All in All, I'm Just Another Brick???


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    • By lethalweapon3
      a Monumental day in the nation's Capitol?
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      “I promise, I can’t catch your Per-Game Assists lead. Have you thought about taking off a day to rest your hamstrings?”
       
      Hump Day Tidbits!
      The Atlanta Hawks could win out and, by virtue of a theoretical three-way tie with the Knicks and heat at season’s end (“Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division,” sayeth the league office), secure homecourt advantage in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. At State Farm Arena, they’ll again host a Washington Wizards team practicing the spoiler role this evening (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, ESPN) and, the Wizards hope, beyond.
      Banner Szn! The division-winner thingie takes precedence as a three-way tiebreaker over head-to-head winning percentage (it’s the reverse when dealing with two-way tiebreakers). Because of it, Atlanta is in the odd position of hoping, if the Knicks get back on the horse after falling in OT last night to the Lakers and go 3-0, that the heat go 3-0 as well. Of course, none of this is likely to matter if the Hawks (38-31) don’t address their ballhandling and defensive flaws versus Washington, or if they slip up when Orlando and Houston pay visits to The Farm tomorrow and on Sunday, respectively.
      Monday’s 125-124 win over the visiting Wizards was a bit too close for comfort, but our Hawks could use just a little more last-minute tension. Only Utah (3-2), Cleveland (4-2), and Houston (3-3) have closed out as few games with a margin of three points or less as Atlanta (3-3). Comparatively, the Wizards (11-8) hold the NBA’s Cardiac Kids crown, with well over one-fourth of their contests and five of their last six games ending within a long-distance bucket one way or the other. It’s why the white-knuckle conclusion to Monday’s action served as a great learning opportunity for the Hawks.
      In addition to “winning-home-games” practice, tonight is “series-sweep” practice for Atlanta. The Wizards have seized at least one win from the Hawks in every season since 2011-12, a time when Jordan Crawford was arguably John Wall’s most talented teammate.
      Historically, Washington has never beaten any team more than Atlanta, but they still have a losing record all-time against the Hawks. According to the team’s Game Notes, the Wizards’ next victory over Atlanta would be their 150th, but the Hawks have won 158 in this decades-long rivalry. A harried Russell Westbrook’s inability to finish off Monday’s historic night with a likely game-clinching three-pointer made the Wizards’ race to Win #150 have to last at least a couple days longer.
      I’m going to use this space to praise The Commish for the Play-In concept, particularly now that the Hawks’ chance of appearing in it is virtually zero. The only people whining loudly about it are owners, players, and fans of teams that might have to win-to-get-in to reach the Playoffs, particularly those that never, in their wildest nightmares, imagined their teams being in this situation. Even the high-profile whiners make for good publicity.
      The Play-In prospect (or, specter, depending on one’s perspective) has given fans of subpar teams much more reason to watch end-of-season games, in the event their team’s seasons may not actually be ending. You think you can take out a top-two seed, subpar team? Prove your worth, first, by eliminating another subpar team or two. Brilliance.
      No one around the DMV is wringing their hands over the dwindling chances of getting Rui Hachimura and the injured Deni Avdija another low-lottery playmate. The Wizards (32-37, 1.0 games behind 8-seed Charlotte) still have little reason to shift to cruise-control through the remainder of their schedule (after tonight, they go home to host the Cavs and the Hornets). Their next win formally clinches the Play-In appearance, although the 11-seed Bulls are highly likely to lose a game so long as their final two opponents, Brooklyn and Milwaukee, bother to show up.
      Washington can neither edge Boston (35-34) in a two-way tiebreak scenario, having lost two of three against the free-falling Celts, nor in a multi-team scenario due to its poor in-conference record (14-25 vs. NBA East), and thus can no longer finish any higher than 8th. But any Play-In seed is better than #10, so the Wizards will want to win out, too, and enter next week’s extra game(s) hot with Bradley Beal (out again tonight, strained hammy) on the mend.
      The Hawks will go back to resting De’Andre Hunter (injury-return management) in hopes he’ll be able to build up his performances against the Magic and/or Rockets (as playoff practice, I’d have rather Dre face the Wiz again, then sit out tomorrow, but that’s why they pay the training staff the big bucks). As of this afternoon, Tony Snell is listed as available after being a late scratch on Monday due to a sore Achilles, while Kevin Huerter is available after being previously listed probable because of a sore hip.
      Tightening up the defensive effort, particularly in the second half (45 4th-quarter points by WAS on Monday), would make tonight’s proceedings easier on the Hawks, but it’s not like a lot of teams have figured out how to cool off the Wizards lately. Since getting throttled in Phoenix without the services of Beal on April 10, Washington has exceeded 115 regulation points in 16 of their past 17 games, the exception being a 117-115 OT win over New Orleans last month.
      As fantastic and worthy of flowery ink as Westbrook has been, he is shooting at a 38.8 FG% clip over the past three Wizards games, 32.2 3FG% and 73.3 FT% over those past 17 contests. Opponents are getting suckered into dragging extra defenders onto Russ (21 assists, incl. 10 in the final quarter; 3 TOs @ ATL on Monday), particularly on his drives and coming off screens, under the guise that his acrobatic finishes and off-bounce perimeter attempts are more damaging than anything Davis Bertans (5-for-9 3FGs, 4-for-5 in the tide-shifting 4th quarter when Russ’ teammates made 6 of 7 threes) or Ish Smith could provide.
      His Atlanta counterpart, Trae Young (1-for-7 3FGs, 0 steals, 6 TOs vs. WAS) led the Hawks with 36 points and 9 assists, and finished at +18 alongside Atlanta’s superior starters, but the superstar guard could stand to do more to keep Westbrook’s Wizards at bay.
      Bearing less of the burden to chase around Westbrook, Young must be more anticipatory of where the Wizard guard’s passes are headed. A combination of improved weakside communication and strong-side deflections or steals to induce turnovers should help Trae (3 steals in past 6 games, 2 of those vs. CHI eleven days ago) keep Washington’s revved-up offense from firing at all available cylinders.
      Gleaning from Russ that the threat of his long-ball three is currently eclipsing the reality (27.8 3FG% in 6 games for Trae since his return from injury), Young needs to exploit shot-fakes to his advantage, avoid the hero-shot mentality when more efficient plays are available, and be more decisive with his handle and his passes in the early going.
      After a balanced effort sunk the Suns last week, Atlanta’s bench brigade climbed back into its shell over the past two games, going a modest 5-for-14 on threes in Indiana last week before Monday’s droll showing (0-for-4 bench 3FGs vs. WAS, 9-for-21 FGs overall incl. 3-for-7 from Hunter). Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are too ineffective with their defensive play to be inert for full games at the other end.
      Hawks head coach Nate McMillan hasn’t tinkered much with a defensive-oriented backcourt tandem of Kevin Huerter and Kris Dunn (Sample Size Theater: +20.2 points per 100 possessions in their less-than-ten minutes sharing the floor). Tonight would be a good time to pair them together with some sweet-shooting forwards, including Gallo, Snell and the re-emerging John Collins (26.5 PPG, 69.0 FG% in last 2 games).
      With or without Beal, the Wizards are going to get buckets, but just a little more defensive pressure and possession control, consistently applied, while keeping Westbrook off the free throw line and continuing to dominate the glass, is what it will take for Washington to relent.
      DAYS SINCE A BEAL GOT PEEVED ABOUT A CURRENT OR FORMER HAWK: 1
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      “Hey, Russ! Rook here says he made way more Triple Doubles than you, back in his day!”
       
      The time has come. It’s Banner Szn!
      There is no such thing as a FACE Banner (“Finished Ahead of Consensus Expectations 2020-21”). You don’t chase after a “See? Told Ya We’d Make the Playoffs!” Banner. There’s no, “Beat the Odds Despite a Crap-ton of Injuries”, no “Hey, At Least We’re Not Like Cleveland This Year, Huh?” Banners. Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan can’t ascend a “Phew! Avoided That Pesky Play-In” Banner to the State Farm Arena rafters.
      The one tangible, non-fungible token that the coach and his team can offer Tony Ressler and Company is a red-black-and-yellow Banner that reads, “Southeast Division Champions 2020-21”. For all their “Not One, Not Two, Not Three” bluster, the Miami heat would like one made-to-order in those colors, too.
      With mere days to go in this goofy NBA season, our refabricated Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the same predicament Pawl, Al, Kowl, and Jeff put themselves in during the waning days of 2015-16’s. Win the week, and you can beat the heat for the Southeast Division crown. Standing in the way, then, and now (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, NBATV)? A Washington Wizards team that’s missing key players, a crew with not a whole heckuva lot left to play for, other than being a spoiler to a division rival.
      Since the NBA Finalist Hawks of St. Louis captured the Western “Division” title in 1961, this franchise’s history of hurdling a relatively low bar with any measure of frequency or consistency has been, well, a trip. There was 1970, the team’s second season in Atlanta, 1980, 1987, the MJ’s-Not-Here-Anymore-But-Let’s-Never-Speak-of-This-Season-Again year of 1994, and Mike Budenholzer’s Peaklanta season of 2015.
      Heavy B and the Boyz, the following season, had the opportunity to leave an indelible imprint, as the clear-cut most accomplished collective of Hawks in the team’s spotty five-decades-long Atlanta history. Unlike a certain baseball team, this Atlanta club had never experienced winning division titles in consecutive years. All they needed to do was to edge, in the standings, a Miami outfit that was, by then, sustaining themselves purely off the fumes of LeGone.
      As you all know how much it sticks in my craw ‘til this day (where’s Deontay Wilder, when I need him?), Our Fine Feathered Friends fumbled the flag. They couldn’t pass muster in the penultimate game of the season in Cleveland against LeBron’s reigning and future conference champs. But the make-up date came two days later in the District of Columbia, where the core of the prior year’s 60-game winners were tasked with closing out the season of Coach Randy Wittman, Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions, Tsunami Papi, Jarell Eddie, J.J. Hickson, Marcus Thornton, Nene, Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden, and I need not go on. Just win that game by a point, Atlanta, and we are back-to-back Southeast Division champions, my friends.
      There’s no other way to put it, but in his final regular season game as a Hawk, Al Horford and the crew blew it.  He could have at least left us with another Banner, like ‘94’s, to sneer at. Instead, in the space of just a few games, Joe Johnson was able to leave his Miami heat – yes, you read that right – with a commendation he and Al could not earn for Atlanta during any of their All-Star-studded years here together. While it’s now likely relegated alongside Marc Anthony’s Banner for some record number of sold-out shows, Miami was able to dangle the 19th division banner in its relatively short 28-year history from an arena beam. All Hawks fans were left with was the blissful memory of shutting up Isaiah Thomas and the 5-seed Celtics in the first-round.
      I can hear the mantra through the screen: Division Titles Mean Nothing. And in the grand sense, that’s correct, particularly to us old grumpycats, and especially in an era where Divisions themselves don’t amount to hills of beans, in terms of competitive stature, anymore. As a counterargument, for one-title-from-long-ago franchises like the Hawks, who have since changed cities, and the Wizards, who moved out of the ‘burbs and changed names, they still matter.
      Down on The Farm, while gnawing on a cricket taco, some kid that just learned multi-digit subtraction looks up from their seat, at “1993-94 Central Champs!” and “2014-15 Southeast Champs!” and wonders what on Earth happened in the intervening decades (Pro Tip: if you dare to try answering the question, be sure to start during the first quarter). The biggest kid in the stands is Ressler, and he would rather not be here when the 2036-37 Banner goes up, and some wisecrack smart-aleck shouts, “Yo, where are all the Banners since 2015?”
      When John Wall and Bradley Beal were waging their annual charge to overtake the Southeast Division, it mattered a lot. For one, there’s no “Look, Ma! We Finally Won 50 Games” Banner to pursue. In a town that spent an inordinate amount of fan energy chasing LeBron, in the standings, then wooing LeBron or a similar superstar, in free agency, the inference that your NBA team is the best that the warmer climes of the Eastern seaboard have to offer goes a long way; having something to point to as proof certainly helps make the case.
      It feels like eons ago, but there was a time when four NBA Division titles and a Celine Dion concert attendance record were all Miami had to offer. When Tim Hardaway, Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Coach Pat Riley won their first of four straight division championships, in 1997, it was like Carnival in the streets. It served as a pivotal sign of a dormant sports team in a town with a lot of distractions finally gaining some footing and establishing themselves as a club not to be trifled with. "Watch out, Orlando, here we come!"
      That’s about where the Hawks could find themselves in 2021. Five years before, a consecutive Division Banner could have been the signal to Al… and Bud… that they’re still moving in a direction worth sticking around and building around long enough to see through, together. Instead, on the night it should have mattered the most, we got toasted by Razor Ramon Sessions, and thus formally began the search for the exits.
      As was the case in 2016’s season-ender for the Wizards, Beal (out today and Wednesday, strained hammy) won’t be an impediment to any lofty divisional dreams we might have here in The ATL. But Wall’s functional replacement, with any due respect, is no Ramon Sessions.
      On that note, let’s all check in on The Notorious K.A.B., shall we?
      The cherry blossoms around our nation’s Capitol have bloomed just twice since Kamiah Adams-Beal was goaded into grousing about how second-year guard and People’s Choice All-Star Trae Young was “playing cherry-picking basketball.” She apologized, appropriately, but Kamiah’s consternation with guys on non-playoff teams, stuffing stat-sheets and currying favor with fantasy managers to get voted into midseason extravaganzas, ahead of Her Main Man, remained a soapbox worth standing on in 2020. That was, until 2021!
      We’re all allowed to evolve in our steadfast positions on matters big and small. (Noting here that Kamiah’s crankiness extended into the Bubble season, with Brad being an All-NBA “snub”… “Put some respect on his name!”, she tweeted). But that transition is eased when, in lieu of a creaky-kneed 30-year-old co-star whose prominence historically depended on his top-flight end-to-end speed, team president Tommy Sheppard and Wizards management paired Beal with a strong, quick, 32-year-old former league MVP whose stat-accumulating prominence, in the present day, remains historic.
      If you’re like me, you applauded heartily as Russell Westbrook tied The Real Big O’s all-time Triple Doubles mark (33 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists for #181) in Washington’s 133-132 OT victory Saturday, in the fieldhouse of the re-enlivened Pacers. All that meant, for me, was that Hawks fans would not have to endure both the pursuit of tying Oscar Robertson’s once-seemingly untouchable record, on a Monday, and surmounting it, on a Wednesday (the Hump Day game is now at 7 PM on ESPN, because we know the nation can’t wait to celebrate De’Andre Hunter’s regal return).
      The old saw was how Westbrook’s play was detrimental to ultimate team success. That take’s dead-and-buried, now that the Thunder and Wizards teams Russ played for have now won over 75 percent of games where he messed around, trailing only Magic (78.3 percent) and LeBron (76.8 percent) according to NBA.com. Westbrook hasn’t been cleaning the glass and dishing purely to ham-and-eggers, but neither was Magic, and at least after around, oh, 2008, neither was James.
      Brad’s better half was not in a good mood, back on January 31, and neither was her hubby. Two nights after Trae Young dropped 41 on the Wizards in D.C., in a resounding 116-100 Hawks win that seemed to have righted Atlanta’s sails, season-leading scorer Beal was acting Kevin Love-glum throughout the first half, as the next club in town, the superteam Nets, were about to drop Washington to 3-13 on the season. Braddie and The Brodie had yet to gel on the floor, Davis Bertans and the supporting cast looked lost, and the season already seemed to be getting away from them all.
      Then came the spark they had been waiting for. Westbrook and Beal combined for 37 fourth-quarter points, a corner three from Russ capping a stunning and victorious comeback to win. The new Mrs. Beal could not contain her venom, sniping at NBA Twitter for clowning her and her husband’s non-playoff-bound team on The Interwebs. When one follower suggested that some owed her a personal apology after the final horn, she bristled, “They can keep it and shove it up their (Dellavedovas).” Ouch!
      Thankfully, time, and a horde of sympathetic fan, player and media votes for an NBA All-Star starter spot despite a sub-.500 record, has healed all wounds. Spurred on by the All-Star love, Beal joined Westbrook in lifting Washington out of a 6-17 hole to reach the Break at 14-20. The post-Break drop from Beal’s sugar high took some time to overcome, the Wizards lapsing back into irrelevance at 17-32. But their 15-4 closing run, to date, has the dynamic duo looking like they won’t be an easy out at Play-In time, or perhaps any time after.
      Going forward, Russ can focus solely on padding his career record from the next young upstart who dares to take a Luka his lead and make a run after it. His coach, Scott Brooks, whose job at the helm has likely been saved by Westbrook’s recent brilliance and collaboration with Beal (31.4 PPG, 2nd in NBA), and the rest of the Wizards still have other things worthy of chasing.
      Washington (32-36) is all-but assured of moving on from State Farm Arena, this week, to the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament (“Like a good sponsor…”) next week. Yet it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it’s the Wizards greeting Brad Stevens’ backsliding Celtics in Boston for the East’s opening 7-8 game. For teams doomed, if you will, to the Play-In, the objective now is to be in position of needing to play in just one game, not two, to determine their postseason fates. The 9-seed Wizards need only to slip ahead of Charlotte (1.0 games ahead w/ the tiebreaker) to accomplish that.
      Failing that, it ought to be helpful to play a 9-10 elimination game in front of your own adoring fans. Before Beal exited with his injury at the close of regulation, Washington needed every one of his 50 points (19-for-31 FGs; rest of team incl. Russ 30-for-79) to claw back into a draw with the Pacers. The win leapfrogged Washington (0.5 game ahead of IND) over their Hoosier hosts, and they will not want to return there anytime soon.
      Beal’s absence puts the onus on Ish Smith (7 rebounds, 4 assists in 19 minutes), and two-way gunner Garrison Mathews, to provide some spoiler spark. Raul Neto (2.3 SPG) was plugged into the starting unit in mid-April with rookie Deni Avdija (fibula hairline fracture) likely sidelined for the season, and he’ll be needed to offer his best T.J. McConnell impression versus in disrupting Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, who were decidedly listless and sloppy until the turnaround proved to be too late when the Hawks blew yet another SCRAP game, on Thursday evening in Indy.
      John Collins (25 points, 7 rebounds @ IND) must make concerted efforts to box out his old chum, as former Hawk Alex Len, a starter at the pivot due to the early-season exit of Thomas Bryant, and former Bulls forward Daniel Gafford will try to keep the second-chance opportunities alive. At the other end, with Westbrook hunting around the paint for defensive rebounds, the Hawks have to make quick shots off smart passes, providing Russ precious few stat-padding caroms to secure.
      There’s no Rondo around to get under Westbrook’s cuticles this time around. And while there may not be a Hunter, whose injury absences due to knee problems began with that January 29 game in D.C., there wasn’t a Bogdan Bogdanovic, a regular-rotation Tony Snell, or a Lou Williams available either. They should be able to beat Neto, Bertans, and Chandler Hutchison off the dribble to create whatever shots they desire. Russ’ acrobatic shots and needle-threading passes, when they lead to scores, are cap-tippable. But a four-quarter effort, today and Wednesday, to win the turnover and rebounding margins will render his Wizards capsize-able.
      This is effectively playoff homestand practice for the Hawks (37-31, seeking a season-high 8-game home win streak) as well. Advancing, or at least appearing as a threat to advance, entails taking the consecutive home dates you're given with a singular opponent and making sure they’re winning ones. If all goes well this week, this pair of games will be a warmup for Games 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, in a couple weeks. If things go disastrously bad, this confident Wizards team, with Beal back in tow, could become Atlanta’s (first) Play-In opponent this time next week.
      But the Hawks won’t play well if they get preoccupied with the hot coals beneath them. They have a prize, up high, to keep their eyes on. Unlike Medina Spirit’s laurels, a Banner for an NBA Division Title can never get snatched away. It’s time to run for the roses.
      Alright, Atlanta. The objective is clear, and in sight. You’ve worked hard just to get to this stage. Now, get out there, before your home fans, and have yourself a Banner week.
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      “So y’all was just gonna keep the GameStop news to yourselves, huh?”
       
      Purgatory Week’s Game #3 is here! And I bet you can guess what one young lady named Kamiah has been up to since yesterday. Do you know, do you know, do you know?
      That’s right! NBA All-Star team voting is well into its second day, and just like people all around the great District of Columbia, Kamiah Adams-Beal is occupied with people other than herself quietly stuffing the ballot box for their favorite candidates. Maybe even legally.
      “RT fa me one timeeee !”, The Bride of Bradley Beal exclaimed yesterday while strategically hash-tagging #NBAAllStar on her IG. And who can blame her? Her big-baller beau is carrying the Washington Wizards, or at least as many as can reasonably suit up for the Wizards, as much as ever before.
      Somebody has to step up on behalf of the NBA’s leading per-game scorer (35.4 PPG), who is also hitting his freebies (88.5 FT% on 8.7 tries/game) and rebounding (5.3 RPG) at career-high levels. It’s a shame he’s had to do it, on a nightly basis, in losing fashion.
      The good news is, Beal cannot break the record for most consecutive losses where an NBA player scores 40 points, not tonight against the visiting Atlanta Hawks (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). The bad news is, sadly, he has already shattered former Hawks legend Walt Bellamy’s nine-game mark (as a rookie, with Slick Leonard and the 1961-62 Chicago Packers). Beal’s tenth-straight 40-burger defeat came at the hands of Zion and the Pelicans on Thursday.
      47 points by Beal, and the Wiz lose by 18. 60 points on January 6, both a personal career-high and a franchise record, all in regulation, and his team falls short in Philly by 5. You hate to see it.
      I hear you snickering over there, you heartless Hawks fan, you. Cut that noise out. This is not a joking matter!
      “It’s politics and it’s a joke,” Kamiah shared on the Wizards Radio Network at about this time, exactly one year ago tomorrow. This was after last season’s NBA All-Star Game reserves were revealed on TNT and her new fiancé was left wanting, in both the popular voting and the electoral college. This was upsetting Kamiah, and her homegirls.
      “It’s a popularity contest. It’s about who has the most followers on Instagram, who has the most likes,” the then-Ms. Adams argued last January, with nary a hint of irony, “and it’s a joke to me… you can’t name five people that were selected for reserves on either the East or the West who are outplaying Bradley Beal right now.”
      To be real, Kamiah wasn’t wrong. Not until Brad-caster Glenn Consor steered Adams off course by summoning the name of someone not a reserve, voted in by 30 NBA coaches who are supposed to see The Game up close and know better, but a young All-Star starter, one already selected daily by the fans, players, and media members just like Consor, weeks beforehand, on more than just Instagram.
      “It’s a joke to me,” Beal’s fiancée reiterated, confiding with Consor on the public airwaves when asked, curiously, about Atlanta’s sophomore sensation Trae Young. “Not taking away from his game,” she opined, with no bias whatsoever, “He’s playing cherry-picking basketball.” Har-dee-har-har.
      In both Consor’s and Adams’ cherry-picking minds, sure, Young was racking up the assists, producing highlight-worthy plays, making people go wow-zers on the Interwebs. Whirling behind backs and between legs to deliver one fancy dish after another into the ever-so-talented paws of Jabari Parker and Alex Len for layup attempts at the rim. But Trae’s team wasn’t winning games, you see. Nothing like their darling Wizards, who were climbing uphill without franchise face John Wall and were at least, by that time, a gaudy 16-31 thanks to Beal.
      Atlanta, a full 4.0 games behind Washington at 13-36, couldn’t hold a candle. Yet, the Wizards fans colluded to complain, it’s Young who gets to pal around and play reindeer games in Chicago with Beal’s former All-Star buddies, while Kamiah’s future lesser half is stuck at home, cleaning gutters or something. Shouldn’t the standings count for something? This is about ethics in All-Star Game voting!
      Fast forward one year, and it’s Atlanta (9-9) sitting comfortably at .500, arriving in D.C. merely two days after a moral loss in overtime at home to the surefire All-Stars on the Brooklyn Nets. The Hawks have been missing newcomers, like Kris Dunn (out at least two more weeks post-ankle surgery), Rajon Rondo (questionable, sprained ankle), Onyeka Okongwu (available, sore Achilles) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may have been enough to pull out some of their close-shave defeats (five L’s by six points or fewer). But they, at least, have the look of a play-in team, one that has time to get healthy and gel while they weather through any Purgatory Week and Hell Week setbacks.
      Meanwhile, Washington (3-11) tired of waiting to see if John Wall, returning this season after an extended injury period, would ever return to All-Star levels alongside Beal. They replaced him in the offseason with former league MVP Russell Westbrook. Despite slinging the ball around at Trae Young levels (10.2 APG, 5.2 TOs/game), Westbrook (37.4 FG%, 61.7 FT%) has struggled with his durability, his shot mechanics, and his defense (1-8 in games appeared, the sole win at Harden-less Brooklyn) while meshing with Beal.
      Further complicating matters for hot-seat head coach Scott Brooks, a season-ending injury to big man Thomas Bryant three weeks ago had an already shallow roster reeling. Quickly buried on the bench in Tampa, Len was desperately picked up off waivers by the Wiz and is back to logging 20 minutes per night.
      And, put on for size, seven Wizard players catching Dat Rona, causing a weeks-long delay in the schedule while many continue to recover and quarantine. Washington last beat Phoenix soundly on January 11 before having their game shut down like the MLS lockout. They returned this calendar week and have since lost by 20, by 19 (to a vengeful Wall’s Houston Rockets), and by 18. I guess they’re getting better.
      So, yeah, 3-11 is 3-11. Dead-last in the NBA is dead-last. But making judgmental decisions about All-Star worthiness based on relative positions in the standings was so 2020. This year, the Beal household wants you all to understand, context matters! At least for the moment, the dollar-store version of Mike Conti, Consor, is wisely keeping his All-Star vote opinions, and his not-so-sneaky shade, to his darn self. Hopefully, by now, Glenn can discern screen-setters from screen-savers.
      Neither Hawks nor Wizards fans ought to worry their heads over which of their franchise guards is getting voted in by fans on Twitter this time around. There are only two available starting backcourt slots, and with Brooklyn having a physically sound Kyrie and the recently arriving Harden on the ballot, the Nets have those positions, as the cool kids of five years ago might say, on lock.
      The only competition that remains is decided upon by the thirty head coaches or their designates. With Young in town, Beal is determined to put on a show tonight and put coaches like Lloyd Pierce on notice: if Trae (44.3 2FG%, down from 50.1% last season) gets in, I want in, too. Westbrook, who joined the previous guy he was traded from OKC for, Chris Paul, atop the Western reserves list in 2020, wouldn’t mind getting a few Eastern promises of his own.
      Frankly, Brad can go for 70 on 70 shots, if he chooses, but he’s got to come away with some wins, too. The COVID-delayed games are getting packed back into the first-half of this season by the league’s schedule-makers, so a bunch of back-to-backs on short notice for Brooks’ crew awaits.
      The Zards face Brooklyn here at Capital One Arena on Sunday, and Portland on Tuesday, a day before flying down to Miami for a series with a division rival that may have Jimmy Butler back by next week. Narrowing the gap with the Hawks, and heat, would make Beal’s resume look much spiffier by the time the coaches submit their ballots to the league.
      “We want to win, and I want to win,” Beal shared with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk after Wednesday’s 124-106 loss to N’Awlins. “This is why I stayed… I figured this is the place I can get it done.”
      “Last year was what it was,” was another Bradley bromide. “We had a lot of guys out. John was out,” Beal added, referring to Mr. Wall and not, coincidentally, to Atlanta’s months-long suspended Mr. Collins.  “It was just a rotten year. COVID hit. This year, it’s the same thing. Like a mini-Bubble outside the Bubble. No fans, no nothing, no practice time. It’s been tough.”
      This is where free agent retainee Davis Bertans, second-year forward Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner will come in handy. The frontcourt trio returns from their COVID hiatus just in time for tonight’s game. Mix in dashes of Len, and Jordan Bell on a 10-day deal, and Washington should have enough frontcourt rebounding to make up for the loss of Bryant, and enough shooting (if Bertans isn’t rusty) to help Westbrook and Beal better spread the offensive floor. Going forward, it’s just a matter of whether Washington (114.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA, last in East) can produce enough stops to finally make Beal’s prolific offense matter.
      ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus data is in! As bad as Beal was at the defensive end last season (minus-4.79 DRPM), along with teammates Troy Brown and Ish Smith (both still out, along with rook Deni Avdija, on the health ‘n safety tip) and Bertans, Brad could usually take solace in looking down at Young (league-worst minus-6.17 DRPM).
      That holds true in 2020-21. But this time, both Beal (-1.68 DRPM, #434 of 451 NBA players) and Young (minus-2.25 DRPM, #446 of 451) can currently look down upon Beal’s teammate, Westbrook (minus-2.38, #447), to say nothing of star peers Zach LaVine, Kemba Walker and Harden.
      Of course, fans and data wonks go radio-silent about a player’s problematic defense once a Podoloff Trophy is collecting dust on the shelf. Beal (4 steals @ NOP, 1.4 SPG) is doing a little more in hopes of being disruptive and helping Russ and the Wizards stay in games by scoring off turnovers (19.6 points per-48 off TOs, 4th-most in NBA).
      But when Bradley’s doing badly at seizing the ball, opposing offenses find it easy to execute first-shots on most possessions (NBA-worst 55.3 opponent 2FG%; 56.0 opponent eFG%, second-worst in NBA). The Wizards’ frontline resistance, with all due respect to Wagner, doesn’t compare with Collins or Clint Capela (54.2 defended opponent FG%). Atlanta’s starting frontcourt duo sends back 3.5 shots per game, slightly more, by themselves, than the Wizards have produced so far (3.4 team BPG).
      One thing the Wiz will do, when they can’t stop you, they will hack you (NBA-high 23.4 personals per-48). Atlanta can keep Washington in the rear-view mirror by beating their man off the dribble, getting inside on cuts and drives, getting into the bonus quickly, and converting their free throws (4-2 with 25+ FTs/game, two close losses against the Nets; 1-5 with under 20 FTs/game, sole win @ BRK last month). The Hawks have watched opponents, like the Nets (17-for-20 FTs on Wednesday) hit an unlucky 81.5 FT% (highest in NBA), but the Wizards (74.4 team FT%, 23rd in NBA), aside from Beal, are prone to leaving crucial points on the table.
      Every team in the NBA has been tripped up for a disappointing loss or two. In the NBA East, though, the cream rising to the top is at least winning most of their in-conference games. None of the East’s Top 6 are doing worse than 8-6. Atlanta (5-7), for the next couple of weeks, will have a tough time extricating themselves from the eight Eastern conference teams beneath them. But that feat becomes unnecessarily tougher when the Hawks struggle to close out and put away (negative-2.4 fourth-quarter plus/minus, 27th in NBA), the Hornets, Pistons and Wizards across the league.
      Hawks fans would have reason to be disappointed, particularly if there is to be some midseason showcase hosted in The A, and Trae Young isn’t sharing center stage. Still, no matter how the final All-Star returns pan out, Atlanta fans won’t be storming NBA offices, kicking their feet up on Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum’s desk just because the official tallies didn’t go their favorite players’ way.
      I mean, that would be a “joke.” Right, Madame Beal?
       
      Let’s Go Hawks!
      ~lw3