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“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!