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This is the time to remember. ‘Cause it will not last forever…
March Madness is here! Have you caught the fever yet? If so, you may want to self-quarantine and watch some NBA action to kill the time, if not a few germs, during tonight’s lull in NCAA conference tournament play.
This time last year, it was about to be a nice little run for the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett, cementing himself as a certified PTP’er alongside Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson as Duke would win the ACC conference tourney championship. Indeed, those were the days to hold on to.
Williamson would wind up entering the NBA with some experienced, if not accomplished, veteran talent around him. Barrett was granted high expectations, just by being picked shortly after Zion by New York, but not a commensurately high amount of usage.
RJ ceded center stage to another former high NBA draft pick, in Julius Randle, trying to prove he can be a headliner, and a now-departed Morris Twin who was trying to grab the attention of his next NBA employer. But some fans and media are already dour over the prospect that Barrett (42.6 2FG%, 31.8 3FG%, 60.5 FT%) may not become the franchise-defining superstar for whom they have longed. Did I mention, he only turns 20 in June?
Barrett returns with his Knicks to visit Reddish’s Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and I can imagine the #3 pick from last year’s draft is a bit envious of his former Dookie teammate’s situation.
“Simply put,” Sopan Deb of the New York Times wrote in generality on Saturday, “being a rookie for the Knicks, a franchise seemingly addicted to chaos in the country’s biggest city, is different from being on any other team.” Deb noted that RJ’s career-high of 27 points in what should have been a rousing home win over Houston was overshadowed by the antics of his team’s owner and his squabble with its biggest superfan. “It can be jarring for young men entering adulthood, and even more so for Barrett – who fans hope will be the centerpiece of a long-desired championship team.”
Maple Mamba has a few supporters above the border who have been tracking his path to the pros for some time, and there’s hope he can become a consistent go-to star for the Knicks, sooner rather than later. By the time he does break through, he will likely be under the guidance of his second team executive, the incoming ex-agent Leon Rose, and at least his third head coach.
There’s a reason that surveyed first-timers, during a preseason poll predicted Reddish, above all others, would finish with the best NBA career. I suppose a lot if it is how well he has blended in as a talented teammate at all stages of his development, sharing the spotlight with Mo Bamba in high school, with Zion and RJ in Durham, and now with Trae Young, John Collins and a host of up-and-comers in The ATL.
Cam isn’t under the urgency to be the signature star, or even to start, in Atlanta. Away from the pressure of lugging a mismanaged major-market titan back into viability for the first time in deceades, the optimism is higher than the expectations for Reddish (42.6 2FG%, 33.5 3FG%, 80.2 FT%), and neither is overblown.
Spirits have lifted a bit, at least on the court, since coach David Fizdale got his ouster following a 4-18 start. Yet the wins have come in drips and drabs for “Mikey Two Shoes” Miller and the Knicks lately. Yes, they have won three of their last six, including that 123-112 win over the slip-sliding Rockets. But a regression could also be viewed in the context of the six-game losing skid that preceded the 3-3 run, a slide that began on February 9 with a double-OT loss (stop me if you’ve heard that before) to the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
That 140-135 loss in Atlanta, like today’s game, was the back end of a road back-to-backs. New York (20-45) returns here today at 1-8 on the season in SEGABABAs, the sole victory, Miller’s first, by two points at Golden State three months ago.
With the Knicks coming off a 122-115 loss in Washington last night, the indicators point to the Hawks (20-46) coasting past the Knicks in the right-side-up standings like two ships passing in the night. Alas, like the last game between these two, and like the double-OT win over the Hornets, we’re likely setting ourselves up for something akin to the Merrimack versus the Monitor.
Miller must be somewhat miffed to see coaching colleague JB Bickerstaff turn a 5-5 start, in taking over the Cavaliers since the All-Star Break, into a multi-year extension. Well before that time, the Knicks’ interim coach has had his job status come up out of the blue by a new employee on First Take, and he has had to watch his owner prioritize the situation with celebrity entrance choices at MSG. On the court, however, Miller’s biggest issue has been his penchant for getting the upper hand, then giving it away with his rotations.
His Knicks built up a sizable 31-20 lead on the Hawks here on February 9, thanks to Randle’s 12-and-8 in the opening quarter, only to watch it dissipate by halftime and dissolve completely by the end of the third (John Collins’ 14 second-quarter points propelled Atlanta), necessitating some late-game scrambling to force the OT periods.
Last night, New York bounced back from a slow start to pour on 70 first-half points on the defensively woeful Wizards. But the Knicks could only muster 45 points the rest of the way as Washington turned the tables. Unlike the last Hawks game, the reserves carried the day in the first half, particularly Frank Ntilikina, the former lottery hopeful now in his third year who enjoyed his first 20-and-10 performance, and bug-eyed big Bobby Portis. But by the time Miller put the subs back into the game, it was too late to stop the Wizards’ second-half blitz.
The Knicks do come into the game healthy. Starters like Elfrid Payton, Queens native and ex-Clipper Moe Harkless, and Taj Gibson, along with rotation players Mitchell Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Kevin Knox were used sparingly in D.C., so it’s imagined that Miller will ride with a lot of them to support Barrett and Randle, the latter of whom fouled out last night with four minutes to spare. New York will also hope, while challenged with defending Young for much of this evening, that Ntilikina’s offensive output on Tuesday was no mere mirage.
Atlanta exploited Charlotte’s interior early and often, and more of the same will be needed from Lloyd Pierce’s young charges this evening. Randle will post up and hog the ball on occasion, and when transition opportunities come from his shots that Hawks need to turn those into points at every opportunity. Majestic offensive displays from Young and Reddish can come later in the contest. But early on, we’ll need to see the guards looking for Collins (28-and-11 vs. CHA), Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon (+20 plus-minus vs. CHA) running the floor against New York’s travel-weathered legs.
Tonight ought to be a rookie showcase between former college teammates Barrett, the Knick who is challenged with becoming a more efficient scorer, and Reddish, who has been a defensive salve for the Hawks but could stand to become a more consistent rebounder and playmaker. So far, they’ve given us the best of them. And now, we need the rest of them.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Guys! I think we’ve finally just turned a corner!”
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into mediocrity! Remember all my claptrap about an “easier” schedule for our Hawks by March? Well, the trick is, Atlanta still must learn to make things easier on themselves.
As the Hawks spin their wheels in mud, it turns out, several teams in the sad-sack Lottery East aren’t just sitting around waiting to be lapped. For example, the Cavaliers leapfrogged the Hawks in the right-side-up standings with a pair of home wins over Denver and San Antonio.
The Knicks aren’t winning in the customer relations department these days, but at least they know how to beat the Pistons at MSG, along with the fizzling Rockets and Bulls during their recent eight-day homestand. The Wizards may not have enough to sneak into the playoff picture, but they’ve done enough to stiff-arm the Warriors and the Hawks in recent days.
Even out West, the Pelicans and Warriors don’t project to be the same squads we saw earlier in the season, with the respective re-introductions of Zion and Steph to their rosters. The Hawks will get to play those teams on three occasions in the back half of what was supposed to be the very merry month of March, but only after a three-game, week-long homestand that begins tonight.
Speaking of which, there are coach James Borrego’s Charlotte Hornets, who buzz their way into State Farm Arena this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL and CLT, 92.9 FM). Sunday’s home win over the Rockets has made them victors in six of their last 11 games, and any stretch remotely above .500 is good enough to surge Lottery teams up the standings.
Sure, Charlotte (22-41, Tragic Number 13) had recently lost three straight. But those defeats were sandwiched between wins at Toronto and versus Houston. All three losses, to Milwaukee, Sam Antonio and Denver amid a seven-day homestand, were by single-digit margins.
They’ve held the Raptors to 96 points, the Bucks to 93, and the Rockets to 99. Good things happen when they control the pace (NBA-low 96.4 possessions per 48 minutes) and put the clamps on opponents defensively.
Many of the league’s tougher opponents await on the remainder of the Hornets’ schedule, but many of those contests will be at home, and none of them include the three games the Hawks (19-46) and Hornets have yet to play. So there remains a glimmer of hope among Charlotteans, so long as they can avoid being inundated by Trae Young like they were in December.
Young had 30 points and 9 assists, making all 8 free throws in a rare early road win for the Hawks, a 122-107 sprint to the checkered flag in Charlotte. Trae is reportedly over the flu bug, now passed on to Jeff Teague (available for tonight anyway), and should be chomping at the bit to make up for the waxing he endured yet again at the Grizzlies’ hands this past week (1-for-14 3FGs, 6 total assists and 12 TOs over 2 games vs. MEM). Against his division rivals, Young will want to shake a perimeter funk that extends back a half-dozen games (17.6 3FG% in his past six appearances). Even if the struggle continues, Atlanta (19-46, hasn’t lost 4 in a row since Jan. 12) can still give themselves a puncher’s chance at victory.
The NBA’s two worst defensive rebounding squads take the court tonight at The Highlight Farm. The worst of the two by default, visiting Charlotte nonetheless nabbed a season-high 47 in a balanced effort to topple the Raptors during the Hornets’ last road trek. They will need more of the same tonight, but the Hawks hope those guys will be spending more time retrieving the ball from the inner bottom of the net.
This contest could hinge on which team creates more havoc on the offensive glass, earns productive trips to the foul line and extends possessions. Charlotte will lean on Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo (DNP vs. HOU on Saturday) and Willy Hernangomez to sneak in and create extra opportunities for Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and Devonte’ Graham (combined 13-for-23 on threes vs. HOU).
Lloyd Pierce’s club will wish to counter with John Collins (probable, thigh bruise), who was suspended and unavailable for the December win in Charlotte, Bruno Fernando (team-high 8.6 O-Reb%) and Dewayne Dedmon, who would do well to match the five O-Rebs Alex Len contributed during 19 minutes off the bench in that game. Hopefully all the putbacks and second-chances won’t be necessary, if Atlanta’s backcourt executes well on the first tries.
Against a Hornets squad that allows the most assisted baskets in the league (NBA-high 26.5 opponent APG), the Hawks can gain the upper hand if Young, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish (12 minutes vs. MEM before leaving with leg cramps, available vs. CHA) make sound passes and take advantage of open looks. Getting back in proper defensive assignments ought to be simpler against Charlotte, who doesn’t get out and run much anyway (1.04 transition PPP, 29th in NBA, ahead of only New York’s 1.03).
For a team that has been presented lately as a Playoff Team of the Near Future, it would be good for Atlanta to see better all-around performances versus Non-Playoff Teams of the Present. With a homestand that includes New York and Cleveland stopping through later in the week, a rare three-game winning streak would be nice for a team that aims to win four-out-of-seven games a little over 13 months from now. In these waters, the Hawks don't have to be Jaws yet. They just have to know how to quit playing like a Baby Shark. That is to say, like Doo-Doo-do-Doo-do-Doo.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“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!