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  1. “I’m feelin’ good! I just thought you should kno-ooow!” Ahhh, the joie de vivre of one Mr. Tilman Fertitta. He never knew Lottery Love like this. “I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games,” Fertitta shared with Tim McMahon of ESPN, his team a win short of its current total. “…when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I’m just happy.” Clap along if you know that sucking is what you wanna do. “I know it’s unusual to feel this good with your coach and your general manager, but I do.” Happy to oblige, says Stephen Silas and Rafael Stone, respectively. Beginning with the end of Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching run of T-Mac and Yao in 2007, through the next decade of ownership under Leslie Alexander, to the oversight of Fertitta from 2017 through last season, teardowns weren’t something Houston liked to do. Through the Rick Adelman, Kevin McHale, and Mike D’Antoni coaching eras, the Rockets haven’t fallen below .500 in a season. Not until this one. The constant up until this season was Moneyball Morey, the analytics guru and offseason sultan of swat. Daryl Morey had a good thing going, swinging for the fences in deals for fellows like James Harden and Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook, until his Hong Kong Oopsie tweet at the outset of the 2019-20 season had Tilman tap-dancing, and Morey unsure, with just two Conference Finals trips over the course of his lengthy tenure, whether he could be Fertitta’s No. 1 super guy for much longer. In the midst of this uncertainty swooped Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk. Swinging a four-way deal at 2020’s Trade Deadline with Minnesota and Denver, the Hawks sent out what was left of Evan Turner and Brooklyn’s first rounder to the T’Wolves, and a 2026 second-rounder to Houston. What Atlanta got back for their trouble was a handshake with Nene, and this season’s leading rebounder and third-leading shot blocker, Clint Capela (14.3 RPG; 1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, per bball-ref). Without much argument the Hawks’ Southeast Division-winning season MVP, Capela could get to take one last dig at his old employer as the Rockets pay Atlanta a visit (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) to close out their season. Atlanta (40-31) may not have much left to play for – first-round homecourt depends on what our first-round opponent, the Knicks, do this afternoon – so hopefully Capela won’t have to make an imprint on this game for terribly long. Drafted as a raw 20-year-old in the lower end of the first round by Houston back in 2014, Clint had been the only thing resembling a homegrown Rockets product, as Morey swore off developing his own draft picks, or even taking them, while going for the gusto. Olivia’s hubby (she works for MGM Sportsbooks now) Sam Dekker, selected the next year in 2015, was the last selection the Rockets took with their own first-rounder. The last Houston draftee to actually play, just a little bit, for this team? 2017 second-rounder Isaiah Hartenstein, who was cut before the team made it to the 2020 Bubble. I will suggest here that, while there were worthy questions about the Swiss center’s health heading into the 2020 Playoffs, the Capela deal was probably the first warning to the rest of the organization – to D’Antoni, Harden, Westbrook, P.J. Tucker – that it was finally time to get out while the getting’s good. Scratch that… we can maybe go back a few months more, to Eric Gordon’s four-year, $76 million extension in August 2019, for the first sign. Capela’s expulsion, excused with the D’Antonian desire to go all-out with the so-called “small ball” in a playoff run that almost ended prematurely against Westbrook’s former club, was probably just the loudest clarion call. “I’m still p*ssed,” tweeted Eric Gordon, in reply to McMahon highlighting Capela’s blocks triple-double in one of this past January’s wins over the T’Wolves. Gordo knows that Capela, when healthy and playing to his strengths, is among the more efficient bigs in the league, and his presence at both ends of the hardwood makes otherwise good guards look great. https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/HOU/ As an example, look at bball-ref’s list of Houston’s “Top 12 All-Time Players”, based on cumulative Win Shares, a nearly elite list of Hall of Famers and NBA notables. Look who is sitting there, in Hawks gear, at #12 (Atlanta’s “#12” is Atlanta’s Own, Josh Smith, pictured in Rockets gear. Life is a circle). You can’t convince me that, had he ridden out most of the five-year, $90 million deal he inked from Morey and Fertitta in the summer of 2018, and had he again been playing to his strengths, that Clint (13th in Win Shares this season) wouldn’t be sitting there to the left of Otis Thorpe by the time he left Houston. Thorpe played in that town from age 26 until his age-32 season. Capela doesn’t hit 32 until 2026, coincidentally, the year Atlanta’s second-rounder to Houston comes due. Building a little more wisely around the All-NBA talent they reeled in, the Rockets could very well have kept going at title runs for the better part of the next half-decade. Instead, everyone, from the GM and coach to the stars, either jumped ship or demanded a life raft. Left behind, Fertitta is determined to convince us he’s on the Good Ship Lollipop. How else can Fertitta feel? That I-just-threw-up feeling after overindulging for too long can come with an odd touch of relief. Stone and Silas are providing the right amounts of plop-plop-fizz-fizz until Fertitta is capable of saddling back up to the table. With a combined $63.5 million in guaranteed cash due next year, John Wall and Gordon get to sit out the back half of this season with injuries. Joining them on the shelf, today, are as many as nine other players, including Booby Trapper Sterling Brown, Bubble buster Danuel House, 2020 offseason prize Christian Wood, and Harden consolation prize David Nwaba. That leaves Kelly Olynyk, out to pump up his 2021 free agency profile, and D.J. Augustin as the sole recognizable veterans in the season finale on Silas’ roster. Otherwise, it’s been plug-and-play for Silas with a host of two-way players, ten-day dudes, can-tank-erous castaways, other teams’ second-rounders, hardship pickups and unsigned free agents. Here’s the thing, though. No one who plays is encumbered with the unspoken obligation of losing ballgames. Thanks largely to a 20-game midseason freefall after starting out 11-10, Houston (17-54) has secured the #1 pre-Lottery slot, and nothing they do today imperils or improves their Top-4 Lottery odds. Everyone on the floor is encouraged to go for the 20-and-10 boxscore line of their choosing. The Clippers, who sat virtually all of their starters on Friday while satisfied with their Top-4 playoff standing, learned this the hard way as Kelly Olynyk went almost Westbrook (20 points, 11 ASSISTS, 9 rebounds) on Jay Scrubb and the Clipper scrubs in Houston’s home finale. Our old friend Khyri Thomas (that Snell-Dedmon deal still looks pretty good, btw) got snatched up recently on a ten-day deal, and has averaged 16.4 PPG, including 17 in the 122-115 win over the Clips. Brown’s Booby Trap buddy Kevin Porter, Jr. (22 points and 8 assists vs. ATL on Mar. 16) is having himself a ball. Milwaukee lost Giannis less than a minute into their game in Houston just a couple weeks ago, and KPJ decided to assert himself as the star of the game, pouring on an obvious career-high 50 points and 11 assists as Tucker’s Bucks found themselves fresh out of answers. The Rockets won that game, too. Silas has his Rockets dousing the net with three-point attempts early and attacking the rim late. If they can find hot hands at the outset, they then hope to get enough and-1’s and foul calls to break opponents’ will. The show hasn’t translated well on the road, with Orlando and Minnesota being their sole away-game wins since February 4, and a lack of quality defensive communication (119.2 road D-Rating post-All-Star-Break, worst in NBA) is a big factor. But whether it’s fireplug forward Jae’Sean Tate (20 points, 3-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC), highlight hunter KJ Martin (career highs of 27 points and 10 boards @ UTA on May 8; 26 points the night before @ MIL), or April pickup Armoni Brooks (18.5 PPG in last six games), you can’t know who is going to show up to State Farm Arena feeling dangerous. Under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks reached the .500 plateau with a 119-107 win in H-Town on March 16, and never looked back. They fended off a third-quarter charge from Tate 25 points, 4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL), a showcased Victor Oladipo, and momentary Rocket Mason Jones to pull away in the final frame. Leading the charge off the bench on that evening was rookie big Nathan Knight (season-high 6 FGs), his 15 points one off of the season-high he tallied two nights before in Cleveland. One more productive outing from Knight can help Atlanta give Capela and Onyeka Okongwu (questionable, sore shoulder) a breather before the Hawks barrel into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in four years. Has it only been four years? The Hawks’ “Recess”, under Schlenk’s watch, wasn’t all that painful, especially compared to other NBA so-called rebuilds, like the one Houston has initiated. While there was a lot of stress over mantras like “Play Badly for Bagley!”, “Stop Tryin’ for Zion!”, and “Fall ‘til you Ball!”, Atlanta dipped their toe intentionally into Lottery waters on three occasions, failed to finish Top-2 in any of them, and basically came away with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Okongwu. Not quite a Murderer’s Row of certified future All-Stars, but a solid Pickpockets’. While not all had gone perfect with these young Hawks’ development from the jump, with one-time All-Star Trae by far the closest to instant stardom, the aforementioned panaceas on the Pelicans and Kings, as of today, are still looking forward to clinching their first playoff trips, while guys like Ball and Ja Morant still have a lot of work to do on that front this week. Thanks to some ownership-encouraged expedition on the Recess, smart additions like Capela, and a well-timed coaching shift, Atlanta has already built themselves back better than they were when Coach Bud was stuck with the GM duties. This is already a more comprehensive, cohesive, and competitive collective than the crew Bud endured in 2017, Atlanta’s final postseason go-round to date. Whether it proves to be any more successful at playoff-time than when Dwight and Dennis’ goofball goonie gang bowed out to Wall’s Wizards will depend on how things play out, today and in the coming weeks. Fertitta, who has never gone the Recess route before, is taking a much longer tack, echoing management views held by one of Morey’s predecessors in Philly. “I can tell you this: I’m going to be patient,” he vowed to McMahon. “We’re not going to go do something stupid to try to get into the playoffs next year,” (are you writing this down, Messrs. Gordon and Wall?), “that then will prevent us from competing for a championship in a couple years.” Houston’s got a 52.1 percent shot at keeping their pick in the Top 4 this year, otherwise it heads to OKC as part of Morey’s Westbrook rental scheme. For the same reason, they’ll get to play that game again in 2024 and 2026. But they’ll get their hands on Portland and Brooklyn’s first-rounders this year, and possibly the Nets, Pistons, Wizards and Bucks in future ones. What’s the rush? “It could be 2027,” Fertitta exclaims, “that we get a Top-5 pick that ends up being the next greatest player.” This is true. He could also end up being the next Kris Dunn. Either way, you rising 7th Graders in AAU and tweens around the world, consider yourself put on notice. Work on Your Game. Because, let’s face it, there’s a chance you’re already on some Rocket scout’s Top-50 watch list. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. I still got "MAULED BY A PACK OF GNOMES" and "STUNG BY MURDER HORNETS" on his bingo card. ~lw3
  3. “…starring CHRISTIAN WOOD, in a Very Special episode of The Fresh Prince of Bellaire.” Houston… y’all done been had problems! This is all the Astros’ fault, you know. Those sheisty sign-stealers’ rendition of “Bang the Can Slowly (2017)” brought Houston their long-coveted World Series trophy. But the price for that is bad mojo, in the form of a litany of mopey stars, and their coaches, hightailing out of town as fast as they can. 2017 Series MVP George Springer can’t even go to Toronto, yet he still inked a deal with the Blue Jays to try getting the stink of the Stros’ side-eyed successes off of him. Trading off Nuk Hopkins from the Texans was sure to cost Bill O’Brien all his jobs, eventually. But O’Brien’s antics also cost the team J.J. Watt, who demanded out only to wind up with Hopkins in Arizona, and the soul of franchise QB Deshaun Watkins, who continues to play hardball holdout until he gets the exit he desires. Even the Dynamo, according to MLSsoccer.com, “experienced as much roster turnover as anyone in the league.” Longtime star Alberth Elis wound up getting put in mothballs to end 2020’s season as the futbol club negotiated his sale to a Portuguese side. And then, there’s the Rockets. What’s left of them, anyway. When Clint Capela last played at Toyota Center, he was holding the fort inside the paint for two former league MVPs, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, playing together in the backcourt. Then, team exec Daryl Morey made good on his wish to make Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets fullcourt fast, trading Clint to Atlanta and pushing 34-year-old undersized P.J. Tucker into the five-slot full-time. For their trouble, the Rockets got a seven-game series win over Russ’ and James’ former team, and a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the eventual world champs. In the offseason, Morey read the writing on the wall and bailed for Philly. Harden went COVID-clubbing, snuck a fat suit under his jersey, and made it clear to everyone without saying it aloud he wanted no part of continuing to play for broke-boi owner Tilman Fertitta. The new management swapped out Westbrook for the injury-recovered John Wall in hopes of appeasing their biggest star, but to no avail. Now, Harden’s with the Nets’ new assistant coach -- D’Antoni, who feigned an interest in retiring before showing up in Brooklyn. The obligatory tribute video commemorating the useful tenure of Capela (questionable, heel pain) will appear on the Jumbotron this evening while his Hawks and his former team, the Rockets (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) are in a timeout. Meanwhile, you can bet there’ll be one Houston player jabbing another in the ribs while looking up and asking, “psst… hey, that guy used to play here, for real?” Hopefully, that jab doesn’t bruise anybody’s tender ribs, because head coach Stephen Silas is down to fielding objectively tall volunteers from the Toyota Center stands. Backcourt holdovers from Capela’s last games here, Eric Gordon (out, groin strain) and Ben McLemore (out, ankle sprain) are sidelined, while Bubble-COVID-tester fan Danuel House is questionable with a sprained knee. Traded from Cleveland in the Harden deal that also begat Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum remains in a walking boot. Wall banged up his knee in practice and will miss his fourth consecutive game. The club cut loose Wall’s UK pal, DeMarcus Cousins, who can’t quite boogie like he used to. Tucker is getting the Elis treatment, the new regime figuring out, in addition to second-rounders, how much cash they can allocate to Tillman’s pockets in exchange for the sneakerhead. Former Net Rodions Kurucs was clinging to limited minutes until a strained oblique put him on ice. Would-be leading scorer Christian Wood (listed as doubtful) shined for 17 games before going down with a severe ankle sprain, and now he is eager to follow the lead set by David Nwaba (out, sprained wrist, put off surgery and played last two games injured) and return ahead-of-schedule. That’s to help out Silas, in part, because their Rockets, tonight, could tie the record 17-game losing streak set back during the franchise’s maiden voyage, in San Diego in 1968, during an era when NBA teams played virtually every day. With a lanky kid named Pat Riley coming off the bench, those Rockets snapped their skid with a single win over juggernaut Philly, only to close out that season with 15 more losses in a row. That was also the pre-Lottery era, so coming away with Elvin “The Big E” Hayes in the subsequent Draft worked out pretty nicely (all you six-foot-two middle-schoolers named Enyeka, don’t even try it). San Diego turned it around with Hayes, fellow rookie Rick Adelman and Riley to guide the Rockets to a playoff series with the Hawks the following season. Houston (11-26) did the whole Wile E. Coyote gag of feeling pretty good about themselves after running off a cliff (“Harden, Schmarden!”) before peering down. After winning seven of eight games, the Rockets have not won since Wood departed in the third-quarter of their win at Memphis on February 4. The average losing margin over the past 16 games has been 18.25. In the rematch with the Grizzlies just 24 days later, host Houston was waxed by 49 points. Now, Silas has no choice but to push the pace (4th in NBA) and the on-ball pressure (15.3 opponent TO%, 6th in NBA; 19.4 points off TOs, 4th in NBA) as much as possible and hope for the best, while shifting the team’s re-development into overdrive, beginning with their latest star at point guard… Kevin Porter, Jr.? Porter was a pouter in Cleveland, the troubled guard hissy-fitting his way out of town for a conditional second-round pick. The Rockets promptly sent him over to the Glubble with their Rio Grande Valley outfit, re-fashioning him as a ball-dominant point guard. Now back with the “big” squad, and starting in two of his past three games, the results have been nice (17.4 PPG and 8.3 APG in 32.4 minutes/game), particularly when he’s not jacking pull-up threes (19.0 3FG% on 7.0 tries/game). “We’re not going to overstate anything,” Silas told the Houston Chronicle after KPJ dropped 27-and-8 on the Jazz in Utah last Friday, “But we think we got something there.” Aiding Oladipo (last 6 games: 24.3 PPG, 30.8 3FG%, 1.7 SPG), for whom the Trade Deadline sharks are already circling, Porter will likely share the floor with fellow default starters Jae’Sean Tate (only Rocket to appear in every game this season), esteemed Hawk-Killer Sterling “Black Lightning” Brown, and two-way center Justin Patton. The rookie Tate, Patton and another recent pickup, high-flying two-way forward Anthony Lamb, are the only Rockets exceeding 220 pounds, part of the urge for Wood to usher his way back onto the floor as soon as possible. If Wood gets his way and plays tonight, Atlanta may feel inclined to counter with the resting Capela. But it sure helps Hawks coach Nate McMillan to know he has a fellow Nate ready to help domi-Nate, too. Nathan Knight balled within control during Atlanta’s fifth-straight victory, Sunday’s refreshing 100-82 win over the Cavaliers. Knight was active on the boards, showing off a dash of handles, splashing a three and drawing trips to the line (9-for-10 FTs) to eclipse his rookie highs with 16 points and 9 rebounds. That was sorely needed by a Hawks club that was competing without first-rounder Onyeka “The Dream” Okongwu and Capela. Especially given the league’s relaxed two-way rules, Nate Mac shouldn’t hesitate to mix Knight into rotations more going forward. On National “John 3:16” Day, John Collins (last ten games: 18.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG; team-highs of 22 points and season-high 13 boards vs. CLE) recalls the embarrassment of letting Cleveland off the hook with their ten-game slide last month (should be noted he left that pivotal game, a 112-111 loss, before halftime for concussion protocols). Collins isn’t not eager to experience anything similar today in H-Town, especially considering the Hawks (19-20) need to get above .500 any way they can in the final warmups before their weeks-long West Coast road trip, and that the Rockets have to save something up for a visit by Golden State tomorrow. Trae Young and the Hawks suppressing the turnovers (16.7 TO% in March, second-highest only to Cleveland) while getting back consistently in transition would go a long way toward keeping the groove going tonight. This year, Atlanta surpassed Houston (and Boston, and DC), to become America’s seventh-largest media market. After fits and starts (lay off social media replies for now, LP) the Hawks are finally beginning to give its growing legion of eyeballs more reasons to tune in. Conversely, no matter where you turn, Houston’s teams have given its sports fans more reasons to zone out, one departing franchise player at a time. But, hey, Stros, enjoy your Commissioner’s Trophy. Hope it’s still shiny! Last Houston sports superstar left in the room, please, turn out the lights! That is, after all the windmills get de-iced. Too Soon? Erin go Bragh! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. Holadipo, Batman! ~lw3
  5. "And, at Center, from UCLA! Trevo -- excuse me, what? He refuses to come out of the locker room? Come on out here, Trevor! It's not gonna be so bad!" ~lw3
  6. “Fear the ‘Band! No, wait, Fear the Braid! Nah, how ‘bout…” No, don’t sit THAT former MVP guard on the Houston Rockets! After getting overwhelmed by Nikola Jokic and the reasonably full-strength Denver Nuggets, our Atlanta Hawks close out their three-game homestand catching a bit of a break. The Rockets will only field one of their two recent Podoloff Trophy bearers tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX). Trouble is, it’s probably not the one we’d prefer. I can’t recall a recent opponent who arrived at State Farm Arena after playing the night before. But Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is cognizant his team has a bigger road game tomorrow in Oklahoma City. So he’ll sit one former Thunder star, Russell Westbrook, and start Eric Gordon (14.7 PPG, 40.9 3FG% in last 3 games) in hopes of getting him up to speed after he missed 22 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Running neck-and-neck with Denver in the West behind the Lakers, the Rockets (24-11) have mostly been true to form. But there have been slip-ups versus lesser foes, especially in the past month or so. We all remember our weary Hawks’ H-Town Funk back on November 30, when the only human alive capable of averting James Harden’s red glare off three days’ rest (60 points, 20-for-23 FTs, 8-for-14 3FGs, 8 assists) was Coach D’Antoni. But since that 158-111 deep-frying, while the Rockets have gone 11-5, the Ls did not come against some Murderer’s Row of opponents, not even some Jaywalker’s Row. Granted three MORE days off after lambasting the Hawks, Harden dropped 50 in San Antonio. Yet the Spurs, who played without LaMarcus Aldridge, weren’t having it. Harden went a perfect 24-for-24 from the line, but just 11-for-37 from the field. Shooting a collective 37.8 percent from the floor, Houston also let Lonnie Walker go wild in the 4th quarter and blew a 16-point lead, dragged into a double-overtime defeat. A week later, back at Toyota Center, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker were rebounding out of their minds against Sacramento. They’d have finished with more boards if somebody had helped them box out. Late struggles to control the glass or force turnovers set the Rockets up to be crowned by the Kings’ three-point bombers, first Buddy Hield and then Nemanja Bjelica, as Sactown earned a rare good-feel ending in a one-point win. Barely a week after that, D’Antoni rested Westbrook on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off a resounding win in Orlando. Even with Blake Griffin stumbling through a knee-dless 0-for-7 FGs in the space of 15 minutes, even with Harden pouring in 39 points one night after making 54, the Pistons pummeled the Rockets’ shorthanded bench and cruised through the second half toward a 115-107 victory. Many of us were looking up through our plates of stuffing on Christmas Day to ask aloud, “Hold up… the Warriors WON?” The Dubs found Harden being held to one free throw, and missing it, in their stocking, and had our old friend Damion Lee more looking like David. Before a shocked home crowd, the league’s then-worst team, Golden State, pulled off the surprise of the day, beating by 12 a Rockers team that beat them by 17 the prior month. As foreboding as the Rockets want to seem, a win tonight over the Hawks would make Atlanta the first team the Rockets have swept this season. That includes the Pelicans, whom Houston already beat twice. This time around, D’Antoni sat both Westbrook and Harden in N’Awlins, one night after beating the Nets back home. One of My Main Men, Isaiah Hartentstein, got the start as Capela continued resting a bruised heel. Even with Gordon suiting back up, Danuel House, Hartenstein and the remaining Rockets couldn’t manage the load against the renascent Pels, who had four 20-point scorers and enjoyed a 41-point fourth quarter that would make even the Hawks chuckle. Although they’re now 5.0 games behind LeBrongeles, D’Antoni still has high hopes. “We are tied for second (in the NBA West), if I’m not mistaken,” he told The Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani and reporters after Monday’s practice, before the Nuggets inched ahead of them in the standings. “Not bad. We want to be first. We still have a goal to finish first. Definitely doable.” He’s not wrong. You never know when an untimely bad fall or two have the Lakers crashing back to Earth. But the Rockets understand that having two of the last three MVPs on the roster is a luxury. When one, or both, get DNP’d, others have to step up and take care of business versus lesser opponents if they want a real shot at homecourt throughout the Western playoffs. The team the Hawks last beat, Indiana, was coincidentally the team they lost to in November, before having to fly south in the dead of night, right into Harden’s flailing arms. They beat the Pacers here at The Farm despite coming off a back-to-back, despite missing a few useful components, like Jabari Parker (shoulder), who will be sidelined for at least a couple more weeks, and John Collins. The latter has returned to help Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and the Hawks confront the Rockets with a more balanced offense, which is precisely what Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce desires. Pierce tried to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Jokic on Wednesday, daring the Pillsbury Passboy to seek out teammates, and he tried to keep every other Nugget from beating them. Jokic got his career high in points, yet the Hawks (8-29) were just one motivated Birthday Boy away from putting another late scare into the Nuggets. Fortunately for Atlanta, aside from the inactive Gerald Green (foot, out until at least the All-Star Break), the nearest Rocket with a birthday coming up is Comeback Player candidate Ben McLemore. He won’t blow out any candles for another month, but Ben Mac will be eager to celebrate his contract becoming effectively guaranteed for the full season yesterday (Gary Clark, alternatively, was placed on waivers). Harden (HOU 13-1 when he scores 40 or more) is bound to get his buckets no matter who the Hawks throw at him, and with Cam Reddish and Huerter (both DNP @ HOU in November) available, the Hawks will have fresher legs to throw his way. But as the Spurs and Pistons showed, if you keep him cool from three-point range without falling for his foul-drawing tricks, and have him almost as likely to turn the ball over as he successfully pass for assists, you can keep your offense in the game. The Rockets have generally been fortunate to sit or rehab most of their older players, like Nene (adductor, out indefinitely), Thabo Sefolosha (9.9 minutes/game) and Tyson Chandler (8.7 minutes/game). The exception is Tucker, the 34-year-old who logs 36 minutes per game and has yet to be load-managed. The Hawks would do well to keep Tucker on a swivel tonight, sometimes helping Harden, Gordon and Austin Rivers to keep Young (10-for-16 FGs, 7 assists and 3 TOs @ HOU, teammates 28-for-72 and 10 TOs) in check, often helping block-happy Capela secure the rebounds in the paint against Collins and the re-energized Alex Len, always trying to keep teammates from over-exerting and short-circuiting themselves with foul trouble. Entrusted with the backup center minutes, Hartenstein can also slide over to the 4-spot in a pinch. But if Tucker has to sit for extended time, it’s more likely fans at The Farm could enjoy the long-awaited power forward battle between ex-Hawk Thabo and Vince Carter. Talk about Land of the Lost! Enough talk about Tyrannosauruses. Let’s talk Tokyo. “It’s one of my goals to represent this beautiful country.” That was James Harden’s sentiment towards the beautiful US of A, in September of this past year, no winks or crossed toes involved. Our purple mountain majesties weren’t enough to sway The Bearded One, 2012 Gold Medalist and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP, from competing in 2016’s Summer Games or last year’s Olympic-qualifying World Cup. “This decision was a painstaking one that I did not take lightly,” Harden had written for him, about the announcement to withdraw a couple months before the 2016 Games in Rio, coincidentally hours after Westbrook did the same. The NBA season, which had ended with a first-round loss to Golden State, saw him log an NBA-high 3,125 minutes in the regular season and nearly 200 more in the playoffs. Averaging more minutes this season (37.8 MPG) than he has at any time since 2015-16 (38.1), one wonders whether Harden again tells a desperate Jerry Colangelo, “not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” Team USA’s president may not be as much of a hardliner as he portrayed when he was miffed by the 2019 World Cup defections. Colangelo did say he wouldn’t forget those “who you thought you were going to war with (bad time for figuratives, I know) and who didn’t show up.” But he didn’t exactly embrace those he rode to a seventh-place finish last year in China, with all due respect to Mason Plumlee. Consider that the gold medalists of 2016 had names like Boogie, DeAndre, Draymond, Kyrie, Melo leading the way. Players who sat out this NBA season (KD, Klay) to rehab for the next. Players who might be deep into the postseason when the time comes to confirm a re-up (Lowry, PG, Jimmy). Then, add players who sat out of 2016 who have free agency to think about this summer (AD), or LeBron, or Steph. Frankly, with the opponents on the world stage improving by the day, you can only trot out Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan so many times. Harden may indeed avoid a change of heart this time, although it would be nice for him to know who is joining him in the backcourt. Whether he makes the commitment or not, shouldn’t Colangelo give a call to the only American, aside from Harden or Damian Lillard, to have already logged 200 assists, 100 threes, and 200 free throw makes? A young man, a probable NBA All-Star, who will have some free time between, say, mid-April and July, to help Team USA go for the gold? Now I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know my men’s and women’s basketball teams can run others out the building, when they’re properly staffed. And I think it would be quite fun to have Gregg Popovich calling a timeout and chewing out Trae Young for bouncing the ball off some poor Iranian’s head before stroking a three or lobbing a dime, all while assistant Lloyd Pierce is smooth-talking us out of an international incident. The way things are going halfway around the globe, the decision for anyone to even go in the first place might be made well before Young gets to rock any shows from here to d*mn Japan. But as long as we’re still on, Jerry, for the sake of this great land of ours, have your people call Trae’s people. Domo arigato! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. "It's why I always clean my plates, Daryl. Haven't you heard, there are children starving in Africa?" Still trippin' on the tryptophan today, so I'm gonna give Daryl Morey and his MIT Sloan Analytics peer-inspired empathetic activism a break today. Our Atlanta Hawks (4-something or other) will try to gin up enough energy, following last night's overtime close call in Indy, to keep up with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX). "Don't Foul Harden, and Box Out" remains the prime objectives as D'Antoniball is still in effect (NBA-highs of 45.4 3FGAs and 29.6 FTAs per game, NBA-low 44.7 2FGAs per game). Yet I do wonder whether D'Antoni and the Rockets (105.6 Pace, 2nd in NBA) are trying to pull a fast one on opponents in more ways than one. While foes are preoccupied with the downhill drives of Harden (everyone's favorite Hawk at the moment, DeAndre' Bembry lives for this matchup, but he will get to watch rookie De'Andre Hunter face off with Harden more today) and Westbrook, and all the volume perimeter shooting. But they're making barely a third of their three-point attempts (33.4 3FG%, 26th in NBA), producing more field goal offense by pummeling the interior (55.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA) and drawing favorable whistles. With their most accurate shooter in the rotation, Danuel House (illness), doubtful to play, the Hawks can afford to treat Harden's stepback threes and Westbrook's open takes as a white flag of sorts. The Hawks' on-ball defenders just cannot allow them to go around, or through them. Clint Capela (illness) is also unlikely to participate tonight, and Nene (abductor) remains out of commission. So you can imagine Westbrook and Harden will be doing the most to compensate offensively with paint drives and dishes. The Hawks' swingmen will want to keep Westbrook and Harden from enjoying straight-line trips into the paint, keeping the ballhandler in front or alongside them, and they may be rewarded with one of those mid-range shots D'Antoni despises. When alleviated from guarding Westbrook, point guards Trae Young, Tyrone Wallace and Evan Turner will need to help secure rebounds and spark fastbreak chances for Atlanta (note to Bembry: when going 1-on-3, consider passing every once in a blue moon). Houston allows the league's second-most fastbreak points (16.7) per-48. Young and Jabari Parker will have to trade off roles of help-rebounding and sticking with P.J. Tucker (52.6 corner 3FG%) in the corners. Keeping the short-staffed front line of Houston (12-6, beat Miami on Wednesday at Toyota Center to stop a three-game slide) on their toes -- Tyson Chandler starts... more minutes for Thabo Sefolosha at the 4-spot? -- and potentially in foul trouble will require the triple-double-hunting Rockets stars to be more than mere rebounders on defense. That's all I got! Time to go reheat some mac 'n cheese. Let's Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “But, it was just charades! I yelled… LOW CUT SOCKS!... not, HOLTKAMP SUCKS!” Here’s hoping for a thoroughly uneventful game for the Atlanta Hawks, for a change! Their West Coast swing continues with a visit to the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in H-Town), who are out to secure their first-ever (???) 60-win season tonight. The main question is, how easy can the Hawks make this for the Rockets? Houston (59-14) won handily last night at the Toyota Center, a 114-91 victory over the playoff-probable Pelicans that was only contentious as far as the barbs and fouling on the court. Conference Finals Virgin Chris Paul (sore hamstring) was rested for the past two games, and coach Mike D’Antoni would like to DNP a few more key components. But James Harden isn’t inclined to go along with that plan. Harden (NBA-high 30.9 PPG, 36.2 Usage%, 30.1 PER and .293 WS/48) remains in front of the pack contending for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But when the Beard peeks over his shoulder, he sees a hairy situation: MVP candidates Cavs’ LeBron James, the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, and the Pels’ Anthony Davis are gaining on him as the regular season nears its end. Even with his Rockets a virtual lock for the Western Conference’s #1 seed entering the playoffs, Harden has no desire to shift to cruise-control. It’s up to D’Antoni to make sure Harden starts, and gets to lead on the floor when it’s time to salt games away. But the reigning Coach of the Year will also strategically massage his marquee player’s minutes. Impressively, Harden is likely to earn his MVP award with a downtick in per-game playing time for the second straight season (35.6 MPG, down from an NBA-high 38.1 in 2015-16). Hawks fans would have hoped for a different season where Houston would pass along their first-round draft pick. But the Rockets, unlike the Warriors, have stayed fairly healthy, and GM Daryl Morey concocted a squad deep enough with veteran role players (now including future Hawks jersey retiree Joe Johnson) that its winning collection of stars and starters don’t have to over-exert themselves, or play too far outside of their comfort zones. Just as Paul (7.9 APG, lowest since his rookie season) has effectively reduced the necessity for Harden (8.6 APG, down from an NBA-high 11.2 last season) to distribute the ball as much as last year, Clint Capela (18 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 steals vs. NOP) obviates the need for Harden (5.3 RPG, lowest since 2013-14) to dominate on the glass. Unlike some former MVPs, you won’t catch Harden (27 points, 8 assists, 9 TOs vs. NOP) wrestling around in the paint with the JaVale McGees and Mike Muscalas of the world when it’s time to vie for a tough rebound. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (4-for-9 3FGs vs. NOP, 4 assists, 4 TOs) serves as the sole traditional point guard in the rotation with Paul out, and he’ll need help from his Harden (1.8 SPG, 6th in NBA) and his defensive swingmen to get a bead on a rested Dennis Schröder (16 points, 7 assists, 4 TOs @ GSW on Friday; questionable with an ankle sprain). With Trevor Ariza, Joe and P.J. Tucker trying to slow Schröder’s rolls, catch-and-shoot opportunities will abound for Taurean Prince (team-high 20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 2 steals, 2 blocks @ GSW), Tyler Dorsey (3-for-7 3FGs @ GSW), Damion Lee and Andrew White. If Dennis is a scratch, that primary dish-and-swish facilitator role would fall to Isaiah Taylor, who moved the ball well against G-State (6 assists, 2 TOs in 19.5 minutes on Friday). Keeping the Hawks (21-52) within shouting distance late won’t be the threes, but the free throws, a factor that has worked well in the Rockets’ favor this year (75.0 opponent FT%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Atlanta clanked an inordinate 11 freebies on 20 attempts in Oakland on Friday, as much a factor in the Hawks’ inability to continue putting the second-half scare to the Warriors (and Others) as anything else. Mike Budenholzer is fine coaching a beatable team that doesn’t beat themselves, so expect better focus by his Hawks from the charity stripe tonight. For Houston, it’s just a matter of getting the win total into the 60s, and zeroing in on sewing up the 1-seed, as quickly as possible. For Atlanta, it’ll just be nice to not be the backdrop to a lead story on SportsCenter for a little while. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. Let’s sing it, James! “Don’t Be Tardy for The Party… oh-oh-oh-ohhh-oh-oh…” You won’t get much zippy commentary on here about the “Real” “House” “wives” “of” “Atlanta”, as the divas grace the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Houston Rockets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Southwest in HOU) with their presence at Philips Arena today. I zoned out on that show for keeps years ago, back when the recently-ousted Phaedra, Kenya, and frenemies couldn’t figure out for themselves how much of a creep Apollo was. Or maybe before that, when Porsha intimated that the Underground Railroad had to have room for tracks. While RHOA is here to promote this weekend’s kickoff of Season 10 of the franchise, Hawks fans understand as well as anybody when a near-decade run of something grows a little stale. But so long as they don’t stage a(nother) one of their catfights, having to get separated by Harry and leaving behind weave remnants to get swept up off the floor, I’m cool with it. What I will delve into is how short-sighted I have been about Mike D’Antoni. Remember how we all cackled when his Phoenix Suns went all-in with their zany but successful Seven Seconds or Less offense? Well, guess who his boss was back then? Steve Kerr. It takes two to tango on the floor, and these days, Kerr, D’Antoni and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer are advocates for an overall pace of play that, today, leaves even that Steve Nash-led team in the dust. As noted recently by Kevin Arnovitz, the 2004-05 Phoenix team that won 62 games, led the Western Conference and reached the conference finals before succumbing to Coach Bud’s and Coach Pop’s Spurs in five games, led the NBA with a 95.9 pace. With more teams going smaller and pushing the rock, the ’05 Suns’ tempo (opponents included) would rank 26th in the league as of today. D'Antoniball would be panned by many, including yours truly, over the later years, but it was not designed to accommodate wholesale dysfunction, as was the case with the Melo-Amar’e Knicks and the Kobe-Dwight Lakers. But most NBA coaches and players have since bought in. Thanks to gung-ho GM Daryl Morey, D’Antoni’s Rockets (6-3) are balancing that need-for-speed with former halfcourt heavyweights James Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul (the latter out for another week or so with a bruised knee) directing traffic. D’Antoni has implemented a style that compels opposing defenses to pick between two evils and think fast. “Everything that [opponents] preach defensively,” the Rockets coach told Basketball Insiders, “we try to do opposite, or try and get to a spot they don’t want to be in.” Pringles isn’t wasting time running plays, and he’s certainly not wasting time with what he perceives to be inefficient shots. Houston has taken just 5.0 mid-range two-point shot attempts per game, and the next-lowest team, Memphis, has been hoisting nearly twice as many (9.5). As with Kerr’s Warriors, if you, as a shooter, are going to settle at this range, you had better make it, and Houston leads the way with a 48.9 FG% in this zone. The gameplan is the same for many Atlanta opponents. Build up a lead by drowning the Hawks in three-point buckets in the first half (17.4 first-half opponent 3FGAs per game, 3rd in NBA), shift inside and let the Hawks wear themselves out trying to claw back in front, then put them away with daggers in the second-half, once the wing defenders are too tired to keep up and overcompensating for the shorthanded presence in the middle. D’Antoni’s Rockets (NBA-high 54.1 three-point attempt rate) seem to be built to do just that. While it’s not a problem tonight, the design of an offense that turns a good chunk of the floor into a vacuum could pose challenges for the Rockets’ most significant off-season acquisition. Paul’s mid-range runners and spot-ups were a bread-and-butter of his offense for years, but he began to fully expand his range in earnest during his final season with the Clippers, taking 5.0 three-point shots per game and hitting a career-best 41.1 3FG%. Harden (26.6 PPG, 6th in NBA; 9.2 APG, 3rd in NBA) of course dominates the playmaking (35.0 usage%, 2nd in NBA), at least until CP3 returns to the fold, and how effortlessly the pair share the ball when on-court together remains to be seen. But either of them will need castmates that can hit more successfully from long-range. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Eric Gordon’s career-high 23.9 PPG sounds nice, until one recognizes he has lofted 11.8 attempts per game from three-point territory alone (31.9 3FG%). Despite the added three-point shot volumes, forwards Ryan Anderson (37.3 3FG%) and P.J. Tucker (35.0 3FG%) and swingman Trevor Ariza (25.0 3FG%) are all shooting at-or-below their career averages. If wings Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore are doing their letter-best, switching onto Harden and canvassing the three-point line, then Dennis Schröder (probable, despite his sprained ankle; career-low 6.5 D-Reb%) and the Hawks’ remnant guards would do well to help their foul-prone bigs secure the rebounds produced by the many clunkers veering from the rim. Any Hawks player trying to D-up a Rocket standing around the mid-range two-point area, or even in the paint outside the restricted area, risks wasting precious time and falling into D’Antoni’s traps. The Hawks (1-7) could turn the tables anytime Houston turns a blind-eye toward the perimeter. The Rockets have allowed first-quarter opponents to hit an NBA-high 50.8 3FG% in the opening frame, the sole team to have allowed foes to sink over half of those shots. The Rockets do have defenders, like Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tucker, and Clint Capela (NBA-high 37.8 D-Reb% and 70.7 FG%). But those players would rather be occupied trying to stem forays by Schröder (one of 11 NBA players with 45/35/90 shooting split, min. 100 minutes played) into the lane, access that should be more unfettered without CP3 around. Atlanta will need Marco Belinelli (48.9 3FG%), Luke Babbitt (season-high 16 points @ PHI on Wednesday, 2-for-4 3FGs), and Prince (48.1 3FG%) to get early perimeter touches, allowing the Hawks to play their opponent even or in front, rather than scrambling from behind later. If everyone does their tasks for the Hawks well tonight, from the outset, the only “Atlantans” scratching and clawing on the court could be the ones aiming for a boost in tweets and TV ratings. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “Once I pop, I can’t stop!” Rise Up! A heaping debt of gratitude is due to our dear Atlanta Falcons. That’s not just because they worked their tailfeathers off to make it to the “Superb Owl” in Clutch City, where our Hawks coincidentally face off tonight with the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, TNT if you dare; better yet, mute it and set your audio to 92.9 FM in ATL). By making it all the way through January and into February, the Falcons allow Atlanta’s sports media to defer the thankless job of watching the Hawks with any real discerning eye. Usually, by the time mid-January rolls around, there are no defensive tackles to hide behind. Down in Florida, pitchers and catchers don’t even report for another week or two. Aside from the hoopla over National Signing Day, it’s a wrap for Bulldog and Jacket football, after the obligatory mid-tier bowl games. The march to March Madness rarely matters around these parts. By MLK Day, and for at least the month that follows, it’s our Clean Birds that usually get center stage in Atlanta’s sports scene to themselves, whether they’re ready or not. Thus, it’s fortunate that the ATL has little time to dwell on yet another fullcourt flub by the Hawks, at the hands of another undermanned but spirited team, this time in Miami last night. You might imagine the network that Ted Turner built won’t want to focus much time on these pitiful performances tonight, and thank goodness for that. If anything, the appetizer for tonight’s Warriors-Clippers matchup will center on the splendid campaign underway in HTX, led by MVP leading candidate James Harden (career-highs of 28.1 PPG, 11.3 APG, 8.1 RPG) on the floor, and steered by COTY candidate Mike D’Antoni off of it. Quick Hawks-related commentaries will be provided as to how much better the Rockets are doing without Dwight Howard (a first-round exit, Houston went 41-41 last season), and how much better All-Star Paul Millsap would look donning a more media-favorable jersey by month’s end. Not much attention will be directed toward the Rockets’ recent swoon. Yes, they’re at a respectable 36-16, third in the NBA behind the Dubs and Spurs. However, they’ve slowed somewhat in recent weeks. Houston beat the Hornets back on January 10 to cap off a 20-2 surge up the standings. Since then, their 5-7 record in the past 12 games includes wins over faltering Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and a very tired Sacramento team this past Tuesday. Thanks to 6th Man award candidate Eric Gordon (3rd-most 3FGs through 52 games in NBA history; career-high 54.6 eFG%) and Ryan Anderson (career-best 41.2 3FG%), the Rockets are the very example of the once-despised NBA team that Lives By The Three: first in takes (39.6 3FGAs per game) and makes (14.4 3FGs per game; 11th in 3FG%). As was the case for Miami yesterday, Houston hopes another bombardment from the arc will draw a white flag from the visitors early. But Houston depends on more than just three-point shooting to win. Buoyed by Harden’s bulldozing style as a burly ballhandler (10.5 FTAs per game; 1st in FTAs in 4 of the past 5 seasons), Houston (2nd in O-Rating) also takes the most free throw attempts (24.7 FTAs per game; 18th in FT%). The clock-stopping whistles gives the Rockets the mid-game respites they need when hooping at such a high tempo (4th in Pace). You’re likely to hear how much happier everyone is with Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell interchangeably manning the pivot, in lieu of Howard. What you’ll hear less about is that the Rockets’ defense has softened in recent weeks. Their D-Rating (107.0) since January 1 is masked by the kind of offensive firepower and efficiency Dwight could have only dreamed about during his Texas tenure. The ball-dominating Harden turns the ball over a ton (5.8 TOs per-36, most in NBA history), and live-ball TOs often spell buckets for the opposition (18.0 opponent points per-48, 4th-most in NBA) if Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza don’t get back quickly enough. On the season, only Harden’s triple-double compatriot Russell Westbrook plays on a team that allows paint points (47.5 opponent points per-48, 2nd-most in NBA) more frequently. How did the Hawks coast past the Rockets to a 112-97 victory, back on November 5 at Philips Arena? Most significantly, they coaxed a season-high 22.3 TO% out of their opposition. Houston’s season-high 26 player turnovers (also most numerically by any Hawks opponent) included eight TOs from Harden himself, half of those by way of two steals each from the active hands of Millsap (5 steals vs. HOU) and Kent Bazemore (3 steals vs. HOU). Other things that helped on that day: outscoring Houston in the paint, 62-46; Harden (24 first-half points) and the Rockets going cold from outside (3-for-16 3FGs) in the second half; Bazemore and Malcolm Delaney going 4-for-4 on corner threes; and allowing the Rockets just 13 free throw shots. But forcing turnovers set the tone for the game in the Hawks’ favor. Atlanta tends to be at their defensive best when they are denying interior points (and free throws off cheap fouls) while forcing teams into mistakes and second-guessing before their planned shots can go up. They’re 9-2 (with no blowout losses) when they force TOs in more than 16.0% of opponent possessions. Such was not the case Wednesday, when the Hawks forced just 12 turnovers from heat players (10.6 TO%), allowing Miami to score seven more field goals and 18 more points-in-the-paint. The desperation to keep Hassan Whiteside from raising that paint deficit any higher is likely to cost rookie Taurean Prince some time. Prince was not even inserted into the game until the final quarter with the game already out-of-hand. But if he and Thabo Sefolosha (groin; 3 steals vs. HOU on Nov. 5) continue missing time, expect another early call to Prince’s fellow rookie wing DeAndre’ Bembry to help fill the void. His three assists off the bench was a team-high for a Hawks team that, suddenly, forgot how to move the ball. On that note, starters Dennis Schroder (14 TOs, 2-for-11 3FGs in past three games), and Bazemore (-144 plus/minus and 1.7 APG in Atlanta’s 12 double-digit defeats) ought to spend at least twice as much time on enhanced communication between the sidelines as they spend on hijinks from the bench. Fun and frivolity can go a much longer way when your team is not getting their heads beaten in on a weekly basis. Millsap at least expresses a willingness to take charge on the court (“I’ve got to do a better job of leading these guys from the start,” he told the AJC). But ultimately, it’s on the Hawks’ supposedly serious coaching staff to ensure more effort is going into floor leadership than cheerleading. When a racecar repeatedly blows a tire during the opening laps, at some point, pressure needs to be shifted away from the driver, and toward the pit crew. When it comes to defense and decision-making, will there be another all-too-familiar half-hearted effort in the opening quarter by Atlanta on Groundhog Day? Alternatively, might another furry creature familiar to Hawks fans -- the Possum -- rear its head tonight at the Toyota Center? Fortunately for the Hawks, Atlanta and the TNT booth could not care less, either way. All anyone hopes to see these days are Arthur Blank’s latest dance moves. And if all goes well this Sunday, the Hawks will enjoy another week of critical reprieve. Rise Up and Get Down, Arthur! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “Truth be told, Dwight… this wasn’t my first choice of fingers...” No one can shake me of my conviction that we are destined to see the first ever 200-point score by a team in an NBA game. Yes, it may take an overtime or two to get there. But in my mind, the only question is whether the 200 mark will be reached by the Atlanta Hawks’ visitors, the Houston Rockets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, ROOT Sports Southwest in HOU), one of the Rockets’ opponents, or both. “This town of 2.2-million population ain’t big enough for the two of us!” That was the theme of what would certainly make for the most passive-aggressive Texas Western flick ever, starring James Harden and Dwight Howard in a behind-the-scenes 2015 shootout for the heart and soul of Clutch City. The reigning Players’ Choice MVP of the time prevailed, as Howard hopped on his saddle and high-tailed it on a player option, heading toward greener and more familiar pastures in Georgia. Back in Houston, it’s more of a Spaghetti Western now, the Rockets directed by their new quick-draw coach, Mike D’Antoni. Aside from his uncanny Pringles-logo resemblance, he’s best-known for his former success with Six Seconds or Less in Phoenix. But SSOL was SOL in New York, and in Los Angeles, where he briefly coached Dwight in an ill-fated adventure. So now D’Antoni has taken up a new tack, and it starts and ends with Harden. The Bearded One, previously not well-regarded for his ability to involve his teammates, has been moved to point guard, a plan ushered into motion more fervently with the injury absence of Patrick Beverley (knee scope). As a result of that plus the reduction of post touches brought on by Howard’s departure, Harden’s offensive production has gone through the roof (31.8 PPG, 12.4 APG, 7.0 RPG. 60.0 2FG%, 39.1 3FG%) all would-be career-bests through the first 5 games for the 3-2 Rockets. But what of SSOL? Houston’s current pace is actually below-average (98.9 possessions per-48, 19th in NBA), significantly below the 100.1 (7th in NBA) run under the stopwatches of Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff last season, a team that crawled into the playoffs as an 8th-seed at 41-41 and stole a first-round game from Golden State. What’s happening now is, D’Antoni’s direction has Harden spreading out teammates on offense, granting him exclusive rights to dictate the action. If he can get by his man and blow to the bucket, drawing fouls and earning free throws, that’s great. He and Trevor Ariza have more reliable floor-spreading options now with former Pelicans Eric Gordon (17.6 PPG, 39.5 3FG%) and Ryan Anderson (42.3 3FG%) arriving via free agency. Backup big Nene, formerly of the Wizards, has joined the crew and is capable of lofting quality shots outside the paint (team-high 23.5% of 2FGAs from 10 feet and beyond, at 50.0 FG%). So the new gameplan under D’Antoni takes longer to execute, but manages to be simpler: if Harden has an advantage to exploit, he’ll take it. If not, be ready for the pass. Don’t like the look you’ve got? Time’s a wastin’! Get it back to Harden. Start the cycle over. Time running out on the shot clock? Get it back to Harden, and let that man cook. The Rockets’ two losses have only been by single digits on the road, to the are-these-guys-for-real Lakers and the Cavs. One night after losing in Cleveland, the Rockets (already playing their 5th away game tonight) committed a season-high 19 turnovers but otherwise dissected Derrick Rose and the Knicks’ defense along the way to a convincing 118-99 victory. Joakim Noah and Kristaps Porzingis would come out too high in an effort to keep Harden (30 points, 15 assists) from barreling downhill toward the basket. Their actions left a cornucopia of his teammates, like Montrezl Harrell (8-for-11 FGs, 10 rebounds, 5 offensive) open in-and-around the paint. Gordon and Anderson (8-for-16 3FGs) found themselves getting whatever looks they desired as well. As for defense… oh, c’mon, nobody’s got time for that! Rocket opponents are shooting 52.1 eFG% (4th-highest in NBA), and for any team with Harden and D’Antoni, the best defense (109.0 D-Rating, 27th in NBA) is one hella good offense. As teams like the Wizards (3rd-highest opponent eFG%) can tell you, their one saving grace is when a team like the Hawks (1-for-12 FGs to start last night’s 95-92 road loss) come out looking like The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Continuously pitiful shooting by the pressing Kent Bazemore (0-for-7 FGs vs. WAS) and Kyle Korver (1-for-9 FGs, 4 TOs vs. WAS) kept the Hawks behind the 8-ball the entire evening on Friday, and subpar output from The Anchorman, Paul Millsap (5-for-14 FGs, 5-for-10 FTs vs. WAS) couldn’t stop the Hawks’ ship from sinking in the first half. Home cooking and the Let’s-Go-Hawks fan rhythms may help a bit, but ultimately the Atlanta offense must find some level of consistency no matter the gym or the opponent. Who in the Atlanta backcourt is going to keep up with Harden, the 6-foot-5 ballhandler? Valid question! Dennis Schröder is post-up-able, rookie Malcolm Delaney just got here, Bazemore is still finding his bearings in a variety of areas, and Korver cannot reasonably be expected to stay with Harden. So, expect a very busy day, at both ends, for reserve Thabo Sefolosha, the team leader in steals (2.8 SPG, 2nd in NBA). The active hands of Sefolosha and Millsap should be able to spark the suddenly dormant Hawks’ transition offense. Howard’s recent matchups in the paint could work well as an episode of This Is Your Life. Just three years after being hailed as Houston’s savior and the next in a long line of great Rocket centers, he found his floortime getting eroded by management last year in favor of a second-year player: Clint Capela, who now takes Dwight’s place as the starter. Howard (20 points, 12 rebounds, 4 TOs vs. WAS) should again be able to put up high-volume points and rebounds, but his role in the Hawks offense must expand with more picks to free up Schröder (20 points, 3 assists, 4 TOs vs. WAS), this duo the only starters who bothered to put a net-positive imprint on last night’s game. Capela, meanwhile, will hopefully be the second-best Swiss player on the Philips Arena floor tonight. The Hawks need a diversified offensive approach to keep the Rockets off balance, and sound rebounding to control the clock and keep the ball out of Harden’s hands as often as possible. Atlanta could choose to engage in a three-point shootout with Houston (league-high 35.4% of offense from 3FGs; behind only the Lakers with 24.6% of 3FGs unassisted). But the chances are good that they won’t like the outcome of that movie. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. Probably not a grand idea now, but IF the Rox were planning on calling Harrell back up, in advance of their playoff dash, now they'll have to wait. The 5 game-ban includes Rio Grande Valley's final 3 regular season games, plus two D-League playoff games. ~lw3
  13. “Tinder Love, Love So Tinder. Holding Me Close to You…” The NCAA doesn’t consider a 7-seed in the West Region beating a 3-seed in the East Region to be an upset. But fans of the Atlanta Hawks would feel just a tiny bit of a letdown if the Atlanta Hawks don’t ground the Houston Rockets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) on Swipe Right Night 2.0. After all, the Hawks have been making their case to march back toward a second-straight Final Four. Not too wild about the prospect of a $20-mill-plus-making Al Horford? The Rockets envy you. They’ve been shelling out that amount for Dwight Howard (61.8 FG%, 2nd in NBA; 28.9 D-Reb%, 6th in NBA) for a few years now, and are poised to compete with themselves this summer by paying him much more. The 30-year-old center has played a steadier role in the Rockets’ halfcourt offense, but still shoots a hack-able 50.4 FT% as his usage has fallen to the level of his rookie season. The Pride of The SWATS, Howard remains an interior help defender par excellence. But leaving his own assignment unattended leads to performances like Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (32 points, 13-for-22 FGs, 11 rebounds) yesterday. And it’s Dwight’s Rockets, not the Hawks, who allow a league-high 11.7 O-Rebs per game. Atlanta’s driving guards will be adequately checked by Patrick Beverley, and shooters by Trevor Ariza (career-high 2.1 SPG), but they can’t cover everybody. Cuts by Hawks forwards and wings will render Howard a paint traffic controller and allow for jumpers galore by Al Horford and Paul Millsap (combined 11-for-20 FGs on Thursday, as the Hawks cruised against depleted Denver). The one guy who can stop D-12 from returning to Clutch City in free agency also happens to be the team’s other pillar. There have been reports that, ever since the 2014 playoffs, the two have been coming-and-going through GM Daryl Morey’s revolving door and asserting that this one-horse town’s not big enough for the two of them, each Rocket pleading with Morey to work the phones for a deal involving the other guy. The animosity has been evident on the floor as well. “No chemistry with that group. (Bleep)ing horrible!” That was former Hawks star Jason Terry’s postgame utterance, after a final loss before the All-Star Break sent Houston back below .500. Since Kevin McHale got dispatched in November, that duty of mixing this toxic brew into something palatable has fallen to J.B. Bickerstaff, a finalist for the “At Least You Tried!” award from the Bart Simpson Foundation. Bickerstaff tried to weave Collipark’s Finest, Clipper outcast Josh Smith, into the starting power forward spot after the Break. Suffice to say, it hasn’t worked out. After Josh shot 30.4 FG%, 21.1 3FG%, and 20.0 FT% while totaling one steal and no blocks in five starts, Bickerstaff has been Smoovely explaining why he’s been DNP-CD’ing Smith in the last seven games. “Josh is taking care of his body right now, working to get himself healthy,” Bickerstaff said, cryptically, to the Houston Chronicle. “When he got here (from the Clippers, in late January), it had been a while since he played. We kind of thrust him into a position and made him play. His body wasn’t prepared for it at that time. So, he’s taking this time to get his body prepared so he can help us down the stretch.” That’s Bickerstaff’s story, and he’s sticking to it. In lieu of Smoove, whose body allegedly isn’t ready, the Rockets have been turning to Donatas Motiejunas – yes, the guy who couldn’t pass a physical, nixing his trade to Detroit at the deadline – and Michael Beasley, fresh off of winning MVP in the Chinese Basketball Association and scoring 63 points in the CBA All-Star Game. Donuts put up 17 points in last night’s home win against the T’wolves, and Beas matched that number coming off the bench against, perhaps ironically to Smith, the team that drafted him. Bickerstaff also likes to go small and shifts Trevor Ariza to the 4-spot on occasion. Back in the Highlight Factory, expect to catch Josh and JET stepping away from the bench to grab a food court slushie when Kiss Cam time comes around tonight. Houston’s PB didn’t come with much of a J in the past, but Patrick Beverley’s jumper is getting wet (career-best 40.2 3FG%), as demonstrated last night against Minnesota. The Rockets point guard nailed five of his nine three-pointers and still found time to dish out a career-best 10 assists as his pairing with Harden (29 points, 14 assists, 9 TOs, 3 steals) kept the Wolves hungry all night. Hawks guards will need to close out on the perimeter when Beverley or Ariza are hovering. Houston religiously avoids settling for mid-range shots (10.7 FGAs per game, 3.6 fewer than the next-lowest team). It’s rarely a bad thing to be compared to Artis Gilmore, but Harden is well on his way to relieving the A-Train of an unwanted NBA record. The reigning Player’s Choice MVP is going to blow past Gilmore’s record of 366 turnovers (4.5 per game), compiled while playing for the ne’er-do-well Bulls back in 1977-78. Harden raised his goofs-per-game average on Friday to 4.6, and while the assists are up from his real MVP-runner-up season, they’re not increasing relative to the turnovers. Harden runs into a Hawks team that ranks 3rd behind Houston (10.2 team SPG) and Boston with 9.3 steals per game. While all the signs are there that this should be a wild back-and-forth game, the Rockets allow 0.5 more PPG off of turnovers, while Atlanta scores a net-positive 2.7 PPG (4th-best in NBA). The Rockets will push the tempo with Harden looking to run fullcourt and draw contact, allowing the league leader in free throw attempts (career-high 10.5 FTAs per game; 86.7 FT%) to feast from the line. Whether it’s Beverley on Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, or Harden on Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway, Jr., those Hawks have to keep in front of their man and allow forwards to provide help with strips and pass pickoffs. Those help defenders should include a rested Kent Bazemore. Tonight will feature the rare on-floor meeting of guys who once swiped right on Kardashians. Kris Humphries will provide the requisite help around the paint to keep Howard and Clint Capela from producing second-chance opportunities (13.7 second-chance PPG, 5th in NBA). As is the case with turnover-transition points, the Rockets are a net-negative in this department, allowing 14.4 second-chance PPG (4th-worst in NBA). Expect Millsap, Humphries, and the Hawks’ big men to judiciously try extending Atlanta’s possessions. The Rockets will want to avenge the 121-115 loss to the Hawks in H-Town back in late December. Howard had 30 points (10-for-12 FGs, 10-for-18 FTs) and Harden added 26 (6-for-16 FGs, 11-for-12 FTs). But after starting out with a 41-25 first quarter and enjoying an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, Houston was overwhelmed by Horford (30 points, 5-for-7 3FGs, 14 rebounds), Teague (22 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover), and Bazemore (26 points, 5-for-9 3FGs), three of four Hawks starters with 20+ points. But for Kyle Korver’s 0-for-10 3FGs, or Schröder being in an abbreviated “player development” exile, it could very well have been five. Ty Lawson scored 14 points in that defeat, but can’t be kicked around anymore since he was waived in February, putting a lot more of the workload onto Terry. Bickerstaff needs to find enough defensive solutions to keep the Rockets close, and they’ll have to weaken Atlanta’s wing rotation with foul trouble to allow Harden to play Heroball at the close. With consistent on-ball pressure, transition defense and ball movement on offense, the Hawks can continue giving its fans more reasons to be smitten by what they’ve been accomplishing lately. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. Should auld acquaintance be forgot… and NEVER brought to mind? 2015. Phew! What a year, eh? Couched around the greatest postseason push in Atlanta Hawks history, and a record four All-Star Game participants, was the second-most successful calendar year of regular season games ever experienced by the franchise. From the rafters, Dikembe Mutombo wags a disallowing finger at those daring notions that Calendar Year 2015 was the greatest Hawks regular-season campaign ever, or that the most successful January-to-December stretch came from players rocking a Pac-Man jersey. Deke, Lenny, Smitty, and Mookie’s Hawks went 59-25 (70.24%) in 1997. In The Year of Many People’s Lord 2015, the Hawks had a chance to match that win total by winning last night’s and tonight’s road games. Even failing that, no outcome tonight will stop the gaggle of Hawks including Bud, Bawse, Jeff, and Sap from the 4th-best percentage record in any calendar year of its speckled NBA history (going all the way back to Tri-Cities). Currently at 67.86%, that’s a mark bested only by the 1997 edition, and the teams rolled out by the Czar with Nique, Doc, and Kevin in 1986 (69.62%) and 1987 (68.51%). To separate from the ’87 players and stand alone in second-place among calendar-year win totals, the 57-27 Hawks of 2015 must take out the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast) tonight at the Toyota Center. Speaking of Toyota… oh, what a feeling. If you’ve felt a tinge of a letdown after the wild success that marked the first half of 2015, try getting sympathy from a Rockets fan. H-Town was in the NBA Final Four last season, too, and even won a game once they got there. They have the Players’ Choice MVP, plus a “real” center who is still supposed to be, even at age 30, among the upper tier at his position. Furthermore, they went out in the summer to acquire a speedy point guard that shores up the position, at least offensively, and conceivably made it where their high-usage superstar shooting guard no longer has to handle the rock so darn much. None of that was supposed to add up to their current record of 16-16. Central to the issues in Space City was putrid defensive effort. A team that finished among the top-ten in defensive rating in 2014-15 (100.5, just ahead of Atlanta’s 100.7, 6th in NBA) has dropped down to 23rd so far this year (104.4, just ahead of Philadelphia). Rocket opponents are shooting 63.4 FG% in the restricted area (2nd-worst in NBA) and are making hay at the corner-three zones (2.9 corner 3FGs per game, 3rd-most in NBA). A team starting Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley, along with the emerging Clint Capela, shouldn’t have so much trouble getting stops on the regular. Of course, decent team defense takes a five-man effort. And the fifth starter has been a problem. Houston’s superstar, James Harden, built up his MVP credentials in 2014-15 with gritty defensive effort. But the Bearded One seems to have reverted back to the downright hairy defense of yesteryear, the lackadaisical stuff that once made him a YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons. Harden leads the way with a career-high 28.4 PPG (2nd in NBA), but his usage rate (even with Ty Lawson in tow) has inexplicably risen to a career-high 32.8%. His shooting percentage of 41.7 FG% (career-low 33.5 3FG%) the worst since his thunderous rookie season, and his turnover percentage of 15.3% is a career-high. Meanwhile, his defensive box plus/minus (-0.7) and defensive rating (106.1; net rating of -3.4 in home games) indicators suggest he’s about as ineffective a defender as he has ever been. It turns out it might actually take a Rocket scientist to figure out not only how to get Harden re-focused, but to find the proper balance of the Lawson/Beverley platoon. Beverley was in-and-out to start the season with an ankle injury. Lawson started the first 11 games before getting deposed, and has been a Porter Ranch-scale disaster (34.8 FG%, 31.0 3FG%) as a shooter and a defender. While one team tonight has an All-Star center who is only accused of pacing himself through the season, the other team has a well-paid center who openly admits to doing exactly that. Howard has been slowed by issues with his knee and back. As he looks forward to VetMinning his way to retirement at age 40, Howard, now in his twelth NBA season, doesn’t mind one bit when the coach rests him for whole quarters, or whole games. Dwight has become, essentially, a offensive board-crasher and help-defender who hopes nobody hacks him and sends him to the line (50.3 FT%, his worst in last three seasons). Howard’s partner-in-crime Josh Smith left over the summer for Los Angeles, and filling the hole at the power forward spot has been like trying to spackel a drive-thru window. Donatas Motiejunas just returned, and Terrence Jones (career-low 45.5 FG%) has been underwhelming in his return to action, and Montrezl Harrell, well, just no. So Capela has been granted trial-by-fire at the 4-spot. McHale’s navy tried to plug all the leaks, but after just 11 games (4-7), the commander was tossed overboard. J.B. Bickerstaff now steers the wheel, and while the team has crawled back to .500 under his watch, it’s hard to say whether they would have gone 12-9 under Kevin McHale anyway. “Over and over again,” Bickerstaff bickered Mark Jackson-style, after the Rockets fizzled late in New Orleans on Saturday, “we’ve disrespected the game”. Despite a pleasant Christmas Day defensive effort in a home win over the Spurs, J.B. wants to stop the “ugly Rockets” from rearing their heads. Jettisoning Lawson in favor of Jason “JET” Terry and Beverley has generally worked out, as has putting more trust in Thabo Sefolosha’s Swiss bro Capela (14.7 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA). But Bickerstaff has a better chance of righting the ship if he can find steadier contributions of the bench. Houston’s reserves manage just 27.1 defensive rebounds per-48 (28th in NBA) and their turnover ratio (16.6 per 100 possessions) ranks 27th. The Hawks (20-13) couldn’t hit the broad side of an Indiana barn last night (41.9 team FG%; Kyle Korver 0-for-8 3FGs), and was as sloppy with the ball as we’ve seen all season long (19.0 TO%, worst since losing in Brooklyn on Nov. 17). And yet they still found themselves, on the road, within a bucket of the lead with just under a minute to play. The defensive work to limit Paul George’s effectiveness, and coax him into questionable shots without fouling, allowed Atlanta to stay within reach until the sloppy end. They’ll need a similar effort tonight versus Harden, but they also need to keep a shoot-first guard like Terry from thinking he can be Monta Ellis. Whichever Hawks guard doesn’t draw Beverley should find minimal defensive resistance (unless Bickerstaff leans on Corey Brewer, or the barely-used K.J. McDaniels) and should have ample opportunity to make amends tonight. That guard is likely to be Korver, and the struggling shooter must work the corner spots with reckless abandon tonight, in order to shake off his slump. Capela and Howard will crash the glass, and create extra-chances. But Atlanta also did well yesterday making outlet passes off the Pacers’ offensive rebounds tough last night and should continue to do so again whenever they fail to snare the defensive rebound. Getting to the paint and making the extra pass without drawing charges and getting rejected will help the Hawks go into 2016 on a high note. Have a Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record