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“I’m feelin’ good! I just thought you should kno-ooow!”
Ahhh, the joie de vivre of one Mr. Tilman Fertitta. He never knew Lottery Love like this.
“I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games,” Fertitta shared with Tim McMahon of ESPN, his team a win short of its current total. “…when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I’m just happy.” Clap along if you know that sucking is what you wanna do.
“I know it’s unusual to feel this good with your coach and your general manager, but I do.” Happy to oblige, says Stephen Silas and Rafael Stone, respectively.
Beginning with the end of Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching run of T-Mac and Yao in 2007, through the next decade of ownership under Leslie Alexander, to the oversight of Fertitta from 2017 through last season, teardowns weren’t something Houston liked to do. Through the Rick Adelman, Kevin McHale, and Mike D’Antoni coaching eras, the Rockets haven’t fallen below .500 in a season. Not until this one.
The constant up until this season was Moneyball Morey, the analytics guru and offseason sultan of swat. Daryl Morey had a good thing going, swinging for the fences in deals for fellows like James Harden and Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook, until his Hong Kong Oopsie tweet at the outset of the 2019-20 season had Tilman tap-dancing, and Morey unsure, with just two Conference Finals trips over the course of his lengthy tenure, whether he could be Fertitta’s No. 1 super guy for much longer.
In the midst of this uncertainty swooped Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk. Swinging a four-way deal at 2020’s Trade Deadline with Minnesota and Denver, the Hawks sent out what was left of Evan Turner and Brooklyn’s first rounder to the T’Wolves, and a 2026 second-rounder to Houston. What Atlanta got back for their trouble was a handshake with Nene, and this season’s leading rebounder and third-leading shot blocker, Clint Capela (14.3 RPG; 1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, per bball-ref).
Without much argument the Hawks’ Southeast Division-winning season MVP, Capela could get to take one last dig at his old employer as the Rockets pay Atlanta a visit (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) to close out their season. Atlanta (40-31) may not have much left to play for – first-round homecourt depends on what our first-round opponent, the Knicks, do this afternoon – so hopefully Capela won’t have to make an imprint on this game for terribly long.
Drafted as a raw 20-year-old in the lower end of the first round by Houston back in 2014, Clint had been the only thing resembling a homegrown Rockets product, as Morey swore off developing his own draft picks, or even taking them, while going for the gusto. Olivia’s hubby (she works for MGM Sportsbooks now) Sam Dekker, selected the next year in 2015, was the last selection the Rockets took with their own first-rounder. The last Houston draftee to actually play, just a little bit, for this team? 2017 second-rounder Isaiah Hartenstein, who was cut before the team made it to the 2020 Bubble.
I will suggest here that, while there were worthy questions about the Swiss center’s health heading into the 2020 Playoffs, the Capela deal was probably the first warning to the rest of the organization – to D’Antoni, Harden, Westbrook, P.J. Tucker – that it was finally time to get out while the getting’s good.
Scratch that… we can maybe go back a few months more, to Eric Gordon’s four-year, $76 million extension in August 2019, for the first sign. Capela’s expulsion, excused with the D’Antonian desire to go all-out with the so-called “small ball” in a playoff run that almost ended prematurely against Westbrook’s former club, was probably just the loudest clarion call.
“I’m still p*ssed,” tweeted Eric Gordon, in reply to McMahon highlighting Capela’s blocks triple-double in one of this past January’s wins over the T’Wolves. Gordo knows that Capela, when healthy and playing to his strengths, is among the more efficient bigs in the league, and his presence at both ends of the hardwood makes otherwise good guards look great.
As an example, look at bball-ref’s list of Houston’s “Top 12 All-Time Players”, based on cumulative Win Shares, a nearly elite list of Hall of Famers and NBA notables. Look who is sitting there, in Hawks gear, at #12 (Atlanta’s “#12” is Atlanta’s Own, Josh Smith, pictured in Rockets gear. Life is a circle).
You can’t convince me that, had he ridden out most of the five-year, $90 million deal he inked from Morey and Fertitta in the summer of 2018, and had he again been playing to his strengths, that Clint (13th in Win Shares this season) wouldn’t be sitting there to the left of Otis Thorpe by the time he left Houston. Thorpe played in that town from age 26 until his age-32 season. Capela doesn’t hit 32 until 2026, coincidentally, the year Atlanta’s second-rounder to Houston comes due.
Building a little more wisely around the All-NBA talent they reeled in, the Rockets could very well have kept going at title runs for the better part of the next half-decade. Instead, everyone, from the GM and coach to the stars, either jumped ship or demanded a life raft. Left behind, Fertitta is determined to convince us he’s on the Good Ship Lollipop.
How else can Fertitta feel? That I-just-threw-up feeling after overindulging for too long can come with an odd touch of relief. Stone and Silas are providing the right amounts of plop-plop-fizz-fizz until Fertitta is capable of saddling back up to the table.
With a combined $63.5 million in guaranteed cash due next year, John Wall and Gordon get to sit out the back half of this season with injuries. Joining them on the shelf, today, are as many as nine other players, including Booby Trapper Sterling Brown, Bubble buster Danuel House, 2020 offseason prize Christian Wood, and Harden consolation prize David Nwaba.
That leaves Kelly Olynyk, out to pump up his 2021 free agency profile, and D.J. Augustin as the sole recognizable veterans in the season finale on Silas’ roster. Otherwise, it’s been plug-and-play for Silas with a host of two-way players, ten-day dudes, can-tank-erous castaways, other teams’ second-rounders, hardship pickups and unsigned free agents.
Here’s the thing, though. No one who plays is encumbered with the unspoken obligation of losing ballgames. Thanks largely to a 20-game midseason freefall after starting out 11-10, Houston (17-54) has secured the #1 pre-Lottery slot, and nothing they do today imperils or improves their Top-4 Lottery odds. Everyone on the floor is encouraged to go for the 20-and-10 boxscore line of their choosing.
The Clippers, who sat virtually all of their starters on Friday while satisfied with their Top-4 playoff standing, learned this the hard way as Kelly Olynyk went almost Westbrook (20 points, 11 ASSISTS, 9 rebounds) on Jay Scrubb and the Clipper scrubs in Houston’s home finale. Our old friend Khyri Thomas (that Snell-Dedmon deal still looks pretty good, btw) got snatched up recently on a ten-day deal, and has averaged 16.4 PPG, including 17 in the 122-115 win over the Clips.
Brown’s Booby Trap buddy Kevin Porter, Jr. (22 points and 8 assists vs. ATL on Mar. 16) is having himself a ball. Milwaukee lost Giannis less than a minute into their game in Houston just a couple weeks ago, and KPJ decided to assert himself as the star of the game, pouring on an obvious career-high 50 points and 11 assists as Tucker’s Bucks found themselves fresh out of answers. The Rockets won that game, too. Silas has his Rockets dousing the net with three-point attempts early and attacking the rim late. If they can find hot hands at the outset, they then hope to get enough and-1’s and foul calls to break opponents’ will.
The show hasn’t translated well on the road, with Orlando and Minnesota being their sole away-game wins since February 4, and a lack of quality defensive communication (119.2 road D-Rating post-All-Star-Break, worst in NBA) is a big factor. But whether it’s fireplug forward Jae’Sean Tate (20 points, 3-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC), highlight hunter KJ Martin (career highs of 27 points and 10 boards @ UTA on May 8; 26 points the night before @ MIL), or April pickup Armoni Brooks (18.5 PPG in last six games), you can’t know who is going to show up to State Farm Arena feeling dangerous.
Under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks reached the .500 plateau with a 119-107 win in H-Town on March 16, and never looked back. They fended off a third-quarter charge from Tate 25 points, 4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL), a showcased Victor Oladipo, and momentary Rocket Mason Jones to pull away in the final frame.
Leading the charge off the bench on that evening was rookie big Nathan Knight (season-high 6 FGs), his 15 points one off of the season-high he tallied two nights before in Cleveland. One more productive outing from Knight can help Atlanta give Capela and Onyeka Okongwu (questionable, sore shoulder) a breather before the Hawks barrel into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in four years.
Has it only been four years? The Hawks’ “Recess”, under Schlenk’s watch, wasn’t all that painful, especially compared to other NBA so-called rebuilds, like the one Houston has initiated. While there was a lot of stress over mantras like “Play Badly for Bagley!”, “Stop Tryin’ for Zion!”, and “Fall ‘til you Ball!”, Atlanta dipped their toe intentionally into Lottery waters on three occasions, failed to finish Top-2 in any of them, and basically came away with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Okongwu. Not quite a Murderer’s Row of certified future All-Stars, but a solid Pickpockets’.
While not all had gone perfect with these young Hawks’ development from the jump, with one-time All-Star Trae by far the closest to instant stardom, the aforementioned panaceas on the Pelicans and Kings, as of today, are still looking forward to clinching their first playoff trips, while guys like Ball and Ja Morant still have a lot of work to do on that front this week. Thanks to some ownership-encouraged expedition on the Recess, smart additions like Capela, and a well-timed coaching shift, Atlanta has already built themselves back better than they were when Coach Bud was stuck with the GM duties.
This is already a more comprehensive, cohesive, and competitive collective than the crew Bud endured in 2017, Atlanta’s final postseason go-round to date. Whether it proves to be any more successful at playoff-time than when Dwight and Dennis’ goofball goonie gang bowed out to Wall’s Wizards will depend on how things play out, today and in the coming weeks.
Fertitta, who has never gone the Recess route before, is taking a much longer tack, echoing management views held by one of Morey’s predecessors in Philly. “I can tell you this: I’m going to be patient,” he vowed to McMahon. “We’re not going to go do something stupid to try to get into the playoffs next year,” (are you writing this down, Messrs. Gordon and Wall?), “that then will prevent us from competing for a championship in a couple years.”
Houston’s got a 52.1 percent shot at keeping their pick in the Top 4 this year, otherwise it heads to OKC as part of Morey’s Westbrook rental scheme. For the same reason, they’ll get to play that game again in 2024 and 2026. But they’ll get their hands on Portland and Brooklyn’s first-rounders this year, and possibly the Nets, Pistons, Wizards and Bucks in future ones. What’s the rush?
“It could be 2027,” Fertitta exclaims, “that we get a Top-5 pick that ends up being the next greatest player.” This is true. He could also end up being the next Kris Dunn. Either way, you rising 7th Graders in AAU and tweens around the world, consider yourself put on notice. Work on Your Game. Because, let’s face it, there’s a chance you’re already on some Rocket scout’s Top-50 watch list.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Yo, R.J., chill! We only beat the Pistons!”
“I WANT TO RIDE MY BICYCLE! I WANT TO RIDE MY BIKE!”
Six years ago this month, Brandon Goodwin was preparing for a trip to Orlando’s Orange County Courthouse. It wasn’t a long trip, since he lived a few miles east at the University of Central Florida. The rising junior was facing a felony charge of Grand Theft… Bicycle?
Go back to the prior summer of 2014, a time when electric rental scooters were not every doggone where. Goodwin sauntered over to a rack near the campus basketball arena to discover his bike had gone ghost. Upset about his alleged theft, and probably running late for goodness-knows-what, Brandon did what any self-respecting rising college sophomore would do, and that’s snatching away somebody else’s bike. Don’t b-bad, B-Good!
The hoops scholarship at UCF was supposed to be the culmination of a lifelong turnaround, one that at its disciplinary nadir had Goodwin expelled from suburban Atlanta’s Norcross High and relegated to “alternative school” as a freshman. His turnaround upon his return to Norcross made him Georgia’s state scholastic boys’ player of the year. This latest poor lapse in judgment was not the type of quick-trigger decision that someone in, oh, let’s say, an NBA scouting department would expect a desirous professional point guard prospect to make.
What probably saved Goodwin’s evaporating NBA chances was the decision he made next. Later explaining he “felt bad” about his geared-up reaction, Goodwin did not return the bike in its original location, but he parked it at a nearby campus building.
The bad news was that while video surveillance never caught the perp who stole Goodwin’s bike, it did catch him torch-red-handed. The bike he chose to steal was not some random cutter’s, but one left there by campus police as part of their “Bait Bike” program. Collegiate athletes committing criminal acts around Florida campuses come a dime per dozen, but if you’re not built like a Cam Newton or an Aaron Hernandez, a felony arrest is probably not going to fare well for your pro-ball dreams.
With no playoff basketball, no summertime pro teams and no more Dwightmare, there was ample space in the Sentinel sports pages to follow the fate of what was to be UCF’s next breakout basketball star. But Brandon lawyered up, and by the time of his May 2015 arraignment, he was ready to plead down, to a misdemeanor petit theft charge. He was not about to endure a season’s worth of hecklers in Colnago cycling caps at American Athletic Conference games, so the next big move he made was to take his talents to Dunk City.
The next time Goodwin returned to Orlando, he was the 2017 Atlantic Sun Conference newcomer of the year and tournament MVP, he and his 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast team scaring the mess out of Jonathan Isaac and 3-seed Florida State during March Madness at Amway Center. Who knows what might have been for Goodwin at UCF, which settled for a postseason run that year in the NIT.
Pedaling forward ever since, Goodwin is in a big closing stretch of games for the Atlanta Hawks, and for the extension of his professional career in the NBA. Tonight, with the injured Isaac’s Orlando Magic in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Florida), then on Sunday with the visiting Houston Rockets, if all goes well, Goodwin will have prominent, and hopefully productive, roles in helping Trae Young and the Hawks close out the regular season.
Young (sore hip) is listed as probable to start against upstart rookie Cole Anthony, after outlasting Russell Westbrook and the Wizards twice over the past three days. Tony Snell (sore Achilles) will sit this one out, while Clint Capela (heel pain), Bogdan Bogdanovic (sore hammy) and Danilo Gallinari (sore back) are each listed as questionable. The sweep of the Wizards clinched a Top-6 seed for Atlanta, but the Hawks (39-31) still have a Southeast Division title and potential homecourt advantage with a 4-seed to pursue.
Even with a few unavailable players, not inclusive of the returning De’Andre Hunter, the Hawks’ starters should be capable of at least holding serve versus whatever Magic head coach Steve Clifford drums up. The Magic (21-48, 4th-place betw. OKC and CLE in the upside-down standings) are also proceeding toward season’s end without the services of Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, rookie Chuma Okeke, Otto Porter, and Terrence Ross. Despite having dropped four straight games, the Magic have more wins over their past ten games (3-7) than any of the NBA’s bottom five.
Mo Bamba has played with greater confidence of late, particularly with his rebounding and rim protection, but he’s questionable to play due to a non-COVID illness. With Isaac and Markelle Fultz already out for the season, it becomes tough for Magic opponents to know who precisely should be subject to their game-planning. Heck, Coach Cliff hardly knows himself. Some nights, it’s Hampton, or Anthony, or Bamba with the breakout day. Others, it’s a newcomer, like former Knick back-bench forward Ignas Brazdeikis.
The continual inventory of injured Magic players may grant Clifford and team president Jeff Weltman yet another offseason to coalesce a dynamic core, although next year’s will be much younger once as many as two new lottery picks join forces with Anthony, Isaac, Fultz, Bamba, Carter and Okeke. The retrieval of lightly-protected future first-rounders from Chicago and Denver at 2021’s Trade Deadline may have been enough to save Weltman’s bacon.
Tuesday’s spirited but futile 114-102 defeat in Milwaukee made it seven losses in Orlando’s past ten road games, including a 112-96 loss in Atlanta on April 20. The three victories were in Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. Anthony, Pace Academy star Wendell Carter (17 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals @ ATL last month) and sixth-man R.J. Hampton will dress to impress. But Hawks coach Nate McMillan will seek to use this and the next game to urge the resumption of suppressive defensive tactics, forcing the ball to keep moving so no Magician discovers a hot hand.
The onus will be on John Collins, Hunter and rookie Onyeka Okongwu to limit Orlando from feasting on second chances as well as trips to the free throw line. Goodwin split bench duties with Lou Williams (22 points vs. ORL last month) the last time the Magic visited The Farm, and he is likely to gain a larger share of floor time tonight if he can be disruptive at the point of attack.
Goodwin shined in spot starts at Charlotte and Toronto last month, and he was encouraging during a vital win over Miami two nights after Trae exited a game against the Knicks due to injury. But the intervening games were less than impressive, and the four appearance after the heat game (21.4 FG%, 4.0 APG, 2.0 TOs/game in 21.8 minutes) led Coach Nate to limit the reserve guard to just 3.5 cleanup minutes in one game over the past six Hawks contests.
Goodwin is subject to a qualifying offer decision by the Hawks’ front office this summer, but the greater likelihood is he will put the finishing touches on the resume this week for his next employer, be it in the NBA, the G-League, both, or elsewhere.
If Atlanta defenders disrupt and create a lot of broken Magic plays, and if the Hawks can get decent offensive production out of a couple bench players to alleviate Young and the starting unit, then sweeping the season series with the Magic (first since playing Jacque Vaughn’s misfits from 2012-13) will be as easy as stealing candy from a… no, let me not give Brandon any bad ideas. It will be as easy as riding a bike! One’s own, that is to say.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I promise, I can’t catch your Per-Game Assists lead. Have you thought about taking off a day to rest your hamstrings?”
Hump Day Tidbits!
The Atlanta Hawks could win out and, by virtue of a theoretical three-way tie with the Knicks and heat at season’s end (“Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division,” sayeth the league office), secure homecourt advantage in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. At State Farm Arena, they’ll again host a Washington Wizards team practicing the spoiler role this evening (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, ESPN) and, the Wizards hope, beyond.
Banner Szn! The division-winner thingie takes precedence as a three-way tiebreaker over head-to-head winning percentage (it’s the reverse when dealing with two-way tiebreakers). Because of it, Atlanta is in the odd position of hoping, if the Knicks get back on the horse after falling in OT last night to the Lakers and go 3-0, that the heat go 3-0 as well. Of course, none of this is likely to matter if the Hawks (38-31) don’t address their ballhandling and defensive flaws versus Washington, or if they slip up when Orlando and Houston pay visits to The Farm tomorrow and on Sunday, respectively.
Monday’s 125-124 win over the visiting Wizards was a bit too close for comfort, but our Hawks could use just a little more last-minute tension. Only Utah (3-2), Cleveland (4-2), and Houston (3-3) have closed out as few games with a margin of three points or less as Atlanta (3-3). Comparatively, the Wizards (11-8) hold the NBA’s Cardiac Kids crown, with well over one-fourth of their contests and five of their last six games ending within a long-distance bucket one way or the other. It’s why the white-knuckle conclusion to Monday’s action served as a great learning opportunity for the Hawks.
In addition to “winning-home-games” practice, tonight is “series-sweep” practice for Atlanta. The Wizards have seized at least one win from the Hawks in every season since 2011-12, a time when Jordan Crawford was arguably John Wall’s most talented teammate.
Historically, Washington has never beaten any team more than Atlanta, but they still have a losing record all-time against the Hawks. According to the team’s Game Notes, the Wizards’ next victory over Atlanta would be their 150th, but the Hawks have won 158 in this decades-long rivalry. A harried Russell Westbrook’s inability to finish off Monday’s historic night with a likely game-clinching three-pointer made the Wizards’ race to Win #150 have to last at least a couple days longer.
I’m going to use this space to praise The Commish for the Play-In concept, particularly now that the Hawks’ chance of appearing in it is virtually zero. The only people whining loudly about it are owners, players, and fans of teams that might have to win-to-get-in to reach the Playoffs, particularly those that never, in their wildest nightmares, imagined their teams being in this situation. Even the high-profile whiners make for good publicity.
The Play-In prospect (or, specter, depending on one’s perspective) has given fans of subpar teams much more reason to watch end-of-season games, in the event their team’s seasons may not actually be ending. You think you can take out a top-two seed, subpar team? Prove your worth, first, by eliminating another subpar team or two. Brilliance.
No one around the DMV is wringing their hands over the dwindling chances of getting Rui Hachimura and the injured Deni Avdija another low-lottery playmate. The Wizards (32-37, 1.0 games behind 8-seed Charlotte) still have little reason to shift to cruise-control through the remainder of their schedule (after tonight, they go home to host the Cavs and the Hornets). Their next win formally clinches the Play-In appearance, although the 11-seed Bulls are highly likely to lose a game so long as their final two opponents, Brooklyn and Milwaukee, bother to show up.
Washington can neither edge Boston (35-34) in a two-way tiebreak scenario, having lost two of three against the free-falling Celts, nor in a multi-team scenario due to its poor in-conference record (14-25 vs. NBA East), and thus can no longer finish any higher than 8th. But any Play-In seed is better than #10, so the Wizards will want to win out, too, and enter next week’s extra game(s) hot with Bradley Beal (out again tonight, strained hammy) on the mend.
The Hawks will go back to resting De’Andre Hunter (injury-return management) in hopes he’ll be able to build up his performances against the Magic and/or Rockets (as playoff practice, I’d have rather Dre face the Wiz again, then sit out tomorrow, but that’s why they pay the training staff the big bucks). As of this afternoon, Tony Snell is listed as available after being a late scratch on Monday due to a sore Achilles, while Kevin Huerter is available after being previously listed probable because of a sore hip.
Tightening up the defensive effort, particularly in the second half (45 4th-quarter points by WAS on Monday), would make tonight’s proceedings easier on the Hawks, but it’s not like a lot of teams have figured out how to cool off the Wizards lately. Since getting throttled in Phoenix without the services of Beal on April 10, Washington has exceeded 115 regulation points in 16 of their past 17 games, the exception being a 117-115 OT win over New Orleans last month.
As fantastic and worthy of flowery ink as Westbrook has been, he is shooting at a 38.8 FG% clip over the past three Wizards games, 32.2 3FG% and 73.3 FT% over those past 17 contests. Opponents are getting suckered into dragging extra defenders onto Russ (21 assists, incl. 10 in the final quarter; 3 TOs @ ATL on Monday), particularly on his drives and coming off screens, under the guise that his acrobatic finishes and off-bounce perimeter attempts are more damaging than anything Davis Bertans (5-for-9 3FGs, 4-for-5 in the tide-shifting 4th quarter when Russ’ teammates made 6 of 7 threes) or Ish Smith could provide.
His Atlanta counterpart, Trae Young (1-for-7 3FGs, 0 steals, 6 TOs vs. WAS) led the Hawks with 36 points and 9 assists, and finished at +18 alongside Atlanta’s superior starters, but the superstar guard could stand to do more to keep Westbrook’s Wizards at bay.
Bearing less of the burden to chase around Westbrook, Young must be more anticipatory of where the Wizard guard’s passes are headed. A combination of improved weakside communication and strong-side deflections or steals to induce turnovers should help Trae (3 steals in past 6 games, 2 of those vs. CHI eleven days ago) keep Washington’s revved-up offense from firing at all available cylinders.
Gleaning from Russ that the threat of his long-ball three is currently eclipsing the reality (27.8 3FG% in 6 games for Trae since his return from injury), Young needs to exploit shot-fakes to his advantage, avoid the hero-shot mentality when more efficient plays are available, and be more decisive with his handle and his passes in the early going.
After a balanced effort sunk the Suns last week, Atlanta’s bench brigade climbed back into its shell over the past two games, going a modest 5-for-14 on threes in Indiana last week before Monday’s droll showing (0-for-4 bench 3FGs vs. WAS, 9-for-21 FGs overall incl. 3-for-7 from Hunter). Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are too ineffective with their defensive play to be inert for full games at the other end.
Hawks head coach Nate McMillan hasn’t tinkered much with a defensive-oriented backcourt tandem of Kevin Huerter and Kris Dunn (Sample Size Theater: +20.2 points per 100 possessions in their less-than-ten minutes sharing the floor). Tonight would be a good time to pair them together with some sweet-shooting forwards, including Gallo, Snell and the re-emerging John Collins (26.5 PPG, 69.0 FG% in last 2 games).
With or without Beal, the Wizards are going to get buckets, but just a little more defensive pressure and possession control, consistently applied, while keeping Westbrook off the free throw line and continuing to dominate the glass, is what it will take for Washington to relent.
DAYS SINCE A BEAL GOT PEEVED ABOUT A CURRENT OR FORMER HAWK: 1
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Hey, Russ! Rook here says he made way more Triple Doubles than you, back in his day!”
The time has come. It’s Banner Szn!
There is no such thing as a FACE Banner (“Finished Ahead of Consensus Expectations 2020-21”). You don’t chase after a “See? Told Ya We’d Make the Playoffs!” Banner. There’s no, “Beat the Odds Despite a Crap-ton of Injuries”, no “Hey, At Least We’re Not Like Cleveland This Year, Huh?” Banners. Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan can’t ascend a “Phew! Avoided That Pesky Play-In” Banner to the State Farm Arena rafters.
The one tangible, non-fungible token that the coach and his team can offer Tony Ressler and Company is a red-black-and-yellow Banner that reads, “Southeast Division Champions 2020-21”. For all their “Not One, Not Two, Not Three” bluster, the Miami heat would like one made-to-order in those colors, too.
With mere days to go in this goofy NBA season, our refabricated Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the same predicament Pawl, Al, Kowl, and Jeff put themselves in during the waning days of 2015-16’s. Win the week, and you can beat the heat for the Southeast Division crown. Standing in the way, then, and now (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington, NBATV)? A Washington Wizards team that’s missing key players, a crew with not a whole heckuva lot left to play for, other than being a spoiler to a division rival.
Since the NBA Finalist Hawks of St. Louis captured the Western “Division” title in 1961, this franchise’s history of hurdling a relatively low bar with any measure of frequency or consistency has been, well, a trip. There was 1970, the team’s second season in Atlanta, 1980, 1987, the MJ’s-Not-Here-Anymore-But-Let’s-Never-Speak-of-This-Season-Again year of 1994, and Mike Budenholzer’s Peaklanta season of 2015.
Heavy B and the Boyz, the following season, had the opportunity to leave an indelible imprint, as the clear-cut most accomplished collective of Hawks in the team’s spotty five-decades-long Atlanta history. Unlike a certain baseball team, this Atlanta club had never experienced winning division titles in consecutive years. All they needed to do was to edge, in the standings, a Miami outfit that was, by then, sustaining themselves purely off the fumes of LeGone.
As you all know how much it sticks in my craw ‘til this day (where’s Deontay Wilder, when I need him?), Our Fine Feathered Friends fumbled the flag. They couldn’t pass muster in the penultimate game of the season in Cleveland against LeBron’s reigning and future conference champs. But the make-up date came two days later in the District of Columbia, where the core of the prior year’s 60-game winners were tasked with closing out the season of Coach Randy Wittman, Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions, Tsunami Papi, Jarell Eddie, J.J. Hickson, Marcus Thornton, Nene, Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden, and I need not go on. Just win that game by a point, Atlanta, and we are back-to-back Southeast Division champions, my friends.
There’s no other way to put it, but in his final regular season game as a Hawk, Al Horford and the crew blew it. He could have at least left us with another Banner, like ‘94’s, to sneer at. Instead, in the space of just a few games, Joe Johnson was able to leave his Miami heat – yes, you read that right – with a commendation he and Al could not earn for Atlanta during any of their All-Star-studded years here together. While it’s now likely relegated alongside Marc Anthony’s Banner for some record number of sold-out shows, Miami was able to dangle the 19th division banner in its relatively short 28-year history from an arena beam. All Hawks fans were left with was the blissful memory of shutting up Isaiah Thomas and the 5-seed Celtics in the first-round.
I can hear the mantra through the screen: Division Titles Mean Nothing. And in the grand sense, that’s correct, particularly to us old grumpycats, and especially in an era where Divisions themselves don’t amount to hills of beans, in terms of competitive stature, anymore. As a counterargument, for one-title-from-long-ago franchises like the Hawks, who have since changed cities, and the Wizards, who moved out of the ‘burbs and changed names, they still matter.
Down on The Farm, while gnawing on a cricket taco, some kid that just learned multi-digit subtraction looks up from their seat, at “1993-94 Central Champs!” and “2014-15 Southeast Champs!” and wonders what on Earth happened in the intervening decades (Pro Tip: if you dare to try answering the question, be sure to start during the first quarter). The biggest kid in the stands is Ressler, and he would rather not be here when the 2036-37 Banner goes up, and some wisecrack smart-aleck shouts, “Yo, where are all the Banners since 2015?”
When John Wall and Bradley Beal were waging their annual charge to overtake the Southeast Division, it mattered a lot. For one, there’s no “Look, Ma! We Finally Won 50 Games” Banner to pursue. In a town that spent an inordinate amount of fan energy chasing LeBron, in the standings, then wooing LeBron or a similar superstar, in free agency, the inference that your NBA team is the best that the warmer climes of the Eastern seaboard have to offer goes a long way; having something to point to as proof certainly helps make the case.
It feels like eons ago, but there was a time when four NBA Division titles and a Celine Dion concert attendance record were all Miami had to offer. When Tim Hardaway, Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Coach Pat Riley won their first of four straight division championships, in 1997, it was like Carnival in the streets. It served as a pivotal sign of a dormant sports team in a town with a lot of distractions finally gaining some footing and establishing themselves as a club not to be trifled with. "Watch out, Orlando, here we come!"
That’s about where the Hawks could find themselves in 2021. Five years before, a consecutive Division Banner could have been the signal to Al… and Bud… that they’re still moving in a direction worth sticking around and building around long enough to see through, together. Instead, on the night it should have mattered the most, we got toasted by Razor Ramon Sessions, and thus formally began the search for the exits.
As was the case in 2016’s season-ender for the Wizards, Beal (out today and Wednesday, strained hammy) won’t be an impediment to any lofty divisional dreams we might have here in The ATL. But Wall’s functional replacement, with any due respect, is no Ramon Sessions.
On that note, let’s all check in on The Notorious K.A.B., shall we?
The cherry blossoms around our nation’s Capitol have bloomed just twice since Kamiah Adams-Beal was goaded into grousing about how second-year guard and People’s Choice All-Star Trae Young was “playing cherry-picking basketball.” She apologized, appropriately, but Kamiah’s consternation with guys on non-playoff teams, stuffing stat-sheets and currying favor with fantasy managers to get voted into midseason extravaganzas, ahead of Her Main Man, remained a soapbox worth standing on in 2020. That was, until 2021!
We’re all allowed to evolve in our steadfast positions on matters big and small. (Noting here that Kamiah’s crankiness extended into the Bubble season, with Brad being an All-NBA “snub”… “Put some respect on his name!”, she tweeted). But that transition is eased when, in lieu of a creaky-kneed 30-year-old co-star whose prominence historically depended on his top-flight end-to-end speed, team president Tommy Sheppard and Wizards management paired Beal with a strong, quick, 32-year-old former league MVP whose stat-accumulating prominence, in the present day, remains historic.
If you’re like me, you applauded heartily as Russell Westbrook tied The Real Big O’s all-time Triple Doubles mark (33 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists for #181) in Washington’s 133-132 OT victory Saturday, in the fieldhouse of the re-enlivened Pacers. All that meant, for me, was that Hawks fans would not have to endure both the pursuit of tying Oscar Robertson’s once-seemingly untouchable record, on a Monday, and surmounting it, on a Wednesday (the Hump Day game is now at 7 PM on ESPN, because we know the nation can’t wait to celebrate De’Andre Hunter’s regal return).
The old saw was how Westbrook’s play was detrimental to ultimate team success. That take’s dead-and-buried, now that the Thunder and Wizards teams Russ played for have now won over 75 percent of games where he messed around, trailing only Magic (78.3 percent) and LeBron (76.8 percent) according to NBA.com. Westbrook hasn’t been cleaning the glass and dishing purely to ham-and-eggers, but neither was Magic, and at least after around, oh, 2008, neither was James.
Brad’s better half was not in a good mood, back on January 31, and neither was her hubby. Two nights after Trae Young dropped 41 on the Wizards in D.C., in a resounding 116-100 Hawks win that seemed to have righted Atlanta’s sails, season-leading scorer Beal was acting Kevin Love-glum throughout the first half, as the next club in town, the superteam Nets, were about to drop Washington to 3-13 on the season. Braddie and The Brodie had yet to gel on the floor, Davis Bertans and the supporting cast looked lost, and the season already seemed to be getting away from them all.
Then came the spark they had been waiting for. Westbrook and Beal combined for 37 fourth-quarter points, a corner three from Russ capping a stunning and victorious comeback to win. The new Mrs. Beal could not contain her venom, sniping at NBA Twitter for clowning her and her husband’s non-playoff-bound team on The Interwebs. When one follower suggested that some owed her a personal apology after the final horn, she bristled, “They can keep it and shove it up their (Dellavedovas).” Ouch!
Thankfully, time, and a horde of sympathetic fan, player and media votes for an NBA All-Star starter spot despite a sub-.500 record, has healed all wounds. Spurred on by the All-Star love, Beal joined Westbrook in lifting Washington out of a 6-17 hole to reach the Break at 14-20. The post-Break drop from Beal’s sugar high took some time to overcome, the Wizards lapsing back into irrelevance at 17-32. But their 15-4 closing run, to date, has the dynamic duo looking like they won’t be an easy out at Play-In time, or perhaps any time after.
Going forward, Russ can focus solely on padding his career record from the next young upstart who dares to take a Luka his lead and make a run after it. His coach, Scott Brooks, whose job at the helm has likely been saved by Westbrook’s recent brilliance and collaboration with Beal (31.4 PPG, 2nd in NBA), and the rest of the Wizards still have other things worthy of chasing.
Washington (32-36) is all-but assured of moving on from State Farm Arena, this week, to the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament (“Like a good sponsor…”) next week. Yet it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it’s the Wizards greeting Brad Stevens’ backsliding Celtics in Boston for the East’s opening 7-8 game. For teams doomed, if you will, to the Play-In, the objective now is to be in position of needing to play in just one game, not two, to determine their postseason fates. The 9-seed Wizards need only to slip ahead of Charlotte (1.0 games ahead w/ the tiebreaker) to accomplish that.
Failing that, it ought to be helpful to play a 9-10 elimination game in front of your own adoring fans. Before Beal exited with his injury at the close of regulation, Washington needed every one of his 50 points (19-for-31 FGs; rest of team incl. Russ 30-for-79) to claw back into a draw with the Pacers. The win leapfrogged Washington (0.5 game ahead of IND) over their Hoosier hosts, and they will not want to return there anytime soon.
Beal’s absence puts the onus on Ish Smith (7 rebounds, 4 assists in 19 minutes), and two-way gunner Garrison Mathews, to provide some spoiler spark. Raul Neto (2.3 SPG) was plugged into the starting unit in mid-April with rookie Deni Avdija (fibula hairline fracture) likely sidelined for the season, and he’ll be needed to offer his best T.J. McConnell impression versus in disrupting Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers, who were decidedly listless and sloppy until the turnaround proved to be too late when the Hawks blew yet another SCRAP game, on Thursday evening in Indy.
John Collins (25 points, 7 rebounds @ IND) must make concerted efforts to box out his old chum, as former Hawk Alex Len, a starter at the pivot due to the early-season exit of Thomas Bryant, and former Bulls forward Daniel Gafford will try to keep the second-chance opportunities alive. At the other end, with Westbrook hunting around the paint for defensive rebounds, the Hawks have to make quick shots off smart passes, providing Russ precious few stat-padding caroms to secure.
There’s no Rondo around to get under Westbrook’s cuticles this time around. And while there may not be a Hunter, whose injury absences due to knee problems began with that January 29 game in D.C., there wasn’t a Bogdan Bogdanovic, a regular-rotation Tony Snell, or a Lou Williams available either. They should be able to beat Neto, Bertans, and Chandler Hutchison off the dribble to create whatever shots they desire. Russ’ acrobatic shots and needle-threading passes, when they lead to scores, are cap-tippable. But a four-quarter effort, today and Wednesday, to win the turnover and rebounding margins will render his Wizards capsize-able.
This is effectively playoff homestand practice for the Hawks (37-31, seeking a season-high 8-game home win streak) as well. Advancing, or at least appearing as a threat to advance, entails taking the consecutive home dates you're given with a singular opponent and making sure they’re winning ones. If all goes well this week, this pair of games will be a warmup for Games 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, in a couple weeks. If things go disastrously bad, this confident Wizards team, with Beal back in tow, could become Atlanta’s (first) Play-In opponent this time next week.
But the Hawks won’t play well if they get preoccupied with the hot coals beneath them. They have a prize, up high, to keep their eyes on. Unlike Medina Spirit’s laurels, a Banner for an NBA Division Title can never get snatched away. It’s time to run for the roses.
Alright, Atlanta. The objective is clear, and in sight. You’ve worked hard just to get to this stage. Now, get out there, before your home fans, and have yourself a Banner week.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!”
The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece.
A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.”
Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over.
“I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC.
Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor.
Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan.
After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself.
It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers.
Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night.
T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice.
Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up?
With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat.
25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night.
Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting.
Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now.
Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month.
Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week.
Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night.
All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games.
Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets.
At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland.
“Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all?
Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time?
Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this:
“Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker.
Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now.
Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so.
Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines.
By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends.
It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been.
From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
Let’s Go Hawks!