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  1. “Who got fired… …for trading me away for Marquese Chriss?” Thank you, CP3! Do you have any idea how unbearable Knicks fans would be, right this minute? Chris Paul sunk seven points in the space of the final 85 seconds at Madison Square Garden on April 26. He assisted on a Mikal Bridges jam for the Phoenix Suns’ score before that binge, all of it needed to fend off the hard-charging Knicks one night after Paul’s Suns set across town against the Nets. Aside from that one blemish for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, they would currently be riding a 13-game winning streak, a run nearly thwarted early if not for an untimely Trae Young injury, and Macy’s would be out there doing the New Year’s Day parade all over again. Spike has conveniently kissed and made up to Hideous Lord Jimmy Dolan, finding his way back to a seat on MSG’s Gucci Row with a slew of front-running celebs. There’s blue-and-orange ticker-tape everywhere around Manhattan, as dreams abound of a Subway Series for the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewww. This is a good, and rare, time to praise the well-heeled individuals who have been, objectively, the worst owners in The Association, going on decades now. Glen Taylor, for one, is slowly stepping aside in Minnesota. Although Sactown’s back in the lottery once more, Vivek Ranadive is no longer acting as if he’s running his girls’ AAU team. And like Dolan, when was the last time anyone had a thought about Robert Sarver? “In my view, people are the most important,” Sarver shared with CNBC last week, as his Suns (47-18) continue on quite a roll of their own, now surging to a tie with Utah for the top honors in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, and thus the NBA. For too long with those under his employ, “people” meant, “Soylent Green.” But he’s gained a new lease on life as an owner. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people that can identify talent, develop talent, and people that can coach talent.” It was just a few years ago when Sarver thought it clever to sneak live goats into his neophyte GM Ryan McDonough’s office – intended to inspire a search for a GOAT on par with his WNBA Mercury’s Diana Taurasi – only to discover the goats’ greatest talents involve shedding hair, chewing furniture, and defecating profusely. These Suns aren’t baaaaaad anymore, and it’s a testament to their longtime interventionist owner, who is learning to simply let talented people link together under his umbrella, and then get out of the way. The stench of the goats and the Suns’ owner-tinkered operations are long gone. In its place, NBA retiree James Jones has been granted the room to make critical decisions, from hiring coach Monty Williams, to aiding (before McDonough’s ouster) in the decisions to Max-Ex star Devin Booker and to acquire Bridges, Cam Johnson and #1 pick Deandre Ayton via the Draft, to enticing point god Paul to join a so-far unaccomplished club in free agency. Pretty much everything has worked out, and with the latest Sun-burst confirming their emergence pre-CP3 in the 2020 Bubble was no fluke, Jones and Williams are among the reasons Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan will be Honorable Mentions, respectively, at NBA Awards time. Phoenix distinguishes itself in the standings as the only NBA club yet to endure double-digit road losses (NBA-best 22-9, after outlasting Cleveland in overtime last night). Even if they join the other 29 teams today (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Arizona), who are the only other clubs at just 7 games above-.500 in away games? Denver, Dallas, and Portland, the weary latter of whom succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers at State Farm Arena on Monday night. Slithering their way to the top of the NBA, Monty’s pythons are no laughing matter. Even so, something is amissssssssss. Possessing a very young core despite the presences of Jae Crowder, league late-comer Torrey Craig and Paul, the Suns lack the steamroller instinct versus lesser competition seen among traditional title contenders. Despite the fewest losses in the NBA, early-season losses for the Suns included games at Sacramento, Detroit, and at a still-clueless and Westbrook-less Washington. After the All-Star break, there were home losses to Indiana and Minnesota, then a schedule loss on the road in Orlando, the farewell game for several Magic players before getting traded away the following afternoon. Phoenix hasn’t rattled off a double-digit winning streak all season, currently winners of six in a row. On Sunday, they nearly lost their second game of the season to OKC, a Thunder club that was just blown out 152-95 by visitors from Indiana the evening before. With the Suns up by as much as 18 midway through the final quarter, and 12 with two minutes to spare, a sudden lack of rim protection and turnovers, plus a technical foul by Booker, required free throws from Bridges to close out a seemingly unnecessary high-wire act. The daredevil stunt was a near-repeat of a close-shave win in Houston a month ago. Last night in Ohio, the Suns let Collin Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro go off in the second half, the Cavs erasing a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, then closing a seven-point gap in the final six minutes to force an overtime period. With six points and a game-tying assist, Sexton feasted in the final 70 seconds on buckets all within feet of Phoenix’s rim. The Sun saviors in these recent comebacks have not been Paul and Booker, and certainly not Ayton, but Bridges (17 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 4th-plus-OT @ CLE) and Johnson, perhaps a risky approach, by Williams, to test the younger guns’ mettle as the playoffs approach. The sum of the Suns’ past three wins has been a galling minus-23.3 Net Rating in fourth quarters (2nd-worst in NBA), a recession that encourages teams to endure Phoenix’s game-planned early efficiencies and hang around long enough to take part in a threatening comeback. It’s reminiscent of when Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and his Hawks made their pandemic-delayed visit to Phoenix on March 30, a couple nights after getting drubbed in Denver. Riding red-hot shooting from Dario Saric (20 points vs. ATL), Phoenix blazed to a 16-point first-half lead, but they plateaued over the next two quarters before Bogi’s hot hand (team-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-8 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO) had the Suns feeling as though they were running uphill with the lead. Responding to a spectacular dunk by Bridges, a Bogdanovic triple narrowed the score to 109-108 with under 70 seconds to go. An Ayton putback of a Booker miss, and a CP3 dish to Crowder (5-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 30) in the corner finally put the game on ice, keeping Atlanta from disrupting what would become Phoenix’s season-best seven-game winning streak. “We closed the game out,” Paul told postgame media. “But we shouldn’t have been in that situation.” Despite their recent uptick in success, they have found themselves in several similar situations since. The already-hobbled Hawks may have been able to squeak that one out, had John Collins not tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. Atlanta dropped below .500 with that loss for what would be the final time this season. Tonight, with yet another road-weary team in town, a recuperating Hawks club (36-30) could secure a winning season for the first time in Collins’ four-year career. They may not wish to hold off and try achieving that above-.500 status in McMillan’s former NBA town tomorrow, as a seventh-straight home win, this one over the momentary NBA leaders in the standings, would be an impressive feat. Phoenix is thrilled to be reaching the postseason for the first time since then-coach Alvin Gentry took the Suns to the Western Finals in 2010, and the prospect of making a Utah team that’s 28-4 at home the road team in this year’s conference finals, with a chance of giving Paul the breakthrough to the NBA Finals he has long craved, sounds mighty tempting. But they’re going to want to avoid am early-round letdown similar to McMillan’s ’94 Sonics, who found themselves mounted by a Mutombo. To that end, Phoenix is going to need their former local high school and college star, Ayton, to string together some not-pedestrian performances. For Ayton (14-and-14 vs. ATL in March), who did his best to keep up with Clint Capela (16-and-15 @ PHX) when the Hawks and Suns last met, a 15 point, 8 rebound showing versus the Cavs was a slight departure from his previous four games (7.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG, 2.0 FTAs/game, 46.2 FG%). Still, aside from a blocked shot, Deandre was persona non grata in the fourth frame as Cleveland made their advance. Two more overtime rejections brought his block tally to a season-tying high of 5 by night’s end. But for the former first-overall pick, it should not have come to that, nor Johnson’s reverse-yam in OT over Jarrett Allen, to put the Cavs to bed. At the Omni hotel this morning, Williams will be grateful not having to awaken to tornado sirens. But he will have to make tough decisions on who can log heavy minutes against a Hawks team bearing a rest advantage. Look for more minutes for ex-Hawk Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in the backcourt, and for Saric and Frank Kaminsky upfront. Craig continues to start in place of Crowder, who remains out with a sprained ankle. Phoenix (NBA-best +2.3 bench plus/minus) hopes to sustain any early leads they can seize for as long as possible without relying on star turns by Booker (8-for-19 FGs vs. ATL in March; 25.1 PPG but 25.3 3FG% since April 5), Bridges and Paul (active leader in career steal percentage at 3.21%, as per bball-ref; a fellow Carolinian, McMillan’s 3.75% ranks 3rd all-time). The Hawks’ reserves (NBA-worst minus-8.6 bench plus/minus and 38.2 bench FG% in last 4 games) could use a boost from sixth-man specialist Lou Williams (19.2 FG%, 5.3 PPG in last 4 games), held under 15 minutes of action in his past two games, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, to at least hold serve in this area. With Bogdanovic (NBA career-best 15.5 PPG and 42.0 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs vs. POR; listed as available despite a still-sore hammy) having averaged over 36.2 MPG as a starter during his past four back-to-back series, Coach Nate would love to spread his sharp-shooting guard’s floor time out at a lower scale today and tomorrow. Among Atlanta’s starters, a stronger interior presence from Collins (just 9-for-14 2FGs over past 3 games) would be a welcome sight. But he has the outside jumper that Ayton comparatively lacks. Showing newfound confidence as a shooter since his return from injury (multiple threes in four consecutive games, longest since last February’s late-season scoring tear) while sharing the floor with multiple Atlanta snipers, balancing Collins’ offense with more paint finishes will have defenses unsure of whether he’s going or coming. After citing his boss’ maturation and the Suns’ recent retooling as an “inflection point,” one of Sarver’s few hangers-on, CEO Jason Rowley, via CNBC, presses longtime skeptics to “look at the people we have on the team, you look at the culture that’s been built here – when I look at the success we’re having now, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We have the opportunity to have something sustainable.” This may hold true. But then you take a gander at the cap sheet. ESPN’s Zach Lowe foretells of the looming “money crunch” for Sarver, as Paul’s $44 million player option for 2021-22 either kicks in or gets torn up in favor of a lucrative negotiation. Ayton may not be worthy of an extension nearing the values coming for, say, Young or Luka Doncic, but the first-overall pick’s agents will be as demanding as Zona boosters in pursuing that kind of deal. Crowder and Saric are under contract through 2023. Their deals are reasonable, but they’ll likely hold more value as expirings than as contributing players by then. That Grant Hill is one classy fella. “He never dressed me down. Was always good to me,” he said of his former boss, Sarver, refuting a 2019 ESPN report (same one, by Kevin Arnovitz, featuring the goats) that the Suns’ owner barged into a halftime locker room and demanded better on-ball defense by Hill against another withering former superstar, the Mavs’ Vince Carter. Hill took great pains to explain Sarver’s intentions were to have switch Hill off of Dirk Nowitzki. It would take a monumental effort to get Grant to baaaaaad-mouth anyone, even Sarver. But it’s no longer lost on the owner that intruding in player affairs, as he once did, does his team and his franchise no favors. Sarver thanks his lucky stars that Jones accepted his entreaties instead of latching onto any of his GOAT-pal LeBron’s endeavors. Because there’s at least one reason Hill, and former Sun Carter, didn’t choose to spend their NBA retirement years in the warm climes of Arizona. They’ve elected to invest their time and energy in Georgia with the Resslers, who aim to prove that this state is a better place to do business, and basketball. I do hope Mr. Paul is taking notes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “The Shining (2011)” Happy Ten-Year Anniversary! Ten! What is that, aluminum? Paper? Velvet? Are ya feeling old yet, Squawkfolk? It seemed like yesterday when a former referee, one that even other refs couldn’t stand, snuck around Atlanta Hawks postgame security aiming to shame team vice prez, color analyst and living legend Dominique Wilkins in hopes of collecting what the former claimed was a debt. Well, don’t call him Eric B., because the homie Rashan Michel got Paid In Fist. After dispatching Hoosier legend Mike Woodson and giving his assistant Larry Drew a head coaching shot, ownership and fans alike simply hoped to see a little more fight out of their Hawks, as the 2011 Playoffs approached. After that evening’s win by the Hawks over the bullying Orlando Magic, Nique proved to be a good model, demonstrating how to clown a clown that keeps trying to clown you. Respectfully. I’m a pacifist by nature. Give peace a chance! But serving up a two-piece isn’t the worst thing in the world when all else fails. Here’s the deal. There was not a fur store in North America that ever fixed an invoice with Joe Namath’s name on the “To:” line. Neither Broadway Joe, nor recent birthday boy Clyde the Glide, gets handed a bill for their outfits. You think either K or G has ever troubled LD with a running tab for their zoot suits? ‘Course not. “Hi, Mister Wilkins, sir. Do you remember me, I used to T you up at Vince Carter’s celebrity summer games? Well, now, I make custom suits for a living. May I make some for you?” “Sure, thanks.” ((Months later)) “Hey, Nique, nice suit!” “Thanks! So-and-so made some for me, you oughta look him up!” THAT is the twelve thousand dollars you seek, Rashan! There is absolutely nothing wrong with an enterprising young fellow having reveries of building his own Brutha Men’s Wearhouse empire one day. Admirable, actually. But if you’ve got ins with at least B-list celebrities, you have got to understand that these folks can become your walking, talking billboards. Grown athletes, in particular, aren’t the ones you risk chokeouts trying to shakedown. There’s no need to go to Goizueta B-School to figure this out. You don’t even have to be 7-foot tall and 250 pounds to be a profitable clothier. Kevin Willis eventually got his clothing line up and running at Lenox Macy’s. He didn’t get there stalking former Hawks all around town seeking compensation for services rendered. He also managed to make a clean second career for himself without, say, running afoul of the FBI. Michel almost turned his fortunes around in the years after the swelling went down. Through his regional and sports-related connects, he made inroads with college stars on the verge of lottery-level paydays going pro in the NBA and NFL. Building on his growing set of Instagram follows, he opened a shop in Grant Park, and was planning to expand his tailoring business to Charlotte. Sadly, a lack of game fails to recognize a lack of game. A greedy Michel soon found himself ensnared in the underworld of greasy sports agents, greedy sneaker execs, grimy cash-carrying coaches, and grinning FBI informants. Now, because of his willing participation in the ploy of stuffing bills behind the lapels of kids like Deandre Ayton – 2018’s number one pick for the rising Phoenix Suns, who host our Hawks tonight (10 PM Eastern, Once More, with Feeling! Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) – Rashan had to plead guilty in a sting that stung far fewer and less valuable people than the Feds intended. Thanks to Rashan’s involvement in the scheme, a former NBA player with one of the greatest nicknames in sports, “The Rifleman” Chuck Person can’t even show his face on the plains in Auburn anymore. Players, head and assistant coaches and agents, all give the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her!” face when queried about their appearances with Michel, tagged in pics embracing him on his website. The ex-ref’s rebounding rep? Shattered. His shop? Shuttered. And as soon as his name hit the Internet, many quickly recalled, “Hold up, isn’t that the dude Nique five-knuckle-shuffled just a couple years ago?” Our Hawks found themselves on the wrong end of their first two-hit fight – I hit you, you hit the floor – in quite some time, getting grounded and pounded in Denver on Sunday night. Quite coincidentally, things went south because of Atlanta’s perturbance with the antics of some referees. The ones with actual whistles, on this occasion. “I thought we got distracted by the officiating,” admitted Nate McMillan to the AJC’s Sarah K. Spencer, The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and the postgame press, “me included.” Marc Davis, in particular, tends to have that effect on people. “I didn’t make adjustments during the course of this game, as far as how they were attacking us,” the Hawks’ current head coach correctly acknowledged, of the promising 49-45 start that snowballed into an avalanche of threes by the Nuggets’ JaMychal Green and, in garbage time, Bol Bol (???) to sum up a 126-102 defeat. “I just thought that we got caught up in the officiating. We can’t do that. We have to focus on the game.” Trae Young (game-high 21 points, but 7 TOs) was sloppy with his handle and his shot decisions in the pivotal second quarter, leading to ample fastbreak scoring options for the Nuggets as the Hawks chased them through Colorado’s thin air. Atlanta (23-23) found itself on even thinner ice during the middle quarters as Clint Capela and John Collins were lethargic and ineffective in keeping Denver’s frontcourt off the glass. The Nuggets collected 15 offensive rebounds, 13 in the second and third quarters alone, to Atlanta’s two (half of that by Bogi Bogdanovic) for the entire game. Crafty Chris Paul (8.5 APG, 1.4 SPG) and Mikal Bridges hope they can coax enough turnovers and tough shots out of Trae today to keep Young out of a shootout with All-Star slinger Devin Booker (35 points in Sunday’s win vs. CHA; post-All-Star -- 25.8 PPG, 32.3 3FG%). Coming off the momentous run in 2020’s Bubble, the Suns and their fans ought to be thrilled with a 31-14 record that has them, for now, looking down at both the Lakers and the Clippers while holding down 2nd place in the rambunctious Western Conference. But it has been their late-game play, as of late, that has the Suns and their fans fearing a nightly meltdown. Only the Spurs (89.4) have held a lower 4th-Quarter Offensive Rating over the past five games than the Suns (92.8), and no team has shot the ball worse (NBA-lows of 44.0 TS% and 40.0 eFG%) over that stretch. They scored 20 points in the final frame while visiting the Magic last week, 21 in Tampa against the Raptors, and then a paltry 14 in Charlotte on Sunday, permitting the Hornets to wipe out a 9-point deficit and force OT. The silver lining is that coach Monty Williams’ club won four of those five games, the fumbled loss in Orlando last Wednesday the sole blemish. It’s a signal that Phoenix does just enough practical things to establish leads early on that they won’t often have to scramble with the game hanging in the balance in the closing minutes. Still, fans that should be preparing to celebrate Phoenix’s first playoff appearance since 2010 have instead been fretting that the ends of games have looked more like The Devin Booker Variety Hour that they grew accustomed to withstanding during their young star’s first five seasons on objectively bad rosters. Ayton’s offensive role seems to shrink in these phases of games, and the hope is a more balanced attack in and around the paint will improve their prized pivot’s abilities to close games, while taking defensive pressure off of Booker and Paul. Beyond rebounding from their rebounding woes in Denver, Atlanta will want to keep turnovers and forced-shot volumes low versus the slow-paced, possession control-minded Suns. Better contributions from Hawks reserves (31.5 bench PPG, 3rd-lowest in NBA; NBA-low 40.1 bench FG%) would be warmly welcomed, including hopefully the returning De’Andre Hunter (sore knee) and newcomer sixth-man Lou Williams. Collins and Capela will want to wear down a Suns’ interior that depends on Jae Crowder, Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric to hold the fort, especially when Ayton (team-high 30.8 MPG; 11.0 RPG, 10th in NBA) needs a breather. Doing so could turn Phoenix’s perimeter defenders (34.1 opponent 3FG%, 2nd-best in NBA) into contracted helpers and freeing up the Hawks’ shooters for higher-quality looks. This, a game previously scheduled to be played in January, is Atlanta’s NBA-high 27th road contest. Only Boston, presently playing at home, and free-falling Tampato have played 26. Some clubs, notably Eastern 10-seed Chicago, have played as few as 19 or 20. There will continue to be wild jockeying for final Playoff and Play-In positions on this back stretch of the season, the middle of the Eastern Conference particularly looking like a Bristol dirt track. But it is of some comfort to know that many of the teams the Hawks are chasing, and the teams chasing the Hawks in turn, will be making the lion’s share of their climbs away from their home locales during the final months. If the Hawks get refocused, provide more balanced scoring, rebound well at both ends, and at least keep the contest close through three quarters, will they have a chance of notching their 13th road victory of the season, the most they’ve won since 2016-17, tonight? Dare I suggest, they’ll have a puncher’s chance? Hope that raspberry was worth it, Rashan. You wore it well! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “I’m getting traded to the New York area? WHY???” “Baby, I’m a Starbury!” Georgia Tech’s one-and-doner couldn’t believe his fortune as he slapped on his purple-billed, white and green, exclusive NBA-issue baseball cap. Thanks to the 1996 NBA lottery and draft, Stephon Marbury was about to pair up with one of the NBA’s hottest young forwards in Glenn Robinson. What a combo! Whoops! Scratch that, Steph. It’s Ray Allen that Milwaukee really wants. But, guess what? You’re getting an even hotter, younger talent to grow with, in Kevin Garnett! Coming together for iconic magazine covers, “Showbiz and KG” would eventually ignite expansion Minnesota’s first multi-year playoff run. Championship glories awaited for the Teen Wolves, with The Big Ticket and The Big Star as 1A and 1B! Welp! Scratch the record again. Marbury reportedly wanted to be the 1A, and sought the All-Star accolades granted to Timberwolf bigs Garnett and leading scorer Tom Gugliotta. He felt he was being overlooked by the mass media, left out in the cold in the Twin Cities. Coney Island’s Finest was also getting homesick. The Wolves shoved Googs aside to make room on the payroll for Marbury’s mega-bucks contract extension. He got agent Peter Falk to refuse their offers and demand a geographically focused trade. Fine, the Wolves said. We’ll make-do with two-time All-Star Terrell Brandon. The three-team deal sent Sam Cassell to Milwaukee and Marbury back to the NYC area. He and his homeboys would finally get to see him become an All-Star. Just as well, the 2000 Draft for New Jersey netted his team the hottest young collegiate forward in Kenyon Martin. K-Mart was raw, understandably so after the injury he suffered late in his senior season at Cincinnati. But on the road back to playoff contention, Starbury was eager to join forces in the Garden State with somebody who had a bit more ummph than Keith Van Horn. The Nets (enjoy James, Nets fans.) would indeed return to the playoffs, and even reach The Finals, but not with The Original Steph. Marbury would watch Jason Kidd tag-team with K-Mart and build an Eastern Conference champion. Still, traded to Phoenix for Kidd, Marbury couldn’t believe luck was finally turning in his favor. In the Valley of the Suns, Marbury found himself dishing buckets to a rookie first-rounder fresh out of high school. Unlike Big Dog, KG, and K-Mart, Amar’e Stoudemire was not a prized #1 overall or top-five draft pick. But Michael Olowokandi was, and Steph’s screen-roll bounce pass set up his rookie big with one of the defining dunks of the decade, leaving Marbury teary-eyed, and The Kandi Man reevaluating his career decision. With exception to KG, Stoudemire was as powerful and unstoppable coming down the lane as any NBA big Marbury had ever lobbed to. Time for yet another iconic SLAM cover! Steph would grace the February ’04 edition with jack-of-all-trades Shawn Marion and the surprise, reigning Rookie of the Year winner. One problem. By the time the mag hit the newsstands, Marbury was already on his way back home, to NYC. Scratch! The Suns, like the Wolves, were trying to quit overspending on veteran talent to make room for their aspiring forwards at contract time, and to build around them via free agency. Incoming Knicks GM Isiah Thomas wanted to replenish the point guard stock, so off went Marbury to the hometown squad he dreamed of playing with as a child. Attached with him was fellow shoot-first guard Penny Hardaway, a remnant of Phoenix’s original plan to feature Kidd and Penny together. That scheme for the Suns failed to bear fruit due to injuries for both point guards. Later, Hardaway failed to mesh with Steph, once Kidd was sent to Jersey. Those two were Isiah’s issue now. The Suns freed up money to woo back to town a 30-year-old who had honed his passing chops while making Dallas’ wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki, and thereby himself, an All-Star. Might there be enough magic left in Steve Nash’s bottle to make STAT a top-line star, and the Suns a playoff threat? Nash would do all of that, and much, much, more. In his first full season, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni pressed the tempo of the Suns to complement his offensively oriented bookends of Stoudemire and Nash. While STAT and The Matrix wrecked shop upfront, wearing many older frontlines out, Nash had an array of shot-takers and shot-makers to turn to, in Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, and Jimmy Jackson. Heating up the pace to levels rarely seen in the league, the Suns went from 29-53 in 2003-04 to the titans of the Pacific Division, tying a team record at 62-20 in 2004-05. Nash would earn his first MVP trophy as a tricenarian, then accomplish the feat again the next season. With Nash and Stoudemire carrying the banner, and with D’Antoni and Steve Kerr taking over the front office, Phoenix’s stars never quite reached the Finals pantheon, like predecessors KJ and Charles Barkley, and the late, great Paul Westphal. But despite being thwarted at turns by the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs, Nash and STAT created not a gimmick, but an indelible brand, one that many upstart teams of today would like to copy. Comparisons abound whenever wizardly, high-scoring guards team up with studly, bucket-crushing bigs. Will Trae Young and John Collins one day be that dynamic duo by which future legends will be measured? Fans in both Phoenix and Atlanta have reason to hope, unlike the plights of poor Mr. Marbury, these teammates might get to stick together for a while. It borders on blasphemy, but I could argue the mythos of Nash-and-STAT being a sure thing from the jump didn’t meet up with reality. At what is momentarily known at PHX Arena, these two played together for the first time against the lowly Atlanta Hawks during 2004-05’s season debut. Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, and a bust of a rookie in his second year named Boris Diaw provided little resistance to Steve, Joe, and the emerging Amar’e. But the connection wasn’t quite there in their debut, Nash finishing the game with just four assists, only one of which made its way into Stoudemire’s hands for a short jumper. But by the time they could master their pick-and-roll magic, in mere months, Phoenix became something like a phenomenon. Tim Duncan was too tough to eclipse in the Western Finals, but don’t blame Amar’e after averaging 37 PPG in the brief series with San Antonio. All was looking bright, until Stoudemire came to know the word “microfracture” all too well. Following preseason surgery, Amar’e tried to rush back by mid-season, but to no avail, shelved again with stiff knees after just a few games. Perhaps more worrisome for him, D’Antoni had discovered a workaround – (CLOSE YOUR EYES, BELKIN!) – Boris Diaw, arriving from the Joe Johnson sign ‘n trade, who could hit jumpshots well outside the paint. Oh, and the Frenchman could pass, too! Ooh, la la! Nash would earn his second and final MVP award without Stoudemire in tow. With the Suns back in the conference finals in the rough-and-tumble West, Nash pushed his old buddy Dirk nearly to the brink with Boris, who bookended the Mavs series with games of 34 and 30 points. Maybe it’s already time, fans pondered, to move on from dunk-dependent Amar’e and those ticking time bombs in his knees? Not so fast, said Stoudemire. He returned to All-Star form in 2006-07, leading his team in scoring. When MVP Dirk’s top-seeded Mavs got upended in the first round, the coast was clear for the stacked, second-seeded Suns squad, having made quick work of the leftover Lakers, to finally break through to the title round. That was, until the Discount Hip Check by the Spurs’ Robert Horry on Nash caused Amar’e to leave the bench and take umbrage with Horry, a decided no-no to the league’s officials in the afterglow of the Palace Malice. Stoudemire was suspended for Game 5 of those conference semis, the Suns never won again, and the Spurs went back to earn yet another ring in The Finals. That 2007 series proved to be Phoenix’s best chance at ditching the title of the winningest franchise without an NBA title from any era on its shelf. Kerr took over as lead executive, he dealt Marion away in midseason for a bloated, aging Shaq, a move which brought inertia to D’Antoni’s run-and-gun style and no longer gave Stoudemire defensive cover. Nash was still dropping dimes, but the increasingly geriatric teammates like Shaq, Raja Bell and Grant Hill were having a harder time picking them up. D’Antoni would wind his way in the offseason to New York in hopes of salvaging the Knicks, who by that time had given up on both Marbury and GM Isiah. The Nash-and-STAT Suns would have one last hurrah under coach Alvin Gentry, by then a noted D’Antoni disciple, in 2009-10, after Stoudemire missed much of the prior season with an eye injury (ushering in the protective goggles era) and Kerr moved on from Shaq and, excepting Hill, some of the slowpokes. Finally sweeping the dastardly Spurs in the playoffs, the Suns would come up short versus Kobe and his new running buddy, Pau Gasol, in the Western Finals. And that was about it. Kerr abdicated his executive post to become a television game analyst on TNT (who does that?), and his second-in-command, David Griffin, wanted out, too. A trade target all that season due to his expiring deal, Stoudemire ditched Phoenix to reunite with D’Antoni, declaring, as Marbury once errantly thought, “The Knicks are back!” With no more playoff appearances in Phoenix, the sun set on Nash’s All-Star years by 2012, after which he was dispatched to the Lakers Retirement Home. With Nash-and-STAT, the Suns were a veritable double-supernova. But over the better part of their six seasons together, through all the MVP and All-Star honors, they were never quite able to string together, due to injuries, formidable foes and an untimely suspension, enough to outshine established super-teams and get over the hump into the Finals zone. Inaugurated in Arizona the same season the Hawks emigrated from Missouri, the Suns join the Hawks and what was then the Cincinnati Royals as the only clubs since 1968-69 to never touch the championship gold. As a small consolation, neither of the first two organizations, in their present day, have to stress over whether they can ever make something out of Marvin Bagley. Another advantage Atlanta and Phoenix’s top backcourt-frontcourt duos have, over Nash-and-STAT, is that their developmental stages as pros are quite coincidental. Now in his fifth straight season scoring over 20 PPG, 24-year-old Booker is a scoring assassin who shone most brightly in 2020’s Bubble, the biggest gameday stage he has enjoyed to date. Ayton is coming along nicely as a steady rebounder in his third NBA season, although both players are sacrificing scoring in coach Monty Williams’ more egalitarian and decidedly un-D’Antonian (29th in Pace) offense. Young and Collins face similar challenges, working through the bumps and bruises of elevated expectations under coach Lloyd Pierce’s watch, but with a vastly less healthy roster than the Suns (7-4) in the early going. On their ever-evolving, ever-revolving injury report, rookie lotto pick Onyeka Okongwu (foot) was listed as probable for today’s game, while starting pivot Clint Capela (hand) was listed as questionable. What both these couplings need to excel, though, is a similarly young but steady third-wheel, à la The Matrix. And it sure is shaping up as if each club already has one. Brett Brown, the 76ers head coach and Interim GM at the time of 2018’s NBA Draft, is no longer with the Sixers largely because Philly native Mikal Bridges is in the NBA, and Zhaire Smith is very much not. The Biggest Mistake of the 2018 Draft (that’s right, Dallas. Deal with it.), Philly acquired Miami’s 2021 first-rounder and Smith (3.7 PPG in a whopping 13 career appearances), and now feel like they’ve burnt their bridges. Mikal enjoyed a career-best 34-point outing on Sunday (6-for-8 3FGs) as the Suns toppled the Pacers in Indy. A full-time starter in his third season, Bridges carries a sterling reputation as a young on-ball defender, joining Chris Paul, the veteran point guard star and protégé of Williams back in the New Orleans Hornets’ days, as players putting intense pressure on opposing offenses while simultaneously alleviating D-Book and D-Ayt to play to their strengths. Mikal’s jumper has come around, too (45.3 3FG% on nearly six attempts per game), and his unwillingness to put the ball on the floor (2.1 TOs/100 plays, 2nd-best among NBA’ers w/ 20+ MPG) helps Phoenix maintain useful possessions. Howls that Atlanta and Phoenix fumbled away their chances at certain glory by not drafting or keeping Luka in 2018 have quieted, at least for now. Also, nary a soul is chirping critically about the top-five draft pick Atlanta took the following year. De’Andre Hunter (16.3 PPG) has improved across the board, as a crafty defender and rebounder, and especially as a confident shot-taker (45.3 3FG%, 57.8 2FG%) and decision-maker at the other end of the floor. Minnesota got got by Phoenix in the 2019 Draft, too. The Wolves wanted to trade up, for Jarrett Culver, and they wanted to rid themselves of Dario Saric. Done and done, But in so doing, the player they drafted, Cameron Johnson, is helping Phoenix put out a pair of prodigious Pennsylvania-prep products that closely rivals Hawks lotto-prizes Hunter and Cam Reddish. Free agent pickup Jae Crowder has struggled of late, and the Suns have floundered, losing the day before the Pacers game in Detroit, then getting blown out on Monday in Westbrook-less Washington. Coach Monty suggested it was already time to shake up the starting unit. “That group has not played well,” said Williams. Substituting Crowder for Cam Johnson (8-0 in the Bubble as a Suns starter) sounds like The Move. But Williams and the Suns will now have a little longer to figure it out. Just yesterday, @AZSportsZone ran down a foreboding list of teams riddled with COVID positives, protocols and quarantines, and it seems as though most everybody has run through the Wizards along the way to having to postpone games. While it was hoped the Suns would luck out, the premonition proved true, and for now, the Hawks-Suns game scheduled for tonight is off (Scratch!), canceled one day after the scrapping of the Jazz-Wizards game. (Sorry, Rudy.) Rookie big Jalen Smith was already under Protocols Watch, left behind as the Suns headed east last Friday. NBA top-scorer Bradley Beal was suddenly DNP’d after spending time talking to Boston’s COVID-positive Jayson Tatum, then was cleared for takeoff to face the Suns. PG County native, Williams, brushed aside concerns about Beal, and also about a selfie he took in the team hotel’s parking lot with his mom, who he had not seen in person since Thanksgiving. While the blow-by-blow on impacted Suns players and staff has not yet been shared, there is enough to know Phoenix wouldn’t have the minimum 8 COVID-cleared contributors like Philadelphia did ahead of the Hawks game. “I think every minute and every hour and every day is going to be an adjustment,” LP said after shootaround yesterday, just as the news of the Wizards’ cancellation was trickling in. “Obviously, this has been the toughest week since we’ve started, as you’re seeing games postponed.” Taking so much time rambling down Memory Lane isn’t always a sign that I’m not caring much about the results ahead of a game. But this week’s games are an exception. Now that the Hawks have nipped their losing skid in the bud with their 112-94 victory over Philly on Monday, the only things I care about, as Atlanta spends its time out West this week, is that the Hawks stay healthy and get healthy, basketball-wise, and they that stay vigilant enough to avoid not just COVID-19, but the league’s ever-constricting Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Any Ws they can bring home along the way is just gravy. After the plug was pulled on last season prematurely, following an over nine-month wait to resume regular-season play, the last things Atlanta need are unforeseen cancellations and postponements. From one week to the next, Bubble-less-ious squads like the Hawks need to see the preparation they put in paying off, in real time. After so many close encounters, it does kinda suck that Starbury never could settle down somewhere and become the Kobe to somebody’s Shaq, or even the Penny. But all was not lost. Sure, he had to go to Beijing, but he finally earned his statue somewhere. By the way, it must be noted, the Beijing team he’s coaching now is playing its full slate of games, including a win just yesterday, without a hitch. “I really don’t see any panic,” Coach Marbury said all the way back in March 2020 about his native land’s response to a raging pandemic that was dying down in China but percolating across the Pacific shores. According to the AP, he found the nonchalance, “a little nerve wracking, because I left China and I saw what was going on, right when it was starting.” At the premiere of his biographical film in NYC (remember movie premieres?), Steph hoped Americans would take the threat as seriously as the Chinese government and citizens eventually would, to minimize its spread across the continent. Of course, a highly attended movie premiere was just the latest sign Starbury’s Americans had other priorities in mind. The Suns had hoped to avoid becoming subject to disease, and the Hawks hoped to avoid disruption, too. But if they need someone to blame… hey, thanks, “Washington!” Let’s Go Hawks! Just Not Tonight! ~lw3
  4. “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
  5. “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
  6. The newest LeBronnaire is on his way? ~lw3
  7. Somebody had their extra bowl of Wheaties this morning. What time is it out there? ~lw3
  8. "You're no Bud, but you'll do fine!" ~sunz
  9. 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
  10. “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
  11. Another Euro star comes stateside... ~lw3
  12. “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