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  1. “Mind if I hitch a ride to Magic City? Lou kicked me out the car.” A guy who recently played defense on the Atlanta Hawks was intimately involved in The Dunk of the Year. But I’m sorry you missed out, Miles Bridges. You kinda had to be there. DeAndre’ Bembry zigged, gambling to deflect a pass out to Atlanta’s own Anthony Edwards on the corner. The Timberwolf zagged, and as the rookie hesi’d and sprinted down the left baseline, Bembry was left trying to warn his two-way Japanese teammate that he might want to not get in the way, and certainly, for all that is holy, not jump. Yuta Watayudoin? “It was definitely something me and Kyle (Lowry) was joking on,” Bembry recalled to Yahoo Sports’ William Lou (no relation) and gameday reporters a couple weeks ago, about his rookie teammate’s naivete after being left hung out to dry during an otherwise awful Raptors-Wolves game in February. “That’s going to happen, but yeah, we try not to look back at that dunk.” It’s always easier to move on from a spectacular play, conducted at your expense, when you eventually win the game. That was the case for the Hawks, who visit the Toronto Raptors once more in Florida (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; TSN in TOR) just two days after Clint Capela got valiantly flushed upon and the Hornets played the rest of the game as if they had already run off the floor in jubilation. It was also the case when Edwards’ mates could point to the Jumbotron, but Bembry’s could point to the final scoreboard. The 86-81 victory in Minnesota was about to be one of the final joys of the Flo Raptors’ topsy-turvy season. Even if Bembry and Lowry wanted to look back fondly, there was a lot of awfulness in between. Perhaps the first sign the Hawks’ season could be turning around came after the All-Star Break, Atlanta coming into Amalie Arena fresh off a recent coaching change and walking out with a rare buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer, courtesy of Tony Snell off a nifty dish from Trae Young. But the first sign the wheels were coming off the Dinos’ footmobile came about a week earlier, when Dwane Casey’s Pistons stopped by and made Tampato paste, by a 125-104 score. On that evening, Nick Nurse’s crew had no answer for Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, Svi Mykhailiuk, Mason Plumlee and Saben Lee. Well, they had one answer, as Norman Powell tried to carry the load with 36 points. But the loss dropped the Flo Raptors to below-.500 for what looks to be the final time of the season. The defeat also presaged a near free-fall out of the playoff picture during the madness of March (1-14 that month), much of that period with the looming distraction that Lowry was certain to be moved, by team prez Masai Ujiri, on his birthday, coincidentally the NBA Trade Deadline. At least for a few more months, Lowry remains with the organization that he, with a little help and some good fortune, guided to championship glory in 2019. Powell, however, did not make it past the deadline before getting shipped to Portland, Ujiri attaching a trade exception while getting back Gary Trent, Jr. and reclamation project Rodney Hood. Masai cleaned out much of the incumbent backcourt behind starters Lowry and Fred VanVleet (out, hip), sending Terence Davis and Matt Thomas packing for 2021 second-rounders while cutting Patrick McCaw loose. Trent is fitting in nicely, having scored 69 combined points on back-to-back evenings in Cleveland and New York over the weekend. But with the Raps (21-33, 4-16 since March 1) back to losing three of their past four games, Lowry lugging through the games with some sort of turf toe, Pascal Siakam (25.6 April PPG; career-low 44.9 FG%, below the 45.3% from last year’s All-Star season) trading choice words with Nurse in postgame locker rooms, and OG Anunoby thinking he’s main-eventing WrestleMania with Dennis Schröder, it’s as though their heads are elsewhere, as if they left their heart in Toronto. Spicy P was Exhibit Z on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Just in the Knick of time, New York was about to Knicks the game away in the closing seconds as Toronto clawed back from 18 down in the second half. Up by just two but with a chance to seal the game away, Alec Burks lofted a lazy pass that was plucked by Lowry, and three Raptors were off to the races. Receiving the ball, Siakam had the choice of kicking it to the corner for the probable game-winner, or to get as close to the basket as possible in hopes of a layup or a shooting foul. Siakam seemed to decide he’d try to do both. Double dribble. Knicks win. It was not the first of a comedy of late-game errors and shortcomings by Siakam (28.6 clutch FG% team-worst minus-27 plus/minus), leaving many to wonder if Pascal’s wager is that the future teammate to join him, OG and VanVleet for a return toward championship contention exists, in the form of a 2021 NBA Draft Lottery pick. Toronto hasn’t missed the playoffs since Casey was coaching Lowry and the Atlantic Division’s last-place Raptors in 2013; Kyle was the reason that year’s pick wound up in OKC’s hands for the selection of Steven Adams. (Later that summer, Toronto acquired a future Nuggets pick from 2011’s Melo deal, and drafted Jakob Poeltl #9 in 2016). The last Lotto pick the Raptors “earned”, and kept, was Terrence Ross in 2012. So, I suspect Siakam agrees, they’re about due. As for the Hawks (29-25), they enter today’s game as close to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference (8.0 games behind Philadelphia) as they are to Toronto (8.0 games behind Atlanta) falling out of playoff chances entirely as the #11 seed. Atlanta won’t be able to re-animate the Young-to-Snell game-winner, as Young (bruised calf) remains questionable to play while Snell heals up his sprained ankle. Danilo Gallinari (sore foot) also remains doubtful, and there are no pleasant developments among the Hawks’ M*A*S*H ward, leaving some of the Raptors (I suppose, maybe just Nurse at this point) hoping they can win a war of attrition. Still, the Hornets provide far more resistance to Atlanta’s advances than the Raps are likely to do, if the Hawks come out swinging as they did when they opened with a 26-10 sprint on Sunday, essential to their eventual 105-101 victory. Brandon Goodwin (nine 1st-quarter points @ CHA, on 4-for-4 FGs), yes, Solomon Hill, and yes, Kevin Huerter (five 1st-quarter assists @ CHA) caught Charlotte off-guard, facilitating strong efforts from more usual suspects Bogdan Bogdanovic (career-high 8 threes, Hawks-high 32 points @ CHA; now back over the 40.0 3FG% line) and Capela (Hornets had one O-Reb in the quarter). If the Hawks can follow up with earlier contributions from Lou Williams off the bench, Tampato’s tent might more easily fold. The Raps, keyed on by the charge-drawing Lowry, want to keep teams out of the interior (42.2 opponent paint points per-48, 2nd-best in NBA). But if Atlanta can continue to find a hot perimeter hand, from Bogi or elsewhere, Lowry would much rather counter on drives inside, while Nurse’s club doesn’t have the volume-shooting VanVleet to help Trent and Anunoby keep up. The Raptors, for the moment, are the edge of the firewall that ensures Atlanta, despite their spate of injuries and early missteps, achieves at least a Play-In reservation. The Hawks need to keep piling on the points and paving on the losses, seeking their first head-to-head season sweep in ages (3-0 vs. TOR in 2010-11) from a club that has swept them over the prior three seasons. This is a season to forget for Canada’s Team, and the more unnecessary wins, the less soon they’ll be able to look ahead to next season – knock on wood – back home. If things get dire late in the fourth quarter tonight, you might catch Siakam leading his huddled teammates in a rendition of “1-2-3, CLEARWATER!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Well, of course, his real name is Herb, Wanda! Why, what else would it be? Herbert?” Hail! Hail! The Gang’s all here! I care a heckuva lot now. It looks like we’ve all survived The All-Star Weekend of Our Discontent, and with nary a scratch! Bravo! Hawks Inc. and the NBA pulled off All-Star Sunday swimmingly well. HBCUs and the students were shining brightly. Further, The City was looking good from a bird’s-eye view, particularly if your particular avian species could fly high enough to avoid the occasional stray slugs. Luka ain’t win a dadgum thing on our court, even though all the Euros proved once again They Got Skills. Our Russian judge, J-Smoove, is looking good, and nobody had to risk losing they fronts to win over the persnickety dunk contest panel. Steph’s whole-day shooting display stole viewers away from Oprah and ‘em. And nobody we know about got sick. Win! Win-win-win-win! Most important of all, Hawksquawk Nation is safe and as sound as we reasonably can be. You all heeded the warnings to hunker down and not turn our streets into “Peachtree Road Race meets QuikTrip 500.” Now, if you couldn’t ever forgive yourself if you didn’t help stretch the occupancy limits at some fly-by-nite ultra lounge while nodding your head to Moneybagg Yo live and in full effect, well, check back with us in a couple weeks, to confirm you’re still among us. One year ago this evening, State Farm Arena was teeming with teens of thousands of pragmatic Hawks fans in full No-Wink-Nod-We’re-Not-Tanking mode. We had to shift our focus, from what was shaping up to be another unnecessary Hawks loss, against the lowly Knicks, to take in the news that was seeping into cell phones across the building and the country. Just as quickly, smart fans were bellowing at Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks coaching staff to Make. Vince. Shoot! Tell a visitor, one leaving The Farm to head out into some unsteady skies that night, that one calendar year later, a population of Georgians thousands larger than the 15.303 that went to see Knicks-Hawks would succumb to the same virus that was plaguing Italy, China, and corners of our country. Less significantly, that the Hawks’ entire season just ended on the spot. And, that the next time they MIGHT be able to chant “Let’s Go Hawks!” as fans in the building, it will probably be 2021, and they and the strangers “socially distanced” a half-yard away won’t want to shout it rawdog with their mouths agape. Oh, let ‘em know The ATL finessed an All-Star Game out of the ordeal. But unless you were a certain collegian or healthcare hero, you probably weren’t going. That, as best as we can tell, our lottery pick isn’t going to be some Insta-star. And, that Nate McMillan’s Hawks -- that’s right -- will kick off Game #37 in the back half of the truncated, delayed NBA season with a return to Florida. To face the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, TSN in T-Dot-O). In Tampa. Home of the reigning Super Bowl champions led by Tom Brady. They’ll think the world had gone mad! And they’d be right. I’m gonna keep on saying it until I’m as blue in the face as a Cameron Crazie, but we can thank our lucky stars that regular-degular injuries, and a few routine coaching mishaps, were the only things setting back Atlanta (16-20) in their charge uphill toward the NBA postseason. My knuckles have splinters from knocking on all the wood, but COVID and related quarantining hasn’t ravaged the Hawks’ roster, certainly not the way it has the Raptors (17-19). The host Traptors have been Protocoling Outta Control, and the brief time off to make room for the league’s All-Star festivities hasn’t changed their situation one bit. Here at Amalie Arena, home of the Stanley Cup champions (ugh.), Fred Van Vleet finds himself locked down, this time, by something a bit more potent than Kevin Huerter defending along the wing. Pascal Siakam, Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, and Malachi Flynn are all also on ice for Health ‘n Safety reasons. Siakam and FVV accounted for 40 of Tampato’s points during a 132-121 losing effort in Atlanta last month. Also doing five-for-fighting off the chances of catching COVID, until being cleared yesterday, was head coach Nick Nurse. He left a good paisan, assistant Sergio Scariolo, in charge of coaching up what remained last week. (Relax, Meyers, I looked it up. Paisan isn’t really a slur, not unless you use it disparagingly as a non-Italian. See how easy that is? Happy gaming!) Throw in, for good measure, Terence Davis as questionable for this evening with an ankle sprain, and I suppose I ought to be happy holding out a few more weeks for Cam Reddish and DeAndre’ Hunter to heal up (feel free to join in whenever you feel ready, Kristofer). Looming around the corner in Atlanta’s schedule is an arduous eight-game West Coast road trip, beginning with consecutive games against the Lakers and the Clippers at STAPLES. It’s a big reason why we hope McMillan’s Hawks approach tonight, and the intervening four games to come, with the same sense of urgency we should have seen of Pierce’s Hawks in that fateful first week of January. The same sense of urgency, over four quarters, that eventually prevailed in the six closing minutes of last week’s wild pre-Break finale, the conversion of a 106-90 deficit into a 115-112 win at Orlando. The stunning victory, on top of a win in Miami the night before, allowed Atlanta’s players, the fans, and the organization to go into the Break enjoying the whiff of That New Car Smell, even though the jalopy remains a bit broken down due to some missing tires. With confidence in McMillan buoying, the offseason additions massaging their way more consistently into lineups, and youthful reinforcements to mix in during the coming month, there feels like a light ahead for our tunnel-visioned Hawks. For once, a light not from the front of an oncoming locomotive. With their newfound energy and emerging cohesion, Atlanta needs to take advantage of opponents who are taking All-Star caliber talents past and present and tapping them on the shoulder, advising them, “Hey, come sit in this bubble wrap. Our front office is on that Hot Stove, cooking up a new place for you to go before the Trade Deadline arrives!” Toronto’s exec extraordinaire Masai Ujiri swung some nifty maneuvers to craft an Insta-champ in 2020, but the best move was probably the one he couldn’t make way back in December 2013. Kyle Lowry, then disgruntled, lost defensively, and struggling to mesh with his fellow headliner DeMar DeRozan, was on his way in a deal negotiated by his new house-cleaning GM to New York, the NBA town where if you can make it there, it would be truly rare. True to form, the Knicks’ James Dolan had the swap Knicks’d. “No,” Dolan thought, “we must keep our first-round pick, Metta World Peace and Iman Shumpert right here,” in what turned out to be quite a Manhattan project. Eight years later, and I think the Knicks, maybe, have a steady point guard now? One drawn charge at a time, the juice from Lowry (4-for-16 FGs and 5 assists @ ATL on Feb. 6), still a solid producer yet turning 35 on the date of the NBA’s Trade Deadline, becomes less worth the squeeze by Ujiri, and it does feel like the guard’s fabled time in Raptor red is drawing nigh. But when? Now? Or Later? Michael Grange of Canada’s Sportsnet insists there’s nothing to see here: “Lowry is not going to be traded before the March 25 Deadline.” Yes, Lowry reprtedtly sold his North Toronto abode (“It wasn’t me,” he says of the property recently owned by “KL7 Inc.”), but it makes sense, given the man hasn’t seen the inside of it for almost a year. His agent Mark Bartelstein, pushing back on reports that Lowry has been recently on a farewell tour of sorts behind the scenes, asserts, “[Kyle] has clearly not told anybody that he wants out of Toronto.” The Raptors do have 30.5 million expiring reasons to have Kyle see this season through. Perhaps, Ujiri estimates, what he can get in 2021’s free agent market, to bolster the team for a stronger run next season, is greater than his yield by snagging some mediocre-talent contracts and low-level picks, handing the backcourt keys full-time to Van Vleet, and scrambling toward the Playoffs without their fearless leader now. But if so, enterprising GMs do have two more weeks to change Masai’s mind. Despite the limited alternatives presently at Coach Nurse’s disposal, don’t be surprised to find Lowry’s workload dropping precipitously from the 35-40 minutes per night he was logging just last week. If Atlanta can come out with a strong first three quarters behind a hungry Trae Young, a rested John Collins and Clint Capela (offsetting what Lowry and Chris “Turns Sideways and Goes Missing” Boucher can bring to the table), and a rejuvenating bench brigade, the final minutes in Tampa tonight may be The Matt Thomas and DeAndre’ Bembry Show. Nobody’s standing around hoping to see that. Then again, I didn’t think anyone would be breaking their necks and their bank to see Jayda Wayda and Pooh Shiesty in concert last week, so I ought to be a bit less presumptive. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “But, OG… what about Scarves?” I don’t have much to share ahead of today’s game, where the Toronto Raptors hope to leapfrog the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA East standings (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN up in Maple Leaf Country) after playing the yo-yo’d Kevin Durant in Brooklyn last night. I do have one small rant. With everything going on ahead of the start to this whack-a-doodle NBA season, I really didn’t have major wishes, aside from hoping the Hawks would start out looking like a Play-in threat in the East, and by season’s end, a Playoffs threat that no higher-seed wants to see coming. So far, m’kay, even with the foreseeable swoon of this Hell Week. But there is one, really big, super-duper wish for this season that I want sitting under my NBA tree. Under no circumstances should Central Florida get the opportunity to host NBA Finals games. Again. Here in Atlanta, we had to jet our Thrashers to Manitoba after zero playoff victories in 12 seasons. Meanwhile, over in Tampa Bay last September, Lightning fans were thrilled to watch their team, all the way up in Canada, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, for the second time in their history, no less. It’s early, but it appears as if they’re well on their way to a return trip to the NHL’s championship round this season, too. Our Bravos got blocked out of the World Series for the third-straight season. But over on the American League side, the Rays snuck right in there. And a franchise that never seeks to splurge on anything suddenly had an intere$t in a feller named Ozuna. Thank you, pencil-pushers in some distant Colorado office park, for stepping up on our baseball club’s behalf at the last minute. Our Falcons vapored off into the ether after reaching the pinnacle of success through almost three quarters of a Superb Owl in 2018. At least we’ve long had the Buccaneers to kick around. Until now. Look who’s come in from the snow, looking for a salary tax break! None other than our old friend Tom Brady, who found the synchronicity with Tampa Bay’s initials too much of a marketing opportunity to pass up. TB12’s back in the Superb Owl, again. We can be happy the Saints didn’t make it, I suppose. Thanks a bunch, Tom Terrific. Oh, and where are this year’s grand football festivity being held? All because of one measly little ice storm and a sketchy Buckhead murder case, Uncle Arthur had to blow down a perfectly fine domed stadium (at least I think he did; I couldn’t see past the MARTA bus) and, for a nice dash of luck, tear down an old church or two, just to get a Superb Owl back in this town, one won by You Know Who. Tampa has had THREE Superb Owls in that rinky dink Ray J since then! Yes, the same place that will still put your eye out with a cannon-fired mini-football, that seats 6,000 fewer people than Atlanta’s “old” venue. What are they really packing in those Ybor City cigars during the sales pitch? Uncle Arthur suffered through several unkind cuts in 2020, not just involving his Dainty Birds. He was supposed to get some of that sweet NCAA revenue at The Benz, before the pandemic hit. COVID couldn’t even scramble here fast enough to save Atlanta United from endangering Josef Martinez’s leg. While the Five Stripes floundered and forced Arthur into Head Coach Firing #1, King Josef’s “children,” Orlando City SC, finally started smelling themselves after all these years. Atlanta’s Floridian foes nearly pulled off the MLS is Back tourney in their own backyard and finally claimed their first MLS Cup playoff win. Josef should be back to resume his reign of terror over Orlando City soon, hopefully if all the MLS players don’t wind up getting locked out. About that backyard. I thought Disney said this would be a place where all one’s dreams would come true? Florida’s official NBA team (sorry, Magic. At least you made the Playoffs), the Miami heat, would get to “CuLtUrE!” their way through the NBA Bubble, all the way to a Finals matchup with LeBron and Company. Central Florida got to host a Stanley Cup BOAT parade, World Series games, the Bubble NBA season, playoffs and Finals, the entire WNBA season, playoffs and Finals, the MLS is Back tourney, an MLS Cup playoff game. And tomorrow, the granddaddy of them all -- a Superb Owl, sickly barbers notwithstanding, with the home team in it for the first time ever, led by one very good, crazy-lucky QB seeking what should only be, like, ring #4. All in the past eight months, smack in the middle of a pan pizza. It is that pan pizza, now stuffed with anchovies, that had Canada telling their nation’s sole NBA team, “I don’t know where you’re going, but you can’t stay here.” Like the MLB’s Blue Jays, the Raptors (10-12, just like the Hawks) and the NBA had to shop around for an All-American venue willing to borrow them. Seattle? Ha-ha, very funny. Louisville? KC? Buffalo? San Diego? Orange County, California? Masai Ujiri had already moved the entire basketball operations to California, to keep things functional during the then-defending-champion Raptors’ time in the Bubble. But an East Coast arena made more sense for the Eastern Conference club. A place where, if there are to be fans, the protestor quotient would be low. And since there’s no need to replicate Toronto’s climate, a little extra sunshine for the snow-pterodactyls would be nice. Hey, here’s an idea! How about…? So Tampa catches yet another break. Some sports cities have all the luck. But it’s not supposed to be the town that brought Creamsicles and pewter to our American football color palette. The one saving grace we’ve had is that, up until this past week, it has not been smooth sailing for coach Nick Nurse’s club. Raptor fans raved about the opportunity to formally make Pascal Siakam their 1-A superstar. But Spicy P was nearly gobbled up faster than a Popeye’s sandwich under all the pressure. Tampa-to went 0-6 with him in the lineup to start the season, its only victory coming against the Knicks as Siakam was benched for a reported “disciplinary measure.” Pascal was getting to obligatory 20/9/5 per-game splits, but by the time the Raptors fell to 2-8 by blowing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Portland, his mediocre 46.3/31.0/75.0 shooting splits were becoming worrisome. Aaron Baynes is the only burly, prototypical center left around Siakam (Alex Len was, well…), and it’s perhaps the only reason the Baynes Train hasn’t been put in the shed (5.5 PPG in 19 starts, 40.9 FG%). What Pascal has been able to do is the leave the perimeter shooting (12.5% on 3.2 3FGAs/game over last 10 games) to his heady backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, while helping OG Anunoby and twizzle-sticked sub Chris Boucher from getting overwhelmed inside. FVV has been flashy but inconsistent. Nine points (1-for-7 3FGs), 4 TOs and no trips to the line in Sunday’s win over the Magic in Tampa, 54 points (11-for-14 3FGs) two days later, in the Gator State rematch down Interstate 4, 11 points (1-for-9 3FGs) last night. Until recently, Lowry has struggled to force turnovers when he isn’t sacrificing his tuchus drawing charges. VanVleet was a big resigning, but Ujiri’s only free agent addition, besides Baynes, was DeAndre’ Bembry, and only now is the longtime Hawk cracking Nurse’s rotation. Indicative of the Yboraptors’ woes is when Siakam has a tough time setting up his teammates – Tampa-to is 1-8 when he registers three or fewer assists, a respectful 8-2 conversely, including the loss to the Blazers and last night in perhaps his best performance of the season (33 points, 9-for-10 FGs, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, no TOs @ BRK). Despite Anunoby’s and Boucher’s best efforts, Tampa-to’s team rebounding isn’t potent enough to compensate when any combination of Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam are performing poorly from the field and/or not getting to the free throw line. One fortune to Tampa-to’s season thus far is they’ve played just three back-to-back series this season, but they’ve dropped both, on the road at Portland and most recently a couple weeks ago by 15 in Indiana (without Siakam, who was missing time with a swollen knee). Anunoby remains out with a calf strain, which ought to help even the odds a bit for a Hawks team that is seemingly disadvantaged due to injuries with everybody they face (Trae Young and Onyeka Okongwu remain questionable; Kevin Huerter remains probable; the other usual suspects remain usual). The Raps certainly were not built by Ujiri to advance deep through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, not this year. But then again, the Brady Bucs had to win three road games in order to host a Superb Owl, and here we are. It will be best for the rest of the conference, and for my sanity, to keep the Raptors down and looking forward to a return due north next season. Like sands through the top of the hourglass, Tampa and Central Florida’s sports luck needs to run out, completely, after tomorrow. No Tampa Raptors in The Finals is all I ask of this league! In the meantime, my prop bet money’s on Queen Latifah causing a surprise wardrobe malfunction on Toronto-native and Canadian crooner The Weeknd at Sunday’s halftime show. The parlay: will she tell him, “Don’t worry about it”? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. Coaches a game in the Bubble once... POP? ~lw3
  5. All-Amazing. Fourteen years ago this month, the Toronto Raptors were waging a turnaround for the ages, and Mike James, the Human Stat Sheet, was right in the thick of it. Georgia’s own Sam Mitchell, in his second season as a first-time head coach, had a lot of work cut out for him. Coach Smitch had to work with two top-16 rookies, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham, along with a first-timer from Spain named Jose Calderon. He had a lottery pick Rob Babcock drafted from the year before, Rafa Araujo, to build up from the ground floor, and a second-rounder in Matt Bonner that was proving himself worthy of more playing time. There were veterans for Mitchell to turn to, to be sure. But a vestige from a more lauded time, Morris Peterson, and the Net proceeds, Eric Williams and Aaron Williams, from Babcock’s failed trade of franchise star Vince Carter for Alonzo Mourning, were getting a bit too long in the tooth. That’s to say nothing of 33-year-old Jalen Rose. One lottery pick had panned out -- a 21-year-old big, lean Texan out of Georgia Tech, Chris Bosh, that would soon be named an All-Star for the first time (All-Stars from losing teams? Madness!). Unfortunately, the remake of the Raptors around their newest young star had not been going well. Toronto went winless in the first 9 games to start the 2005-06 season, then 1-15 by the end of November. Two days after Christmas, the Raps returned home from a loss in Detroit bearing a 6-22 record, forced to play a back-to-back with Joe Johnson’s similarly awful Hawks in town. That next day, the turnaround campaign began. James, Bosh and Peterson carried the Raptors to victory that day, and again in their first game of the New Year in Atlanta. Those victories sparked a five-game streak that included big home wins over Dwight Howard’s Magic and ex-Raptor Tracy McGrady’s Rockets. The momentum resumed on the road in Seattle, with Rose pouring in 28 points to muffle the Sonics. Two days later, it was halftime at STAPLES Center. Mike James was feeling pretty good about himself, already at 19 points, including makes of all 5 threes, and 9 assists. Up 63-49 on the once-mighty Los Angeles Lakers, this game was shaping up to be remembered as Mike James’ Night, the wayfaring 30-year-old’s overdue breakout on the NBA’s most star-studded stage, the evening his Raptors put their losing trajectory in the rear-view mirror, once and for all. Kobe Bryant had other ideas. Mitchell had few recourses but to contain Bryant with Rose, and the good news was it was working in the first half, since no other Lakers were scoring. The bad news was, Bryant would double his 26 points in the second half. Oh, scratch that, Bryant doubled that total before the end of the third quarter. 27 for Kobe in the third, 28 in the fourth, 81 for the game, as the Raptors, like everyone else watching around the world, seemed to forget there was another side to the floor. For Kobe, coach Phil Jackson and the Laker Nation, this was a watershed moment at a transitional time. Memories of the Three-Peat era had waned, as were recollections of a Finals run with Gary Payton and Karl Malone that fell short of a ring. Shaq set off like a literal hot-air balloon, seeking to win titles with a fresher, more receptive shooting guard companion, Dwyane Wade, and former Laker legend Pat Riley in Miami. Around Tinseltown, the Phil-Shaq-and-Kobe era was looking more and more like the Just Kobe era, even though The Zen Master had returned, one season after getting fired by his girlfriend’s father, to coach a star player he once deemed “uncoachable.” Having STAPLES’ superstar stage to himself without the gravity of Shaq, 81 points and a pair of assists was enough to overwhelm a shell-shocked Raptors club. Certainly, though, Kobe was going to have trouble going forward as a ball-dominant guard against more nuanced defenses than what Mitchell and the Raptors could throw at him. Certainly, Bryant was going to be a hard sell, with his acerbic nature and cutthroat reputation, for the Lakers’ brass to woo other quality talents to play alongside “just” him. It seemed reasonable, by this point, to assess that Kobe’s future involved chasing record books with personal stats, firming up Hall of Fame and jersey-retirement credentials, addressing his lagging off-court reputation after a sordid ordeal in Colorado, satisfying the growing legion of fantasy hoops aficionados, helping Team USA redeem the gold-medal world standing where Vince Carter had left them, and settling down with the knowledge that the birth of his second child was merely months away. But unless he pulled a Shaq and demanded out of L.A., there was certainly no future involving Kobe that involved claiming another NBA championship trophy. Kobe Bryant would have other ideas. In the meantime, Toronto, post-81, was thrown for a loop. Within a week, the reeling Raptors sent Babcock packing, collaring Bryan Colangelo to help turn the franchise’s spiral. By the next week, Rose was on the outs, too, shipped to New York to bring back Antonio Davis for a Raptor rental. The back end of the season for the Raptors, a 7-23 finish, consisted basically of Bosh staying healthy (he could not), and Mitchell enduring the Mike James Stat-Pad Variety Hour. Toronto’s turnaround had to wait for the next season, a franchise-tying 47-win season that brought back, for Raptor fans, hints of competitive days gone by with Vince Carter and coach Lenny Wilkens. Sadly for them, the gross errors of executives past were already being compounded by Colangelo. The salve for the Raptors season that collapsed for good after Kobe’s 81 Game was one big “win,” leapfrogging four teams to win the top prize from the 2006 NBA Lottery. However, in a draft loaded with lottery minefields, Colangelo and the Raptors went with for biggest, well, at least, the tallest one, in Italy’s Andrea Bargnani. That pick had Toronto looking like a Leaning CN Tower. Standing tall in the NBA universe, but an already weathered symbol of monumental missteps. The nation that brought us Naismith had already squandered one NBA franchise, the Raptors’ sibling expansion club Grizzlies relocating in 2001 after just six error-filled seasons in the western outpost of Vancouver. Yet even with the Raptors’ sad-sack reputation that lingered after 2007 and beyond, the sports fans, the citizenry, the governments and the sponsoring business community of Toronto remained all-in. It was largely this way because a Raptor from the bygone era, Vince Carter, left behind a foundation. One could argue that Damon Stoudamire, the first-ever Raptor draft choice that also had a tumultuous exit, had as much to do with establishing Toronto as a legitimate basketball town from its infancy. But beyond Canada, Mighty Mouse was a mere curiosity. Vince was a tour-de-force that every NBA fan saw coming, from his high school years in Central Florida to his time in Chapel Hill, yet still couldn’t believe with their own eyes once he arrived. By 2001, two team’s purple NBA jerseys were in hot demand around the world. One was from a blue-blood franchise in a major American market that had hauled in a dozen NBA titles and was preparing to grab a couple more. The other was from a team that hadn’t existed a decade prior, and occasionally still featured a basketball-dribbling dinosaur. That the latter jersey bore the letters, TORONTO, and gave buyers pride rather than pause, was immensely valuable in locking the Raptors down in town. That jersey #15 belonged to an American-born player who welcomed being known as “Air Canada” proved a boon for the city’s and country’s sports economy. The Raptors’ current leader in scoring average, Vince graces the court formerly known as Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, for likely the penultimate time today as a member of the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR). He celebrated the early part of his 43rd birthday on Sunday. By afternoon, though, it became obvious that this and ensuing birthdays for Carter would be dates shared with somber remembrances, of the untimely passing of one of his greatest basketball peers. Until the latest news got around, about petitioners trying to replace the NBA’s logo with Kobe’s, I had to think hard to recall what either Kobe’s or Vince’s logo even looked like. As is the case with Trae Young’s initials-merger thingy, I’m sure sneaker company marketers have foisted something upon everybody in the pros by now. Guys like MJ, Shaq, Jerry West can simply point to a single silhouette. Kobe or Vince never needed a silhouette, or a logo for that matter. Explosive, finishing plays were enough to sear Carter and Bryant as symbols in our minds. The best-ever preseason dunk. Best-ever in-game (and Olympic) dunk. Best-ever contest slam, which may or may not involve a rim hang. Best-ever dunk over a future Rookie of the Year, best-ever dunk over a reigning MVP. Best-ever dunk over a probably retiring Hall of Famer. Best-ever lob dunk to clinch a playoff series. Kobe’s iconic persona also became marketable, once he was able to wrap up his NBA career and pursue his many post-retirement endeavors. It’s great to Be Like Mike, but Bryant dared anyone he encountered to strive to Be Better Than Kobe, in some fashion. Bryant felt that competition, in its undistilled form, makes the world go ‘round. Resistance creates sparks. If you weren’t competing with him and his team, if you weren’t competing ON his team, if you were not challenging him in some meaningful way, he wasted little time associating with you. He redirected his aim to become the best basketball competitor, toward becoming the best sports analyst, the best entrepreneurial philosopher, the best filmmaker, the best father. And he only wanted to associate with people who dared to be better, which required commitment to become better than their own selves every day. You have all likely had a conversation, with someone a generation older or younger than yours, or with a colleague of a wholly different background, that goes like this: “Aww, wow, just saw the news that (Mean Gene Okerlund / Nipsey Hussle / Neil Peart / Toni Morrison) just died.” “Darn, rest easy… wait, who was (Mean Gene / Nipsey / Neil / Toni)?” “WHO WAS ((Repeat their full names here))??? Uggh! I can’t even!” Such a convo was not held on Sunday. Not a single soul had to explain to anyone who Kobe Bryant was, what he had accomplished, or why his passing was a gut punch on multiple fronts. Carter made that observation to media yesterday, after Atlanta’s emotional 152-133 victory over Washington, as people around him of every age range had similar heartfelt reactions to the story as it was developing. The death of Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and their associates hit Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Hawks #24, Bruno Fernando (doubtful for tonight, calf strain) much the same way. Players who weren’t born when Vince and Kobe were rivals at the AAU level. People who were well grown, if not mature, and tracked both players, even through the summertime scrimmages when both were teens, as debates flared on “the next MJ” within the prep-school pipelines. People who dedicated their athletic lives to becoming “the next Vince,” or “the next Kobe,” charting their ups and downs throughout their careers. People that never so much as dribbled a basketball in their natural lives. All needed at least a minute to gather themselves and consume the tragic news. Kobe saw to it that people felt some kind of way about him, whether he met them or not. He could be one of two things to you. Your undying hero, the embodiment of what unquenchably competitive fire, when applied the right way, could forge. Or, the bane of your existence, the person who takes great pride in thwarting what you hoped would be your, or your favorite team’s, successful destiny. Your inspiration, or your foil, it’s your choice. He could occasionally be both. He would not possibly accept becoming anything else. The bi-coastal, multi-national impact of Kobe’s ascension into our basketball consciousness is evident just with a glimpse into Toronto’s climb from annually going through motions to world championship contention. Vince Carter is the Raptors’ per-game scoring leader, but the current all-time points leader is a young man from Compton, California, and USC, who was not yet 11 when Kobe and Shaq began their three-peat. DeMar DeRozan was told in 2018 by the Raptors’ English-born executive with Nigerian roots, Masai Ujiri, that he envisioned DeRozan could one day become the Raptors’ Kobe. “For (Ujiri and the Raptors) to say I could be in (Kobe’s) position – it was an honor accepting that fully,” he shared with ESPN at the time. The Compton kid embraced Toronto fully, guiding the Raptors into playoffs and conference finals, until Ujiri saw the opportunity for an upgrade. Out went DeRozan that same year. In came someone a couple years younger from Riverside, California, and San Diego State, who closely watched not only all the Laker titles of the 2000s, not only the Finals MVP awards, but Bryant’s 12 All-Defensive Team seasons. Kawhi Leonard returned to L.A. last summer to continue his pro career, but not before he completed his mercenary mission by leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship. The Raptors point guard feeding both DeRozan and Leonard the ball through those seasons? A kid from Philadelphia, born and raised, who idolized and followed Kobe, the local high school hoops legend ten years his senior. Kyle Lowry is 9 dimes away from passing Calderon for the all-time Raptors team record. He just happened to be in San Antonio, where the Raptors ended their own decade-plus drought (12 years) on Sunday night to extend their season-high seven-game winning streak, and had DeRozan coming across the court to share a mournful postgame embrace. DeRozan, Leonard, Lowry. Norman Powell, a San Diegan and UCLA alum who proudly wears #24. All Kobe-inspired. Each of these players’ greatest NBA moments could just as well have occurred while wearing a K.C. Raptors, or a Louisville Raptors jersey. But this team, now with sustained success (NBA-best 21 straight winning months), is anchored, economically, emotionally, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a certified NBA city. That’s because Vince Carter (3rd all-time in NBA games played with an appearance today, tying Dirk Nowitzki) came along at the right time. It wasn’t always this way in this city, but you can rest assured Toronto will give Living Legends like Vince their roses while they are here. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. The Pause That Refreshes. (2:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR) “You all need to decide...” 55 years ago this month, one of Atlanta’s greatest citizens had turned 36 years of age. One month prior, he was in Norway, with the Nobel Prize for Peace being bestowed upon him. What had become, during the 20th century, the world’s most renowned accolade, was granted to this unelected, non-politician, non-official young adult. The 14th American, the second African-American, and the youngest human to that point, ever to be a singular Laureate. “First person in the Western world,” noted the Norwegian Nobel Committee of the soon-to-be 36-year-old minister, writer, orator and activist, “to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence.” That’s deep. He was the first Georgian, and the first Atlantan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the ensuing weeks, the prosperous members of his native city’s civic, religious and political community needed to decide how it wanted to collectively honor him. More specifically, Atlanta needed to decide IF it wanted to collectively honor him. Like, at all. Since the resurrection of the city in the aftermath of the Civil War, Atlanta has long prided itself by its civic boosterism, its ability to build business, to sustain business, to excel in business, its prominent leaders in academic, social, political, and religious life geared to promote prosperous local commerce, like no other city in the New South could. Economic competition, above all else, propelled the movers and shakers of Atlanta into fervent daily action. How remarkable it was, then, as 1964 was turning into 1965, that the white-collar movers and shakers of the city that surged from the ashes like a phoenix, found themselves shaken to the point of inertia. By the daunting prospect of hosting and attending the city’s first-ever multiracial formal dinner. You wouldn’t know it, today, by the drab parking deck and Dunkin’ Donuts that sits in its place along Forsyth Street, in the Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood that sits a stone throw away from State Farm Arena. But the center of Atlanta prestige at that time was the Dinkler Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hotel Ansley before a prominent family-run hotel chain took over in the 1950s. Since its opening in 1913, proclaiming itself proudly as open to “every Southerner,” as a “home to all Georgians visiting Atlanta”, the only thing allowed to be black at Hotel Ansley were the tie events. Persons of color were barred from the hotel, including the first African-American to receive the Nobel Prize. He was a diplomat and delegate who helped the United States mediate between Egypt and Israel and form the United Nations in the 1940s. But for Ralph Bunche, seeking a quality room in 1962, Atlanta’s Dinkler Plaza was always too booked to serve him, or anyone remotely looking like him. Less than two years after spurning Bunche, and one year after proudly hosting a White Citizens’ Council meeting featuring segregationist governors George Wallace and Marvin Griffin, the Dinkler was approached by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, Archbishop of Atlanta Paul Hallinan, and Mayor Ivan Allen to host a gala in their city’s largest banquet hall for Atlanta’s own, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What to do? What to do? Some of that kind of “decision-making” was suddenly being taken out of businessmen’s hands, here and elsewhere. Just three days after Dr. King’s Nobel Lecture in Oslo, “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling against a downtown motor lodge around the corner from Dinkler Plaza. A motel that humorously branded itself the “Heart of Atlanta” needed white men in black robes to confirm for them the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was not overstepped by Congress’ passage of 1964’s landmark Civil Rights Act. Proudly welcoming “every Southerner,” it turns out, means you’re willing to engage in and profit from interstate commerce, so Federal laws apply. Yes, black citizens and visitors could finally stay in Atlanta hotels and motels, in America’s hotels and motels, without reservation, with a mere reservation. That didn’t mean the hotel owners had to like it. Now, this town’s prestigious Dinkler Plaza was being asked to host a celebration for one of the Civil Rights Act’s most noteworthy advocates? And a black citizen, at that? What was happening in this era, forged by King and a growing array of civil and human rights leaders, was the decoupling of “peace” from “order,” establishing through law and spirit a linkage instead between “peace” and “justice.” Maintaining “order” requires instilling a centuries-long culture of fear and violence, a world where cruelty, whips, lynching, rocks, nightsticks, bullets, fire and bombs buttress societal subjugation and dominance. In that culture of fear, all of that is necessary for some to feel “at peace.” It becomes a matter of convenience to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself, when you are empowered, through “order,” to assess and enforce who your neighbor can and cannot be. Promoting “justice” requires a basis of unconditional love and nonviolence, a world where handshakes, thoughtful words, selflessness, fairness, critical thinking and sincere hearts open infinitely more doors than they close. In that culture of love, a world of just deeds is engendered where the pen is, indeed, mightier than any sword could ever hope to be. For their roles in helping oversee and encourage the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, Rev. King’s and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy’s home were firebombed, along with several black Baptist churches, by the actors of “order.” King took great pains to remind his anguished supporters not to seek retaliation, compelling and inspiring with the application of Biblical scripture. “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us,” Rev. King pleaded. “We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’… We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement.” In a culture of fear reinforcing “order”, not looking like intended subjugates is insufficient to shield a supporter of the suppressed. Unnerved by racial injustice in Alabama and elsewhere, Rothschild convened in the 1950s with Christian clergy and prominent black leaders, like Morehouse University president Benjamin Mays, to broker a peaceful path as the city of Atlanta faced the realities of court-compelled desegregation. While the resultant “Ministers’ Manifesto,” calling for peaceful interracial negotiation and obedience to the law, could not be signed by him due to its heavy Christian language, the rabbi published his own endorsement of the ministers’ appeal in the local newspapers and Congressional record. Those words made Rothschild, like King and Abernathy, a target for the actors of “order,” as a series of death threats, and then 50 sticks of dynamite in his Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, would make clear in 1958. Actors in the culture of fear take solace in the thought that, no matter their circumstances in life, someone different than them, by way of how, where, or in what circumstances they were born, is and shall always be beneath them. Many draw their inspiration from those of their past who resorted to organized violence and callousness to seize whatever exclusive graces the bequeathed enjoy in their present day. Sharing any such graces is the relinquishing of what makes such actors feel special, predestined, a cut above. As the projected fear of getting usurped by outside forces binds the actors of “order,” they resort to tools of violence and intimidation. Their targets are the “agitators” of their sense of order, be it a fellow like King, or one like Rothschild. Those actors of ill-intent hoped to incite fear, but the 1958 explosion instead furthered a bond of love that spanned faiths and skin colors. Steeled by his principled stances, members of Rothschild’s congregation at The Temple took local leadership positions easing, for example, the peaceful integration of Atlanta’s public schools, which began in 1961. He would not yet know he would be delivering Dr. King’s eulogy less than four years later, but in late 1964, Rothschild, working with Mays and Hallinan, would be chief organizer and master of ceremony on behalf of the Nobel Prize winner. If only he and Mayor Allen could encourage Atlanta’s movers and shakers to host and attend the proposed event. Facing legal pressure, Dinkler Plaza relented, and the date and time were set. But no one was RSVP’ing, least of all the city’s business leaders. To them, the “agitators” in town were not people sneaking around bombing things, menacing people at public swimming pools, chasing people off luncheonette counters. No, the “troublemakers” were people like Dr. King himself, getting arrested at Rich’s Department Store, picketing alongside striking workers at Scripto Pen Company. They thought: Can’t that man just stick to schools, drinking fountains, and bus terminals? What’s next? Where will it end? When King spoke of “Injustice anywhere…”, he meant it. It was certainly not lost on him about the ongoing struggles for fair labor practices and conditions throughout the country. Including in January 1964, when the fledgling National Basketball Association, minutes away from presenting their All-Star Game on national television for the first time, faced the threat of all 20 players, black and white, striking if the owners did not acquiesce to recognizing the newly formed, pension-fighting players’ union. Whether you were Bill Russell, or Tom Heinsohn, it didn’t matter in Dr. King’s mind, if your injustices were being willfully ignored. Whether you were a high-achieving professional athlete in Boston, a soldier following questionable directives in Vietnam, or a striking sanitation worker in Memphis, chances are good you were inspired by Dr. King. Even if you weren’t, Dr. King, his family and his followers would be inspired by you. His all-encompassing advocacy was roiling the business community, who worried about the effect of bad press – more on that in a minute – on business relations well beyond Atlanta. Whether they were segregationists at heart or not, whether they understood it or not, the culture of fear still enveloped The City Too Busy To Hate. The culture of fear strikes at not only the hearts of subordinates, their advocates, and the perpetrators, but the perpetuators as well. Attendance by prominent white locals at the upcoming banquet was feared as a tacit acquiescence of Dr. King’s activism. No matter the feelings or misgivings about the Court rulings favoring civil rights over the prior ten years, it wasn’t the men in the *black* robes giving them pause. Especially in the aftermath of The Temple bombing, many white business leaders feared what smoldering might await them if they were so much as perceived to align with King. Facing the very culture of fear meant for them to thrive in, the prevailing view was that it was wise to decline any invitation requests, staying silent on the matter if at all possible, in hopes it would all blow over, in hopes of what they believed was “peace,” for the sake of good “order.” As we say in modern parlance, they didn’t want none of that smoke. Among the most prominent civic leaders was Robert Woodruff, who took over The Coca-Cola Company in 1926 and transformed its signature beverage product, its packaging, and the company itself into items of global renown. Writing a letter, banquet organizers hoped Woodruff, Atlanta’s most successful former chief executive, would help spur local leaders to abdicate their reluctant positions. There was no response from his office. Not a peep. Not much until after, “Tribute to Dr. King Disputed in Atlanta,” published shortly before New Year’s Eve by the New York Times. In this nation’s paper of record, the article cited the cool reception for the Nobel Peace Prize winner from so-called progressive business leaders, and it reported on an unnamed bank executive working behind the scenes in hopes of undermining the event. In Atlanta, we love to profess not seeing color. But anytime a bad look from the press threatens to cut off the city’s pipeline of green, this town’s boosters see red. Mayor Allen sought out the Coca-Cola patriarch at his remote Newton, Georgia plantation to plead for his assistance. Woodruff dispatched his new Coke CEO, Paul Austin, to be the heavy on his behalf at a hastily convened meeting at the Piedmont Driving Club, the private common ground for the elite among Atlanta’s white elite. As Andrew Young noted, Austin was a Georgia native, but spending over a decade in South Africa before returning to Coca-Cola made it clear to him how the ways of “order”, in the form of apartheid, were (not) working for them. At the Piedmont meeting, Young recalled that Austin looked Atlanta’s leaders in the eyes and made it plain, in term$ they could understand: “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.” Within hours of Austin’s reported ultimatum on behalf of Woodruff, the honorary event had its sponsors aligned, and its tickets sold. 55 years ago next week, the gala went off with hardly a hitch. Black and white citizens enjoying a celebratory feast together, in 1965? Peacefully? Who knew such a thing was possible? /s Things go better with Coke. Also around this town, things have gone better with Delta Airlines. That Southern-based company had already moved from Monroe, Louisiana to Atlanta in the 1940s, flying the corporation directly over Public “Safety” commissioner Bull Connor’s Birmingham along the way. But when the time came in the 1950s to establish an international hub to reach South and Central American destinations, Alabama’s largest city, virtually equivalent in size to Atlanta and the “Pittsburgh of the South” due to its dominant iron, steel, and manufacturing industries, and its airport was back in play. Birmingham and its host state could not woo Delta’s hub from Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield’s grasp. Not while Alabama cities were gaining negative reputations outside the state under the grip of Governor Wallace, hardening their segregationist stances in the face of Brown v. Board. Atlanta leaders presented a more welcoming, tolerant face, and being in the same time zone as New York and D.C. didn’t hurt, either. Desegregation in Atlanta was happening, if not happily and swiftly, with less government-sanctioned violent resistance, and that positively impacted reputations, and commerce. By 1963, to accommodate a new black senator and his pages, newly elected Georgia governor Carl Sanders ordered the “White” and “Colored” signs above fountains and restrooms to come down. Sanders did the principled thing without fanfare, simply recalling later that he “went ahead and did what I knew what the law said to do.” Meanwhile, he boasted, “George Wallace was over in Alabama, standing in the schoolhouse door.” If you’re looking to grow your business interests, climate can be a huge deal, and not just the temperature and rainfall. Repercussions of the paths “A City Too Busy To Hate” and the city that became known as “Bombingham” chose with their respective social climates are clearer over fifty years later. That goes far beyond Delta’s decision to help grow the World’s Busiest Airport here, or Coke’s decision to keep its roots here, or United Parcel Service’s decision to move to our sprawling metropolis in the 1990s. When the nation’s largest professional sports leagues decided to expand and relocate into the South in the 1960s and 1970s, Atlanta made itself the obvious choice. When America’s Olympic Committee wanted to pursue a Centennial Games that showcased the growth of the New South, the locale decision was made easy. When we want to fly to Peru, or Peoria, when we want to catch a MLB, NFL, or NBA game, we don’t have to haul it over to Alabama. It’s not just the dominant economic foothold that a landlocked Atlanta metro gained ahead of its Southern peers, with its Top-20 global economy (based on GDP) today hosting 16 Fortune 500 company headquarters (including Coke), 4th-most in the country. It’s the reputation of Atlanta’s enterprises that stands out as well. Last week, the AJC reported a survey finding that among the top-ten most trusted brands, three are right here in the ATL (Chick-fil-A, UPS, and The Home Depot). Our local leaders in business, faith and governance are far from perfect. But when they stub their toes on matters of civil and human rights, be it the police department or CFA or Atlanta Spirit Group, you can bet Atlantans will give them earfuls, in an assertive but nonviolent way, until they decide to evolve. It’s the culture we chose long ago, one that happens to keep us relatively prosperous and economically competitive, a culture prompted by Dr. King and propagated by our civil rights leaders. (photos via Jameelah Johnson, @JameelahJNBA on Twitter) It is not lost on Coach Lloyd Pierce and the Atlanta Hawks organization that we should offer our local legends their roses while they are here. The scars from John Lewis forehead remain visible from a skull fracture he sustained as a 25-year-old in Selma on during the 1965 March to Montgomery, one of many injuries he sustained as a young Freedom Rider and marcher for justice. Co-founder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Reverend Joe Lowery was crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as well. In Florida, St. Augustine was the scene when Andrew Young was leading demonstrators downtown and to a still-segregated motor lodge swimming pool (the one where the motel owner infamously poured acid into the pool in hopes of scaring off the protestors, and a cop jumped in to arrest the swimmers), when he was attacked by angry, racist mobsters. As was the case in Selma, Young was jailed in St. Augustine, where the police allowed members of the mob to come into the jail to assail the demonstrators further. They protested, suffered, and proceeded, undaunted. When presented the choice to succumb to the wills of the actors of fear, with their livelihoods and those of their loved ones under persistent threat, with much more to personally lose than just Coca-Cola, they flatly declined. These heroes and many others continued to push Dr. King’s ideals of The Beloved Community, both alongside him through the end of King’s life, and beyond, here in Georgia and throughout America and the world. “Our goal is to create a Beloved Community,” Dr. King wrote, “and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Atlanta and the world beyond benefits both qualitatively and quantitatively by the rippling effects of our civil rights leaders’ resolve. “We have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence, or violent co-annihilation,” King would later state as America lurched yet again toward international conflict. “This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Every day, in many ways, our local, national, and global society is presented with a similar choice. Atlanta’s prize-winning peace advocate, Dr. King, offered us a means to choose wisely, to choose better, for everyone’s benefit. A culture of love, nonviolence and justice, or a culture of fear, violence and loathing? We all have to decide. Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. Gonna tell my kids this was Drew Carey. Can you say, “Schedule Loss?” The reigning NBA champions have spent the end of this week in Atlanta, watching the Hawks saunter out and in of Hartsfield-Jackson after getting smashed like a Cybertruck window in Detroit. Maybe the one thing that could slow down Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors, tonight, would be the dreaded ATL Flu. Either that, or, the sin of looking a bit too far ahead. Don’t mind all the Raptors fans helping to pack State Farm Arena if they seem a bit preoccupied, but the big game isn’t tonight’s affair (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN Up Nawf), it’s two days from now. The Philadelphia 76ers will be at Scotiabank Arena, and even in November, it’s hard not to hype that game up as a preview for a huge NBA Playoffs rematch. Having made mincemeat of the Magic (113-97) and the Hornets (132-96) in recent days, Toronto (10-4) would love to take advantage of an extra day’s rest against a Hawks team that just played in Michigan less than 24 hours ago. Undefeated at home, the Raptors have had to soldier on in recent weeks without heart-and-soul point guard Kyle Lowry (thumb fracture). Lowry’s prime backup, due to Nurse’s dual-PG starting unit featuring Fred Van Vleet, Patrick McCaw had knee surgery as is out until at least December. Up front, Serge Ibaka is doubtful to play due to an ankle injury, along with lightly used rookie Dewan Hernandez (thumb) and free agent acquisition Stanley Johnson (groin). Unlike the reigning champs on the Western Conference side of the league, there remains enough championship competency on the floor for the Raps to compete every night. That includes Van Vleet (17.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 39.4 FG%), the Finals hero who will be the next NBA player to try his hand at getting AND1 sneakers out of WalMart bins. There’s OG Anunoby, a clear front-runner to seize Pascal Siakam’s Most Improved Player trophy (12.2 PPG, 62.1 2FG%, 52.0 3FG%, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG). Norman Powell has improved his production since sliding into the starting five, as has backup swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, previously dog-housed by Nurse, along with Johnson, due to a lack of defensive intensity. Center Marc Gasol is having the worst statistical run of his career, which absolutely no one cares about (6.4 PPG, 27.7 2FG%, 41.5 3FG%, 3.1 APG) thanks to the NBA and FIBA gold he picked up over the summer. Get a rocking chair out there at the top of the 3-point arc for Big Spain, he’s earned it. In the middle of it all, there’s Siakam (25.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 4.1 APG), who has comfortably elevated into Honorable Mention MVP territory, since Toronto had a Leonard who changed his spot. To keep the floor spread for Siakam, Nurse has been able to plug-and-play Anunoby and human bucket rookies Terence Davis (48.5 3FG%) and Matt Thomas (56.5 3FG%). All the proficient outside shooting options has Toronto leading the league with a 40.1 team 3FG%. This isn’t just a stand-still offense, either. Keyed by VanVleet, Toronto puts pressure on opposing rims with a league-best 20.2 fastbreak points per-48. Allowing just 11.1 per-48 the other way, the +9.1 net on fastbreak possessions blows away the entire league (the Budball Bucks’ +5.0 is the only team remotely close). The Raps’ success scoring from deep coaxes opponents into trying to keep up (NBA-high 38.6 opp. 3FGAs), taking unwise, rushed and well-contested jumpers to deleterious effect (33.0 opp. 3FG%, 7th-lowest in NBA) while making Gasol and Siakam’s jobs simple (NBA-high 38.2 D-Rebs per game). The bouncy Chris Boucher has pitched in well lately, too, with rebounding double-doubles in Toronto’s past two wins. Toronto’s foes are getting their share of extra-chance possessions (TOR’s 70.7 D-Reb% 28th in NBA, just ahead of Atlanta’s poor 70.0%), but they have been woefully unable to convert all those chances into points (13.4 opp. points per-48, barely above league average). Not everyone is healthy, not every key player is putting up All-Star boxscore numbers nightly, not every shot is going in, especially in the paint. But the way Toronto is structured and trained, not everything has to be going their way to win basketball games. Quite simply, a well-coached and experienced team like the Raptors pushes the ball up the court with a “Plan A” that’s comprehended by everyone on the floor, and they get back on defense like a team that has studied and knows their assignments well. They’ll play the Hawks (seven straight losses against TOR), who are, at this point, a team. “It isn’t just fighting,” Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce finally told the AJC and media members who camped out for an hour after the Hawks’ lackluster 128-103 defeat dropped the team to 4-11 on the season. Competition at this level, LP shared, is “talking, it’s getting back (defensively), it’s the effort, it’s ball reversal, it’s execution, it’s attacking downhill, and creating shots for one another.” Basically, it’s what the Raptors have been doing, with or without Lowry and others available, to be worthy of staying among the NBA East’s Big 5. Fullcourt communication, with players trying to sort things out and do too much individually, is always an issue on younger teams, which is why Pierce grins-and-bears more of Vince Carter (1-for-6 FGs, 4 TOs, minus-29 in 9.5 minutes) on the floor than he would normally stomach. Relying on Allen Crabbe (29.4 3FG%, 1 assist in his first 88 minutes back on the floor), Alex Len, Damian Jones, and/or Chandler Parsons (a not-bad 3 steals and 8 points in 16 garbage minutes @ DET) for veteran stability, particularly on matters of offensive play and defensive execution, has had exactly the effect one would come to expect. Allowing the Raptors legend and 21-year veteran, Carter, to retire with some dignity at season’s end will require more effective direction from the young contributors, and not only the ones with experience from past seasons, like Trae Young and DeAndre’ Bembry (career-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-5 3FGs, 6 assists @ DET). Accompanying any lottery rookie blessed with 25+ minutes of gametime per night is the understanding that he will acclimate, to the speed and demands of the pro game, and assert himself as a collaborative leader swiftly. De’Andre Hunter (career-high 4 assists, but 2 rebounds in 35 minutes @ DET) and Cam Reddish (DNP’d on Friday, questionable today with a left wrist sprain) have offered hints that they will not just wait their turn to make positive impressions on the game. Going forward, for Atlanta to get out of the quicksand of their own making, this is no time for Hunter (1 block and 1 steal in past four games) or Reddish to stand to the side and watch as flawed veterans pull them in. Toronto’s offensive efficiency away from home (104.4 road O-Rating, 10th-lowest in NBA) hasn’t been much better than Atlanta’s (104.3, including last night’s fiasco, 9th-lowest in NBA). The Raptors don’t attack the offensive glass as much (NBA-low 20.9 road O-Reb%), trusting the reliability of their perimeter shots to carry the day, and their turnover rate goes up to 16.7% (t-7th-highest in NBA), compared to 14.0% at home (7th-lowest in NBA). At the end of their last five-game road trip, this time last week, the Raptors lost in Lukaville, 110-102 (57-45 in the second half). Young Master Doncic helped himself to the charity stripe (15-for-19 FTs), to the ball (15 rebounds, 7 assists), and just about anything else he wanted. Basically, Doncic was like a guest in his own home against the Raps, and one can only hope Trae (45.2 home FG% and 9.0 APG; 41.4% and 8.3 on the road) will enjoy similar treatment. Some clearer-eyed refs whistling on Young’s behalf (6.0 home FTAs, 8.6 on road) wouldn’t hurt. While Hunter, Bembry and hopefully Reddish will have a role in slowing the Raptors’ from outside, and Bruno Fernando helps to encourage the high-posting Gasol to put the ball on the floor, teammates will need to be disruptive in the paint and with cross-court passes, creating an edge in the turnover battle. Young (1.6 SPG, t-11th in NBA with Bembry) and the rooks will need to make sure their veteran mates aren’t just sitting back in hopes of an easy defensive rebound. Atlanta will give themselves a shot in this contest if they’re not just starting possessions by retrieving the opponent’s ball from the net. Having been around town for a couple days, Nurse’s Raptors want to waltz into State Farm Arena (four straight wins here) and perform like a team that has made itself at home, undressing Atlanta (minus-16.7 1st Qtr Net Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA), enough in the opening half to make a dress rehearsal, for the Sixers, out of the second half. It’s up to the Hawks to remind Toronto, everyone else and, most importantly, themselves, whose house it is, anyway. Whether it’s from their experiences here in recent days, or the next game on their schedule back home, an abstracted Raptors team can be tripped up. But which Hawks are willing to pull the Welcome Mat out from under these visitors remains to be seen. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “You think you can get more points? No No No… Nooooooo!” The first-place Toronto Raptors, visiting our Atlanta Hawks over on State Farm Drive (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR) this Thanksgiving Eve, come in with a simple, two-part objective. Part One: Do not, under any circumstances, allow franchise legend Vince Carter to reach 25,000 career points on the Raptors’ watch. Part Two: Failing Part One, try to look sincere in offering up congratulations. But for the risk of trading down, after selecting Antawn Jamison in Vancouver’s GM Place arena on Draft Night 1998, raptorus toronticius might well have followed grizzlius vancovueris on the professional franchise extinction list. An awful lot had to happen to bring the man who would soon be known as Air Canada to The Great White North in the first place. Although treated like a premium these days, first-round NBA picks used to get dispensed as easily as PEZ candy. Golden State decided to part with this pick and two more future-firsts, five years before, in Draft Night 1993’s fateful Penny Hardaway-for-Chris Webber deal with Orlando. Not even a year later, the Magic stapled Scotty Skiles to the 1998 pick in a multi-future-pick swap with the Bullets (the Bullets!) Then it was Washington’s turn to treat that pick like a hot potato. Five months after the summer 1994 Washington-Orlando deal, this pick was on the move again, and C-Webb was once again squarely in the middle of it. The Bullets wanted their go-round with the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year. They passed this first-rounder, plus two other future firsts, on to the Warriors. Golden State seemingly thought this pick was cursed a half-decade before, so it’s no surprise they eventually parted with the selection once they got it back. It’s just one Tar Heel star for another -- heck, who will notice the difference? Welcome to the NBA, Mr. Carter… get your passport ready. You thought Saints-colored Atlanta jerseys were a tough sell, huh? Imagine a time where a purple jersey with clunky digits and Barney the Dinosaur on it – the tyrannosaurus dribbling while wearing a jersey ON the jersey -- was a cool item, to anybody above the age of 11. Just three seasons into their existence, with initially rabid attendance waning, a league-wide lockout looming, and yet to breach 30 wins in a season, the Raps were on the verge of being remembered, in passing, as that team that was cute for a minute, with mighty-mouse Damon Stoudamire tilting at windmills. Bringing a few windmills of his own, Vince’s highlight-reel play elevated the temperature at Air Canada Centre, from class-clown-cool to homecoming-king-hot. Burdened by the bellyaches from veterans and future rookies alike (“Snow! Taxes! Poutine! Snow!”), a nation that was already second-guessing the long-term viability of professional hoops was suddenly turned back on. Because the synergy was happening in the country’s largest metropolis, one that was growing increasingly diverse by the minute, Barney Jersey #15 emerged as the quintessential status symbol for all things Toronto, singularly representative of The Future of Canada sports. Anywhere just across the border to the south, and a young adult could saddle up to the Thanksgiving table with the purple jersey and get knowing nods of approval, not jeers, from all the crazy uncles. Vince not only firmed up a wobbly franchise, he established the hoophead firmament in Canada, one that would influence the global sports and cultural landscape for decades to come. For “Starters”, what are Canadians Tas Melas and J.E. Skeets doing these days, had they met in college without Vince’s Raptors around as a hot topic? They’re not in Atlanta hosting shows on NBA TV, that’s for sure. A Torontonian teenager named Aubrey got his big break on a Canadian high-school TV show, his notoriety coinciding with the Raptors’ rise in the early-2000s. Even so, who, back then, would have picked Aubrey as the headliner that would jam-pack this very State Farm Arena for THREE nights, just last weekend? With apologies to maybe the rock-band Rush, Toronto’s greatest gift to pop music, before Vince got there was Deborah Cox. Aubrey, How Did You Get Here? Who in Atlanta, or anywhere, would have cared to hear Aubrey, talkin’ boasy and gwanin’ wassy about tales from The Six, put to a synthesizer? Without the appeal of Vince’s Raptors, would Aubrey one day have been tapped to be anything more than a Global Ambassador for a wheelchair company? Besides hoops itself, Canada’s greatest gift to hoops pre-VC, was… Rick Fox? Bill Wennington? Leo Rautins? Now, we’ve got the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander crossing Hawks up on the regular. Imagine Jamal Murray, Nik Stauskas, Dillon Brooks, Cory Joseph, all making their living as hockey goons. Whither would Kelly Olynyk, or Tristan Thompson go, absent the Half-Man, Half-Amazing phenomenon? Shoot, they’re Royal Canadian Mounties patrolling the border right this minute. Carter made Toronto basketball, and the GTA itself, chic in the way another Tar Heel did for Chicago. Unlike Mike, Vince did that without ever bringing the city an NBA title, much to many’s chagrin. And he did that in the space of just five NBA seasons, two of them riddled with ankle, knee and hamstring injuries that had him coarsely branded by a growing legion of critics as Wince. The final season with fans’ growing sense of dread that Carter wanted to move on. Unless they’re retiring, it has never been easy for an NBA All-Star and franchise face to plot a graceful exit. If you’re not con-Vinced, just tap Kawhi Leonard on the shoulder tonight to ask about that. Carter was wise to never trust a Babcock with GM duties, and in the summer of 2004, he put his agents to work to get Canada’s Worst Kept Secret in motion. The Raptors not getting a deal done in time had Carter getting the side-eye, from fans and coaches alike, when the 2004-05 season began. After a lot of bad press over the ordeal, Toronto did get a rental of Alonzo Mourning, plus two more of those dime-a-dozen first-rounders, in dealing Carter to New Jersey. But the sense that Vince was bailing out on one nation’s top metro, for the glitz and glam of another’s, burned a lot of Canadian bacon, to say nothing of bridges. Could he at least have stuck around long enough to celebrate 10,000 points? We’ve lived long enough to see spurned NBA team fans come around on their former stars. The “FUVC” tees once prevalent around Toronto are relics of the past. It took a decade after trading the future Hall of Famer away, but Raptors, Inc. finally did the whole video-tribute thing, even talking about jersey retirement soon, because, duh. Similarly, one can foresee the day when Kawhi returns to the Alamo City and finds people willing to remember his time there fondly. 2014 Finals MVP, two-time DPOY and 1st Team All-NBA, perennial MVP runner-up and, thanks to his flummoxing “injury” “rehab” last season, persona non grata in San Antonio, for now. That’s not the Raptors problem. In fact, they swung for the fences to nab Leonard, trading away the one All-Star who refused to demand a departure from Toronto in search of warmer pastures. DeMar DeRozan’s departure didn’t sit well with his co-star buddy Kyle Lowry. But the point guard, who helped Toronto climb out of the dregs when Chris Bosh set sail, knows the deal. With Lowry (NBA-high 10.2 APG, career-best 59.1 2FG%) buying in, Leonard returning to superstar form, and key role players, including Kawhi’s fellow ex-Spur Danny Green (game-winning FG last night; NBA-best +192 plus/minus), stepping up, the Raptors find themselves atop the East (14-4; NBA-best 7-2 in away games). In the aftermath of the LeBronference coming to an end, Toronto is eyeing a successful return to the conference finals, or perhaps even more. Maybe Kawhi (24.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.2 APG) will be the X-Factor that propels the Raptors to championship glory, in ways that Vince and many others could not. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll like his surroundings so much, he’ll be inclined to stick around for another season or five. Either way, Raptor fans don’t care. They’re just fine basking in the glow of his All-World presence. Laugh all you want, Kawhi. Fans know the adage: he who laughs worst, laughs best, or something like that. The Raptors got as close to the championship pin as ever before in 2018, thanks largely to the designs of offensive specialist Nick Nurse, a top assistant to Dwane Casey. Following the Raptors’ latest collapse at LeBron’s hands, this time in the conference finals, team exec Masai Ujiri gambled by bumping the reigning Coach of the Year, Casey, to give Nurse a shot. The early returns have been quite promising. Like last season, the Raptors are top-ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, joined only this year by Denver and Milwaukee. The defense has seen a boost not only from the newcomers, Leonard (1.8 SPG) and Green, in lieu of DeRozan, but improved awareness from frontcourt holdovers Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. Ibaka, in particular, has been a revelation. Formerly one of the league’s greatest disappointments, the re-Serge-nce has Ibaka (17.3 PPG, 62.1 2FG%, 1.4 BPG) back in the lineup as a full-time starter, rendering Valanciunas a near-luxury as a backup big. While much of the rest of the league has their eyes on LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and KD’s Warriors hosting OKC, Atlanta had their Vengeance Night a couple days early. Although Mike Scott (6-for-12 3FGs @ ATL) came through to bail out the Clippers in Monday’s 127-119 victory, the Hawks still have ample time to shore up their perimeter defense (38.3 above-the-break opponent 3FG%, 2nd-worst in NBA). To notch some wins sooner than later, Atlanta’s guards and wings (Kent Bazemore, in particular) have to cease fouling inside as help-defenders, get out of the paint to allow Alex Len (minus-4.9 differential on defended opponent FGs, 12th-best in NBA w/ min. 12 opp. DFGAs per game), John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon to handle their business, and be in better position to contest the kicks and swings to long-range shooters. Aside from Green (45.1 3FG%) piling up points from the right corner, the Raptors have been benign beyond the three-point line. There may come a time where a highly-touted prospect like Trae Young longs to be somewhere in the NBA other than Atlanta. There may come a time when the feeling, by the Hawks organization, is mutual. In a league (a pro sports world, really) where almost no one gets to be drafted and then stick around all the way through retirement with their rookie team, a not 100-percent-amicable split is likely for Young (25 points, 17 assists vs. LAC on Monday) at some point. But there’s no need to hasten that day. Not 17 games into a career that, like Carter’s, may reach 1,500 or so before all is said and done. Not at the outset of a campaign by the Hawks where Young hasn’t had time to play with a steady complement of Atlanta starters, like John Collins, Taurean Prince and, maybe soon, Dedmon. Not before we get to see how Young, fellow rookies Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman, and future prospects take their lumps and gel together, within Coach Lloyd Pierce’s purview. For now, Hawks fans, just suffice as Young and the Hawks charge uphill. Sit back and enjoy Trae, charting his ups and downs, while he is still young, healthy, and not crotchety and full of himself like John Wall. Forget 25,000. It was a hard-enough lug just getting to 20,000 points, the season before Carter sauntered into Dallas one month shy of his 35th birthday. After getting discarded by the Nets in 2009, years of home-cooking in Orlando and a year full of chimichangas in Phoenix left Carter looking swelled, and not feeling swell. No one would have blamed Carter if he grabbed a rocking chair and awaited his call from Springfield, after the Suns cut him just before the 2011 lockout ended. But then Carter got re-committed to his fitness in Dallas. All the “He’s still got it!” and “Vintage Vinsanity!” cat-calls when he did something right in a game, that used to wear him down, began motivating him to surge ahead. Playing major minutes, and sharing tutelage, alongside fellow tricenarians Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd was like sipping from a Fountain of Youth. Working in The Association at age 42, and not just in a suit-and-tie, seemed improbable back then. Being around to score another 5,000-plus points? That was even more unlikely. The siren song of championship-chasing wears many a pro career to a premature conclusion. Demonstrating his worth in unlikely locales like Memphis, Sacramento and, now, Atlanta, Carter gained longevity in this league by committing himself to a more noble cause. There’s no real skin off these Raptors’ backs if Vince gets his 13 points to reach the 25K plateau tonight. Having to wait a couple minutes while the game stops and the Hawks offer up some laudatory commemoration of the feat. But they’d really appreciate it if Carter gets his honor against the Celtics on Friday. If you see Coach Nurse directing Kawhi to D-up VC, you’ll know why. Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “Sure, Taurean! I can hug DeMar, while you take another game-winning shot!” **God’s Plan Starts Playing** Happy birthday to you, Malcolm Miller! How about this… you get to be an NBA starter, with the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors, on the very day you turn 25! Don’t worry, though. Your birthday matchup is just against the lowly Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet One in TOR). The only way to mess this up is to show up on the floor in your birthday suit! A lot of things had to happen to allow this 6-foot-7 product out of Holy Cross to hear his name announced during introductions at the Air Canada Centre. All-Rookie candidate OG Anunoby has been on the shelf this past week with a sprained ankle. Norman Powell has struggled mightily and is undersized for the position anyway, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey doesn’t want to overtax veteran swingman C.J. Miles just yet. So, filling in the space that once was prescribed in past seasons for DeMarre Carroll now goes to Miller, a two-way player who spent last season in Germany, the prior year in the D-League, and missed Summer League and preseason due to ankle surgery. In his first start on Sunday against Charlotte, Miller managed a rebound in 13 minutes while generally staying out of the way of Toronto’s efficient offensive lineup (110.9 O-Rating, 4th in NBA; 112.6 since the All-Star Break). Casey can afford to leapfrog Miller up the depth chart not only because he has an All-Star backcourt featuring DeMar DeRozan, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (20.8 PPG, 59.5 2FG% since Feb. 26), and Kyle Lowry, but also since he doesn’t want to tinker with, probably, the best bench unit going right now in the Association. As per basketball-reference, the 5-man lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl has been outscoring foes by 25.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s Casey most-utilized lineup not including the usual Jurassic 5 starters, and it has been dazzlingly effective. That’s even without Powell, who has been atrocious (39.6 FG%) since returning from an early-season hip pointer. The third-year guard parlayed a decent shooting effort and some momentous plays during last year’s playoffs into a four-year, $42 million extension deal that comes due next season. Barring some wild trades, literally every Raptor returns in 2018-19, and Toronto’s Coach of the Year finalist is at wit’s end trying to find a rotation spot that makes Powell playable, even versus downtrodden teams like the Hawks. “I feel for (Powell) because it’s nothing he’s done wrong,” Casey told Sportsnet radio last week. “It’s just the guys in front of him have played so well and executed… at some point, we’re going to need Norm in that rotation somewhere. It’s nothing he and (ex-Hawk Bebe Nogueira) have done wrong.” The Hawks have already been molly-whopped on three occasions by the Raps, losing by average final scores of 110.3-89.6. Yet it’s not the double-barreled blast of Lowry and DeRozan that has made the difference, nor the frontcourt tandem of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, when these teams have faced off. In each contest, Atlanta has found itself submerged by at least one of those Toronto subs: Poeltl and Siakam in November’s 34-point home defeat, by Wright and Poeltl in a 13-point road loss the following month, and by VanVleet filling out the box score line (19 points, 4-for-6 3FGs, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks) in under 19 minutes when last these teams met in January, another decisive 15-point win for the visitors at the Highlight Factory. The Raptors have mixed in sound perimeter defense on Atlanta’s most obvious threats, with steady ball control on their own end, to keep the Hawks comfortably at arm’s length. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had just begun dabbling with John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon in the starting unit with Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince and Dennis Schröder back on November 25. And together they did well, for about a quarter. Then the mostly unheralded Raptor reserves, plus Powell, stepped in and wrested the momentum away for good in Toronto’s resounding 112-78 win. But Atlanta’s starting-five have been drinking milk and getting stronger. Either that, or they have a steady, healthy first unit growing better accustomed to one another under the tutelage of Hawks U. As per nba.com stats, among 23 Five-Man Lineups playing at least 50 minutes together since the All-Star Break, the starting quintet for Atlanta’s 13.0 Net Rating (and 62.0 TS%) ranks 6th-best in the league. Only Philly’s Death Lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric and Embiid have fared better in the East. The Hawks (20-44) can hear all the Tangst from their fanbase, the “Let’s Blow, Hawks!” chants all the way back home, south of the border. And, yes, the notion they might earn their first two-game win streak in a month is fairly far-fetched. But they play tonight in search of a more competitive outcome versus top-notch competition like Toronto (45-17, NBA-best 26-5 at home), particularly on the road, where their own 5-25 record is tied with the Grizzlies as the league’s worst. Achieving a closer outcome will require continuing what has worked thus far among the starters, keeping careless turnovers to a minimum and committing to score at least free throws off the rare live-ball turnovers Toronto (14.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs, 4th-fewest in NBA) coughs up. Then, it will be up to T-N-T (Tyler and Taylor) and the M&M Boys (Moose, Miles, Morris and maybe Magette, in place of the ankle-hobbled Malcolm) to keep whatever leads or small deficits the starters managed to gain from spiraling totally out of control. Atlanta’s bench brigade (with Delaney) shot a balanced 18-for-36 from the field versus the setting Suns this past weekend, but they’ll have to be better defensively and in transition to keep up with the Raptor reserves. Toronto allows just 24.9 three-point attempts per game, a league-low despite playing at a modest overall pace. But the Raps also will be leaning on the birthday-boy to help hold things down in transition with Anunoby sidelined (note to Bud: no need to start any international incidents this time, okay?). So Baze (DNP-TANK vs. PHX) and Sunday’s “hero”, Prince, will want to scamper down to the corner 3-point spots and help open the floor up for Dennis and the bigs. Taurean’s 22 points (6-for-8 3FGs) led the charge in the Hawks’ oddly captivating 113-112 win over hand-down-man-down Phoenix on Sunday. And Prince tried his best to rename this town Taureanto during his last trip here, going off for 30 points (19 in the second half; 5-for-6 3FGs), plus 10 boards and no turnovers, to help make the final score closer than it really was. For Miller and the Raptors’ swingmen, will they find blowing Prince off his perimeter spots, and out of the paint, is as easy as putting out a candle on a cake? Make your wish, Mr. Miller. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. Sacto springs free another ex-1st rounder. ~lw3
  11. “What Ever Happened to Bebe, Jane?” Hey, Tank Mob! This game is for you. Ahead of today’s homestand-concluding game between your Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Sportsnet in the GTA), I consulted a Ouija board, read through the tea leaves, shook the magic 8-ball thingy, and all indications that the Hawks end the day with some point total that’s less than Toronto’s is a stone-cold lead-pipe lock cinch, or whatever the degenerates call it in Vegas these days. The Raptors haven’t played since Saturday night, and they have previously logged double-digit victories over Charlotte and Phoenix following a three-day layoff. They’ve spent a couple fun-filled evenings in the ATL, including Wednesday night when the Hawks ran roughshod in the second half over a lifeless Utah Jazz team, and have had ample opportunity to scout out the Hawks firsthand. That game prep doesn’t include watching tape of the prior meetings, both washouts at the hands of the Raptors. There was the 112-78 singeing of the Hawks on this Philips Arena floor, back on November 25, where Atlanta struggled to find shooters capable of keeping up with a balanced Toronto team. All-Star DeMar DeRozan (2 points, 8 assists) wasn’t even one of the seven Raptors who ended that evening in double figures. But he made of for that the next time the clubs met, scoring 25 points to fend off a game Taurean Prince (30 points, 10 rebounds) as his Serge Ibaka-less Raptors prevailed, 111-98, at Air Canada Centre. No one in the Eastern Conference is particularly hot at present, as the Hawks are tied for the East’s longest winning streak, at 1. Blinded somewhat by their opponents’ hi-liter jerseys, the Raptors lost their last game in Minnesota back on Saturday, and have dropped three of their last five contests, and four of their past seven. But with Boston sliding back to the conference fold with four straight defeats, and Cleveland and Washington doing whatever the heck they’ve been up to, this is no time for Toronto (31-14) to start slipping around. Victory tonight for the Raptors might not only move them within a half-game of the Celtics, who are back in Staples tonight to deal with the Clippers, but it would all but certainly sew up an All-Star Game appointment for head coach Dwane Casey. His players have bought in to his promoted “culture change”, from DeRozan extending his shooting range, to his All-Star sidekick Kyle Lowry ceding minutes to the youngsters coming off the bench, to the team doing away with the stifling iso-heavy offense and spreading the ball. The Raptors’ seven leading scorers are each shooting between 35 and 40 percent on three-pointers, inclusive of center Jonas Valanciunas, who hoists a perimeter shot once every couple games. Now, Toronto is on the verge of becoming the favorites in the East altogether. They have the best in-conference record in the East (19-6). They’re above-.500 on the road (14-11), and a home-friendly balance of the regular season schedule awaits their return to Air Canada Centre, where they’re 17-3. Their point-margin average (+7.3) is far and away superior to Boston’s +4.4. And (this one’s for you out there in the Tank Mafia), Toronto’s record versus NBA clubs presently sitting below-.500 is a league-best 18-2. The sole slip-ups: at New York on the day before Thanksgiving, at Dallas on the day after Christmas. Suffice to say, this would be a horrible time for the Raptors to kickstart a losing skid with a head-scratching loss at the Highlight Factory. Now, none of the above is to say that Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks (-3.1 Net Rating in January, 20th in NBA, better than Milwaukee and NBA-worst Cleveland) will simply mail it in and weather a third-consecutive blowout loss to these guys. If the final point spread narrows significantly tonight, here’s what is likely to unfold: Toronto shows up a little lead-legged after so many days of media interviews and reading their own press clippings, and the Hawks catch them off-guard to start the game. Pace, in and of itself, doesn’t make this Atlanta outfit successful, as they’re just 2-11 (no wins since November 5) in their 13 highest-paced affairs (as per bball-ref). But if a rekindled Prince (17 points, 2-for-4 3FGs, 3 steals vs. UTA) and Kent Bazemore (3-for-5 3FGs, plenty of deflections, 2 steals vs. UTA) are beating the visitors down the floor in transition for open jumpers and easy scores, it could be a long night for the Raps, and the Tankmaniacs. Supporting-cast guys come into the game unfocused, notably OG Anunoby, the rookie forward who drew the ire of Coach Bud (touching off an exchange of bon mots with a defensive Casey) after he padded the final score with a dunk off a steal in December’s game. While a decent defensive player, Anunoby has averaged just 2.3 PPG (23.5 FG%) in his past four starts. He’ll need to center his mind on the basket, the ball and the game action, and not the guys in suits on the sideline. The Raptors get undersold on the Hawks’ season-long rebounding woes, and start getting gashed on the glass. They allowed the eight different Wolves to grab 15 O-Rebs on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Jazz entered the game on Monday expecting easy pickings but were unprepared for the dual attack of Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins (combined 7 O-Rebs, 16 boards total) off the bench. Toronto will need Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and our old friend Bebe Nogueira to come in ready to box out and securing the ball on both ends of the court. The Hawks keep the game close through three-and-a-half quarters, and the old Raptor habit of a ball-sticking heroball offense resurfaces. Toronto has been in clutch situations 22 times this season, and their assist rate on possessions in those scenarios plummets to 32.7 percent (29th in NBA), worse than only Victor Oladipo’s Pacers. Throw in a “clutch” 70.3 D-Reb% (28th in NBA, just ahead of Al Horford’s Celtics) and that contributes to an underwhelming minus-5.6 Net Rating at crunch time. Fail to rebound, fail to keep the ball moving, and commit a few unforced errors, and this game could get uncomfortably tight… for some. But, unless several of these things happen, it should be smooth-sailing for those of us in the Tankinati. I suggest using the time between tip-off and the final score not stressing out. Instead, flip the channel, and binge-watching reruns of some of those shows you need to catch up on (if “This Is Us” is one of them, I highly recommend skipping the past Crock-Pot scene.) Or better yet, get down to The Highlight Factory, kill some time gorging on some cricket tacos, and spend the moments before the final buzzer exploring the wonders of the arena’s finest porcelain facilities. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “e before r… except up in Canada?” The Toronto Raptors welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the Air Canada Center… oh wait, Centre (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 Up Yondre), hoping to get back on the good foot against the NBA’s “worst” team and avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season to conclude 2017. As the Wizards learned the hard way, how successful the Raptors are today will hinge on how much value they ascribe to recent matchups, and to the word “worst.” 2016 ought to be instructive for coach Dwane Casey’s crew, heading into this contest. In December of last year, the Hawks followed up getting drubbed by 36 points in Atlanta, one evening later in Toronto, by getting pasted into maple butter (buttre?), a 128-84 blowout featuring a 42-14 fourth-quarter (quartre?) by the home team. But what happened the next time these two teams met, just two weeks later (latre)? The Hawks caught the overconfident Raps napping and blitzed to a 69-point opening half. Dwight looked like what Dwight would look like all the time, if he made free throws. Kyle Korver had a last hurrah. Malcolm Delaney looked functional. And late charges by DeMar DeRozan (DrEozan?) and Kyle Lowry proved to be too little, too late in a 125-121 win that propelled host Atlanta back to .500 basketball. So, Casey would be wise to take any tapes of last month’s resounding 112-78 win at Philips Arena and toss them in The Round File. The reigning Eastern Conference Player (Playre?) of the Week, DeRozan (2 points on five FGAs, but 8 assists) registered not much of a blip on the far side of the scoreboard in that game, and he and Lowry (4-for-7 3FGs, 13 rebounds, 6 assists) didn’t have to. Toronto’s dynamic duo turned into role players, as Toronto’s reserves (Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Jokob Poeltl, Fred Van Vleet) tuned up Atlanta’s beleaguered bench (combined 12-for-37 FGs, 3-for-17 3FGs) well into the second quarter. The Hawks’ similarly scatter-shot starters (startres?) (14-for-38 FGs), particularly Dennis Schröder (Schrodre?) (4-for-11 FGs, 1 assist, 4 TOs) and Dewayne Dedmon (3-for-11 FGs, 2 rebounds), were no match from that point afterwards. But it’s all a thing of the past. Or, at least for the Raptors, it should be. After getting dispatched by LeBron and Friends for the second-straight postseason, this time a 4-0 sweep, Casey and team exec Masai Ujiri acknowledged that cultural changes were in order (ordre?). That didn’t mean parting ways with star players, as the 31-year-old Lowry was retained with a three-year, $100 million deal. But it did mean scaling down on the stilted iso-play that defined the Toronto offense (offence?) for years. The Raptors are tenth in the league in pace, just ahead of Atlanta, after six seasons of ranking bottom-ten under Casey’s watch. They’ve turned to isolation on just 5.8 percent of plays (25th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 5.9%), after ranking top-ten in that proportion in each of the prior two seasons. As a continued hallmark from prior seasons under Casey, the bench’s +6.7 net rating presently ranks 3rd best in the league, behind the Warriors and Rockets, despite shooting just 31.3 3FG% as a unit (29th in NBA). “We can’t do it ourselves,” Lowry said to Yahoo! Sports. “We’re not superheroes. We’re not 6-foot-9, 270, if you know what I mean. [Yes, Kyle, we do.] We don’t shoot the ball extremely well like KD and Steph. We know we need a full team. That shows myself, DeMar, we care more about winning than our individual stats.” “What we incorporated was ball movement, man movement, equal opportunity,” Casey added. “We changed our philosophical approach. Is DeMar going to change his game totally? No. But he and Kyle bought in, which changes how we want to play.” DeRozan has committed to abdicating the dreaded long-range two-pointer (career-low 18.2 percent of FGAs between 16 feet and the three-point line), either stepping in for mid-rangers or going behind the line (career-high 16.1 percent of FGAs for 3). His shot efficiency has buoyed to a career-best 57.4 TS% while his passing has also improved (career-high 4.8 APG), emboldening his case to be a leading recipient of All-Star starter votes. Toronto bid farewell to DeMarre Carroll and replaced him on the top line with rookie OG Anunoby. And yet, the Raps have proven even more effective at shooing foes off the three-point line (9.1 opponent 3FGs per-48, 2nd-lowest in NBA; 34.9 opponent 3FG%, 5th-best), drawing would-be shooters to put the ball on the floor and forcing errors (16.0 opponent TOs per-48, 3rd in NBA behind the Hawks’ 16.4). That’s key when facing a Hawks team that doesn’t rely so much on catch-and-shoot 3FGAs (22.1, 14th in NBA) as they used to, but is deadly accurate when granted the opportunity (39.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG%, 2nd in NBA behind Golden State). The leading scorers in the East, Toronto (23-10, NBA-best 12-1 at home) joins backsliding Houston (yay, draft pick!) and Golden State as the only teams ranking among the top ten in O-Rating, D-Rating, and pace. And, they’re hanging right with Cleveland in the standings, tied for 2nd in the East. Which is why their most recent post-Christmas road losses, at Dallas (danke schoen!) and at OKC on back-to-back nights, have been most disconcerting. One day after sliding up to the best record in the East, Toronto flopped in Dallas, shooting just 33.7 FG% as a team. The ball got stuck in DeRozan’s hands too often, and as was the case in Atlanta, DeMar ended the games at Dallas (7 points, 3-for-16 FGs) and OKC (15 points on 7-for-7 FTs, 4-for-16 FGs, 2 assists) with fewer points than shots taken. He and Lowry have received little help from the supporting cast in fourth quarters (16 @ DAL, 19 @ OKC), where the team’s 24.8 PPG and 42.6 FG% rank just 25th in the league (FWIW, Atlanta’s 26.8 4th-quarter PPG ranks 3rd, while their 48.4 final-frame FG% ranks 2nd). As for Mike Budenholzer’s (Budenholzre’s?) crew, the Hawks come into tonight’s action seeking to extend their conference-high two-game winning streak. As was the case in the payback match versus the Wizards, a 113-99 victory that was perhaps the most encouraging win of the season, Atlanta (9-26; 5-8 this month) promises to be much more competitive over the course of 48 minutes against the Raptors tonight. Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh have served as adequate stopgaps in the absence of Dedmon (tibia), who should be returning soon. Ersan (Resan?) Ilyasova (last 3 games: 21.0 PPG, 63.6 FG%, 60.0 3FG%, 85.7 FT%) has gotten healthy and is playing well, alleviating both rookie John Collins and the overtaxed Luke Babbitt (DNP since Dec. 20). A fourth-straight 20+-point scoring effort tonight would be Ersan’s first such stretch since March-April of 2013. With Collins coming off the bench along with Marco Belinelli, the Hawks found enough offensive punch on Wednesday to give Schröder and the starting five a needed lift, for a change. Dennis has also benefitted from better (bettre?) balance among the team’s secondary passers, most notably the properly-spelled Kent Bazemore (5.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in last 11 games), Delaney (4.3 APG, 1.0 TO/game in last 3 games), and Isaiah Taylor (14 assists, 1 turnover total in last 4 games), increasing Coach Bud’s comfort level with his preferred small-ball lineups. Improving ball control and superior offensive rebounding produced 13 extra shot attempts on Wednesday, helping the Hawks keep an inexplicably listless Wizards team at bay. Atlanta’s per-game assist/player turnover ratios have improved each month: 20.9/14.3 in October (Octobre?), 24.4/16.4 in, well, the next month, and 25.7/13.8 so far this month. Their 16 O-Rebs against the Wiz were a season-high, helping raise the Hawks’ record to 3-0 when they amass 50 or more total rebounds in a game (0-8 when the opponent grabs at least 50 boards). Tuesday’s loss to the Mavs was the first for the Raptors in 17 games (16-1) versus teams below-.500. On the downside, they’re an unimpressive 7-9 versus the winning and break-even clubs. A loss to the Hawks tonight won’t sound alarm bells the way they did in D.C., where the Wizards’ loss in Atlanta dropped their record versus sub-.500 squads fell to 9-10. But with the schedule toughening up for Toronto between now and the next meeting with the Hawks in ATL on January 24, the Raptors want to ring in the new year with spirits high, not worrying about what perils (preils?) await them not only in January, but in April and May. Here’s hoping for a Thillre! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. What's the deal with players getting punchy with staff in Toronto? Was this staffer Blake Griffin's old buddy? ~lw3
  14. “This how they do ‘THE U!’ in Australia.” Not quite Dead from Downtown! The Atlanta Hawks brought what Bob Rathbun calls ‘moxie’ into the second half last night to dispatch the Knicks, and they’ll need more of that today to notch just their third home victory this season, versus the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot). Up North, fan fatigue is beginning to set in with fifth-year GM Masai Ujiri, seventh-year coach Dwane Casey, and the Jurassic Fifteen. Yes, the Raptors (11-7, 5-6 on the road) are on pace for their third consecutive 50-plus-win season. But the newness of their regular season success has been wearing on the fanbase. Consumer confidence remains weak that this outfit might match the advancement achieved by the 2015-16 unit that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s just November, but there is a lingering sense that we already know how this season’s campaign will conclude. Ujiri spent this summer shifting the deck chairs on Toronto’s Titanic. Just a couple years removed from shouting “Buck Frooklyn!” at a public playoff rally, Masai found it necessary to deal with the Frooklynites in order to save some payroll bucks. He sweetened the departure of former Hawk DeMarre Carroll with next year’s first-round pick, plus a second-rounder, in exchange for the immediately disposable Justin Hamilton. Toronto native Cory Joseph was sent off to Indiana for just one eternally stashable 30-year-old Euro-dude. After swinging for the fences before the 2017 trading deadline with a deal for Serge Ibaka (11.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who was brought back along with Kyle Lowry on a free agent deal, the Raptors’ biggest summer splash was with former Pacer C.J. Miles (out for today’s game while caring for a newborn). Sharing an Atlantic Division where all the hype is directed toward the budding stars on the Celtics, the Sixers, and the Knicks, fans are struggling to find a reason to cling their hopes on players like longtime center Jonas Valanciunas (career-low 20.1 minutes/game), who is only 25 years of age but seems to already be bumping his head on his ceiling. Ten players on the Raps’ 15-man roster are 25 years old or younger. But who among them is about to make a star turn? Swingman Norman Powell, starting rookie OG Anunoby, rim-plugger Bebe Noguiera, second-year space-eater Jakob Poeltl, or the injured backup point guard Delon Wright? Who have the Raptors been developing that will be ready this spring to help Toronto stay competitive with the East’s top tier? The task of producing answers falls upon Casey, who already has the thankless challenge of managing playing time for his two backcourt All-Stars. DeMar DeRozan (reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week; 24.1 PPG, career-high 4.4 APG) and Lowry remain strong offensive talents that get unfortunately lax on the other end, and they struggle to get it going for their team simultaneously in games. After averaging a career-high 22.4 PPG in 2016-17, Lowry failed to crack 20 points in scoring until his 14th game this season. He’s shaken off the barnacles during his last five games (20.6 PPG, 45.2 3FG%, 7.6 APG), but his running mate, DeRozan, is often off when he’s on. Such was the case in last night’s 107-104 road loss to the Pacers, where DeMar managed just 13 points on 6-for-16 shooting with four turnovers in 39 minutes, an inadequate balance for Lowry (24 points, 5-for-9 3FGs, 10 boards, 8 assists). Even with DeRozan in tow, Toronto shoots a high proportion of threes (38.0% of shots from 3-point range, 4th-highest in NBA), but isn’t particularly good at either making them (34.6 team 3FG%, 23rd in NBA), or at producing second-chances (20.7 O-Reb%, 23rd in NBA; 10.2 second-chance points per-48, 25th in NBA). The Hawks’ ability to turn the tide on Friday came when the Kanter-less Knicks’ jump-shooting cooled off. Keeping New York off the offensive glass and gaining decisive advantages in the turnover department (9 player TOs, fewest all season; one Knicks steal, fewest by a Hawks opponent since 2/25/2015) granted Atlanta 20 additional field goal opportunities, a season-high 99 in total. The Hawks need another strong defensive rebounding effort from Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Ersan Ilyasova to alleviate their starting bigs, and they’ll need to stay disciplined enough not to bail out DeRozan (8.0 FTAs per-36, 6th in NBA) and Lowry (91.1 FT%, 10th in NBA) with trips to the free throw line. Mike Budenholzer’s club hopes for a similar result on consecutive nights, but may have to pull away earlier in the second half to enhance their chances for their first two-game win streak of the season. The Raps are 11-0 in games where they led or were tied through the first three quarters, but 0-7 otherwise. Atlanta (seven players in double figures vs. NYK, not counting Tyler Cavanuagh’s 8 points in 12 minutes) will again rely on a balanced attack but will also turn to Dennis Schröder (26 points, 8 assists vs. NYK), who buried the Raptors in these teams’ previous meeting last March with 13 fourth-quarter points in a 105-99 victory, to salt the game away. There’s usually no reason to fret about the prospect of a small losing string, but few executives are as compulsive about their team losing, and growing stale, as Ujiri. A third-straight defeat for the Raptors, who just lost to the Knicks at MSG on Wednesday, might allow us to see just how easily triggered Toronto’s GM can get. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. “Get Out.” Back to the Crab Barrel? It’s about to get a bit uncomfortable for the loser of tonight’s game, here at Philips Arena, between the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN2 in TOR). Several playoff-hungry squads (6-through-11 seeds, separated by five games in the East) are waiting for either team to fall in their direction, in hopes they might sink their claws into them. The Hawks survived what amounted to NCAA-First-Round-in-Dayton-quality action on Wednesday. In what exemplified more March Sadness than Madness, the Brooklyn Nets made just one more critical goof to allow Atlanta (35-29) to advance. Toronto (38-26) fended off the Nets at home themselves, back on January 17, but have gone just 10-13 since, a slide that led to some sharp maneuvering by GM Masai Ujiri to plug holes ahead of their upcoming playoff dash. At the trading deadline, Ujiri flipped Terrence Ross to Orlando in exchange for the Magic’s free-agent error, Serge Ibaka (career-high 16.4 PPG and 45.5 3FG%, plus 1.9 BPG in 7 games w/ TOR). He also converted the gravity-bound Jared Sullinger and a pair of second-rounders into former Suns forward P.J. Tucker (45.7 FG% in 7 games w/ TOR). It’s hoped that the pair of acquisitions, in combination with former Hawks DeMarre Carroll (questionable for tonight, sprained ankle) and Lucas Nogueira, will boost the Raptors’ subpar defensive units, taking pressure off super-scoring All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan (27.4 PPG; 12.5 PPG and 10-for-28 FGs last two games) and Kyle Lowry. When last these two teams met up, on December 16, the Hawks managed to turn a 128-84 loss into an embarrassment… for the other team. Barely two weeks after getting drubbed in Toronto, Atlanta returned to the same floor and caught the Raps off-guard, seizing the first half 69-52 before hanging on to prevail, 125-121. What was a key difference? While his Hawks teammates continued to shoot poorly from outside, Kyle Korver swished six of his ten three-pointers. In Korver’s departure, Atlanta (4-for-20 3FGs vs. BKN on Wednesday) will need to find a sharper shooter, be it Junior Hardaway or Ersan Ilyasova, to help keep pace tonight. At the time of that loss to Atlanta, the Raptors were putting up offensive efficiency values of historic proportions, exceeding 110 points in 27 of their first 41 contests. They have leveled off since then (110+ points in four of last 23 games; 104.7 O-Rating since January 17, 22nd in NBA), and were truly laid low when Lowry exited to repair an aggravatingly painful wrist on his shooting hand. Toronto was already a low-volume passing team before Lowry’s post-All-Star-Game surgery (15.0 assist% pre-Jan. 17, 29th in NBA), but their ballhandlers have been going it alone all the more (NBA-low 13.6 assist% since Jan. 17) without his direction on the floor. The Raptors began this month totaling just 11 assists in a home loss to the Wizards, two nights after their 12 assists barely helped them squeak past the Knicks in MSG. Better ballhandling by scoring-minded Cory Joseph, and a team-approach to better ball movement has helped of late. But by pressing a tighter defense and a slower tempo, as regulated by coach Dwane Casey, the Raps are more likely to pull out games with double-digit, instead of triple-digit, tallies. Their 94-87 win in New Orleans on Wednesday was greatly enhanced once the malleable Pelican Anthony Davis left the game with a first-half wrist injury. Toronto’s comeback from a ten-point deficit against the Pellies added to their NBA-high 17 double-digit comeback wins this season. Lowry is certain to return in time for the postseason, but the Raptors certainly planned on opening the first round at the Air Canada Centre. They are desperate to avoid giving away homecourt advantage, especially versus teams like the frenetic Hawks, who are just as likely to pull off fluky wins versus good teams as they are getting blown out by mediocre ones. In the event of a two-team tie at season’s end, tonight’s winner clinches the head-to-head tiebreaker. Their perimeter defensive woes remain well-documented, but Atlanta, with the help of Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, continues to make things tough on opponents around the rim (57.8 opponent restricted-area FG%, 4th-best in NBA; 38.2 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA). The Hawks' wing defenders will want to compel Raptor ballhandlers, like DeRozan, Joseph, Ibaka and Carroll, to pick up their dribbles outside the paint and settle for long-range two-point shots. They can further neutralize Toronto (80.0 team FT%, 6th in NBA) by keeping them from amassing points off free throws. Toronto will strive to play Atlanta’s bigs with heightened physicality, in hopes of inducing early foul trouble and softening the Hawks’ interior. A shrewder Dennis Schröder (31 points, vs. BKN on Wednesday, 20 consecutive FT makes) should be able to continue carrying the Hawks offense tonight, but his overall effectiveness will depend on how well he sets up his teammates for scores. Schröder must resume connecting with Howard (10-for-13 FGs, 15 rebounds @ TOR on Dec. 16) until Jonas Valanciunas or Lucas Nogueira can figure out a way to stop him. If Dennis strays off-script, coach Mike Budenholzer should again turn first to former Raptor Jose Calderon, who is growing more acclimated with the Hawks’ gameplans. The six-game homestand comes to a close for Atlanta tonight, but Hawks fans have been left with a bad taste in their mouths, following long stretches of poor-quality play. Ahead of a tough two-game road trip that begins tomorrow, the Hawks need to present their best basketball in weeks tonight, if they wish to keep departing Hawks fans from feeling even more crabby about their team’s playoff prospects. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY MORE CRANBERRY BLISS BARS. I WILL NOT EAT ANY…” Will the Atlanta Hawks widen the Eastern Conference Crab Barrel? Heading into another tough matchup with the Raptors in Toronto (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot), followed by a Saturday night trip back home to face the Hornets, it’s sure shaping up that way. Our half-baked Hawks found plenty of offense on Tuesday. Problem was, they allowed Orlando (without Nik Vucevic) to get plenty more, in a 131-120 torching that was just the latest in a trend of embarrassing and/or lopsided losses. Orlando came in as the worst offense in the NBA outside of Philly or Dallas (or Atlanta). Guess who currently has the best? Toronto (18-7) is threatening to shatter all-time NBA records for offensive efficiency. At 115.3 points per 100 possessions, that rate would be the highest in recorded league history (since such records were first kept in 1983-84). It’s better than Golden State’s current 113.5 O-Rating, and better than the Showtime Lakers of 1986-87, history’s current season-long leader. In more modern times, only Steve Nash and Alvin Gentry’s Suns of 2009-10 (112.3) came close to what the Dubs and Raps are doing right now. Toronto is accomplishing this with a 2-guard that makes just 28.6% of his threes. They’re led, of course, by DeMar DeRozan (career-high 28.0 PPG; 2.9 more shots per game than last season, in 0.3 fewer minutes). Thanks largely to DeRozan, Toronto’s the only team that averages over one point per possession (1.03) on isolation plays, resulting in scores nearly half (49.6%) the time. Interestingly, the Hawks have a league-high 49.6 eFG% on isos, but as you know, relying just 6.0% of the Budball offense on those plays renders that fact trivial. The Raps are breaking offensive records while averaging just 20.4 APG (26th in NBA). The antithesis of Budball, Dwane Casey’s club knows that their assists come not from passing, but in setting screens that allow Kyle Lowry (last ten games: 23.4 PPG, 56.8 FG%, 59.2 3FG%, 7.3 APG) to improvise. In addition to isos, the Raps (guided by Lowry) lead the NBA with scores on 46.8% of P&R ballhandler plays, their 50.7 eFG% on those plays a league-best, their 0.96 points per possession behind only Portland’s 0.97. The roll man hardly gets touches (28th in play frequency), yet even they feast, the Raptors scoring on an NBA-high 57.7% of roll man plays. Unlike the Hawks, who are constantly a work in progress/regress, there is no round-hole training in store for the Raps’ many square pegs. Casey allows his top talent to control the ball and make the plays they’re most comfortable executing. By doing so, his team becomes the RON RAPRS, by eliminating the TOs (12.3 turnovers per 100 possessions, 2nd-lowest in league to Charlotte’s 12.0). Against the eight teams that turn the ball over the least, the Hawks’ record is 0-5, allowing 126.7 PPG in those last three matchups. Included in that group is the 128-84 pasting endured at the hands of the Raps on this Air Canada Centre floor just two weeks ago, the biggest beatdown Toronto has ever enjoyed against anybody pretending to be an NBA outfit. The Hawks let the bottom fall completely out on December 3rd with a 42-14 Toronto advantage in the final quarter, Atlanta unable to keep the lead from widening even after Casey put four backups and rookie Pascal Siakam on the floor to close things out (our old friend Bebe Nogueira had 9 points and two blocks in the 4th). Toronto players coughed up the ball just 12 times (28 assists; 13-for-24 3FGs), compared to the Hawks’ 18 (21 assists; 7-for-28 3FGs), a modest number for the visitors these days. The Hawks can give themselves half a chance tonight, not just by keeping the turnover margin close, but by keeping Toronto Canada-Dry at the line, where they get 26.1 shots per contest (second in the East only to…? Yep, Charlotte’s 26.5). Atlanta actually did this two weeks ago, “holding” Toronto to a season-low (for both teams) 11 FT attempts, or else that 44-point margin might have gotten even worse. Hawks defenders have to draw lines from the rim out to the three-point break lines, and keep Lowry and DeRozan from getting open or lightly-contested looks from within the “funnel zone.” On-ball defenders need to ICE Toronto’s sideline screens and make their dynamic duo work from the corners and baselines. Dennis Schröder and Thabo Sefolosha should rely on the baseline/endline plus help from the Hawks’ bigs to keep Lowry and DeRozan out of the paint and settling for well-contested shots. Paul Millsap (DNP @ TOR on Dec. 3) allowed Serge Ibaka to have a field day from outside on Tuesday, and must rotate out to the perimeter and contest Patrick Patterson (season-high 17 points vs. ATL on Dec. 3) whenever the Raptor forward is in the game. Atlanta’s wings have to help the bigs clog the middle, and make Toronto’s passes out to corner-oriented shooters like Terrence Ross (44.7 3FG%) and DeMarre Carroll a tougher task. Swapping out the TNT duo (Timmy ‘n Thabo) with the K&K Music Factory (Kyle ‘n Kent) has led to good vibrations at the starts of the first and second halves for Atlanta (last 3 games: starters 5th in O-Rating, 14th in D-Rating). But it’s also led to a lack of explosiveness by the reserves (last 3 games: bench 12th in O-Rating, 28th in D-Rating). There’s no help coming for the M&Ms (Moose and Malcolm), who have melted after energetic starts to the season, even before losing the offense/defense contributions of Hardaway and Sefolosha. Better coaching effort is needed for Mike Muscala (plus/minus: +4.3 first 11 games, -7.2 last 14 games, no “positives” last 9 games) and Malcolm Delaney (+8.5 first ten games, -8.0 last ten games with one “positive”) to better understand their defensive roles. The reserves also must stop getting caught out of position when transitioning to D, or else they’ll continue to get blitzed by benches like Toronto, whose offensive efficiency (117.7 O-Rating and +15.1 net rating, best in NBA) is even better than the starters (113.7, 3rd in NBA). When bench players like Orlando’s Elfrid Payton (career-highs of 26 points AND 14 assists, +47 on/off vs. ATL) and Jeff Green (+55 on/off vs. ATL) are getting carte blanche shots, someone is not doing their homework. Ross (6-for-8 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 3) has decided to use breakaway dunks to advertise his candidacy for All-Star Saturday Night, and Atlanta needs to keep him off SportsCenter/SportsCentre tonight. Mike Budenholzer might help the struggling bench out by allowing a third “T” (rookie Taurean Prince) to share some of Kyle Korver’s and Kent Bazemore’s duties. Prince has been relegated to spot duty (less than 2 minutes) in the past two games. Despite some struggles in the past couple weeks, including his last visit to Toronto, expanded minutes for Taurean could help Atlanta better contest opponent shots. If Muscala struggles to make a positive defensive impact from the jump, Coach Bud should not hesitate to turn to a third “K” (ex-Raptor Kris Humphries), if only in search of an immediate spark until the Hawks finish benefitting from the insurance collection on the fourth “T” (Tiago Splitter). Thanks to a conference full of underwhelming teams, the off-days (five in the past six) have helped the Hawks (12-13) more than anything they’ve done on the floor. As frustrating as Atlanta’s season has been over the past month, you look up in the standings, and there is Charlotte, the East’s third-seed of the moment, just 1.5 games ahead of them. It’s almost a mirage! Taking each game seriously, and one at a time, and pulling off at least two out of their next three, might be just enough for the Hawks and Hornets (14-12) to trade places in the standings. Continuing to perform with predictable unpredictability, though, would have more and more Hawks fans staring in the other direction. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker was excused from tonight’s game in Boston for personal reasons, and will be ready to go on Saturday night in Atlanta. A two-game weekend losing streak prior to a trip to OKC would allow the Hawks to build a bridge for fellow division foes Washington (1.5 GB) and Orlando (2.0 GB) back into playoff contention. The Hawks claim there’s still plenty of camaraderie in the locker room, but letting the Wizards and Magic up for air is not the kind of bridge-building anyone has in mind. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “IT’S A RAP!” My whiny groveling about the unfairness of the Atlanta Hawks’ recent schedule is sure to come to an end soon. But not today! Atlanta returned home after a five-game-in-eight-days road swing, enjoyed one day “off”, then got pummeled by the Pistons last night, keeping their toothbrushes packed for a red-eye to Toronto in advance of today’s game against the Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Sportsnet ONE up yonder). They got tenderized at home by the Pelicans one night before starting that wretched road trip, too. Toronto, meanwhile, has hardly had to move a muscle since returning from Milwaukee on Black Friday. They got two days off before playing the Sixers, a day off before facing the kneecapped Grizzlies, and one more free day ahead of back-to-back games featuring the visiting Lakers and Hawks. Atlanta is the third contest of a six-game homestand in T-Dot. LeBron’s slip-sliding Cavaliers arrive two days from now, and the nice-try T-Wolves three days after that. A 1-4 dip turned around to a 5-0 surge for the Raptors (13-6). But fortuitous scheduling has just a little bit to do with that. More impactful has been an offense, led by scoring ace DeMar DeRozan (career-bests of 28.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.3 APG), that has set a flamethrower to the nets. How nice would it be to be ranked fourth in the league for 2FG%, third in the league for 3FG%, and second for FT%? On top of that, how nice it is to rarely turn the ball over (12.2 TOs per game, 2nd-lowest in NBA), the third-best team at taking care of the rock when adjusting for pace? The Raps have the second-best O-Rating in the NBA (113.0, a shade behind Golden State), an efficiency affording Dwane Casey, a typically defensive-minded coach, quite a few luxuries. For perhaps the first time, DeRozan has established himself as the clear 1-A superstar on the team, allowing point guard Kyle Lowry (20.6 PPG, 41.4 3FG%, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG) even more room to roam than in past seasons. With Lowry and Toronto-born backup Cory Joseph running the show, there’s no urgency for second-year guard Delon Wright to return from offseason shoulder surgery. Their biggest free agent signing, Jared Sullinger, also needs not rush to come back. Toronto has more than gotten by with rookie first-rounder Pascal Siakam in the starting power forward spot, and that should continue today as All-Star Paul Millsap (hip) recuperates back in Atlanta. Seventh-year vet Patrick Patterson (35.9 FG%) has had a horrendous start to the season offensively, but he has been fine with coming off the bench behind Siakam and generally staying the heck out of the way. Casey doesn’t have to overwork center Jonas Valanciunas (career-high 13.2 PPG and 9.6 RPG), and rookie Jakob Poeltl barely has to leave his seat. That’s because Casey’s finally making judicious use out of former Hawks project Bebe Nogueira (69.2 FG%; 1.8 BPG in just 18.5 minutes/game). Perhaps most importantly to Casey, he can choose which night of back-to-backs he can rest DeMarre Carroll, the Junk Yard Dog looking more like a Westminster finalist (15.3 PPG, 59.0 FG%, 47.8 3FG%, 1.3 SPG and 1.3 BPG in his last 4 games) in recent days since his last respite. How do the Raptors decide which game to play Carroll, like when choosing between the Lakers and the Hawks? “I think it’s more how we’re going to guard, the best guy on the team, whoever the best player is,” Carroll suggested recently to The Athletic. “If we’re playing a team that’s a (more balanced) team, I’m more prone to sit out that game rather than if we’re playing a Kevin Durant or a LeBron or Paul George. I think that’s the biggest factor, I feel.” Well congratulations, Kent Bazemore, you’re considered higher up on the best-player rung than Luol Deng. Carroll was DNP’d in last night’s game against the Lakers, and Toronto didn’t need his help to drain the Lake Show with a resounding 113-80 win. Playoff hero Norman Powell had been used sparingly, but logged a season-high 32 minutes and contributed 16 points in Carroll’s absence. Now JYD ver. 2.0 will get a chance to sink his teeth into the Hawks. His 3.8 career PPG and 2.2 RPG against Atlanta (nine games, just two starts) are his lowest marks versus any team. Casey may disagree with Carroll’s assessment, or the notion that Carroll would like to get a healthy go at his previous NBA team (“I don’t care what the player wants to do. It is what is best for the Toronto Raptors to win.”), but DMC is accurate on one aspect. We’re certainly a less “balanced” team than the Lakers right now, in more ways than one. The Hawks’ offense continues rocketing toward the NBA basement, most recently in last night’s 121-85 abomination at the Lowlight Factory. Best demonstrated during the 2016 Playoffs versus Kevin Love and the Cavs, the Hawks have shown that their confidence and composure fall completely through the floor whenever they struggle to get former sharpshooter Kyle Korver (2-for-8 FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs) going while their opponents have no problems having a field day from the perimeter. Terrence Ross (42.6 3FG%) will try to help Lowry and Carroll go bombs away against the Hawks again, one night after Detroit posted a demoralizing franchise-record 17 treys (58.6 team 3FG%) on Atlanta, the Pistons’ opponents (6-for-24 3FGs) unable to provide much of a response. Last night’s game (re-)confirmed that things are likely to get worse for the Hawks (10-10) before they get better. But one sliver of good news for the Hawks is they’ve played well on the back end of back-to-backs this season, posting a 4-1 record (wins over HOU, CHI, MIL, at IND, loss at GSW) while outscoring opponents 106.0-98.8. That last home drubbing by New Orleans was followed by an 11-point road victory in Indiana. So it’s reasonable to expect, even while a little shorthanded, that the Hawks will cobble together a more competitive effort from the jump in Toronto. Without Millsap around, it’s essential for Dwight Howard to have much more than a casual observer role, as was the case yesterday (1-for-4 FGs, 6 rebounds, 5 personal fouls) against Andre Drummond and Detroit. Howard (1.1 APG and 6.0 Assist%, lowest since his rookie season 12 years ago) must be more active than sitting around the basket waiting for lobs and putbacks. Getting Dwight more touches and relying upon him to kick the ball back out of the paint when double-teamed should begin to thaw the Atlanta offense, force DeRozan and Lowry to expend more energy than they’d like on defense, and allow the Hawks to stay in contention for much more than one quarter tonight. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record