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  1. “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
  2. “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
  3. “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
  4. All these injuries don't make no (Common) sense! ~lw3
  5. “Hey, John Vall, me and Huncho gonna get our offseason vorkout started early. Join us vhen you’re freed up in a couple veeks!” We’re almost done! Our 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks season nears its end as they visit the 2015-17 Atlanta Hawks. Pardon? Oh, actually it’s the Washington Wizards (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) that will participate in the Hawks’ final intra-division fun-run. Maybe it’s the Friday Happy Hour beverage. But I do get the vibe that the Wizards’ course is currently charting our old one. Coach’s-pet All-Stars; veteran starters that seem increasingly beyond their sell-by date; high hopes, for a young talent, that are growing sour; patchwork bench contributors (including Mike Scott) that provide an occasional spark but not much consistency. Led by a former Coach of the Year award winner. A regular season record, and postseason outlook, that belie the players’ boundless expressions of self-confidence that THIS year will somehow be different. Current Pacers reporter and former Wizards correspondent J. Michael tweeted, after reviewing a lackluster effort in the clutch by John Wall and Bradley Beal, during last night’s 119-115 loss in LeBronopolis, “…when you demand more and crave more (attention) – and they got it this season – you’ve gotta make good on it. Otherwise it sets you back even more.” Now in their sixth season together, The Best Backcourt in the East has long had little trouble talking the talk, but it’s walking the full walk that has proven to be problematic for this duo. Fans of the Wizards will now wait an inexplicable 40 years for their team to reach 50 wins in any one particular season. It’s also likely that the wait for a trip to a Conference Finals will stretch into decade number five. This, despite the plethora of injuries befalling the Celtics, and the shifting sands in Cleveland. One would think that if any NBA team would know how to capitalize by now, it would be the one from the District of Columbia. Here they are, at 42-37, going through the motions, bearing a huge payroll for a probable first-round exit, with its top six salary recipients returning for 2018-19 and with Wall’s salary doubling the season after that. Following Hawks-fan parlance of yore, is it past time, perhaps, to begin blowing this roster up? Not if you’re Ernie Grunfeld, somehow still there in an executive capacity. They’re holding out hope that LeBron jumps out West this summer, and that the only comparable superstar that ever jumps East will come because the Wizards hired the player’s former lunchlady as the Director of Team Nutrition. I made that last part up. I think. If there is a single thing the Wizards accomplished in 2018, aside from maybe wresting the Southeast Division title away from Miami, it is putting to bed the notion that this cluster of Wizards is in some way “better” without Wall on the floor than otherwise. One of their pan-flashers, Tomas Satoransky, will fill in for Wall as he rests and remains in and injury-management mode. Post-surgery knee soreness has caused him to miss half the season. But there were times when fans, and at least one player (we see you, Marcin Gortat) felt like Wall’s absence made the rest of the team’s heart grow fonder. Of one another. The last two meetings with the Hawks (22-57) allow a glimpse at what Marcin, et al., were thinking. On December 27, Wall had 11 assists, but was otherwise non-existent over the course of 33 minutes and the host Hawks won it going away, 113-99 on the strength of the Not Best Backcourt in the East, Dennis Schröder and Marco Belinelli. A month later, with Satoransky in for the re-injured Wall, a balanced effort (six players, including Scott’s 19 points, in double figures) led to a thrashing of the Hawks on the same Philips Arena floor, a 129-104 win for the Wizards. That sparked a five-game streak, but in the middle of it, Gortat flubbed an attempt at damning with faint praise, a tweet that had Wall telling his center to shut his pierogi hole. All told, Washington with Wall was 25-17 before his latest return last week, 16-17 without him. But even with him back on the floor, the Wizards aren’t showing signs of an uptick in winning play. After dusting off Charlotte at home one night before, losing by 19 in Chicago (Wall DNP’d for rest) had to be the day’s biggest April Fool’s joke. The Wiz were no match for the Rockets, losing by 16 in Houston two days later. Then last night, in what Wall hoped would be a statement game in Cleveland, Washington allowed 39 opening-quarter points. They surged ahead of the Cavs by 17 midway through the fourth, thanks to some nifty passing by Beal and Satoransky, and a scoring spree by Scott. But, much like the season, or their recent history, once Washington gets something going, they can’t sustain it when it counts. That 17-point lead was gone in the space of six critical minutes. Wall finally found his scoring touch last night, but his habit of wild circus shots and wilder passes (leading to turnovers, 18 in his past 3 games) off his frantic drives to the hoop must cease before the first-round opponent gets here. Fortunately, the Wizards won’t have to deal with a Kyle Lowry tonight. And the only Cleveland that matters today is Antonius (available to play), coming off the bench behind Hawks backcourt starters Damion Lee and Isaiah Taylor. Taurean Prince (sore back) will also be around to make things interesting for Atlanta. Like the Wizards, Grunfeld is probably not going anywhere, yet again. If he is seeking my advice about the way forward going into 2018-19, I’ve got just one word for him. It’s four letters, beginning with a T and ending in K. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  6. Satoransky got Portis'd last night as well, but he says he'll be alright. ~lw3
  7. Black-and-Volt-Green-Black-and-Volt-Green-Black-and-Volt-Green-Black-and-Volt-Green… Sure, the Atlanta Hawks laid an egg in the final minutes of last night’s loss in Charlotte, after its revved-up Competitank finally ran out of gas. But as they return home for a quick run with the Washington Wizards tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBC Sports Washington), there’s a different egg-laying bird I’m concerned about. There’s a strong likelihood that whoever’s name follows the words, “THE ATLANTA HAWKS SELECT…” this summer, will be our Goose for the foreseeable future. He’ll have his share of flaws and setbacks and disappointments. But just like the Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal, just like DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento’s former hope now residing in New Orleans, our Goose will be counted on to periodically lay some Golden Eggs. It’s going to be on our Hawks, to make sure we don’t succumb to our rapacity, that we don’t kill the Goose. Alvin Thibodeau Gentry is having a sobering egg-free breakfast this morning. His Pelicans were midway through their first full season with Cousins playing alongside Anthony Davis, another unique frontcourt talent, albeit one with a tenuous injury history. And here they were, with the playoffs in their sights, knowing they cannot win games without one of the two All-Stars on the floor, if not both. Monty Williams – Monty! Williams! – Gentry’s predecessor, got canned in New Orleans, after following the owner’s directive and reaching the playoffs for the first time in four years with 45 wins, only to get swept by the one of the greatest teams of all time in the opening round. That championship team’s lead assistant, Gentry, was wooed to The Big Easy, and has failed to get more than 35 wins in the past two seasons. Even in 2016-17, with Cousins in tow for the back half of the season, and the oft-injured Davis playing over 70 games for the first time, the Pels finished at 34-48, seven games behind the 8-seed. Out of desperation, Gentry had both the 24-year-old Davis (36.3 MPG; 41.0 in last eight games) and the 27-year-old Cousins (36.2 MPG; 39.0 in last 10 games) logging career-high amounts of playing time, his Pelicans cranking out some of the shiniest Golden game-orbs the NBA world has ever seen. No rest days for Cuz, no, as it’s the game he DNP-CD’s that might cost this team a playoff spot. Pels GM Dell Demps wasn’t helping either – which one of Omer Asik, Asik Ajinca, Cheick Diallo or Solomon Hill are you resting these two stars to play? Now, Gentry is down one Goose. He’ll be inclined to ramp up the Golden Egg production of Davis to help compensate for the Achilles-tearing loss of Cousins. And while we don’t know when, we will know how that will turn out. Cousins’ fellow collegiate Wildcat, Wall had his own durability issues in his early career, but as he started cranking out All-Star bids, and after his team added lottery talent like Beal and Otto Porter, his long-dormant Wizards finally began to peak. Now at 27 years-old, Wall’s third head coach, Scott Brooks, wants to keep his All-Star point guard fresh for the postseason. But as Washington’s bad road losses continue to pile up – by 23 in Dallas, by 24 in Charlotte, by 35 in Brooklyn, by 14 at Philips Arena, all since mid-December – and as the value of playoff seeding becomes clearer, Brooks is starting to ramp up Wall’s floor time. Wall’s 34.1 MPG is his lowest average since 2012-13, but it’s up to 36.7 in the games since Atlanta tripped up the Wiz 113-99 back on December 27. His per-minute production hasn’t improved (20.3 points, 9.7 assists, 1.4 steals) since last season, but Brooks isn’t about to squander a first-round upper-seed – a place where Washington (26-22), not Miami, should be – by leaning on the likes of Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks and Tomas Satoransky. Beal hasn’t managed a full slate in his five prior NBA seasons, but Brooks is relying on BB-gun to play a career-high 36.1 MPG (39.2 in his past 12 contests). His ramped-up production was good enough to earn him his first All-Star appearance next month. But what happens to Washington’s chances in the East if either of Wall or Beal blows a gasket from overuse? I’m often right there with critics of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer for metering out his newest Goose. Crank up the playing time and start John Collins (20.3 MPG, 2.4 personal fouls/game in last 21 games; down from 23.0 MPG and 3.7 fouls/game in first 21 appearances), and Johnny Bap’s First-Team All-Rookie and ROY award-nominee credentials would become much clearer to a national audience. But Coach Bud and the Hawks have grander schemes in mind than just wowing Hawks fans from one game to the next amid a season of recession. Sure, you might be tempted to insert a struggling Dennis Schröder late in last night’s game in hopes of sewing up a victory, just as Cousins was in late, fighting for rebounds to save the Pelicans from yet another crushing loss in the waning moments on national TV. But in winning those kinds of battles, what wars do you risk losing? If our Hawks (14-34) play their cards right with this year’s and the next year’s batch of rooks, with a focus on proper conditioning, treatment, and carefully-monitored development, then we could be setting ourselves up for something truly Golden down the road. Alternatively, the way Washington and New Orleans have been handling their Geese, chances are the eventual results won’t be everything it’s cracked up to be. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. “Need directions to your hotel? Follow me!” Back at it! We’ll get to see how a weekend full of eggnog and hot toddy will affect our Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club, as they suit up to face a Washington Wizards team (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic) that’s hoping they’re finally hitting their stride. Essentially the same lineup – minus ex-Hawk Mike Scott – that ousted Atlanta from the 2017 playoffs and set the Hawks’ CTRL+ALT+DEL in motion, the Wizards are clearly the head of the class in the Southeast Division… or, at least, they should be. With the Hawks, Magic, and Hornets slipping around in oil, and the heat dealing with injuries to Hassan Whiteside and other starters, this division is dressed up for Washington to seize. But for some reason, coach Scott Brooks’ charges cannot seem to sustain a winning run. When last these two teams met, in D.C. back on November 11, the Wizards had merely a 6-5 record, even after kicking off 2017-18 with three straight wins. The lowly Hawks helped the Wiz kickstart a four-game streak with a 111-94 defeat at Capital One Center, thanks to a 37-point fourth quarter for the home squad. But here we are, over a month-and-a-half later, and the Wizards (19-15, 9-8 vs. East) have no more win streaks of three-or-more games to show for themselves. Yes, they come into Philips Arena feeling sky-high after a 111-103 marquee victory in Boston over the Celtics on Christmas Day. But just last week, they topped New Orleans at home, got two full days off, then traveled to Brooklyn and got spanked, 119-84, the second loss to the Nets this month. They began the month decisively beating once-hot Detroit (without John Wall), got two full days off, and then found themselves getting tuned up by the Jazz, 116-69 in SLC, the second-worst beatdown (worst since a loss to Kareem and Oscar’s Bucks in 1970-71) in franchise history. Prior to that, the Wiz suffered losses at the hands of the Lakers, Suns, and Mavericks, none on the back end of a back-to-back, the latter two at home. Sure, they’ve had their share of short-term injuries, most significantly 11 games missed by Wall. But their experienced “Death Lineup” of starters Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat are a tepid 8-5 on the season. With that record, there’s little wonder why overachieving Miami (18-16) is nipping at their heels. Division banners barely amount to a hill of beans these days, too, and defending Southeast champs find themselves mired in a middling tier of seven Eastern Conference playoff contenders, two of whom could be left standing once the musical chairs of the regular season stop in mid-April. If they’re going to catch up with conference stalwarts Boston (ahead by 6.5 games) or Toronto and Cleveland (ahead by 5 games), now is the time for Washington to build some consistency and string victories together. After Atlanta, nine of the Wizards’ next ten games are back home. When they’re at their best, the Wizards present a stifling perimeter defense (NBA-best 34.1 opponent 3FG%), shut down dribble penetration scorers (Dennis Schröder 2-for-16 FGs @ WAS on Nov. 11) and force an advantageous number of turnovers (season-high 14 steals vs. ATL on Nov. 11; two steals by BOS on Dec. 25). They turn live-ball rebounds and steals into downcourt opportunities for the speedy Wall (20.3 points and 9.6 assists and 1.2 steals per-36, down from 22.9, 10.5, and 2.0 respectively). Where it gets problematic for the Wiz is when they do few of those things, or when Gortat and a healthy Ian Mahinmi cannot produce enough second-chances whenever Wall, Beal, Porter, or Morris are having off shooting nights. The 20.1 PPG Washington produces off turnovers in victories (4th in NBA) drops to 14.9 (a pedestrian 17th in NBA) in defeats. They’re 8th in O-Reb% when they win, but just 25th when they’re catching Ls. As far as ex-Hawks go, you must give it up for Scott. His contributions were marginalized in his final season under coach Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, burdened by the crushing weight of uncertain legal proceedings. Much like Coach Bud, though, Money Mike beat the rap, and his new team now needs his help to beat the Raps, the Celts, the Cavs and the like. The Virginia native’s contributions in D.C. (career-highs of 9.7 PPG, 57.9 FG%, 42.3 3FG%), best since at least a 2013-14 campaign that gave him postseason renown, have not only made a longtime dormant Wizard reserve unit (also featuring momentary Hawks draftee Kelly Oubre, and ATLien Jodie Meeks) reasonably functional, they have helped the Wizards to hold things down until starting forwards like the rap-beating Markieff Morris (46.2 3FG% in last 12 games) and Otto Porter (45.8 3FG%, 5th in NBA) found their sea legs. How do we know the Hawks (2-3 in last five games, all within 10-point margin) are well along the way to becoming one of the “Best Worst” Teams in NBA History? Atlanta (8-25) doesn’t prevail very often, but when teams lose, their net rating (minus-9.9 points per 100 possessions) is among the league’s ten best. Further, on the rare occasions the Hawks have won (usually, due to better team rebounding and ball-control), their plus-12.7 net rating as a winner is currently 8th-best in the NBA, tied with a Wizards team that desperately wants to fashion themselves as a Finals contender. Tonight, the Hawks should be able to pull together a more complete, 48-minute effort, compared to last month’s second-half collapse in The District, thanks to the return of Ersan Ilyasova (21 points, 7-for-9 FGs vs. DAL last Saturday, career-high 58.5 TS%) in the starting lineup. An improving array of perimeter shooters, plus potentially steadier backup point guard play for Atlanta, ought to make it tougher for Brooks’ Bruthas to simply suit up and tie down Schröder (career-high-tying 33 points, 13-for-22 FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs in the win over the Mavs) as the essential part of a winning gameplan. With a healthy roster and a favorable schedule on the docket, it’s time for Washington to strike. But is the Wizards’ iron truly hot? Or will yet another sub-.500 squad take the starch out of them? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “Gahhh… not this Dennis kid, again!” The second of five road back-to-backs for the Atlanta Hawks concludes today as they visit the Washington Wizards (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) at the newly renamed Capital One Arena. So let’s take a glance, and see what’s in owner Ted Leonsis’ wallet. After reaching the Conference Semifinals for the third time in four seasons last season, courtesy of a Hawks team that wasn’t entirely up to the task, Washington entered 2017-18 with the league’s fifth-largest salary load. As it stands, Wizard contracts rack up as the fifth-highest in the NBA for next season, third-largest in 2019-20, highest in 2020-21, and second-most in 2021-22. They’re led by John Wall (listed as probable, despite an illness), a white shark in a point guard’s body who is still seeking his just due as one of the league’s upper-echelon great players. Wall’s $18 million salary more than doubles two seasons from now, allowing him to surpass fellow starters Bradley Beal ($24 million) and Otto Porter ($25 million), who each received new deals over the past two summers. By then, Washington can get out from under Marcin Gortat’s $13 million take-home pay, but probably not that of Gortat’s backup, Ian Mahinmi, who virtually pulls in Kent Bazemore money ($16 million) through 2019-20 while playing just over 12 minutes per game. The team also bolstered their long-woeful bench with former Hawk Mike Scott (18.3 minutes/game, most since 2013-14; career-high 46.7 3FG%) and guards Jodie Meeks and Tim Frazier. Leonsis opined in the Washington Post just yesterday about the need for “The DMV” to become America’s next great “supercity”, and Ted is putting supercity money where his mouth is when it comes to his Capitals, his Mystics, and certainly his NBA team. Wall and the Wizards know they’re in this together for the long-haul, one of the only starting-five units carried over from last season. But the time is now, not later, to establish themselves as a stalwart in the Eastern Conference. While most prognosticators pegged Cleveland and Boston as Washington’s superiors, the sense of urgency around The District heightened further as the Celtics’ injuries stack up and the Cavaliers continue to flounder. The coast is clear to seize the day and surge to the top of the NBA East. The Wizards, therefore, have no business losing games to Lonzo “can’t throw it in the Potomac” Ball and the Lakers, as was the case last month. They can’t be blowing 18-point leads in the space of 12 minutes, even at Golden State. They cannot afford to give up 122 points and lose home games to teams in turmoil that halfway don’t wanna be here, like Phoenix. They can’t let LeBron waltz into Capital One and discredit them with 57 points before a national audience. Washington (6-5) did bounce back last weekend with a road win at Toronto (where have you gone, Kyle Lowry?) without a shoulder-sprained Wall. But then their star returned to the floor, on Tuesday, just in time to watch Dallas stroll out of D.C. with a 113-99 victory. They got a measure of revenge by coasting to a win against the Lakers on Thursday night. But wins like that, and the one they desperately want today, are supposed to be the norm, not just a hope. The fun part of following the Atlanta Hawks (2-10) this season is the knowledge that every game is an absolute-must-win for their opponents. Knowing their role, Atlanta is either establishing the depths of their floor, or breaking their slide. Whether you’re Lauri Markkanen or Nikola Jokic, Reggie Jackson or Kyrie Irving, the Hawks are allowing the ball to fall into your hands and daring you to beat them with big-time shots when it counts. It may come down to another big play in the final frame, but coach Scott Brooks is going to need greater perimeter volume and better accuracy out of guards Wall (1.0 3FGs/game, 27.0 3FG%) and Beal (2.0 3FGs/game, 36.7 3FG%). Brooks also needs his All-Stars, and his handsomely-paid big men, to take duties on the defensive side of the floor seriously if the Wizards (104.6 D-Rating, 19th in NBA) are to be taken seriously as an NBA Finals contender. In the six games where Washington has been “in the clutch” (as per stats, within five points of the lead with under five minutes to play in regulation/overtime), they’ve allowed 12.3 PPG, second-most in the league (Atlanta’s 10.0 opponent PPG in 7 games ranks 6th-highest) behind only Oklahoma City. Only Dallas’ foes have had fewer problems getting restricted-area shots (67.6 opponent 2FG%, 2nd-highest in NBA) to fall softly into the net. Gortat and Markieff Morris (probable, with a gimpy ankle) like to fashion themselves as intimidators. Wall and Beal occasionally wish to remind you what poses and jibber-jabber they’ve learned from their respective hardscrabble upbringings, while sub forward Kelly Oubre (career-high 11.0 PPG; 38.3 2FG%, 44.4 3FG%) has the whole ready-punch-aim gameplan down to a science. But none of that wannabe-toughness has been demonstrated around the defensive rim (36.1 opponent paint points per-48, 6th-most in NBA; 75.5 D-Reb%, 24th in NBA). Washington wants to play bully-ball themselves in and around the paint (66.4 restricted-area FG%, 6th in NBA). But that often comes at the expense of failing to get back in transition, and a John Wall-led team should not be getting outscored on the regular (12.5-10.6 PPG) when it comes to fastbreak offense. Dennis Schröder, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore (combined 6 of Atlanta’s 11 steals on Friday) should continue not only getting stops but pushing the ball in transition, forcing Wall and Beal to make a greater share of plays on the defensive end. In last night’s 111-104 loss to Detroit that was a surprising toss-up until the final minute of action, Mike Budenholzer did a sound job of preserving John Collins (16 points and 8 rebounds in 27 minutes; 20.4 player efficiency rating, 1st among rookies w/ 10+ minutes/game) for the second half, where he could wreck shop around the rim and beat his man consistently down the floor. Proper tag-teaming of Collins, the only legit Hawk big-man coming off the bench, with Dewayne Dedmon and Luke Babbitt can keep the Atlanta offense diversified and confound the Wizards’ frontline. Atlanta holding serve up front for three-and-a-half quarters will require Wall (if available), Beal, and Porter (career-highs of 17.9 PPG, 51.1 3FG%) to make the Wizards the best single-digit conqueror of the Hawks that $125 million in team salary can buy. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. “If we HURRY… we can still make it to Fyre Festival after the game!” Up a game in an Eastern Conference Playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks? The Washington Wizards’ John Wall, ahead of Game 6 at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., NBATV or ESPNU elsewhere), knows this is no time to get complacent. Or, at least, he should know. Same deal for Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat. All three (with Kris Humphries in tow) recall winning the conference semifinals opener in Atlanta back in 2015, then winning Game 3 in D.C. despite Wall sitting out with an injured wrist. Up 2-1, with Game 4 in their house, Paul Pierce trolling to perfection and Wall returning by Game 5… game, set, match. Conference Finals, here we come! Well, don’t call “series” just quite yet, Zards. The Hawks eked past the Wizards in three straight games, including twice at the Verizon Center, to steal Wall and the Wizards’ joy right out from under them. Bojan Bogdanovic doesn’t need to hear about any of that. His Nets had tied up the prior series against the Hawks in Brooklyn, and had all the momentum (and media spotlight) swinging their way. Unfortunately for BoBo and company, Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder (coming off the bench in his second NBA season) had other plans. Don’t trouble Brandon Jennings with current events. He had the Hawks dead-to-rights in 2010, after his Bucks took three straight games, granting the emerging star an opportunity to clinch his first-ever playoff series in front of a raucous Game 6 Milwaukee crowd. The Bucks never got to 75 points the rest of the way, and Jennings never won another playoff game until last week. The lesson? The moment you’re sure you have a playoff game, or series, in hand, the Hawks have you right where they want you. The question as Game 6 approaches is, have these Wizards learned this lesson? Hopefully, the only decent shots fired anywhere around downtown Atlanta this busy weekend come off the hands of Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.4 FG%) and Ersan Ilyasova (34.8 FG%). Along with Kent Bazemore (36.2 FG%), their collective struggles to find the bottom interior of the net have caused Atlanta to fail to take advantage of a wayward outside shooting by Beal (24.0 3FG%), Porter (35.7 3FG%), Bogdanovic (29.4 3FG%) and Markieff Morris (25.0 3FG%, playoff-high 24 personal fouls). Beal even found time to stray away from Hawk shooters to defend Millsap, as was the case in crunch time of Washington’s 103-99 Game 5 victory. The Wiz were merely shooting 29.2 percent on threes in their home gym, so it would have made an immense difference had the Hawks shot better than 29.0 percent themselves. Millsap (23.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG this series) found himself doing too much of a J-Smoovian impression before the Game 5 refs, forcing shots in anticipation of whistles and then griping when the tweets didn’t come. Sap finished off Game 4 falling away like a Mad Men silhouette while making buckets, and Atlanta will need that same intensity and focus around the paint from him to force a Game 7 on Sunday. More important than the potential suppression of their free agent values, another disappointing display by the Hawks perimeter shooters also risks spoiling a pleasantly surprising performance from Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder (24.4 PPG). No one would have guessed that Schröder would lead NBA playoff starters (min. 3 starts) in assist-turnover ratio (7.2 APG, 1.6 TOs/game; 7.1 TO%, 4th lowest in Playoffs), especially with Wall hovering around. Few would have expected Atlanta to have to rely on Dennis’ three-point shooting, either (43.8 3FG%), to stay in games. Yet, here we are. Free throw makes were, and are, another factor that can swing the outcome in one team’s favor, and that’s not to put Dwight Howard, who himself knows a thing or two about bouncing back after being down in a series, on Front Street. More post touches for Howard today can help Atlanta thin out a Wizards frontline that may be even thinner without Jason Smith (knee sprain, game time decision) available. Howard was 1-for-4 from the line on Wednesday evening, but his teammates also missed four freebies versus a Washington team that wasn’t going to miss many, not with Game 5 being a potential home finale. Especially for as long as the Hawks are cold from outside, they cannot afford to leave points from undefended shots on the table. Atlanta has a chance to do today what neither Milwaukee nor Memphis could do last night: win an elimination game on its home floor. Motion and ball movement remains an offensive priority for the Hawks. But if there is a lull in the outside shooting, Schröder’s teammates need to cut to the rim and help re-establish the paint-points advantage that was lost to the Wizards (40-36) in Game 5, rather than leaving it Schröder and Millsap to play iso-hero-ball with Wall and Beal. This playoff series will go not to a team that is satisfied with resting on their laurels, but to one that is instead intent on crafting new ones. Which team that is depends on whether Game 6 or Game 7 in the final contest in this series. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  11. “I Know Who You’re Working Out With This Summer.” Which Atlanta Hawk player declared that Washington’s basketball team is a bunch of “…crybabies. They b*tch and moan all game. They have no class,” then added, “They've got nobody who can stop me. I am going to dominate their guards physically and psychologically”? What if, throughout this whole Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Hawks and Wizards, now reaching a pivotal Game 5 in the District (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., TNT), Markieff Morris is merely being a basketball historian, trying to stay in touch with his spirit animal… the late, coulda-been-great, Terry Furlow? Not long after wearing high school star Magic Johnson ragged on the blacktops of Lansing, the ex-Spartan Furlow was in his third NBA season in 1979, when he fell out with coach/GM Bill Fitch in Cleveland and was traded to Atlanta in mid-season, for Butch Lee and a future 1st-rounder. The newest Hawk arrived just in time to spark a mad dash by coach Hubie Brown’s team into the playoffs. And it was against the defending World Champion Bullets, in the conference semis, that Furlow, a backup guard, took the initiative to become the self-styled Mouth of the South. A sampling: “(Elvin) Hayes is a cheap-shot artist. Write that.” “(Wes) Unseld is a bully. He has bullied his way through this league all his life.” (To top-scoring Bullet guard Kevin Grevey, during a game, as reported by Sports Illustrated): “Hello? You're in trouble now. Every time I get it, I'm looking for you. It's gonna be in your face.” “The Bullet guards haven't done a thing, except (Larry) Wright - and he can be handled. We just haven't seen him enough yet. (Tom) Henderson can do only so much, and Grevey is lucky to be playing on this team. All he can do is shoot. He can't assist and rebound. When he's cold, he's no good to anybody.” Ouch! Almost exactly 28 years ago to this day, it was Washington’s calm, cool, collected, and playoff battle-tested team who were getting increasingly unnerved by the “cheap shots and unnecessary on-court celebrations” (quote attributed to an unnamed Bullet player by the Washington Post) by the upstarts with upside from Down South, led by their carnival barker off the bench. Furlow not only sold the 1979 series to capacity crowds in both Landover and Atlanta (invited by Abe Pollin, even President Carter made it to the decisive Game 7), he was backing up his incessant yap with his offensive play as well. Terry tag-teamed with Eddie Johnson and Armond Hill to dominate the backcourt matchups versus Grevey and ex-Hawk assist-man Henderson, helping to offset powerful performances by Bullet stars Bobby Dandridge and Hayes and turning that series into a toss-up with the top-seeded reigning champs. Washington thought they had the series in hand after besting the Hawks in Atlanta, in Games 3 and 4, to go up 3-1 in the series. But unlike the Capital Centre clocks, which began malfunctioning just as the Bullets began to race away at the outset of Game 5, it was Furlow, an already gray-haired Tom McMillen, and Johnson who proved unstoppable, their 59 combined points pacing the Hawks to a 107-103 victory. A resounding Game 6 win by the Hawks in front of an enlivened Omni crowd suddenly had the Bullets, who spent way too much time wrangling with the refs, on the ropes, and Atlanta as close as ever before to chasing championship dreams. “The team that (wins Game 7) is prepared for anything,” suggested Bullets coach (Richard) Motta. “It’s ready to go all the way.” Even after escaping with a 100-94 win back home in Game 7, despite 21 points by Furlow in what turned out to be the villain’s final NBA playoff contest, a triumphant Hayes remarked that Atlanta, “would have beaten any other team in the league today, except for us.” In 2017, it’s the Hawks that are the calmer, cooler team, its veterans better steeled by playoff series victories than Washington’s. It’s the favored Wizards’ backcourt, led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, that has the superior edge but now finds themselves struggling to offset a frontline beleaguered by Atlanta’s Paul Millsap (team-high 23.5 PPG and 1.3 SPG) and Dwight Howard. And in 2017, it is playoff-virgin Morris who is trying to infuse some Furlow-style swagger into this postseason matchup with the Hawks. As a distinction, though, Washington’s 2017 team pales in comparison to the ’79 Bullets, and the current-day Hawks are tied in this series rather than playing games with their season on the line. Also, Markieff, unlike Furlow, is earning DJ Khaled-style congratulations, for playing himself right out of this series. Aside from the early-arriving Verizon Center crowd, it will be Wall who will do all he can to reinvigorate Morris and Marcin Gortat from the outset of Game 5. Morris knows he must stay scrappy but steer clear of foul trouble, which plagued him during the games in Atlanta. Gortat (27 boards in past two games, but just eight FGAs), back in front of his home crowd, must demonstrate he can rediscover his offensive gear. To steer this series back in the Wizards’ favor, Wall must be more respectful of Dennis Schröder, at least on the court. Schröder has done about everything Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has asked of him in this series, and the best defense Wall (1.3 SPG this series) has put up against him is to try to coax the young point guard into early foul problems himself. Wall has gone under screens repeatedly, and Dennis has been making the Wizards pay for their All-Star’s insouciance. To this point in the series, Schröder is benefitting from better-balanced contributions by his teammates than Wall. While Morris (10.5 PPG, 34.8 FG%) is the only Wizard not named Wall or Beal averaging double-figures, Atlanta is now up to five double-figure scorers, a number which could rise to six with more dump-ins directed Howard’s way. The Hawks can certainly steal this series so long as Schröder is not expected to out-John-Wall John Wall. Aside from Wall (10.0 APG), only Brandon Jennings in limited minutes is averaging at least three assists per game for coach Brooks’ club. By comparison, Schröder (6.3 APG) is joined by Millsap (4.3 APG), and Kent Bazemore, and that doesn’t count the mastery exhibited by Jose Calderon in Game 4 with Schröder riding the pine due to early foul issues. While Gortat matches Dwight’s 11.8 RPG, the only other players averaging more than five rebounds are all Hawks, including Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova, and Taurean Prince. The latter would be in the lead for the Playoffs Rookie of the Year award if there were such a thing. Both the Hawks and Wizards are awaiting big games from players who were integral to many successes the teams had during the regular season. For Otto Porter (27.3 3FG% this series; 4th in NBA for 3FG% during regular season), his jumpshot thawed in Game 4 (5-for-10 3FGs), but he has yet to sort out Prince’s defensive riddles and put together a complete effort. After being elevated to the starting lineup as the playoffs neared, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.8 FG% this series) is only beginning to come around (3-for-5 3FGs and two steals in Game 4). A pair of solid two-way efforts from either player could tilt this series decisively in their team’s favor. A Game 5 win on the road in 1979 significantly altered Atlanta’s series-winning and title-contending prospects. In 2017, Coach Bud, 4-0 in Game 5s of playoff series as a Hawks coach, is drawing up the plays in hopes of a similar impact. One difference from the Hawks team that entered Game 1 is that Atlanta enters today’s action with the echoes of rabid fans back home still in their ears. From this point forward, the Hawks, unlike the Wizards, need no rabble-rousing teammates to motivate them to victory. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. “John! John! I got the license number of that truck! It said, ‘BE GR8’…” The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau would like some assistance, please. Markieff Morris has been having a splendid stay in the A. This, after being directed to some of our town’s finest accommodations by the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap, who has become quite the pain in the A for Morris during this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. To ensure Keef and his Washington Wizards earn one more free continental breakfast in our fair city, the Bureau needs its Hawks fans to cheer the home team on to victory once again, tonight in Game 4 at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, TNT if you dare). If Millsap did any “crying” in Game 3, it was with tears of joy. Sap wasn’t crying out loud, but was instead flying high and proud after not only beasting in the boxscore (29 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks), but pairing with Dwight Howard (25 combined rebounds, five offensive) to bedevil Morris and Marcin Gortat (two of Washington’s six O-Rebs, 5-for-18 combined FGs in 58 combined minutes) on the boards for the first time in the best-of-7 series. While Howard continues to etch out his role in the Atlanta offense, this time around it was Gortat who got to enjoy the fourth-quarter proceedings from the bench. That is largely due to Dennis Schröder pacing the Hawks in his stellar home debut as a playoff starter (27 points, 7-for-15 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 9 assists, 3 TOs), and Howard staying home around the rim to limit Gortat’s touches. Washington is likely to set up more post play in Game 4, attempting to soften up Atlanta’s frontcourt tandem. You can’t spell “unconventional” without “ATL”, and Atlanta continues to find ways, good or bad, to introduce a different wrinkle to the series. This time, there was ball control, with Hawks players committing just 11 turnovers. That was the lowest number of player turnovers since the series-opener against the Celtics last season. There was also suffocating perimeter defense, causing even the easiest of three-point looks to rim out for Washington (7-for-29 3FGs in Game 3). Atlanta had not held a playoff opponent to sub-25% shooting since the series-ender in Boston last year. Even without Thabo Sefolosha on the court for meaningful minutes, the wing trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Taurean Prince, and Kent Bazemore did an imperfect yet adequate job of limiting kickout passes from reaching their intended targets. Morris (36.1 series FG%) has fully embraced Paul Pierce’s wannabe-tough-guy role, and has conducted himself exactly as you’d expect for an overbearing 27-year-old in just his third career playoff contest. One can expect Morris (career-high 36.2 3FG% in 2016-17) to continue looking for outside shots to help liven up the Wizards’ offense in Game 4. The commitment to sealing Wiz forwards out of plays in the paint and keeping passes to shooters out of reach often came at the expense of highlight-worthy buckets from the sensational John Wall (10-for-12 FGs, 8-for-10 FTs, 7 assists, 3 TOs), who continues to light up the rim in transition. The lack of Hawks’ live-ball turnovers, though, meant many Wizards’ fastbreaks had to begin by collecting the ball out from their own net. As was the case for Schröder in D.C., this time it was Wall who had little help from his Wizard mates, most notably Bradley Beal (6-for-20 FGs, 0-for-6 on threes), Otto Porter, and bench man Bojan Bogdanovic (3-for-9 FGs, 0-for-4 on threes). Porter strained his neck while catching a cross-court screen from Hardaway in the second half, but he is healed up in advance of today’s game. Saturday’s 116-98 blowout win could have been even more decisive had Atlanta taken care of business at the free throw line. Although the Hawks organization is donating to the Atlanta Community Food Bank for every missed Wizards free throw in this series, it was the Hawks on the floor (19-for-32 FTs in Game 3) who were giving the charity stripe its name. Both teams are preferring to forgo three-point attempts, in the Wizards’ case settling for long-twos in their comfort zone (17.2 percent of FGAs two-pointers beyond 15-feet, highest in East) while the Hawks are chipping away inside (39.5 percent of FGAs at-rim, highest in East). But the Hawks could afford to set up shooters more in the corners. Atlanta’s 28.6 3FG% is now ahead of only the Wizards’ 27.8 percent, but that accuracy has risen to a respectable 42.9 3FG% in the corners, best exploited by the Hawks during the series opener (3-for-6 corner 3FGs in Game 1). A healthy serving of pin-down screens by Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova (probable, despite a bruised calf) or Howard should not only help continue to spring Schröder free, but also open up options in the corners for Hardaway (1-for-6 3FGs in Game 3) and Prince, both of whom are also dangerous drivers from the baselines, Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. The aforementioned, aside from the rookie Prince (7-for-10 FGs, 2-for-2 3FGs in Game 3), are past due for impactful performances at the offensive end of the floor. Atlanta is the capital of Southern Hospitality, and Millsap has represented the City Too Busy To Hate just fine. Still, we would love to have only the finest duvet covers awaiting Morris and the Wizards’ return, specifically by making Friday’s “if-necessary” Game 6 very necessary. Yes, the Wiz might need to find some new luxury lodging options, after Jason Smith reportedly fouled the bellhop during their latest stay. But no matter which 4-star inn they choose, our visitors can count on a full tissue box in every room, plus an array of on-demand flicks available to help Markieff avoid our SportsCenter highlights. Bless his heart. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. #SquadGoals (Premature Offseason Edition) This series ain’t a series until somebody wins a game on the road. For the Atlanta Hawks and their fans, they’re hoping there won’t be a series until after Game 5 or Game 7. If so, that means the Hawks took care of business here at The Highlight Factory, beginning today against those oh-so-offended Washington Wizards (5:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC; TNT if you can stomach it). The True To Atlanta bill has come due. A regular season flavored with banging hip hop concerts, boisterous “ATL” chants, playground remodels, community outreach events, Tinder Nights, all that stuff were mere appetizers setting up the main course, to be served to us fans by our boys in Torch Red. No one is here to watch the Hawks lay down like they did on way too many occasions this season at Philips Arena. But to be True To ATL and pull off a pair of resounding victories at Philips Arena over the next few days, these Hawks have to show they can be true to one another. You’d be hard-pressed to find, in the history of American sports consciousness, a time when an Atlanta team or player was granted the upper hand in a national media-fueled war of words. Whether it’s all this talmbout “MMA”, or the suggestion that the Wizards played the best ball of their natural lives (they hadn’t) yet could only win by single digits, or that our small-ball lineups are clearly superior (it’s not), virtually everything is bulletin board material for the pearl clutchers from the District of Columbia. Every unnecessary utterance of self-praise, or of silver linings, by the Hawks has been served up like a T-ball and hit out the park by the Wizards. So, please, don’t nobody remind them of this Instagram post, back when Dennis Schröder was trying to make nice with Dwight Howard, in the aftermath of I-Thought-You-Had-Steph-Gate. “We the best DUO in the Pick & Roll !!! Nobody can stop us .. when we both play on the highest level !!!” The best duo, Dennis? O rly? Well, John Wall and his furrowed brow would like to have a word with… whoa, whoa, careful with all that gang signage there, Johnny! You wouldn’t want to re-injure your precious wrist, right? This is not merely about the former #1 pick in the league getting his gander up about every perceived slight. Wall has built up his rep over seven seasons as the fastest point guard, the most athletic point guard, the best-passing point guard, and now, the highest-scoring point guard in the East… who hasn’t won jack. Despite fits and starts, the four-time All-Star has guided his franchise to its best season in over a generation, and the teams seeded above Washington in the playoffs are looking quite shaky. He’s had to wait for LeBron to sail out of South Beach, and for whatever that was Atlanta was doing in 2015, before his Wizards could lay claim to being the class of the Southeast Division. After years of disrespect and disappointment, the path to the NBA Finals and global acclaim is finally Wall’s to blaze. And yet… who is THIS kid, standing in the way of his manifest destiny? Established contemporaries like Kemba Walker, Jeff Teague, or Goran Dragic were one thing. But this… this… BOY (pronounced “BWOAHH”, in Raleigh-speak)? This “ute” over here, with the poor-man’s Kwame hairdo? This youngster, three inches smaller, 25 pounds lighter, three years his junior, is Wall’s biggest threat to staking his claim? Oh, no, this shall not stand! Fortunately, Schröder has no designs on just going and sitting down somewhere. He remembers last year, when the 4-seed Hawks won its first two opening-round games at home, and things seemed dire for the 5-seed at the time. Then the series shifted to Boston, and by the time Game 4 came to an overtime close, the Celtics had evened the series, and fans and media alike were crafting love ballads for small-wonder Isaiah Thomas. Schröder could benefit from a little of that action, and a pair of upstaging wins could do the trick. Nevermind that the next Boston playoff victory didn’t come until last night. From the looks of things, you’d have thought the Celtics won that series. Just like, if you queried the average fan, Paul Pierce’s Wizards “won” that conference semifinal series against the Hawks in 2015. Wall has been selling, “See, the way my wrist was set up…”, to anyone who’ll listen ever since. He’s not just out to win this series, but to redeem his failures during the 2015 matchup as well. Schröder (24.0 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.5 TOs/game) knows this, and when Wall starts selling wolf tickets and staredowns just for doing his job, Dennis recognizes it for what it really is: desperation. When these point guards go head-to-head, there is only one Third Round Virgin on the floor. Dennis is perfectly fine playing the role of the fly in Wall’s ointment, as Wall’s endless swatting at Schröder serves to distract him from the true tasks at hand. Dennis would like to accomplish more than just getting under the All-Star guard’s skin from game to game, but he needs a lot more help than he has received thus far in this series. Hawks fans don’t need to see the “best duo” at the pick-and-roll performing today, they merely need to see a 1-5 combo for the Hawks that is at least functional on the offensive end. Howard (6.5 PPG, 5-for-11 FGs) has had his lunch eaten to this point by former understudy Marcin Gortat (14.0 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 6.0 offensive RPG, 3.5 BPG). It’s part of the reason coach Mike Budenholzer has been leaving his $25 million free agent prize to sit on his hands in the clutch. But even when the Hawks go “small”, they have been mere witnesses to Wall’s paint dimes to Gortat, the true “best duo” that is far more experienced than anything Atlanta can field. Howard was on the floor in the third quarter, when Atlanta’s starting unit gained the upper hand for the first time in this series. His presence around the offensive post in the fourth-quarter of Game 2, were he fed the ball, could have prematurely ended the day for Washington’s key healthy bigs. Dwight’s absence on the other end resulted in productive second-chance buckets for the Wizards. Whether Howard struggles for stretches or not, if he’s getting less floor time than Bazemore, the Hawks are not winning playoff games versus the Wizards or anyone else. With Tim Hardaway, Jr. at his side, with Kent Bazemore getting floor time beyond anyone’s comfort level, with Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. at his occasional disposal, there is no reason why Dennis (4-for-13 3FGs; 8 teammates a combined 11-for-32 3FGs) should be leading the team in three-pointers made. Inside and out, the ball has been moving better for Atlanta, allowing them to stay within shouting distance of the Wizards in the second halves. But to gain and sustain leads, it is imperative for Schröder’s shooters to produce from the perimeter. The Hawks made hay as one of the NBA’s best at forcing turnovers (15.6 opponent TOs per possession, 2nd in NBA regular season, tied with Washington). But whether it has been the starters or the reserves, Atlanta has sat back and allowed the Wizards (10.0 TO%, tied with Milwaukee as best among East playoff teams) to dissect them. Meanwhile, the Hawks have stayed true to their sloppy selves (17.0 TO%, by far the worst in the playoffs), even as Schröder has been uncharacteristically careful. Dennis will make his fair share of mistakes, as the first-year starter is apt to do. But he cannot be left hanging out to dry by his teammates while the Wizards spark Wall on fastbreaks. For all the praise he has heaped upon Malcolm Delaney this season, Coach Bud needs to show Atlanta why it was worth the trouble to stay true to him. Delaney and Thabo Sefolosha (4 combined minutes to date, all by Sefolosha) need to devour some of the playing time bestowed upon Bazemore, who was atrocious at the close of Game 2. Delaney (and perhaps you, reading this) are better on-ball defensive options than Jose Calderon versus Brandon Jennings, the backup point whose late dash helped the Wizards turn the tide early in the final quarter of Game 2’s 109-101 win. Sefolosha is purportedly healthy, and should have a vital role in evening out the turnover margin in this series. He could also do a better job defensively than Hardaway did in containing Bradley Beal, whose 16 fourth-quarter points eclipsed Millsap’s 14 third-quarter points in Game 2. Game 3 and Game 4 are prime opportunities for the Hawks to show the NBA world what being True To Atlanta is all about, and for Dennis to show why he is truly a Menace. Meanwhile, John Wall won’t make it easy to be Schröder’s Instagram foil anymore. Ain’t that right, John? High-five, up top… no, John, with your shooting hand… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “I hear you, Melo, but she’s a Honey of an O, tho!” Happy 4/19! Sure, 4/20 is right around the corner, but you’re just going to have to forgive Atlanta Hawks fans for jumping the gun, what with our short attention spans and perpetual hunger pangs. Atlanta likes our Hawks, sure. But we crave what truly gets us our high: good, intense, entertaining, compelling pro basketball. Especially whenever the NBA Playoffs roll around, we’re on the hunt for that good kush. If the Hawks put out more of that chronically synthetic crap in Game 2 (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC, NBATV) like they did through much of Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, then don’t blame us hoop stoners if our eyes begin wandering off in search of Sour Diesel – not the Squawker variety, mind you, the NBA strain. To be, well, blunt about it, just watching ex-Hawks awash on other teams right now makes for some pretty good munchies. The Son of Tito hemming and hawing his way through press conferences after an 0-2 start, struggling to avoid becoming the common denominator for the last two #1 seeds that got swept out of the playoffs? Coach Fizdale flipping that spot where his wig should be, over the refs’ oddly-swallowed whistles? Jeff holding serve versus Kyrie, while Kyle mostly spectates alongside Edy and Dahntay from the bench? This is some quality ganja right here. DeMarre, with the hopes of a whole nation on his back, tilting at the beast named Giannis? Jamal once again shooting and dribbling madly to try and save his playoff team’s bacon, only this time for Coach Doc against Joe Clutch (and Shelvin, and Boris, and Coach Quin)? Zaza simply doing what he can to stay the heck out of his star teammates’ way? Don’t get greedy with that; puff, puff, pass! Our present-day Hawks, down just 0-1, have plenty of time to become Atlanta’s focal point again. But tonight, it is going to take a lot more than the first-half ATLchemy stirred up by Coach Bud ((cough, cough… sorry!)) and his crew in the series opener. During Game 1, Dennis Schröder found his second gear on offense, serving up 25 points (3-for-5 3FGs), 9 assists and just 2 turnovers. Alas, he and Paul Millsap (19 points, 5-for-7 2FGs, 9-for-11 FTs) seemed to forget there was another end of the floor, one on which John Wall (playoff career-high 32 points, 14 assists) can thrive. And aside from Kent Bazemore (4 assists, one turnover in 28 bench minutes), hardly any Hawks helped Schröder move the ball, making it easy on Washington defenders to hone in on Atlanta shooters (7-for-25 3FGs). Schröder’s starting backcourt mate, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (2-for-11 FGs, 0-for-6 3FGs) had the Wizards feeling like they won the trade deal with Kelly Oubre (11 points, 2 steals in 19 bench minutes). Hardaway’s opponent, Bradley Beal, was 2-for-11 on three-pointers alone, and got just three shots at the free throw line. Yet Beal made a difference in Washington’s 114-107 victory by contributing with other competitive facets (7-for-10 2FGs, 3 assists, 3 steals) in ways Hardaway did not. Sap (2 paltry rebounds, 1 assist, no steals) continues to seek out a decent Playoff Paul version of himself, when Regular Season Paul would do just fine. He and Dwight Howard (minus-25 plus/minus through the first three quarters) found themselves outclassed on the Verizon Center floor by Markieff Morris (21 points, 7-for-13 2FGs, 4 blocks in his playoff debut) and Marcin Gortat (7-for-11 FGs, 10 rebounds). The Wizard duo’s eight offensive rebounds effectively neutralized any chance the Hawks had to effect the outcome via the glass. Atlanta shot just 33.3 percent from the field in a low-scoring opening half, including 3-for-11 on threes. Yet the Hawks clung to a three-point halftime lead, thanks to drawing (according to Millsap) MMA-quality fouls from the Wizards and eventually sinking their free throws. Atlanta finished with 32 makes on their final 36 attempts in Game 1, including 19 in a row in the first half, after missing their first three shots. That Hawks lead could have been more impressive had Millsap not gifted Morris with three free throw gifts as the half came to a close, followed by an exchange that only worked to enliven Morris and the Wizards going into the locker room. Washington was the only team that seemed to make strategic defensive adjustments in Game 1 during the break. The hacking from Coach Scott Brooks’ squad slowed, allowing the Wizards’ starters to remain on the floor. Experiencing little pressure on the ball from Hawks defenders, Wall (15 points and 4 assists in the third quarter) and Beal (12 fourth-quarter points) began to find their flow. The Wizards over-rely on their starting five (inclusive of Otto Porter), whose 1347 floor minutes in the regular season exceeded the next-highest 5-man NBA lineup by 467 minutes. True to form, this unit’s 25.4 minutes in Game 1 is the most by any 5-man lineup so far. Yet their second-half mastery of the Hawks’ top line rendered Atlanta’s 35-15 edge in bench points (11 of those 15 by Oubre alone) meaningless. The Hawks were only able to turn the tide, down double-digits, in the first quarter when Bud and then Brooks (inexplicably) turned to their reserves. If there is one person on the Hawks’ end of the floor who is capable of decoding Coach Scotty’s offensive game plans, it’s the guy who was his small forward for six seasons in OKC. Yet Thabo Sefolosha found himself classified as DNP-WTF, even as the Wizards offense (69 second-half points) began freely picking the Hawks apart. Atlanta could coax just 12 turnovers (five off steals) out of Washington, whose players committed at least 18 turnovers in each regular-season matchup with the Hawks. Atlanta was 5-11 when they produced five or fewer steals in the regular season, 10-17 when their opponents committed 12 turnovers or less. In Atlanta’s sole victory over Washington this season, the season-opener, the Hawks gathered 13 steals, including five thefts from Sefolosha in 22 bench minutes. Rookie Taurean Prince was spirited but perhaps overutilized in his debut as a playoff starter (4-for-7 2FGs, 2-for-4 3FGs, 6 rebounds in 32 minutes). Despite his struggles throughout the back half of this season, Thabo (team-high 1.5 SPG; just behind Millsap with 2.9 deflections per game) will be needed in this series for more than just sideline pep talks. The Hawks must make their man defense and motion offense look edible to their feening fanbase in Game 2. True Believers are true believers, but if we have to wait until Game 3 in Atlanta to see sound efforts at both ends from these Hawks fresh from the locker room, we’ll be tempted to draw our NBA toke from somewhere else tonight. Our channel-changing fingers will quiver, and they know why. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. He finally got himself a bobblehead. So happy for Nipsey Russell! ((Ongoing computer issues, so here’s a condensed version. Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all enjoying the holidays!)) Offense Wins Championships! You know the not-so-old adage by now. It’s kind of a shame for our Atlanta Hawks that they come into the NBA Playoffs with the Eastern Conference’s best defensive efficiency at the worst possible time. For their trouble, Mike Budenholzer’s interior-defensive-minded crew gets to wrangle in the opening round with the favored Washington Wizards (Game 1: 1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TNT), who have finally embraced the magic of the three-point jumpshot as a team. There’s little surprise that the Wizards’ greatest-ever offensive efficiency coincides with their first division title and most regular-season wins (still not 50? Geez!) since d*ck Motta’s NBA Finalists back in 1979. Dwight Howard enters this series with all the look and countenance of Barney the Dinosaur, albeit a lot less tubby. Tall in stature, grinning from ear-to-ear, playful, lots of equally playful friends around him. He loves ATL, ATL loves him, and he bears no earthly idea just how close his game is hurtling toward extinction. But why should Dwight care about how the times are a changin’, anyway? Besides, the happy-go-lucky Howard was one of a handful of players who were on the floor in each of the past two seasons to help beat the Golden State Warriors in a conference playoff game. Two seasons ago, he tag-teamed with James Harden and carried a starting unit that featured Josh Smith AND Jason Terry back from 3-1 down to reach a Conference Finals. He was on the floor during one of the last two times LeBron James tried, and failed, to reach the NBA Finals. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the tenth consecutive season, but the crushing weight of blowout postseason losses have been a drain over the years for its fans. The common denominator throughout almost all of those years of pummeling playoff exits now dons clover green for the East’s top seed. Howard is quite familiar with those beatdowns of the past. Back when NBA fans used to seek out his jerseys, back when he could pose as Superman with barely a snicker uttered from the stands, his Magic was in Atlanta setting the NBA record for the largest margin of victory in a four-game sweep. Orlando’s 101 extra points in the 2010 conference semis eclipsed the 72-point margin LeBron’s Cavs enjoyed versus the Hawks just one season prior. Dwight was also front-and-center in 2011, when the Hawks finally pulled it together and toppled the higher-seeded Magic, then the defending conference champs, in front of a rabid Philips Arena crowd. Perhaps it was here where Howard came to discover just how True To Atlanta Hawks fans can be. He would love to feel that same unwavering support now that he wears his NBA hometown across his chest for a playoff run. Leading the NBA Playoffs in per-game rebounding, as Dwight has done in two of the last three seasons (NBA-high 13.9 RPG since 2013-14), doesn’t carry the same cachet it once did, when guys named Shaq, Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler were in their championship heydays. But this is Playoff Dwight, and Playoff Dwight is what Atlanta has committed itself to pay for. There will be no more Hawks starting centers biding time until the closing seconds of pivotal games to make impactful rebounds. There’s one man standing in the way of Dwight Howard’s domination of the glass in this series, and that man is Dwight’s former understudy in Orlando. Similarly on the right side of 40, Marcin Gortat isn’t likely to stand in Dwight’s way the whole time. He’ll spend a lot of the time out of the paint on offense, setting screens to spring free his backcourt stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, and occasionally popping jumpers (35.8 jumpshot FG%). Gortat will go inside to loft his nifty hook shot (61.2 FG% on hooks), or wherever the opportunity to draw fouls on Howard is greatest. Besides avoiding foul trouble, Howard’s challenges in this series include trusting his teammates, including All-Defensive Team candidate Paul Millsap, to cover the rim and avoid the urge to sag on opponents’ screens. He and Schröder will keep the Hawks competitive in this series if they keep the ball from sticking, setting sound picks, involving teammates, and making decisive plays in the flow of the offense, before Wall and the Wizards (8.5 team SPG, 2nd in NBA) can sink their teeth in defensively and spark their own transition plays (17.7 PPG off TOs, most in East). The Hawks can make an even stronger run if the resurgent bench performers, including Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries (on our side, this time around) and Jose Calderon, don’t compound whatever offensive mistakes their starters make with their own. While Atlanta fields one of the older and playoff-seasoned rosters in the Eastern Conference, this postseason run for Dwight and the Hawks needs not be a Last Hurrah. The pressure is on Wall, Beal, Gortat and the Wizards, not the Hawks, to demonstrate they’re finally ready to turn the corner by overcoming the franchise that last dispatched them in their last playoff game in 2015. This series will remain intriguing so long as the Hawks treat this Hurrah as if it’s merely the first one. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “Miss Me Yet?” Our Atlanta Hawks veer into Verizon Center for a final regular-season tilt with the Washington Wizards (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; ESPN everywhere else). They’ll fall behind by 15 early. Then, they’ll pretend to make a comeback, get the deficit down to single digits, then fall behind by 20, abandoning sound shot mechanics, turning the ball over and giving up copious three-point buckets, as the ESPN crew fills the time debating Dwight Howard’s Hall of Fame prospects. Let’s Go Hawks! What? You’re still here? You really need to hear about these Wizards (42-28) seeking to reduce their magic number, to five, for their first NBA division title since 1979? How they need this victory to secure the head-to-head series, in the unlikely event of a tiebreaker? About how they, like Atlanta, have managed to lose four of their last five games? Most recently, shooting 22.9 percent on threes, and dominated on the defensive boards, in a home loss to Al Horford’s Celtics? Do you need to know that as easily a time as Hawks opponents have had from the perimeter (36.5 opponent 3FG%, 9th-highest in NBA) this season, foes of the Wizards (36.4 opponent 3FG%) and Cavs (36.5 opponent 3FG%) have had it just as easy? That it will help for Dennis Schröder to be in pass-first mode from the jump, finding ready-and-willing shooters among an Atlanta corps that’s likely to include Junior Dunleavy (ankle) for the first time in a while? Must it be stated that we’re likely to see a slopfest pitting the two teams that induce the most turnovers (15.5 opponent TOs per-48) in the East? That the Hawks can only get the upper hand tonight if they can keep John Wall (2.0 SPG and 5.8 fastbreak PPG, tops in East) from gaining a head of steam toward the basket with the ball in transition? Need anyone note that the Wizards’ top scorer is not Wall (22.9 PPG), but Bradley Beal (23.1 PPG)? Or, that Otto Porter (5-for-7 3FGs in Washington’s crossroads 112-86 win @ ATL on Jan. 27; 44.5 3FG%, now down to 2nd in NBA, behind KYLE FREAKING KORVER) shoots the triple just as well these days? That sealing off these shooters, plus hired gun Bojan Bogdanovic (42.9 3FG% w/ WAS) off the bench, could render Wall (31.4 3FG%, same as Paul Millsap) a high-volume but benign halfcourt circus shot-taker around the paint? Is it that important to know that Washington’s fast-food-incentivized fans have helped keep opponents’ free throws off-kilter (NBA-low 74.8 opponent FT%; 74.0% at home)? That, with Washington as heavy-handed as they are (21.3 personal fouls per-48, 3rd-most in East), every Hawk not surnamed Howard (non-Dwights 3-for-8 FTs @ CHA on Monday) needs to focus when they’re sent to the line, and not leave precious points on the table? Is it essential to be aware that the frontcourt tandem of Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat (11 combined O-Rebs @ ATL Jan. 27) are chomping at the bit to give Howard (minus-53 plus/minus in last 3 games) a hard time tonight, especially without Millsap around? That Atlanta (37-33) will have more than a puncher’s chance tonight, so long as Taurean Prince and the bench corps come off the bench with a focus on defensive rebounding and ball movement, to help take some weight off Howard and the starting five? Well, fat chance! No way am I wasting my time getting into all that… oh, wait… ~lw3 View full record
  17. #InBrotherhood heat, heat, heat, Magic, Magic, Magic, heat, heat, heat, heat, Hawks, heat. The NBA’s Southeast Division banner has escaped the Sunshine State just one time since its 2004 inception. But meeting tonight, both the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in DC) are eager to double that number of instances. That’s especially true of the visitors to the Highlight Factory. As you’ve read here plenty of times before, Washington (25-20) has gone the longest of any NBA franchise without being able to say they’ve ended their regular season at the tippy-top of their division. Their last team banner of any kind was raised after the 1978-79 season, when the then-Bullets, defending league champs, were shot from the Central to the Atlantic Division and went 54-28. Somewhere along the way, having been treated to Moses Malone, Bernard King, Chris Webber, Rod Strickland, Michael Jordan, Gil Arenas and, now, four-time All-Star John Wall, Wizards fans would like to at least have something rafter-worthy to put on display. Things weren’t looking too hot in The District when this season started. The Hawks and Wizards each gained their first wins of the season from one another, Atlanta prevailing 114-99 at home in the season opener, Washington eight days later coming out on top in a wayward-shooting 95-92 affair at the Verizon Center. But the Wizards, under the watchful eye of new head coach Scott Brooks, could only win two of their first ten games. Wall was limited by a minutes restriction after off-season double knee surgery, while Beal missed a few November games, causing fans to question the sagacity of giving Wall’s oft-injured sidekick a five-year max deal last summer. “The Wizards are Dead, and Ernie Grunfeld Has Killed Them,” screeched the pall-bearing Deadspin back in December, when Wall’s career-high 52 points were not enough to keep his team from losing at home to Orlando and dropping to 7-13 on the year (12th in the East). Yet both stars returned and are, to hear them tell it, in a good condition as ever. They also got a long-awaited boost from fourth-year forward Otto Porter, whose career breakout comes complete with an NBA-best 45.6 3FG%. These days, not much more is asked of Porter when he gets the ball on offense, besides shoot it through the net. Otto’s 6.2 TO% ranks sixth-lowest in the league, his 58.6 2FG% ranks 9th, and his 64.2 true shooting percentage ranks second in the East, behind Bebe Nogueira’s 69.9% and just ahead of dunk-master Dwight Howard’s 63.6% (4th in NBA). After years of failed development by Wizard draft picks and prospects, Porter has all of D.C. feeling like the cherry blossoms are out early. By most accounts, Wall (career-highs of 23.1 PPG, 82.4 FT%, 49.8 2FG%; NBA-high 2.2 SPG) is enjoying a career year. So, for that matter, is Beal (career-highs of 21.9 PPG, 2.7 3FGs per game, 3.6 APG, 81.6 FT%), shaking out of a recent shooting slump with 31 points to help beat the Celtics on Tuesday. Fellow starters Markieff Morris (January: 4 double-doubles, 16.6 PPG, 48.8 FG%, 37.0 3FG%) and Marcin Gortat (8 double-doubles in last 15 games; 11.4 RPG, 9th in NBA) have been rejuvenated. Now the Wizards sit just 1.5 games behind Atlanta, and would love to overtake the Hawks (27-19) in the division and conference standings before the All-Star Break arrives. “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” That was the rallying cry for the middle-of-the-pack Bullets during their 1978 run to the NBA Championship, granting the District their first pro sports title in 36 years. It could just as well have been articulated by Bob Rathbun in the minutes before Atlanta’s improbable 119-114 comeback win in the Windysfunctional City. The closing moments of Wednesday’s contest was much like the climaxing tropes of action flicks, where miraculously triumphant heroes coolly drift away from the scene, unflinching as the carnage left behind explodes into the sky. Jimmy Butler said, quite reductively, “When you win, there’s no problem,” in the aftermath of the nuclear Bulls’ team meeting today. By contrast, credit should go out to Brooks and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, and both of their teams’ veteran players, for finding ways to hold steady through the downturns in the season, even after the occasional disappointing performances and finishes pop up. At least in the Hawks’ case, any misgivings uttered to the media, social or otherwise, about players have been thoroughly aired out in the locker room and are understood to be applied collectively and inclusively. There is plenty of “we”, and not much “they”, when things aren’t going as planned. While the Wizards had to collapse and tank for a couple seasons just to get their hands on a four-time All-Star, the Hawks simply needed a general manager willing to find Paul Millsap’s doorbell. Atlanta’s stalwart power forward brings not only the production on the floor (career-best 18.0 PPG and 3.8 APG), but the ideal demeanor and candor off it. Want to know his personal gripes about Dwight, or Al Horford, or Kent Bazemore, or Dennis Schröder? You’ll never find them on Snapchat. “He’s still Paul,” Budenholzer told the AJC pregame when asked about his leadership, “It’s all relative. But I would say he’s significantly more vocal.” Wall and Beal, meanwhile, have patched up their behind-the-scenes beefs, and are even back to crowing about Best Backcourts in the East again. With their starting unit rock-solid, all the Wizards need, now, is some sense of a pulse from the reserves. Washington’s bench remains the second-worst in the league (-6.9 Net Rating), ahead only of Bitterdelphia’s. Wizard reserves turn the ball over a ton (15.6 TO%, 3rd-highest in NBA), while they struggle on the glass (74.7 D-Reb%, 24th in NBA, improving only as Brooks uses Morris at the 5-spot in the second unit) and from outside (33.3 3FG%, 25th in NBA). While Atlanta has just two starters averaging over 30 minutes per game (Schröder barely over that line at 30.7 MPG), the Wizards rely on all five starters (Morris the lowest, with 31.9 MPG), to long-haul it every night. That includes 32-year-old Gortat at 34.8 MPG, the second-highest per-game stint among non-All-Stars above age 30 (Dwight’s 29.4 minutes rank 14th). Brooks would love to rely more upon Marcus Thornton and Jason Smith, but they’re unsteady, or on youngsters Kelly Oubre (5-for-9 3FGs in past two games) and Tomas Satoransky, but they’re not quite ready. Hawks fans rightfully grumble about the perpetual unavailability of Tiago Splitter, or the under-utility of Mike Scott and the rookie wings. Yet you, reading this, have logged only 14 fewer NBA minutes than Ian Mahinmi, Washington’s four-year, $64 million free agent prize. Mahinmi got into one game back in November before going back on the shelf with knee soreness. (Double-checks… yes, Grunfeld is still punching in). Despite all of that, there is one backup guard from last season the Wizards are likely to never ask back. “I Was The Leading Scorer of The Bench (40) Games and The Best 3PT Shooter On The Washington Wizards And The Contracts My Fellow 2nd Unit Members Received…” Such began the Facebook post of one Gary Neal this past July, as he and other free agents were scoping out new deals with NBA teams, before rattling off annual-value offers he felt he deserved, too. Neal (9.8 PPG, 41 3FG% in WAS) seemed to have built up an adversarial relationship with several Wizards, past and present. CSN Mid-Atlantic cited “selfish” accusations directed his way, from players and coaches alike, for allegedly stat-padding at the expense of the team. One unnamed Wizard felt, “I should have punched him out,” after feeling shown up by Neal during the season, while another responded, when asked about the Facebook post: “Terrible teammate. All about himself.” Neal, coincidentally, is on day #10 of his 10-day contract with a Hawks team (62.5 assist%, 6th in NBA) that is very rarely all about themselves. It’s tough to glean from 18 minutes of action (0-for-7 FGs, 4-for-4 FTs in two games) whether he’ll gain another 10-day stay, or if the Hawks will look another way (Lamar Patterson, anyone?). Perhaps Neal has improved his teammate persona, or maybe the Hawks just want to deny Cleveland access to another “playmaker” for a couple more weeks. In any case, Neal’s presence tonight is likely to engender some animosity. Along the Wizard sideline, the reception could get cold like Minnesota. Perhaps inspired by tonight’s halftime performer, Hawks wings Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore will hope to help Dennis Schröder (team-high 24 points and 9 dimes @ CHI on Wednesday) get Wall repeatedly stuck in a bubblegum trap. Neutralizing Wall’s impact not only involves forcing the ball to other Wizards to make plays, but keeping maybe the speediest All-Star baller alive from piling up points in transition (5.8 fastbreak PPG, 5th in NBA). Whether it’s in transition or in the halfcourt, Atlanta defenders cannot afford to get stagnant. Without proper rotations while double-teamng the ballhandler, outlets to Beal, Morris, and Porter could have the Hawks playing from behind once again, as was the case here versus the Clippers and in Chicago. If the Hawks’ starting guards and wings prove up to the task, and if Howard and Millsap can give Morris and Gortat fits around the rim, then it will be up to Atlanta’s deeper bench to be the difference-maker in tonight’s game. Junior Hardaway kicked off his 2016-17 campaign with 21 points to topple the Wizards back on October 27, and it would be good to get him going early and often, after recent subpar offensive performances at Philips (last 4 home games: 7.5 PPG, combined 13-for-37 FGs, 3-for-17 on 3FGs). An early spark could be critical for a Hawks team that has enjoyed a first-quarter lead just once in its last ten home games (before last Saturday versus Chicago, go back to December 7 versus Miami). Hardaway want 6-for-11 in Chicago, subbing for Sefolosha and making key plays during the Hawks’ 41-point fourth-quarter flourish. Offensively, the Hawks could use more than Wednesday’s combined 3-for-11 shooting from reserves Malcolm Delaney, Kris Humphries and Junior Dunleavy. Even against Washington’s shaky subs, Coach Bud is unlikely to deploy Scott or the rooks unless he has a decent lead, so Kris and the Force MD’s will need to hold serve if they want to help keep the starters rested. Mike Muscala (ankle) remains questionable. Atlanta’s 13-9 home record is the worst among the Top 7 teams in the Eastern Conference; Washington’s 6-14 away-game mark is the worst among the East’s Top 14. Whichever of these two teams turn those records around, starting tonight and continuing through the balance of the season, is likely to be the standard-bearer in the Southeast Division moving forward. Sorry, Florida. I know you want this title for life… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record