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“Stop the game! That jersey clashes with our pink and blue!”
“What’s our record, Jordan, with our #fullsquad?”, David Lee wanted to know. He didn’t know to add the hashtag yet, while pressing his postgame media contingent. But he would, soon. “What’s our record? #Fullsquad. When we have everybody? Does anybody know what our record is? When we’ve got Andre, and Steph, and everybody in the lineup? We’re pretty darn good.”
The excitement had been waning for Lee’s emerging Golden State Warriors. Coming off a breakthrough 2012-13 season, where the Dubs won their first playoff series since the We Believe era ended, head coach Mark Jackson found himself juggling the starting lineups in 2013-14, and he was losing believers fast. A 14-13 start to the season simply wasn’t good enough.
But in Jackson’s defense, Lee inferred, fifth-year pro (and, soon-to-be first-time All-Star) Stephen Curry was in and out of the lineup with nagging ankle injuries. By the time Curry could be stabilized, the Warriors found themselves without their key offseason addition.
Andre Iguodala, by then nearing age 30, wasn’t asked to fill too much of the boxscore, an open three-point jumpshot here, a steal or two and a fastbreak jam over there. Acquired over the summer via a surprising sign-and-trade from Denver, he was seen as the glue guy that made the Warriors’ competitive streak stick. But his hamstring injury had him missing nearly a month, greasing the skids on Golden State’s swoon toward mediocrity.
But then, Iguodala returned. And in mere days, the Warriors went on a splashy run.
A 19-point home win over the Lakers kickstarted a ten-game winning streak. To win their seventh-straight, Golden State had to erase a 15-point Hawks lead at Philips Arena with under seven minutes to play. Iguodala came through in the final minute, with an assist for a short Curry jumper, a defensive stop (with Curry being O-D subbed for Draymond Green) leading to a Paul Millsap miss, and his only swished three-pointer of the game at the buzzer, assisted by Curry, to win by one.
It took the brilliance of Brooklyn Net Joe Johnson to finally stop Golden State, keeping the Warriors from becoming the first club in NBA history to go undefeated on a seven-game road trip. But by then, #FullSquad, uttered by Lee and reiterated in fun by Iguodala and multiple Warriors, had become a meme on Vine and a perpetually trending topic on Twitter.
2015’s Finals MVP, Iguodala returned around this time last year to the Bay Area, honored by the teammates who stuck together just long enough, with a little coaching change and a little more help, to win three NBA titles. Dre was returning with his latest team, the Miami heat.
“We’ve got one of the greatest Warriors in the history of the organization back,” said Klay Thompson, who was recovering from the leg injury that ended both Golden State’s Finals run in 2019 and the 2019-20 season before it could begin. “I can’t wait to see your jersey in the rafters one of these days.” Addressing what we once recognized as a crowd at the new Warriors arena, Iguodala assured the fanbase about the absences of the Splash Brothers with a term they know so well.
“My brothers will be back in action, #FullSquad next year, to wreak havoc on the league for 80 games. Love y’all!” What, Andre, not 82?
He didn’t know it yet, but Iguodala would be a key “glue guy” element for his current NBA club’s surprise return to the NBA Finals in 2020. He, like most who ran through the Warriors’ reign in the 20-teens, knows as well as anybody that the most important ability is availability.
For the Miami heat, their “culture” is built on defying the need for a #FullSquad to thrive. While their visitors for the next couple of days, the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun), spin their wheels, the defending Eastern Conference champs are finally taking off, seeking to win their sixth and seventh consecutive games at the Hawks’ expense.
Coach Erik Spoelstra’s club has had to endure the wrath of COVID (guard Avery Bradley tested positive, while Tyler Herro had to quarantine when his housemate came down COVID+). Franchise All-Star guard Jimmy Butler caught Da Rona missed almost a dozen games. Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic have missed stretches. But down on South Beach, heat Culture dictates there’s always a “next man up.”
Last year’s surprises of Duncan Robinson and Nunn have moved comfortably into Coach Spo’s starting lineups. When the heat needed offense in Butler’s and Bam Adebayo’s absences, two-way player Gabe Vincent stepped up with 46 points during a two-game series in Philly. Around once a week, the other two-way player, Max Strus, drops in and drops between three-to-five three-pointers in a game. Rookie first-rounder Precious Achiuwa has rendered free agent vet Moe Harkless nearly unnecessary.
The team has been sloppy (8.7 opponent SPG and 16.1 player TOs/game, 2nd-most in NBA), and are routinely outshot on three-pointers with Butler and Adebayo ineffective from that range. But Miami is coming together at the right time, with the All-Star Break approaching.
Having bigs like Adebayo (career-highs of 19.6 PPG and 5.5 APG) who can not only finish around the paint but also pass the ball enlivens an offense. Having vets like Iguodala and Butler who have not only preached about perseverance through adversity as a team, but lived through it, goes a long way, too.
“We know what adversity is,” Jimmy Buckets shared with Rachel Nichols for ESPN’s The Jump, as his team, then at 11-17 while looking up at Atlanta and many others in the Eastern Conference standings, was preparing for its current winning run. “We’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to get better and bring everybody up with us. Maybe here and there we’ve forgotten that. We will get back to it, though. I promise you that. We will.” So far, with a .500 record on the horizon, it appears they have.
In recognition of our team’s dear hosts in Miami, here are a couple lines of dialogue from one of The U.’s favorite sons.
“Hey, Jabroni. Who are the Atlanta Hawks’ opponents missing today?”
“Well, Tyler Herro’s got a bum hip, Meyers Leonard’s out for the season, and Avery Br—”
“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO’S OUT FOR THE HAWKS’ OPPONENTS!”
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Alright, who leaked out that our coach voted for Horford and Scary Terry?”
The NBA Blender is funny.
Isaiah Thomas had long imagined that he, and a former Atlanta Hawks star, would play as a professional pair in a critical tournament game. As the self-made, former Boston Celtics star sipped on a socially-distanced margarita in San Juan last week, there’s no way he could have imagined, five years ago, that his ex-Hawk co-star would be Joe Johnson.
It was at the All-Star midseason classic, in 2016, when I.T. whispered sweet nothings into Al Horford’s ear. Join me in Boston in the upcoming summer, Thomas confided in the All-Star center’s ear, and we can build a championship squad around us! Jeff Teague isn’t helping you reach the mountaintop. Neither is Jeff’s backup, Dennis Schröder. But, says Thomas, I’m the tank engine you need to get where you want to go. You. Me. Maybe, KD… Banner #18!
“I wrapped him up,” Isaiah boasted of Horford’s free agent deal, confirming he broke the ice during the preceding All-Star break about prying free the four-time All-Star and aligning him on Team Green. “I knew he was coming to Boston, for sure.”
“Man the things he was doing to us in the Playoffs,” Thomas told Bleacher Report in the offseason after being ousted by the upstart Schröder and the Hawks, while conveying the age-old sentiment that if you can’t beat them, get them to join you. “I’m looking forward to him doing that for us.” Word to Tito!
A half-decade later, Thomas is representing Team USA. But not in Tokyo. No, he was in Puerto Rico last week with Joe Jeezus and Hawks one-timers Jordan Sibert and James Nunnally, aiding the Americans in locking down a qualifying spot in next year’s FIBA AmeriCup. Joe and Isaiah combined for 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists to keep Gustavo Ayon’s Mexico squad at bay in the finale and help USA finish at 6-0 in group play.
The Dominican Republic, fortunately, didn’t need Horford’s help to go 4-1 and qualify for AmeriCup, too. Unlike Isaiah, Al is busy in the NBA, but not on the Celtics team he joined when he abandoned Atlanta for a four-year, $113 million deal. He declined the final year of that deal, and surprised Boston by signing with a division rival in 2019. But he’s not there, either.
Instead, Alfredo is employed in the state that brought you Trae Young. Thomas, meanwhile, gets to watch his replacement with the Celtics (no, not you, Jeff) pairing up in the NBA East with the star of 2012 classic movie “Thunderstruck”, Kevin Durant, only on yet another Atlantic Division team.
I.T. was showing out in the Caribbean in hopes an NBA club paying attention will toss him a raft ahead of the playoffs. In the meantime, he and the ex-Hawks are helping USA lock down a reservation for Olympics 2024 so that folks like Trae won’t have to do so years from now. Thanks for your service, Isaiah.
Tonight, Young returns to his schoolboy state to face Horford, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), a club that has been very, very good to Hawks past and present. Dennis made a name for himself playing with Russell Westbrook and Paul George and, later, Chris Paul, before being sought out and acquired by LeBrongeles. Now, it’s Al’s turn to use his play and veteran leadership as a springboard for a timely trade back into championship contention. So far, so good!
Late in Wednesday’s back-and-forth with the visiting Spurs, Lu Dort found himself in a shootout with Patty Mills. Normally, for a fellow known more for his defensive skills than his sharp-shooting, a second-year pro that was shooting 31.7 3FG%, it’s Advantage, The Other Guy. But San Antonio was hounding Gilgeous-Alexander (11 1st-quarter and 21 3rd-quarter points, career-high 42 points vs. SAS) defensively, daring somebody else to beat them. And Horford kept right on feeding Dort, who, I can only presume, Al thinks has a surname pronounced “Dart.”
Lu lived up to Al’s trust (or, misperception) by bulls-eyeing all of his final three treys in the closing four minutes of action. Horford, who also splashed a fourth-quarter three and one of his mid-rangers to keep OKC in the running, assisted on two of Dort’s three-pointers, the final one off a kickout with under three seconds left to play to avoid overtime and secure the 102-99 victory.
For rookie coach Mark Daigneault and the Thunder (13-19), they avoided losing their fifth in six games. Their prior victory was a resounding win in Cleveland this past Sunday, but let’s not mention the Cavs again, shall we? While they’ve gone 5-10 since going 8-9 to start the season, OKC showed no love while beating Giannis and Milwaukee on Valentine’s Day here at Chesapeake Energy Arena. They accomplished the win without the services of SGA (career-highs of 23.5 PPG, 6.4 APG, 55.8 2FG%, 41.9 3FG%), who has since returned nicely after missing time with a sprained knee.
Nikola Jokic and Denver arrives in Okietown tomorrow. Seeing how well a certain team fared without Andre Drummond in the middle recently, Daigneault is saving Horford (out, rest) for Saturday. A former Hawk and Horford backup, Mike Muscala, is now the most experienced Thunder player active tonight, with Trevor Ariza (personal leave, out indefinitely) and George Hill (thumb surgery) unavailable.
Also missing honey-dip dunker Hamidou Diallo (sore groin), Daigneault will throw Dort, SGA, Dariuses Bazley and Miller, rookie Theo Maledon, and whatever’s left in the kitchen sink to encourage Young to give up the ball and not get in back during Atlanta’s possessions.
The pride of Norman North High had a rough outing in his last trip to this NBA floor, in January of last year. Despite 26 points, 16 assists and just one turnover by Trae, and solid production from John Collins and Cam Reddish (questionable for today, sore Achilles), discombobulated defense and a lack of creative offense made things easier on CP3 (18 points), Dennis (21 bench points) and SGA (24 points) to win the day over coach Lloyd Pierce’s visitors, 140-111. None of those guys, one must note, were the leading scorer for OKC on that wintry day.
Young will greatly welcome Danilo Gallinari (OKC-high 25 points, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL in January 2020) averaging a team-record ten threes per game for the Hawks going forward, but hopefully that record-smashing production (38 points vs. BOS, most for Gallo since he was a Nugget in 2015) won’t be necessary to win on most nights.
Inspired perhaps by Horford’s lead, plundering the Thunder tonight will require inside-oriented ball movement by Atlanta (14-18). The Hawks are 5-12 when Collins produces just one assist or fewer, and they’re 4-1 when Clint Capela cranks out two dimes or more. Swift decisions to either post-up or kick-out and crash the glass can grind the Thunder’s interior defense (17.6 opponent points per-48, 24th in NBA with Horford) into submission.
On what is now (no longer “that other team from Ohio”) the league’s least efficient offense (NBA-lows of 104.6 O-Rating and 21.6 O-Reb%), Al’s absence should allow the Hawks’ frontline to shine at both ends while pressuring Isaiah Roby and Muscala into foul trouble. Even Gallo (career-low 39.1 2FG%) can get into the act with his height advantages, throwing the Thunder’s defensive game plan off-balance.
Countering OKC’s defensive pressure on the point-of-attack will also require Tony! Toni! Toné! Snell (4-for-6 3FGs, helping the Hawks make a team-record 23 triples in the 127-112 win over Boston) to do it again. It feels good, too, if Kevin Huerter and Reddish, if available, can connect on what should be a bunch of open perimeter looks, and if Young can move off-ball to keep eyes on him.
Horford, averaging his highest scoring average (14.6 PPG) since biding adieu to The ATL, has been putting on a good face, and the PR machine to max up his veteran value is running at full bore. “Philosophically, he just believes in team basketball, and he’s walked that walk for a long time,” Daigneault told The Oklahoman, who grants his big man a career-high 5.6 3FGAs per game (only Dort, the Thunder’s version of Marcus Smart, shoots more) in return for making his own job so much easier. “He’s just a flat-out winner.”
But the anxiety is rising for Horford, who faces more than just sitting out the postseason for the first time since tearing pec #2 with the Hawks in 2013-14. He’s locked into his current contract, owed as much as $81 million over this and the next two seasons (2022-23 is non-guaranteed, but team exec Sam Presti might see that as reason to keep him around).
Horf sees Nate McMillan, “Mister Sonic” who went on to coach Seattle, and Pierce’s top assistant must bring to mind a former Sonics rookie of McMillan’s, Nick Collison, who moved to the Sooner State with the franchise and never left until it was time to retire. Al wants no part of that fate. With the trade deadline mere weeks away, and OKC not in the running as a postseason threat anytime soon, Horford has no intention of becoming, “Mr. Thunder, Jr.”
With GMs putting third-tier players on the waiver wire in hopes of making cap room for incoming veterans, Horford, and his exiled buddy Thomas, want to be among contenders’ final ingredients. They’ll need guys like Presti who are willing to press “Purée” on the presto-change-o machine.
Relax, Al! Here, come sit by your old friend Moose. Do you like piña coladas?
Let’s Go Hawks!
“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!
“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!