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  1. “It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!” The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece. A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.” Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over. “I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC. Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor. Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan. After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft. Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself. It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers. Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night. T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice. Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up? With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat. 25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night. Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting. Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now. Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month. Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week. Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night. All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games. Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets. At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland. “Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all? Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time? Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this: “Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker. Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now. Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so. Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines. By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends. It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been. From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “I’m tellin’ you, our duo nickname is gonna be catchy! You just gotta go by ‘Hooch’!” I’m putting as much effort into the thread for this game, between the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Indiana Pacers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), as the Hawks (aside from Skylar Mays) put in while preparing for last night's game versus Gregg Popovich, DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. Was gonna go with LeHurt but I have no idea if what he's got is painful or not. Tough break for the Pacers, but tougher for him. Hope that thing gets cleared up quickfastinahurry! ~lw3
  4. Holadipo, Batman! ~lw3
  5. Two Weeks ago he signed a 1 year extention. Now he's out.
  6. ~lw3
  7. “Happy Holidays!” After beating a Magic squad that lacked Aaron Gordon, then putting the scare into a Celtics team that was missing Kemba Walker, are the Atlanta Hawks catching a break, again? The Indiana Pacers are in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana) after losing at home versus Denver on Thursday. But it appears that they’ll have to play once more without Malcolm Brogdon (back soreness). Brogdon’s 19 points and 12 assists paced Indiana to a 110-100 win here at State Farm Arena on December 13, extending what would become a five-game winning streak. That was one game after going 29-and-8 to help defeat Boston. But the ensuing four games after beating the Hawks featured Malcolm in the Riddle (12.0 PPG, 32.8 3FG% in those contests). A diagnosed hamstring strain caused him to sit through three games. Brogdon was expected back with “no limitations” against the 76ers on New Year’s Eve, but then the back setback had him sitting barely eight minutes into the first quarter. The off-season acquisition of 2017’s surprise Rookie of the Year award winner, signed-and-traded by division-rival Milwaukee, was critical to the continued rise of Indiana in the East, as they await the return of star guard and occasionally masked lounge singer Victor Oladipo, who is rehabbing this month with G-League Fort Wayne. The Atlanta native has certainly delivered. Even with his late December swoon, Brogdon’s 14.4 Player Impact Estimate ranks behind only Atlanta’s Trae Young (15.8 PIE) among active starting guards in the NBA East, a value that accounts for his 7.4 APG (10th in NBA). Given his extended absence, Indiana coach Nate McMillan is elevating floor time for the Holiday brothers, including ex-Hawk Justin (39.1 FG%, but mostly threes on 36.7% shooting) and Aaron (42.2 3FG%; 3.4 APG, 1.4 TOs/game). Led by Doug McDermott’s 1.9 3FGs/game, Indiana has seven players sinking between 1.3 and 2.0 threes per contest. They don’t take many three-pointers but they hit them (36.9 team 3FG%, 4th in NBA). They don’t earn many free throw attempts, but they sink them (79.8 team FT%, 6th in NBA). Brogdon’s fellow Georgia native, Jeremy Lamb shoots a solid 85.9 FT% while passing at a 2:1 assist/TO clip. Nate Mac also can count on another strategic offseason pickup, T.J. McConnell, whose 40.3 assist percentage ranks 4th in the NBA, a shade ahead of Young’s 40.0. McConnell’s 3.6 assist/TO ratio ranks 6th among NBA players with 15+ MPG under their belts. Precise offensive execution helps Indiana lead the league overall with its 1.97 assist/TO ratio. It’s wild that many wondered how Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (+7.6 points per 100 possessions as 2-man lineup) could work together as a full-time frontcourt duo, particularly with Turner shifting to a power forward role, as he noted yesterday on NBATV, for the first time since his AAU years. Turner’s overall production has slid as his shift includes stretching out to the three-point line regularly (45.6 three-point attempt rate, up from 25.1 in 2018-19). But he has connected enough (36.7 3FG%) for defenders to have to take him seriously, freeing up Sabonis (career-highs of 17.5 PPG; 13.1 RPG, 5th in NBA; 4.1 APG) to ply his wares in the paint at a peripheral All-Star level. To continue Indiana’s upward crawl up the Eastern standings (22-13, 5th in NBA East, 1.0 GB Toronto) until Oladipo returns, it might help if Turner (5.7 RPG; one double-digit rebounding performance in last 22 games) and leading scorer T.J. Warren (17.9 PPG, 20.2 in last 5 games; 3.7 RPG) cease their abdication of the paint. Even with Sabonis’ prowess, the Pacers are a subpar rebounding club. They appear to be built to respond defensively to the modern spread-out and dribble-drive offenses in the league (33.6 opponent 3FG%, 6th-best in NBA; 42.7 opponent eFG% on P&R ball-handler plays, 3rd-best in NBA). Turner (2.0 BPG, 6th in NBA) remains a useful help blocker. But the high volume of well-earned opponent misses leaves them susceptible to giving up second chances. The Pacers really haven’t beaten anyone on the road, aside from the Hawks and Mike Miller’s re-tooling Knicks, in nearly a month. In the past three weeks, they’ve been waylaid in Giannis’ Milwaukee (117-89), and in Brandon Ingram’s New Orleans (120-98). Last week, their collective failures to box out Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the closing minutes of a nip-and-tuck affair in Miami set them up for Goran Dragic’s game-winning jumper with six seconds to go. That was despite abandoning the offensive glass altogether (2 team O-Rebs @ MIA) in hopes of getting set defensively. The only Pacer victories over the past six games were at the Fieldhouse, one overtime win over pared-down Toronto, and a blowout win over a 76ers team that played without Joel Embiid. They held the visiting Nuggets to just 29.6 3FG% on Thursday, but Will Barton, Paul Millsap and The Joker (10 combined O-Rebs) bedeviled them inside. Denver swung a 14-point first-quarter deficit into a 124-116 win, aided by a breakout performance from Michael Porter (25 bench points). Frustrated when my Hawks (7-who cares?) predictably allowed a 18-point lead to erode by the end of the second quarter in Boston, I turned my channel to NBATV at halftime to find a “special guest” Myles Turner on my screen, chilling with the broadcasters, making sure to praise “Coach Lloyd” for his assistance with Team USA this past summer during the FIBA World Cup crusade. I’ve done no research into my theory, but I’ve always bristled when I see Hawks opponents in suits at the studios over on Techwood Drive, while the soon-to-be home team is contemporaneously playing a game, sometimes down the street, other times in lands far away. Last night was the first time, though, that I suspected the NBA is being complicit in baking this, deliberately, right into the Hawks’ regular-season schedules. No other NBA team really has to deal with this. Occasionally, you get a “special guest” player dropping in on Rachel Nichols’ studio at The Jump mid-day in the Big Apple. But ESPN usually just suffices with Hall of Famers and retired goons riffing on highlight videos and replays for an hour per day. The NBA, alternatively, needs viewers to stay locked into its own cable channel, and they know they can’t just trot out an array of deposed coaches, defrocked GMs, and underpaid beat writers all night long. So, just fly teams into Hartsfield-Jackson, grant them an off-day or two, and let NBATV handpick some star players to drop in and ham it up for a GAMETIME segment or two. Somebody can do the number crunching to confirm or refute my notion, but the allure that led many a visitor to the dreaded “ATL Flu” no longer holds enough weight to matter, especially when the NBATV guest’s whole team enters State Farm Arena with a clear rest advantage. Turner might again be thankful for Coach Lloyd today, if he gets to keep up with De’Andre Hunter at the power forward spot instead of John Collins. Back on December 13, Brogdon and the Pacers had to fend off a second-half charge led by Trae Young, Jabari Parker and Alex Len to win 110-100. Hunter had 21 points, thanks to 7-for-9 FTs, but was 0-for-4 from three-point range and was a team-worst minus-16 on the day. Collins had since returned, but with a near-full collective to work with in Boston, Lloyd Pierce chose to start Collins at center, leaving Hunter exposed once again at power forward while starter Bruno Fernando (+13 plus/minus @ ORL) was scheduled for rest. Collins was often the last lonely line of defense versus a Celtics team that crashed the glass (54-42 rebounding advantage, 8th Hawks opponent in past 9 games w/ 10+ O-Rebs and/or 50 total rebounds) and attacked Atlanta’s interior with impunity. Collins’ block attempt on a Jayson Tatum dunk try caused a fall that bruised his back, his departure making it simpler for Boston to turn the tables and shift their own center onto Young at critical junctures of the game. Without Collins available for this evening’s contest, or even Parker (doubtful, throat infection) a rested Fernando (3 minutes vs. BOS) must be an active participant in gaining Atlanta a rebounding advantage against Indy, despite Sabonis. More effective usage out of Fernando and reserve Alex Len (team-high 8 rebounds and 2 blocks but 5 points vs. BOS) at center would be a boon for the rookie Hunter (5 fouls, 1 rebound in 27 minutes @ BOS), Atlanta’s second-leading minutes recipient who has looked cerebrally slow with his actions and reactions at both ends of the court in recent weeks. Damian Jones (DNP @ BOS) is rested, too. So, there’s that. The Hawks’ ballhandlers, inclusive of Young, Kevin Huerter, rookie Cam Reddish and backup Brandon Goodwin, must avoid hoisting contested threes and instead feed the big men around the rim, potentially forcing Sabonis or Turner into foul trouble and contracting Indiana’s defense enough to grant Young (5-for-14 3FGs @ BOS, 9-for-30 FGs vs. IND on Dec. 13), Huerter and Allen Crabbe some slivers of perimeter daylight. Reddish and DeAndre’ Bembry can take turns badgering the Pacers’ perimeter players into rushed shots. But Cam’s draft partner, Hunter (no games with over six rebounds since November 20; 4.6 RPG in wins, 3.6 in losses), must relinquish some help-defensive duties to box out and secure defensive rebounds off of wayward shots. Things could be worse. We could have Vince Carter pretending to be a stretch-four again. Let’s enjoy the home crowd applause he’s earned for becoming the NBA’s first four-decade man today. Then, let’s hope Carter will enjoy not having to wrangle with bigs posting up around the rim. Now that we’re finally home for six days, hey, maybe NBATV can have Vince swing by to be their “special guest”! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “Dropping 30-5-5 on the Hawks soon!” Home, Sour Home! After one disastrous minute, one horrific overtime, and one lousy extra game in the space of 24 hours, our Atlanta Hawks were chomping at the bit to get this show off the road. “We just have to get back to Atlanta,” said Cam Reddish to Fox Sports Southeast after Wednesday’s listless loss in Chicago, “and get back in the gym.” Oh, okay, is that all it takes? When not even a good night’s sleep at a Holiday Inn Express would do, the Hawks insist that a trip back to the lab in Brookhaven will make all the difference. Beginning tonight with the Indiana Pacers in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), we will just have to see if home is where the heart was. I’ve made much about Atlanta’s arduous strength-of-schedule to start the season, in terms of opponent caliber. But there’s also the matter that Our Fine Feathered Friends haven’t strung together many days to incubate in their own nest. Since November 10, the Hawks have had one road swing of five games, and two trips three-games long, a back-to-back embedded within each of those stretches. Sure, Atlanta (6-19) did have an 11-day stretch at the end of October to “enjoy” the comforts of home, before having to fly cross-country to Portland to start that five-game Western trek. But even that period was unduly disrupted by concerns about Trae Young’s injury status and the news of John Collins’ 25-game suspension. Since that time, they’ve had nothing but single-game (one, against the Bucks) or two-game pit stops at State Farm Arena (3-8, incl. 1-6 over last 7 home games). That includes this weekend, where the Pacers, fresh from a day off after surging late to beat Boston at home 122-117 on Wednesday, will be followed by LeBrongeles. The Lakers, too, won’t be coming here without a day off, having spent their week cruising on relatively short flights through the Southeast Division. Atlanta has already been grounded and pounded through three road back-to-backs, losing the back ends by 122-101 (Lakers), 158-111 (Houston), and 136-102 (Chicago). Conversely, only once has a visiting opponent arrived at The Farm after playing the night before on the road, and that opponent was Tarnished State. “We’re just still learning how to compete,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce acknowledged after the blowout loss in Chicago. They came off a reasonably competitive loss at Milwaukee before Thanksgiving, then nearly upset the Pacers in Indy on Black Friday before succumbing in overtime. Of course, the Hawks had a resting Rockets team at home waiting for them just one night later. Pierce’s nightly crews were shorthanded, and tired, to be sure. But they have also been lugging around the youthful core of a roster that has hardly played meaningful minutes together in seasons past, and supersized-contract veterans that have contributed next-to-nothing of value on the floor. And in a head coach, through questionable substitutions, that is prioritizing committee-style minute shares and metered-out rehab returns over maximal lineups, and things like confidence, competition, and cohesion become a hard sell. Is simply shifting the area code back to 404 going to make that big of a difference, anytime soon? The Pacers are likely to get their franchise star and newly unmasked lounge singer, Victor Oladipo (quad rehab), back at some time over the next few weeks. In the interim, Indiana (16-9, 1.5 games behind 4-seed Boston) seems to revel in being a team without a clear identity. As a team, Indiana doesn’t shoot a lot of threes (2nd-fewest 3FGAs/game), and they don’t get to the line much (30th in free throw rate). While that means they’re high in shares of interior shots, they’re just middle-of-the-pack in 2-point shooting accuracy (51.1 2FG%, 19th in NBA). They haven’t been exceptional passers (18th in assist percentage), they don’t crash the offensive glass (19th in O-Reb%), and don’t drive the tempo of games in either direction (21st in Pace). After being harassed all night by the pernicious Bulls, Young and the Hawks will be relieved to face a Pacers squad that’s smack-dab in the middle for forcing turnovers (15th in opponent TO percentage; 24 Hawk TOs on Nov. 29 were 4 more than any other opponent so far). They literally don’t do much of anything to stand out. And I suspect coach Nate McMillan and his staff like it exactly that way, at the very least until they can get Oladipo back into the fold. No strengths for opponents to deny, no weaknesses to exploit. GM Kevin Pritchard stocked the team in the offseason with efficient supporting cast members (Malcolm Brogdon, T.J Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, the injured JaKarr Sampson), and contract-extended Domantas Sabonis (13.5 RPG, 4th in NBA) to pair in the frontcourt with Myles Turner (2.4 BPG, 4th in NBA). As such, they can afford to wait until Oladipo can build upon their playoff-worthy foundation. Along the way, they can stash as many Ws in the column as they can, so Victor Victorious won’t have to do so much to seal up a nice playoff seed in the East. Taking sound shots, wherever they are on the floor, and hustling back into stout defensive positions has been enough to stay above the fray. Indy (6-6 in away games) has also benefited, unlike Atlanta, from a friendly early road schedule. After edging the Hawks back on Nov. 29, the Pacers went on a five-game road swing of their own. Except theirs included Morant-less Memphis, OKC, Detroit and fizzling New York. The NBA West hasn’t been the 12-team juggernaut many projected before this season began, but the Pacers have yet to travel into the teeth of that conference. Including just one visit to Houston a month ago, on three days’ rest, in addition to the Grizzlies and Thunder, Indiana (5-2 vs. Western Conference foes) has not had to travel west of the Plains. Before they return to face Atlanta on January 4, the Pacers’ only “Western” road opponent will be New Orleans, a team that likely still won’t have Zion and may be dealing with a new coach. They have played in just one all-road back-to-back (Detroit and the Knicks). Before that last trip, the Pacers hadn’t played in consecutive road games since October 30. They haven’t had a back-to-back of any kind since leaving the last Hawks game to visit Philly, a space of nearly two weeks, and they won’t encounter one for another ten days. Even while enduring injury absences for Turner, Brogdon, and Lamb, the Pacers have had more time to work through adversity under their own confines or, at least, in reasonably close vicinity. While Trae carried the Hawks as best he could, for better or worse, when these teams last met (49 points, 8-for-15 3FGs and 9-for-9 FTs; 9 TOs and 6 assists), Atlanta was able to use bench help from DeAndre’ Bembry (11 D-Rebs and 7-for-9 2FGs), Alex Len and Bruno Fernando to neutralize the contributions from the Pacers’ balanced starting unit. Atlanta will try to use the returning Kevin Huerter (DNP-injury @ IND; 1st home start likely since Oct. 31) and Cam Reddish (1-for-7 FGs in 11.5 minutes @ IND) to greater effect in taking defensive pressure off of Young, whose teammates could muster just 8 assists (15 player TOs) in November’s 105-104 loss at the Fieldhouse. When on the road, the Pacers have effectively stifled their opponents’ fastbreak schemes (NBA-low 7.4 opp. points-per-48; next-nearest team allows 11.2). The Hawks still need to press the pace in transition, but they must be mindful of the need to look for trailers and corner-three opportunities, not piling up deleterious offensive foul calls (3rd-highest TO% on transition plays) while forcing actions that aren’t there. Defensively, the task for the Hawks include denying the obvious subjects, Sabonis, Turner and Warren, post position in the halfcourt that allows for easy putbacks. Absent obvious second-chance opportunities, the Pacers are inclined to just get back on defense. Free money for the Pacers involves getting Brogdon (NBA-high 94.6 FT%, up from NBA-high 92.8% last season) to the charity stripe. Besides his 8 assists and a single turnover, the Atlanta native’s season-best 15-for-15 display on Wednesday (12 fourth-quarter points, incl. 10 FTs in the final 4 minutes) helped the Pacers turn a ten-point deficit versus Boston, to start the fourth, into a five-point victory at regulation’s end. Young and his help defenders will have to be less lackadaisical off handoffs and screens than they were in Chicago, keeping Indiana from getting easy looks at the hoop. But they also must do so in a way that keeps them out of foul trouble and the Pacers’ best marksmen off the free throw line. Hopefully, a day’s worth of video and training at the Brookhaven facility will be all that was needed to drive those points home and keep Atlanta from descending into needless ruts tonight. A more mature, resilient and composed Hawks team will understand that fundamentals are fundamentals, regardless of the venue or the number of intervening days off. We’re quite a ways from seeing that kind of team reveal itself. But maybe, at least for tonight, with a more inspired 48-minute effort from players and staff, having their own fans and being inside their own Factory will be enough to get not just the occasional Highlight, but a rare win over a decent opponent as well. Simply clicking heels and crooning about Home like Dorothy in The Wiz won’t be enough. But a coordinated display of brains, heart and courage can make a huge difference, when the time comes once again to ease on down the road. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “I beg your Pardon???” Happy Georgia Granite Gray Friday! But for a few shoppers cutting each other off in traffic while fighting to get to that last 60-percent-off smart 4K HD toaster oven at the outlet mall, I’d have already been back at the lab crafting up a gamethread for tonight’s Atlanta Hawks game in Indiana against the Pacers (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana). Alas, here we are! My large, adult son of what should have been my large, adult father, Domantas Sabonis (18.9 PPG and 13.3 RPG) has gotten over his preseason contract squabbles and is playing really good basketball, y’all. Coach Nate McMillan’s club has made things work quite well (11-6, 6th in NBA East, winners of 4 straight and 11-3 in last 14 games) despite missing key components for much of the season, including Team USA seat-warmer Myles Turner (back from an ankle sprain), Hawks 30-win-stopper Edmond Sumner (out, fractured hand) and newcomer guards Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb (both back in action; Brogdon’s 96.0 FT% is 1st in NBA). When Victor Oladipo gets back up to speed, watch out! Hopefully, that won’t be until after December 13, when these teams meet up at State Farm Arena and the Hawks (4-whatever) will (knock on wood) have Kevin Huerter in tow by then. In the meantime, some more of that middle-quarters magic from Wednesday’s Milwaukee loss, spread out earlier and later in this contest, could help Atlanta enjoy a much more favorable conclusion before hitting the skies for Houston tonight. At least DeAndre’ Bembry can’t foul Sumner this time around. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “Aww, do I have to? I was just starting to like this gig!” Finishing just a few games above .500 might cost you a playoff spot out West. But in the Eastern Conference, the same record might be good enough to secure first-round homecourt. The Indiana Pacers hope to do a lot better than that, as the low-flying Atlanta Hawks swoop in for a visit (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the Pacers need more consistently sound contributions than they’re getting so far from the supporting cast. Bojan Bogdanovic struggles on the defensive end, while Thaddeus Young seems to be wearing down. Darren Collison hasn’t provided steady shooting like he did last season (NBA-high 46.8 3FG%; 33.3% so far), while Doug McDermott and free agent pickup Tyreke Evans haven’t been useful when their shots aren’t falling. Myles Turner (2.5 BPG) chases blocks but often abdicates the paint to do so, taxing the other bigs on the floor. But certainly, nobody’s worried about what Victor Oladipo brings to the floor every night. Building on a breakout All-Star campaign where he was awarded as the league’s Most Improved Player last season, Dipo is crashing the boards (career-high 6.9 RPG), expanding his range, and dishing the rock more effectively so far (career-high 4.9 APG), all while filling up the boxscore (23.1 PPG, 9th in NBA) and sustaining his tenacity as a defensive nuisance (NBA-high 5.8 contested 3FGAs per game; 4th in loose ball recoveries and charges drawn per game, as per stats). But coach Nate McMillan’s crew tends to get more done when Oladipo is tasked with doing less. Mark Monteith of notes that Indiana (9-6, t-3rd in NBA East) prevailed in 25 of the past 28 games where Victor takes no more than 15 attempts from the field. The most recent example came here at the Fieldhouse last night, a 99-91 win over Miami where Oladipo went just 3-for-12 on field goals, tallying just eight points on the evening. He got the help he needed with Bojan’s threes, Turner’s rebounds and blocks, and Collison’s steals. But with Indiana falling behind 27-18 in the opening quarter, the reserves stepped it up and turned Friday’s game decisively around in the Pacers’ favor. Cory Joseph added a team-high five assists off the bench, Indiana aided by free agent pickup Tyreke Evans’ five three-pointers (23 points and 10 rebounds) and a banner effort by The Sabonesaw (too soon?). Backup pivot Domantas Sabonis logged 15 points and 12 rebounds (all defensive), like Evans all in the space of just 25 minutes. If he can expand his range to the three-point line, Sabonis will keep pressure on McMillan to have him supplement, or supplant, the inconsistent rebounder Turner in Indy’s starting lineup. Both have been equally adept at setting productive screens, ranking 7th and 9th in the league for per-game screen assists, respectively. Last night, the Pacers’ team defense was committed to neutralizing everyone on the heat not named Josh Richardson (7-for-10 3FGs, 28 points) in order to beat the heat. They hope to do the same with Trae Young (16.7 PPG, 2nd among NBA Rooks; 81.4 FT%, Rookie-high 8.0 APG) and the hapless Hawks (3-12) today, but it may prove to be a slightly tougher task. That’s because John Collins is slotted as probable to make his season debut for the Hawks. Young has been great at setting up teammates for scores, but there has been no one on the floor to return the favor. Collins won’t be of much assistance as a secondary passer, but if he returns swiftly to his form from late last season (8.1 RPG, 35.7 3FG%), he can grant Young more room to roam by drawing a pesky defender off to the paint or at the perimeter. Dewayne Dedmon (big poppa) returns from personal leave and should be active today in coach Lloyd Pierce’s rotation. Albeit not likely in time for this game, added reinforcements at the forward and center positions will alleviate the overburdened Hawks backcourt from carrying so much of the offensive water. A big beneficiary could be Kent Bazemore, quietly enjoying, if you can call it joy, career-highs of 14.8 PPG and 1.7 SPG. Despite a clunky outside shot (31.4 3FG%) in the early going, Baze is doing a better job of finishing around the rim (64.5 2FG%, best since at least 2013-14), long a bane and a bone of contention among his critics. When Oladipo, Collison, Joseph and Evans have their sights turned on Young and Jeremy Lin, Bazemore can have an impactful day playing off the ball. After not logging a steal or a block on Friday for just the second time this season, he’ll help the Hawks cause even more if he can get some stops and spark Atlanta’s transition game. It’s a back-to-back for Indiana, but the Pacers continue their homestand after enjoying four calendar days off. Unlike the Hawks’ recent opponents, who didn’t mind free-wheeling tempo, the Pacers will prefer to grind out a victory (28th in pace), fouling where needed to ensure they control the clock (19.6 personal foul calls per game, 2nd in NBA). Neither the Pacers (70.6 FT%, 29th in NBA) nor the Hawks (73.1 FT%, 22nd) are strong free throw shooters, so the final margin could be affected by which team proves to be more consistent from the line. Improved frontcourt support and a slower game pace, in combination, will contribute to a more palatable outcome today for the Hawks, one certainly better than Friday’s 138-93 debacle in Denver. The reduction of Pierce’s mix-and-match lineup permutations will give way to better stability for Atlanta on the floor and on the scoreboard, both in today’s game and in the long run. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “INDY FACE!” Taking care of business versus the Atlanta Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, for the second time in fifteen calendar days, should be of utmost importance to the Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana). Hopefully, it won’t be necessary for the visitors to impress the value of this game upon the hosts. The Pacers (37-28) are nearly at the high-water mark of where I could’ve expected the Hawks (20-45) to reside, under an absolute best-case scenario in this transitional NBA season. They’ve enjoyed a star turn from a young guard taking his lumps as he learns to lead a team on the fly (Victor Oladipo; Dennis Schröder), and continued, if unsteady, improvement from its longest-tenured contributor (Myles Turner; Kent Bazemore). Plus there has been better shooting (Bojan Bogdanovic; Marco Belinelli), veteran savvy (Thaddeus Young; Ersan Ilyasova) and emerging players that served as luxuries off the bench (Domantas Sabonis; John Collins). Mix in some experienced coaching talent (Nate McMillan; Bud) and the Pacers have almost maxed out their conceivable success in the aftermath of their All-Star’s pre-season departure (Paul George; Paul Millsap). That should be cause for celebration in Hoosierville, especially for a team that eschewed the notion of tanking and has won seven of its past ten games, situating themselves within a mere 1.5 games of 3-seed Cleveland. Yet Indiana knows their last three defeats were the kind that should not have been left on the table. They would be in that third-seed spot right now, but for losses to three teams that are outside-looking-in at the moment in the playoff picture. Two were bad road losses in consecutive contests, at Dallas and Atlanta, the latter a 107-102 loss on February 28. Their most recent setback was here at the Fieldhouse in a 104-84 defeat at the hands of Utah, the Pacers’ biggest home loss since mid-November. To the Pacers and their fans, the reward for this fantastic voyage ought to be a first-round series that starts in their homecourt, not on the road in Toronto, Boston, or Cleveland. Continued step-backs versus non-playoff competition like Atlanta won’t put the cherry on their season-long sundae. Four of Oladipo’s seven-worst games shooting from the field (based on TS%) have come in the seven Pacer games since his return from the All-Star Game. The two worst of his season were in his past two contests, at home versus Utah and division-rival Milwaukee, the latter a 92-89 grindfest where the Pacers simply had to hang on to fend off a late Greek Freak onslaught and obscure Oladipo’s career-high ten turnovers. His other two worst off-shooting nights were against these Hawks, including Atlanta’s last visit here on February 23. Victor combined to shoot 14-for-41 FGs against Atlanta in the past two games, including 9-for-25 (1-for-9 3FGs) on the Wednesday before last. On occasions like on the 23rd, when he got some help from teammates like Young (9-for-16 FGs, 5 steals), fill-in starter Cory Joseph (7-for-12 2FGs, 4 steals), plus Sabonis (8-for-11 2FGs, 5 O-Rebs), and the trippy Lance Stephenson (5-for-7 2FGs, 8 assists) off the bench, the Pacers can cruise versus lesser competition. But then there are Off-adipo nights like the 28th, when Indy compounds bad, unbalanced shooting with sloppiness (season-high 24 player TOs; only other time committing more than 16 since December was 17 vs. ATL on Feb. 23) and a failure to box out (six O-Rebs by Mike Muscala on 2/28, matching ATL’s total on 2/23 by himself). When that happens, the Pacers can find themselves losing to anyone, even a Hawks team that is now, officially (as per Elias Sports Bureau) the most inexperienced in the NBA (estimated 1.6 average years of service as of Feb. 27). McMillan will likely have some experienced help on hand ahead of tonight’s matchup. Usual starting guard Darren Collison (5.3 APG, 1.3 TOs/game) had arthroscopic knee surgery before the All-Star Break, but plans to contribute off the bench tonight. To help with rebounding and frontcourt depth, the team recently acquired former 76er Trevor Booker, who debuted for the Pacers against Milwaukee. The fine folks at Bleacher Report took a beating from discerning fans this week. They attempted to call out the Hawks resting Bazemore, for the first time all season, back on March 4th as symbolic of “a massive tank problem” getting out of control throughout the league. This was a mistake almost as egregious as ESPN omitting the once under-utilized Collins (team-high 14 points @ TOR, tying Baze; 57.8 FG%, 5th-highest among qualifying rookies in NBA history) from their 25-under-25 list this week. Hawks fan-writers Bo Churney and K.L. Chouinard were foremost in taking the B/R writers to task for their lazy observation. “(Baze) resting, the same Bazemore who had otherwise only missed a single game this year,” chastised Churney to B/R, “caused you to make a video about the NBA’s tanking ‘problem.’” Churney noted astutely, “The Hawks still won that game. This is either a you problem or blatantly misleading journalism.” Most observant NBA fans concur that Atlanta has been about as forthright and above-board as anybody in the lottery game about their approach to this season. Here, there are no teammates harming their own cause by punching each other in the nose; no premature, fly-off-the-handle coach firings; no coaches sitting otherwise healthy talents for weeks on end; no coaches feuding with ten-year vets and sending them home to stew while still collecting a paycheck. Belinelli was still hooping dutifully for this team when Memphis sand-bagged Tyreke Evans. Ilyasova was still hoping to stick around, at least until after a Payne-ful trade deal with a contender proved impossible to swing. On and off the court, this hasn’t been the atmosphere of blatant white-flagging that we’ve seen in other NBA locales. “Some teams may be dragging their feet,” Chouinard sub-tweeted regarding the B/R hit-piece video, “but pacing (Baze) for 79 games instead of 81 isn’t it. Look elsewhere.” If the Hawks’ meager efforts result in a top-tier draft pick, that’s swell. But their insistence on getting younger, giving otherwise wholly inexperienced players a chance to show how they might become NBA regulars with real minutes and strategic development, has been straight-forward from the moment Tyler Cavanaugh started getting steady floor time back in November, if not before. Everyone from the Suns to the Warriors can vouch for the fact that Coach Bud’s Hawks are not mailing games in, certainly not from tipoff. They have entered the fourth quarter of their past four games no more than six points behind their competitors, including Tuesday night, where they held a hotly-contested one-point lead at Air Canada Centre before finally letting go of the rope for the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors. While oft-critiqued as a sign of tanking in broad daylight, Budenholzer’s decision whether to ride with his leading scorer, Schröder, in the close of contests hasn’t decisively affected the outcomes either way, especially when one considers that the point guard’s defensive deficiencies aren’t always on the court, either. The Hawks have been ceding more points since the All-Star Break (112.2 opponent PPG, up from 107.8 pre-Break). But that has been mostly a function of a hike in turnovers (18.3 post, 14.8 pre) and a propensity for fouling rather than properly contesting, especially in away games (33 opponent FTAs @ TOR; 0-14 on road when allowing 25+ FTAs). Despite a great season thus far, the Pacers’ fans (and, Some Others) hope this team has learned from the last Hawks game that resting on their laurels is premature, at best. If Indiana sits back and fails to attack Atlanta’s less-experienced playmakers, move the ball, and secure defensive rebounds, they will again find themselves like many of Atlanta’s opponents, looking up at the second-half scoreboard and wondering: “Who are these guys? And why are we still in a dogfight with them?” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “Is THIS Your King???” Soon, legions of amped-up fans will fill into their seats, building up a decisive advantage for Atlanta’s home team. Of course, we’re not talking about our dear Atlanta Hawks, although they will benefit tonight from a few less opponent-cheering fanboys in the Philips Arena seats, what with the Indiana Pacers in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana in Hoosierville). No, that will instead be the scene around the corner in a couple weeks from now, as Atlanta Unites in lockstep around its Soccer Club. The fever pitch out on the pitch will take time to replicate on the Highlight Factory hardwood. But Travis Schlenk and company exude confidence that an offseason or two of fine-tuning is all it will take to turn Atlanta Hawks BC into a similar sensation as Atlanta United FC. In the meantime, noted futbol savant Dennis Schröder remains at center stage, trying to figure out if his best shot-making teammates headed to The Benz early. Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Babbitt. Three veterans that sunk more than one three-pointer per night, each at a 37-percent-or-better clip, each while donning the chartreuse-and-red. All three are in new NBA locales as of this evening. In that trio’s place, we’ve got no-frills second-rounders and G-League-caliber talents (Andrew White, Tyler Dorsey, Isaiah Taylor, the status-questionable Malcolm Delaney, the rehabbing Tyler Cavanaugh, etc.) figuring things out on the fly. This, all while big men Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins try their hands at long-distance sharpshooting for the first time in their natural lives, and while Taurean Prince (24 points, 4-for-11 3FGs vs. LAL during Monday’s loss; 16.3 3FG% in last six games) and Kent Bazemore (last 2 games: 0-for-5 3FGs, shoulda-been 8-for-11 on 2FGs but for Miles Plumlee) chuck-and-duck to their hearts’ content. For a player who thrives almost exclusively on the offensive end of the floor, there is little wonder why Schröder, whose 24 years of age now serves as the median on the team, exits February averaging a mere 4.0 APG, down from a monthly peak of 7.0 per game back in December and inclusive of a whopping four total assists in his first two appearances since the All-Star Break. While flawed himself, Schröder’s own shooting percentages are on an uptick (February: 43.7 FG%, 29.4 3FG%) compared to the nadir from the previous month (January: 40.2 FG%, 24.2 3FG%). They’ll have to continue improving for Atlanta (18-43, last in the East, 0.5 games behind Orlando) to stay in contention for occasional victories. That’s true even here at Philips, where Dennis is markedly more comfortable calling his own number (Home games: 46.5 FG%, 31.3 3FG%). What Hawks fans could once boast of as the NBA’s “Best Bad Team” (not the same as, “The Best Team at Being Bad”), using statistical metrics or even just eye tests, is no more. Certainly, not with the departure of three veteran shooters from the roster, supplanted by youngsters with replacement-level skillsets. But that doesn’t mean they no longer have a shot against playoff-caliber competition. The Pacers, who just soundly defeated the Hawks in Indiana just last Friday, know this about as well as anyone. Some Fans will be heartened to know that the Mavericks are 19-42, and not a league-worst 17-44, thanks to a pair of victories over the Pacers, most recently Monday’s 109-103 win in Dallas on Monday. To this point in the season, coach Nate McMillan’s crew has fattened up its win tally with an NBA-high 30 games versus teams with records presently below the .500 mark. Yet 9 of those contests have ended in defeat, including the Hornets, Lakers, Bulls, Knicks, and their playoff-hungry division rival Pistons (three times). The only subpar team on the docket for Indy (34-26, still just 2.0 games behind 3-seed Cleveland) in their next ten games are these Hawks, who return to the Fieldhouse for another rematch on March 9. The Pacers know they must take care of business before the competition ramps up, especially on the road, as demonstrating a knack for pulling out away-games matters at playoff time. But as was the case against the Mavs this week, when the Pacers are sluggish at contesting shots (53.8 opponent FG% in road games, tied-9th-highest in NBA; Dallas’ Doug McDermott and J.J. Barea combined 7-for-9 3FGs on Monday) and forcing turnovers (just 10 Maverick player TOs on Monday, matched by Prince and Schröder alone last Friday), when the starters find themselves over-reliant on Victor Oladipo scoring in the clutch (40.4% usage, 8th among active players; 26.3 clutch assist%, 7th among those top-8 players), and when their reserves fail to help rebound the ball (seven bench boards on Monday, matched by the Mavs’ Salah Mejri alone), they could find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard versus Betty White and Liz Taylor, never mind Andrew and Isaiah. Oladipo led the Pacers with 13 of their 38 fourth-quarter points, but they failed to get stops when it mattered and came up short, granting their otherwise distracted opponents 41 points in that final frame and thus spoiling a promising outing from Myles Turner (24 points on 10-for-14 FGs, 3 blocks and 11 rebounds) after his lackluster start against Atlanta last weekend. “We didn’t have enough energy and enough fight to get out too fast,” said Cory Joseph, still filling in for Darren Collison as a starting guard, to Monday’s postgame media, “and they (Mavs’ shooters) were knocking them down.” Pivoting to his team’s next game, Joseph had no problems seeing a nexus. “(Atlanta) doesn’t have a great record,” he noted, “but they’ve got a good team that plays together, plays hard. They’re a young team, so we’ve got to bring a lot of energy.” If the Pacers play to their strengths, as they are capable, they will have little trouble keeping Schröder and the Hawks at bay. Alternatively, if their gameplan relies on Plumlee scoring some own goals on their behalf, they could find themselves in late-game trouble yet again. As Atlanta United fans are aware, you don’t want to let an important outcome, in a game versus an inferior opponent, come down to penalty kicks. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “WHO doesn’t want us to win, you ask? The Tank People! They! THEY!!!” As both a Buck and a Hawk, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson played a valuable role in the Atlanta Hawks piling up losses over the years. Will his son continue that hallowed tradition tonight? Making his season debut for the host Indiana Pacers (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), Glenn Robinson III returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse just in time to haunt the Hawks. In March of last season, as Papa Dog looked on from the Philips Arena stands, he ran to the left corner to catch-and-sink a buzzer-beating three-pointer that stole a win away from a Hawks team that was hungering for playoff seed-boosting victories. A Gary, Indiana native, Robinson, 2016’s Slam Dunk champ, returns after preseason ankle surgeries curtailed what was shaping up as a promotion following the negotiated departure of former star Paul George. Pacers coach Nate McMillan intends to limit GR3’s playing time to ten minutes at the outset. But if the game gets tight late against a Hawks team (18-41) bearing the league’s worst road-game and in-conference marks, and playoff implications hang in the balance for Indiana (33-25), the temptation for Coach Nate to deploy his newest closer will be high. There were over half-dozen Eastern Conference teams that I questioned coming into this season, playoff-promising teams with flaws that might have them instead hanging with the Hawks by season’s end. But the Pacers have done the best to overcome my healthy skepticism. Arriving from OKC via the George trade, Victor Oladipo (career-high 24.4 PPG) has taken the vacated leadership mantle with an exuberant attitude, earning his first All-Star nod in the process. The fifth-year pro’s shot accuracy (53.5 2FG%, 38.1 3FG%) and defensive production (4.8 D-Rebs/game, 2.1 SPG) are blowing away prior career-bests (49.1 2FG% and 36.1 3FG%; 4.1 D-Rebs and 1.7 steals per game). No longer having his usage sucked away by mediocre Magic players or MVP winners in OKC, Oladipo’s emergence as an efficient offensive threat comes right on time for an Indiana club that would have been fine settling for a short-term recession, like the Hawks, but is now budding with confidence they can be much more than the first-round-exit fodder they’ve been during George’s final seasons. Oladipo is the clear top-banana. But, as was often the case when George was the star, Indiana stands out by having a constellation of second-tier talents taking turns in the role of Oladipo’s #2 offensive sidekick. At times, it’s Victor’s fellow arrival from OKC, Domantas Sabonis (want to insta-peeve a Magic fan? Say these words: Serge Ibaka Trade), who continues to show a mastery of rebounding as a sixth-man (team-high 8.2 RPG in 25.3 minutes/game). Other times, it’s longtime veteran Thaddeus Young, who has been the NBA’s MMP (Most Median Player) for years. On occasion, it’s Indiana’s leading assist-man, Darren Collison, who has been a steadying influence (5.3 APG, 1.3 TOs/game), but remains out for another week following arthroscopic knee surgery a few weeks ago. If you ask Lance Stephenson (32.5 3FG%), he’ll tell you he’s the main sidekick, or maybe even the headliner. Myles Turner ought to be that guy, but the young third-year center continues to struggle with post strength and consistency. The current leading wing-man for Oladipo has been Bojan Bogdanovic, who has become the Pacers’ second-leading scorer while shedding a season full of struggles with his jumper (last 7 games before the break: 19.1 PPG, 47.6 3FG%, 87.5 FT%). Robinson will only add to the plethora of options for McMillan to pair alongside Oladipo. With Collison out, the Pacers’ star will have to pick between defending Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder and sticking to the wing and leaving that assignment to current starter Cory Joseph (15 points, season-high 11 rebounds @ BRK on Feb. 14). Tending to Schröder could create some openings along the perimeter for the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore (3-for-4 3FGs vs. IND on Dec. 20; 64.3 3FG% in his past 3 games). Baze was rested along with Dennis during the Hawks’ pre-Break finale, a 104-98 loss in Detroit that was way more thrilling than it should have been for the Pistons. At least for today, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks will have a depth advantage at the point, even without Malcolm Delaney (knee), who started and matched Isaiah Taylor (questionable, sprained ankle) with seven assists in Detroit. Tyler Dorsey (6 assists @ DET), DeAndre’ Bembry and newcomer Andrew White will also help with moving the rock, on behalf of the Hawks offense. Picked up by the Pacers on a 10-day deal during the break, guard Trey McKinney-Jones and will try to help alleviate his teammates on the defensive end. Atlanta’s 105-95 home loss to the Pacers on December 20 came without Dewayne Dedmon (last 3 games: 61.5 FG%, 42.9 3FG%, 13.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG), who will try to create mismatches around the paint against Turner and Al Jefferson. If Turner’s mid-range game isn’t on-point, it could be a long day for the Pacers’ frontline against Dedmon, John Collins and Ersan Ilyasova. The Hawks will have to do a better job of pressuring the Pacers into turnovers. They managed to produce just 9 player TOs, tied for a season-low, when Indiana visited back in December. Getting stops and creating more transition buckets are what often helps the Hawks narrow gaps against superior competition. A trip to Dallas is sandwiched by the home-and-home series between these two clubs. These are clearly winnable games for the taking for Indiana, who gets the Hawks three times over the next 15 days. Having won three straight before the Break, the Pacers are a mere two games out of the East’s 3-seed, where Cleveland currently resides. But they are 4.5 games in front of the playoff-hungry Pistons, and even closer to Milwaukee and Philadelphia, opponents who are on the horizon as the calendar turns to March. That makes the next three games imperative for Indy to navigate through, without any slip-ups. Oladipo is the obvious choice for the Pacers in a tight fourth-quarter affair. But if Atlanta continues hanging around at the Fieldhouse, and Victor gets bottled up in the clutch, to whom might McMillan turn, to save the day once again? “Get Along, Little Doggie…” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “That fart was OFFENSIVE… RYAN CAMERON!” The Atlanta Hawks hope their play makes no one nauseous tonight at Philips Arena, as they aim for their first two-game winning streak of the season at the expense of the Indiana Pacers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana) on Ryan Cameron Foundation Night. There is no outcome for tonight’s contest that can be placed outside of the context of what happened to Indiana in their last game. While one of the Hawks’ fans, and one of their opponents, were working the Highlight Factory janitorial crew into overdrive, the Pacers spent virtually all of Monday night getting outfoxed by yet another lucky-ducky team from New England. The East’s top-seeded Celtics pounced on Indy with a 12-0 lead and ten consecutive made baskets to open the match, building up as much as a 19-point lead. But in the final frame, Victor Oladipo Happened, the Fieldhouse became a madhouse, and the Pacers found themselves about to upend Boston, up by one with ten seconds to go. Sadly, Bojan Bogdanovic lobbed a fatally errant cross-court inbounds pass, plucked from the air by Boston’s Terry Rozier, who outraced the Pacers for what would be the game-winning, heart-breaking jam. Now, instead of sauntering into the ATL with an abundance of confidence, Indiana (17-15) arrives at Philips having dropped three of their last four, eager to get that queasy feeling out of the pits of their stomachs. Who’s the leader in the clubhouse for the Most Improved Player Award? What’s round at the ends, and LADIP in the middle? And, oh… Paul Who? Oladipo has been the answer to those questions, and many more. NBA fans who asked aloud, “Is That ALL They Got?” when the Pacers took Oladipo and second-year forward Domantas Sabonis off OKC’s hands, in exchange for former franchise savior Paul George, are now scrambling to scrub their social media comments before GM Kevin Pritchard can re-tweet them. Pritchard might not have been caught “liking” any commentary praising him for bringing back the steady (on-the-court) Darren Collison (6.0 APG, 1.5 TOs/game) on a two-year deal, and for acquiring Cory Joseph (career-best 42.9 3FG%) for peanuts from Toronto, in-lieu of re-upping with hometown hero Jeff Teague. But few would blame him for those clicks, either. The point-guard pair joins Oladipo and Bogdanovic as four of six leaders in minutes-played for Indiana (38.9 team 3FG%, 2nd in NBA) with better than 40-percent three-point accuracy. Entrusted with the ball by coach Nate McMillan after enhancing his conditioning and game in the offseason, Oladipo (24.9 PPG, 51.0 2FG%, 42.8 3FG%, 1.8 SPG, 5.5 RPG) is blowing away middling career numbers from his time with the Magic and Thunder, and now serves as a lock for an All-Star reserve spot, if not more. Seeing the 25-year old guard blossom after being reduced to a literal cast-off by two NBA clubs should be instructive for anyone impulsively giving up on young talents. That includes a few Pacer fans inclined to see center Myles Turner (NBA-high 2.3 BPG) dealt away, fearing the 21-year-old has already plateaued, somehow, and might over-ripen without ever rounding out his game (phenomena also known as “Hibbert Paranoia”). Despite his defensive activity around the rim, Turner leads a Pacer defense that takes a Scroogish approach to free throws for their foes (NBA-lows of 13.1 opponent FTs and 71.9 opponent FT%). During the 2016 Draft, Oladipo and Sabonis were shipped, along with Ersan Ilyasova, for Orlando’s half-season rental of Serge Ibaka. Like many on the Thunder, Oladipo and Sabonis were not expected to do much, unless reigning MVP Russell Westbrook called for them. But with the Pacers, Domantas has thrived as a rim-running, screen-setting, paint-passing, glass-cleaning sixth-man (team-high 8.3 RPG, mostly as a reserve). While he essentially squares the BBIQ of a bench crew that features Lance Stephenson, it shouldn’t be long before Sabonis permanently supplants Thaddeus “Mr. 50th Pecentile” Young in the starting unit. That’s enough about the Pacers for now. And instead of the players that we all know well, let’s focus on one of the best things going for the Hawks (7-23) right now. How does a kid with a speech impediment grow to become a senior class president (at Smyrna’s Campbell High), a frat-house president, a stand-up comedian, and, eventually, the “King of Atlanta Airwaves”, a drive-time don and a morning-show mogul, a two-time Emmy Award winner, a perennial Marconi Award nominee, and a Georgia Radio Hall of Fame inductee? Few people gave up on Ryan Cameron. And more importantly, Cameron never allowed them to, because he never gave up on himself. Ryan put in the work as a pro bono intern at local powerhouse V-103, building his way up the ranks in a budding, competitive media market. His “Edu-tainment” approach to sharing information quickly captured the ears of not only a dedicated audience, but ATL’s many movers-and-shakers in entertainment, media, politics, and beyond. When he’s not shouting, “GOT HEEM!” at Dennis Schröder’s overmatched defenders, Cameron spends much of his days as the preeminent voice of Atlanta FM radio. With his life story and his kids serving as touchstones, Ryan and his ex-wife Kysha formed the Ryan Cameron Foundation as an umbrella for “True To Atlanta”-style community outreach efforts that have now spanned over 25 years. Honored today by the Hawks, this non-profit organization (at holds bowling events and golf clinics, health fairs and youth “anti-violence” initiatives. It also hosts a “leadership academy” assisting Atlanta’s young citizens in a wide range of areas, from college prep and etiquette, to public speaking and financial literacy. Cameron hopes to someday expand his foundation nationwide, particularly through the rural areas of the South. Tonight’s honorary festivities will only help to advance that goal. With breakout performers and steady play, the Pacers’ story represents the optimal situation anyone could have hoped for the Hawks to this point of the season. Victory tonight could vault them back into 4th place, in a conference that’s pretty muddled after the Top 3. But this game could become either the palate-cleanser coming off a disappointing defeat, or the confirmation of a possible downturn in their fortunes. Will Indiana’s hopes to climb up the standings get “Inspected… Rejected!” tonight? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. It's Peter Vecsey, so caveat emptor. But this story might actually have legs. ~lw3
  16. Just a tad bit early for that, don’cha think, PG? It really wasn’t supposed to end this way for Jeff Teague and his Indiana Pacers. Traded to his hometown last June, the former Atlanta Hawks point guard and star of the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinal series was determined to show the league – and his former neophyte backup, Dennis Schröder – that he could team up with All-Star cornerstone Paul George and guide this team to a strong regular season finish, a trip to the postseason, and maybe a whole lot more. That scenario may still come to pass. But for any of that story to be told, Jeff and his Pacers must rise to the challenge against his former team, tonight, in a virtual must-win regular season finale (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana, ESPN elsewhere). Having finalized playoff seeding last night, Schröder will join four other Hawks (Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Junior Hardaway) on towel-waving and shot-mimicking duties from the sideline. Without this victory, Indiana would need both Miami and Chicago to lose their home games (in the Bulls’ case, against Brooklyn) to secure a Reservation for 15 in the NBA Playoffs. Without this win, Teague risks having to watch Schröder and Utah’s George Hill, the latter part of last summer’s 3-team trade deal, from the comfort of his mother’s basement couch. Out of the gate, Jeff certainly struggled in his new role under coach Nate McMillan, but managed to shake out of his doldrums midway through the season, especially as a passer (career-high 7.8 APG, 7th in NBA; 8.6 APG through 5 games this month). But predictably, under McMillan’s watch, Indy has failed to exploit perhaps Teague’s greatest asset – quickness – to its advantage (98.2 possessions per-48, 18th in NBA). This, despite the unbridled athleticism and versatility of George (career-best 23.6 PPG, 46.0 FG%, and 89.8 FT%), center Myles Turner’s high-post passing skills, and Thaddeus Young’s newfound ability (38.1 3FG%, despite a nagging wrist injury) to stretch the floor with his jumpshot. McMillan was too often enamored with plodding big men (Kevin Seraphin, Lavoy Allen, Al Jefferson) and ball-stopping, clock-killing guards (Monta Ellis, recently-waived Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks) sharing the floor. Collectively, even with George’s firepower, the Pacers have been mediocre in just about every category, save for getting steals (7th in NBA) and blocking shots (8th in NBA), and that’s reflective of their modest 41-40 record. The things Indiana can do fairly well, they don’t do enough. They rank fourth in NBA three-point accuracy, but 27th in three-point shot volume; second in free-throw percentage, but 24th in free throw attempts. To be fair, Coach Nate has been playing the hand he was dealt by longtime executive Larry Bird, who has worn out his welcome just about everywhere outside of French Lick. But McMillan and the Pacers are only beginning to sort things out, and it may turn out to be too late for this season. With Teague an unrestricted free agent in July, and with George likely to opt out the following summer, there could be a ton of uncertainty in Pacerland going forward, especially if this team fails to reach the postseason and win some games once they get there. Questions abound: Hoosier GM? Hoosier coach? Hoosier point guard? Hoosier superstar? With all the pressure, how has George been holding up lately? Just fine. As in, he just wants the league to fine him. Getting no whistles in his game-long jousting with Gerald Henderson, until both players were ejected with minutes to spare during the Pacers’ 120-111 win in Philadelphia on Monday, George just let the refs have it afterwards. “You all know how I feel about the officials,” George seethed, “and tonight, I really have no faith in them… (Crappy) officiating job.” That will cost him a cool 25 thousand smacks. The costly consternation still isn’t enough to eclipse the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week’s ability to carry this team on his back offensively. Averaging 33.0 PPG this month, PG-13 helped pace Indiana with 17 first-quarter points in Philly. As noted by SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows, a full third of the seventh-year Pacer’s 35+-point scoring games have come since the All-Star Break alone. Now eighth in NBA-career scoring among Pacers, surpassing our dear friend Billy Knight, George is no longer the inefficient volume-shooter from seasons past. The franchise player, and the franchise itself, are each motivated by him piling up the points at the close of the season. Due to the Designated Player Exception rules in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, some All-NBA hardware could sweeten the pot (by $70 million more dollars, as per USA Today) for Indiana to retain him in 2018. That alone could cover a lot of future fines. The Hawks are fully aware of George’s scoring prowess, as all his 34 points came during the first three quarters in Atlanta on March 5, helping convert the Hawks’ early 13-point lead into an 11-point deficit midway through the third quarter. But the likelihood of victory improves for Indy when they balance their scoring across the floor. The Pacers are 5-2 on the season when three players score at least 20 points, and 17-5 when six players score in double figures. Atlanta got their sole late-November victory on this Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor, holding George to 6-for-22 shooting (2-for-11 3FGs) and four free throws, while containing Teague and everyone aside from Ellis and Young to 10-for-33 FGs. In that game, Howard (9 O-Rebs) created the second-chance opportunities for Atlanta that the Pacers could not, so much will be expected of Turner (12 points and 14 rebounds total in two games vs. ATL; 18 points, 13 boards @ PHI) tonight, while Dwight rests. Can Lance help the Pacers dance? Almost out of desperation, the Pacers’ brass returned Lance Stephenson to the team where he built his ear-blowing rep, and he has sparked not only the fanbase, but his team as a ballhandler (3.8 APG off the bench) and even as an end-of-shot-clock gunner (5-for-7 3FGs through 5 games). The Pacers’ 4-1 run since Stephenson’s return (their sole loss 135-130 in Cleveland) has set them up well for today’s finale. Whatever Lance does on behalf of the Pacers tonight, good or bad, will at least be interesting. It’s unlikely the Hawks will have to account for Glenn Robinson III sitting in the corner this time around. With Big Daddy Dog proudly looking on, GR3 pulled out a three-point plum off the dish from the more-dangerous C.J. Miles (career-high 41.3 3FG%) at the buzzer, sealing Atlanta’s fate in the 97-96 defeat last month despite George being held scoreless in the fourth quarter. But Robinson’s sore calf will have him watching the final game from the sidelines, along with Jefferson (ankle sprain) and probably Brooks (sore knee). Last night’s 103-76 fumigation of the Hornets’ skeleton crew was as re-assuring as home finales go for Atlanta. But for the Pacers, the game tape they’d be wise to review is the short-winged Hawks’ 114-100 stunner in Cleveland last week. Even ignoring Hardaway, that game’s top scorer, Atlanta got meaningful contributions from Jose Calderon, Junior Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kris Humphries, upending King James on his court in what was another essential game for the home team. That quartet of Hawks should start tonight. Rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry will each have their chances to keep George contained, with Mike Budenholzer including a rust-shedding appearance or two from Thabo Sefolosha for good measure. “We’re ready to come out and do whatever it takes to get this win,” George recently told ESPN Radio (1070 The Fan). “It would be a shame, especially with how we’re playing of late. It seems we’re figuring it out, we know what level we need to play at on a consistent basis and it would be a shame to throw it all away and not get this win.” Even with a pared-down roster, and with their opponents playing as full-bore as possible, tonight effectively serves as Elimination Game Practice for the Hawks (43-38). There is no pressure for its participants, other than to play hard, play smart, play well, and stay healthy. At worst, a loss tonight might scooch the team’s draft spot up ahead of Portland (Memphis’ pick), while re-confirming the indubitable genius and clairvoyance of Hotlanta, the sole Squawker who predicted 43 wins this season. But if Atlanta’s second- and third-strings can pull off another confidence-building upset, this time before a national audience, it could bode well for a team that, knock on wood, might find itself in a similar circumstance a couple weeks from now. Namely, in the District of Columbia, for Game 5 and/or Game 7. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record