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  1. “Bah! Flu, Schpu. When’s first pitch at the Phillies’ game?” (1918) 76ers! Hawks! Live from Philadelphia (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly). Where Trae Young and the Atlanta – I’m sorry, what? Oh… Where Lou Williams gets to face his former – huh? Oh, really? Fine, try this on for size... Where Cam Reddish returns home… am I good? Great! … to match wits with Shake Milton and the -- okay, what now? I’m just filling up space again, as y’all know what’s going on out here in these streets. A league-wide postponement doesn’t make much sense to me at this juncture, not without a reasonably clear picture of when the current variant waves are expected to subside. But neither does continuing to usher in wannabes and has-beens as grist for the Mo’ Money Mill. I suspect The Association and The Union are trudging through the revenue-generating Christmas Day games as best they can, and maybe through New Year’s and MLK, before announcing plans to outright cancel games whenever Eight isn’t Enough. Maybe they reformulate the back-half schedule again, to even things out in the standings. Maybe they don’t, and just let it ride. It’s not a matter, in my view, of whether the league anticipates 20-through-50-year-olds, largely vaxxed and mostly boosted, roughing it through this Hawaiian Barbeque flavor of the Original Recipe virus and coming away vastly unharmed. Much like @AHF and others, I think they’re looking with trepidation at the legions of elder staff that tag along. Especially coaches. The folks where, if Delon Wright passing up open corner jumpers for fruitless forays along the baseline doesn’t kill them, “Hawaiian BBQ” Omicron or “Extra Crispy” Delta might come close to doing the deed. Nobody is interested in hearing about Wesley Iwundu and Nate Robinson grueling it out in Game 7 of The Doc Rivers Memorial NBA Finals, Presented by YouTubeTV if Disney’s Overlords Allow Us. Nor are we down to hear Ryan Ruocco offering heartfelt thoughts toward Nate McMillan as the latter wages with the ravages of the Velma Variant (we’ll be on Scooby Doo characters once we wear out the Greek alphabet). We’ve got some ol’ fogies out there along the sideline, the Pops and Docs, the Carlisles, Caseys, Gentrys, and Thibodeaux. Bud, who hits 57 next week, is no spring chicken, and his eyelids are already like 74. Even among the not-quite-sunset set of NBA taskmasters, there are a few with underlying health conditions that need not be complicated by an internal war among spores. What I’m getting to here is that, while the Atlanta Hawks players’ days aren’t numbered, the remaining games, before escalating bad news cuts into their chances to rally for a non-Play-In postseason spot, may soon be. We remember where we were, in the spring of 2020, when the season’s disruption led to the sobering realization that a chase for an 8-seed probably wasn’t happening, but an 8-month hiatus before the NBA Draft was already underway. That said, the dreaded Sense of Urgency need not be the Hawks’ sole motivation for the forthcoming slate of games at Philly, New York and, eventually, Chicago, Cleveland, Portland, Sactown and The Cryp. It would be nice to hear Christmas Day ESPN commentators speak of our Road Warrior Hawks, warts and all, who will have managed to win six straight away games with victory at Wells Fargo Center tonight, nary a loss in the space of a calendar month. Blowing chunks versus teams good and bad in our home confines, as was the case last night, is worthy of broadcast discussion. But so is the road streak, too. To earn some semblance of praise, though, they first have to figure out the riddle of Joel Embiid, who struggled with his stamina after his bout with Extra Crispy, but has been Finger Lickin’ Good of late, particularly late in close games. 17 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter (9-for-10 FTs) helped Philly (16-15) overtake their rival Celtics for the 108-103 win in Boston on Monday, ending the Sixers’ three-game slide. We caught a glimpse of this back on December 3 at the Farm, as Doc rolled with Embiid and Danny Green for the entirety of the final stanza. Embiid sunk key buckets and nabbed a steal during the 20-9 fourth-quarter run that helped the visitors, shorthanded suddenly by Tobias Harris’ absence, edge the Hawks 98-96 and keep Atlanta’s home-game woes rolling along. Joel would follow this up with mastery of the Hornets for two games in Charlotte, plus a strong finish back home versus Golden State, keeping Sixer fans from slamming panic buttons. Sticking instead with Danilo Gallinari against the Sixers, Coach Nate didn’t throw Clint Capela and other starters back into that game until it seemed too late to thwart the momentum shift. McMillan now has neither of Capela or Gallo at his disposal. But he does have one Onyeka Okongwu, who has been spirited and efficient in his comebacks from injury. Gorgui Dieng has to at least be serviceable on defense, unlike his start in yesterday's disastrous loss to whatever's left of the Magic. But feed Gwu Tang and fan him in the post, contracting Embiid around the rim, and Danny Gr—what’s that now? Oh… Tyler Johnson and Seth Curry may find themselves overextended trying to keep up with Atlanta’s perimeter shooters, inclusive of Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huer—hmm? I’m not wishing or foretelling ill of Coach Doc, or anyone subject to the pan-pizza getting served up hot ‘n fresh around the globe right now. Amid this holiday season, here’s hoping that my droll humor isn’t the only thing that proves not to be infectious. Merry Christmas and Happy Healthy Holidays to You and Yours. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Who Wants a T-Shirt?!?” Will the Reign of Trae-ror continue tonight? Trae Young is back home, looking to extend his 30-plus-point scoring tear to six straight tonight at State Farm Arena. More importantly, he’d love for his Atlanta Hawks to extend the NBA East’s best home record to 9-2, in front of a packed house and a national TV audience, at the expense of the Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ESPN). Yes, the Sixers are climbing out of a rut, one that has the team averaging 98.1 regulation PPG (42.6 team FG%, 30.3 3FG%) over their past eight matches while pushing the ball at a snail’s tempo (NBA-low 96.3 possessions per-48, as per NBA.com stats). But the dip has been quite explanatory. Joel Embiid (40.5 3FG%, 40.8 2FG% this season) went on an eight-game health hiatus after engaging a bout with You Know What. Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe have all missed multiple games for a similar reason, while Harris, Seth Curry, and Danny Green have been working through nagging injuries. Harris has parked himself well outside the paint at critical possessions of recent games (last 6 games: 43.2 FG/22.7 3FG/70.6 FT shooting splits; zero FTAs in last 2 games) to save up his energies, stifling his impact as Embiid’s complementary scorer. Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey has filled the bill as best he can as a passer (5.0 APG, 0.8 TOs/game over past 8 games), but he hasn’t been able to buy buckets lately (29.9 FG% in last 5 games), and his scoring his negligible if he can’t get to the free throw line. Whatever the rationales, coach Doc Rivers is gratified that, in explaining away the 76ers’ struggles of late, he doesn’t have to put up with The B.S. “I literally don’t talk about it,” Rivers explained to reporters, ahead of the last Sixers-Celtics game, asking about the ongoing ordeal around Ben Simmons. “I coach the team and the guys that I can see every day. I let Daryl (Morey, not Hall) and Elton (Brand, not John) deal with all of the other stuff.” Rivers knows the voices summoning the name of his once-auspicious Aussie would ring louder, had a healthier Philly collective come out of the gates this season at 2-8, before the recent 3-9 downturn. Instead, an 8-2 start that included satisfying wins over the Bulls (twice) and the Hawks has most of the Phanbase in chill mode, and Doc living on Easy Street, at least for now. Philadelphia would be in even better shape if they could simply get out of their own division. Wednesday’s sloppy 88-87 loss in Boston, lowlighted by a fatigued Embiid settling largely for cherry picks (3-for-17 FGs; 18 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks), dropped the Sixers to 0-5 versus Atlantic foes. While they won’t play divisional opponents for a while, Philly’s schedule remains tough over the next couple weeks, with the Jazz, Warriors, Thunder-plundering Grizzlies, heat and Nets on the slate following this current road trip. If the Sixers (11-11) can’t snatch away a victory tonight at The Farm, they’ll head toward a double-dip in Seth’s hometown of Charlotte having won a single in-conference game, at home versus Orlando, in the space of a month. With the Nuggets’ Austin Rivers shelved, Doc isn’t the only head coach who has a son fighting through You Know What. Jamelle’s pops Nate McMillan returns to the Hawks’ sideline tonight after having joined Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Coach Pop among active coaches in The 700 and Up Club, in absentia in Indiana. Getting to win #750 won’t happen anytime soon, but it sure would be easier for Nate Mac if he can eventually get a fuller complement of players in his rotation, particularly at the wing. Without Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cam Reddish (with Young, the three leading Hawk scorers in Atlanta’s 122-94 loss in Philly on Oct. 30; Cam’s doubtful for tonight), the Hawks are putting a lot on Kevin Huerter’s plate. Undoubtedly, Red Velvet has been eating (8-for-11 FGs and a timely jersey tug @ IND; 53.7 FG%, 43.6 3FG% over last 9 games) while handling tough backcourt assignments, an integral component to the Hawks’ current 8-1 run. But there will be stretches, like the second half in Indy, or games, like the last home game versus the Knicks, where Huerter’s production will dip. Preserving Huerter’s minutes will allow him to look more like the Game 7 hero that propelled Atlanta over Philly into the Eastern Conference Finals. It will be essential, then, for McMillan to turn more frequently to Delon Wright to help fill the gap. Amid Wednesday’s 114-111 win over the Pacers, Wright’s 11 points (4-for-6 FGs) under interim coach Chris Jent were a season-high, and he is a surer defensive option than Lou Williams off the bench. Mixing in Wright to play alongside Young, and Huerter at turns, should only enhance the Hawks’ two-way backcourt prowess until either of Reddish or Bogdanovic returns at full health. With the aid of Green and Thybulle, the Sixers will throw all kinds of janky defenses at Young, designed to keep him from shooting and coaxing him into giving up the ball. Trae has been relinquishing the rock, too, during his latest scoring streak, just not as frequently to his opponents as they might like (8.8 APG, 3.0 TOs/game over last 5 contests; 9.1 and 5.0, respectively, in prior 8 games). Savvier ball-handling, and better finishes on plays for roll-man Clint Capela, has made Trae (NBA-high 15.0 PPG as P&R ball-handler) an incrementally more potent offensive threat than even the version that gave Simmons and company fits at playoff time. The Sixers do tout the league’s best roll-man defense (NBA-best 0.86 opponent points per possession on those P&R plays), making it tough on John Collins (1.56 points per possession, tops among 23 players with 3+ roll-man possessions per game) and Capela (combined 7-for-20 FGs w/ Collins @ PHI on Oct. 30) to thrive. But Young is well-equipped to exploit Embiid and Andre Drummond’s saggy defensive schemes. He’ll need Huerter, 2016 Sixer first-rounder and fill-in starter Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (2-for-5 3FGs for season-high 8 points @ IND), Collins and Danilo Gallinari to make good on perimeter opportunities as they arise. The Sixers will eventually find their sea legs, but there’s no need to help them swim tonight. If the Hawks dictate the tempo, harrying Philly into bad shots while boxing out and limiting second chances, Embiid and the Sixers will find themselves in no condition to keep up for a spirited run of 48 minutes. Let’s make “Trae-ror” the order of the day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. That Same Energy. Who needs Halloween? That’s what the NBA’s schedule makers thought, as they returned the chiller, Ice Trae, the thriller, John The Baptist, and their Atlanta Hawks before the ghouls at The (don’t say Wells Fargo five times into a mirror) Center, coincidentally to face the Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBATV) on Halloween Eve. Back again at the scene of the crime, Trae Young, bearing his devilish grin while sharing the court with the Sixers’ clearly spooked Ben Simmons, would drive the Cheez Wiz-swilling crowd batty, eliciting enough haunts of “BOO!” that dressing up the next day would feel anticlimactic. What the schedule makers underestimated was just how committed Simmons is to Child’s Play. Here, in Atlanta, and across NBA Nation, we’ve beaten the proverbial horse into paste all summer long, so there’s no need to rehash The Pass. Several Seventy-Sixers, including a laboring co-All-Star Joel Embiid, and head coach Doc Rivers were culprits to varying degrees in their own demise during the seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal. That said, I’d like to float what I suspect what was going on in Simmons’ mind, in his fateful two-second decision. It’s evidence, in my own mind, that Trae has been playing chess on the league’s checker-playing suckers ever since the summer of 2020, when he made a momentous agent switch that’s paying dividends for him off, and on, the court. Ben: “Spin move off the iso to shed Gallinari… easy peasy! Now, just go up and dunk that ish to tie the ga—wait a minute! Is… that… Trae Young, my newest frat bro at Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports, coming over to fetter my unfettered path to the hoop? I can’t make a T-shirt out of the poor little guy! What to do? What? To? Do? Let’s see. I’m gonna, uhh… oh, here you go, Matisse Thybulle of Goodwin Sports Management, go off!” The good folks at Klutch Sports had no idea just how busy their NBA offseason was about to become. The two things we can know for certain about the drawn-out saga between Simmons and Rivers, Embiid, and the Philly phanbase, is that (1) Simmons wants as little to do with those individuals as humanly possible, and (2) Simmons isn’t down with losing another drop of that sweet, sweet, $33 million salary. Rich Paul, Daryl Morey, get to work. Ben tried the silent treatment, demanding through his agent to be traded to any NBA outpost in California whose city doesn’t begin with the letter “S”. Alas, Moreyball has found no takers for Philly’s exorbitant demands, in Cali or anywhere else. Simmons offered no treats this summer when Sixer teammates, disguised as friends, offered to arrive at his L.A. doorstep, eager to trick him into making amends for championship’s sake. When the cold-shoulder strategy didn’t work out for Ben, he tried showing up during a preseason game, unannounced, for COVID testing, hooping at practice with a Samsung Galaxy in his sweats pocket (“No, Doc, I am NOT happy to see you”), alienating teammates and rebuffing Rivers’ commands, and getting suspended before he could be forced to travel with the team for the next dress rehearsal. Out of legitimate options with the regular season underway, Simmons showed up to a team meeting and Bawled So Hard that, now, the club no longer wants to fine him. However sincere, this “mental break” permits Simmons to stay paid-in-full and, aside from workouts and shootarounds, stay out of sight and out of mind. That’s to Rivers and the Sixers’ benefit, as it allows the rest of the roster to focus on just hoops. Just Hoops was on the menu as the Sixers used a second-half surge to hold off Detroit on Thursday night, kicking off a three-game homestand with a 110-102 win to raise their record to 3-2. The only thing disconcerting is that it was the reserves – Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, new additions Andre Drummond, Georges Niang – taking turns to blow the game open. When Doc subbed in his starters, Detroit whittled down what was a 22-point 76er lead to five with just over a minute to spare. An example of primary-ballhandler bigs that are, thus far, not severely encumbered by the new ref rules, Embiid (8.8 FTAs/game, down from 10.7 last season) gave it all he had in the opening half (19 points and 12 rebounds, along the way to a 30-and-18 night). But his teammates found it hard to contain shooters or create for each other as the winless Pistons’ footsteps grew louder. With all respect due to starter Danny Green, it’s as if there was a 6-foot-11 apparition standing where Simmons used to be. Thankfully for the hosts, Embiid’s free throws and a late three-pointer kept darkness from falling across the land. Embiid (available, sore knee), and Tobias Harris, aren’t the only ones who could get by with a little more help from their friends. A 5-0 team dressed up in a scary 3-2 costume, Atlanta pulled off last season’s second-round upset without the services of two young talents who know Philly (the town, if not the team) quite well. The Hawks winning in Philadelphia without much of these players’ vital input, going forward, seems unnecessary. Cam Reddish (2-for-9 3FGs in last two road contests, but 20 points in Thursday’s 122-111 loss @ WAS) is tasked with expanded playmaking duties until backup Delon Wright can more consistently share the load. Reddish will have to tamp down on wild and unfocused ventures that turn the ball over. Cam’s fellow WingStop server and Keystone Stater, De’Andre Hunter (like Reddish, DNP’d last 9 contests, playoffs included, vs. PHI; 2-for-3 3FGs vs. WAS) could stand to get more productive touches in a more balanced Hawks offense. But Dre has to finish his shots at close range (6-for-15 2FGs within 10 feet, as per bball-ref). Last year’s Game 7 playoff hero, Kevin Huerter has been an early-season zero (29.7 FG%, 11.1 3FG%; 1-for-12 FGs on road trip, 3-for-21 in three away games). Red Velvet and his Serbian sorbet of a teammate, starter Bogi Bogdanovic (6-for-19 on threes since the win vs. DAL) have to make teams pay for drilling down on Young (13 assists, 2-for-3 FTs vs. WAS), cognizant that defenders are getting the benefit of the doubt when drawing contact while Trae drives and traverses screens. Beyond shedding the cobwebs from the opponents’ nets, Huerter (Atlanta’s second-favorite Shenendehowa High alum as of last night) and Bogdanovic (probable, sore ankle) have to make the effort to keep ballhandlers in front of them, and to seek out stops with greater urgency. Funneling drivers and cutters from the sidelines and baselines into a fully-occupied Clint Capela, who is often scrambling to help from the weakside, and a foul-prone Collins repeatedly breaks down the Hawks’ defensive coverage. As the Wizards swelled their lead to 20 points midway through Thursday’s third quarter, Washington was able to control the ball, and the clock, until they found a reasonable shot to their liking. Trae’s two steals represented half of Atlanta’s total on the evening, and a third of the tally of turnovers (6) by a shorthanded array of Wizard players who, like the Hawks, traveled to D.C. for the game the night before. Digging themselves into unnecessary holes was a hallmark of LP-era basketball. But, as was the case in D.C. when Atlanta added to their demise with five technical fouls, Nate McMillan’s team cannot portray the referees as the (only) problem when confronted with adversity. Forget whatever you may have heard about the Sixers’ early-season matchups, both defeats, at the hands of bitter division rivals Brooklyn and New York. Like the Knicks on Christmas Day, this game is Philadelphia’s Super Bowl, and a packed arena is arriving on Halloween Eve dressed to suppress. With Simmons watching from afar, the 76ers, and their fans, are desperate to lock Atlanta in a casket early, and then throw away the key in the fourth quarter. Because there is no more harrowing sight than a fatigued Embiid at the top of the key in No Man’s Land, striving to stop the Hawks’ pick-and-roll with the game on the line. The Sixers and their fans know: Trae Young is back, and he’s here to terrorize y’all’s neighborhood. Two Down, Two to Go! Go Bravos! Happy Halloween! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. The Philadelphia Was Up By... I’ll be real with y’all, I don’t do PEGs (Possible Elimination Gamethreads) terribly well. So before I put quick thoughts together about Game 7 between the 76ers and our amazing Atlanta Hawks in Philadelphia (8 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), here are a few season-oriented Tidbits I wanted to roll out there. I got my answer to a question I posed in the season-opening thread about the theme of this Hawks campaign: Rested Development? Or, Arrested Development? Turns out the answer is decidedly, “Both.” Thank you, Magic 8 Ball! The work put in during the elongated layoff served to benefit Trae Young, the recuperated Clint Capela, and De’Andre Hunter quite well. While Hunter’s burgeoning confidence was the biggest surprise, Cam Reddish struggled mightily in his sophomore season, before injuries for both cut them short. All will continue to improve, given a return to a steadier conditioning regime and schedule next season. In the meantime, Atlanta can take pride in becoming the best team, in the East, among those left out of last season’s Bubble. Have I introduced you to your favorite NBA team’s principal owner? Going forward, please be sure you spell his name right. This is Mister Tony Re$$$$$ler. This man has been chomping at the bit to spend, spend, spend, and not just on real estate and arena swag. Don’t think this Beverly Hills mogul isn’t looking admiringly at Clippers owner Steve Ballmer right now. Team prez Travis Schlenk is here to ensure the Hawks owner isn’t just spending for spending’s sake. Nonetheless, we are about to enter Hot Billionaire Summer. Re$$$$$ler is about to match a big-bucks offer sheet for John Collins, like it or love it. Too rich for your blood? Not for Tony Our Tiger! Besides, ask 76ers owner Josh Harris if Al Horford is still burning holes through his pockets. Re$$$$$ler’s about to lock down Trae Young to a max contract extension. Because, duh. Young is displaying why it was so critical not to settle for bowing out during, or before, the Play-Ins. This is already, on a good day, a title contender, because of the level-headedness and stewardship of young Trae. We’re trying to get where the Sixers (roughly $30 million higher team payroll) already are, where even on a bad day, we’re a title contender. Schlenk wouldn’t know for sure on 2018’s Draft Night, but the lack of respect for Young at NBA Awards time, relative to his trade partner in Dallas, probably saves his boss a few coins at extension time. Weirdly enough, it turned out the trade deal may have saved Schlenk his own job, too. Oh, and if Re$$$$$ler is feeling a little frisky after Trae’s extension gets inked? Have you all met Green Velvet? The most pressing items on Tony’s expense sheet? A harness and grapple line. Just in case the 76ers hold a higher score than the Hawks in the final second of today’s action, when that final buzzer sounds, Re$$$$$ler is going to drop down like Sting from the rafters and hand Nate McMillan a multi-year coaching contract deal, and a Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus pen. Heck, he might even let McMillan keep the little scribbler. Nate may throw in some riders before he inks the deal. Can my son Jamelle (Ben Simmons’ sister’s ex, by the way) join the staff? “Sure. Happy Father’s Day.” Can LP come back on board, too? May I pry Gary Payton from Oakland? “Done and done.” What you want? Baby, Re$$$$$ler’s got it! What’s this I’m hearing, about some NBA Draft Lottery in a couple days? That’s nice. How would I want it to shake out if I had my druthers? Houston. OKC. Minnesota (sorry, Warriors). Chicago (nah-uh, Orlando, no double-dipping this year!). That’s all for Draft Lottery talk for awhile. If Trae wants to go full Tokyo Drift, go for it! As long as he understands he’s sitting beside LP the whole time while Coach Pop lets elder guards like Dame Lillard go for the Gold, more power to him! Don’t let me catch Derrick White out there with the Albanians, though. Whatever he decides, be safe out there! The real Summer Games? Cam! Gwu Tang! Nate Knight! Skylar Mays! Maybe B-Goody? Our next first-rounder! Whether it’s to continue the upwardly mobile development on the main roster, or firming up a roster spot in College Park, I look forward to seeing them all in Las Vegas! Oh, yeah, so, Game 7. I don’t have much, I just hope Coach Nate has more up his sleeve than I can conjure up. Shooters gotta shoot, and at this point, they gotta swish. If we can assume we’re not going to have Bogdan Bogdanovic ver. April.0, if any edition of him, then we’ll need major two-way performances (getting stops, hitting shots) out of Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. We may not have our MLK jerseys on, but remember, Collins and Capela, when the trolls on the Sixers start trolling, violence is not the answer! Collins will have to make more out of his touches, early in the game and not simply once the Hawks have to scramble out of deep holes. Lou, Gwu and the bench mob (when blended in with the top line) must outshine their counterparts, because Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the Sixer starters are bound to overdo everything to salvage their season. One more tidbit. The Real 2020-21 MVP? You, the fans. There has been a lot to endure. The 2020 playoff run interceded by a pandemic, having to wait over eight months before the Hawks could make personnel moves, over nine months before they could tip off again. The early promise of 2021 derailed by injuries, bad losses and a coach upheaval. Bigger than all of that, keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy and even-keel, as best we could. Much like the Hawks, we’re all still standing! Whether this Hawks run lasts for a few more hours or 32 more days, I hope Hawks fans have found ample moments of worthy joy throughout the journey. Celebrate the Hawks, tonight, but be sure to take time to celebrate yourselves and each other. Happy Father’s Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. Home. Upon reflection… it’s where the traeHeart is. “SIXER FANS! Get on your feet! Give it up, Philadelphia! Let’s have a round of applause, for your, legendary, ALLEN! IVERSON!” Allen Iverson steps onto the Wells Fargo Center floor. He’s got on his casual gear and his obligatory Sixers cap, sometimes his old jersey on top. The Hall of Famer rings the ceremonial Liberty Bell knockoff, waves to the Philly crowd, and bathes himself in waves of rare Philly adulation. A.I. is being paid, by the Sixers, to be among the Philadelphia crowds. Keeping up appearances is essentially his job. As soon as 76ers games near their end, Iverson glad-hands the people he’s supposed to glad-hand, steps into a waiting car, and heads home. Via the airport. These days, Iverson hops on the first thing with wings smoking to return to his country-club home hundreds of miles away, currently in Charlotte. For many years after his NBA career reached its twilight, this “work trip” concluded by alighting at Hartsfield-Jackson for the ride back to his palatial mansion not far from “Da Nawf”, the places in and around Gwinnett County, that Lou Williams and Migos calls home. Julius Erving makes this honorary commute, too. He’s been an Atlanta resident, living it up with family in Buckhead Not City and Sandy Springs for the better part of the past decade. “This is the real deal. It feels right. It’s wearing right,” the Doctor shared with the AJC’s Steve Hummer, back in 2012, of settling in the South, and specifically in The ATL. Another periodic Sixer Bell Ringer and fan favorite (no, not you, Al Horford), Dikembe Mutombo was traded out of Atlanta to help then-MVP Iverson’s team make their majestic run to The Finals. Yet the NBA Global Ambassador never really left here. His son and his private-school buddies were instrumental in organizing the youthful, eye-opening social-justice protests in swanky Buckhead last summer. Charles Barkley calls the Atlanta region his home, giving the corpulent former Sixers great a place to work and eat and hobnob and chill not far from his Alabama roots. Like A.I., like Dr. J., Sir Charles will come to Philadelphia, when summoned, for some honorary bit like a statue unveiling. But it seems that none of the greatest Sixer legends of the past four decades choose to kick back in, say, Bryn Mawr, to bask in the glow of their past pro-ball glories. The French Riviera, the English countryside, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Only the greatest of places are where Sir Elton John chooses to rest his weary head. When he spends his days toiling on the East Coast of North America, the global icon and legendary musician spends his evenings at his posh high-rise condo in Buckhead, with its skyline views spanning in multiple directions. Goodbye, Yellow Brick. Hello, Peachtree Road! In a couple weeks, thousands will huddle around Penn’s Landing to take in the fireworks, with his soaring 1975 opus serving as background. But as Elton wakes up on many mornings and stoops out on his patio, Georgia sunshine, not “Philadelphia Freedom,” shines on him. 2021 makes it 30 years for John as an Atlanta resident. “People always ask me, ‘Why do you have a place in Atlanta?’”, he told the AJC, after finding year-round L.A. living to be overbearing, and New York a tad too dangerous. “It’s because people here have always been that nice to me… I’ve always been welcomed. I feel at home.” You love Atlanta as much as anywhere in America, Elton? “Yes, I do!” Shirley Franklin, a Philadelphia native and Penn grad, ran for Mayor, and won. In Atlanta. Her fellow high school alum, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, saw her future was best set in this town, too, moving here to audition and ignite her groundbreaking rapping and singing career, among other items. Philly native Kyle Pitts? Welcome to Atlanta, where, at least for now, Philly-burb native Matty Ice plays. Remember “Free Meek Mill?” The legendary Philly rapper was freed, and already has been such an advocate for criminal justice reform in this town, he was bestowed with an honorary “Meek Mill Weekend” by Atlanta’s city council. For so many individuals who came-of-age or reached heights of professional glory in connection with Philadelphia, Atlanta and the South has become the place of choice when it was time to grow up, and/or settle down. The celebrity and talent pipeline from the heart of the mid-Atlantic to the heart of the mid-South is emblematic of decades-long trends. Census data projects the Atlanta metropolitan area is bound to outgrow Philadelphia’s four-state-large metro’s population by next year, if it hasn’t happened already. Philly in 2019 was among just five U.S. markets that could boast of having at least 2.5 million TV households, as per Nielsen. This year, that shortlist is up to nine, Atlanta having joined three other US metros. The upshot? If you’re inclined to view the 215 as a premier, big-city American market, it’s time to accept the 404 is right there with them. Long self-identifying as a little-brother rival to NYC, Philadelphia has long taken solace by peering its nose down upon Atlanta and many of the metros that make up the NBA’s Southeast Division. This Eastern Conference Semifinals series has been instructive for die-hard supporters of the Sixers and old-media brand-name teams around the league. Whether we create it or take it, the talent in Atlanta, the city, and on the Atlanta Hawks, the team, are neck-and-neck with whatever they throw out there. If not better. If the Hawks are better, they will have the opportunity to prove it by toppling the conference’s top seed tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) before a standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, clinching an NBA Final Four berth at home for the first time since 1970. The opportunity presented to Atlanta has been well-earned, most recently by way of Wednesday’s epic comeback from 26 points down to prevail in Game 5, 109-106, before a cheesesteak-choking capacity crowd at Philly’s Wells Fargo Arena. Former Sixer assistant Lloyd Pierce was supposed to be another of the many who left The City of Brotherly Shove in his prime for a chance to flourish here. One can’t help but wonder, are LP and his old boss, ex-head coach Brett Brown, palling up to watch this Hawks-Sixers series together? The Browntree of coaching has dried up, and it got chopped down with the quickness. Yet Brown might still be in his head coaching chair, and not Doc Rivers, were he able to see the 2019-20 season through in Philadelphia. Brown’s Sixers had the best home record in the NBA, sitting at a gaudy 29-2 before the pandemic struck. But that season’s edition was a paltry 10-24 away from home, and a lackluster Florida Bubble performance by the 76ers sealed his fate. Brown’s successor, Rivers conducted a more balanced effort in this regular season, guiding the Sixers to a 29-7 record at home, before a growing cluster of satisfied Phans, while finishing respectably above-.500 in away games (20-16). It’s what gives him and The Farm’s visitors confidence they can pull off a second playoff road win in this series, as the Hawks have already done, and then dare Atlanta to close out Philly for a third time in their building on Sunday. “We will be back here for Game 7,” Glenn vowed. Rivers shared with players and the media how he lost at home to another former team of his, the Spurs in 2015, before bouncing back to have his Clippers win Game 6 in San Antonio and the rubber match back in Los Angeles. The Clips would advance, but lost the second-round to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Jason Terry and backup center Clint Capela’s Rockets in seven games. James Harden chipped in a bit in that series, too. “Chris Paul made an amazing shot at the end,” recalled Rivers of the comeback in 2015’s first-round series by L.A. “Unfortunately, he almost tore his hamstring doing it, but he made a big shot.” Philadelphia can only hope they won’t need Joel Embiid (“questionable,” small meniscus tear) to break a leg, Broadway-style or otherwise, to keep the #1-seed Sixers’ season alive. It would be preferable for Embiid (32.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 4.6 APG) to have his supporting cast of Sixer stars come through each time, such that he won’t be expected to make the season-saving plays at the ends of games. Ben Simmons (11.6 PPG, 4th on the team; team-high 8.4 APG) and Tobias Harris have been passing, but passive, as games wear on, entrusting Joel and Dwight to snare the key rebounds on defense, while leaning heavily on Seth Curry (21.4 PPG after his Game 5 tear, 57.9 3FG%), Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle to keep the hot perimeter hands. Embiid has given it his all trying to fry Capela and the Hawks at the starts of games, but in the second halves of losses (1-for-5 FGs, Philly’s only 2 assists and 1 steal in 4th quarter of Game 5), he wound up looking more like the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich worker meme. Every 76er on Wednesday, aside from Curry (4-for-4 4th-quarter 2FGs, but no made threes) and Embiid, were non-factors in the rebounding, scoring, passing and defensive departments (combined: 0-for-7 FGs, 2-for-4 FTs by Ben, 2 O-Rebs by Dwight, no D-Rebs, no assists, no steals) as Atlanta completed their historic surge in the final frame. As dominant a scorer as Embiid has been, it has come at the expense of Capela and Atlanta seizing back control of the glass. Joel’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting in the first quarter of game 5 was accompanied by just a pair of defensive rebounds, one fewer than Curry and fill-in starter Furkan Korkmaz. What gains Philadelphia should be making by the Hawks’ early shooting woes have been nullified by Clint and John Collins’ active work on the offensive glass. Simmons (5.4 RPG, down from 7.2 in the regular season), getting outrebounded in this series by Hawks reserve Danilo Gallinari (5.6 RPG in 53 fewer minutes), seems reticent to mix things up around the rim. Atlanta’s Trae Young, meanwhile, got the assistance he needed when it ultimately mattered. In each of the past two victories, Trae’s nifty, near-iconic dishes for game-changing threes by Collins has The Baptist considering changing his nickname to Big Shot John. Gallinari, defended by the diminutive Curry in the clutch, found himself in a “Game, Blouses” mood. And the rug was pulled out from under Rivers and Philadelphia’s gameplans by a Snellville high-schooler they drafted back in 2005. No one was ready for Lou Williams except Lou Williams (7-for-10 FGs in 2nd half of Game 5). He was deployed in a small-ball backcourt by coach Nate McMillan that contrasted, late in the last game, with Atlanta’s larger frontline, featuring Gallo with Capela and Collins. Having Danny Green (out, calf strain) rendered a fashionable sideline dancer has made it tougher for Rivers to defend Williams and Young individually, much less together. Once pondering retirement after getting traded by the Clips in mid-season, the ATL native Williams, in his second go-round with the Hawks has the opportunity to bring the joy of a conference finals berth to an adoring home crowd. Lou’s, and Doc’s, former employer has the chance to do the same later this evening, somehow for the first time in that franchise’s history. The Hawks can put a dash of lemon pepper on the Sixers’ season tonight, if they can get positive contributions at both ends from slumping starters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (combined 0-for-8 3FGs, 0 FTs, 2 assists, 1 steal and 5 rebounds in Game 5). Bogi, by himself, collected 19 assists to just 4 TOs in the five-game Knicks series. But along with Red Velvet, they have struggled to serve Young as secondary play-makers (combined 19 assists, 18 TOs through Game 5) versus Philly’s more adroit and lankier defenders. Each swingman must avoid hesitating and allowing effective Sixer closeouts on spot-up shots early in the game. As Embiid wears down or Howard hovers closer to the rim, with Harris and Simmons overcompensating, drives for floaters, pocket passes, lobs and kickouts will abound, freeing up not only Young and Williams off-ball, but Capela or Onyeka Okongwu inside, and Collins or Gallinari outside. Better reads, and swifter reacts, out of Huerter and Bogdanovic would allow Atlanta to start strong, for once, and finish stronger. It sure would be nice to rest, on the laurels of, “We pushed the conference’s best team to seven games!”, and look forward to turning the page to the promise of next season. But then one looks up the road, at what was the 2020 Bravos. Having beaten top-seeded Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium twice already to start the NLCS, Atlanta’s baseball club, up 3 games to one, had the vaunted Dodgers dead-to-rights in Truist Park, with a chance to claim a trip to the World Series. They blew that game, had to fly back to L.A. for Games 6 and 7, and came home empty-handed. But, hey, we got the shine of the reigning National League MVP, and the youthful exuberance of Ronald Acuna and his budding relationship with manager Brian Snitker. Coming into 2021, most Atlanta fans figured, Mike Soroka will be back on the mound! Ender Inciarte has nowhere to go but up! If we can keep our closer, shore up the bullpen, bring back the NL’s top home-run hitter and RBI-maker, watch out! Stir it up, baby! Well, we’ve turned that page only to find their chance to Run It Back has hit a concrete wall, even breaking a hand in the process. Fab Five Freddie’s hitting infield flies. Soroka’s Achilles is still on the mend. Inciarte is yo-yo’ing on and off the bench. Marcell Ozuna was a figurative, and allegedly literal, choke job. And now Acuna and Snitker are squabbling over “stupid” matters. The good news for the Hawks is that their executive oversight doesn’t consist of a mainframe computer in a suburban Colorado office park. Still, there’s no need to presume the best chance to reach the conference finals, or The Finals, is off somewhere in a future season. With a growing legion of fans applying wind to their sails, Atlanta should approach tonight with a sense of F.U.N. -- the Fierce Urgency of Now -- then let the chips fall as they may. This sports town deserves a celebration worthy of its beautiful home floor. Besides, Hawks fans really aren’t feeling like one more long trip to Philadelphia should be necessary. Quite a few Philly legends, satisfied with life here in the Dirty South, would rather not trifle with a Game 7 call-up, either. That, I Guar-On-Tee. As the great Doctor J said of Atlanta, “This is the real deal." Indeed, it feels right. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “I'm going down double digits at halftime. Then, I'll get the Sixers right where I want ‘em!” Alright, Believe Atlanta, I’m trying to be pragmatic here! 2021 wasn’t supposed to be Finals Szn! Yet our Atlanta Hawks are just a 2-1 record, at worst, from becoming the Eastern Conference Finalist that only the Believing-est of Believe Atlanta Believers could believe. No one on the roster should be looking ahead. Not past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, who still get a shot at securing their manifest destiny by holding down home court, including today’s matchup at Wells Fargo Center (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). Not past the team who was holding an authoritative 2.5-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series until Joel Embiid’s tire began hissing air in the back half of Game 4. This team’s fanatical supporters, however, sure can peek ahead. If the Hawks can replicate what they did in New York City and spoil the hosts’ hopes not just once, as they’ve already done, but twice, they could very well be back in NYC once more, tipping off the Conference Finals against The Big 2.25 of Brooklyn. Seth Curry Piercing the Sixers’ final attempt in Game 3 allowed the Hawks put ice on a monumental comeback and even this series. Six grueling playoff wins down, six to go! What’s wilder, in this series, is we have yet to see Peak Hawks out of the players that coach Nate McMillan rotates on and off the floor. This isn’t to say we need Danilo Gallinari (1-for-6 FGs in Game 4, 7-for-18 3FGs in series) going all 10-Threes-on-the-Celtics-in-the-MLK-jersey to help Atlanta knock off the Sixers. Just that it would be pleasant to see a full game where the reality of multiple Hawks players hitting their perimeter shots (30.0 team 3FG% in Game 4, up slightly from 26.1% in Game 3, also in Atlanta) is as potent as the pervasive threat. It’s not enough to suggest that the Hawks are simply skating through, thriving solely off the 76ers’ mistakes. More so, Ice Trae is cross-country skiing through slush. The lack of hot-hand shooters has made it tougher for Young (25 points, career-high 18 assists in Game 4; youngest NBA player with 18+ playoff dimes, per Elias Sports, surpassing Atlanta’s Spud Webb in 1986) to speed-skate around the myriad of Sixer defenders thrown his way, and to make-good on his few good-look shots beyond the paint (41.5 FG%, 31.4 3FG%). Trae is credited on NBA.com stats with 19.9 Potential APG in these playoffs, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 20.4 in Washington’s first-round loss to Philly, and well ahead of Chris Paul (14.8, a number that’ll be frozen for a while) among still-active postseason performers. He is creating offense with far fewer passes (55.7) than Sixers counterpart Ben Simmons (69.0 made passes per game, 13.3 potential APG). For Atlanta (110.4 O-Rating, 5th among the seven still-standings), the team assist tallies would be higher, the turnover margins greater, the beginnings to games more competitive and the conclusions less so, if Clint Capela would catch and finish around the rim with purpose and greater frequency. Nobody’s perfect, and Capela’s team-high 57.6 2FG% (66.7% in the first round vs. NYK) would be fine in a vacuum. But averaging over three missed shots per game within 4 feet of the rim are fuel for Philadelphia’s high-pressure transition scheme. Collins attacking the rim effectively allowed the Hawks to turn the tide in Game 4’s third quarter. But for a flubbed Collins-to-Capela pass at the close of Game 4, Atlanta would have tied the NBA Playoffs record, as per StatMuse, for fewest team turnovers (3 TOs by 7 teams, most recently the 2018 Cavs). Atlanta can’t rely on such near-perfection in a road contest that will feel, to Sixer fans at least, like an elimination game when they’re on the losing end of the score. So decisive passing, movement to get open, proper paint finishes and getting back on defense swiftly will be key for the Hawks’ frontline. Aside from Mike Budenholzer’s die-by-the-3 Bucks (31.0 team 3FG%, incl. whatever that is that Gioshis Antetokounmpo's doing), every playoff team shooting worse than Atlanta’s 35.5 3FG% is currently watching the postseason from either home or Cancun. Bogdan Bogdanovic (8-for-24 3FGs in past 3 games, 5-for-12 in Game 1), Kevin Huerter (6-for-11 3FGs in Games 1 and 2, 3-for-10 since) and Hawk shooters need to do a better job of connecting on threes, punishing Sixer defenders scrambling to recover after hounding Young. That way, Capela (12.7 RPG, 3rd in Playoffs) can focus less on offensive rebounding for Atlanta (26.4 O-Reb%, highest of NBA teams in this round) to create extra chances, and more on sealing Philly (25.5% of FGAs under 3 feet, highest among active teams) off the rim, and applying the defensive clamps to Embiid (questionable with the meniscus tear, but we know the deal by now). McMillan did come to his senses in Game 4, first by getting Solomon “Shiv” Hill out of the starting lineup, then in the third quarter, when he enveloped a withering Embiid with the jumbo-lump frontcourt lineup of Gallo, John Collins and Capela. The Hawks going big while properly closing out on Philadelphia’s perimeter threats confounded Joel (0-for-12 second-half FGs) and eventually had the Sixers visibly out of sync in the clutch, as Atlanta walked down an 18-point third-quarter deficit. It begs the question as to whether Coach Mac will want to stick with this frontcourt lineup at the outset of all halves, not just the second one. Also, whether Doc Rivers, and his coaching bench stocked with McMillan’s former Pacer assistants, can drum up a responsive gameplan predicated on an at least half-effective Embiid in the middle. With one assist in 35 limited minutes this series, backup center Dwight Howard is far removed from the Magic years of drawing a deserving number of extra bodies around the rim and kicking the ball out. With limited skilled-size advantages to exploit after Embiid and Howard, the Sixers would have to resort to more small-ball featuring Tobias Harris at the pivot and, perhaps, lightly-used ex-Hawks Anthony Tolliver and Mike Scott. While such lineups could be smaller, they wouldn’t be any more spry against Atlanta lineups. The Sixers and the skeptical media gave the Hawks every bit of bait to fold the tent, accept the “Good season!” pat on the head, and saunter off boldly into the offseason. The Hawks and their Believe Atlanta fans wouldn’t bite. As playoff-battle-tested as the 76ers’ core starters are, Simmons and Embiid have as many Conference Semifinal series wins as Young (probable, sore shoulder) and Collins do. Now, the pairs share an equal number of head-to-head wins, and the series won’t reach its conclusion without Atlanta fans having one final say. Atlanta feels almost as close to Finals Szn as they’ve been in the entire NBA history of this town. This, despite the imperfections, despite the injury setbacks, despite the disadvantages, despite the missed opportunities, despite the inexperience, despite the flaws. Dada could not have painted a prettier, nor more improbable, playoff picture for these Hawks. You can’t spell, “Surrealist” without A-T-L! Thank You, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “Where It Started…” The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching! Okay, fine. Maybe not the entire planet spins on the NBA’s axis. But this league, more than ever, is a Global game. Observe, just from this season, its Serbian MVP, taking honors previously bestowed upon a Greek, and its Cameroonian runner-up. Behold, its French DPOY, its Filipino Sixth Man of the Year, and their respective Australian runners-up. American players can These Colors Don’t Run to their hearts’ content. But in this day and age, when the pressure’s on and you find yourself under siege, it is good to know you’ve got a Bogdanovic in the corner with you, on your side. It’s not just people from the Delaware Valley and North Georgia with a keen interest in the outcome of the Philadelphia 76ers – Atlanta Hawks playoff series, Game 4 of which continues this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame analysis on Bally Sports Southeast). Travel across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Adriatic, and you’ll find folks in fancy suits sweating bullets. As it pertained to hoops, “The Global Game” used to refer to the Games of the Whatevereth Olympiad, a quadrennial affair that was becoming quite the Soviet bloc party until USA Basketball firmly put their foot down shortly after the demise of the Berlin Wall. Tokyo was back on the block to host in the summer of 2020, before a global pandemic decided to play games with these Games. As of this writing, there is still not 100 percent certainty that the Olympics, delayed from last summer to kick off in late July, will go on as planned. Organizers are hoping to implement something as successful as the 2020 NBA Bubble, writ large, with stringent protocols designed to keeps athletes of all sports safe. But what can no longer wait are the myriad Olympic Qualifying Tournaments. Teams like Ben Simmons’ Australia, and LP and Derrick White’s United States ((cough)), have already locked down bids via 2019’s FIBA World Cup. After including Olympic host Japan, that leaves four spots open for each winner of FIBA’s six-team “OQTs.” The qualifying tourneys kick off in just over two weeks from today. Depending on which of the Sixers or Hawks come away with the short end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals stick, one of those fancy-dressed folks is going to reach out and touch someone, with the quickness, upon the sound of the NBA playoff round’s final buzzer. Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, and his agent, is most certainly on speed-dial. His native city, Belgrade, hosts the Serbian national team and five others in their OQT. The top scorer in 2019’s FIBA World Cup, Bogi likely has a vested interest in helping 2016’s Rio silver medalists wage a return to the medal stand in Japan. That is, if both he and Nikola Jokic are, uh, available. As of today, one certainly is. If he “makes it,” Bogi may find a partner, and an OQT adversary, in his traveling party. Group A in Serbia’s OQT has Jordan Clarkson’s Philippines and Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns’ Dominican Republic. The other side of the bracket, Group B includes the Italian national team, where Danilo Gallinari could be eager to make amends. In an obvious case of, “quando mantenerlo reale va storto,” Gallo hauled off on the face of a Dutch player during a kerfuffle at the free throw line, amid a meaningless exhibition match, and cracked his own thumb. Losing Danilo short-circuited Italy’s best chance at challenging Bogi’s Team Serbia in the Eurobasket 2017 quarterfinals. The Serbians made it all the way to the finals, where they fell to an undefeated Slovenian squad that has this really good player named Goran Dragic, among others. There are some bigwigs that would love to talk Turkey with the Sixers’ Furkan Korkmaz (you’ve all met Furkan in Game 3), along with former Hawk and current Jazzman Ersan Ilyasova, about joining their national team at Canada’s OQT. Adding those veterans with 2021 likely NBA lotto-rookie Alperen Sengun, and former Hawks draft pick Shane Larkin, could make the Turkish team much more formidable as a medal finisher. Even over in Kaunas, Lithuania, Angola’s got something to say. Paired up in Group B with heavy favorite Slovenia, Team Angola would greatly appreciate having the Hawks’ Bruno Fernando to join in the fun. After all, somebody is going to have to deal with Slovenian greats like Goran’s brother, Zoran, and, now that he’s “freed up,” the Nuggets’ Vlatko Cancar. National team executives find themselves in the twisted position of hoping their compatriots stay healthy and perform well in NBA play, while wishing with wringed hands that their teams lose the playoff series. And quickly, s’il vous plait. How eager Bogi (19 points but 4 TOs in Game 3) and Gallo (9-for-9 FTs but 0-for-4 3FGs in Game 3) are to pack their bags for a land far, far, away will be reflected in their performances in the remaining games of this Eastern Conference semifinal, where the 76ers have seized back the upper hand while Cameroon’s Joel Embiid is serving up a lower foot to the backsides of the Hawks’ frontline. The Indomitable Lions narrowly missed out of the running for Olympic Qualifying back in 2019, so Embiid (35.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.3 BPG) has no one to distract him carrying Philadelphia as far as he can. Down Under, the powerful Boomers’ qualification as an Oceania representative is pretty much a routine layup, even with the continent having to lump their qualifying in with Asian nations. That’s good news for Ben Simmons and for a Sixers’ teammate, Matisse Thybulle, who could make the team even though he only spent early childhood years in Australia. With their Olympic bid in hand, should they choose to attend, they can maintain their focus on putting the screws to Atlanta’s Trae Young as best they can. Of course, Trae (1st in NBA history with 20+ points and 7+ assists in 1st 8 games of playoff debut) might be getting that Love Tap from Team USA soon, too. Every American-born baller wants a bite of authentic Olympic gold, and all the trappings beyond Wheaties boxes that it could bring. But you’ve got star guards who are now all but certain to be playing NBA hoops well into the end of this month, at least. Then, there’s a van fleet of guards who recently received their first few weeks of legitimate, recuperative time off since maybe 2019, and are beginning to like it. Even some guards may be too banged up from the close of their NBA seasons to be in a position to consider. Impose daily IOC protocols and limited maneuverability around some constrained Olympic Village, and there’s bound to be a number of “Thanks! But, no thanks!”, and all Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo can do is stomp and stammer about it. Then, call guys like Trae. That assumes, naturally, if Young makes himself available for an LP Reunion Special and, before that, if his Hawks make him “available” by concluding this series over the next several days. Improving the likelihood of “availability” in the near term would entail Nate McMillan failing, once more, to adjust the starting unit (Solomon “el Cuchillo” springs to mind) or rotations to address the dexterity advantages brought forth by Philadelphia’s Embiid (12-for-16 FTs in Game 3; 8 assists, 1 TO) and Tobias Harris (22 points on a team-high 16 FGAs in Game 3; 5 assists, 1 TO). The Hawks’ defense found themselves victims of death by 1,000 Sixer cuts to the basket on Friday, particularly in the third quarter as the visitors pulled away for the 127-111 win. Addressing this extends beyond simply staying in front of assignments, not getting cowed by the allure of aiding Clint Capela and John Collins (two blocks each in past 3 games) with double-teams outside the paint. (Capela's Team Swiss didn't even bother to try qualifying this go-round. Neutral bunch, those guys). Communication to disrupt inbound passes is key, particularly by Hawk players guarding the ballhandlers, so players like Bogdanovic (5.2 deflections per game in NYK series; 3.3 versus PHI) and Young (team-high 1.7 SPG) can thrive as roving defenders. Atlanta won the turnover-production edge in their one victory thus far (19-17 in Game 1; 9-18 in Game 2, 11-even in Game 3), and they’ll need that to be the case again going forward if they are to prevail in meetings going forward. Hawk guards on the floor cannot afford to stray from Seth Curry (60.0 3FG% this series), but they’ll have to know which player is assigned to stay on Seth’s hip and which can afford to help the forwards disrupt Philadelphia’s drive and cut lanes. Kevin Huerter struggled to make an impact over 23 minutes in Game 3, but he can get the Hawks rolling again if he can force stops and give the Sixers a taste of their own transition medicine. Unlike Gallinari, Lou Williams, Tony Snell, Huerter and many of the Hawks’ reserves won’t be going far, not on someone else’ dime, if the successful-on-balance season concludes this week. They might as well go all-in on behalf of a raucous State Farm Arena crowd, exploiting matchups, making open shots when attention is drawn on the starters, and giving the Hawks a decisive bench scoring edge. If all goes well tonight, Atlanta will be rewarded with a third home playoff game in this series. As for the Italian Basketball Federation? Well, you folks will just have to sit and wait. For many nations, the chance to earnestly Go For The Silver hangs in the balance. But that "sense of urgency" should not be anybody in The ATL’s problem. I’m sorry, but, frankly? “1-2-3, Belgrade!”, has a terrible ring to it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “You’ve got the Brawn. I’ve got the Brains!” “LET’S MAKE LOTS OF…” Ah, yes, there he is! The Greatest** Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time. ** I hear you, advocates for He Who Can No Longer Be Named. Atlanta’s point god of the 90’s was a one-time All-Star, too. Plus, a two-time steals champ, an All-Defensive First Teamer, arguably the first Hawks starter who, for better or worse, embraced the dawning age of the three-point line. Sadly, there were just too many poor playoff exits, too many bad shooting nights. More sadly, he got reckless in causing a fatal wreck after his career ended. And let’s not stress out over what could have been with Pistol Pete. Going forward, “MB10” refers to Mike Bibby, and Doc Rivers is The Greatest. For Now. The Hawk franchise’s all-time Assist king, Doc Rivers has likely been making the Confused face long before it became an indelible, viral meme. Begin with the first time he glanced up at the State Farm Arena rafters and saw #21 up there, representing the Hawks’ coming-of-age era of the 80’s, by its lonesome. Then, when his eyes revert downward, and sees Erick Dampier, Thabo, or Alex Len hoofing it up and down the court wearing #25. How, he must wonder, did everyone think The Human Highlight Film, deemed the league’s 51st greatest player at the time of its golden anniversary, get so many highlights? Somebody set that man up for the near-entirety of his first nine professional seasons. Dominique Wilkins didn’t get to Springfield on the strength of Dunk Contest trophies alone. Rivers was the prime caddie for many thousands of Nique’s 23,000 points, during their Atlanta tenure together. Yet maybe the best show of appreciation that Doc (“Glenn,” here in Philadelphia, because yeah) has received were golf claps, after the sporadic grainy montage of his peak years in town airs during timeouts on the Jumbotron. “Thanks, Doc.” Rivers will join Wilkins in Springfield. But solely as a head coach, and, oh, what a strange, twisty-turny journey it has been. He’ll never go down as the greatest taskmaster in NBA history, but he has got to be top-three in terms of coaching careers that are the most Doc-umentariable. But for his buddy, the retiring Danny Ainge, he’d likely never have gotten the chance to be head coach in Boston, not after stumbling to a 1-10 start with Tracy McGrady and Ty Lue in 2003, his fifth season in Orlando (high schooler Dwight Howard’s probably not landing in O-Town the next summer, either). Despite several mediocre seasons, he was allowed to hang around long enough for The Three Amigos, Banner #17, the Rondo Wonder Years, and his “trade” to the Clippers, when Ainge signaled the time had come for a rebuild. He was in L.A. for the continued rise of spry Blake Griffin, the commissioner-engineered gift of the gifted Chris Paul, the Sterling 4 Lyfe fiasco handing him the keys to run the show, the e-Clips of the Lakers as Tinseltown’s top draw, Saving Private DeAndre, the big breakup, and the arrivals of Cali Kawhi and Playoff P. Out-classing the Warriors proved to be too much of a task over the years, but Rivers’ star-studded teams checked out of regular seasons in either 1st or 2nd place within the Pacific Division. In 2020, after a dreary playoff showing by his Clippers, Doc was granted permission to move on. He’s back East, this time with the #1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers. A guy who began this NBA season moving into 10th-place all time in regular-season coaching victories will find, at the opposite end of the sideline today (1 PM Eastern, ABC, 92.9 FM in ATL; Postgame Show on Bally Sports Southeast), a fellow who had no expectations of moving into the Top-20 list anytime soon when the season began. Shocked! Dismayed! Disappointed! Such were the sentiments of Rivers over the March canning of colleague and former Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. “You’re in the middle of the rebuild, and then, you blame the coach for the losses that you had no chance to win,” Doc groused, perhaps unaware that defeats versus Cleveland, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Indiana, then at Cleveland and Oklahoma City, didn’t quite fall into such an impossible category for a Hawks team nearing the Break at 14-20 and leaking oil. One might be able to excuse the commentary the winningest active African-American coach in the NBA (Rivers’ 992 wins behind Lenny Wilkens’ 1332) reserved when the second-winningest, McMillan, was handed his walking papers back in August. After all, at the time of Nate’s eye-opening ouster, Doc was in the midst of saving his own bacon, with the second-seeded Clippers, while fending off a wunderkind named Luka Doncic in the first playoff round. He wouldn’t know for sure, but open critiques of teams with whom Rivers might have to apply could have been problematic. Stuffed like a baked potato with oodles of class and armed with a single-season of guaranteed cash as a parting gift from Indy, McMillan wasn’t looking for broadsides directed at his former employer. The interim Hawks coach also won’t look back critically at members of his head coaching frat for not going out of their way to publicly back him at the time of his firing. “Doc has been respected,” McMillan told The Undefeated in December, as Philly’s Rivers moved into 10th place in wins all-time, with Nate having no idea he would add to his own tally in 2021, “and he gets the respect from everyone because he not only has won games, but a title,” referring to fading memories of Doc’s time in Beantown. “And that’s the thing for us, as Black coaches, is to win titles to put us on the level so people will look at us as some of the good coaches in this league.” Nate gets it. Having Black coaches, like Lue, able to demonstrate their caliber of coaching as championship-contender quality, not limited to nurturing subpar talent until the figment of some hotshot ebonistically-challenged upgrade arrives, is vital to building a coaching fraternity that more closely mirrors that of the NBA talent being coached, analyzed, and developed. “What I love about Nate,” Rivers told The Undefeated in kind, “is that he’s his own man. Nate keeps quiet and wants to do his own thing, is a family man that just wants to do his job and go home. He ain’t out there calling reporters, working GMs. That’s not who Nate is. Nate believes, and I agree with Nate, ‘Do your job, and your work will speak for itself.’” The Hawkward part of this? Doc already has his ring, having lasted long enough in the league to win it all and build his own brand off of that experience. In this series, Rivers’ club has a strong chance to come out of the NBA East for the first time since Allen Iverson reigned supreme in 2001. But McMillan and his Hawks find themselves in no mood to be deferential. Back in May of 1988, Rivers’ 22 assists helped the Hawks tie up their second-round series with the mighty Celtics at the Omni, giving Atlanta hope that their turn at the top of the Eastern table had finally arrived. These were the third-most assists by any NBA player in a playoff win at the time (two behind Magic’s 24 back in 1984; Johnson logged 23 in a 1985 playoff victory, too), perhaps inspiring Utah’s John Stockton to try one-upping Doc’s total the very next day (24, in a loss to Magic’s Lakers). A year before that, McMillan made a little history of his own. The unheralded second-rounder from NC State hung 25 Sonic assists in a regular-season game on Larry Drew’s lowly Clippers. At that time, that tally tied for the fourth-most all-time, in any NBA game. To this day, it’s tied with Ernie DiGregorio for the most ever dished out by a rookie in this league. Neither coach earned an NBA title as a player, but they’ve endured many a bitter playoff battle, and they each know the value of a capable court conductor in determining the outcomes. Philadelphia has arrived on the strength of Ben Simmons (14.2 PPG, 6.9 APG, 7.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG regular-season). Whatever his flaws, be it free throw shooting or limited shot selection, the 24-year-old uses his size, length, and guile to stymie opposing point guards at both ends of the court, setting the stage for, among other things, the MVP candidacy of center Joel Embiid (28.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 37.7 3FG%). Simmons averaging 14.8 PPG, 9.2 APG, 10.2 RPG and 1.2 SPG in the first round was enough to help the 76ers fend off Washington in five games, despite losing Embiid in Game 4 (“small” meniscus tear). His Wizards counterpart, Russell Westbrook averaged his obligatory triple-double but was pressed into inefficient shooting from the field (35.9 2FG%, 25.0 3FG% vs. PHI), as was Bradley Beal (21.9 3FG% vs. PHI). Despite being hamstrung by COVID, in January, and by injuries at inopportune times throughout the season, Philly (49-23) had reason to expect being here, hosting Games 1 and 2 of an Eastern Conference semifinal game. After being swept in the opening round by Boston in 2020’s Bubble, leading to LP’s former boss’ ouster, the Sixers brass and its hard-to-please fans would have expected nothing less. To the surprise of many, particularly those in the mid-Atlantic states, Atlanta has arrived to this second-round stage, and they did so on the strength of Trae Young (25.3 PPG, 9.4 APG). From deep, down the lane, and on the line, Young is persistent in producing offense for himself and inducing high-percentage offense for his teammates. He demonstrated in the Hawks’ first-round media upset of New York that his flair for showmanship can withstand the heat created by opposing thugs, fans, and political opportunists. Doc has a couple aces up his sleeve, that is, ace coaching assistants. While building his new coaching bench, he got two of McMillan’s longtime top assistants from Indiana, Dan Burke and Popeye “Hockey Dad” Jones. Rivers will be as much picking their brains about McMillan’s strategies, particularly Burke about the Hawks on the defensive end, as he will be game-planning the players on the floor. Doc will soak up as much advice as he can get, as he gets to see a lot of The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard of All-Time wearing #11 in this series. No asterisks required. The truncated regular seasons of 2020 and 2021 are the only reasons Trae isn’t already halfway to Doc’s career assist mark with the Hawks. Health-permitting, Young will be the team’s all-time Dime King while it’s still early in his Maximum Contract Extension phase. If all continues to proceed well, once Trae’s done with #11, there’ll be no Esteban Batistas or Tiago Splitters as a follow-up act. The differences between the East’s 4-seed and its top-seed will be evident by the diversity of defensive options thrown Trae’s way. For Philadelphia (NBA-high 9.2 team SPG), Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and George Hill offer a stronger mix of skill and experience for guarding Young. The best postseason performer thus far for the Sixers, bouncing back from last year’s bomb in the Bubble and the 2019 series with Toronto, Tobias Harris will have a better clue than Julius Randle on what to do (or not) when Young leaks into the paint, and at least he’ll know better than to poke the cub. Embiid, on less than two functional legs, and former Hawks center Dwight Howard should be a defensive upgrade over the committee that manned the middle as best they could for the Knicks. Drop coverage by Philly (0.87 opponent points-per-possession on P&R ball handler plays, best among East’s remaining teams) will be susceptible to Young’s floating giant-killers, but his on-ball defenders can recover over screens enough to up the degrees of difficulty. The elevated heat on Ice Trae, and former Sixer legend Lou Williams, means the shooters on the floor for Atlanta, notably Bogdan Bogdanovic (33.3 3FG% vs. NYK) and sixth-man Danilo Gallinari (32.0 3FG% in first round), have to be ready to catch and convert when the ball finds its way out to them. There wasn’t much to glean from the regular season head-to-heads, due to so many key players DNP’d, but the Hawks produced just 33.3 field goals per game, the lowest by any Sixers opponent, a Sixers season-high 9.3 of Atlanta’s attempts rejected. Establishing the perimeter threat will get the interior for the Hawks uncongested. The Hawks’ forwards and centers also have to be in position, via rolls, cuts, lobs and putbacks, for buckets at the basket. Masterful in guarding what was supposed to be an unstoppable Randle in the prior round, John Collins’ offensive production will need to be raised by a degree to fully offset what a more confident opponent in Harris (25.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 38.1 3FG% vs. WAS) can bring to the table. Be it by defensive rebounds or live-ball turnovers, the Sixers want to get Simmons downhill after securing stops, with shooters dashing to the corners (Green 45.2 corner 3FG%, 45.6 percent of all his 3FGAs) and trailing (Seth Curry 45.0 3FG%), to exert maximum pressure on the opposing backcourt. Philadelphia’s 17.9 points per-48 off turnovers ranked 5th in the NBA, their 15.0 fastbreak points per-48 ranked 3rd. Atlanta (NBA-best 10.0 opponent points per-48 off TOs and 0.86 opponent points per transition possession in Playoffs) had an easier time getting back against the Knicks, and will rely heavily on Bogi, Philly native De’Andre Hunter (questionable for Game 1, sore knee), and Kevin Huerter to keep the Sixers from building up heads of steam. Alleviated from protecting the interior on the break, Young’s ability to hustle and fluster shooters, without fouling, has to shine through. Hawk bigs must put pressure on the rim on offense, but they have to also create the advantage of beating their assignments down the floor. Marginalized as an offensive option during his postseasons in Houston, then dispatched from a title contender to a developmental team at 2020’s Trade Deadline, Clint Capela (NBA-high 14.3 RPG in 2020-21, 2.0 BPG) will have the opportunity to show Daryl Morey, beneficiary of the gains of The Process, what the new Sixers executive left behind Door #2 when he made the pivotal deal with Atlanta. Capela largely avoided foul trouble versus New York, and it’s essential that he stays on the floor while handling Embiid adroitly on post-ups (Philly’s 9.2% frequency and 1.29 points per post-up possession are Playoff-highs) and boxing Joel or Dwight out. The Hawks’ five-game series win over the Knicks got McMillan (36.2 playoff winning percentage) past not only former Hawks coach Mike Fratello (32.3%), but the guy who supplanted Nate in Portland, the now-former Blazer coach Terry Stotts (34.3%), among the least playoff-successful coaches with 500 or more regular-season wins. Coach Nate doesn’t have a radar for this, but if he did, he’d find within his sights Gene Shue (39.0%), who peaked with The Original Doc by taking Philly to The Finals in 1977. A successful Hawks series that goes no more than six games would allow Nate to shoo off Shue. Head-honcho jobs are opening up across the league, making it of some comfort for Hawks, Inc., that McMillan keeps his eyes only on the prize of the next opportunity to win a playoff game. “You have to be loyal to whoever you are working for,” he shared with The Undefeated while still assisting LP. “I always have taken the approach that the organization that I am working for is where all my attention is.” “I don’t really look back… I am not doing things for my next job… If you commit to that organization and that team, things will work out for you.” Word, Nate Dogg! Philadelphia’s five-game series victory over the Wizards pushed Rivers a little further past the .500 postseason line (95-90), but Doc has commandeered many a disappointing conclusion to seasons with talented teams, notably a Clipper club that still awaits its franchise’s first Conference Finals. He’s desperate to change that narrative, too, but he’ll have to reach the Eastern Finals with a hobbling Embiid leading a core (with Simmons and Harris, throw in Mike Scott if you wish) that has only one more series win under their belts than the current Hawks collective. The invectives thrown and spewed Young’s way have already reached a scale that Rivers, who could hide a little behind guys named Nique and Tree, rarely had to experience by himself during his tenure in the Pac-Man jerseys. Trae’s aware of the Sixer-fan hijinks already sprinkled upon former league MVP Westbrook in recent weeks, a player Young has watched and learned from since his youthful years in The Sooner State. Trae also knows that, unlike fans from a town to Philly’s north cheesing for clout on behalf of their longtime unlovable losers, the fans in the City of Brotherly Shove are quick to turn their vitriol and Cheez Wiz onto their own teams, when things aren’t going their way, and as opponents are bending games to their will. The lesson to be gained, Philly sports fans? The Future Greatest Atlanta Hawks Point Guard is in town. Get your popcorn ready. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. Planking. The Choice of an Old Generation. Down by a point midway through the third quarter in Atlanta, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player found himself confounded by the Hawks’ defensive positioning. For Golden State’s Stephen Curry, this was in a good way. The ball made its way to him on the left corner, right near Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard, the tent-poles for the regurgitating Atlanta Basketball Club under former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s watch. Standing around fussing about his careless turnover while trying to get the ball up the court, Howard got into a see-wut-happened-wuz squabble with Dennis, about how the play should have been run, not far from their own basket. Kent Bazemore was guarding the inbounder, but soon found himself scrambling in vain as Schröder, bickering with Howard but not minding Curry, left him alone in the far corner for one of the most open three-point shots of Steph’s famed career. Splash. Oh, Brother. Los Warriors take the lead. Time out, Los Hawks. “And I heard a big cheer,” said an unfamilar color analyst for the visiting Warriors, “from… you would think, a partisan crowd.” Ya think? Steph is giggling uncontrollably, drawing hand slaps with coaches and teammates as he skips to the sideline for a quick Shasta break. Coach Bud is beside himself, too. But in his case, there is no joy in Hawkville. “I don’t understand Coach’s decision,” groused Schröder after that pivotal game, a 119-111 loss that still had the Hawks, losers of three straight, with a respectable 34-29 record. Benching Dennis, Bud had elected to roll with Junior Hardaway and Malcom Delaney the rest of the way. “Maybe I’m too competitive, I don’t know.” Indeed, the Hawks’ marquee point guard did not know. This, on the heels of a missed game and suspension after the All-Star Break due to a visa snafu, didn’t help matters. Dwight wouldn’t play much longer in that game after the defensive flub, either. Ersan Ilyasova consumed the lion’s share of what would have been Howard’s residual floor time, as Zaza Pachulia’s Dubs sat him and went small-ball. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the outcome of the game that was crucial for the evolution of the Hawks franchise, but that one, egregiously neglectful play. We will never know the precise moment, maybe in the ensuing spring of 2017, when Budenholzer marched over to incoming GM Travis Schlenk’s office and said, “Look, small-b bud, please, I’m trying to get the Dellavedova out of here!” But it couldn’t have been terribly long after. Up to a certain point, Schlenk was assuring the public upon his arrival that, no, the Hawks were disinterested in conducting a full-on rebuild, that somehow it was possible to fine-tune using the remnants of a core that, just two years before, held the top record in the NBA Leastern Conference. And Dennis, and Baze, and Dwight. “Being Competitive, and increasing our Flexibility, that’s still where we are,” Schlenk would emphasize. But then, Schlenk looked closely at what he had to work with on the floor, and what passed for veteran leadership. He figured he maybe had more hangtime with Schröder. But in the ensuing season, Atlanta eroded to a 24-58 mark with Bud angling for an exit hatch and a soft landing. As Dennis was adding hookah-bar rap sheets and noise ordinances to his resume, shooting sub-30 percent on threes all the while, Travis understood the dream of grooming a responsible All-Star-caliber point guard out of this guy, a first-rounder from the prior regime, had run its course. Further, that tethering the point guard’s “maturation” to him any further ran the risk of managerial malpractice. Still, the decision on Dennis would be over a year away. As he unpacked his boxes in his new, spatial Marietta Street corner office, Travis already understood… he had no time to waste with Dwight. Atlanta’s Own (the other one) thought he had finally aligned his NBA home with his old home. Mimicking Bazemore’s tears at their Summer 2016 Free Agency press conference (someone, PLEASE, make a 30 For 30 about Summer 2016, and hurry), Dwight was self-assured that the Hawks would be his Final Destination. Moved all his snakes over here from Houston into another palatial mansion, and everything. Much like Final Destination the movie, his tenure began and ended disastrously alongside Schröder and Baze, the Curry wide-open three-pointer serving as the piano slipping perilously from above. Atlanta, Watch Yer Head! In June 2017, Schlenk made the Dwight trade to Charlotte his first official maneuver as GM, making the final two years of what was to be a three-year, $71 million deal the Hornets’ problem to wrestle with. In turn, Atlanta got a test-drive of Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee’s contracts, a nice Summer League run with Alpha Kaba, and a cup of tea with Tyler Dorsey as Schlenk traded down in the second-round with Charlotte (maybe coulda had Thomas Bryant instead of Dorsey, but that’s pure Draft Snobbery on my part. The good pick came with Johnny Bap in the first round). Howard would get the ring he long sought by returning to Los Angeles and clinging to LeBron and AD in the 2020 Bubble, although not before getting passed around from Atlanta, to Charlotte, to Washington, getting waived by Brooklyn and Memphis along the way. Now 100.1% assured of a Hall of Fame induction, Dwight gets to be a pseudo-Thanos of sorts, collecting gems on his fingers by coming off the bench behind all-world talents like Joel Embiid. He’d love nothing more than to have a role in making the once low-key Hawks his personal Loki, especially as this series has ventured into Dwight’s hometown (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) for what the Hawks (13 straight home wins; 21-2 at State Farm Arena since February 13) hope will be another successful two-game homestand. But as the crew collected by Schlenk following Dwight’s 2017 departure from ATL comprehends, Clint Capela doesn’t need to fare better than Captain America, versus Joel (39.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG in 1st two games of series) and Dwight, for the Hawks to come out on top in Game 3. Travis was in Golden State’s War Room in 2009 when handlers for Curry pleaded with Monta Ellis’ club to let the Davidson star slip down to the Knicks, who were holding the next pick. Schlenk and the Warriors graciously denied the request, and that longtime, downtrodden franchise has been laughing its way to the bank ever since. (“Welcome to New York, Jordan Hill!”) He knows the value of homegrown point-god talent, done right, mentored right, developed right. As Schröder, unshackled from the tutelage of Westbrook and CP3, resorts to old bad habits and drawing the ire of Earvin in L.A., Schlenk is recouping the benefits of moving on, on the fly, as Trae Young grows out from his Sorcerer’s Apprentice cocoon to reveal something truly magical. The Sixers in 2018 were pleased as punch with the burgeoning promise of 2016’s first-overall pick, Ben Simmons (hey there, “Gameboy.” We ain’t forgot about you; 4 points, 7 assists, 2 steals over 34.5 minutes in Game 2). So much so, that they had no interest in trading up with their lottery pick like Dallas would. We have The Prototypical Point God of The Future already, Philly said, thank you very much. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-11! Instead, they took hometown product Mikal Bridges, had his mom who WORKED FOR THEM singing their praises on television, only to swiftly trade down with Phoenix and acquire Zhaire Smith instead. They got Miami’s first-rounder this year, but even that didn’t last long, coughed up in the deal that brought Tobias Harris and our old friend Mike Scott over from LA. Bridges, riding a rookie deal on this Sixers team, would look pretty darn good right now. Zhaire, at right about this moment, might be at a Memphis-area Whataburger. As a customer, that is to say. The prior Sixers’ regime’s error became Daryl Morey’s gain, as the Rockets GM escaped H-Town just in time to take over in 2020. The inherited successes are to Morey’s gain as well. Harris (21.0 PPG, 59.4 FG% this series) would be a strong contender for Playoffs MVP, although, please, nobody advise Embiid until this series ends. Joel and Ben were already under maximum-extended contracts. Also locked down were developmental rotation guards Matisse Thybulle, a dogged defender, and Shake Milton (13.0 PPG and 35.0 3FG% in regular-season), whose Pop-A-Shot performance late in Game 2’s 118-102 home win for the Sixers should not have been such a surprise. Morey’s grandest offseason stroke wasn’t signing Dwight to a one-year rental, or ditching Al Horford and a protected future pick for the expiring deal of Danny Green (8 assists, 0 turnovers in Game 2). It was the heist of marksman Seth Curry (5-for-6 3FGs in Game 2) from Dallas. Having Curry and last season’s 3FG% leader, George Hill (54.5 Playoff 3FG%), plus Embiid and Harris sharing the floor has alleviated Simmons (DPOY runner-up) from the pressure to expand his floor game to include a perimeter threat, although there’s nothing keeping Ben from avoiding Dwight-level free throw accuracy (3-for-15 FTs in series). His teammates coming through early and often to withstand Atlanta’s runs in Game 2 granted Ben a reprieve from an onslaught of media and fan scrutiny. “The Simmons narrative is tired, to be sure. But it’s not without merit,” wrote Brad Botkin of CBS Sports yesterday. “A team that is aiming to win a championship with a lead ball-handler who can’t, or won’t, shoot the ball is an obstacle in perpetuity.” Botkin notes that his defensive effort on Trae (“only” 21 points and 11 assists in Game 2; 5-for-18 3FGs in series) works as an excuse for his shortcomings only so long as his teammates are able to compensate. In the march toward postseason prominence, Young would love to have waged this campaign with the young complements of Cam Reddish and now De’Andre Hunter all season long. In the absences of those Philly-raised products, the Hawks have turned to more seasoned veterans to help sustain their competitive edge. Try as he might, Solomon “Mack” Hill has proven inadequate with the starting lineup at the starts of halves, likely leading Hawks coach Nate McMillan to turn to one of Danilo Gallinari or Tony Snell. Filling in as a starter for the injured Reddish in late February, Snell’s efficiency was key to igniting the turnaround of Atlanta’s season, a wing role lessened by the full recovery of Bogdan Bogdanovic. As per basketball-reference, the Hawks’ most utilized 5-Man regular-season lineup of Young/Kevin Huerter/Reddish/John Collins/Capela was a net-minus 6.0 points per 100 possessions (195 minutes). The second-most, substituting Tony for Cam, finished the season with a net-plus 11.6 points per-100 (184 minutes). Gallinari was an offensive conundrum for the Sixers in Game 2, and nearly had Embiid on the precipice of a premature exit. Uncoupling Gallo’s minutes with fellow sixth-man Lou Williams’ could lead to better-balanced rotations. Limiting turnover production is vital to McMillan, and one could do worse than upping the offensive roles for Gallo (team-low 7.2 regular-season TO%, as per bball-ref) or Snell (team-low regular-season 0.8 TOs per 36 minutes). McMillan will likely choose a starting replacement for Hill based on how effective they’ll be in helping with Embiid and Harris in the halfcourt and keeping Collins and Capela (11 combined PFs in Game 2) from soaking up fouls, how capable they are in thwarting Philly’s transition offense, and how helpful they can be in springing Young free to create offense for the Hawks. “I didn’t think we did a good job of setting screens in that game,” Nate Mac said while reflecting on things to improve upon from Game 2. Nate game-planning for these Sixers, though, is nothing compared to Bud making chicken salad out of Dwight, Dennis and Baze against the league’s top-flight, star-studded teams. Ensuring a capacity crowd in Atlanta a few years ago was dependent on drawing opposing NBA fans. But this year’s edition has shown and proven enough over the past several months to get local sports fans to Believe Atlanta, and they’re showing it with their presence and their pocketbooks. Trae and his team’s infectious play have drawn more fans to represent for The ATL than the jolly giant with the cheesy grin ever could during the abbreviated stay in his hometown. Two or three more Hawks victories here at State Farm Arena would surely bring many more new tag-alongs, although room for the bandwagons may soon have to spill beyond the arena to Centennial Olympic Park. Here’s hoping for a decidedly partisan crowd, today and Monday, rooting for a team that has evolved in just over four years to one eliciting big cheers, instead of audible groans. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. The OFFICIAL Meme of Winning Atlanta Sports Teams! Zaza Pachulia didn’t quite get there with us. And it’s not what he intended when the words fell from his mouth in front of a roaring crowd. But near the end of Atlanta’s first post-millennial journey into the NBA postseason, Zaza’s words proved prescient. "Nothing Easy! Nothing Easy!" Our Atlanta Hawks overcame a decades-long hex to finally reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. Alas, no, we were not allowed to just chill, kick back, and watch the clock come down before celebrating a monumental moment in franchise history. The Hawks coughed up a ten-point edge with nine minutes to go, leading to a nail-biting final five minutes of Game 6 in D.C. At the final buzzer’s sound, Washington was going bananas, Paula Pierce was Paula Piercing, and Atlanta was meandering aimlessly around like somebody stole their baby pet hippo. After further nail-biting review, though… HAWKS WIN! Don’t you feel ECSTATIC, Hawks fans? Yay. Plop, Plop! Fizz, Fizz! “Hawks Win, but D@MN!”, is the default banner-headline emotion after many major victories. And it’s not just them in this crazy sports metropolis. The Bravos’ last trip to the World Series? Playing at home, the baseball club blew a 5-0 first-inning, and a 7-3 lead in the top of the 7th, then needed a Brian Hunter single to salvage a tie in the 8th. The Mets strategically loaded the bases in the 10th with one out, to pitch to a kid hitting .217 for the NLCS. Thankfully, Kenny Rogers’ 3-2 pitch was so wild, even Andruw in good conscience couldn’t let the bat leave his shoulders. “Bravos Win, but…!” Earlier, that same year. The Falcons’ first trip to The Big Game? It wasn’t Morten Andersen’s clutch kicks, or Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson’s final drives, that was the story. It was Mister Automatic, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, failing to secure Minnesota’s destiny with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, after Atlanta seemed to have let the gains of a late rally slip away. “Falcons win, but…!” It’s not simply our local teams blowing chances at victories that’s part and parcel of The Atlanta Story. It’s also about when they *do* win a big game, it is rarely decisive and without late, often seemingly unnecessary, drama. Whatever deals we made with our own personal Mephistopheles to get our Hawks into this year’s NBA Playoff party, and then to be as successful as they have been at this stage, we as fans are well past the point of negotiating how games and series must end. In the space of just over three months, Nate McMillan took over a club that was underwhelming to most everyone and he has them exceeding the wildest and most irrational of expectations. If it has to come with a sprinkling of Atlanta Sports? So be it! McMillan’s charges sprinted to a 26-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 1 at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, then withstood volleys from a prideful, top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers team in the third quarter. With Atlanta holding a 19-point lead over the Sixers with just over eight minutes remaining, Nate Mac handed the strategic coaching keys over to Dan Quinn. Either that, or Trae Young and the Hawks are just merrily rolling the ball up the court, toying with the game clock and daring the Sixers not to force turnovers before plays can develop. Five of Atlanta’s six fourth-quarter turnovers came in the final 4.5 minutes of play, the spoils of enhanced Sixer pressure compounding a spell of missed jumpers, a blown putback layup from Clint Capela, and referees confusing whistles for lozenges. Sixer Basketball is forcing turnovers and scoring in transition while the opposing defense is destabilized, and Philly did that to great effect as Atlanta’s 107-88 lead was whittled down to 126-124 with ten second to go. Atlanta’s saving grace came at the Gray Mule line, as Capela’s third-quarter miss was the only one of the Hawks’ modest 21 free throw attempts that did not hit nylon. They need not tempt fate again in Game 2 tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast). A raucous Sixers crowd will do all they can to try throwing the Hawks off their game and keeping the Sixers from falling into Clippers territory heading into games in Atlanta. Philadelphia’s late-game barnstorming could not have come to pass without their likely MVP runner-up. Playing through his torn meniscus for 38 grueling minutes, Joel Embiid (39 points, 14-for-15 FTs, 9 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals), gave Capela his best shot. Unfortunately for Joel, he found woefully himself out of position and behind plays in the final frame (zero 4th-quarter D-Rebs or blocks) while trying to will Philly to victory on offense. Like Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (sore knee, DNP Game 1), Embiid is again listed as questionable to play in Game 2. The Hawks will need to assess which side of the court Joel, assuming he plays, is favoring and pressure his Sixer teammates at the other end accordingly. If Embiid is going heavy on offensive post play, get to the cup in quick-strike transition, compelling Sixer defenders to commit fouls even the refs can see. If he is camping out in rim-protection on defense, Trae and Lou Williams should use dribble-drives and kickouts to free up shooters (ATL Playoffs-high 15.8’ average shot distance; 37.3 3FG%, 5th among remaining 8 teams). Meanwhile, Hawk frontcourt contributors should place emphasis on limiting Ben Simmons (7-for-7 FGs in Game 1, all within 4 feet of the rim; team-high 10 assists to match Young, but 5 TOs and 3-for-10 FTs) from playing catch-up with interior shots. A league-high 91.0 percent of Philadelphia’s three-point makes in the postseason are assisted, and Hawk wings and roving guards must stay active in anticipating chances for deflections and steals. The team that is more disruptive with dishes off penetration is likely to hold the upper hand in Game 2. If Atlanta can be more consistent across quarters, we can have a “Hawks Win… OK!” kind of game. The ‘98-99 Falcons, the ’99 Bravos, and the ’15 Hawks each had major, history-making wins, but took so much skin off their own teeth in the small-p process, they had no bite left once it was time to sink them into the likes of John Elway, Derek Jeter or LeBron James in the next big rounds. The ’21 Hawks have a bit of familiarity with letting momentum slip away in recent games, but so far have come away on the fortunate side. Atlanta allowing an early 11-point lead to evaporate in Game 1 of the conference semis was overshadowed by Trae’s closing heroics, but it gave New York and their fans confidence that they could seize momentum back in Game 2, and beyond. That didn’t happen, because Knicks, but the Sixers have far better talent and awareness to make their hopes come to fruition. Rather than merely hoping Embiid runs out of gas, the Hawks must have the high-quality ballhandling and passing under pressure, the focus to create and make open jumpers and layups, and the will to hound Philly’s perimeter threats, such that it becomes obvious that Embiid is perilously running on E to everybody, especially coach Doc Rivers. The pride of Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner must have been a lowkey Hawks fan in 1971, when she grabbed the mic before covering Credence Clearwater Revival and announced, “You see, we never do nothing NICE and EASY. We always do it NICE and ROUGH. So, we’re going to take the beginning of this song, and do it EASY. Then, we’re going to do the finish ROUGH.” Like “Proud Mary,” this is the way we do, “Atlanta Sports.” The 2015 edition of the Hawks perhaps found itself a bit too shellshocked, with the way they crept into the conference finals, to be properly focused on the juggernaut that awaited them. This new version, hopefully, never lost one minute of sleep over the close of Game 1, worrying about the way that things might have been. The approach to this game must stay on what could be. It’s Game 2, Atlanta. Big wheel? Keep on turnin’! Thank You, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Psst… Benny! Sweep The Leg. Do you have a problem with that?” Friday Tidbits! A team getting healthy just in time to make some noise in the Eastern Conference Playoffs? That’s what head coach Doc Rivers has with his Philadelphia 76ers. They’re seeking to solidify their Top-2 finish, and mathematically ensure first-round homecourt, with the aid of another home victory today versus our hobbled Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly). MVP finalist Joel Embiid has either missed or was DNP’d for 19 of 62 games, Seth Curry 13, Ben Simmons 12, Tobias Harris 9. Yet all appeared in the starting lineup as Philadelphia (41-21) waxed, on and off, the Hawks in Wednesday’s 127-83 win at Wells Fargo Center. Even former Hawk Mike Scott, having been shelved for 20 games so far, dragged his giddy-up on a bum hip through nine cleanup minutes on Rivers’ behalf. While the outcome was deflating for Atlanta, the Sixers’ collective coming together ought to be aspirational for the Hawks, as the race for final playoff seeding enters the final half-month. Now that he has his infinity gems and a roster bearing the best in-conference record (26-9 entering today; Bulls, Pistons, Pacers, and the Magic twice in games next month) at full health, Coach Doc (91-89 career playoff record) can now center his attention on chasing Brooklyn (1.5 games ahead) for the top-seed. After that, he will be able to spend this year’s postseason chasing after Hall of Famers Jerry Sloan (98-104), Red Auerbach (99-69), and Larry Brown (100-93). A halfway-successful conference finals appearance would perch Rivers at 4th all-time for playoff victories, comfortably behind third-ranked Gregg Popovich (170-114). Like most Atlanta sports fans, I rarely get what I want (I’m told a few football fans around the ATL could use a hug today). But if I could get greedy, I’d love to have the Hawks (34-29, 16-18 in away games) finish at .500 on the road for the first time since the 2015-16 club went 21-20 (should’ve been 22-19, winners of the Southeast Division, and a 3-seed with a season-finale win over Ramon Sessions in Washington that year. But, again, I rarely get what I want). At minimum, this would necessitate Trae Young (questionable, sprained ankle), Bogdan Bogdanovic (questionable, sore hammy), and Clint Capela (newly questionable, heel pain), all gametime decisions as per coach Nate McMillan, to be healthy and functional this evening, because the outmatched Brandon Goodwin and Solomon Hill, as top-line starters against the Sixers, does not a .500 road team make. The scarcity of backcourt perimeter shooting threats made Wednesday’s outcome, a season-low in scoring eclipsing Monday’s season-low in Motown, inevitable. Silver lining, frankly, is that game wasn’t even the worst beatdown of the night in the NBA (“Good night, Luke Walton!”) or even the second-worst performance by a local sports team this week. I present, for your consideration, the Five Stripes crashing at the Benz in the second half on Tuesday. And let’s not do 7-inning double-headers around here anytime soon, shall we? The Hawks shouldn’t look down, but what they can lock down, beginning tomorrow with the Zach LaVine-less Bulls in town coming off today’s home game against Milwaukee, is a .500 overall record. Breaking-even, or so much as a game above it, will do wonders for the Hawks (tie-breakers over BOS and MIA, each 1.0 game behind ATL) securing a Top-6 seed and ducking the Play-In scenarios. That will require rotation guys like Tony Snell (upgraded to probable, sprained ankle), Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari (combined 3-for-13 2FGs, 0-for-3 3FGs on Wednesday) to get back to steadier roles on the floor, capably supplementing the starters. As I often suggest, this team is in no position to look ahead, but that doesn’t mean we fans can’t. Many teams, notably the Knicks, Celts and heat, have to spend a chunk of their remaining schedule on the road, but our Hawks need to fly the coop only once more after today. Even that away game, next Thursday, will be at coach McMillan’s old stomping grounds. In Indianapolis, last night’s loss to the Kyrie-less and Harden-less (but clearly not KD-less) Nets dropped Nate Bjorkgren’s club to 11-19 in their own building. The Pacers may not even strive to be a 9-seed at Play-In time. So, for the Hawks to get to 37-35… tomorrow versus Chicago, next week at Indy, the week after, back home, versus Orlando, and a few days later, Houston in Game #72. Win three of just those four, and it’s a winning season, on lock, that sure wasn’t looking like one when the 15-20 Hawks were down 16 with four minutes to play in Orlando on March 3. Win all four, and it would take a perfect run by the Washington Triple-Double Team to catch up with Atlanta. The challenge for the Hawks is that they’ll need four Ws in their pocket well before the Magicians and Rockettes kick into town. Six wins keeps the Hornets out of reach, makes New York have to go 5-4 to ensure homecourt, and puts pressure on the heat and Celts to be way better than they’ve been. With that in mind, it’s imperative that by this time next week, we (especially the coaching staff) have clarity on the healthy and productive returns of De’Andre Hunter (sore knee; we do love drafting Philly kids around here, don’t we?) and this season’s former ironman, Kevin Huerter (day-to-day as per AJC’s Sarah K. Spencer, sprained shoulder). “A guy like De’Andre, you have to work him in slowly,” McMillan told Andy and Randy on 92.9 FM’s mid-day show this afternoon. The upcoming slate of tough but home-friendly games is a good time to do just that. What we can’t afford to hear, by next week, are bromides of how well unavailable Hawk players are faring on training tables and at shootarounds. At season’s end, we also can’t bear to witness a slew of rusty players who haven’t competed together as a recent collective, playing for their Please-No-Play-In lives, against a random Booby Trapper on our floor trying to go out with a sixty-piece. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “I told John Collins, there’s only one man who can go by the name, ‘Dr. J’… ME!” **TAP TAP TAP** “This a stick-up! Get yo’ Dellavedova outta the car!” **MEEK MILL BLARES AS WINDOW ROLLS DOWN AT TRAFFIC LIGHT** “Whassup, my man?” ((Gleam, from winning smile)) “…Oh, NO! It’s YOU! I can’t jack YOU! Man, listen, it’s Christmas Eve, I just got out The Joint, ain’t got nowhere to eat…” “See them Golden Arches up the way? Meet me there, at Mickie D's, and I’ll hook you up with what you need.” **THIRTEEN MINUTES LATER, OUTSIDE THE DRIVE-THRU** “Nom nom nom… I’m Lovin’ It!” “Yo, enjoy that Double Quarter Pounder meal, man. No pickles. Got you Super-Size Fries and a Hi-C, too! Just stay out of trouble, and do it for me, a’ight? ‘Cause this ain’t the way. Merry Christmas!” **BENTLEY DRIVES OFF INTO THE SUNSET** “Go Sixers Go!” And, scene! Such is The Legend of Lou Williams in the City of Brotherly Shove. At least my skit, of how it probably went down. Nearly a decade later, Lou’s lore has only grown in its enchantment among the locals. Philly's successful pick at #45 in the 2005 NBA Draft, Lou Will has hopefully shaken off the flu bug and will be warmly welcomed in his return this week to Wells Fargo Center as a member of the Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly). Sixer fans surely love him. And the Hawks could sorely use him. Atlanta suffered its way through a SCRAP game… combo Trap Game and Schedule Loss… in Detroit on Monday, and along the way suffered injuries to both Kevin Huerter (doubtful, sprained shoulder) and Brandon Goodwin (questionable, impinged ankle), the latter filling in due to the rehabbing ankle of Hawks star Trae Young. Cam Reddish (sore Achilles) has been formally shelved for the remainder of the regular season, at minimum, while Tony Snell (sprained ankle) remains out of action. Along with Williams, that leaves, at coach Nate McMillan’s disposal, the following backcourt options. Bogdan Bogdanovic, maybe (questionable, sore hammy). Two-way guard Skylar Mays. And, because irony has a snarky sense of humor, Kris Dunn, who appeared on Monday in live NBA action for the first time in 15 months, and four months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. After appearing for 13 monitored minutes in the Hawks’ 100-86 loss to the Pistons, Dunn still awaits his first made bucket since January 2020, when he drew friendly fire from a Bull who fell on his leg while drawing a charge. Kris, who grabbed a steal and a block in his Hawk debut, was never known for his offense, but he was arguably undergoing his best flourish as an efficient scorer in the paint (24-for-33 2FGs in seven games w/ CHI) before going down with his season-ending MCL sprain. While he went 0-for-5 on Monday, the entire team (4-for-27 3FGs @ DET) looked rusty in setting up plays whenever Dunn brought the ball up in Detroit. Dunn will need some layups to fall today to help the Hawks keep up with Philadelphia’s best interior scorer, with all apologies to Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons made his last three-pointer on St. Patty’s Day, and he has lofted a pair of long-distance shots over the course of 15 games since then. The All-Star point guard missed four games (all losses for Philly) with the flu, before returning to go 6-for-8 on twos in the Sixers’ easy-bake 121-90 win over the Al Horford-coached OKC Thunder. Dunn and Bogdanovic can help coax Simmons (last game exceeding 20 points on March 23; last game w/ double-digit assists, March 25) into mid-range shots. But for depth reasons, they’ll have to stay out of foul trouble and keep Simmons, despite his 61.5 FT%, from piling up points at the free throw line. When fronting Simmons with more size, perhaps in the form of John Collins or Solomon Hill, the Hawks’ active guards will want to be pesky in deflecting and cutting off passes, particularly to Philly’s array of willing perimeter shooters like Seth Curry (42.2 3FG%), Danny Green (team-high 6.2 3FGAs/game, 41.4 3FG%), Harris and Furkan Korkmaz. “Mathief” Thybulle, Harris and the Sixers (six players w/ at least 2 steals vs. OKC) had a field day taking candy away from the Thunder babies on Monday, and Bogdanovic (5 TOs @ DET) and Dunn will have to be more careful with their own movements while creating offense. He’s an MVP front-runner, but the shoe was on the other foot for Joel Embiid in Atlanta back on January 11. With Harris, Curry and Simmons all shelved for that game, and a back-to-back in Philly with Miami awaiting, Sixers coach Doc Rivers handed out the most minutes, 39 of them, to Dakota Mathias, a two-way guard who was cut loose a week later in favor of Goodwin’s FGCU teammate Rayjon Tucker. Also unavailable that day were Thybulle, Korkmaz, and Shake Milton. Mathias and the other default starters, including Green (0-for-9 FGs @ ATL) and Mike Scott (1-for-7 FGs @ ATL, questionable for today with a sore hip) were downright horrible. Embiid got his obligatory double-double (24-and-11 but on 8-for-17 FGs, 1 assist) but was overwhelmed in the presence of Clint Capela, Collins and wing defenders De’Andre Hunter and Reddish. With no backcourt answers for Trae (8 assists, no TOs, 26 points) or Goodwin (15 bench points and 4 assists), Philly found themselves down by 39 points before then-coach Lloyd Pierce called off the dogs in the third quarter. Only a lucky three-pointer by snake-tank aficionado Dwight Howard and garbage-time scores from Isaiah Joe obscured the scale of the beatdown in the 112-94 win by Atlanta, the Hawks bouncing back from a four-game skid of their own. Even without Hunter, Atlanta has some flexibility at the power forward and center positions to hope to contain Embiid and Harris, whether the talented Sixer duo attacks from inside or out. The Hawks will need full-court imprints from both Hill and Danilo Gallinari to take pressure off Collins and Capela. Whenever the Sixer star bigs catch a breather and Dwight, two-way forward Paul Reed and 10-day contractor Anthony Tolliver hit the floor, Onyeka Okongwu, Nathan Knight and Bruno Fernando will need to win rebounding battles and produce positive stints. These days, you have to hang out at Chickie’s & Pete’s on road nights if you wish to enjoy the soothing sounds of Sixer fans belligerently booing. For starters, Brett Brown is gone. However, in fairness to Brown, the Sixers were perhaps the most unduly impacted by last season’s disruption. They began 2020-21 by winning 14 games in a row at The Stagecoach. They lost two in a row, in December, then won 15 more. 29-2 before the pandemic pause, but only 10-24 in road games. Then, the mojo was gone by the time the lights came back on in the Florida Bubble, stumbling into a lower seed and then swept away in the opening round by the Fighting Brad Stevenses. Belying this year’s 23-7 home record, under Coach Doc, are three defeats without the services of Embiid, four, overlapping, without Simmons, four without Harris and two without Curry. Their home mark remains the second-best in the East and the third-best in the NBA overall. Moreover, this year’s postseason is likely to have a growing number of homebody fans in the building, maybe even the would-be Hamburglar, had he heeded Lou Will’s advice, enhancing the Sixers’ chances at reaching at least the Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. The Hawks’ SCRAP-py loss in Motown was a downer, but they did get an awful lot of help over the past couple days. The Fabulous Thunderhorfords went up to Boston last night and knocked off the Celtics. Charlotte, Indiana and Toronto all caught Ls yesterday, too, as did Washington and the Knicks (finally!) and Miami the day before. That gave Atlanta (34-28) a useful two-game cushion (along with tiebreakers, if needed) over the Celts and the 7-seeded heat entering Wednesday’s and Friday’s games. While Philadelphia (40-21, 1.5 games behind top-seed Brooklyn) is assured of at least a Top-7 finish with a victory today or Friday, a win for the Hawks would all but assure them of a chance to secure a Top-10 finish by the time the Bulls visit Atlanta on Saturday. Unlike Lou’s infamous thief back on Christmas Eve 2011, today, it sure would feel nice to steal one in Philly. To all, a good night! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. “Whoo! Good Golly, Mister Molly! You sure like to ball!” Kuester’s Revenge! Tracy McGrady, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Wilcox, Austin Daye were among the players fashioning a mutiny against their coach. Even withering legends Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace were in on the boycott, petitioning for an overthrow of Detroit Pistons coach John Kuester. His days were already numbered as the team piled on the losses, but by February 2011, his increasingly DNP-CD’d players sought to grease the skids by skipping shootaround and showing up to practice late. T-Mac complained of a “headache”, although the source of it seemed quite clear. Coach Kue was well behind the 8-Ball, but at this point, he had enough. It was time to put his foot down. Seven of Detroit’s rotation members were benched and suspended on gameday. The beneficiaries of Kuester’s Last Stand? Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and the resurgent Philadelphia 76ers. Elton would enjoy 20 points and a team-high 17 rebounds at the Pistons’ expense, and Philly wouldn’t need much more help than that. The Sixers looked across the floor at tip-off and saw five visitors suited up on the court, and just one available bench player, Jason Maxiell, on the sideline. There were more than 5 Seconds of Summers, as Detroit’s Dajuan was pressed into a career-high 39 minutes of action. Formerly doghoused by Kuester, Will Bynum couldn’t believe his reversal of fortune. “I sat and got DNP’s for a month and a half,” he said to postgame media. “You think I was turning down 48 minutes? I ain’t crazy!” Ben Gordon and Bynum tried their best to keep their team in the running through halftime, but as each got into early foul trouble, with no other backcourt options on the sideline, Kuester found himself at wit’s end. The coach got tossed by the refs, and T-Mac was caught on TV leading the sideline in barely constrained laughter. It’s hard to say who laughed last. They didn’t get Kuester’s job on a platter until the summer, by which time many of them were on the outs as well. And I’m guessing Kuester, wherever he is (last seen around the pro ranks as a Lakers scout), is giggling. Nearly a full decade later, Brand has assembled much of the current roster as the 76ers’ general manager, doing his best to build something competitive around inherited All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Aided by a new boss in Daryl Morey, his Sixers surged to a respectable 7-1 start, the best mark in the otherwise parity-loaded Eastern Conference. But now, Elton and new Sixers coach Doc Rivers can only look on in horror as the effects of COVID-19, quarantining and injuries whittle down their lineup to a daily crapshoot. They had a stacked squad in Brooklyn on Thursday, aside from starting guard Seth Curry, who was chilling on the sideline with a bum ankle. But when staffers gave Seth the hook and led him to the locker room, that was the hint that peculiarity was afoot. Curry had tested COVID+, creating a distraction for the Sixers as the fell to a Nets team missing both KD (quarantining himself) and Kyrie (allergic to tie-dye). The resulting ripple effects would have Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Terrance Ferguson, Vincent Poirier subject to the dreaded Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Rivers can’t even uncork Furkan Korkmaz (strained adductor) to help out. Trying to figure out things to do versus Denver when you’re down at least a half-dozen players, Coach Doc tried swiftly shelving Simmons (knee swelling) and Embiid (back tightness) and kept a recuperated Mike Scott (bruised knee) off the court, in hopes the NBA brass would postpone their Saturday matinee with the visiting Nuggets. The league wouldn’t budge. Not until today, at least, when it was time to dock Doc’s team $25k for their failure to have Simmons on the initial injury report. Rivers fielded seven Sixers to face the Nuggets, two aging yet still functional vets in Danny Green (along with Ferguson, part of the deal that dispatched our old friend Al Horford to OKC) and our other even older friend Dwight Howard, plus five fellows who you might expect to find in a dusty Who’s Who Among American Basketball Players yearbook. Led by rookie Tyrese Maxey’s 39 points and six assists, and Tony Bradley’s double-double off the bench, the spirited 76ers held their own through one half of play (up 58-51 through two quarters) before the wheels fell off in the third quarter of the 115-103 defeat. No, Dakota Mathias is not a song from The Lion King, although he was a passing craze (five assists, just 1 TO) during his 41-minute appearance as another rookie starter alongside Maxey and the new Arkansas Joe, Isaiah (4-for-18 FGs vs. DEN). The residual Not-So-Sick-sers are in town to face the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, NBC Sports Philly), and while Embiid and Scott are technically available to play, Kuester’s Kurse hovers over the visitors. The deposed ex-coach must suspect McGrady is still a Vet Min, or that “T. Young” is actually Thad, because a pox seems to have spilled over both teams’ houses. Knock on wood, until you get splinters, but be glad that Da ‘Rona is about the only thing not placing Atlanta players on the injury scroll. Tony Snell is listed as probable to make his Hawks debut tonight, but the swingman can only contribute to the ever-revolving door of injuries that is shutting the door on his team’s once-abundant optimism. The pu pu platter of maladies on Bogdan Bogdanovic’s knee (avulsion fracture, inflamed tissue, bone bruise), following Atlanta’s fourth-straight loss in Charlotte on Saturday evening, suggests we won’t be seeing him for a while. There’s no need for a roll call on the other Hawks taking extended time off for recuperative purposes. But just to field a team themselves, coach Lloyd Pierce has no choice but to roll out a list of probables. Including Snell, there’s Trae Young (sore wrist from Saturday’s 113-105 defeat), Kevin Huerter (sore ankle), and Bruno Fernando (sore hip). Pierce’s prime challenge in navigating this swoon is to keep his sore collective from leaving tonight’s matchup with the Six Sirs looking like a bunch of sore losers. From Collin Sexton, to Immanuel Quickley, to LaMelo Ball, one rookie/sophomore after another is doing their part to show up Trae and seize what we once hoped would be a slot for Cam Reddish (29.3 FG%, 1.2 APG in past five games) on this year’s fictional Rising Stars team. Maxey hopes to be next in line tonight, if Joe and Mathias don’t beat him to it. Another offensively potent outing or two might have Simmons returning to a full-time starting forward gig upon his return. Despite season-highs of 34 minutes, 21 points and four steals in Saturday’s rematch, Cam was only slightly more effective in his return to the reserve unit after LP went with Bogi. Now, with Bogi out, there may be no choice but to return a starting spot to Kevin Huerter, which would certainly not be a bad option. Red Velvet certainly looked like the only Hawk that showed up to play productive minutes for four quarters at home this past Wednesday (5-for-12 3FGs, 19 points and 6 assists vs. CHA). And while his aim on the floor was duller than Reddish’s on Saturday, Huerter at least looked capable of moving the ball (3-for-10 3FGs, 6 assists, no TOs in 34 bench minutes @ CHA). Atlanta parlayed the Hornets games without a single Hawks starter making more than a single three-point attempt. Trae (last 4 games: 15.8 3FG%, 40.4 2FG%, 3.3 RPG, 6.3 TOs/game) was already woeful before banging up his wrist, particularly flustered now that he’s not drawing trips to the free throw line. Now his sore wrist will make the Trae Tricks – sinking shots from Social Circle, lofting floaters, dribbling bounce passes between defender’s wickets – all the more a challenge to execute. When last the Hawks and Sixers played here at The Farm, at the end of January last year, Young enjoyed season-highs of 18 assists and 18 of his 39 points at the free throw line, flummoxing Brett Brown’s charges in a satisfying 127-117 victory. John Collins had a vengeance match of sorts against Embiid, coming up big with 17 points and a season-high 20 rebounds. Philly will field a bunch of bigs, but Embiid and Howard likely won’t play much together, and the others, with all due respect to the hobbled Scott and lissome two-way contributor Paul Reed, cannot keep up with Johnny Bap. This is the game for Collins (just 4 FGAs @ CHA; one 3FGA in last 2 games) to get his touches up, early and often in offensive sets, and he must come through, whether it’s finishing around the rim, drawing Joel and Dwight out the paint, getting to the line and making the Sixers pay. Defensively, Clint Capela is here specifically to minimize the need for Collins to risk foul trouble holding up against the likes of Embiid (3.3 APG, highest among active PHI players). When the Sixers’ star center puts the ball on the floor in the post, Collins and Young should be ready to pry, deflect and swipe to limit easy kickouts to Green (37.7 3FG%) and the Sixers’ spot-up shooters. Collins must also be more involved in moving the rock and setting up teammates, an element of his play that seemed to be unearthing itself in the Hawks’ late-game loss to the Cavs (5 assists vs. CLE on Jan. 2, most since April 2019), but has gone back underground since. Especially now with Bogi bogged down, it cannot just be predictable sources like Young and Huerter creating for Atlanta (62.9% of made FGs assisted, 4th-highest in NBA). At least the Hawks’ all-time career assist leader has some willing backcourt contributors to turn to without Simmons and Curry, even though those options unheralded newbies to the pro game. It has been almost a calendar year since Atlanta enjoyed a breakout performance from guard Brandon Goodwin, who subbed for a struggling Jeff Teague in Trae Young’s absence last January and sunk 3-of-4 threes for 19 points, helping Collins and the Hawks trip up Doc’s shorthanded Clippers. A double-digit, low-turnover scoring effort off the bench tonight from Goodwin to supplement Trae would be welcome, and long overdue. Coach Pierce has his hands full trying to chart a different course for the Hawks than we’ve seen over the past week-plus. But if Atlanta’s losing streak extends from tonight, the final home game before MLK Day, and through the upcoming three-game road trip, and if the fault appears to be more bad play than bad luck, there may be calls for somebody a little less kinder and gentler to run the show going forward. A harder-nosed taskmaster may be on the horizon, one looking for a little less conversation, and a little more action, please. Wait a minute… did you hear that crashing sound? Is that… is that John Kuester’s entrance music? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES???” What day does, like, winter get here? My seasonal-snowbird family members and I are getting fewer and fewer calls asking, jealously, how the weather is down here in the Balmy South. In my case, it’s been hard to tell the difference. My hometown has gotten this deep into the so-called winter season without having to scrape off more than half and inch of snow, total. Zero-point-three inches, to be precise, the fewest flakes since 1972-73 (do not remind Philadelphia 76ers fans about 1972-73). By comparison, Raleigh has had eight times as much of the legal white stuff. Scientists are being pressed for answers, but I’ve got my couch-based theories. Perhaps it’s because, in Philly, the 76ers have been blazing hot at home. Or, perhaps, they’ve been holding out all this time for an Ice Trae storm to blow through. The humans on the Atlanta Hawks arrive in Philly today (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia) hoping to induce just a little more climate change. Philadelphia’s sterling 26-2 mark at The Center (still fussing with Wells Fargo over naming rights?) is the NBA’s best. The overall record (35-22) is decidedly not. Blowing road games, like the 127-117 flop against a 12-36 team in Atlanta back on January 30, has the Sixers wrangling with fourth-seeded Miami just to claim first-round homecourt in the Eastern Conference. Being almost Hawks-bad on the road (NBA-high 24 away-game losses for ATL, entering today’s action), Philly has their home crowds in an ornery mood, and that’s saying something. Atlanta’s second-year coach Lloyd Pierce, who has his rightful share of skeptics, learned the tricks of the NBA media-relations trade as an understudy for a variety of head coaches. None more effective, I’d argue, than Brett Brown, who has outlasted the entirety of The Process by mastering the mannerisms of the manager you’d like to speak to. Brown followed up a 19-63 season with a 18-64 campaign in his second go-round, back in 2014-15 when he added Pierce to his sideline as an assistant. The Sixers plunged even further to 10-72 the next season, but Brown was able to play victim-of-circumstance well enough to salvage his and his assistants’ jobs. A 28-54 run in 2016-17, with rookie Joel Embiid offering a 31-game glimpse of his boundless potential, was comforting enough to keep Brown and his staff around for the 52-30, playoff-bound breakthrough that followed. With that as a backdrop, you can forgive Pierce if he’s not sweating the follow-up of 29-53, in his maiden voyage rebuilding the Hawks, with a 17-41 setback-filled season that, suddenly, doesn’t have 30 wins beyond the realm of possibility. Unlike Brown’s tenure with Bryan Colangelo, Pierce works with a patient GM that isn’t undercutting the emerging young stars behind his back. Unlike Brown’s run under Sam Hinkie, Pierce knows his GM doesn’t need to write theses to keep ownership from getting too hasty. Superheating “The Process” runs the risk of a disquieting recess. Philadelphia is facing not only a slide in regular-season results for the second-straight year, but an early playoff exit after narrowly missing the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. Yes, they’ve won 12 straight at home. But, can a team that’s 9-20 in road games, one that hasn’t beaten an opponent that’s above .500 in their building since December 12, turn it up and advance in the NBA Playoffs as a 5- or 6-seed (as bad as Indiana has been, they’re still just two games behind Philly)? Even if we don’t have doubts, Philly fans sure do. If you feel bad for certain fans who shelled out the big bucks for a titanic “Trae versus Luka” deathmatch over the weekend at State Farm Arena, and are now screeching over the local airwaves about the unfairness of it all, imagine how poor Al Horford must have felt last month when nobody showed up to see him. Two days after playing at home against Pepperidge Farm Goldfish State, Brown decided he could afford to load-manage Al, saving him up for a nationally televised Saturday night game in Boston. Not only did his Sixers drop both games, but nobody in his old stomping grounds stomped and stammered afterwards about his absence from the floor at the Hawks game. There were plenty of Sixers fans at The Farm that evening, yes, but fans occasionally come to see teams win, not just individual players. And, sorry Al, but you’re no Luka. You’re no Trae, either. Things were not supposed to be this way for our dear friend Al. He wanted to be on a respected championship contender. He wanted fans who would appreciate his unique skillset as a big man. He wanted teams to show appreciation with not just vocal praise, but as much of The Bag as they could possibly dish out ($26.5 million-plus over four years isn’t Tobias Harris money, but it’ll do fine). Most importantly, most endearingly, he wanted to stop being penciled in as a fulltime center. I don’t wish to question any of Al’s moves up and down the Eastern seaboard. But Horford Hindsight seems to be filled with miscalculations, second-guesses and regrets. He left Mike Budenholzer for Brad Stevens, and now he has latched back onto a Coach Pop disciple in Brown. Fearing a future with Dennis Schröder, he thought Isaiah Thomas was going to be a sure shot. With I.T. and then Kyrie on the move, he decided to keep it moving himself, tying his point guard hopes to Ben Simmons (31 points on 10-for-15 2FGs @ ATL in January; out today with back pain), the near 6-foot-10, 240-pound All-Star whose shot beyond 3 feet (36.7 FG% on jumpers) is anything other than sure. Now featuring another All-Star in Kemba, Boston (4.5 games ahead of Philly) seems to be doing fine without Al. But the most attractive rationale for the 13-year veteran, by bailing Boston in favor of their longtime Atlantic Division rival, was finally being able to man the power forward spot full-time, wedged between Harris (upgraded to questionable, knee bruise) and All-Star Embiid, while playing his GM Elton Brand’s former role as a trusty backup, in very limited minutes, at the five-spot. Solving the Sixers’ spacing issues was supposed to involve Horford’s pick-and-pop. Instead, it’s been pick-and-ick. Al is shooting 32.0 percent on threes, the worst since he started shooting them in earnest under Coach Bud’s watch, on a career-high 4.4 attempts per game. The 51.5 2FG% is threatening to be the worst since his rookie season with the Hawks. Throw in 1.1 free throw attempts per game, and Horford’s 13.8 points per-36 is the lowest scoring rate since his second NBA season. You won’t be surprised to find that Al’s defensive rebounding remains at a low simmer, and his shot-blocking instincts have regressed. So have his assist-making exploits, although a lack of healthy three-point shooting recipients for his passes plays a big role. The five-time All-Star, the second-highest-paid Sixer, Horford is now coming off Brown’s bench, as a backup center, behind Embiid. It’s his first time not starting in an NBA game since filling in for Zaza as a Hawks rookie in November 2007. And, yes, since you’re wondering, the fans that have watched their Sixers win 12 straight at home have resorted to booing him, as he futilely jab-steps in the name of brotherly love. Nobody in top-seeded Milwaukee was jeering Al Jefe on Saturday night, when he entered as a reserve. He took seven shots, six of them from three-point range, and made just one for his game total of three points in 24 minutes as the Sixers lost by 21. In his last road start, also in Milwaukee, Al went 5-for-12 on threes but 0-for-5 inside as Philly fell by 11, concluding a road trip with all four losses by double digits. The first two games of Philadelphia’s four-game, two-week homestand bifurcated by the All-Star Break, Horford shot 4-for-10 and 0-for-6 in 60 combined minutes before Brown gave him his new backup Bawse role. In the home finale against Brooklyn, six points, three boards in 18.5 minutes. He watched most of the fourth quarter and overtime from a chair. Brand has cut loose the developmental Jonah Bolden, while doghoused veteran Kyle O’Quinn has been politicking for a buyout. Norvel Pelle was upgraded from his two-way contract to a full-time deal, but Brown has been left with limited choices upfront when giving Embiid (23.2 PPG, 12.0 RPG) a breather. Playing together, the Horford-Embiid duo’s O-Rating (98.9 as per NBA.com stats; 10th-worst in NBA among 506 duos w/ as many as their 499 minutes on-floor together) has been O-MFG, so Al is left with no choice but to return to his least favorite position, and not as a starter. As one might expect, Brown is babbling as best he can to put a positive spin on the downturn of his team’s 2019 free agent prize. “He’s a prideful man,” Brown told local reporters after a team film session this past weekend. “He has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and (I am) just keeping (coaching critique) very straight, very clean, very quick… I want to help him help us. Somewhere in the middle of that, I am aware of it all. He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle.” It’s okay, I’m not sure what I just read, either. Brown softened the shoe further. “We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naïve to think some of his signing wasn’t driven to where we want to be in April, May and, we hope, June.” It is wise of Brown to keep everyone forward-thinking. But with the $69 million of cash guaranteed in the seasons to follow for the 33-year-old frontcourt player seemingly in decline, Sixer fans may not want to peer much beyond the forthcoming postseason. In this modern age of blurring frontcourt lines, it is nice to have a young player who isn’t grousing about his ideal or desired position on the floor. Similar in height to Horford, John Collins knows his limitations as a small-ball center, but he takes pride in learning to how to excel while playing and guarding multiple positions on the floor. With a load-managed Kristaps Porzingis watching from the sideline, Collins did exactly what he was supposed to do against Dallas and then some, adding 17 rebounds and a pair of blocks to go with his career-high-matching 35 points in Saturday’s 111-107 comeback win down on The Farm. While Atlanta’s former star big man, Horford, watched from the pine back in January, Collins wasn’t just putting up with the imposing Embiid (21 points, 3-for-6 3FGs, 14 rebounds). The Baptist rang up 20 rebounds to go along with 17 points (8-for-10 2FGs), helping Atlanta ace Trae Young (39 points, 18-for-20 FTs, 18 assists) to flatten Philly. The Hawks’ starting frontline was aided on that day by a productive Damian Jones (6-for-8 FGs, 2 blocks in 26 minutes), and Jones’ upgrades have since arrived in the form of momentary ex-Sixer Dewayne Dedmon (12 rebounds, 4-for-6 FGs vs. DAL) and the injured Clint Capela. But Collins (NBA-high six 20-and-10 point-rebound games this month) is in no mood to wait on the returns of Capela (heel) or Skal Labissiere (knee) before figuring out how to get his Hawks up off the mat. With the return of De’Andre Hunter (out for personal reasons vs. DAL; no one demanded their money back) to the starting lineup, Atlanta may have a legitimate advantage in the depth department tonight, if nothing else. Assuming both of Philadelphia’s top-two minute-loggers, Simmons and Harris, are no-goes today, Brown will need to rely heavily upon his whack-a-mole crew of reserves. More than one backup 76er must pop up so that Josh Richardson (DNP @ ATL in January; 16 points on 22 shots in past two games) and Embiid don’t have to carry an unfair burden tonight. In January, the supporting-role star was Shake Milton, who had 27 points (5-for-9 3FGs, 8-for-10 FTs) and 6 assists in 35 minutes as a replacement starter while trying to keep up with Young, his fellow Oklahoma state prep-school standout. Milton was hardly heard from again until Saturday, when he sank 5 of 7 triple-shots in the losing effort against the Bucks, and Brown would love to see another good game Sooner rather than later. Mike Scott (39.6 FG%) has been sporadic, scoring no more than three points in his past five appearances as his playing time has cratered. If the Sixers could put the occasionally hot perimeter shooting of Furkan Korkmaz (17 points, 3-for-4 3FGs vs. MIL) and the intermittent defensive wizardry of Matisse Thybulle (1.4 SPG, but just 7 thefts in his last ten appearances, incl. 2 @ ATL) together, they’d have quite a MyPlayer on their hands. Depth and chemistry remain challenges for the 76ers (4th-lowest bench points, 3rd-lowest bench boards, 3rd-lowest bench dimes per-48 in NBA), who added a pair of ex-Warriors in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson at the Trade Deadline for the stretch run while jettisoning Trey Burke and James Ennis. It is another reason why demoting Horford in hopes of a spark doesn’t sound like such a horrible idea. Philly has two more lottery squads (at Cleveland, vs. the Knicks) to contend with before putting their revamped rotation to a truer test. A three-day visit to STAPLES Center will kick off a four-game road swing at the beginning of March. The Hawks are gaining familiarity and late-game confidence amidst a home-friendly schedule that extends well into next month. If Atlanta can find ways to take that more competitive show on the road, too, opponents may continue load-managing stars at their own risk, but they’d need more than Zamboni drivers as subs if they expect to comfortably win the games. You all remember Zamboni machines and snowplows, don’t you, Philly? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “A$AP Rocky? Why, Rih Rih, why???” It has been said that time heals all wounds. Even if some abrasions come from batteries buried in snowballs. Hell hath no fury like the tortured soul of a Philadelphia sports fan. Legends of devious disdain toward opponents and, often, their own teams, have persisted all throughout the decades. Michael Irvin’s final moment as a Dallas Cowboy -- and, as a football player -- concluded not with boos, but rousing cheers, by the Philly Phaithphul, as the receiver who made a Hall of Fame career out of tormenting his division rival was carried off the cold concrete tundra of Veterans Stadium in a stretcher with a career-ending neck injury. At least it was the turf that injured Irvin. Washington’s human pro football mascot came to town for a game, and he wound up getting his leg broken after getting ambushed. Sitting in the opposing hockey penalty box, as Tie Domi can attest, means always having one’s head on a swivel, on the lookout for literal Broad Street bullies. The illy-willy in Philly extends not just to foes, but to the performers that fans are supposed to be cheering as well. Riley Cooper declared his willingness to fight (certain individuals) in the football stadium, not during a game but at a country music concert. Mike Scott was more than ready, literally throwing dem ‘bows with Eagle fans who wanted some of that R-word smoke. They jeered Ron Jaworski as Lawrence Taylor drove him repeatedly into the astroturf. They booed Donovan McNabb as he walked up the stage on draft day. Ryan Howard went from league MVP and winning a World Series to ducking a beer bottle in his own ballpark. From Richie Allen to Mike Schmidt, the back-and-forth catcalling at the hot corner was always NSFW. The hockey team founder dies, and the team issues commemorative bracelets to fans, only to have staff skate out to clean up the mementos, as bitter fans hurled them onto the ice during a blowout playoff loss. Being a Philadelphia sports professional is rough. Being a sports professional *from* the Philadelphia area affords you no favors, either. Kobe Bean Bryant had to have that confirmed for him, the hard way, during what he thought was to be a triumphant return to the City of Brotherly Shove during 2002’s NBA All-Star Game. The year before, the 76ers’ Allen Iverson held up the ASG MVP trophy in front of adoring fans in Washington, D.C., his team aided by solid performances by Atlanta’s Dikembe Mutombo, Toronto’s Vince Carter, and Milwaukee’s Glenn Robinson as the East waged a monumental comeback to secure the victory over the Bryant-led West. For Philadelphia’s diehard hoop-heads, that season was shaping up to be the culmination of a five-year Process since drafting A.I. (nine years, really, if you include the fallout with Charles Barkley and the lost wilderness of the Shawn Bradley years). If maybe the Sixers could acquire Mutombo, then get past Carter and Robinson in the playoffs, there may be a date with destiny in the NBA Finals ahead. Ultimately for Philly, the acquired Mutombo proved no match for the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, and while Iverson proved he could step over Tyronn Lue, he could not sidestep the brilliance of young Kobe Bryant. A gentlemen’s sweep ended the Sixers’ glorious 2001 season in their own building. The formal NBA championship trophy presentation had to be conducted in the opponents’ locker room. For everyone’s safety. This was largely not just due to Shaq’s trolling of his foil on the hardwood, but Bryant’s threats to the loony locals off of it. Heckled harshly after Los Angeles’ pivotal road victory in Game 3 of the Finals, Kobe was overheard shouting back at the phorlorn Philly fans, “we’re going to cut your hearts out,” the next game. The personal and possessive pronoun usage was particularly telling for Bryant, who was unapologetic to reporters after Game 3 and made good on his promises in Games 4 and 5 of a 2+3+2 title series that would not require the +2. For two decades by this point, Philly sports fans were used to enduring wretched teams, and wretched defeats from their otherwise good teams. What they were unaccustomed to was having their heads handed to them by someone who projected himself, when convenient for him, as one of their own. Folks from the 215 at the time will confirm for you, there was zero acceptance of Kobe Bryant, the Laker, as a Philadelphian. Philadelphia Adjacent, maybe. As far as we Philadelphians were concerned, Kobe Bryant was an Italian, and not even South Philly water ice Italian. He was an alien turned suburbanite, spoon-fed by an NBA-playing daddy who actually grew up in the local ‘hoods. He used the legends of Philadelphia blacktop ballers, including his father’s, to bolster his own rep as a hard-nosed kid. In our minds, it was all a phacade. During the ’01 Finals, Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant put it succinctly. “Philly sees Kobe as smug. Philly sees Kobe as selfish. Philly sees Kobe as trying too hard to Be Like Mike. Worst of all, Philly sees Kobe as being more Hollywood than a tummy tuck and a nose job.” Once Bryant made his grand return in 2002 for the wintertime classic, he was seemingly the only person surprised by the chilly Philly reception. You could see how hard he tried to win the attendees over, subjected to vociferous boos from the minute he entered the arena, to the opening-game announcements, to the many times he even touched the basketball along the way to hoisting the MVP award. “I was pretty… pretty upset. Pretty hurt.” Bryant said while choking up, holding back tears after taking Iverson’s place as the new reigning All-Star MVP, the first of four in what would be a stellar career. “I just wanted to go out there and play… just play hard. But they booed, and, you know, I still like coming home, though. I still enjoy playing in Philly nonetheless.” Even Iverson sympathized with his rival guard’s plight. “…at a happy moment, a happy time like that, you want to enjoy it,” A.I. told reporters. “Then, by booing him, it took a lot away from it because he is from here.” He didn’t know it at the time, but Iverson’s Philly tenure was already at its peak. Years of losing seasons and early-round exits awaited the four-time scoring champion until he was mercifully traded out of town in 2006. Despite the downturn, Iverson managed to enjoy a career shielded from boos and boorishness. It should never have required a conviction and a prison sentence, but A.I. had the street cred that Bryant, shadowing his teammate Shaq with a brutally panned side-career as a wannabe rapper, craved. “D@MN, KOBE! In high school you was THE MAN, KOBE? What the hell happened to you?” Rapper Skillz, likely more aligned to the streets than Bryant and to his fellow Virginian, penned those words in his annual “Rap-Up” of the calendar year 2003, just after Bryant appeared to be getting his high-profile comeuppance in Colorado, awash in major legal trouble due to lascivious conduct. Philadelphians, like The Legendary Roots Crew who would interject Skillz’s lyric during their concert performances, lapped up the “D@mn, Kobe!” line, particularly as a dig at those who saw Hollywood Kobe as a goody-two-shoes. The two-word phrase became a go-to utterance any time Bryant had a downturn in his career, especially the seasons after O’Neal departed and Bryant was derided for his perceived on-court abandonment of passing and, later, defense. It would take a dozen years before Bryant, in the twilight of his NBA career, could get the home-metro adulation he once thirsted for. Three years after getting traded away, Iverson returned home to conclude his career as a 76er, and despite his own off-court troubles, sideline squabbles and his singular inability to carry the Sixers beyond a single Finals game victory, the Philly fan adoration for Allen hardly wavered. In large part, his immunity from Philly boos was because A.I. never started biting the fans’ hand, even when the hand was disinclined to feed him love anymore. If the Sixers got booed, he seemed to understand wholeheartedly, it was because his team deserved the boos for a lack of competitiveness and effort. Playing through obvious injuries endeared him to fans who, if they could not witness success, wanted to see fearlessness out of the athletes that donned their teams’ uniforms. The diminutive Bubba Chuck was closer to an everyman than a player like Bryant could ever be. So long as this hardscrabble All-Star athlete never complained about the phanbase, or blamed them for the team’s misdeeds, the sharpest critiques would be reserved for the coaches, the GMs, the ownership. Iverson’s time in Philadelphia is instructive for the star athletes who have followed him there, including Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s also a useful lesson for emerging young stars in markets like Atlanta, where Trae Young and the Hawks host the Sixers this evening at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia). Atlanta’s modern pro sports history is even more torturous than Philadelphia’s. Fans here, like everywhere else, will respond in not-so-kind fashion to Paul Pierce Tebowing at the logo, a pitcher brainlessly beaning our star hitters at home plate, or a Falcon opponent making a mockery of the Dirty Bird in the end zone. But as Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Mike Vick know by now, even the slightest hint of disrespect toward the scant supporters in the stands can tar your local reputation for a long time. Sixer fans were willing to endure the lean years, seasons of 22-60 and 31-51, once Iverson came aboard as their rising headliner. He recognized he was no less flawed, as an individual, than they were, went to bat for them, and was adored in turn by them through the roller coaster of NBA seasons that followed. Similar to Iverson, Young (29.2 PPG, 3rd in NBA; 9.0 APG, 2nd in NBA; NBA-high 4.8 TOs/game) is carrying the Hawks (12-36) through at least a couple arduous seasons, perhaps aided with fewer veteran talents than even the Sixer star had in his heyday. The likelihood of blowout deficits and losses continue, as was the situation during Atlanta’s 130-114 defeat up in Toronto on Tuesday night, even as Trae treats those watching with occasionally hot-doggy highlight-worthy plays. Composure is key, and a player who took the slings and arrows for an otherwise awful collegiate collective at Oklahoma has shown, to this point, he has that in spades. Fifteen-thousand-plus fans at the Highlight Factory, on a Saturday night game between two teams with bad records and little hope of reaching the postseason, is only happening because the regional fanbase is enthralled with and has entrusted Young to lug the franchise, eventually, out from the doldrums of the league. The All-Star starter votes are representative of not simply how the consensus of NBA fans value his nightly uphill determination, but Atlanta fans in particular. “The NBA fans here,” wrote Forbes’ Ray Glier this week, “are showing up because they have a relatable star in their midst. Young doesn’t throw off an air of majesty. He just plays.” Philadelphia’s next Process had the 76ers cycling through tall rim protectors like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, tall shooters like Dario Saric, and tall guards like Michael Carter-Williams, before Embiid (currently playing with a splint on his hand) and Simmons (8.4 APG, NBA-high 2.2 SPG, probable despite respiratory illness) overcame their early injuries and eventually shook out. While more talents of considerable size and length will be needed in the future, here in the ATL, Young’s artful wizardry with a youthful core does just fine for the time being. “The fandom in the arena, most around 6 feet tall, are being won over by a shrimp of a superstar,” Glier wrote. “He’s not a towering presence, but he’s a presence.” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, was there for many of Philly’s post A.I. (Iverson and, later, Andre Iguodala) years. Pierce’s Sixers meandered upward from 18-64 while riding with Tony Wroten and Luc Mbah a Moute, down to 10-72 with Ish Smith and Hollis Thompson, and up to 28-54 with Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas, before the Sixers could break through with a 52-win season, with a little help from the departed Jimmy Butler. As Al Horford knows, Philly went from being a league laughingstock to a free agent draw, but it wasn’t easy. Pierce watched nightly as his boss, Brett Brown, aw-shucked his way in a classy manner through embarrassing losses, drawing the arrows to himself as questions about his fitness as an Xs-and-Os guy and a developer of young talent compiled along the way. Many of those critiques remain for Brown, after a 51-31 season concluded with an unfortunate deep-corner dagger from Kawhi Leonard to stave off a Game 7 overtime in 2019’s second-round series with the eventual champion Raptors. Especially as the Sixers (31-17, 6-1 in last 7 despite Embiid’s injury; 2.5 games behind 2nd-place Toronto in the East), now with former Celtics savior Horford (12.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.0 APG) in tow, can’t seem to secure a first-round homecourt advantage. Despite beating Boston in all three matchups so far, the results have been mixed at best when Philadelphia (11-12 vs. above-.500 teams) encounters equivalent competition. Even the games against subpar competition can get hairy, like back in October, when the host Hawks jumped out to a 40-31 advantage after one quarter, and a weak-jump-shooting Sixer team needed 36-and-15 from Embiid, including two clutch free throws, and a missed three by Vince Carter just to escape town with a 105-103 victory. The best Sixer shooter on that night, Josh Richardson, is out with a strained hammy, and Horford (out, sore knee, saving him up in hopes of a Celtic sweep on Saturday) is momentarily hobbled. The Sixers will need not only stifling defense from wings Shake Milton, a starting two-way player, and Matisse Thybulle, but also solid shooting from Tobias Harris, 2016 first-rounder Furkan Korkmaz, and the former Hawk Scott (limited in action lately, sore knee). Brown has asked fans to take any heat directed at Simmons for his shot (non-)selection, or Embiid on his pregame conditioning, and turn it all towards him. “Evidently, I have failed,” Brown said this month of the 2018 Rookie of the Year’s lack of progress in stretching the floor with deep shots. “You know, I own it. I gotta help him find this.” That tactic has worked for the Sixers coach, and the players as well. He has survived seismic shifts in management along the Process by being self-effacing, and Pierce has certainly taken note of his protégé’s resilience in a phinicky sports town. Even as rumors surfaced that the Sixers were thinking of “going in a different direction” after their last playoff ouster, Pierce openly advocated for Brown, not the latter’s Spurs peer Mike Budenholzer, to win last season’s Coach of the Year award, and not one of the Dwane Casey variety. Pierce sees that even future forays into the postseason, by themselves, won’t secure his long-term job status. But much like the grandeur Buddy Ryan once held as Philly phootball went from dull doormat to a menacing NFL playoff contender, maintaining cordial relations and tight bonds with fans in town can go a long way. That goes for the stars of the team as well. There will be years under the near-decade of his rookie-scale deal and Powerball-dollar extension where fans will get maybe a bit too inured to Trae’s play, especially if the results on the scoreboard don’t change drastically. Unlike Simmons, Trae (“just” 18 points, on 5-for-13 FGs, and 13 assists @ TOR) seems committed to do his part to improve the aspects of his game that rightfully draw the greatest critique. With him, his teammates and his coach, patience is required from fans, yours truly included, that is often in too short of a supply. But even when fans grow skeptical, bored and tired of Young, or Pierce, along this rocky road out of the NBA abyss, they cannot afford to grow skeptical, bored and tired of us. The stronger their embrace of being “True To Atlanta,” even when such fan-love is unrequited, the longer they’ll have a chance at experiencing the height of excellence right here. Should they have any questions, maybe they can just seek out The Answer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “I plan on being here for life, too, if y’all will have me!” WELCOME BACK TO THE ATL, AL HORFORD! ALL IS FORGIVEN! Oh, I really shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of everybody in Hawks Nation. Just lil’ ol’ me, a childhood Sixers diehard, turned crotchety Hawks dieharder. Fans of the Atlanta Hawks, and of the visiting Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly) don’t usually see eye-to-eye. But one thing is always sure to clench our arms and unite our spirits, and that is any occasion we get to stick it to the Boston Celtics. Especially Danny Ainge. And especially one other guy. “WHAT A GREAT PLAY BY MARCUS!” There goes Tommy Heinsohn, ruining yet another play call. A Celtic scrambled toward the sideline on Friday night after a halfcourt steal, saved the ball, and flung it behind his back to set up a nifty driving layup by Jayson Tatum against the Raptors. It was, indeed, a fantastic play. If only the aging wonder of a colorless commentator, Heinsohn, could discern between guard Marcus Smart, who was not on the floor, and center Robert Williams, the one who made the play, the one who subbed in for Smart barely a minute earlier. It’s the kind of astute insight we will come to expect around here, from Dominique Wilkins, in 2045. Tommy wasn’t always off his game, back in those days when the game lacked a three-point line. The grainy instructional videos from the Sixties and Seventies show us this ten-time NBA champion, as a player and a coach, was a guy who was once sharp as a tack. Nowadays, he’s just crazy like a fox. “As much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player!” That was Bitter-Beer-Face Tommy’s assessment of a four-time All-Star, the Atlanta Hawks’ Al Horford, in April 2016. Too busy to notice, Al was having a grand time making mincemeat out of Heinsohn’s main men – checks notes – Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson, as Atlanta cruised to a satisfying six-game series win over Evan Turner and the C’s. Like Ainge, Isaiah Thomas knew Al was a “great player.” Great enough, anyway, that he volunteered his services as the All-Star consigliere for Danny to pry Horford away from the Hawks’ sketchy management crew. I.T. AND Horford together in Boston? Whatcha gunna do NOW, King LeBron? On the upside for Boston, Al held up his end of the deal, a four-year contract worth $113 million that featured a final-year $30 million opt-in. He was able to steal four more conference-final games against LeBron’s Cavs than he could as a Hawk, although sadly not all in the same series. He was top-ten in 3FG% and All-Defensive 2nd Team in 2017-18, the season that Boston (64.4 winning% with Al in regular-season; 59.5% in the playoffs before Milwaukee ran the table) fell one win short of a trip to The Finals. But to the Celtics, fans were sold on Horford, upon arrival being not just a rental but a lifer, akin to Robert Parish, who gave Boston all of his 30s before graying out and moving on. El Jefe was supposed to be The New Chief, his Gator-armed defensive rebounding, free throw carom flinching, jab-stepping eccentricities easy to disregard. Horford was the great-enough player that, along with a trove of lottery draftees Ainge stole over the years, would be used to woo greater players to Beantown, helping the franchise elevate their championship tally into the twenties. When fans and media start calling you, “The Godfather,” kissing a ring you don’t yet have, you’re not supposed to skip town on them. Once you’re in, You’re In. Changing Al’s perception as more than some mid, mired in mediocrity in a mid-tier NBA market, was of high importance to the Horford clan, as was relocating to a familiar town, the place where Al and his wife met. The Celtics did all they could to upgrade the team, including making Thomas scream, “et tu, Brute?” as he soon found himself getting belittled in Cleveland so Kyrie Irving could take his place. But things didn’t quite go as originally advertised by Ainge and the Celtics brass, to Horford or anyone else. Free agent stars weren’t arriving in great supply, unless you count Gerald Green, Shane Larkin and/or Aron Baynes while high on PCP. Boston’s greatest masterstroke of a free agent gamble, snaring Gordon Hayward from Utah, crumpled five minutes into the 2017-18 season. The rest of the roster additions, like Kyrie and Marcus Morris, came via trade or mid-season free agent pickups, and either got wishy-washy about sticking around or weren’t asked back. The prospect of having to go from I.T. to Kyrie to, maybe, Kemba as his setup man in the space of four seasons wasn’t helping matters, either. But there was one thing that Al valued, above all else, that Ainge could not deliver on, and just about anyone in Atlanta could have warned Danny about it. I don’t know which of you Squawkers used to go by the handle, “Aliznotacenter,” or something like that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you peeled back the mask and revealed Alfredo himself, or at least Tito, or Br’er Jon, or Sister Anna. All Horford needed to stick with the Green Goblins was, simply, a pivot he could play with that was at least a clear step up from prime Zaza Pachulia, allowing him to ply his wares more fully as a power forward. Wrestling for 50/50 balls with the Zydrunas Ilgauskases and Roy Hibberts of the world was cute in his twenties, but those pecs aren’t getting any younger. The Baynes Train was about the best they could do, and even that guy was heading out the station. Instead of just opting in and dragging out the inevitable letdown next summer, Horford spotted an opportunity and pounced on it. It just so happens that the opportunity availed itself with Boston’s most despised historic intra-division rival (sorry, Knicks). Boston opened their 2019-20 campaign watching their former bedrock ringing the Liberty Bell Thingy at Wells Fargo Center, his new team pulverizing the Celtics into 36.7 FG% shooting in a 107-93 Sixer victory. You (Might) Hate to See It. Now, Al has his former Hawks backup center, Elton Brand, pulling the player-personnel strings instead of upriver-seller Ainge. Now, Horford gets to dance with Joel Embiid, when the All-Star center is healthy (probable for tonight, ankle sprain and lacerated lip), rather than going toe-to-toe with him several times a year. He gets Ben Simmons to play the 1-spot, and Al doesn’t have to park himself on the low block as his point guard tricky-dribbles the ball to death. Further, Horford gets the bane of Banks County Sheriff’s Office, Mike Scott, backing him up, instead of the frontcourt duo trying to man somebody’s defensive fort. With J.J. Redick gone, one can argue that Philadelphia’s biggest threat to bury threes comes from the forward positions. If Scott (5-for-9 3FGs this season) isn’t giddying-up from downtown, or if he’s too busy giving Eagles fans the smoke, then there’s Tobias Harris (6-for-11 3FGs) and Horford (3-for-13 3FGs so far in 2 games). Their teammates have combined to shoot 6-for-20 in the early going and, of course, that doesn’t include Simmons. Philly (2-0, like the Hawks) has the inside track to stick it not only to Heinsohn and Ainge in Boston in the Eastern Conference, but to Al’s former coach, Mike Budenholzer, another Hawks ship-jumper, who gets the Greek Freak to do much of the dirty work in Milwaukee these days. While Horford would have been expected to face-up with Giannis for a majority of minutes in Boston, he’ll have more length and defensive help in Philly to alleviate the pressure. I can be mad at Al for the wacky Summer of ’16. But I can’t stay mad. Al was one of many players and staff who found themselves, at different times, constrained under the Punch-and-Judy, “Don’t Shake His Hand, Billy!”, ownership regime of the so-called Atlanta so-called Spirit so-called Group. As a Hawks fan, I do find some measure of glee watching unsatisfied ex-Hawks chasing their destinies elsewhere, be it in Greece or Detroit or Boston, whether they’re wildly successful or disastrously not. Particularly after enduring the ASG years, it was understandably worth a shot. I spent most the past week glued to my free trial of NBA League Pass, fixated upon Baze and Taurean, Marvin and Jeff, Timmy and Dennis, Al and Mike, all trying their darnedest to make things pan out better elsewhere. Invariably, there’s play-by-play and color commentary along the lines of, “Player X has been really helpful to Team Y, after Z years playing in Atlanta,” maybe nobody more frequently than Al. If League Pass had a “follow your favorite team’s former players and coaches, exclusively, for $19.99 a year!” option, they’d have a born sucker right here. Thankfully, I’ll get to just buy a ticket to watch Horford, Scott, and the Sixers try keeping up with the NBA’s hottest scorer tonight at State Farm Arena. Trae Young (38.5 PPG, 9.0 APG, 55.0 3FG%, 1.5 SPG, 7.0 RPG, Who Cares TOs/game) has been “great enough” to make Al and other ex-Hawks wish they had stuck around town just a bit longer. This season's first Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Young has propelled Atlanta, so far, to the league’s second-best shooting percentages (57.1 eFG%, 59.2 TS%). As the Hawks plan on ramping up the tempo following grind-fests with Detroit and Orlando, it’s safe to note the Sixers (NBA-low 22.5 opponent 3FGAs/game) haven’t faced an offensive dynamo quite as relentless as Young yet. They can ask the #1-overall pick they discarded last year, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz, if they have any uncertainty about that. Trae’s longer-limbed wing teammates have helped stifle perimeter shooters (NBA-best 22.1 opponent 3FG%). If that theme continues versus Philly, then Embiid, Simmons, Horford and the Sixers will have to pile up points in the paint (Atlanta’s 60.0 Paint Points per-48 currently leads the NBA, ahead of Philly 54.0), and from the charity stripe (as the Magic tried, in vain, to do) to at least keep up with Atlanta (3-1 last season vs. PHI) for 48 or more minutes. John Collins (4 blocks and 10 D-Rebs vs. ORL, in Saturday’s thrilling 103-99 win; only one game with 3+ blocks and 10+ total boards last season) and the Hawks’ bigs will do all they can to slow the Sixers’ rolls to the hoop, but Collins will need more interior help than he has received thus far (ATL NBA-high 16.5 opponent 2nd-chance points per-48) from Alex Len, Damian Jones and Bruno Fernando. If Young, who has been more active as a roving defender, can switch off effectively onto Josh Richardson or defensive rookie hound Matisse Thybulle, rookie wings Cam Reddish and DeAndre’ Hunter can help make it a tough night for Simmons. Back on offense, Jabari Parker (14.0 PPG) and the awakening Kevin Huerter may be fun to watch against Scott and the otherwise talent-thin Sixers’ second-line. Even though it’s with another Eastern Conference competitor, I do wish Al Horford second-best in his quest to one day reach the NBA Finals, and to be able to do something of substance once he gets there. He’s made the playoffs in every NBA season he could finish healthy, and was instrumental in the Hawks ending its eight-season playoff drought and extending runs into the playoffs for nine consecutive years. Having ushered in Rebuild ver. 7.0 for Ainge and the Celtics should cement his personal banner-raising legacy in Atlanta when the 2030s get here. I wish him good health and fair fortune for him and the Horford clan in the years to come. Except for Tito. That guy can stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. “EAT A CHEESESTEAK, YOU COWARD!!!” Yes, we have no Belinellis. We have-a no Belinellis, today! I am so sorry, Philadelphia 76ers, that my visiting Atlanta Hawks (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; NBC Sports Philadelphia) can’t be of assistance in your quest to contend for the Eastern Conference banner. Not right now, anyway. But you know what? Check back with Travis Schlenk in a few months. Even after the holidays, he may be in a gift-giving mood! The new larval stage for coach Brett Brown’s ballers is called the Grow-cess. They’re not quite done snagging first-rounders from other teams, as newly-named GM Elton Brand could have the Kings’ 2019 and the heat’s 2021 picks at his disposal. But after all their ups, and mostly downs, Philly’s got the sifted lottery fruits of their tanking past – Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz – all healthy, all available, all set to play together from the jump for the first time. Sixers fans could have been just fine holding out a couple more years as these youngsters (throw in the injured Zhaire Smth, and fellow guard Landry Shamet, from 2018’s draft if you wish) developed together. But in the middle of last season, Schlenk’s Hawks put a lead foot on Philly’s accelerator, guiding a pair of freshly bought-out NBA vets to the City of Brotherly Shove. It’s fair to note that the Sixers were already emerging from their mid-season funk and cementing themselves as a .500 team around the All-Star Break, and it’s reasonable to believe that Philadelphia would have reached their first postseason since Brand was on the Sixers’ roster, back in 2012, without Marco Belinelli and, shortly thereafter, Ersan Ilyasova washing ashore on the banks of the Schuylkill. But without that pair, it’s hard to envision last year’s edition becoming much more than first-round fodder. There is no 23-5 run, including a 16-game win streak, to close out the regular season. There’s no Game 1 series-establishing romp over Miami without Ersan and Marco going bananas in the second half. There’s no premature confetti in Game 3 against the Celtics without Belinelli’s buzzer-beating jumpshot momentarily saving Philly’s bacon. Even though the Celts ran away in the conference semifinals with a 4-1 series win, there were enough competitive finishes to believe the Sixers could supplant the Raptors and run alongside the Celtics atop the NBA East, especially once LeBron announced he was crossing the Mississippi. No more wait-and-see, the Phuture is now! Well, hold the Cheez Wiz. Belinelli scampered back to Coach Pop in San Antonio, while Ilyasova took his talents back to Coach Bud, who’s now in undefeated Milwaukee. They were replaced by, well, Wilson Chandler, whose hamstring has had him out of action to start the season. Oh, and our old friend Mike Muscala, who needs no re-introduction around here. Organic growth among the more talented youngsters may eventually yield championship-contention results. But not right now, not just yet. And no, I’m not just talking about the Hawks (2-3). Not with the anemic offense Philadelphia (3-3) has had, guided by a 6-foot-10, 230-pound version of Ason Kidd. Ben Simmons is in the gym, working feverishly on expanding his range out to the three-point line. But he has yet to put the results of that offseason work on the NBA court (0-for-0 this season; 0-for-12 last year, incl. playoffs), the point-wing’s reticence likely attributable by one teammate’s father to some kind of Australian-American mental illness. Simmons instead continues to dazzle in the same ways he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign, using his height to his decided advantage in the paint (10.6 RPG) while drawing extra defenders and dishing beautiful dimes (7.8 APG, 8th in NBA). But for the Sixers to assert themselves as an upper-echelon team in the East, he must improve his interior scoring (5-for-28 2FGs beyond 3 feet from the rim) and his free throw accuracy (56.0 FT%, equivalent to last season). Coach Brown’s insistence on getting Fultz in the starting lineup has 2017’s top draft choice, the one with the notoriously janky jumpshot, playing as the 2-guard alongside Simmons, then shifting to a bench role behind Redick in the second halves of games. The “shooting” guard has made half his threes thus far, which would be encouraging if he was taking more than one attempt per game. Fultz (39.2 2FG%) has been solid as a secondary passer, which is great, since what else is he supposed to do with the ball in his hands? Give Fultz a clue, and you’ve got T.J. McConnell right now. They’re getting next-to-no help so far from Saric (38.2 FG%; 27.0 3FG%), whose slow start has been ascribed to him wearing himself down for Croatia during the offseason FIBA qualifiers. Among the Grow-cess quartet, the most reliable perimeter threat, as of the moment, just might be Embiid, their MVP-caliber center. And Joel (7-for-28 3FGs) just gets bored standing out there, when he’s not busy trolling fools around both rims (29.2 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG). Previously an assistant under Brown, Lloyd Pierce had a front-row seat to the young Clankadelphians for quite some time. The Hawks’ new head coach knows that, until the young guns catch up, the Sixers really go as far as their vets can carry them. Namely, Redick (41.8 3FG%), the sharpshooter who can be a defensive liability at times, and Robert Covington, the D-and-occasional-3 forward (43.6 3FG%) who needs to stay out of foul trouble for the Sixers’ offense (107.0 O-Rating, 20th in NBA) to spread out and find some balance. Here at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, Philly barely edged a Charlotte team, 105-103, that was traveling off a back-to-back, a situation quite akin to Atlanta’s failed test at State Farm Arena this past weekend. Pierce and his Hawks know the deal, that trying to outplay your opponent at their own game, instead of scratching out your own identity, rarely ends well. That was the case on Saturday, as Atlanta’s offensive leaders engaged in too much one-on-one and isolation shooting, allowing Zach LaVine’s and Jabari Parker’s Bulls to hang around until they ran away with the sloppy 97-85 victory at The Farm. It will be the case today, again, if all they can respond to Embiid (who Pierce expects to hear a lot from during the game) with is more boorishness. When returning Big Five alum Omari Spellman (0-for-5 FGs) leads your team in assists, with four in under 15 minutes off the bench, you know you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Ball movement is essential for Atlanta tonight, particularly among the starters (NBA-worst minus-21.7 Net Rating in 1st Quarters), to avoiding settling for well-contested shots in the halfcourt. Aside from the roving Covington, Philadelphia has been gun-shy so far (11.3 opponent TO%, 29th in NBA) in prying the ball free from opponents. Spellman’s 8 rebounds versus Chicago were only behind benchmate Dewayne Dedmon (13 points, 13 boards, 5 blocks), who is likely to soon reclaim his starting center gig in lieu of the occasionally flummoxed Alex Len. The Hawks will need more than Spellman’s fellow Big Fiver DeAndre’ Bembry (3 steals vs. CHI) forcing shooters off the perimeter and getting stops on the defensive end. You can’t choose your parents (right, Muskie?), but you do have a say in the type of person you to whom you get hitched. A disaffected ex-Sixer fan, PoppaWeapon3 averages about three keystrokes per year, never using a computer and rarely even using a phone, smartphone or otherwise. So believe me when I tell you, PW3’s progeny had a grand old time this spring, going through the blow-by-blow of how burner accounts work, and how the poor Colangelos got burned by using them. Patience is a virtue, yet Philly phans are not well-renowned for such virtuosity. The clamoring, maybe even a bit of boo-bird chirping, will get louder as the season wears on if the 76ers continue to tread water in the Eastern Conference standings through mid-season, and the front office will be sure to hear it. This was a situation created by Brand’s predecessors, but it is one a relevancy-starved fanbase will expect him to fix. So, Elton, if you find yourself in a pinch around February, be sure to holla at ya boi. Travis just might have the hook-up! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record