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“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!
Full Contact Tag Team Twister gets ROUGH!
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
The Cleveland Cavaliers, already in town and watching Atlanta cut down the Nets in Brooklyn last night, have a nice, wet blanket they’d like to remove from their shoulders and drape around the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio).
Hear second-year Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff tell it: “Things are easy when things are good.” Cleveland was rockin’ and rollin’ after surprising everyone, including themselves, with a 3-0 start to the season. The winning streak culminated with a 118-94 win over the Embiid-less 76ers, coming home one night after blowing out their division rivals in Detroit.
Andre Drummond’s was impactful on defense, and the dual dynamo of 6-foot-1 guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, seemed to be working great as an offensive tandem. Things were easy.
A home loss two nights later, where the Knicks held Cleveland to 86 points, brought the Cavs back down to Earth. On New Year’s Eve, a 119-99 loss at Indiana rooted them in the Earth a little bit, too. “Things become a little more different when things are hard,” Coach J.B. told the Plain Dealer. “And our response to that is important… the grit we need to play with all the time… the confidence we need to play with all the time, believing in what we’re doing, and believing in ourselves through the good times and the bad times.”
How the Cavaliers (3-2) come out tonight with a rest advantage on the host Hawks will help determine whether the good times for them are not quite over. Forward Kevin Love is already sidelined with a calf strain. Three of the Cavs’ developmental players – McEachern High’s Isaac Okoro (foot sprain + Health ‘n Safety), Dylan Windler (fractured hand), and Kevin Porter, Jr. (personal reasons) – haven’t made the trip. With professional crash dummy Matthew Dellavedova on the shelf, too, Cleveland is left to compete with a thin second-string and a pair of two-way rookies.
The 6-foot-5 Dante Exum has shifted to small forward, effectively producing a three-guard starting lineup alongside Larry Nance, Jr. and Drummond. The Cavs have been at their best forcing live-ball turnovers and scoring in transition (NBA-high 11.2 team SPG, 24.4 PPG off TOs), sparked by Nance (2.6 SPG) and Drummond (2.4 SPG to go with 18.0 PPG and 14.8 RPG). But at Indiana, their struggles in stripping the Pacers and making free throws worked to their demise.
Atlanta (4-1) won’t have to be at their letter-best in their first back-to-back of the season. But if they can be as crafty with the ball as they were last night (nine team TOs, 24 assists vs. BRK) in the 114-96 victory, and keep defensive hands in front of Garland (51.7 3FG%), Cedi Osman (37.0 3FG%) and Sexton (60.0 3FG%) at the three-point line, the chances of a letdown will be low. Brandon Goodwin (impinged ankle) is available to backup Trae Young once again, but Lloyd Pierce can also turn to a rested Rajon Rondo to help disrupt and offset Cleveland’s backcourt production.
The Hawks are up to 2-0 in matchups with fellow Bubble Snub teams, and this week’s home slate with Cleveland, New York and Charlotte, followed by a visit to the Hornets’ nest next Saturday, offers a great opportunity to build momentum. But like the Cavs with Philly, all those teams already have their signature wins, too. The Knicks beat Milwaukee by 20, while the Hornets edged the Nets then followed up with a blowout of the Lumpy Lukas in Dallas.
A reasonably clean sweep of these clubs will assure Hawks fans that last night’s promising win was, as John Collins insists, “not a joke”. Which team gets the next laugh tonight?
Let’s Go Hawks!