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“Workin’ on a Cleveland weekend vacation guide. You mind helpin’ me out?”
Our Atlanta Hawks helped the Orlando Magic slow their descent, if only for a moment, before the All-Star Break. Tonight’s host, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio), hope the Hawks will do them a similar favor.
Sorry, Cavs. But my Hawks are on a very important, single-minded mission this evening. It’s time to firm up those sipping words!
“Trae Young is here in Chicago this weekend, despite the Hawks having ONE OF the worst records in the Eastern Conference.” Sip, everybody, sip!
“Ernie, ah’m tellin ya, there shouldn’t be anybody here on All-Star Weekend representin their conference when their team has the worst record!”
“Chuck, the Hawks (15-40) only have ONE OF the worst records. The Cavs (13-40) are worst.” Sip!
“All ah’m sayin, is we can’t have players on bad teams getting into All-Star Weekend.”
“Chuck, your Sixers were next-to-last in the Atlantic Division with a losing record when you went to the ’88 All-Stars.”
“Shaddup, Kenny. That’s ONE OF the worst ties you’ve got on that ah’ve ever seen.” Sip!
“Weren’t y’all near last place before 1992’s All-Stars, when you were barking your way out of Philly, too?”
“Aren’t you in need of a pedicure, Shaq? Listen, lemme say this. We were ONE OF the worst teams,” Sip!, “but ah had to put up with Kenny Payne and Charles Shackleford. And, one other thing… Collin Sexton is a Rising Star in this league, he’s a great rookie.”
“He’s… he’s not a…”
“ONE OF the best rookies in his class.” Sip! “Oh, Andre Drummond is ONE OF the best big men in basketball,” Sip!, “and he deserves to be here.”
“We’re going to go to a commercial break before Chuck starts advocating for Kevin Love, too.”
“That’s ONE OF the best ideas I’ve heard in this segment, Ernie.” Sip!
Forgive Chuckles and the stream of unconsciousness we and his TV partners must endure this weekend. Yes, the Cavs would remain percentage points behind Atlanta with the first win at Quicken Loans Arena in their last 13 tries. But we know Auburn Mathematics in the 80’s didn’t get much beyond the first decimal. Seeing both clubs tied in the “games behind” column of the standings would only further embolden Charles’ point, which is technically a line but for 80’s-era Auburn Geometry.
All-Star Break ’88 spelled doom for Barkley’s coach, Matty Guokas, and this season’s intermission could similarly be the end of the ‘lein. Cavaliers first-year coach John Beilein signed a five-year deal back in May of 2019. But we know by now that owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t mind paying coaches to get lost.
Beilein’s departure would make the next clipboard clutcher the seventh in Cleveland’s last seven-and-a-half seasons. Coming off the worst home loss in 50 years of franchise history (which IS saying something for those of us who recall the Richfield years), a 133-92 thumping at the hands of a Clippers team on a SEGABABA that sat Kawhi Leonard and Pat Beverley, the Cavs and Beilein need a momentum-shifting victory tonight in the worst way.
Andre Drummond (19 points, 2-fo-3 3FGs, 14 rebounds incl. 7 O-Rebs vs. LAC in his Cavs debut) won’t address the Cavs’ interior defensive woes the way Clint Capela is expected to eventually do for Atlanta. But the man can rebound, and as Kevin Love (questionable, sore Achilles) and Tristan Thompson zone out for the remainder of the season, Cleveland hopes Drummond (NBA-high 15.8 RPG, only player besides Love to lead league with 15+ RPG since 2003) should be able to hone in on his strongest attribute.
Cavalier opponents have had little trouble getting desirable shots up (NBA-worst 49.3 opponent FG%, incl. 56.2 opponent 2FG%; NBA-low 3.2 team BPG). But on the occasions where foes have lousy shooting nights, Drummond (1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, as per bball-ref) can help clean up the glass for Cleveland and give his team a puncher’s chance.
The early returns on the backcourt pairing of Sexton with Darius Garland (minus-12.0 points per 100 possessions, per bball-ref) continue to show little promise. Garland leads all rooks with 32 games hitting at least two threes, but he has been driving the struggle bus lately (31.3 3FG% in past 15 games). His lack of defensive production and inability to draw trips to the free throw line has him hitting the rookie wall like the Kool-Aid Man.
The Young Bull from Cobb County, Sexton has been carrying the Cavs on his back (22.8 PPG, 47.9 3FG%, 94.0 FT% in last 15 games), exemplified back on December 23 when his team-high 25 points (12-for-19 2FGs) helped the Cavs eclipse the Hawks in John Collins’ return to NBA action. The rookie that has best supported Sexton of late has been not lottery-pick Garland, but the final pick of 2019’s first round.
Kevin Porter nearly outscored Atlanta’s bench with 17 points (to the Hawks’ 15; incl. 9 in the final frame on Dec. 23), adding on 9 rebounds and teaming up with Love and Garland for a furious fourth-quarter opening rally to fend off the Hawks early. Porter was also one of the few bright spots against the Clippers (17 points in 27 bench minutes) and may be angling for Garland’s starting gig after the Break.
The lack of any significant defensive presence on the floor has harmed Cleveland’s chances of staying competitive (NBA-worst minus-9.4 Net Rating), perpetually at the mercy of opponents that aren’t having poor shooting nights, finish close and/or open shots, and hustle back defensively in transition. Atlanta hasn’t often been that kind of team, especially late (42-30 4th-quarter deficit in the 135-126 loss to the Magic, whose 4th-quarter offense was their season-best). But recent losses in Boston and Orlando suggest they’re beginning to sort things out.
Despite the struggles to thwart the East’s worst field-goal shooters as Monday’s outcome hung in the balance, a healthier set of Atlanta swingmen inclusive of Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter (available, played in ORL despite an ankle sprain) and DeAndre’ Bembry (probable, neuritis) ought to make it tougher to have Cedi Osman (38.9 3FG%) and, if he plays, Love, bailing Sexton and Garland out of tough spots. Wing players not patrolling the perimeter must be in position to disrupt passes in the paint and recover tip-outs and rebounds off wild shots that Thompson, Love and/or Drummond will be hunting for.
It’s fairly safe for bettors to take the Over no matter the line, as Young’s Hawks and Sexton’s Cavs (125+ regulation points at home vs. GSW, NYK, and LAC this month) give up buckets quite easily. But if the Hawks push the tempo and limit their own turnovers on offense, they should find themselves spending much of the evening playing with the higher of the two scores.
Cleveland’s coach may need Love to help Drummond play keep-away against Atlanta’s frontline of Collins (one of five players now averaging 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG; 56.7 FG% highest among the quintet) and Dewayne Dedmon. After all, Beilein doesn’t want news of his ouster to become a byline anytime soon.
Speaking of Love, I don’t even need three special words to make my weekend ONE OF the best ever. Two will do just fine. Sip!
Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy the All-Star Break. Let’s Go Hawks!
“When you wish upon a Star… Makes a difference who you are…”
I can’t speak for you, but I am kind of glad, no longer having to care at all about the fate of the Netspick. In a secondary way, Atlanta Hawks fans no longer have to be concerned about tonight’s opponent, the slip-sliding Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), or any other lotto-quality Eastern Conference foe holding down one of the final two available playoff spots.
For a minute there, mere weeks ago, it was looking like the 7-seed was no longer in play. Despite losing defensive glue Jonathan Isaac (severe knee sprain suffered on New Year’s Day) for the balance of January, the Magic responded by going 5-2, highlighted by a win at STAPLES Center, without Evan Fournier, over a Laker team that thought it was safe to rest Anthony Davis.
Unfortunately for coach Steve Clifford’s crew, Orlando’s depth began absorbing too many hits. Knee surgery last month for the already-injured Al-Farouq Aminu, arguably the team’s biggest free agent addition over the summer, effectively concluded his season before it could really get going. Orlando was granted a Disabled Player Exception for Aminu, but not for Isaac, the latter application an indication that he won’t be rushed back by the team any time soon.
In and out for much of the season already, Michael Carter-Williams was missing time due to injury, and by the time he returned to action in mid-January, he tagged out D.J. Augustin, whose patella irritation (still out tonight) has had the lead bench guard unavailable ever since.
Orlando had already weathered the storm of losing recent All-Star pivot Nikola Vucevic for a month. But for a squad that relied on defensive fortitude from Isaac, a discrete set of offensive options around wayward-shooting ballhandler Markelle Fultz, and snail’s-pace ball-control keyed by Augustin and Carter-Williams off the bench as pillars to victory, Clifford’s Magic seem to be just about out of tricks.
One night after upsetting LeBron’s Lakers to get within a game of .500 basketball, Orlando had to endure the dreaded STAPLES back-to-back and got clapped by the Clippers. They’ve been in an O-Town Funk ever since. Two wins, both on the road at charcoaled Charlotte, are all the team can claim from their past twelve contests. Their last victory here at Amway Center, over a month ago, came at the expense of a Wizards team that didn’t even have All-Star wannabe Bradley Beal.
The Magic (22-31) began a three-game homestand getting toyed with by Giannis and top-seeded Milwaukee, a preview of what might be a sad but swift playoff opening round, should no other Eastern lottery teams step it up in the coming months. With just two home games left before the All-Star Break (Detroit arrives on Wednesday), the Magic hopes they can face a squad that tired itself out last night in Atlanta. The Hawks (15-39) needed four quarters and a pair of overtimes to outlast a Knicks team that itself was playing a back-to-back.
Remember that the Magic had already been awaiting several young players to get healthy and emerge as stars for the future. They spent a mid-first-rounder on Atlanta native Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL while starring for Auburn during last year’s March Madness campaign, with the intention of rehabbing and bringing him along slowly as Aminu and Amile Jefferson played behind Gordon this season. They’ve been pleased that Fultz and center Mo Bamba have been healthy, steady members of the rotation. But they have been forced to rely more on the lotto-pick pair at critical junctures of this season than they likely anticipated. The same goes for third-year bench players Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch.
Having already tripled his volume of starts in Philly before the Sixers discarded him, Markelle passes and shoots inside the arc reasonably well (4.8 APG; 50.1 2FG%). He’d be all the more dangerous with dribble penetration if he had reliable perimeter shooters at the ready. Atlanta ranks 30th in three-point accuracy (32.6 3FG%, 34.3% since Jan. 1), but the Magic (33.4 3FG%, 33.5 since Jan. 1) are coming on strong for that dead-last spot.
2019 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terrence Ross’ jumper has plummeted back to Earth this year (32.2 3FG%, 3-for-19 FGs vs. ATL this season). Vucevic and Gordon combined to shoot 0-for-13, and Ross 1-for-4, from deep against the Bucks in Saturday’s 111-95 loss, making Fultz (3-for-7 3FG vs. MIL, a season-high in makes; 26.9 3FG% on the season) look quite the marksman.
At least the Hawks have a point guard in Trae Young (39 points, incl. 13 in 4th quarter; 5-for-10 3FGs, incl. the game-clincher, vs. ORL on Oct. 26) who can call his own number on occasion. Perhaps, two, at least until Jeff Teague (37.1 2FG%, probable for tonight despite sore shoulder) gets out of his shooting rut. Without Young, Brandon Goodwin saved the day for the Hawks in Orlando back on December 30, sinking big shots inside and out (team-high 21 points, 3-for-4 3FGs), generally catching the Magic off-guard in a 101-93 win.
The former UCF and Florida Gulf Coast star guard isn’t as effective in spot duty. But when Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has turned to the two-way player and Midseason All-G-Leaguer for major minutes, Goodwin (just 4 minutes last night vs. NYK) has shown he’s up to the task (42.9 FG%, 100 FT%, 24 assists and 12 TOs in games w/ 20+ minutes).
The sole major move by Magic exec Jeff Weltman to bolster team depth was the acquisition of James Ennis, the reserve forward who generally struggled with Philadelphia this season (37.0 FG% since Dec. 31) before waiving his no-trade clause to come to Orlando. Ennis is expected to premiere tonight for the Magic, who waived Jefferson at the Trade Deadline to accommodate Ennis and make 10-day contractor Gary Clark a full-time member.
It is hoped that Ennis’ addition will give Gordon (41.9 FG%, 15.4 points and 3.4 assists per-36, down from 44.9%, 17.0 and 4.0 last season) more latitude to play full-time at the power forward spot, where he is perceived to be more effective. Orlando is 9-4 when AG snares 8 or more defensive rebounds, 3-13 when he grabs fewer than five. The Magic frontline has struggled to this point when plugging in either Iwundu or Ross in place of the sidelined Isaac, so they hope Ennis will be a difference maker defensively.
Along the way to a 42-40 record in 2018-19, their first winning season since 2011-12, Clifford’s Magic were among three opponents to sweep the 29-53 Hawks in four games, and the only one to win them all by double-digit margins. With a chance to improve to 3-0 versus Orlando this season, it is reasonable to wonder whether Pierce and the Hawks finally have the Magic’s number.
Clifford’s 36-46 Hornets similarly swept the 2017-18 Hawks by double-digits in four games. Matt Hill, a longtime Magic video analyst who was the sole assistant initially retained by Clifford when he took over for Frank Vogel in 2018, left shortly thereafter to join Pierce’s staff, and his intimate knowledge may be proving valuable in Atlanta’s competitive turnaround against mainstays Vucevic, Fournier and Gordon (DNP vs. ATL on Dec. 30). The trio was a combined 5-for-28 on threes and has been generally ineffective in second halves versus Atlanta through the first two matchups.
Orlando may catch an extra break keeping up offensively if Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (38.3 corner 3FG% on team-high 1.6 attempts per game; team-high 35 minutes, 3-for-6 3FGs @ ORL in December; 48 minutes, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. NYK; questionable, ankle sprain) gets some rest today. Without several wing defenders available for the Hawks, Fournier and Ross must each be on-target today.
Catching up with Orlando and attaining a playoff spot is a bit too much of an ask at this stage for a Hawks team that struggled to put the Knicks to bed last night, and they won’t have a core with a chance to gel until Clint Capela (out, heel bone) and Cam Reddish (questionable, concussion) make their likely returns after the All-Star Break. But it is possible for the Hawks to surge soon past at least one division rival.
A win tonight would raise Atlanta to 5-4 within the Southeast Division (0-3 versus banner leader Miami), an above-.500 mark that neither Charlotte (1-6; 2.0 games ahead of ATL) nor Washington (4-8; 4.5 games ahead of ATL) is likely to claim. By comparison, yesterday’s win over New York vaulted Atlanta to just 4-22 versus the rest of the conference.
Building competitive edges against the rest of the Southeast can bode well for Atlanta, both going into the Break and looking forward to next season. Will they have the legs and the wherewithal to keep building against the struggling Magic tonight? Orlando certainly hopes the answer is no.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Him! Section 120, Row G! He called me something that rhymes with Rich!”
How bad have things gotten for you as an NBA owner when your team’s fans can hardly celebrate a five-game win streak? If the New York Knicks return home from today’s game with the Atlanta Hawks victorious (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG in NYC), we may soon see just how bad.
With Mike Miller coaching to his players’ individual strengths, New York (17-36) has bounced back from a 3-12 January swoon by rattling off four straight wins, three of them away from The World’s Most Fickle Arena, including one in Indiana.
This is a rare “schedule win” opportunity for the Hawks, who watched the Knicks (1-6 on back ends of back-to-backs) avert overtime last night in Detroit by exploiting the spots where Andre Drummond once stood (8 of NYK’s last 9 made field goals within 9 feet of the hoop). Watching the fan sentiments, you’d think it was the Hawks (14-39) with the better record and the winning streak, coming into tonight’s action.
Knicks owner James Dolan lopped off one half of the two-headed managerial monster in Steve Mills, leaving Scott Perry as the lone Smithers to pull the strings. One Perry pull at the Trade Deadline mailed mega-male Marcus Morris and his XY chromosomes out to LA, bringing Queens native Moe Harkless home along with future picks and a Euro-prospect in Issuf Sannon. Just as he thinks sitting in the stands or running a dive-bar band makes him look like a man of the people, Dolan probably believes these moves plus the winning turn will win him over some fans. (Newsflash: it will not.)
What *might* help is bringing in a manager who is better attuned the players, current and future, on the roster, and Knicks fans were offered a glimpse of that with the team’s reported courtship of super-agent Leon Rose.
If things turn the way they did for other teams under ex-agents Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka, the decision will be applauded. If events pan out the way they did for Lon Babby, who selected Alex Len in the Giannis draft overall among many missteps, even a sweeter-smelling Rose as the team’s face won’t mask the stench. Dolan was widely panned this week for couching his intransigence about selling the team in an unnecessary press release about his search for a new team head honcho.
The Hawks are the ones feeling upbeat, even despite another late-game, close-shave loss in Boston on Friday. Fans have a better sense as to how Travis Schlenk is rebuilding the roster in Atlanta, and winning ways can wait until the core of the team can get healthy and gel together. The post-Deadline roster is coming together just in time for a close to the season where the Hawks’ schedule-strength is by far the league’s weakest (NBA-low 44.5 opponent winning percentage for remaining games), which is saying something considering Atlanta cannot play themselves.
The rest of the 29-game docket includes the Pistons, the Kings, the Warriors (please rest, Steph), the Cavaliers and Hornets thrice, the Wizards, these Knicks and the stumbling Magic twice. Surpassing last season’s record with a 16-13 finish is not unreasonable at this stage for coach Lloyd Pierce and his Hawks, if they can get Trae Young (questionable, ankle), Clint Capela (out, something called a calcaneous contusion and plantar fasciitis), Cam Reddish (doubtful, concussion), and Skal Labissiere (out, something called a knee chondral injury) up to speed coming out of the All-Star Break.
The Knicks shoot 33.6 3FG% on the season (27th in NBA), and just moved Morris (43.9 3FG%), the sole Knick who shot above 36 percent (Damyean Dotson, right at 36.0%, the only Knick shooting above 35 percent). At the other end, the perimeter defense has been less than desirable (NBA-worst 38.7 opp. 3FG%).
John Collins has been on a tear both inside and outside this month (last 4 games: 26.3 PPG, 46.2 3FG%; season-best 9-for-10 FTs @ BOS). He and Kevin Huerter (42.9 February 3FG% despite 4-for-14 in past two games; 19.8 PPG, 3.5 APG, 0.8 TOs/game so far this month) can light up New York today if they are set-up well by the point guards. Even if Trae sits another day, a more assertive effort by Jeff Teague to mimic the hungry Brandon Goodwin could be enough to do the trick.
A listless team-wide defensive effort spoiled Young’s 42-point outing in Manhattan, a 143-120 washout back on December 17. It was one of the last games without the then-suspended Collins available for the Hawks, but Atlanta will have Collins, Bruno Fernando (probable, calf strain) and the newly reacquired Dewayne Dedmon back to help seal off the interior from the Knicks.
From there, it will be up to De’Andre Hunter (questionable, sprained ankle), DeAndre’ Bembry (questionable, hand neuritis) and Huerter to keep RJ Barrett (1-for-8 @ DET in just 21 minutes last night, 27 points on 10-for-13 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 17), Damyean Doston and Harkless (Knicks debut) cool from beyond the 3-point arc, and to run on Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson (9 of NYK’s 13 O-Rebs vs. ATL in December) and New York’s board-crashing bigs in transition off defensive rebounds.
The Knicks have been stingy inside when games are halfcourt affairs (42.8 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA), so strong boxouts and wise outlet passes are the way to go for the Hawks. New York allows 1.16 points per transition possession (4th-most in NBA), a value that Miller can only hope replacing Morris with Harkless can fix.
It has to suck to own not just the team, but the TV network that airs the team, and find yourself subject to jeers and “Sell The Team!” chants by locals whenever you appear on the screens and the Jumbotron. Us lowly 98 percenters can’t tell folks like Dolan what to do. But instead of tossing ham-and-eggers out of the not-so-cheap seats at MSG, having his camera operators steer away from him would be a wise order.
Let’s Go Hawks!