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  1. “Lemme tell ya, Spo, I’ve been accused of having a Suspicious Package a few too many times for my liking, y’know what I mean?” Three games under our belts, and we still don’t have a series! We’re often told it’s not a series until somebody steals a road game, or when a team finds itself up for elimination, having lost its third game, for example, in a seven-game series. Neither of those things transpired on Friday, and that still may hold true if the Atlanta Hawks play even incrementally better against the Miami heat tonight at State Farm Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT). Atlanta indeed needed every last screech and ca-caw from their swag-surfing fans at The Farm to climb out from a double-digit hole and curtail a heroballing Jimmy Butler at Friday’s final horn. Cramming commuter-fans into their seats in a timely fashion, on a pleasant Sunday evening, shouldn’t be as much of a challenge, so the house should be packed for Game 4 and rocking at tipoff. That should benefit these Hawks, who persistently crow about the advantageous comforts of playing before the home crowd, in producing their best opening quarter in this series. Butler faces the additional challenge of carrying some laboring co-stars. Kyle Lowry’s hamstring is acting up from all of his pratfalls. It rendered him inactive for the pivotal final quarter of Game 3 and pairs his upper-leg ailment with Bam Adebayo’s continuously bruised quad. While the evening tip time does not necessarily translate into a schedule win for Miami, the extra intervening hours that were not afforded Atlanta ahead of Game 1 should aid in the heat players’ recuperation. Neither of Lowry (5.1 PPG below; 31.3 FG% in series) nor Adebayo (9.8 PPG below; 45.0 2FG%) are scoring near their regular-season averages, while the ice is only beginning to crack for sixth-man Tyler Herro (5.6 PPG below, despite a team-high 24 points in Friday’s 111-110 loss). Butler has been ready and willing to be Playoff Jimmy, but it’s hard to foretell whether his perimeter proficiencies (42.9 3FG% on 4.7 3FGAs/game vs. ATL; 23.3% on 2.0 3FGAs/game in regular season) can hold up for an entire series, particularly this one. It is reaching the height of suspicion that heat coach Erik Spoelstra may choose to ride with one of Gabe Vincent (probable for Game 4), on his bum toe, or Herro to offset Lowry’s absence or limitations as a starter, while Victor Oladipo watches Trae Young (19.0 PPG despite 17.4 3FG% vs. MIA) and Delon Wright from afar. “[Caleb Martin] played [in Game 2] and had significant, important minutes in that second half. I anticipate the same thing will happen for Vic and [Markieff Morris],” Spo told media after Game 2, although both vets were scratches on Friday, too. Martin (ankle sprain) now joins Kyle, Bam, and P.J. Tucker (strained calf) on the list of gameday questionables. However Spo rotates his backcourt, Atlanta’s under Nate McMillan has a conditioning advantage to exploit, even with Lou Williams (out, back ache) unlikely to appear unless an elimination game is on the horizon. McMillan cannot be pleased that his Hawks had been losing the turnover margins against Miami (16.0, to MIA’s 15.0), but he must have enjoyed the turnover-free comeback in the fourth-quarter of Game 3. Also, while the languishing nature of Game 1 skews the head-to-head stats, one advantage Atlanta currently holds is in points scored off of those same turnovers (20.3, to MIA’s 18.3). The possibility of having Clint Capela (questionable, hyperextended knee) back in the lineup is tantalizing for the Hawks, particularly in seizing back the rebounding edge going forward. But the immediate task ahead is to run on the weary-legged heat and execute with few unforced errors and out-of-rhythm shots. If Atlanta can continue to tamp down the heat in the middle quarters (MIA +6 in the combined 2nd and 3rd quarters of Game 3, down from +10 in Game 2 and +20 in Game 1), they could find Butler and the heat scrambling late in hopes of avoiding a return to Florida, and later Georgia, with this series knotted at two wins apiece. Closing the books on Game 4 would require the Hawks to commit to limiting catch-and-shoot open perimeter looks (particularly for Max Strus, Tucker, Herro and Duncan Robinson), going over on screens, and staying high enough on heat ballhandlers that they cannot barrel into defenders and draw foul shots with the clock stopped. Let us all make it through Game 5 before anybody starts calling this 1-versus-8 matchup a series. That goes for you, too, Paul Pierce! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. The only PEG I acknowledge. We PEGging out here? Ugh! Oh, how I loathe me some Playoff Ending Gamethreads. The only thing worse than a PEG is the prospect of having to scribe at least two more. And I don't have the cholesterol to even think about IG-friendly offseason resorts like Tulum. As a twisty, turny campaign appears to be nearing its sunset for our dear Atlanta Hawks, I’m just about ready to hang the DIDN’T GET SWEPT LOLZ 2021-22 banner within bird’s-eye view of the SWAG Shop and turn that page. A few Knicks fans feel me on that. There is one other element, with Game 5 versus the top-seeded Miami heat looming at FTX Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBATV), that has me eagerly looking forward. Beginning with next season’s tipoff, our view of the Hawks, and especially the internal perception by the team, will no longer be framed by the starry close to the postseason summer of 2021, the reverberations of which were still being felt yesterday, in Philadelphia, and in at least one borough of New York City. Barring retirement or some desire to return to assistant-ship, Nate McMillan will still be here running the show. Amid last season’s magical late-season carpet ride, McMillan shared with The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz about how “Old Nate” is a relic of the past. The cold, curt, curmudgeonly sideline general had transitioned to a new philosophy, one that began in his latter years with Indiana. Transferring an air of being Calm, Clear, and Connected to his staff and players serves to the benefit, as I trust any cardiologist for upper-50-year-olds would acknowledge, of Nate himself, at minimum. McMillan professed that his recent years as an overseer helped him learn a lot about how best to adapt his coaching style to the new kids of the NBA today. I, for one, would love to see how what “New Nate” has learned translates to a competitive advantage on the modern NBA floor. Because we sure didn’t see much of that from his Hawks at home in Game 4. Yes, Nate was able to outfox groveling peers like Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau at playoff time last year. But teeth-grinding coaches like Mike Budenholzer, and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, are able to secure longevity and sustain success by adjusting on the fly until something works, not by sticking to a preconceived gameplan in hopes it will eventually work. Midway through the second quarter of Game 4, Spoelstra dialed up the zone defense and aggressive switching to neu-Trae-lize the Hawks’ solitary-star-reliant offense, Atlanta’s 86 points the puniest playoff output since getting mowed down by Matthew Dellavedova’s Cavs in Game 2 of the 2015 ECF. A harried Trae Young took just one shot inside the three-point arc, a point-blank miss near the end of the first half as the Hawks’ momentum had slipped away. Further, Young’s one free throw, a missed technical foul shot after the heat’s P.J. Tucker took it upon himself to get under every doe-eyed Hawk’s skin in the third quarter, set the tone for the remainder of the contest. Dour, Doomed, and Discombobulated. The Traemates did little on Sunday evening to lessen their perception as a skin-of-their-teeth 8-seed, one that did not deserve to share the floor with Jimmy Butler and the East’s top-seeded heat. Atlanta’s one-note offensive attack came at the heat repeatedly from the left corner at the outset of Game 4. But once Spoelstra and Butler switched up the coverage, McMillan was caught without a reliable Plan B. The contest exposed not simply the scale of one-upmanship by the heat on the floor, and along the sideline, but in the front office, too. Sitting smugly in the stands during Game 4, heat team prez Pat Riley did not need to drown his coach in a motel shower (is that a spoiler? I think that might be a spoiler…) to get Spoelstra to reassess his strategies after Miami got bounced by Bud’s Bucks in 2021’s opening round. Riley had a little more time than Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk to transition into 2021-22. But he only needed a couple of days to re-tool the roster with limited salary room, and he did so quite effectively. Using Percious Achiuwa and a trade exception to upgrade Goran Dragic into Kyle Lowry, Riley brought back the oft-injured Victor Oladipo, while prying Tucker, the Bucks’ hero from the 2021 ECF, from Milwaukee. Riley also brought back several underwhelming young players to buttress the team depth, and he put his player development staff to work. I have written on several occasions in season’s past about Anthony Carter, the former streetball hustler who dropped out of Atlanta’s Crim High as a freshman but made his way to JuCo ball, then D-1 at the University of Hawaii, before kicking off his 13-year NBA career with the heat. Riley wooed him back to his program as an assistant for their G-League team in Sioux Falls in 2016, then continued promoting him over the years with heightened expectations. Now the heat’s designated director of player development, assistant coach Carter was handed a guard, in Gabe Vincent, that shot just 37.8% of field goals, and a swimgman, in Max Strus, that shot just 33.8 percent on threes, each while averaging 13 minutes per game in 2020-21. Both immensely improved their output in elevated playing time under Carter’s and Spoelstra’s watches this season. This was essential for a program that endured the struggling Duncan Robinson all season while missing veterans Oladipo and Markieff Morris for the lion’s share. Strus and Vincent represent two of Miami’s nine undrafted players on the conference’s first-place roster, punctuating Riley’s defiance of the tank-and-they-will-come approach applied by many struggling NBA staffs. As an injured Kyle Lowry looked on, Strus (+34 plus/minus in Game 4) and Vincent plugged in capably on Sunday, sinking seven of Miami’s 13 triples and dishing 7 assists (1 combined turnover) while helping Butler and Oladipo thoroughly scuttle Atlanta’s ballhandlers. Conversely, Schlenk’s sole impactful addition from last offseason, Delon Wright was underwhelming aside from his offensive rebounds. Much is made of the need for the Hawks, perhaps hamstrung by the forthcoming salary raises for its young core, to acquire a secondary veteran star in this offseason to alleviate Young from having to be alpha and omega for McMillan’s offense. But it will be as important, in my estimation, to bring in plug-and-playable veterans infinitely more capable than Gorgui Dieng and Lou Williams, to foster rookies and young players in anticipation of positive inputs at playoff time, and to develop the existing core players to have more dimensions to their fullcourt game than just waiting to see if Trae graces them the opportunity to finish plays. Just as much as Schlenk stepping up to compete full-bore with the Rileys, Horsts and Ujiris of the world is essential going forward, enhanced success for the Hawks is also going to require an evolution from McMillan and his staff to get on Spoelstra’s level. Modifying his approaches to relying on under-experienced players earlier in the regular season, to using timeouts to disrupt adverse game flows, to deepening his bench contributions, should all be a part of the “New Nate” Hawks fans ought to see by 2023. “New Travis” working with Nate to re-tool the assistants and developmental staff would be an integral part of Atlanta’s evolution. While all of that rumination rightfully has me PEGged as a defeatist in preparing to close the books on 2022, I still get the sense that if there is any 8-seeded team capable of pulling off a possum job and winning three straight head-to-heads, including two here in Miami, it’s this one, despite their struggles on the road versus decent competition. Throughout this season, Atlanta has often looked like the lazy college kid, self-satisfied with his high school accomplishments, who wanders into class late, scribbles anime in his notebook during lectures, flubs group projects, is last to turn in assignments, teeters on flunking out, yet somehow shows up on graduation day as the salutatorian. If the banged-up John Collins and Clint Capela are none the worse for wear after Game 4, they and Onyeka Okongwu should be able to provide a more united front for a Hawks defense that actually did reasonably well in keeping Miami to another mild 110-point outing. It was Atlanta’s offensive inertia, and the deflating shots from the Gray Mule line, that needed the most correction. Fixing that while stifling Bam Adebayo and the heat’s second-chance and extra-chance opportunities could help them, as Toronto did yesterday, prolong the series and give the faithful fans back home a final first-round do-over in Game 6. At least momentarily, we are back to the Woody-style years of ruing our Hawks’ perennially disappointing postseason conclusions. There are occasions when I miss the serenity of the Tank years under Bailout Bud and LP, when there were few postseason heartbreak possibilities abound. Just Game #82 or whatever, and the obligatory, accompanying Season Ending Gamethreads. But without vast offseason improvements by personnel from the top down, we may all find ourselves back in that Game-82 mindset next spring: “Let’s talk about SEGs, baby! Let’s talk about all the good things, and the bad things, that may be!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Wait, is that… James? James Butler, from Tomball High???” Joe Johnson was giving people buckets! So, for that matter, was Josh McRoberts. And Justise Winslow. Such was the case the last time the Miami heat won a playoff game in Miami-Wade County. Just ask Erik Spoelstra, he was there. Or, better yet, ask Kyle Lowry. He was giving buckets, too, albeit for the other side. May 13, 2016, to refresh your memory. After getting dispatched for years as the marquee performer on the annually playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks, Joe never got a chance at playoff vengeance against the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar during his latter runs to glory as a founding member of the heatles. Instead, the eventual 34-year-old had transitioned fully into If You Can’t Beat ‘Em mode, previously with KG and the ex-Celts in Brooklyn, then in Miami with D-Wade, with Udonis Haslem helping Coach Spo keep everyone’s bench seats warm. The Three J’s were doing all they could to help Dwyane and Goran Dragic earn their keep in the aftermath of the Return of the Former King to Ohio. They would do enough to help the heat outlast the Raptors’ static duo of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in Game 6, but their production was not enough for Miami in the series finale at Toronto. We have established the Miami heat as the gold standard of the Southeast Division, if not the Eastern Conference, and this season’s slow, if unsteady rise to a conference-leading 53-29 record did little to tarnish that reputation. Spoelstra’s got his shiny rings, team godfather Pat Riley has more than his share. But I get this gnawing feeling that the heat are like the Sears Roebuck of the 1990s NYSE. They’re atop the charts, as they have been for awhile, looking pretty, with zero idea what is soon to befall them. Wade and Shaq helped salvage the heat’s reputation as a good club that couldn’t get it done when it mattered most. That was less than a decade after Coach Riley’s 1-seed heat were stunned at home by the 8-seed Knicks in the fifth and final game of the first-round series. Beset by injuries and chemistry challenges during a truncated regular season, scrambling late in the season just to get playoff-qualified, arch-enemy New York upset Miami in the first round, for the second year in a row, this time on the path to The Finals. If you catch yourself wondering why you’ve been treated to the random musings of Jeff Van Gundy on a weekly basis for decades on end, thank Riley’s heat from the ‘90s. Had Stan not gotten canned by Riley early in 2005-06’s title season, we’d never get either brother’s opinions off our TV sets. Wade’s Miami campaign seemed to be coming to a close, and Spoelstra’s rookie run taking over for Riley about to be one-and-done, in 2009 when the heat lost a seven-game rockfight at the hands of Joe, Flip Murray and the Hawks. It was 4-seed Atlanta’s first series win in ages. As Joe’s Hawks finally looked to be on the precipice of breaking through as Orlando’s top challenger, for Wade, Spoelstra and Haslem, they seemed to be nearing the end of the Metromover line. Dwyane and his banana boatmates had other ideas. I can’t possibly ask for much out of this series that begins today (1 PM Eastern, really ought to be later in the day like the Pelicans but okay, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), furthering another chapter in the Hawks-heat rivalry. My hurried fingers aren’t even typing were it not for “The Big Chill”, Trae Young, being Shot-on-Ehlo-GOOD in the second half of Friday’s triumphant high-wire act in Cleveland. All I can request, whichever way it falls, is that these contests look pretty. And not pretty ugly. The 2009 series rivaled 2010’s seven games against Brandon Jennings’ Bucks as the butt-ugliest Best-of-7 NBA playoff round in recent memory. Thirteen years later, there should be nothing reminiscent of Iso Joe milking the shot clock dry, Smoove daring his own fans with off-balance, off-rhythm threes, Al jap-stepping with no follow-up plan, no wild shooting off the bench from the likes of Marvin, Flip, Mo and Zaza. At the other end of the sideline, with all respect due, there will be many better options for Spoelstra to deploy in 2022 than Mike Beasley and Daequan Cook. Sixth-man extraordinaire Tyler Herro, bucket splasher Duncan Robinson and defensive backstop Bam Adebayo (active, Straight Outta COVID) will offer ample support for Lowry and Jimmy Butler, each of whom commandeered their way to Miami in hopes of extending past glories at playoff time. The desperation for Riley and Miami to acquire Lowry, a ring-bearing point guard, was heightened after last season’s Playoffs. First, Butler and the heat were stifled by Giannis’ Bucks in a first-round sweep loaded with blowouts. Then, they watched Young’s upstart Hawks push those same Bucks nearly to the brink in the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami won those conference finals in a Bubble just up the road in Disney World in 2020. But they haven’t been successful as the home team, in a venue that didn’t feature Max Headrooms and cardboard-cutout celebrities, since the spring of 2016. Old Man and the Three’s J.J. Redick, along with Marco Belinelli and Dario Saric carried precocious Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to a gentleman’s sweep of Wade and the heat in 2018 that included two Sixer wins in what is now FTX Arena. Miami's horrible fans didn’t even want to be let back in by games' end. Over the last 15 games of this season, it was the heat (9-6; 3.7 Net Rating, 8th in NBA East) that looked more the part of an 8-seed than Atlanta (10-5; 5.6 Net Rating, 7th in NBA). That’s not counting the past week’s Play-In contests. Miami having Adebayo and P.J. Tucker (probable, strained calf) will aid in securing defensive boards, as is their team’s frontcourt forte. Where Miami could fall into trouble is in failing to get shots up without turning over the ball (14.4 team TOs per-48, tied w/ CLE and ORL for most in NBA East). Lowry, Herro, Adebayo, Butler and even Victor Oladipo commit at least two turnovers per game, in all but Butler’s case close to three per 36 minutes. The turnovers that the heat, in particular Lowry, produces tend to be more of the dead-ball variety, allowing opponents a moment to recover. If Atlanta can win the live-ball turnover game, along with the fastbreak scoring (MIA minus-1.5 net fastbreak points per-48 since the All-Star Break; ATL opponent’s 10.7 fastbreak points per-36 in the regular season lowest among Playoff teams), they can control the pace and keep the heat cooled on their heels. While the short turnaround in the schedule is disconcerting for the Hawks, and the absence of Clint Capela (out through at least Game 3, hyperextended knee) and the tentative return of South Floridian John Collins a bit disorienting, Atlanta affirmed that when they’re not over-reliant on either Young or the supporting cast to carry the entire day, they can be a tough cover, and a tougher out. Against this version of the heat, Onyeka Okongwu is free to play the role of ’99 Marcus Camby, as the breakout young center pressed into prominence in a playoff pinch. Obviously, these Hawks already know the drill: steal a game or two here in Miami, take care of business back home, move on and move on up. Ultimately, I hope to see two decent teams, led by well-seasoned coaches, play like it, and if there can to be only one, make it Nate McMillan’s. However long this series lasts, I want to see crisp closeouts, bodacious boxouts, scintillating screens, rational rotations, and handy dribble hand-offs. Pretty, please. With sugar on top! Ramadan Mubarak! Chag Pesach sameach! Happy Easter! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. The Hero We Deserve. Nerlens Noel thought he had the solution. Just as his New York Knicks thought they might narrow Atlanta's playoff series lead to 3-2 at Mad Square Garden, here goes that pesky Trae Young again, this time with a nine-point second quarter to help widen the Hawks’ lead to five. If only Nerlens could show Young and the Knicks’ faithful in the stands that he and his team still had some fight left. Alas, he’s not in the game. What to do? What to do… As the refs depart for halftime and Young gets plowed by Julius Randle into Taj Gibson on a floater attempt, in that order, Noel decides the time is right to be a Roxbury Guy and bump Trae, too. He’d greet him with a blindside shoulder bump as he passes by at halfcourt, he thought. Nerlens Noel thought, which was the start of his problems. He didn’t have Solomon Hill as part of his calculation. After seeing his star guard get accosted, Hill promptly showed Noel how to deliver a proper shoulder shiver. How do you do, Nerlens? The Knicks never saw the lead again, as Atlanta’s final lead of the series ballooned to double digits in the second half. New York hardly saw much more of Noel, either. After inking a three-year, $32 million deal over the summer, he appeared in just 25 games, averaging 3.2 PPG, before getting shelved with a foot ailment before the All-Star Break. The cogwheels in Noel’s head were creaking earlier in the 2021 playoff series, too. Early in Game 3, with the series still up for grabs at one win apiece, he was standing around the paint, then moonwalked into a flop in a failed attempt to get the refs’ attention. Solo stands his ground, lowers that boulder of a shoulder, and makes the flop worth Nerlens’ while. The cogwheels were shaken free of cobwebs, and not for the last time. Can I help you up from that wet spot, Nerlens? Hill offers his floor-bound foe a hand before artfully retrieving it. The Hawks weren’t able to get much during this regular season out of Hill, on the court, before he was attached to Cam Reddish in New York’s trade-off of Kevin Knox. But what has felt missing thus far in this year’s first-round series versus the Miami heat, which continues with Game 3 before a hopefully early-arriving crowd at State Farm Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN), is a veteran who can set the tone, without regard to his direct impact on the boxscore. Hill had the peak of his NBA playing time with then-associate head coach Nate McMillan and the Pacers, but not the zenith of his playoff success. That came as an end-of-bench glue guy with coach Erik Spoelstra’s heat, as Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro surged in the 2020 Bubble to come out of the East and reach the NBA Finals. Despite being able to stake his claim as an Eastern Conference champion, make no mistake that Hill leaves little clue as to where he butters his bread in this Hawks-heat series. “he for the moment,” tweeted Hill last week as the series began, reminding followers of Trae’s future portrait in the Louvre from the Hawks star’s time at MSG. “might have to pull up for a game,” Hill tweeted as a follow-up. Right now, Hawks fans wouldn’t mind Solo pulling up for a game or three. Without his presence to counter the goonery that Young (9-for-15 2FGs, 2-for-17 3FGs @ MIA in-series) faces on the court, there is one guy that Solo, and Yours Truly, identify who needs to make his mark in this series and fully put the heat’s heels on their heels. “i thought JC was hurt,” tweeted Hill last week in his signature small-caps style, as the Hawks were beginning to turn the elimination tables on the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “he just switched to #8.” Il numero otto is Danilo Gallinari, who played a team-high 41 minutes against the Cavs and splashed a crucial third-quarter triple that helped Trae and the Hawks, without John Collins and then without Clint Capela, climb the mountain before overtaking it. Young was spectacular and essential in the second half, but Gallo finished that half with just one assist, no rebounds, and two more points off free throws, but a team-best +18 as his offensive gravity and length to cool off Lauri Markkanen threw the Cavs off-balance just enough for Atlanta to come away victorious, granting the Hawks at least two home playoff games. To have a chance at one more playoff game at The Farm, at the minimum, requires the veteran who is the second-highest salaried Hawk, and potentially the third-highest next season with a contract guarantee, to produce more efficiently and effectively (4-for-11 2FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs, 1 assist in 51 minutes @ MIA) than he has to this point in the first-round series. Drawing charges, getting strips and deflections, seizing loose balls – these are things that, while far from Gallo’s forte, can ease the tasks ahead for Collins and Onyeka Okongwu in keeping Adebayo suppressed (4-for-11 FGs, 7.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG vs. ATL) and Butler overextended. At worst, Danilo has to outpoint heat forward Duncan Robinson, who was hardly needed in Game 2 (under seven bench minutes, after going 8-for-9 on threes in Game 1) as Gallinari went 0-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line (DNP’d in the 4th quarter, minus-12 in the pivotal 3rd) in Atlanta’s 115-105 loss. At best, he’s helping to get under the skin of Lowry and the smaller heat, either by making them pay for flop attempts in the paint or by scoring on his patented periscope-up shots when bigs switch onto Trae. The Hawks need more decisive execution to disallow Miami defenders to sink their hooks into Young (10 af ATL's 19 player TOs, 2-for-10 3FGs in Game 2) and Atlanta’s ballhandlers and would-be finishers. Even without Capela available, Atlanta has been winning possessions by rebounding, and the Hawks must turn these advantages into hesitation-free transition buckets. Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic corner threes helped narrow the gap in Miami near the end of Game 2, and Gallo, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter can help create the gap in Game 3 by picking up the pace and getting defenders behind them on chases to the corners. Hunter stood his ground in the middle of the second quarter and barked at Lowry, but his on-court bite in Game 2 (nine 1st quarter points) dulled as the contest went on. It would be swell if McMillan could turn more to gentle giant Gorgui Dieng, or the young pups Knox and Jalen Johnson, for pivotal playing time to offset the frontcourt minutes lost by Capela’s extended absence and Collins’ painful re-acclimation. But winning this weekend’s home games are instrumental in changing the tenor of this series, and the Hawks will need Gallinari to be their Stradivari. Should Lowry and the heat try any funny business with Young, Gallo is the ideal guy to be their Jeff Jarrett. “El Kabong!” Feel free to pull up at any time, Solo! We can find you some nice seats behind the heat bench. Bring Zaza and Ivan with you! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. First in Flight! Which one of y’all is Orville? For a moment, I believed I finally unmasked Harry. “He always used to dress in costumes,” shared Dorell Wright, the former preps-to-pros draft pick of the Miami heat, and eleven-year NBA player, of his younger brother, Delon. He told VICE Sports in 2017, “whatever team I was on, he was always the mascot.” It is funny to imagine a nimble 14-year-old Delon donning the Burnie getup at what is now FTX Arena, during the heat’s first run to an NBA championship in 2006. Beginning, at that time, to follow in his elder bro’s footsteps out of South Central L.A. as a star hooper for SoCal’s Leuzinger High, Delon had ample reason to look up to his three-point shooting NBA hero. Now the tables have turned, and the retired Dorell does all the caping. By day, or at least by evening in the Bay Area, Dorell toils as the Golden State Warriors’ studio analyst for NBC Sports. Still, there is no withholding his enthusiasm for how far Delon has run with the Wright family’s NBA baton. “OMG, I’m bad,” Dorell confessed to HoopsHype back in 2017 about watching the then-Raptors upstart while finishing up his own pro career in Europe. “I want him to do so well. I find myself yelling and fussing a lot when he’s playing.” (Mark your calendars, as Dorell’s son Devin is a Class of 2026 guard prospect entering high school). Yes, a schedule-weary Atlanta Hawks team found itself ransacked by the top-seeded heat in the opener to the NBA Playoffs. But as the scene shifts to Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), one would be hard pressed to find a Hawks player more primed for the moment. That player will be hard pressed to discover a bigger supporter in his corner, albeit from afar. “Facts!!”, Dorell breathlessly quote-tweeted, as The Athletic’s Tony Jones noted following Friday’s Hawks win in Cleveland that Delon, “gave a masterclass tonight on how to change a basketball game without touching the basketball.” The “100” emoji was Dorell’s reaction when Sky Sports analyst Mo Mooncey tweeted, “Trae (Young) will get all the glory (and rightly so, he was amazing) but if Delon Wright didn’t put the clamps on the defensive end, the Hawks wouldn’t have won that.” “One thing about Delon,” offered Dorell in his own, understandably biased view, “…he’s going to impact the game and a lot of the things he (does) won’t show up on the stat sheet. Winning Player!!! #situpinclass.” Young will assuredly be more glorious than he was in Game 1 (1-for-12 FGs, 6-for-7 FTs, 4 assists and 6 TOs), especially if the referees don’t allow him to get tenderized by the hosts without chalking it up to Playoff Basketball. Neither, for that matter, will sixth-man Bogdan Bogdanovic (0-for-8 FGs) having combined with Trae to go 0-for-11 on threes versus Miami’s grubby defense. Danilo Gallinari (1-for-3 3FGs) will be looking to get more shots off, and in. “I think mentally we needed to recover,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan told the AJC today, “and we should be better both mentally and physically tonight.” The extra stretch of rest and video review on Monday preceded this morning’s shootaround. With the returning John Collins having a half-game under his belt, the Hawks will be better prepared to counter the onslaught brought forth by heat headliners Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry, who were able to lean heavily on their own defensive energy and teammates’ big shots to carry the day in Game 1. Despite a mild shooting display of his own, Delon was the steadiest guard that McMillan had at his disposal in Game 1. Wright registered a team-high six assists while turning over the rock just once, collecting a pair of steals without drawing a single foul. He’s up to 18 dimes and two turnovers in his bench minutes over five games against the heat this season. Even as Herro struggled at the offensive end (2-for-7 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs, 5 assists but 5 TOs, incl. each of Wright’s second-quarter thefts as Miami’s margin was momentarily dialed back to single digits) while being stalked by Delon in Game 1, Wright’s teammates let white-hot heat players, namely Duncan Robinson and ageless wonder P.J. Tucker (combined 12-for-13 3FGs) have carte blanche access to the three-point line. Robinson and Tucker being allowed to treat the hoop like a cornhole made it easy for Miami to thwart any chance for Atlanta to come up for air. Herro, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent can be counted on for better stretches in this series, but key for Atlanta to stay in contention will be the activity of the Hawk wings and guards on the defensive boards. Miami had just four offensive rebounds in Game 1 -- half of those by former Hawk Dewayne Dedmon in the first two quarters and none by Adebayo -- but primarily because there weren’t many off-rhythm shots worth chasing, thanks to confused Atlanta defenders’ many missed assignments. Anyone not in position to defuse the heat’s three-point threats need to be beating Adebayo, Tucker, Dedmon and their own assignments to the ball. Young absorbed a lot of Game 1 punishment going after boards and loose balls that should have found their way to De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Bogdanovic (combined to tie Trae with five D-Rebs). Defensively, Trae needs not to be as active in the paint in this contest, especially with Collins around to aid Gallo and Onyeka Okongwu for longer stretches. Yet he will be needed to be impactful in flustering Lowry (9 assists, zero TOs in Game 1) and Butler and luring them into settling for one-r-hero-ball shots outside the paint. Atlanta will play to win Game 2, but they recognize it is essential to come out on top at least once in Miami’s house if they hope to have their season continue beyond next week, coincidentally as Delon hits The Big 3-0. As the Hawks’ stars improve their all-around performance in this series, they may very well have the ideal teammate, one who is unselfish to a fault, defensive-minded and familiar with these environs since his teenage years, to eventually make this happen. Delon’s older brother holds no qualms about flapping his wings with pride, even if the team who presently employs him faced the Hawks in The Finals. "Just to show support for my little brother," Dorell told VICE Sports five years ago, "it means the world to me. We come from the same place, we come from a struggle, and I know what it takes and all the hard work we had to put into get to where we are today." Dorell earned a ring as a memento from his long tenure in Miami, but he leaves no doubts these days as to where his allegiances lie. In this series, blood is thicker than heat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. The Philadelphia Was Up By... I’ll be real with y’all, I don’t do PEGs (Possible Elimination Gamethreads) terribly well. So before I put quick thoughts together about Game 7 between the 76ers and our amazing Atlanta Hawks in Philadelphia (8 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), here are a few season-oriented Tidbits I wanted to roll out there. I got my answer to a question I posed in the season-opening thread about the theme of this Hawks campaign: Rested Development? Or, Arrested Development? Turns out the answer is decidedly, “Both.” Thank you, Magic 8 Ball! The work put in during the elongated layoff served to benefit Trae Young, the recuperated Clint Capela, and De’Andre Hunter quite well. While Hunter’s burgeoning confidence was the biggest surprise, Cam Reddish struggled mightily in his sophomore season, before injuries for both cut them short. All will continue to improve, given a return to a steadier conditioning regime and schedule next season. In the meantime, Atlanta can take pride in becoming the best team, in the East, among those left out of last season’s Bubble. Have I introduced you to your favorite NBA team’s principal owner? Going forward, please be sure you spell his name right. This is Mister Tony Re$$$$$ler. This man has been chomping at the bit to spend, spend, spend, and not just on real estate and arena swag. Don’t think this Beverly Hills mogul isn’t looking admiringly at Clippers owner Steve Ballmer right now. Team prez Travis Schlenk is here to ensure the Hawks owner isn’t just spending for spending’s sake. Nonetheless, we are about to enter Hot Billionaire Summer. Re$$$$$ler is about to match a big-bucks offer sheet for John Collins, like it or love it. Too rich for your blood? Not for Tony Our Tiger! Besides, ask 76ers owner Josh Harris if Al Horford is still burning holes through his pockets. Re$$$$$ler’s about to lock down Trae Young to a max contract extension. Because, duh. Young is displaying why it was so critical not to settle for bowing out during, or before, the Play-Ins. This is already, on a good day, a title contender, because of the level-headedness and stewardship of young Trae. We’re trying to get where the Sixers (roughly $30 million higher team payroll) already are, where even on a bad day, we’re a title contender. Schlenk wouldn’t know for sure on 2018’s Draft Night, but the lack of respect for Young at NBA Awards time, relative to his trade partner in Dallas, probably saves his boss a few coins at extension time. Weirdly enough, it turned out the trade deal may have saved Schlenk his own job, too. Oh, and if Re$$$$$ler is feeling a little frisky after Trae’s extension gets inked? Have you all met Green Velvet? The most pressing items on Tony’s expense sheet? A harness and grapple line. Just in case the 76ers hold a higher score than the Hawks in the final second of today’s action, when that final buzzer sounds, Re$$$$$ler is going to drop down like Sting from the rafters and hand Nate McMillan a multi-year coaching contract deal, and a Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus pen. Heck, he might even let McMillan keep the little scribbler. Nate may throw in some riders before he inks the deal. Can my son Jamelle (Ben Simmons’ sister’s ex, by the way) join the staff? “Sure. Happy Father’s Day.” Can LP come back on board, too? May I pry Gary Payton from Oakland? “Done and done.” What you want? Baby, Re$$$$$ler’s got it! What’s this I’m hearing, about some NBA Draft Lottery in a couple days? That’s nice. How would I want it to shake out if I had my druthers? Houston. OKC. Minnesota (sorry, Warriors). Chicago (nah-uh, Orlando, no double-dipping this year!). That’s all for Draft Lottery talk for awhile. If Trae wants to go full Tokyo Drift, go for it! As long as he understands he’s sitting beside LP the whole time while Coach Pop lets elder guards like Dame Lillard go for the Gold, more power to him! Don’t let me catch Derrick White out there with the Albanians, though. Whatever he decides, be safe out there! The real Summer Games? Cam! Gwu Tang! Nate Knight! Skylar Mays! Maybe B-Goody? Our next first-rounder! Whether it’s to continue the upwardly mobile development on the main roster, or firming up a roster spot in College Park, I look forward to seeing them all in Las Vegas! Oh, yeah, so, Game 7. I don’t have much, I just hope Coach Nate has more up his sleeve than I can conjure up. Shooters gotta shoot, and at this point, they gotta swish. If we can assume we’re not going to have Bogdan Bogdanovic ver. April.0, if any edition of him, then we’ll need major two-way performances (getting stops, hitting shots) out of Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. We may not have our MLK jerseys on, but remember, Collins and Capela, when the trolls on the Sixers start trolling, violence is not the answer! Collins will have to make more out of his touches, early in the game and not simply once the Hawks have to scramble out of deep holes. Lou, Gwu and the bench mob (when blended in with the top line) must outshine their counterparts, because Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the Sixer starters are bound to overdo everything to salvage their season. One more tidbit. The Real 2020-21 MVP? You, the fans. There has been a lot to endure. The 2020 playoff run interceded by a pandemic, having to wait over eight months before the Hawks could make personnel moves, over nine months before they could tip off again. The early promise of 2021 derailed by injuries, bad losses and a coach upheaval. Bigger than all of that, keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy and even-keel, as best we could. Much like the Hawks, we’re all still standing! Whether this Hawks run lasts for a few more hours or 32 more days, I hope Hawks fans have found ample moments of worthy joy throughout the journey. Celebrate the Hawks, tonight, but be sure to take time to celebrate yourselves and each other. Happy Father’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. B? Leave. Ugh! Another PEG (Playoff Elimination Gamethread), already? We were just starting to have some fun around here! Anyways, some Tidbits. The “Atlanta Sports” narrative is the Hawks let the head coach who sought his independence by abandoning this franchise, some four score and three years ago, walk out of town on Independence Eve with a glittery Eastern Conference trophy ball under his armpit. The competing, “Believe Atlanta” narrative ain’t tryin’ to hear none o’ that mess. If the Milwaukee Bucks have learned anything from the 76ers, it’s that these Atlanta Hawks don’t fear The Reaper. With all respect due to the Blue Öyster Cult, and to the happy people of Starkville, Mississippi, do you know what the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals series could use? A little more Collins. We have Finals Fever, and the only prescription is, more Collins! Ring it up! We’re going to insist that John Collins (0-for-5 FGs with neither a board nor an assist in Game 5’s troubling first quarter) really explore the studio space, this time. That goes for Game 6 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), before a rambunctious, standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, and once more in a couple days back in Wisconsin. He’s got to make enough noise, with his two-way play, that it becomes downright uncomfortable for anyone who has to share the stage with him. At the risk of summoning the FULPers, Collins’ prior head coach, seemingly as a point of pride, indicated on many occasions his gameplans run, paraphrasing, “literally not a single play” for an athletic, energetic fella, one who was supposed to go out and rack up 20-and-10s just off vibes. Since his rookie-year coach skipped town, John has thrived on offense by waiting to be served an array of lobs, layups and open threes, often courtesy of point guard Trae Young (questionable, bone bruise in foot), while feasting on stick-backs when his teammates’ jump-shooting offense stalls and clueless opponents get lax with boxing out. Speaking of boxing out, Collins alone cannot be blamed for the lack of rebounding presence in Game 5. Even Khris Middleton (team-high 13 rebounds on Thursday) had a field day on the glass as all five Buck Starters collected at least two offensive rebounds in Antetokounmpo’s absence. Thanks in part to early second-chances, Milwaukee’s 66-36 paint-point advantages rendered Milwaukee’s subpar shooting day (31.0 team 3FG%) and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s breakthrough (team-high 28 Game 5 points, 7-for-16 3FGs) moot. A team effort to keep the Bucks one-and-done is essential going forward, but Collins can do more to lead the way in that regard. It is true that this is just Collins’ first playoff foray, as it is for many an Atlanta Hawk. But the constrained development, to date, is why a guy about to receive ginormous contract offers in a few weeks can look so painfully pedestrian (2-for-8 FGs in Atlanta’s Game 5 win) in halfcourt sets, especially without Young to offer guidance. After going 10-for-11 on 2FGs in the Hawks’ successful series opener, Johnny Bap has hardly made a blip on the inside (15-for-27 combined 2FGs in past 4 games) while game outcomes are still up-for-grabs. One should note that this is only Bobby Portis’ second playoff run, the punchy Bucks forward’s first since a brief trip in 2017 with the Bulls. Yet the first-time starter, filling in in a pinch for Giannis Antetokounmpo (out again for Game 6, hyperextended knee), looked like a completely comfortable veteran in getting what he wanted in Game 5. It’s an awkward time to start running plays with Collins as a focal point, but Atlanta Playoff Basketball on Independence Day Weekend is, by definition, an awkward time. In these NBA Playoffs (Knicks and Sixers series included), JC has managed to shoot a sturdy 64.0 eFG% on post-up plays, his 1.13 points per possession placing him a smidge ahead of Philly’s center Joel Embiid and not far from The BK’s Kevin Durant. But it’s hard to recognize this, since he’s had the option to post-up on just 1.8 plays per game, according to Synergy stats on, roughly half of Antetokounmpo’s 3.4 and a far cry from Embiid’s 8.5, or even KD’s 4.4. Collins also hardly draws foul-worthy contact (6.7% FT frequency) on those few plays. Efficiency-wise, the only postseason player still standing who has fared better is Danilo Gallinari (1.18 PPP, on just 2.2 post-ups per game), who has shot at a slightly lower eFG of 57.1% but gets to the foul line (21.1% FT frequency). With Giannis down for the twenty-count once more, Collins and Gallo ought to receive more post-ups, peeling Brook Lopez and Portis away from helping on guards while elevating the Bucks’ risk of early foul trouble. Whether they emanate from Young, Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter or Bogdanovic, Collins in particular has to do a better job of getting in position to receive passes on the low block, and he needs to maintain his dribble until either a decent shot goes up or he gets the whistle. Of course, it would be nice if one of his prior coaches had the power forward honing his post-up game in real time, prior to and during the regular seasons, but that issue for a more well-heeled Collins can wait for 2021-22 to get here. We all can wait for 2021-22 to get here, but I remain hopeful our Squawkers and the rest of Atlanta Hawks Nation can do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and upright, in what will soon be a very brief interim period. For those of you heading intown or to some friendly watering holes this evening, you’ll likely notice we have a wilder group of companions in the mix. 99 percent of us are up to some good, but there are a few jackboys, gun-runners, sliders, club-busters and raging drivers out to make “fun” for themselves on this busy weekend by spoiling somebody else’s. In what we can still hope will be a warm-up act for Game 3 of The Finals, have a great, boisterous time tonight, but be cognizant of your surroundings and avoid confrontations on your way to and from the arena and wherever you go to enjoy the proceedings. If our Hawks still don’t fear The Reaper… we’ll be able to fly! Happy Fourth! Believe Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. You may say to yourself: “My God. What have I done???” Until 2021, many an Atlanta Hawks fan will tell you how the scene inside then-Philips Arena, during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, was as loud as they had ever heard the place. Pent-up fan emotion, from having to endure a near-decade of laughable, madcap basketball teams, owners, coaches and players, the scramble to sneak in as an 8-seed, and the venturing into town of the top-seeded opponent from a legendary franchise that fashions itself as predestined for glory, bubbled up at The Highlight Factory to tear the roof off the sucker. At long last, on Atlanta’s home floor, plenty of things seemed to finally be coming together. There was the rise of a coveted young playmaking guard, one for whom the spiritless ownership group nearly ate each other alive over acquiring, to become a steely All-Star reserve. There was a big man with a two-time NCAA championship pedigree, for whom the elevated stage didn’t seem too big. There was the midseason upgrade at point guard, a ball caddy who already had his moments going toe-to-ugly-toe with Shaq and Kobe. There was the backup big from That Other Georgia, who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, or step on toes, if he felt it necessary to win. There was a forward who, while not ordained to reach the professional heights of Chris Paul, was beginning to make a nice versatile scorer and defender out of himself. There was the local high school standout who took whatever was missing between his ears and made up for it with hops and heart, who brought highlights to the Factory, and whose multifaceted nightly box score made him the darling of counting-stat-heavy fantasy hoops leagues everywhere. All of the aforementioned were in their 20s, toiling for coach Mike Woodson, with only the incoming point guard exceeding age 26. Running the self-satisfied Celtics out of town on a rail, and not just once, in the NBA Playoffs’ opening round was more than enough to satisfy even the most obstinate local sports fan on the fence about supporting these Hawks. Set within the context of the sub-.500 team’s relative youth with ample room to grow, being already good enough to push a championship favorite to seven games, the future was bright. The present, that spring in 2008, was looking not-too-shabby, too. Then, suddenly, that summer. There was one other twenty-something in the Hawks’ mix, the team’s top sixth-man, who shared the first name of the multi-faceted forward and was drafted eleven picks before the latter by Atlanta in 2004. Josh Childress was another up-and-comer being groomed as an integral part of the Hawks’ slow rise to playoff prominence. The lanky guard from Stanford was a restricted free agent and, as Hawks’ management was wont to do, Atlanta intended to let Chillz shop around for the best offer sheet he could find, allowing the Hawks brass time to pursue other interests while preparing for the clock to be set on matching the deal. That non-negotiating approach often served to miff players, from The Other Josh to Jeff Teague, who thought they had invested enough into the club to deserve a little back-and-forth bargaining. What was worse for this Josh, Hawks Inc. seemed to be prioritizing The Other Josh’s pending offer sheet first, while the offers this Josh was receiving, certainly not NBA-starter-level appeals, were unappetizing. Childress and his agent, though, had an ace up his sleeve that no one else saw coming. An alpha, if you will. “Greece!”, is the word that they heard. I have long wondered what the news of Childress’ Gambit, to forgo NBA Free Agency altogether and instead land a lucrative deal with once-proud Greek powerhouse Olympiacos B.C., did for Nigerian parents’ impressionable kids running the streets of Sepolia in northwest Athens. Specifically, one who only began playing organized basketball the year before, at the ripe age of 12. The Michael Jordan By Default of Greece was on his way there, and that had to be a double-take moment for the young, wispy Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings. Chillz was several stratospheres removed from His Airness, but you wouldn’t know it by Childress’ 3-year, $20 million tax-free deal, the fancy Volvo and the condo floor with a swimming pool that the club reserved for his personal use. (Did I mention, in Greece, there was a major post-Olympic austerity crisis underway?) In making Childress the highest-paid hooper ever outside of North America, Olympiacos’ investment didn’t quite pay off the way the team had dreamed. Yes, they reached the Greek League title games in each of Childress’ first two seasons there. But they couldn’t get over the hump versus hated rival Panathinaikos in either year. Their rivals basically paid a lot less for ex- Memphis Grizzlie and American expatriate Mike Batiste, the Greek League MVP, to get the job done for seven years straight. The larger aims for Olympiacos were EuroLeague championships. The Reds fell short after reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in Chillz’ first season, and the title round in his second. And the true team stars by that time were Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza and point guard Milos Teodosic. The riches and perks delivered to an American, mediocre among his own NBA-level countrymen, to be the third-banana on a team not winning trophies, was not lost on a growing legion of angry Greeks. All that movie-star munificence, for The Ron Harper By Default of Greece, while everyone already there struggles to make ends meet? As sporting venues built for 2004 were already looking like ancient ruins? Opa! That Olympiacos would go on to win those coveted Greek League and Euroleague titles in ensuing years without Josh, but with the leadership of guys named Acie Law and Pero, only underscored the peninsula's consternation over Childress' nationally lampooned European vacation. Not much gets past the radar that was Childress’ sizable ears. Before the third season could arrive, before his value in the NBA could spoil, Chillz opted out of his Olympiacos deal, returning to The States to take Robert Sarver’s taxable money. “That man brought in Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire, disparagingly, of his former paycheck signer at the Phoenix Suns. When Stoudemire’s free agency period arrived, Stoudemire told the All the Smoke Podcast that Sarver bragged that the NBA All-Star “could be replaced, tomorrow.” When he took a gander at these so-called replacements, “I said, ‘Man, you got to be kidding me,’” Amar’e recalled. “So, I end up going to New York.” No high-level free agent, by that point in 2010, was banging on doors to grab much of Atlanta Spirit Group’s money, a stash that was dwindling by the year. Josh’s overseas exploits didn’t prove to be something Atlanta would sorely miss. But the ability to develop Childress further here, versus NBA competition, as part of the organic growth of an emerging young club, felt like an opportunity only the Hawks could creatively squander. Around town, Childress’ departure was the Jenga moment for consumer confidence in Hawks stewardship. Subsequent to the dreamy postseason of 2008, the team itself scraped through the next two years of opening rounds, only to be waxed thoroughly, at home and away, in second rounds, by teams seen as authentic superstar-led contenders. “The Hawks looked to have a nice thing going, for a minute there,” was the old saw. “And then Josh Childress ran off to Greece, so that’s the end of that. Atlanta Sports! smh.” Whether it’s Childress bailing for the Aegean Sea, or Thabo and Pero celebrating the clinching of the top-seed with a fateful late night out on the town in NYC, you never know precisely when the Hawks’ Jenga moment arrives, and especially not how. What you come to understand, in hindsight, is the destabilizing event causes a step back that makes it hard for Atlanta’s carefully-crafted collectives to recover. As Game 4 unfurls here at State Farm Arena in these Eastern Conference Playoffs (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), Hawks fans can only hope that Trae Young’s step back, onto the clown shoe of a Game 3 referee along the sideline following a bad pass, won’t be just another Jenga block to toss into the fire of, “We had a good run going, BUT…” Atlanta Sports moments. In this series with the Milwaukee Bucks, as other Hawks have struggled to be reliable offensive contributors, Young’s scoring proficiencies are essential for Atlanta to keep up with a phenom from Greece, that former 12-year-old from Sepolia who’s all grown up now. Giannis was but 16 in 2011, the year after Childress concluded his Olympiacos run, when he was invited to play for a third-tier semi-pro basketball league, catching the eye of European and at least a couple American pro-league scouts alike. A full decade later, simply counting to ten remains a challenge at times for Antetokounmpo. But the two-time NBA MVP and 2020 DPOY has had little trouble maturing in many other aspects of the game. Giannis has assumed the top-spot previously held by Atlanta’s Clint Capela (12.7 RPG) as this postseason’s rebounding leader (13.3 RPG). Blending his newfound strength with his eye-popping dexterity, the Greek Freak only needs teammates willing to compensate for his shortcomings at the three-point line (18.5 Playoff 3FG%) and at the charity stripe (55.1 Playoff FT%, with a few of the makes disallowable, but for the referees out here trippin’). His 6.3 APG in this series now outpaces Young (team-high 6.0 APG; as per Locked On Bucks podcaster Frank Madden, held in consecutive games below 5 assists for the first time since March 2020), as does Khris Middleton’s (6.3 APG) and Jrue Holiday’s (9.7 APG). The ball movement for coach Mike Budenhozer’s club has become a point of exploitation, in contrast to a Hawks offense (107.8 O-Rating, lowest among the NBA Final Four) that gets stilted for long stretches and struggles to create when Young isn’t initiating plays. Giannis’ dips, dunks, and dishes deep in the post are creating opportunities for his co-stars, who in turn create quality offensive chances for the rest of the roster. Whether it’s halfcourt heaves, awkward layup shots, or contested mid-rangers, Atlanta’s field goal makes in the two most recent games come with much higher degrees of difficulty. Rebounding, after Capela and John Collins (10.3 series RPG, despite 4.0 personals/game), dime-dropping, after Trae, and defense, after Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 blocks in Sunday’s 113-102 loss, which only scratches the surface of how good he looked) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.3 SPG), are near-binary in numerical production among the remnants of the Hawks’ cast. Hawks coach Nate McMillan could do well to consider going big earlier, introducing Danilo Gallinari as a quick sub for Bogi (listed as probable ahead of Game 4), and preserving the swingman’s weary knee for crucial defensive stops later in the contest. Bogdanovic played through Sunday’s entire final quarter but was a defensive non-factor as Middleton (20 4th-quarter points in Game 3, incl. 4-for-6 3FGs) ignited to help Milwaukee surge ahead for good. It wasn’t the playoffs, but two months ago, a Hawks team without Young available caught Giannis and the Bucks slipping. One night after clobbering an injury-and-illness-riddled Sixers team at home, Milwaukee flew to Atlanta and was feeling good after entering the fourth quarter up by 8 points. As was the case on Sunday, Middleton heated up in the final frame as well, with 12 of his 23 points. But so did Atlanta’s Bogdanovic and Lou Williams from beyond the 3-point arc (combined 8-for-9 3FGs). Meanwhile, Capela and fill-in starter Solomon Hill did just enough on that April evening to contain Antetokounmpo, while Buck teammates were of little use, at either end, on the back end of their back-to-back. In Game 3, the revelatory rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed he could serve Hill’s defensive role well, and maybe not just in a pinch. Whether Young (6-for-14 3FGs in Game 3; listed as questionable, bruised foot) is fully functional, fully productive, fully available, or not, some of the Traemates have to catch fire from outside if Atlanta intends to fully recover in this series. The Otherhawks (4-for-19 3FGs in victorious Game 1, 7-for-31 in Game 2) were by default a series-best 9-for-23 on non-Trae treys in Game 3, skewed downward by Bogi’s 2-for-10 outing, and are 21-for-70 in this series overall. Having the proper personnel getting back on defense is essential, too, whenever the Bucks aren’t retrieving Atlanta’s jumpshots from the bottom of the net. Hopefully, Young will be available to help the Hawks wage a fairer fight with Antetokounmpo and company tonight, earning Atlanta a guaranteed third home game in these conference finals while staving off the potential for elimination on Thursday in Wisconsin. In so doing, the Hawks will also have staved off what looked to be, on Sunday night, another Jenga moment for Atlanta Sports history. Also, it is hoped, we’ll get through the summer offseason without any others unfolding. John, if you get a call in a few weeks about a business opportunity from the Sultan of Brunei, please, just hang up the phone. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “Been There. Done That. Made The T-Shirt!” The Hawks had the Bucks dead-to-rights. In their house, Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum. The prize that awaited Atlanta was a date with destiny. The season before, a classic nip-and-tuck affair between Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, at hallowed Boston Garden, had the Hawks coming up on the short end but earning the admiration of NBA fans everywhere. It was far too late to establish Atlanta, in their lovely red-and-yellow jerseys, as The Team of the 80’s. But who would take the lead and rule the roost in the final full season of the decade? After edging the Hawks in 1988’s second-round series, the Celtics would relinquish the Eastern Conference crown for the first time in five years, to Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons. The next season, Boston lost Bird to a season-ending injury early, leaving the NBA East as wide open as it had been in recent memory. Who would challenge the new kings of the East, in their Auburn Hills palace? Chicago, and Michael Jordan? As far as anyone could tell, the eventual 6th-seeded Bulls weren’t ready. Cleveland, and Brad Daugherty? A breakthrough season awaited, but the core of Lenny Wilkens’ 3-seed Cavs were so young. Patrick Ewing and the Knicks? They would win the Bird-less Atlantic Division. But they finished with the exact same 52-30 record as Nique and the Hawks, who improved on the prior year’s 50-32 mark. Entering the playoffs, on the heels of the Nique-Bird duel… why not Atlanta? The window was open for the 4-seed Hawks, as the top-seeded Bad Boys, who easily swept the Celts, awaited their arrival. All Atlanta had to do was to Take Care of Business, on its homecourt, before a heavily partisan crowd. Their opponents? A Milwaukee club the Hawks played, and swept, in the regular season, winning all six times by an average of 11.0 points per game. The core of the same Bucks team that the Hawks bounced, 3 games to 2, out of the first round with a Game 5 home win the prior postseason. Milwaukee began that season at a gaudy 40-19 but stumbled across the finish line with 14 losses in the final 23 games, including two versus the Hawks, one in Atlanta by 25 points. Defensive maven Paul Pressey, whose late-season injury greased the skid, would be unavailable for the entire first-round series. Seemingly on his last legs, point guard Sidney Moncrief was about ready to retire. This wasn’t the Bucks’ series to win. Not until Atlanta made it that way. Including the prior year’s first-round faceoff, the Hawks and Bucks always held serve at home in the playoffs. That was until Game 2 at the Omni, when the Hawks could not contain super-sixth-man Ricky Pierce and Milwaukee cruised to a 108-98 win, wasting Wilkins’ 32-point effort. With the 5-game series turned to the underdogs, the Bucks were in position, at the MECCA, to close out the series upset. Wilkins’ contemporary, fellow All-Star and NBA All-3rd-Teamer Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle early in Game 4. Led by All-Stars Moses Malone and Dominique, plus John Battle off the bench, the Hawks capitalized and survived in OT on Milwaukee’s famous Robert Indiana floor. Cummings, like Pressey, was left with no choice but to watch from Wisconsin as the series shifted, for the last time, back to Georgia. For the Bucks, with their seasons on the line, there would be no leading scorer, no top defender. Problem? “The shot on Ehlo GOOD! BULLS WIN!” was ringing in everyone’s ears that day. Perhaps too loudly, at the Omni, for the Hawks to realize they were getting tuned up by not just Pierce, but Fred Roberts, Paul Mokeski and Jay Humphries. Bucks rookie behemoth Tito Horford didn’t have to lift a finger. Thanks to buzzer-beaters sunk by Mokeski and Roberts, and a plethora of missed Hawk free throws, Atlanta could not sustain a lead in any quarter. The Omni crowd felt a wave of relief when the Hawks grabbed an 86-85 lead on the Cummings-less and Pressey-less visitors, with just under three minutes to go in the elimination game. But then Atlanta let the Bucks rattle off eight straight, a Doc Rivers three-pointer proved too little, too late, and all was lost. Including, that date with destiny in Detroit. “This will be hard for us to get over,” Wilkins said after the Game 5 loss. He didn’t know the half of it. The next season, Rivers would be out due to injury for two months, Atlanta would sink to 41-41, 6th in the Central Division. Pete Babcock would arrive from Denver to help a busy Stan Kasten run things, and longtime coach Mike Fratello would resign after Atlanta narrowly missed the playoffs, finishing just behind Pierce’s Bucks, coach Lenny’s Cavs and Reggie Miller’s Pacers. With Jordan answering the call in 1991 to overtake the Pistons, not Dominique in 1989, the window for the Hawks’ Finals hopes had closed. For at least a few more years. Taking Care of home. It’s what likely would have made such a difference for Wilkins and his Hawks at the Omni, as their fates entered the 1990s. With his statue now perched at the entrance to State Farm Arena, and the balance of power in the NBA East once again up for grabs in the 2020s, Taking Care of Home is what would make the difference for a fresh, new group of Hawks to boldly go where no Atlanta team has gone before, the NBA Finals. The common denominator? The visiting Milwaukee Bucks (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame Coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), in town for Games 3 and 4. No worries, Atlanta! Tito and Mokeski retired long ago. Despite a washout loss in Game 2 of this series, the underdog Hawks upset Milwaukee in Game 1, granting themselves the opportunity once more to maintain homecourt advantage and close out coach Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks in no more than six games. But this is a far more challenging visitor than the ’89 Hawks faced, thanks to the whirling dervish that is Giannis Antetokounmpo around the paint. Giannis was a rolling, spinning highlight reel in Milwaukee’s 125-91 win on Friday night, but he didn’t need to put up pinball-tilting figures (25 points, 3-for-4 FTs, 9 rebounds in 2.5 quarters). Teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton did the dirty work in pestering Atlanta ace Trae Young (2021 Playoffs-high 3 assists, 9 TOs, 1-for-8 3FGs) while Holiday, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton (combined 9-for-12 3FGs) hit the key jumpers Atlanta (Traemates combined 8-for-28 3FGs) could not. Multiple Bucks chipping in to balloon the lead gave Giannis, his fellow starters and, by extension, Atlanta’s starters, a respite ahead of Game 3. The lack of a secondary ballhandler production, either off the bench or sharing the floor with Young, is a challenge that coach Nate McMillan and the Hawks have to overcome in this three-day homestand. McMillan leaned on Young to sort out his Game 2 struggles to make better reads and connect with teammates for too long. Deploying Lou Williams for longer stretches, as a substitute for either Trae Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic, in combination with a back-in-action Cam Reddish, could make for better balance in the Hawks backcourt. With Atlanta getting gashed on the boards in Milwaukee, sixth-man Danilo Gallinari has to expand his focus beyond his patented up-periscope jumpshots and help secure rebounds on defense, when John Collins and Clint Capela are occupied with Antetokounmpo and/or Lopez. Having to rely on Solomon Hill to lead the bench in minutes, as became the case once Atlanta waved the white flag in Game 2, is not a scenario conducive to securing homecourt victories. Both Eastern Conference Finals entrants have reason to celebrate reaching this stage. Milwaukee tried tanking in Giannis’ rookie year, were rewarded with Jabari Parker and Thon Maker during the come up, but eventually realized acquiring a sound cast of savvy vets and scrappy prospects around their emerging supernova was the best approach. The Hawks weren’t huge winners in the NBA Draft Lotteries during their rebuilding phases, either. They aren’t tying their successes solely on the haul of Lottery picks, including Reddish and the injured De’Andre Hunter, to get them to this stage and pull them through. Not this year, anyway. If Atlanta comes away from Games 3 and 4 with a decided advantage, it’s because veteran supporters, from LouWill to Gallo, stepped up their games when called upon. With better contributions from developed non-Lottery talent like John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks returning to more competitive rebounding, timely shooting, and proper closeouts on the Bucks’ shooters, will aid in Taking Care of Business before its home fans. This remains the Bucks' playoff series to win, only, if Atlanta allows it to be that way. With a year-round focus on competitanking for future game-changing talent in the rear-view mirror, Hawks fans are no longer feeling a draft. Yet here, in the Hawks’ downtown arena, fans recognize there remains, unmistakably, an open window. Take Care, Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “So, I was playing H-O-R-S-E with Bobby Portis, and…” (tied up all day tomorrow... sorry for the super-early entry! Go Hawks! ~lw3) Harry the Hawk could only look on, in horror. Fooling around while entertaining fans at the Phoenix Suns Arena, Harry and a small collection of other mascots were simply killing time, schmoozing attendees and keeping the kids’ rapt attention on an otherwise dull All-Star Saturday afternoon. The goal for the mascots, on this warm winter day in 2009, was simple. Take a bunch of halfcourt shots, and hope one or two go in. Always a good way to keep the fans lathered up. Alas, Bango the Buck was out here Doin’ Too Much. Harry, as we Atlanta Hawks fans know, has long been quite the daredevil. Diving off the corner stands into a hidden landing pad in the tunnel below. Demonstrating, with smug pride, his impeccable balance along a rail, then playing off the agony of his sore pellets after slipping and getting racked. Skidding down a flight of stairs in a fan section. The difference, though, is every stunt Harry did for our guffaws was a bit. You knew, going in, whatever Atlanta’s mascot would do would be well planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed. Bango, Milwaukee’s mascot, just runs out on the floor and does… stuff, for doing stuff’s sake. It’s the latter’s seemingly reckless, pompous nature that made him the pride of Milwaukee sports and established him, with Harry, Rocky, and The Gorilla, among the best mascots the NBA has to offer. On this afternoon, to Bango, the thought of dudes in anthropomorphic costumes hoisting shots from just beyond Trae Young range, as entertainment, wouldn’t do. Flexing his acrobatic skills and dexterity, Bango managed to climb the stanchion, standing behind the glass where the halfcourt heaves were directed. It’s nothing to Bango, something he does often to seize the crowd’s attention. Showing up The Association’s other gravity-bound mascots was an extra benefit in Bango’s mind. “Betcha can’t do it like me! Nope!” But on this occasion, rather than sitting on the rim, presumably to allow the bit to keep going, or just staying behind the glass, Bango ventured to stand atop the rim, his big, furry hooves holding him up on 36 square inches of back iron as he encourages his fellow mascots to keep right on jacking up shots. Even Harry the Hawk knew this was too much for a bird’s-eye view. Later that same year, Ultimate Rap League battle-rapper Conceited, while clutching a mystery beverage in a red SOLO cup, made a face that would become an indelible meme some seven years later. But at this time, that same, pursed-beak reaction shone right through Harry’s get-up. “Uh-oh. Not a good idea, Bango! But, okay, fine. You do you!” Embodying the spirit of his franchise, Bobby the Bobcat (maybe that was his name, does it matter, really?), was oblivious. Before Bango could firmly establish his footing, Bobby fired off a shot that ricocheted off the deer’s, er, midsection and plopped into the basket below. Nothing but Nu, umm, Net! The Arizona crowd, just happy to enjoy the air conditioning and not stuck outside watching Joe Johnson playing H-O-R-S-E, goes halfway between mild to wild. After taking in a stunning shot in more ways than one, Bango played it off as best he could, applauding the sunglass-clad bobcat for his success. But, then… Bango slips. He attempts to gather himself by clutching the top of the backboard with his fuzzy hand. But that proved no match for Newtonian physics. THROUGH the rim goes the nearly seven-foot beast, antlers and all. Oh, Deer. As TNT play-by-play man Kevin Harlan would say, “Up High! And Down Hard!”. It wouldn’t be a clean swish, though. Bango’s left hoof got caught up between the rim and the netting, leaving him momentarily dangling as clueless Bobby is still at the sidelines, high-fiving the fans to celebrate his own accomplishment. Only The Raptor makes a half-hearted attempt at attending to Bango, once the ruminant twists free and finally makes his crash landing on one-and-a-half legs, writhing along the hardwood below with what would be diagnosed and reported as a torn ACL. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit, and Harry understands mascots can’t scare the kids in the stands by showing legitimate concern for his misguided colleague’s well-being. The banged-up buck gets it, too. He hops up as best he can, waving to the crowd as he hobbles away, as The Show must go on. Likely muttering under their breaths, Harry and the Wizards’ Skyhawk-looking dude simply skip off into the tunnel. Deal with those torn ligaments in the back. It’s Red Panda Time! Riding high and smelling themselves is about where the team that Bango reps found themselves, in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals’ Game 1. The Milwaukee Bucks felt the momentum on their Fiserv Arena floor surging toward a double-digit lead over the happy-go-lucky Hawks. Losing focus on the things that mattered most, they started slipping: forgoing coach Mike Budenholzer’s ball-movement schemes to settle for ”You do you!” iso-ball, aimless passes, blown bunnies, and abject failures at boxing out to secure defensive rebounds in the clutch. As Bango’s Bucks lick their wounds while pretending, for the sake of the stunned crowd, that There’s Nothing To See Here, the team Harry represents, the Atlanta Hawks, have a chance in Game 2 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) to saunter off Milwaukee’s floor and exit their arena for the final time in 2020-21. The Hawks earned this opportunity when teammates hopped on the cape of Trae Young (Playoff career-high 48 Game 1 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds). Then, they executed their fundamental roles so as not to spoil their magical carpet ride. Does Atlanta deserve to be standing eye-to-eye with the Bucks? Bear in mind, Kevin Durant dropped 48 points for the higher-seeded Nets in an elimination game, a contest that Milwaukee won (thanks to KD’s toenails at the three-point line). It comes down to which star makes the best use of their teammates, and early on in this series, it’s Trae 1, two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo 0. I’ve been talking until I’m Papa Smurf about how we’re waiting for Peak Hawks to take hold, how just a game or two of optimal two-way, 48-minute ball under coach Nate McMillan’s direction would make such a difference in the outcomes of Atlanta’s playoff series. Ultimately, the pressure is not on Atlanta, but on the so-called favored, higher-salaried teams to play Peak Favorites. When they lay so many flaws bare, they leave themselves susceptible to the underdogs that are just hanging around, staying within striking distance. Then, suddenly, the favorite looks every bit like the underdog. For Milwaukee to avoid slipping through the hoop once again tonight, it means dropping drop coverage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll, with defensive guards committing to going over on screens, and forwards protecting the rim when Giannis, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and center Brook Lopez dare to step further out. One of Atlanta’s advantages coming into the playoffs is they’ve played all season (and, frankly, some of the prior ones) missing an essential roster component and/or adjusting to accommodate a key player returning off injury management. Whereas the Hawks’ offense has hardly skipped a beat with the hampered Bogdan Bogdanovic, and without second-year pros De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, teams like Philly seemed at a loss on how to adjust, without Danny Green as a corner shooting option and as an extra defender to hurl at Young. A similar theme seems to be taking hold with Milwaukee. Fifth on the team in regular season minutes played, Donte DiVincenzo’s absence due to his season-ending ankle injury has been a struggle for Coach Bud to compensate. Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and veteran Jeff Teague (combined 1-for-7 Game 1 3FGs) struggled mightily to hang with Young, and the disparity widens when their offensive contributions are muted. Given Milwaukee’s limited in-season development, slim depth and short rotations, Budenholzer can’t turn to rookie Elijah Bryant or two-way guard Axel Toupane to step up on Donte’s behalf. Acquired for Torrey Craig from Phoenix at the trade deadline, Cash Considerations isn’t of much use, either. That leaves Khris Middleton, also a dud in Game 1 (0-for-9 3FGs) to live up to his All-Star and Olympic-level expectations, and for Giannis to occasionally assist in meeting Young and Atlanta ballhandlers off the screens. To throw Milwaukee defenders further off-kilter, Young’s teammates (8 combined Game 1 assists; 8.7 APG vs. PHI; 10.8 vs. NYK) should be mindful that they can also pass the ball amongst each other, especially around the horn when Young draws the defense inward, and that not every receipt from Trae is definitively the best shot during a possession. After a few well-drawn plays go right, and when the lead is working in their favor, Milwaukee might risk making the same fatal mistake conducted by recent Hawks opponents, of playing laissez-faire basketball, waiting for the visitors to fold and bow themselves out of the series. If they veer off-course from the gameplan and take too many unsound risks again, the Bucks will find themselves once more caught like a bunch of Bangos, staring catatonically into the hypnotizing, shimmering headlights of Trae Young. Poor Harry can hardly bear to watch the aftermath. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “I’m just asking Bob: how does a so-called rookie grow so much hair on his chest? Is it the beer?” There are quite a few Milwaukeeans looking forward to giving your Atlanta Hawks the business. About 90 percent of those folks are above the age of 75. Children, teenagers, and young adult sports fans were eager for something fresh in postwar America’s Dairyland. After winning the NFL Championship in 1944, their pigskin heroes, up the road in Green Bay, had fallen on rocky times. Single-wing fanatic Curly Lambeau had an ugly divorce with the Packers and eased on down the road to coach the reviled Chicago Cardinals. Basketball, and not necessarily good basketball, meant the Badgers over in the state capitol of Madison, back in the day when you couldn’t sneak Victrola-sized recorders into locker rooms. Carnival barker Bill Veeck kept the Brewers interesting, but, with all due respect to our modern-day Stripers, there’s only so much AAA minor league baseball you can watch. Having grown by over well over 20 percent in each decade up to 1930, the boomtown years in Milwaukee seemed to be drawing to a close by the time the 1950s arrived. Losing luster and populations to Midwestern rivals in Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, the city’s boosters were eager to get civic projects cooking. It was essential to showcase Milwaukee as a bonafide major-league city. Up would go the first American ballpark financed with public funds, Milwaukee County Stadium. As the stadium was being erected, in hopes of drawing a Major League Baseball team to town, the ribbon was cut for Milwaukee Arena. The latter was regarded as the first new sports venue engineered explicitly to accommodate the brave, new world of broadcast television. That was more than enough to woo Ben Kerner and his NBA franchise out of its dusty fieldhouse in Moline, Illinois. With just a slight tweak of Kerner’s team’s name, the Milwaukee Hawks became the big, full-time pro team in town, tipping off in the spacious, 11,000-seat, taxpayer-paid Milwaukee Arena seventy years ago this November. Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns, second fiddle to the beer-company Cardinals in MLB, and his attempt to bring the Browns to beer-town Milwaukee was blocked by American League owners, setting up the Browns to become birds of a whole different feather. Tired of losing fans to Ted Williams and the Red Sox, Construction magnate Lou Perini leaped at Veeck’s misfortune. His National League outfit, the Braves, arrived from Boston in 1953 to ensure the fancy new outdoor stadium wouldn’t sit empty in the summertime. Treated much like Pabst “cheese product,” being a Hawks fan in the early 1950s was about enduring The Process. That is to say, the team sucked royally. 17-49 in their maiden season as the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951-52, 27-44 in 1952-53, 21-51 in 1953-54. Last-place in the Western Division, every year. It didn’t help that the rival Lakers, of nearby Minneapolis, were not merely the envy of the NBA West but the whole league, pulling off an unprecedented three-peat in those years. But just as The Land of 1,000 Lakes would always have their Lakers, Wisconsinites knew they would always have their Hawks. Mel Hutchins entered the league as a top-2 draft pick and was a rebounding machine for Milwaukee. The team traded 1952’s top pick to Philadelphia, and they wound up with an All-Star returning from military duties in Don Sunderlage. Despite the losing, local fans were catching on to the grand plan. “What’s the Secret?”, asked envious owners of the turnstile-struggling Knicks and Celtics, of Kerner’s ability to pack crowds in Milwaukee’s swanky new arena to watch a bottom-feeder team on the move. Crowds dwindled again, though, commensurate with the Hawks’ dovetailing record. But then, with the drafting of natural scorer Bob Pettit in 1954, the LSU star averaged over 20 points and 13 boards per game out of the box. With so many emerging stars in place, fans surely thought, the future of NBA basketball in Milwaukee was brightening. Until that future was no more. It turned out this bottom-feeder Hawks team was on the move. Out of town. Already. Four years after moving in. St. Louis was quite clear to Kerner, they weren’t building him and his cagers a new arena. But the Hawks owner, who never really filled out the one in Milwaukee, figured the Missouri hotbed along the powerful Mississippi River had more going for it than the slower-growing burg off Lake Michigan’s western shore. Eero Saarinen’s Arch was a long way from being finished, but the city of St. Louis was not only seen by Kerner as a larger market, but the geographic center of the nation, and a shining gateway to the rising American West. The NBA owner was more than happy to move out of a state-of-the-art Milwaukee venue and shoehorn his squad into an aging Kiel Auditorium. Bear in mind, at this time, that Rochester, New York was in the NBA’s Western Division. In an age before air travel, to far-flung places like California, could be viewed as part of a sustainable sports budget, Missouri was about as far west as major sports leagues were willing to stretch. The sense permeated that if Milwaukeeans wanted to watch professional sports, hey, Chicago’s a short drive away. For pro hoops? Fort Wayne, and Minneapolis, make for pleasant road trips. Shoot, they’ve always trekked up Lake Michigan to watch football in chilly Green Bay. The local resentment was high among the young fans who were just beginning to invest their time and energies into Milwaukee Hawks Basketball. “You know what?”, they thought. “Screw the Hawks. We’ll always have our Braves!” The extra-unkind twist of the knife came when the Hawks pulled a Calgary Flames on Milwaukee fans. Just two seasons into their St. Louis tenure, Kerner’s Hawks finished with another losing record, but won a series of tiebreaker games with the hated Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons for first place in a weakened NBA West Division. They swept Minneapolis to reach The Finals in 1957. Kerner got Beverley'd in the schnoz by Red Auerbach amid a heated dispute over the basket height, but the Hawks, behind Pettit, went nose-to-nose with the favored Celtics through seven games. Hawks Fever would reach its fever pitch the very next season, when Pettit’s 50-burger sealed the deal and brought Kerner his first NBA Championship. But wait. This was not supposed to be St. Louis’ team to celebrate! That town never suffered through the lean years with the Hawks! No matter, thought Milwaukee, because just a few months before, their new, darling Braves just beat the mighty New York Yankees, already giving this town its first World Series title. The Hawks arrived first, but the Braves were smoking hot from the time the once-dormant club arrived from Boston. They finished no worse than third in the NL with over 85 wins every season before breaking through in 1957, with the great Warren Spahn and reliever Ernie Johnson Recently Senior pitching, plus Eddie Mathews and an amazing kid named Henry Aaron knocking it out the park. They almost caught the D@mn Yankees napping again in the World Series, after winning the NL pennant in 1958. By the close of the 1950s, Milwaukee was, officially, a tried-and-true world-class baseball town. Basketball what? Basketball who? This here is Braves Country, pal. Forever and ever, Amen. From the time of the Hawks’ departure from Milwaukee, it would take 13 more years before the NBA would come back to the basketball arena that would later be known as the MECCA. In that time, the beloved Braves would be wooed out of town, in 1965, to the promise of an expanded media market in the Deep South. An increasingly barren pro-sports town was going to take anything it could nail down by that time. Bucks Country, you say? Fine. They’ll help pass the time. That is, whenever Vince Lombardi isn’t coaching on Sundays. Just months after receiving their expansion franchise announcement, in 1968, Milwaukee was humored to find out St. Louis had lost the basketball team they poached, the Hawks, to Georgia, too. Fans endured a predictably terrible inaugural season by the Bucks. But it concluded with a nice win, of sorts. The Bucks and their expansion cousins, the Suns, wound up in a coin flip for the top pick. Milwaukee won, and the prize was UCLA’s Lew Alcindor. To this very month, Phoenix would never win an NBA Championship. As for Milwaukee? Well, give them just a few minutes. An NBA-record 29-game improvement came the next season, and by 1971, with Oscar Robertson in tow, Milwaukee posted a first-ever 20-game winning streak and paraded their first NBA Championship. There was regarded as the fastest run from expansion team to title in American sports, in the days before anyone had heard of Atlanta United, or soccer for that matter. Bud Selig had just brought MLB baseball back by snatching the Pilots from Seattle under the cover of night. But by this time, Milwaukee was Bucks Country. A re-enlivened basketball town, unlike stuffy old Chicago. There is little visible record of the first three times the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks faced off in the NBA Playoffs, the five-game sets of 1980s-era series that Glenn Rivers and Dominique Wilkins won once, and Sidney Moncrief and Paul Mokeski won twice. There is also little record of the only seven-game series between these clubs, in 2010, because I watched them all and made it by personal mission to burn all the tape. But there has never been a bigger Hawks-Bucks series than the one that is set to unfold tonight, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals (8:30 PM, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A former Milwaukee franchise that won it all once, in another town in 1958, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. A current Milwaukee franchise that was gifted a young legend, hung onto to him long enough to win it all in 1971, returned to come up short in 1974, had the renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanding a trade (as reported at the time by a young sportscaster named Marv Albert) to a big city in 1975, was forced to hoof it to the Eastern Conference in 1980, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. Only one can advance for a shot at ending their championship droughts. If that is not enough drama for you, Jeff Teague is out here starving, sisters and brothers. The last time your Hawks were in these Conference Finals, a half-dozen years ago, Teague averaged over 21 PPG and 4 APG for Atlanta. But his teammates were like deer-in-headlights against Matthew Dellavedova and the LeBronnaires of Cleveland. Now, the 2015 All-Star has reunited with in Milwaukee with his old Hawks coach, Mike Budenholzer, after getting traded by Boston and mercifully waived by Orlando. If all goes well, Jeff will hardly have to lift a finger. The newly 33-year-old Teague gets to kick back and watch a 2013 All-Star, who’s two years his junior, go to work on the 2019 All-Star point guard who is now the toast of Atlanta. It’s Jrue Holiday’s first playoff run since 2018 with the Pelicans, and the first two rounds have been less than stellar (39.8/24.6/69.6 FG/3FG/FT shooting splits) for him as a scorer. But as a release-valve (7.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in playoffs) for the hulking Giannis Antetokounmpo, and as a hounding defender on and off the ball, one could settle for a lot worse to try to impede Trae Young. The Bucks don’t have a lot of head-to-head game tape on Young to work with from the regular season. Back spasms caused him to sit out of Milwaukee’s home win back in January, along with Clint Capela. Returning after missing two April games with a bruised calf, Young struggled to get going as The Fighting MLKs, absent John Collins and Danilo Gallinari and others, fell for the first time in Atlanta. The Hawks would make amends with a home win a week-and-a-half later, but Trae’s sprained ankle had him cheering from the sidelines. Since then, Budenholzer’s trusty assistants have had plenty of other opponents’ playoff tapes to pore through. Young has soldiered through his first postseason while nursing a sore shoulder on his shooting arm. Regardless of whether he or his teammates are struggling from the field, they have done more than enough, through ball movement, rebounding and defense, to outlast and sacrifice two of the NBA’s blessed, highly favored, sacred cows. Holiday will latch onto Trae, so long as he’s not needed to curtail other Atlanta shooters. If the situation changes, and if Young can swerve around the likes of Khris Middleton to serve up copious assists, this series won’t feel like much of a holiday for Milwaukee. Jrue is an All-Defensive First Teamer, but so was the wayward gentleman from Down Under who, with help from Trae and the Hawks, turned America’s sports programming into “B.S.”PN for the past two weeks. The Bucks lack the array of backcourt defensive assignments that Young faced when the Philadelphia series began. It’s in part due to Coach Bud’s short rotations (sorry, Jeff), and to an untimely injury. Because of an ankle ligament tear suffered in the Bucks’ opening round, Donte DiVincenzo won’t be able to participate in the proceedings with the Hawks. It must be noted that DiVincenzo is here with the Bucks, rather than Sacramento, because Bogdan Bogdanovic is not. Jon Horst and the Milwaukee front office jumped the gun in trying to secure another sweet-shooting guard before this season, perhaps to replace the soon-to-retire Kyle Korver. When talks with the Kangz fell through in November, Bogi entered restricted free agency, and he has since aided the Hawks’ rise to playoff prominence in the back half of this season. Meanwhile, the Bucks’ efforts to contact either him or his agent, prematurely, will dock them a second-round pick next year. How much more Milwaukee will have to pay, in the near term, for failing to reel in Bogdanovic will depend on the health of his knee, and his ability to improve on a disappointing postseason to date. Still Atlanta’s third-leading scorer at 13.8 PPG, Bogi has shot just 30.4 percent on threes in his first NBA postseason (28.0 3FG% vs. PHI). His ability to defend along the wing, while diminished, would be sorely missed if he cannot go for long stretches of this series, as the Hawks strive to keep Middleton, Bryn Forbes (40.0 Playoffs 3FG%) and Holiday in check. But there’s at least one Hawk who can, and occasionally has, stepped into the limelight and can help supplement, if not supplant, Bogi’s fullcourt production. Kevin Huerter is in Atlanta, likely, because DiVincenzo is not. Milwaukee took the 2018 Final Four Most Outstanding Player in the fateful NBA Draft, two picks before Atlanta selected the relatively unheralded Huerter. The heralds have been coming, however, for “K’Von” following his breakout performance in the decisive Game 7 victory over Philadelphia, serving as perhaps Atlanta’s most clutch performer throughout that uncanny contest. Huerter doesn’t need a reason, at this stage, to make the Bucks pay for passing him up. But should he seek out a reason, there you go. There was a time, just a few years ago, that Milwaukee really needed the services of Tony Snell. Middleton’s injured hamstring cost him over half of the 2016-17 season, pressing Snell into starting duties in his first season as a Buck. His efficiency as a shooter shined that season, and in the playoffs, and Horst’s first move as the new GM was to hand Snell a 4-year, $44 million deal to keep him around. That contract would be largely panned as among the worst in franchise history, on a club that has penned some real doozies in the past decade alone (Miles Plumlee, what up?). That contract also expires this season, and while Atlanta hasn’t really needed Snell to this point, back in March when they did, his jumpshot served as the match that ignited the Hawks’ improbable turnaround. The mini-dimensional but efficient-shooting Snell would relish some chances to show Milwaukee, and perhaps some suitors this summer, why he is known, today, as Mister 50/50/100. The year before DiVincenzo was picked, the Bucks had an array of power forwards to choose from at Draft time. Awash in Big Ten land, John Hammond and the Bucks’ brass went after Michigan standout D.J. Wilson, leaving T.J. Leaf for the rival Pacers. Down in ACC country, the Hawks were again two picks behind Milwaukee, and elected to go for John Collins. It’s looking like things worked out, in Atlanta’s case. Try to imagine, when Mike Budenholzer bolted from the ATL for Milwaukee in 2018, that he might have inherited not only one of the most impregnable forces in pro sports, an imperfect hoopster yet a two-time MVP before age 26, but another talented if imperfect tag partner in Collins (15.1 PPG and 10.0 RPG vs. PHI, on downright Snellian 54.7/38.9/85.0 shooting splits), who has now held his own at playoff time against the likes of Julius Randle and Tobias Harris. A Gianny-Johnny pairing could have been mighty useful when the top-seeded Bucks faced a 5-seed, Bam Adebayo’s Miami, in the second round of 2020’s playoffs. Instead of putting Collins to work during the course of his rookie deal at playoff time, in Milwaukee, Coach Bud had to put up with the dwindling utility of Wilson, who was DNP’d the entire postseason. Like Rakim, the Baptist this summer is about to be paid-in-full. But if he needs a reason to stick it to his rookie-year coach who abandoned him for supposedly greener pastures, jumping to a team that passed him up for Wilson, well… Wilson was supposed to be in Horst’s ill-fated package, last autumn, to Sacramento for Bogdanovic. Instead, he and another D.J., Mr. Augustin, brought a P.J. into town at this year’s trade deadline, along with the lightly-used Rodions Kurucs. Capela’s longtime teammate in the frontcourt, the 36-year-old P.J. Tucker (like Nate McMillan, the pride of Raleigh’s Enloe High School) exists primarily to be a thorn in the side of anyone he is assigned to guard. Daryl Morey’s team in 2020, as you’ll recall, ditched Capela to a rebuilding Atlanta team, because they thought the 6-foot-5 Tucker could adequately hold his own sliding over to Clint’s center spot on a title contender. Capela has already made Morey, now In Philly, pay for that miscalculation. While Clint won’t be able to see Mike D’Antoni anytime soon, over the next week or so, he can serve up some helpful reminders of what his former Houston bosses missed in the Bubble. Fortunately for Tucker, who took over for Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup for the Brooklyn series, he won’t have to worry much about going head-to-head with Clint. Getting passed up by Milwaukee in the Draft has often been a badge of honor. In Danilo Gallinari’s draft class of 2008, two picks after the Knicks’ selection, the Bucks went after Joe Alexander. The next big man taken two picks later, the New Jersey Nets’ Brook Lopez, has turned out quite alright. The man who wanted to retire with just one team, the star-studded club that now resides in Brooklyn, served a cold dish to them last weekend, putting his remodeled stretch-five game to good use under Coach Bud’s tutelage. Lopez and Antetokounmpo will strive to draw Capela out of the paint. But a Hawks defense that has held playoff foes thus far to an NBA-low 48.3 2FG% will be able to deploy any of Collins, Onyeka Okongwu or Gallinari to meet the Bucks bigs away from the rim, contesting mid-range shots and threes while permitting Clint to be in good position to protect the rim and secure defensive rebounds. Having endured the tricks of Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent rounds, and as familiar as anyone with the antics of Tucker, Capela is ideally suited for this matchup with the Bucks’ frontcourt. Do you Hawks fans need some more red meat? How’s our old friend, Larry Donnell Drew, Sr., holding together this morning? You know, that “other” departing head coach that pulled the rug out from under Atlanta’s best-laid plans. Drew’s advice to his new employer forced the Hawks to come away with Dennis Schröder, in a familiar theme, two picks after our internally well-scouted international kid of mystery, Giannis, was snatched up by Milwaukee in 2013. Rewarded only with the chance to coach up Antetokounmpo’s 15-win rookie year, Drew is now an assistant for the Clippers. Yes, the crew coached by former Hawk (and Buck) Ty Lue, who was handed the steamroller keys just in time for LeBron ahead of 2015’s playoff run through what was left of Atlanta. Let’s say L.A., now down 2-0 after last night’s absurd finish in Phoenix, finagles a way past the Suns out West. What Hawks fan wouldn’t want (figurative!) swings at that pinata? Still, considering how his Milwaukee tenure ended, I can’t imagine which team LD is rooting for to come out of the East. The playoff campaign Atlanta has waged to date has been as much about the tried-by-fire steely maturation of coach McMillan’s Hawks as it has been about the myth-busting of certain opponents. Myth: Everyone get out of the way, because Julius Randle’s time is now. Myth: Ben Simmons doesn’t need to work on his shortcomings, or his attitude, to lead a team to championship glory. Myth: if you need a coach to get you beyond regular season merits and into The Finals, don’t waste time with old-hat options like McMillan. You need a coach for the modern age, one with a Spurs pedigree, one like Budenholzer, to get you to the top of the NBA pyramid. That last myth may prove true, for Phoenix. But in Milwaukee, absent a sound thumping of the Hawks and an advance into the championship round, the myth of Bud’s superiority as a whiteboard wizard has already teetered perilously close to busting in the past month. That pinata might only need four more whacks, and in a poetic twist, his former team holds the stick. The fans in and around Milwaukee’s newest arena are far more cool-headed than anybody Trae and the Hawks players have tolerated over the past month-plus along the Eastern seaboard. It’s all about that Midwestern Nice mentality, you know. Yet, like one St. Louis beverage company’s frosty beverage tagline used to say, don’t let the smooth taste fool you. To say little of one recent league MVP who has become not much more than a singles hitter as his team loses ground to the Cubs, and a reigning league MVP causing heartburn around the clock for his team, these are supremely anxious times for Wisconsin sports fans. They’re subsided only by the fact that Giannis chose not to dip his toe into the 2021 free agent waters, thereby ensuring the Bucks will get multiple cracks at title contention over the next few years, so long as he doesn’t pull a Kareem. But in the minds of many a fan, longtime vets along the Bucks’ roster, and Coach Bud himself, this crack might be the last, best one they’ll get. Wisconsin’s current pro basketball team, collected to avenge the ouster by a five-seed from the South that featured a narrative-busting breakout NBA star in 2020, finds itself in a familiar position this season. For a few local Bucks fans that are longer in the tooth, the city that took two of the teams Milwaukee once beloved, and the name of the team that stands in the way of a shot at its first title in 50 years, ring a bit too loud of a bell. By the end of either of the next couple of games, if a cane winds up tossed onto the Fiserv Forum floor, you’ll understand why. Thank you, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. Home. Upon reflection… it’s where the traeHeart is. “SIXER FANS! Get on your feet! Give it up, Philadelphia! Let’s have a round of applause, for your, legendary, ALLEN! IVERSON!” Allen Iverson steps onto the Wells Fargo Center floor. He’s got on his casual gear and his obligatory Sixers cap, sometimes his old jersey on top. The Hall of Famer rings the ceremonial Liberty Bell knockoff, waves to the Philly crowd, and bathes himself in waves of rare Philly adulation. A.I. is being paid, by the Sixers, to be among the Philadelphia crowds. Keeping up appearances is essentially his job. As soon as 76ers games near their end, Iverson glad-hands the people he’s supposed to glad-hand, steps into a waiting car, and heads home. Via the airport. These days, Iverson hops on the first thing with wings smoking to return to his country-club home hundreds of miles away, currently in Charlotte. For many years after his NBA career reached its twilight, this “work trip” concluded by alighting at Hartsfield-Jackson for the ride back to his palatial mansion not far from “Da Nawf”, the places in and around Gwinnett County, that Lou Williams and Migos calls home. Julius Erving makes this honorary commute, too. He’s been an Atlanta resident, living it up with family in Buckhead Not City and Sandy Springs for the better part of the past decade. “This is the real deal. It feels right. It’s wearing right,” the Doctor shared with the AJC’s Steve Hummer, back in 2012, of settling in the South, and specifically in The ATL. Another periodic Sixer Bell Ringer and fan favorite (no, not you, Al Horford), Dikembe Mutombo was traded out of Atlanta to help then-MVP Iverson’s team make their majestic run to The Finals. Yet the NBA Global Ambassador never really left here. His son and his private-school buddies were instrumental in organizing the youthful, eye-opening social-justice protests in swanky Buckhead last summer. Charles Barkley calls the Atlanta region his home, giving the corpulent former Sixers great a place to work and eat and hobnob and chill not far from his Alabama roots. Like A.I., like Dr. J., Sir Charles will come to Philadelphia, when summoned, for some honorary bit like a statue unveiling. But it seems that none of the greatest Sixer legends of the past four decades choose to kick back in, say, Bryn Mawr, to bask in the glow of their past pro-ball glories. The French Riviera, the English countryside, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Only the greatest of places are where Sir Elton John chooses to rest his weary head. When he spends his days toiling on the East Coast of North America, the global icon and legendary musician spends his evenings at his posh high-rise condo in Buckhead, with its skyline views spanning in multiple directions. Goodbye, Yellow Brick. Hello, Peachtree Road! In a couple weeks, thousands will huddle around Penn’s Landing to take in the fireworks, with his soaring 1975 opus serving as background. But as Elton wakes up on many mornings and stoops out on his patio, Georgia sunshine, not “Philadelphia Freedom,” shines on him. 2021 makes it 30 years for John as an Atlanta resident. “People always ask me, ‘Why do you have a place in Atlanta?’”, he told the AJC, after finding year-round L.A. living to be overbearing, and New York a tad too dangerous. “It’s because people here have always been that nice to me… I’ve always been welcomed. I feel at home.” You love Atlanta as much as anywhere in America, Elton? “Yes, I do!” Shirley Franklin, a Philadelphia native and Penn grad, ran for Mayor, and won. In Atlanta. Her fellow high school alum, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, saw her future was best set in this town, too, moving here to audition and ignite her groundbreaking rapping and singing career, among other items. Philly native Kyle Pitts? Welcome to Atlanta, where, at least for now, Philly-burb native Matty Ice plays. Remember “Free Meek Mill?” The legendary Philly rapper was freed, and already has been such an advocate for criminal justice reform in this town, he was bestowed with an honorary “Meek Mill Weekend” by Atlanta’s city council. For so many individuals who came-of-age or reached heights of professional glory in connection with Philadelphia, Atlanta and the South has become the place of choice when it was time to grow up, and/or settle down. The celebrity and talent pipeline from the heart of the mid-Atlantic to the heart of the mid-South is emblematic of decades-long trends. Census data projects the Atlanta metropolitan area is bound to outgrow Philadelphia’s four-state-large metro’s population by next year, if it hasn’t happened already. Philly in 2019 was among just five U.S. markets that could boast of having at least 2.5 million TV households, as per Nielsen. This year, that shortlist is up to nine, Atlanta having joined three other US metros. The upshot? If you’re inclined to view the 215 as a premier, big-city American market, it’s time to accept the 404 is right there with them. Long self-identifying as a little-brother rival to NYC, Philadelphia has long taken solace by peering its nose down upon Atlanta and many of the metros that make up the NBA’s Southeast Division. This Eastern Conference Semifinals series has been instructive for die-hard supporters of the Sixers and old-media brand-name teams around the league. Whether we create it or take it, the talent in Atlanta, the city, and on the Atlanta Hawks, the team, are neck-and-neck with whatever they throw out there. If not better. If the Hawks are better, they will have the opportunity to prove it by toppling the conference’s top seed tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) before a standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, clinching an NBA Final Four berth at home for the first time since 1970. The opportunity presented to Atlanta has been well-earned, most recently by way of Wednesday’s epic comeback from 26 points down to prevail in Game 5, 109-106, before a cheesesteak-choking capacity crowd at Philly’s Wells Fargo Arena. Former Sixer assistant Lloyd Pierce was supposed to be another of the many who left The City of Brotherly Shove in his prime for a chance to flourish here. One can’t help but wonder, are LP and his old boss, ex-head coach Brett Brown, palling up to watch this Hawks-Sixers series together? The Browntree of coaching has dried up, and it got chopped down with the quickness. Yet Brown might still be in his head coaching chair, and not Doc Rivers, were he able to see the 2019-20 season through in Philadelphia. Brown’s Sixers had the best home record in the NBA, sitting at a gaudy 29-2 before the pandemic struck. But that season’s edition was a paltry 10-24 away from home, and a lackluster Florida Bubble performance by the 76ers sealed his fate. Brown’s successor, Rivers conducted a more balanced effort in this regular season, guiding the Sixers to a 29-7 record at home, before a growing cluster of satisfied Phans, while finishing respectably above-.500 in away games (20-16). It’s what gives him and The Farm’s visitors confidence they can pull off a second playoff road win in this series, as the Hawks have already done, and then dare Atlanta to close out Philly for a third time in their building on Sunday. “We will be back here for Game 7,” Glenn vowed. Rivers shared with players and the media how he lost at home to another former team of his, the Spurs in 2015, before bouncing back to have his Clippers win Game 6 in San Antonio and the rubber match back in Los Angeles. The Clips would advance, but lost the second-round to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Jason Terry and backup center Clint Capela’s Rockets in seven games. James Harden chipped in a bit in that series, too. “Chris Paul made an amazing shot at the end,” recalled Rivers of the comeback in 2015’s first-round series by L.A. “Unfortunately, he almost tore his hamstring doing it, but he made a big shot.” Philadelphia can only hope they won’t need Joel Embiid (“questionable,” small meniscus tear) to break a leg, Broadway-style or otherwise, to keep the #1-seed Sixers’ season alive. It would be preferable for Embiid (32.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 4.6 APG) to have his supporting cast of Sixer stars come through each time, such that he won’t be expected to make the season-saving plays at the ends of games. Ben Simmons (11.6 PPG, 4th on the team; team-high 8.4 APG) and Tobias Harris have been passing, but passive, as games wear on, entrusting Joel and Dwight to snare the key rebounds on defense, while leaning heavily on Seth Curry (21.4 PPG after his Game 5 tear, 57.9 3FG%), Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle to keep the hot perimeter hands. Embiid has given it his all trying to fry Capela and the Hawks at the starts of games, but in the second halves of losses (1-for-5 FGs, Philly’s only 2 assists and 1 steal in 4th quarter of Game 5), he wound up looking more like the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich worker meme. Every 76er on Wednesday, aside from Curry (4-for-4 4th-quarter 2FGs, but no made threes) and Embiid, were non-factors in the rebounding, scoring, passing and defensive departments (combined: 0-for-7 FGs, 2-for-4 FTs by Ben, 2 O-Rebs by Dwight, no D-Rebs, no assists, no steals) as Atlanta completed their historic surge in the final frame. As dominant a scorer as Embiid has been, it has come at the expense of Capela and Atlanta seizing back control of the glass. Joel’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting in the first quarter of game 5 was accompanied by just a pair of defensive rebounds, one fewer than Curry and fill-in starter Furkan Korkmaz. What gains Philadelphia should be making by the Hawks’ early shooting woes have been nullified by Clint and John Collins’ active work on the offensive glass. Simmons (5.4 RPG, down from 7.2 in the regular season), getting outrebounded in this series by Hawks reserve Danilo Gallinari (5.6 RPG in 53 fewer minutes), seems reticent to mix things up around the rim. Atlanta’s Trae Young, meanwhile, got the assistance he needed when it ultimately mattered. In each of the past two victories, Trae’s nifty, near-iconic dishes for game-changing threes by Collins has The Baptist considering changing his nickname to Big Shot John. Gallinari, defended by the diminutive Curry in the clutch, found himself in a “Game, Blouses” mood. And the rug was pulled out from under Rivers and Philadelphia’s gameplans by a Snellville high-schooler they drafted back in 2005. No one was ready for Lou Williams except Lou Williams (7-for-10 FGs in 2nd half of Game 5). He was deployed in a small-ball backcourt by coach Nate McMillan that contrasted, late in the last game, with Atlanta’s larger frontline, featuring Gallo with Capela and Collins. Having Danny Green (out, calf strain) rendered a fashionable sideline dancer has made it tougher for Rivers to defend Williams and Young individually, much less together. Once pondering retirement after getting traded by the Clips in mid-season, the ATL native Williams, in his second go-round with the Hawks has the opportunity to bring the joy of a conference finals berth to an adoring home crowd. Lou’s, and Doc’s, former employer has the chance to do the same later this evening, somehow for the first time in that franchise’s history. The Hawks can put a dash of lemon pepper on the Sixers’ season tonight, if they can get positive contributions at both ends from slumping starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (combined 0-for-8 3FGs, 0 FTs, 2 assists, 1 steal and 5 rebounds in Game 5). Bogi, by himself, collected 19 assists to just 4 TOs in the five-game Knicks series. But along with Red Velvet, they have struggled to serve Young as secondary play-makers (combined 19 assists, 18 TOs through Game 5) versus Philly’s more adroit and lankier defenders. Each swingman must avoid hesitating and allowing effective Sixer closeouts on spot-up shots early in the game. As Embiid wears down or Howard hovers closer to the rim, with Harris and Simmons overcompensating, drives for floaters, pocket passes, lobs and kickouts will abound, freeing up not only Young and Williams off-ball, but Capela or Onyeka Okongwu inside, and Collins or Gallinari outside. Better reads, and swifter reacts, out of Huerter and Bogdanovic would allow Atlanta to start strong, for once, and finish stronger. It sure would be nice to rest, on the laurels of, “We pushed the conference’s best team to seven games!”, and look forward to turning the page to the promise of next season. But then one looks up the road, at what was the 2020 Bravos. Having beaten top-seeded Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium twice already to start the NLCS, Atlanta’s baseball club, up 3 games to one, had the vaunted Dodgers dead-to-rights in Truist Park, with a chance to claim a trip to the World Series. They blew that game, had to fly back to L.A. for Games 6 and 7, and came home empty-handed. But, hey, we got the shine of the reigning National League MVP, and the youthful exuberance of Ronald Acuna and his budding relationship with manager Brian Snitker. Coming into 2021, most Atlanta fans figured, Mike Soroka will be back on the mound! Ender Inciarte has nowhere to go but up! If we can keep our closer, shore up the bullpen, bring back the NL’s top home-run hitter and RBI-maker, watch out! Stir it up, baby! Well, we’ve turned that page only to find their chance to Run It Back has hit a concrete wall, even breaking a hand in the process. Fab Five Freddie’s hitting infield flies. Soroka’s Achilles is still on the mend. Inciarte is yo-yo’ing on and off the bench. Marcell Ozuna was a figurative, and allegedly literal, choke job. And now Acuna and Snitker are squabbling over “stupid” matters. The good news for the Hawks is that their executive oversight doesn’t consist of a mainframe computer in a suburban Colorado office park. Still, there’s no need to presume the best chance to reach the conference finals, or The Finals, is off somewhere in a future season. With a growing legion of fans applying wind to their sails, Atlanta should approach tonight with a sense of F.U.N. -- the Fierce Urgency of Now -- then let the chips fall as they may. This sports town deserves a celebration worthy of its beautiful home floor. Besides, Hawks fans really aren’t feeling like one more long trip to Philadelphia should be necessary. Quite a few Philly legends, satisfied with life here in the Dirty South, would rather not trifle with a Game 7 call-up, either. That, I Guar-On-Tee. As the great Doctor J said of Atlanta, “This is the real deal." Indeed, it feels right. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “I'm going down double digits at halftime. Then, I'll get the Sixers right where I want ‘em!” Alright, Believe Atlanta, I’m trying to be pragmatic here! 2021 wasn’t supposed to be Finals Szn! Yet our Atlanta Hawks are just a 2-1 record, at worst, from becoming the Eastern Conference Finalist that only the Believing-est of Believe Atlanta Believers could believe. No one on the roster should be looking ahead. Not past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, who still get a shot at securing their manifest destiny by holding down home court, including today’s matchup at Wells Fargo Center (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). Not past the team who was holding an authoritative 2.5-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series until Joel Embiid’s tire began hissing air in the back half of Game 4. This team’s fanatical supporters, however, sure can peek ahead. If the Hawks can replicate what they did in New York City and spoil the hosts’ hopes not just once, as they’ve already done, but twice, they could very well be back in NYC once more, tipping off the Conference Finals against The Big 2.25 of Brooklyn. Seth Curry Piercing the Sixers’ final attempt in Game 3 allowed the Hawks put ice on a monumental comeback and even this series. Six grueling playoff wins down, six to go! What’s wilder, in this series, is we have yet to see Peak Hawks out of the players that coach Nate McMillan rotates on and off the floor. This isn’t to say we need Danilo Gallinari (1-for-6 FGs in Game 4, 7-for-18 3FGs in series) going all 10-Threes-on-the-Celtics-in-the-MLK-jersey to help Atlanta knock off the Sixers. Just that it would be pleasant to see a full game where the reality of multiple Hawks players hitting their perimeter shots (30.0 team 3FG% in Game 4, up slightly from 26.1% in Game 3, also in Atlanta) is as potent as the pervasive threat. It’s not enough to suggest that the Hawks are simply skating through, thriving solely off the 76ers’ mistakes. More so, Ice Trae is cross-country skiing through slush. The lack of hot-hand shooters has made it tougher for Young (25 points, career-high 18 assists in Game 4; youngest NBA player with 18+ playoff dimes, per Elias Sports, surpassing Atlanta’s Spud Webb in 1986) to speed-skate around the myriad of Sixer defenders thrown his way, and to make-good on his few good-look shots beyond the paint (41.5 FG%, 31.4 3FG%). Trae is credited on stats with 19.9 Potential APG in these playoffs, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 20.4 in Washington’s first-round loss to Philly, and well ahead of Chris Paul (14.8, a number that’ll be frozen for a while) among still-active postseason performers. He is creating offense with far fewer passes (55.7) than Sixers counterpart Ben Simmons (69.0 made passes per game, 13.3 potential APG). For Atlanta (110.4 O-Rating, 5th among the seven still-standings), the team assist tallies would be higher, the turnover margins greater, the beginnings to games more competitive and the conclusions less so, if Clint Capela would catch and finish around the rim with purpose and greater frequency. Nobody’s perfect, and Capela’s team-high 57.6 2FG% (66.7% in the first round vs. NYK) would be fine in a vacuum. But averaging over three missed shots per game within 4 feet of the rim are fuel for Philadelphia’s high-pressure transition scheme. Collins attacking the rim effectively allowed the Hawks to turn the tide in Game 4’s third quarter. But for a flubbed Collins-to-Capela pass at the close of Game 4, Atlanta would have tied the NBA Playoffs record, as per StatMuse, for fewest team turnovers (3 TOs by 7 teams, most recently the 2018 Cavs). Atlanta can’t rely on such near-perfection in a road contest that will feel, to Sixer fans at least, like an elimination game when they’re on the losing end of the score. So decisive passing, movement to get open, proper paint finishes and getting back on defense swiftly will be key for the Hawks’ frontline. Aside from Mike Budenholzer’s die-by-the-3 Bucks (31.0 team 3FG%, incl. whatever that is that Gioshis Antetokounmpo's doing), every playoff team shooting worse than Atlanta’s 35.5 3FG% is currently watching the postseason from either home or Cancun. Bogdan Bogdanovic (8-for-24 3FGs in past 3 games, 5-for-12 in Game 1), Kevin Huerter (6-for-11 3FGs in Games 1 and 2, 3-for-10 since) and Hawk shooters need to do a better job of connecting on threes, punishing Sixer defenders scrambling to recover after hounding Young. That way, Capela (12.7 RPG, 3rd in Playoffs) can focus less on offensive rebounding for Atlanta (26.4 O-Reb%, highest of NBA teams in this round) to create extra chances, and more on sealing Philly (25.5% of FGAs under 3 feet, highest among active teams) off the rim, and applying the defensive clamps to Embiid (questionable with the meniscus tear, but we know the deal by now). McMillan did come to his senses in Game 4, first by getting Solomon “Shiv” Hill out of the starting lineup, then in the third quarter, when he enveloped a withering Embiid with the jumbo-lump frontcourt lineup of Gallo, John Collins and Capela. The Hawks going big while properly closing out on Philadelphia’s perimeter threats confounded Joel (0-for-12 second-half FGs) and eventually had the Sixers visibly out of sync in the clutch, as Atlanta walked down an 18-point third-quarter deficit. It begs the question as to whether Coach Mac will want to stick with this frontcourt lineup at the outset of all halves, not just the second one. Also, whether Doc Rivers, and his coaching bench stocked with McMillan’s former Pacer assistants, can drum up a responsive gameplan predicated on an at least half-effective Embiid in the middle. With one assist in 35 limited minutes this series, backup center Dwight Howard is far removed from the Magic years of drawing a deserving number of extra bodies around the rim and kicking the ball out. With limited skilled-size advantages to exploit after Embiid and Howard, the Sixers would have to resort to more small-ball featuring Tobias Harris at the pivot and, perhaps, lightly-used ex-Hawks Anthony Tolliver and Mike Scott. While such lineups could be smaller, they wouldn’t be any more spry against Atlanta lineups. The Sixers and the skeptical media gave the Hawks every bit of bait to fold the tent, accept the “Good season!” pat on the head, and saunter off boldly into the offseason. The Hawks and their Believe Atlanta fans wouldn’t bite. As playoff-battle-tested as the 76ers’ core starters are, Simmons and Embiid have as many Conference Semifinal series wins as Young (probable, sore shoulder) and Collins do. Now, the pairs share an equal number of head-to-head wins, and the series won’t reach its conclusion without Atlanta fans having one final say. Atlanta feels almost as close to Finals Szn as they’ve been in the entire NBA history of this town. This, despite the imperfections, despite the injury setbacks, despite the disadvantages, despite the missed opportunities, despite the inexperience, despite the flaws. Dada could not have painted a prettier, nor more improbable, playoff picture for these Hawks. You can’t spell, “Surrealist” without A-T-L! Thank You, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “Where It Started…” The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching! Okay, fine. Maybe not the entire planet spins on the NBA’s axis. But this league, more than ever, is a Global game. Observe, just from this season, its Serbian MVP, taking honors previously bestowed upon a Greek, and its Cameroonian runner-up. Behold, its French DPOY, its Filipino Sixth Man of the Year, and their respective Australian runners-up. American players can These Colors Don’t Run to their hearts’ content. But in this day and age, when the pressure’s on and you find yourself under siege, it is good to know you’ve got a Bogdanovic in the corner with you, on your side. It’s not just people from the Delaware Valley and North Georgia with a keen interest in the outcome of the Philadelphia 76ers – Atlanta Hawks playoff series, Game 4 of which continues this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame analysis on Bally Sports Southeast). Travel across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Adriatic, and you’ll find folks in fancy suits sweating bullets. As it pertained to hoops, “The Global Game” used to refer to the Games of the Whatevereth Olympiad, a quadrennial affair that was becoming quite the Soviet bloc party until USA Basketball firmly put their foot down shortly after the demise of the Berlin Wall. Tokyo was back on the block to host in the summer of 2020, before a global pandemic decided to play games with these Games. As of this writing, there is still not 100 percent certainty that the Olympics, delayed from last summer to kick off in late July, will go on as planned. Organizers are hoping to implement something as successful as the 2020 NBA Bubble, writ large, with stringent protocols designed to keeps athletes of all sports safe. But what can no longer wait are the myriad Olympic Qualifying Tournaments. Teams like Ben Simmons’ Australia, and LP and Derrick White’s United States ((cough)), have already locked down bids via 2019’s FIBA World Cup. After including Olympic host Japan, that leaves four spots open for each winner of FIBA’s six-team “OQTs.” The qualifying tourneys kick off in just over two weeks from today. Depending on which of the Sixers or Hawks come away with the short end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals stick, one of those fancy-dressed folks is going to reach out and touch someone, with the quickness, upon the sound of the NBA playoff round’s final buzzer. Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, and his agent, is most certainly on speed-dial. His native city, Belgrade, hosts the Serbian national team and five others in their OQT. The top scorer in 2019’s FIBA World Cup, Bogi likely has a vested interest in helping 2016’s Rio silver medalists wage a return to the medal stand in Japan. That is, if both he and Nikola Jokic are, uh, available. As of today, one certainly is. If he “makes it,” Bogi may find a partner, and an OQT adversary, in his traveling party. Group A in Serbia’s OQT has Jordan Clarkson’s Philippines and Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns’ Dominican Republic. The other side of the bracket, Group B includes the Italian national team, where Danilo Gallinari could be eager to make amends. In an obvious case of, “quando mantenerlo reale va storto,” Gallo hauled off on the face of a Dutch player during a kerfuffle at the free throw line, amid a meaningless exhibition match, and cracked his own thumb. Losing Danilo short-circuited Italy’s best chance at challenging Bogi’s Team Serbia in the Eurobasket 2017 quarterfinals. The Serbians made it all the way to the finals, where they fell to an undefeated Slovenian squad that has this really good player named Goran Dragic, among others. There are some bigwigs that would love to talk Turkey with the Sixers’ Furkan Korkmaz (you’ve all met Furkan in Game 3), along with former Hawk and current Jazzman Ersan Ilyasova, about joining their national team at Canada’s OQT. Adding those veterans with 2021 likely NBA lotto-rookie Alperen Sengun, and former Hawks draft pick Shane Larkin, could make the Turkish team much more formidable as a medal finisher. Even over in Kaunas, Lithuania, Angola’s got something to say. Paired up in Group B with heavy favorite Slovenia, Team Angola would greatly appreciate having the Hawks’ Bruno Fernando to join in the fun. After all, somebody is going to have to deal with Slovenian greats like Goran’s brother, Zoran, and, now that he’s “freed up,” the Nuggets’ Vlatko Cancar. National team executives find themselves in the twisted position of hoping their compatriots stay healthy and perform well in NBA play, while wishing with wringed hands that their teams lose the playoff series. And quickly, s’il vous plait. How eager Bogi (19 points but 4 TOs in Game 3) and Gallo (9-for-9 FTs but 0-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) are to pack their bags for a land far, far, away will be reflected in their performances in the remaining games of this Eastern Conference semifinal, where the 76ers have seized back the upper hand while Cameroon’s Joel Embiid is serving up a lower foot to the backsides of the Hawks’ frontline. The Indomitable Lions narrowly missed out of the running for Olympic Qualifying back in 2019, so Embiid (35.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.3 BPG) has no one to distract him carrying Philadelphia as far as he can. Down Under, the powerful Boomers’ qualification as an Oceania representative is pretty much a routine layup, even with the continent having to lump their qualifying in with Asian nations. That’s good news for Ben Simmons and for a Sixers’ teammate, Matisse Thybulle, who could make the team even though he only spent early childhood years in Australia. With their Olympic bid in hand, should they choose to attend, they can maintain their focus on putting the screws to Atlanta’s Trae Young as best they can. Of course, Trae (1st in NBA history with 20+ points and 7+ assists in 1st 8 games of playoff debut) might be getting that Love Tap from Team USA soon, too. Every American-born baller wants a bite of authentic Olympic gold, and all the trappings beyond Wheaties boxes that it could bring. But you’ve got star guards who are now all but certain to be playing NBA hoops well into the end of this month, at least. Then, there’s a van fleet of guards who recently received their first few weeks of legitimate, recuperative time off since maybe 2019, and are beginning to like it. Even some guards may be too banged up from the close of their NBA seasons to be in a position to consider. Impose daily IOC protocols and limited maneuverability around some constrained Olympic Village, and there’s bound to be a number of “Thanks! But, no thanks!”, and all Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo can do is stomp and stammer about it. Then, call guys like Trae. That assumes, naturally, if Young makes himself available for an LP Reunion Special and, before that, if his Hawks make him “available” by concluding this series over the next several days. Improving the likelihood of “availability” in the near term would entail Nate McMillan failing, once more, to adjust the starting unit (Solomon “el Cuchillo” springs to mind) or rotations to address the dexterity advantages brought forth by Philadelphia’s Embiid (12-for-16 FTs in Game 3; 8 assists, 1 TO) and Tobias Harris (22 points on a team-high 16 FGAs in Game 3; 5 assists, 1 TO). The Hawks’ defense found themselves victims of death by 1,000 Sixer cuts to the basket on Friday, particularly in the third quarter as the visitors pulled away for the 127-111 win. Addressing this extends beyond simply staying in front of assignments, not getting cowed by the allure of aiding Clint Capela and John Collins (two blocks each in past 3 games) with double-teams outside the paint. (Capela's Team Swiss didn't even bother to try qualifying this go-round. Neutral bunch, those guys). Communication to disrupt inbound passes is key, particularly by Hawk players guarding the ballhandlers, so players like Bogdanovic (5.2 deflections per game in NYK series; 3.3 versus PHI) and Young (team-high 1.7 SPG) can thrive as roving defenders. Atlanta won the turnover-production edge in their one victory thus far (19-17 in Game 1; 9-18 in Game 2, 11-even in Game 3), and they’ll need that to be the case again going forward if they are to prevail in meetings going forward. Hawk guards on the floor cannot afford to stray from Seth Curry (60.0 3FG% this series), but they’ll have to know which player is assigned to stay on Seth’s hip and which can afford to help the forwards disrupt Philadelphia’s drive and cut lanes. Kevin Huerter struggled to make an impact over 23 minutes in Game 3, but he can get the Hawks rolling again if he can force stops and give the Sixers a taste of their own transition medicine. Unlike Gallinari, Lou Williams, Tony Snell, Huerter and many of the Hawks’ reserves won’t be going far, not on someone else’ dime, if the successful-on-balance season concludes this week. They might as well go all-in on behalf of a raucous State Farm Arena crowd, exploiting matchups, making open shots when attention is drawn on the starters, and giving the Hawks a decisive bench scoring edge. If all goes well tonight, Atlanta will be rewarded with a third home playoff game in this series. As for the Italian Basketball Federation? Well, you folks will just have to sit and wait. For many nations, the chance to earnestly Go For The Silver hangs in the balance. But that "sense of urgency" should not be anybody in The ATL’s problem. I’m sorry, but, frankly? “1-2-3, Belgrade!”, has a terrible ring to it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “You’ve got the Brawn. I’ve got the Brains!” “LET’S MAKE LOTS OF…” Ah, yes, there he is! The Greatest** Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time. ** I hear you, advocates for He Who Can No Longer Be Named. Atlanta’s point god of the 90’s was a one-time All-Star, too. Plus, a two-time steals champ, an All-Defensive First Teamer, arguably the first Hawks starter who, for better or worse, embraced the dawning age of the three-point line. Sadly, there were just too many poor playoff exits, too many bad shooting nights. More sadly, he got reckless in causing a fatal wreck after his career ended. And let’s not stress out over what could have been with Pistol Pete. Going forward, “MB10” refers to Mike Bibby, and Doc Rivers is The Greatest. For Now. The Hawk franchise’s all-time Assist king, Doc Rivers has likely been making the Confused face long before it became an indelible, viral meme. Begin with the first time he glanced up at the State Farm Arena rafters and saw #21 up there, representing the Hawks’ coming-of-age era of the 80’s, by its lonesome. Then, when his eyes revert downward, and sees Erick Dampier, Thabo, or Alex Len hoofing it up and down the court wearing #25. How, he must wonder, did everyone think The Human Highlight Film, deemed the league’s 51st greatest player at the time of its golden anniversary, get so many highlights? Somebody set that man up for the near-entirety of his first nine professional seasons. Dominique Wilkins didn’t get to Springfield on the strength of Dunk Contest trophies alone. Rivers was the prime caddie for many thousands of Nique’s 23,000 points, during their Atlanta tenure together. Yet maybe the best show of appreciation that Doc (“Glenn,” here in Philadelphia, because yeah) has received were golf claps, after the sporadic grainy montage of his peak years in town airs during timeouts on the Jumbotron. “Thanks, Doc.” Rivers will join Wilkins in Springfield. But solely as a head coach, and, oh, what a strange, twisty-turny journey it has been. He’ll never go down as the greatest taskmaster in NBA history, but he has got to be top-three in terms of coaching careers that are the most Doc-umentariable. But for his buddy, the retiring Danny Ainge, he’d likely never have gotten the chance to be head coach in Boston, not after stumbling to a 1-10 start with Tracy McGrady and Ty Lue in 2003, his fifth season in Orlando (high schooler Dwight Howard’s probably not landing in O-Town the next summer, either). Despite several mediocre seasons, he was allowed to hang around long enough for The Three Amigos, Banner #17, the Rondo Wonder Years, and his “trade” to the Clippers, when Ainge signaled the time had come for a rebuild. He was in L.A. for the continued rise of spry Blake Griffin, the commissioner-engineered gift of the gifted Chris Paul, the Sterling 4 Lyfe fiasco handing him the keys to run the show, the e-Clips of the Lakers as Tinseltown’s top draw, Saving Private DeAndre, the big breakup, and the arrivals of Cali Kawhi and Playoff P. Out-classing the Warriors proved to be too much of a task over the years, but Rivers’ star-studded teams checked out of regular seasons in either 1st or 2nd place within the Pacific Division. In 2020, after a dreary playoff showing by his Clippers, Doc was granted permission to move on. He’s back East, this time with the #1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers. A guy who began this NBA season moving into 10th-place all time in regular-season coaching victories will find, at the opposite end of the sideline today (1 PM Eastern, ABC, 92.9 FM in ATL; Postgame Show on Bally Sports Southeast), a fellow who had no expectations of moving into the Top-20 list anytime soon when the season began. Shocked! Dismayed! Disappointed! Such were the sentiments of Rivers over the March canning of colleague and former Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. “You’re in the middle of the rebuild, and then, you blame the coach for the losses that you had no chance to win,” Doc groused, perhaps unaware that defeats versus Cleveland, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Indiana, then at Cleveland and Oklahoma City, didn’t quite fall into such an impossible category for a Hawks team nearing the Break at 14-20 and leaking oil. One might be able to excuse the commentary the winningest active African-American coach in the NBA (Rivers’ 992 wins behind Lenny Wilkens’ 1332) reserved when the second-winningest, McMillan, was handed his walking papers back in August. After all, at the time of Nate’s eye-opening ouster, Doc was in the midst of saving his own bacon, with the second-seeded Clippers, while fending off a wunderkind named Luka Doncic in the first playoff round. He wouldn’t know for sure, but open critiques of teams with whom Rivers might have to apply could have been problematic. Stuffed like a baked potato with oodles of class and armed with a single-season of guaranteed cash as a parting gift from Indy, McMillan wasn’t looking for broadsides directed at his former employer. The interim Hawks coach also won’t look back critically at members of his head coaching frat for not going out of their way to publicly back him at the time of his firing. “Doc has been respected,” McMillan told The Undefeated in December, as Philly’s Rivers moved into 10th place in wins all-time, with Nate having no idea he would add to his own tally in 2021, “and he gets the respect from everyone because he not only has won games, but a title,” referring to fading memories of Doc’s time in Beantown. “And that’s the thing for us, as Black coaches, is to win titles to put us on the level so people will look at us as some of the good coaches in this league.” Nate gets it. Having Black coaches, like Lue, able to demonstrate their caliber of coaching as championship-contender quality, not limited to nurturing subpar talent until the figment of some hotshot ebonistically-challenged upgrade arrives, is vital to building a coaching fraternity that more closely mirrors that of the NBA talent being coached, analyzed, and developed. “What I love about Nate,” Rivers told The Undefeated in kind, “is that he’s his own man. Nate keeps quiet and wants to do his own thing, is a family man that just wants to do his job and go home. He ain’t out there calling reporters, working GMs. That’s not who Nate is. Nate believes, and I agree with Nate, ‘Do your job, and your work will speak for itself.’” The Hawkward part of this? Doc already has his ring, having lasted long enough in the league to win it all and build his own brand off of that experience. In this series, Rivers’ club has a strong chance to come out of the NBA East for the first time since Allen Iverson reigned supreme in 2001. But McMillan and his Hawks find themselves in no mood to be deferential. Back in May of 1988, Rivers’ 22 assists helped the Hawks tie up their second-round series with the mighty Celtics at the Omni, giving Atlanta hope that their turn at the top of the Eastern table had finally arrived. These were the third-most assists by any NBA player in a playoff win at the time (two behind Magic’s 24 back in 1984; Johnson logged 23 in a 1985 playoff victory, too), perhaps inspiring Utah’s John Stockton to try one-upping Doc’s total the very next day (24, in a loss to Magic’s Lakers). A year before that, McMillan made a little history of his own. The unheralded second-rounder from NC State hung 25 Sonic assists in a regular-season game on Larry Drew’s lowly Clippers. At that time, that tally tied for the fourth-most all-time, in any NBA game. To this day, it’s tied with Ernie DiGregorio for the most ever dished out by a rookie in this league. Neither coach earned an NBA title as a player, but they’ve endured many a bitter playoff battle, and they each know the value of a capable court conductor in determining the outcomes. Philadelphia has arrived on the strength of Ben Simmons (14.2 PPG, 6.9 APG, 7.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG regular-season). Whatever his flaws, be it free throw shooting or limited shot selection, the 24-year-old uses his size, length, and guile to stymie opposing point guards at both ends of the court, setting the stage for, among other things, the MVP candidacy of center Joel Embiid (28.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 37.7 3FG%). Simmons averaging 14.8 PPG, 9.2 APG, 10.2 RPG and 1.2 SPG in the first round was enough to help the 76ers fend off Washington in five games, despite losing Embiid in Game 4 (“small” meniscus tear). His Wizards counterpart, Russell Westbrook averaged his obligatory triple-double but was pressed into inefficient shooting from the field (35.9 2FG%, 25.0 3FG% vs. PHI), as was Bradley Beal (21.9 3FG% vs. PHI). Despite being hamstrung by COVID, in January, and by injuries at inopportune times throughout the season, Philly (49-23) had reason to expect being here, hosting Games 1 and 2 of an Eastern Conference semifinal game. After being swept in the opening round by Boston in 2020’s Bubble, leading to LP’s former boss’ ouster, the Sixers brass and its hard-to-please fans would have expected nothing less. To the surprise of many, particularly those in the mid-Atlantic states, Atlanta has arrived to this second-round stage, and they did so on the strength of Trae Young (25.3 PPG, 9.4 APG). From deep, down the lane, and on the line, Young is persistent in producing offense for himself and inducing high-percentage offense for his teammates. He demonstrated in the Hawks’ first-round media upset of New York that his flair for showmanship can withstand the heat created by opposing thugs, fans, and political opportunists. Doc has a couple aces up his sleeve, that is, ace coaching assistants. While building his new coaching bench, he got two of McMillan’s longtime top assistants from Indiana, Dan Burke and Popeye “Hockey Dad” Jones. Rivers will be as much picking their brains about McMillan’s strategies, particularly Burke about the Hawks on the defensive end, as he will be game-planning the players on the floor. Doc will soak up as much advice as he can get, as he gets to see a lot of The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time wearing #11 in this series. No asterisks required. The truncated regular seasons of 2020 and 2021 are the only reasons Trae isn’t already halfway to Doc’s career assist mark with the Hawks. Health-permitting, Young will be the team’s all-time Dime King while it’s still early in his Maximum Contract Extension phase. If all continues to proceed well, once Trae’s done with #11, there’ll be no Esteban Batistas or Tiago Splitters as a follow-up act. The differences between the East’s 4-seed and its top-seed will be evident by the diversity of defensive options thrown Trae’s way. For Philadelphia (NBA-high 9.2 team SPG), Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and George Hill offer a stronger mix of skill and experience for guarding Young. The best postseason performer thus far for the Sixers, bouncing back from last year’s bomb in the Bubble and the 2019 series with Toronto, Tobias Harris will have a better clue than Julius Randle on what to do (or not) when Young leaks into the paint, and at least he’ll know better than to poke the cub. Embiid, on less than two functional legs, and former Hawks center Dwight Howard should be a defensive upgrade over the committee that manned the middle as best they could for the Knicks. Drop coverage by Philly (0.87 opponent points-per-possession on P&R ball handler plays, best among East’s remaining teams) will be susceptible to Young’s floating giant-killers, but his on-ball defenders can recover over screens enough to up the degrees of difficulty. The elevated heat on Ice Trae, and former Sixer legend Lou Williams, means the shooters on the floor for Atlanta, notably Bogdan Bogdanovic (33.3 3FG% vs. NYK) and sixth-man Danilo Gallinari (32.0 3FG% in first round), have to be ready to catch and convert when the ball finds its way out to them. There wasn’t much to glean from the regular season head-to-heads, due to so many key players DNP’d, but the Hawks produced just 33.3 field goals per game, the lowest by any Sixers opponent, a Sixers season-high 9.3 of Atlanta’s attempts rejected. Establishing the perimeter threat will get the interior for the Hawks uncongested. The Hawks’ forwards and centers also have to be in position, via rolls, cuts, lobs and putbacks, for buckets at the basket. Masterful in guarding what was supposed to be an unstoppable Randle in the prior round, John Collins’ offensive production will need to be raised by a degree to fully offset what a more confident opponent in Harris (25.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 38.1 3FG% vs. WAS) can bring to the table. Be it by defensive rebounds or live-ball turnovers, the Sixers want to get Simmons downhill after securing stops, with shooters dashing to the corners (Green 45.2 corner 3FG%, 45.6 percent of all his 3FGAs) and trailing (Seth Curry 45.0 3FG%), to exert maximum pressure on the opposing backcourt. Philadelphia’s 17.9 points per-48 off turnovers ranked 5th in the NBA, their 15.0 fastbreak points per-48 ranked 3rd. Atlanta (NBA-best 10.0 opponent points per-48 off TOs and 0.86 opponent points per transition possession in Playoffs) had an easier time getting back against the Knicks, and will rely heavily on Bogi, Philly native De’Andre Hunter (questionable for Game 1, sore knee), and Kevin Huerter to keep the Sixers from building up heads of steam. Alleviated from protecting the interior on the break, Young’s ability to hustle and fluster shooters, without fouling, has to shine through. Hawk bigs must put pressure on the rim on offense, but they have to also create the advantage of beating their assignments down the floor. Marginalized as an offensive option during his postseasons in Houston, then dispatched from a title contender to a developmental team at 2020’s Trade Deadline, Clint Capela (NBA-high 14.3 RPG in 2020-21, 2.0 BPG) will have the opportunity to show Daryl Morey, beneficiary of the gains of The Process, what the new Sixers executive left behind Door #2 when he made the pivotal deal with Atlanta. Capela largely avoided foul trouble versus New York, and it’s essential that he stays on the floor while handling Embiid adroitly on post-ups (Philly’s 9.2% frequency and 1.29 points per post-up possession are Playoff-highs) and boxing Joel or Dwight out. The Hawks’ five-game series win over the Knicks got McMillan (36.2 playoff winning percentage) past not only former Hawks coach Mike Fratello (32.3%), but the guy who supplanted Nate in Portland, the now-former Blazer coach Terry Stotts (34.3%), among the least playoff-successful coaches with 500 or more regular-season wins. Coach Nate doesn’t have a radar for this, but if he did, he’d find within his sights Gene Shue (39.0%), who peaked with The Original Doc by taking Philly to The Finals in 1977. A successful Hawks series that goes no more than six games would allow Nate to shoo off Shue. Head-honcho jobs are opening up across the league, making it of some comfort for Hawks, Inc., that McMillan keeps his eyes only on the prize of the next opportunity to win a playoff game. “You have to be loyal to whoever you are working for,” he shared with The Undefeated while still assisting LP. “I always have taken the approach that the organization that I am working for is where all my attention is.” “I don’t really look back… I am not doing things for my next job… If you commit to that organization and that team, things will work out for you.” Word, Nate Dogg! Philadelphia’s five-game series victory over the Wizards pushed Rivers a little further past the .500 postseason line (95-90), but Doc has commandeered many a disappointing conclusion to seasons with talented teams, notably a Clipper club that still awaits its franchise’s first Conference Finals. He’s desperate to change that narrative, too, but he’ll have to reach the Eastern Finals with a hobbling Embiid leading a core (with Simmons and Harris, throw in Mike Scott if you wish) that has only one more series win under their belts than the current Hawks collective. The invectives thrown and spewed Young’s way have already reached a scale that Rivers, who could hide a little behind guys named Nique and Tree, rarely had to experience by himself during his tenure in the Pac-Man jerseys. Trae’s aware of the Sixer-fan hijinks already sprinkled upon former league MVP Westbrook in recent weeks, a player Young has watched and learned from since his youthful years in The Sooner State. Trae also knows that, unlike fans from a town to Philly’s north cheesing for clout on behalf of their longtime unlovable losers, the fans in the City of Brotherly Shove are quick to turn their vitriol and Cheez Wiz onto their own teams, when things aren’t going their way, and as opponents are bending games to their will. The lesson to be gained, Philly sports fans? The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard is in town. Get your popcorn ready. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. Planking. The Choice of an Old Generation. Down by a point midway through the third quarter in Atlanta, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player found himself confounded by the Hawks’ defensive positioning. For Golden State’s Stephen Curry, this was in a good way. The ball made its way to him on the left corner, right near Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard, the tent-poles for the regurgitating Atlanta Basketball Club under former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s watch. Standing around fussing about his careless turnover while trying to get the ball up the court, Howard got into a see-wut-happened-wuz squabble with Dennis, about how the play should have been run, not far from their own basket. Kent Bazemore was guarding the inbounder, but soon found himself scrambling in vain as Schröder, bickering with Howard but not minding Curry, left him alone in the far corner for one of the most open three-point shots of Steph’s famed career. Splash. Oh, Brother. Los Warriors take the lead. Time out, Los Hawks. “And I heard a big cheer,” said an unfamilar color analyst for the visiting Warriors, “from… you would think, a partisan crowd.” Ya think? Steph is giggling uncontrollably, drawing hand slaps with coaches and teammates as he skips to the sideline for a quick Shasta break. Coach Bud is beside himself, too. But in his case, there is no joy in Hawkville. “I don’t understand Coach’s decision,” groused Schröder after that pivotal game, a 119-111 loss that still had the Hawks, losers of three straight, with a respectable 34-29 record. Benching Dennis, Bud had elected to roll with Junior Hardaway and Malcom Delaney the rest of the way. “Maybe I’m too competitive, I don’t know.” Indeed, the Hawks’ marquee point guard did not know. This, on the heels of a missed game and suspension after the All-Star Break due to a visa snafu, didn’t help matters. Dwight wouldn’t play much longer in that game after the defensive flub, either. Ersan Ilyasova consumed the lion’s share of what would have been Howard’s residual floor time, as Zaza Pachulia’s Dubs sat him and went small-ball. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the outcome of the game that was crucial for the evolution of the Hawks franchise, but that one, egregiously neglectful play. We will never know the precise moment, maybe in the ensuing spring of 2017, when Budenholzer marched over to incoming GM Travis Schlenk’s office and said, “Look, small-b bud, please, I’m trying to get the Dellavedova out of here!” But it couldn’t have been terribly long after. Up to a certain point, Schlenk was assuring the public upon his arrival that, no, the Hawks were disinterested in conducting a full-on rebuild, that somehow it was possible to fine-tune using the remnants of a core that, just two years before, held the top record in the NBA Leastern Conference. And Dennis, and Baze, and Dwight. “Being Competitive, and increasing our Flexibility, that’s still where we are,” Schlenk would emphasize. But then, Schlenk looked closely at what he had to work with on the floor, and what passed for veteran leadership. He figured he maybe had more hangtime with Schröder. But in the ensuing season, Atlanta eroded to a 24-58 mark with Bud angling for an exit hatch and a soft landing. As Dennis was adding hookah-bar rap sheets and noise ordinances to his resume, shooting sub-30 percent on threes all the while, Travis understood the dream of grooming a responsible All-Star-caliber point guard out of this guy, a first-rounder from the prior regime, had run its course. Further, that tethering the point guard’s “maturation” to him any further ran the risk of managerial malpractice. Still, the decision on Dennis would be over a year away. As he unpacked his boxes in his new, spatial Marietta Street corner office, Travis already understood… he had no time to waste with Dwight. Atlanta’s Own (the other one) thought he had finally aligned his NBA home with his old home. Mimicking Bazemore’s tears at their Summer 2016 Free Agency press conference (someone, PLEASE, make a 30 For 30 about Summer 2016, and hurry), Dwight was self-assured that the Hawks would be his Final Destination. Moved all his snakes over here from Houston into another palatial mansion, and everything. Much like Final Destination the movie, his tenure began and ended disastrously alongside Schröder and Baze, the Curry wide-open three-pointer serving as the piano slipping perilously from above. Atlanta, Watch Yer Head! In June 2017, Schlenk made the Dwight trade to Charlotte his first official maneuver as GM, making the final two years of what was to be a three-year, $71 million deal the Hornets’ problem to wrestle with. In turn, Atlanta got a test-drive of Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee’s contracts, a nice Summer League run with Alpha Kaba, and a cup of tea with Tyler Dorsey as Schlenk traded down in the second-round with Charlotte (maybe coulda had Thomas Bryant instead of Dorsey, but that’s pure Draft Snobbery on my part. The good pick came with Johnny Bap in the first round). Howard would get the ring he long sought by returning to Los Angeles and clinging to LeBron and AD in the 2020 Bubble, although not before getting passed around from Atlanta, to Charlotte, to Washington, getting waived by Brooklyn and Memphis along the way. Now 100.1% assured of a Hall of Fame induction, Dwight gets to be a pseudo-Thanos of sorts, collecting gems on his fingers by coming off the bench behind all-world talents like Joel Embiid. He’d love nothing more than to have a role in making the once low-key Hawks his personal Loki, especially as this series has ventured into Dwight’s hometown (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) for what the Hawks (13 straight home wins; 21-2 at State Farm Arena since February 13) hope will be another successful two-game homestand. But as the crew collected by Schlenk following Dwight’s 2017 departure from ATL comprehends, Clint Capela doesn’t need to fare better than Captain America, versus Joel (39.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG in 1st two games of series) and Dwight, for the Hawks to come out on top in Game 3. Travis was in Golden State’s War Room in 2009 when handlers for Curry pleaded with Monta Ellis’ club to let the Davidson star slip down to the Knicks, who were holding the next pick. Schlenk and the Warriors graciously denied the request, and that longtime, downtrodden franchise has been laughing its way to the bank ever since. (“Welcome to New York, Jordan Hill!”) He knows the value of homegrown point-god talent, done right, mentored right, developed right. As Schröder, unshackled from the tutelage of Westbrook and CP3, resorts to old bad habits and drawing the ire of Earvin in L.A., Schlenk is recouping the benefits of moving on, on the fly, as Trae Young grows out from his Sorcerer’s Apprentice cocoon to reveal something truly magical. The Sixers in 2018 were pleased as punch with the burgeoning promise of 2016’s first-overall pick, Ben Simmons (hey there, “Gameboy.” We ain’t forgot about you; 4 points, 7 assists, 2 steals over 34.5 minutes in Game 2). So much so, that they had no interest in trading up with their lottery pick like Dallas would. We have The Prototypical Point God of The Future already, Philly said, thank you very much. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-11! Instead, they took hometown product Mikal Bridges, had his mom who WORKED FOR THEM singing their praises on television, only to swiftly trade down with Phoenix and acquire Zhaire Smith instead. They got Miami’s first-rounder this year, but even that didn’t last long, coughed up in the deal that brought Tobias Harris and our old friend Mike Scott over from LA. Bridges, riding a rookie deal on this Sixers team, would look pretty darn good right now. Zhaire, at right about this moment, might be at a Memphis-area Whataburger. As a customer, that is to say. The prior Sixers’ regime’s error became Daryl Morey’s gain, as the Rockets GM escaped H-Town just in time to take over in 2020. The inherited successes are to Morey’s gain as well. Harris (21.0 PPG, 59.4 FG% this series) would be a strong contender for Playoffs MVP, although, please, nobody advise Embiid until this series ends. Joel and Ben were already under maximum-extended contracts. Also locked down were developmental rotation guards Matisse Thybulle, a dogged defender, and Shake Milton (13.0 PPG and 35.0 3FG% in regular-season), whose Pop-A-Shot performance late in Game 2’s 118-102 home win for the Sixers should not have been such a surprise. Morey’s grandest offseason stroke wasn’t signing Dwight to a one-year rental, or ditching Al Horford and a protected future pick for the expiring deal of Danny Green (8 assists, 0 turnovers in Game 2). It was the heist of marksman Seth Curry (5-for-6 3FGs in Game 2) from Dallas. Having Curry and last season’s 3FG% leader, George Hill (54.5 Playoff 3FG%), plus Embiid and Harris sharing the floor has alleviated Simmons (DPOY runner-up) from the pressure to expand his floor game to include a perimeter threat, although there’s nothing keeping Ben from avoiding Dwight-level free throw accuracy (3-for-15 FTs in series). His teammates coming through early and often to withstand Atlanta’s runs in Game 2 granted Ben a reprieve from an onslaught of media and fan scrutiny. “The Simmons narrative is tired, to be sure. But it’s not without merit,” wrote Brad Botkin of CBS Sports yesterday. “A team that is aiming to win a championship with a lead ball-handler who can’t, or won’t, shoot the ball is an obstacle in perpetuity.” Botkin notes that his defensive effort on Trae (“only” 21 points and 11 assists in Game 2; 5-for-18 3FGs in series) works as an excuse for his shortcomings only so long as his teammates are able to compensate. In the march toward postseason prominence, Young would love to have waged this campaign with the young complements of Cam Reddish and now De’Andre Hunter all season long. In the absences of those Philly-raised products, the Hawks have turned to more seasoned veterans to help sustain their competitive edge. Try as he might, Solomon “Mack” Hill has proven inadequate with the starting lineup at the starts of halves, likely leading Hawks coach Nate McMillan to turn to one of Danilo Gallinari or Tony Snell. Filling in as a starter for the injured Reddish in late February, Snell’s efficiency was key to igniting the turnaround of Atlanta’s season, a wing role lessened by the full recovery of Bogdan Bogdanovic. As per basketball-reference, the Hawks’ most utilized 5-Man regular-season lineup of Young/Kevin Huerter/Reddish/John Collins/Capela was a net-minus 6.0 points per 100 possessions (195 minutes). The second-most, substituting Tony for Cam, finished the season with a net-plus 11.6 points per-100 (184 minutes). Gallinari was an offensive conundrum for the Sixers in Game 2, and nearly had Embiid on the precipice of a premature exit. Uncoupling Gallo’s minutes with fellow sixth-man Lou Williams’ could lead to better-balanced rotations. Limiting turnover production is vital to McMillan, and one could do worse than upping the offensive roles for Gallo (team-low 7.2 regular-season TO%, as per bball-ref) or Snell (team-low regular-season 0.8 TOs per 36 minutes). McMillan will likely choose a starting replacement for Hill based on how effective they’ll be in helping with Embiid and Harris in the halfcourt and keeping Collins and Capela (11 combined PFs in Game 2) from soaking up fouls, how capable they are in thwarting Philly’s transition offense, and how helpful they can be in springing Young free to create offense for the Hawks. “I didn’t think we did a good job of setting screens in that game,” Nate Mac said while reflecting on things to improve upon from Game 2. Nate game-planning for these Sixers, though, is nothing compared to Bud making chicken salad out of Dwight, Dennis and Baze against the league’s top-flight, star-studded teams. Ensuring a capacity crowd in Atlanta a few years ago was dependent on drawing opposing NBA fans. But this year’s edition has shown and proven enough over the past several months to get local sports fans to Believe Atlanta, and they’re showing it with their presence and their pocketbooks. Trae and his team’s infectious play have drawn more fans to represent for The ATL than the jolly giant with the cheesy grin ever could during the abbreviated stay in his hometown. Two or three more Hawks victories here at State Farm Arena would surely bring many more new tag-alongs, although room for the bandwagons may soon have to spill beyond the arena to Centennial Olympic Park. Here’s hoping for a decidedly partisan crowd, today and Monday, rooting for a team that has evolved in just over four years to one eliciting big cheers, instead of audible groans. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. The OFFICIAL Meme of Winning Atlanta Sports Teams! Zaza Pachulia didn’t quite get there with us. And it’s not what he intended when the words fell from his mouth in front of a roaring crowd. But near the end of Atlanta’s first post-millennial journey into the NBA postseason, Zaza’s words proved prescient. "Nothing Easy! Nothing Easy!" Our Atlanta Hawks overcame a decades-long hex to finally reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. Alas, no, we were not allowed to just chill, kick back, and watch the clock come down before celebrating a monumental moment in franchise history. The Hawks coughed up a ten-point edge with nine minutes to go, leading to a nail-biting final five minutes of Game 6 in D.C. At the final buzzer’s sound, Washington was going bananas, Paula Pierce was Paula Piercing, and Atlanta was meandering aimlessly around like somebody stole their baby pet hippo. After further nail-biting review, though… HAWKS WIN! Don’t you feel ECSTATIC, Hawks fans? Yay. Plop, Plop! Fizz, Fizz! “Hawks Win, but D@MN!”, is the default banner-headline emotion after many major victories. And it’s not just them in this crazy sports metropolis. The Bravos’ last trip to the World Series? Playing at home, the baseball club blew a 5-0 first-inning, and a 7-3 lead in the top of the 7th, then needed a Brian Hunter single to salvage a tie in the 8th. The Mets strategically loaded the bases in the 10th with one out, to pitch to a kid hitting .217 for the NLCS. Thankfully, Kenny Rogers’ 3-2 pitch was so wild, even Andruw in good conscience couldn’t let the bat leave his shoulders. “Bravos Win, but…!” Earlier, that same year. The Falcons’ first trip to The Big Game? It wasn’t Morten Andersen’s clutch kicks, or Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson’s final drives, that was the story. It was Mister Automatic, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, failing to secure Minnesota’s destiny with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, after Atlanta seemed to have let the gains of a late rally slip away. “Falcons win, but…!” It’s not simply our local teams blowing chances at victories that’s part and parcel of The Atlanta Story. It’s also about when they *do* win a big game, it is rarely decisive and without late, often seemingly unnecessary, drama. Whatever deals we made with our own personal Mephistopheles to get our Hawks into this year’s NBA Playoff party, and then to be as successful as they have been at this stage, we as fans are well past the point of negotiating how games and series must end. In the space of just over three months, Nate McMillan took over a club that was underwhelming to most everyone and he has them exceeding the wildest and most irrational of expectations. If it has to come with a sprinkling of Atlanta Sports? So be it! McMillan’s charges sprinted to a 26-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 1 at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, then withstood volleys from a prideful, top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers team in the third quarter. With Atlanta holding a 19-point lead over the Sixers with just over eight minutes remaining, Nate Mac handed the strategic coaching keys over to Dan Quinn. Either that, or Trae Young and the Hawks are just merrily rolling the ball up the court, toying with the game clock and daring the Sixers not to force turnovers before plays can develop. Five of Atlanta’s six fourth-quarter turnovers came in the final 4.5 minutes of play, the spoils of enhanced Sixer pressure compounding a spell of missed jumpers, a blown putback layup from Clint Capela, and referees confusing whistles for lozenges. Sixer Basketball is forcing turnovers and scoring in transition while the opposing defense is destabilized, and Philly did that to great effect as Atlanta’s 107-88 lead was whittled down to 126-124 with ten second to go. Atlanta’s saving grace came at the Gray Mule line, as Capela’s third-quarter miss was the only one of the Hawks’ modest 21 free throw attempts that did not hit nylon. They need not tempt fate again in Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A raucous Sixers crowd will do all they can to try throwing the Hawks off their game and keeping the Sixers from falling into Clippers territory heading into games in Atlanta. Philadelphia’s late-game barnstorming could not have come to pass without their likely MVP runner-up. Playing through his torn meniscus for 38 grueling minutes, Joel Embiid (39 points, 14-for-15 FTs, 9 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals), gave Capela his best shot. Unfortunately for Joel, he found woefully himself out of position and behind plays in the final frame (zero 4th-quarter D-Rebs or blocks) while trying to will Philly to victory on offense. Like Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (sore knee, DNP Game 1), Embiid is again listed as questionable to play in Game 2. The Hawks will need to assess which side of the court Joel, assuming he plays, is favoring and pressure his Sixer teammates at the other end accordingly. If Embiid is going heavy on offensive post play, get to the cup in quick-strike transition, compelling Sixer defenders to commit fouls even the refs can see. If he is camping out in rim-protection on defense, Trae and Lou Williams should use dribble-drives and kickouts to free up shooters (ATL Playoffs-high 15.8’ average shot distance; 37.3 3FG%, 5th among remaining 8 teams). Meanwhile, Hawk frontcourt contributors should place emphasis on limiting Ben Simmons (7-for-7 FGs in Game 1, all within 4 feet of the rim; team-high 10 assists to match Young, but 5 TOs and 3-for-10 FTs) from playing catch-up with interior shots. A league-high 91.0 percent of Philadelphia’s three-point makes in the postseason are assisted, and Hawk wings and roving guards must stay active in anticipating chances for deflections and steals. The team that is more disruptive with dishes off penetration is likely to hold the upper hand in Game 2. If Atlanta can be more consistent across quarters, we can have a “Hawks Win… OK!” kind of game. The ‘98-99 Falcons, the ’99 Bravos, and the ’15 Hawks each had major, history-making wins, but took so much skin off their own teeth in the small-p process, they had no bite left once it was time to sink them into the likes of John Elway, Derek Jeter or LeBron James in the next big rounds. The ’21 Hawks have a bit of familiarity with letting momentum slip away in recent games, but so far have come away on the fortunate side. Atlanta allowing an early 11-point lead to evaporate in Game 1 of the conference semis was overshadowed by Trae’s closing heroics, but it gave New York and their fans confidence that they could seize momentum back in Game 2, and beyond. That didn’t happen, because Knicks, but the Sixers have far better talent and awareness to make their hopes come to fruition. Rather than merely hoping Embiid runs out of gas, the Hawks must have the high-quality ballhandling and passing under pressure, the focus to create and make open jumpers and layups, and the will to hound Philly’s perimeter threats, such that it becomes obvious that Embiid is perilously running on E to everybody, especially coach Doc Rivers. The pride of Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner must have been a lowkey Hawks fan in 1971, when she grabbed the mic before covering Credence Clearwater Revival and announced, “You see, we never do nothing NICE and EASY. We always do it NICE and ROUGH. So, we’re going to take the beginning of this song, and do it EASY. Then, we’re going to do the finish ROUGH.” Like “Proud Mary,” this is the way we do, “Atlanta Sports.” The 2015 edition of the Hawks perhaps found itself a bit too shellshocked, with the way they crept into the conference finals, to be properly focused on the juggernaut that awaited them. This new version, hopefully, never lost one minute of sleep over the close of Game 1, worrying about the way that things might have been. The approach to this game must stay on what could be. It’s Game 2, Atlanta. Big wheel? Keep on turnin’! Thank You, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. “Orange and Blue” is the New “Black and Blue”. New York Knicks jerseys aren’t new, but they are the new Beer Muscles. I didn’t need to know my Jake Pauls from my Logan Pauls from my Cliff Pauls from my Mrs. Paul’s. But goshdarnit, Nate Robinson, back when you still had your faculties and all, what were you not thinking? Putting on that orange and blue with the “NEW YORK” emblazoned on it makes New Yorkers think they can step to anyone and accomplish anything, even if the Knicks themselves haven’t accomplished much of anything since Watergate. Moreover, it’s not just the tried-and-true natives of New Amsterdam who get their Dutch courage from a dash of Knicks gear. Irrationally, I opine that the athletes helming from the far-away land of Seattle are top-tier, a view I’ve held strongly since the heady heydays of Jamal “Don’t Crack” Crawford. Maybe it’s the crisp air, I dunno. Folks like Katelyn Ohashi, Apolo Ohno, and Gail Devers help give this theory some gravity. When it comes to hoops, Pacific Northwesterners that grew up seeing and learning of grungy Sonics-era guys like Nate McMillan, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have been flowing into the NBA in waves ever since. A multi-sport athlete on the come-up from U-Dub, NateRob got the benefit of making the biggest NBA splash right from the jump, courtesy of a 2005 draft-night deal when the Suns drafted then sent him with Quentin Richardson out to the Knicks for Kurt “Mr. Happy” Thomas. I have zero doubts that “Former Slam Dunk champion and SACRAMENTO KINGS star Nate Robinson” wouldn’t be walking in cold to anyone’s pay-per-view celebrity(?) boxing match unless he paid for a ticket. Note that I’m using “celebrity”, in the modern-day YouTube sense, as loosely as I can here. Was Salt Bae unavailable to glove up? You’re not gonna catch Atlanta Hawks legend Spud Webb out here, decades after his dunk title, taking up bullfighting or cheese-rolling or some nonsense. Where might you catch him all those years later? Standing still, as he should, as a prop while Nate leaps over him (on, what, the 14th try of the night?) to win his own contest. Especially for us gravity-bound shorties, it was a quaint little sporting achievement that, 15 years removed, Robinson continues to overexploit, because he can, because NEW YORK. Last time you were forced to think about the athletic exploits of Fred Jones (Indiana) or Jeremy Evans (Utah) was when? Exactly. Just this very moment and, maybe, never again. He was a member of five NBA clubs over the course of his first 11 years in the NBA. But because of his Knicks tenure, the pride of the Emerald City is in a perpetual New York state of mind, hiring an Empire State dude to be his agent and drum up all kinds of crazy ways he can keep his name social-media-relevant. Said agent runs into wannabe pugilist and “influencer” Jake Paul (I’m just assuming it’s Jake, I don’t feel like double-checking), shoves his client into a gym for a months-long crash course in the squared circle, then propels him into a ring clad in blue-and-orange, thoroughly under-trained for even an undercard, with a whole (bored) world watching. After the bell, let’s have some introductions, shall we? NateRob, this is Leather. Canvas, say hello to Nate. Now Billy Paul or whoever is out here takin’ ‘bout, “If he dies, he dies,” him and his bro using Nate’s snoozing body as a stepping stone to talk mess with actual UFC fighters. Worst decision by a Puget Sound-area athletic competitor since Jason Terry, with his Celtic beer muscles, said to himself, “Ay, lemme go break up this lob here right quick.” NateRob could have chosen to rock some Seatown green before getting rocked in turn. But now, he done embarrassed his people on two American shores. It is true that a little better focus and readiness, and a lot more time in the gym, would have allowed Robinson at least a little more time on his feet. But none of this is happening if we were dealing, 15 years before, with Nate Robinson, high-flying top-scorer of some lackluster New Orleans Hornets team. The current fellows suited up in New York Knicks gear venture into Game 5 of the Best-of-7 series with the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT) trying their darnedest not to look like an accidental tourist that stumbled into some “celebrity” exhibition bout opposite Evander Holyfield. "It’s gonna be okay, my guy, don't fret! He's not gonna bite ya." Like schoolyard schemers who believe they’re Vince McMahon, New York sports fans in your corner will gas you up into thinking you’re some all-time great when you’re, at best, pretty good – or, “improved” -- and ready to be trotted out for anything against anybody when any sentient observer could advise that you’re not. The franchise clusters together ONE fine regular season (same as the Hawks, roughly equivalent to 47-35), their first in many years, and the dutiful New York sports media is doling out super-sized Bags of Chips while declaring their Knicks are All That. These Knicks thought they could roll a little Spike, a little spittle, a little spokes-mayor, a little Sbarro’s out there, and Atlanta would turn tail. That’s what they thought because that’s what they’ve been taught. You’re repping New York, and that’s all that matters. Why bother putting in the necessary work? The lower-seeded Hawks have put in the work, and that has been revealed for the balance of this first-round Eastern Conference series (as much as I hate to say these two words…) “thus far.” Not only did Atlanta have the homecourt disadvantage entering this series, but there was a rest disadvantage built into the scheduling, too. There were seven days between regular season’s end and Game 1 before a ravenous crowd at Madison Square Garden, then two-more off days before Game 2 in the same house. Game 3, in Atlanta, came with a one-day break. So did, Game 4 with its early-afternoon start at State Farm Arena. Now with two full days off before Game 5 back in NYC, coach Tom Thibodeau’s collective has been granted ample time not only to lick their wounds after losses, but also to gameplan and adjust to what McMillan’s Hawks are presenting out on the floors. Historically, the Bockers are 0-12 all-time when tasked to climb out of a 3-1 series hole (NBA teams are 13-248, as of last night, when trying to survive this deficit, as per Land of Basketball), and their opponents are from a sports town that knows a little something about counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Now, here's a little story that needs to be heard. If you ask Spike nicely, he’ll recall the time his Knicks blew a 3-1 lead to their former head coach. Game 5 in Miami went Pat Riley’s way, saving the heat’s season, but Jeff Van Gundy’s club got unglued near game’s end, when Lady Byng Citizenship Award winner P.J. Brown snapped and went Citizen Kane, rag-dolling pesky low-bridger Charlie Ward WWE-style into the photographer’s section. John Starks gets tossed, along with Ward and Brown. Yet while Miami’s P.J. was suspended for the remainder of the series, New York’s Starks, Ward, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson also got suspended for one game. The latter three penalties were the result of rules imposed by David Stern – if you’re not in the game, don’t leave the bench! – after a 1993 halftime dust-up featured an inactive New York guard Greg Anthony, a Las Vegas kid with Beer Muscles and dressed in horrifically garish 90’s fashion, stepping on court to cheap-shot Kevin Johnson in defense of Doc Rivers. Through their union, Knick players sought an emergency legal injunction, but a New York judge (and begrudging Knicks fan) denied their motion to stay the suspensions pending arbitration. Per league rules requiring nine players per team, Ewing and Houston sat out with Ward for Game 6, while LJ and Starks were suspended for Game 7. With the Knicks missing key reinforcements, Miami prevailed at MSG in Game 6 and made Game 7, back in their house, a mere formality. New York had blown their last, best chance to wrestle the Shute from Chicago with The Finals on the line, because Beer Muscle Rules dictate they had no choice but to Keep It Real. There’s a good moral to the story in there for Hawks coach McMillan to share with his young pups ahead of this Game 5. There’s little question that the team headed by Trae Young (Mount Rushmore du jour: 4th newbie in NBA Playoffs history to average 25 PPG and 10 APG in first four games) and a bloodied-yet-unbowed John Collins will be ready to roll with whatever punches, however figurative, come their way. Granted a final eight-count, will Julius Randle and his teammates come up off the mat ready to properly stick-and-move? I keep waiting for Orange Julius to pull back the hood and reveal 2011-era Josh Smith. Every instance that Randle pokes his hands out at referees, pleading like Oliver Twist and pouting, go right ahead and chalk up another two or three points for the Hawks in your head. By default, he landed his best jabs of the series in Game 4, a 113-96 loss to a Hawks team that laid off the gas late. But in a playoff series where his inexperience and unfair expectations are getting exposed, he gets too easily punch-drunk when things aren’t going his way. So much attention, including his own, is directed at Julius’ shooting struggles (16.3 PPG on 24.1 shots/game, FTs included). But a remodeled point-forward who averaged a team-high 6.0 APG in his award-winning season could only muster 10 assists, to go with 10 turnovers, through the first three games of this series. Even in Game 4, Randle managed to up the ante with 7 assists, but accompanied that with 5 turnovers, 5 fouls for the second-straight game (the final hack a sketchy one), and lackadaisical defense that would have gotten someone else on Thibs’ roster benched. Much of Randle’s dime-drain stems from the lack of teammates, aside from Derrick Rose, making even open perimeter shots. Bailey, Banks and Biddle could come in and drop more gems than the trio of Barrett, Burks, and Bullock (combined 20-for-67 3FGs for the series). “I see it. I’m open,” RJ shared with The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov after Game 3. “I just got to make it.” Barrett proceeded to score 21 mostly by attacking inside, but the sophomore went 2-for-7 on jumpers outside the paint on Sunday. Randle’s Knicks have been grounded and pounded by the Hawks’ stout man and recovering help defenders, unable to sustain their rebounding advantage (lost 48-39 in Game 4), and unable to use foul-shot discrepancies as an excuse (Playoffs-low 17.5 FTAs/game; 70 FTs attempted by ATL in four games, 74 FTs made by NYK on 21 more attempts). While McMillan continues to preach to the Hawks about pursuing second, third, and fourth options in halfcourt possessions, the Knicks are getting mired in My-Turn, Your-Turn Land between Rose and Randle, and the other so-called “options” around the horn aren’t trying to locate each other. Playing to if not just a bit outside of his strengths, Rose (22.8 PPG, highest in a full series since his 2011 MVP season) is doing all he knows to do to help his team, but Randle (26.3 FG% on isos) isn’t creating for himself or others via post-ups. Third in the NBA in post-up possessions during the regular season, Julius is faintly credited by NBA Stats with a single post-up possession through four games in this series. Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock (1.0 APG this series; zero Game 4 points, 4 FGAs in 34 minutes) is so focused on putting the screws to Trae and others on defense, as Thibs explained to reporters on Sunday, that he’s running on empty at the other end. New York would love to have even Mr. 50/50/100 himself, Tony Snell, as a veteran option for spurts. Snell has been DNP’d after logging 12 minutes in the first two contests, and if he’s healthy he could be a surprise boost off the bench. In terms of scoring impact, Thibs’ mid-series decision to move Rose into his starting five was offset only slightly by substituting an injury-nagged Nerlens Noel with starter Taj Gibson. A starting Rose makes it imperative that Atlanta’s bench brigade seizes the opportunity to outshine New York’s once more. Leading the backups to a 31-28 edge over the Knicks in Game 3, 37-28 in Game 4, Atlanta reserves Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter rebounded and made key shots and plays, such that starters Bogi Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter didn’t need to have banner days for Atlanta to keep the Knicks at bay. Add a touch of a semi-productive Lou Williams, Onyeka Okongwu and/or Snell to the mix in Game 5 and the Hawks, outscored 64-31 in bench points in Game 1 and 55-22 in Game 2 thanks to Rose, could gain a decisive final advantage on the road. Just don’t All-Bench ‘em, Coach Nate. Division rival Washington gifted, let’s just say, this series’ eventual winner by extending their series with Philadelphia on Monday, denying the Sixers and their momentarily injured star center a definite rest advantage ahead of the Eastern Conference semis. That should only serve as further incentive for the Hawks to conclude the series with New York as soon as possible. Doing so on the road could serve as useful experience for what could lie ahead. It’s not about, “if I can make it here, I can make it at anything, anytime, versus anyone, anywhere.” Striving to be an omni-athlete on multi-vitamins in your late 30s is fine. Sadly, Nate Robinson had to learn about the flaws of relying on New York’s Tough-Guy Transitive Property, with poor preparation and poor focus, the hard way. Hopefully, Clint Capela and the Hawks will be able to assert the problematics of adhering to such a short-sighted mindset into the brains of the Knicks, along with the adoring fans that bothered to bring their brains with them, a bit more subtly tonight, just once more in the house that Ali-Frazier built. “We win the game, we talk ((Dellavedova)) and we push around. So, what are you gonna do about it?” Capela (13.0 RPG, 2nd in NBA Playoffs) asserted when asked of the Hawks’ calm, cool, connected counterpunches to the Knicks’ Glass Joe, wannabe-Fat Joe bravado. Clint has personal experience closing out Thibodeau, Gibson and Rose, plus Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler in Game 5, first-round action, when his 26 points and 15 boards helped CP3 and James Harden’s Rockets gentlemanly dispatch the Timberwolves to the hinterlands in 2017. “We can be physical, but we can win games as well. Now, we’re coming to your house to win this game, again, and send you on vacation.” I’m told the fish in the Hudson put up a good fight in the summertime. What are the Knicks going to do? A prominent New Yorker once noted that everybody has a plan until, well, Mr. Robinson surely knows the ending to that quotable. Do these Knicks even have a plan, one perhaps involving a basketball? It may no longer matter if they do, but we’ll all find out soon enough. When it comes to the outcome of this playoff series? It’s no longer up to you, New York, New York. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. A random employee in Atlanta says, “Hey! I’ve got your broom, Right Here!” 1989! The number. For young movie director Spike Lee, it was not about to be just another summer. For young 1st-Team All-NBA star Charles Barkley, it was shaping up to be just another long, bitter one. Sprawled out on the Spectrum arena floor, the NBA’s second-leading rebounder had carried his 7-seed 76ers as far as he could lug them. That limit was a first-round exit, a three-game sweep, at the hands of Rick Pitino’s New York Knicks, proud winners of a division title for the first time in 18 years. Barely over two weeks before the Morehouse grad’s new epic Do the Right Thing would premiere at Cannes, exuberant Knicks fans like Lee made the trip down I-95 to pack Philly’s hallowed arena for Game 3, with brooms in tow. Overwhelmed at turns by Pat Ewing and Charles Oakley protecting the rim, Sir Charles lacked the support to outshine New York’s leading scorer, Gerald Wilkins. After losing Games 2 and 3 by just a single point, the series-clincher in OT, Philadelphia’s final indignity came after the final buzzer, when a smug young Brooklyn-born heathen strutted his way into the stands. Just a second-year pro from St. John’s, Mark Jackson found a broom near his bench, then “borrowed” it from boastful lower-bowl Knick fans. He then led Charles Oakley, Eddie Lee Wilkins and teammates in a celebratory, inglorious “sweeping” of the Spectrum floor. To boos, as is custom, and select fingers from departing fans of the division rival. NYC. New York Cockiness, crystallized. “Instead of acting like they’d been there before… because THEY’d never actually been there before,” recalled Mike Vaccaro, New York Post columnist to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It just ticked off the basketball gods.” Indeed. Another upstart initialed MJ, one with more hubris than Mark Jackson and all the Knicks put together, awaited the Knicks in the next round. Momma, there he goes! Pitino quickly realized he’d better head to Lexington if he wanted to chase championships, and his hunch proved true. Over the next decade, New York could never escape The Real MJ’s shadow, finally reaching The Finals only after the Bulls’ star took some personal time off. Catching a break from the Atlanta Hawks in the strike-season playoff of 1999, an aging Ewing’s Knicks bowed to San Antonio in The Finals, leaving the team at 0-for-2 in the 1990s. New York hasn’t come close in the 22 years since. And, believe it, they’ve spent, and waved around, a lot of money just trying to come close. He was Rookie of the Year in 1988, and an All-Star in his second season, playing for his hometown team, so it was tough for Jackson, having won his first playoff series, to keep his “arrogaNYCe” in check. Jackson would feel bristles on his backside just two years later, as Michael Jordan’s Bulls closed out a not-very-gentlemanly 3-0 sweep at Madison Square Garden. Traded the next year, essentially for a more seasoned Doc Rivers, Mark would have to wait until age-34 of his 17-year career, in Indiana, just to get into The Finals. Perhaps, instead of a broom, Haughty Mark should have thought about grabbing a postgame microphone instead. Philadelphians, as you may have guessed by now, haven’t forgotten about The Brooms. The Sixers haven’t been any more successful, over the long haul, than their rivals to the north in reaching the Finals and doing much once they got there. But they do take joy in noting, like hockey fans used to rag the Rangers about “1940!”, about how long it’s been since the big-market bully’s basketball team won the whole shebang. “At least we’ve won a ring since 1973!”, is the cheesesteak-laden refrain. Amazingly, these fierce Atlantic Division rivals haven’t met in an NBA playoff series since the Knicks literally swept Barkley’s booty off his own floor. Philadelphia enters the 2021 NBA Playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top-seed. Alex Len and the Wizards of Westbrook will be a handful, but the Sixers and their fans would relish some long overdue second-round revenge. Oh, and let’s not forget the fellows that won their Game 1 yesterday, just five miles away from Madison Square Garden. The Nets of New Jersey got the last laugh, and their first laugh, over coach Lenny Wilkens’ Knicks back in 2004’s playoffs, a 4-0 sweep. They’ve since moved into posher, newer, closer settings in Brooklyn, spending gobs of moolah and the better part of the past decade making the Manhattan club look like NYC’s red-headed stepchild. Nets fans will tell you the Knicks aren’t yesterday’s news, they’re the prior millennium’s news. Brooklyn is what’s hot in these streets! That red-headed stepchild, emblematic of the Knicks? He’s grown up to become Michael Rapaport, in a mid-life crisis. The poor man can’t seem to decide which Atlantic Division team to throw his weight behind. Just four months ago, the part-time actor and full-time blowhard hopped on a podcast and declared the Knicks to be a “bleeping bleep show,” (you can easily fill in the bleeps), adding, “I will have to look at the god-bleep roster again, and be like, Who the bleep are at least eight of these bleeping guys?” This, before praising the Nets’ “culture” and announcing he is now a Boston Celtics front-runner. The Celtics. Because Kevin Durant got in his fee-fees, don’cha know. You want to guess who will likely be sitting along Gucci Row at MSG today? The longtime Knicks fan and movie director who got kicked out by the owner in 2020 and declared himself a Nets fan, until further notice, of course. The longtime Knicks fan who just got fed up with being a longtime Knicks fan and became, first, a Nets fan, then, a Celtics fan. Must be nice. A presumptive favorite to come out of the East with all of their all-world stars upright and aligned, the Nets wouldn’t mind putting the foots to Philly in the conference finals. But the prospect of a Gotham-themed Subway Series, with the conqueror heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in decades, or ever, is just too $cintillating a concept to ignore. The Knicks fans are at the table. The Sixers fans are at the table. The Nets fans are at the table. Banging their utensils. Knives out. Forks out. Staring directly at each other, salivating, ready to dig in. One NBA team has a good shot at ruining everybody’s appetite. Beginning today with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in New York (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT… hi, Chuck), if the Atlanta Hawks venture out of this series quashing decades-long dreams of revenge over the Brooms fiasco, if they turn the prospective Subway Series into more of an Amtrak Crescent Series, glum New Yorker fans everywhere, on WFAN radio, on TV, online, are going to become Sue Sylvesters. They are going to create an environment that is so… TOXIC… When the Hawks’ season abruptly concluded in 2020 with an overtime home loss to the Knicks, there remained dreams of a playoff appearance in 2021, one with a respectable first-round showing and a graceful exit against an established conference contender – maybe Rapaport’s Celtics, or perhaps his next team, the Raptors – summoning blissful memories of 2008 and 2014 inside what is now State Farm Arena and hopes for the future that lies ahead. Lloyd Pierce was right when, in 2020, the Hawks’ then-head coach adamantly declared, this is a playoff team next year. Not knowing who the additional Lotto-rookie and veteran talents Travis Schlenk could add as upgrades, aside from injured recent pickup Clint Capela, to surround his young core of Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter. LP was also unaware he would prove incapable of ensuring, as Clyde Frazier might say, that his intuition could come to fruition. He would have no idea, at that time, who would be the assistant taking over to make sure that it did. It was never his intention when he agreed to join Pierce’s staff, but Nate McMillan has proven to be a superior communicator and strategy designer, what one would hope of an interim coach now in his 21st NBA season directing a team. Steering back a Hawks club that looked to be veering off course over the first two-and-a-half months of this season, McMillan nearly had the Hawks (41-31; 27-11 officially under Coach Nate) in the same surprising 4-seed slot that his Pacers were in entering the last postseason. While riding the wave of healthier contributors on the roster, Nate has salvaged the Hawks’ season, and their forward-facing direction, much as he has done at his prior NBA stops. A grateful Atlanta club can reward him with much more than a mere contract extension, beginning with this series. Under the auspices of the Hawks, McMillan became the NBA’s 20th all-time winningest coach this season. But after having been swept in three of four postseasons with the Pacers, situations not helped by untimely injuries and star instability, Nate has the worst playoff coaching record (17-36, 32.1%) of any of the 35 most successful regular-season winners. A win today would help McMillan slip past the only person on that list who comes close – the Czar of the Telestrator, former Atlanta coach Mike Fratello (20-42, 32.3%). A series victory could help McMillan pass Terry Stotts (21-40, 34.4%), his successor at Portland who never saw a playoff game when he was a Hawks coach for three seasons. Nate looks at none of this stuff, but his legacy as a would-be Hall of Fame coaching entrant is muddled by having just one playoff series win in ten tries, when his 2005 Seattle Supersonics outclassed Rick Adelman’s Sacramento Kings. Hopefully, in 2021, he’ll have some players that will care about sweeping that history under the rug. As many Atlanta fans expected, the Hawks do get to be a road underdog in their first playoff appearance since 2017. But it turns out that it’s not the Celtics or Raptors who are hosting, nor is it the Sixers, Bucks, or Nets that were predictable adversaries Atlanta would strive to overcome. Instead, it’s virtually the same Knicks club (41-31, 3-0 vs. ATL to win the 4-seed tiebreaker) that barely eked ahead of the Hawks when the pandemic shut down last season for both teams. A New York club who was summarily dismissed by the Rapaports of the world, when a five-game skid had them at 5-8 to start this year. A club that didn’t need a Kyrie, a KD, or a Harden to regain its regional relevancy. It’s a New York team that began the season with a different head coach. One that had also been left out of 2021’s Bubble, and who became a parody of himself, while coaching elsewhere. Tom Thibodeau moved into the NBA’s Top-50 coaching-wins hierarchy with the Knicks’ late-season flourish (16-4 in final 20 games). But much like McMillan, his 24-32 postseason mark isn’t stellar, either. It would assuredly be much better had Thibs not overplayed his hand with young former MVP Derrick Rose, and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson, at two different NBA stops, beginning in 2012. Still, the two seasoned veterans’ presence as Knicks gives the rest of this year’s roster comfort that Thibs is a guy who’s worthy of their trust. Thibodeau gets the benefit of any doubts around New York because his assistant history, preceding his head coach years, included peak-year turns for the Celtics, Rockets and, going back to the late 1990s, the Knicks. It also helped that Thibs has taken a slow-paced squad with a moribund defense and converted them, with his imprint, into a snail’s-pace team that’s a defensive juggernaut (107.8 D-Rating. 4th in NBA). Seventh-year pro Julius Randle (career-highs of 24.1 PPG, 41.1 3FG%, 10.2 RPG, 6.0 APG) has been rejuvenated into the banner-bearing superstar two prior clubs no longer believed was conceivable when they let him swim away in free agency while searching for bigger fish. The sophomore slump that befell Atlanta’s Reddish prior to his injury did not come to pass for his former Duke teammate, R.J. Barrett (17.6 PPG; 40.1 3FG% and 74.6 FT%, up from his rookie-year 32.0 3FG% and 61.4 FT%). Mix in Reggie Bullock, and sixth-men Rose and Alec Burks, and you have under Thibs’ tutelage a true 3-and-D collective, their five leading active per-game minute-loggers all hitting above a 40-percent clip on three-point shots. Rookie Immanuel Quickley, at 38.9 3FG% (45.3% in his last 20 games), is not all that far behind. Together, they will milk the shot clock dry in halfcourt sets, until Randle discovers a shot, or a teammate mismatch, that his Knicks can exploit. New York can struggle to control the tempo, though, if they struggle to maintain possession. They finished this season with a 5-21 record when they’ve failed to collect at least 48.6 percent of the game’s total rebounds. These were games where the Knicks had to shoot spectacularly well to give themselves a shot at victory. Collins, who was not active on the boards (3 rebounds in 27 minutes @ NYK on April 21) when New York last defeated the Hawks, 137-127 in overtime, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu can help Capela (25 points, 9 O-Rebs and 13 D-Rebs @ NYK) firmly seize the rebounding edge from Randle, Gibson and Nerlens Noel. The Knicks will also have a tough time seizing possessions if Young (9.4 APG, 2nd in NBA) doesn’t hand any to them. Heeding McMillan’s pleas, Trae has trimmed down his turnover rate (2.15 assist/TO ratio pre-, 2.44 post-) since the All-Star Break. Last month, here at MSG, he was enjoying a field day as a passer (14 assists, 1 TO @ NYK on April 21; also 16 of his 20 points in the 1st quarter) before he and the Hawks were derailed by his third-quarter injury. Thibs will continue throwing all manner of defenders Trae’s way, from struggling starter Elfrid Payton and Quickley to Frank Ntilikina, to wings in killer-B’s Barrett, Bullock and Burks, while bringing bigs out to meet him at floater range. But Young is reading through the defenses with McMillan’s aid. Further, Trae and the Hawks are capable of dismissing unfair referee calls and non-calls, remaining focused, as easily as they can the audible distractions from New York’s blaring coach and desperate fans. Trae will have to be cognizant that out-of-flow, adventurous jump shots serve as Hawk turnovers just as effectively as a picked-off pass. He no longer has to be Mr. Big Shot, as he was in the run of play during his Lottery-bound seasons. But he can be Mr. Right Play, reminiscent of an accomplished Jason Kidd leading New Jersey to that desirous first-round sweep of the Knicks in 2004. Trae can help jog those fading memories of Knick fans further by being active on the defensive end, communicating and committing steals and deflections from passes produced out of the paint. Young has guys who can bring the 3-and-D, in Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic, to offset the Knicks’ perimeter threats. He has some D-if-not-much-3 support in the form of the returning De’Andre Hunter and former Knick fan Kevin Huerter. And he’s got some 3-if-not-much-D help from former Knick Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell, and Lou Williams. Young also has unrelenting lob threats to Collins and/or Capela when he beats his man, off-dribble and around screens, and draws bigs toward him on his drives. Not since Tom Hanks tap-danced on the keys at FAO Schwarz has a young man had so many fun toys around him to play with. But in the serious nature of playoff season, how well Atlanta fares will be tethered to Young’s maturing overall presence. Atlanta can be taken more seriously as an advancing lower-seed threat, in 2021, if they take defensive intensity as seriously as they do inside State Farm Arena (107.2 D-Rating at home under McMillan, mostly without Hunter or Reddish, since March 1, 5th in NBA). Up until Pierce’s departure, the Hawks’ D-Rating of 114.1 in away games (24th in NBA through February 28) was not ideal. But the efficiency got worse under McMillan’s watch (115.5 road D-Rating, 28th in NBA since March 1). Injuries and a more arduous midseason road schedule have played their parts. But, by comparison, Thibodeau’s defensive show consistently goes on the road (105.0 NYK road D-Rating before March 1, 109.2 from then on, both 2nd in NBA). It makes it simpler for pundits to overwhelmingly lean toward the Knicks as the favorites to win this series, a plurality of those prognostications in less than seven games. Active contributions from a well-rested Bogdanovic and Hunter on the defensive end, and steady commitment from Collins and Young to simplify coverage for Capela, can help Atlanta turn the tide in Games 1 and 2. Attendees at the Mecca of Basketball love their Knicks when they’re playing well, and love to loathe their Knicks when they’re not. Another trait is that they hold in high esteem the entertaining opponents who, individually, seem impossible at times to stop. MJ, Hakeem, Scottie, Reggie, Tim, Kobe, Steph, Harden. Many a Hall of Fame resume has been shined up on this floor with grand games, and indelible moments, at the expense of the host team. Young will have at least two opportunities to put up a memorable playoff performance at MSG, but it is all for naught if he tries to do too much single-handedly and the Hawks fail to tilt homecourt advantage in their favor. He’ll need to be less of a game-master, and more of a game-maestro. At the risk of being fined, it’s no mystery that New York’s longtime lovable losers finally showing some competence, and confidence, is a storyline that draws eyeballs throughout America and beyond. Even when not completely packed, arenas chock full of A-List celebrities, B-List celebrities, and C-List hangers-on will be spending of lot of their money and energy creating a cacophony, in New York and down in Georgia, in hopes of granting their team the psychological edge and having the Hawks quickly swept away, enough to probably fulfill the dreams of Knicks-Sixers and/or Knicks-Nets playoff face-offs. Atlanta already has the right guy with the coachspeak to keep the Hawks calm, cool and connected throughout this series, wherever it leads, in the face of menacing fans of the NBA’s darling mid-Atlantic teams. But in case that’s not enough, here’s some gleeful motivation from another accomplished “coach,” of sorts. Sue Sylvester, take it away! “It’s not easy to break out of your comfort zone. People will tear you down; tell you that you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. But let me tell you something: there’s not much of a difference in a stadium full of cheering fans, and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise; how you take it, is up to you. Convince yourself that they’re cheering for you. You do that, and someday, they will.” And that’s the double truth, Ruth! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “Psst! Mayor Bill! Here. Come sit by me.” We’re back in The Traedium for Game 4 (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC)! “Tidbits in the Morning!” We want the New York Knicks and their unctuous supporters to mutter, “Well, we’ll just see you back here in Game 6!” and “Knicks in 7!” once today’s affair concludes. Doing so will require our Atlanta Hawks to continue take care of The Seven R’s. Randle. Rose. (hold on, the time clock just messed up again. Okay, where were we? At two?) Rebounding. RJ. Reggie. Recovery. And the Refs. One sobering Knickfan on SB Nation put it plainly after Friday’s raucous Game 3 win. Paraphrasing: in this series, one team’s star is building its entire team around him and the infectious synergy he creates. The other team’s star is trying to get up off the mat and do all he can think to do, for a club that effectively drafted his eventual replacement back in November. Julius Randle (14.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, but 20.6 2FG% and 30.0 3FG%) is struggling to be the best R on his team, much less the best R on the floor (Hey, New York, maybe try “RAYFORD!” as a Game 5 taunt? It used to work so well for Mets fans with “LARRY!”). I see Derrick Rose (24.3 PPG, 51.7 FG%, 4.7 APG) as more of a release valve than a player steaming up the nets in this series. His scoring efficiency would be problematic for the Hawks if he were the Knicks’ supplementary, not the primary and ultimate, threat. Somebody has to score, and he’s scoring mostly in his own conventional ways, although Atlanta doing better at honoring his three-point shot (3-for-5 3FGs in Game 3, rest of NYK 6-for-25) will help bring that efficiency down. If he can give the Knicks quality production over the course of 25-30 minutes, not 35-39, that would be better for them in the long haul. If only to get somebody aside from Rose to stir things up inside, look for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to put his rookie Immanuel Quickley (89.1 regular-season FT%, 11th in NBA) on the ball more going forward. Momma Payton, I am so sorry. Similarly, it would aid New York if they could get rebounding and stops from a guy over three years Rose’s senior in 15-20 minutes, not 25-30. Taj Gibson could not duplicate his Game 2 impact on Friday (six rebounds and 0 steals, down from 7 and 3, respectively; 2-for-6 FGs in 26 minutes), allowing Atlanta, less hemmed-in by foul trouble, to narrow the Knicks’ rebounding advantage from 54-41 last Wednesday to 45-42. The Knicks still nabbed 13 O-Rebs for the third consecutive game, with all five starters plus Nerlens Noel and Obi Toppin digging in during Game 3. Atlanta properly boxing out and relying on help rebounders like De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Tony Snell, to cut down on extra-chance scoring opportunities will make New York’s uphill climbs steeper. We never got to find out how the player Atlanta traded for, out of 2018’s #3 spot, might have fared in his postseason debut, had it come about in his second pro season. We can only hope it would not be as much of a challenge as it has been, so far, for the fellow the Knicks came away with at #3 in 2019. With one more Hawks win tonight, Canada Men’s National Team GM Rowan Barrett will hope to begin re-orienting his son, RJ (34.2 FG%, incl. 2-for-9 in Game 3), toward another team entirely next month. A three-game comeback and another week or two of second-round action won’t give Rowan much time to convene his talented kid with Nick Nurse, Andrew Wiggins and the Canadians for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which begins in British Columbia less than a month from today. Looking at the current ongoings in Japan, though, this “problem” may take care of itself. Some bad news from Game 3 was, the Hawks only scored a pair of fastbreak points. The good news is Atlanta still won that category on Friday, by two (2-0 Game 3, 15-6 Game 2, 9-9 Game 1). Getting shut out in that department won’t sit well with Thibs, who expects a modicum of quick-strike transition after defensive stops to throw teams off. The Hawks will look to push the pace more frequently on a team so reliant on Rose and Gibson to run the court. The Knicks will turn to Quickley, on occasion, to hurry the ball upcourt and kick out the ball to their killer B’s (Reggie Bullock, Barrett, Alec Burks), in hopes of getting them unstuck with kickouts to the corners. Can Elf give Bullock some hair advice? That’s all I’ve got for Reggie. If Atlanta is so fortunate as to begin pulling away in the second half, Bullock and the Knicks have an R of their own up their sleeve – Resorting, to thuggery, either to tilt Game 4 back toward their favor and/or “send a message” that a potential closeout Game 5 in Manhattan won’t be so kind. As young and inexperienced as the Hawks are, they pulled off a masterclass in rash-alk on Friday… trash-talk, without any T’s. Whatever they’re doing to keep the Referees’ attention on the Knicks’ big mouths, keep it up! Closing tidbit: I’m happy Mayor Keisha hasn’t been goaded into a pointless wager with Bill de Blah-Blah-Blah. Who wants to win some wet teddy bears on a bun, anyway? We’ll keep our bushels of peaches, thank you. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “Hey, look, he found a seat in the rafters! That’s CRAZY! What up, Spike? We see you!” The Georgia Dome might still be with us. It could have been a beloved local landmark. I doubt we’d have enjoyed the luck Tampa Bay did, watching the hometown NFL team win a Super Bowl in there. But for a fleeting 48 hours in May, in the lockout-shortened year of 1999, the prospect of a packed house for an NBA Finals in Atlanta was lining itself up nicely. The #1 seed in the East, the heat, was already gone. So was the #3 seed, the Magic. As for the #2 seed, the Pacers lost the season-series to the Hawks, 3-1, and the one win was in a nip-and-tuck overtime period, one forced by a Steve Smith buzzer-beating three. But for that late-season defeat, Atlanta would have been the #2 seed. And the rickety Market Square Arena, where the Hawks already won twice that season, was no Georgia Dome. Entering the conference semifinals, and boasting the league’s best perimeter and scoring defense, the #4-seeded Hawks were as sound as any team remaining in the East. While a new arena was being constructed around the corner, Atlanta could pack over 22,000 fans, or more if necessary, under the lights in the white-domed palace that was the pride of the Dirty Birds. To get within one step of the NBA Finals, all Atlanta had to do was hold homecourt, beginning with a pair of games against a #8 seed that was happy just to have made it that far. The problem for the Hawks, and their fans at the Georgia Dome, was the name on the front of the jerseys, and on the front of T-shirts worn by much of the capacity crowd. Knicks fans from Long Island and Brooklyn, Knicks fans from LaGrange and Brookhaven. From the looks and sounds of the games, it appeared as if “NEW YORK” had taken over Georgia. Just weeks before, New York had narrowly avoided losing the final playoff spot to Charlotte. By the time the visiting Knicks arrived in Atlanta, though, Latrell Sprewell, in a stunning PR turn, had become a folk hero, Allan Houston an actual one. The youngest Knick on the roster, the springy Marcus Camby, joined Spree off the bench to outshine Atlanta’s Smith and Dikembe Mutombo by leaps and bounds. As for the Hawks, Mookie Blaylock and Grant Long were disturbingly sloppy and out-of-sync. As Sprewell and the Knicks surged, the only choking going on involved coach Lenny Wilkens’ club, under pressure in their own rented place, with few of their own fans to turn toward for motivation. The uplifting energy to get hobbled Knick legend Pat Ewing one more shot at a ring became an overwhelming force, making Hawks Fever, or the lack of it, easy to stifle. With Atlanta near last-place in attendance despite the spacious settings, the Knicks were able to roll out The World’s Largest Welcome Mat for their own fans to open the semifinal series. Even with only two days’ notice, fans of New York sports, and sports fans from New York, had Georgia’s Dome packed, and rocking. The Hawks’ starters let a promising 13-2 start to Game 2 dissipate quickly. Much like the end of Game 1 featuring Anthony Johnson, by the time the fourth quarter began and Atlanta’s only offensive hope was Ed Gray, the defeatist mindset crept in. With the Knicks up 2-0 on the Hawks, the teams left for Madison Square Garden, and there was never to be a Game 5 back “home” at the Dome. Top-seeded Miami getting upset by their hated northern rivals in a decisive fifth game was one thing. But 8-seeds aren’t supposed to be the ones doing the sweeping. Atlanta ceded their seeding, and their will, away over the course of two home games that could have been pivotal to making “Believe Atlanta” something worth chewing on. 22 years later, the opportunity to “Believe Atlanta” has come around once more. The 5-seed Hawks almost had the Knicks thinking of Gone Fishin’, but Game 2 became The One That Got Away. Still, sneaking out of MSG with the eye-opening Game 1 win has the Hawks in the pilot’s seat in this best-of-seven first-round matchup. Win your home games and you’re in the second round, regardless. The worry going forward, beginning tonight with Game 3 (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, ESPN), is that sense of New York becoming “NEW YORK” when things are going well for the visitors at State Farm Arena. It must be emphasized, however, that 1999 is not 2021. While this season’s collective is only now getting their feet wet, the Hawks of yesteryear already had soggy, smelly toes. There were, by 1999, seven consecutive postseasons, most of them under Coach Lenny, without breaking through to the Eastern Conference Finals. Frankly, without Dominique Wilkins in tow, the appetite to see that particular group break through was appallingly low. No one dreamed of erecting a statue of a trophy-hoisting Chris Crawford in the plaza between the Dome and the old Omni. Especially with the heat out of the picture, 1999 was the last chance for those Hawks to prove, to fans, to scant and skeptical local media, to the shaky management and tenuous ownership, that this was a barren bandwagon worth jumping on. Smitty and Mookie falling flat at that, spectacularly so under the bright lights, ushered in the Isaiah Rider and Bimbo Coles era. The completion of the Thrashers’ and Hawks’ new arena was coupled with the eventual demolition of the roster, and the dispatching of their cigar-swilling, but beleaguered, head coach. Comparatively, 2021 is the current Hawks’ first chance to demonstrate itself as a team on the come up. Local media is halfway-decent and reasonable. Ownership isn’t tentative, management is far from shaky. And today’s fans are more likely to paint the town red, not blue-and-orange, because Atlanta’s star guard is far from shook. Since the Hawks blew Game 2 in NYC with a weak second-half showing, there won’t be any brooms parading about The Farm this weekend. Still, this is a team that can help sweep away notions of Atlanta Sports Past, where local teams find themselves cowed into submission, while playing at home, by the lore of name-brand opponents. Beyond Hawks-Knicks ’99, see Hawks-Lakers ’70, Flames-Red Wings ’78, Flames-Maple Leafs ’79, Falcons-Cowboys ’80, Bravos-Phillies ’93, Bravos-Yankees ’96, Bravos-Yanks ’99, Bravos-Giants ’02, Bravos-Cubs ’03, Thrashers-Rangers ’07, Bravos-Giants ’10, Falcons-Packers ’11, Bravos-Cards in Chipper’s farewell (Infield Fly, anyone?) ’12, Falcons-Niners ’13, Silverbacks-Cosmos ’13, Hawks-LeBron ’15. UGA-Bama ’18. Over the course of five decades, these were playoff games, playoff series, and title games, as either on-paper favorites, or underdogs earning a chance at an upset, where Atlanta simply needed to hold serve in their home venue to bend the course of this town’s sordid sports-history trajectory. For fans to Believe Atlanta, our players needed to believe in their own collective capacity to shatter national narratives and regional doubts. The daring Hawks that were 8-seeds in Boston, in 2008, had little chance of success in slaying that emerging giant in Boston’s garden. But on the three occasions the Celtics brought their bean-eating fans into The Highlight Factory, the host Hawks stood firm, inspiring local fans who drowned out anything and anybody repping Team Green. Even today, one could envision somebody molding a Zaza Pachulia forehead statue somewhere. The 2008 team, in their playoff debut, didn’t put everything on Joe Johnson’s shoulders. Neither should it be the case this weekend for Trae Young, joining Phoenix’s Devin Booker this year as only the 6th NBA player to score over 30 points in his first two postseason appearances. With a little help from his friends, Trae can help the Hawks do much more than just get by. Starting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, and bench mates Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Tony Snell came up small in Game 2’s 101-92 defeat (combined 4-for-24 3FGs), while starting bigs John Collins and Clint Capela came up infinitesimal on the offensive end (2-for-7 FGs, each of Clint’s makes coming in the fourth quarter comeback attempt). Scoreless for the first time in his pro career, Collins’ utility was neutered by foul trouble, but Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau did a fine job of taking lob plays from Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, to Capela and/or Collins, off the table. With so much focus on pressuring Trae, and keeping paint touches for Atlanta bigs slim, it was a great opportunity for Bogi, Gallo and others to sink enough shots, or make enough productive passes, to ensure a triple-digit final score and put New York away early. But in this playoff-intense environment, the Knicks roughed up Lou Will, De’Andre Hunter and others, over the course of the game, enough that the Hawks could not seem to place its focus on the basket (2-for-12 fourth-quarter 3FGs) at closing time. It’s certainly not the primary rotation question that dogs Hawks coach Nate McMillan after Game 2, but Nate Mac was hesitant to overplay Onyeka Okongwu (a doug-e-fresh six minutes in Game 2, less than three in Game 1). That decision left Danilo Gallinari on the floor with guards Kevin Huerter (minus-29 in Game 2) and Williams for longer stretches in the second half than was ideal. To be sure, Gwu Tang’s an inexperienced rookie, but so is the forward drafted two spots after him. Thibs was able to spell a still-struggling Julius Randle with Obi Toppin in minutes impactful enough that the MSG crowd was chanting the rookie’s name early in the fourth quarter. While attacking the rim on offense, Toppin helped secure defensive boards and protect the rim at the other end, aiding Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson in controlling the Game 2 glass (13-6 offensive and 41-35 defensive rebounding advantages vs. ATL). Joining Toppin and Boston’s Aaron Nesmith as the sole Lotto-rookies getting playing time in the postseason, Okongwu isn’t expected to come through in the clutch like Al Horford did in 2008’s tone-setting Game 3 home debut. But he can offer that defensive presence inside that Gallinari, watching Taj Gibson burrow and Toppin fly around him, cannot. That can allow Hunter to sink his teeth defensively on Knick shooters like Reggie Bullock (matching Trae’s 4-for-7 3FG output in Game 2) and the ageless wonder, the free-wheeling Derrick Rose (26 points, 2-for-3 3FGs, 4 assists, 1 TO as the de facto lead point guard). If not Yek, McMillan can at least take a Stab at deploying Solomon Hill for a few short spells. Trae was magnetic with his pull-up jumpers, and with his “Dr. T” flair on one first-half scoop to the hoop around Randle, who he has personally given fits in this series. But the added defensive attention directed to Young means his floor mates must do more than spot-up and shoot when gifts from their gifted guard come their way. “It was a lot of settling on the perimeter as opposed to attacking,” Coach Nate shared with the AJC’s Sarah Spencer and reporters of the Hawks’ second-half shot selection after Game 2. “I don’t know if that was because our guys were a little tired ((with that extra day off, they shouldn’t be)), or what, but we weren’t getting to the basket, playing in our third and fourth option.” Driving inside gets Gibson and Noel to vacate their assignments, allowing Collins and Capela to finish plays, not just the lobs, before the Knicks’ bigs can recover. This series is an opportunity to showcase not only the revamping of the Hawks’ roster. Extensive remodeling of then-Philips Arena began in 2017, with the focus on maximizing the views and amenities for basketball fans. Years of staged improvement culminating in a State Farm Arena that, by 2020, was touted as the #1 Overall Game Experience among NBA season-ticket holders. The question remains: for which team’s fans, precisely? The Hawks’ spitfire point guard, his steely composure shining and not spitting-mad about the fans in NYC, is salivating at the possibility for a different Overall Game Experience in Games 3 and 4. “I hope Atlanta’s ready to bring that energy,” Trae told the AJC on Wednesday. “I hope it’s loud. I hope everybody’s excited to have the playoffs back in The A.” While the mouth-watering Young is clearly pumped up, he is going to need nine fellow Hawks to give it their letter-best for up to 40 -- okay, Nate, fine – 35 minutes of wild-and-wooly action. He’ll need at least 12,000 fans in attendance who are willing to Believe Atlanta, or at least outcheer the attendees who don’t. A more balanced offensive effort and continued adhesion to defensive principles in the face of the Knicks’ Gorgeous George tactics, will have the Farm rocking and the site of the Hawks’ 12th consecutive home win. By the time State Farm Arena is up for renewal, around 2035 or so, let’s hope this core of Hawks becomes part of the reason it stays standing, beginning with the way they bring down the house with their performance tonight. “We can’t tear down a legendary landmark!”, we’ll squeal. “After all, it’s not just The Highlight Factory, it’s ATLANTA’s Championship Factory!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. The Moment Knicks fans realized they got stuck with the wrong Italian. Welcome to the Madison Square Garden branch of the New York Public Library. Now, sssshhh, you blowhard New York Knicks fans. Can you not see, Trae Young is reading you up and down right now? The Human Spoiler Alert, Trae and his Atlanta Hawks cannot get too far over their skis ahead of Game 2 (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT). But when you form Mount Rushmores with LeBron (30-10-and-5+), D-Wade (game-clinching FG with under 5 seconds left), and Derrick Rose and CP3 (w/ LeBron, 30-10+) in your winning NBA Playoffs debut over a thirsty media darling, you get to dictate what’s going on with the Dewey Decimal System. The Big Idea in The Big Apple was that Atlanta’s hush-puppy point guard would wilt in his postseason debut, perhaps confusing 2021 Trae with the young man who officially began his career in 2018 on this hell-owed Madison Square Garden floor. Then, his resounding Game 1 performance on Sunday (32 points on 10-for-20 2FGs and 9-for-9 all-4th-quarter FTs, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 TOs) helped his Hawks gut out a 107-105 win and the playoff-starved host’s fanbase simultaneously. Now, the new Big Idea as Game 2 approaches is that it’s their one-time All-Star who gets the butterflies out of his system. Reaching as high as #15 among all-time players with no NBA Playoffs experience under their belt (446 regular-season games, tied with Brandon Knight, Darius Miles, and Geoff Petrie), 2021 Most Improved Player award-winner Julius Randle is officially off the list, leaving behind Zach LaVine (411 games) as the new active leader. In the cases of the other three stuck at 446, no one was expecting those guys to lead a team’s charge into the playoffs by the time each reached appearance #400. It turned out that the rust was real for Randle (6-for-23 FGs, would-be 6-for-24 had his mid-range heave gotten off in the final 0.9 seconds of Game 1, 1-for-2 FTs and 12 rebounds), much of it a product of the defensive activity by the Hawks’ John Collins to lure him into rushed off-screen jumpers rather than attacks around the rim, with help at turns by De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari. Randle has no choice but to be better in Game 2, but any incremental improvement may also be offset by one from the Collins-Clint Capela duo (combined 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting, 20 rebounds and 4 blocks) if coach Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted defense can’t thwart pick-and-roll penetration. Randle’s second-in-command, second-year forward RJ Barrett (6-for-15 FGs, including 1-for-6 on threes) had a moment to remember but a night to forget. The Maple Mamba’s third-quarter, game-tying poster waffle served only to wake up Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finished a syrupy sweet 4-for-6 from Times Square. Bogi also had two critical steals and a mid-floor stop on Rose in the second half. Knick starters took a grand total of six free throws and shot a combined 17-for-53 from the field. At this stage, it borders on unfairness to classify Elfrid Payton (0-for3 FGs and 1 assist in 8 minutes) as a starter. Throw in Rose, the 32-year-old sixth-man logging a team-high 37.7 minutes in the series opener for Coach Thibs, and those six Knicks were a combined 4-for-21 on threes. Hawk defenders Hunter and Kevin Huerter did a fine job of shooing shooters off the three-point line in the clutch, keeping New York from pulling away. Thank goodness, Spike and the Knicks fans must have thought, for Alec Burks (27 points, 9-for-13 FGs and 6-for-8 FTs in 26 “not basketball” minutes) heating up, rookie Immanuel Quickley getting some hero-shots to fall, and the oldest Knick on the roster, Taj Gibson (9 rebounds, incl. 5 offensive), being the beneficiary of some of those wayward Knick caroms. New York starters have no choice but to be a better collective in Game 2. But any incremental advantage they gain may similarly be offset by a stronger performance from Atlanta’s Gallinari, whose binary bench production (1 3FG, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block) belied his 3-for-11 shooting display. Getting open shots from Gallo and Bogi to splash early can facilitate Trae putting games on Ice late. The Hawks got just enough from Lou Williams, and drips and drabs from Tony Snell, to keep the team in position for Young’s silencing salvos, setting the stage for New York’s first home loss this season after leading through three quarters. The new goal for Atlanta is to build up enough of a fourth-quarter lead that the new #84 on the No-Playoffs-Yet list, Kris Dunn, gets to enjoy some floor burn. He was radio silent on whether Washington Capitals goon Tom Wilson making frozen mincemeat of Rangers star Artemi Panarin’s face was hockey. And he struggles to say much of anything with his whole chest about his governor hunting aides around the office. But when it comes to the concept of Knicks opponents “hunting fouls,” it appears NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio has found his voice. “ThAt HaWk WoN’t FlY. I tHiNk ThE kNiCkS aRe GoInG tO tEaCh YoU a LeSsOn.” Shut Up and Politics, Billy De Whinyams! Hizzoner knows a legitimate threat when he sees one. So does Barnes and Noble, the library-killing NYC-based store which took time out of their lengthy liquidation to name-check Mr. Young this past Monday morning. The threat is not so much the free throws Young earns, it’s the knowledge that you might have to smuggle pigeons and pizza rats into MSG just to distract him from making most, of not all, of them. Nine years ago, both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were gifted nine freebies during a Game 2 loss against the heat in Miami, but each missed three of them. Stoudemire promptly assailed a sign that said “Break Glass in Case of Emergency,” and extinguished himself. Melo’s co-star’s lacerated hand left him wanting to punch himself as the Knicks failed to win Game 3 back home (despite 19 combined free throws by Melo and Tyson Chandler), all but sealing the deal of ever catching up with LeBron (12-for-13 FTs) and Friends in that first-round series. Eight years ago this month, Paul George made 7 of his 8 foul shots in Game 1 at the Garden. He’d have made more had the Knicks’ J.R. Smith not come off the bench hunting for fouls (7-for-10 FTs) and snookering PG-13 out of the game. Alas, coach Mike Woodson’s Knicks let that critical home game slip away, allowing Indiana to hold serve at home and prevail in six games. The city is only now recovering from eight years of being New York Undercover. The Knicks still want to win this series, but with all the hullabaloo after Game 1, it’s clear their fans, and the shrill shills in the media that finance their livelihoods purely off them, are simply starving to see their team win a playoff game in their own building for the first time since outlasting PG’s Pacers for a stay of execution in Game 5 of that 2013 series. Knick fans are all packed, ready to invade StubHub and head South. But quite a few will be checking their refund policies if their team finds themselves down 2-0. Young, coached up by Nate McMillan, understands Atlanta needs more than one Hawk to fly. The Knicks have to either deny him the ball, or deny his paint penetration, and take away his shot-making threats. Even with Thibodeau’s layered schemes, it remains to be seen whether New York defenders can accomplish two of those three tasks for significant stretches of games, all while not getting caught hacking. They’ll have to do the same with Bogdanovic and Williams, neither of whom found much resistance finding their own offense or their teammates when handling the rock. Staying true to McMillan’s edict, Young’s two turnovers were a team-high (six ATL player TOs in Game 1), and the “Fowl-hunting” Knicks have to be disruptive of more than just Trae to even this series. Might the MSG Library close tonight? For the fanbase, waiting for a Game 5 to celebrate a Knicks home victory might prove to be a wait that’s a few days too long. The gnashing of teeth around Gotham is the realization that if they don’t turn it around convincingly, today, they might have to hold out another year, or eight, to get another chance. Randle could be outta here by 2022, while Rose, Burks, Nerlens Noel (questionable for Game 2, sprained ankle) and Reggie Bullock could catch a payday somewhere else this summer. Due to term limits, Mayor De Bloviator knows 2021 is his last chance to artificially boost his ratings ahead of his next run for a job somewhere in the Empire State. By next year, playoffs or not, when Trae Young and Atlanta pays a visit, this place could become the New York Public Library, State Farm Arena North branch. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “If we HURRY… we can still make it to Fyre Festival after the game!” Up a game in an Eastern Conference Playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks? The Washington Wizards’ John Wall, ahead of Game 6 at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., NBATV or ESPNU elsewhere), knows this is no time to get complacent. Or, at least, he should know. Same deal for Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat. All three (with Kris Humphries in tow) recall winning the conference semifinals opener in Atlanta back in 2015, then winning Game 3 in D.C. despite Wall sitting out with an injured wrist. Up 2-1, with Game 4 in their house, Paul Pierce trolling to perfection and Wall returning by Game 5… game, set, match. Conference Finals, here we come! Well, don’t call “series” just quite yet, Zards. The Hawks eked past the Wizards in three straight games, including twice at the Verizon Center, to steal Wall and the Wizards’ joy right out from under them. Bojan Bogdanovic doesn’t need to hear about any of that. His Nets had tied up the prior series against the Hawks in Brooklyn, and had all the momentum (and media spotlight) swinging their way. Unfortunately for BoBo and company, Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder (coming off the bench in his second NBA season) had other plans. Don’t trouble Brandon Jennings with current events. He had the Hawks dead-to-rights in 2010, after his Bucks took three straight games, granting the emerging star an opportunity to clinch his first-ever playoff series in front of a raucous Game 6 Milwaukee crowd. The Bucks never got to 75 points the rest of the way, and Jennings never won another playoff game until last week. The lesson? The moment you’re sure you have a playoff game, or series, in hand, the Hawks have you right where they want you. The question as Game 6 approaches is, have these Wizards learned this lesson? Hopefully, the only decent shots fired anywhere around downtown Atlanta this busy weekend come off the hands of Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.4 FG%) and Ersan Ilyasova (34.8 FG%). Along with Kent Bazemore (36.2 FG%), their collective struggles to find the bottom interior of the net have caused Atlanta to fail to take advantage of a wayward outside shooting by Beal (24.0 3FG%), Porter (35.7 3FG%), Bogdanovic (29.4 3FG%) and Markieff Morris (25.0 3FG%, playoff-high 24 personal fouls). Beal even found time to stray away from Hawk shooters to defend Millsap, as was the case in crunch time of Washington’s 103-99 Game 5 victory. The Wiz were merely shooting 29.2 percent on threes in their home gym, so it would have made an immense difference had the Hawks shot better than 29.0 percent themselves. Millsap (23.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG this series) found himself doing too much of a J-Smoovian impression before the Game 5 refs, forcing shots in anticipation of whistles and then griping when the tweets didn’t come. Sap finished off Game 4 falling away like a Mad Men silhouette while making buckets, and Atlanta will need that same intensity and focus around the paint from him to force a Game 7 on Sunday. More important than the potential suppression of their free agent values, another disappointing display by the Hawks perimeter shooters also risks spoiling a pleasantly surprising performance from Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder (24.4 PPG). No one would have guessed that Schröder would lead NBA playoff starters (min. 3 starts) in assist-turnover ratio (7.2 APG, 1.6 TOs/game; 7.1 TO%, 4th lowest in Playoffs), especially with Wall hovering around. Few would have expected Atlanta to have to rely on Dennis’ three-point shooting, either (43.8 3FG%), to stay in games. Yet, here we are. Free throw makes were, and are, another factor that can swing the outcome in one team’s favor, and that’s not to put Dwight Howard, who himself knows a thing or two about bouncing back after being down in a series, on Front Street. More post touches for Howard today can help Atlanta thin out a Wizards frontline that may be even thinner without Jason Smith (knee sprain, game time decision) available. Howard was 1-for-4 from the line on Wednesday evening, but his teammates also missed four freebies versus a Washington team that wasn’t going to miss many, not with Game 5 being a potential home finale. Especially for as long as the Hawks are cold from outside, they cannot afford to leave points from undefended shots on the table. Atlanta has a chance to do today what neither Milwaukee nor Memphis could do last night: win an elimination game on its home floor. Motion and ball movement remains an offensive priority for the Hawks. But if there is a lull in the outside shooting, Schröder’s teammates need to cut to the rim and help re-establish the paint-points advantage that was lost to the Wizards (40-36) in Game 5, rather than leaving it Schröder and Millsap to play iso-hero-ball with Wall and Beal. This playoff series will go not to a team that is satisfied with resting on their laurels, but to one that is instead intent on crafting new ones. Which team that is depends on whether Game 6 or Game 7 in the final contest in this series. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record