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“Excuse me, Mr. Ref? I don’t think this is basketball!”
Rasslin’ fans: what is your most memorable heel turn?
Seth Rollins breaking up The Shield? Nobody can forget Bash at the Beach ’96. My favorite WCW shocker in the 90s was big-bro Scott on the Steiner Brothers, sneak-attacking his baby-faced sibling Rick to join that badass new World order.
In more modern times, Tommie Ciampa busting up bosom-buddy Johnny Gargano happened while nobody in NXT was expecting it. They bonded again, but only to find themselves prey to Crossfit Jesus Finn Balor’s stunning heel turn on them.
Shawn Michaels smashing up poor Marty Jannetty, once and for all, in Brutus the Barber’s shop was downright iconic. Go back even further, and Larry Zybysko bloodying his ageless mentor, Bruno Sammartino, with a wooden chair created a lot of buzz.
As a gimmick, the heel turns are all part of a necessary evil. Everybody can’t be friends until the end, or the goodie-two-shoes hero who does everything by the book and bores every fan to tears. To grease up the adversarial relationships, competitors eventually must jump ships and turn on their mates. Pupils defying masters, masters waylaying pupils.
When they’re executed best, the works catch everyone off-guard, tear up old alliances to create new ones, and keep everyone at the edge of their seats. The new heels, from Hollywood Hogan to Big Poppa Pump to the Savior of SmackDown, engender whole new cults of personality. The victims draw sympathy for their plight, making their babyface runs reach unforeseen heights as well.
That’s what made Steve Nash’s heel turn on his disciple, Trae Young, last month more fun than a Barrel of Monkeys.
“Steve Nash is my favorite player of all-time,” the fresh-faced true frosh from Oklahoma revealed in the run-up to the 2018 NBA Draft. “With his size and my size, we’re very similar. He’s very cerebral, he can score from all three levels, he knows how to get his teammates involved and he’s a winner.” Wait a minute, Trae, what’s this about “three” levels? I thought there were just two-pointers and three-pointers for you little guys!
Soon, Trae would up the ante on the fawning by going beyond mere discussions of “favorites”. Kobe’s kid Gigi had her favorite must-see NBA baller, too, but as far as GOATs go, in Trae’s mind, there can be only one.
“If anyone asks me who the best player of all-time is,” Young, starting his second season as a pro, proudly told Sam Amick in November 2019, “I tell them, ‘Steve Nash’. That’s my favorite player, and it’s always been my favorite player. I definitely try to model my game as much as I can to Steve.” Aww.
I’m not sure who Trae would say is his favorite coach of all-time. Lon Kruger? Aww. One thing, though, is for certain as his Atlanta Hawks get a visit from the stupefyingly star-studded Brooklyn Nets tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK). It sure as heck won’t be “Coach Nash.”
Steve understands the task at hand. He’s a first-year coach, handed MVP-caliber talent and ordered to earn some rings, and fast. The whole world is watching him, and learning the ropes on the fly is not an option. He understands that, in order to get his Nets (11-8, 5th in the NBA East) to climb the ladder and grasp the title belt, he’s got to knock upstarts like Young and his Hawks (9-8) out the box, leaving them to fend with the lumberjacks below.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant came to their coach’s rescue as Young’s Hawks waged war with the Nets on December 30, their fourth-quarter heroics seizing the final pinfall of a high-flying, fun-filled 145-141 cage match. Trae wasn’t making it easy. After making his defender scramble around a Clint Capela screen, Young delivered a mini-Rikishi as he went up for the jumper.
The ensuing whistle caused Kevin Durant to grab his head in faux disbelief, and a flustered Coach Nash to utter to the referee what had to have felt like a chairshot aimed at his longtime protégé: “That’s Not Basketball!” Oh, really? Et tu, Brute?
“I bet if I was playing for Steve, he’d be happy,” a miffed Young told The Athletic’s superb Chris Kirschner in response to his hero’s outburst. “I think [Nash] wanting to get in the refs’ ears a little bit was just trying to help him. I learned a lot about drawing fouls from him.”
“If he says it’s not basketball, he must’ve been saying it about himself, because he’s done it a couple of times throughout his career and was so successful.” Mic. Drop. Exit Music. But the cerebral mind games of Stevie “The Brain” Nash got into the heads of the refs and Young, at least for quite a while.
After dropping 30-and-11 (14-for-16 FTs) on the Nets, Trae would score just 21 points (7-for-21 FGs) two days later in their teams’ rematch at Barclays Center. Atlanta would win that New Year’s Day game resoundingly, 114-96, in part due to a well-balanced offensive attack and Irving (3-for-11 FGs) cooling off. But Young could only get 4 opportunities to score from the charity stripe, his first game of this season not getting double-digit free throw chances.
That drought would linger for five of the next six competitions, the Hawks dove-tailing from 4-1 to 5-6 as the refs’ swallowed whistles neutralized the offense built around Young. 33.0 PPG on 14.8 FTs/game, and 50.7/34.8/90.3 shooting percentages to close out the 2020 calendar year; 16.5 PPG on 5.8 FTs/game, and 33.3/21.4/82.9 shot splits in the half-dozen games after the Nets series. Nice work, “Classy” Stevie Nashty.
But it appears that over the past five Hawks games, Trae has been drawing his bumps and getting up off the mat (33.0 PPG, 10.8 FTs/game, 46.1/40.7/87.1). The rediscovered effectiveness of his perimeter jumpshot is opening defenses back up for him to exploit them. Trae’s bounceback sets the stage for an intriguing payback match this evening, one with a new, special-guest competitor.
But, first, a quick look back.
In the entirety of his illustrious NBA playing career, MVSteve never once averaged 20 PPG in a regular season. The last time in his life the first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer did so, he was a 20-year-old, still in college. Go ask Lloyd Pierce and Marlon Garnett, they were standing right there!
The Hawks lead and assistant coaches will recall, back in the 90s, Nashty Nash upping the craftiness of his foul-draws, and thus, his shots at the free throw line from 3.2 to 6.4 per game. In so doing, that took a gangly and otherwise unremarkable Canadian junior from the lowly WCC conference (and not from John Stockton’s Gonzaga, either) and placed him formally on NBA scouting radars.
Fast forward ten years, and the guard reached MVP strata, trying to prove his mettle as the Rated R Superstar in the NBA Playoffs. No more was he simply serving up the ball to watch Dirk Nowitzki drain the life out of the shot clock. In Phoenix, Nash and his coach Mike D’Antoni understood, there’s hardly a need to peek at the clock, as play decisions must be made, and fast. Deservedly facing double- and triple-teams while bringing up the ball and at the point of attack, Nash began drawing contact again.
A 12.9 percent free throw attempt rate (as per bball-ref) for the point guard, in his final season as a first-round exit with Dallas, became 23.0 percent, 31.3 percent, and 28.8 percent rates as his Suns made their peak charges toward the Western Conference Finals.
Thanks largely to free throws, and his legendary accuracy, Nash would average 20+ as a scorer in his first two playoff runs with the Suns. The signature foul draw of his career was getting Rob Blaked by Robert Horry into the sideline boards during a pivotal Game 4 in 2007 and, boy oh boy, Nash sure sold the heck out of that one, eh?
Sold it so good, he tricked two tag team partners, Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw into getting themselves tossed and suspended, sapping any momentum Nash thought his Suns would gain by having the refs kick Mr. Playoff Clutch out of the ring.
“Four years later,” Raja Bell admitted in 2014 in one of those newfangled things called a podcast, “I’m hanging out with Steve at a bar in Santa Monica somewhere, or somewhere in L.A., and he says that he gave that hip check (from Horry) a little bit of flair.” Whooooo!
Just be glad The Canadian Crippler didn’t smash a bottle of LaBatt Blue Light on your head for leaking out the tricks of his trade, Raja! “He admitted to putting a little sauce on that hip check,” Bell confidently shared of Nash’s famously flubbed flop. Mamma Mia, that’s a not a basketball!
It was actually Raja running up on The Horry-ble One and nearly getting chokeslammed, not so much Nash’s zesty sauce, that drew the DQs of Stoudemire and Diaw, but that’s neither here nor there. Horry got two games, the other Suns got one apiece. Advantage: Tim Duncan. The Spurs, not the Suns, would go on to sweep young LeBron in the most royal of rumbles. Despite Nash’s best sell, there would be no new World order in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.
And maybe that’s what gets Nash’s gander up when he watches Trae (57.0 free throw attempt rate) waltz to the line with impunity. Like last night, when an exasperated Tyronn Lue, coaching his clipped-down Clippers in a handicap match, could only look on in horror as Young (11-for-11 FTs, 7-for-7 in the second half, along the way to 26 points in the Hawks’ 108-99 win) curried favor with the greyshirts.
Basketball is not former Nets head-honcho-turned-heel Jason Kidd demanding Tyshawn Taylor run into his gin-and-Coke so Brooklyn could gin up a timeout it didn’t have. It’s not even the player Kidd racing, toward a clueless Mike Woodson standing outside the coach’s box, so he could run into Atlanta’s coach and draw a momentum-swinging technical.
Trae has simply watched what the legends of the league have done, and he works tirelessly on improving upon that. It’s not that petite guards with crafty handles drawing fouls isn’t basketball. It’s that there’s a petite guard in the league drawing fouls better, and earlier in his career, than Nash ever could.
We can’t forget, either, that Nash is no longer just some casual, objective mark, but a manager who’s been handed championship-belt expectations from the jump. He’s standing just outside the ring, begging the refs to give his poor jobbers like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot a break when they forget the game plan and find themselves, once again, hoisted up on Trae’s back. No, not another F5!
If what Trae has been doing wasn’t basketball, the self-appointed arbiter of what is or isn’t basketball should have marched himself right up the glass tower to Sean Marks’ front office and told his GM that under no circumstances should Brooklyn be going after The Dirtiest Player in The Game.
Alas, here is James Harden, in nWo black. That’s right, the guy “Not basketball”-ing his way to leading the NBA in free throw attempts in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, is joining forces with Irving and Durant in a quest for greatness. What’re you gunna do, brudder?
Nash stood by and watched as the Nets tossed Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs, and I think B. Brian Blair and Rocky King over the top rope to make room for The Bearded One. All that, plus a trove of future picks and pick swaps that Nash could have used if he and Marks were around to rebuild this roster, if necessary, should the grand plan fail. If the inference wasn’t clear that it’s Win or Bust for Nash before acquiring Harden, it is now.
Down the bench, D’Antoni can tell Nash of how he inherited a contender that spent years under Harden and Dwight Howard getting dispatched in the postseasons by the likes of diminutive Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry, only to find his squad getting bounced by Curry and, this past season, LeBron (don’t blame Clint Capela), despite Harden pairing up with another former league MVP.
Harden and D’Antoni escaped H-Town after Daryl Morey’s maneuvers left the Rockets with a sizable hole at the 5-spot that only P.J. Tucker could spackle. In the 2021 Playoffs, at crunch time, who is Brooklyn’s last line of defense around the rim? Will it be Durant (7.2 D-Rebs/game, 1.4 BPG), who is already giving it his all at the other end of the floor (NBA-best 139.4 4th-quarter D-Rating)?
If not KD, DeAndre Jordan? Reggie Perry? Norvel Pelle? Nic Claxton? Jeff Green? Guys like Bam Adebayo, who amassed 41 points and 9 dimes on Saturday propping up a Miami team that’s been missing Jimmy Butler for a minute, would have field days on the interior if Durant is occupied guarding talented forwards.
While the Nets defense (115.2 D-Rating since dumping LeVert, Allen, et al. for Harden, 25th in NBA) contracts to help, the backcourt cannot afford to find themselves getting tuned up like Bickerstaff’s Collin Sexton did while wearing Kyrie’s old number last week. And don’t let a key frontcourt guy like Durant or Jordan get banged up and miss critical time.
Three thirty-point threats, and a guy who can bury triples in Joe Harris (48.4 3FG%), used to be enough when teams struggled to average 110 points and play with pace, but no more. On a shallowed roster with few rotational options, can Nash commit Harden and Irving (1.2 SPG apiece) to a sustainable defensive strategy that’s greater than, “I score, you score”?
Just to be sure, Nash is going to want to see his stars put a squash job on Trae and the Hawks, who avoided a deflating loss last night with a solid second half. But Young has his share of enforcers. John “C-na” Collins racked up 50 points (61.8 FG%) and 19 rebounds in the last two Atlanta-Brooklyn bouts. There’s also Kevin “Fourth Querter” Huerter, whose Hawks high of 13 points (3-for-3 3FGs) in the final frame helped Young and De’Andre “The Giant” Hunter (team-high 23 points @ BRK on Jan. 1) snip the Clips last night.
Danilo Gallinari (probable, ankle) missed all but 3 minutes of the two-game series in Brooklyn. He was held under 15 minutes yesterday and is rounding back into form. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu was DNP’d against LA and can provide valuable floor time plugging the paint after Capela (questionable, hand; 18 rebounds vs. LAC) and Collins (11 boards, 5 blocks vs. LAC). Any defensive help Cam Reddish (questionable, Achilles) can offer tonight is gravy.
Nash did offer a touch of kayfabe after the December 30 game, flowering his 22-year-old professional prodigy with praise. “[Trae] took a big jump from last year to this year at drawing contact and recognizing situations where he can draw contact to deceive the opponent,” Nash said postgame, as transcribed by Bleacher Report. “It’s impressive, and he’s done really well. He’s getting to the line at a league-leading rate. I’m impressed and I think it’s a real skill he’s developed.”
With Harden sharing usage with Irving and Durant, the race to crown a new #1 contender for the free throw title is on, Young (10.9 FTAs/36) neck-and-neck with giants like Embiid (12.2) and Giannis (10.9) for that coveted spot. As The Beard (7.1) tries to catch up, pulling copious foul-call flops out of his bag of tricks tonight, it would be fun to catch Nash’s other former tutee, Pierce, calling it out: “Hey! Ref! That ain’t basketball!” Nash might think he’s Jim Cornette standing up for his Horsemen and their henchmen, but his old friend LP can bring a tennis racket to the squared circle, too.
RIP Sekou! Let’s Go Hawks!
“OMG, Claire! Can you believe this? Our Lyft driver is the one and only Kris Humphries!”
It’s Game #2 of Must-Win Week #2! Despite a C-minus effort on MLK Day, our Atlanta Hawks passed their first test with a win over the shorthanded Timberwolves. But here’s a Red Alert. The last-place Detroit Pistons returning to State Farm Arena today (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit) are not the last-place Pistons that the Hawks beat here in December.
When the then-unbeaten Hawks fended off winless Detroit (now 3-10), coach Dwane Casey’s crew had two first-rounder rookies, Killian Hayes (now out indefinitely with a hip tear) and Saddiq Bey starting together in the backcourt. Grizzled vets Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose were rested and inactive. And the Pistons had to fly back home, saving their energies for a game against Golden State the next evening.
This isn’t to say the Pistons are good now. Just that they’ll knock you clean off your high horse, if you roll a D-plus effort out there on the floor. Just ask Miami. Absent Jimmy Butler due to COVID protocols, the heat strolled home after dropping two straight in Philly, the last one by 17 points, only to fall at home to Detroit by 20, Miami players giving up the ball 22 times due to turnovers (sounds familiar?).
The defending Eastern Conference champions, still sans Jimmy Buckets, got their chance at revenge in the same building two nights later. Yet they dug themselves in a 12-point first-quarter foxhole, then had to scramble and hang on to escape on MLK Day with a 113-107 victory over the Pistons.
Coach Casey’s seat is warm, by design, as a lame duck under the purview of new GM Troy Weaver. He remains confident that his long-term status isn’t dependent on near-term player development. Youthful charges Bey, center Isaiah Stewart, Svi Mykhailiuk, Deividas Sirvydas and Sekou Doumbouya aren’t getting much burn as Casey relies on multi-year vets (including 23-year-old wayfarer Josh Jackson, whose defense is giving his slipshod career new life) to fill his short rotations. The Piston pupils are nearly non-existent on nights that aren’t part of back-to-back pairs.
If he had his druthers, Detroit’s head coach would have them checking in against the Skyhawks and the Bayhawks, not the Hawks (6-7). “…they should be learning the G-League,” Casey told Omari Sankofa of the Freep about his blue-chippers on Tuesday, “making mistakes and learning from them in the G-League instead of our (NBA) games.”
Even without much reliable depth for Casey to turn to, only one of Detroit’s ten defeats have been by more than ten points. They’ve stayed within shouting range throughout because Jerami Grant has been making plenty of All-Star noise. The Son of Harvey, already in his fourth NBA stop over seven seasons, is dropping career-best numbers (24.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.7 3FGs/game, 86.3 FT%).
As a 2020 free agent, Grant expressed his appeal for working under an African-American coach+GM combo, and Casey is rewarding him with free reign as the Pistons’ new franchise face, good timing since Griffin’s gasket is leaking lots of oil (career-lows of 14.3 points per-36 and 0.1 BPG; 38.3 FG%, 35.2 FG% in 18 brief appearances last season; 67.9 FT%). Like Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward, and New York’s Julius Randle, Grant (27 points @ ATL on Dec. 28, tied with Jackson in the 128-120 loss) needs teams, like the Hawks and heat, that get caught slipping defensively to help his team escape the Eastern Conference basement and shine up his resume at All-Star voting time.
The final bell hasn’t rung for Professor Griff just yet. Bleak Blake’s still averaging 4.3 APG (1.7 TOs/game), aiding Rose (team-high 5.1 APG, off the bench) and Hayes’ replacement starting point guard, Delon Wright (4.1 APG, 0.9 TOs/game) in creating ample shot opportunities, at least many more than Detroit’s foes can hoist (NBA-low 83.8 opponent FGAs; 17.2 opponent TO%, 2nd in NBA). Grabbing more steals, taking higher proportions of threes from the field, and crashing the offensive glass more frequently than last season, is all what keeps the Pistons more in the ballpark than the Tigers.
The problems come when Grant’s teammates, like hot-and-cold Hawkslayer Wayne Ellington (7-for-11 3FGs @ MIA; 2-for-7 @ ATL on Dec. 28), Griffin and Wright aren’t hitting shots outside, or finishing inside (team 48.3 2FG%, last in NBA; 49.8 eFG%, 28th in NBA). Atlanta, fortunately, has a forward duo that can keep Grant and Griff inefficient when they’re on the floor together.
I am here for De’Angry Hunter! (Way better than The Angry Whopper, no?) De’Andre is out here having it his way -- going up for ferocious dunks, wrestling away 50/50 balls, lofting threes with no hesitation, keeping candy away from babies at game’s end, even chewing out refs on bone-headed calls and drawing techs? My large, adult son!
While watching Zion and N’Awlins taking their turn at getting flame-broiled by the red-hot Jazz on national TV last night, one of my Hawks Twitter faves (@REGGIES_WORLD) asked aloud, “You know who would look good on the Pelicans right now?” Aren’t you hungry? A double-digit scorer all season long, this will be the 12th opportunity in Hunter’s budding career to serve up consecutive 20-burgers for the first time (10.5 PPG in prior 11 chances), if he is indeed good-to-go tonight (probable, sore knee).
With Clint Capela (28.8 D-Reb%, 3rd in NBA; 23-and-15 plus 3 blocks vs. MIN) doing the dirtiest of the dirty work around the defensive glass, John Collins and Hunter are ((slides on titanium draws)) powering forward. Their positive +12.6 Net Rating as a duo in Atlanta lineups is surpassed in the NBA East only by KD and Joe Harris (+13.6, min. 300 minutes played), and currently 6th-best overall.
Tack on Trae Young (8.9 APG and 88.9 FT%; multiple 3FGs, despite a season-low 8 FGAs vs. MIN, for the 2nd time in his past seven games), even with his wayward floaters and jumpers, and with refs trying their darnedest not to fall for his Nashketball tactics, and the Collins-Hunter-Young trio (+12.7 Net Rating, 3rd-best among NBA East 3-Man Lineups w/ 200+ minutes, 6th-best anywhere outside L.A.) is only a Crosby or a Stills short of a supergroup. Teach your children well, LP!
Hopefully, Cam Reddish (upgraded to questionable, bruised knee) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-8 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs, 4 steals vs. MIN) can become that fourth wheel, although four shouldn’t be needed to turn Atlanta into the true Motor City tonight.
Individually, Young (probable vs. DET, sore heel, although the ggod news is his wrist is fine) is just a marginally superior defender in the early going, compared to the balance of his past season. But after enduring Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, the esteemed Vince Carter, and the M.I.A. tandem of Alex Len and momentary Piston Dewayne Dedmon in last year’s frontcourt, Trae’s learning that not being the league’s worst defensive player often comes down to the company you keep.
My only ask of De’Andre, as the serene sophomore begins to shed his Dr. Bruce Banner persona, is that he not try to keep up with Trae in the turnover department. It can be easy being green, if you play possessions looking less like Kermit The Frog flailing about, and more like The Incredible Hulk.
The Hawks can be top-tier competitive (2-1 w/ team TO percentages below 10.0%, as per bball-ref; wins over Philly and the Nets, with sole loss @ BRK) when it’s only Young turning the ball over frequently. Hunter’s six TOs versus the T’Wolves on Monday, tying Trae and contributing to Atlanta’s season-high 24 player goofs, negated his and his team’s own defensive stops and were but his only significant blemishes.
Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce must work on his game plans to improve off-ball anticipation on offensive possessions, his players effectively resetting when a play call is countered and the need to shift to Plan B, with a Drew-ian sense of urgency, arises. Such execution is essential against a Detroit team that thrives off scoring chances after producing turnovers (19.5 points per-48, 5th-most in NBA). A slop-fest won’t work against the Pistons as it did against the shorthanded T’Wolves.
The Hawks need not look ahead, but that doesn’t mean their fans can’t. COVID-craziness notwithstanding, next week’s slate includes a visit to Budworld, where Giannis awaits, and home games with first Kawhi & PG, then the fat-suit-less Harden, KD & Kyrie in town on back-to-back nights. Will we get a well-rested and recuperated Wizards bunch in Washington next weekend? We’ll see.
The week after that? A four-game homestand, but with LeBron and AD, then Luka and the Jazz on a back-to-back, then a Tampato team that’s shedding dead weight (sorry, Alex) and is on the mend. Atlanta will then get four days off, but only before heading to Lukaland for their next, and finally scheduled, national TV appearance.
Things could go south, or soar north, in a hurry for the Hawks. But it’s the outcomes of those games, not the ones against the Knicks, Cavs, Hornets, Timberwolves and Pistons, that ought to define how one looks at this season’s success. It’s why Must-Win Week #2 cannot afford to go the way of Must-Win Week #1.
The Georgia Tech men’s basketball team is aiming to win their third-straight ACC game, and fifth in a row, with a chance of rising to 7-3 tonight by beating 20th-ranked Clemson on the road. Unfortunately for Tech, they’re not Top-25 ranked, and may still not be even in victory, in part because their season has already been defined, by Thanksgiving weekend losses at home to local Peach State “rivals” Georgia State and Mercer. Once you do that, nobody wants to hear about how you beat blue-bloods Kentucky and UNC.
You don’t want to be the Yellow Jackets; you want to be the team that does the stinging of weak opponents around here. Atlanta will have roster reinforcements coming along soon, and they don’t need to show perfection yet, although cutting the turnovers in half would sure be nice. Today, and on Friday in the rematch with D’demono Russell in Minnesota, we do need the Hawks to avoid another buzzkill, by at least showing us they’ve mastered their B-game.
Let’s Go Hawks!