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  1. “When you wish upon a Star… Makes a difference who you are…” I can’t speak for you, but I am kind of glad, no longer having to care at all about the fate of the Netspick. In a secondary way, Atlanta Hawks fans no longer have to be concerned about tonight’s opponent, the slip-sliding Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), or any other lotto-quality Eastern Conference foe holding down one of the final two available playoff spots. For a minute there, mere weeks ago, it was looking like the 7-seed was no longer in play. Despite losing defensive glue Jonathan Isaac (severe knee sprain suffered on New Year’s Day) for the balance of January, the Magic responded by going 5-2, highlighted by a win at STAPLES Center, without Evan Fournier, over a Laker team that thought it was safe to rest Anthony Davis. Unfortunately for coach Steve Clifford’s crew, Orlando’s depth began absorbing too many hits. Knee surgery last month for the already-injured Al-Farouq Aminu, arguably the team’s biggest free agent addition over the summer, effectively concluded his season before it could really get going. Orlando was granted a Disabled Player Exception for Aminu, but not for Isaac, the latter application an indication that he won’t be rushed back by the team any time soon. In and out for much of the season already, Michael Carter-Williams was missing time due to injury, and by the time he returned to action in mid-January, he tagged out D.J. Augustin, whose patella irritation (still out tonight) has had the lead bench guard unavailable ever since. Orlando had already weathered the storm of losing recent All-Star pivot Nikola Vucevic for a month. But for a squad that relied on defensive fortitude from Isaac, a discrete set of offensive options around wayward-shooting ballhandler Markelle Fultz, and snail’s-pace ball-control keyed by Augustin and Carter-Williams off the bench as pillars to victory, Clifford’s Magic seem to be just about out of tricks. One night after upsetting LeBron’s Lakers to get within a game of .500 basketball, Orlando had to endure the dreaded STAPLES back-to-back and got clapped by the Clippers. They’ve been in an O-Town Funk ever since. Two wins, both on the road at charcoaled Charlotte, are all the team can claim from their past twelve contests. Their last victory here at Amway Center, over a month ago, came at the expense of a Wizards team that didn’t even have All-Star wannabe Bradley Beal. The Magic (22-31) began a three-game homestand getting toyed with by Giannis and top-seeded Milwaukee, a preview of what might be a sad but swift playoff opening round, should no other Eastern lottery teams step it up in the coming months. With just two home games left before the All-Star Break (Detroit arrives on Wednesday), the Magic hopes they can face a squad that tired itself out last night in Atlanta. The Hawks (15-39) needed four quarters and a pair of overtimes to outlast a Knicks team that itself was playing a back-to-back. Remember that the Magic had already been awaiting several young players to get healthy and emerge as stars for the future. They spent a mid-first-rounder on Atlanta native Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL while starring for Auburn during last year’s March Madness campaign, with the intention of rehabbing and bringing him along slowly as Aminu and Amile Jefferson played behind Gordon this season. They’ve been pleased that Fultz and center Mo Bamba have been healthy, steady members of the rotation. But they have been forced to rely more on the lotto-pick pair at critical junctures of this season than they likely anticipated. The same goes for third-year bench players Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch. Having already tripled his volume of starts in Philly before the Sixers discarded him, Markelle passes and shoots inside the arc reasonably well (4.8 APG; 50.1 2FG%). He’d be all the more dangerous with dribble penetration if he had reliable perimeter shooters at the ready. Atlanta ranks 30th in three-point accuracy (32.6 3FG%, 34.3% since Jan. 1), but the Magic (33.4 3FG%, 33.5 since Jan. 1) are coming on strong for that dead-last spot. 2019 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terrence Ross’ jumper has plummeted back to Earth this year (32.2 3FG%, 3-for-19 FGs vs. ATL this season). Vucevic and Gordon combined to shoot 0-for-13, and Ross 1-for-4, from deep against the Bucks in Saturday’s 111-95 loss, making Fultz (3-for-7 3FG vs. MIL, a season-high in makes; 26.9 3FG% on the season) look quite the marksman. At least the Hawks have a point guard in Trae Young (39 points, incl. 13 in 4th quarter; 5-for-10 3FGs, incl. the game-clincher, vs. ORL on Oct. 26) who can call his own number on occasion. Perhaps, two, at least until Jeff Teague (37.1 2FG%, probable for tonight despite sore shoulder) gets out of his shooting rut. Without Young, Brandon Goodwin saved the day for the Hawks in Orlando back on December 30, sinking big shots inside and out (team-high 21 points, 3-for-4 3FGs), generally catching the Magic off-guard in a 101-93 win. The former UCF and Florida Gulf Coast star guard isn’t as effective in spot duty. But when Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has turned to the two-way player and Midseason All-G-Leaguer for major minutes, Goodwin (just 4 minutes last night vs. NYK) has shown he’s up to the task (42.9 FG%, 100 FT%, 24 assists and 12 TOs in games w/ 20+ minutes). The sole major move by Magic exec Jeff Weltman to bolster team depth was the acquisition of James Ennis, the reserve forward who generally struggled with Philadelphia this season (37.0 FG% since Dec. 31) before waiving his no-trade clause to come to Orlando. Ennis is expected to premiere tonight for the Magic, who waived Jefferson at the Trade Deadline to accommodate Ennis and make 10-day contractor Gary Clark a full-time member. It is hoped that Ennis’ addition will give Gordon (41.9 FG%, 15.4 points and 3.4 assists per-36, down from 44.9%, 17.0 and 4.0 last season) more latitude to play full-time at the power forward spot, where he is perceived to be more effective. Orlando is 9-4 when AG snares 8 or more defensive rebounds, 3-13 when he grabs fewer than five. The Magic frontline has struggled to this point when plugging in either Iwundu or Ross in place of the sidelined Isaac, so they hope Ennis will be a difference maker defensively. Along the way to a 42-40 record in 2018-19, their first winning season since 2011-12, Clifford’s Magic were among three opponents to sweep the 29-53 Hawks in four games, and the only one to win them all by double-digit margins. With a chance to improve to 3-0 versus Orlando this season, it is reasonable to wonder whether Pierce and the Hawks finally have the Magic’s number. Clifford’s 36-46 Hornets similarly swept the 2017-18 Hawks by double-digits in four games. Matt Hill, a longtime Magic video analyst who was the sole assistant initially retained by Clifford when he took over for Frank Vogel in 2018, left shortly thereafter to join Pierce’s staff, and his intimate knowledge may be proving valuable in Atlanta’s competitive turnaround against mainstays Vucevic, Fournier and Gordon (DNP vs. ATL on Dec. 30). The trio was a combined 5-for-28 on threes and has been generally ineffective in second halves versus Atlanta through the first two matchups. Orlando may catch an extra break keeping up offensively if Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (38.3 corner 3FG% on team-high 1.6 attempts per game; team-high 35 minutes, 3-for-6 3FGs @ ORL in December; 48 minutes, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. NYK; questionable, ankle sprain) gets some rest today. Without several wing defenders available for the Hawks, Fournier and Ross must each be on-target today. Catching up with Orlando and attaining a playoff spot is a bit too much of an ask at this stage for a Hawks team that struggled to put the Knicks to bed last night, and they won’t have a core with a chance to gel until Clint Capela (out, heel bone) and Cam Reddish (questionable, concussion) make their likely returns after the All-Star Break. But it is possible for the Hawks to surge soon past at least one division rival. A win tonight would raise Atlanta to 5-4 within the Southeast Division (0-3 versus banner leader Miami), an above-.500 mark that neither Charlotte (1-6; 2.0 games ahead of ATL) nor Washington (4-8; 4.5 games ahead of ATL) is likely to claim. By comparison, yesterday’s win over New York vaulted Atlanta to just 4-22 versus the rest of the conference. Building competitive edges against the rest of the Southeast can bode well for Atlanta, both going into the Break and looking forward to next season. Will they have the legs and the wherewithal to keep building against the struggling Magic tonight? Orlando certainly hopes the answer is no. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Evan, you really might want to clean up your Google search results.” Your undefeated, first-place Atlanta Hawks, on a roll! Up to 2-0 after dispatching the Orlando Magic in their home debut. 39 and 9 for the totally healthy Trae Young! And, my, what a stout defense! Holding the Magic to just 35.4 percent from the field, 5-for-31 on threes? This is already shaping up to be one heck of a season. … Welp! As fans, it’s tough surmising how things will shake out when the calendar turns by a day, a month, a year, a decade. Many times, we think we know. In fact, more often we’re certain we know, using past or even most recent history as a guide. Most often, we have no earthly idea. Some funny things happened for Atlanta, along the way to 82-0. The Hawks visit the Magic Kingdom tonight to close out the Teens (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), and while Atlanta’s sports-mecca future in the Twenties remains bright, it’s hard to discern in the case of the Hawks (4-27 since beating ORL on Oct. 26) if that brightness is the end of a tunnel ahead, or an approaching train. Both NBA clubs have reason to be pleased with their point guard leadership, for at least the front end of the next decade. Trae Young (ankle sprain) may have kicked something during this past weekend’s Peach Bowl, and so we will see him return to action later rather than Sooner. He’s at MVP-Adjacent level already in his second season, and has improved across the board, at least offensively, while helping the Hawks climb uphill on a nightly basis. Orlando (11-14, 3-7 in last ten, but 2-1 in last three games) has continued to bump its ahead against the .500 wall, and the team’s late December skid as it re-adjusted to Nikola Vucevic’s return, was less then desirable. But they’re pleased as punch that Markelle Fultz (5.2 APG, 40.0 3FG% in last nine games) is steadying himself as a starting PG. Has 2017’s #1 pick arrived? Not quite. Was he worth trading to Philadelphia Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-rounder, and OKC’s Top-20-protected first rounder this coming season? You betcha. Both clubs have young jumping-jack forwards that are proving to be even better than advertised. Jonathan Isaac (3rd in Defensive Box Plus/Minus; 2.5 BPG, 2nd in NBA; team-high 1.5 SPG) is already rounding out as one of the top-notch defenders in the league, near single-handedly keeping the Magic in games they have no business being in otherwise. The latter comment can’t be said, yet, of Atlanta’s John Collins (18.9 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.7 BPG in last 3 games), not while the Hawks are getting blown out by teams as good as Milwaukee at home, and as bad as Chicago on the road. But at least he’s producing at both ends of the floor for a Hawks team that’s absent what was, before his return, its two most potent offensive threats in Young and Jabari Parker (shoulder). If he gets some help on either end by some permutation of Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, DeAndre' Hunter and sixth-man vet Allen Crabbe (combined 7-for-34 FGs, 10 D-Rebs, 3 steals @ CHI on Dec. 28, in a 116-81 loss), we might actually have ourselves a contested game worth watching today. As R.E.M. might sing, in the modern NBA, Everybody Hurts. And the truth is, the best teams anticipate overcoming the adversity of unforeseen absences, and these Hawks have yet to be built with the depth, experience, and skillset the best teams possess. Or, even the mediocre ones, as the squad across the halfcourt line demonstrates on a nightly basis. Orlando’s All-Star center, Vucevic has been in and out of the lineup. Mo Bamba, the 2018 draftee selected one Lottery pick after Young, returns from an ankle injury, but has not been in a condition to be relied upon by coach Steve Clifford significantly. Perhaps trying to overcompensate with heavy frontcourt minutes, Aaron Gordon will now sit to rehab an Achilles that has nagged him for some time. At Amway Center this evening, the Magic will also be thin in their second and third lines, as Michael Carter-Williams (shoulder) and Al-Farouq Aminu (meniscus tear) are both out of commission. But as long as they have dogged defenders, like Isaac, and low-turnover ballhandlers, like Fultz and D.J. Augustin (no Magicians with more than 1.9 TOs/game), and shooters comfortably working their way out of slumps, like Evan Fournier (42.0 3FG%) and sixth-man Terrence Ross, the Magic can lose games by ten that the Hawks lose by thirty. They can win games that the Hawks lose by twenty. Staying in games you have no business being in, for the balance of four quarters, is the definition of an 8-seed in the East, where Orlando (1.5 games ahead of 9-seed Chicago) currently resides. Roll back the calendar a bit. About ten years, to be precise. Finally, could a 50-win season be in the cards for coach Mike Woodson and his 21-10 Hawks? Years of nurturing resulted in what was, as of December 31, 2009, the sixth-best record in the NBA, led by All-Star Joe Johnson and a rare Lottery hit in Al Horford. The main problem? Standing in their way, in the NBA East, were KG’s Celtics, LeBron’s Cavaliers, and Dwight’s Magic. Coming off an embarrassing end to the 2008 postseason at young LeBron’s hands, did Atlanta have enough experience and gumption to become tougher competitors, like Dwight and the Magic, at playoff time? We’d just have to wait and see. As for the defending Eastern Conference champion Magic, having sent LeBron packing in the playoffs along the way, the future was shining as the sun went down on The Aughts for the final time. Sitting at 23-8, a second-straight 59-win season was on the way. Dwight Howard was certain to be a franchise flagship until his retirement, respected and feared throughout the league, while joined at the hip with coach Stan Van Gundy to push the team into many Finals to come. Heck, LeBron’s probably heading past his prime, anyway. Bring on The Teens! Tell some Laker fans in December 2009 that the Lakers would soon poach Dwight, as they have done with many a Hall of Fame big man over the decades, out of Central Florida to pair with Kobe for another championship run. That they would re-sign him, too, although not in a way they might expect. And, while their team’s trophy count would soon go up from 15 to 16, the NBA’s Franchise of the 2010s would hail from California, but not Los Angeles. Humor yourself while letting them guess which division rival, and how. No, Andrew Bynum didn’t leave them for Sacramento. Those Laker fans might put you on trial for witchcraft. “Awww, c’mon. You’re pulling our leg. The Warriors? Jerry West’s Warriors? Pass on some of that stuff you’re smoking!” (Don’t tell them some of that stuff will be street-legal by 2016). 9-22 was the record of Travis Schlenk’s Golden State Warriors as the calendar turned to 2010, tied for the fourth-worst mark in The Association. The Dubs were giving up a league-worst 112.4 points per game, nearly five points more than the second-worst. Dead-last in fouling, dead-last in rebounding. Andris Biedrins, Anthony Tolliver and Corey Maggette were the last frail lines of defense. Don Nelson’s devil-may-care defensive strategies were offset, however slightly, by the Warriors’ high-scoring offense that now had rookie Stephen Curry in the mix. But from most long-suffering fans’ perspectives, it was tough to envision a championship future for the ensuing decade, one that didn’t somehow have Moped Monta Ellis guiding the way. It’s Kobe’s World, after all, Dubs fans figured. Oh, well. Let’s just putter our way into the 2010s and hope for the best. We’ll always have 1975. As an eventful 2019 comes to a close, Young pilots a stronger core of prospects and young talents than Curry had at his disposal one decade ago, and The Basketball Club is wedded to allowing the young pro coach grow alongside Trae and the rookies and sophomores, as they all take their lumps together. The Atlanta Hawks’ future foundation, for seasons yet to unfold, remains solid. It’s just understandable that, at this particular moment, without knowledge of any major maneuvers in the coming month or two by Schlenk, our “2020 vision” seems a little too blurry. Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. Orlando's about to see even mo' Bamba. ~lw3
  4. We finna find out a lot about Mo Bamba 'cause ....
  5. “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” He poured his heart and soul into this theatrical production. His life savings, too, such as it was. The conceptual vision of this 22-year-old aspiring playwright, a recent arrival to Atlanta who escaped an abusive home life in New Orleans, was a story of spirit overcoming unspeakable adversities and outlasting one’s own depravities. That story was finally coming to fruition, live, on a stage, at a community theater not far from his meager downtown studio apartment off Peachtree Street. The play opened to an audience of 30 people, the premiere being the maximum draw, and to lackluster local reviews. Out of all 12,000 dollars he arrived with from Louisiana, the aspiring playwright was soon penniless and kicked out into the streets of Atlanta. Again. And not for the last time. He could have stopped there, in the mid-1990s, as a construction worker and used car salesperson who once tried his hand at producing inspirational stage entertainment. It would have made for a nice story to share at a watering hole someday. But Tyler Perry was not through. Instead, he spent the next six years re-writing and re-engineering his opus. The breakthrough came with what Perry perceived as his final big gamble, presenting the play at the House of Blues, a church-repurposed venue at the seedy edge of downtown that was itself trying to establish a foothold. Through better word-of-mouth marketing and more compelling weaves of dramatic and comedic scenes, Perry and the House of Blues had a huge local hit, drawing lines around the corner to buy tickets. He could have stopped there, that guy who had a boffo play downtown that one time. He was not through. As the show moved onto the Chitlin’ Circuit across the country, Perry kept right on writing, armed with a formula as welcomed by his loyal consumers as anything Coca Cola ever concocted. Audiences soon knew, if the production’s title began with “Tyler Perry’s…”, they were in for a rip-roaring, tissue-tearing, get-up-on-your-feet treat. No matter the critical reviews, audiences came in droves. Newer plays, bigger venues. New stars created by him, A-List stars who craved to associate with him. People from all walks of life -- the churches, the comedy clubs, comeback actors and award winners, single moms and great grandmoms -- wanted to grab a hold of this Tyler Perry fella. He wasn’t done. He slapped on a grandmotherly wig and muumuu getup that was provocatively popular in his plays, and he soon ventured into filmmaking. And later, onto television, helping Oprah’s fledgling cable network rise up off the viewership mat with one salacious TV series after another. Most of this box-office-busting, ratings-bonanza hit-making, carried on while Hollywood and Broadway stood on the outside, stunned by the singular boldness of Perry’s independent spirit. In short order, the stuffed shirts at the big production studios had made it clear -- they didn’t much want Tyler Perry around. Conversely, Tyler Perry made it clear -- he didn’t much need Hollywood around him. He was a self-made success, at multiple forms of entertainment, pretty much despite them. This past month, he earned his Walk of Fame star anyway. “For anyone whose dreams may be on life support,” Perry addressed the crowd, I want you to walk past this star, in particular, and know that I’ve been there.” As he clutched his Ultimate Icon trophy at this year’s BET Awards ceremony, Perry offered up words of wisdom for persons of color striving for better representation in American media. “While you’re fighting for a seat at the table,” Perry told them, “I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.” Where, precisely? At a huge swath of what was previously Fort MacPherson, a closed US Army base that, at the time of the Civil War, sited Confederate soldiers, “plotting and planning,” he said, “on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved.” “Now,” the once broke and homeless Atlanta resident noted, to thunderous applause, “that land is owned… by one Negro.” At 330 acres, Tyler Perry Studios is bigger, in land area, than Hollywood’s Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, and Paramount Pictures. Combined. Will his film studio one day become bigger in other respects, too? Don’t count him out. The new state highway sign, directing drivers to Tyler Perry Studios, is adjacent to the longstanding sign for Sylvan Road, an Atlanta street that was the site of one of the apartments that evicted him just over two decades ago. Headed down the wrong road, Tyler’s life could have gone one way. Instead, he figured out how to make his own lane. Today, he’s making a way for many others. Another local who once made a brief living selling cars? How about RuPaul Andre Charles? Kicked out of high school in San Diego, ostensibly, for being truant, Charles moved east with his sister and brother-in-law, working for six years in the family auto sales business. He didn’t graduate here in Atlanta, either, but it was at the local high school’s performing arts program where he found his calling. “You can call me, ‘he’. You can call me, ‘she’. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee,” one of RuPaul’s now-famous lines go, “I don’t care! Just as long as you call ME.” Ru’s willful embrace of gender-bending for purposes of entertainment was not entirely a transcendent thing in NYC, or LA. But he found a way to make himself stand out even amongst those in the burgeoning drag scene of Midtown Atlanta. It is this city’s glitzy gumbo pot of condo and office towers now. But it was the drag performers of the 1980s, and RuPaul notably, that helped rambunctious Midtown claim its counter-cultural ascendancy. “RuPaul is RED HOT” was the sign repeatedly plastered on dumpsters behind the neighborhood’s withered apartment dwellings. Ru would know, because she’s the one who put them there, after moving into a sublet apartment blocks away from the wild all-night dance clubs and stages that lined this once-abandoned stretch of Peachtree Street. She also promoted herself through a weekly video show on public-access TV, and through his own filmmaking, “these trashy little movies on VHS,” Ru explained. “Atlanta gave me the freedom to produce that kind of stuff.” While most envision Ru these days with glamourous wigs and glittery attire, in the 1980s, he was this town’s androgynous punk-drag performer. The frontperson for a local punk-rock band called Wee Wee Pole, Ru stood in tall contrast to the expected “norms”, if you will, of Southern-style drag presentation as The Genteel Women of Tara. He could have stopped there, that guy who once headlined standing-room-only, late-night shows in a now gentrified part of town, back in the 1980s. She could have stopped after moving to New York City and emerging quickly as the Queen of Manhattan. He could have stopped at being that partying guy in the crowd with the Afro-wig who carried the day for Athens band The B-52’s iconic “Love Shack” music video. Or, as the Supermodel who had just one thing to say – “You better WORK!” – in the chart-busting dance hit of her own in the early 1990s. As the first male to hold a modeling contract for a major cosmetics line. As TV’s first openly gay national talk show host. But, no. RuPaul wasn’t through. America’s Biggest Drag Superstar made it her mission to find America’s Next Drag Superstar. Putting the campy drama of hard-working drag queens front-and-center on the small screen while merging America’s Next Top Model with Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race was born in 2009. A decade later, the Emmy-winning reality competition show continues to soar annually in ratings and Twitter reactions as it anchors its Viacom cable channels. Its internationally inspirational host has vaulted, meanwhile, from a counter-cultural icon to a cross-cultural one. Around the corner from her modest old apartment, RuPaul returns to Midtown, the neighborhood she put on the global map, in a few weeks, this time bringing her Drag Race World Tour to Atlanta Symphony Hall. “I never set out to be a role model,” Ru admitted to Vogue UK. “I may have set out to be a Super model, but not a role model. But I accept the responsibility and it’s an honor.” Who quits Georgia Tech in their senior year to go to work? You might, if your dad had some pull as a local executive at computing giant IBM in the 1980s. But who, a few years later, quits IBM in the 1980s… IBM!... to pursue a career in… comedy tours??? You might be Jeff Foxworthy, a kid who grew up in the little ol’ town of Hapeville in the shadow of Atlanta’s big ol’ airport. Jeff’s co-workers prodded the jovial mainframe repair technician to enter the Great Southeastern Laugh-Off competition, at a comedy club behind a diner north of Buckhead. He entered, and he “won”… second place. He was inspired enough, by this victorious-ish reception, to leave those green blinking cursors and heavy plastic boxes behind, for good. But, here’s the rub. The “professional” comedy world, such as it was, didn’t look fondly upon those who endeavored below the Mason-Dixon line. Intellectualism and wit were not seen as likely strong suits for Southerners who ventured into standup. Even if you were a clever young man who did just fine at Georgia Tech and IBM, to the rest of the world, there was always that drawl that had people seeing you as a country bumpkin and selling you short. “I think it was 1987,” Jeff recalled to MLive a couple years ago. “They were kidding me because I had this Southern accent.” Foxworthy’s ventures had him joining other comedians at standup venues outside Detroit, this time behind a bowling emporium. “I was wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots and drove a pickup truck. They were kidding me about being a redneck.” Little did these jokester upstarts know what they were about to unearth. “I said, ‘Come, look out the window. If you don’t think you have rednecks in Michigan, look. People are valet parking… in the bowling alley!’” He made his point, with his uniquely humorous style. But from that moment on, he was done with pulling his punchlines. “I went back to the hotel that night and said, ‘I know what I am but, apparently, a lot of people don’t.’ And I wrote, ’10 Ways to Tell How You Might Be a Redneck,’ never thinking it was going to be a book.” “From that first night, not only did people laugh, they were pointing at each other.” The best comedians offer up plenty of self-effacing humor, but offer audiences opportunities to laugh about themselves, and discover the silly commonalities they share with strangers. His “You Might Be a Redneck, If…” one-liners were not merely comedy gold. His first two “Redneck” comedy albums went certified Platinum. That success spawned an eponymous TV sitcom, “The Jeff Foxworthy Show,” that was promptly cancelled by network execs who felt his routines were “too Southern,” he was told, for a national audience. (“Has ANYONE heard me TALK?”, he later quipped to his standup audiences). He could have stopped there, that guy who made people cackle with an unending litany of redneck jokes. But Jeff Foxworthy was not done. More Grammy-nominated comedy albums were in the offing. Country music awards host, nationally syndicated radio show host. A voiceover for animated movies. Writing an autobiography, writing a cookbook, writing Redneck Dictionaries. 28 books authored… and counting. Having long demonstrated he was, indeed, Smarter Than A 5th Grader, Jeff became a primetime game-show host, daring contestants and grade-schoolers to flex their brains, too. Need a Bible-quiz game show host? Jeff’s got you covered. “Southern-fried” and “common-man” comedy was now firmly in demand, and through the wildly popular “Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” Foxworthy convened several of his comedian friends who would become icons by their own right. Larry the Cable Guy? Ron White? Bill Engvall? Did you doubt they would all become household names and sought-out celebrities by the mid-2000s? Here’s your sign. The guy whose professional future was once questioned and belittled has become the top-selling comedy recording artist in history. All the while, over the past decade, Foxworthy has toiled as an advocate for the homeless. Working with Atlanta Mission, he arrives with Chick-fil-A biscuits in the mornings, holds Bible study sessions for hundreds of homeless men, and promises support with housing and family assistance for those making progress in recovering from drug and/or alcohol addictions. “I’ve always had a heart for the underdog,” Jeff explained to First Coast News, “because I’m an underdog, where I came from. I just don’t think you can judge somebody, based on the quality of their shirt or their shoes, because you don’t know what beats in their heart underneath.” How about one more underdog? “I would be over sleeping on the floor,” said Montero Lamar Hill, a former resident of the Bankhead Courts projects, and a recent graduate of Lithia Springs High, of his sister’s house in Atlanta. “I didn’t want to come back home, because I knew my parents would be mad at me.” Montero’s story of having struggled to make ends meet, working low-wage gigs at Zaxby’s and Six Flags after dropping out of college (unlike rising Tech senior Foxworthy, Hill left West Georgia U. as a freshman) to become a rapper, isn’t ground-breaking stuff, not in this day and age. Yet this newly 20-year-old’s particular tale was being published by Time magazine, for their cover story, and with good reason. 2019, A.D., IS The Year of Lil Nas X. Like it or not. Without a doubt, many are in the “not” column when it pertains to the out-of-nowhere, self-made artist with a “country-trap” blockbuster hit. But the “nots” have found themselves increasingly too small to matter, their shrills and shrieks drowned out by popular demand. Hill, like legions of teens before and soon-to-follow, craved to become an Internet sensation. Also, like 99.99999% of them, he just couldn’t quite figure out how. Facebook, Vine, Twitter, Soundcloud, making memes, making songs, fashioning himself a foremost Nicki Minaj stan. “At first, I was just bored, like, ‘Hey, Twitter, I made a song,” he told Teen Vogue. “But I’m like, ‘Wait, this is really hard.’” “A lot of it was me trying to be something that people would like, instead of making music I would like.” That revelation was the first crack in the dam. But time was running out with his sis, who was also hosting two other siblings (including a brother fresh out from prison) while raising kids of her own. Her warning to Montero that he would soon be kicked out… Where is he gonna go? What is he gonna do?... spurred, if you will, him to sit on her back porch and listen to a generic country-trap beat that prompted the now famous lyrics to “Old Town Road”. He’ll tell you exactly what he’s gonna do, and you’ll find yourself singing the lyrics, recorded in a modest Atlanta studio in less than one hour for $20, right in tune with him. Many wannabe influencers and artists struggle to navigate the changing tides of the Internet streaming age, but Hill seems to have figured out how to surf the waves without having to rent a board. Listing his song as a country tune on SoundCloud and iTunes, he was able to stand out in ways he would not under the crowded Hip Hop format. When “Old Town Road” caught a high tide of eager young ears on the video-making app TikTok (Yes, we all know where TikTok is from, don’t blame LeBron), the old-school radio industry couldn’t avoid it. Some country stations copped the infectious song off the Internet for casual airplay, before Hill could even find himself a record label to rep him. Listeners slammed radio stations’ phone lines and inboxes, desperate to find the song and the mystery artist. But how Lil Nas X wound up getting Billboard’s attention was no fault of his own. Trying to stay ahead of the game, the music-ranking company recently began tracking much more than radio airplay, applying weights to better account for Internet-streamed songs and albums in its weekly “Hot 100” lists. Thanks largely to those strategic changes, Billboard execs woke one March morning to find an ATL-area kid’s online jam debuting on the Hot 100 (#83), the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart (#36), and the Hot Country Songs (#19) chart. All at the same time. Someone in Nashville was not thrilled with this particular crossover song, not at all. In their infinite wisdom, Billboard surreptitiously omitted it from the latter list the following week. They thought they had done so neatly and quietly enough. But the unexplained absence was too conspicuous to avoid the firestorm of controversy and “country-splaining” that ensued. It’s not “country” enough, they said. Doesn’t have enough of the right “elements” for the genre, they said, or maybe too much of those “other” elements. Mama, please, don’t let your babies grow up to be music execs. If you ever want something remotely interesting to become insatiably popular, get it labeled, “That Thing That THEY Don’t Want You to See/Hear/Taste!” Hill could have stopped there, as that kid that created a brief spell of buzz with his little ditty on the Interwebs. But Lil Nas X was far from done. He formed an alliance with Billy Ray Cyrus, the famous country singer who knows a thing about one-hit-wonders and offered support, and the resulting “OTR” remix became a bigger banger than the original. Because of Billboard’s rule, lumping remixes in with original songs, “Old Town Road” went stratospheric. More remixes and collabs with a diverse range of artists would soon follow, adding fuel to an unquenchable fire. DJ Diplo. Atlanta rapper Young Thug. The Yodeling Kid, Mason Ramsey. A K-pop rapper from BTS (“Seoul Town Road”). In the space of months, Montero Hill went from a random, struggling young adult stringing out his time in his sister’s backyard to the singular producer of the world’s longest-running song on the Hot 100 (19 weeks at the #1 spot) since Billboard began the chart in 1958. He has been hauling in golden accolades – this year’s MTV Video Music Award for Song of the Year, the Teen Choice Award for best R&B/Hip Hop Song, the BET Hip Hop Award for Single of the Year and Best Collab (with Cyrus). Next month, he’ll be the first out gay man to be a nominee at country music’s CMA awards. All this, from making music he likes, not following some bigwig’s time-tested formulae. “Well, to me, Lil Nas X is my mic drop moment.” So says Ken Burns – yes, That Guy – fresh off of producing his latest major PBS documentary epic, Country Music. “We spend eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours talking about the fact that country music has never been one thing… and here we are, in a new modern age that we’re not touching, with all these classic, binary arguments about Billboard not listing [“Old Town Road”] on the Country chart, and it turns out to be not just the #1 Country hit, but the #1 single, period. And it’s a black, gay rapper!” “It just is proving,” Burns suggests, “that all of those cycles that we have been reporting on across the decades – all of the tensions in country music of race, class, poverty, gender, creativity versus commerce, geography – are still going on.” Only in America, many rightfully exclaim. But an important corollary seems increasingly hard to disavow: Only from Atlanta. It’s here where, as Burns alludes, people of many backgrounds flex their creativity to conquer commerce, transcending societal norms, the “it’s not your turn”-isms, the “you’re not people’s type”-isms, the “there’s only one way to go about it”-isms. Everyday people defying convention, succeeding spectacularly, and steering their own paths, despite the whims of self-styled kingmakers and queenmakers. The mythological Horatio Alger tales that inspired people in the Gilded Age, centuries ago, are happening, in real life, in real time. These “rags to riches” stories come about in a myriad of ways Alger himself could never have dreamed up, happening to individuals those of Alger’s ilk could never have envisioned. Notably, they’re happening in a place – Atlanta – whose own rise, as a modern metropolis that stands quite well on its own merits, could not be grasped by those who attribute, “making it in America,” to the bright lights of old megalopolises like New York, Chicago or L.A. Julia Roberts. Spike Lee. d*ck Van Dyke. Ryan Seacrest. Clyde Frazier. Clark Howard. Chris Tucker. Most recently, Coco Gauff. These are names people across the country, if not around the globe, know quite well, and most don’t know them by their leaner years in the Atlanta area. Some were born in metropolitan Atlanta. Some were transplants. Some had more means than others. But even people who have long lived here don’t recognize how significant the Atlanta region was, as the definitive Proving Ground for the world-renowned celebrities these people would become. Of The ATL, today’s Sinatra would croon, “Before you even try to make it anywhere, figure out how to make it, here.” “We full!” Many folks already in the Atlanta area, including transplants from generations ago, still stand aghast at how many young people flock here to stay, thousands of newbies striking out on their own, others with kids or whole nuclear families in tow. Some are destitute and desperate; some are striving to gain a foothold in America for the first time; some are kids eager to get out from under their well-made families’ thumbs. Folks from the outside looking in generally don’t get it, either. If suns-out, guns-and-buns-out is your scene, there are many more tropical and coastal climes, with hotties in tanks and sundresses, to choose from. There are more established financial centers, bigger entertainment and media hubs, infinitely more affordable places to live. Not only are there no palm trees, or money growing on trees, you can’t even pick peaches off the street trees here. So, what’s the big deal about Coming To ATL? Can't you just go to Disney World if you want to make your dreams come true? The skeptics are unable to see the mysticism that these young hopefuls do, what brings the storylines of some of America’s most successful self-made people to fruition. Not everyone, or even most citizens, achieve their dreams here. But there are those who have the best combination of unique talent, drive, and fortitude. For that subset, it is the ATL, and the synergy amongst its residents, that bears better fruit than anywhere else they could conceivably go. Move Fast and Break Things is not just a well-worn mantra in Silicon Valley. It’s part of the common thread for how ATLiens ascend out of seemingly nowhere. They take huge personal risks. They often fail, learn from their failures, re-assess, and persist in pecking away until the breakthrough happens. Crucially, these ATLiens do not stop at just the first hint of success. They’re quick to show gratitude to those who offered them support, no matter how small, along the way. They connect with, and assist, people who struggle in similar ways as they once did. And they work around, over, and past, those who are too quick to pigeon-hole and castigate them based on who they are, how they appear, or where they came from. Taking big chances often involves making the most out of what limited means one has at his or her disposal. “At the time, I was young and I didn't have no job,” said Mississippian-turned-Atlantan Justin Scott to Pitchfork magazine, back in 2010, in a now-familiar refrain around here. “It wasn't like I could really afford to pay for beats. At the same time, there was this program that came out for PlayStation, MTV Music Generator, where you could make your own beats. So I started making my own beats right around that time because I just couldn't afford to pay for the other ones.” Fast forward nine years, and Scott has released his fourth studio album. As the critically acclaimed rapper Big K.R.I.T., he provides the pump-up gameday Intro this season for the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena. When he exclaims to the local crowd, “I. NEED. YOUR. ENERGY.”, Big K.R.I.T. isn’t goofing around. He, like the Hawks (1-0), thrive on that unique, True To Atlanta spirit that can transform Underdogs into Top Dawgs in a heartbeat. The kind of unbridled energy that morphs a 15-year-old drug arrestee into a 35-year-old Grammy nominee named 2Chainz, and… not stopping there… a 42-year-old minority owner of an NBA G-league team in his birthplace. ATLiens may fall down, even hard, on occasion. But when they figure out how to get up, man alive, do they get UP. After the 2019 All-Star Break, coach Lloyd Pierce’s team pulled off six victories in their final nine games here at State Farm Arena. Often, his Hawks managed to enthrall audiences even in some tank-friendly outcomes where his Hawks fell just short by the final horn. Even with NBA Finals contenders like Milwaukee and Philadelphia passing through, Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and the Hawks discovered an increasing number of attendees at The Farm were not simply here to cheer on the opposition. A winning home record is a necessity for a team, even one in the Eastern Conference, seeking a reservation for the NBA Playoffs (23-18 minimum over the past four seasons). Coming off a satisfying season-opening win in Motown, Atlanta’s first meeting with Steve Clifford’s bedeviling Orlando Magic (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) kicks off a run of six home games over 14 days, interrupted only by a brief trip to Miami next Tuesday. Feasting on the fan energy and picking up a few tough Ws in this early stretch could go a very long way in achieving goals by this season’s end. Especially against teams like the reigning Southeast Division champion Magic (4-0 versus ATL last season; finished 3 games ahead of 9-seed Charlotte in the division). Orlando is stocked with veterans that have already built up a solid rapport, especially on the defensive end (1st in D-Rating after a 94-85 home win over Cleveland), while phasing in a few young hopefuls, like former top-pick Markelle Fultz, and former Cam Reddish high-school teammate Mo Bamba. For a team that’s committed to learn on the fly faster than anyone in this league, this fever-paced Hawks team is Moving Fast and Breaking Things, lathering up the kind of local support that could soon propel them past teams like Orlando and right on over the perpetual Lottery hump. You’d best believe, these Hawks don’t intend to stop there. With fan support behind them, they’re gonna ride, until they can’t no more. Whenever this core of upstarts emerges from the NBA crucible as championship contenders, they’ll know… thanks to Atlanta, They’ve Been Changed. All around town, we’ll sense it, too. Along with Atlanta United, this group of Hawks could help change the trajectory of Atlanta sports history, forever. And it won’t be terribly long thereafter before the rest of the world wonders, “Whoa… where did all these great guys come from?” Let’s Go Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. Black Thursday? (can we find another color? I'm going with Gray Thursday.) ~lw3
  7. Sorry, Orlando. Y’all had y’all’s turns already. TANK WARS! It’s the final head-to-head Tank Battle for our Atlanta Hawks. They won’t have another chance to tack onto another Tankompetitor’s win tally after today’s game against the Orlando Magic (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida). I’m on travel today, but you all know the relevant particulars, ahead of this game. We already know the Prime Objective. Hopefully, our Competitanking Hawks do, too! This one's not for all the marbles, but it is for a LOT of ping pong balls! Happy Easter! And Let’s Go Magic! April Fools! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. “I’m sorry to have to break the news to you, Baze. But, we’ve traded away your fashion sense for future cash considerations.” “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All* Here!” Wait, is that “Hail!”, or “Hell!”? No matter, because around 95 percent of your Atlanta Hawks remain Atlanta Hawks, now that the smoke has cleared following a wild-and-woolly NBA Trade Deadline day. As they prepare to swoop in on the Orlando Magic for Tank War Z (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), Many Hawks Fans have a pressing question for the Basketball Club: “What the Heck Do We Care, Now?” In past seasons, the Hawks would raise fans’ hopes for a deadline deal that might somehow raise our postseason profile in the LeBronference, only to deflate those aspirations by settling for stuff like a pre-waivers lunch date with a retiring Antawn Jamison. 2018’s deadline was shaping up to be a different beast altogether. Atlanta was armed with an array of veterans, both young and old-but-healthy. They could conceivably be flipped for future prospects, as-yet-undrafted or otherwise, in what would send a clear “win-later” signal, one that Many across Hawksland have waited to hear. Alas, like GMs of the past, Travis Schlenk don’t gotta dance. He makes money moves! Atlanta’s sole roster casualty turned out to be the lightly-used Luke Babbitt, the sole reason for the asterisk above. His return to Wade County, plus another smoke-and-mirror deal with Washington, amounted to meager salary savings which have no bearing upon the Hawks’ nightly competitive capacities on the floor. Now the scene shifts to buyout negotiations for Schlenk and Company. But during that period, and beyond, a critical light also shines upon Mike Budenholzer, as fans wait to see just how much more conniving the Hawks’ head coach is willing to get. The Budenhustle of old involved convincing opponents that ceding offensive rebounds and loose balls meant that they had an upper hand during games. The current challenge for the Budenhustler involves literally giving those teams that upper hand, and maybe a forearm. That’s not going to be easy. Have you not seen what horror shows Memphis, Sacramento, and Phoenix have been throwing out there to play allegedly professional hoops, lately? That’s to say nothing of Orlando (17-36), who did, to their credit, step up to finish off the pipe dreams of the defensively destitute Cavaliers on Tuesday here at Amway Center, but still have that, “Aww, shucks” mentality about them. “Aww, shucks, we’d be making a playoff run right now, but there’s no reason to hurry back Nikola Vucevic, our leading rebounder who’s been out since Christmas with a hand injury. Same goes for you, lottery-pick Johnathan Isaac (sprained ankle).” “Gee willikers, take your time, Terrence Ross (MCL, tibia), on the shelf since December 1.” “What’s the rush, Aaron Gordon? Save your energies and heal that hip. Maybe you can dunk over some mascots next year!” “Gosh, Jonathon Simmons, if I had dropped 29 points in a single half on LeBron and ex-Friends, I’d probably be nursing a bum ankle too!” “Hmmm… whaddya say, we take hairdo-of-the-franchise Elfrid Payton, gift him to Phoenix for some second-round picks, and then see what happens! Jiminy Crickets, he might help the Suns win a game or two!” You don’t need to see the Whiteboard to figure out what shenanigans these post-Hennigan Magic are up to. Yes, technically, Orlando is looking to win it’s third straight game, like the Hawks (17-37), and its fourth in five outings. But in reality, Frank Vogel's charges are going to try to “soldier on” the way Red Panda might do with a busted hand-me-down unicycle. The Hawks, to this point, have tried the nobler approach. But going forward, it is going to take more sleight-of-hand from Coach Bud than merely stowing away Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, or benching Dennis Schröder at the close of games. There is one thing that might slow the Hawks’ roll “up” the standings in the near-term, and that is the upcoming schedule. Tonight’s game initiates the second and final time that Atlanta plays five games over the course of seven calendar days. The last such series was in December, when Atlanta beat these Magic at Philips Arena (a 117-110 win, despite Vooch’s 31-and-10 effort and Simmons’ 29 points) before dropping four-straight, including a road loss at Memphis. On the back end of this particular quintet, Blake Griffin’s Pistons will bookend a game in Milwaukee with the Greek Freak next week. While that sounds encouraging to Some Fans, there is the sobering reality that the Hawks are coming home to Whoop. Some. Cavalier. Hiney, in tomorrow night’s game. With that in mind, this game is as important of a “Nice Try” opportunity as the Hawks will have before them all season. Magician guards Shelvin Mack and D.J. Augustin will have to look like world-beaters, or at least not like themselves-beaters. Former lottery prize Mario Hezonja (last 5 games: 15.2 PPG, 57.1 3FG%) must continue to look like the future star Orlando thought they drafted in 2015. For significant stretches, Bismack Biyombo ($17 million per year, probably through 2019-20) must look like anyone other than Bismack Biyombo. Arron Afflalo can’t be out here finding out what happens When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. And Evan Fournier ($17 million per year, probably through 2020-21) must look the part of a man who is thrilled to be stuck in O-Town for the foreseeable future. If most of those things don’t transpire, then the Hawks can play their B-game, as they did at home with the Grizzlies on Tuesday, and still find themselves moonwalking their way to victory this evening. Which, if any, of these events unfold hinges on the player combos Coach Bud fields on the court tonight. The Gang’s All* Here! Great… now what? Go Morehouse! Go CAU! and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. Get you a head coach that can do This. Here comes the Payne! Former Atlanta Hawks first-rounder Adreian Payne will be back in the building, the latest G-League call-up by the visiting Orlando Magic (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) graces us with his presence at Philips Arena. Payne’s promotion from Lakeland became a necessity because of a concussion sustained by Aaron Gordon in the third quarter of last night’s 103-89 home loss by the Magic (11-6, 5-10 on road) to the shorthanded Nuggets. As was the case in Wednesday night’s 110-106 OT victory over visiting Atlanta (5-19), Orlando was gashed again by a second-unit. Denver’s Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay dissected a Magic bench crew that shot a collective 4-for-20 from the field, including Wednesday’s late-game hero D.J. Augustin (1-for-6 FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs vs. DEN). Augustin (quad contusion) himself is questionable to play tonight, perhaps joining Evan Fournier, who injured his ankle in Wednesday’s extra frame, Jonathan Issac and Terrence Ross on the shelf. Nikola Vucevic (21 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, 1-for-5 3FGs vs. DEN) and Jonathan Simmons (21 points, 9-for-17 FGs vs. DEN) need better support from the rest of the starting cast, especially Elfrid Payton (33.3 FG% last 3 games; 3-for-11 FGs and 4 TOs vs. ATL), and the reserves to pull off a road win. On the second night of a back-to-back, look for meaningful minutes out of former Hawk Shelvin Mack (team-high 9.1 assists, 1.9 TOs per-36), who has been used sparingly over the past seven games. Head coach Frank Vogel’s crew is familiar with these next-night road games, winning their first two (at Cleveland and New Orleans) in October before dropping their last three (at Denver, Philly, and Charlotte, all by double digits). After leading the NBA in the first few weeks of the season, the Hawks have slipped out of the top-ten in free throw percentage (78.8 team FT%, 11th in NBA), the misses becoming more precious for a team that doesn’t draw a lot of trips (28th in FT rate). Dennis Schröder has to find ways to feed his superior free throw shooting wings, notably Kent Bazemore (team-high 3.5 FTAs per game, 80.7 FT%) and Marco Belinelli (94.2 FT%), in the paint, weakening Orlando’s similarly-depleted front line with foul trouble while improving the likelihood of padding the scoreboard in Atlanta’s favor. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. Oh, where have you gone, Patricio Garino? Need an eraser to wipe clean that wretched second half by the Atlanta Hawks on Monday? Their hosts tonight, the Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida), may be the last people to ask for help. The above snapshot, taken last April by temp-job baller Patricio Garino’s agent in the Magic War Room, was the coup de grace for neophyte GM Rob Hennigan. The worst five-year stretch in Orlando’s short history (132-278) came under Rob Hennigan’s Apple Watch. To be fair, that mark should have come during the expansion years, but for a pair of fortuitous lottery bounces. But despite out Otis Smithing Otis Smith, the Whiteboard Warrior left behind a glimpse into the team’s mindset for the offseason to come. Orlando would be on the hunt for “Hybrid” 3/4s, and “Spread Big” 4/5s to buttress head coach Frank Vogel’s roster of up-and-coming yung’uns. With Hennigan gone, the job fell to John Hammond, formerly of the Bucks. Milwaukee never fully turned the corner under Hammond’s Swatch (240-318), either, the nadir coming in 2013-14 with his Bucks having a 15-67 mark and the league’s worst attendance. But Hammond managed to do two things right. No, signing Miles Plumlee to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 was not one of them. One season before unceremoniously ditching Larry Drew, Hammond managed to heed his new head coach’s advice just long enough to snatch up Giannis Antetokounmpo, before the Greek Freak leaked down to Atlanta’s draft spot. He also used one of his second-round draft picks in 2016 to pluck the reigning Rookie of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon. For those draft moves, he gets to start fresh in the Magic Kingdom and pick up where Hennigan left off. The Hawks have three of the Magic’s “Spread Big” Whiteboard targets, with Travis Schlenk having retained Ersan Ilyasova and Budfave big man Mike Muscala over the summer while also wooing Luke Babbitt to the nest. The only player on the entire Whiteboard that Orlando was able to attract was Central Florida native Marreese Speights. The former Clipper accepted a one-year, $2 million deal as a short-term backup for Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. Like Hennigan, Hammond realized that “Hybrids” like Paul Millsap would cost a pretty penny, so he chose to draft and develop one instead. Orlando used their lotto pick on Jonathan Isaac, the Florida State star and IMG Academic. Isaac is raw and skinny but showed some promising flashes before getting shelved in mid-November with a sprained ankle. The rookie may already be his team’s best defender already, Bismack Biyombo included. Their biggest free agent acquisition came at the wing, enticing Jonathon Simmons after the swingman was set free by the Spurs. Inserted fully into the starting lineup after a recent knee injury sidelined Terrence Ross, Simmons struggles without the team-oriented Spurs defense around him, but still adds to Orlando’s ambrosia of lengthy players that can get buckets in bunches. The Magic were some Cool Story Bros for a while, Vogel’s troops marching out to a 6-2 season start while awaiting the return of starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Alas, shortly after Payton returned, Orlando (10-15) took a nosedive, a nine-game losing streak and a 2-11 stretch sliding them down the Eastern Conference all the way toward the basement where Atlanta (5-18) presently resides. Since November 1, only the Clippers have held a worse defensive rating than Orlando (110.7 D-Rating), necessitating Herculean efforts by their offensive stars just to have a shot at victory. Vucevic hung 34-and-12 on the Knicks at MSG this past Sunday, but in a 5-point victory facilitated by the injury absences of Kristaps Porzingis and Junior Hardaway. Here at the Amway Center last week, the Magic needed 40-and-12 out of Gordon (who found out from the Whiteboard that he might get dangled in a deal for Philadelphia’s Dario Saric) to fend off a star-studded but struggling Oklahoma City squad. Including Monday’s 104-94 loss in Charlotte, ten of Orlando’s last 13 defeats have come by double-digit margins: by 22 at home to the Bulls, by 19 in Philly, by 40 at home to the Gobert-less Jazz. The nine-game losing streak began with an 18-point loss in Denver, and this week, the Magic get to sandwich a home game with the Nuggets between matchups with the Hawks. The Magic’s depth is hampered at the forward and swingman spots by the unavailability of Ross and Isaac. Veteran pickup Arron Afflalo, Speights and the disappointing Mario Hezonja are all getting mere spot minutes under Vogel. For Atlanta, pulling off a second-straight road win will require big games out of struggling starters Kent Bazemore (39.2 FG%, 35.5% last seven games) and Taurean Prince. Baze is almost the perfect foil for anyone hoping for a Hawks playoff push. While he remains committed to following Mike Budenholzer’s command and driving to the rim, he isn’t strong enough of a finisher (29.4 paint FG% beyond the restricted area) to draw extra defenders inside. And some of his passes (5 TOs in two of his past three games) leaves one to think he’s seeing Antoine “The Sixth Man” Tyler out on the floor. Like Prince (101.6 O-Rating, 12th-lowest among active players w/ 30+ MPG), Kent will serve his team better for now by keeping the ball moving, or finding catch-and-shoot spots against a tepid Orlando perimeter defense (39.9 opponent 3FG% since Nov. 1, 3rd-highest in NBA), without wasting time and possessions by putting the ball on the floor. Despite the Hawks being shorthanded up-front, Miles Plumlee and ex-Magician Ersan Ilyasova will have little problem fending off a Magic team that settles for one-and-done basketball (since Nov. 1: NBA-low 8.9 second-chance points per-48). Getting the ball quickly to Atlanta ballhandlers in transition, off defensive rebounds and turnovers, should give the Hawks an abundance of chances to score. Only the Hawks (26.3 opponent APG) allow themselves to get wined-and-dimed more frequently than the Magic (24.9 opponent APG, 2nd-most in NBA), so it is incumbent on Payton (career-high 6.8 APG, 39.1 3FG%), ex-Hawk Shelvin Mack (career-high 34.6 assist%), and D.J. Augustin to overwhelm Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder and Isaiah Taylor in properly setting up and finishing offensive plays. Fortunately for the Magic, the rest of the Southeast isn’t exactly running away with the division, and Hammond has no interest in panic moves like Hennigan made in 2016 when he shipped Tobias Harris to Detroit for Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. Yet the upcoming slate of games is set up for Orlando to get themselves back in the Eastern Conference playoff pack. If they fail to get it done, will it already become time to head back to the, ummm, drawing board? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “No, seriously, this is the farthest I could get distance myself from Rob.” ((Would-be gamethread, it was gonna be Schröder'd anyway because I was stuck at the movies. ~lw3)) “We tried. What we tried wasn’t working. So now, we’re just going through the motions until it’s over.” The above could apply to the Atlanta Hawks’ occasional approach to playing games, to swinging deals and making roster moves through the trade deadline, or to competing in the Eastern Conference. It could just as easily apply to the Orlando Magic’s approach to this whole season. 21-win Magic in the air! There were no designs on having the fourth-worst record in the NBA when the season got started for the Magic. Now, with Dwight Howard and his Atlanta Hawks back in town (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), it’s hard for Orlando to lay out a blueprint to fans for what comes next. Tank mode? That’s what the prior four seasons were for. Out of five lottery picks (three among the top-five), only Dunk Contest flop Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja remain standing down in the Tragic Kingdom. Two plum talents were shipped to OKC for Serge Ibaka, who in turn was shipped this month to Toronto in exchange for Terrence Ross and a late first-rounder. The fifth lotto draftee, Dario Saric, was shipped (back) to Philadelphia along with a 2017 swap option back on Draft Night 2014 for Elfrid Payton. Saric’s career-night came at Payton and the Magic’s expense just a couple weeks ago, the rookie registering a career-high 24 points plus eight boards to help the Sixers eke out a 112-111 comeback win. And with Ersan Ilyasova out of the way, Saric will be given even more time to shine in Philly. Even the second-rounder Orlando threw into the Saric deal (which became the Knicks’ rookie center Willy Hernangomez) is showing more upside than Payton. Now in his third season, Elf’s scoring is naturally up, but his assist-making (career-low 5.6 APG) and perimeter shooting (26.6 3FG%) has managed to be almost as bad than it was in prior seasons. Forced out to the wing while Ibaka was here, Gordon (28.9 3FG%) has been only marginally better, even though perimeter shooting has never been his forte. His free throw shooting has unacceptably plummeted (career-low 64.7 FT%), making it harder to justify him as a banger or a slasher in the paint. But he’ll be shoe-horned back into the starting 4-spot with Ibaka gone, as the Magic try to make use out of Ross (4-for-17 FGs in his Magic debut on Thursday) and Evan Fournier at the wing positions. So where does Orlando (21-38) go from here? Tanking for tanking’s sake won’t helped the Magic due to the risk of continued blown decision-making from the front office. And it won’t help the beleaguered Frank Vogel, who instantly becomes a lame duck coach the minute Orlando’s top brass finally elects to do away with GM Rob Hennigan (team president Alex Martins vows not to shake up things until at least after the season ends). Vogel’s best bet is to allow the young core of Gordon, Payton, Nikola Vucevic (team-high 25 points but 8-for-20 FGs vs. POR on Thursday) and Hezonja (4-for-5 FGs vs. POR) to sink-or-swim together, with the occasional spark from Ross, and hope there is enough defensive support to pull off a few wins and give Magic fans a sliver of hope going into next season. That murky future doesn’t really include any of Fournier, Bismack Biyombo, D.J. Augustin, C.J. Watson, or Jeff Green, yet only Green’s contract comes off the books this summer. Counter-intuitive to the urge to go young, Vogel also needs to keep his vets productive enough to maximize their off-season trade values and further relieve what is, presently, the ninth-biggest salary load in the NBA. The maddening schism between playing-to-win and losing with a young core played out for Orlando in Thursday’s home loss to the Blazers. Orlando built up a 14-point lead early in the second half, only to have it evaporate due to a 35-17 disadvantage in the fourth quarter. Payton and Augustin could do little to keep the Blazers’ Damian Lillard (17 4th-quarter points) in check. The Magic guards should have continued trouble tonight dealing with Dennis Schröder, who found himself getting additional rest after being suspended mere hours before last night’s abomination against the heat. The Menace’s offensive efficiency against Orlando is the second-highest (min. 2 games played) versus any Eastern Conference foe this season, averaging a season-best 10.0 APG (3.0 TOs/game) to go along with 18.0 PPG in three meetings with the Magic. His five steals are also the most against any NBA club thus far. Thanks largely to Schröder, Atlanta exhibited some rare mastery of a lower-ranked team during their last matchup at Philips Arena earlier this month, a 113-86 Hawks victory. Howard and Paul Millsap flustered Orlando’s front line, a reversal of fortune from the December game at Philips when the Magic seemed to get any shot they desired. In the February game, Atlanta outrebounded Orlando, 48-33, including a 10-7 offensive rebounding edge despite the Magic missing 14 more field goals in the game. Keeping the Magic cool from outside will be crucial to putting them away decisively again. Orlando was a blistering 15-for-34 on threes in their December victory against the Hawks, but just 16-for-55 in their last two contests with Atlanta combined. Properly contesting Ross and Fournier without fouling will go a long way to avoiding a repeat of Friday night, where the Hawks (32-25) held Miami to 23-for-62 shooting on two-pointers, and 13 free throw attempts, but was still run out of their own building in a 108-90 loss. Orlando’s next most frequent perimeter shooter, Jodie Meeks (40.4 3FG%) remains sidelined with a sprained thumb, and no one else aside from Augustin (36.4 3FG%) or Damjan Rudez (35.2 3FG%) makes more than 34 percent of their shots, contested or otherwise. The Magic are 6-31 (one win since January 1) when shooting below 35 percent on threes. Orlando ranks 23rd in O-Reb%, and that is inclusive of Ibaka’s contributions. His replacement, Ross scores in bunches, but is usually a binary-code contributor in other categories. Continuing to box out Vooch, Biyombo, and Gordon (5 O-Rebs vs. POR on Thursday) ought to minimize the Magic’s extra-chance opportunities. So, of course, Hawks fans should expect the opposite of what Mike Budenholzer’s team needs to do to stay competitive and defeat the teams they need to beat. Coach Bud always projects the persona of being smarter than the average bear, but he has few answers when his team starts playing like Boo-Boo. The work it takes to keep Coach Bud’s team middle-of-the-pack is enviable to clubs like Orlando, but smoke-and-mirrors is never fun when his own team is choking from the smoke. We’ll simply have to wait and see if Schröder’s return is enough for Atlanta to put off their inevitable 16th double-digit defeat of the season for another day. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. C’mon, Don’t Treat People’s Donkeys Like That, Evan! Fever dreams? Or nightmares? These days, Atlanta Hawks fans are seemingly left with no other options. Here come the Hawks, back in the Highlight Factory after a triumphant, double-digit, come-from-behind mad dash to the finish line on the road. Atlanta got a huge, confidence-boosting shot from Tim Hardaway, Jr. (an electrifying career-high 33 points @ HOU on Thursday, 23 in the 4th) to seal the deal and right a listing ship. Surely, with a hyped-up home crowd in the stands, they’ll make quick work out of the slip-sliding Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), right? Well, if you’ll remember, that was the grand plan back in December, too. Rewarded with three days off after a big win in Milwaukee was secured by a Hardaway triple, the Hawks waltzed onto their Philips Arena floor on December 9, and could only look on as four Magicians (Serge Ibaka and Evan Fournier; Elfrid Payton and Jodie Meeks off the bench) pulled 20-plus points out of their hats in a 131-120 Orlando win. The 131-point tally by Frank Vogel’s new club was the most run up on the Hawks by any opponent in regulation this season, or in any game since March 2008, when Stephen Jackson was literally lighting it up while playing for Nellie’s visiting Golden State Warriors. In December’s fateful meeting, Magic field goals were scored at a season-high 58.6 percent clip (highest by an ATL foe since January 2008; worst at home since March 2005; incl. 15-for-34 ORL 3FGs), and buttressed with a sterling 4-to-1 assist/turnover ratio (36 assists; Orlando piled up 37 of ‘em almost exactly a year ago to sweep a home-and-home). For their part, Atlanta hit over half of their shots, and missed just two of their 21 free throws. They got 4-for-5 three-point shooting from Kyle Korver, double-doubles from Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder, nearly a third one from Paul Millsap, while fans had the oft-desired TNT combo (Tim ‘n Thabo) in the starting lineup. Yet the reserves’ inability to help the starters make stops resulted in the Hawks inhaling Orlando’s fumes at the ends of each half. The lesson seems to be, do not go into games feeling too smug on the heels of a notable victory. But the Hawks haven’t proven that they get the gist just yet. Days after that disappointing defeat to the Magic, Atlanta avenged a recent lousy loss in Toronto, then returned home the next day just to lose to division-rival Charlotte. An encouraging win in OKC was followed two days later by a dispiriting home loss to Minnesota. Big plays to earn the W in New York, then a big 23-point letdown two nights later in Detroit. Huge late-game comeback in Chicago; huge 26-point setback two nights later against the Wizards. 4 OT thriller at home against the Knicks; 23-point killer three days later in Miami. Despite a winning record, inconsistency and instability have been the pattern for these Hawks (29-21) for a while. It has to be maddening, not only for the players, the staff, and the fans, but the opponents, too. The teams that “got got” by Atlanta’s comeback kids during games (Bucks, Bulls, Rockets, etc.) are actively re-assessing their lot in life. For others, trouncing the Hawks seems to feel like you might have earned the Kiss of the Spider Woman. Toronto’s high-octane offense torches Atlanta by 44 points; they’ve petered out a dull 16-15 record since. Detroit dusts off the Hawks by 36, then go 9-13 before beating them again, this time by 23 before losing three of their next four. Since beating the Hawks soundly on the road, the Pelicans have gone just 14-21; the Lakers rose to 9-9 with a big win at Staples, before going 8-27 the rest of the way. And what good did that monumental December win in ATL do for Vogel’s crew? 11-15 wasn’t terribly far out of the playoff picture, certainly enough to hang around with a little momentum. But that momentum never materialized. When the Hawks left Amway Center on January 4, Atlanta’s payback 111-92 win (no Magic scorers above 15 points this time) dropped Orlando to a water-treading 5-6 since the previous matchup. The Magic’s ship has been taking in that water ever since, winners in just four of their last 15. Even after outlasting those crumbling Raptors at home last night, Orlando (20-32) sits just a half-game from 14th place in the East. “False sense of hope. I admit, I was fooled. Thought this team would be way better than it is.” That’s a sample of David Baumann’s tweeted opinions in the past few days. Baumann was sort of the “Jerome Jurenovich” host for the Magic for years. But these days, he gets to speak his mind, and he doesn’t hold his tongue. “…the last four seasons (the Magic) were expected to be bad. This year, (with) $ avail to blow, had a chance to finally be decent.” Baumann goes on with his e-lamentations, echoing much of the Magic fanbase sentiment that, even with Orlando just 4.0 games behind the 8-seed, declining to strike while the playoff iron was hot has left their team well behind the 8-ball. “By failing to make a deal by the end of December, (GM Rob Hennigan) essentially waved the white flag on this year… there's not a single player that any casual NBA fan would pay to go see play in person. (Although) the kids love (Aaron) Gordon (because) of dunks.” Such biting commentary would smart Hennigan, except his ears are too sore to notice, what with all the phones ringing in his office these days. The glut of bigs he acquired over the summer has not helped the crowded-out Gordon (42.6 FG%, 29.3 3FG%, 63.1 FT%, 4.6 RPG) advance his game at all. Vogel’s shifting to accommodate Hennigan’s maneuvers also have continued to frustrate Nikola Vucevic (14.1 PPG and 47.5 FG%, down from 18.2 and 51.0 FG% last year; DNP vs. ATL on Dec. 13), who has seen his playing time plummet from prior seasons. Now, Hennigan’s pining for a deal to come along that might help him cover up his free agent miscalculations (Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green). The right deal(s) could perhaps re-energize a fanbase frustrated about a team that’s bound to miss their fifth-straight postseason since Dwight departed for La-La Land in 2012, a team that’s on pace to be worse than the 35-47 outfit that Scott Skiles quit on, a squad that is just 9-16 at Amway after last night’s win. And here you thought the Hawks (14-10) struggle at home. Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder is due for a bounceback effort, after underwhelming outings for most of the past week (last 4 games: 32.2 FG%, 14.3 3FG%, 1.8 RPG, one steal total, 6.3 APG puffed up by 15 dimes in four overtimes vs. NYK). With John Wall and Kemba Walker bound for the Big Easy soon, Schroder is left to prove he can dominate matchups with the lower plankton of the division and conference. Doing so requires a commanding fullcourt performance from the jump against Payton (6.0 APG, 2.1 TOs/G, 28.4 3FG%; 3-for-3 3FGs, 14 assists and 2 TOs vs. ATL on Dec. 13). That is essential if the Hawks intend to shake off their own customary first-quarter cobwebs (NBA-worst 16.9 first-quarter TO%). One member of the Magic quartet that lit up the Hawks in December didn’t make a return trip. ATLien Meeks (team-high 40.4 3FG%) is repairing sprained thumb ligaments and remains out indefinitely. He joins fellow shooting guard C.J Wilcox (knee) on the shelf. Against Orlando’s depleted backcourt, things are lined up for Thursday night’s superhero, Hardaway (1-for-6 3FGs vs. ORL on Dec. 13), to escape his own phone booth at home (last 6 games at Philips: 22-for-68 FGs, 5-for-30 3FGs). Elevated to a starting role with Thabo Sefolosha (groin) still questionable to play, THJ extended his shooting woes at the Highlight Factory with 15 missed shots, including nine missed threes, in the 4-OT affair with New York last Sunday. He did manage to reach 19 points with the help of 9-for-12 FT shooting, and added 8 assists and just one TO to the mix. But his and Schroder’s missed freebies sure could have come in handy when Atlanta needed to keep Carmelo’s Knicks calm in the clutch. In his penultimate performance as a Hawk, Korver could hardly buy a bucket in Orlando. But in that January 4 game, he dished out 7 assists, matching Schroder and keying an all-around bench effort that was much improved from the team’s prior game against the Magic. Atlanta reserves Mike Muscala, Hardaway, and Malcolm Delaney combined for 13-for-19 shooting from the field (5-for-7 3FGs). Sefolosha’s injury has forced Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer to turn to his rookies, and DeAndre’ Bembry (5-for-6 FGs) sure put the accent on the Hawks’ table-turning 113-108 win in Houston. Bembry forced tough shots out of James Harden in the fourth quarter and snuck in for unguarded scores around the hoop. Kent Bazemore also played a role in helping deny Harden the ball at critical junctures of Thursday’s comeback. Bembry (43 minutes in past two games) and fellow rookie Taurean Prince may continue to see upticks in floortime if they continue to produce on the defensive end. With or without Sefolosha, Bazemore and the Hawks’ wings will need to remain active to cool down Fournier (16.7 PPG; 10-for-11 2FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 13), the Magic’s leading scorer. Orlando managed just 9-for-28 shooting from the perimeter against the Hawks last month, unable to keep up with the marksmanship by Bazemore (3-for-3 3FGs) and Atlanta (10-for-19 team 3FGs). Vogel will resort to using Green, Gordon, and Ibaka around the arc to pry Millsap and the Hawks’ defensive bigs out of the paint. It’s hoped that doing so will free up Payton and Fournier on drives, and Vucevic for post-up opportunities. However, Howard did a solid job staying at home on his defensive assignments, contesting without fouling, while also beating his man down the court to open up the Atlanta offense with superior shot opportunities in the paint. More of the same from the former Magic man would help the Hawks keep their distance tonight. For the Hawks, building from a big road win and taking care of business in front of the home crowd will help their fans sleep a little easier tonight. With a long night awaiting us on Sunday, we Atlanta fans sure could use the help. Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. Stupid Head Coach Tricks! How much have the Atlanta Hawks learned? Beginning with tonight’s affair in Orlando against the Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in ORL), the forthcoming 4-game road trip should be quite revelatory. The Hawks pulled off the trifecta in its homestand this past week, culminated by a stunning overtime victory over the daunting San Antonio Spurs. Prior to that run, though, confidence seemed to be at a new low, the Hawks sandwiching a narrow escape in Denver with two offensively poor defeats at the hands of the Timberwolves. Atlanta is giving out hints that it’s ready to pull ahead of the middling pack in the LeBronference. To do that, they need to begin stringing together convincing road victories, not just last-minute scrambles and mad dashes in the fourth quarters. They must especially perform consistently well against sub-.500 teams. The road trip ahead is full of exactly those kinds of teams. After Orlando (16-20), the scene shifts tomorrow to New Orleans (14-22), and both opponents have already flummoxed the Hawks in Atlanta. After that, bottom dwelling teams in Dallas (11-24) and Brooklyn (8-25) await the Hawks’ arrival in the coming days. The Hawks will get a chance to boost two elements that will factor into the East playoff race: their records on the road (currently 8-9, worse than Orlando’s 9-9), and versus the West (currently 5-9, same as Brooklyn’s). The Magic know all about the up-and-down basketball Atlanta patterned in December. A seemingly corner-turning victory in San Antonio on November 29 was followed by a loss in shorthanded Memphis two days later. That was followed by an encouraging three-game road winning streak, and then, a three-game losing streak. Then, a big 131-120 win in Atlanta was followed by a home loss to the Clippers the next day. Then a win, a loss, a win, a loss, a two-game win streak, a two-game losing streak. That means Orlando’s road win on Monday against the Porzingless Knicks could serve as a harbinger, either as a loss tonight versus the Hawks, or the extension of another win streak that artificially inflates hopes around the Magic Kingdom. The Magic pulled out the victory in New York without the continued services of Evan Fournier (17.8 PPG). Orlando’s leading scorer has been out for the past five games with a bruised heel. Whether Fournier (likely to play) starts or not, the Magic hope for a repeat performance from replacement starter Jodie Meeks, who eclipsed the season-high 20 points (4-for-6 3FGs) he contributed back home in the ATL last month with 23 points on a Hardaway-esque 6-for-7 3FGs on Monday. Meeks’ sharpshooting allowed backcourt mate Elfrid Payton (career-high 14 assists @ NYK, tying his output @ ATL) to penetrate and pepper the court. Against the Knicks, half of those 14 assisted baskets were within five feet of the rim, and many more involved dishes to open shooters from 16 feet out. Were it not for Magic coach Frank Vogel’s concerns about team defense, the effort against the Knicks was good enough to maybe earn Payton and Nikola Vucevic (13 rebounds, 5 O-Rebs @ NYK) their starting gigs back. It’s not clear that the move is working, anyway, as Magic starters’ D-Rating dropped from 102.0 (10th in NBA) to 109.3 (24th in NBA) since Elf and Vooch were relegated to bench status. While they are reserves, the duo is still averaging more minutes than replacements Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin, and Vogel seems hesitant to change that. Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings were of little use defensively against Payton and Augustin, but Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder ought to be more up to the task. Schröder (19 points, season-high 13 assists @ ORL on Dec. 13) has certainly begun to blossom as an offensive player, but his defensive imprint still leaves much to be desired. Dennis (1.2 loose-ball recoveries per game, 7th in NBA) has registered just 3 steals just once this season, back on November 25 in Utah, and registered no swipes in four of his past eight contests. After helping secure multiple defensive rebounds in nine of his first 11 appearances, Schröder has mostly deferred to the forwards and centers in three of the past ten games. Schröder (last ten games: 20.2 PPG, 49.4 FG%, 7.1 APG, 3.0 TO/G) will continue to excel for the Hawks (14-5 when his D-Rating, bball-ref formula, is 113 or less, incl. 5 wins in a row) when he makes his presence felt at both ends of the floor. Without the ability to get stops, Atlanta and Orlando (9 player TOs, season-high 58.6 team FG% @ ATL in December) may again engage in the freewheeling, AND1-mixtape style of ball that is to neither Vogel’s nor Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer’s liking. The Hawks could not force the Spurs into a lot of mistakes, but along the way to victory on Sunday, Atlanta did not commit many of their own (11 player TOs vs. SAS). In addition to Schröder, expect a more active and assertive on-ball defensive effort out of Paul Millsap (32 points, 13 rebounds vs. SAS), whose streak of games with at least one steal ended on Sunday at 13. Millsap and Howard tightening things up around the rim, plus active hands from Thabo Sefolosha and the Hawks’ guards and wings beyond the paint, should be enough to cool the Magic down. Much of Atlanta’s defensive lapse versus Orlando in the prior game was attributable to the bench brigade. The Magic made 13 of 15 shots within 5 feet of the rim in the first half, many of those beginning with Mike Muscala trying to hold the fort in place of Dwight Howard, and ending with Elfrid Payton, Jeff Green, and Meeks feasting. Moose’s minutes are down, but his on-floor impact has improved of late (+27 combined plus/minus in last two contests), Coach Bud adding a dash of Kris Humphries to help lessen the load. Buoyed further on offense by Tim Hardaway, Jr., if the bench can stop hemorrhaging opponent points, we’re likely to see a fine start to Atlanta’s road trip. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. LOTTERY TREADMILL BY: ORLANDO MAGIC, PRICELESS How much would you pay to go win 30-35 games? That’s an uncomfortable question facing the Orlando Magic, who come into Atlanta on a sudden downturn to face the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) for the first time in the regular season. One franchise has been an NBA Playoffs participant for nine seasons running; the other is desperate to avoid stretching their string of postseason absences to five years. One team is the closest to being under the salary cap line ($5.1 million over) among the five teams in the Southeast Division. The other team is $7.5 million further over the cap ($12.6 million over) -- highest in the division, third-overall in the East, eighth-overall in the NBA. All the above statements are contradictory. It was June 2012, and both the Hawks and the Magic had caught a case of Spurs Fever. When the 2011-12 season ended, both organizations chased after executives of the Western Conference leaders in San Antonio. Seeking a fresh start, Orlando hired the fresh-faced Spurs’ director of basketball operations Rob Hennigan, at age 30 the youngest GM in the league. Eager to rebuild without a full teardown, Atlanta, in turn, zeroed in on the Spurs’ VP of basketball ops, Danny Ferry, hiring him just days later. Under Ferry, out went Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, the VetMins, and coach Larry Drew. In came Mike Scott, Paul Millsap, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, coach Mike Budenholzer, Dennis Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. Out went Ferry, eventually. But a lot of his low-budget gambles paid off, and the Hawks not only sustained themselves as a postseason mainstay, they reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in their history. While the Johnson deal made Hawks fans pull up a chair to the Ferry feast, it was the alleviation of the incessant Dwightmare in Orlando that made Rob “You Blind” Hennigan the NBA’s hotshot wunderkind. Within two seasons of the four-team deal, the Lakers (Dwight Howard) and the Sixers (Andrew Bynum) were already suffering from Buyer’s Remorse, while the Nuggets (Andre Iguodala) had squandered whatever gains they had made. Hennigan further pilfered the Nuggets in 2014 by giving Arron Afflalo back in exchange for young gunner Evan Fournier. Further, Orlando had lucked their way into obtaining the prize of the Dwight mega-deal, their future stud center: Nikola Vucevic, a double-double machine! And just look at all the lottery picks coming their way! Atlanta hasn’t drawn a lotto pick since 2007; the Magic have had five such picks in the past four seasons. Under Hennigan’s watchful eye, the future seemed so bright! Well, the future is here, and it’s become blinding to Magic fans. Ferry’s 2013 coaching hire has outlasted even his tenure and gained a Coach of the Year nod while picking up where Ferry left off. At the same time, Hennigan’s Magic stalled under the direction of former Spurs acolytes Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego. Taskmaster Scott Skiles dragged the Magic to a 35-47 record last year, but quit after the season, and was so fed up we may need to convene a search party to find him today. In season #5, Hennigan is on coach #4: former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who is adamant about putting a defensive imprint on a roster lacking in that department ever since bidding adieu to Howard. About all those lottery picks. The Magic drafted Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Euro-stash Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja, and Domantas Sabonis. Saric was swapped on draft day for their point-guard-of-the-future, Elfrid Payton, whose collegiate reputation as a plus-defender (like Bazemore, a former Lefty Driesell Award winner) hasn’t translated to the pros. Oladipo and Sabonis were sent packing (with Ersan Ilyasova) to Oklahoma City, Orlando in turn receiving Serge Ibaka (1300 blocks since 2009-10, most in NBA; Dwight 4th with 1010) in its quest to prove it’s serious about becoming defensive-minded. Oladipo and Sabonis are thriving as starters with the Russellaires, while Ibaka has become more of a three-point bomber (career-high 40.7 3FG% on 3.2 attempts per game) than an on-ball defender. First Gordon (career-low 41.3 FG%), and now Payton and Vucevic have been benched under Vogel, while Hezonja is being bubble-wrapped in search of trade partners. Speaking of trades, December 15 ushers in the availability of many more players on NBA rosters to deals, specifically summertime acquisitions like Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, and D.J. Augustin. Ibaka and Biyombo were brought on to show the fanbase the team is serious about spending cash to win, and (after sending Tobias Harris to Detroit for Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings last season’s deadline, a move suspected as having been ordered from on-high, above Hennigan) finally dead-serious about defense, Green and Augustin notwithstanding. But in the process, the duo of Ibaka and Biyombo (plus Green) have managed to crowd Gordon and Vucevic out of meaningful minutes. While the team D-Rating finally began to pick up in recent weeks (103.5, 12th in NBA; 16th last season), the O-Rating has fallen through the floor (98.0, below everyone but Philly’s 96.8). Just weeks ago, the Orlando Sentinel’s Brian Schmitz opined that Hennigan's plans have, “flopped as spectacularly as New Coke, pay toilets and ‘Zoolander 2.’” New Coke… ouch! Atlantans don’t need that reminder. The team that’s third-highest over the salary cap in the East now sits 11th among the conference’s 15 teams, slightly ahead of 12th-seed Washington. This, after having lost three games in a row, including allowing 121 points in a Saturday night home loss to 9-15 Denver. Further, the Magic’s 10-15 record has been puffed up by a weak schedule (league-low 45% winning percentage among played opponents, as per, so things could get worse soon. These days, Magic fans are straining to recall just what was so bad about Otis Smith. “A big build-up has been replaced by a big letdown,” said Schmitz. Hennigan, who received a Jeff Fisher-lite contract extension in 2015, now stands on the shakiest ground for an NBA GM anywhere outside of New Orleans (although at least Dell Demps has a shield in Ferry now). Hennigan’s desperate to swing some deals, soon; as of this Thursday, every player aside from leading scorer Fournier (re-signed this summer, trade-restricted until January 15; career-low 36.4 3FG%) will be immediately on the block, before CEO Alex Martins considers putting Hennigan’s job on it instead. Atlanta has been working through offensive struggles of its own, as a recent dip slipped them into a momentary tie with the Magic in the standings. Hawks fans and players alike have ample reason to want a widening of the 2.5-game gap between the two teams, for reasons that go well beyond the former Magic franchise star who now suits up at center in Atlanta. Hennigan spent the past two offseasons at the OPM (Other People’s Money) ATM, and at least once, his maneuvering has cost the Hawks. He swung for the fences in 2015 by flying up to Atlanta, ringing All-Star Millsap’s doorbell, and offering him a long-term max-contract. The Hawks’ scramble to counter-offer Millsap cost them precious time once Toronto rolled into town, too, and pried Carroll free. The Magic had no interest in acquiring Sabonis in the 2016 Draft, but they did have an interest in keeping the stretchy big man from falling into Atlanta’s lap. Picking right in front of the spot their division rival had recently traded up into, Orlando snatched up Sabonis and shipped him to OKC for what is shaping up to be a one-year (or less) rental of Ibaka, whose $12.25 million contract expires this summer. As per at least one media report, they were also trying to stick mouse ears on Bazemore, one of many teams coveting the rising swingman in free agency before he chose to stay in the ATL. The first team to call Baze this summer, the Milwaukee Bucks, could only watch on Friday night as their top free agent target was on the sideline, sore knee and all, doing his best Tony Manero impression. That’s because, against all convention, his Hawks were committed to Staying Alive. Bazemore was rooting his Hawks to a 114-110 victory, featuring the improbable erasure of a 20-point Milwaukee lead, the biggest comeback win in the NBA this season. In this pace ‘n space era of NBA hoops, 20-point deficits are becoming the new 10-point deficits. Orlando knows this well: they beat Philadelphia last month after falling behind by 18. Yet the Hawks (12-12) should not grow accustomed to digging such holes for themselves, with the intention of somehow triumphantly crawling out. This win was improbable largely due to the Hawks’ inability, once again, to get the full offense in gear, up until the third quarter. This particular bounceback was made possible by the continually improving play of Schröder (career-high 33 points; 17 in the opening quarter, 8 in the final one), the steady mind of Millsap (23 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks), and the team’s collective recognition that sound ball movement and off-ball player movement are what grant their offense advantages from one game to the next. “The level to which our activity dissipates when we’re not making shots is… you can’t do that in this league,” Coach Bud noted to the AJC and postgame reporters. Another woeful first-half outing (3-for-17 3FGs) was flipped with 8-for-13 3FG shooting in the third-quarter, and 8-for-13 2FG shooting in the pivotal fourth. All eight of Atlanta’s major participants logged at least two assists in Milwaukee, seven of the octet with at least three. Half of Howard’s two dimes turned out to be the most momentous of the game, setting up Tim Hardaway, Jr. with a corner three that finally wiped out the deficit and had Bazemore nearly splitting the inseam of his skinny pants in jubilation. “Bazemore said at halftime, this could be a turnaround for our season,” noted Hardaway to the AJC. “It just shows with the resiliency in this locker room and playing for each other, it’s at an all-time high right now. We need it more than ever after having that tough stretch.” Atlanta (12-12) also could use some consecutive non-game days to recuperate and regroup; they haven’t had any since November 13-14. Three off-days precede tonight’s game with the Magic, and two more follow ahead of a challenging road-home back-to-back with the Raptors and Hornets. The time off may have been enough to have Bazemore, this past weekend’s Ring-of-Honoree up at Old Dominion, out of leisure suits and in uniform for today’s game (currently listed as probable). But the recovery period has given the starting small forward time to study and recalibrate after a struggling start to the season (career-low 35.8 FG%; 29.1 FG%, 3.4 RPG in his past ten games). Sefolosha (41.4 FG%, 18.8 3FG% in last ten games) has been similarly poor in recent weeks on the offensive end and, like point guard Malcolm Delaney, gets caught up in trying to score in isolation when times get tough. But Thabo’s ability to rebound, pick off passes, and defend bigger and taller opponents has made him a more favorable play than Kent alongside Hardaway, whose defensive work is beginning to reap dividends (minus-6.3 opponent differential FG% on defended shots, 7th-best among NBA guards and wings w/ min. 10 games & 5.0 opponent FGAs per game). Sefolosha also avoids turning the ball over, which helps all the more when he’s actively involved (last two starts: 9 assists, 1 TO) in Atlanta’s ball movement schemes. Opponents have gathered a team-high 9.3 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes with Bazemore on the floor (13th-most in NBA, min. 15 games played). When he returns as a starter, Baze’s willingness to apply his wingspan in ways that help Howard and Millsap minimize opponents’ extra chances will enhance his, and the team’s, defensive effectiveness. Bazemore’s shot mechanics may be hampered by the anticipation that he’s going to miss the field goal attempt. Kent has seven offensive rebounds in his last five games (five O-Rebs in the prior 17 games). In four of those recent games, at least one of his offensive rebounds came from following his own shot. Those missed shots ranged from 2 to 24 feet, three of them from 15 feet out, and that says nothing of the second-chances he pursued but didn’t get. Teammates have also gotten into the act of chasing the rebound after an expected Bazemore miss. Adherence to Budball dictates not just taking the open shot created within the flow of the offense, but getting back in defensive position as priority over chasing follows, no matter how inaccurate the shot becomes. Kent’s own confidence in his offense will improve if he’s focused on execution as he was coached, instead of acting in anticipation of poor results. The Magic (33.3 team 3FG%, 71.2 FT%), like the Hawks (32.3 3FG%, 70.7 FT%), have not been sharp shooters from the perimeter, or the charity stripe. But while Atlanta is a much surer shot inside the arc (51.1 2FG%, 5th in NBA), the same cannot be said of Orlando (46.2 2FG%, 29th in NBA). The Magic’s cause could be helped if Vucevic would shoot better than 52.9% within 3 feet of the hoop, and if Vooch, Ibaka, and Gordon would grow less enamored of long 2-point attempts. But Howard and the Hawks will be ready to turn probable rebounds into transition points at the other end. Vucevic is questionable to play due to a back contusion sustained last week, while Biyombo has been hampered by an injured shoulder. Schröder and Delaney will work to thwart drives by Augustin and Payton, the latter’s field goal percentage dropping precipitously away from the rim (63.4 at-rim FG%, 31.2 FG% from 3 feet out). That’s part of what has prompted Vogel to turn instead to Augustin in the starting lineup, but the pairing of Augustin and Fournier in the backcourt has the Magic leaking oil on defense. Neither put much pressure on opposing guards, and their funneling of ballhandlers into the teeth of the Magic’s shot-block-hungry front line (5.6 team BPG, 4th in NBA) tends to leave somebody open. Orlando has allowed at least 109 points in the past four games, putting its offensively inefficient team behind the 8-ball, especially against higher-paced teams. Small forwards have feasted on the Magic in each of their last three losses, a good sign for Atlanta’s struggling shooters. And while Orlando last won in Washington a week ago, they had few answers for the speedy John Wall (52 points on 45 total shot attempts). Atlanta will want no repeat of the prior two regular season meetings with the Magic. The back-to-back defeats in February included a low-percentage buzzer-beating jumpshot by Vucevic in Orlando, and a 117-110 overtime loss the next day in Atlanta. Orlando had not won two straight in over a month before those victories, and while the wins seemed to be a pick-me-up, ending a similar three-game skid, the Magic would not win two in a row again for another 45 days. That second loss had Orlando eroding a 20-point deficit of their own (Hawks up 28-8 in the first quarter, 71-53 midway through the third), and OT was forced by a 29-18 Magic advantage in the fourth quarter. Vucevic, Payton, Fournier, and even Hezonja piled up a combined 26 points in the paint in the rematch, something Howard will seek to minimize in keeping the Magic from evening up their road record (6-7) this season. The Hawks need this win tonight to keep the vibes positive, but also to keep the Magic trending downward. After all, nobody needs Hennigan around next summer drumming up new schemes to stick it to the Hawks again. For once, let’s make Hennigan pay. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “I Want to Wake Up in a City That Never Sleeps (totally not a trade request, btw)…” After getting Fournier’d by Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic in a Super Bowl matinee, it’s already time for the Atlanta Hawks to lace ‘em up again, this time with a meeting at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, Fox Sports Florida) where they’ll serve up a nice dose of payback to their division rivals. Maybe. Team President-by-Coup Mike Budenholzer does seem to hold some endearing solidarity with the many contemporaries in his NBA coaching profession. With his own position fairly secure no matter what the Hawks spew on the floor these days, you are left to ponder whether Bud is stealing losses away from hopeless, floundering opponents, as a means to maybe re-instill confidence from their coaches’ higher-ups, however fleeting, and preserve coaches’ paystubs for just a little longer. From Jeff Hornacek to Derek Fisher to Lionel Hollins to… probably soon, George Karl and maybe Sam Mitchell and Scott Skiles… is Coach Bud trying to break their falls? Do these courtesy wins serve as parting gifts? Or are his conciliatory Bud Waves more of an insidious, kiss-of-death kind of deal (David Blatt, your thoughts)? Just over a decade ago, it took a loss to the Hawks to guarantee you’d get fired soon. My, how times have changed. We’ll get a greater sense of whether we’re onto something as Scott Skiles’ team rolls into Philips Arena with unexpectedly lifted spirits. The Hawks (30-23) especially love to giftwrap victories to bad teams missing key players, and yesterday’s win for the Magic (22-28; 3-15 in 2016) without their leading rebounder, forward Tobias Harris, was no exception. Harris (ankle) remains questionable for tonight, which is probably good news for the Magic against the Hawks. Sunday’s contest was more of a Bizarro World Hawks game. Without Harris available to push them around, the Hawks turned into the second coming of Moses Malone, crashing the glass for a season-high 18 offensive rebounds, the most by any Hawks team since Larry Drew was running the show back in December 2012. Of course, when you’re shooting 38.5% from the field (incl. 34.9 2FG%; Atlanta’s 0-9 when shooting below 40%), you have to at least look like you’re trying, lest anyone catch on to your charitable ways. Then the Hawks neutralized themselves further, failing to pressure Orlando’s backcourt tandem of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, into mistakes until they decided to make things entertaining, once Thabo Sefolosha’s lucky buzzer-beater concluded the third quarter. Sloppy play, no open shot-making, no transition buckets… but copious offensive rebounds? What’s going on around here? Al Horford (5-for-15 FGs, 6 rebounds in 35 minutes) must have been thinking of the hundreds of poor fans in the stands that would love to be anywhere but Amway Center as The Big Game approached, just a couple hours away. There’s no other logical reason why, with only Payton standing before him, he’d flub a layup with 80 seconds left that would have brought the Hawks within a point of the lead. The Magic had not held a team below triple digits since losing 96-87 at home to Philly nearly three weeks ago. And yet here was Atlanta, sitting tied at 94 apiece with under a minute to go, still poised to back their way into a victory that would even up their road record. Kent Bazemore (23 points, 3-for-5 3FGs) had a horrifyingly bad start on Sunday, thanks largely to the officials, but used his six offensive rebounds to kickstart his game. After Paul Millsap’s dime to Baze tied things up at 94, and after Baze drew the offensive foul on Vucevic at the other end, Horford must have gone all Sarah MacLachlan in his All-Star court mate’s ear. Haven’t these Magic fans suffered enough? For the price of a cup of coffee… So, Hawks miss shots, get boards, miss shots, Millsap (5-for-14 FGs in 34 minutes) short-rims a shot within 5 feet of the rim with 2 seconds left. Timeout Magic, Vooch gets the ball back, ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, game, blouses. Magic fans go home happy for once, Bud Wave, end scene, fade to black, Lady Gaga croons the credits. Back home at Thrillips, consumer confidence among Hawks fans has ebbed, and those that show up tonight aren’t going to feel quite so cordial toward Skiles’ plight. If Bud’s Fix isn’t in, it will show by way of an effort from the bench that was non-existent yesterday (2-for-17 FGs, not counting Thabo’s lucky shot). It was hard to outplay Orlando’s reserves (4-for-18 FGs, 2 assists), but Atlanta managed to find a way. Dennis Schröder (lacerated chin, reportedly) was held out of the entire fourth quarter yesterday, but will be counted on for anything better than the 1-for-7 FGs, one-assist-in-13-minutes output he contributed. Mike Muscala (2 blocked shots since December 12, both in the same game) managed to sit out the final frame as well, and without Tiago Splitter (hip, out until after the Break), Moose’s presence needs to be felt at both ends of the floor. Improved play from this pair will limit the need for excessive floor time today from Jeff Teague (team-high 24 points, 3-for-5 3FGs, 5 assists, 5 TOs on Sunday) and Horford. This will be the final home game before the Hawks end the pre-All-Star break schedule in Chicago, where the Bulls are struggling defensively, and suffering through injuries to Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Jimmy Butler. Wait a minute… is Fred Hoiberg’s job secure? Is that “In the Arms of an Angel” I’m hearing? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. Voted “Most Likely to Quit Trying to Look Like Rajon Rondo.” We’ve seen plenty of times this season when our Atlanta Hawks have to pick up an easy spare, and roll out a gutterball in the neighboring lane. That’s whether it involves blowing anybody-on-one fast breaks, or playing down to the level of a bad team on a losing skid. So the home-and-home series on back-to-back nights with the struggling Orlando Magic (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida) is the furthest thing from a sure shot. Including a loss in ATL on MLK Day, the Magic have gone just 2-15 since January 1, a scale of futility matched only by the Phoenix Suns. Of course, half of the Suns’ wins came courtesy of embarrassingly poor play from the Hawks just a couple weeks ago. Orlando is also just 1-8 in the Dirty South Division. So, naturally, this two-game series is setting up to be a barn-burner. Thanks to a great 19-13 start, the MLK Day loss only dropped the Magic to 20-20 as they remained in the thick of the playoff chase, an impressive 4th in the East. But like a Lake Eola jogger, Scott Skiles’ club finds itself going in circles, and they’ve been getting lapped by one Eastern Conference team after another. Half of Orlando’s wins in 2016 came last Sunday at home, thanks to a red-hot Boston Celtics team that shares Atlanta’s 30-22 record. Since that victory, the past week included road losses in San Antonio and OKC, and Friday’s home loss to their old coach Doc Rivers’ Clippers. They held fourth-quarter leads, however, against both the Spurs and Thunder before melting late. So the good news is, it isn’t like they’re not competing and forcing the action, primed to trip up opponents that don’t bring their A-game. As an additional silver lining, Orlando can’t sink below the plankton of the East (Nets and Sixers) no matter how badly this slump is, and a spirited string of victories puts them right back in postseason play, as they’re just 4.5 games behind the 8th-seed. Getting up off the canvas for the Magic won’t be possible until center Nikola Vucevic and point guard Elfrid Payton show they’re willing and able, respectively, to defend at their positions and involve their teammates at the other end. The duo share the a net rating (-18.8 points per 100 possessions) in calendar year 2016, the second-worst in the league (after Hawks’ basketball snatcher Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker in Phoenix). That includes an NBA-worst 90.4 O-Rating, and they’re tied with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas with the second-worst D-Rating (110.5) among 1-5 pairs. For the NBA’s reigning record-holder for assists in a single game, Coach Skiles is learning it’s actually easier to do than to say. Payton’s struggled through injuries in the past month, but his passing marks (5.6 APG; 5.4 since January 1) have slipped since his All-Rookie 1st Team season (6.5 APG). He’s also struggled to stay in front of his man, or even produce turnovers with help defense. His 2.2 steal% (incl. 9 steals in 13 games since January 1) is way down from the 2.9% that ranked 5th in the NBA last season. Skiles’ first move is to shift Victor Oladipo (37 points, 4 assists, no turnovers @ OKC last Wednesday) to the point, or at least allow him to dominate the ballhandling duties. Oladipo has not been as much of a turnover machine as he was in his rookie season, but both he and Payton are prone to making egregious mistakes in crunch time. Both players could have their hands full today with Atlanta’s Jeff Teague. After a season-long struggle, Teague could be in line to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week (58.3 FG%, 58.3 3FG%, 90.0 FT%, 19.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.3 TOs per game, 1.7 SPG) with a strong effort today. Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder, Vooch will get his obligatory double-doubles (10-and-11 @. ATL on MLK Day; 20-and-11 vs. the Hawks on Dec. 20). But despite Skiles’ push to get more active hands out of his center, Vucevic still looks like a crossing guard as opponents drive into the paint and opposing stretch-bigs plop copious jumpers from outside. Vucevic is a poster child for America's Budball victims. The Magic grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in last month’s game in Atlanta, yet they only managed 81 points, a season-best for the Hawks defense. Mike Budenholzer’s troops allowed the Pacers to nab 16 more O-Rebs and 5 more D-Rebs on Friday night, but it only served to make things interesting in a 102-96 win. That victory raised Atlanta’s record to 16-8 when they give up at least 12 offensive rebounds, 14-14 otherwise. He hears it from fans and a former Hawks coach that accuses him of playing with cement shoes around the defensive glass, and he hears it from the guy with a statue outside Philips Arena that he doesn’t take advantage of drives against slow-footed bigs like Vucevic. Yet Al Horford (62.5 TS%; 5 O-Rebs in his last 7 games) adheres to his head coach’s demands. His 21 heroic points against Indiana on Friday were the most he tallied since Jan. 9. Getting Horford lots of open looks and encouraging him to drive to the lane and get to the line will keep Vucevic and the Magic bigs guessing all day what he’ll pull out of his hat. A strong Teague-Horford combo should be enough to have Orlando looking forward to Super Bowl prop bets by game’s end. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “…one day, on the red hills of Georgia…” It’s “A Day On, Not a Day Off” for millions completing service projects around the country and, particularly, in the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many volunteers will then choose to sit back and relax at Philips Arena, getting serenaded by Regina Belle-Battle, and hoping their Atlanta Hawks won’t take a day off against the Orlando Magic (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida, NBATV). If They Could, Orlando fans would Make It Like It Was back in December, when the Magicians went 10-5 (after starting out with what was already an impressive 9-8 record) and earned Scott Skiles an Eastern Conference Coach of the Month nod. Going 13-5 between Thanksgiving Eve and New Years’ Eve, the best mark in the East during that span, had the O-Town faithful feeling they’d entered A Whole New World, at least one different than the seasons after the Stan Van Gundy era came to a close. That was before a 1-6 skid this month, interrupted only by a road win versus Atlanta’s last vanquished foes, the Brooklyn Nets. On the whole, the 20-15 start has the Magic all set to eclipse their 25-57 record from last season, the high-water mark of the prior three seasons. But fans who recall the abbreviated success of James Borrego last season know that things can de-escalate quickly. Over the past six calendar years, Orlando has overcome the Hawks just once in 11 road trips to the ATL. Without a road win over a team with a current winning record, the Magic would love a victory against their division-champ rivals to start turning things back around. But they would have to do it while dealing with a lot of moving parts in the backcourt. The Magic offense has gone “poof!” ever since point guard Elfrid Payton (5.8 APG, 8th in the East), hobbling since mid-December, was shelved a couple weeks ago to heal an ankle bone bruise. Victor Oladipo slid into Payton’s spot and has shot the ball well lately (70.1 TS% last five games). But ball movement has not quite been to Skiles’ liking, as if there’s anything that Skiles likes. Only the Nets (94.7 points per 100 possessions) have a lower offensive efficiency in January than Orlando (95.2 O-Rating in January; 104.9 O-Rating in December, 1st in East; 19.3 January O-Reb%, last in NBA). Just as concerning for the Magic has been the lack of transition-scoring opportunities since Payton starting having issues with his ankle. Steals per game have gone down from 9.3 in December to 5.7 this month, while opponent turnovers declined from 15.3 last month to 11.3 in January. Payton returned and played briefly in the Magic’s loss in London versus Toronto, but Oladipo sprained a knee taking a charge during that game and is now out indefinitely. It was Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics that allowed the Magic to nearly pull a big win out of their hat against the Raptors in London last Thursday, before falling short in overtime. Sidelined since November, guard C.J. Watson had a setback in his plans to return from a sore calf and is also out indefinitely. Shabazz Napier has been under the weather as well, prompting Orlando to nab D-League star Keith Appling over the weekend. Despite the intercontinental flights, Payton’s ankle should be well-rested following a four-day layoff that allowed the Magic to scout two Hawks games. Elf’s return allows Skiles to field his December starting lineup again, but expect to see a lot of rookie Mario Hezonja backing up both Payton and Evan “Never Google” Fournier. In Orlando back on December 20, the Magic shot just 4-for-12 from deep against the Hawks and proved to be no match for the Alabaster Blaster. In perhaps his last successful long-range shooting display, Kyle Korver went off in the second half and finished with 6-for-8 three-point shooting for a team-high 19 points, including the game-winner with 44 seconds left, as Atlanta seized back the lead to edge the Magic in a 103-100 victory. Korver was joined off the bench by Mike Scott (3-for-5 3FGs, 15 points vs. ORL Dec. 20), who can be can’t-miss so long as he isn’t, like, dunking or anything. Orlando will try to counter with Fournier, Hezonja, and a suddenly-struggling Channing Frye (42.2 3FG%, 7th in East; 15.4 January 3FG%). But Skiles must also encourage his array of supporting-cast bigs (including Aaron Gordon, habitual Hawk Killer Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson) to get out on the perimeter defensively and keep Atlanta from figuring out which Hawks have a hot hand. Aside from Oladipo, the Magic shot just 4-for-16 on threes in London on Thursday, and despite out-shooting Atlanta over the course of the season, their January swoon of 31.1 team 3FG% ranks just 25th in the league. The last time Skiles’ team needed a sharp-shooting mid-season boost, his Bucks shipped a hardly-used Tobias Harris to Orlando in exchange for a half-year rental of J.J. Redick (you, too, Gustavo Ayón and Ish Smith). It’s safe to assume Skiles won’t let Harris get away so easily again. Now the highest-paid Magician on the payroll, Harris has been a delight for those trying to forget the last guy who wore #12 in the Magic Kingdom. His scoring is down to 13.6 PPG from 17.1 PPG last year, but that’s in part because Skiles implores Harris to de-emphasize scoring and model the versatility of stretch-forwards like Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh. Tobias’ interior shooting is at a career-best 51.9 2FG%, while he is also posting career marks with 7.2 RPG and 2.1 APG. Fan voting for the All-Star Game in Toronto concludes at the stroke of midnight tonight, ushering in the coaches’ voting phase. Coaches, like the fans, vote in two guards and three frontcourt players, but they also elect two wild cards from each conference. Isaiah Thomas has argued his case since the season started, and John Wall has been carrying the Wizards through adversity all year. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving are locks whether they start alongside Dwyane Wade or not, and you can’t leave Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out in the cold. Thus, the coaches will be inclined to grant both wild card spots to guards, leaving guys like Atlanta’s Millsap (2nd in East in PER, 3rd in per-48 Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus, 4th in VORP) and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (4th in East in FG%, 9th in PER) in a squeeze play for three precious frontcourt slots. Despite the surge by Carmelo Anthony to the third starting spot in the East, Andre Drummond is too tough a case to snub. There’s plenty of love for his fellow yung’uns Kristaps Porzingis and Hassan Whiteside, while Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh get their Lifetime Achievement sentiments. LeBron James has a lot of pull to get His Guys in, so it will be hard to keep Kevin Love out, especially since then-first-place Atlanta got four All-Stars last year. Then, there’s the dismissive You Had Your Turns Already attitude toward mid-market semi-stars. That means for guys like Sap (career-highs of 18.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 BPG) and Vooch (career-best 2.8 APG; 20 points and 11 boards vs. ATL on Dec. 20), the only way to keep NBA coaches’ rapt attention during the voting period is to play well in a winning effort. The Hawks’ powerful forward is the team’s only entry deserving consideration, but Do it All Paul will fall quickly into injury-replacement territory if Atlanta keeps dropping games to the Knicks, Hornets, Bucks, and Magic of the world. We’re at the midway mark of the season. If, back before Halloween, someone were to tell you the Hawks would not be firing on all cylinders, struggled hitting threes and keeping opponents below triple-digits, had several returning All-Stars either regressing or playing inconsistently, and had not yet worked any newcomers into prominent roles in the rotation while on pace for “just” 48 wins… yet still would be sitting on top of the Southeast Division (ahead of perpetually-hyped Miami and Washington) and 1.5 games out of second in the East, you would begrudgingly take that scenario, especially given a roster that has reached the midway point relatively healthy. Now the fun begins. Can Al Horford (one rebound, offensive, in 23 minutes vs. BKN on Saturday) string together a couple productive weeks of basketball in a row, or at least a couple games? Can Jeff Teague (7 assists, 1 TO vs. BKN; 37.3 2FG% in January) and Korver (1-for-6 FGs vs. BKN) slip out of their respective cocoons, especially defensively in Teague’s case? If not, will Coach Bud turn even more toward bench options like Dennis Schröder (15-and-10 plus 1 TO vs. BKN, first double-double of the season), Tiago Splitter and, dare we say it, Tim Hardaway, Jr.? And would that necessarily be a bad thing? As the February trade deadline approaches, does GM Bud have any tricks up his sleeves? Might continually underwhelming play shake him out of “We Like Our Group” mode? Winning 60 or even 50 games isn’t as important as building positive momentum toward the springtime. But an impressive home win over a team like the Magic, ahead of a modest four-games-in-six-nights West Coast swing, would signal to Hawks fans that there is, indeed, something good on the other side of that mountaintop. Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record