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  1. LOB! American Style! Truer than the Red, White and Blue. LOB! American Style! That’s me and you! The race was on late last night! At least I hope so. As the Atlanta Hawks were wrapping up their loss in Toronto, a bit further to the west, the playoff-hungry Minnesota Timberwolves were early in the third quarter, getting run out of their own gym by the Washington Wizards. The Hawks, it is hoped, concluded their obligatory interviews and caught the first thing smoking out of Canada before the Wizards-Wolves game reached the final horn. Given the value of the Hawks’ home finale at The Farm (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and Washington’s history of being a late-season spoiler, hopefully the Wiz gave the Wolves everything they had before hopping on their red-eye. If the Hawks (41-38) look down on the playoff-eliminated Wizards (35-44) for lacking not only Brad Beal but Kyle Kuzma (out, knee tendinitis), then they risk falling into the same mind-trap Minnesota did yesterday. The Wolves still had a faint chance of catching Utah or Denver for the Play-In-averting 6-seed and perhaps the Northwest Division crown by sweeping their three-game homestand. Those hopes were all but squandered as they allowed season-high scoring tallies to both Rui Hachimura (21 points) and Daniel Gafford (24 points, 12 boards). Relevant to the Hawks’ loss last night, Gafford manned the frontcourt alongside monumental Trade Deadline acquisition Kristaps Porzingis for a significant, tide-turning stretch in the second half, and for the first time this season under head coach Junior Unseld’s watch. It worked out so well that Unseld was able to rest Porzingis for the final quarter, ahead of today’s matchup with Clint Capela, as the Wizards’ sizable rotation of forwards wore down Karl-Anthony Towns and pulled out to a 23-point lead. Yes, the Wizards were just blasted in Boston by 42 points on Sunday. But in addition to Minnesota, Unseld’s charges over the past couple weeks have screwed with the playoff-seeding hopes of Golden State, the LOLakers, and KP’s former team, Dallas. They’ve shown a propensity for bouncing back lately. Despite the injuries, they’ve won five of their past eight, and there’s nothing so appetizing about 2022 Draft slots from #7 on down that they have reason to gather up the tents and tank. From Christmas through the week after St. Patty’s, Washington won consecutive games on only one occasion. Victory tonight would make that thrice over the course of the past 13 days, and the first pair of wins on back-to-back nights since Thanksgiving. Washington did not have the Unicorn at their disposal when they fell to the Hawks, 117-114 on March 4. They did have Georgia native Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went bonkers from outside (6-for-6 3FGs for 18 of his 28 points) as his Wiz waged a second-half comeback from as many as 14 points down. How did the Hawks prevail, going wire-to-wire, when they were outshot 54.1-41.8 percent from the field, including a 6-for-22 shooting display from Trae Young, and out-assisted 37-18 (incl. 11 dimes by Kuz and seven by Raul Neto)? Well, for one, the Zards were unable to get to shot-worthy whistles, as Young and De’Andre Hunter (combined 17-for-18 FTAs), alone, doubled their opponents’ free throw attempt total (34 ATL FTAs, to WAS’ nine). They were unable to get Atlanta to cough up the ball, the Hawks committing just four player turnovers for the game. Finally, absent Porzingis, Washington was also unable to contain Capela on the glass, as eight of Clint’s 12 rebounds were cleanups on the wayward Hawks’ offensive end. That game last month lacked not only John Collins but backup big Onyeka Okongwu, who has had his struggles in recent games versus Brooklyn and Toronto (8 combined rebounds, 1 offensive, over 33.5 minutes) after feasting on the boards on back-to-back nights in OKC and versus Cleveland (25 combined over 53 minutes) last week. Hunter is doing a better job of mixing it up in the paint in recent days, and Atlanta will need him, Jalen Johnson and Bogi Bogdanovic to aid Capela and Okongwu in securing a wide berth for defensive boards, particularly off long caroms when Porzingis (last 4 games: 25.3 PPG, 55.6% on 4.5 3FGAs/game) settles his 7-foot-3 frame along the perimeter. Porzingis’ arrival gives Beal a little more to chew on as he weighs the value of his $36 million player option for next season. KP has one of his own the following offseason, but the current calculation Beal, back next season after February surgery for a torn wrist ligament, will have to make is whether there is a proper core around him to get back in immediate contention in the NBA East, something this team hasn’t been able to suggest since Beal was paired in the backcourt with a prime John Wall. Promoted team prez and GM Tommy Sheppard has built up some flexibility to shift if Beal opts out, although acquiring a talented point guard via a thin draft or free agency is a tall order. The more likely scenario is Beal locks himself into the five-year supermax offer, looks at the lay of the land with duplicative forwards Kuzma, Gafford, Hachimura, Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija, and kindly requests of owner Ted Leonsis to be Westbrooked once he becomes eligible for trading. That move would allow Sheppard to finally kick the rebuilding phase of the Wizards into high gear. The collective likely won’t be good enough, with another year of growth, a healthier Beal, and another lottery pick under Unseld’s command, to make a meaningful surge up the Eastern Conference charts. But what they have, right now, is good enough to knock off the Hawks on a random Wednesday evening, particularly if the hosts aren’t adequately prepared and don’t bring the A-game they presented last week to the Cavs on a home SEGABABA. If we’re fortunate tonight, lethargy will be clearly on Washington’s side of the floor; traveling East and cross-country while completing a third game in four nights, like Atlanta, but on the road with an hour lost due to the time zone change. It will require a committed effort with respect to rebounding, on-ball defense and motion offense, but hopefully a spirited Hawks team will be halfway toward victory, before the Wizards can even get their shorts on and lace up their shoes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. Semi-Pro II (2022) [PG-13] Pssshh, who needs Poke? It’s time for The Hachimura Bowl! “With the 9th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft,” the Commissioner read aloud, “the Washington Wizards select… Ru-“ I never got to hear the rest, as State Farm Arena had erupted in joy. The consensus of the Draft Party? Get one of Coach K’s kids, and it’s a win. Done. Atlanta Hawk fans who didn’t know each other from Adam Silver were hugging in the stands, high fiving, dancing, crying. The team announcer started spelling C-A-M with his toe upon the announcement that the Wizards had selected somebody whose first syllable was clearly NOT Cam. By all measures, Atlanta’s multi-year playoff recess had culminated in an add-water-and-stir superstar. It wasn’t like this when the Hawks traded up for a second spot five picks before the Wizards. The aviary was more like a library when it was announced Atlanta had moved up to nab De’Andre Hunter, the headlining star of 2019’s NCAA Tournament champions. With all due respect, even championship Virginia doesn’t bring that ACC pop. Where, Hawks fans thought, was our Dookie diaper dandy? Hachimura should have been proud of this moment. Highest drafted and second drafted player ever from his home country, for starters. Further, consider that Rui hailed from The Dook of the West, a Gonzaga program that ranked #1 in the land up until their final conference tournament game. He was the highest drafted Zag in over a dozen years. Sadly, the ghost of Adam Morrison, in the eyes of NBA fans, had not been completely exorcised by Domantas Sabonis. Hawks management looked past Hachimura, the Julius Erving Award winner, for another accomplished small forward named De’Andre Hunter, and had their eyes on yet another swingman. Hawks fandom, Pushin’ P(otential), looked past him upon the mere utterance of his name, mutually enthralled with the prospect that future great Cam Reddish had fallen into their laps. Silly Wizards. Rui was granted months of personal leave during this season, missing each of the Wizards’ early-season contests versus Atlanta. We’ll never likely know the source of his need for leave, but his extended departure left the door open for his former Zag teammate, 2021’s Erving Award honoree, to grow with the team. Now rookie Corey Kispert starts ahead of third-year Rui on first-year coach Wes Unseld, Jr.’s forward depth chart. Also coming off the bench ahead of Hachimura has been 2020’s #9 pick, Deni Avdija, at least until the Israeli left early in Tuesday’s 116-113 escape of the visiting Pistons with a bruised quad. Not everything has gone well during Rui’s tenure in the District of Columbia. But he can take solace in knowing he’s still with the team that drafted him, not already dealt away for future-pick hopes and discarded lottery detritus. The Hawks Comic Universe never had reason to regret passing up, not once but effectively twice, on the chance to acquire Hachimura. Now, Rui has at least two chances to give Atlanta some reasons, tonight at Capital One Arena (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) and, if the Zards play their cards right, on April 6 in Georgia, with Play-In seeding probably on the line. “I love it,” said Bradley Beal, now out for the season following wrist surgery, and he wasn’t speaking of his potential offseason windfall in Washington. “He needs to shoot more.” The franchise face was speaking glowingly of Hachimura, whose third-quarter catch-and-shoot triples helped his team keep the Pistons game from slipping away, and whose three-pointer early in the fourth quarter put Washington back up momentarily by 12 points. Rui has been contributing binary digits across the nightly boxscores. But when he’s encouraged to shoot that thang (last 18 games: 9.6 bench PPG, 58.5% on 2.3 3FGAs/game, 47.8 FG%, 82.6 FT%) it has been a bonanza for the Wizards. Since thrashing Philly on MLK Day to reach 23-21, the Wizards have gone 5-12. Brad is on ice, and the team remade under team prez Tommy Sheppard’s watch has been remodeled once more. Like The Eagles, Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday are already gone. Davis Bertans and his ill-fated salary was attached in Dinwiddie’s deal to Dallas, and there’s no telling whether former Mav center Kristaps Porzingis (out, bruised knee) will be able to aid in a late playoff push. The backcourt now turns to Raul Neto, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and some recently acquired, perennial Hawk Killers in Tomas Satoransky and Ish Smith. Even with the services of Beal, Bertans and Dinwiddie, Washington was one of the least-shooting-est (currently NBA-low 10.3 3FGs/game) and worst-shooting-est (33.4 3FG%, 26th in NBA) clubs in The Association. While extracting those wayward volume shooters have proven to be addition-by-subtraction, Unseld is eager to have someone aside from Kyle Kuzma (team-highs of 17.0 PPG, 5.6 3FGAs/game and 8.8 RPG) and KCP (41.2 FG% but 38.3 3FG%) stepping up to knock down jumpers. Enter Hachimura, who will require a capable Hawk defender tonight to keep his hand from getting hot while open. Atlanta pulled off last night’s late thriller with Chicago (only NBA team to lose this season shooting above 59 team FG%) by winning the POOT game. The Wizards force a league-low 12.0 TOs/game, while coach Nate McMillan’s Hawks (6 team TOs vs. CHI; 19-to-9 edge in points off opponent turnovers) cough up the fewest (12.2 TOs/game). Whether or not Trae Young is able to heroically push the rock once more on his sprained ankle, quality execution in transition offense by Atlanta’s ballhandlers and finishers provides the best opportunity to put the hosts away. Young’s heroics were made possible in part, because Hunter came to play versus Chicago. Adding DeMar DeRozan to De’Andre’s Dungeon late, and attacking the basket with flourish early, helped Atlanta withstand the Bulls’ flourishes and avert a situation, today, where the Wizards could have surpassed the Hawks in the standings with a victory. Similar assertive activity from Hunter and Kevin Huerter versus Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma would help the Hawks build on their buffer from the 11-seed. On the sunny-side-up view, the Wizards (28-33) have been more comeptitive lately. Those past five victories have come in the previous 11 contests. They’re 3-3 over the past six, even though the wins came against Detroit (twice) and a star-less Nets team in Brooklyn, and none of those defeats have come by double-digits. In the first two losses after the Break last week, they were edged at home by the Spurs in double-OT, traveled to Cleveland and lost the next night to the Cavs, but only by a 92-86 score. They are well-rested and were able to take copious notes from last night’s Bulls-Hawks game. Even if the Wiz don’t exceed .500 ball the rest of the way, there remains enough talent in D.C. to catch a low-lying Eastern squad by season’s end. If so, Atlanta is just hopeful that club is the Hornets. But the Hawks, at this stage, need to do more than just hope. Atlanta remains within grasp of a winning record (30-32), but they won’t get there if they continue coughing up games away from The Farm (11-19, one win at Orlando in past six road games). Failure to carry their perimeter closeouts and game-closing on the road, executing the plays at both ends necessary to put the Wizards away at the end, and playoff-starving Atlanta could soon find itself on the Road to Rui. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “NOTHING EASY!!!” “You adapt! You overcome! You improvise!” Marines who survived basic training were already quite familiar with those verbs before the fictional Gunny Highway barked them out at his new platoon in the ’86 film Heartbreak Ridge. The day after the movie premiered, a second-round rookie in the NBA, a world away from his North Carolina roots, had his first breakout game off the bench, with 7 assists, 4 steals and 10 rebounds in a blowout win for his Seattle SuperSonics. Growing up, Nate McMillan never had to spend much time around Camp LeJeune. Still, as an NBA pro, he improvised, adapted, and overcame to make himself into an indispensable, instrumental contributor for what would become a proud championship contender. Almost 35 years removed from his NBA-playing debut, Coach McMillan is strategizing to get a mostly young, dangerously self-satisfied set of charges in tip-top shape for regular-season NBA battles and, if all goes well, title contention, too. His Atlanta Hawks return home to State Farm Arena, seeking to bounce back from a listless pair of weekend games that, around the ATL, leave few proud. Today’s hill to charge: can you defeat a team that has adapted and adjusted after already, recently, playing you? Tonight’s visitors, the Washington Wizards (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) have already proven themselves fighting fit. A day before blasting the Hawks, 122-111, last week, the Wiz handled their business in Boston, pulling away in the fourth quarter to topple the Celtics 116-107. Boston had the luxury of getting two days’ rest to lick their wounds, and they stormed into D.C. on Saturday afternoon seeking some payback. A flurry of free throws (whatever those are) and field goals from Jaylen Brown had the Celtics up a point late. But Al Horford and friends didn’t box out, allowing Spencer Dinwiddie to grab his own miss and get fouled, ushering in the first of two overtimes. The Celts went cold in the final 3.5 minutes of the first OT, permitting the Wizards to tie the game on a Brad Beal layup and force a successful sixth stanza. If you thought the Hawks didn’t have their act together on Thursday, after sinking just 6 of 21 three-point attempts, consider the Celtics, who finished Saturday with as many made triples as they had overtimes (2-for-26 3FGs), the first make coming with only nine minutes left in the contest. Yet Boston found ways to protect the rim (Horford’s six blocks and ten D-Rebs, though he wished he got #11), force turnovers and create assisted baskets inside the perimeter (Dennis Schröder’s 9 dimes and 3 steals belying his 1-for-7 shooting from the field). The Celtics committed themselves to a mutual clunkfest, their defenders holding Washington to 41.1 2FG% and 27.8 3FG%, and nearly stole the hosts’ thunder. Still, the double-OT victory has Washington at 5-1 for the first time since the No Chill Gil era of 2005, when new coach Wes Unseld, Jr. was just starting out as an assistant under the dapper Eddie Jordan. Will the Hawks show their fans that they’ve spent the intervening hours learning from game tape and adapting to the Wizards’ schemes, or will they look like a(nother) distracted Atlanta sports team, caught up in all the World Series revelry? If it’s the former, it will show up in the form of a grand-slam, full-court night from Clint Capela (last 4 games: 7.8 PPG, 44.8 FG%). The Wizards’ limited frontcourt, absent Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Daniel Gafford (available, bruised quad) were hammered repeatedly around the rim during regulation by Boston’s star wings, plus Horford and Grant Williams. Capela took the fewest shots among Atlanta starters on Thursday in D.C. (5-for-7 FGs), and he could stand more post touches (not just lobs) to help John Collins (14-for-16 2FGs, 12 rebounds @ WAS), Gorgui Dieng and Danilo Gallinari wreck shop from inside and out. For once, the Hawks have a health advantage, and they’ll need to exploit that. One silver lining from the Hawks getting braised in Philadelphia, 122-94 on Saturday night, is that they no longer have to be asked to dwell on the greatness of last year’s seven-game Sixer series, nor on the Phallout that ensued. Where they should ponder instead is on having dropped a turnover battle to opponents for the third consecutive game. A season-worst 19 team turnovers led to a 28-11 points-off-differential that allowed the Sixers to keep Atlanta satisfyingly beyond reach. As one would come to expect of a McMillan-coached club, the Hawks remain top-ten in terms of executing plays in an orderly, proficient manner (13.5 TO%, 8th in NBA). But the paltry returns of 31 forced TOs over the past three games (9 @ WAS) is a telling sign of a Hawks crew (11.7 opp. TO%, 2nd-lowest in NBA) that, defensively, is acting too cool for school. As it pertains to my desire to see the Southeast Division someday become the NBA’s SEC, Montrezl Harrell is quickly becoming my spirit animal. Harrell fouled out of Saturday night’s win over the visiting Celtics, the Washington Wizards’ third-straight win and second of the week over Boston, during the double-overtime frame. It would not take long before he offered something much more foul – language, directed at a not-so-gentleman daring to sit a few rows behind the home team’s bench in a Larry Bird jersey. That poor man was a dimestore Robin Ficker, jeering the wrong team, cheering a team from the wrong decade, from the wrong end of the floor, in the wrong part of the country, and Harrell was there to let him know he was messing with The Wrong One. Cleaning up Trezz’s commentary: Get your bean-eating boorish butt back over the Mason Dixon Line! You’re in the Dirty South Division now! “I didn’t even get back and forth jawing,” Harrell told NBC Sports Washington. “I said my piece, and once I saw he wasn’t gonna stop? Get him outta here, man… Go sit behind Boston’s bench if you wanna do that. This is our home arena, not Boston’s arena.” As one prominent Republic-of-Georgian demonstrated, sometimes, you have to go head-to-head in confrontation, and let these Northeasterners know, in no uncertain terms, this is not their snowbird palace. “I’m from North Carolina. It’s only like three hours from here (D.C.), so I feel like I’m kind of in my backyard,” Harrell shared a couple days before. The former NBA Sixth Man of the Year thrust into a starting role due to the Wizards’ diminished frontcourt situation, Trezz hails specifically from Tarboro, the small town near Rocky Mount that brought you Todd Gurley and Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard. The Hornets were just starting to get good at the time he was born, so you can be sure he grew up around plenty of mature Bullets and Dominique-Wilkins Hawks fans. Also, plenty of folks with a rugged work ethic. “This is Down South, homegrown people that love the hard work, the grittiness, the toughness, the coming in and putting on your hard hat every day just ready to work,” said Harrell, after the Wizards thrashed the visiting Hawks last Thursday, behind his 25 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Unlike the stuffy TV family that runs Succession’s Waystar Royco, he Gets It. “You’re not really coming in and thinking you’re better than someone or just going off your name. You’re coming in ready to work and they’re gonna get behind that.” Not used to having a name in this league, the reigning division champion Hawks are challenged, not simply with the rule changes affecting Trae Young’s scoring output, but also the excessively cozy mindset that they are superior to everyone, aside from Miami, in the NBA Southeast. Everyone knows what they did last summer, and division and conference rivals come into games like this determined to blow the NBA Final Four participants over like freshly fallen autumn leaves. Overcoming those obstacles will require donning the hard-hat spirit that propelled Atlanta through the close of last season and inspired fans near and far to Believe. Reminiscing about what they accomplished, months ago, is not going to get the job done now. What matters is recollecting not *what* they’ve Overcome to this point as a group, but *how.* Anytime that process stops working? Adapt! Improvise! Just Once More, With Feeling… Go Bravos! Get Your Vote On! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “Whoa… where did all my KUUUUUZZZZ chants go?” Escape From New Orleans! Tidbits, or maybe big ol’ pineapple chunks, ahead of this road back-to-back in our nation’s capital versus those wascally Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). First things first, condolences to Danny Ferry and his family. His father Bob passed away at age 84, following a career where he ran the then-Bullets for the better part of two decades, including the 1978-1979 championship season. Moving on, as many of you are aware, I’m the keeper of a petting zoo loaded with peeves. In this particular cage is the awareness that our Hawks are not getting the national-media respect they should as a Must See TV NBA competitor. That’s not new, of course. Only now, they’ve got company. Frankly, last night’s 102-99 victory down in The Big Easy wasn’t the game in this back-to-back schedule that should have been a primetime network matchup (apologies to Bawb ‘n Nique, btw, as I forgot to note Bally Sports was airing the ESPN game, too). In any calendar year, I never have to wonder if there’s a Knicks-Celtics, or Sixers-Nets, or even Raptors-Celtics game baked into the national TV schedule (NBATV included). The Atlantic Division, with their mega-money TV markets, gets the benefit of the doubt, even though, as this season unveils itself, the Southeast is where it’s at. The reigning champions of said division, Atlanta was bestowed 19 national broadcasts in their hopefully-82-game schedule. None of them include Charlotte, nor Washington (3-1), nor even Miami. Only one divisional matchup allows the continent to tune in without League Pass. That exception? A Wednesday night game at The Farm during holiday shopping season, on NBATV, against Orlando of all people. The Wiz will at least get a trip to Miami on NBATV a few days later, but that’s it as far as Southeast battles go before a national audience. Yes, it’s way too early. But so far, the Hawks, Wizards, heat, and Hornets are not only among the East’s Top 8, but among The Association’s most fascinating clubs. The schedule-makers feel the public is far more tantalized by the theoretical scoring matchup of Trae Young (51.6 2FG%, 9.3 APG) versus stars who rarely have the unenviable task of guarding him straight-up. Instead of the stale regional face-offs between the Knicks and Nets, the Lakers and Clippers, the Southeast is building fresh rivalries worthy of SEC and NASCAR-level attention, as these teams trade paint in the fight for favorable Eastern playoff seeds. That would have drawn new eyeballs, that aren’t rolling, to the small screen. Alas, around these parts, we just get to kick back and have these intra-division scrimmages all to ourselves. The late and legendary Wes Unseld, Sr. now has a bust, in front of Section 111 at Capital One Arena. His namesake doesn’t plan on being deemed a bust anytime soon. Wes, Jr. took over head coaching duties from Scott Brooks after the ‘Zards, with a late surge, finished last season at 34-38 and got bounced by Philly in five playoff games. Unseld and third-season team exec Tommy Sheppard seek to represent a new scale of competency toiling under majority owner Ted Leonsis, and the early returns are promising. How do we know the Wizards are turning over new leaves? Last night, All-Star Bradley Beal went 0-for-6 from outside, 7-for-19 from inside and, in a theme you’re familiar with as Hawks fans, got three shots up from the charity stripe. Beal blew open layups closing out the first half in a Shaqtin-worthy display that likely made even Clint Capela giggle. Neither Beal, nor any teammates, registered more than three assists. Defensive revelation Daniel Gafford went down early in the second quarter with a bruised quad, Thomas Bryant (ACL recovery) remains out through at least next month, and don’t nobody ask the team what the status is for Rui Hachimura (returning, slowly, from health ‘n safety protocols). Yet they still won, on the road. The Wizards escaped Nor’easter Country after fending off the Celtics in Beantown, pulling together after the hosts evaporated Washington’s 15-point lead in under six third-quarter minutes. Similar to McMillan’s influence on Young, Unseld wants Beal to focus not on the refs’ whistles residing where their Adam’s apples used to be, but on tightening up his notoriously poor defensive activity. That bore fruit as Beal, with assistance from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Deni Avdija, flustered Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (14-for-38 FGs, incl. 2-for-12 on threes) into uncomfortable shooting nights. BetMGM Wizards insider Quinton Mayo wasn’t intending to subtweet shade, not at the presently mothballed former Wizard star John Wall, nor his effective replacement last season, in the form of triple-double hunter Russell Westbrook. But Mayo astutely noted, following the 116-107 victory, that “This is a game that Washington would’ve lost last year, and the year before that, and the year…” “Thank the effing lord for the five guys,” followed SB Nation’s Mike Prada on The Bird, referring not to the grease-dripping burger joint with bland fries, “from the Russ trade. They carried the Wizards tonight. Now, let us never speak of this game again.” Folding the Spencer Dinwiddie deal from Brooklyn into the Westbrook swap with the Lakers, the quintet Sheppard yielded included Dinwiddie, Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Aaron Holiday. Speaking of this game again, Trezz came off the bench and led the way with 25 points and 11 rebounds, a team-best plus-21 on the night. He, KCP, and Kuzma have new leases on life in their new NBA locale, after melting frequently under the purple ‘n gold glare of expectations in LeBrongeles. Washington will need a similar rim-wrecking performance tonight out of Harrell (18-for-22 FGs last season w/ LAL in two games vs. ATL) if Gafford (MRI results coming later) cannot play. Illustrative of the Wizards’ new-car smell, Kuzma (11.8 RPG, tied w/ Capela for 7th in NBA), Harrell, KCP (41.2 3FG%), and Dinwiddie are the top recipients of floor time after Beal. With Raul Neto (sore shoulder) out, the former Pacer Holiday is the first guard off Unseld’s bench. Harrell can get under everyone’s skin, including teammates, but leadership from him and the newcomers are being cited as part of the ascension. “No arguments,” Caldwell-Pope cited as a contributing factor, after Washington bounced back last night from Monday’s 104-90 road loss in Brooklyn. “All positive, no negative.” The new Wizards regime is figuring out that it’s not essential to have two players of All-NBA caliber sharing the ball, that it may be better, as Atlanta (3-1) has shown, having one All-Star-level performer getting help in a multitude of aspects from a deeper, more cohesive roster. That All-Star for Washington this year might not turn out to be Beal (33.3 FG%, 3.3 APG, 4.7 TOs/game), but Dinwiddie (19.8 PPG, 50.0 3FG% on five attempts per game, 6.0 APG, 1.5 TOs/game), who absolutely would have made a difference for Brooklyn in 2020-21 if he were healthy, during the season and at playoff time. The Wizards have shown signs of being a good team, with hints of being better, if Beal can find ways to escape his early funk, if 2020 top-ten pick Avdija makes strides, and if Hachimura and Bryant can get re-acclimated upon their returns to the rotation. Last year’s high-paced edition, featuring Russ and Brad, piled on 116.6 PPG (3rd in NBA) but were outscored on most nights (league-worst 118.5 opp. PPG). This season, better on-ball defense (42.6 opp. FG%, 7th in NBA), rim protection (6th in BPG, third-from-last in 2020-21) and defensive rebounding keeps them in the ballpark for victories. Washington can still score in bunches, as they showed in their only home game to date, last weekend’s 135-134 overtime fiesta with Indiana. But they have better chances of winning them, and those of the slower, grind-it-out variety, because they are infinitely more capable of putting the clamps on people. In the interest of Washington directing said clamps to Trae (probable, sore shin), his supporting cast (27-for-69 FGs @ NOP, incl. 6-for-24 on threes) needs to be more on-point, and on-target, tonight if the Hawks (3-1) are to notch a second-straight win away from The Farm. Bogdan Bogdanovic (questionable), Lou Williams (questionable) and Kevin Huerter (probable) enter today’s contest with a matching trio of sore right ankles. Now averaging a double-double (15.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG), John Collins has to continue aiding Capela, in the defensive rebounding department, and softening the Wizards’ interior by attacking the rim and forcing Kuzma and Harrell into early foul problems. It’s a similar deal for De’Andre Hunter, compelling Davis Bertans to put his feet to work defensively at half of Hunter’s capacity, at minimum. Dinwiddie, Beal and the Wizard wings are bound to help inside with double teams, so whoever is available around the perimeter for the Hawks, be it Huerter (0-for-5 3FGs @ NOP), Cam Reddish or Danilo Gallinari (1-for-4 each last night), needs to make the Wizards pay for constricting around the paint. The schedule gets more treacherous for Atlanta, starting right about now. Tonight represents the first back-to-back in Atlanta’s season, along with the first 3rd-game-in-4-nights, and the first 4th-game-in-6. By the time the Hawks tip off in their twelfth game, on November 9 at Utah, the Hawks will have participated in their 5th 3-in-4 game (out of 21 this season), and their 7th 4-in-6 (out of 26). That rematch with the Jazz will also be the team’s sole 5th-game-in-7. All of that mostly ignores the caliber of opponents coming up. Philly and their lively, not lovely, crowd is sandwiched between tonight’s game and the rematch with the Wiz in Atlanta next Monday. After that, there’s a trip to Brooklyn, a game the next night back home versus Utah, then Golden State, Utah and Denver on the road. Then, Milwaukee, on the front end of a home back-to-back that concludes, mercifully, with Orlando. Atlanta may feel a tad road weary and banged-up coming into today, but so should their opponent, after each gutted out an essential road win last night. Contending teams know they need to win the games they have to, but also half the games that are toss-ups, and most of their division run-ins. If any active Hawks sense they’re too tired to excel now, they dare not peer ahead at the weeks to come. For a decent and emerging team like Atlanta, these are no longer automatic “schedule losses” at tip-off. Go Bravos! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “I promise, I can’t catch your Per-Game Assists lead. Have you thought about taking off a day to rest your hamstrings?” Hump Day Tidbits! The Atlanta Hawks could win out and, by virtue of a theoretical three-way tie with the Knicks and heat at season’s end (“Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division,” sayeth the league office), secure homecourt advantage in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. At State Farm Arena, they’ll again host a Washington Wizards team practicing the spoiler role this evening (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, ESPN) and, the Wizards hope, beyond. Banner Szn! The division-winner thingie takes precedence as a three-way tiebreaker over head-to-head winning percentage (it’s the reverse when dealing with two-way tiebreakers). Because of it, Atlanta is in the odd position of hoping, if the Knicks get back on the horse after falling in OT last night to the Lakers and go 3-0, that the heat go 3-0 as well. Of course, none of this is likely to matter if the Hawks (38-31) don’t address their ballhandling and defensive flaws versus Washington, or if they slip up when Orlando and Houston pay visits to The Farm tomorrow and on Sunday, respectively. Monday’s 125-124 win over the visiting Wizards was a bit too close for comfort, but our Hawks could use just a little more last-minute tension. Only Utah (3-2), Cleveland (4-2), and Houston (3-3) have closed out as few games with a margin of three points or less as Atlanta (3-3). Comparatively, the Wizards (11-8) hold the NBA’s Cardiac Kids crown, with well over one-fourth of their contests and five of their last six games ending within a long-distance bucket one way or the other. It’s why the white-knuckle conclusion to Monday’s action served as a great learning opportunity for the Hawks. In addition to “winning-home-games” practice, tonight is “series-sweep” practice for Atlanta. The Wizards have seized at least one win from the Hawks in every season since 2011-12, a time when Jordan Crawford was arguably John Wall’s most talented teammate. Historically, Washington has never beaten any team more than Atlanta, but they still have a losing record all-time against the Hawks. According to the team’s Game Notes, the Wizards’ next victory over Atlanta would be their 150th, but the Hawks have won 158 in this decades-long rivalry. A harried Russell Westbrook’s inability to finish off Monday’s historic night with a likely game-clinching three-pointer made the Wizards’ race to Win #150 have to last at least a couple days longer. I’m going to use this space to praise The Commish for the Play-In concept, particularly now that the Hawks’ chance of appearing in it is virtually zero. The only people whining loudly about it are owners, players, and fans of teams that might have to win-to-get-in to reach the Playoffs, particularly those that never, in their wildest nightmares, imagined their teams being in this situation. Even the high-profile whiners make for good publicity. The Play-In prospect (or, specter, depending on one’s perspective) has given fans of subpar teams much more reason to watch end-of-season games, in the event their team’s seasons may not actually be ending. You think you can take out a top-two seed, subpar team? Prove your worth, first, by eliminating another subpar team or two. Brilliance. No one around the DMV is wringing their hands over the dwindling chances of getting Rui Hachimura and the injured Deni Avdija another low-lottery playmate. The Wizards (32-37, 1.0 games behind 8-seed Charlotte) still have little reason to shift to cruise-control through the remainder of their schedule (after tonight, they go home to host the Cavs and the Hornets). Their next win formally clinches the Play-In appearance, although the 11-seed Bulls are highly likely to lose a game so long as their final two opponents, Brooklyn and Milwaukee, bother to show up. Washington can neither edge Boston (35-34) in a two-way tiebreak scenario, having lost two of three against the free-falling Celts, nor in a multi-team scenario due to its poor in-conference record (14-25 vs. NBA East), and thus can no longer finish any higher than 8th. But any Play-In seed is better than #10, so the Wizards will want to win out, too, and enter next week’s extra game(s) hot with Bradley Beal (out again tonight, strained hammy) on the mend. The Hawks will go back to resting De’Andre Hunter (injury-return management) in hopes he’ll be able to build up his performances against the Magic and/or Rockets (as playoff practice, I’d have rather Dre face the Wiz again, then sit out tomorrow, but that’s why they pay the training staff the big bucks). As of this afternoon, Tony Snell is listed as available after being a late scratch on Monday due to a sore Achilles, while Kevin Huerter is available after being previously listed probable because of a sore hip. Tightening up the defensive effort, particularly in the second half (45 4th-quarter points by WAS on Monday), would make tonight’s proceedings easier on the Hawks, but it’s not like a lot of teams have figured out how to cool off the Wizards lately. Since getting throttled in Phoenix without the services of Beal on April 10, Washington has exceeded 115 regulation points in 16 of their past 17 games, the exception being a 117-115 OT win over New Orleans last month. As fantastic and worthy of flowery ink as Westbrook has been, he is shooting at a 38.8 FG% clip over the past three Wizards games, 32.2 3FG% and 73.3 FT% over those past 17 contests. Opponents are getting suckered into dragging extra defenders onto Russ (21 assists, incl. 10 in the final quarter; 3 TOs @ ATL on Monday), particularly on his drives and coming off screens, under the guise that his acrobatic finishes and off-bounce perimeter attempts are more damaging than anything Davis Bertans (5-for-9 3FGs, 4-for-5 in the tide-shifting 4th quarter when Russ’ teammates made 6 of 7 threes) or Ish Smith could provide. His Atlanta counterpart, Trae Young (1-for-7 3FGs, 0 steals, 6 TOs vs. WAS) led the Hawks with 36 points and 9 assists, and finished at +18 alongside Atlanta’s superior starters, but the superstar guard could stand to do more to keep Westbrook’s Wizards at bay. Bearing less of the burden to chase around Westbrook, Young must be more anticipatory of where the Wizard guard’s passes are headed. A combination of improved weakside communication and strong-side deflections or steals to induce turnovers should help Trae (3 steals in past 6 games, 2 of those vs. CHI eleven days ago) keep Washington’s revved-up offense from firing at all available cylinders. Gleaning from Russ that the threat of his long-ball three is currently eclipsing the reality (27.8 3FG% in 6 games for Trae since his return from injury), Young needs to exploit shot-fakes to his advantage, avoid the hero-shot mentality when more efficient plays are available, and be more decisive with his handle and his passes in the early going. After a balanced effort sunk the Suns last week, Atlanta’s bench brigade climbed back into its shell over the past two games, going a modest 5-for-14 on threes in Indiana last week before Monday’s droll showing (0-for-4 bench 3FGs vs. WAS, 9-for-21 FGs overall incl. 3-for-7 from Hunter). Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are too ineffective with their defensive play to be inert for full games at the other end. Hawks head coach Nate McMillan hasn’t tinkered much with a defensive-oriented backcourt tandem of Kevin Huerter and Kris Dunn (Sample Size Theater: +20.2 points per 100 possessions in their less-than-ten minutes sharing the floor). Tonight would be a good time to pair them together with some sweet-shooting forwards, including Gallo, Snell and the re-emerging John Collins (26.5 PPG, 69.0 FG% in last 2 games). With or without Beal, the Wizards are going to get buckets, but just a little more defensive pressure and possession control, consistently applied, while keeping Westbrook off the free throw line and continuing to dominate the glass, is what it will take for Washington to relent. DAYS SINCE A BEAL GOT PEEVED ABOUT A CURRENT OR FORMER HAWK: 1 Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Hey, Russ! Rook here says he made way more Triple Doubles than you, back in his day!” The time has come. It’s Banner Szn! There is no such thing as a FACE Banner (“Finished Ahead of Consensus Expectations 2020-21”). You don’t chase after a “See? Told Ya We’d Make the Playoffs!” Banner. There’s no, “Beat the Odds Despite a Crap-ton of Injuries”, no “Hey, At Least We’re Not Like Cleveland This Year, Huh?” Banners. Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan can’t ascend a “Phew! Avoided That Pesky Play-In” Banner to the State Farm Arena rafters. The one tangible, non-fungible token that the coach and his team can offer Tony Ressler and Company is a red-black-and-yellow Banner that reads, “Southeast Division Champions 2020-21”. For all their “Not One, Not Two, Not Three” bluster, the Miami heat would like one made-to-order in those colors, too. With mere days to go in this goofy NBA season, our refabricated Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the same predicament Pawl, Al, Kowl, and Jeff put themselves in during the waning days of 2015-16’s. Win the week, and you can beat the heat for the Southeast Division crown. Standing in the way, then, and now (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, NBATV)? A Washington Wizards team that’s missing key players, a crew with not a whole heckuva lot left to play for, other than being a spoiler to a division rival. Since the NBA Finalist Hawks of St. Louis captured the Western “Division” title in 1961, this franchise’s history of hurdling a relatively low bar with any measure of frequency or consistency has been, well, a trip. There was 1970, the team’s second season in Atlanta, 1980, 1987, the MJ’s-Not-Here-Anymore-But-Let’s-Never-Speak-of-This-Season-Again year of 1994, and Mike Budenholzer’s Peaklanta season of 2015. Heavy B and the Boyz, the following season, had the opportunity to leave an indelible imprint, as the clear-cut most accomplished collective of Hawks in the team’s spotty five-decades-long Atlanta history. Unlike a certain baseball team, this Atlanta club had never experienced winning division titles in consecutive years. All they needed to do was to edge, in the standings, a Miami outfit that was, by then, sustaining themselves purely off the fumes of LeGone. As you all know how much it sticks in my craw ‘til this day (where’s Deontay Wilder, when I need him?), Our Fine Feathered Friends fumbled the flag. They couldn’t pass muster in the penultimate game of the season in Cleveland against LeBron’s reigning and future conference champs. But the make-up date came two days later in the District of Columbia, where the core of the prior year’s 60-game winners were tasked with closing out the season of Coach Randy Wittman, Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions, Tsunami Papi, Jarell Eddie, J.J. Hickson, Marcus Thornton, Nene, Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden, and I need not go on. Just win that game by a point, Atlanta, and we are back-to-back Southeast Division champions, my friends. There’s no other way to put it, but in his final regular season game as a Hawk, Al Horford and the crew blew it. He could have at least left us with another Banner, like ‘94’s, to sneer at. Instead, in the space of just a few games, Joe Johnson was able to leave his Miami heat – yes, you read that right – with a commendation he and Al could not earn for Atlanta during any of their All-Star-studded years here together. While it’s now likely relegated alongside Marc Anthony’s Banner for some record number of sold-out shows, Miami was able to dangle the 19th division banner in its relatively short 28-year history from an arena beam. All Hawks fans were left with was the blissful memory of shutting up Isaiah Thomas and the 5-seed Celtics in the first-round. I can hear the mantra through the screen: Division Titles Mean Nothing. And in the grand sense, that’s correct, particularly to us old grumpycats, and especially in an era where Divisions themselves don’t amount to hills of beans, in terms of competitive stature, anymore. As a counterargument, for one-title-from-long-ago franchises like the Hawks, who have since changed cities, and the Wizards, who moved out of the ‘burbs and changed names, they still matter. Down on The Farm, while gnawing on a cricket taco, some kid that just learned multi-digit subtraction looks up from their seat, at “1993-94 Central Champs!” and “2014-15 Southeast Champs!” and wonders what on Earth happened in the intervening decades (Pro Tip: if you dare to try answering the question, be sure to start during the first quarter). The biggest kid in the stands is Ressler, and he would rather not be here when the 2036-37 Banner goes up, and some wisecrack smart-aleck shouts, “Yo, where are all the Banners since 2015?” When John Wall and Bradley Beal were waging their annual charge to overtake the Southeast Division, it mattered a lot. For one, there’s no “Look, Ma! We Finally Won 50 Games” Banner to pursue. In a town that spent an inordinate amount of fan energy chasing LeBron, in the standings, then wooing LeBron or a similar superstar, in free agency, the inference that your NBA team is the best that the warmer climes of the Eastern seaboard have to offer goes a long way; having something to point to as proof certainly helps make the case. It feels like eons ago, but there was a time when four NBA Division titles and a Celine Dion concert attendance record were all Miami had to offer. When Tim Hardaway, Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Coach Pat Riley won their first of four straight division championships, in 1997, it was like Carnival in the streets. It served as a pivotal sign of a dormant sports team in a town with a lot of distractions finally gaining some footing and establishing themselves as a club not to be trifled with. "Watch out, Orlando, here we come!" That’s about where the Hawks could find themselves in 2021. Five years before, a consecutive Division Banner could have been the signal to Al… and Bud… that they’re still moving in a direction worth sticking around and building around long enough to see through, together. Instead, on the night it should have mattered the most, we got toasted by Razor Ramon Sessions, and thus formally began the search for the exits. As was the case in 2016’s season-ender for the Wizards, Beal (out today and Wednesday, strained hammy) won’t be an impediment to any lofty divisional dreams we might have here in The ATL. But Wall’s functional replacement, with any due respect, is no Ramon Sessions. On that note, let’s all check in on The Notorious K.A.B., shall we? The cherry blossoms around our nation’s Capitol have bloomed just twice since Kamiah Adams-Beal was goaded into grousing about how second-year guard and People’s Choice All-Star Trae Young was “playing cherry-picking basketball.” She apologized, appropriately, but Kamiah’s consternation with guys on non-playoff teams, stuffing stat-sheets and currying favor with fantasy managers to get voted into midseason extravaganzas, ahead of Her Main Man, remained a soapbox worth standing on in 2020. That was, until 2021! We’re all allowed to evolve in our steadfast positions on matters big and small. (Noting here that Kamiah’s crankiness extended into the Bubble season, with Brad being an All-NBA “snub”… “Put some respect on his name!”, she tweeted). But that transition is eased when, in lieu of a creaky-kneed 30-year-old co-star whose prominence historically depended on his top-flight end-to-end speed, team president Tommy Sheppard and Wizards management paired Beal with a strong, quick, 32-year-old former league MVP whose stat-accumulating prominence, in the present day, remains historic. If you’re like me, you applauded heartily as Russell Westbrook tied The Real Big O’s all-time Triple Doubles mark (33 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists for #181) in Washington’s 133-132 OT victory Saturday, in the fieldhouse of the re-enlivened Pacers. All that meant, for me, was that Hawks fans would not have to endure both the pursuit of tying Oscar Robertson’s once-seemingly untouchable record, on a Monday, and surmounting it, on a Wednesday (the Hump Day game is now at 7 PM on ESPN, because we know the nation can’t wait to celebrate De’Andre Hunter’s regal return). The old saw was how Westbrook’s play was detrimental to ultimate team success. That take’s dead-and-buried, now that the Thunder and Wizards teams Russ played for have now won over 75 percent of games where he messed around, trailing only Magic (78.3 percent) and LeBron (76.8 percent) according to Westbrook hasn’t been cleaning the glass and dishing purely to ham-and-eggers, but neither was Magic, and at least after around, oh, 2008, neither was James. Brad’s better half was not in a good mood, back on January 31, and neither was her hubby. Two nights after Trae Young dropped 41 on the Wizards in D.C., in a resounding 116-100 Hawks win that seemed to have righted Atlanta’s sails, season-leading scorer Beal was acting Kevin Love-glum throughout the first half, as the next club in town, the superteam Nets, were about to drop Washington to 3-13 on the season. Braddie and The Brodie had yet to gel on the floor, Davis Bertans and the supporting cast looked lost, and the season already seemed to be getting away from them all. Then came the spark they had been waiting for. Westbrook and Beal combined for 37 fourth-quarter points, a corner three from Russ capping a stunning and victorious comeback to win. The new Mrs. Beal could not contain her venom, sniping at NBA Twitter for clowning her and her husband’s non-playoff-bound team on The Interwebs. When one follower suggested that some owed her a personal apology after the final horn, she bristled, “They can keep it and shove it up their (Dellavedovas).” Ouch! Thankfully, time, and a horde of sympathetic fan, player and media votes for an NBA All-Star starter spot despite a sub-.500 record, has healed all wounds. Spurred on by the All-Star love, Beal joined Westbrook in lifting Washington out of a 6-17 hole to reach the Break at 14-20. The post-Break drop from Beal’s sugar high took some time to overcome, the Wizards lapsing back into irrelevance at 17-32. But their 15-4 closing run, to date, has the dynamic duo looking like they won’t be an easy out at Play-In time, or perhaps any time after. Going forward, Russ can focus solely on padding his career record from the next young upstart who dares to take a Luka his lead and make a run after it. His coach, Scott Brooks, whose job at the helm has likely been saved by Westbrook’s recent brilliance and collaboration with Beal (31.4 PPG, 2nd in NBA), and the rest of the Wizards still have other things worthy of chasing. Washington (32-36) is all-but assured of moving on from State Farm Arena, this week, to the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament (“Like a good sponsor…”) next week. Yet it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it’s the Wizards greeting Brad Stevens’ backsliding Celtics in Boston for the East’s opening 7-8 game. For teams doomed, if you will, to the Play-In, the objective now is to be in position of needing to play in just one game, not two, to determine their postseason fates. The 9-seed Wizards need only to slip ahead of Charlotte (1.0 games ahead w/ the tiebreaker) to accomplish that. Failing that, it ought to be helpful to play a 9-10 elimination game in front of your own adoring fans. Before Beal exited with his injury at the close of regulation, Washington needed every one of his 50 points (19-for-31 FGs; rest of team incl. Russ 30-for-79) to claw back into a draw with the Pacers. The win leapfrogged Washington (0.5 game ahead of IND) over their Hoosier hosts, and they will not want to return there anytime soon. Beal’s absence puts the onus on Ish Smith (7 rebounds, 4 assists in 19 minutes), and two-way gunner Garrison Mathews, to provide some spoiler spark. Raul Neto (2.3 SPG) was plugged into the starting unit in mid-April with rookie Deni Avdija (fibula hairline fracture) likely sidelined for the season, and he’ll be needed to offer his best T.J. McConnell impression versus in disrupting Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, who were decidedly listless and sloppy until the turnaround proved to be too late when the Hawks blew yet another SCRAP game, on Thursday evening in Indy. John Collins (25 points, 7 rebounds @ IND) must make concerted efforts to box out his old chum, as former Hawk Alex Len, a starter at the pivot due to the early-season exit of Thomas Bryant, and former Bulls forward Daniel Gafford will try to keep the second-chance opportunities alive. At the other end, with Westbrook hunting around the paint for defensive rebounds, the Hawks have to make quick shots off smart passes, providing Russ precious few stat-padding caroms to secure. There’s no Rondo around to get under Westbrook’s cuticles this time around. And while there may not be a Hunter, whose injury absences due to knee problems began with that January 29 game in D.C., there wasn’t a Bogdan Bogdanovic, a regular-rotation Tony Snell, or a Lou Williams available either. They should be able to beat Neto, Bertans, and Chandler Hutchison off the dribble to create whatever shots they desire. Russ’ acrobatic shots and needle-threading passes, when they lead to scores, are cap-tippable. But a four-quarter effort, today and Wednesday, to win the turnover and rebounding margins will render his Wizards capsize-able. This is effectively playoff homestand practice for the Hawks (37-31, seeking a season-high 8-game home win streak) as well. Advancing, or at least appearing as a threat to advance, entails taking the consecutive home dates you're given with a singular opponent and making sure they’re winning ones. If all goes well this week, this pair of games will be a warmup for Games 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, in a couple weeks. If things go disastrously bad, this confident Wizards team, with Beal back in tow, could become Atlanta’s (first) Play-In opponent this time next week. But the Hawks won’t play well if they get preoccupied with the hot coals beneath them. They have a prize, up high, to keep their eyes on. Unlike Medina Spirit’s laurels, a Banner for an NBA Division Title can never get snatched away. It’s time to run for the roses. Alright, Atlanta. The objective is clear, and in sight. You’ve worked hard just to get to this stage. Now, get out there, before your home fans, and have yourself a Banner week. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “So y’all was just gonna keep the GameStop news to yourselves, huh?” Purgatory Week’s Game #3 is here! And I bet you can guess what one young lady named Kamiah has been up to since yesterday. Do you know, do you know, do you know? That’s right! NBA All-Star team voting is well into its second day, and just like people all around the great District of Columbia, Kamiah Adams-Beal is occupied with people other than herself quietly stuffing the ballot box for their favorite candidates. Maybe even legally. “RT fa me one timeeee !”, The Bride of Bradley Beal exclaimed yesterday while strategically hash-tagging #NBAAllStar on her IG. And who can blame her? Her big-baller beau is carrying the Washington Wizards, or at least as many as can reasonably suit up for the Wizards, as much as ever before. Somebody has to step up on behalf of the NBA’s leading per-game scorer (35.4 PPG), who is also hitting his freebies (88.5 FT% on 8.7 tries/game) and rebounding (5.3 RPG) at career-high levels. It’s a shame he’s had to do it, on a nightly basis, in losing fashion. The good news is, Beal cannot break the record for most consecutive losses where an NBA player scores 40 points, not tonight against the visiting Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). The bad news is, sadly, he has already shattered former Hawks legend Walt Bellamy’s nine-game mark (as a rookie, with Slick Leonard and the 1961-62 Chicago Packers). Beal’s tenth-straight 40-burger defeat came at the hands of Zion and the Pelicans on Thursday. 47 points by Beal, and the Wiz lose by 18. 60 points on January 6, both a personal career-high and a franchise record, all in regulation, and his team falls short in Philly by 5. You hate to see it. I hear you snickering over there, you heartless Hawks fan, you. Cut that noise out. This is not a joking matter! “It’s politics and it’s a joke,” Kamiah shared on the Wizards Radio Network at about this time, exactly one year ago tomorrow. This was after last season’s NBA All-Star Game reserves were revealed on TNT and her new fiancé was left wanting, in both the popular voting and the electoral college. This was upsetting Kamiah, and her homegirls. “It’s a popularity contest. It’s about who has the most followers on Instagram, who has the most likes,” the then-Ms. Adams argued last January, with nary a hint of irony, “and it’s a joke to me… you can’t name five people that were selected for reserves on either the East or the West who are outplaying Bradley Beal right now.” To be real, Kamiah wasn’t wrong. Not until Brad-caster Glenn Consor steered Adams off course by summoning the name of someone not a reserve, voted in by 30 NBA coaches who are supposed to see The Game up close and know better, but a young All-Star starter, one already selected daily by the fans, players, and media members just like Consor, weeks beforehand, on more than just Instagram. “It’s a joke to me,” Beal’s fiancée reiterated, confiding with Consor on the public airwaves when asked, curiously, about Atlanta’s sophomore sensation Trae Young. “Not taking away from his game,” she opined, with no bias whatsoever, “He’s playing cherry-picking basketball.” Har-dee-har-har. In both Consor’s and Adams’ cherry-picking minds, sure, Young was racking up the assists, producing highlight-worthy plays, making people go wow-zers on the Interwebs. Whirling behind backs and between legs to deliver one fancy dish after another into the ever-so-talented paws of Jabari Parker and Alex Len for layup attempts at the rim. But Trae’s team wasn’t winning games, you see. Nothing like their darling Wizards, who were climbing uphill without franchise face John Wall and were at least, by that time, a gaudy 16-31 thanks to Beal. Atlanta, a full 4.0 games behind Washington at 13-36, couldn’t hold a candle. Yet, the Wizards fans colluded to complain, it’s Young who gets to pal around and play reindeer games in Chicago with Beal’s former All-Star buddies, while Kamiah’s future lesser half is stuck at home, cleaning gutters or something. Shouldn’t the standings count for something? This is about ethics in All-Star Game voting! Fast forward one year, and it’s Atlanta (9-9) sitting comfortably at .500, arriving in D.C. merely two days after a moral loss in overtime at home to the surefire All-Stars on the Brooklyn Nets. The Hawks have been missing newcomers, like Kris Dunn (out at least two more weeks post-ankle surgery), Rajon Rondo (questionable, sprained ankle), Onyeka Okongwu (available, sore Achilles) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may have been enough to pull out some of their close-shave defeats (five L’s by six points or fewer). But they, at least, have the look of a play-in team, one that has time to get healthy and gel while they weather through any Purgatory Week and Hell Week setbacks. Meanwhile, Washington (3-11) tired of waiting to see if John Wall, returning this season after an extended injury period, would ever return to All-Star levels alongside Beal. They replaced him in the offseason with former league MVP Russell Westbrook. Despite slinging the ball around at Trae Young levels (10.2 APG, 5.2 TOs/game), Westbrook (37.4 FG%, 61.7 FT%) has struggled with his durability, his shot mechanics, and his defense (1-8 in games appeared, the sole win at Harden-less Brooklyn) while meshing with Beal. Further complicating matters for hot-seat head coach Scott Brooks, a season-ending injury to big man Thomas Bryant three weeks ago had an already shallow roster reeling. Quickly buried on the bench in Tampa, Len was desperately picked up off waivers by the Wiz and is back to logging 20 minutes per night. And, put on for size, seven Wizard players catching Dat Rona, causing a weeks-long delay in the schedule while many continue to recover and quarantine. Washington last beat Phoenix soundly on January 11 before having their game shut down like the MLS lockout. They returned this calendar week and have since lost by 20, by 19 (to a vengeful Wall’s Houston Rockets), and by 18. I guess they’re getting better. So, yeah, 3-11 is 3-11. Dead-last in the NBA is dead-last. But making judgmental decisions about All-Star worthiness based on relative positions in the standings was so 2020. This year, the Beal household wants you all to understand, context matters! At least for the moment, the dollar-store version of Mike Conti, Consor, is wisely keeping his All-Star vote opinions, and his not-so-sneaky shade, to his darn self. Hopefully, by now, Glenn can discern screen-setters from screen-savers. Neither Hawks nor Wizards fans ought to worry their heads over which of their franchise guards is getting voted in by fans on Twitter this time around. There are only two available starting backcourt slots, and with Brooklyn having a physically sound Kyrie and the recently arriving Harden on the ballot, the Nets have those positions, as the cool kids of five years ago might say, on lock. The only competition that remains is decided upon by the thirty head coaches or their designates. With Young in town, Beal is determined to put on a show tonight and put coaches like Lloyd Pierce on notice: if Trae (44.3 2FG%, down from 50.1% last season) gets in, I want in, too. Westbrook, who joined the previous guy he was traded from OKC for, Chris Paul, atop the Western reserves list in 2020, wouldn’t mind getting a few Eastern promises of his own. Frankly, Brad can go for 70 on 70 shots, if he chooses, but he’s got to come away with some wins, too. The COVID-delayed games are getting packed back into the first-half of this season by the league’s schedule-makers, so a bunch of back-to-backs on short notice for Brooks’ crew awaits. The Zards face Brooklyn here at Capital One Arena on Sunday, and Portland on Tuesday, a day before flying down to Miami for a series with a division rival that may have Jimmy Butler back by next week. Narrowing the gap with the Hawks, and heat, would make Beal’s resume look much spiffier by the time the coaches submit their ballots to the league. “We want to win, and I want to win,” Beal shared with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk after Wednesday’s 124-106 loss to N’Awlins. “This is why I stayed… I figured this is the place I can get it done.” “Last year was what it was,” was another Bradley bromide. “We had a lot of guys out. John was out,” Beal added, referring to Mr. Wall and not, coincidentally, to Atlanta’s months-long suspended Mr. Collins. “It was just a rotten year. COVID hit. This year, it’s the same thing. Like a mini-Bubble outside the Bubble. No fans, no nothing, no practice time. It’s been tough.” This is where free agent retainee Davis Bertans, second-year forward Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner will come in handy. The frontcourt trio returns from their COVID hiatus just in time for tonight’s game. Mix in dashes of Len, and Jordan Bell on a 10-day deal, and Washington should have enough frontcourt rebounding to make up for the loss of Bryant, and enough shooting (if Bertans isn’t rusty) to help Westbrook and Beal better spread the offensive floor. Going forward, it’s just a matter of whether Washington (114.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA, last in East) can produce enough stops to finally make Beal’s prolific offense matter. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus data is in! As bad as Beal was at the defensive end last season (minus-4.79 DRPM), along with teammates Troy Brown and Ish Smith (both still out, along with rook Deni Avdija, on the health ‘n safety tip) and Bertans, Brad could usually take solace in looking down at Young (league-worst minus-6.17 DRPM). That holds true in 2020-21. But this time, both Beal (-1.68 DRPM, #434 of 451 NBA players) and Young (minus-2.25 DRPM, #446 of 451) can currently look down upon Beal’s teammate, Westbrook (minus-2.38, #447), to say nothing of star peers Zach LaVine, Kemba Walker and Harden. Of course, fans and data wonks go radio-silent about a player’s problematic defense once a Podoloff Trophy is collecting dust on the shelf. Beal (4 steals @ NOP, 1.4 SPG) is doing a little more in hopes of being disruptive and helping Russ and the Wizards stay in games by scoring off turnovers (19.6 points per-48 off TOs, 4th-most in NBA). But when Bradley’s doing badly at seizing the ball, opposing offenses find it easy to execute first-shots on most possessions (NBA-worst 55.3 opponent 2FG%; 56.0 opponent eFG%, second-worst in NBA). The Wizards’ frontline resistance, with all due respect to Wagner, doesn’t compare with Collins or Clint Capela (54.2 defended opponent FG%). Atlanta’s starting frontcourt duo sends back 3.5 shots per game, slightly more, by themselves, than the Wizards have produced so far (3.4 team BPG). One thing the Wiz will do, when they can’t stop you, they will hack you (NBA-high 23.4 personals per-48). Atlanta can keep Washington in the rear-view mirror by beating their man off the dribble, getting inside on cuts and drives, getting into the bonus quickly, and converting their free throws (4-2 with 25+ FTs/game, two close losses against the Nets; 1-5 with under 20 FTs/game, sole win @ BRK last month). The Hawks have watched opponents, like the Nets (17-for-20 FTs on Wednesday) hit an unlucky 81.5 FT% (highest in NBA), but the Wizards (74.4 team FT%, 23rd in NBA), aside from Beal, are prone to leaving crucial points on the table. Every team in the NBA has been tripped up for a disappointing loss or two. In the NBA East, though, the cream rising to the top is at least winning most of their in-conference games. None of the East’s Top 6 are doing worse than 8-6. Atlanta (5-7), for the next couple of weeks, will have a tough time extricating themselves from the eight Eastern conference teams beneath them. But that feat becomes unnecessarily tougher when the Hawks struggle to close out and put away (negative-2.4 fourth-quarter plus/minus, 27th in NBA), the Hornets, Pistons and Wizards across the league. Hawks fans would have reason to be disappointed, particularly if there is to be some midseason showcase hosted in The A, and Trae Young isn’t sharing center stage. Still, no matter how the final All-Star returns pan out, Atlanta fans won’t be storming NBA offices, kicking their feet up on Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum’s desk just because the official tallies didn’t go their favorite players’ way. I mean, that would be a “joke.” Right, Madame Beal? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. Turns out, maybe it's not all that hard to talk somebody out of D.C. these days. ~lw3
  9. “OnlyFans, but with you and Beal guarding people. OléFans!” “It’s a masterstroke of heartache, brutality, and redemption.” “YOU DIDN’T READ THE BOOK, DID YOU?” I let out a hearty snorkle (snark and chortle? snort and chuckle?) every time that car ad comes on. We all know that guy, the one who comes to class, the book club, or the big meeting, and does his best attempt at Winging It, in hopes of not making it obvious he showed up wholly unprepared? Few creatures do a better job at Winging It than hawks. But under the unrelenting scrutiny of the National Basketball Association, Atlanta’s young Hawks have a hard time getting away with it, not without getting exposed on the regular. Such was the case on Monday night at The Funny Farm, as brave onlookers endured the Hawks shooting 32 percent from the field on the same nets they used over the weekend, while a visiting Grizzlies club had randos walking into the arena and piling up double-digit scores with ease. John Konchar, professional basketball player or State Farm Agent? Josh Jackson, redemptive lottery pick or lost member of New Edition? (text your uncles, if you don’t know who they were.) Tyus Jones, steady NBA backup or one-armed blues legend? Think fast, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Brandon Goodwin. Y’all didn’t read the playbook, did you? After a promising weekend, our Hawks took off from their homestand finale with a bad taste in their beaks. The palate cleanser as they hit the road? None other than our good friend Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). I trust that Trae Young knows Brad’s lady friend’s name without prompting. Can we say the same about Shabazz Napier? Recent Wizard arrival, or the late Malcolm X’s pet cat? If you need to call a friend, Trae, check with former T’Wolf Jeff Teague. That sure might’ve helped the Hawks on Monday with Anthony Tolliver, who didn’t even have a jersey for Memphis’ shootaround that morning. “You can’t teach effort,” was about all a terse Lloyd Pierce would share with postgame reporters who, I can only assume, stayed awake for the entirety of Monday’s 127-88 flop. I can kind of disagree with the Hawks’ head honcho. NBA coaching and development staffs are charged with having their players adequately prepared to compete. How players prepare, as much as how they perform, is a reflection on the gentlemen in suit-and-tie on the sideline. They’ve got uber-talented kids who are inured to being up the night before playing Mario Go-Kart or whatever, then throwing on jerseys the next day to face some St. Ignatius Prep team that’s petrified of being on these guys’ Overtime and Ballislife highlight videos. If you’re not instilling into 22-year olds’ noggins the adequate level of discipline and preparedness for the highest level of this sport, then what are you instructing? I can’t forget that Lloyd Pierce is a newbie head coach as well, liable to be outwitted, hoodwinked, bamboozled (come on home, Spike) by even other neophytes on occasion. He’s learning what works and doesn’t work with his charges, even 145 NBA games into his tenure. He’s also fairly secure with his position for the next 145 games or so. It’s the rank and file below LL Cool P who should approach every game as if they’re walking with a panther. I’ve long been fond of Chairman Mel. While Melvin Hunt could use less bodily threatening tactics to snap Hawks players to attention, I can understand the desperation with which he resorts to a Bad Cop role. It’s not Pierce’s job that’s on the line in 2020 when the Hawks play poorly. It’s Hunt’s, Greg Foster’s, Matt Hill’s, Chris Jent’s, Marlon Garnett’s. Somebody within that quintet has to prove themselves capable of providing Pierce the feedback that keeps a 12-point deficit from careening to, say, 41. For example, what did Sidney Lowe, Chad Iske, and Maz Trakh once have in common? They were all assistants for Scotty Brooks on his 49-33 Wizards, the ones who paid back the Hawks in the 2017 playoffs’ first round before falling in seven games to the Celtics. That season’s run was the high-water mark of the Wizards’ history over the past four decades. Things have fallen apart a good deal for Washington (22-39, 2-6 since the All-Star Break, 9th-by-default in NBA East) since then, but Brooks is still standing strong, with the unwavering support of owner Ted Leonsis, as is lead assistant Tony Brown. A slide in the standings can be blamed on injuries and scheduling and stuff. But on teams that find it tough to woo top-notch talent in free agency, if people can’t point to players developing to become steady standouts, a recession in on-court performance can be Iske business. John Wall returning next season to hopefully recreate an offensively potent backcourt with Beal (NBA-high 38.0 post-Break PPG) is enticing. But Wizards fans have the right to wonder, with the emergence of division-rival bigs like Collins and Bam Adebayo, is it reasonable to expect a meaningful growth spurt from Thomas Bryant (last 3 games: 80.0 FG%, but 2.7 RPG)? Is Rui Hachimura (1st game vs. ATL) a core starter going forward, or will his lack of stretchiness (28.6 3FG%) and defensive chops hinder his development? A similar question can be asked regarding second-year pro Troy Brown (last 15 games: 1.4 SPG, but 41.7 FG% and 64.7 FT%), who has seen a subsidence in playing time from Brooks over the past month-plus. Taken a few spots before Atlanta selected Kevin Huerter, is Brown part of Washington’s starting core by this time next year, at the very least a valuable sixth-man waiting in the wings behind the backcourt stars? Speaking of underutilized mid-tier first-rounders, will the formerly stashed Clipper guard Jerome Robinson (5-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 16), starting in place of the injured Ish Smith, become the future answer behind Wall? Davis Bertans has provided some great offensive patchwork in Wall’s absence. Assuming he departs in free agency, who will pick up all those great perimeter looks in Bertans’ place? I said *great* looks, so surely, it’s not Wall. Will it be the mystery 2020 lottery pick? Is it someone the Wizards, who traded vets Isaiah Thomas and Jordan McRae away, are cultivating to be that guy? If so, is he hiding out on the Capital City Go-Go somewhere? The Hawks have at least enough viable young options, going forward, to start printing up Beatles-style T-shirts. If we look up at next year’s Wizards roster and see “John, Brad and ???”, the wannabe All-Star returnees will be screaming, “Help!”, at anyone who’ll listen. Even in the meantime, the Wiz cannot afford to be serving up one-fifty-burgers to opponents like the Hawks, who can hardly be bothered to know whether Moe Wagner is Wizards’ starting center tonight or the King of Pops guy in the State Farm Arena stands. When they visited Atlanta back on January 26, Beal scored 40 points (1-for-5 3FGs), only to be outdone by Trae’s cherry-picking 45 (6-for-11 3FGs), while a balanced home squad played more like a team that bothered to do its homework in Atlanta’s 152-133 win. Pierce will have Dewayne Dedmon (elbow) and Cam Reddish (probable, back pain) returning to the fold for the season’s penultimate road back-to-back series, which concludes tomorrow evening in the Grizzlies’ den. Trae is questionable with “just a flu”-like symptoms, as is DeAndre’ Bembry (abs pain). But if Young can tough it out, he can help Atlanta shake off the rust exhibited earlier in the week. One thing aiding Atlanta (19-44), heading toward the close of the season, is that they sauntered out of the loss to the Grizzlies with anywhere from 1 to 4 games in hand on their lottery-level competitors in the East. That was erased somewhat in the days that followed. But, as the Wizards return from a 125-104 loss, in Portland on Wednesday, to face their third opponent in four nights for the second-straight time, Atlanta had several days to go literally back to the drawing board in Brookhaven, even taking time out for a spades tournament in between (Kevin’s still on the hunt for the elusive Draw Four card). Atlanta is 3-2 when they’ve managed to have three or more preceding off-days, road losses at Milwaukee and Boston as Collins worked his way back into the swing of things being the setbacks. It’s in these interims where staff should be quick to remind the players that they have to gameplan for every possible opposing team, every opposing player. Atlanta would likely be 2-0 against the Wizards this season, entering today, if they had bothered to find out who McRae was (29-8-and-6 vs. ATL on Jan. 10) before he skipped town. Transition defense (7th-worst in NBA, based on points per possession; 2nd-most PPG allowed), exposed most recently in media reviews of plays ensuing Trae’s long-distance trey attempts, has to be an item of heightened focus for the Hawks. Young doing a better job hindering direct pathways to the rim is one challenge, but so it is for Young’s courtmates getting back, not only to help inside but to seal off the corners from dangerous-shooting personnel. Only James Harden’s Rockets and the Cavs are more subject to transition (17.5 percent of all opponent plays), successful or otherwise, by their foes. Washington, still somewhat new to this heightened pace of play under Brooks’ watch, is just about as bad (1.13 transition PPP allowed, to the Hawks’ 1.14), but they at least manage to stub runouts by forcing turnovers more effectively (14.1 opponent TO% on transition, 4th-most in NBA). A sloppy game that features the Hawks compounding unfortunate shooting with miscues, poor finishes, and lazy recoveries works well in Washington’s favor. After January’s embarrassing loss in Atlanta, the Wizards’ assistants will be eager to show what they’ve been working on in the intervening month. Rest assured, Brooks’ job won’t be on the line anytime soon, but their slots could be up-for-grabs, unless someone among the younger supporting cast steps it up soon. Similarly, the Hawks must begin demonstrating the more consistent composure and maturity that their coaching staff harps upon them, especially away from Atlanta, the city that hosted eight of their last nine victories. Coming off Monday’s loss, after nearly a full week of tutelage, the Hawks’ assistants are in no mood this weekend to field a team that looks like a dog ate their homework. The fans are right there with them. We want less heartache and brutality, and more redemption! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “I’ll be re-evaluated in 4-to-6 weeks. Just glad it’s not my wand-waving hand!” The Guru of… Go-Go? For assistant coach Corey Gaines, watching his Washington Wizards on pace to become the first NBA team to allow 120 points per contest for a season since 1990-91 must feel familiar. Perhaps, it’s because he had a cup of tea on the last NBA team to allow more than 130. Gaines was a disciple of legendary coach Paul Westhead, who once called the point guard, as reported by the LA Times, “one of the fastest, quickest players,” he had seen. Westhead oversaw a lot of quick, and Gaines was the quickest. The California kid was also a quick study of “The System,” and soon quarterbacked Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers into stardom at once-unknown Loyola Marymount University, following Westhead’s principles of super-soaking, run-and-gun offense, at all costs to everything else. In the ensuing years, and decades, wherever Westhead popped up, Gaines would not be far behind. After a couple NBA stops, Gaines came to Denver as a free agent preseason pickup twice. He was cut one day before the 1989 season opener by their soon-departing GM Pete Babcock. He returned in 1990, just days after Westhead was hired in hopes of supercharging the low-altitude offense made famous by Doug Moe. Playing under his college coach, Corey was sure he would finally stick on an NBA roster, until a November game when Kevin Johnson’s Phoenix Suns scored 107 points on the Nuggets. In the first half! Yes, that’s still a record. The 173-143 loss that dropped Denver to 0-6 should not have been laid at Gaines’ feet; he wasn’t a starter, and you rely on ex-Hawk Blair Rasmussen and Todd Lichti to hold it down in the paint and see what that does for you. But Corey, averaging over nine assists per game, was the fall guy. Westhead’s run as an NBA head coach wouldn’t last much longer, either. After being waived, Gaines weaved in brief NBA stints with CBA, European and Asian leagues, ABA2000, and summer pro-am action until he retired. Westhead was about to coach Gaines (and Dennis Rodman and a young Matt Barnes) in 2003 with the latter-day ABA’s Long Beach Jam until the NBA Magic called him looking for an assistant. He and Gaines would re-connect in 2006, when Westhead got the lead job with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and asked Gaines, who took over for Tiny Archibald midway through the 2004 ABA season at Long Beach, to become his assistant there. The move paid off for Gaines as Westhead guided the Merc, running and gunning “Paul Ball” and leading the league in scoring behind Diana Taurasi, to the 2007 WNBA title. Westhead left for to be an assistant with the NBA Sonics, and Gaines took over. Two seasons later, another WNBA title, and Gaines would get promoted to GM two years after that. Jumping over to the men’s side of the pros for the first time, Gaines would work as a player development/assistant coach in ensuing seasons, with the Suns and the Knicks. He was a Pistons coaching consultant when the Wizards came calling. Ted Leonsis likes to tinker, but not in conventional ways. Loyal to a fault, the Wizards owner hung on to GM Ernie Grunfeld way too long, and continues to defy fan sentiment to cut loose head coach Scott Brooks. After star point guard John Wall was lost for the rest of the 2018-19 season and the Wizards missed the playoffs, Leonsis replaced Grunfeld with Tommy Sheppard. While he kept Brooks and promoted Tony Brown to a lead assistant role, Leonsis and Sheppard overhauled some of the assistant gigs. Longtime assistant Mike Longabardi joined the club, as did analytics guru Dean Oliver and Capital City Go-Go coach Jarell Christian, who nurtured Troy Brown and Thomas Bryant on development league assignments and helped Jordan McRae earn a spot on the 1st-Team All-G-League team. But the most impactful strategic addition to the bench is probably Gaines. A 103.5 pace (4th in NBA) and 110.8 O-Rating (8th in NBA) aren’t groundbreaking figures, not in this new-age league. But the offensive tempo resembles nothing Brooks has put out while coaching the star-studded Thunder or Wizards before, or anything this franchise has seen since the winning Washington/Baltimore Bullets clubs of the 1970s. Defense? Bah, Who cares about that right now? Worry about defensive personnel when it’s time to really win something. The Wiz haven’t won 50 games in any season since the 1979 NBA Finalists, and it’s a safe bet that they won’t this season (12-25), a well-established assumption with Wall (Achilles, out for season) and, lately, fellow All-Star Bradley Beal (27.8 PPG; questionable for tonight, lower leg soreness) on the mend. But fans at Capital One Arena, where the Wizards and Atlanta Hawks play tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington), haven’t been this excited about the future in a while. Long recognized as the fastest end-to-end player in the NBA, Wall in his peak seasons would fly up the court in transition, hunting for layups, dunks, and foul-shot chances. Failing that, he’d have to wait several more seconds for the likes of Marcin Gortat and Nene to come lumbering into position, and then a couple more to pry Beal open along the perimeter. It was a formula that had grown stale. Now, Leonsis’ big bet is that Washington can implement a system better suited to the skillset of Wall (age 30 and a $40 millionaire for the first time next season, locked down on extension through probably 2022-23), and to the potential of his youthful teammates, including Brown and lotto-rookie Rui Hachimura, once Wall returns next season. In the meantime, they’ve got Isaiah Thomas (41.2 3FG%, best since his heralded Celtics years) and Ish Smith to help demonstrate Gaines’ version of “Paul Ball” while taking their predictable lumps on the defensive end. Nobody snookers the Spurs easily, but Sheppard’s Wizards pulled a fast one by relieving them of Davis Bertans this past summer, as San Antonio tried in vain to make room for Marcus Morris. Bertans (43.4 3FG%, 9th in NBA) has become part of a trio of Killer Bs (Beal and Bryant, with Brown and Isaac Bonga needing more time to join the hive) that makes it easier for Brooks to promote a free-wheeling yet egalitarian offense. Especially when they’re healthy together, which has been rare. Smith and Thomas can bring up the ball, look for a quick shot, then give it to Beal to create for the rest of the shot clock, Bertans, Hachimura (NBA-low 5.8 TO%, as per bball-ref), and Brown hardly have to touch the ball unless it’s time to get a shot off. Everyone is allowed to play to their offensive strengths, such as they are, so long as whatever you do as a Wizard, you do it fast (304.6 passes per game, 6th-most in NBA; 28.8 catch-and-shoot PPG, 8th in NBA). I’d be tempted to promote Brooks for honorable-mention Coach of the Year votes, but for the fact that running Wall (36+ MPG for four seasons, pre-injuries) and Beal (36.5 MPG, 5th in NBA) into the ground is a big part of the reason the Wizards find themselves in this holding-pattern situation. Beal has only been able to appear in one of Washington’s last seven games, while Bertans (quad), returning tonight, missed the past nine. Trade sharks are circling for Bertans, and Brooks will be obliged to keep him on the floor as much as possible to raise the value of the sharpshooter with an expiring contract. Injuries for Hachimura (groin), Bryant (foot), and Moe Wagner (ankle), has had the Wizards going deep in the grab bag of their depth chart, and with the way their offense is going, you never know who’s turn it is to go for 30. The player themselves may not know until they’re doing it. In comes Garrison Mathews, the two-way no-name guard who paired up with McRae off the bench (57 combined bench points vs. MIA) and left Jimmy Butler muttering to himself in a 123-105 win over the heat on December 30, without Bertans, Beal or Bryant. Out goes Mathews a few games later, victim of a bad ankle injury. In comes forward Johnathan Williams on an injury hardship, starting five games after Christmas and averaging 20 MPG through last week, including 12-and-8 in a 128-114 win over the Nuggets. Out goes Williams, on waivers the next day. The Wizards have finally been blowing gaskets offensively, including Wednesday’s 123-89 defeat in Orlando. But that hasn’t come without random contributors popping up like Whack-a-Moles off the bench. While the five default starters could muster only 28 points between them, the bench brigade against the Magic was led by Brown, portly second-rounder Admiral Schofield (18 points apiece) and Anzejs “Scrabble” Pasecniks (16 points). Getting at least one of the Triple Bs suited up will be sure to put the buzz back in Brooks’ new run-and-gun “system”. The Hawks (VIII-XXX) have plenty of their own defensive issues to work through, and it will be tougher tonight to identify and attend to the opposing player likely to take shots, as they tried to do during valiant comebacks against James Harden’s Rockets on Wednesday. But the Wizards hope, in turn, they can be as successful in nullifying Atlanta’s star scorer as they were all last season. As noted by NBC Sports Washington’s Mike DePrisco yesterday, no other team in the Eastern Conference held Trae Young below both 16 PPG and 30 FG% (12.0 PPG, 28.9 FG% in 4 games vs. WAS) during his rookie season. With or without Wall, Brooks deployed either of Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers or Chasson Randle to help cover Young while using a guy like Trevor Ariza as a free safety for incoming passes toward the paint. None of those personnel are in D.C. now. Perhaps saving his energies, Beal has the lowest Defensive Real Plus/Minus (-4.70) in the league, with Thomas (-4.11) and Hachimura (-3.85, below Trae’s -3.75) not all that far behind him. Coach Scotty will turn to The Mitten (Gary Payton II) and Brown to help limit Young’s penetration. In any case, Thomas or Smith will likely have to switch onto someone, and hopefully Kevin Huerter will have a big game exploiting that matchup. Having reached double figures in each of his last five games (50.0 FG%, 47.1 FG%, 19.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 3.8 APG), all single-margin outcomes for the Hawks, Huerter’s shooting splits are quickly approaching those from his All-Rookie season. Helping him bury notions of a sophomore slump will involve him attacking the paint more and getting to the free throw line, where he can show off his improving shot (85.0% on 1.5 FTAs/game, up from 73.2 and 0.7 last season). Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce wedded himself to two ideas early on in this season. Insisting Alex Len is ideal in every situation coming off the bench, for one, means John Collins is left to start at center for Atlanta, given the personal leave extended to rookie Bruno Fernando and the utility of Damian Jones as an occasional rim protector and foul sponge. The other idea is that De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (minus -8.5 net points, and minus-3.0 assists per 100 possessions) can be at their best learning how to play together, and starting, rather than staggering the rooks in differing lineups. Collins at center and Jabari Parker (shoulder) remaining sidelined due to injury leaves Pierce little choice but to field De’Andre Hunter at power forward. Collins will find himself busy guarding the frontcourt positions at separate times, but the fast pace expected from tonight’s action may continue to be overwhelming for Hunter, who returns to the NBA outpost nearest to his reigning NCAA champion University of Virginia. De’Andre has been hitting his threes of late (38.7 3FG% in last seven games), but the expectations that he could also contribute as a rebounder, passer, on-ball and roving team defender, seems a bit outsized for his current skill level (last 7 games: 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, no blocks, 2.4 RPG). Unlike Cam, who has ample support around his position on the wing, Hunter could benefit from a downsizing of MPG, especially at the power forward spot once Parker and Fernando can return. Fans in The DMV aren’t exactly doin’ Da Butt in celebration of this new wrinkle of Wizards basketball, but they are pleased to discover a clear change in style with an eye toward the future, even with Brooks ostensibly still in charge. There may come for the Wizards a future time when, like the gentrifiers of many D.C. wards, somebody will file a petition for Leonsis to turn all this Go-Go gadgetry off. But that won’t happen until long after Wall and Beal get to run the newfound offense together. Until that time comes, Brooks is willing to listen to his staff, and when it comes to offensive ideas, he’s more than happy to let Corey Gaines clear his throat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Y’all would really rather see Tacko Fall, huh?” Once the first All-Star ballot returns rolled in, and it became obvious Trae Young had a great shot of earning a People’s Choice Award, Atlanta Hawks fans went into overdrive, and for good reason. If Young was able to get into the Game on the fan vote, then he wouldn’t be among the many players in the Eastern Conference going for the Oscar, waging an uphill fight this month for one of seven precious reserve spots. Neither the Washington Wizards nor the Atlanta Hawks come into action today (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) in the running for Best Ensemble. But some Best Supporting Actor trophies remain up for grabs. Players like the Wizards’ Bradley Beal intend to spend this week using Young and the restless Hawks (11-35) to bolster their merits. Some help from coaches won’t hurt. “Jimmy Butler should be a starter in the All-Star game,” asserted Erik Spoelstra, Miami’s coach and noted comedy connoisseur, who was also miffed in his Friday commentary that Butler’s candidacy was limited by his ballot classification as a forward. “It’s a joke that he’s not.” Assuming his ire isn’t directed at Kemba Walker or any of the East forwards, Young and the Hawks’ losing ways seem to be Coach Spo’s bone of contention. Even if the Hawks lose the next ten games, dropping to 11-45, Young won’t be the All-Star starter on a team with the worst-ever pre-Break record. As noted by Phil Watson of HoopsHabit, that ignominious honor would remain with Dwyane Wade, a flashy fifth-year pro and fourth-time All-Star whose team was 9-43 at the 2007-08 All-Star Break, 6-25 afterwards. Dang, Erik… who’d he play for? I’m just “joking”, you already know. Coincidentally, Butler was classified as a forward three years ago, on a losing team in Chicago. His Bulls, a team far more talented and experienced than Young has yet enjoyed, had just lost to Dennis Schröder’s Hawks to drop to 21-23. Even the fan vote had him in 5th place, on the outside looking in. But the newly installed “Zaza Rule,” allowing player and media input into the voting results, catapulted Butler over LeBron’s teammate Kevin Love for the East’s final frontcourt starting spot. Jimmy Buckets joined two other sub-.500 starters, Giannis and Anthony Davis, at the time 2017’s All-Star selections were announced. There was precious little consternation, no think pieces complaining about “antiquated” position voting, no homers banging their keyboards. Davis, of the 23-34 Pelicans, scored 52 points in The Big Game, and he was handed an MVP trophy for his troubles. Somehow, the world managed to continue spinning on its axis. No “joke,” Spo! Spoelstra and Butler will have to wait until the first game after the Break to sink their gnashing teeth into Atlanta. Say, didn’t you two have to get through most of the first third of the season without your ascendant frontcourt star, Bam Adebayo? Ah. I must have y’all confused with somebody else. Toronto hosts the Hawks on Tuesday, and Kyle Lowry will be waiting. The defending NBA champs lost their Finals MVP, yet they’re still tied with Miami for 2nd in the NBA East. Bidding for his 6th-straight appearance in the midseason classic, Lowry has bounced back from a broken thumb to log the second-most minutes per game and the third-highest scoring average of his career. If Ben Simmons cared what fans thought, he’d take more open threes, fix his free throw shooting, and dodge the Karkrashian Kurse like the coronavirus. Alas, the 2019 first-time All-Star found himself behind Derrick Rose, Zach LaVine, Lowry and Jaylen Brown in the fan balloting. Simmons does hope coaches will value all the things he does bring to the table, which will be on display when the 76ers visit Atlanta on Thursday, one day before the reserves get announced. NBA players made their minds up that, yes, a defensive liability who stars for a losing team can be worthy of an All-Star starting spot. Only more of those voters felt that star player should be Beal, who finished second to Walker in the internal player-vote tally and just ahead of Young. Even if that star, 11-26 on the floor with Washington (4-3 without him), is only now scrambling to make a season hampered by knee and shoulder ailments (career-high 27.8 PPG, career-low 31.6 3FG%; career-best 6.4 APG, career-worst 3.3 TOs/game), without John Wall (out for season, Achilles) by his side, one of his (offensive) best. Wiz coach Scott Brooks is trying as best he can to untangle himself from contradictions, squaring Beal’s once-lagging quantitative performances with the shooting guard’s qualitative leadership value. “He hasn’t shot the ball well, but he’s not going to end up being a 30-percent shooter. The guy is money,” Brooks sorta-explained to the Washington Post, after Beal’s ninth consecutive game of 35+ points and 5+ assists helped their Wizards overwhelm the Cavs in Cleveland on Thursday. “You’re an All-Star for a reason, and he keeps leading us… None of us expected this season to end up with the situation that we’ve had, but he’s led us and battled for us and puts us in positions to compete every night.” Brooks also backed Beal this month after his star guard frustratingly questioned the progress of the team purportedly “changing (their) culture” to a winning one. “He’s a part of our culture and he’s a big part of it,” Brooks said of Beal. “When you lose, everybody feels bad about it, and that’s a good thing.” The Wiz (15-29) fizzed in three straight games after defeating the Hawks on the 10th of January. They’ve beaten two lottery squads since, and nearly knocked off the heat in Miami before succumbing in overtime on Wednesday. Beal has been money, from the free throw line, where his career-highs of 7.1 FTAs/game and 84.0 FT% have kept his elevated usage from becoming an all-around efficiency disaster. He is the sole NBA player below Trae in Defensive RPM and PIPM rankings, best understood by his need to carry a roster loaded with spare parts and next-to-the-next-men-up on one side of the floor with limited defensive support to cover for him. The next-worst player above age 21 in those plus/minus categories is Beal’s Wizard teammate and former small-wonder All-Star, Isaiah Thomas (2-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 10; 41.2 3FG%). I.T.’s persistent threat to hit jumpers from outside keeps him in Brooks’ starting unit as Beal (31.9 usage%, 6th in NBA, two places behind Young) dominates the ballhandling from the wing. There’s at least one other Wizard seeking to make it to Chi-town in a couple weeks. Rookie Rui Hachimura has been out since mid-December with a groin injury, but he has been cleared for basketball activities. The Rising Stars challenge will be an easier bar to clear this year if you’re on the World Team, but the Japanese forward must show he’s healthy and productive enough to make the cut. Rui could be joined by fellow Wizards Moe Wagner (out, ankle) and Anzejs Pasecniks, especially if last-minute injury replacements are needed. Making the USA Team is tougher, but it’s not too late for Atlanta’s Cam Reddish (9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks @ WAS on Jan. 10) to grab an invite. Coming off the bench in the Hawks’ Friday night loss at OKC to score 20 points, Cam (last 7 games: 2.4 3FGs per game on 50.0% shooting, 1.9 SPG) is unearthing to demonstrate not only why he could be more than a one-way player, but also why a plurality of preseason-surveyed rookies felt he could eventually wind up with the best NBA career, Zion Williamson and current Marvin-Williams-warmed-over archetype DeAndre’ Hunter included. Up-and-down Troy Brown (18 points, 10 rebounds in 35 bench minutes vs. ATL on Jan. 10) wouldn’t mind a call, either, especially if he gets the chance to spend his All-Star Saturday Night on Trae and Zion’s USA Team. The eventual returns of Hachimura (out, groin) and Wagner (out, ankle sprain) will bring the high-scoring Wizards to nine players averaging double-digits, including Jordan McRae, who has cooled lately after dropping 29 points on the Hawks (4-for-5 3FGs), plus eight boards and six dimes, in the 111-101 win at Capital One Arena. To the All-Stars go the spoils. For Young, that means being granted a delayed return to Georgia from Oklahoma City, after taking his bows at a Sooners game on Saturday afternoon. He’ll return to action hoping to make amends for one of his worst games of the season in D.C. a couple weeks ago, going bagel-for-7 from downtown while offsetting his 7 assists with 6 turnovers. Hawks backup Brandon Goodwin keyed the near-erasure of a 13-point second-quarter deficit before halftime in Washington, then scored eight points and dished an assist to Reddish to forge a 91-86 lead with just over seven minutes to play. But his fourth-quarter pairing with Young was unable to thwart a series of layups by Ish Smith, followed by point-blank scores from McRae and Ian Mahinmi that put the game away for the Wizards, who were missing both Beal and big-man Thomas Bryant. Atlanta could have used forward Jabari Parker (out, shoulder rehab) to match the Wizards’ late-game firepower. Brooks will likely keep Beal at small forward and maintain a guard-heavy lineup that gave the Hawks fits in OKC, who used penetration and kickouts to bigs Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala to surge to a 36-21 fourth-quarter advantage on Friday. To keep yet another “too little, too late” fate from befalling Young and the Hawks, it will help to have Jeff Teague around to cool off Smith, his former Wake Forest teammate. Atlanta has Reddish and Kevin Huerter to spend their energies shielding Beal, but must avoid over-aggressive fouls that make scoring easy for the Wizards star. Hunter needs to be busy latching himself onto Washington’s stretchiest threat, the fully healthy Davis Bertans (42.6 3FG%), leaving John Collins to do the dirty work of showing on screens for guards and getting back in position to beat Wizard bigs to the glass. Amid all of that defensive activity, Young and the Atlanta point guards must be more effective in disrupting and intercepting Washington’s halfcourt passes. Every loss by the Hawks will be portrayed as a referendum on the value of Young’s first All-Star accolade by his de-Trae-ctors. Every victory will induce the converse effect from supporters. Neither Young himself, nor the Hawks, need to be caught up in all of that. The focus needs to be on becoming 48-minute fullcourt competitors, particularly at home versus Lottery peers. Hawks fans have no choice but to forgive the upcoming slate of opposing stars, when their minds are fixated on a Game other than the one they’re supposed to be playing. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. All these injuries don't make no (Common) sense! ~lw3