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    • By lethalweapon3
      “Fear the ‘Band! No, wait, Fear the Braid! Nah, how ‘bout…”
      No, don’t sit THAT former MVP guard on the Houston Rockets!
      After getting overwhelmed by Nikola Jokic and the reasonably full-strength Denver Nuggets, our Atlanta Hawks close out their three-game homestand catching a bit of a break. The Rockets will only field one of their two recent Podoloff Trophy bearers tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX). Trouble is, it’s probably not the one we’d prefer.
      I can’t recall a recent opponent who arrived at State Farm Arena after playing the night before. But Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is cognizant his team has a bigger road game tomorrow in Oklahoma City. So he’ll sit one former Thunder star, Russell Westbrook, and start Eric Gordon (14.7 PPG, 40.9 3FG% in last 3 games) in hopes of getting him up to speed after he missed 22 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery.
      Running neck-and-neck with Denver in the West behind the Lakers, the Rockets (24-11) have mostly been true to form. But there have been slip-ups versus lesser foes, especially in the past month or so. We all remember our weary Hawks’ H-Town Funk back on November 30, when the only human alive capable of averting James Harden’s red glare off three days’ rest (60 points, 20-for-23 FTs, 8-for-14 3FGs, 8 assists) was Coach D’Antoni. But since that 158-111 deep-frying, while the Rockets have gone 11-5, the Ls did not come against some Murderer’s Row of opponents, not even some Jaywalker’s Row.
      Granted three MORE days off after lambasting the Hawks, Harden dropped 50 in San Antonio. Yet the Spurs, who played without LaMarcus Aldridge, weren’t having it. Harden went a perfect 24-for-24 from the line, but just 11-for-37 from the field. Shooting a collective 37.8 percent from the floor, Houston also let Lonnie Walker go wild in the 4th quarter and blew a 16-point lead, dragged into a double-overtime defeat.
      A week later, back at Toyota Center, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker were rebounding out of their minds against Sacramento. They’d have finished with more boards if somebody had helped them box out. Late struggles to control the glass or force turnovers set the Rockets up to be crowned by the Kings’ three-point bombers, first Buddy Hield and then Nemanja Bjelica, as Sactown earned a rare good-feel ending in a one-point win.
      Barely a week after that, D’Antoni rested Westbrook on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off a resounding win in Orlando. Even with Blake Griffin stumbling through a knee-dless 0-for-7 FGs in the space of 15 minutes, even with Harden pouring in 39 points one night after making 54, the Pistons pummeled the Rockets’ shorthanded bench and cruised through the second half toward a 115-107 victory.
      Many of us were looking up through our plates of stuffing on Christmas Day to ask aloud, “Hold up… the Warriors WON?” The Dubs found Harden being held to one free throw, and missing it, in their stocking, and had our old friend Damion Lee more looking like David. Before a shocked home crowd, the league’s then-worst team, Golden State, pulled off the surprise of the day, beating by 12 a Rockers team that beat them by 17 the prior month. As foreboding as the Rockets want to seem, a win tonight over the Hawks would make Atlanta the first team the Rockets have swept this season.
      That includes the Pelicans, whom Houston already beat twice. This time around, D’Antoni sat both Westbrook and Harden in N’Awlins, one night after beating the Nets back home. One of My Main Men, Isaiah Hartentstein, got the start as Capela continued resting a bruised heel. Even with Gordon suiting back up, Danuel House, Hartenstein and the remaining Rockets couldn’t manage the load against the renascent Pels, who had four 20-point scorers and enjoyed a 41-point fourth quarter that would make even the Hawks chuckle.
      Although they’re now 5.0 games behind LeBrongeles, D’Antoni still has high hopes. “We are tied for second (in the NBA West), if I’m not mistaken,” he told The Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani and reporters after Monday’s practice, before the Nuggets inched ahead of them in the standings. “Not bad. We want to be first. We still have a goal to finish first. Definitely doable.” He’s not wrong. You never know when an untimely bad fall or two have the Lakers crashing back to Earth.
      But the Rockets understand that having two of the last three MVPs on the roster is a luxury. When one, or both, get DNP’d, others have to step up and take care of business versus lesser opponents if they want a real shot at homecourt throughout the Western playoffs.
      The team the Hawks last beat, Indiana, was coincidentally the team they lost to in November, before having to fly south in the dead of night, right into Harden’s flailing arms. They beat the Pacers here at The Farm despite coming off a back-to-back, despite missing a few useful components, like Jabari Parker (shoulder), who will be sidelined for at least a couple more weeks, and John Collins. The latter has returned to help Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and the Hawks confront the Rockets with a more balanced offense, which is precisely what Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce desires.
      Pierce tried to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Jokic on Wednesday, daring the Pillsbury Passboy to seek out teammates, and he tried to keep every other Nugget from beating them. Jokic got his career high in points, yet the Hawks (8-29) were just one motivated Birthday Boy away from putting another late scare into the Nuggets.
      Fortunately for Atlanta, aside from the inactive Gerald Green (foot, out until at least the All-Star Break), the nearest Rocket with a birthday coming up is Comeback Player candidate Ben McLemore. He won’t blow out any candles for another month, but Ben Mac will be eager to celebrate his contract becoming effectively guaranteed for the full season yesterday (Gary Clark, alternatively, was placed on waivers).
      Harden (HOU 13-1 when he scores 40 or more) is bound to get his buckets no matter who the Hawks throw at him, and with Cam Reddish and Huerter (both DNP @ HOU in November) available, the Hawks will have fresher legs to throw his way. But as the Spurs and Pistons showed, if you keep him cool from three-point range without falling for his foul-drawing tricks, and have him almost as likely to turn the ball over as he successfully pass for assists, you can keep your offense in the game.
      The Rockets have generally been fortunate to sit or rehab most of their older players, like Nene (adductor, out indefinitely), Thabo Sefolosha (9.9 minutes/game) and Tyson Chandler (8.7 minutes/game). The exception is Tucker, the 34-year-old who logs 36 minutes per game and has yet to be load-managed.
      The Hawks would do well to keep Tucker on a swivel tonight, sometimes helping Harden, Gordon and Austin Rivers to keep Young (10-for-16 FGs, 7 assists and 3 TOs @ HOU, teammates 28-for-72 and 10 TOs) in check, often helping block-happy Capela secure the rebounds in the paint against Collins and the re-energized Alex Len, always trying to keep teammates from over-exerting and short-circuiting themselves with foul trouble.
      Entrusted with the backup center minutes, Hartenstein can also slide over to the 4-spot in a pinch. But if Tucker has to sit for extended time, it’s more likely fans at The Farm could enjoy the long-awaited power forward battle between ex-Hawk Thabo and Vince Carter. Talk about Land of the Lost!
      Enough talk about Tyrannosauruses. Let’s talk Tokyo.
      “It’s one of my goals to represent this beautiful country.” That was James Harden’s sentiment towards the beautiful US of A, in September of this past year, no winks or crossed toes involved. Our purple mountain majesties weren’t enough to sway The Bearded One, 2012 Gold Medalist and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP, from competing in 2016’s Summer Games or last year’s Olympic-qualifying World Cup.
      “This decision was a painstaking one that I did not take lightly,” Harden had written for him, about the announcement to withdraw a couple months before the 2016 Games in Rio, coincidentally hours after Westbrook did the same. The NBA season, which had ended with a first-round loss to Golden State, saw him log an NBA-high 3,125 minutes in the regular season and nearly 200 more in the playoffs. Averaging more minutes this season (37.8 MPG) than he has at any time since 2015-16 (38.1), one wonders whether Harden again tells a desperate Jerry Colangelo, “not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”
      Team USA’s president may not be as much of a hardliner as he portrayed when he was miffed by the 2019 World Cup defections. Colangelo did say he wouldn’t forget those “who you thought you were going to war with (bad time for figuratives, I know) and who didn’t show up.” But he didn’t exactly embrace those he rode to a seventh-place finish last year in China, with all due respect to Mason Plumlee.
      Consider that the gold medalists of 2016 had names like Boogie, DeAndre, Draymond, Kyrie, Melo leading the way. Players who sat out this NBA season (KD, Klay) to rehab for the next. Players who might be deep into the postseason when the time comes to confirm a re-up (Lowry, PG, Jimmy). Then, add players who sat out of 2016 who have free agency to think about this summer (AD), or LeBron, or Steph. Frankly, with the opponents on the world stage improving by the day, you can only trot out Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan so many times.
      Harden may indeed avoid a change of heart this time, although it would be nice for him to know who is joining him in the backcourt. Whether he makes the commitment or not, shouldn’t Colangelo give a call to the only American, aside from Harden or Damian Lillard, to have already logged 200 assists, 100 threes, and 200 free throw makes? A young man, a probable NBA All-Star, who will have some free time between, say, mid-April and July, to help Team USA go for the gold?
      Now I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know my men’s and women’s basketball teams can run others out the building, when they’re properly staffed. And I think it would be quite fun to have Gregg Popovich calling a timeout and chewing out Trae Young for bouncing the ball off some poor Iranian’s head before stroking a three or lobbing a dime, all while assistant Lloyd Pierce is smooth-talking us out of an international incident.
      The way things are going halfway around the globe, the decision for anyone to even go in the first place might be made well before Young gets to rock any shows from here to d*mn Japan. But as long as we’re still on, Jerry, for the sake of this great land of ours, have your people call Trae’s people. Domo arigato!
      Let’s Go Hawks!
    • By lethalweapon3
      "It's why I always clean my plates, Daryl. Haven't you heard, there are children starving in Africa?"
      Still trippin' on the tryptophan today, so I'm gonna give Daryl Morey and his MIT Sloan Analytics peer-inspired empathetic activism a break today.
      Our Atlanta Hawks (4-something or other) will try to gin up enough energy, following last night's overtime close call in Indy, to keep up with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX).
      "Don't Foul Harden, and Box Out" remains the prime objectives as D'Antoniball is still in effect (NBA-highs of 45.4 3FGAs and 29.6 FTAs per game, NBA-low 44.7 2FGAs per game). Yet I do wonder whether D'Antoni and the Rockets (105.6 Pace, 2nd in NBA) are trying to pull a fast one on opponents in more ways than one.
      While foes are preoccupied with the downhill drives of Harden (everyone's favorite Hawk at the moment, DeAndre' Bembry lives for this matchup, but he will get to watch rookie De'Andre Hunter face off with Harden more today) and Westbrook, and all the volume perimeter shooting. But they're making barely a third of their three-point attempts (33.4 3FG%, 26th in NBA), producing more field goal offense by pummeling the interior (55.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA) and drawing favorable whistles. With their most accurate shooter in the rotation, Danuel House (illness), doubtful to play, the Hawks can afford to treat Harden's stepback threes and Westbrook's open takes as a white flag of sorts. The Hawks' on-ball defenders just cannot allow them to go around, or through them.
      Clint Capela (illness) is also unlikely to participate tonight, and Nene (abductor) remains out of commission. So you can imagine Westbrook and Harden will be doing the most to compensate offensively with paint drives and dishes. The Hawks' swingmen will want to keep Westbrook and Harden from enjoying straight-line trips into the paint, keeping the ballhandler in front or alongside them, and they may be rewarded with one of those mid-range shots D'Antoni despises.
      When alleviated from guarding Westbrook, point guards Trae Young, Tyrone Wallace and Evan Turner will need to help secure rebounds and spark fastbreak chances for Atlanta (note to Bembry: when going 1-on-3, consider passing every once in a blue moon). Houston allows the league's second-most fastbreak points (16.7) per-48. Young and Jabari Parker will have to trade off roles of help-rebounding and sticking with P.J. Tucker (52.6 corner 3FG%) in the corners.
      Keeping the short-staffed front line of Houston (12-6, beat Miami on Wednesday at Toyota Center to stop a three-game slide) on their toes -- Tyson Chandler starts... more minutes for Thabo Sefolosha at the 4-spot? -- and potentially in foul trouble will require the triple-double-hunting Rockets stars to be more than mere rebounders on defense. 
      That's all I got! Time to go reheat some mac 'n cheese.
      Let's Go Hawks!