdale got his ouster following a 4-18 start. Yet the wins have come in drips and drabs for “Mikey Two Shoes” Miller and the Knicks lately. Yes, they have won three of their last six, including that 123-112 win over the slip-sliding Rockets. But a regression could also be viewed in the context of the six-game losing skid that preceded the 3-3 run, a slide that began on February 9 with a double-OT loss (stop me if you’ve heard that before) to the Hawks at State Farm Arena. That 140-135 loss in Atlanta, like today’s game, was the back end of a road back-to-backs. New York (20-45) returns here today at 1-8 on the season in SEGABABAs, the sole victory, Miller’s first, by two points at Golden State three months ago. With the Knicks coming off a 122-115 loss in Washington last night, the indicators point to the Hawks (20-46) coasting past the Knicks in the right-side-up standings like two ships passing in the night. Alas, like the last game between these two, and like the double-OT win over the Hornets, we’re likely setting ourselves up for something akin to the Merrimack versus the Monitor. Miller must be somewhat miffed to see coaching colleague JB Bickerstaff turn a 5-5 start, in taking over the Cavaliers since the All-Star Break, into a multi-year extension. Well before that time, the Knicks’ interim coach has had his job status come up out of the blue by a new employee on First Take, and he has had to watch his owner prioritize the situation with celebrity entrance choices at MSG. On the court, however, Miller’s biggest issue has been his penchant for getting the upper hand, then giving it away with his rotations. His Knicks built up a sizable 31-20 lead on the Hawks here on February 9, thanks to Randle’s 12-and-8 in the opening quarter, only to watch it dissipate by halftime and dissolve completely by the end of the third (John Collins’ 14 second-quarter points propelled Atlanta), necessitating some late-game scrambling to force the OT periods. Last night, New York bounced back from a slow start to pour on 70 first-half points on the defensively woeful Wizards. But the Knicks could only muster 45 points the rest of the way as Washington turned the tables. Unlike the last Hawks game, the reserves carried the day in the first half, particularly Frank Ntilikina, the former lottery hopeful now in his third year who enjoyed his first 20-and-10 performance, and bug-eyed big Bobby Portis. But by the time Miller put the subs back into the game, it was too late to stop the Wizards’ second-half blitz. The Knicks do come into the game healthy. Starters like Elfrid Payton, Queens native and ex-Clipper Moe Harkless, and Taj Gibson, along with rotation players Mitchell Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Kevin Knox were used sparingly in D.C., so it’s imagined that Miller will ride with a lot of them to support Barrett and Randle, the latter of whom fouled out last night with four minutes to spare. New York will also hope, while challenged with defending Young for much of this evening, that Ntilikina’s offensive output on Tuesday was no mere mirage. Atlanta exploited Charlotte’s interior early and often, and more of the same will be needed from Lloyd Pierce’s young charges this evening. Randle will post up and hog the ball on occasion, and when transition opportunities come from his shots that Hawks need to turn those into points at every opportunity. Majestic offensive displays from Young and Reddish can come later in the contest. But early on, we’ll need to see the guards looking for Collins (28-and-11 vs. CHA), Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon (+20 plus-minus vs. CHA) running the floor against New York’s travel-weathered legs. Tonight ought to be a rookie showcase between former college teammates Barrett, the Knick who is challenged with becoming a more efficient scorer, and Reddish, who has been a defensive salve for the Hawks but could stand to become a more consistent rebounder and playmaker. So far, they’ve given us the best of them. And now, we need the rest of them. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “Him! Section 120, Row G! He called me something that rhymes with Rich!” How bad have things gotten for you as an NBA owner when your team’s fans can hardly celebrate a five-game win streak? If the New York Knicks return home from today’s game with the Atlanta Hawks victorious (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG in NYC), we may soon see just how bad. With Mike Miller coaching to his players’ individual strengths, New York (17-36) has bounced back from a 3-12 January swoon by rattling off four straight wins, three of them away from The World’s Most Fickle Arena, including one in Indiana. This is a rare “schedule win” opportunity for the Hawks, who watched the Knicks (1-6 on back ends of back-to-backs) avert overtime last night in Detroit by exploiting the spots where Andre Drummond once stood (8 of NYK’s last 9 made field goals within 9 feet of the hoop). Watching the fan sentiments, you’d think it was the Hawks (14-39) with the better record and the winning streak, coming into tonight’s action. Knicks owner James Dolan lopped off one half of the two-headed managerial monster in Steve Mills, leaving Scott Perry as the lone Smithers to pull the strings. One Perry pull at the Trade Deadline mailed mega-male Marcus Morris and his XY chromosomes out to LA, bringing Queens native Moe Harkless home along with future picks and a Euro-prospect in Issuf Sannon. Just as he thinks sitting in the stands or running a dive-bar band makes him look like a man of the people, Dolan probably believes these moves plus the winning turn will win him over some fans. (Newsflash: it will not.) What *might* help is bringing in a manager who is better attuned the players, current and future, on the roster, and Knicks fans were offered a glimpse of that with the team’s reported courtship of super-agent Leon Rose. If things turn the way they did for other teams under ex-agents Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka, the decision will be applauded. If events pan out the way they did for Lon Babby, who selected Alex Len in the Giannis draft overall among many missteps, even a sweeter-smelling Rose as the team’s face won’t mask the stench. Dolan was widely panned this week for couching his intransigence about selling the team in an unnecessary press release about his search for a new team head honcho. The Hawks are the ones feeling upbeat, even despite another late-game, close-shave loss in Boston on Friday. Fans have a better sense as to how Travis Schlenk is rebuilding the roster in Atlanta, and winning ways can wait until the core of the team can get healthy and gel together. The post-Deadline roster is coming together just in time for a close to the season where the Hawks’ schedule-strength is by far the league’s weakest (NBA-low 44.5 opponent winning percentage for remaining games), which is saying something considering Atlanta cannot play themselves. The rest of the 29-game docket includes the Pistons, the Kings, the Warriors (please rest, Steph), the Cavaliers and Hornets thrice, the Wizards, these Knicks and the stumbling Magic twice. Surpassing last season’s record with a 16-13 finish is not unreasonable at this stage for coach Lloyd Pierce and his Hawks, if they can get Trae Young (questionable, ankle), Clint Capela (out, something called a calcaneous contusion and plantar fasciitis), Cam Reddish (doubtful, concussion), and Skal Labissiere (out, something called a knee chondral injury) up to speed coming out of the All-Star Break. The Knicks shoot 33.6 3FG% on the season (27th in NBA), and just moved Morris (43.9 3FG%), the sole Knick who shot above 36 percent (Damyean Dotson, right at 36.0%, the only Knick shooting above 35 percent). At the other end, the perimeter defense has been less than desirable (NBA-worst 38.7 opp. 3FG%). John Collins has been on a tear both inside and outside this month (last 4 games: 26.3 PPG, 46.2 3FG%; season-best 9-for-10 FTs @ BOS). He and Kevin Huerter (42.9 February 3FG% despite 4-for-14 in past two games; 19.8 PPG, 3.5 APG, 0.8 TOs/game so far this month) can light up New York today if they are set-up well by the point guards. Even if Trae sits another day, a more assertive effort by Jeff Teague to mimic the hungry Brandon Goodwin could be enough to do the trick. A listless team-wide defensive effort spoiled Young’s 42-point outing in Manhattan, a 143-120 washout back on December 17. It was one of the last games without the then-suspended Collins available for the Hawks, but Atlanta will have Collins, Bruno Fernando (probable, calf strain) and the newly reacquired Dewayne Dedmon back to help seal off the interior from the Knicks. From there, it will be up to De’Andre Hunter (questionable, sprained ankle), DeAndre’ Bembry (questionable, hand neuritis) and Huerter to keep RJ Barrett (1-for-8 @ DET in just 21 minutes last night, 27 points on 10-for-13 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 17), Damyean Doston and Harkless (Knicks debut) cool from beyond the 3-point arc, and to run on Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson (9 of NYK’s 13 O-Rebs vs. ATL in December) and New York’s board-crashing bigs in transition off defensive rebounds. The Knicks have been stingy inside when games are halfcourt affairs (42.8 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA), so strong boxouts and wise outlet passes are the way to go for the Hawks. New York allows 1.16 points per transition possession (4th-most in NBA), a value that Miller can only hope replacing Morris with Harkless can fix. It has to suck to own not just the team, but the TV network that airs the team, and find yourself subject to jeers and “Sell The Team!” chants by locals whenever you appear on the screens and the Jumbotron. Us lowly 98 percenters can’t tell folks like Dolan what to do. But instead of tossing ham-and-eggers out of the not-so-cheap seats at MSG, having his camera operators steer away from him would be a wise order. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. Ujiri ain’t fixin’ this. Live, from New York, it’s Stupor Bowl II! Our defending champion Atlanta Hawks conquered the Rusty State Warriors in SBI just over two weeks ago. Now, a new challenger arises, summoning the Hawks to Madison Square Garden to wage a titanktic clash for the ages. There can be only one loser! Alright, fine, things need not seem so dire. That is, unless these Hawks choose to make it so. Each defeat, to a team as bad as the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network) have been, increases the certainty that these teams will be participants in subsequent Stupor Bowls. At least Jay-Z’s got David Hasselhoff locked down for the halftime shows. The Hawks have suffered through one bad-beat in the early schedule after another, and now they don’t even get the freefalling, Fizdale-firing version of the Knickerbockers (6-21) as a reward. The new guy in charge, Mike “Two Shoes” Miller, has his team at least grasping some twigs along their descent to the NBA bottom. On the road, New York escaped San Francisco and Sacramento with close-shave wins, then put a scare into the 17-8 Nuggets, a short Julius Randle jumper putting the Knicks up by two with under six minutes left to play. Nuggets fans can confirm these aren’t quite the Same Old Knicks. Denver Post beat writer Michael Singer sensed the alarm before the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game when a Pepsi Center fan mentioned aloud, “you know who else has six wins? The Atlanta Hawks.” Good point. It’s Miller Time for New York, in a good way, as the interim coach is basically getting the Knicks to play to their strengths, if you will. The Knicks are packing the paint (2nd in O-Reb% last three games; all six wins w/ O-Reb percentages above 25%) with their excess of power forwardly bigs, and relying on the guards, especially Frank Ntilikina (4 steals @ DEN) to pester ballhandlers around the perimeter. That strategy is just good enough to upend lousy-shooting, sloppy teams with weakened interiors, teams like… oh, hey, look who’s here! Sailing sure has been rough for the Hawks (6-21) without John Collins aboard, and the gashing inside at merciless opponents’ hands have been more severe lately (66.7 opp. paint points per-48 in last three games, 9.7 points more than the 2nd-worst). But also, try winning games without 2016’s Mr. New York State Basketball, Shenendehowa’s Kevin Huerter, healthy and on deck. Not many NBA players can say they are their own high school player’s logo, and the Hawks guard returns a few hours downstate from where his high school silhouetted one of his literal-trademark tomahawk dunks. Five of Atlanta’s six wins came with Red Velvet contributing in some capacity, the exception being Golden State. The lack of cream threes icing kept Atlanta from sweetening the final eight minutes of Sunday’s 101-96 home loss to the Lakers. Fortunately for the Hawks, the shoulder he re-injured during that game is merely stiff, and he is probable to play tonight. MIROY-candidates Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter will have a chance to outshine Reddish’s former Duke teammate RJ Barrett, who isn’t much more of a ready-for-primetime player than they are (38.3 FG%, 29.2 3FG%, 54.6 FT%; 22-and-10, though, @ GSW last Wednesday). Burned by Kristaps Porzingis, bummed by Kevin Knox, Knicks fans have been through the lottery ringer enough in the past half-decade to understand that, so long as they’re run by meddling owner Jimmy Dolan, tanking only produces more teenaged hopefuls for the team to grind into ruin. Drafted in 2018, second-round seven-footer Mitchell Robinson (NBA-high 68.5 FG% and 7.9 block%) has been a saving grace. But the Knicks should know that, by now, racing to the bottom for first-dibs at draft time won’t bring a savior to the squad, and shaky organizational leadership won’t bring any via free agency, no matter how big “NEW YORK” is emblazoned on the team jerseys. The man who literally had people singing about concrete jungles made the Nets his first NBA investment. If the league’s top players love being associated with that town so much, they’ll sign for multiple guaranteed years with Brooklyn as free agents, and then go catch “Hamilton” on Broadway. At least, until something significant changes in the office above the front office. It’s mind-boggling what Dolan thinks he can do with his Manhattan moolah. To the extent rumors are true, he is asking Masai Ujiri to stop re-building the reigning-champion Raptors, a division rival, in order to come to NYC. He’s willing to offer “Phil Jackson money” to woo Ujiri away, since Phil and his Triangle thingy worked out oh-so-well. Oh, is that all? In 2020, A.D.? Is a fella named A.D. coming through the door with Masai? Suffice to say, I have my doubts, and I suspect Ujiri does, too. New York’s plodding style doesn’t put up many points on the board, unless the Warriors are somehow involved (112 vs. GSW in regulation before prevailing in OT). The Knicks have exceeded 110 points just twice in 27 games and, discounting G-State, not once since beating Cleveland at MSG nearly a calendar month ago. Atlanta (under 105 points in last three games) looks forward to speeding up the offensive playmaking, and they’ll want to keep centers Damian Jones and Alex Len, and forward Jabari Parker, active in keeping the Knicks’ bigs busy running the full floor. But the Hawks must avoid giveaways, particularly those of the mindless dribbling, three-second camping, and charge-delivering variety, that suck away otherwise valuable possessions. Out-stealing the opponent in just one of their past 11 games, if one again counts Golden State as a game, the Hawks’ guards and wings must be more disruptive of the Knicks’ drives and passes into the paint. When Atlanta forces 20 opposing-player turnovers, as they did in forcing the Lakers into a team-high 22, and doesn’t return favors in kind, they make it easier on themselves to be in position to win ballgames. While all eyes are on Trae Young, it’s going to be Huerter, Hunter and Reddish who can have the biggest impact on Atlanta defending its Stupor Bowl crown. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, from border to border and coast to coast, and all the ships at sea, for the thousands in attendance and the tens of thousands watching around the world… Let’s get ready to stumble! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. (EDIT: Berman At The Post says, "not so fast!") ~lw3
  17. Lord Jimmy is THIS close to putting Oakley in charge. ~lw3
  18. “And here’s my job, Mr. Robinson. Fizdale loves you more than you should know. Woe, woe, woe…” You’ve got to give it up for these veteran ballers on the Atlanta Hawks. Colonel Schlenk’s senior lieutenants would make for an awful waffle commercial – each of them Leggo their Ego so easily! But like a Waffle House buffet, they still get to eat… plenty! Pretty much everybody does in coach Lloyd Pierce’s egalitarian rotation. Eleven different Hawks are averaging at least 15 minutes per outing, including ten hoopers in last night’s loss up the road in Charlotte. Except for Miles Plumlee, who knows his role well, four of the five members in Atlanta’s 29 And Up club found time to shine on Tuesday night, even with the Hawks starting three first-round rookies in the lineup due to player injuries. Jeremy Lin, Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, and Vroom-Vroom Vince Carter all had their moments. They’re not thrilled about the losses that pile up, including yesterday’s action, where the Hawks defensively ran out of gas during the second half of the Hornets’ 113-102 victory. But they are pleased that they are appreciated for their readiness and their contributions on and off the court, cheering on the sidelines, intervening only when asked and when necessary, while the young guns learn the NBA ropes on the fly. More critically, Atlanta’s vets are not deluded into believing they’d be winning a lot more, if only they had just a few more minutes per night, preferably at the beginning of games and in crunch time. It’s not like that around the league, where the consternation has already grown palpable. In Minneapolis, Jimmy Butler has been side-eyed about his younger co-stars since September. Over in Tinseltown, LeBron James’ struggles to connect with his greener future stars continue to be well-documented. The demotion to the bench in Chi-town, in deference to an energetic lottery pick, isn’t sitting well with the grungy Robin Lopez. His playing status yo-yo’d by upper management, J.R. Smith is throwing Insta-shade at rookie teammate Collin Sexton. Doncic-to-DeAndre should be all the rage in The Big D. Yet the center, and his fellow veteran teammates, seem reticent to share the ball with their star rookie at critical times, literally fighting him over defensive rebounds, taciturn on the sidelines, hogging up the shot clock on possessions until there’s not much left for Luka to do. Need I mention that none of these teams have been charging up the NBA standings? And then, there’s the New York Knickerbockers, who happen to visit The Highlight Farm this evening for a quick run with the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL). Never mind the sound bites coming from Enes Kanter, the uber-rebounding center who is fuming over a lost spot in the Knicks’ starting lineup. Many veteran players really don’t mind losing, as long as they are the ones put front-and-center, both starting and finishing games, during the losses. On a rebuilding roster that just happens to sit in the nation’s biggest media market, the starry-eyed Kanter wanted assurances that he’d be the keystone. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay and Mitchell Robinson are all cool stories. But especially while Kristaps Porzingis is supposed to be out of action, 2018-19 was supposed to be The Year of the Kanter, at least in Enes’ mind. David Fizdale believes his center can still have a major role, just as one of the first reserves off the bench. The Knicks’ new head coach is under little pressure to win now, particularly while the Unicorn remains a mythical notion. He also has familiarity with a team reaping the benefits after bringing a relatively clueless NBA team up slowly, having sat beside Mike Woodson as an assistant with the early-Aughts Hawks. Beginning with the 13-69 season in 2004-05, Atlanta started pushing aside the likes of Antoine Walker, Tom Gugliotta, Kenny Anderson and Kevin Willis to make way for the Joshes (Smith and Childress), Zaza, and the All-Star and future lottery picks that were soon to come. “The toughest year of my career, from a win-loss standpoint,” Coach Fiz recently recalled to ESPN’s Ian Begley about that 13-win season. “By the fourth year (2007-08), we were playing Boston in the playoffs taking them to seven games. Just (by) adding a couple pieces, and keeping those young kids growing.” “Now, I’m not saying we’re going to take four years (in NYC), but I do lean on that as my experience to say, ‘Hey, it’s never as bad as you think.’” That message is falling on the deaf ears of Kanter, who is only 26 years of age and, armed with an expiring contract, hopes to make bank during next summer’s free agency period. He feels he needs not just the minutes, not just the boxscore stats, but whatever laurels that come with the prestige of being an 80-plus-game starter on a big-city NBA club. Exhibit A: over 40 overtime-boosted minutes of floortime on Monday, 23 points, 24 rebounds, and 7 assists, all team-highs as the Knicks’ double-OT campaign versus the visiting Bulls fell just a couple points short of victory, dropping the club to 3-8 on the season. Fizdale was not short on praise for his backup big man during postgame commentary. Kanter was, “a guy that’s going to have his hat in the Sixth Man of the Year award,” said an effusive Coach Fiz. But much like Positive K, Kanter is not tryna hear that, see. “I don’t worry about trophies,” Negative K told the New York Post when queried about Fizdale’s “sixth-man” compliment. “My thing is, we promised this city the playoffs,” he insisted, catching himself just in time to add, “My thing is, just go out there, and my job is, how am I going to make my teammates better, whether I’m first unit, second unit or third unit.” Between the lines, you can read that Enes doesn’t want anyone, especially his head coach, to rule him out of the first unit. Kanter thought he was rolling in the previous game, with team-bests of 18 points and 12 boards, when Fizdale yanked him midway through the final quarter in favor of the starting Robinson. The Knicks’ offense floundered for the remainder of the contest as they handed sad-sack Washington just their second win of the season. Literally putting too fine a point on his emotions, Kanter tweeted a “.”, shortly after Saturday night’s 108-95 defeat. The passive-aggressive tweet, which still exists, could just as well have been an exclamation point to the ravenous Manhattan media outlets. To be fair to Robinson, New York played behind the Wizards virtually the entire game, never getting over the hump to seize the lead while Kanter was still on the floor. It’s not as though the Knicks were swimming in victories while Kanter was a starter, either. After beating the Hawks in the October 17 season-opener, New York dropped four straight games before Coach Fiz made the switch, including a 23-point loss in Miami where Kanter’s notorious defensive shortcomings were on full display. Fizdale insists he isn’t “chasing wins,” the way Kanter believes the Knicks should be. But it’s notable that all three of New York’s victories, to date, have come in games where Enes was granted less than 30 minutes of floortime. Filtered through the relatively tame Hawks media sources, all you’ll see from the 29 And Up Club is Dedmon playfully pestering Coach Pierce like Ivan Johnson about his “promised” minutes. Dedmon proved himself a steady starter option to close out last year’s 24-58 run with the Hawks, much as he did at his prior NBA locales of San Antonio and Orlando. Dedmon returned to Atlanta for another go-round, and has been just fine ceding the starter’s role in support of the Alex Len Reclamation Project, particularly as he returns from offseason ankle rehab. In contrast to Kanter, Dedmon’s tweets are instead land-line-phone emojis, celebratory retweets of his successful three-point bombs, ones that Coach Pierce is encouraging his seven-footer (4-for-11 3FGs, 35.5 3FG% last season) to take when it’s within the flow of the Hawks’ otherwise disjointed, wild-and-woolly offense. He’ll be back on the court after missing yesterday’s Election Day game with an ankle sprain, but I’m not so sure I’m ready for the Hawks’ Taurean Prince to majority-lead the Hawks’ House. “I’m going to stop being conservative w/ the heat I bring to the court, Prince tweeted after last night’s game, adding, “Watch (eyes emoji) this lol.” I’m willing to “watch” this “heat,” I guess, so long as the tepid Prince (38.8 FG%) joins rookie Trae Young in being committed to improve his shot selection, and if he diminishes his 5.7 turnovers per 100 possessions. Taurean (team-high 21 points, 6 TOs @ NYK on Oct. 17) will replace rookie Kevin Huerter, who got his first start at Charlotte but will be out today for personal reasons. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (31 points on 30 total shots, zero TOs vs. ATL on Oct. 17) suffered a back injury midway through Saturday’s game, but similarly returns to the starting lineup after missing out on Monday’s matchup. He’ll pump up the offensive volume for a New York starting unit that is almost as inexperienced as Atlanta’s. Ntilikina, who struggled mightily during Monday’s loss, continues to get the nod starting point over Mudiay, who nearly pulled off the win over Chicago before fouling Zach LaVine with seconds to spare in the second overtime. Frank “Le Tank” and Hardaway will be joined by 2017 second-rounder Damyean Dotson, another reclamation project in Noah Vonleh, and Robinson. Recovering from an ankle sprain, lotto-rookie Knox can be expected to get more minutes and touches while coming off the bench. Guard Allonzo Trier is making it hard for the Knicks to keep him as a two-way player. He dropped 21 points (9-for-9 FTs) on Monday in his first NBA start, mere days after pouring 23 bench points on the Mavs in New York’s last victory. Much like Hardaway, Trier will have to find more ways to contribute than just the scoring column if he intends to supplant Dotson (6.0 RPG) on the Knicks’ top line. Joakim Noah’s been cut loose, Courtney Lee has been stashed with a sketchy-sounding neck injury, and Lance Thomas’ minutes have been flushed, all to the content of the Knicks’ fanbase. You’d think that Kanter (career-high 4.0 offensive RPG) would understand and get with the long-range program. Instead, you’ll likely catch him taking his frustrations out on Atlanta (t-23rd in D-Reb%) tonight, playing wall-ball with the offensive glass to boost his rebounding figures up his teammates look on. Tomorrow can Start Today, but not if the Yesterday Gangs keep holding the day hostage. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. “And then, Trae asked Vince, ‘Was Freddy Weis the dude that went on to coach Notre Dame?’” September 25, 2000. Where were you, on that fateful day? Do you remember? Sorry to get so Earth Wind and Fire-y with you to start the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks season – as usual, it’s a bit of a sidetrack. While last season’s opening gamethread (the one that concluded with a foretelling thought, “Wait, where did they all go? They were just here!”) began with a now-mythical skyscraper in Midtown, this season’s first game preview kicks off just over 18 years ago, almost directly across North Avenue, in a nondescript barbershop. I snuck out of work on that early autumn afternoon (no, it wasn’t a cloudy day, EWF fans), fitting into the schedule of the gentleman who seemed competent at doing anything with the Brillo pad that passes for hair above my eyebrows. He, like many native Atlantans, was a huge NBA fan, and not at all a Hawks fan. An unrepentant Sixer fan myself at that point, I had fancied myself a Hawks sympathizer, still years removed from becoming a Hawks evangelist. “At least you got excitement up there in Philly,” explained the barber, as he tried, as best he could, to lineup my crooked forehead. “We need an A.I. around here, like you got. A Kobe, a J-Kidd, a Grant Hill, That Fella (like many, he used other vernacular for “Fella,” I’m just cleaning it up here) that puts teams on their back. That Fella you know will try to do something spectacular, just to put his imprint on the game.” The Starks jersey above his crisp, long white tee let you know where this Adamsville resident’s bread was buttered. No, years of the steady but staid Steve Smith didn’t pass muster, and Jim Jackson felt like Smitty warmed over. Smith’s effective replacement on the Hawks, Isaiah Rider, proved to be off-kilter yet somehow amazingly on-brand. We once had That Guy, y’know, but we traded him away at the worst time. Any cutter in the shop, when the occasion called for it, would remind you of that factoid. A poster of That Guy, eyeing the hoop in mid-air, hung in the back of the shop, in his memory. “Now, that boy from down there in Daytona…” the clipper man added while applying alcohol and giving directions while pretending not to know his name, “That young boy that went up there to Chapel Hill. Maaaaan…” He needn’t add much more. 2000, anno dominique, was becoming quite the banner year for Vincent Lamar Carter, Jr. Having averaged over 25 points per game in just his second pro season, “Air Canada” was taking multiple nations by storm. With help from his newfound cousin, Carter helped guide Toronto to its first-ever playoff year. Contests featuring the team from the lightly-regarded NBA outpost of Toronto had suddenly become appointment viewing, “Must See TV.” Along the way, the high-flyer landed in Oakland for the NBA All-Star Game. His exploits there, at what in recent years became a dying Dunk Contest, had jaws dropping, commentators running short of adequately descriptive words, camcorders running out of tape. “It’s OVER, Ladies and Gentlemen! Let’s Go Home!” The Mystique of Michael was finally beginning to wear, and hoop heads were yearning for somebody to pick up that mantle and take off. As the 2000-01 season neared, Carter was more than ready to fill the bill. But first, there was some Dream Team business to attend to, halfway across the globe, in Sydney. I gave my man dap, and a tip, just as his landline phone started ringing. Without a response, the phone rang again. My barber checked the caller ID, and dialed back using his fancy flip-phone, show-off that he was. As I departed, I grabbed just a snippet of his conversation: “Say what now? Hol’ up, wait, slow down… you heard Vince Carter did WHAT?” You must recall (if you’re old enough to do so) that there was no “dot-com”, really, not the way we know it today. No Tweeter, no Facechat or Snapbook or whatever, nothing with near-instantaneous online feedback of events that weren’t being aired and VCR’d live. Word-of-Mouth required actual mouths; it didn’t involve text unless you bothered to check your AOL account. If you had a real “smart phone,” like one of those newfangled BlackBerry joints, it might be able to tell you the weather forecast which, belaboring the point, was useless in September. Having just survived “Y2K”, heck, we were all just relieved our alarm clocks and wristwatches hadn’t imploded. During the Olympics, Team USA Basketball was a primetime show, so watching rounds of action that occurred a half-day away simply had to wait for a few hours on tape delay. Unbeknownst to most of us Yanks, on September 25, 2000, A.D., there were folks scattering around The Dome in Sydney like streetball mixtape attendees. They were breathless, desperate to relay to outsiders, as best they could, what they had just witnessed, clear out of the blue. It would take a lot of reach-out-and-touch-someone reverberation to make clear to us Statesiders that Something Had Happened. “Team USA did win their preliminary round with France, to wrap up group play,” the voice from 790 AM blurted through my Sony Walkman during their routine half-hourly update on my walk home. “BUT… we’re being told, you are going to want to catch the replay of this game, tonight. Vince Carter did… something in this game that was so spectacular, we’re not going to spoil it for you. Trust me, if what we’re being told is true, you are going to have to see it for yourself.” Okay, so, probably some big, impressive slam then, I thought. Whoop-Dee-Damm-Do. What could be so earth-shattering about that? America’s infatuation with not merely His Airness, but the Space Program, was winding down. My great-grandparents had Kitty Hawk; my grannies and parents had the awe of the Boeing 747, and The Man on The Moon. Testing the limits of human flight and gravity defiance, by then, was confined to how far anyone (Michael, really) could elevate from the ground -- pure will, aided solely by the latest in athletic gear technology. As can-do Americans, we were about done with clearing orbs beyond the stratosphere. The unfortunate domepiece of 7-foot-3 Frederic Weis would have to suffice. The Moment itself was purely improvisational, a spur-of-the-moment decision off an early second-half steal Carter made as just about everyone on the French squad, aside from the lead-footed Weis, were headed to the other end of the floor. Vince could not have preconceived what was about to transpire. No one, fathomably, could. Once it aired here, you likely had to adjust your antennae, and maybe even the vertical on your telly, to make sure what you witnessed was authentic. The only thing more stunning was that Vin Baker, of all people, was an Olympian standing right there to offer testimony. As far as Olympic feats went, this was about to be the Fosbury Flop for a whole new generation. Propelling himself, his momentum carrying him into the air off just one foot, its toes barely breaching the quadrilateral paint. His imposing human hurdle, already posted a healthy six feet from the basket, shrinking only to 7-foot-1 to flinch while instinctively cowering beneath him. Reaching down with the other arm, nearly fully extended, to post a helpful hand atop the behemoth’s shoulder. Soaring, with the ball cocked far behind his head, to windmill emphatically, leaving the breakaway rim, the arena, and its inhabitants quivering in the wake of what amounted to… two points. Should it be called an And-1? The refs were too shook to even take time to think about what minimal contact there was. How can one even classify this as a “poster,” unless they were blessed with walls in their house that were over fifteen feet high? This was a freaking mural dunk. A 6-foot-6 shooting guard had just created a Banksy, at least one that would never shred itself within the consciousness of sports fans. Up until The Year of Vince Carter, the deadly crossover had overtaken dunking as the in-game highlight of choice among the vox populi. But after this sensational slam, people kind of lost their heads. Dunk Contests, at all levels of play, were back en vogue, participants vaulting over chairs, tables, a person, a mascot, a whole bunch of people, a bunch of mascots, motorcycles, cars. Somebody made a whole semi-pro league out of dudes with bike helmets, posterizing each other with the aid of trampolines embedded in the floor. And he got multi-year TV deals out of it. At the NBA level? Sure, maybe you’re super-raw, maybe you can’t throw a shot into the ocean, maybe you struggle to stay in front of a mannequin, maybe you can’t even pass gas skillfully, to say nothing of a ball. But, say, can you leap tall people in a single bound? Rodney White, Fred Jones, Kirk Snyder, Josh Smith, Gerald Green, Hakim Warrick, Tyrus Thomas, Nate Robinson… welcome, fine sirs, to the first round of the NBA Draft. Aside from France, who was quite inured to the feeling of defensive resignation anyway, news of this eye-popping, Freedom-frying event brought delight throughout the globe, nowhere more so than the folks in offices back here in Beaverton, Oregon. As the afterglow of MJ waned, Nike was rapidly losing clout in the basketball universe. Among NBA players and hoop fashionistas alike, the Swoosh Crew was losing market share to the likes of Reebok… Reebok!... AND 1, adidas, and Fila. They wooed Carter away from Puma… Puma!... earlier that year. But they needed to come up with something gimmicky, like the Reebok Pump, but practical and not comical, to make his shoes marketable to the general populace. Enter the “springs”-loaded Nike Shox BB4, which did… BOING!... exactly what it was advertised to do, at least on Carter’s feet, which was all that mattered. Just like that, as shoe stores were swimming in sales orders for Shox, Nike became globally renowned for something other than Air Jordan (and Air Penny). At the other end of the continent, the hullabaloo in Manhattan was a lot less palpable. Fresh off a second-straight conference finals appearance, the great minds at the offices of the New York Knickerbockers (oh, did I yet mention we’re playing the Knicks tonight? Yeah, the Knicks… 7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, you’re welcome) had, just a year before, used their highest first-round draft pick in eight years not on hometown hero Ron Artest, but on this particular Frenchman, Frederic Weis. Sacre Bleu, y’all! Convincing New Yorkers that Monsieur Weis would become Patrick Ewing, version 2.0, and not Laughingstock Stiff, version infinity.0, was going to be a hard sell even before the Games of the XXVIIth Olympiad. But, after… this? Perhaps realizing that he, like Vince, was in over his head, Weis would never dare cross the Atlantic Ocean to don the blue-and-orange. Over the ensuing dozen years, the team that gambled on drafting him, the Knicks, would never win the Atlantic Division. The 2000’s date that would live on in infamy, the September day many a Timberlands-clad New Yorker would long remember with disdain, sure as heck looked like it was gonna be “Nine-Twenty-Five”. Thanks a lot, Vince Carter, you schmutz! After losing a decisive Game 5 at home, in the first round of the 2001 Playoffs to, coincidentally, Vince’s Raptors, the Knicks formally began their descent into the abyss, impeded only by a single-season run under Carter’s old coach, your friend and mine, Lenny Wilkens (do NOT bring his name up in The Shop around here, lest you wind up looking unwittingly like Dennis Schröder). By the time they finally won at least 50 games, claimed a division pennant, and prevailed in a playoff series, yet another ex-Hawks coach, Mike Woodson, would be running their sideline. Even Linsanity had already come and gone by then. Linsanity, born right here at Madison Square Garden seven seasons ago, was a small-guard derivative of Vinsanity, which had already been a force to be reckoned with from Carter’s initial Raptor years. But the reaction to this audacious Olympic feat went well beyond anyone’s grasp of Vinsanity. This was more like Vinsandemonium. The signature moment of Vince Carter’s career, of his athletic life, never occurred on an NBA stage. Thus, every NBA season that followed for Carter, every highlight play, every game, every contract, every injury setback, every outcome for every team, would get juxtaposed, unfairly, with one fleeting moment of majesty on September 25, 2000. For Vince, I imagine, the curse was worth the blessing. Where were you, way back then? Turns out, Carter wasn’t the only American rocking the rims and going up over Down Under in 2000. Swing west around the coastline from Sydney, about a half-day’s drive away, to the modest South Australia town of Mt. Gambier. There, an athletic, 24-year-old Californian, who once starred in college at Santa Clara U., was wrapping up his latest semi-pro season with a brief stint in the Southeast Australia Basketball League, dropping nearly 20 points per game on unsuspecting opponents’ heads, albeit in a more customary fashion than Mister Carter. Playing for the Pioneers not far from the Australian outback, Lloyd Pierce wasn’t drawing the oohs and aahs he might have hoped for, particularly way back home. His former backcourt running mate with the Broncos in college, Steve Nash, had completed his fourth NBA season, and even he had yet to break out as a full-time starter, much less a star. Absolutely no one was curious whether Nash’s former teammate should be on an NBA radar. Between stints in Mexico, a Pro-Am league in San Francisco, one in Montana, and here, in the distant continent of Australia, there was no telling when Pierce’s NBA odyssey would begin, if ever. But Lloyd eventually returned to Santa Clara as an assistant coach in 2003, right on time for Nash’s meteoric rise to stardom. And he caught his big NBA break in 2007, becoming a player development coordinator for LeBron James’ first defending Eastern Conference champions in Cleveland. When it comes to the player development of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Pierce represents the singular space on the Venn diagram. Instead of the itchy, flaky czar of the whiteboard, Mike Budenholzer, the stern yet smooth-talking Pierce is the one guy Travis Schlenk (a video coordinator for the Miami heat, back when Vince performed “Le Dunk de la Mort”) will put his (owners’) money on to nurture the upstarts on this Atlanta Hawks roster. With his globe-trotting basketball experience, there are few better suited than Pierce to literally talk “Turkey” with military-brat-turned-jumping-jack forward John Collins (59.8 2FG% in 2017-18, 6th in NBA). Growing up in and around servicemembers is often a great way to foster good active listeners and leaders of men, and a lot will be expected of John The Baptist (out for a few games, after a minor ankle procedure) to soak up the tutelage and lead by example, on and off the court, in his first season following up on a promising All-Rookie 2nd-Team campaign. Having an Old-Head Gang member like Carter around can’t hurt. Is it even fair to call Jeremy Lin an O.H.G., alongside the quadragenarian Carter? Lin himself once aspired to the great heights Vince was reaching on SportsCenter on a nightly basis. Alas, while Carter was trying to hurl himself over heads back in 2000, Jeremy faced quite a hurdle of his own… figuring out how to wrap up violin practice, so he could join his junior high school hoops team in time for the second halves. Between Lin and Carter, who knew his way around a tuba in his own scholastic days, there’s no telling how much great music they could make together. This is a pair of vets whose experiences and voices will serve more as a symphony, and less like a cacophony, for the youthful Hawks, particularly those future stars with quite a bit on their plates already, when adversity strikes during the season. How youthful? Do they make BB4 Shox in a Kids’ Size 7? Fresh off a career hooping at Texas Tech with a two-year-old in tow, Rayford Young surely had to be posing the question, on the day when Vince took flight. Like Coach Pierce, Ray went on to do the globe-trotting pro thing, leaving his high school and college sweetheart, Candice, to tend daily to baby Trae. Also like Pierce, Ray went on to become a D-1 grad assistant, in this case at Oklahoma. These days, his son is out here making draft caps and suit shorts a fit. While many in the Hawks Universe will have immediate, lofty expectations for their newest lottery plum, Atlanta’s first Top-5 draftee rookie in over a decade, Ray Young will not be the kind of NBA family member either openly fretting about Pierce’s coaching decisions, or encouraging his college-supernova kid’s head to overinflate in the pros. You do get the sense that other NBA pros, who have watched the ascension of Trae Young (2017-18’s NCAA D-1 leader in PPG and APG, a unique accomplishment for any collegian) at Oklahoma, to be genuinely pulling for the kid. Not so much to best them, individually, in head-to-head competition, but just to see his offensive ambrosia ripen to a point where it sticks in the craw of those who, for a variety of reasons, are his fervent detractors. There were folks jealous of the Sooner freshman’s hype, especially versus subpar collegiate competition. There are those who must continue to believe Trae will never reach the dignified level they ascribe to his draft-night trade partner, Luka Doncic, or to bigs like Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. Or, heck, even to Schröder, the wunderkind who Atlanta dispatched to Oklahoma City after mixed-bag results in his first season as the full-time starting floor leader. Like most rookies, particularly those on rosters stripped of any experienced talent in their primes, Young is sure to have his share of struggles, and Told Ya So Twitter stands at the ready when those moments arrive. But the good news is, his long-term ceiling is well above his floor, the likelihood of achieving Traesanity far greater than Traegedy. Iverson, Nash, Curry. These are not players to simply mimic on the court, but superstar guards who had to toil through years of adversity, in some cases well before getting a college scholarship, before achieving success and MVP-level greatness in the pros. With the proper coaching and outside support, they built their status up from mythical to legendary levels. “Legendary” is not where Trae is now, but if all goes well, that is the scale of what he can aspire to. Everybody is The Next Somebody, until you create that exceptional aura of greatness, where somebody gets labeled The Next You. Bello. Acuña. Young. Behold, the potential future of sports greatness for The ATL. All are pressed into finding ways to shine now, before they hit their respective drinking ages. Unlike the first precocious pair, though, there will be no carefully-monitored grooming of Trae’s skillset in developmental leagues. No, following a couple weeks of summer league ball, Young gets to cut his teeth playing directly versus the likes of floor-leader names like Kemba, Wall, Dragic, Kyrie, Lowry, Curry, Westbrook, Lillard, Conley, CP3, etc. High-tier lottery guards with budding promise from seasons past (D’Lo, Dunn, whoever new Knicks coach David Fizdale elects to start tonight, Fultz, DSJ, Lonzo, Elfrid, Fox) have their future matchups with the highly touted Young pegged on their respective calendars, too. The fun part? With many promising-pick guards, other highly-regarded skills are well established entering the league, but, “wait a few years, and let’s see if they can build a steady jumpshot,” becomes the caveat. Not so with Trae, who has the form and the range down pat when it comes to his jumper, and he only needs to work on timing and its application versus top-notch defensive competition. As many of a lottery pick can attest, no matter your age of entry into The Association, these days, the book is written and sold via our future neighbor, Amazon, about you after just two NBA seasons, if you haven’t turned the corner toward All-NBA-dom. Flounder any longer than that, no matter your position, and you become a cast-off, a lost cause, a fella like Alex Len (the sixth-eldest player on this roster, Len turned age 25 in June). Pierce and the Hawks’ developmental staff understand the challenges ahead revolve around ensuring his younger players don’t get caught up in the WYSIWYG perceptions of pundits and fans. That’s inclusive of not merely the new rookies, namely NBA Combine standout Kevin Huerter and NCAA champion Omari Spellman, but the mainstays, still here in the aftermath of this summer’s Budenholzer Bailout. Taurean Prince, who was just kicking off second grade during Carter’s most reputable play, grabbed the Tank Bull by the horns during the back half of last season with the Hawks. In his sophomore campaign, he emerged as a double-digit scorer (19.0 PPG, 41.2 3FG% post-All-Star Break) while shooting above 80 percent from the free throw line for the first time in his college or pro histories. To continue rounding out his game, Prince (69th among 75 qualifying small forwards in 2017-18 Defensive RPM, as estimated by ESPN) needs only look to another NBA player, one who couldn’t wait to attend Pierce’s introductory press conference as Atlanta’s newest head coach. The Sixers’ Robert Covington was like many undrafted talents from small-conference schools, players who no one foresees breaking into the league, to say nothing of becoming a full-time starter and earning All-NBA Defensive First Team honors by the end of their fifth pro season. Defense is supposed to be Pierce’s passion, as Covington (1st among SFs in DRPM for the second consecutive season, 3rd among players overall in 2017-18) happily attests. Of course, such was the case with Coach Bud, too. Budenholzer’s growing trust level with Taurean was commensurate with the swingman’s commitment to on-ball and team defensive precepts. Prince’s focus on improving at that end of the floor, perhaps becoming more of a vocal leader in that regard, while continuing to make strides as a secondary passer, could prove critical in abbreviating Atlanta’s turnaround plans. And then, there’s Mister Just Happy to Be Here. Kent Bazemore has suffered the slings and arrows of Hawk fans, many “lam-Baze-ting” him, at turns, for not doing enough (because of his contract) and doing too much (again, because of his contract). But you’re not going to catch Baze (one school grade behind Lin, when Vince was grazing somebody’s scalp in mid-air) gazing with disdain at negative fan commentary. Nor will Kent be quibbling over playing time, which may diminish at the wing spots as Huerter and DeAndre’ Bembry pick up the pace. The final remnant from the Peak Hawks season of 2014-15, Kent has an eye on his next contract deal. If all goes well building from what was arguably a career season in 2017-18 (12.9 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 39.4 3FG%), Bazemore could opt out of his pricey single-season option next summer, in search of a more sustainable long-term deal. For however long he remains in Atlanta, the civic-minded Bazemore has enough experience on and off the court to teach the yung’uns what not to do. Unlike Prince, the willingness to guard and help-defend has never been an issue for Bazemore. It’s when the pair, and their teammates, are heading the other way where the Hawks now have potential to make their mark. For all the talk about pace-and-space during the Coach Bud era, last season’s swan-song Hawks (8th in pace) under Bud’s watch compiled barely over 10 points per 48 minutes on the fastbreak (21st in NBA), as per NBA Stats. Fastbreak scoring for Atlanta (3rd in preseason pace) was up to 14.0 points per-48 during exhibition play this month (14th in NBA). Theoretically, four extra points-per-48 would be enough to raise the Hawks’ woeful offensive efficiency (26th in NBA O-Rating last year) out of Lottery Land, and into parity with many of the league’s mid-tiered playoff contenders. Like Coach Bud, Pierce draws from coaching philosophies where maximizing possessions, in search of higher-quality scoring chances, is paramount. But the new head coach will not be pushing Young, Lin, and Daniel Hamilton to merely rush into halfcourt sets, with wings scurrying out to the corners. Pierce wants his floor-leading guards to push the rock in transition, not simply off opponent’s live-ball turnovers. But success is predicated upon Bazemore, Prince, and bigs like Collins, Spellman, Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee, Justin Anderson, and Len, finishing off pinpoint passes with scores at the offensive end, preferably around the rim. The more proficiently the supporting cast finishes plays on quick-hitter possessions during games, the less likely Heroball will be needed out of their lotto rookie at the ends of them. As for New York, the new brain trust at the Knicks (Kings parachutist and current GM Scott Perry, and team president Steve Mills) is wholly disinterested in hearing about the organization’s many swings-and-misses of the past -- Weis, Allan Houston, Amar’e, Starbury, Sweetney, Larry Brown, Zeke Thomas, Fisher, Hornacek, Phil and the Melodrama, the recently dispatched Joakim Noah, and much, much more. Instead, Perry and Mills want fans to focus on the future, specifically the recent draft picks that were rocking diapers during Vince’s athletic prime. French guard Frank Ntilikina, then age 3, had not even left Belgium by the time the rest of the world learned who Weis was. Fizdale has been left waffling on where to play the Belgian native, but it appears Coach Fiz has settled on starting Ntilikina at the wing alongside Tim Hardaway, Jr. After averaging a career-high 17.5 PPG, the former Hawk Hardaway and his fellow Wolverine alum Trey Burke will carry much of the scoring load for New York until the team’s upstarts emerge consistently. Or, at least, until a mythical Unicorn can return to form. He’s not quite Godot, but fans and teammates alike eagerly await the arrival of Kristaps Porzingis during the back half of the season. Hope springs eternal for the young 7-foot-3 star (torn ACL) to return better-than-ever, and his rehabilitation will be worth the wait, even if it extends into next season. In the meantime, with Porzingis and second-year pro Luke Kornet missing time, there should be plenty of minutes available for rookie picks Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Another literal diaper-dandy back in 2000, Knox displayed enough glimpses of promise during summer league and preseason to get the Knoxsanity train rolling early. Enes Kanter, an offensive specialist (NBA-high 16.6 O-Reb% last season; career-best 68.3 FG% around the rim), and Robinson, a defensive stopgap, have enough of the troll gene instilled within them to help the Knicks be disruptive around both rims. But these bigs are usually unable to play (well) alongside one another. Whichever is on the court, the Hawks have an offensive game plan in mind to exploit a Knicks team that is only now hoping to show (2nd in preseason SPG; 29th last season), under Fizdale, that they can and will pressure ballhandlers. Attacking Kanter off the pick-and-roll, drawing the rookie Robinson out of the paint with perimeter shots to free up cutters (27th in defending cut plays last season), and generally boat-racing them both in transition, should open plenty of possibilities up for Atlanta to get buckets or earn trips to the free throw line. Len, filling in for the injured Dedmon, Spellman and Plumlee are likely to have active roles in igniting the Hawks offense, over the course of their first 48 minutes together. Individual game and season outcomes for the Knicks have no bearing on attendance at The World’s Most Famous Arena, where New Yorkers have turned attending, despite perpetually dampened expectations, into a rite of passage. Not so back home in Atlanta, where the Hawks moved a half-century ago from St. Louis, and seemingly brought much of the Show Me State along with them. Atlanta’s owners and figureheads are hopeful a revamped, swankier, and airier nest for the Hawks will draw a lot more people through the metal detectors, willing to flex their spending power on tix, grub, haircuts, beer and gear, on a nightly basis. Like my barber at that time, those who recall the debut of this very arena, during the 1999-00 season, beg to differ. Replacing the rusty Omni was nice. But you were going to need a more reliable draw than Bimbo Coles to get standing room only over 40 times a year. This Hawks regime understands that, if you’re going to fill up the Farm, you need players who at least look the part of flashy, highlight-making, competitive NBA stars. If you’re going to pursue those talents and use them to help you attract similar super-teammates, it behooves you to acquire them while they’re still reasonably cheap and, well, Young. Otherwise, you wind up with a lot of hoop-fanatic Atlantans who don’t stay, or even become, True To Atlanta. Folks like my hair-clipper from 18 years ago, whose premonition as I sat in his chair, regarding the second-oldest opening-night starter in league history, proved prescient. “We don’t go after legit stars here… not until it’s too late and they’re way past their prime,” the barber advised, adding a dash of wry humor as he poked me with the back of his pick. “By the time the Hawks get (fellas) like them boys up north, up there in Canada, they’ll probably be pushing 40… and, hey, ((chuckles)) hey… they’ll probably start ‘em!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  20. Womp Womp Womp Womp Wooooooooooommmp... ~lw3