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“and it was at that moment that I thought to myself, ‘hmm… Coaching, eh? Sounds good!’”
Game-time particulars for the Atlanta Hawks – Brooklyn Nets rematch at Barclays, up top (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC). The hottest offense in all of basketball (122.3 O-Rating; Luka’s Mavs topped last season at 115.9), the Hawks (3-1) are getting it done on that end even while Danilo Gallinari (out, now with a sprained ankle; #1 in O-Rating among NBA players w/ 40+ games and 20+ MPG last season) has missed most of the past two games. Brooklyn had the hottest defense in all of basketball before they found themselves in a shootout with the Hawks. They dropped from 1st to 8th after one game, and they could slide further down today in Trae Young (sore calf, probably Grayson’s fault, but probable to play; #1 in NBA Player Efficiency Rating, 2nd in Player Impact Estimate) continues bending the game to his will, and if Bogdan Bogdanovic (6-for-11 3FGs on Wednesday) and Kevin Huerter continue finding their stride off the bench. Keeping Trae cool from outside (0-for-4 on 3FGs Wednesday) continues to be Job One for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and company. Nash, to the New York Post, on DeAndre Jordan’s “struggles” Wednesday, and whether the Nets’ coach will consider an early shift to Jarrett Allen in the starting lineup: “That’s a good debate. It’s a small sample, one, and I’m not sure if plus-minus is the best barometer. But that was a tough matchup for DJ. Those guys are good, dynamic rollers, (Clint) Capela, but even more so (John) Collins' speed is exceptional getting out of the screen and it poses a unique problem.” A few of the players that were hoped to be in the mix at the outset were supposed to help Atlanta provide better defensive punch. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu (inflamed foot) and guard Kris Dunn (ankle surgery) are still unavailable, while the recovery-managed starting pivot Capela has yet to crack 20 minutes. Rajon Rondo, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell (out, inflamed foot) are at least supposed to be Notturner, Notparsons and Notbembry as backups. Throw into the fray De’Andre Hunter, who helped plug in the KD-and-Kyrie dam as best he could in Wednesday’s 145-141 loss but is questionable for today with a sore knee. Keeping a well-rested Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from getting their respective and obligatory 30-and-10s is a tough ask. But the Hawks’ ability to properly rotate, pressure Brooklyn’s shooters (notably Joe Harris, who hit 6 of 8 threes on Wednesday) and continue tightening the turnover gap could help them sneak out of Barclays undefeated in the calendar 2021. KD and Kyrie are gonna give you 60. But who is scoring the other 60, 70, 80 points? Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks!
Good Vibrations! Nashty Nash and the Funky Bunch (1994)
During his final seasons as a Net, toiling against middling opponents like the Atlanta Hawks, winding down from the heady days of chasing titles with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, superstar Vince Carter had glimpses of his post-basketball future. After a rip-roaring dunk gets some of the few fans left at the Izod Center up on their feet, he’d peer over the media desk to see a guy who once performed such flights of fancy, Dominique Wilkins, rocking a headset while doing double-duty with the Hawks’ front office.
The 8-time All-Star would catch Nique and The Stinger working the microphones on one evening, Grant Long on another. NBATV studios in Secaucus, on the way from East Rutherford to Manhattan, was but a swift 15-minute drive. A couple hours to the East was ESPN’s home in Bristol, Connecticut. So convenient!
Not as springy a spring chicken as he once was, the tricenarian Carter could envision himself commentating on the types of half-amazing highlights that were, at the time, being served up to feature him. Retire as Mr. Net, slide over to the booth, become the other NYC metro team’s answer to Clyde Frazier, and live on Easy Street.
The future Hall of Famer likely couldn’t fathom making it all the way into his 40s before hanging up the jersey, or the team he played for following Jay-Z’s lead out of Jersey, rendering the idea of his jersey in the arena rafters a bit problematic. It’s probable he didn’t imagine his professional career winding its way to Atlanta, yet somehow making his ESPN appearances more frequent and NBATV commutes even shorter. Yet, here he is.
The Man with the Golden Pipes, Bob Rathbun, and The Human Highlight Film will scooch over at least six feet to make room in the Fox Sports booth for Half-Man, Half-Amazing. The now-Brooklyn Nets will spend tonight and, if necessary, New Year’s Day at Barclays Center, trying to cut the NBA’s number of still-unbeaten teams in half.
Due to pandemic restrictions, Rathbun, Wilkins and Carter will call tonight’s game (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK) from a vacuous State Farm Arena. That venue is just a short drive south of Vince’s new, hopefully more-secure mansion in Buckhead’s tony Tuxedo Park, where he gets to Jump in with Rachel, RJ and the gang on weekday afternoons.
These NBA Legends know they’ve got at least two other NBA Legends, still playing, to discuss tonight. Kevin Durant, a 10-time All-Star, has put down his crutches and his burner accounts and is back to his not-so-old self (26.7 PPG, 9-for-13 on 3FGs). When Kyrie Irving’s not busy pondering why his full name has a Third “I”, the 6-time All-Star gets to carve up opposing defenses (momentary career-high 29.3 PPG; 6.0 APG, 2.0 TOs/game) and simplify Brooklyn’s championship sprint with KD.
Might there be more NBA Legends gracing the floor today? Certainly, if Trae Young continues to have a say in the matter. Already a master at the heave-ho three, the drive-and-float two, and the between-the-legs pass, Young (34.0 PPG on absurd 60.0 2FG/42.1 3FG/91.3 FT shooting splits) isn’t restless when it comes to craftily piling up the one-pointers, either. While it is likely impossible to keep up, Trae’s 15.3 free throw attempts per game triples the rate from an otherwise sterling rookie season, an age when referees are more inclined to ingest their whistles.
There’s another NBA Legend starting out his new career, as a head coach, this season. Might there be a future one on the other side of the floor?
In the early 1990s, California’s Central Coast Section Player of the Year got the star basketball player from the D-1 college down the street to not only recruit him on campus, but also hang out with him during Yurba Buena’s high school homecoming. Lloyd Pierce probably could foresee his surprisingly swaggy future backcourt mate and mentor, Steve Nash, as a head coach down the line, maybe even in the NBA. But Pierce probably had no idea he’d get to tell Nash what it was like to be one first.
Just as Nash would drop copious basketball knowledge -- and the occasional lob dime -- to LP during their brief time together at Santa Clara, the retired Hall of Famer would graciously impart wisdom, decades later, to new coach Pierce’s wunderkind ballhandler from Oklahoma.
“I’m a big Steve Nash fan,” said then Sooner star Young in 2017 to CBS Sports, regarding his personal favorite NBA Legend, “because he was a smaller point guard – wasn’t the most athletic, could really shoot, very cerebral. A lot of his intangibles really fit my game, like his touch.”
“I feel I resemble a few players… Steve Nash, the way he has touch with a floater game. Kyrie Irving, the way he can get by a defender.” Ahead of the 2020 NBA Rising Stars game with Ja Morant, Trae got the chance to praise Nash directly. “I watch a lot a film, especially of a guy like you. You knew how to see things before it happened.”
The summer before, the past and the future met at a Champions League soccer match in Madrid, then worked out together in California, Nash working with Young on lowering one’s hips and shifting direction, identifying angles, breaking down matchups. “We’re as similar as players from different eras can be,” Nash told ESPN’s The Undefeated. “We’re similar in our skillset. We’re creative around the rim because we’re not as explosive as some of our contemporaries.”
Nash now gets the honor of drawing up plays to counter Pierce, thwart Young, and defeat the upstart Hawks (3-0). It certainly helps to have Irving, who was rested on a back-to-back along with Durant in Monday’s overtime home loss to Morant’s fellow Grizzlies, to make things arduous for Young. While Trae was unavailable due to a hamstring strain last January, Irving returned from a 26-game injury absence and feasted (10-for-11 FGs) against an outmatched Brandon Goodwin in a 108-86 romp for then-coach Kenny Atkinson on this floor.
But it’s reasonable to suspect that the high-scoring, tricky-dribbling, silky-passing point guard most willing to lend an ear to Nash’s suggestions and guidance is wearing a Hawks uniform tonight. By going on Durant’s new podcast last month and declaring a new era in player-coaching, Kyrie fashioned himself and KD in the model of what Rajon Rondo now does in the shadow of Pierce, except while pouring in 30 or so buckets per game between each other.
“I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean?”, asked Irving, the crossover stylist who will likely retire one day to become the next host of John Edward’s “Crossing Over”. “KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper. But who is going to drink from Nash’s soda fountain of knowledge and apply it on the modern NBA stage? My money is on Trae and his bubbly persona, learning the tricks of the trade as both Nash’s understudy and Pierce’s receptive listener.
Durant and Irving’s resounding season debuts, in wins versus Golden State and then on Christmas Day at Kyrie’s old stomping grounds in Boston, reassured Brooklynites that championship contention is just around the corner. But then, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to The Finals: the team’s third wheel came off.
Spencer Dinwiddie got caught up with Bismack Biyombo on a drive to the hoop on Sunday in Charlotte. Now the most durable returning Nets scorer (20.6 PPG and 31.2 minutes per game in 2019-20), and the most likely beneficiary of KD and KI’s double-team outlet passes, has a partially torn ACL and won’t be available for the long haul of this season.
Several guys will have to step up in Dinwiddie’s absence. Joe Harris, the shot-maker extraordinaire on a new contract, is already in the starting lineup, and his fellow 16-million-dollar man, swingman Caris “Baby Durant” LeVert (28 points, 11 assists, 5 steals vs. MEM in his first start on Wednesday), is a lock to make more waves as well. But after that, the depth gets murky.
Taurean Prince (3-for-19 FGs, 0 assists through 58 minutes) must avoid the wrath that befell former Hawk and Net DeMarre Carroll once his jumpshot stopped falling. TP and newcomers Landry Shamet (4-for-21 FGs, 2 assists in 76 minutes) and Bruce Brown will find their minutes dwindling if they aren’t able to make meaningful plays in the two-game series this week with Atlanta. Nash is already turning to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (21 points vs. MEM) and two-way guard Chris Chiozza to gobble up Prince and Carroll’s floor time.
Upfront, DeAndre Jordan has done a splendid job for Brooklyn (NBA-best 98.3 team D-Rating and 45.5 opponent 3FG%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 47.8%) with rim-protecting, rebounding and generally staying out of the driving lanes for his Net co-stars. They’ll need the veteran to remain durable for the full season, and Jarrett Allen to find means that obscure the basket aside from his hair, so Durant won’t have to overextend himself as a stretch-five. Allen must be more consistent as a defensive rebounder to lower Brooklyn’s league-high 19.8 second-chance PPG allowed, especially now that someone must assume for Dinwiddie’s third-place ranking in D-Reb% among the team’s regulars.
Former UGA star Nic Claxton (out, knee tendinopathy) continues his struggle to make it on the floor, while Nash is hesitant to rely too much in the early going on third-year forward Rodions Kurucs or rookie and ex-Thomasville High star Reggie Perry. Who is charged with getting the Nets’ youngsters up to speed and conditioned in hopes of a deep playoff run? I present to you, our old friend, Tiago Splitter! The Nets’ former scout has been retained and promoted as a player development coach. Let’s all hope Nic, for his sake, isn’t closely related to Craig.
It’s shaping up as Another Day, Another Opportunity for Atlanta’s second-unit to take advantage of mismatches on the floor and make the contest easier for Young to prevail in the clutch. As ably demonstrated by Rondo (8 assists, 5-for-8 FGs in 15 minutes vs. DET) and friends on Monday, the Hawks’ bench mob has dropped a league-high 8.7 threes per game on unsuspecting heads (46.4 3FG%), at rates far more efficient than Brooklyn’s could muster (32.3 bench 3FG%, incl. LeVert who now starts). It doesn’t help the Nets’ case that they’ve contested a league-low 15.8 3FGAs per game as a team, so a dizzying array of Atlanta shooters, from Bogdan Bogdanovic (5-for-7 3FGs vs. DET) to New Yorker Kevin Huerter could find themselves open with plenty of green lights.
The Hawks will use their lengthy sophomore starters, Cam Reddish (team-high 20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 5 steals @ BRK back in January) and De’Andre Hunter, to help fluster Irving and Durant, while also aiming to keep Atlanta’s opposition cool from outside (28.6 opponent 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA), particularly Harris. But Atlanta has yet to sink its talons into the basketball while on defense (NBA-lows of 5.0 team SPG, despite Cam’s 2.0 SPG, and 10.7 deflections/game; 11.2 opponent TO%, 3rd-lowest in NBA). Young and the Hawks’ help-defenders must do a better job of anticipating and disrupting the passing lanes.
John Collins must again avoid the early foul trouble that keeps his stints on the floor short. He had no more than five minutes on the floor at any one time during Atlanta’s 128-120 win on Monday versus Detroit, and coming in cold for a rested Clint Capela, once the Pistons got up off the mat in the closing minutes, didn’t help the Hawks maintain a sense of cohesion. Detroit coach Dwane Casey masterfully used a mix of slower pace, ball control, and size advantages around Collins and Hunter to win the rebounding edge for his shorthanded club, diminishing a 24-point fourth-quarter Hawks lead down to five with less than two minutes to spare.
Collins’ frontcourt cohorts, in particular Bruno Fernando, Danilo Gallinari (questionable, foot contusion), and Solomon Hill, must also make smarter decisions when the ball makes it way into their hands. Atlanta’s reserves have been superb scorers, but their moves with the rock (8.2 bench TOs/game) have been rocky. Among the only teams that have been worse, to this point, is Brooklyn (NBA-high 9.0 TOs/game), a factor that the Hawks must exploit and turn into transition buckets when the opportunities arise.
2021 is shaping up to be a bigger and brighter year for the Hawks, and while you may not see much of them on the small screen nationally in the early going, it will be hard to find a sports channel Vince isn’t on. Tonight, while Irving and Young chase each other from one end line to the next, and while Nash matches wits with his old Bronco buddy, Carter and his legendary broadcast partner will race each other, to find out who can shout, “Heat Check!” the fastest.
Have a Safe and Happy New Year! Let’s Go Hawks!