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“Giving up Rookie donut-fetching duties, talk about how tough that was for you!”
Live, from Atlanta, it’s Stupor Bowl I!
We’ve come a long way from that one banner evening, in February 2015 at The Highlight Factory, when our Atlanta Hawks outclassed coach Steve Kerr’s future first-time champion Golden State Warriors. With their record raised to a league-best 42-9, it sure felt like the home team Hawks could do no wrong. Dare we say, NBA Finals Preview?
Not a single player from that day will be dressed when these two clubs meet tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Bay Area) on the same floor. It’s better to say that not one of those players will be in uniform, given Draymond Green (sore heel, read that however you wish, out for tonight) won’t exactly show up in a barrel, while Klay Thompson (probably out for the season, ACL rehab) and Stephen Curry are doing their best Andre Aldridge and Kent Bazemore impressions on the sideline. Not even five years later, many around the league are wondering -- if not outright worrying -- whether tonight will be an NBA Lottery Preview.
Back in the Squawk’s Schedule thread before the season began, I suggested that the Hawks were likely to stumble out of the gate, given their need for the young talent to acclimate, the inherent lack of defensive aptitude and, most importantly, a cruel November schedule. I had them at 6-14 coming into December, so being a couple games off the mark isn’t all that bad, considering the injuries, a significant suspension, and pitiful veteran depth. (Glad no one will ever know I picked all four of their actual wins wrong).
Yet I also marked today’s game as a key turning point in Atlanta’s melodious march to mediocrity, a hallmark victory that would propel the team to 40-or-so wins and a shot at putting a nice scare into a 1- or-2-seed come playoff time. What I could not have predicted was that John Collins would not be coming through that door for a few more weeks, or that Kevin Huerter (shoulder strain) would be trying to return to form for a second time.
I also errantly assumed that the Dubs would at least have Curry carrying them with Trae Young-style nightly figures, and Green holding things down until he gets thrown out of games. Without those headliners, or KD consolation prize D’Angelo Russell, or virtually anyone with championship mettle checking in, not even Kerr, who cut his hand after breaking a clipboard in frustration last week, can summon up enough fire or magic to get his team competitive for 48 minutes.
The exception on the championship mettle front is kinda sorta Kevon Looney (7-8 FGs and career-high 5 assists, in GSW’s win here about a year ago), who was thrust to the fore in the 2019 Finals due to the perpetual absences of KD and Boogie. Bothered by hip and nerve issues, he has been greenlighted to play in his first game since the season-opener tonight. The rest of the crew looks like names the players’ union might be worried about crossing a picket line during a strike. Is that Clifford Franklin and the Jackson Brothers I see out there?
You thought your favorite NBA team had issues with key starters and supporting cast members missing time. For G-State, throw in second-year guard and 2018 first-rounder Jacob Evans (strained adductor), who has played in just 3 games so far, or former Hawk and two-way Warriors guard Damion Lee (fractured hand) for good measure. This was the kind of pivotal Hawks-Warriors game I had in mind back when the schedule came out, but not with Golden State (NBA-worst 4-17) looking like this.
This is as much of a Must Win for the Hawks (4-16, 10 straight Ls, 1-13 in last 14 games), in their current state of flux, as one will find in their schedule. They’ve got the Warriors right where they want them. That is, the people wearing Warriors jerseys on the floor today, only slightly more recognizable than the fans wearing Warriors jerseys in the State Farm Arena stands. Aye, but there’s the rub.
It’s one thing to be challenged by names you know well, like James Harden (how bad was he, from Monday through Friday, to NOT win Player of the Week? Cool story for Melo, though) and Russell Westbrook. It’s another thing altogether when you’re engaged in dogfights, on your home floor, with folks you barely know, where no one is remotely an NBA star.
With all due respect to Boogie replacement Willie Cauley-Stein, Looney, former Hawks Killer and Iguodala replacement Glenn Robinson III (team-high 32.0 minutes/game), Klay fill-in Alec Burks, the career-salvaged Marquese Chriss… who do you gameplan for? “Get Out” director (I think) Jordan Poole? And, why?
The Villanova star turned steady interior scorer for the replacement Warriors has not been 2018 Hawks first-rounder Omari Spellman, but Golden State’s 2019 mid-second-round pick, Eric Paschall (17.0 PPG, 19.9 per game as a starter). Kerr has offered Spellman encouraging compliments of late – “He’s really explosive athletically,” the coach said following Omari’s double-double in a suddenly rare win last week versus Chicago. But it’s Paschall who’s getting the top-line minutes, and the rookie has rewarded them with boundless energy.
Together, the body-double Dubs have some nice-enough size, but the offense (104.7 O-Rating, 25th in NBA) gets stilted when Kerr has too many of them out there at once. That’s especially true when Draymond isn’t in the mix. They also don’t rebound well enough as a team (71.1 D-Reb%, 26th in NBA) for players who often have size, or at least girth, advantages on paper.
This is the rare game where Atlanta *should* be capable of asserting itself at both ends, treating Hawks fans in the crowd to their first home win in nearly a month. It’s the rare game where the biggest star on the floor is a Hawk with a chance to shine. But someone who is not a SLAM magazine cover model has to produce consistently from outside the 3-point arc.
Zach LaVine’s Bulls thought they had a lifeline when they traipsed into Chase Center last Wednesday in search of a rare win. LaVine lit up the Nets with 36 points, but his team as a whole shot 38.2 percent from the field, and they found themselves at the mercies of Paschall, Spellman (2 steals and 3 blocks off the bench, in addition to his double-doub), and point-guard-by-default Burks. Aside from slinging the ball around, Draymond (8 assists) barely had to lift a finger.
The offensively woeful Orlando Magic shot 42.5 FG% as a team, but they had to hang on last night for a 100-96 win at home against a Warriors unit, with Green (7 of GSW’s 21 assists) that will shoot much better than 39.6 percent from the floor in Atlanta. One or two players (like Evan Fournier last night) are allowed to go off, but the Warriors are showing they can thrive against unbalanced opposing offenses.
So far, the only semi-reliable option not named Trae for Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has been rookie De’Andre Hunter, whose 3-for-9 shooting from downtown helped road-weary Atlanta escape Houston on Saturday without a 50-burger loss in the pit of their stomachs. Relieved from the travails of defending in Harden’s grand shadow, Hunter may be in for a banner day tonight if he can just figure out which Warriors to lock onto and exploit.
It is a grand test for the Hawks coaching staff to make sure the players understand and adhere to their defensive roles versus Kerr’s nebulous Warrior lineups. If they comprehend who they’re supposed to guard, and how to get open for convertible shots, tonight, they won’t be worrying over where the fifth win on the schedule will come from, tomorrow.
The Warriors have reason to use tonight as a springboard as well. The next games after this are in Charlotte and Chicago, then back home to face Memphis (probably without Ja Morant) and the Knicks. Atlanta is just 4.5 games out of the 8th spot in the East. But even in the rough-and-tumble NBA West, Golden State sits 5.5 games behind the setting 8th-seeded Suns. A nice little run here or there, and maybe the Splash Brothers might not need to sit out the whole regular season, after all.
Such a prospect might scare a first-round opponent or two, but not the rest of the league. Travis Schlenk and company collecting upper-tier first-round talents like Monopoly Game pieces is one thing. But his former employer getting a top pick with healthy stars returning for 2020-21 runs chills up people’s spines as they look on at Tankathon in dismay. No one ever wants to know that a Wiseman once said, “Man, was I lucky to wind up with the Warriors!”
Let’s Go Hawks!