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“You called that a foul, ref? Man… you’re a TRIP!”
You all are familiar with the Memphis Grizzlies by now. Hopefully, our Atlanta Hawks know them a bit better, too. At least well enough to stay neck-and-neck with them as this week’s two-game series shifts to FedEx Forum (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL and MEM; FWIW, Five Stripes’ home opener will be on 94.1 FM and Fox Sports South).
Monday’s 127-88 drubbing of the Hawks was the largest road win in Memphis’ franchise history, with a team-high nine Blue Bears ringing up double-figure scores. That 25-year franchise record for road victory margin was matched a mere two nights later in Brooklyn. The Grizzlies cut down the Nets on Wednesday, 118-79, likely the game that caused Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks to decide they should maybe stop seeing each other.
Including the 105-88 win over LeBrongeles in Memphis, making them the first conference opponent this season to beat the Lakers outside of L.A., coach Taylor Jenkins’ club became the first NBA team to hold three consecutive foes below 90 points since yet another Budtree disciple, Quin Snyder, and his Utah Jazz did the deed back in March 2018. It was an impressive feat considering the Grizzlies are still roaming without Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow and Grayson “Dindu Nuffin” Allen.
That party came to an end last night in Lukaville, but was it just an interruption? As the Hawks (19-45) headed to Graceland after Friday’s too-little, almost-not-too-late loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Grizzlies (31-32) slipped back below .500 with a 121-96 road defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team whose owner took quite an L of his own. Dallas rang up 30 assists while turning over the ball about half as much as Memphis (19 TOs, led by Ja Morant’s six).
Was Jenkins’ crew simply conserving their energies? If the emerging Cam Reddish shows up and shows out, they’ll be glad they did.
Reddish wasn’t available to plug the cracking dam for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club on Monday. But with Trae Young out due to illness last night, Reddish took it upon himself to become a faucet the Wizards would struggle to cut off. 6-for-10 inside the 3-point arc, 5-for-7 beyond it. Coming off the bench, Reddish built his career scoring high with only one free throw attempt (I don’t have a half-million to spare, but c’mon refs), and despite 7 TOs.
The next big step for Cam (probable, back pain) is to outdo himself on the back end of back-to-backs. Last weekend at The Farm, he followed up an efficient 26-point performance (6-for-9 3FGs) in the win over Coach Kenny’s Nets with just 8 points in 24 minutes against the Blazers the next evening. In mid-January, 22 points to expunge the Spurs Hex on a Friday, 7 points on 3-for-10 shooting back home on a Saturday, as the Hawks lost at home to Detroit by 33.
The back-end game before that one, in late December, Reddish tallied two points on one made bucket on five attempts, as the Hawks fell in Chicago by 35. He was a net minus-21 on that day, an improvement over the minus-23 in yet another 30-plus-point back-end loss in Chi-town just 17 days before.
Granted, it shouldn’t all be about The Cam Reddish Show every night, certainly not at this early stage. The Hawks need a multitude of positive contributors at both ends of the floor, more seasoned folks like Kevin Huerter (career-high 11 assists vs. WAS yesterday) and John Collins (26-and-10 plus a pair of blocks vs. WAS; 16 fourth-quarter points), in particular. But the competitive progress Coach Pierce and his staff seeks of his Hawks will reveal itself when arguably(?) their most valuable two-way performer can be counted upon to recover quickly and string very good games together.
Cam wasn’t the singular difference between victory and a 40-point tail-whooping. Yet, the Hawks needed Reddish on Monday the way Mississippi State games need more cowbell. The rookie is one critical defensive body that Pierce can use to help Young (still questionable w/ flu-like symptoms) and/or Jeff Teague thwart the Grizzlies’ ballhandlers, and to switch onto Memphis’ best perimeter-shooting forwards and swingmen.
Reddish, his fellow rookie De’Andre Hunter (team-high 8 D-Rebs vs. WAS) will also be vital in keeping Jonas Valanciunas (7 O-Rebs @ ATL, none last night @ DAL) from getting easy catches on rolls to the rim and from feasting on the offensive boards. Their interior defensive activity, neutralizing the rebounding edge Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng seek to establish in the halfcourt, will make it tougher for the Grizzlies to scamper away during Atlanta’s predictable offensive lulls.
The Hawks went from a Hunter three-pointer, putting the visitors up 52-48 last night, with five minutes to go before halftime, to a Reddish triple with two minutes left before the end of the third quarter to end a 35-13 Wizards run. No Hawk shots, aside from an 8-foot jumper from Brandon Goodwin were sunk beyond three feet of the rim in that time.
Forcing Valanciunas and the Grizzlie bigs to do more than dig in their heels waiting for caroms will require a more diversified attack, exploiting driving lanes, moving the rock inside, outside and back in, and getting Collins, Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon more post-up opportunities.
All eyes were on Morant on Monday, but Memphis’ offensive balance came largely from Tyus Jones (9 assists, 1 TO @ ATL, 6-and-0 @ BRK, 7-and-1 @ DAL), now the NBA’s active leader in assist/turnover ratio (5.3 ratio, actually down from 7.0 last season w/ MIN). It is that level of confidence with one’s own personnel, exhibited by Jones in his first season in Memphis, that Atlanta, with or without Trae, will be challenged to match.
Jones’ former protégé with the Timberwolves, Teague made two assists in the opening six minutes of last night’s game, and he wouldn’t make another until Atlanta found themselves down double digits with ten minutes remaining. Young would help minimize those droughts with his passing wizardry and ability to get to the free throw line. But if he remains out tonight, the more balanced offensive approach should begin and end in the hands of Teague and Goodwin.
“I ain’t THAT sick y’all… Relax lol”, tweeted Young prior to last night’s game, certainly a relief for fans to hear these days. Feeling better is Priority One for him, but Atlanta can still do plenty of things to aid what ails them on the court, particularly during back-to-backs and on the road. Trae isn’t THAT sick, but after a spirited comeback attempt in D.C., can Cam and the Hawks play THAT well, throughout tonight’s game?
Let’s Go Hawks!
“So you’re saying I just take the handoff, split the double-team HERE, then hurdle the seven-footer THERE. Got it!”
The Race for the 8-Seed is underway!
Well, not so much for our dear Atlanta Hawks, who would do well to ignore crazy talk about Tragic Numbers and whatnot. As Atlanta hopes to roar in like a lion in this new month of March, though, their outcomes versus several opponents will have a big role in determining who wins some dates out West with LeBron and LeBrow in the month that follows. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, who the Hawks will visit at the end of this week, just days after playing them here at State Farm Arena tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in both MEM and ATL).
Not having had Lottery worries since 1997, fans of the San Antonio Spurs may rue the day their team finally let the Hawks off the hook back in November. Like New Orleans and Sacramento, the Spurs are just 3.0 games back of the last team currently in the Western Conference playoffs, the Grizzlies (29-31), and they’d love to have their two losses to Atlanta back.
The Lillard-less Trail Blazers (3.5 games back of MEM) squandered their chance at a season-sweep of the Hawks, with Saturday’s 129-117 defeat at The Highlight Farm, as did the Suns (4.5 games behind MEM) back in January. The Kings, finally seeming to get out of their own way, hope to avoid a similar fate later this month.
Ending a five-game losing streak that included a pair of defeats at the hands of Kent Bazemore’s Sacramento, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies upstaged the mighty Lakers with a resounding 105-88 win two nights ago at the Grindhouse. Yet, somehow, the first-round matchup for Los Angeles that America wants to see is with a team situated a little further down the Mississippi.
The Pelicans, surprise winners of the 2019 Draft Lottery, had bouncy bowling ball Zion Williamson giving poor Kyle Kuzma fits last night in primetime, and now seemingly everyone is setting their dials 90 days early in hopes New Orleans can make a serious run at a series with the Lakers.
Like the Grizzlies, before the Pels can dream of a run at The King (not you, Elvis), they must take care of business in a pair of games this month against Trae Young and the Hawks. Morant can be rightfully miffed that the Grizzlies are not the consensus Cinderella darlings in the NBA West. But after a long-needed shakeup and a stroke of good fortune that brought the Murray State product to town, Memphis has a lot of good things going for it right now.
Lottery twins De’Andre Hunter (6-for-9 3FGs vs. POR) and Cam Reddish (team-high +16 plus/minus vs. POR, ahead of Hunter’s +12) have given Atlanta Hawks fans reason for optimism with their recent play. However, from the jump, the rookie duo that has taken the league by storm this season is not Hunter and Reddish, but Memphis’ Ja Morant, a three-time Rookie of the Month winner, and Brandon Clarke.
Zach Kleiman took over the executive reins for the Grizzlies (when in doubt, get you a Duke Law School guy), and couldn’t believe his luck when the 33-49 club he inherited, like the Pelicans, leaped over several thirsty NBA clubs, including the Hawks, to nab the top two 2019 Draft selections. Memphis happily “settled” for Morant, and Kleiman sweetened the pot.
Taking a mid-first-rounder he inherited from Utah for Mike Conley (imagine the former point guard star playing like he is now, only still in Memphis), Kleiman’s Grizzlies traded up two spots with Oklahoma City, giving the Thunder prospect player Darius Bazley in exchange for a more finished product in collegian Brandon Clarke.
Morant (17.7 PPG, second now only to Zion; rookie-high 7.0 APG, not far behind 2018-19 rookie Young’s 8.1) has remained the highlight reel he was in the Ohio Valley Conference. Meanwhile, Clarke has been a smooth two-way contributor off the bench, shooting 65.5 2FG% (5th in NBA) while offering per-36 values of 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks.
I can’t say what I expected to see out of a team coached by Taylor Jenkins, the longtime Hawks assistant and Budenholzer disciple. But I didn’t expect a shift from grit-and-grind to grease-and-grace to work out so smoothly in the early going.
An uptick in tempo for Memphis (103.4 pace, slightly behind 6th-place ATL) was a long time in coming. But I doubt that, even with 2019’s NCAA assist leader in tow, the entire NBA expected to be looking up at Memphis with a league-high 27.1 assists per game. Jenkins has capable ballhandlers in Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton at his disposal, and he uses them liberally to free up Morant. Dillon “the Good” Brooks (37.2 3FG%), armed with a new three-year contract extension, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have helped spread the floor so Morant doesn’t have to kick the ball out to himself.
Several of the Hawks’ recent foes had been struggling in their runs out of the All-Star Break. It’s not terribly surprising that, until Saturday’s win, the Grizzlies seemed to have stubbed their bear claws, too. Jackson has been out of action, the 3-and-PF forward bowing out midway through Memphis’ Western road swing with a sprained knee. Clarke (out, quad strain) followed suit one game later.
Getting Andre Iguodala out of contract purgatory before the Trade Deadline also required parting ways with the team’s second-leading minutes-logger, Jae Crowder, and the surprisingly serviceable Solomon Hill. The return haul from Deadline Day maneuvers included Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota, Justise Winslow from Miami and Jordan Bell from Minny via Houston.
But J-Win’s slow to return, mostly out since early December while working through back issues, and it will take time for Jenkins to get Dieng and Bell up to speed in the rotation with Jonas Valanciunas (27.6 D-Reb%, 9th in NBA; 20+ rebounds in back-to-back games) while Jackson rehabs.
Returning home, however, proved vital for showcasing some of Memphis’ developmental talents. Midway through Saturday’s game, Jenkins trotted out a unit that featured Jones, Dieng, the resurrecting Josh Jackson, and two-way players Jon Konchar and Yuta Watanabe. That crew proved shockingly effective in stymieing a Lakers squad that came into town on an 8-game winning roll.
Morant and his pass-happy Grizzlies set up tantalizing matchups this week with Young and the Hawks (19-43, 11-11 over past 22 games), whose 34 assists versus Portland (led by Trae’s 15 dimes, with just 2 TOs on his part) was a season-high.
John Collins (4 assists, 2 blocks vs. POR) is threatening to join Karl-Anthony Towns (last three seasons) and Kevin Love (way back in 2010-11) as the only modern-era NBA players to shoot 40 percent on threes while averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game, and he’s showing a willingness to fill out other components of the boxscore as well.
With Kevin Huerter (3-for-7 3FGs, 4-for-4 FTs, 8 assists, 3 steals vs. POR) showing signs that he can get it going, Atlanta offered a glimpse of balanced fullcourt effort nearing its peak, one that won’t always need a stellar perimeter outing from Trae (1-for-8 3FGs vs. POR) to thrive.
Drawing Valanciunas out of the paint is a tall order, but the Hawks will look to woo the Memphis big man with plenty of open looks for Collins. Whether shooting or driving, Atlanta will want Hunter to catch-and-react quickly against Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson. A stout defensive effort to keep Morant from feasting inside and Brooks, who has been shaking out of a shooting slump (last 3 games 26.0 PPG, 35.7 3FG%), cool from outside will be crucial, particularly if Reddish (doubtful w/ back pain) cannot make it on the court tonight.
Coach Lloyd Pierce’s crew will want to benefit from standout bench performances, as he did on Saturday from Treveon Graham and Bruno Fernando (combined 10-for-10 FGs vs. POR). If Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin can match the Grizzlie subs’ energy and production at the point, then the Hawks’ first three-game winning streak of the season will be within reach.
The potential for a strong confidence-building March is here for the Hawks to seize. How many of their foes fare against them this month will become a major subplot in the story of How the 8-Seed in the West was Won.
Let’s Go Hawks!