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  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. “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
  4. “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
  5. “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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. “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
  9. 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
  10. “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
  11. “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
  12. 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
  13. “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
  14. “I Know Who You’re Working Out With This Summer.” Which Atlanta Hawk player declared that Washington’s basketball team is a bunch of “…crybabies. They b*tch and moan all game. They have no class,” then added, “They've got nobody who can stop me. I am going to dominate their guards physically and psychologically”? What if, throughout this whole Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Hawks and Wizards, now reaching a pivotal Game 5 in the District (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., TNT), Markieff Morris is merely being a basketball historian, trying to stay in touch with his spirit animal… the late, coulda-been-great, Terry Furlow? Not long after wearing high school star Magic Johnson ragged on the blacktops of Lansing, the ex-Spartan Furlow was in his third NBA season in 1979, when he fell out with coach/GM Bill Fitch in Cleveland and was traded to Atlanta in mid-season, for Butch Lee and a future 1st-rounder. The newest Hawk arrived just in time to spark a mad dash by coach Hubie Brown’s team into the playoffs. And it was against the defending World Champion Bullets, in the conference semis, that Furlow, a backup guard, took the initiative to become the self-styled Mouth of the South. A sampling: “(Elvin) Hayes is a cheap-shot artist. Write that.” “(Wes) Unseld is a bully. He has bullied his way through this league all his life.” (To top-scoring Bullet guard Kevin Grevey, during a game, as reported by Sports Illustrated): “Hello? You're in trouble now. Every time I get it, I'm looking for you. It's gonna be in your face.” “The Bullet guards haven't done a thing, except (Larry) Wright - and he can be handled. We just haven't seen him enough yet. (Tom) Henderson can do only so much, and Grevey is lucky to be playing on this team. All he can do is shoot. He can't assist and rebound. When he's cold, he's no good to anybody.” Ouch! Almost exactly 28 years ago to this day, it was Washington’s calm, cool, collected, and playoff battle-tested team who were getting increasingly unnerved by the “cheap shots and unnecessary on-court celebrations” (quote attributed to an unnamed Bullet player by the Washington Post) by the upstarts with upside from Down South, led by their carnival barker off the bench. Furlow not only sold the 1979 series to capacity crowds in both Landover and Atlanta (invited by Abe Pollin, even President Carter made it to the decisive Game 7), he was backing up his incessant yap with his offensive play as well. Terry tag-teamed with Eddie Johnson and Armond Hill to dominate the backcourt matchups versus Grevey and ex-Hawk assist-man Henderson, helping to offset powerful performances by Bullet stars Bobby Dandridge and Hayes and turning that series into a toss-up with the top-seeded reigning champs. Washington thought they had the series in hand after besting the Hawks in Atlanta, in Games 3 and 4, to go up 3-1 in the series. But unlike the Capital Centre clocks, which began malfunctioning just as the Bullets began to race away at the outset of Game 5, it was Furlow, an already gray-haired Tom McMillen, and Johnson who proved unstoppable, their 59 combined points pacing the Hawks to a 107-103 victory. A resounding Game 6 win by the Hawks in front of an enlivened Omni crowd suddenly had the Bullets, who spent way too much time wrangling with the refs, on the ropes, and Atlanta as close as ever before to chasing championship dreams. “The team that (wins Game 7) is prepared for anything,” suggested Bullets coach (Richard) Motta. “It’s ready to go all the way.” Even after escaping with a 100-94 win back home in Game 7, despite 21 points by Furlow in what turned out to be the villain’s final NBA playoff contest, a triumphant Hayes remarked that Atlanta, “would have beaten any other team in the league today, except for us.” In 2017, it’s the Hawks that are the calmer, cooler team, its veterans better steeled by playoff series victories than Washington’s. It’s the favored Wizards’ backcourt, led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, that has the superior edge but now finds themselves struggling to offset a frontline beleaguered by Atlanta’s Paul Millsap (team-high 23.5 PPG and 1.3 SPG) and Dwight Howard. And in 2017, it is playoff-virgin Morris who is trying to infuse some Furlow-style swagger into this postseason matchup with the Hawks. As a distinction, though, Washington’s 2017 team pales in comparison to the ’79 Bullets, and the current-day Hawks are tied in this series rather than playing games with their season on the line. Also, Markieff, unlike Furlow, is earning DJ Khaled-style congratulations, for playing himself right out of this series. Aside from the early-arriving Verizon Center crowd, it will be Wall who will do all he can to reinvigorate Morris and Marcin Gortat from the outset of Game 5. Morris knows he must stay scrappy but steer clear of foul trouble, which plagued him during the games in Atlanta. Gortat (27 boards in past two games, but just eight FGAs), back in front of his home crowd, must demonstrate he can rediscover his offensive gear. To steer this series back in the Wizards’ favor, Wall must be more respectful of Dennis Schröder, at least on the court. Schröder has done about everything Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has asked of him in this series, and the best defense Wall (1.3 SPG this series) has put up against him is to try to coax the young point guard into early foul problems himself. Wall has gone under screens repeatedly, and Dennis has been making the Wizards pay for their All-Star’s insouciance. To this point in the series, Schröder is benefitting from better-balanced contributions by his teammates than Wall. While Morris (10.5 PPG, 34.8 FG%) is the only Wizard not named Wall or Beal averaging double-figures, Atlanta is now up to five double-figure scorers, a number which could rise to six with more dump-ins directed Howard’s way. The Hawks can certainly steal this series so long as Schröder is not expected to out-John-Wall John Wall. Aside from Wall (10.0 APG), only Brandon Jennings in limited minutes is averaging at least three assists per game for coach Brooks’ club. By comparison, Schröder (6.3 APG) is joined by Millsap (4.3 APG), and Kent Bazemore, and that doesn’t count the mastery exhibited by Jose Calderon in Game 4 with Schröder riding the pine due to early foul issues. While Gortat matches Dwight’s 11.8 RPG, the only other players averaging more than five rebounds are all Hawks, including Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova, and Taurean Prince. The latter would be in the lead for the Playoffs Rookie of the Year award if there were such a thing. Both the Hawks and Wizards are awaiting big games from players who were integral to many successes the teams had during the regular season. For Otto Porter (27.3 3FG% this series; 4th in NBA for 3FG% during regular season), his jumpshot thawed in Game 4 (5-for-10 3FGs), but he has yet to sort out Prince’s defensive riddles and put together a complete effort. After being elevated to the starting lineup as the playoffs neared, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.8 FG% this series) is only beginning to come around (3-for-5 3FGs and two steals in Game 4). A pair of solid two-way efforts from either player could tilt this series decisively in their team’s favor. A Game 5 win on the road in 1979 significantly altered Atlanta’s series-winning and title-contending prospects. In 2017, Coach Bud, 4-0 in Game 5s of playoff series as a Hawks coach, is drawing up the plays in hopes of a similar impact. One difference from the Hawks team that entered Game 1 is that Atlanta enters today’s action with the echoes of rabid fans back home still in their ears. From this point forward, the Hawks, unlike the Wizards, need no rabble-rousing teammates to motivate them to victory. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “John! John! I got the license number of that truck! It said, ‘BE GR8’…” The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau would like some assistance, please. Markieff Morris has been having a splendid stay in the A. This, after being directed to some of our town’s finest accommodations by the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap, who has become quite the pain in the A for Morris during this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. To ensure Keef and his Washington Wizards earn one more free continental breakfast in our fair city, the Bureau needs its Hawks fans to cheer the home team on to victory once again, tonight in Game 4 at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, TNT if you dare). If Millsap did any “crying” in Game 3, it was with tears of joy. Sap wasn’t crying out loud, but was instead flying high and proud after not only beasting in the boxscore (29 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks), but pairing with Dwight Howard (25 combined rebounds, five offensive) to bedevil Morris and Marcin Gortat (two of Washington’s six O-Rebs, 5-for-18 combined FGs in 58 combined minutes) on the boards for the first time in the best-of-7 series. While Howard continues to etch out his role in the Atlanta offense, this time around it was Gortat who got to enjoy the fourth-quarter proceedings from the bench. That is largely due to Dennis Schröder pacing the Hawks in his stellar home debut as a playoff starter (27 points, 7-for-15 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 9 assists, 3 TOs), and Howard staying home around the rim to limit Gortat’s touches. Washington is likely to set up more post play in Game 4, attempting to soften up Atlanta’s frontcourt tandem. You can’t spell “unconventional” without “ATL”, and Atlanta continues to find ways, good or bad, to introduce a different wrinkle to the series. This time, there was ball control, with Hawks players committing just 11 turnovers. That was the lowest number of player turnovers since the series-opener against the Celtics last season. There was also suffocating perimeter defense, causing even the easiest of three-point looks to rim out for Washington (7-for-29 3FGs in Game 3). Atlanta had not held a playoff opponent to sub-25% shooting since the series-ender in Boston last year. Even without Thabo Sefolosha on the court for meaningful minutes, the wing trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Taurean Prince, and Kent Bazemore did an imperfect yet adequate job of limiting kickout passes from reaching their intended targets. Morris (36.1 series FG%) has fully embraced Paul Pierce’s wannabe-tough-guy role, and has conducted himself exactly as you’d expect for an overbearing 27-year-old in just his third career playoff contest. One can expect Morris (career-high 36.2 3FG% in 2016-17) to continue looking for outside shots to help liven up the Wizards’ offense in Game 4. The commitment to sealing Wiz forwards out of plays in the paint and keeping passes to shooters out of reach often came at the expense of highlight-worthy buckets from the sensational John Wall (10-for-12 FGs, 8-for-10 FTs, 7 assists, 3 TOs), who continues to light up the rim in transition. The lack of Hawks’ live-ball turnovers, though, meant many Wizards’ fastbreaks had to begin by collecting the ball out from their own net. As was the case for Schröder in D.C., this time it was Wall who had little help from his Wizard mates, most notably Bradley Beal (6-for-20 FGs, 0-for-6 on threes), Otto Porter, and bench man Bojan Bogdanovic (3-for-9 FGs, 0-for-4 on threes). Porter strained his neck while catching a cross-court screen from Hardaway in the second half, but he is healed up in advance of today’s game. Saturday’s 116-98 blowout win could have been even more decisive had Atlanta taken care of business at the free throw line. Although the Hawks organization is donating to the Atlanta Community Food Bank for every missed Wizards free throw in this series, it was the Hawks on the floor (19-for-32 FTs in Game 3) who were giving the charity stripe its name. Both teams are preferring to forgo three-point attempts, in the Wizards’ case settling for long-twos in their comfort zone (17.2 percent of FGAs two-pointers beyond 15-feet, highest in East) while the Hawks are chipping away inside (39.5 percent of FGAs at-rim, highest in East). But the Hawks could afford to set up shooters more in the corners. Atlanta’s 28.6 3FG% is now ahead of only the Wizards’ 27.8 percent, but that accuracy has risen to a respectable 42.9 3FG% in the corners, best exploited by the Hawks during the series opener (3-for-6 corner 3FGs in Game 1). A healthy serving of pin-down screens by Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova (probable, despite a bruised calf) or Howard should not only help continue to spring Schröder free, but also open up options in the corners for Hardaway (1-for-6 3FGs in Game 3) and Prince, both of whom are also dangerous drivers from the baselines, Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. The aforementioned, aside from the rookie Prince (7-for-10 FGs, 2-for-2 3FGs in Game 3), are past due for impactful performances at the offensive end of the floor. Atlanta is the capital of Southern Hospitality, and Millsap has represented the City Too Busy To Hate just fine. Still, we would love to have only the finest duvet covers awaiting Morris and the Wizards’ return, specifically by making Friday’s “if-necessary” Game 6 very necessary. Yes, the Wiz might need to find some new luxury lodging options, after Jason Smith reportedly fouled the bellhop during their latest stay. But no matter which 4-star inn they choose, our visitors can count on a full tissue box in every room, plus an array of on-demand flicks available to help Markieff avoid our SportsCenter highlights. Bless his heart. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. #SquadGoals (Premature Offseason Edition) This series ain’t a series until somebody wins a game on the road. For the Atlanta Hawks and their fans, they’re hoping there won’t be a series until after Game 5 or Game 7. If so, that means the Hawks took care of business here at The Highlight Factory, beginning today against those oh-so-offended Washington Wizards (5:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC; TNT if you can stomach it). The True To Atlanta bill has come due. A regular season flavored with banging hip hop concerts, boisterous “ATL” chants, playground remodels, community outreach events, Tinder Nights, all that stuff were mere appetizers setting up the main course, to be served to us fans by our boys in Torch Red. No one is here to watch the Hawks lay down like they did on way too many occasions this season at Philips Arena. But to be True To ATL and pull off a pair of resounding victories at Philips Arena over the next few days, these Hawks have to show they can be true to one another. You’d be hard-pressed to find, in the history of American sports consciousness, a time when an Atlanta team or player was granted the upper hand in a national media-fueled war of words. Whether it’s all this talmbout “MMA”, or the suggestion that the Wizards played the best ball of their natural lives (they hadn’t) yet could only win by single digits, or that our small-ball lineups are clearly superior (it’s not), virtually everything is bulletin board material for the pearl clutchers from the District of Columbia. Every unnecessary utterance of self-praise, or of silver linings, by the Hawks has been served up like a T-ball and hit out the park by the Wizards. So, please, don’t nobody remind them of this Instagram post, back when Dennis Schröder was trying to make nice with Dwight Howard, in the aftermath of I-Thought-You-Had-Steph-Gate. “We the best DUO in the Pick & Roll !!! Nobody can stop us .. when we both play on the highest level !!!” The best duo, Dennis? O rly? Well, John Wall and his furrowed brow would like to have a word with… whoa, whoa, careful with all that gang signage there, Johnny! You wouldn’t want to re-injure your precious wrist, right? This is not merely about the former #1 pick in the league getting his gander up about every perceived slight. Wall has built up his rep over seven seasons as the fastest point guard, the most athletic point guard, the best-passing point guard, and now, the highest-scoring point guard in the East… who hasn’t won jack. Despite fits and starts, the four-time All-Star has guided his franchise to its best season in over a generation, and the teams seeded above Washington in the playoffs are looking quite shaky. He’s had to wait for LeBron to sail out of South Beach, and for whatever that was Atlanta was doing in 2015, before his Wizards could lay claim to being the class of the Southeast Division. After years of disrespect and disappointment, the path to the NBA Finals and global acclaim is finally Wall’s to blaze. And yet… who is THIS kid, standing in the way of his manifest destiny? Established contemporaries like Kemba Walker, Jeff Teague, or Goran Dragic were one thing. But this… this… BOY (pronounced “BWOAHH”, in Raleigh-speak)? This “ute” over here, with the poor-man’s Kwame hairdo? This youngster, three inches smaller, 25 pounds lighter, three years his junior, is Wall’s biggest threat to staking his claim? Oh, no, this shall not stand! Fortunately, Schröder has no designs on just going and sitting down somewhere. He remembers last year, when the 4-seed Hawks won its first two opening-round games at home, and things seemed dire for the 5-seed at the time. Then the series shifted to Boston, and by the time Game 4 came to an overtime close, the Celtics had evened the series, and fans and media alike were crafting love ballads for small-wonder Isaiah Thomas. Schröder could benefit from a little of that action, and a pair of upstaging wins could do the trick. Nevermind that the next Boston playoff victory didn’t come until last night. From the looks of things, you’d have thought the Celtics won that series. Just like, if you queried the average fan, Paul Pierce’s Wizards “won” that conference semifinal series against the Hawks in 2015. Wall has been selling, “See, the way my wrist was set up…”, to anyone who’ll listen ever since. He’s not just out to win this series, but to redeem his failures during the 2015 matchup as well. Schröder (24.0 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.5 TOs/game) knows this, and when Wall starts selling wolf tickets and staredowns just for doing his job, Dennis recognizes it for what it really is: desperation. When these point guards go head-to-head, there is only one Third Round Virgin on the floor. Dennis is perfectly fine playing the role of the fly in Wall’s ointment, as Wall’s endless swatting at Schröder serves to distract him from the true tasks at hand. Dennis would like to accomplish more than just getting under the All-Star guard’s skin from game to game, but he needs a lot more help than he has received thus far in this series. Hawks fans don’t need to see the “best duo” at the pick-and-roll performing today, they merely need to see a 1-5 combo for the Hawks that is at least functional on the offensive end. Howard (6.5 PPG, 5-for-11 FGs) has had his lunch eaten to this point by former understudy Marcin Gortat (14.0 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 6.0 offensive RPG, 3.5 BPG). It’s part of the reason coach Mike Budenholzer has been leaving his $25 million free agent prize to sit on his hands in the clutch. But even when the Hawks go “small”, they have been mere witnesses to Wall’s paint dimes to Gortat, the true “best duo” that is far more experienced than anything Atlanta can field. Howard was on the floor in the third quarter, when Atlanta’s starting unit gained the upper hand for the first time in this series. His presence around the offensive post in the fourth-quarter of Game 2, were he fed the ball, could have prematurely ended the day for Washington’s key healthy bigs. Dwight’s absence on the other end resulted in productive second-chance buckets for the Wizards. Whether Howard struggles for stretches or not, if he’s getting less floor time than Bazemore, the Hawks are not winning playoff games versus the Wizards or anyone else. With Tim Hardaway, Jr. at his side, with Kent Bazemore getting floor time beyond anyone’s comfort level, with Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. at his occasional disposal, there is no reason why Dennis (4-for-13 3FGs; 8 teammates a combined 11-for-32 3FGs) should be leading the team in three-pointers made. Inside and out, the ball has been moving better for Atlanta, allowing them to stay within shouting distance of the Wizards in the second halves. But to gain and sustain leads, it is imperative for Schröder’s shooters to produce from the perimeter. The Hawks made hay as one of the NBA’s best at forcing turnovers (15.6 opponent TOs per possession, 2nd in NBA regular season, tied with Washington). But whether it has been the starters or the reserves, Atlanta has sat back and allowed the Wizards (10.0 TO%, tied with Milwaukee as best among East playoff teams) to dissect them. Meanwhile, the Hawks have stayed true to their sloppy selves (17.0 TO%, by far the worst in the playoffs), even as Schröder has been uncharacteristically careful. Dennis will make his fair share of mistakes, as the first-year starter is apt to do. But he cannot be left hanging out to dry by his teammates while the Wizards spark Wall on fastbreaks. For all the praise he has heaped upon Malcolm Delaney this season, Coach Bud needs to show Atlanta why it was worth the trouble to stay true to him. Delaney and Thabo Sefolosha (4 combined minutes to date, all by Sefolosha) need to devour some of the playing time bestowed upon Bazemore, who was atrocious at the close of Game 2. Delaney (and perhaps you, reading this) are better on-ball defensive options than Jose Calderon versus Brandon Jennings, the backup point whose late dash helped the Wizards turn the tide early in the final quarter of Game 2’s 109-101 win. Sefolosha is purportedly healthy, and should have a vital role in evening out the turnover margin in this series. He could also do a better job defensively than Hardaway did in containing Bradley Beal, whose 16 fourth-quarter points eclipsed Millsap’s 14 third-quarter points in Game 2. Game 3 and Game 4 are prime opportunities for the Hawks to show the NBA world what being True To Atlanta is all about, and for Dennis to show why he is truly a Menace. Meanwhile, John Wall won’t make it easy to be Schröder’s Instagram foil anymore. Ain’t that right, John? High-five, up top… no, John, with your shooting hand… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “I hear you, Melo, but she’s a Honey of an O, tho!” Happy 4/19! Sure, 4/20 is right around the corner, but you’re just going to have to forgive Atlanta Hawks fans for jumping the gun, what with our short attention spans and perpetual hunger pangs. Atlanta likes our Hawks, sure. But we crave what truly gets us our high: good, intense, entertaining, compelling pro basketball. Especially whenever the NBA Playoffs roll around, we’re on the hunt for that good kush. If the Hawks put out more of that chronically synthetic crap in Game 2 (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, NBATV) like they did through much of Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, then don’t blame us hoop stoners if our eyes begin wandering off in search of Sour Diesel – not the Squawker variety, mind you, the NBA strain. To be, well, blunt about it, just watching ex-Hawks awash on other teams right now makes for some pretty good munchies. The Son of Tito hemming and hawing his way through press conferences after an 0-2 start, struggling to avoid becoming the common denominator for the last two #1 seeds that got swept out of the playoffs? Coach Fizdale flipping that spot where his wig should be, over the refs’ oddly-swallowed whistles? Jeff holding serve versus Kyrie, while Kyle mostly spectates alongside Edy and Dahntay from the bench? This is some quality ganja right here. DeMarre, with the hopes of a whole nation on his back, tilting at the beast named Giannis? Jamal once again shooting and dribbling madly to try and save his playoff team’s bacon, only this time for Coach Doc against Joe Clutch (and Shelvin, and Boris, and Coach Quin)? Zaza simply doing what he can to stay the heck out of his star teammates’ way? Don’t get greedy with that; puff, puff, pass! Our present-day Hawks, down just 0-1, have plenty of time to become Atlanta’s focal point again. But tonight, it is going to take a lot more than the first-half ATLchemy stirred up by Coach Bud ((cough, cough… sorry!)) and his crew in the series opener. During Game 1, Dennis Schröder found his second gear on offense, serving up 25 points (3-for-5 3FGs), 9 assists and just 2 turnovers. Alas, he and Paul Millsap (19 points, 5-for-7 2FGs, 9-for-11 FTs) seemed to forget there was another end of the floor, one on which John Wall (playoff career-high 32 points, 14 assists) can thrive. And aside from Kent Bazemore (4 assists, one turnover in 28 bench minutes), hardly any Hawks helped Schröder move the ball, making it easy on Washington defenders to hone in on Atlanta shooters (7-for-25 3FGs). Schröder’s starting backcourt mate, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (2-for-11 FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) had the Wizards feeling like they won the trade deal with Kelly Oubre (11 points, 2 steals in 19 bench minutes). Hardaway’s opponent, Bradley Beal, was 2-for-11 on three-pointers alone, and got just three shots at the free throw line. Yet Beal made a difference in Washington’s 114-107 victory by contributing with other competitive facets (7-for-10 2FGs, 3 assists, 3 steals) in ways Hardaway did not. Sap (2 paltry rebounds, 1 assist, no steals) continues to seek out a decent Playoff Paul version of himself, when Regular Season Paul would do just fine. He and Dwight Howard (minus-25 plus/minus through the first three quarters) found themselves outclassed on the Verizon Center floor by Markieff Morris (21 points, 7-for-13 2FGs, 4 blocks in his playoff debut) and Marcin Gortat (7-for-11 FGs, 10 rebounds). The Wizard duo’s eight offensive rebounds effectively neutralized any chance the Hawks had to effect the outcome via the glass. Atlanta shot just 33.3 percent from the field in a low-scoring opening half, including 3-for-11 on threes. Yet the Hawks clung to a three-point halftime lead, thanks to drawing (according to Millsap) MMA-quality fouls from the Wizards and eventually sinking their free throws. Atlanta finished with 32 makes on their final 36 attempts in Game 1, including 19 in a row in the first half, after missing their first three shots. That Hawks lead could have been more impressive had Millsap not gifted Morris with three free throw gifts as the half came to a close, followed by an exchange that only worked to enliven Morris and the Wizards going into the locker room. Washington was the only team that seemed to make strategic defensive adjustments in Game 1 during the break. The hacking from Coach Scott Brooks’ squad slowed, allowing the Wizards’ starters to remain on the floor. Experiencing little pressure on the ball from Hawks defenders, Wall (15 points and 4 assists in the third quarter) and Beal (12 fourth-quarter points) began to find their flow. The Wizards over-rely on their starting five (inclusive of Otto Porter), whose 1347 floor minutes in the regular season exceeded the next-highest 5-man NBA lineup by 467 minutes. True to form, this unit’s 25.4 minutes in Game 1 is the most by any 5-man lineup so far. Yet their second-half mastery of the Hawks’ top line rendered Atlanta’s 35-15 edge in bench points (11 of those 15 by Oubre alone) meaningless. The Hawks were only able to turn the tide, down double-digits, in the first quarter when Bud and then Brooks (inexplicably) turned to their reserves. If there is one person on the Hawks’ end of the floor who is capable of decoding Coach Scotty’s offensive game plans, it’s the guy who was his small forward for six seasons in OKC. Yet Thabo Sefolosha found himself classified as DNP-WTF, even as the Wizards offense (69 second-half points) began freely picking the Hawks apart. Atlanta could coax just 12 turnovers (five off steals) out of Washington, whose players committed at least 18 turnovers in each regular-season matchup with the Hawks. Atlanta was 5-11 when they produced five or fewer steals in the regular season, 10-17 when their opponents committed 12 turnovers or less. In Atlanta’s sole victory over Washington this season, the season-opener, the Hawks gathered 13 steals, including five thefts from Sefolosha in 22 bench minutes. Rookie Taurean Prince was spirited but perhaps overutilized in his debut as a playoff starter (4-for-7 2FGs, 2-for-4 3FGs, 6 rebounds in 32 minutes). Despite his struggles throughout the back half of this season, Thabo (team-high 1.5 SPG; just behind Millsap with 2.9 deflections per game) will be needed in this series for more than just sideline pep talks. The Hawks must make their man defense and motion offense look edible to their feening fanbase in Game 2. True Believers are true believers, but if we have to wait until Game 3 in Atlanta to see sound efforts at both ends from these Hawks fresh from the locker room, we’ll be tempted to draw our NBA toke from somewhere else tonight. Our channel-changing fingers will quiver, and they know why. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  18. He finally got himself a bobblehead. So happy for Nipsey Russell! ((Ongoing computer issues, so here’s a condensed version. Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all enjoying the holidays!)) Offense Wins Championships! You know the not-so-old adage by now. It’s kind of a shame for our Atlanta Hawks that they come into the NBA Playoffs with the Eastern Conference’s best defensive efficiency at the worst possible time. For their trouble, Mike Budenholzer’s interior-defensive-minded crew gets to wrangle in the opening round with the favored Washington Wizards (Game 1: 1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), who have finally embraced the magic of the three-point jumpshot as a team. There’s little surprise that the Wizards’ greatest-ever offensive efficiency coincides with their first division title and most regular-season wins (still not 50? Geez!) since d*ck Motta’s NBA Finalists back in 1979. Dwight Howard enters this series with all the look and countenance of Barney the Dinosaur, albeit a lot less tubby. Tall in stature, grinning from ear-to-ear, playful, lots of equally playful friends around him. He loves ATL, ATL loves him, and he bears no earthly idea just how close his game is hurtling toward extinction. But why should Dwight care about how the times are a changin’, anyway? Besides, the happy-go-lucky Howard was one of a handful of players who were on the floor in each of the past two seasons to help beat the Golden State Warriors in a conference playoff game. Two seasons ago, he tag-teamed with James Harden and carried a starting unit that featured Josh Smith AND Jason Terry back from 3-1 down to reach a Conference Finals. He was on the floor during one of the last two times LeBron James tried, and failed, to reach the NBA Finals. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the tenth consecutive season, but the crushing weight of blowout postseason losses have been a drain over the years for its fans. The common denominator throughout almost all of those years of pummeling playoff exits now dons clover green for the East’s top seed. Howard is quite familiar with those beatdowns of the past. Back when NBA fans used to seek out his jerseys, back when he could pose as Superman with barely a snicker uttered from the stands, his Magic was in Atlanta setting the NBA record for the largest margin of victory in a four-game sweep. Orlando’s 101 extra points in the 2010 conference semis eclipsed the 72-point margin LeBron’s Cavs enjoyed versus the Hawks just one season prior. Dwight was also front-and-center in 2011, when the Hawks finally pulled it together and toppled the higher-seeded Magic, then the defending conference champs, in front of a rabid Philips Arena crowd. Perhaps it was here where Howard came to discover just how True To Atlanta Hawks fans can be. He would love to feel that same unwavering support now that he wears his NBA hometown across his chest for a playoff run. Leading the NBA Playoffs in per-game rebounding, as Dwight has done in two of the last three seasons (NBA-high 13.9 RPG since 2013-14), doesn’t carry the same cachet it once did, when guys named Shaq, Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler were in their championship heydays. But this is Playoff Dwight, and Playoff Dwight is what Atlanta has committed itself to pay for. There will be no more Hawks starting centers biding time until the closing seconds of pivotal games to make impactful rebounds. There’s one man standing in the way of Dwight Howard’s domination of the glass in this series, and that man is Dwight’s former understudy in Orlando. Similarly on the right side of 40, Marcin Gortat isn’t likely to stand in Dwight’s way the whole time. He’ll spend a lot of the time out of the paint on offense, setting screens to spring free his backcourt stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, and occasionally popping jumpers (35.8 jumpshot FG%). Gortat will go inside to loft his nifty hook shot (61.2 FG% on hooks), or wherever the opportunity to draw fouls on Howard is greatest. Besides avoiding foul trouble, Howard’s challenges in this series include trusting his teammates, including All-Defensive Team candidate Paul Millsap, to cover the rim and avoid the urge to sag on opponents’ screens. He and Schröder will keep the Hawks competitive in this series if they keep the ball from sticking, setting sound picks, involving teammates, and making decisive plays in the flow of the offense, before Wall and the Wizards (8.5 team SPG, 2nd in NBA) can sink their teeth in defensively and spark their own transition plays (17.7 PPG off TOs, most in East). The Hawks can make an even stronger run if the resurgent bench performers, including Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries (on our side, this time around) and Jose Calderon, don’t compound whatever offensive mistakes their starters make with their own. While Atlanta fields one of the older and playoff-seasoned rosters in the Eastern Conference, this postseason run for Dwight and the Hawks needs not be a Last Hurrah. The pressure is on Wall, Beal, Gortat and the Wizards, not the Hawks, to demonstrate they’re finally ready to turn the corner by overcoming the franchise that last dispatched them in their last playoff game in 2015. This series will remain intriguing so long as the Hawks treat this Hurrah as if it’s merely the first one. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  19. I believe Hawks will still make it in the playoffs. There a lot of teams in the East struggling compared to teams in the West. Right now Hawks are 6th place. I still don't think Hawks are a championship caliber team though, they don't have enough talent and Dennis still learning how to play as a starter pg and run a team. Same to Dwight, this is his first year as a Hawk, he's still learning to play with the team. Korver is inconsistent this year compared to previous years. Turnovers are still a problem, i could go on but i will still watch this team progress this season. I know there are some hawks fans who are not fan of coach Bud but I still have faith in Hawks and coach Bud, Looking at Hawks history, Hawks won their first championship in 1958, i want to see them win their second championship coming from a Spurs fan. It might not be this year but hopefully they will win at least one before Bud is done coaching or get fired if things still doesn't work out. NBA standings # Team W L PCT GB CONF DIV HOME ROAD L10 STRK 1 Cavaliers 23 6 .793 0.0 17-4 3-3 16-2 7-4 9-1 W5 2 Raptors 21 8 .724 2.0 13-4 5-0 11-5 10-3 8-2 W3 3 Celtics 18 13 .581 6.0 14-5 5-1 6-6 12-7 6-4 W1 4 Hornets 17 13 .567 6.5 11-9 4-1 10-6 7-7 6-4 W3 5 Knicks 16 14 .533 7.5 8-8 1-3 11-5 5-9 5-5 L1 6 Hawks 15 15 .500 8.5 11-7 3-4 7-7 8-8 5-5 W1 7 Bucks 14 14 .500 8.5 10-10 4-3 10-7 4-7 4-6 W1 8 Pacers 15 16 .484 9.0 8-10 3-2 11-5 4-11 5-5 L2 9 Bulls 14 16 .467 9.5 10-9 3-4 8-6 6-10 3-7 L3 10 Wizards 13 16 .448 10.0 9-11 3-5 10-6 3-10 6-4 L1 11 Pistons 14 18 .438 10.5 8-11 2-3 8-7 6-11 3-7 L5 12 Magic 14 18 .438 10.5 8-12 4-3 6-10 8-8 4-6 W1 13 Heat 10 21 .323 14.0 5-13 3-4 5-11 5-10 3-7 L1 14 76ers 7 22 .241 16.0 5-12 1-3 5-14 2-8 3-7 L2 15 Nets 7 22 .241 16.0 2-14 0-5 6-8 1-14 2-8 L5
  20. “Ya can’t spell ATL without AL!” Everywhere around Philips Arena, Tony Ressler looks, and sees opportunity. The majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks is not just another well-heeled rah-rah sports fan. He’s an investor, a private equity expert, a budding master developer. Whether it’s his Hawks or the downtown Atlanta area his team calls home, Ressler takes underperforming assets and strives to make them stronger, and longer-lasting. Standing outside the arena, Ressler sees vibrant parkspace, along with under-developed plots and parking lots, bustling hotels and floundering food courts. Then he can turn his attention to The Highlight Factory, site of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (3:30 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ABC, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). Here, Ressler will find that the epicenter of this desired central-city synergy is a palace, but one propped up on pillars of salt. To a man, each of the Hawks have professed glee with the opportunity to play NBA basketball in Atlanta, working with a staff that seems committed to their professional development, playing for a team whose prospects for making the playoffs are doubted, for differing reasons, every season, a team that proves their doubters wrong in this regard every time. Ressler’s counterpart in Cleveland sees a reinvigorated downtown centered around his Quicken Loans Arena. In Dan Gilbert’s case, the pillar is made of firm marble, but has wheels on its base, and Gilbert has ultimately no control over when that pillar rolls away. So instead, Gilbert allows LeBron James to push for the decisions that might keep Cleveland’s palace upright. It means taking your lottery-handed top pick and swapping it for Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds, 5-for-12 3FGs in Cleveland’s 121-108 Game 3 win). It means taking your handpicked head coach and tossing him in mid-season for LeBron’s preferred leader in Tyronn Lue. It means extending the payroll in ways that satisfies your superstar player in order to keep him around. It means that while a low-salaried team like Atlanta trades for Knicks like Junior Hardaway, you’re going after J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. While Atlanta grabs bought-out free agents like Kris Humphries and scarcely uses him, your team grabs Channing Frye (27 points, 7-for-9 3FGs in Game 3) to be a difference-maker in seizing full control of a playoff series. Gilbert does what he can to keep the tent pitched. Ressler’s goal of basketball-team-as-catalyst for economic gains has yet to be realized. To achieve his much larger ends, Ressler must discern the just-happy-to-be-here employees from the commitment-to-championship-excellence workers on his payroll. That goes for everybody from the President of Basketball Operations (coincidentally, head coach Mike Budenholzer) to the 15th man on the Hawks roster. Although propelled by many moves brought about by ex-GM Danny Ferry, Coach Bud has re-established a measure of legitimacy to the franchise, no matter how questionable his decisions on game-to-game rotations and adjustments have been. Still, Ressler has to look at the POBO, and assess whether Budenholzer’s benefit in this seat has to do more with the head coach’s job security than anything else. If that appears to be true, then a shakeup at the top of the personnel department is in order. While LeBron serves as Gilbert’s Terminator, Al Horford (One solitary rebound in 31 minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks are out-boarded 55-28) is Ressler’s Not-Quite-Mad-Enough Max. Whether he returns this summer, or not, are fans going to hear more about salary caps and tax aversions than about the need to add star-quality talent to a competitive core? Is Jeff Teague, or Dennis Schröder, an invaluable member of this so-called core? Is Kent Bazemore? Is Paul Millsap ever going to provide a consistently strong effort at playoff time? Kyle Korver’s impact (5-for-9 3FGs in Game 3, but four of those threes in the first half) is fading fast, so who are his replacements beyond Hardaway? Are Marcus Eriksson, Walter Tavares, and Lamar Patterson going to develop into primetime-worthy stars anytime in the next half-decade? The Hawks’ players cannot do much more to impress their value upon Ressler going forward, and they can’t worry directly about such matters this afternoon. But they have at least one more chance to display the depth of their desire to win, especially when the world’s attention, and the heat from the Cavaliers’ glare, is placed squarely upon them. A full-court, full-48-minute effort leading to victories in Game 4 and Game 5 would create opportunities for the Hawks’ key contributors to prove they aim to be more than perennial honorable-mention winners. Meddling owners are usually bad news for sports franchises, and it is nice to see some stability and professional activity out of the brass. But whether the Atlanta Hawks season concludes after today, Game 5, 6, or 7, the ability to transcend the Hawks from just another NBA team to a championship-quality economic catalyst would require Tony to become a Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  21. “DROPPIN’ THREES! DROPPIN’ THREES!” “Everyone has a plan… until they get punched in the mouth!” Even the originator of this famous boxing quote knows, firsthand, how a well-crafted pugilistic plan to stick-and-move and rope-a-dope becomes, “Chew his dang ear off!” once things clearly aren’t going his way. Turning any of the Cleveland Cavaliers into Van Gogh isn’t in the cards for the Atlanta Hawks, as the Eastern Conference semifinals scene shifts to the Highlight Factory for Game 3 (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN, postgame on Fox Sports Southeast). But to avoid getting exposed once again, this time at home, the Hawks have to come up with a multifaceted approach that goes well beyond Plan A. “We came in with a gameplan we thought was really good,” said a hopelessly flummoxed Al Horford, “and it got discarded really quick.” Plan A had the Hawks jumping out to a 7-2 lead and feeling pretty good about themselves at the outset of Game 2. But Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers have this thing called an adjustment, you see. The first of an NBA-record 18 first-half triples rained down on Horford’s Hawks, and they found themselves with no logistical answers. Kyle Korver continued to be stifled and the Hawks were a dithering 2-for-11 on threes in the first half, while the Cavs were a blistering 18-for-27. When it was well past time for a Plan B, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer unveiled… what’s this? A zone defense??? Where’s my Nick Young meme when I need it? Things aren’t turning out much different for the Hawks in this series than it was for the Boston Celtics in the opening round. There was a nip-and-tuck affair late in Game 1, and a virtual pillaging by the home team from the start of Game 2. Atlanta built its confidence knowing it could take the things that Boston does best, and do them even better. Cleveland’s players have the same confidence regarding the Hawks. They have more players capable of penetrating and kicking out, players who don’t need 17 screens in a possession just to get separation and an accurate shot off along the perimeter. These Cavs know, if they can drown the regular season’s best perimeter defensive team in a barrage of triples, they can break the Hawks’ beaks early. While Korver struggles to make himself relevant (first three-point attempt a desperate heave with his team already down by 27), and his teammates make his decoy plays look like dead ducks, the Cavs are nailing shots with hands in their face, shedding defenders off one dribble, and catching-and-sinking ricochets off Mike Muscala’s forehead. The Hawks can also recall how cocksure they were heading out on the road to Game 3, after going up 2-zip on Boston, and how that turned out for them within just a few days. Among Cavs assistant Larry Drew’s favorite utterances was the word “Respond,” and the Cavs show they know how to do that from one possession to the next. The Hawks have to find the trait that allows them to respond in kind, not simply waiting in vain hope that The Law of Averages will eventually turn in their favor. The 38-point lead the Cavaliers established in the first half could have been worse if the Cavs had better looks inside; they were just 6-for-21 on 2FGs (4-for-18 in-the-paint) in the half. Kevin Love’s six offensive rebounds and 3-for-4 shooting from deep made up for another woeful interior performance (0-for-8 2FGs) in Game 2. But the extra foot-in-the-box by the Hawks’ wings and forwards, the extra defender sticking out to show when LeBron James and Cleveland’s point guards came charging across the paint, left them consistently a step short when the Cavs effortlessly kicked the ball out. Paul Millsap and Horford have to defend the paint, get strips, pull chairs, and rebound with the understanding that help isn’t coming. They also have to demand the ball on offense and finish in the paint consistently, first, before trying any high-wire-act shots along the perimeter. Eight Cavalier turnovers (three Hawks steals) does not make for a winning recipe for Atlanta in any game, much less versus the defending Eastern Conference title holders. Teague, Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha must be aggressive with ballhandlers, rather than sitting back and allowing Cleveland to flawlessly execute their set plays. Budenholzer finally graced Atlanta with Kris Humphries’ presence with Cleveland up 35 midway through the third quarter, Mike Muscala entering the fray with the Hawks down 18 not long into the start of the second quarter. The Hawks cannot afford to waste time and wait until they’re falling behind by double digits before relieving Horford. Same deal with Jeff Teague and Korver -- don’t give up on Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway prematurely -- and if Mike Scott subs in, it needs to be for Millsap, not Horford. In the building that’s home to live mascots going rogue, dancers that pass out, shot clocks and timekeepers that may or may not be functional, and spectacularly failing trampoline dunkers, the Hawks are convinced a dash of home cooking will be a huge inspiration to come out victorious. Because sight lines, or something. But if Hawks fans wanted to see yet another postseason can of azz-whooping opened upon their favorite team, they’d hop in the time machine, and just watch Woodsonian-era basketball. Hawks fans are not here to endure another drubbing thanks to way-too-rigid game planning. Without major shifts in competitiveness and coaching strategy to stem Cleveland’s runs out of the gate, Hawks fans may not be here for Game 4, either. Let’s (Freaking) GO Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  22. “That’s enough of Schröder for me! I fold!” Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes. Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak. Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously. The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did. We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry. Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture. The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier. J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%. Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him. To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest. If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds). Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty. The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls. Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  23. “Et tu, Lué?” “Now, if you want to CROWN them, then CROWN their {BLEEP!}” It’s hard to believe we are nearly ten years removed from a watershed moment in pro sports history. It was October 16, 2006, and Dennis Green, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks’ red-bird football cousins over in Arizona, was about to go ballistic. Green had a front-and-center view as his disappointing team, in its first Monday Night Football home game in recent memory, made one Cardinal error after another, blowing a multiple-touchdown lead to an undefeated Chicago team that had previously been bulldozing the NFL. Coming into that game, the Bears’ 5-0 start had many pigskin prognosticators suggesting a new Super Bowl Shuffle was right around the corner. Denny Green wasn’t down with the perception that a coronation was in order. “The Bears are what we thought they were,” the dumbfounded coach responded to a seemingly innocuous question, lurching into a frank discussion that was a lot like watching milk reach a boil in the microwave. Green smacks the microphone, and the dais seems to jump from the impact. You can bet the reporters jumped, too. “…they are who we THOUGHT they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!” This was a stunning development, not just for the fiery angst but the mouth from which it bellowed. Denny Green was like a real-life “227” Dad! Not a pushover by any means, but a pleasant, easygoing, mild-mannered fellow, pragmatic to a fault. Everyone expected disappointment, and frustration, from Green after the game, but no one in the media saw this reaction coming. Atlanta sports fans, however, may trace Green’s latent path to Vesuvius all the way back to January 1999. Back then, his 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were all set for a coronation, after racking up the most points ever scored in NFL history. The Vikes had long been an NFL bridesmaid, but seemed on-track to finally win their first-ever Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want to play along, though, capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes to seize their place as the NFC’s Super Bowl participant. Over seven years later, Green foresaw a small chance at redemption, tripping up a former division rival that was just beginning to enjoy its own scent. And he watched his team pounce, and then literally fumble the opportunity away. The Bears eventually did make it to the Super Bowl by season’s end, but they didn’t win it all. Green and many of his key players weren’t around two seasons later, when the Cardinals found their way to the big show, too. Fans of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers see that the coast is pretty clear for another trip to the NBA Finals, a journey that resumes tonight with their second-round Eastern Conference playoff round with the Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT, post-game on Fox Sports Southeast). They also perceive this playoff run as their best hope at ending a 52-year championship drought. There are four Eastern Conference teams left standing after the opening playoff round. Three of them are top-ten in the league in team salaries. One is the Hawks, once again a bottom-ten payroll team. What does an extra $35 million buy you? Cleveland certainly hopes it's a coronation. After nine seasons of postseason hoops, everyone seems certain the Hawks are what they’ve always thought they were. Atlanta has a chance to radically alter NBA observers’ perceptions, via this series. But that only happens if they can be a team that redefines what the Cavaliers think they are. The Hawks’ first-round series with the Boston Celtics concluded in fairly satisfying fashion. Relying on their recalibrated defense, Atlanta held the Celtics to a playoff-low 38.4 FG% and 27.5 3FG%. But just about everything is different with this next round’s opponent. Instead of a 5-foot-9, 185-pound score-first, playoff-under-experienced, first-time All-Star point guard in Isaiah Thomas, the offensive tour de force Atlanta faces is LeBron James, an unselfish 6-foot-8, 250-pound, a 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ who desperately wants to bring an NBA title to his home state. While Thomas turned to the likes of Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, James has fellow All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving (Playoffs-high 27.5 PPG) and Kevin Love at his disposal. Rather than a team that struggles to get hot from distance, Cleveland hit 36.3% of its three-point attempts during the regular season (7th in NBA), and 41.3% in the opening round (2nd in Playoffs). Instead of an opponent that thrived on high-tempo affairs, the Hawks face a Cavs team that enjoys slowing things down to a grind (28th in pace). While the Celtics relied on Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger to counter Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Cavaliers can turn to Love, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov. Boston ranked 26th in D-Reb% while Cleveland ranked 5th, not to mention ranking 9th in O-Reb%. Boston was just testing the bounds of their confidence. The Cavs exude it, facing a team they dusted in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as they chase after their 2016 destiny. For all the attention paid to James as a bruising scorer, he is most dangerous for Cleveland as a passer and an active help defender. In the Cavs’ 20 losses during the regular season, he scored slightly more points (25.4 PPG), and rebounded more (7.9 RPG), but took a higher volume of tougher shots (48.5 FG%, 27.5 3FG%), and made significantly fewer assists (5.0 APG), than he did in 56 victories (25.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.4 APG, 53.5 FG%, 32.5 3FG%). LeBron giving up the ball when he’s under pressure is not, in and of itself, good news for Atlanta. In addition to his heroball-quality 30.3 PPG (just 43.8 FG%) and 11.0 RPG, in the 2015 ECFs, LeBron picked apart the Hawks with 9.3 APG in their four-game sweep. This season, Cleveland was 40-5 (23-1 at home) when James contributed more than 5 assists. He also barely registers a blip in steals during defeats (0.95 SPG) compared to 1.52 SPG during wins (Cavs 30-3 when LBJ gets at least 2 steals). The more James resembles volume-shooting DeMar DeRozan, the better for Atlanta’s prospects. Restraining James from collecting the ball and finishing plays around the restricted area (without excessive fouling) will go a long way, and different defensive looks from a combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford will help in that regard. But the Hawks can truly help their cause by ensuring that their supporting cast denies James easy dimes to open shooters and bigs hovering around the hoop. LeBron’s occasional dunks may feel like knockout punches, but they’re mere body blows relative to his constant threat to find open shooters. J.R. Smith (40.0 3FG%) will spot-up at will, so deflecting kickouts in his direction will be beneficial, as is the case for Kyrie Irving (32.2 3FG%) at the ends of the shot clock. The Hawks must also limit open catch-and-shoot opportunities for Matthew Dellavedova (41.0 3FG%), Channing Frye (37.7 3FG%), James Jones (39.4 3FG%), and Richard Jefferson (38.2 3FG%). Millsap, Horford, and Mike Scott (68.1 eFG%, 3rd in Playoffs) need to pile up points in transition against Thompson, Love, and veteran perimeter marksman Frye, none of whom are defensive stalwarts. The same could be said of Irving and J.R. Smith, signaling the need for Jeff Teague (35.5 Assist%, 2nd among current Playoffs participants), Dennis Schröder and Junior Hardaway to remain aggressive in getting to the paint and forcing Cleveland, a team that prefers to force undesirable shots and secure the defensive rebound, to make stops. After dusting off Detroit in Round 1, Irving’s confidence has never been higher, but Teague, who had time to rest a bum ankle sustained in Game 6 against Boston, has the kind of two-way game that can create a deflating effect when it’s on-point. Schröder will be pushed, prodded, and trolled by the usual suspects, but is figuring out that his best clapbacks don’t require words at all. Horford’s mid-range game was poor in the first round, but the more the Hawks attack the interior, the better his chances to thaw out his jumper and make him a legitimate multi-faceted offensive threat. The more defensive breakdowns the Hawks can exploit, the more James’ attention can be directed away from the offensive end. Horford has suffered through his share of playoff-series drubbings, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2010. But he was also instrumental the very next season, when he led his team in rebounds and assists as the Hawks knocked off the favored Magic in six games. In 2008, Doc Rivers went from being an NBA head coach on shaky ground to one with an NBA championship ring. But Doc needed one of his old teams to lay down on the road for him to shake free of the skeptics. Now, another former Hawks point guard is pulling for a similar fate. Tyronn Lue needs to reach The Finals, at least, to sustain LeBron’s confidence and justify the seat he shifted into at the expense of David Blatt. Lue was supposed to strategically make the Cavs perform at a higher pace, but that accelerated play has yet to come to fruition. While the Hawks/Celtics series was the highest-paced series in the East’s first round (just a shade behind Houston/Golden State), the Cavs/Pistons series was the slowest. To push the pace on the Cavs, the Hawks cannot pass up good shots in hopes of a great shot later in the shot clock. Atlanta has to avoid the urge to force halfcourt shots that aren’t there, but when there is a good look, the Hawks must take them without hesitation (Al, we’re looking at you). Atlanta must also ensure there’s proper coverage for James in defensive transition, regardless of whether or not the shots fall. A sound offensive effort from Korver and Kent Bazemore (3.2 TO%, 2nd-lowest in Playoffs), who will get chased constantly by Matthew Dellav-he’lldiveonya and Iman Shumpert, would be nice. But poor shooting stretches can be overcome if the defense on Cleveland’s fastbreaks and perimeter shots remains stellar. Yes, James is the effective coach/GM/POBO for the Cavs. But Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has three playoff series wins under his belt, plus a wealth of tactical knowledge relative to Lue, who can at least turn to Larry Drew when the Cavs need a decent offensive play coming out of timeouts. At some point in this series, the coaching advantage along Atlanta’s sideline needs to be resoundingly clear and reflective of the competitive play on the court. The Hawks effectively chose this conference semifinal matchup at the conclusion to the regular season; if they intended to get thumped once again by the Cavs, there was no reason for wasting energy and crawling into another conference finals just to do that. Surely, though, Atlanta had loftier plans in mind. If, instead, they aim to shock the NBA world, an effort which requires at least one victory here in Cleveland at The Q, they might as well do it early and build their own confidence going forward. The Hawks know these Cavaliers as well as anyone left in the Eastern Conference does. But anytime the Cavaliers stumble during this playoff series, how often will these Hawks let them off the hook? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  24. “Never Forget…” Any Way You Want It, That’s The Way We Need It. Any Way You Want It… Atlanta Hawks fans have gone on many a Journey with their favorite NBA squad over the past five-plus decades. Whether you’ve been Ryde-or-Die with them for fifty-plus years, or just hopped on board in the perennial playoff era of the last ten, you’ve built up quite a Bucket List in that time. High up on that list, the Hawks can, tonight, cross off a to-do that’s lingered seemingly forever: go into the house of the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Go app, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT for the locally-impaired), and send them packing for the summer. Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, Fred Jones, Mickael Pietrus, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert. Guess what they all have crossed off their Bucket Lists? All of them have hit big shots to help eliminate the Celtics, and they did it in Beantown. Not only that, they were among six different NBA teams that left Tommy Heinsohn sobbing into his Sam Adams on the TD Garden sideline in just the past 15 years alone. Shumpert and J.R. Smith took care of business in Boston, on two different teams in the previous three seasons. Jason Kidd has gotten it done thrice, as an in-his-prime Net and a past-his-prime Knick. How about our old wayfaring friend Anthony Johnson? He’s been-there-done-that FOUR times, with THREE different NBA teams (not the Hawks, obvs). It’s a bit like skydiving. It looks challenging, and it is. But after you’ve see George H.W. Bush willingly jump out a plane every five years or so, not so much. “Not Magic, or Doctor J, it’s Andrew Toney that keeps me awake at night!” So reportedly claimed Matthew Dellavedova’s power animal, current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, back in the 1980s, about which player worried him most whenever playoff time rolled around. Atlanta is chock-full-o’ Toney-caliber players. But which ones are willing to emerge tonight as the Hawks’ Boston Strangler? Could it be Al Horford (last 3 games: 27.6 FG%, 6.3 PPG), who apparently needs to see his shadow before coming out offensively against what should be an overmatched Celtics frontline? Rumored to be quietly managing a groin strain, Horford has been distributing the ball well (5.0 APG, 0.7 TOs per game) in those last three appearances, but needs to be less passer, and less passive, in Game 6. In his rookie year of 2008, in an injury-riddled season of 2012, Al’s playoff odysseys came to an end in this building. Closing out the C’s here tonight with an impressive All-Star-quality effort should be Shoni-Schimmel-huge in importance to the upcoming free agent big man. Could it be Paul Millsap, who did not need a monumental scoring effort in Game 5, but has had two of the greatest individual performances of his career against these Celtics in this month alone? A double-barreled blast of Millsap and Horford would go a long way toward finally getting these Hawks over this little hump (a pellet or two of Big Hump wouldn’t hurt, either). Paul knows all about apparitions, and he’s even not talking about the ones that have chased the Hawks around Boston for eons. “I think we learned that when we have a team down, it keeps coming back. It’s like a haunted ghost, it keeps coming after us,” Millsap noted, shortly after his team petered away a 16-point second-half lead in Boston along the way to a Game 4 OT loss. “We’ve had opportunities to put people away all year and haven’t gotten it done for whatever reason. And now’s the time to learn that lesson and try to implement it.” The Hawks went small (an adjustment, from coach Mike Budenholzer? Is this real life?) and Mike Scott (7-for-9 FGs in Game 5), Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore (4-for-9 3FGs in Game 5) and Thabo Sefolosha flipped the script on the Celtics in the second quarter on Tuesday. But an eerie hand rose from the crypt in the second half, when Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger hit shots to whittle Atlanta’s double-digit lead down to five. Who you gonna call? To bury the Green Goblins for good, Atlanta went with two graveyard shifts, one featuring Teague, Kyle Korver (16 3FGs, 3rd-most in Playoffs), and Horford, then one led by reserves Dennis Schröder, Scott, and Sefolosha. The Hawks widened the lead to 17 by the close of the third quarter and finally heeded Boston the Band’s sage advice: Don’t Look Back. On the road for the final time in this series, the Hawks will need the same collective focus and poise tonight, to make the spirited Celtics get ghost and notch Atlanta’s first playoff victory on Boston’s parquet floor since 1988. As Millsap said, now is the time to “put people away,” and Coach Bud has had ample time to figure out the rotations to get it done. Paul at least sounds like he kinda gets it. Referring to the blown leads, “it reaches a certain point where if something constantly keeps happening, it’s who you are, he said. “And it’s not who we are. We want to be better than that.” Both teams have had enough experience in this series alone to know their opponents Don’t Stop Believin’ just because a big run has them mired in a mid-game hole. Isaiah Thomas won’t exactly be standing there with Open Arms, ready to embrace a season-ending loss in front of his legions of newfound fans. A surefire future stand-in for actor J.D. Williams, Thomas is concerned about not just the agony of defeat, but the agony of Da Feet, his ankle having twisted up like an Auntie Anne’s on National Pretzel Day. Still, there’s no way Thomas is going to let Teague and Schröder, the latter having successfully shaken off an ankle injury in this series himself, dictate the proceedings tonight. It probably peeves the Hawks’ lead guards that Thomas, after struggling through most of Games 1 and 2, was receiving inspirational texts from a longtime ATL-area resident, diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson. Our Hawks can barely get life advice from Latrell Sprewell, much less encouragement from our local NBA retirees. “Keep fighting,” Thomas reported A.I. advised him after Game 2. “(The Hawks) did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta. Now, it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.” Dude, were you not a 76er? What in Billy Penn’s name are you doing, cheering up a Celtic, of all people? No more endless TGI Friday’s appetizers around here for you, Bubba Chuck! While Thomas has enjoyed counsel from Hall of Fame-caliber guards, his favorite hoops mentor is always forthcoming with advice, and fortunately, there’s one particular insight that has helped Atlanta adequately defend Thomas at home in this series. “Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips I can’t tell you guys about,” hinted Winning Isaiah, after dropping a career-high 42 points on Atlanta in Game 3. But prior to Game 5, Isiah-without-the-extra-A Thomas expertly illustrated on NBATV how the Celtics star is in the catbird seat whenever he can barrel down the middle of the floor, ball in hand. Zeke showed that when a small but quick guard like Thomas can drive from the center of the court toward the paint, he’s got the most direct path to the hoop, he has optimal vision of what’s happening on each side of the floor, he can use his dribble to keep his on-ball defenders guessing on direction, he can create confusion among help defenders, and he can improve the likelihood of drawing fouls. The Hawks were at their defensive best in Game 5, and in Games 1 and 2, when they denied Thomas (NBA-leading 17.2 drives per game in playoffs, five more than second-place Teague) access to the middle of the court. Instead, they met him at half-court and funneled his activity toward the corners, where it’s easier to trap him and coax him into deferring the ball. When Thomas played off-ball, the Hawks maintained their emphasis on denying him the rock at the top of the 3-point arc. Neutralizing this aspect of Thomas’ game put the onus on his teammates to get open and execute plays before the Hawks’ defenders could properly rotate. His floormates did that quite well at home. But after repeatedly failing to replicate that effort on the road, it is Thomas Who’s Crying Now. “(Atlanta’s) game plan was to let the Other Guys beat us. It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates for (Atlanta) to put two (defenders) on the ball every time I have it,” Thomas grumbled after Game 5. “Other Guys have to step up and make plays. That’s what it comes down to. If (the Hawks) try and do it again in Game 6 (and they will), it comes down to Other Guys making plays. I’m just going to get the ball out as quickly as possible out of the trap.” When the finger-pointing point guard finds himself stuck in the AT&L phone booth, the Other Guys he calls upon ought to include Marcus Smart (7 first-quarter points in Game 5), who has drawn champagne throughout this series from his dry-well of a jumpshot, but can afford to create more havoc on baseline drives to the hoop. Those Other Guys also include Amir Johnson (65.6 FG% this series, 3rd in NBA), who must get post touches and make Millsap more of a man-defender than a helper, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Smart and Turner (16 playoff TOs, most in East) must keep the ball moving, and need to consider the option of dishing the ball right back to Thomas in the event they can catch a trapping Hawks defender sagging back to his main assignment. Did someone mention poise earlier? When you’ve got a cornered animal, you don’t need Dennis Schröder poking it. Schröder (4-for-7 FGs in Game 5, just one TO in 14 minutes) must treat Game 6 as Dellavedova Practice, and ignore any wolf tickets Thomas and the Celts wish to sell. Boston will try to play Atlanta’s ball-handlers physically in hopes of reactions that draw the undivided attention of the Step-Brothers (referees Scott Foster and Tony Brothers). While Boston tries to get subcutaneous, both to rattle Schröder into making mistakes and simply to motivate themselves, Dennis can be enough of a Menace by adhering to his defensive principles and having a sound, multi-dimensional plan in mind when he drives to the hoop. There’s no time to get in the last dig, it’s simply time to put people away. Building off five steals from Korver, and three from Sefolosha in less than 20 minutes of action, Atlanta finally established a significant turnover advantage (20 for Boston, 12 for Atlanta) in Game 5. Failure to secure 50/50 balls in the opening quarter had the Hawks slow out of the starting blocks, but the amped-up activity after Atlanta’s opening 18 minutes (18 points, 70 in the next 18 minutes of the 110-83 win) helped blow the game open. That must continue in Game 6 for the Hawks, including their 19-8 advantage in fastbreak points, 30-19 in assists, and 44-32 in paint points. Korver, Sefolosha, and Bazemore’s synergy at the wing spots must be evident tonight, via their abilities to defend perimeter shooters without fouling, securing defensive rebounds and sparking transition, making Thomas move more laterally and less downhill, beating their man to desirable spots at the other end, and scoring on cuts to the paint. There’s no reason to wait until Game 7 before the Hawks and Celtics have to head their Separate Ways. Even without the Celtics and the Ruins playing at TD Garden, there’d still be plenty to whet the appetites of Boston sports fans. The Pats get to make their annual draft-steals in another day or two. The Sawx are only now loosening their belts, and the MLB and MLS seasons ought to be wrapping up around the time Tom Brady returns from his deflating suspension. Celtics fans can happily turn their attention toward a summer filled with multiple first-round draft choices and free agent fascination. First-round exits are always disappointing, but easier to swallow when you’ve got 17 title banners hanging in the rafters. Back in Atlanta, there is little rush around here for anyone to turn their sights toward the Falcons, the Dream, or the Bravos (the expansion Blaze just started playing lacrosse, so, there’s that). Hawks fans have seen enough of the Celtics at the Highlight Factory, and there’s no desire to see visitors in an elimination game this weekend. Maybe save that for a later round, guys! While the Hawks dare not look ahead, they certainly wouldn’t mind Friday becoming a rest-and-recovery day, rather than preparation for an all-the-marbles Saturday Night game back home. And while they can’t acknowledge it publicly, the players are fully aware of the significance to their franchise’s history, and their own NBA legacies, if they can shake free of some longstanding Hawks Hexes tonight. So Hold Tight, Hawks Fans. Hold Tight… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record