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  1. “Sorry to intrude on your conversation, kind sir. But if you don’t mind my asking, what is a GMA3?” Is it against the CBA rules to sign Scott Hastings to a ten-day deal? We’d only need the former NBA big man, whose career-high eight starts were during one of five Atlanta Hawks seasons in the mid-1980s, for one of these ten days. And sure, he’s, like, 63 or something, and gainfully employed. But I know of few guys 6-foot-10 and up who have a better read on two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, ahead of tonight’s visit by the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN), than the longtime Denver sports game analyst (Wiki even tells me he color-commentated Broncos games back in the day. Watch your back, Russell). Come on, Landry and Schlenky. Even a non-guaranteed vet-min for Scotty won’t break Tony’s piggy bank! The front office for our Hawks (12-10, still First Place in the Filthy South!) seemed content with fielding a 14-man roster until at least the mid-December trading window opened. Players and staff seemed content to wait until the official return of wing sniper Bogdan Bogdanovic (questionable, knee injury recovery) to the court before figuring out how to properly gel. Now the Serbian sharpshooter might suit up – might – just in time to get plugged into the 4-spot versus the likes of Aaron Gordon. “Dobrodošli nazad!” Magnificent as usual in Orlando, Trae Young (30 points on 10-for-12 2FGs, 14 assists and 2 TOs) tried to sneak in one more highlight to John Collins before halftime, and Collins’ ankle, upon descent, wound up catching the business end of Paolo Banchero’s protruded heel. JC will miss at least two weeks of NBA action, hopefully preceded by De’Andre Hunter (out, minimum one week), who tried to play through a bum hip only to re-aggravate it seven minutes into the Magic game. Probably from kicking Magic behinds, and himself for blowing the bunny that would have made him a perfect 10-for-10 from the field, Clint Capela has a sore foot and is questionable for tonight’s proceedings. Questionable at most times of the day, Frank Kaminsky shares the same pregame designation as Capela due to a sprained foot. Same for Jalen Johnson, who continues recovering from a sore ankle. Even Justin Holiday, much like Yours Truly, remains under stringent Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Altogether, that does not bode well for the Atlanta front line, such that it is (we need two dots, I'm told, to create a line), versus the reigning two-time MVP. Onyeka Okongwu (+1 plus/minus or worse in last 11 appearances) has had ample opportunities to see what it looks like when a shorthanded opponent goes out and hands it to the Hawks anyway. Now that Atlanta will be on the more-shorthanded side of the coins with its starting forwards out, we’ll see if The Needs to Play Bigger O can help ensure attitudes get flipped, so tails aren’t spanked, and heads won’t roll. Gwu Tang filled in as a starter in Capela’s old stomping grounds last week and failed to get so much as a shot off in over 30 minutes on the floor, as the Rockets, who started a freshly-returning Bruno Fernando in place of Alperen Sengun, thoroughly lapped the Hawks in the rebounding department. Young and Dejounte Murray are fixing the get-shots-off issue for Okongwu, who managed 12 points and 8 boards (incl. 4 O-Rebs) in 17 minutes during Wednesday’s 125-108 gathering of the Magic. But with Collins out and Capela, if available, shadowing Jokic from the three-point line to the elbows, Onyeka’s rim-protection and ball-securing skills will be at a premium. Fortunately, the Hawks’ A.J. Griffin has some girth with his 6-foot-6 frame, enough to play some minutes at the 4-spot, while two-way wing Jarrett Culver (12 boards) showed off some rebounding chops in Orlando. Hawks coach Nate McMillan can pair either or both of these players with one of the league’s better rebounding guards in Dejounte Murray (5.8 RPG, down from 8.3 and 7.1 in his prior two seasons w/ SAS), and there should be enough to negate Gordon's size advantage while limiting Denver’s second-chance opportunities. If Murray isn’t helping to dig for caroms on defense, it’s likely because he is looking to thwart Jamal Murray and Bones Hyland on pull-ups from the perimeter (40.7 and 44.4 pull-up 3FG%, respectively, 4th and 6th among 28 NBA’ers w/ 3.0 pull-up 3FGAs/game), and shots caught from Jokic (career-high 8.9 APG so far; 12 dimes in Wednesday’s blasting of Bruno's Rockets for a second consecutive meeting) in the corners, where Denver’s 44.8 3FG% paces the league. Georgia-grown Nuggets starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope tends to be a corner-shot beneficiary, while defensive ace Bruce Brown (40.3 3FG% on 3.4 shots/game, doubling his career-high volume) has come into his own as a gunner of late. They’ve been a relief for Jamal Murray (probable, bruised quad), who is still regaining traction after being shelved last season for ACL recovery. Trae (2 thefts over the past 5 games, none in the prior two, after a 10-game steal streak) has to be more than pedestrian on the defensive end of the floor for the Hawks, getting deflections, closing out and anticipating when his man is leaking out for triples. Who’s with me in calling these roster tables “shallowness charts” henceforth? The Nuggets aren’t close to fielding a full squad, either. Michael Porter is back on the IL with a strained heel, forcing Michael Malone’s hand into pressing Brown into productive action. Gordon’s backup Jeff Green has a sore knee and is doubtful to appear. The Nuggets field a full 15, yet Malone finds himself with bench players that are either a bit long in the tooth (Uncle Jeff, DeAndre Jordan, Ish Smith) or a bit wet behind the ears (Peyton Watson, Christian Braun), or a little of both (Davon Reed, Vlatko Cancar). Denver’s faring well at 14-7 (10-0 when compiling 30+ assists), seeking to extend their winning streak to five this evening. But that’s largely because Jokic is Jokic, KCP and Brown have stepped up as excellent additions, and because Jokic and mission-critical players have managed to stay out of early foul trouble. The Nuggets also boast a league-high 8 road wins. But three of Denver’s biggest blowout defeats, 20-plus deficits all on the road, featured the Nuggets hacking over 20 times, even though the recipients of the whistles didn’t shoot their free throws particularly well, certainly not as well as Atlanta (85.3 team home FT%, 2nd in NBA). The downsized frontcourt for Atlanta does not mean Trae and Dejounte need to up their three-point shot volume just to try keeping up with the Nugget shooters from outside. Getting around Jamal and Jokic and driving to the paint, can create enough havoc that it can draw the contact needed to ensure productive possessions. If Dejountrae draws Brown and KCP in to help, and Griffin or, should he be able to join us, Bogi can be the ones canning shots from outside, all the more terrific. On second thought, Mr. Fields, hold off on that call to Hastings, or anyone else, as we’ve got all the help we need in-house. Brian Oliver might be good for some BIG3 buckets, while I think Nique can still catch a well-timed lob or two. Keep your tie on, Bob. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. We used to be a country. A proper country. Eureka! We have found them. The only two teams on the North American continent with a worse NBA Net Rating in fourth quarters than your Atlanta Hawks (minus-10.4). They actually played one another in Denver on Wednesday night. Somehow, the Earth did not spin off its axis during the final 12 minutes of action between the host Nuggets (minus-12.5) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-10.7), the inertial 19-16 finish to the proceedings notwithstanding. But this lingering stat cannot be good news for the Back-to-Back MVP campaign of Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets have arrived at State Farm Arena to face the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T Sports Net in DEN), in a battle of teams that have largely been short-staffed the old-fashioned way. Each sit at 14-14, clinging to a Play-In slot in their conferences, suffering disappointing defeats of late, and their fans aren’t eager to hear excusplanations as to why their favorite teams aren’t clear-cut contenders, midway through December. Each team made it to last season’s Elite Eight, losing to an eventual NBA Finalist, and each one is led by a franchise-defining star that, at their respective positions, cannot be duplicated. Only one star, however, is scheduled to play on Christmas Day. The other is the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player. As hoop pundits weigh the relative merits of Steph Curry and Kev Durant for the next end-of-season honor, a few interjectors have reminded people that Jokic, the once-developmental Euro-prospect who became a full-time starter for the Nuggets five years ago this week, is arguably more brilliant on the court (career-bests of 26.6 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 63.6 eFG%; 7.5 APG) as he was in 2020-21’s award-winning season (26.4/10.8/60.2%/8.3, in 1.7 fewer minutes/game). Consider further, while the absence of Kyrie Irving has Durant having to “settle” for James Harden as his sole second-banana, Jokic, without Jamal Murray for the balance of this season, has as his second-in-command…??? I suppose he can just take his pick and roll with it. Will Barton (team high 33.3 minutes/game, career-highs of 16.0 PPG, 38.2 3FG% and 4.2 APG)? Monte Morris (last 3 games: 18.7 PPG, 4.7 APG)? The gloriously-coiffed Aaron Gordon (team-high 23 points vs. ATL)? This space was reserved for Michael Porter, Trae Young’s former AAU partner who struggled out of the gate before being sidelined indefinitely last month after back surgery. Now, who takes charge for coach Mike Malone’s club, from one game to the next, might come down to a pregame tournament of rock-paper-scissors. Sometimes, it’s a sixth-man seizing the sidekick role. Backup sophomore big Zeke Nnaji (52.8 3FG%) will surprise by nailing some uncontested triples, as he did versus Minnesota. Second-year two-way player Markus Howard matched Patrick Beverley’s defensive energy and hit four threes on Wednesday, but a rough-looking knee injury sidelined him during the fourth-quarter. In a fortunate sense, the Nuggets, trailing Minny by double-digits since early in the second quarter, were already out of it, although nobody seemed to tell Atlanta native Anthony Edwards, who piled on with 11 of his 38 points in the fourth, nine of them off three-pointers along the way to a 10-for-14 3FG display from the perimeter. “He just danced with the ball and shot three after three,” Malone griped about the Ant-Man to DNVR Sports and the postgame media. “We just refused to get into him.” Howard was left behind for tonight, the start of Denver’s three-game road trip. Malone and the Nuggs said, “Nah, son,” to Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland (15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists vs. ATL on Nov. 12), sending the stringy rookie guard home before the Minnesota game for an unspecified team infraction. Hyland will be eager to earn his keep tonight, “getting into” Atlanta shooters on behalf of a backcourt that’s already missing PJ Dozier (ACL tear, out for season), on top of Murray and Howard, and is only now getting back veteran Austin Rivers (probable, Health ‘n Safety). Two days before the 124-107 loss to the T’wolves, Jokic was displaying his usual mastery, nearing a triple-double against the suddenly hapless Wizards with 28 points, 19 rebounds, 9 assists, plus 3 steals and a partridge in a pear tree. Only one man on that night was bound to put a stop to The Joker. And that man was Tony Brothers. The notorious referee was quick to send Jokic to the showers early in the fourth quarter, hearing one too many haranguing complaints about no-calls from a star who was already 9-for-11 on free throws. Up 18 with six minutes to go at home would normally not be a problem. But remember, the Nuggets are statistically the worst fourth-quarter team WITH Jokic on the floor in crunch time. Malone replaced Jokic with Facundo Camapazzo, and suddenly the Wizards (37-22 edge in the fourth) looked like the second coming of the fourth-quarter Rockets at The Farm. Fortunately for the Nuggets, Washington’s Hackafacundo late-game strategy failed to yield dividends as Denver hung on for the 113-107 win. “We’re a much better team when (Jokic’s) on the floor and available,” opined Malone to the Greeley Tribune in stating the obvious. “Not in the locker room.” The Nuggets (season-low 8 player TOs) had a fairly easy time keeping a road-weary Hawks club snowed under in the Colorado altitude last month, the Hawks shooting 5-for-28 on threes (incl. 2-for-23 by Traemates) along the way to a 105-96 loss. Shortly after skating to 8-4 on the young season, Denver endured a six-game avaLanche of their own. Then came the first half of this month. December began with a loss in Gordon’s old stomping grounds, versus roughly the same Magic team the Hawks neatly dispatched on Wednesday. Orlando outscored Denver 29-20 in the final frame to steal the 108-103 victory. The Nuggets lost the first of two games in San Antonio, and while they won the rematch a couple days later, it was not without a 24-38 deficit in the fourth, cutting the final lead virtually in half. The day before losing to the Spurs, Denver escaped New Orleans, but not before letting a six-point fourth-quarter lead slip, scrambling with the aid of Morris and Uncle Jeff Green to take back the lead, but failing to box out Jonas Valanciunas, whose putback with seconds left ushered in overtime, on the front end of a back-to-back, with travel to San Antonio looming. Coming up short against the cream of this league’s crop, especially when the supporting cast is nowhere close to 100 percent is acceptable to most rational observers. Losing to the likes of the Magic, Spurs, and Timberwolves, though, and white-knuckle finishes against the present-day Wizards at home and the Pelicans anywhere, does not a strong MVP resume make. Nikola will get his share of frontcourt All-Star fan votes regardless because, frankly, who beyond the Great Salt Lake plans to waste theirs on Rudy Gobert? But to outduel KD (who awaits Denver on Sunday) and Curry at MVP voting time, the Nuggets need to beat underdogs more consistently, and Jokic needs teammates who become as reliable as he is (usually) available. With the T’wolves sinking 47.9 percent of their three-point attempts on Wednesday, the Nuggets dropped to 2-9 versus opponents shooting above 37.0 3FG%. As Jokic (19 boards, 22 points, 10 assists vs. ATL on Nov. 12) prefers to lurk around the rim to snare defensive boards, this would be a lousy time for another one of those, “We got plenty of shots, they just weren’t falling,” performances by the Hawks’ guards and forwards, before an Atlanta crowd that hasn’t enjoyed a victory, live, in quite some time. Jokic can be counted on to put up pinball numbers, but the Hawks’ interior defenders cannot compound matters by getting cowed into cheap fouls. Wing defenders ought to be prepared for Nuggets cutting, in anticipation of Jokic’s high-post passes, and to rotate around the perimeter, ensuring there are no open opponents playing with house money, in our house, when Jokic kicks the ball out. The team that has the fourth-worst fourth-quarter Net Rating, at minus-9.5? That would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday's visitor on Atlanta's three-game homestand, the team with the dreamy 18-12 record (8-0 versus sub.-500 teams, which hopefully the Hawks won't be). Yes, the Cavs, potential winners of six straight games if they trip up the Bucks in Milwaukee tomorrow, the club whose up-and-coming talents and all-for-one veteran role players are currently making the media go gaga. In a league loaded with so much parity, just three games, just three crucial quarters, flipping one way or another, makes a big difference in how a team, and its superstars, are perceived. With its roster getting healthier by the day (Onyeka Okongwu’s probable to get re-acclimated tonight) as others are spinning in grease, Atlanta has before them a trio of home games, plus a road trip to Philly, that serve as an opportunity to fundamentally alter perceptions ahead of their Christmas Day contest in the Big Apple. In the form of cohesive on-court units, the Hawks must be fundamentally superior in fourth quarters than they have been, to date. Even if the iron is a bit lukewarm at times, this is a prime time to strike. For purportedly good teams showcasing MVP-caliber candidates, home wins in the NBA shouldn’t be like panning for gold. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “And we’re here to PUMP…” *clap* “…YOU UP, SOLOMON HILL!” Today’s burning question: Whither the Leastern Conference? Just a few days ago, Luke Adams of HoopsRumors delved into an early-season oddity – the teams of the NBA East were winning more of their head-to-heads against NBA West opponents, 22-19 at the time of his writing. Adams noted it’s something that, at season’s ends, had occurred just once in this millennium, in 2008-09, a 231-219 edge for the boys employed predominantly on this side of the Mississippi. The next night, Detroit outclassed Houston in a high-profile battle of 2021’s top two draft choices. The Bulls made quick work out of Dallas at home, and Charlotte got off the canvas with a road win at Memphis. As of now, the NBA East maintains its lead, 26-23, no matter how hard our Atlanta Hawks toil to return the NBA back to its status quo. There’s a good likelihood they’ll drop to 2-5 versus the NBA West with a loss tonight against the Nuggets in Denver (9 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN). Utah (5-0 vs. the West, 8-4 overall) took time out of its busy schedule of losing to Eastern squads of all stripes, on Tuesday, to wax a Hawks club that is depleted of players, rest, and confidence. The Jazz got back on course yesterday with a loss at home to the literal Fighting Lloyd Pierces of Indiana, a contest highlighted by Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner engaging one another in a late-game do-si-do. In a similar vein as what occurred on Tuesday between Nikola Jokic and one of the Morris Twins, Gobert and Turner basically fouled each other, looked to the refs to see if any would bother to blow their whistle, before the mutually flustered bigs got together to do the Please-No-Fines Polka. The Gobert-Turner Two-Step was instructive, given that each saw what had happened just days before, when Morris (whichever one it was, I can’t keep up) ran up near midcourt and went in on a passing Jokic’s side like Rocky in the meat freezer before jogging away. The reigning MVP gave the refs the split second they needed to call a foul in his favor, then snidely whiplashed Morris with a forceful shove to the floor from behind. That looked like it would be a multi-game suspension for The Joker and perhaps -- unless you happen to have been paying attention to the Hawks’ “fortunes” of late -- a break for Atlanta heading into tonight’s action. However, the new officiating adjustments, in which refs turn into distracted Earl Hebners while infractions occur, wasn’t the only big shift in the NBA offseason. Nuggets legend Kiki VanDeWeghe (more as a player than as a GM), in August, stepped down from his authoritative role as the NBA’s executive VP in charge of handing out discipline, a role he held for eight seasons. Kiki had been notoriously heavy-handed in laying down corporate justice, and Nuggets like Jokic, once suspended in 2019 for leaving the bench during a Nuggets-Jazz altercation, and Mike (excuse me, MICHAEL; no one says Mike Jordan, right?) Malone, suspended for going at refs for a no-foul on Jokic in 2017, had not been spared. The signal that Kiki’s influence has waned is telling. Over twelve hours have passed, and there remains no sign that Fred VanVleet is going to have to shill out the $25k the league ordered from Josh Smith for his Big Balls Dance a decade ago, or even the $15k fines to the Marco Belinellis of the world during Kiki’s tenure for similar Sam-I-Am dedications. The message from on-high is telling. Between COVID protocols, injury and conditioning management, long-term injuries, and internal infighting, there are enough of the NBA’s stars missing games as it is. Just don’t be out here doing anything mad flagrant, and the league is likely to issue light sentences and just let players settle scores the old-fashioned way. That is, having your brooding brothers buy tickets to your assailant’s games, or create all-new Twitter accounts purely for clapbacks. So, Jokic is available, after all, for today’s game, and that’s good news for Malone after his Nuggets caught Indiana on the first night of the Pacers’ back-to-back across the Rockies. The usually bouncy Michael Porter, Jr. got sprited at the rim over the weekend and will miss time due to a back strain. Obviously, the Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray for the balance of the season as well, so Denver could ill afford a lengthy absence for Jokic, even if it comes in games against teams like Atlanta. Hopefully he’s in a high-spirited mood anytime he and the struggling Clint Capela (0.8 BPG and 43.8 FG% in last 4 games, despite just 3 blown bunnies in 8 shots @ UTA) find themselves in entanglements around the rim. Capela has to vacate the paint to keep Jokic (5.7 APG) from having target practice at the top of the key, with both the rim and cutting teammates. That puts John Collins (26 points, 10 boards, no blocks in games @ GSW and UTA, matching his outout @ PHX) in a crucial role of protecting the rim and securing boards, keeping Aaron Gordon and Jeff and JaMychal Green from creating second-chances, and all without fouling. You’d have a hard time convincing fans of yesteryear that a team spearheaded by Jokic (#1 in D-Rating, bball-ref recipe) would be anywhere near the top of the league in defensive efficiency. Yet he has proven adept for Denver (100.9 team D-Rating, #2 behind GSW in NBA) at securing stops with deflections and steals (career-high 1.6 SPG) while still winning rebounding wars on the defensive end (10.9 D-Rebs per game, up from 8.0 in his MVP season). Trae Young (still a sterling 28.7 PPG scorer in last three games, w/ 46.4 3FG%, plus 9.3 APG) shouldn’t necessarily have to go bucket-for-bucket with Murray’s replacement as Denver’s top scorer, Will Barton (30 points vs. IND; 24.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 1.3 TOs/game, 51.4 3FG% over last 4 games). But he will have to be more efficient with his shot than the backcourt defenders Malone will throw in his direction, be it Monte “The Count” Morris, rookie Bones Hyland (37.5 FG%), or future Lion King sequel song title Facundo Campazzo (38.7 FG%). Trae will have to cut down on his own mistakes leading to turnovers (5.3 per game over past 3 road contests). Without the Human Euro-take-fouler Bogi Bogdanovic (questionable, sore ankle) or De’Andre Hunter (questionable, strained wrist), there are fewer help defenders for the Hawks to recover in transition. Even if the Hawks come out of today’s match bagel-for-4 on this excursion, I will consider this road trip a bit of a win. The last time Atlanta beat the Nuggets, back in February, they had to proceed without the services of LP, as the then-head coach, having flown home early from Boston for childbirth purposes, found himself embargoed due to health-and-safety protocols until he could produce negative tests. The month prior, a game in Phoenix was postponed due to contract tracing issues for the Suns, with Pierce and another Hawk employee being left behind at a hotel as the team headed on to Salt Lake without them. All of that was with the looming and disruptive threat of what I call Original Recipe COVID at the time, as no Extra Crispy variants had yet taken hold. I am keeping a squeamish eye on the Sixers, Cavs, Spurs, and teams in the NHL, and I’ve got splinters from knocking on wood that for all that ails our Hawks at the moment, vaxxed though they may be, brushes with a still-swirling pandemic haven’t been among of them. The end of a losing streak, tonight, would be gravy. But for my mashed potatoes, I just want to see the Hawks’ players and staff return home to lick their wounds in as healthy and upright a condition as possible. For at least the next ten days after tonight, the Best Western Conference is going to have to find somebody else to kick around. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “Haven’t you heard, Joker? I am The Greatest Offensive Player to Ever Play in the NBA!” The Lords of Steady Internet Connection haven’t been kind this weekend, so just a couple tidbits ahead of today’s rematch in Denver between the Atlanta Hawks and the Nuggets (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN). Who’s probably the only person to ever successfully transform from a Kitten into a Bulldog? This is your annual complaint that Paul Millsap should have had his number retired at Louisiana Tech by now. The folks in Ruston, who take pride in calling their hoops program “Power Forward U.”, say you had to be first-team All-Conference and led a team into the NCAAs via a conference championship, in order to qualify. But it isn’t Millsap’s fault that the Dunkin’ Dawgs veered out of the Deep South to join the Western Athletic Conference, right before the pride of nearby Grambling State Laboratory High School (Go Kittens!) committed to play there, the last Louisiana Mr. Basketball to even come to this mid-major program. The school finally got to its senses and left the WAC in 2013, but the men haven’t been to The Big Dance since 1991. The man remains the only player in NCAA D-1 history to lead the nation in rebounding for three straight seasons (only two dudes have led D-1 twice in a row since), but the undersized pivot also had to accomplish that while traveling from upstate Louisiana to far-flung places like Honolulu, Fresno, Reno, and San Jose in between classes. Still, he earned a spot the NBA and not only stuck around, but got on four All-Star teams, and gets Louisiana Tech mentioned literally wherever he plays. What more is Sap going to have to do? Consider the context or just change the rule, LaTech, and get his number up in the rafters. P.J. Brown’s, too. Jockeying for the top spot all-time in the category of career Offensive Rating on basketball-reference are three active players. Rudy Gobert, Chris Paul, and the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (career-highs of 27.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 8.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 42.7 3FG%, 87.1 FT%), the latter quite worthy of his current MVP-candidate accolades. Jokic checks in as of today at 122.12, just ahead of Wendy’s pitchman Reggie Miller. Also hovering at 122, although not yet qualifying under bball-ref criteria for the ranking, is CP3’s dunkin’ Deacon alum, the Hawks’ John Collins (career-high 38 points, 4-for-5 3FGs, 12 rebounds in the 124-108 win @ GSW on Friday). Collins’ O-Rating using bball-ref’s secret recipe has increased in each of the past three seasons, presently at a career-high 125.5 efficiency despite accommodating Clint Capela in the paint and an array of coalescing offensive talents around him. Tonight, that group may or may not include rising forward De’Andre Hunter (still questionable, knee soreness). What happens when we get a clash of these two offensive titans, Collins and Jokic? Surprisingly, not much so far. Collins has shot just 44.4 FG% (51.8 TS%) in five career games (three starts) against the Nuggets, his lowest percentage versus any NBA opponent. One of the only teams where Collins’ sterling O-Rating has fared worse has been Orlando, who graciously accepted Gary Harris, a top-5 protected first-round pick, and R.J. Hampton in exchange for Aaron Gordon and Gary Clark this past week. Gordon and JaVale McGee hope to be available to help Jokic and Millsap clog the interior today. Hawks games have been hit-or-mostly-miss for The Joker as well. His 46.5 FG% and 54.0 TS% against Atlanta (11 games, all starts) are NBA-lows. The collectively odd clankfests between Collins and Jokic were exemplified during February 21’s 123-115 win by the hosts at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Collins and Jokic each collected double-doubles but combined to shoot 10-for-28 from the floor (incl. 2-for-10 on threes, both sunk by Jokic, the last one too little, too late). Denver needed late scrambles by Jamal Murray and fellow guard Facundo Campazzo just to try and bail themselves out of a 91-69 hole, thanks largely to the brilliance of Trae Young (35 points, 15 assists vs. DEN), Capela and a hot-handed Tony Snell (4-for-5 3FGs vs. DEN). The team that squeezes the most out of their amazing individual offensive frontcourt talents will likely have the upper hand through most of tonight’s game. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “Psst… Trae! C'mere. You ever heard of Henny Youngman?” Here’s all I’ve got, ahead of today’s game between our host Atlanta Hawks and the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN). Keep That Woman and That Family far, far away from All-Star Sunday in Atlanta. And, from Oklahoma. On any off-day before or after the break. Yes, Kougar Kim, this means y’all. Hawks fans, when was the last time you thought of Kris Humphries? It’s probably been more than 72 days, right? Exactly. Chandler Parsons thought he was in the clear after fooling around with Kendall, correct? Krash. LeBron had to leave sunny Florida to return home to icy Ohio, just to save Tristan Thompson from The Kurse that nearly ate Lamar Odom alive, and poor Tris still can’t quite escape (believe me, he’s tried). If they want to double-down on Canadians, they can go chase after Jamal Murray (career-high 50 points with no FTs on Friday, because he can make buckets with a hand or two in his face or with a nifty pass from his center and without pleading for help from the refs. Must be nice.) on their own time, not ours. D-Book! Be careful, young man. I'm not even talking about your pending stay in The A. I do not know the current cuffing statuses of Trae or JC or C-Redd or D-Hunt or Reddy V, and I don’t care to find out from TMZ, not until after at least, like, a postseason run or three. Let me catch Kim, or Kourt, or Kylie, or Cait, or Rob, anywhere around this town this March and I will personally call Mayor Keish and inform her of a citizens’ arrest underway. We’ve already got fifty-leven “Real” “House” “Wives”, wannabe Insta-celebs in this town who can’t get married, can’t stay married, and haven’t Swiffered a floor since the close of the Byzantine Empire. Listen to my mayor, Kim and Kompany. We Full! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Mmm mmm mmmph… these joints delicious, Trae! Where do they even grow these?” “Thank you for reaching The Denver Nuggets Basketball Club. For trade requests regarding Michael Porter, Jr., Press 1!” So sorry, NBA GMs. Operators are no longer standing by. There seemed like a short window where teams might have been able to pry Denver’s 2018 first-rounder prospect from their cold, live hands. Spinal disc surgery from his short-lived freshman year at Mizzou gave other Lottery teams pause. Coach Mike Malone hasn’t seemed all that enamored with the finally healthy rookie’s progress, not enough to make him a regular in the rotation a mere 26 games in, much less a starter. Speculation abounded that the avowed raw vegan’s diet was hampering his recovery, that one eventful trip to Outback could change his life. Everybody involved needed to be patient. Malone, fans, carnivores, Porter himself. Most importantly, Tim Connelly and the Nuggets brass, who assuredly have been offered every second-round pick under the sun for the chance to relieve themselves of persistent questions about 2017’s McDonald’s All-American MVP and Naismith Prep Player of the Year. Connelly and the Nuggets have had quite a few hits at draft time, and a few whiffs, enough to entertain the folks over at Coors Field. Yes, they drafted Rudy Gobert in 2013. Yes, they also traded him to division rival Utah for Erick Green and cash. Yes, they took Doug McDermott with the 11th pick back in 2014. Yes, they also took Nikola Jokic in the second round, and got Gary Harris in a multi-player swap involving McBuckets. Yes, Emmanuel Mudiay went 7th overall in 2015. Yes, they hit on two of three top-20 picks the next year, Jamal Murray and ATLien Malik Beasley. Yes, they drafted Donovan Mitchell with a late lottery pick in 2017. Yes, they also traded him for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon. Eighteen months after taking a flyer on the now-21-year old Porter, the 6-foot-10 forward remains Denver’s best shot at a grand slam. Malone seems satisfied, for now, with the occasional bunts and ground-rule doubles. But as the Nuggets come into State Farm Arena tonight to face off with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN), their fans are clearly eager to round the bases right behind Porter. In his NBA debut back on Halloween, filling in for Will Barton, Porter sunk a three-pointer versus the Pels, made four of six free throws, and was 4-for-5 on 2FGs, totaling 15 points and 4 rebounds over the course of 20 minutes. That treat turned out to be a trick by Malone, as Porter didn’t sniff another 20-minute outing until December 29. He was gifted nearly seven minutes of action when Trae Young and the Hawks ventured into town and upset Denver 125-121 on November 12 (Atlanta has gone 4-22 since). Finally, MPJ’s first start, at home against the Kings with former Hawks great Paul Millsap inactive. 8-for-10 from the field, 19 points and 6 rebounds as the Nuggets prevailed by 5. His reward? 11 minutes off the bench two nights later in Houston. Malone wasn’t done with the yo-yo job. The Indiana Pacers found themselves Peach Jammed in consecutive games last week. Porter put the pits to the Pacers on Thursday with a career scoring day. A season-high 25 points in 23 minutes, 9-for-9 on twos, 2-for-3 on treys, plus five defensive rebounds from Porter helped Denver ace the Pacers in Indy. By Saturday night, as Young’s offensive exploits (41 points, 8 assists) juiced the visiting Pacers into a pulp, Malone could only finagle 12 minutes for Porter in Washington, as the Nuggs (24-11) suffered arguably their worst loss of the season, a 15-point loss to the enduringly shorthanded Wizards. Concerns persist about Porter’s ability to hold up defensively (+11.6 D-Rating on/off, as per bball-ref), less pressing of a concern now that the lithe Barton (29th birthday today; team-highs of 21 points and 9 rebounds vs. ATL on Nov. 12) has been putting forth the effort to solidify the long-shaky small forward position beside Millsap. Also, a paltry 1.5 assists per-36, despite the limited sample size, is enough to give reasonable pause. Yet it’s not unreasonable to expect a prodigious talent like Porter to get time, on the floor, playing to his self-perceived strengths while honing the less-impressive aspects of his game. In Atlanta, unlike Denver, he’d be back to catching copious feeds for fullcourt finishes from Young, reminiscent of their days dominating the Nike EYBL scene together not terribly long ago. But the Nuggets, bearing a pleasant 24-11 record (4.5 GB the Lakers) that has them comfortably in the first-round homecourt mix with the Clippers, Rockets, Jazz and Mavs, have little interest in hosting Amateur Hour. Youth isn’t an issue for the Rocky Mountain upstarts, with six of the team’s nine largest minute-loggers aged 25 or under and the whole roster, save for the cagey cager Millsap, below age 30. Connelly and the Nuggets’ front office effectively brought back the band that went 54-28 and fell a game short of the Western Finals last season, traded this year’s first-rounder to OKC for Jerami Grant, gave Murray his extension (there’s a rule, Brandon Ingram, about Your Fellow Mens’ Pockets I’d like you to check out), handed the injured Bol Bol a two-way deal, and chilled. It’s not youth that has Porter constrained at this early stage of his career, it’s pure inexperience. There was limited room on the depth chart to advance Brandon Goodwin (8.8 assists, 1.9 TOs per-36 in 16 Nugget games in 2018-19), for example, so the point guard was left to find a new two-way deal this season. This cluster of Nuggets has gelled quite well, and it's up to Malone to figure out how best to get Porter’s talents to fit in. The sense from the outside is that, if he can integrate Porter successfully by season’s end, Denver could become more than a Finals contender on paper. In Atlanta, a 34-year old Millsap raking in more millions (an expiring $30.5 million) than minutes (25.0 MPG) while averaging 12.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 1.4 APG would be a pariah. In Denver, Sap’s a godsend. Particularly as The Anchorman serves frontcourt complement to Jokic, who checks in quite the anchor himself at 7-foot, 285 pounds. Teams that are a bit short in the tooth, in theory, tend to be zippier. Not so with a Malone-coached collective that plays at the league’s second-slowest pace (down from 27th in pace last season), allowing Jokic, the center dishing a team-best 6.4 APG, ample time to work his halfcourt magic. Pick-and-roll is more of a pick-and-stroll (1.02 roll-man points per possession, 6th-lowest in NBA), but Denver hardly feasts on a diet of post-ups and iso’s. The Nuggets prefer to have Jokic, Murray and Barton holding the ball until they can find the unkindest cut their opponent will allow (1.36 PPP on cuts, 2nd in NBA; 8.6% play frequency, 4th in NBA). The attraction to quick-cutters leave opposing defenses open to offensive rebounds (DEN 25.1 team O-Reb%, 1st in NBA) and putbacks from Jokic, Millsap (probable, bruised knee) and Mason Plumlee. Inspiring perhaps for Atlanta, compensating for their All-Star’s defensive deficiencies is what the Nuggets do. The starters, including Millsap, make the effort to get back in transition (54.8 opponent eFG% 4th-best transition D in NBA) and hold the fort at least until the lumbering Jokic makes his way down on the defensive end of the floor. Murray, backup Monte Morris, Barton and Harris hassle perimeter shooters, keeping Denver’s opponents cool from beyond the three-point arc. The Blue Arrow’s not renowned for his defensive skill, yet Murray has accounted for 4.9 defended 3FGAs/game, and his 26.7 defended-shot 3FG% is the best in the Association, ahead of Kawhi’s 26.8 percent, among players defending four or more such shots per contest. It is a close-knit group, but Denver’s starters usually need to be firing on all cylinders. If more than one player if off his game, as was the case in November as Jokic (1-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL) mostly sleepwalked through his 20-point, 7-assist performance against Atlanta, and as Harris (2-for-10 3FGAs in 40 minutes) took matters into his own hands too often, the Nuggets (NBA-low 12 games played vs. teams at .500 or above, 7-5 in those games) can be at risk of falling short when bad teams like the Hawks, Kings, Pels and Wizards are on their games. The early-afternoon injury report brought some encouraging news for coach Lloyd Pierce, whose Hawks (8-28) had to pull out the win over Indiana without pregame scratches John Collins and Cam Reddish. Collins (back bruise) and Reddish (wrist sprain) were each upgraded to probable for today’s contest, and it’s likely they’ll each return to the starting lineup if they’re cleared to go. The team’s Game Notes tipped that Pierce’s preliminary plan was to go big again, with Bruno Fernando splitting time with De’Andre Hunter (present vs. IND) and Vince Carter (Half-Man, Half-a-Step-Slow) at power forward, and Damian Jones seat-warming the center spot ahead of Alex Len (team-high 9 rebounds and 16 bench points vs. IND; 63.5 FG% and 8.5 RPG). Jones (tense adductor) is questionable to play today, and Jabari Parker (shoulder) remains doubtful. But if Collins can start and play significant minutes, the Hawks can return to a more customary rotation. Nugget defenders will try to get out into Trae Young Territory and make looks at the rim tougher, but with Jokic sagging so frequently, it will be important to get timely picks from Hawk centers that produce Young, Goodwin and Reddish rolls to the basket and allow them room to create. Help from Millsap should open up lobs for Collins, who should be eager to string some good games together. Opponents find outside shots hard to come by from above the break (31.3 opp. 3FG%, 2nd-lowest in NBA) and on the right corner (31.8 opp. 3FG%, 2nd-lowest in NBA), but the left corner (40.7 opp. 3FG%, 2nd-highest in NBA) is where the Denver perimeter defense thaws a little. Swift drives that pressure the rim (65.9 opp. restricted-area FG%, 3rd-highest in NBA) from the well-defended spots and keep Nugget guards on their heels is important, but so will be motion by Atlanta’s shooters as they await kickouts and swings around the horn. The awakening Kevin Huerter (43.8 3FG% last 2 games; 6 left-corner 3FGAs all season) may find that left corner of the floor to feel like a layup line. Tonight could be another coming out party for MPJ, another big step up the long Rookie Ladder. Or, it could be just another day where Malone keeps the stone rolled over Porter’s groundhog hole. Despite his promising glimpses, Porter hasn’t shown enough to hint that, through 26 games, he could be a legitimate All-Star by the middle of his second season. Then again, through the first 26 games of his rookie season with the Hawks, neither did his AAU buddy. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “What? Where?? Wait, when was this???” – Alex Len Holy hot sauce, we’ve got some Louisiana lads squaring off tonight! I shall spare everyone my 21st annual, “Why Hasn’t Louisiana Tech Retired Paul Millsap’s Jersey Number?” fuss, for now. We’ve got bigger catfish to fry tonight. This time last year, Damian Jones was holding the fort as a starting center for the defending NBA champs, as was the plan, until Boogie Cousins could get upright and healthy. A year later, the pride of Baton Rouge is back with a top line and will be front-and-center at tip off when his Atlanta Hawks face another Bayou State baller, Uncle Paulie, and his red-hot Nuggets in Denver (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV if you can get it). This time, Jones will be holding the fort until… well, we will have to wait and see, won’t we? Nobody can convince me that climate change isn’t real, because I am the last soul here on Alex Len Fan Club Island, up high on the last standing tree, clinging precariously to a coconut. The NBA’s worst offensive big man and worst offensive starter so far this season (89.3 O-Rating, 5th-lowest among all NBA’ers w/ 15+ MPG and 5+ GP; 6.0 O-Reb%, 39.2 TS%), Len will get to come sit by coach Lloyd Pierce and Cam Reddish, as the Hawks try to not waste Trae Young’s considerable energy (sole NBA player in Top-10 for PPG, APG and SPG). Jones won’t be the last player to catch flak from his new team’s fans based on his previous place of employment. Many hoped he could bring some of that Dub Magic with him, pixie-dusting it onto his new mates. Instead, his Derp Tragic play during the Hawks’ preseason rendered him gravely disappointing and downright unplayable, in the minds of many, as the regular season commenced. Still, others have noted that the fourth-year center out of Vanderbilt has less than a full season of play, just 57 regular-season and 12 playoff appearances, under his belt, a great number of them unworthy of being categorized as much more than, “appearances”. The 24-year-old is as much a developmental player as anyone on Atlanta’s roster, although the pair of championship rings he carries can obscure that fact. Jones has put up binary boxscore lines throughout his early tenure in the pros. But, to his credit, he has shown a propensity for putting the Popeyes biscuit in the basket (68.2 2FG%, 77.8% at-rim; they do still have biscuits, I am told). And during Portland’s Baze-tastic 124-113 overtime win there were times, early on, where the race to be the best Damian on the court was surprisingly close. Jones’ seven boards were a career-high, and he came dangerously close to the fifth double-digit scoring effort of his career. Atlanta (3-6) has regressed in many measures during their current three-game skid, mostly due to the absence of John The Pharmacist, but the one area where they have maintained a decided advantage is in the paint points department. Thanks largely to a more seasoned and scrutinized 24-year-old, Renaissance Man Jabari Parker (27 points, 4 blocks and 11 rebounds, 12-for-17 2FGs @ POR), Atlanta’s 52.3 per-48 paint points rank third in the NBA, their +9.9 net edge in that area behind only one of Parker’s former clubs, Giannis’ Milwaukee (+11.3). That advantageous interior gap could be as wide as Lake Pontchartrain by now, one can imagine, if Len didn’t bring the arms and hands of a Turkish wrestler to the floor with him. Jones has gone six consecutive appearances where his personal plus-minus exceeded his team’s final margin, and so coach Pierce has decided that while Jones isn’t Mister Right, he is Mister Right Now. Until the Hawks can improve on their atrocious perimeter shooting (29.0 team 3FG%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), and horrendous free throw shooting (70.2 team FT%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), finishing interior plays is the way to go. The Nuggets’ offensive efficiency (103.7 O-Rating, 23rd in NBA) has been almost as bad as Atlanta’s (102.3, 27th in NBA), but for different reasons. Their 46.7 team 2FG% is somehow not dead-last, either, despite the third-highest two-point shot frequency (68.2% of all FGAs). Coach Mike Malone’s club has been living and dying by clutch threes, winning three of their past four games by four points or less. If the Hawks’ perimeter defenders show up at critical junctures, they could be the second Atlanta team with a losing record this week to catch a happy-go-lucky, seven-win opponent off-guard. On that note... Does the Louisiana native, Millsap, even like the Aints? All indications are that Paul has been as True to Atlanta as any former Hawks star. This past summer alone, you could catch him balling at the AEBL summer league, working with his brothers to keep their Core 4 Atlanta training facility running up in Chamblee. This month, he’s been named the regional development director for southside ATL’s longtime popular local eatery, “This Is It! Southern Kitchen and BBQ.” Heck, he’s one Dimitroff call away from becoming the Falcons’ fifth punter. Sap has been very, very good for Atlanta, but he has been indispensable for Denver (7-2, tied with the Lakers for 1st in the West). Almost every SportsCenter highlight has Millsap (12.1 PPG, 96.8 FT%, 47.8 3FG%) in the background doing his quiet superhuman routine. Fending off multiple defenders for a loose ball then kicking it out to Nikola: “Jokic with the BIG 3!” Flexing old-man hops to dunk on unsuspecting bigs in the post: “What a smart inbound pass by Jamal Murray (18.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.9 TOs/game), spotting the mismatch.” Stripping a ball, or blocking a shot in the restricted zone, leading to the play that gets TV announcers’ attention on the Nuggets’ transition at the other end. Millsap’s opponents have suffered a minus-11.2 FG% differential within six feet of the hoop, third-best among Western bigs defending at least five such shots per game. The Nuggets will need Millsap, in tandem with guard Gary Harris and forward Jerami Grant, to be as disruptive as possible, to allow 24 Hour Fitness at Happy Hour model Jokic (16.7 PPG, 6.0 APG, 9.3 RPG) to shine when the game matters most. Replacing Len with Jones isn’t quite as controversial a switcheroo as bait-and-switching Frank Ocean with Drake at Camp Flog Gnaw, so the reaction among the Hawks fans for this latest starter switch will be supportive but tepid. But if Jones’ incremental improvement enlivens Atlanta’s offense around Young and the awakening Kevin Huerter, and improves the league’s worst defensive rebounding unit in away games (NBA-low 66.3 D-Reb%), starts during the Hawks’ current road trip might become more of a carnival atmosphere and less of a sideshow. Throw us somethin’, Mister Jones! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. Gosh, what a sticky situation! There’s no need to fear. The Fall Breakers are here! You’d have to work at Reynolds Wrap to find more silver linings than our Atlanta Hawks have been dishing out to opponents this season. Our Fine Feathered Friends have arrived in Denver, where a once-upbeat Nuggets team (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN) finds itself in dire need of a trust fall catcher. Memphis needed a big bounce back after debuting with a 111-83 loss at Indiana. They got one from the Hawks, and the Grizzlies are grinning at 8-5 now. One night after getting burned, 135-106 in Charlotte, the Bulls traveled to Atlanta and found their salve, a 12-point margin representing their biggest victory to date. Were it not for a road win in the ATL just over a week ago, the Knicks would be mired in a six-game skid. After dropping five of their prior six games, the Pistons stopped by The Farm to get themselves back above .500 on the season. Even the Cavs, who lost to the Hawks and later fell to 0-6, firing their coach, losing their star to injury, ran it back and were gifted a 22-point win for their first victory. Your iconic team president is feuding with your head coach? You say your champion All-Star is embroiled with one of the other ones, threatening to tear your dynasty asunder? Relax! We Got Y’all. As the autumn temperatures plummet and the leaves turn crisp, look to the Fall Breakers to help you out. A couple weeks ago, Denver could not have imagined they’d need the Hawks as a boost. These Nuggets were golden, rolling to a 9-1 record to kickstart their playoff-return campaign. They beat Golden State, and Boston, and their hated division rivals in Utah along the way. Those three wins, and four others, came without their super-soaking wing scorer, Will Barton, who went down to a hip injury after just two starts. All of Denver’s success came without free agent pickup Isaiah Thomas, and a pair of rookie additions intended to fill the crater at small forward. Through the Nuggs’ first ten games, only Milwaukee and Golden State could boast of a better Net Rating. Forget just reaching the postseason, why not dream about the conference finals? The slide started innocently enough, with a two-point defeat at Memphis. Then came a bad loss back home versus Brooklyn. The losing homestand continued with the Nuggets (9-5) dropping games versus Giannis’ Bucks and Harden’s Rockets here at Pepsi Center. So what gives? You could start with the reliance on the second-youngest roster (barely behind the Bulls) in the league right now to compete for over 80-plus games. Yes, that roster includes Uncle Paul Millsap, the soon-to-be 34-year-old former Hawk who missed much of last season, his first as a Nugget, due to injury, and I.T. (hip), who has no timetable for a return. Shortly after Millsap’s and Thomas’ birthdays this coming February, team minutes-leader and top scorer Jamal Murray (17.8 PPG) will blow out 22 candles on his cake. Both Murray (27.7 3FG%) and 24-year-old backcourt mate Gary Harris (29.4 3FG%) have been wayward with their marksmanship beyond the arc. Despite a lot of familiarity among returnees from last season, he Nuggets have nine active rotation players with only 1-4 seasons of NBA experience under their belts, and Harris is the sole player with four. After Sap, there is Miles’ brother, Mason Plumlee, who has technically been around for five seasons, and that’s it as far as experience goes. Young players tend to start out like gang-busters, but struggle with plateauing once they read the press clippings and feel they no longer have much to prove. The similarly-sized guards in Denver’s starting unit have languished on the defensive end as well, and their similarly-green backups, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, aren’t much of an upgrade on that end of the floor, either. That leaves the fort-holding to the interior, where Uncle Paul (team-high 1.1 BPG) and the esteemed Nikola Jokic await their guards’ many blow-by opponents. Over the past nine days, Denver’s defensive rating (114.6) was worse than everyone’s in the league aside from New York (FWIW, winless Atlanta’s ranked 18th during that stretch). Whether it’s defending, passing, or making exterior shots, a lot has been left for the Nuggets’ bigs to handle. That’s especially the case for Jokic (17.5 PPG, 40.0 3FG%), who rings up more per-game assists (6.9 APG) than Murray (3.8) and Harris (2.8) combined. I’m not sure if it’s all the Coors and the Rocky Mountain Oysters available, but Jokic’s conditioning has left much to be desired. When he’s on the court, Jokic (#1 in VORP and Box Plus/Minus, as per bball-reference) is playing at MVP-quality level, displaying an improved touch with his defensive rebounding. But it has been tough to keep him running the full court for more than 30 minutes per game. When Nikola is not on the floor, the defense improves marginally but the ball movement and shot selection becomes stifling. When he is not drawing fouls and earning trips to the line, the Nuggets’ offense becomes even more of a grab bag. Layer on the notoriously thin air, and the inherent home advantage dissipates for the Nuggets versus high-tempo teams, like Bud’s Bucks and perhaps the Hawks, or squads with spread-and-pick-apart offensive schemes, like the Rockets. I’ve long been a fan of Mike Malone, the unfairly deposed former Kangz coach who freshly inked a two-year contract extension just last month. But I posit that he is among the dying breed of “Gumption” coaches in the NBA. These are the sideline taskmasters who aren’t renowned for their X’s and O’s but rely, more so, on the well-worn tactic of insisting his players just play harder, no matter the efficacy of the plays being designed and called. “Last four (games), the defense fell-off big time,” Malone explained to the Longmont Times-Call and media after the loss to Houston. “It’s one-on-one containment, the blow-bys are at epic levels right now, just the inability to guard one-on-one and then just having pick-and-roll awareness.” Hinting at the issue with Jokic and others on what should be an energetic roster, Malone added, “We have some guys that look like they are exhausted two minutes into a game.” Help isn’t coming, consistently, at the small forward spot. They started the season with Torrey Craig, a second-year pro out of South Carolina-Upstate, but he has struggled to make a mark the way he did for years in Australia’s pro league. After Denver’s loss to the Nets, Malone replaced on the top line with Juan Hernangomez (team-best 44.7 3FG%), but signs of improvement haven’t been immediate. One presumes that a triumphant return by Melo is not in the works around here. But filling the 3-spot with backup 4’s, like Hernangomez and Trey Lyles, depletes the frontline options, and makes it more important that Millsap stays fresh and out of foul trouble. With their beefy lineups, Denver has been rebounding as well as anybody (1st in D-Reb%, 2nd in O-Reb%), but it’s the frequency of taking the ball out of the net that has been troubling lately. In Denver’s last four games, Nugget foes have shot a scintillating 40.0 percent on threes (5th-highest in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 40.1 3FG%), and 48.9 percent overall (3rd-highest in NBA). Fortunately for Nuggets fans, there are few Western Conference staffs who would be more familiar with Atlanta, even in its current incarnation. Sharing the bench with ex-Tech shooting coach Mark Price is former Hawks head coach Bob Weiss – yes, he’s still at it, at a spry 76 years of age. The video coordinator for Atlanta during the Woody-era turnaround, John Beckett serves as Denver’s player development coach. It shouldn’t take an Ivy League degree to figure out how to tackle the downtrodden Hawks (3-11). But Tommy Balcetis, the Nuggets’ analytics and team strategy director, was about to play alongside Jeremy Lin (seven points away from 5,000 for his career) with the Harvard Crimson back in the day, before having to hang it up due to a heart condition. Mason knows a little bit about Miles Plumlee, Atlanta’s backup pivot who will get even more action than normal, what with Dewayne Dedmon (out, a hopefully bouncy Baby Ded on the way) and Alex Len (questionable, sprained ankle) among the likely inactives. They don’t have the All-Defensive talents that Golden State had to fluster Trae Young (2-for-12 FGs, 9 assists and 3 steals @ GSW in Tuesday’s 110-103 defeat). But panning out an easy victory for the Nuggets tonight will require keeping Young out of the paint, having him settle for high-arching, contested shots outside the flow of Atlanta’s offense, and denying catch-and-shoot opportunities for swingmen (UPDATE: not-so-much, see next post below) Taurean Prince (4-for-7 3FGs, team-high 22 points on Tuesday), Vince Carter and Kent Bazemore. Atlanta’s woeful perimeter shot accuracy (33.8 3FG%) elevates to a modest 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot chances, 36.9 percent on wide open shots, as per stats. The Hawks have more than their share of inexperienced talent on the floor tonight, as well. Omari Spellman will likely get the default start again, despite being unimpressive on the road lately (1-for-10 FGs past two games). A solid rebounder like Spellman, two-way contributor Alex Poythress could earn some more playing time, especially if he can mix it up inside and draw productive trips to the free throw line (46.7 FT%, no FTs in past four appearances). Only the injured Barton and Harris remain from the 2014-15 outfit coached by Hawks assistant Melvin Hunt, the last time the Nuggets had a coaching crisis. Hunt and the rest of Lloyd Pierce’s staff will try to draw production out of DeAndre’ Bembry (3 steals in under 17 minutes @ GSW) and rookie Kevin Huerter, exploiting Denver’s struggles at the wing spot. The outcome tonight may come down to Young’s and Lin’s ability to kick the ball to open shooters off dribble penetration, and the Nugget defenders’ willingness to thwart the point guards and make secondary ballhandlers beat them. Harden (2-for-10 FGs, but 11 assists @ DEN) drew plenty of attention on Tuesday, allowing Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and James Ennis to feast (combined 9-for-18 3FGs). It was a similar deal two nights before as Brook Lopez (8-for-13 3FGs) had himself a night while all Nugget eyes were on the Greek Freak (8 assists). After tonight’s game, the December 8 rematch in Atlanta will close out a run of nine road contests among the next 11 games in the Nuggets’ schedule. With competition in the NBA West starting to percolate, Denver is going to prefer turning the momentum around today, at home, and not weeks from now. Atlanta’s Fall Breakers are knocking at Denver’s door. Will the Nuggets be the latest team smart enough to invite them in? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “Big Trouble…” Is Wally Pipp Syndrome beginning to befall some of our favorite former Atlanta Hawks? While DeMarre Carroll sits with a sprained knee, his Brooklyn Nets seem to be already shopping him, and didn’t skip a beat with substitute Joe Harris as they fell just short in Toronto on Wednesday. Jeff Teague is eager to heal his knee sprain, too, not the least of which because his Minnesota Timberwolves are looking mighty fine lately with Tyus Jones in the starting lineup. And then there’s Paul Millsap, the four-time All-Star ex-Hawk, and the headlining 2017 free agent acquisition of the Hawks’ hosts tonight, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude in DEN). The uneven fostering of his frontcourt relationship with the precocious Nikola Jokic was curtailed, just 16 games into the season, by a wrist ligament tear that has him on the sideline until probably the All-Star Break. It turns out, Denver’s energies to breach the NBA’s postseason party, for the first time since George Karl’s 57-win post-Melo crew in 2013, weren’t Sapped by the injury to their $31 million Anchorman. And despite a recent downturn, the Nuggets (21-19; 12-12 without Paul) are right where they imagined they’d be with him around, in the thick of the race for a bottom-seed in the Western Conference. This, with Jokic sliding over to power forward, and a Plumlee Brother, Mason, plugging in the hole where Millsap resided on the top line, at least as best he can. But another development has made things intriguing in the Rockies for their future with (or, maybe without) Millsap. The recently-promoted Tim Connelly and the Nuggets’ brass are probably kicking themselves over the decision to swap 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell to division rival Utah for the G-Leaguable Tyler Lydon. But the throw-in in that deal has been much more than a salve for the burn from what’s shaping up to be a trade steal by the Jazz. Largely buried in Salt Lake since last year’s All-Star Break, third-year forward Trey Lyles is blowing up off the bench for coach Mike Malone. Lyles is putting up solid per-36 numbers (19.7 points, 9.0 rebounds) as a reserve, but he’s also unleashed a killer three-point shot, the 6-foot-10 Kentucky product ranks 2nd in the NBA with a scintillating 46.7 3FG%. Along the way to a 124-114 victory in Oakland on Monday, the Warriors got only a glimpse of the 22-year-old’s perimeter exploits (1-for-2 3FGs), but they also got a full sample of his expanding fullcourt skills. Lyles carried the Nugget bench with 21 points (8-for-13 2FGs), plus five rebounds, three dimes and three steals. A few days, before, he showed the Jazz (career-high 26 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, two steals) a taste of what they abdicated in pursuit of Mitchell. Previously seen as a long-term project, Trey, with his treys, has rendered Denver’s frontcourt depth downright gluttonous. Beyond becoming a surprise Most Improved Player and Sixth Man award candidate simultaneously, Lyles also makes Malone’s decisions to perma-stash veterans like Darrell Arthur and the beleaguered Kenneth Faried fully justifiable. But what will Malone’s lineups look like once Millsap returns to action? Lyles’ 2-man pairings on the court with the emerging Gary Harris (+8.2 per 100 possessions, in 373 minutes, as per basketball-reference) are proving to be even more fruitful than Harris’ duos with either of Jokic (+7.8 in 725 minutes) or Sap (+7.1 in 373 minutes). Jokic and Lyles, together, have produced a +9.5 net in the scoring column (225 minutes), roughly equivalent to the +9.6 produced by Sap and The Joker together in the early going (324 minutes) at about eight percent of Millsap’s current price tag. “We don’t need him actually,” Jokic joked of Millsap, whose wrist cast was just removed yesterday, at today’s shootaround media session before semi-seriously backtracking. “I’m not kidding, we really need him. He’s a really good player for us.” Kidding aside, Denver can’t wait to see what a playoff-tested Millsap could accomplish alongside young up-and-comers like Jokic, Harris (team-high 16.7 PPG), and Lyles’ fellow Wildcat alum Jamal Murray (16.2 PPG in his second NBA season; 91.8 FT%) once the calendar turns to spring. But Sap’s backloaded short-term deal does have a team option for 2019-2020. Even the most optimistic Lyles supporter could not have foreseen that option, and Lyles’ forthcoming fourth-year contract extension by extension, becoming a conundrum so soon. Jokic’s innumerable offensive talents (15.9 PPG, team-highs of 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG, 35.8 3FG%) effectively turn Murray and Harris into ball-caddies, bringing the basketball up the court primarily to let their Super Serbian engineer the offensive plays. Thanks largely to Jokic, Denver ranks top-ten in eFG% and TS% while also ranking second with a 26.5 O-Reb%; they make a lot of shots AND clean up their misses. For the Hawks (10-30), it’s essential that Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore pressure the initial ballhandlers, and for Baze and the Hawk forwards to front Denver’s perimeter shooters, to try and throw off the timing of the Jokic-led offense. Plumlee Brother #2, Miles, and Dewayne Dedmon will have to come out of the paint on occasion to keep Nikola from plopping jumpers, but the Atlanta swingmen have to support by fronting to keep accomplished cutters like Harris from picking the Hawks’ halfcourt defense apart. The Hawks have a shot at keeping up only if they don’t try to engage in a battle of wits with Denver’s halfcourt offense. Atlanta’s defensive efficiency has been subpar no matter the location (108.8 D-Rating at home, 108.1 on road), but it’s in away games like these where the offensive efficiency falls through the floor – 101.3 O-Rating, compared to 107.4 at Philips Arena. When the ball sticks, Atlanta (56.1 Assist% on road, 67.9% at home; 51.0% past 4 games) gets stuck, as merely clearing the runway for Schröder’s layup-and-elbow-jumper practice won’t be sufficient to get the job done. Dennis registered just one assist (while 7-for-18 from the field; 4 TOs) in Monday’s 108-107 close-shave loss to the Clippers, and has produced five-or-fewer dimes in every game of this five-game road trip so far, after six-or-more assists in his prior eight starts (Atlanta was a respectable 4-4 in those games). I'm off to investigate what Dwight might have done with Cody Zeller and Steve Clifford. In the meantime, here's a word from our sponsor: Offense stuck in a rut? An uncomfortable, fan-aggravating losing skid staring you in the face? Call “The Tank Doctor”! Relying on decades of NBA expertise, Mike Budenholzer will deploy an array of Spur-ious 5-Man lineups, and downright illogical substitutions, in the clutch, to coax your team on to improbable victory! With Coach Bud as your opponent, he'll make your borderline G-League rookies and your washed veterans look like First-Team All-NBA selections! Call 1-888-TANK-BUD today, and get free postgame "Credit" for your team from The Tank Doctor himself! (DISCLAIMER: Offer Not Valid for Teams in GA). Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “Alright, stop… collaborate, and LISTEN!” This is YOUR time! Yes, you Atlanta Hawks fans hiding over there, I’m talking to y’all. You have been among the most skeptical, critical, naysaying fans out there in the Atlanta sports universe. Technically, you are fans, just from afar. You have been waiting, over the course of nearly a decade, to be proven wrong. That wait is over. I know you’re all out there. I see you all around town. You are right there, in line outside Fat Matt’s, stewing in bumper-to-bumper traffic, standing on the MARTA platform, on the treadmills at LA Fitness. And the rolling of your eyes upon mere sight of any diehard Hawks supporter is a dead-giveaway, a telltale sign. Bravos, Falcons, UGA/Tech, United fans don’t engender that auto-reaction in their own town. Only the presence of openly, outwardly supportive Hawks fans has that effect on you. You don’t even have to be pressed to offer up that you haven’t gone all-in on these Hawks since Mike Woodson’s fruitless playoff era began in earnest. Why would anyone, you asked, pin their NBA title hopes on a team headlined by time-sucking Joe Johnson? Why, you’d question, are we waiting around for young Josh Smith to morph into Muscly Shawn Kemp, when we can all see he’s hell-bound for a Fat Shawn Kemp career? Do we really think past-his-prime Kyle Korver burrowing through a baker’s dozen screens just to get halfway open is The Move? Giving Jeff Teague the keys to the offense is supposed to work out any better? Have you seen his layups? It is 2013: why is John Co… oop, sorry, that was a flash-forward… why is Al Horford still wasting your time and mine, hopelessly out of position at center? Maybe you hung around the arena just long enough to watch the Hawks try to make a Finals MVP out of Brandon Jennings, or to see this team shatter a playoff blown-out record, vow, “Never Again!”, only to break their own record in humiliating fashion just one season later. You, long before many others, tired of witnessing opponents just waltzing into Atlanta arenas, like some Amazon Key courier, and having their way with the hosts come playoff-time. You pulled a Seinfeld, rose up out your seat, grabbed your Playbill, bounced, and haven’t darkened the arena doors since. You weren’t all that perturbed when the hotshot GM tried his hand at Dice Clay stand-up on a hot mic, when his owners then broke out in a “Nobody Speak”-style brawl (Killer Mike 'n El-P, that plug's for you) with one another, and nearly speared their own fans in the process. Your season tickets were never at risk… they hadn’t been purchased in ages, anyway. No, you weren’t satisfied with killing your hard-earned free time being humored by wayward live-bird mascots, fat-guy trampoline dunkers, broke-legged A-Town dancers, broke-legged Skyhawks, and even more reliably broken shot clocks. You ride MARTA, so you already get to see Harry the Hawk’s antics, no costumes required, every commute day. The prospect of merrily singing along to “No Hands” and “My Neck, My Back,” somehow set to organ, doesn’t move your meter. Unlike the latter-day Hawks executives, no, you are not gonna be out here blowing your duckets on “perpetual mediocrity,” a concept that shares its initials with Paul Millsap. Replacing Horford with Great Value Dwight Howard isn’t drawing you downtown, either. Skeptical Hawks Fans, I say to you… Trust The Recess! You, Skeptical Hawks Fan, are a Championship or Bust Gal/Guy. After years of collective dithering, your Atlanta Hawks (1-4) are finally entering in the Bust phase of the Recess, and they need you. All of you. In the arena, s’il vous plait. There are more than enough of you to fill up this leaner, meaner Philips Arena every single night, especially home openers on Friday nights, like today’s affair versus the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, you know where it is on TV, but put down the dadgum remote and get on down here). Millsap is now a Nugget, Dwight’s a Hornet, Thabo’s a Jazz-hand just like Joe, Ivan’s on an off-ramp in Manila somewhere, Pero’s jab-stepping in Jabstepistan, Kyle’s a Cav, Smoove’s a Pelican, Al is a… who cares what Al is, really? The vestiges of postseason heads-up-our-own-buttsiness are almost all in distant lands now. There are no super-duper-stars blazing a path to The Finals around here, and that’s okay, because we didn’t lose any. There are Nets fans still waiting to cash in on their “I was there for 12-70!” buttons. Dubs fans were packing dusty old Oracle Arena for Donyell Marshall, Corey Maggette and Andris Biedrins, long before some tykes from Davidson College and Washington State were coming down the pike to turn their fortunes around. Just to have a chance at a high school kid from Akron, Cleveland suffered through drafting the likes of Trajan Langdon, DeSagana Diop, Brendan Haywood, and Dajuan Wagner. They cycled through a Danny Ferry era (as a player) that was way worse than ours. You are going to be those fans, the ground-floor fans that can say you were there, in person, through the suckier stages of 82-game seasons. You’re not going to be That Gal/Guy showing up all late, in facepaint and feathers, only after we finally get a legitimate contender in the building. Get in there now, get in line early for the Topgolf and the courtside Mai Tais, before it gets all trendy. We are fully in the Recess phase, and GM Travis Schlenk and coach Mike Budenholzer are setting sail. Dennis Schröder is your commodore leading the way out on these treacherous seas, and for now, he’s got Kent Bazemore, Mike Muscala, and Ersan Ilyasova all pulling oars in varying directions. Don’t you want to humblebrag, someday, that you were there for Luke Babbitt and Malcolm Delaney? But here’s the thing. To a man, the players sure shouldn’t strive to see Schlenk’s ship sink (say that five times, fast), and you shouldn’t either. The bedrock for the Hawks’ bounceback was built in Brookhaven and opened this past week. Player Development is what’s hot in these streets. While some teams are constantly hunting for finished-product talents, the Hawks are working with raw materials. The new brass is convinced that they can Build-A-Bear their way to championship basketball, and they need you, Skeptical Fans, to be sold on that premise of a promise. When Schröder, John Collins, and Taurean Prince peer up into the stands, they need to see that all the time spent getting chewed out in practice by Coach Bud, having every pick-and-roll and Eurostep through the lane nitpicked by P3 geeks, getting poked and prodded by people in white Emory labcoats, is all worth the trouble. They don’t need to see Johnny Come Lately Fan or some godforsaken Wisconsin transplant rocking a Greek Freak jersey, now that it’s all trendy. They don’t need to see a foldout seat, with an unwanted rally towel draped over it, where your keyster is supposed to reside. You fans are the difference between players fueling their desire to develop themselves, with a mindset aimed at achieving greatness right here, and players merely seat-warming, in anticipation of draft choices hopefully not named, Acie, Shelden, Chills, and Marvin, someday arriving to supplant them. Millsap is the latest to join other NBA teams duped into the idea that Poach-a-Hawk-and-Stir is a surefire way to insta-compete for NBA titles. While it is a bit premature, the perception that Sap, in place of Danilo Gallinari, could convert an outfit featuring Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris into a defensively competent unit may not have been fully thought through. Like the mountain range, it has been a Rocky start. Millsap (team-high 15.5 PPG; zero steals through his first four games) is still getting acclimated, and starters like Jokic and forward Wilson Chandler (33.3 FG%) have yet to figure out how to mesh with their All-Star teammate. Of the Nuggets’ eight two-man lineups (min. 75 minutes played together) Harris+Jokic is the only tandem with a positive net rating, and even that is a tenuous +0.1. (Jokic+Millsap minus-7.8; Harris+Sap minus-11.3; Chandler+Sap minus-12.8). For Denver (1-3), their sole win thus far involved holding the woeful Kings under 80 points. Otherwise, Jokic and the Nuggets have suffered through getting rim-runned at turns by Rudy Gobert, Marcin Gortat, and Howard (combined 17-for-23 FGs). Despite committing seven turnovers, Dwight had 15-and-19 as his host Hornets pulled away from the Nuggs early on Wednesday night, Charlotte prevailing 110-93. It was a performance for Dwight eerily similar to his Hornets’ other victory, registering 20-and-15 despite 6 TOs along the way to last week’s 109-91 win over the visiting Hawks. Tonight should be an ideal game to get Dewayne Dedmon (career-low 43.3 FG%) back on track in the Atlanta offense. Jokic (13.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 5.0 APG, 4 consecutive made 3FGs) can high-post-pass his way into a triple-double in his sleep. But his inability to keep up with even inertial centers in transition, or to stop low-post players from doing to him what he does to them, gets the Denver defense discombobulated easily. Get down the court, keep the ball high, and get Dedmon to the rim on these Nuggets (NBA-low 2.0 blocks per-48; 65.5 opponent restricted-area FG%), who thrive when their opponents settle for dueling halfcourt sets. His last name begins with an ‘M’. His last name ends in ‘y.’ The second letter is a ‘u’. Those were the clues Nuggets coach Mike Malone offered up to reporters throughout the preseason, about which of his young point guards would be named the starter. The dust finally settled, and the winner, Jamal Murray, has rewarded his coach by starting out shooting 29.8 FG% (incl. 10.5 3FG%, on nearly five attempts per game). Murray’s clunkers have left the runner-up, trade-target Emmanuel Mudiay, looking like Jamal Crawford out there (33.3 FG%, incl. 30.8 2FG%). Malone may have to give Will Barton (3.5 APG, 1.0 TOs/game, 36.4 3FG%) a fresh look in the starting lineup. In the meantime, either Schröder (11.1 3FG%, 20.0 2FG attempts/game; questionable to play, sprained ankle) and Delaney can get well/better at the expense of Denver’s defensively unsound backcourt, or vice versa. Schröder (early career-low 8.6 TO%) and Atlanta’s point guards have done a decent job to this point in suppressing turnovers of their own making, particularly given the high volume of Hawks offensive possessions that don’t amount to much else. The dreaded Sense of Urgency is already mile-high for the Nuggets, still in the middle of a four-game East Coast road swing. “It’s a must-win for us,” Millsap advised reporters ahead of tonight’s clash. “Our team is struggling, and we have to get back on the right page.” This is supposed to be the Nuggets’ Ascension phase, where their five-season playoff drought will draw to a close. Comparatively, during the Hawks’ Recession era, it is so nice not having to couch random early-season contests in the frame of “must-wins,” in order to keep some playoff-appearance streak alive. But a recession can easily slip into a depression without the proper supports around. And that is where you, Skeptical Hawks Fans, come in. For just a little while, Atlanta needs you to become Pragmatic Hawks Ticket-Buyers. This is YOUR time. After so many years of standing on the sidelines, the next 41 home games have you in mind. With you, and friends, cheering on the developing young talents no matter the score, tonight’s scrub may someday become an integral part of tomorrow’s title-contending rotation. You can still sit on your hands the entire season, if you want. Just do a lot of that sitting in these arena seats. Ladies and gents, there are avocado-topped barbeque cricket tacos at The Highlight Factory with your names on them, hot and ready. No, filet mignon is not on the menu yet. Stop all the questioning, get in your seats, and get to chompin’! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. For Denver, today was a good day. ~lw3
  12. One trip to The Varsity will change your life, Nikola! Our predictably unpredictable Atlanta Hawks are going nowhere -- at least, in the standings, they are. While several Eastern Conference clubs are beating up on one another, the Hawks will continue their lurch toward the All-Star Break by playing Western Conference teams, like the visiting Denver Nuggets tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude Sports in DEN). Despite another horrible home loss, this time to Utah last Monday night, Atlanta remains closer to the East’s 2-seed (Boston) than they are to the 7th seed (Chicago). That means, aside from a possible slide down to the 6th seed, below Jeff Teague’s surging Pacers, the Hawks (30-22) are likely to remain smack in the middle of the playoff picture, unimpacted by the shifting sands around them. Another skin-of-their-teeth victory, another double-digit defeat, won’t make much difference in the near-term. The Nuggets, reinvigorated with passing wizard Nikola Jokic at center, are interested in staying in the 8th-seed in the West. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since getting dispatched by Steph Curry and Jarrett Jack’s upset-minded Warriors in 2013. In their case, Denver is slightly closer to 7-seed OKC than they are to the 15-seed Lakers. Willing to commit to second-year pro Emmanuel Mudiay (out tonight with a back injury), Denver is apparently disinterested in the 2017 bumper crop of point guards to be had in the lottery. Head coach Mike Malone is hopeful his early-season experimentation (with Jokic off the bench, or starting at power forward) didn’t blow his team’s postseason chances. Home to the lowest average attendance in the NBA, the Pepsi Center was sold out last Friday for a Nuggets game against Milwaukee. The Greek Freak is often worth the price of admission, but he alone isn’t what’s filling up the arena for a Bucks-Nuggets game. Jokic has tantalized with his crafty moves and zippy dishes served from the high and low post. Starting regularly only since mid-November, his ability to move the ball as a big (5.8 assists per-36, 1st among NBA centers) is drawing comparisons to Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, and Marc Gasol. “I believe the only muscles you need in basketball,” Jokic was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying, “are the ones in your brain.” The Joker’s passing has been able to offset the steep learning curves for Mudiay and two rookie guards, Jamal Murray and Atlanta native Malik Beasley. His efficient scoring (65.0 TS%, 3rd in NBA) has allowed the Nuggets to bubblewrap Danilo Gallinari (out with a groin strain), Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried (starting tonight, after missing Monday’s 110-87 win over Dallas for personal reasons) as GM Tim Connelly works the phones for trades. And while Giannis’ Bucks, Porzingis’ Knicks and Joel’s 76ers have been settling southward of late, Jokic’s Nuggets (23-28) has moved to the top among the West’s sub-.500 clubs. Denver still has a sour taste from Atlanta’s visit back in December. They were up 108-100 with just 98 seconds to go when some fortuitous whistles (and a technical foul called on Malone) granted the Hawks nine unanswered free throws to close out the proceedings. Six of Dennis Schroder’s 12 fourth-quarter points came from the free throw line. Schroder has 27 points in the game, followed by Paul Millsap, who went 8-for-10 from the line to finish with 20 points. Jameer Nelson has been filling in for Mudiay, the Nuggets 5-4 in this latest span. Malcolm Delaney struggled to keep Nelson, who turns 35 years young tomorrow, in front of him during the December matchup. Both he and Schroder have to stop Denver from making hay out of dribble penetration. Jokic is seeking to bounce back after being generally ineffective in that December contest (fouled out in 19 minutes, 5 TOs). At turns, he’ll try to work Dwight Howard (DNP’d in December @ DEN) into foul problems and draw Atanta’s center away from the basket. Howard will do well to stay at home in the post and thwart Jokic’s attempts to connect with cutting teammates like Faried, Gary Harris and Will Barton (season-high 31 points, 5-for-7 3FGs, 8 rebounds, 5 assists vs. DAL on Monday). The Nuggets center and guards will also be on the lookout for Denver’s many three-point shooters (even without Gallinari), most notably stretch forward Darrell Arthur, who sinks 1.5 threes per game at a 50.7 3FG% clip. In the five games since Thabo Sefolosha was shelved to heal a groin injury, Hawks opponents have hit on just 32.1% of their three-point attempts (10th lowest in NBA since Jan. 29), which would be really encouraging if Atlanta was shooting better than 31.1% (25th in NBA) themselves. Millsap and the Hawk forwards have to be sufficiently familiar with Denver’s personnel to know which opposing player is going to loft shot from the perimeter and which are likely to put the ball on the floor and barrel toward the hoop. Faried’s return provides a boost to Denver’s NBA-best second-chance scoring, so boxing out the Manimal, Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic is key to the Hawks suppressing their opponent’s offense. The win over Dallas notwithstanding, Denver is all about offense. Atlanta needs to exploit the Nuggets’ lackadaisical defense (110.2 D-Rating, 30th in NBA), although Denver does perform marginally better on the road (109.4 road D-Rating, 24th in NBA). The Nuggets allow 18.7 PPG off turnovers, making it incumbent on Schroder, Kent Bazemore, and Tim Hardaway. Jr. to pounce as every transition scoring opportunity arises. Sefolosha’s absence has been most felt in this area, as opposing players have turned the ball over just 11.6 times per game, compared to Atlanta’s 15.2. Millsap insists that a return to top-notch defensive intensity is the key to avoiding another huge letdown. “We have to get back to being that defensive powerhouse that we were earlier,” he told the AJC on Monday, after the Hawks got tuned up by the Jazz. Bazemore disagrees. “I don’t think it’s defense,” he retorted. “I think we put ourselves in a tough position with quick and hurried shots, not quality shots, and scrambled back on defense.” Baze added, “We got to move the ball. That helps everything else.” While the tie always goes to the All-Star in any disagreement, the correct answer to the Hawks’ in-game woes is usually somewhere in the middle. If they figure it out soon, they might finally be going places. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “Merry Christmas, ya filthy Manimal!” ((Stuck in Orlando holiday traffic, so couldn’t finish tonight’s preview. Just gonna pull a Hawks and mail it in early… lol! Cheers!)) It seems Mike Malone has finally gotten out of his own way. And for that, fans of tonight’s hosts of the Atlanta Hawks, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), are reveling in the joys of the holiday season. It wasn’t easy getting here. "You guys got to understand, he’s not going to be the same player he was last year.” That was the Nuggets head coach last month, Malonesplaining to the pestering media why his 2016 All-Rookie 1st Team phenom (no, not Emmanuel Mudiay), Nikola Jokic, was watching his minutes erode, shuffled off to the bench in favor of tarnished team icon Kenneth Faried. This, after he shone so brightly at the end of last season. I mean, can’t “you guys” see, Jokic was overrated? “Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) was out, Wilson Chandler was out. Last two months of the season we played our young guys, we played them 35 minutes a night almost. We’re healthy, we have guys playing, so everybody stop expecting Nikola Jokic to be something he’s not. I think it’s unfair to him." The Nuggets made it all the way to December 12 without more than one single two-game win streak. Malone was so excited about the return of behemoth Jusuf Nurkic that he slid Jokic over to power forward, a position he hadn’t played since his days in Serbia, and was shocked – shocked! – to find out twin-brute frontcourts have gone the way of the Do-Do. So, naturally, the coach punishes Jokic further by relegating him to mop-up duty in favor of Faried, which turned out to be more of a “see why I don’t start you?” exhibition for the Manimal. So, maybe we’ll try… Darrell Arthur at the 4-spot? Nope. Finally, Malone comes to his senses, replacing Arthur and Nurkic with Wilson Chandler (the steadiest player on the roster all season) and Jokic. And the smaller-lineup Nuggs promptly won three straight, Jokic shooting 74.2% from the field and dishing out 6.3 APG while bringing 9.3 RPG and 16.7 PPG to the fray. The glimmer of hope shined, bright enough for even Malone to see, during Denver’s 20-point loss in lowly Dallas on December 12, when Jokic put up a season-high 27 points (10-for-12 FGs) with 11 boards and 4 assists. Now a starter, Jokic upped the ante when Dallas came to Denver one week later: 27 points (13-for-17 FGs), 15 rebounds, 9 assists, leading the way to a 10-point victory this past Monday. He and the Nuggets struggled one night later, when the host Clippers handed them a mirror. But nobody wants to hear, “Hey, you guys, it was just the Mavs!” from Malone anymore. Nurkic was fine and all, but the problem in Jokic’s case was he worked best as a high-post five who didn’t have to defend quicker and more experienced fours. Playing the Itches together turned Denver into the Itchy and Scratchy Show, comically screwing up spacing for every offensive player on the court. Forcing Chandler and Jokic to come off the bench came across to Nuggets fans as needlessly undermining the team’s most productive frontcourt players, and passing off Jokic’s rookie season as some garbage-time aberration wasn’t going to fly. ((blah-blah-blah Jokic really good, Harris and Mudiay working out, Faried's being shopped, Dwight and Timmy’s out, so play more Bembry and Hump, go get 'em Dennis, don’t let Jameer kill us, blah-blah-blah…)) Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. Unless Lauvergne pushed the date forward, his contract for 2016-17 was just guaranteed back on August 15. (EDIT: Correction on that "full" guarantee...) ~lw3
  15. “Wait, what’s that? They closed Dugan’s on Ponce?” March Madness continues for the Atlanta Hawks, coming off a crucial road win in Detroit last night. Here are just a few important names that help give you an idea of the mindset of tonight’s visitors, the Denver Nuggets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude Sports). Donatas Motiejunas. He was on his way to Detroit, as part of a three-team trade that the 76ers joined. In the process of acquiring Joel Anthony and a second-rounder, Philly had to make room on the roster by cutting a player loose. But by the time the Pistons confirmed what everyone already knew (that Donuts couldn’t pass his physical due to a bum back) and cancelled the trade, the Sixers had already gone too far, and JaKarr Sampson was a free man after coming off waivers. Sampson took the Nuggets’ offer and now starts, a big boost for head coach Mike Malone’s perimeter defensive plans. He’s been in Denver for less than three weeks, yet Sampson is already part of their second-most utilized 5-man lineup this season, producing +9.3 points per 100 possessions alongside Gary Harris, rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, and Nikola Jokic. Danilo Gallinari. The Rooster tore ligaments in his ankle at the end of last month, and the Nuggets’ leading scorer will sit out the remainder of the season. Now super-sixth-man Will Barton (14.8 PPG) is the team’s top remaining scorer. Steve Novak. At trade-deadline time, the Nuggets agreed to acquire-and-waive Novak, as part of a swap of Randy Foye for guard D.J. Augustin and a pair of future second-rounders. Relative to the almost-done Jameer Nelson, Augustin provides a steadier, healthier presence at the point behind Mudiay. He provided 10 assists plus 17 points as Denver blew out John Wall and visiting Washington on Saturday. The Nuggets also bid adieu to forward J.J. Hickson at deadline time. Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo. Both were dealt to Houston and Portland in the past couple seasons. Neither player is with Houston or Portland now. And at the moment, neither are those teams’ lottery-protected first-rounders for 2016. The Nuggets won’t mind terribly if those teams squeak into the postseason party. Carmelo Anthony. He is still with New York. But his former team, the Nuggets, hold a trade swap option, whereby the Knicks send the worse of their own spot or Denver’s to Toronto (thanks to Andrea Bargnani, who has blown through two New York City teams now). No matter how bad Denver’s record gets, they could find solace if Melo’s Knicks, a half-game behind them, finish worse. If Memphis manages to collapse, the Nuggets (Timofey Mozgov trade to Cleveland, via the Grizzlies’ Jon Leuer trade, 1-5 and 15-30 protected) can capitalize on that first-rounder, too. The upshot is that Denver (28-40, six games out of the 8th slot in the West) has a team that’s willing to competi-tank as it molds itself in their bulldog-minded head coach’s image. The Nuggets have gone nearly a month, a span of 12 games, without losing by double digits. While they’ve lost their first two games of their five-game East Coast road swing, those defeats came on the heels of Denver’s first four-game winning streak this year. Just about every player the Nuggets draft this summer will be about the same age, if not older, than Mudiay (March: 19.5 PPG, 6.0 APG), who just turned 20 years not-old. His 40.9 FG% (37.0 3FG%) and 2.9 turnovers per game since the All-Star Break are marked improvements over the 34.0 FG% (27.2 3FG) and 3.5 TOs/game to start the season. Mudiay and Malone verbally sparred early in the season. But they’re bonding, as the budding point guard gets a better clue of what his coach demands of him on the floor. And it’s not hard to figure it out what those demands are. Just look at the sidelines, and you’ll find Malone doing his best Jim Henson impersonation, mimicking the stance, posture, arm and foot movements he expects of Mudiay to keep opposing guards in check. Malone may feel the urge to hop on the court himself if Mudiay and Augustin have to endure the offensive onslaught Dennis Schröder and Jeff Teague brought to the fray last night in Motown. Both Hawks guards combined for 16 assists (and 8 of Atlanta players’ measly 12 turnovers) and 40 points. Schröder was a persistent threat both outside and inside. Teague didn’t have a strong day shooting the ball from the field, but got to the line 13 times and sunk 12 of them. The Hawks’ defense took an early holiday in the first half of a high-tempo affair, the second-highest pace of a Hawks game this season. But with the Hawks down 11 in the 3rd quarter, Al Horford, and coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hack-A-Dre strategy, took the game over. Al’s solid shooting display (9-for-15 FGs) picked up right where Paul Millsap (10 first-quarter points @ DET; team-high 22 points @ DEN on Jan. 25) cooled off, and made Andre Drummond’s 18-and-18 (8 of those points on 17 free throw attempts) look almost negligible. For Atlanta to have Denver looking on to the next one, they’ll need to assign bodies fullcourt to Faried (last 7 games: 15.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 4.6 offensive, 63.5 FG%), who lives for shots at the rim off putbacks and runouts. Faried (back) and Jusuf Nurkic (knee) are slowed by injuries, but Malone has silos full of big men to turn to, including Joffrey Lauvergne, Darrell Arthur and Jokic. Arthur and Lauvergne will do their best imitations of Faried if their jumping-jack power forward cannot go. Kris Humphries is still figuring out the intricacies of Budball, but chasing after unlikely offensive rebound chances, throws the Hawks’ transition defense out of sync. Hump and the Mikes (Scott and Muscala) need to log productive mid-game minutes at both ends to give Horford and Millsap (34+ minutes each last night) a proper breather. The Nuggets take a league-high 33.0 attempts per game at the restricted area, although their finishing in that zone (57.2 FG%, 26th in NBA; league-high 6.3 shots blocked per game) is less than desirable. The Nuggets give what they get (42.6 opponent FG% in-the-paint, 3rd -most in NBA) so Hawks attacking Denver’s interior for floaters and short jumpers should prove beneficial. Atlanta guards will have an easier time holding back Mudiay than they did Reggie Jackson in the paint (6-for-8 in-the-paint FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) last night. When Mudiay coughs up the rock, wings Kyle Korver, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Thabo Sefolosha have to be poised to convert those turnovers into points at the other end. Kent Bazemore (15 points, 10 D-Rebs last night) will deservedly sit this one out, as he rests a bruised knee. Denver is 4th in the NBA with 46.1 paint points, and the more Mudiay and Barton (8-for-9 FTs, team-high 21 points off the bench vs. ATL on Jan. 25) have to rely on mid-range jumpers, the sooner everyone can turn their attention to their brackets. Happy St. Pat’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw o’3 View full record
  16. “I Can Has Rebound?” Are our Atlanta Hawks playing down to the level of their opponents? Or is this simply their new level? In either case, we’ll get to see the Hawks play at a level not experienced all season tonight – Mile High, or however far up the Denver Nuggets play at the Pepsi Center (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Altitude). The thin air hasn’t been kind for Our Fine Feathered Friends in the past decade or so. The last time Atlanta pulled off a W in the 303, Lorenzen Wright, Tyronn Lue, and Shelden Williams were all starters. Back in December 2006, Salim Stoudemire dropped 21 off the bench to help Joe Johnson erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and barely outpoint Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony. Since then, no matter if it was George Karl, Brian Shaw or Melvin Hunt running the sideline, the Nuggets have always held serve at home. The Hawks’ downright laughable display in Phoenix on Saturday night produced little confidence that things will change tonight. Al Horford grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds (12 defensive) against the remnants of the Suns, but he and the Hawks could only sit back and watch as Tyson Chandler (27 rebounds, 13 offensive, by himself) took their lunch money and bought himself a chimichanga. Yes, the Hawks (26-19) were without All-Star forward Paul Millsap for personal reasons, and he’ll be back and ready to go tonight. But just because you have a missing link doesn’t mean you have to play like one. Deadspin even took time to comment on the absurd closing minutes as two teams “just kind of (running) around like a bunch of puppies in the snow.” The wide-open spaces around Atlanta’s hoop have to look tantalizing to Denver’s three-headed monster at center, consisting of rookie Nikola Jokic (61.4 TS%, 10th in NBA; 17 points and 3 blocks on Saturday), Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. In a pinch, Nurkic and his immediate family could back up the Broncos’ O-Line in Super Bowl 50. Forward Kenneth Faried (53.6 FG%, 5th in NBA; 3.7 O-Rebs per game) has a sore adductor and while it’s unlikely he’ll appear, after seeing Chandler’s exploits, he certainly will do all he can to get in this game. That’s just four of seven Nuggets (26.4 O-Reb%, 5th in NBA) averaging at least one offensive board per game. Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (1.1 O-Rebs per game 19.3 PPG, 7.8 FT attempts per game) is known to do some slashing-and-crashing himself. The 16 freebies he earned in Saturday night’s home win (plus the game-winning fade-away with 24 seconds left, along the way to 30 points) left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson (himself a former Coloradoan) grasping for answers, if not air. “A guy’s shooting 16. Great player, but a guy’s shooting 16,” RJax bemoaned, while poring over Danilo’s line in the postgame boxscore. “I attack the basket more than most players in the league and I can’t get a free throw. I shot two free throws. We shot 19, he shot 16 by himself. It makes no sense.” It can make sense if you lack defenders capable of keeping Gallo from forays into the paint without committing cheap fouls. The Hawks have two such players in Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, but both will be out to make amends after their half-baked play in Phoenix. Sefolosha (3 steals vs. PHX) certainly can’t be blamed for Archie Goodwin’s game-winning prayer, but he’ll have to do better than the 1-for-9 FG shooting he turned in. Despite a team-high 21 points and his game-tying baskets during the Benny Hill-themed conclusion, Bazemore blew dunks, free throws, and chunks defensively throughout much of the game. His glee over his Carolina Panthers victory last night will hopefully translate into better play at both ends today. Bazemore lacks the size to wrangle with Gallinari inside, so Mike Budenholzer will look to switch Millsap (4th in NBA for defensive win shares) onto him. That would grant Bazemore and Sefolosha more time to keep human energy-shot Will Barton, Gary Harris and jump-shooters Randy Foye and Mike Miller cool from long-range. While he’s still 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring, Barton has cooled off significantly (34.4 FG%, 29.5 3FG%, 11.5 PPG in January) after a torrid December run (20.8 PPG) had him in the hunt for Sixth Man of the Year. The defense-oriented Harris (career-high 5 steals vs. DET) is improving across-the-board on the offensive end, but will be tasked tonight with chasing Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. PHX) off the three-point line. The heady play directed by Nuggets coach Mike Malone has translated into some surprising wins and many more competitive outcomes. It’s been nearly a month since Denver (17-27) last dropped a contest by double digits. They’re hoping to make this eight-game homestand that concludes tonight a winning one. During this stretch, the Nuggets posted wins over a sleepy Golden State and Indiana, plus close-shave losses to Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis. Malone will rely on more interior offensive play to wear down Horford and Millsap, knowing the duo is getting little help so long as Tiago Splitter continues to look like an accidental tourist on the floor. If Faried remains out, Denver will need big minutes from forward Darrell Arthur (18-and-11 vs. GSW; career-best 41.5 3FG%) to spread Atlanta’s defense thin. They’ll also need someone capable of feeding the big men the ball. That’s where Emmanuel Mudiay (18 points, 4 assists and 4 TOs vs. DET on Saturday) comes in. The rookie returned for the Nuggets’ homestand after missing a month due to injury, and he continues to find his footing as a shooter (last 8 games: 37.6 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 55.2 FT%) and a passer (5.6 APG, 3.1 TOs per game). But as ballhandlers go, Mudiay (16.0 TO%, highest among starting NBA point guards) is about the only option Malone has available. Jameer Nelson can only coach from the sideline as he heals an injured wrist. That the next leading player in assists per-36 is Mike Miller tells you about all you need to know. Jeff Teague (10.5 PPG, 37.3 2FG%, 19.6 TO% this month) picked a fine time to let slip The World’s Worst Secret, after his Hawks fell flat once again on the road. “I’m dealing with an ankle injury,” he advised to a pestering C-Viv at the AJC. “That’s okay, I’ll be back,” which are soothing words to hear, if you happen to be rooting for The Terminator. This was a stretch of games for Atlanta where it would have been in the team’s best interest to rest that ankle, let lead conditioning guy Keke Lyles do some of his magic off-line, and allow Dennis Schröder (19 points, team-high 5 assists off bench vs. PHX; 36.2 Assist%, 9th in NBA) and Shelvin Mack to fully cut their teeth. If he (and Coach Bud) insists on him starting, he might as well make himself useful. Other high-turnover opponents (Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams) have come out smelling like roses in recent games against Atlanta, and point guard-by-default Goodwin (24 points, 8-for-9 FTs) looked like Steve Francis with drives to the hoop on Saturday. If Teague (4-for-13 FGs, 3 assists, 5 TOs vs. a shell of a team in PHX) can neither get the separation he needs to zip past subpar opposing guards and finish plays inside, nor stay in front of cat-quick guards like Mudiay, then he needs to be in Budenholzer’s “player development” purgatory until he demonstrates that he can, once again, do these things. Teague contributed 3 or more steals in 21 games last season, but just four times in 42 appearances this season and in none of his last 11 games. While there’s much attention laid on his shots around the rim (career-low 49.2 FG% on lay-ups), the once-patented floater is just about gone from his arsenal as well (career-low 30.2 FG% between 3-10 feet from rim). If the starting point guard struggles to produce points, and struggles to guard, there’s simply no point in starting. Even as Millsap’s return to the lineup will boost the scoring, hustle, and rebounding, the Hawks’ success tonight will be sustained for as long as their lead guards can reliably carry them. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record