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“HOW YOU LOSIN’ TO THE CAVS AGAIN? DAYYUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMNNNN!”
“There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, when something named Lamar Stevens looks like a dadgum DuPont Factory on wheels strolling down the lane untouched in the clutch. Whatever.
In usual Atlanta Sports years, by the time our Hawks had blown their 10th fourth-quarter lead of the season (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti), we’d be occupied with United fooling around in the playoffs, fretting over the Dawgs getting stonewalled by Saban, and watching Matty Ice waltz for his life behind a slushy O-Line. More often than not, we’re still washing out dandruff after scratching our heads about how the Bravos collapsed in the postseason. This time, that is.
But nothing is usual in this most unusual sports town. The MLS season is delayed, the Flowery Branch Fail-cons are busy swapping out executive office furniture, Uga XVI or whatever is busy with doggie charm school, and members of the Baseball Club are still driving around the Gulf Coast seeking out directions to North Port. That means our Hawks, their beleaguered head coach, and their collective failures are on the A-Block in A-Town sports radio, and they’re trending for the wrong reasons on local anti-social media.
“There’s No Chemistry!”, we’re told, as our young All-Star-on-the-Low is out here looking like Frank Drebin outside the fireworks factory. Alright, Move On! Nothing To See Here! Move Along! Please Disperse! Another Day! Another Opportunity! 100!
I’m not wasting any energy waiting around to find out if Bogdan Bogdanovic is ever walking through that door. Not today, anyway. Instead, while the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) pay us a visit, hoping the Hawks will help them lick their own wounds, one night after their two All-Stars (smh) got licked in Lukaland, and help them return once again to .500 ball, I prefer to use this space to praise a local team that can now, finally, legitimately say, “We are a playoff team!” and not induce hearty guffaws.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Bracketologist is here to share the good news. The Yellow Jackets of the Georgia Institute of Gotdang Technology are projected to be bound for Dayton! Wait, what’s that? Oh, okay, Indianapolis, then, fine! Unlike Bawb Rathbun whenever the Hawks are about to shoot free throws, I’m not even halfway jinxing these guys. It’s a Stone Cold Lock TM, baby!
No more excuses about those brain-draining nuclear physics professors distracting Tech’s umpteenth-year scholars from standing toe-to-toe with the one-and-doner programs of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Yellow Jacket Men strode up to Blacksburg and jived those turkeys at Va-Tech last night. It’s their fourth victory in a conference-high seven games against an opponent that entered their contest ranked in the Top-25. And the PR director masquerading as the college’s head basketball coach won’t let you forget it.
“There should be ELEVEN teams in the tournament coming out of the ACC!”, he says. Come home, Josh Pastner, you’re drunk. But they are getting eight, and the crew guided by Monstrous Moses Wright, Trae-Lite Jose Alvarado, and Bell Buckets Michael DeVoe are looking every bit like a top-7 ACC program right now. (By the way, the Lady Jackets are going Dancing, too. As a Top-8 seed, at that. Give ‘em hell, Nell!)
At long last, Pastner has cleaned house of all his creepy colleagues from Memphis, and got his postseason ban out of the way at the perfect time. Finesse! Beating the Hokies last night gave the Jackets their first two-game in-conference road winning streak since 2008. When they beat the Fighting John Collinses in Winston-Salem next week, that’ll be three in a row.
Once Pastner comes down from his high, he’ll have his team ready to run Jim Boeheim and student journalist killer Coach K’s clubs right on out the Thrillerdome over the next seven days. That, and a first-round victory in the ACC Tourney will sew up a spot in the 68-team dance for the first time in eleven (miserable!) years. Even a slip-up or two, at this late stage, would simply mean a “first-round” affair with Directional Kentucky or somebody is in the offing.
These Jackets have come a long way from blowing gimmes at McSqueamish Pavilion, to local lessers Georgia State and Mercer during the Thanksgiving break. At that time, hardly any other sports teams were playing, the heat lamp was squarely on the head coach, and the home fans were disgusted, disgruntled and just flat-out dissed, with no confidence their team would even deserve an invite to the CIT, never mind the NIT, once all was said and done on the 2020-21 season.
What they’ve done since that low point – winning almost all their home games on The Flats, beating ranked and favored opponents here and abroad, beating the remaining teams they absolutely had to beat, coming through at closing time – ought to be inspirational to another Basketball Club dribbling aimlessly just down the road, one that actually gets paid for their name, image, likeness, and, we have been led to believe, their competitive spirit.
Let’s Go Hawks! Or Not. At This Point, Just Do Whatever! The Checks Gon’ Clear Either Way.
“WHO WANTS TO SEXTON?”
Michael Carter-Williams had arrived.
22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals, to help his lottery team defeat the juggernaut defending NBA champs in his professional debut. The sky was the limit.
Brandon Jennings made his grand entrance.
55 points on national TV, while a fellow rookie named Stephen Curry watched from the bench. A star was born.
Jamaal Tinsley’s big moment was here.
A triple double, featuring 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 23 assists, as a rookie, in a win against MJ’s Wizards. Pass the torch! The ceiling is the roof!
What if you hopped into the Hot Tub Time Machine, and shared with these happy hipster hoopers that this was pretty much as good as their careers were going to get?
“147–135 in double OT.
Against a title contender.
Against three Hall of Famers.
In a game we knew they were up for.
Just a few weeks ago, Collin Sexton scribed in the Players’ Tribune, “I put myself on the map.” The freshly fortified Brooklyn Nets showed up to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena expecting a grand entrance. But it was Sexton who showed up Kevin Durant, James Harden, and former Cavaliers legend Kyrie Irving in double overtime, showing the Nets the door with a thrilling career-best 42-point bonanza and a 147-135 victory.
“I love how people went into that game talking about them other dudes……. and came out of it talking about the Cavs,” the former Pebblebrook High star admitted in his ink-spilling essay. “I love that we’re catching these so-called experts by surprise.”
“I love the idea of teams marking us down as a W on their calendar, based on who they thought we were last season… then catching an L they didn’t see coming.” Matter of fact, there are a few Atlanta Hawks hiding their Sharpies, too, particularly once these 2020 lottery teams left a January 2nd game with equal records at State Farm Arena, a 96-91 grindfest where Sexton’s 27 points led the way to victory. “We’re back on the map,” Young Bull decreed as his Cavs returned to .500 ball with a 7-7 record. “Let’s stay awhile.”
I hate to be Rand McNally here, but as the Hawks visit Cleveland tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio) on the front end of back-to-back games for each team, it feels like Sexton and the Cavs have already charted well off course.
The Cavs pulled off the home sweep of the Nets two nights after Sexton’s signature performance on January 20, but have since dropped 14 of their past 16 to vie with their division-rival Pistons for the rights to the Eastern Conference cellar. After falling at home to Denver and OKC in this four-game homestand, by double digits for the 11th time in this stretch, Cleveland (10-21) hopes to avert their 11th consecutive loss this season tonight at the hands of the Hawks, who just beat the Nuggets in Atlanta on Sunday.
It’s not Collin’s fault, at all, that GM Koby Altman still has Process-style designs for this club. Cleveland won those Nets games with Larry Nance and Andre Drummond holding the fort upfront. Nance would break a finger and will continue to sit out the next 2-4 weeks. The team also decided on Blakegriffining Drummond, lest he suffer a hangnail while delivering his customary double-doubles.
Kevin Love remains mothballed, too. Taurean Prince, the former Hawk and Net thrown in with Jarrett Allen in the deal that made the Harden deal work for Brooklyn, has been sidelined with a sore ankle, doubtful to play today. The problematic Kevin Porter was shipped to Houston. Thon Maker hit the waiver wire.
This leaves JB Bickerstaff to stir, as his frontcourt options, Allen and JaVale McGee, with a dash of Dean Wade and two-way player Lamar Stevens, to taste. The paper-thin rotation is also giving Sexton’s fellow Cobb Countian and lottery prize Isaac Okoro way more minutes than he can handle, sharing time chasing power forward with the decidedly Bazemorian Cedi Osman. But for the selection of Okoro with the 5th pick in 2020’s Draft, Onyeka Okongwu would be a very busy man right now.
Sexton and Garland almost have to have signature nights just to keep Cleveland in the running. Frankly, Sexton’s map-making game almost didn’t come to pass. The Cavs blew a 13-point lead in the final quarter of regulation against Brooklyn, a lead built not so much with the aid of Sexton but with timely putbacks by Allen and shots by Prince, the vengeful former Nets. With the game on the line, tied with just seconds remaining, Harden stole the ball from Sexton but couldn’t convert after a Sexton non-shooting foul and a jump ball.
Up to that point, Collin had a modest 20 points, 0-for-4 on threes, and just two assists. The layup and three-pointer in the final ten seconds which saved the game in the first OT period presaged the SportsCenter highlight reel that came in the second overtime. Four made threes, including some daring makes over the outstretched arms of Brooklyn’s stars, and 15 points in just five minutes.
Since that career-defining scoring spree that almost didn’t happen, Sexton has sunk 18 threes in his past 17 games (31.6 3FG%), including a 1-for-6 outing against the Thunder on Sunday. He’s scoring on drives, getting to the line, and dishing the pill just fine since the swoon began (20.5 PPG, 45.6 FG%, 80.2 FT%, 4.2 APG in last 16 games). But with Garland (5.4 APG, 39.8 3FG%) serving as the point guard by default, the 6-foot-1 Sexton really needs that outside jumpshot to fall, and it simply isn’t happening, not like it was at the outset of the season (50.0 3FG% in his first 9 games, incl. the big win over Brooklyn).
Even as Cleveland fades into tank-dom, Sexton still lives off a double-OT moment of majesty that, for Atlanta’s Trae Young, checks out as another day in the office. It’s not simply Atlanta sports fans, but the larger NBA media, that fail to note that while Trae lacks a winning pedigree thus far, he has hung buckets, and Ls, on superstars and media darlings alike.
Before last season’s Bubble burst for Atlanta, Trae’s career-best of 50 came, in regulation, at the expense of a team few people suspected would be the Eastern Conference champions, outscoring beloved All-Stars Bam Outtadabayou and Jimmy Butler by his lonesome. In 2019-20 alone, he scored 42 or more points on ten occasions, upstaging Bradley Beal and, also not for the first time, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
Including Sunday’s headache-relieving win over road-weary Denver, Young has scored 35 or more in eight games this season, the entire octet resulting in wins for Atlanta (13-17). In the final game a voting subset of coaches might notice, he also took time out of his day to dish out a season-best 15 assists on Sunday, his 14th double-double in 28 starts (28 double-doubs in 60 games last year).
Entering today, Young has his three-year career-bests with 43.9 FG%, 37.9 3FG%, and 88.5 FT%. His per-game turnovers, while high, is down from last year while chugging along with a career-best 9.5 APG, a proportion of which should be much higher among Hawks exec Travis Schlenk’s offseason additions.
Alas, we like to gloss over the crossover. Using Rock & Roll Hall of Fame comparisons, Atlanta’s ace has become Jimi, on the nights the match struggles to light and the guitar doesn’t go up in flames. Young’s occasional struggles become worthy of critique, while his proliferative performances have become de rigueur.
Trae got the Slovenian Bounce in 2020’s All-Star balloting, Euro-fans who liked Luka’s draft-buddy denying grumps and media blisters the opportunity to publicly stiff-arm Young when it came time for NBA coaches to pick the reserves. That chance arrives today, and just as you can guarantee there’s a poorly researched narrative regarding why Young has had his turn already, perhaps too soon, at the All-Star trough, you can also be certain there will be “Big Ups!” for the emerging Cavalier star who’s all of 157 days and three draft picks Trae’s junior.
From the tele-pundits, Sexton gets the glitz, and Young gets the glum. Because Cleveland, for all its struggles, has been missing key pieces, you see. And, gee, did you not see what Sexton did to Brooklyn?
No one will mention how Trae and the Hawks dusted Kyrie and KD by 18, in Brooklyn, already this season. Oh, and his team didn’t need Taurean and Jarrett’s help (then still Nets) to get it done, in regulation. But for the Nets stars’ heroics to help edge Trae (30-and-11) and the Hawks by four points two nights before, that would have been a two-game sweep, too.
NBA coaches are a brighter breed than the TNT studio commentators. Hopefully, good judgement will prevail and Young will be among the East reserves, making Sir Charles’ gut growl audibly this evening. But if not, and Trae has to wait to become a very likely “injury” replacement, then the week his chances went awry began last month with the Hawks’ loss to Cleveland. (I shall spare everyone my annual gripe that there should be 8 All-Star reserves, not 7, just as there have been 13 required active players for NBA games even before David Stern was commissioner. You are welcome.)
No team currently above Atlanta in the NBA East standings has played more games versus teams currently at or above .500. The Hawks, with the win over Denver, sit at 6-10 in those 16 contests. By comparison? Domantas Sabonis’ Pacers have only played 12 such games, and they’re 4-8. Khris Middleton’s Bucks are 5-8. Zach LaVine’s Bulls are 2-10. LaMelo and the do-gooder Hornets (darn it, Draymond!) are 4-9, Butler and Adebayo’s heat are 3-12. Just a half-game below Atlanta, Nik Vucevic’s Magic are 1-11. Yet it’s the Hawks, Young and questionable rotator Lloyd Pierce, that are perceived as not living up to their Nique-given potential.
That’s really because of what’s going on in the other column. Atlanta’s 7-7 versus below .500 teams, and that includes the superfecta of defeats, at the hands of the Cavs, Knicks and Hornets (twice) from January 2-9, that bedevils Trae and the Hawks deep into February. Everyone of Trae’s critics, conveniently, can just look at Atlanta’s spot in the standings and tsk-tsk.
Also 7-7, against teams like the Hawks and the Cavs, are the Cavs. Detroit and Cleveland are the only clubs in the NBA East that have endured tougher strengths of schedules (based on bball-ref’s recipe) than Atlanta. And the Hawks’ schedule won’t ease up much, not with Boston tomorrow as a home finale and a road swing through OKC, Miami and Orlando to conclude the half-season. (We are still about to get hit with a Bubble, aren’t we? Any good reason we don’t have a second-half schedule with 16 days remaining?)
Hopefully the schedule gods will be kinder, soon. But to ever get above .500 this season, Atlanta has to consistently beat the teams below that mark, particularly those, like Cleveland, that seemed designed and resigned to that fate.
In honor of Charlie Harper, the Cavs have settled into a two-and-a-half-man halfcourt offense (NBA-worst 104.0 O-Rating, 2nd-worst 15.6 TO%), with Garland bringing up the ball, Sexton creating off drives, and Allen or McGee cleaning up the many, many misses (29.3 team O-Reb%, 4th in NBA; 30.1% this month) for second-chance opportunities. This is far from the offense and contributors that Bickerstaff envisioned, but with Okoro, Osman, Prince, Damyean Dotson, So-Not-D-Wade and rookie Dylan Windler all shooting between 35 and 42 percent from the field (all below 33.3 3FG%), ya dance with what brung ya.
Cleveland’s best chance at producing successful offense is from pressing and scoring inside in transition (53.7 paint points per-48, 2nd in NBA; 15.7 opponent TO%, 3rd in NBA). Young, Skylar Mays and the Hawks ballhandlers must be judicious with their handles under pressure from Okoro (1.2 SPG, highest among active Cavs with Nance and Drummond out), Garland and the like. With Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter leading the way, the Hawks getting back on defense, after scores and live-ball turnovers, and packing the paint will be essential for keeping Cleveland on ice.
Clint Capela (who deserves at least some mention during All-Star Reveal Night, NBA-high 13.9 RPG) was masterful versus Jokic on Sunday, and he will have his hands full once again keeping Cleveland’s few bigs off the offensive boards. The Cavs in their current configuration have no answer for John Collins (30.8 FG%, 0-for-8 on threes, 20 combined points in last 2 games), who should find himself feasting if he collects and keeps the ball off the ground. Same for Danilo “Salsa Piccante” Gallinari, who is capable of pairing with Tony Snell and helping Atlanta dominate the bench scoring if he’s not over-dribbling.
It’s almost time for the All-Star Reveals! Whether Trae or Clint gets a nod or not tonight, hopefully they and the Hawks enjoy a quality, victorious game that doesn’t have the Atlanta-based TV hosts speaking disparagingly about Atlanta, while praising Sexton for whatever he’s doing on Cleveland’s behalf. Either way, I already have my volume set to zero for the grand occasion.
Get well soon, Tiger. Let’s Go Hawks!
“Psst… Trae! C'mere. You ever heard of Henny Youngman?”
Here’s all I’ve got, ahead of today’s game between our host Atlanta Hawks and the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV in DEN).
Keep That Woman and That Family far, far away from All-Star Sunday in Atlanta. And, from Oklahoma. On any off-day before or after the break. Yes, Kougar Kim, this means y’all.
Hawks fans, when was the last time you thought of Kris Humphries? It’s probably been more than 72 days, right? Exactly.
Chandler Parsons thought he was in the clear after fooling around with Kendall, correct? Krash.
LeBron had to leave sunny Florida to return home to icy Ohio, just to save Tristan Thompson from The Kurse that nearly ate Lamar Odom alive, and poor Tris still can’t quite escape (believe me, he’s tried). If they want to double-down on Canadians, they can go chase after Jamal Murray (career-high 50 points with no FTs on Friday, because he can make buckets with a hand or two in his face or with a nifty pass from his center and without pleading for help from the refs. Must be nice.) on their own time, not ours.
D-Book! Be careful, young man. I'm not even talking about your pending stay in The A.
I do not know the current cuffing statuses of Trae or JC or C-Redd or D-Hunt or Reddy V, and I don’t care to find out from TMZ, not until after at least, like, a postseason run or three. Let me catch Kim, or Kourt, or Kylie, or Cait, or Rob, anywhere around this town this March and I will personally call Mayor Keish and inform her of a citizens’ arrest underway.
We’ve already got fifty-leven “Real” “House” “Wives”, wannabe Insta-celebs in this town who can’t get married, can’t stay married, and haven’t Swiffered a floor since the close of the Byzantine Empire.
Listen to my mayor, Kim and Kompany. We Full!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“No, seriously, Bama, how did we let this guy get away from our recruiters?”
Our Atlanta Hawks got next-to-no help in the Leastern Conference standings, not in the intervening days between their first win since April 2018 against the Boston Celtics, and the rematch at TD Garden tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston). Not unless we’re trying to catch the Bucks.
The Lakers that could play were a hot mess against the Nets that could play yesterday. The T’wolves tried their best by dragging Indiana into OT on Wednesday but ran out of gas. The Kings couldn’t help us out by crowning the heat at home yesterday, what would’ve been Miami’s fourth-straight loss amid a seven-game road swing. The last-place Pistons couldn’t hang on to a big first-half lead, letting Chicago win their second in a row in Wednesday’s suddenly rescheduled game. The Knicks lost that night, but only because the elfin’ Magic won.
Milwaukee dropped their fifth-straight on national TV last night, as TNT hosts tied themselves into knots all night trying to mansplain how folks like Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal (the latter voted in as a starter, on behalf of his 9-17 Wizards) will all deserve their All-Star slots, while Trae Young (as per 92.9’s Mike Conti, fastest Hawks player to reach 4,000 career points, surpassing the great Bob Pettit) is somehow unworthy of a return to the game in his host arena. Because winning matters! Or career years, or something.
Anyway, Coach Bud isn’t under fire because he’s got a couple COTY trophies sitting at his home, in the same town where he just got swept in consecutive games by Nick Nurse’s once-struggling Raptors. Track record matters, and consecutive 60-ish-win seasons while coaching an MVP into the playoffs as a top-seed offers an adequate shield when the swoons and the disappointing trends kick in.
Budenholzer’s successor with the Hawks, Lloyd Pierce, remains on a seat that’s not piping hot, but simmering. Pierce remains out on paternity leave, but he’s peeking at the Celtics games hoping ace assistant Nate McMillan can continue to instill practices on the court conducive to winning basketball for his Hawks (12-16).
Nate Mac isn’t interested in consuming LP’s top job, but he quietly has the motivation to help his current employer catch up with his prior team, the perennial-playoff Pacers, in the chase for postseason seeds. 2.5 games separate the Hawks from Indiana, who’s currently 4th in the NBA Least, and it’s the same buffer between Atlanta and Collin Sexton’s 14th-seed Cavs.
“We’ve got to put together a 48-minute game. We’ve got to make our breaks,” McMillan expressed to media ahead of today’s game, again insisting he’s not doing anything “major” that Pierce would have done to top a Celtics team (14-14) who played on Wednesday without at least two key starters.
There were some things, however, that Hawks fans could spy, with their little eyes, as evidence that McMillan can diagnose and address woes that players, under Pierce, seem left to figure out for themselves. One example: with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, 6 rebounds, just two 3FGAs taken and one made, a pair of made free throws, two steals, and a plus-14 finish during Atlanta’s 122-114 win at the Gahden, Cam Reddish had as close to a perfect game as one should come to expect of the sophomore swingman right now.
“I think the ball movement was a little bit better,” Cam correctly noted of his team, without any intention of shade. Reddish’s efficient fullcourt performance helped Trae and the frontcourt tag team of John Collins and Clint Capela (combined 44 points, 19 boards, and two swats), who overwhelmed Boston on screen rolls. It also kept the extended shooting struggles of Kevin Huerter (29.7 FG% past four games) and Danilo Gallinari (combined 3-for-10 3FGs @ BOS) from affecting the team’s best field day of the season (57.1 team FG%, highest since beating Beal’s Wizards on 1/26/2020).
Correcting his personal struggles as a closer in recent games, Young (16 points, 6-for-7 FGs in the 4th quarter) will want to cut down on his eight turnovers in the rematch with the C’s, who will likely have Kemba Walker back in their stead, but not hound-dog Marcus Smart. Yet it was encouraging that the other Hawks, including Reddish, cut down on the goofs while being disruptive on defense. They aided Atlanta in winning Wednesday’s turnover battle (16-15 on team TOs; just 1 TO by Trae and 2 by the Hawks in the 4th-quarter), keeping their final-frame lead, for once, from evaporating.
Walker’s back after missing Wednesday’s game due to injury management, but the Massachusetts Ranger is one of the notable veteran guard even TNT hosts won’t pencil in over Young, not this season (career-lows 36.4 FG% and 4.0 APG). If Atlanta can keep Kemba from getting to the free throw line (career-high 90.2 FT%, although on just 3.2 attempts/game), make him chase around screens, and force him to settle for his waning mid-range shots (37.0 2FG% on the season; 40.7 3FG% this month), they can limit the chance for him to regain his “Cardiac Kemba” persona late in this game.
Jaylen Brown (sore knee) is listed as questionable, perhaps putting more pressure on Tatum (35 points, 11-for-21 FGs, 10-for-11 FTs, 4 fourth-quarter assists vs. ATL) to earn his All-Star keep. Daniel Theis (team-high 1.80 Defensive RPM) is off the injury report, and he’d only need nine fingers anyway to help Boston thwart the Hawks’ interior attack.
To compensate, Atlanta’s perimeter shooting needs to be on point, and Young can pile up even more points by stepping out just a tad bit further – that is to say, on his mid-rangers (3-for-3 2FGs @ BOS, all betw. 21-23 feet from the basket). The Hawks rank 25th in the league on catch-and-shoot three-point makes (8.5 per game, 0.6 more than Boston), and Huerter and Gallo must find their spots, not hesitate, and get good looks up before Celtic defenders with a foot in the paint can recover.
One Western Conference team did give the Hawks the hook-up. The Spurs went to Charlotte and gave the short-handed Hornets an L on Valentine’s Day, then left behind a schedule scramble by having four players test COVID+ (RIP to DeMar’s dad, btw) as the Hornets had to hibernate under health ‘n safety protocols.
Charlotte hasn’t played in six days, and if they do get to host Golden State tomorrow, it will likely be their last home game in a while, as they’ll have six West Coast games on the road to close out the first half. One of the teams the Hornets would have played today, Denver, got re-routed to Cleveland instead, and have been short-staffed themselves as they prepare to meet the Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday.
The Hornets sit happily atop the Southleast Division, but only by 1.0 games ahead of Atlanta, who could outrace Miami to the top of the division if they can pull together for a winning stretch over the next few days. Knowing they’ll get little love from the media punditry, over the next week as coaches place their votes for reserves, Trae, JC, Clint and the Hawks understand they have to make their own All-Star-worthy case.
Hearts out to our Squawkfam in Texas. Let’s Go Hawks!
“I liked Beard Club for Men so much… I bought the company!”
I didn’t have many wild NBA preseason predictions, except for this one:
Danny Ainge, quietly, is preparing for his exit from Boston.
Ainge doesn’t wait for rumors to swell before he decides he wants to spend more time with family. You’ll recall the Phoenix Suns were just six weeks into the 1999-2000 season, doing just fine at 13-7 when Ainge, then their 40-year-old coach and the newest inductee of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, said he wasn’t “jumping ship.” He was “diving overboard,” he insisted, “to save his family,” leaving his still-young star backcourt of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway on deck, scratching their heads, without a paddle.
Danny righted the ship back home, then rowed his boat ashore at Boston, his legendary old team from the 1980s, to preside over basketball ops in 2003. He turned the tide for the Celtics with some celebrated maneuvers in 2007’s offseason. Since Boston earned its last banner in 2008, he has swung one big offseason deal after another to keep the C’s afloat. My hunch is, he sees it’s time to set sail again.
Ainge moved his family to the tidy suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts upon harpooning the Celtics executive gig. But his soul screams, “West Coast Guy.” A three-sport high school All-American at Eugene High in Oregon, Ainge tantalized scouts as a collegian in Provo, Utah. Perhaps while playing with the Blue Jays in Toronto while studying at Brigham Young, he realized basketball might grant him more personal agency to move about. But he couldn’t complain about getting drafted by Larry Bird’s Celtics in 1981.
After getting traded away in 1989, Ainge remained on West Coast teams – the Kings, the home-state Blazers, the Suns, for the balance of his NBA career. He retired in 1995 as a Sun, and after a spell as a TNT analyst he returned to run Phoenix’s team as its head coach the following season.
He’s had his share of health issues, notably mild heart attacks in 2009 and in 2019, and you could do a lot worse than hanging around Beantown when you’re in need of top-notch medical care. But there’s this feeling, on my end, that Danny left his heart somewhere within 750 miles or so of San Francisco.
It’s impressive that, as a GM/PBO for nearly 20 years with the same team, Ainge has never had to fire a head coach. Jim O’Brien sparred with Ainge’s roster re-shuffling before pulling an Ainge himself and resigning in the midst of the 2003-04 season. John Carroll finished out that season as an interim, then Ainge hired TV analyst Doc Rivers.
Rivers endured feisty rookie guard Rajon Rondo, hung on long enough to win his ring with The Three Amigos, and looked on sadly as the plan to hand the leadership torch over to Rondo, a four-time All-Star, went up in flames as his pupil suffered through one debilitating injury after another. Shortly after one in the middle of 2012-13 quashed Rajon’s season and the Celtics’ title dreams, Doc and Danny finagled a trade that sent the coach to the Clippers.
And then, there’s Coach Brad. The former Final Four wayfaring Butler U. coach, Brad Stevens has been at the helm since 2013. His Celtics could never quite get past LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the conference finals, then came up short in 2020’s conference finals against LeBron’s old coach, Erik Spoelstra, when the Miami heat made it out of the East to face James’ Lakers last season.
While banners ultimately matter for this franchise, the Celtics haven’t had a 50-win season since 2017-18, Stevens’ peak season derailed by Kyrie Irving’s injury a mere month before the playoffs arrived. Percentagewise, it’s not looking likely they’ll be in the ballpark this season, either.
The path to championship contention has been rocky this season for the Celtics. They have their current Big Three edition (Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum) together finally, now that Walker is working his way through injury management for his knee and Tatum is withstanding his personal bout with COVID. But Marcus Smart has been out all this month due to a strained calf, while Daniel Theis injured his finger midway through a bad loss at Washington, pressing Tristan Thompson (how is that man not 30 yet?) and the semi-sized Semi Ojeleye into extended frontline minutes.
Boston (14-13) inched back above .500 with a relieving 112-99 win here at TD Garden, against a Denver Nuggets team also initiating a back-to-back, last night. But as they make a quick turnaround to face the struggling Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) and on Friday, inching above .500 in the Eastern Conference is not where Ainge, Stevens, and the Celtics’ fanbase wish to be.
Ainge has been quick to shield his coach from the sour dispositions overheard on Boston tahk radio. “We’re not playing with the passion that we need,” Ainge acknowledged to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe a few days ago, adding, “I think that’s on the players. And the players on the team are on me.”
“This was a team that was put together by me,” Ainge continued. The extent of Boston’s offseason, in a nutshell, was trading away Stevens’ former Butler star Gordon Hayward for not much more than a trade exception that’s unlikely to be used, coming away with Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith in the Draft, dispatching Enes Kanter to Portland for some second-rounders, and adding Hawks two-timer Jeff Teague and Thompson to patch up the roster holes. That doesn’t scream, “GM of a conference finalist going full-bore to push his club over the hump into The Finals.”
“We’re not playing with enough consistency and,” (trigger warning, Hawks fans: here comes The U Word!) “urgency, and it’s my job to look to see what we can do to improve the team, but that’s always much harder than improving from within.”
Those comments are intended to comfort Celtic fans and take some heat off of Coach Brad (a little heat around Boston right now would be nice). But, as has been well documented around here, Ainge rarely ever makes a splash before the NBA Trade Deadlines arrive. While the Celtics strive to achieve full health and, indeed, improve from within, my guess is that Ainge sees his marathon of pulling Boston’s strings has run its course.
Having gone 5-10 over the past month, Boston got back into the win column by handling business at home yesterday against a Nuggets team that itself was without some key pieces – Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Gary Harris. The C’s resorted to letting Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (combined 68 points, but 12 TOs) have at it while neutralizing their teammates’ abilities to chip in. Given that Denver had to overplay guys like Zeke Nnaji, R.J. Hampton and Facundo Campazzo while saving up bodies for the Wizards today, the victory for the Celts, while resounding, wasn’t terribly reassuring.
Even a series sweep as a gift from the sputtering Hawks is unlikely to win over hahts and minds up in what used to be known as Brady Country. The Celts will swing south next week, visiting the Pelicans and then the Mavs one day before arriving at State Farm Arena. Everyone wants to see a strong finish by this team before Brown (career-highs of 26.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 55.7 2FG/41.5 3FG/75.2 FT shooting splits), a fixture of the summertime protests here in Atlanta, returns home once more, for a likely spot in the All-Star Game. The building of positive momentum up the conference standings, regaining parity with the Bucks, Nets and Sixers, need not wait for the second-half schedule to commence.
Much has been made of the Celtics’ offensive ills, characterized by excessive iso-ball (5th in isolation play frequency, but 5th-worst with 41.3 eFG% on those plays, barely better than Atlanta’s 39.4%) and poor finishing around the basket. Finally heeding former Celtic Dominque Wilkins’ pleas, Boston swung the ball from side-to-side last night.
They produced decent looks, particularly outside the three-point line above the arc (Brown was 5-for-9 from this variable range). Brown turned over the ball a season-high seven times, and Tatum suffered through a poor perimeter shooting night. But they and many Celtics were especially good getting deep in the paint and scoring (17-for-20 within 7 feet vs. DEN, as per bball-ref). Without guys like Millsap around to be a bother, Boston did a better job of reading the defense while penetrating, producing opportunities to score or create for teammates.
Lloyd Pierce has left the Hawks to spend more time with family, too, but just momentarily. Pierce’s second child is on the way, leaving head coaching duties to Nate McMillan, who split last year’s season series versus Stevens while coaching Indiana. Whether or not Nate Mac turns around the Hawks’ fortunes during their stay in Boston, if Atlanta (11-16; 1-7 this month) continues their string of lagging starts and dragging finishes, as evidenced in Monday’s 123-112 flop in New York, LP may soon wind up with more family time than he anticipated.
Struggling coaches, like Pierce and Stevens, offer up the old secret recipe of “We got good looks, we’re just not hitting shots!”, and “Our opponents just couldn’t seem to miss!”, with a few added herbs and spices, during increasingly dour press conferences. For the Hawks, sitting around and waiting to see find out what kind of shooting day their opponents will have is not getting the job done.
The only teams near Atlanta, with their 11.0 opponent TO% this month, are the Jazz and the Suns. But those teams (now) have high-caliber defenders around the perimeter (Conley, CP3 and Bridges), no longer just relying on Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker to step it up and force tough shots on that end. Those teams are winning, although I bet Phoenix would have liked a second-half stop or two last night against Brooklyn to keep their winning streak alive.
If Cam Reddish (four steals, total, and 1.9 D-Rebs/game in 8 February starts) is no longer in the business of producing turnovers and getting stops, then he must at least be capable of staying in front of his man when his opponent’s handling the rock.
Reddish, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter must entice Boston’s backcourt ballhandlers to settle for, “Oh, heck, why not?” contested jumpers and rely on C+C Muscle Factory members John Collins and Clint Capela to limit opportunities for putbacks and second-chances. They’ll get somewhat of a break tonight, as Walker sits and a rested Teague (DNP vs. DEN) starts with assistance from the eager-beaver rookie Pritchard (7 assists, 1 TO vs. DEN; 42.4 3FG% this month), but adherence to defensive principles remains the same. Tony Snell (sore Achilles) is available to help out as well.
At the other end, shooting one’s way out of a slump occasionally entails going 1-for-4 on threes, not 2-for-8 in games like Reddish had on Monday. You’re not getting out from under sub-20-percent perimeter shooting by lofting seven or eight chances every game, as was the case for Cam in the last two losses, extending Atlanta’s record to 0-7 when he takes more than five 3FG attempts (1-2 last season, the losses in blowout fashion versus the Bulls and Cavs).
As he demonstrated by fumbling away Atlanta’s last chance at getting off the mat to seize the lead in New York, Cam is over-dribbling and not electing to pass the ball much. Zero games with four or more assists, while shooting as wretched as he has been, is the definition of a “Ball Stopper”. To cut down on the “BS”, Reddish must understand with his open looks that there’s a reason he’s as open as Narragansett Bay, and he must commit instead to more intentional drive-and-kick action, aided by teammates getting open for passes, helping Atlanta’s offense (52.4 February eFG%, 23rd in NBA and just above Boston’s 51.3%) avoid another day of doomed dormancy.
Cam’s on a streak of eight games with at least one assist, but as Huerter understands (5.0 APG, 1.6 TOs/game, 1.3 SPG and 41.5 3FG% in February) coming away with a paltry one or two assists, and few defensive stops or transition buckets, is insufficient. Red Velvet hasn’t done much of late with his own green light (8-for-30 from the field in last 3 games, incl. 4-for-20 on threes), but at least he gets the hint that if his shot isn’t falling, he has to do more for his team than just keep firing away until it does.
Ainge has exhausted what once seemed to be a treasure trove of other teams’ first-round picks, moves that cemented his “Trader Danny” reputation. Brown himself arrived as a result of the Nets getting thirsty for KG and Paul Pierce in 2013. Tatum came by way of the Sixers’ thirst to move up and take Markelle Fultz, Philly dangling Sacramento’s fumbled 2017 pick as bait.
The Celtics have all of their own future first-rounders in tow, but with the organizational bent against tanking (don’t have anybody recalling the big chase back in the day for Tim Duncan), it’s unlikely to see much of that bearing fruit, not in the form of out-the-box future stars. With eleven Celts under contract for next season, Theis being the most noteworthy exception, with Stevens locked down under a multi-year contract extension, with his middling team over-the-cap and hard-capped, and with Giannis locked down for the foreseeable future, I don’t get the sense Ainge wants to hang around much longer to see things play out.
Danny (and eldest son Austin, current Celtics player personnel chief) look West and see a younger son, Tanner, serving as a county commissioner in Provo. Cooper Ainge tried his luck as a walk-on at BYU. Youngest son Crew went to play ball at Utah State before returning to The Bay State to finish his college years at hometown Babson College. Yet another BYU grad, Danny’s nephew was with the G-League’s SLC Stars, waived last week only after injuring his foot in the Glubble.
The Celtics, anchored by passing local legends Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, seem to have been the only reason Ainge ever came East, and the organization, with its waning lore, appears to be the only thing still tethering his family to this coast. The destiny is near-manifest.
Out in L.A., LeBron and AD aren’t going anywhere, and you can best believe the wannabe contenders in the Western Conference are willing to do what it takes to get on the defending champion Lakers’ level, and quickly. Portland always feels like they’re a couple pieces away, maybe they’ll seek to demote Neil Olshey and entice Oregon’s prodigal son home. Phoenix is on the come-up, maybe they’ll find room to give Ainge a second chance to make a first impression. Utah would move whatever Ainge perceives as heaven and earth to get him in their front office. Perhaps the Clippers want to saddle up to the table with Boston again, for more of a front-office-oriented swap this time around?
He’s no longer the Young Man he was when he left his prior NBA job. But don’t be too surprised if Danny Ainge jumps on the urge to Go West.
Let’s Go Hawks!