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  1. “Don’t get too used to the fit, Kelly.” “It’s the Inaugural LeBron James Western First-Round Exit Invitational. Brought to you by Pepperidge Farm. Like Kelly Oubre, Jr., Pepperidge Farm Remembers!” I recall watching the back end of 2015’s NBA Draft from an out-of-town restaurant, watching the ticker, feverishly checking the phone, and coming away clueless as to just who my Atlanta Hawks came away with. Oh, we just took Kelly Oubre? Cool. Oh, hold up, we made some kinda trade for… Jerian Grant? M’kay. What’s this? Junior Hardaway from the Knicks? Did we get one, or all, or…? By the time the smoke cleared, Timmy was the Last Hawk Standing. While the time Atlanta spent developing Hardaway was short-lived, the relief from many fans that we didn’t wind up holding the bag with Grant, or Oubre, was long-lasting. Rest assured, Kelly Oubre remembers. “Atlanta Hawks” is forever tethered to his name, the team he faces again tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) that drafted him for someone else, with somebody else in mind. Three-and-a-half seasons wasting away mostly on the bench by a veteran-laden Wizards team that, once they got the 19-year-old swingman, didn’t seem to know what they wanted out of him. Inefficient shooting, lost on defense, Shaqtin-quality missteps. By the time of Atlanta’s last postseason, in Game 1 of 2017’s first rounder with the Wizards, Hawks fans exclaimed, “OMG, we’re about to lose a playoff game to Kelly Oubre. How far have we fallen?” Kelly also remembers being perceived as the throw-in from an Austin Rivers-Trevor Ariza deal in December 2018, after being part of Washington’s infamously failed “Brooks Was Here” three-way deal that had him bound for Memphis. Five days later, Oubre nailed several late threes for the Suns as he nearly upended the team that washed its hands of him in a three-OT thriller. The GMs involved in 2018’s treacherous tryst have all gone from their respective locales, but the Suns’ newest GM, James Jones, showed his commitment to develop Oubre. First, Jones hired a coach Oubre and his teammates could connect with in Monty Williams. Then, he granted Oubre a two-year, $30 million extension in the summer, one that allows him to enjoy 2021’s free agent period whether things work out or not in The Valley. By the time the Hawks came to visit the Suns in Phoenix in mid-November, Oubre was prepared to confirm that his new team’s invested trust was worth the risk, that he could be a reliable second-banana scorer for Devin Booker. One who could also help on defense, too. Oubre fell just short of his career-high with a season-best 30 points on November 14 as the Suns blistered the Hawks, 128-114, outpointing Booker’s 27. In Phoenix’s past eight contests, he’s scored 23.1 PPG, burying threes (3.3 treys per game in past 8, 48.1 3FG%) so shooting guard Devin (24.1 3FG% in last 12 games) won’t always have to be the dude. Kelly is also becoming proficient with his help defense and rebounding (career-highs of 1.5 SPG and 6.4 RPG), essential for the Suns to compete as they worked Deandre Ayton back into the fold. He tied his career-high with 15 boards a couple weeks ago, in a win at Sacramento that ended an 8-game freefall to the outside of the Western Conference playoff party. He matched that rebounding tally on Sunday against the Hornets, adding 25 points, 4 steals and a pair of blocks. Tsunami Papi’s recent play helped the Suns (16-23) turn the tide with wins over Orlando and Charlotte, after a pair of deflating home losses. Now Phoenix aims to enjoy its first three-game winning streak since early November on the road, at Atlanta’s expense. Atlanta (8-four times 8 ) is likely to have Trae Young, who missed the Hawks’ 108-86 breakdown in Brooklyn, back after sitting with a sore hammy. Young (21 points, 13 assists but 5 TOs @ PHX in November) would appreciate not having to be hounded by Ricky Rubio, who is expecting childbirth and is unlikely to play, Mikal Bridges and Oubre all night. He’ll get his wish if Cam Reddish can produce at a similar level as he did against Kyrie Irving and the Nets. Reddish (20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 5 steals, 4-for-4 on ATL’s measly 11 FTAs @ BRK) and DeAndre’ Bembry (2-for-4 3FGs, 3 assists, 4 steals in 22 bench minutes) carried the water for the Hawks on Sunday, but had precious little help, especially from an overwhelmed starting frontline of De’Andre Hunter and John Collins. With no bailout tonight from bench mate Alex Len (out, back soreness), Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has little choice but to continue thawing out Damian Jones, as the Hawks hope to match the physicality Ayton, back as a starter after two games as a reserve, and Aron Baynes bring to the floor. If Reddish and Bembry can spend the balance of their defensive energies thwarting Booker’s drives inside, coaxing him to settle for contested hero-ball jumpers, then Kevin Huerter can work to shield passing options to Oubre while Hunter (available, sprained finger) helps Collins with boxing out Ayton (15.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG) when shots go up. Rubio’s likely absence should slow the league’s #1 transition offense (NBA-high 1.21 points-per-possession and 63.2 eFG%). But even with Elie Okobo in Ricky’s stead for Williams’ freer-wheeling attack, Young and the Hawks have to get back in defensive position to cut off driving and passing lanes for Booker (5.8 transition PPG, 4th in NBA, ahead of Trae’s 5.6) and Oubre (5.3 transition PPG, 10th in NBA). Neutralizing Phoenix’s backcourt buckets and trips to the line (80.4 team FT%, 4th in NBA) can help offset whatever advantages the Suns will have on the inside versus the Hawks’ short-staffed bunch. Atlanta’s rebuilding phase is bumpy at this stage, but Hawks fans must remember not to get to envious of the Suns’ Rebuild version 6.0. The last time Phoenix made a playoff run, Grant Hill was checking Kobe, and team president Steve Kerr had yet to depart for the Bay Area. It’s been season after season of trial-and-error-and-error-and-more-error ever since. Jones and Williams have sought to fix the chemistry issues that have long plagued this franchise, and Oubre has been surprisingly instrumental in that regard, adding a touch of showmanship to his upward-trending production along the way. Merely 1.5 games behind upstart Memphis, the Suns are happy to be in the mix with seven other Western Conference clubs, all within 3.5 games of each other for that last remaining 8-seed. But the Suns won’t want to get this three-game road swing off on a bad foot with a stumble at State Farm Arena. After a decade of lottery-bound results, Phoenix fans aren’t parched for an NBA title, just some postseason water to dip their toes into. Coming off last season’s 19-63 nadir, a couple April dates for the Suns with LeBron in town sounds awfully good. They’re willing to ride the wave with Oubre if it can guide them there. Hardaway is already a faded memory around these parts, and the Hawks also departed with Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince in the offseason, taking two players in 2019’s Lottery in hopes they’ll be future long-term answers at the wing. Oubre will again be on a mission tonight to make the Hawks remember that, with just a little commitment, they might have already had an answer by now. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Wet, Like I’m Book!” You ever dance to Mambo No. 8? Me neither. It’s Season No. 5 for Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. When it comes to breaking through, as an All-Star, as a playoff-caliber standout, Booker hopes his Season No. 5 will be a huge, international hit. And rightfully so. NBA fans get in our feelings whenever our highly touted draft picks aren’t ready-made stars, or at least reliable contributors, fresh out of the box after five games, five weeks, five months. Our teams popped the champagne over the summer that whatever woes they’ve suffered over the past few years are firmly behind us, because The Commish shook your hand and handed you some (other) team’s baseball cap. No matter whether you’ve reached legal drinking age, the hangover effect for us fans arrives quickly. I like to pretend I’m more of a teetotaling, sober, patient fan. But I’m also of the strident opinion that by Season No. 5, if you, hyped Lottery pick, haven’t emerged as a legitimate NBA star and a franchise face (for good reasons) for your team, if you are not playing in lockstep with a stable management and coaching regime by then, well, I’m sorry, that plan’s just not going to work out for you. A career of journeyman travels across the states and provinces of North America, hardball negotiations for trade-bait contracts, and fans annually heralding some future draftee as your replacement awaits. The 13th pick from the 2015 Draft, Booker (25.3 PPG; 51.0 3FG%, 10th in NBA, say NOTHING to him about Evansville) has poured in the second-most points of his Draft class, and the second-most assists. He ought to be a rockstar in 28 NBA cities and several nations by now. Instead, he’s been more of a very good, one-note local lounge singer. Partially, that’s because of being cursed with competing in the wrong Conference for upstart young stars. More significant, it’s due to having already cycled through four coaching headmasters (Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov) during his first half-decade in the pros. Plus, a pair of 30-ish executives who didn’t quite know what they were doing. (“Hold the phone. Are we getting Dillon, MarShon, or Mel Brooks?”) Fortunately, the book hasn’t closed shut on D-Book yet, because his second Suns GM, James Jones, has begun to get the gist of his duties. Beginning with the offseason ouster of Igor, his prior’s hire, and subsequent offer to Monty Williams to become head honcho. “I said to (Devin) that, ‘I want to help you become a household name. Right now, you aren’t because of all the organizational stuff,” said Williams, who offers his Full Monty critique tastefully but without sugarcoating. “But you have the talent.” Williams knows a thing or two about coaching talent. At post-Katrina New Orleans, Coach Monty bridged Chris Paul’s search for the exits and the arrival of #1 pick Anthony Davis. His Season No. 5 as head coach of the Hornicans began with a caveat by a desperate, aging owner. Make the postseason, or else. Mission accomplished – 45 wins in 2014-15, despite Davis and a slew of starters missing between a dozen and 40 games, despite plugging Omer Asik at center to appease AD’s wish not to shoulder the burdens of a starting five – and a competitive sweep at the hands of the 67-win eventual NBA champs. Job secured. Or, so he thought. The retired nine-year NBA vet, having gained extra recognition around the league as a player’s coach after he and his wife went above-and-beyond to counsel a grieving Ryan Anderson, was on the outs, as New Orleans chased after the eventual champs’ lead assistant to take over. Fate dealt a more severe blow to Williams mere months after taking an associate head coach job with Russ-and-KD’s Thunder, when his wife was killed in OKC, and several kids injured, by a lane-crossing driver causing a head-on accident. Monty took time off, then accepted a front-office gig with the Spurs. But he knew his late wife would want him to continue pursuing his passion to be an NBA head coach again. After one season lead-assisting coach Brett Brown and Ben-and-Joel’s Sixers, he accepted the open gig in Phoenix. It was offered to him by Jones, who played in Portland when Williams was an assistant there. Having had to endure the CP3-to-LA saga(s), the knowledge that Booker has been devoted to see things through in Arizona has made it easier for Williams to accept auto-sigged checks from beleaguered owner Robert Sarver. Toward him and his teammates, Devin feels the devotion in return. “The culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty,” Booker told The Undefeated about his newest head coach. “His voice travels. I’ve been in situations where things coaches say is kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us all the same. It’s really contagious.” Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, gambled when he sought out Jazz assistant Kokoskov, way-too-coincidentally, Lu Know Who’s Slovenian national coach, to take the reins a mere month before the 2018 Draft. But to the extent that it’s possible to get cold feet in the PHX, the Suns weren’t convinced that Doncic’s threats to stay at Real Madrid if he didn’t wind up with a team to his liking was mere bluffing. They instead went big with Deandre Ayton, who was thrilled just to get people’s minds off whatever cash Arizona’s Sean Miller was offering him under the table, at #1. McDon’tneedapointguard’s failings to secure a reliable ballhandler in the 2018 Draft, or via free agency, made Sarver’s urge to replace the GM with his handpicked successor in Jones, right as last season was to begin, a justifiable one. The Suns having drafted anyone other than Luka in the Lottery sealed Igor’s fate before it could really get started. Igor’s communication challenges with players, to say nothing of the media, made the quest to finish anything better than 19-63 a tall order. The upgrade to Williams has Phoenix (6-4) well on their way to leaving last season’s win total in the dust. Here at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Tuesday, Monty’s young guns stayed neck-and-neck with the vaunted Lakers until the closing minutes, when a trio of consecutive three-bombs by LeBron and Kyle Kuzma blotted out the Suns. They started the season with a bang, a 29-point home blowout of Sacramento, leaving many to wonder what had gotten into Ayton (18-and-11 plus 4 blocks). Ayton figured people would wonder, too, but his gamble to obscure whatever that was with a diuretic blew up on him (don’t laugh, John Collins; you got suspended for 25 games, too). Fortunately for Deandre, Jones and the Suns planned ahead. A top-7-protected first rounder from Phoenix pried former Al Horford backup Aron Baynes, plus developmental guard Ty Jerome (out, sprained ankle), from the Celtics during the summer. Eager to show he picked up a few tricks from his time with Boston (21-for-61 on threes last year with the Cs), Baynes has already passed his 3FG volume from last season, sinking half of his 44 attempts in just ten games. Aron has gone 10-for-18 from downtown during the first four contests in Phoenix’s six-game homestand, which continues tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), and concludes next Monday with Boston in town. This past Sunday, the host Suns sunk a barrage of triples (19-for-42 3FGs) to beat the brakes off Brooklyn, 138-112. A team that finished last season (32.9 3FG% in 2018-19), and the 21-61 season before that (33.4 3FG% in 2017-18), dead-last in the league in three-point accuracy is flipping the script under Williams’ direction (38.8 team 3FG%, 3rd in NBA). 2018’s Draft saw the Suns trade back up into the Lottery to grab Mikal Bridges, a scrappy defensive wing who didn’t add much to the equation from the perimeter. This season, Jones and the Suns traded out of the Lottery altogether, passing up the opportunity to draft one Cameron to take the less-heralded, sweeter-shooting Cameron Johnson (3-for-8 3FGs vs. LAL on Tuesday; 40.0 3FG%) instead, getting Dario Saric (37.5 3FG%) from Minnesota as a throw-in. Aside from Ayton, who can’t do so yet, everybody’s gotten into the floor-spreading craze. Ricky Rubio (8.8 APG, highest average by any Sun since Steve Nash in 2011-12; 21-and-10 vs. LAL) was brought in by Jones to alleviate Booker and the Suns’ longstanding play-setting and defensive issues, not as much for his outside shooting prowess. But even his 1.3 triples per game, at a 40 percent clip, are currently career highs. Of the eight most active Suns in Williams’ rotations, all but Bridges are lofting three 3FG attempts per game, and all beside Bridges and Frank Kaminsky are hitting at a 35 percent clip or better. The availability of shooting threats across the floor at all times, and the reduced need to dribble the ball into oblivion, allows Booker to diversify his offensive approach. The reliability of perimeter shooters allows the Suns’ frontcourt to get back in defensive sets (PHX 6th in D-Reb%; 27th in O-Reb%) instead of crashing the offensive glass and risking exposure in transition (1.07 opp. points per transition possession, 9th-best in NBA; 24th last season). Stifling would-be shooters around the three-point arc, or at least knowing which personnel to leave open (quit hacking people, Nik the Slick), has been one of the fortes on the young season for Atlanta (4-6). Only foes of Miami (NBA-best 28.9 opp. 3FG%) and the Hawks (32.8 opp. 3FG%, 7th-best in NBA) have made less than a third of their long-distance attempts while taking 35 or more of them per game. The Nuggets were 11-for-41 on Tuesday night, and any defensive performance approaching this one while minimizing second-chance opportunities would allow Atlanta a chance to steal a second-straight road game. The iron is unkind to almost anyone on the Hawks not named Trae Young (8-for-13 3FGs @ DEN) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-3 3FGs, out for at least today with a shoulder injury). It’s a lot easier fighting for first-time backcourt All-Star fan votes when your surname begins with, say, a ‘B’, as opposed to a ‘Y’. Up-and-coming stars like Young have to make discerning fans want to scroll all the way down to check the box next to their names, and that means branding brains with a string of virtuoso performances like he had a couple days ago (42 points, 8-for-13 3FGs, 8-for-11 FTs, 11 assists @ DEN). But Young’s and Huerter’s Hawkmates could connect on just 4 of 18 attempts (half of those by rookie De’Andre Hunter) during Tuesday’s rousing 125-121 win in the Rocky Mountain air. The Suns know of Trae’s teammates’ desire to get open inside to compensate, particularly the rim-stapling Jabari Parker (67.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA; 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists @ DEN), a guy who never got to see Season No. 5 in Milwaukee, or even No. 2 in Chicago. Lacking a shotblocker with Ayton waitin’, Phoenix will scrap and claw for steals but commit a lot of fouls (24.8 personals per-48, second-most in NBA). So Atlanta (22-for-34 FTs @ DEN) will have to avoid giving certain Squawkers heartburn troubles tonight by sinking the free throws they’re handed. I’ll skip the chimichangas, thanks. It’s notable that the second-leading free throw shooter (4-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ win over Denver is faintly familiar around Phoenix. “I wish I would have left after that third year,” with the Suns, said Alex Len, Pick No. 5 in 2013’s Draft, to Amico Hoops this past summer. By Season No. 5 of forlorn under-development with the club that made him their highest pick since 1987’s Armen Gilliam, Len was already perceived around Phoenix and the league as a lost cause. Deserted in the desert, the 2018 free agent approached this season, as an incumbent starter in Atlanta, as “The happiest I’ve been in a while.” Len suffered under the same instability that Booker had to deal with in Phoenix. But, at least for the time being, Len has benefited from a stable combo of coaching, conditioning and management that won’t be so easy to give up on him. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce pointed at himself, not Len, for the latter’s brutal offensive struggles with the starting unit, finding him better suited as a reserve. Len rewarded LP and the Hawks with 17 vital points (6-for-8 FGs), 7 rebounds and a +18 plus-minus in 22 bench minutes on Tuesday. Bench scoring comes at a premium with Parker starting, in place of Collins, and several veterans under load oops did I say that aloud I mean injury management. But for four missed freebies, Alex would have been Atlanta’s third 20-point scorer on that night. Sarver’s old Suns regime could not have foreseen a performance like that from him, not in the NBA, and certainly not beyond Season No. 5. A couple years behind the Hawks’ organization, due to citywide skepticism, Sarver eventually finagled a $230 million arena renovation deal out of the city of Phoenix. Yesterday, he, Williams and Jones were on hand to break ground on a $45 million intown training complex for the team. Sarver hopes that, with the Jones-Williams pairing and Booker, armed with the max contract extension he signed in 2018, locked in, his Suns can get Ayton back soon and, with the improved supporting cast, surprise many with a charge toward the Suns’ first Western Conference playoff appearance in a decade. As for Devin, this is a make-or-break season to confirm his long-term worth in The Association. Phoenix’s prime All-Star prospect and All-NBA hopeful, Booker can make his owner, the GM, the new coach, the facility deals, and everyone around them smell much better to his team’s faithful fanbase. Time, for Booker, is of the essence. Why? Ever heard of Chanel No. 6? Exactly. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Season No. 5! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. The newest LeBronnaire is on his way? ~lw3
  4. Somebody had their extra bowl of Wheaties this morning. What time is it out there? ~lw3
  5. "You're no Bud, but you'll do fine!" ~sunz
  6. Me watching Iguodala guard Baze in the clutch. TankWars, baby! While the Atlanta Hawks and the Phoenix Suns tempt fate in this Sunday matinee at The Highlight Factory (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), a question rages… who gets your vote for the Tank LVP? To qualify for the prestigious Least Valuable Player on a Tanking Team Award, your pick has to have 40 Ls under their belt or, alternatively, played in at least 45 games and have at least twice as many losses and wins. Oh, and they have to kinda be ballin’ outta control. The Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki would be right near the top, but with all their experience in the league, they get the Honorable Mention treatment LeBron gets at MVP time. Among NBAtank youngsters with 40 losses, Atlanta’s John Collins has the best Player Impact Estimate score (12.3 PIE), with his teammate Dennis Schröder (11.6 PIE) right on his tail. But the Tank LVP, for my Bitcoin, is Phoenix’s Devin Booker. A 16-33 record on the floor is pretty bad, but his Suns (19-45) are a much-worse 3-12 without him around. Armed with high usage (5th in NBA) for obvious reasons, Book (25.2 PPG, 9th in NBA; career-high 4.8 APG, 38.2 3FG% and 88.6 FT%) does all he can to keep the league’s most off-kilter shooting team (NBA-low 49.4 team eFG%) relevant offensively. The problem for me (well, for Some Suns Fans, really) is that Booker is threatening to disqualify himself for this honor. Today, Booker should have little problem grabbing a fifth consecutive 30-burger, his next one tying the great d*ck Van Arsdale (41) for the most in Suns franchise history, and ex-Sun greats Charles Barkley and Charlie Scott for the most consecutive games. This past Friday, as his Suns Competitanked to their heart’s content in a 124-116 home loss to OKC, Devin The Dude crossed the 4,000-point scoring mark. It should be noted, this is the first season he could buy a Lime-A-Rita to celebrate such a feat, without a fake ID. Only Bron and Kevin Durant were wetter behind the ears when they passed 40K. Collins (6-for-7 FGs vs. GSW on Friday), Schröder (27 points, 9 dimes vs. GSW) and the Hawks have a chance to further spoil Booker’s shot at Tank LVP today. Collins and Dewayne Dedmon would have to do their best not to exploit a depleted Suns line that has been without would-be incumbent starter Alan Williams (meniscus tear) all season long, and without Tyson Chandler (neck spasms) since the All-Star Break. Top-ten lottery plums Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss remain standing in the frontcourt, as does swingman Josh Jackson (19 points, 7-for-10 2FGs vs. OKC). But the likelihood they’ll someday become lottery prunes on Phoenix’s watch is what can happen when teams get hopelessly mired in Tankopolis. Booker can focus more on attacking and shooting, now that he has a steadier option sharing the backcourt with him. The Suns used a 2018 second-rounder to swing a Trade Deadline deal for Elfrid Payton, and while he hasn’t changed his hair, you can’t say, “But She’s Got a New Hat!”. Payton’s giving it his best Lonzo Ball impression, averaging 17.1 PPG, 7.5 APG and an eye-opening 7.8 RPG as a Sun, despite lackluster shooting from the floor (28.6 3FG%). Elf notched a triple double in just his third game with the Phoenicians, surpassing Connie Hawkins as the fastest Sun to accomplish that. Against OKC, his fourth double-doub in just eight Suns games consisted of 18 points and 10 boards. Payton, Booker and sixth-men Troy Daniels and Tyler Ulis, don’t really have the defensive chops to hold other teams back, not even Atlanta, who maintains an NBA-worst 93.7 O-Rating since the All-Star Break. Tank MIP candidate T.J. Warren (career-high 19.5 PPG), who returned Friday from a tailbone injury earlier in the week, will do his best to try to keep Kent Bazemore (career-high 29 points versus the Warriors) from smelling himself once again. But he’ll be splitting time between trying to patch up the Suns’ interior woes (47.5 opponent paint PPG, 4th-most in NBA) and keeping Baze at bay. Schröder and Bazemore each had 20 points apiece in Phoenix back on January 2. But it took a flame-throwing Booker (12 points, an assist, and a steal in the final 150 seconds of play), some sketchy decisions from Schro and Baze, and the first of many bad-hair-days this calendar year from Taurean Prince (would’ve been 3-for-14 FGs vs. PHX, but for a game-saving dunk block by Chriss; 0-for-5 2FGs and 5 TOs vs. GSW) to convert a 99-89 Hawks advantage with 2:53 left into an improbable 104-103 “win” for the Suns. Atlanta built up that late lead with the help of Ersan Ilyasova (team-high 21 points) and Marco Belinelli (16 points), both of whom are in the City of Brotherly Shove now. The Hawks will try to make up for that displaced offense with Collins, now a starter in place of Ersan, and bench guys, like Isaiah Taylor and Malcolm Delaney, who were all virtual no-shows against the Suns. The Hawks might have pulled off the “win” against the Warriors on Friday if they had measurable support from their reserves (six players, combined 5-for-15 FGs, 9 rebounds and a steal vs. GSW). Warriors, Celtics, Kings, Suns. Phoenix is one of four NBA teams, and only two Tank Squads, with a better record away from home (10-21 on the road, 9-24 at Talking Stick). Today, Some Fans will hope the Suns will eventually find a comfort zone at the Highlight Factory. With the outcome to this afternoon’s game hanging in the balance, and with Booker at the line shooting crucial free throws, he shouldn’t be surprised to hear Hawk-fan echoes bouncing off the cavernous Philips Arena walls. LVP! LVP! LVP! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “I don’t wanna be here, either, Coach Ty… but I can’t recall my Twitter password!” “With his emergence and importance to not only what we’re doing in the short term, but hopefully in the next decade-plus, I think it’s important to make him a partner in the process.” Relax, Atlanta Hawks fans, that wasn’t Travis Schlenk speaking of Dennis Schröder. That was the GM of Dennis’ opponent tonight, the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), speaking about the inclusion of 21-year-old star guard Devin Booker in his team’s player-personnel affairs. The GM is only 16 years Booker’s senior, but Ryan McDonough wasn’t born yesterday, as he understands the sports market in which he works. While the Hawks have jostled with the Barves, Dawgs, and Falcons for Atlantans’ attention since moving to Georgia back in 1968, the Suns had The Grand Canyon State all to themselves for the first two decades of their existence. That was quite awhile before Cardinals flew, Diamondbacks slithered, and Coyotes sauntered their way into the Valley. Phoenix is, and remains, Suns Town. Its sports fans look upon Their Team with a more critical eye than any others. Fifty years in, generations of fans are looking to a guy who was years away from being conceived when Gar Heard made The Shot to return their favorite franchise to even modest glory. Now in his fifth year of swings and mostly misses, the recently contract-extended McDonough (whose brother, Terry, works just down the pike as the recently-extended VP of player personnel for the Cards) needs to put a fresh face that isn’t his own behind the wheeling-and-dealings. So why not use one of the few hits the former Celtics scouting director has had since he arrived on the scene in 2013? Since plucking Amar’e Stoudemire out of high school in 2002, the Suns have selected 10 lottery players over the past 15 NBA Drafts, including at least one from each of the last seven drafts, three of them top-five in their respective draft years. Illustrating how boom-or-bust these picks can get, the lotto pick from 2012, Kendall Marshall, just retired from hoops altogether in November. Of those ten players, five remain on the roster, six if you count draft-day trade acquisition Marquese Chriss. Of that subset, only Booker (career-highs of 24.9 PPG, 38.4 3FG%, 47.7 2FG%, 87.0 FT%, 4.5 RPG, 4.2 APG) stands out as a surefire star, while T.J. Warren remains as-advertised for a hustle player without a hint of long-distance range (19.4 PPG, 16.9 3FG%). The rest (Alex Len, Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson), plus second-year second-rounder and starting point guard Tyler Ulis, display varying levels of waning potential on a nightly basis. McDonough was granted his contract extension by Suns owner Robert Sarver in mid-July, and seems to have avoided making any significant additions to a roster, coached by Earl Watson, that checked in 2016-17 at 24-58, a mere one-game improvement over the prior season. Watson couldn’t last beyond the first three games of this season, a start marked by a pair of ignominious blowout losses and the defection of its former leading playmaker, hair salon expert Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe’s “I Dont wanna be here” tweet finally spurred McDonough to make a move, exchanging EBled for a protected 1st rounder in 2018 from Milwaukee along with Greg Monroe, essentially bubble-wrapped for a future trade deal. Athletic third-stringer project Derrick Jones was bounced to allow two-way G-Leaguer Mike James to become a historical footnote, the latter waived just weeks after signing a full NBA contract in favor of guard Isaiah Canaan (5.0 APG, 40.0 3FG%, 96.7 FT% off-bench in last 8 games). At least until the NBA trade winds begin to blow, the Suns have set on Ulis, Booker, Canaan and Troy Daniels (42.5 3FG%) in the backcourt, Warren at the wing in front of a very green Jackson, and a frontcourt rotation of Tyson Chandler, Len, Monroe and Jared Dudley (questionable for today, illness) in front of the very green Chriss (starting today) and Bender. Under the direction of replacement coach Jay Triano, the senior bigs are waffling between major minutes on one night and DNP-CDs in the ensuing games, ostensibly to keep them “fresh”, for something. If Booker’s valuation holds any weight, then Triano will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. “He’s giving a lot of players a lot of opportunities,” Booker told the Arizona Republic, “but he’s also holding people accountable at the same time, which is what we need.” Triano is instilling an offense that forces players, from Booker to the centers, to share the ball and keep it from excessively dribbling it on the ground, where their turnover problems (15.8 TOs/game, 2nd-most in NBA) tend to take hold. Only the Hawks’ prior (and next) opponent, Portland (1.26), has a lower assist-turnover ratio (1.29) than the Suns, an issue Triano wants to fix foremost. Len was strung along all summer as a restricted free agent without a contract, but is now enjoying a career season when he does get off the bench (11.0 RPG when granted 20+ minutes). He added, “I definitely love Jay and love playing for him.” If the Suns (no playoffs since GM Steve Kerr, coach Alvin Gentry and player Grant Hill’s 2010 Western Conference Finalists) truly want to demonstrate that newfound sense of love and stability to their lotto-weary fanbase, they need to start stringing some wins together here at TSR Arena, and soon. Phoenix (14-24) has the NBA’s worst home record, at 6-14. They’ve notched just two wins since beating then-downtrodden Chicago way back on November 19, and both victories came against still-downtrodden Memphis, one of those wins off a sneakily-designed buzzer-beating alley-oop play. While they’re only two games from the Western Conference basement, the Suns are only five games behind the 8-seed and have a rational 9-13 mark in-conference, 9-10 since that disastrous start. Getting back in the playoff hunt requires beating teams at home, especially teams like the Hawks (10-26, league-worst 3-15 on the road). With half the country currently shivering in sub-zero wind chills, Arizona native Mike Budenholzer’s troopers couldn’t have picked a better NBA locale to kick off their five-game, four-arena road trek. His Hawks have shown signs of warming up themselves, notching three home wins over their past four games, and now want to see how good their improving show can be when they take it on the road. Atlanta is 0-6 away from Philips Arena since beating Brooklyn back on December 2, although those first five road defeats were by single digits. Budenholzer (199 Hawks wins, t-5th w/ Hubie Brown) would love to rotate his frontcourt more, a la Phoenix, but those schemes were precluded by early injuries to Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala, and to current starters Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee before that. The good news for Coach Bud is his frontline is beginning to firm up. Having labored through a mostly-bad nine-game stretch at the season’s outset, before getting shelved to heal a bum ankle, Muscala is back after a quick jaunt through the lake-effect snow up in Erie, and he’s probable to be available for tonight’s game. Meanwhile, Dedmon is a good bet to return to the floor by the time Atlanta’s road trip concludes on January 10. Moose won’t be thrown to the wolves, or the Suns, quite like ex-Sun Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh were in their season debuts. Rather, he’ll be used sparingly until he can find a rotation (likely, ones paired with centrifugal forces John Collins and Plumlee) where he regains a comfort level spreading the floor and hustling for rebounds and loose-balls. Frontcourt passing was the name of the game in Atlanta’s 104-89 victory over the visiting Trail Blazers on Saturday night. Schröder’s brilliance re-emerged, particularly as a scorer late in the contest (22 points, 8 assists, 1 TO) as Atlanta pulled ahead and away. But Dennis’ pinpoint passing was matched with 13 dimes by a combination of Taurean Prince (12 points, team-high 10 rebounds, 5 assists), Ilyasova, John Collins, and Plumlee. Collins’ three dimes in the space of four early fourth-quarter minutes helped to break the game open for the home team. Collins led a Hawks bench crew that out-assisted Portland’s 10-1. Superior passing, deadeye shooting, and an 18-10 points-off-turnovers edge helped the Hawks minimize a 46-28 disadvantage versus the Blazers in the paint. Still, that last part sounds fine to Chandler, who has enjoyed 23-rebound and (a Suns-franchise record) 27-rebound outings versus the Hawks during the past four seasons. As has been custom on back-to-backs, Triano will likely choose to let Chandler go full-bore tonight, then rest him in tomorrow’s contest in Denver. Muscala’s addition won’t firm up Atlanta’s interior defense (63.8 opponent FG% within 5 feet, 4th-highest in NBA) or keep opponents from getting extra helpings (NBA-high 14.5 opponent second-chance PPG, 15.2 on the road). But the more frequently he can manage to make smart, decisive decisions when the ball comes his way, the sooner he will discover it wasn’t the Man-Bun holding him back. Schröder (29.0 PPG vs. PHX last season) was noticeably active on the defensive end on Saturday, and more of the same from he and Kent Bazemore will help keep Booker (6.0 FTAs per game), Canaan and Ulis from creating havoc and foul problems in the paint. Coercing Phoenix’s scorers out to the margins works out well for most of their opponents. The Suns join the Lakers, an upcoming Hawks opponent, as the only clubs shooting below 35 percent on three-point shots above-the-break and below 40 percent in each of the corners. Add a poor perimeter shooting night (PHX is 2-20 when shooting below 35 3FG%) to the Suns’ sloppy transition defense (13.7 opponent fastbreak points per-48, 4th-most in NBA), anemic interior defense (48.4 opponent paint points per-48, tied-2nd-most in NBA), and problems with turnovers (18.5 opponent points per-48 off TOs, 4th-most in NBA), and you have the makings for a messy yet entertaining, high-paced competition between two struggling squads that checked out of 2017 with a 6-9 December record. #SarverOut electronic billboards currently dot the Arizona sky. While Philips Arena’s two-year renovation process is already underway in Atlanta, Sarver’s $450 million renovation proposal for his older TSR Arena isn’t going so well. Fans and politicos alike are peeved, and a deliberate tank job won’t satisfy anyone around town. For all the Processed meat chewed up and spat out over the past seven years, Phoenicians want to see a lot more steak than just Booker on the floor. With everyone peeved about the stagnating state of his franchise, Sarver is sure to pass the heat onto his managerial staff if the home losses continue piling up, especially to teams like Atlanta. As one recent Oakland Raiders coach would warn McDonough, multi-year contract extensions don’t mean quite as much as they once did. Go Dawgs! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. Another Euro star comes stateside... ~lw3
  9. “You kiddin’ me???” “Let’s Not Suck! Let’s Not Suck!” No Excuses Week rolls on for our Atlanta Hawks, as Devin Booker and whoever’s left playing for the Phoenix Suns (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) roll into Philips Arena to get just a little more shine at our expense. For Hawks fans, “Let’s Not Suck!” is a more inspirational three-note refrain right now. “All terrible roads lead to beautiful destinations.” Such a quote passes as an apt slogan for the Hilton Head Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. But it’s also the inspiration scribbled on the whiteboard by the team’s resident Confucius, Kent Bazemore. Tonight, the Hawks will again try to scrounge for buckets without Paul Millsap (out at least 3 more games), Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha available. Indeed, the Hawks’ chances at even saying they’re a .500 team, much less a playoff team worth watching, has been imperiled after falling 107-92 to Kenny Atkinson’s Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon. That was not only the Hawks’ seventh-straight defeat, it was also the seventh time in a row Atlanta (37-36) failed to surpass 100 points. A lack of offensive firepower usually spells doom for most modern-day NBA outfits, and especially this one (5-28 when scoring 100 points or fewer, incl. 1-15 since MLK Day). One sliver of a silver lining? Those JuggerNets just whalloped the Suns five days ago, 126-98 in Brooklyn. While Phoenix (22-52) has a better record than the Nets, they come into the Lowlight Factory on an eight-game skid, having dropped ten of their last 11. Wrapping up a winless six-game road trip tonight, Phoenix has prevailed in two road games over the past two months. Unlike the Nets, the Suns are chasing the Lakers (21-52) for lottery odds, and have effectively pulled the ripcord on the regular season. Suns coach Earl Watson put lead guard Eric Bledsoe and leading rebounder Tyson Chandler on the shelf for the season, joining rookie Dragan Bender (knee surgery). And when Watson tried to hand the tank keys over to Brandon Knight (DNP-CD’d since the All-Star Break), the embittered, untradable guard basically said, “You know what, coach? I got back spasms now, how about that?” Backup guards Leandro Barbosa (hamstring) and Ronnie Price (lower-leg contusion) remain iffy as well. So it’s no wonder that Watson is going all-in behind Booker (24.7 PPG, 89.1 FT% in March) and Tyler Ulis (9.0 APG in last seven starts), hoping these up-and-coming guards will cut their teeth wearing out opposing defenses. Yes, Booker weed-sprayed TD Garden with 70 points on Friday, making him one of just six NBA ballers ever to accomplish the feat. Yet he did it with 66 shot attempts (field goals and free throws combined) against a defensively laissez-faire Boston backcourt (Avery Bradley was unable to join the proceedings) as both teams kept the pace deliberately high, granting Booker (51 second-half points) plenty of unimpeded possessions. Despite helping Phoenix win the second-half by 13 points, Booker’s Suns still lost by double-digits, 130-120. There’s no way Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder could have performed the same way in a loss and had NBA fans eagerly buying up “HIS70RY” T-shirts. The Suns again started slow on Sunday, falling behind host Charlotte 38-18 after the first quarter, 22-3 in the opening five minutes of action. They allowed four Hornets to reach double-figures in scoring by halftime. And with no one bothering to keep Kemba Walker (31 points, 9 assists, 1 TO) in check, not even the single-minded Booker (7-for-17 FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs, minus-32 in 35 minutes) could do enough in the second half to make the final 120-106 outcome interesting. Atlanta remains over-reliant on remnant starters Schröder (10-for-24 FGs, 8 assists, 3 TOs vs. BKN) and Dwight Howard (19 points and 16 boards, but 5 TOs vs. BKN), who repeatedly find themselves getting fried trying to save the Hawks’ bacon. Mike Budenholzer’s pace-and-disgrace offense (dead-last 101.0 March O-Rating, 8th in March pace, NBA-high 17.2 March TO%) can’t get off the ground without some reliable bench options. Reserves shot just 3-for-19 (0-for-8 3FGs) against Brooklyn, and that won’t get anything done, to say nothing of 3 defensive rebounds among six so-called players. Atlanta didn’t start hemorrhaging points in earnest until Coach Bud inexplicably subbed in Mike Dunleavy, Mike Muscala, and Kris Humphries together late in the first quarter. Mixing in just one or two backups with the Hawks’ current first unit is likely to produce less cringe-worthy results. One stretch that worked in the second quarter on Sunday, after the Hawks languished their way to a 43-21 deficit, involved the Hawks going small with Ersan Ilyasova manning the middle for a lineup featuring Schröder and Jose Calderon, and replacement starters Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Taurean Prince at the forward spots. For whatever reason, Coach Bud didn’t field this crew until the Hawks fell behind again by double-digits midway through the third quarter, and even that was a brief spell. Ilyasova was a rebounding fiend against the Nyets (18 rebounds, 7 offensive), but a lot of those boards were from caroms created by his own point-blank misses (3-for-14 FGs). The Hawks need his first-shots to hit nylon, preferably on the inside of the net. It’s a similar deal for Hardaway (4-for-10 2FGs, 1-for-6 3FGs vs. BKN), who is capable of shedding himself free from Booker tonight and scoring at-will. He’s needed to do more than simply trying to keep his THJreak alive. Not only Schröder, but the entire Hawks backcourt must pressure Ulis and Booker (3.6 APG, 3.7 TOs per game in March) into errors from the outset, or at least forcing unaccustomed players like T.J. Warren (21 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals @ CHA on Sunday), Dunk Contest flop Derrick Jones, Jr. and rookie Marquese Chriss to become playmakers outside the paint. Charlotte converted seven errors into 15 first-quarter points to put the stiff-arm to the Suns early. Phoenix can phold early, but only if their guards are unable to get the ball out to shooting swingmen, like Jared Dudley (26.2 March 3FG%, but we need not mention his December 2014 performance at Philips as a Buck) and momentary preseason Hawk Jarell Eddie (41.5 D-League 3FG%). The Suns were a gun-shy 3-for-10 on threes in the first three quarters in Boston, then 3-for-12 on triples in Charlotte. Watson is also using the balance of the season to help his team decide whether next season’s backup center will be A-Len or Alan. Both Alex Len and Phoenix native Alan “Big Sauce” Williams will be restricted free agents this summer. Williams uses hard screens to spring teammates free, but often gets overwhelmed inside versus bigs like Howard. When Len is in the game, the Hawks will need Humphries’ help as a pick-and-popper to draw the starting center out from the middle of the floor. The Hawks play their first back-to-back contest in 18 days tomorrow, with Philadelphia (last 15 days: wins over Boston and Chicago, 2-point loss at Golden State) lying in wait after a trip to Brooklyn. There is no benefit to the Hawks, or their suffering fans, enduring some wild late-game back-and-forth scramble tonight, certainly not against a similarly-depleted Suns team that is far more interested in making SportsCenter for their mid-game highlights than actual victories. Atlanta’s starting five has no choice but to start, and finish, collectively strong. But the Hawks need their vets and rookies to step up in brief stints off the bench if they have any real hope of a satisfactory N.E.W. result. Let’s Not Suck! Let's Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “CAN'T I JUST STAY HERE… SPEND THE REST OF MY DAYS HERE???…” The Atlanta Hawks continue to traverse the West Coast, thirsting for their second win on its five-game road swing. They arrive at their final destination on this particular tour tonight, the Talking Stick Resort Arena, where the Phoenix Suns await patiently (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona in PHX). The Suns have dropped three straight at home and are without a key cog at forward. But is the prospect of victory just another mirage on the horizon for these Hawks? Two nights after a loss at Sacramento, the 2014-15 Hawks (absent Paul Millsap) arrived in Phoenix on a January night hoping to catch a similar break. What they experienced instead were a combined 39 rebounds from Suns bigs Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, subpar shooting from several Hawk starters and, despite the best efforts of role players like Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schröder and Mike Scott, a 24-foot prayer by Archie Goodwin that would not go unanswered. The bucket granted Goodwin his game-high 24th point and the 13-31 Suns a 98-95 overtime victory, what would be their only NBA win over a drought of 50 calendar days. Despite enjoying what was possibly the game of his life, Goodwin would find himself sent out to pasture in the ensuing preseason, not the least of which because of the continual logjam that has been the Phoenix backcourt. Eric Bledsoe (19.2 PPG, career-high 35 points vs. DEN on Sunday; team-high 5.4 APG) has bounced fully back from the torn-meniscus surgery that cut his season short last December. Bled’s had a minimum of 15 points, 5 dimes, and 5 boards in five straight games, the longest streak by a Sun since Jason Kidd went for six-straight back in 2000. Bledsoe is backed at the point by Brandon Knight (18.3 points per-36, 37.5 FG%), who rarely sees a shot that he doesn’t like, and Summer League standout Tyler Ulis (4.4 steals per-36). At the time of the Hawks’ last visit, a teenaged Devin Booker was just coming into his own. Now the 20-year-old serves as Phoenix’s fresh franchise face and leading scorer (19.5 PPG), joining Bledsoe in the Suns’ starting backcourt. Booker seeks to put up 30+ points in consecutive games for the second time this season. Behind him on the depth chart is former Golden State Warrior Leandro Barbosa, who never met a shot that -- well, you know -- and former Hawk John Jenkins. The Brazilian Blur will play with a heavy heart after being especially moved by the soccer club tragedy from Tuesday morning. Perhaps the most improved player for the Suns (5-13) has been T.J. Warren. The third-year forward was averaging 20.0 PPG and 2.1 SPG over his first 11 starts. But in his next two games, something appeared amiss, and he has been declared out indefinitely to treat an unspecified head injury. His absence has put more pressure on Chandler (12.0 RPG, most in his career since 2006-07), Len (10.0 RPG, 2.7 BPG in last six games), and a Suns team that hasn’t defended driving guards like Schröder (season-high 9 2FGs @ GSW on Monday) terribly well. Suns coach Earl Watson’s club has allowed over 110 points in 11 of their 17 games, and their two wins among that set of games required overtime. Sunday’s 120-114 home loss to the Nuggets featured Denver’s Jameer Nelson rolling back the clock for 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting. They also had Nik Stauskas looking saucy (8-for-9 FGs off the bench) in a 120-105 road loss at Embiidelphia two weeks ago. Still, much like Mike Budenholzer with Schröder, Watson refuses to heap criticism upon his emerging young guard. “I’m kind of disappointed that expectations on Devin Booker [are] ... what he [doesn’t] do. Very disappointed,” the coach, himself a neophyte amongst his peers, recently remarked to the Arizona Republic, “I was with Kevin Durant when he had the worst plus-minus in the NBA. Not one time in OKC did we say what he couldn’t do. So I’m not even going to focus on the things he can’t do. For just turning 20, he does some amazing things. We know that we can’t ever speed up development in life, from a physical aspect or a mental aspect. So I’m not discussing anything negative about Devin Booker or challenges.” While there’s very little pressure placed upon the youngsters in Phoenix to excel right away, the vets (plus Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough) are feeling a bit like Richard Pryor’s First Man on the Sun right now. Anybody and everybody above the age of 24 is ripe for the taking, especially as the losses pile up, and Watson’s charges are unrelenting, pushing a league-high pace (104.3 possessions per-48) and making it more of a struggle for players with a lot of mileage to keep up. Warren’s injury has expanded hope from fans that the Suns will be compelled to go on a Bender soon. P.J. Tucker (only NBA player aside from Paul Millsap with 500+ rebounds and 100+ steals in each of past three seasons) stepped up in a starting role versus Denver (21 points, 8 rebounds on Sunday), but otherwise has continued to regress since becoming somewhat of a late bloomer in 2014. Jared Dudley (41.4 3FG%; only player aside from Steph Curry and Kyle Korver with 38+ 3FG% in seven of last eight seasons) has been Phoenix’s most consistent perimeter threat, but has been slowed by persistent foot problems and sat out the Suns’ last game. Rookie power forward Marquese Chriss (43.0 FG%) has generally seemed lost since being moved into the starting lineup early in the season. That leaves some hope among many that Watson will unveil Chriss’ fellow lottery rookie, Dragan Bender. The 7-foot-1 Croatian has seen limited action (10.1 minutes per game, 13th among 14 active Suns players), but the 19-year-old has shown Porzingis-style range (38.1 3FG%). With or without Bender, the Suns will try their hand at expanding the perimeter offense against Atlanta tonight. Their 11 3FGs versus Denver was a season-high, but so were the 13 treys that Denver hit against them. I keep waiting for the Hawks to slide in terms of their defensive efficiency. And yet, for all their losing and blowouts suffered lately, here they remain atop the NBA with a 97.5 D-Rating. This, despite opponents scoring a league-high 19.7 points per-100 possessions off Atlanta’s turnovers. Foes have hit less than a third (33.0%) of their 3-point tries, and less than half of their two-point shots as well (48.0 2FG%), while defensive rebounding for the Hawks remains above-average. Defensive attributes have not significantly shifted during Atlanta’s 1-6 skid. Since November 18, preceding the Hawks’ loss in Charlotte, opponent shooting has been on just a minor uptick (34.7 3FG%). Opponents have generally been pushed out of the paint, encouraged to jack up a high volume of long heaves (2nd-most opponent above-the-break 3FGAs since Nov. 18; just 34.2 3FG%) and mid-range jumpers (3rd-most mid-range 2FGAs since Nov. 18; a modest 43.4 2FG%). These figures are not nearly as dominant as they were prior to the downturn, but they’re good enough to keep a moderately decent offense in games. The Hawks’ struggle has been demonstrating that they’re at least one of those offenses. Schröder and Atlanta’s wing scorers should experience limited defensive halfcourt pressure whenever Booker or Knight are in the game, and should also be able to open things up for the Hawks on the break. Only Philly (18.4) and the Lakers (16.6) surrender more fastbreak points per-100 possessions than the Suns’ 16.3, although Phoenix is likely to return the favor in kind (16.8 fastbreak points per-100, 3rd in NBA; Atlanta’s 11.9 ranks 19th). Whichever team’s big men can get the ball out to their guards in transition more effectively will have an upper hand early on in tonight’s game. Ever seen a Moose fly? Among 71 NBA centers tracked by SportVU (min. 10 games played), only Brooklyn’s Justin Hamilton (4.6 mph) has moved further along on NBA courts in less time than Atlanta’s Mike Muscala, a blistering pace of 4.5 miles per hour. Right behind Muscala on the “speed” list is Timofey Mozgov (4.45 mph), so Usain Bolt need not quiver. But the relative “speed” measure reflects the scale of activity Muscala brings to the table, coming out of the post to set screens, take open jumpers, and close out on shooters while also willfully running the full floor in transition. That “speed” advantage could prove especially useful this evening. The spell of rest and scouting disadvantages for the Hawks (10-8) comes to a momentary end tonight, the Suns getting two full days off to prep for this matchup. They got to sit back on Monday night and watch the Hawks run themselves ragged in Oakland before falling short in the closing minutes to the Warriors. Millsap (hip) is questionable to play, as is the upgraded Scott (knee), suggesting Muscala may be a busy man tonight, perhaps logging minutes alongside Dwight Howard. Going back to Milwaukee’s three days of rest before playing a Hawks team returning from a battle in Miami the night before, Atlanta’s last nine opponents (including Phoenix tonight) have had a total of 15 full days off prior to Hawks games, while the Hawks have had just six days off in between those games. Atlanta doesn’t get to enjoy a rest advantage until getting one day off before facing Russ Westbrook’s Thunder at home next week. For Atlanta, the ability to create adjustments on-the-fly and apply them through practices (one cut short by a shattered backboard) and video reviews have been tough tasks lately. A victory tonight may help the Hawks to build some positive momentum as they head home. But if they fall apart in Phoenix, two nights after giving Golden State a run for their money? They might as well be walkin’ on the sun. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “¡Es un Nuevo Dia!” After a tough OT loss to King James and his Cavalier Court last weekend, the Atlanta Hawks should be rested and rarin’ to go against the Phoenix Suns (8:00 PM Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona). They should be eager to shake off their two-game losing streak, and also to exact a measure of revenge against a Suns team that simply begs to be taken out of their collective misery. Alas, these are our Hawks we’re talking about. And this is the dreaded game-after-a couple-days-layoff. “Should” is always the operative verb. The Hawks (45-32) started out just 3-5 (including four straight L’s) when they returned to play after two or more days of rest, but have since prevailed in their last four such scenarios. Homecourt advantage remains on the line for third-seeded Atlanta. But with several more challenging opponents for the Hawks on the regular-season docket, the Suns fit the role as a looked-past opponent ready-made to trip up lackadaisical birds-of-prey. After a sturdy 6-4 start to the season, victories have become more like blips for Phoenix (20-57). Starting in late December, lowlighted by Markieff Morris tossing a towel at his coach, the team lost four straight (including a home loss to the 76ers). That stretch prompted management to fire a warning shot by issuing walking papers to two of coach Jeff Hornacek’s assistants. The Suns then lost five more games (including a road loss to the Lakers), before pulling it together to drop a then-mediocre Hornets team back below .500. Six more defeats (including a road loss in Minnesota) followed before the Hawks paid Phoenix a visit. Atlanta played that January 23 game without their anchorman, Paul Millsap, due to personal leave. But a number of Hawks on the TSR Arena floor didn’t exactly show up, either. Not until midway through the third quarter, with the Suns enjoying a 15-point cushion. Kent Bazemore scored 13 of his team-high 21 points in the final quarter as Atlanta tied the game on several occasions. But with a prayer of a 3-pointer answered at the buzzer, for his then season-high 24th point, Archie Goodwin handed the Hawks a Badloss. Inspiring as the victory was for the Suns, it wasn’t enough to save their head coach’s jerb. Four consecutive losses followed, and then nine more after assistant coach Earl Watson usurped Hornacek’s position. Morris was sent packing in exchange for Washington’s hopefully-lottery draft pick and a pair of brief stays, by DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. A 6-7 run through mid-March, albeit against unimpressive competition, gave some hope that the team was finally leveling off. But sloppy, desperate play and the revolving door of injured players became too much to withstand. Just as was the case in January, they’re coming into the game tonight on a six-game skid. Then, as now, the Hawks won’t have to deal with Brandon Knight. Having re-aggravated a sports hernia, the Human Conundrum joins Eric Bledsoe and T.J. Warren on the season-ending sideline, setting the tank jobbery into full swing. Phoenix is crossing fingers that Euroleague star Bogdan Bogdanovic will cross the Atlantic and suit up in purple-and-orange next season. Also, they presently have three first-rounders coming their way (including Cleveland’s, via the Isaiah Thomas three-way deal) this summer. And as the team with the worst record in the league aside from the Suxers and Flakers, they don’t want to screw up with a win and risk giving Boston (who has shutting-down-for-the-year Brooklyn’s first-rounder) better lotto odds. The Hawks probably don’t want that to happen, either. With any of those picks, the Suns can only hope to select as good a blue-chip prospect as shooting guard Devin Booker. With 51 more points this season, he’ll become just the fourth NBA rookie (Melo and LeBron, KD) to amass 1000 points while still a teenager. The league’s youngest player emerged as the go-to option in the Phoenix backcourt, setting the stage for yet another “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Three of Us” situation next season when Bledsoe and Knight, the highest-paid and highest-scoring Suns, are set to return. Despite averaging 20.7 PPG in his last 20 games, Booker predictably struggles as a defender, and his accuracy (39.9 FG%, 28.7 3FG% post-All-Star-Break) isn’t what it was back in January during his coming-out party. Still, Suns fans’ hopes for a bright future are tightly affixed to the young gunner. Thus, the more-seasoned guards on the roster will certainly be on the market for just about any takers. Behind Booker, the Suns are taking a flyer with our old friend, John Jenkins, who was claimed off waivers from the Mavericks in late February. Jenkins is looking to stick as a hired gun off the bench somewhere in the league, and Watson is giving him much more room to roam than Dallas did. After sinking just three triples with the Mavs (none since the first week of December), Jenkins recently went 9-for-9 on threes over a five game stretch for Phoenix last month, finishing just four made field goals shy of the NBA-record Threak. His contract from the Mavs includes a team option for 2016-17, so Johnny is looking to give the Suns every reason to pursue bundling the more erratic Goodwin into a deal to go elsewhere. As is the case for a few NBA teams, the best option for floor general right now is the head coach. The injuries to Bledsoe and Knight have moved Ronnie Price (2.2 APG, 1.0 TO/game) up to the top line. Watson is also turning to his 2-guards to fill in time as the lead ballhandler, pushing Booker (team-high 2.6 APG) out of his comfort zone and creating another wrinkle of evaluation for Goodwin and Jenkins. Even without score-or-bust Knight around, the Suns are ripe for a turnover on just about every other possession (15.2 team TO%, worst in NBA; 20.2 opponent PPG off TOs, ahead of only Philly’s 20.3), especially at the high tempo Watson continues to push (101.4 possessions per-48 post-All-Star-Break, 3rd highest in NBA). That’s a banana the Hawks (14.4 opponent TO%, 5th-best in NBA) need to unpeel, every chance they get. Phoenix’s game plans are simple. Park both Tyson Chandler (three-straight double-doubles, season-high 21 points @ UTA last Sunday) and Alex Len (30.5 FG% from 3-feet out; 33.4 FG% on non-dunks) in the post, and let the 7-foot-1ers throw their weight around. The Suns will seek out lob, jump-hook and post-up opportunities for the pair, who were just beginning to start together when the Hawks visited back in January. Otherwise, the shooters will loft up whatever shots they can, in hopes of second-chance points (13.6 per-48, 5th in NBA) brought about by their bigs. One could argue that Chandler was 2015’s biggest free agency loser, certainly from a competitive standpoint. The Suns’ gambit of signing him to woo LaMarcus Aldridge, at the expense of the Morrii, blew up spectacularly. “It’s been a year,” said a glum Chandler to the Arizona Republic, when asked to look back upon this season. “Honestly, I feel like I came in blind this season. I expected one thing and it was another. I’ve been trying to adjust. I was expecting to play a certain type of basketball and it was different.” Publicly, Chandler remains a good-soldier and mentor to Len (16 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists vs. ATL in January), and is locked down for three more seasons. But for what he can only hope will be a parting gift, Chandler was granted a near-career-high of 27 rebounds (one short of his career-best; including a franchise-best 13 offensive boards) in the January win over Atlanta. Chandler’s defensive rebounding percentage this season (27.8 D-Reb%) is a career-best, and thank goodness for that (team 107.5 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA). Glue-guy P.J. Tucker will help Len and Chandler maintain the advantage on the glass. When Chandler needs a breather, the Suns can turn to 6-foot-8 Phoenix native Alan Williams. Undrafted last summer, college basketball’s top rebounder from 2014-15 (11.8 RPG) went to China and became the CBA’s top rebounder (15.4 RPG). Mirza Teletovic (39.2 3FG%) averaged 21.0 PPG and 7.8 RPG off the bench in his last four games, although he’ll be more interested in overtaking Chuck Person’s NBA record for 3FGs made by a bench player. Mirza’s just two triples behind The Rifleman, who set the mark in Mike Budenholzer's first video-coordinating season with the Spurs. Jon Leuer might play despite a sprained ankle. Chase Budinger exists. With all that defensive rebounding potential, Phoenix players hope to take advantage of Atlanta’s offensive dry spells, which have gotten Mojave-Desert-arid in recent games. On Friday, the Hawks made a basket to widen their brief lead to four points midway through the first quarter. Over seven basketball minutes and 13 missed shots later, the Hawks were still thirsting for their next basket. Once it arrived, the next five minutes involved seven misses and one make, while the Cavs artfully widened their lead. Just over a minute to go before halftime, and Atlanta found itself scrambling from a 20-plus-point deficit for the second consecutive game. Making one bucket every 3-to-5 minutes turns the Hawks into the burrowing animals we’ve grown accustomed to in prior years, and places undue pressure on an otherwise sound defense to hold together. By the time they drew back to within single digits in Toronto during the fourth quarter, and by the time they evened things up at home against Cleveland (39.8 opponent FG%, 31.6 3FG%), Atlanta was spent, unable to match the energies of their opponents to take the game-winning shots and grab the game-clinching 50/50 balls. Anything resembling a nip-and-tuck affair by the back half of the closing quarter of play tonight should be a deep disappointment for a team that’s supposed to be whetting its axes for the postseason. There is no reason for Jeff Teague (28 points, 9-for-23 FGs, 9 assists, 2 TOs vs. CLE on Friday) or Kyle Korver (4-for-6 3FGs vs. CLE) to fail to find whatever shots they want against the Suns’ defense, and even less reason to make them. Phoenix’s opponents shoot 38.0 3FG%, a league-high, so there should be no excuses about an off-night from the perimeter. Same deal for Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr. (combined 3-for-12 FGs vs. CLE; 5 Schröder TOs in 14 minutes), part of an offensively inept bench corps on Friday that carried the day for the Hawks two nights before during garbage time in Toronto. After 9 turnovers in the past two games, The Menace is on the verge of eclipsing Millsap for total turnovers on the season, despite spotting Sap well over 900 additional minutes of floor time. As tremendous a sixth-man as he has become, a continued lack of focus and ball-control risks having Schröder watching Kirk Hinrich from the bench to close out the year. Hardaway, meanwhile, needs to be preoccupied with getting stops and moving the ball, rather than getting up shots. Millsap did his part on Friday by matching James point-for-point (29 points, 12-for-22 FGs) while also matching Bazemore’s 12 rebounds. Millsap is of course available for the rematch with Phoenix, and he and Humphries will help Al Horford (5-for-11 2FGs, 0-for-way-too-many 3FGs, including the game-non-winner vs. CLE) achieve defensive rebounding parity with the Suns’ big men. Bazemore will play despite banging up his wrist during the demolition derby with the Cavs. He’ll be needed more for interior rebounding help and transition scoring than for roving the perimeter after wayward-shooting Suns. There will be not more than 20 individuals at The Highlight Factory tonight pulling for a Phoenix victory tonight, and they’ll all be on the floor, either in uniform or decked out in suit-and-tie. Hawks fans have zero appetite for another Suns win, and Suns fans definitely don’t want one, either. Are the Hawks capable of giving the people what they want? Congrats to the late Zelmo! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. ATL Offers: Mike Muscala (PF/C) 2017 Second-Rounder (lowest of BKN / MIA 31-40 Protected to ATL / ATL 31-55 Unprotected to SAS) PHX Trades: Jon Leuer (PF/C) The Good: Hawks near basement in D-REB% (27th?) but still prefer stretchy bigs to behemoths that can't shoot well. Leuer one of THREE Top 50 NBA Player in D-REB% (26.0%) that's also shooting above 40 3FG% on the season (40.2 3FG%, 6th among NBA bigs). Draymond Green 21.7 D-REB% and 41.9 3FG%. Luis Scola 20.5% and 42.5%. Muscala a younger (by 2 years), taller (by 1 inch), girthier (is that a word... by 20 lbs) big-man prospect. Leuer replaced (by Hornacek) Markieff Morris as starter in December (12.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 0.6 BPG, 53.2 FG%, 40.8 3FG% on 2.0 3FG attempts per game during month). Suns stuck (for now) with Morris, under contract thru 2018-19; interim coach Earl Watson wants to re-commit to him. Suns will boost minutes for Alex Len, but may not be wild about Len and Tyson Chandler together at PF+C for long stretches. Leuer has been a better perimeter shooter as a reserve (41.0 3FG%) than as a starter (39.5 3FG%). Suns want to tank and, if possible, screwjob the Lakers out of a Top-3 pick (LAL's 4-and-below pick would go to PHI). A surge in standings (Brandon Knight returns, Keef plays more under Watson) risks Suns giving Lotto Pick to Cleveland (Protected 1-10). ESPN Trade Machine "Analysis" for Suns: "With this trade you have decreased this team's projected wins by 3." Player control: Muscala can be retained this summer if desired via team option, for slightly less than Leuer makes now. Leuer stops eating up fellow stretch-forward Mirza Teletovic's minutes. Leuer a small expiring contract ($1.035 million, UFA this summer). Defensive RPMs (ESPN stat): Moose -0.32, Leuer +0.80. PER: Moose 12.0, Leuer 15.4. Blocks per 100: Moose 2.2, Leuer 1.0. Assist %s: Moose 7.6 (7.3 Career), Leuer 10.2 (8.1 Career, mostly w/ MEM) Hawks have as many as three second-rounders in 2017 and couldn't possibly hit it out of the park with all of them. The Bad: Leuer returning slowly from back spasms injury suffered while dunking during warmups in mid-January. 15 minutes played since. Is he being rested, or just preserved for the trade deadline? Leuer shot percentages plummeted in January (44.9 FG%, 26.7 3FG%). Both players in playoffs in recent years (Leuer w/ MEM), but Muscala with more significant experience in latter postseason rounds. Offensive BPM (Bball Ref stat): Moose -2.8, Leuer -1.1. Win Shares per 48: Moose .098 (.124 Career), Leuer .092 (.103 Career) ESPN Trade Machine "Analysis" for Hawks: "You have not affected the winning percentage of this team." No more "Moose!" versus "Muskie!" debates. The Ugly: What to do with all the antler fan paraphernalia? Ship it to Arizona? Who re-does the Fox Sports Southeast promo? Who takes over the Moose Goggles duty when Kyle hits threes? ~lw3
  13. So nice of the Hawks to give him a going aWay present, though... ~lw3
  14. “My! Three Suns!” Get Off My Well-Manicured Lawn! As tonight’s battle looms between the Atlanta Hawks and whatever passes as the Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Arizona) these days, the building frustration over the flameout of the Suns (13-31) has owner Robert Sarver ornery, about… you guessed it… millennials. Kids these days. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks,” Sarver railed recently, “and Markieff Morris the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it. I'm not sure if it's the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I'm not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it's like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations.” This confirms that one of the Suns’ towel boys also runs their Twitter page. Sarver may be having a tough time dealing with one of the elder millennials, in particular, on his executive team. GM Ryan McDonough may have waited too long to deal Keef after that “setback with his brother” (the more recent setback, anyway), and now has a caustic mess on his hands. The Suns swung for the fences this summer by signing 35-year-old Tyson Chandler to $13 million this year, plus $39 million more for the next three seasons. They wound up with a bloop single, when the move to acquire Chandler was insufficient to pry LaMarcus Aldridge from San Antonio’s grasp. After getting shaded by Goran Dragic last season, McDonough rewarded Brandon Knight for his half-season of loyalty with a 5-year, $70 million extension this summer. Struggling to keep Phoenix afloat on most nights without Eric Bledsoe (out for season after knee surgery) sharing the backcourt, Knight went to L.A. yesterday to check out an aggravated abductor strain, and is questionable to play tonight after missing Thursday’s blowout loss to Aldridge’s Spurs. As Dragic, miffed about being crowded out of the backcourt by mates Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, was getting dealt last February, McDonough also helped out his old buddies (GMs: stop doing this!) by sending Thomas to the Celtics. None of Dragic, Knight, or Bledsoe will be an All-Star this season, but it turns out Thomas has a very good shot. The Suns will get the Cavs’ first-rounder this summer for their trouble, but there’s reason to believe neither of McDonough or head coach Jeff Hornacek will be around town to find out what happens with it. Horny’s been dead-coach-walking for some time now, but he can at least point to the rash of injuries the Suns have been dealing with, plus the Mole-keiff Morris situation, as reasons for the disappointments this season. He could blame his boss directly, but that’s just something millennials would do before deleting their Instagram posts. Anyway, as of the moment, he’s still there. Two of Hornacek’s top assistants weren’t so lucky. Sarver canned Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting after falling at home to the Suxers, just ahead of a game versus Cleveland, something David Blatt probably found to be a tad rash at the time. With the continued lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive end, Phoenix’s slide has continued (one win in its last 16 games), and now the injuries have reached the point where Hornacek might have to sign a 10-day himself. Blaming tired legs for Shaqting-a-Fool on a dunk try versus the Pacers on Tuesday, Morris strained his shoulder in the process. Knight and Jon Leuer (back spasms) are officially out tonight, while Morris, Mirza Teletovic (ankle), and P.J. Tucker (bruised chest), are all wild cards to suit up in orange-and-purple against Atlanta tonight. Ronnie Price (toe) recently joined Bledsoe among the guards that were shelved post-surgery. Hornacek was left with just nine players (two of them 10-day contracts, forward Cory Jefferson and guard Lorenzo Brown) at his disposal on Thursday against the Spurs. In turn, San Antonio disposed of Phoenix in the fourth quarter despite some spirited play from guys like center Alex Len. Chandler (5.4 PPG, 20 blocks in 35 games) has been not much more than a well-paid nanny for Len to this point, but did give Phoenix its money’s worth with 20 rebounds against the Spurs, while Len surprised with a couple monster yams on Spurs monster-rookie Boban Marjanovic. If there’s one millennial Sarver won’t shake his fist at, it’s the youngest player in the league. Against Indiana, Devin Booker (17.7 PPG, 48.2 FG%, 34.9 3FG% this month) became the third-youngest NBA player to drop 30 or more points in a game, bested only by Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He followed that up by pouring in 24 points and five assists against a tough Spurs defense. This wasn’t supposed to be Devin Booker’s Team already, but the Suns have been left with little choice. Without Knight, the Suns will again be limited at point guard, leaving Hornacek to turn to Dennis Schröder’s troll-victim Archie Goodwin. There is no reason for Jeff Teague and Schröder to struggle on either end against Goodwin, Sonny Weems or whomever the Suns throw out there to handle the rock. Even Knight (3.5 TOs/game, 7th in NBA), often guilty of doing way too much in crunch time, would have created lots of points-off-turnovers for the Hawks. Despite having two top-ten TO-committers on the floor together in Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, it was Atlanta who coughed up the ball six times in the final quarter on Thursday, as they failed to mount a comeback against a similarly-fatigued Sacramento team. Phoenix will try to use Mirza (42.5 3FG%, 12th in NBA), their healthiest leading scorer in T.J. Warren (11.1 PPG, 41.5 3FG%), and/or Booker to spread out Atlanta’s defense and then use Len and Chandler to crash the boards for putbacks and extra-chance points. But the Hawks (26-18) have the health, depth, and energy to outpace the Suns and use defensive pressure to keep plenty of Suns shots from getting up in the air in the first place. The Hawks have no excuse for finishing their evening below 110 points, especially coming off the paltry offensive display in Sactown two nights ago. Phoenix started the much giving up 142 points to the Kings and has allowed a league-high 112.0 PPG (40.1 opponent 3FG%, NBA-highs of 48.8 opponent FG% and 29.4 opponent FT attempts) in January. Atlanta is 21-2 when scoring in triple digits in regulation, including 11-0 when exceeding 110 points, 16-1 when surpassing 105. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. Last week featured ex-Suns player Marcus Morris doing the one thing he should have no business doing, engaging in tit-for-tat with Suns fans on Twitter. Now, one of the local talk-show hosts who engaged "Thing 1" in the online back-and-forth last week did some digging with "sources" and reports this, about "Thing 2": ~lw3